Category Archives: Divrei 5782

Shemini Atzeret

Shemini Atzeret – 5782/Sept. 28, 2021

By Melissa Berenbuam

Life loves on.  I’ll say it again: Life loves on. These three words are attributed to Bobby McIlvaine, Jr., who perished on 9/11, at 26 years old.  He worked at Merrill Lynch, but not in the towers.  He had a colleague, a friend, who was making a presentation at a conference that morning at Windows of the World.  Bobby went over to help him set up.  He didn’t stay for the conference, and he had left the building before the plane hit.  But he didn’t get far enough away and died when struck by the falling building.

Life loves on.  These are poignant words at any time.  They can take on added significance on a day like today when we say Yizkor.  Those of us here, in life, continue loving those who are no longer with us. Life loves on.

The words were so important – they had become a family motto for Bobby’s mom and dad and his younger brother Jeff.   Bobby’s mom, Helen, had a silver bracelet made with the words engraved.  And his father, Bob Sr., made a tattoo with the words on one of his upper arms.  Bobby left a pile of diaries and when a reporter from The Atlantic came around wanting to write a story about 20 years after, his parents gave the reporter the diaries.  The reporter, Jennifer Senior, was connected with the McIlvaine family.  Her brother had been Bobby’s roommate in college, and they shared an apartment in New York as they embarked on their careers.  She read the diaries, carefully, multiple times.  But she couldn’t find the words “Life loves on” anywhere in his diaries.

I won’t go into all the details of the McIlvaine story.  I recommend you read the article.  It’s available online – What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind in the Atlantic.

But the McIlvaine’s story does relate to Yizkor, as I’ve already noted.  And to Shemini Atzeret.  What is this holiday, in a season seemingly of unending holidays?  Haven’t we all had enough?  Atzeret, in at least one translation, means “to gather,” and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a German Orthodox Rabbi who lived in the 1800’s, wrote that it also means “to store up.”  Accordingly, we must store up the sentiments of gratitude and devotion of this holiday season since it will be another two months until we celebrate another holiday, Hannukah.

And, of course, God wants us to stay.  God has enjoyed our presence, our prayers, our expressions of praise and gratitude.  And our togetherness among family and friends is probably quite satisfying to God.  So God asks us to stay for one more day.  Some have interpreted this holiday as a more particular and intimate celebration for the Jewish people, while Sukkot is intended for all of God’s people.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote about this holiday:

“On the eighth day, as they were leaving [Jerusalem], it was as if God were inviting the Jewish people to a small private reception. The word Atzeret, as we learned from Rashi, was interpreted to mean, ‘Stop, stay a while.’ Shmeni Atzeret was private time between God and his people. It was a day of particularity after the universality of the seven days of Sukkot.”

Those of us who enjoyed the folk rock music of the 1970’s will remember Jackson Browne’s song…

“People stay, just a little bit longer.  We want to play, just a little bit longer.  Now the roadies won’t mind and the union don’t mind if we take a little time.  And we leave it all behind, and sing one more song.”

Shemini Atzeret is like the encore of a good concert.

We should revel in it and appreciate it.  After all, what would we give for one more day with the loved ones we are going to remember shortly?

So where did the McIlvaines get Bobby’s words, Life loves on, if they weren’t in any of his diaries?  Bobby had a girlfriend, Jen, to whom he was about to propose.  He had already spoken to her father and purchased the engagement ring.  Jen’s mother died in April and when Bobby didn’t come home on Sept. 11, she moved in with the McIlvaines.  Bob Sr. gave her Bobby’s last diary, the one with her name scrawled all over it, and that became a source of tension between her and his parents because Jen wouldn’t let his parents read it.  When Jen moved out, taking the diary, she never spoke to the McIlvaines again.

In pursuit of the story, the reporter tracked her down.  As you might expect, she had met someone, was happily married now with two children.  She still had the diary and she shared it with the reporter.  She also remembered Life loves on, but not exactly where it came from.  Turns out, she did use the words in her eulogy at Bobby’s funeral.  Here’s what she said:

“This past week I have been searching for some sort of comfort to get me through the shock of losing the love of my life,” she told the mourners at Queen of Peace Church. “I came across one of Bob’s journals and as I opened it, I said to myself, ‘Please let there be something in here that will comfort me.’ ” Then she described finding this passage, which Bobby had written as her mother was dying. She read it aloud.

It is OK for people to die. It hurts, and it is a deep loss, but it is OK. Life loves on. Do not fear for those who are dying. Be kind to them. And care for them.

“Life loves on,” she repeated to the crowd. “After I read this, I vowed that very instant to love on in my life, just as I had made a promise to my mom to never let her be forgotten. It was a way that I could extend a life cut short.”

Bobby wrote those words in an effort to give Jen strength to go on after her mother died… Life loves on.

The McIlvaines and Jen were estranged, but the words Jen had spoken at Bobby’s funeral – Bobby’s words – had become an organizing principle for their lives… Life loves on.  Their love for Bobby went on.

Except what Bobby wrote in his diary, after the reporter and her editor closely examined his handwriting was “Life lives on.”  In other words, we go on, despite the absence of those we love.  Also an important message for those coping with grief.  But Jen saw what she needed to see at the time, and for 20 years, Bobby’s parents organized their grief and mourning around the words “life loves on.”

Whether “life loves on” or “life lives on,” and I submit it does both, the important point is that we embrace life and continue to remember the ones we love.

Chag Sameach.




Parshat Noah: Tower of Babel, Take Two

Parshat Noah: Tower of Babel, Take Two – October 9, 2021

By Henry Morgen

Shabbat shalom. Eleven years ago on October 9th, I gave a d’rash on parshat Noah here at the Library Minyan. It was dedicated in memory of my mother, Beverly, who’s 12th yahrzeit was yesterday. In preparing for the d’rash this morning, I re-read the one I delivered those many years ago, and I discovered that what I want to share today is surprisingly similar to what I wanted to share then. In fact, I considered just reading the d’rash to you again this morning, but that’s not what we Jews mean when we say “return” or “renew as in days gone by.” We mean find something new based on our growth and life experiences since the last time we visited the parsha. With that in mind, I’m going to start with a grand view of the Jewish Bible as I see it today and zero in on one aspect of today’s Torah portion.

Simply stated, the Bible is a guide to living an ethical and responsible life on our planet. There are many examples in the Bible that reflect bad behavior and the real, flawed nature of being human. There are also a few examples of exemplary behavior. Before drilling in on today’s parshah, I want to start by observing that the books that follow the ones in the Torah scroll primarily deal with the Israelites and their struggles to establish and maintain a nation that is just and ethical on a narrow strip of land that connects three continents. The Five Books of Moses are the back story of how these people got there. And the first two pashi’ot are the back story to the back story. From creation until the start of today’s parsha is the first “half” of that story. It covers ten generations that includes the detail of the years of one generation handing off to the next and spans about 1600 years. Today’s parsha is another ten generations with very little detail about the years in a given generation (except in Shem’s lineage to Abram). This lineage, covers a span of about 400 years. Note that the entire balance of the book of Genesis only spans about 400 years. And except for the total gap in lineage at the start of Exodus until Moses’ birth (traditionally around another 400 years), the entire balance of the Torah spans 120 years.

You may ask me, “why did I start with this?” I wanted to point out that the majority of our Torah is very tightly focused on transforming our people into a nation from a group of slaves. In these early chapters that are the back story to the back story, we see how G!d’s experiment with humanity is tweaked and fiddled with until he finds one of them that in R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel’s view could be described as “Man in Search of G!d.” So, now I’m going to focus on the snippet of today’s parsha that I want to discuss.

Let’s look at the story regarding the Tower of Babel, which is one of G!d’s experiments. First, we should place this in generational time with respect to Noah’s three sons: Ham, Japheth and Shem. Paraphrasing and interpolating the text here’s what we know: up to this point, all humans spoke the same language, and they migrated “from the east” to Shinar. (For context, Shinar was a very expansive area where Nimrod, grandson of Ham lived.) With a little more detective work we can infer that Javan son of Japheth, Canaan son of Ham and Joktan great-great-grandson of Shem were very likely contemporaneous with each other and likely living at the same place and time as Nimrod and our story. That’s because after them each of these lineages breaks off. Their descendants occupy different lands and have different languages. While Joktan isn’t expressly called out in the date-span timeline of Shem’s descendants, we can infer that the events for the tower took place at about the midpoint, or at around the 200-year point between Noah and Abram.

Why do all this math? I want to show that our Bible represents a cyclical pattern of generations being more and less ethical and responsible. I’m not trying to tie the events to the exact duration; however, I am just mindful of the oscillating nature of human behavior that is so well captured in our text.

And just what was it that was “so bad” about these tower builders? The text is pretty sketchy here. Never the less I think there are two key reasons G!d felt the need to make an adjustment to the experiment at this point. The text says they wanted to build a huge tower to reach to the sky and aggrandize themselves so that they don’t scatter all over the world. You may recall that G!d’s first admonition to human beings was to “be fruitful, multiply, spread across the earth and be its caretaker,” right? So, the first point is that clearly, this generation still wasn’t “getting it”. There are many midrashim about how evil or immoral this generation was, but put simply, they’re just not living according to G!d’s most basic expectation of them. So, he confounds their language and scatters them. The second point relates to the hint about self-aggrandizement. By implication, they’re not even acknowledging that G!d is the source of their life and all there is in the world. They seem to be viewing themselves as above or outside the natural world.

Now let’s take a 21st century view of what’s going on here. Humans are unlike other beings on earth. We have the awesome power of language and translation so we can pretty much understand each other across the entire planet. We also have the ability to create written, audio and video records that can be shared with future generations who we will never meet. These communication skills allow us to pass wisdom down through centuries, allowing us to see the evolution of our knowledge base, and shortcut some of our need to learn-from-scratch. Unfortunately, this power of communication also allows for the propagation of lots of misinformation. Furthermore, we have learned to use raw materials to develop tools and build vast, complex systems that permit us to live nearly anywhere on this planet. More recently we are learning how totally interconnected our environmental eco system is, and in some small ways many of us are finally starting to see that we’re not the “masters” of the planet that prior generations thought we were. We are in fact custodians, and we’ve made a pretty bad mess of the place we’re supposed to be maintaining. And again, unfortunately, not everyone has acknowledged that our poor custodial work has brought about, or at least enhanced, some of the destruction we’re experiencing around us. We are having a “Tower of Babel” moment in human development right now. Whether you attribute it to G!d or simply the way of the natural order of things, there’s a cosmic level shake-up happening on this little ball we call our home in the solar system. This acknowledgment that we’re not outside or above nature is a humbling experience and could be turned into a daily gratitude experience for being alive and aware of the amazing gift of life we have on this planet while we still have it.

But, there’s something different about this “Tower of Babel” moment that’s very powerful in my view: we have the knowledge and we’re developing the technology to change the outcome — if we have the will to do so. We can acknowledge that we’re living in a delicately balanced ecosystem, and we understand approximately how it all fits together. It’s possible for us to start making changes to how we live our lives, how we conduct our business, and how we prioritize the way our governments use our tax dollars. Temple Beth Am has initiated a Sh’mitah program to help us focus ourselves on living more in harmony with our planet. Individually we can take steps to reduce our carbon footprint and transition to a “reduce-reuse-recycle” way of living. We can encourage our government representatives to think about the global ecosystem as part of how they allocate funding … even if other countries or jurisdictions haven’t yet figured out that we’re all in the same row boat. There is nothing more powerful that leadership by example. The torah, and in fact much of the bible points this out over and over.

And regarding acknowledging that we’re not “beyond” the natural order of the universe, let’s allow ourselves to be awestruck every day that we are alive with the free will to do things that can make a difference, little by little, to restore balance in our world, and bring us back to the Garden of Eden that G!d originally envisioned for us to live in. Shabbat Shalom.


Bereishit 5782

Bereishit 5782/2021

By Judy Weintraub

Last month, I visited my internist for a routine appointment. He is young, very bright, and attentive. When my then-doctor retired a year ago, I hired him to take over my care because I was impressed by his aliveness—he was totally present, on top of things and he listened, really listened, which I know that you will agree is a crucial trait in a physician. In this appointment, though, my impression was that there was something different in his speech, and in his body language. He was leaning back and just didn’t seem the same. After my part in the appointment was done, I said, “So how are things going with you, how is your career?” He looked at me and responded, “I don’t know, things are a lot harder. I was talking with my wife the other day (she’s also a doctor) wondering about our lives, our life paths.” This from someone only five years in practice.

I asked him if he had a dream of what he would rather be doing and he answered yes but it would take a lot more study and it was a completely different career.

I relayed this incident to a good friend of mine, a physician retired for over a decade, and he said, “Tell me something else — if you ask any of the doctors at Cedars, I’m guessing about 80% would tell you they’re burnt out.” What is it about physicians that create such a high statistical rate of burn out? I know that in order to do their job many feel they have to distance themselves emotionally from the work and I think that’s a key issue, the fragmentation. That creates a low to more serious level of ongoing anxiety and that anxiety covers over the clarity of purpose that we need in order to derive meaning and a sense of wholeness from our work.

In his recently published book, Unwinding Anxiety, psychiatrist/researcher Judson Brewer discusses the culmination of a 5-year study at Brown University, spotlighting the burnout culture of physicians and healthcare providers in general. Even Before Covid (universally and euphemistically now referred to as “BC”) we’d all heard of stories, which, whether you are a physician yourself or not, you can relate to — the feeling of wanting to throw up your hands or throw in the towel. The pressures of dealing with incredibly difficult situations and the common response of disengaging, causes fragmentation. Is it any wonder that statistics report that 50 to 80% of doctors, and many others, experience burnout in their work? This burnout is the result of ongoing levels of unaddressed anxiety.

What do we do with feelings ranging from mild unease to downright dis-ease? When we feel completely fragmented inside, how do we cultivate a sense of Chochmat Lev, a wise-heartedness that can lead to a sense of wholeness allowing us to be fully present? What do we do to take care of ourselves so that we can serve in the way that we were placed here on this Earth to serve? What does our tradition have to offer on this?

The Ishbitzer Rebbe teaches that when it is written

חיזוק – -ברא בראשית ברא אלהים

the word “Barah” is an expression of the concept of Chizuk, that is to say just as a structure has reinforcements, there is an underlying foundation of chizuk. In this case, it is the foundation of the World, Heaven and Earth. Further, Heaven and earth is considered to be a metaphor for the human soul, including our mind and heart. We too are created with the foundational element of chizuk.

He also reminds us of the prophet Isaiah’s words that “the world was not created for chaos, it was created to be settled.” He derives this from the verse: So says God, Creator of the Heavens. [Is. 45:18.] God does not mean for a person to live in internal chaos. Settled implies ease and quiet of mind.

In this time of year, when we have commemorated the birth of the universe, we look to the Creation narrative and turn it around and around to learn from it. In verses 3 and 5 of Bereshit we are told of the creation of light – Yehi Ohr, Vayehi Ohr. First, a spiritual light, the light from Hashem, glowing throughout the universe and through each of us. And in the second, referring to the light of the sun, day – the separation of light from dark, the creation of day and night.

The Sefat Emet also teaches that the Book of Life is within each of us – that HaShem writes “CHAYIM!!!” on the tablets that are within us. Our job is to keep the schmutz away—the transgressions, the distractions, the guilt and the worries, so that we can be the best people that we can be while we are here. When we are out of touch with who we are, we cannot find our inner answers and are plagued by doubt, worry, and uncertainty. The Sefat Emet teaches that at this time of year, we do an accounting and just like the Shofar image the sound calls us to wake up and be present. Nachmonides defines Teshuvah as a great return– Return Again to what we are, Return Again to who we are. This is not a once a year process, but a daily practice.

Orah L’ Hayim offers that just as the Shofar, we are to consider ourselves as a mere trumpet and to understand that the good that we do and that we have comes from God. Arthur Green adds this: that God created and continues to create the world out of love. When we stop trying to compete with that love and accept that we are an echo of it, we will feel that spirit blowing through us.

We have just commemorated Rosh Hashanah. The fact is that, although the first day of the year is known as Rosh Hashanah, the Torah does not call it by this name but uses an entirely different one, Yom Teru’ah — the day of blowing. The blowing of the shofar is meant to jolt us out of our apathy, our ruts, and cause us to engage in the soul-searching needed to allow us to emerge worthy of going into the next year. Indeed, the very word “shofar” has the same root letters as “shipur“, which means “to improve”. It is as if the shofar is calling to us, “Improve yourself!”

In Exodus 34, we read of the 13 Attributes. There is a commentary that states that God caused the Israelites to sin with the Golden Calf incident so that the 13 Attributes would be written down for all future generations, to help us when we transgress. It was a message for all time that our ancestors were not perfect, and we should not expect to be perfect, but we can continue to redirect ourselves again and again, by looking at these attributes to model and guide us as to how we live our lives. This ties in with the concept that Teshuvah is a way of reshaping oneself for the better, so that we can then truly be wholehearted as we undertake the repairing of ourselves and of the world—Tikkun Olam.

It occurred to me that we can utilize a gift that Hashem had given to the Israelites following the sin of the golden calf. Just like any teacher of children knows, if there’s one behavior that needs to switch, it can’t be done in a void. You have to redirect by substituting another behavior. Our children, grandchildren, and even the children who live inside each of us, at times all need to be redirected.

We do that through God’s great gift … the Mishkan, a project where people could come together to create in community and then carry with them as they journeyed on their way. We too can use the Mishkan as we journey through our lives.

The Mishkan was the first great egalitarian project, a precursor to another egalitarian project— our Library Minyan — For the Mishkan, all could come and contribute and work to create something extraordinary, not for any Pharaoh, but for the Israelites themselves, and for God.

The Menorah reminds us that each of us is created B’tselem Elohim and that the light that was created in the story of Creation lives on within each of us.

The incense altar, emitting a beautiful fragrance, helps us to remember that our actions are to leave behind a Re’ach Nichoach. Tough to do when we are stressed, but therein lies the real work.
The Mizbeach (altar) is the ever-present reminder of what our korbanot are today. And the utilization of our gifts and our acts of lovingkindness so that we can partner with Hashem to be of service and to continue the creation of this world.

And…the Ark. With both sets of Tablets — the whole and the broken. Just as with the broken Torah, we take with us our on our journeys what is whole and what is broken. We carry the jagged edges of what is broken with us, which may tell us exactly what we need to face and address in our lives. I encourage each of us, myself included, not to shy away from those jagged edges. They may point us to our most profound opportunities for growth.

The antidote to fragmentation, however, going toward who we truly are is the only way we can achieve a sense of wholeheartedness. Rabbi Dov Ber Pinson, in his book, Reclaiming The Self, describes Teshuva as returning to the person we were meant to be. This implies that there is a point of origin, and that point is one’s deepest self. He quotes Ezekiel 1:1 “And I was in the midst of exile.” We do have the capacity to take ourselves out of our own inner exile to once again realign ourselves.

So during those times that we need to redirect, to pull ourselves away from the unease and dis-ease that could escalate to downright fragmentation, let’s look to the first verses of Bereishit and the gift of the Mishkan to help turn us into a place of love, kindness, and at-oneness. ECHAD! Within ourselves, with our families, with our community, with the world, and with Hashem.


Sukkot Day 2

Sukkot Day 2

By Stevie Green

When I was in college, a visiting rabbi gave a lecture about the problems with external displays of over-piety.  For example, with disdain, he talked about the “chumra of the week” website – which still exists by the way – which every week sends its subscribers an obscure chumra – an obscure religious stringency that goes beyond the requirements of halacha.  For an extra fee, you can get a different chumra than anyone else gets, so you can one-up your friends even if they also subscribe.  Anyways, in the talk, he explained his strategy for purchasing a lulav.  He would go to a vendor and watch as “frummies” would pick up a lulav, examine it, and put it down.  Pick up another, examine it, and put it down.  Invariably, he would eventually see one pick up a lulav, examine it, then take out a magnifying glass and further examine it, and then set it down.  “That’s the one you want.” He said.  “If it passed the 1st inspection, then it’s good enough.”  This story was designed in part to make fun of the so-called “frummies”, but I intend to defend them – at least a little.

My freshman year of college I was away from home during my parents’ 25th anniversary party.  Some of you were there, but I missed it.  As a very sentimental anniversary gift, my grandmother flew me home for thanksgiving.  Because thanksgiving is such a crazy time to fly, my Thursday morning flight from DC to LA involved switching planes in Florida.  Not only that, but I somehow wound-up switching terminals and was thus outside in Florida for a few quick minutes.  The reason I remember this is that I saw something extraordinary.  Something which for an instant made me feel like I had already flown across the country instead of about to do so. Palm Trees.  I was not geographically substantially any closer to Los Angeles than before, but when I saw palm trees while on my way home for the 1st time since starting college, it felt like I had already made it.  To be clear, I hadn’t been feeling homesick or anxious, and had no specific personal attachment to palm trees aside from being a reminder of home.

So what does this have to do with sukkot?  It’s true that the palm frond is used for a Lulav, and in Los Angeles, palm branches are used for schach as well.  It’s also true that there are any number of ways that thanksgiving can be connected to sukkot.  But that isn’t it.

Just a few years ago, a guest of R. Elliot Dorff was with us at Beth Am for sukkot davening.  After services, R. Dorff introduced him as an employee of the cardinal and joked that he now has the difficult job of reporting to the cardinal that Jews are not in fact pagan.

So how do we explain the Lulav and Esrog?  How do we understand it ourselves?  Often we give answers that connect the four species with various body parts or with various kinds of people that we are symbolically bringing together.  Sometimes we explain that for one week we march around the Sefer Torah to show that it is our center, and then on Simchas Torah we take out all of the Sifre Torah and carry them around with us, to show our ownership of and responsibility for the Torah.  Sometimes we take a historical/anthropological approach and compare this ritual to ancient rain dances.

Rambam has a much more direct explanation.  One that, in my opinion, gets to the heart of the matter rather than merely explaining some of the details.  Near the end of the “Guide to the Perplexed” Maimonides goes about explaining the holidays.  To explain the “arbeh meenim” – the four species, he quotes a verse that does not come from any biblical description of festivals, of harvest laws, nor of the city named Sukkot that the Israelites passed thru while leaving Egypt.  The verse comes from the Israelites complaining in the dessert:

Num: 20: 4-5: Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?  Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place without grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” After a long rant against taking midrash too literally, says the Rambam in full:

It appears to me that the four species are a symbolical expression of our rejoicing that the Israelites left (exodus’ed) from the wilderness, “a place without grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates, or water to drink” (Num. 20:5), to a place of trees that bear fruit and rivers.  We take as a memorial the fruit which is the most pleasant of the fruit of the land, branches which smell best, most beautiful leaves, and also the best of herbs, i.e., the willows of the brook. These four kinds also have those three purposes: First, they were plentiful in those days in Palestine, so that everyone could easily get them. Secondly, they have a good appearance, they are green; some of them, viz., the citron and the myrtle, are also excellent as regards their smell, the branches of the palm-tree and the willow having neither good nor bad smell. Thirdly, they keep fresh and green for seven days, which is not the case with peaches, pomegranates, asparagus, nuts, and the like.

So that’s the image.  Desert sojourners getting their first glimpse of fertile plant-life.  An exodus from the dessert into the land of Israel.  And why these four specifically?  Well, they are pleasant enough for several days, and, most importantly, plentiful, common, and easy to get in the land of Israel.  Now there is some pragmatism in using plentiful crops as we need to harvest a lot of them and would like to keep costs down.  But if that was the motivating factor, then we would all use local plants wherever we live, just as the vegetables used for Karpas and Marror have changed as Jews moved over time and space.  Rather, there is something deeper.  These plants are ubiquitous.  They aren’t special or prized.  Except once a year, we take the most ignorable of plants and remember the moment when they were stunning.  When the sight of them triggered celebration.  “There is green, There is life, There is hope, Halleluyah!”  …So we continued to take them to the temple for the biggest celebration of the year.  And when we didn’t have the temple, and no longer lived in the land of Israel, they took on even greater meaning.   When seeing these plants wasn’t a normal occurrence anymore, it became a special occurrence, a reminder of home.  Not unlike palm trees outside a Florida airport.

My first time in Israel was over sukkot.  It was the 1st or 2nd ever Shalhevet 10th grade Israel trip.  It was led by our own Paul Nisenbaum, was at the height of the 2nd intifada in 2002, and was almost completely funded by the Jewish Federation.  We left LA the day after Yom Kippur and spent 19 days in Israel – thus including all of sukkot.  I was being housed by a family with a 10th grader in Shalhevet’s sister school in Tel Aviv.  [I don’t remember the name of the school, anyone here know?]  This family didn’t purchase a lulav from a shul fundraiser or from a teenager on Pico Blvd. or Dizengoff St.  Instead, we drove out to some undeveloped land by a stream and collected what we needed for arbeh minim as well as for schach.  My memory isn’t totally clear, it may be that the lulav itself and the estrog were pre-cut for us, and/or there may have been some kind of fee.  I’m not sure.  But I do remember that the myrtle tree was at the top of an incline and the willow was down by the stream.  So I believe it – that these plants were accessible, forgettable, and familiar – save the esrog which only arrived in Israel in the middle of the 2nd temple period and used to be an olive branch.  After all, living in Egypt, Maimonides had accurate information about Israel, unlike most European rabbis of the time.

Consider again the image of trees and fruit to a population that had been born in and only ever lived in the barren dessert.  Maybe they were eager to study and to scrutinize each new plant.  Maybe, this one week a year, when we remember to treat these ordinary plants as extraordinary, we should personalize our selections, examine them – even under magnification, and protect them with plastic, bamboo, and Styrofoam.

One theme of sukkot is home.  We build and dwell in new symbolic homes and we celebrate with physical reminders of home.  But even more so, sukkot is about fragility.  We live in temporary structures.  We read Kohelet – the book of Ecclesiastes – which is about living in the present and letting go of the need to try to control the future.  And we celebrate our past together with our present by taking those things that we are accustomed to taking for granted and we remember how truly special they have been all along.

Moedim L’Simcha

Vayelech Shabbat Shuva

Parashat Vayelech Shabbat Shuva– Sept 11, 2021

By Rabbi Jim Rogozen

The reading of Parshat Vayelech on Shabbat Shuva, and a haftorah that comes from three different books of Neviim, are both rather rare events.

So, why this parsha, and this haftorah on this Shabbat? In one word: transitions. In Hebrew, a transition is a ma’avar, the plural: ma’ava’reem. Keep that tucked away for now.

One obvious transition is that on Shabbat Shuva, we are at the middle of the Aseret Yamei Tshuva, a 10 day period of Repentance and Judgment.

The Haftorah reinforces this theme of Tshuva, pointing out that moving away from God is actually expected, but God, we are reassured, waits for us to return, to transition or “pivot” in a new direction.

Finally, Parashat Vayelech is also about transitions- an imminent move into the Promised Land, and a change in leadership.

These transitions, like those we all experience, bring out mixed thoughts and emotions.

In this week’s short parsha, Moshe or God tell the people five times that Moshe’s term of office is up. While this may be a transition for the people, for Moshe… it’s the Final Transition.

If you look at the top layer, the peshat of the parsha, however, Moshe seems stoic or resigned: there is no emotion; no praying, no pleading for more time or a different outcome.

Sitting here on Shabbat Shuva, Moshe’s lack of response seems strange.   So let me introduce you to Midrash Petirat Moshe, a medieval collection of imagined conversations, in which Moshe repeatedly asks for more time to live, and God repeatedly refuses. Here’s one encounter from the end of the collection:

Moshe says to God, “Master of the universe, shall these feet that went up to the heavens, this face that confronted the Shechina, these hands that received the Torah from Your hand–shall these now lick dust?”

God replies: “Such must be the way of the world: each generation is to have its own interpreters of Torah, its own leaders.”

So Moshe asks to spend his last remaining hours serving as Yehoshua’s disciple. When the People see Moshe at Yehoshua’s tent, they ask him to teach them Torah. But Moshe says, “I no longer have the authority.”

Playing off our reading today, when Moshe and Yehoshua later enter the Tent of Meeting, the pillar of cloud comes down and forms a partition between them. After the cloud departs, Moshe asks Yehoshua, “What did God say to you?” Yehoshua replies, “When God used to reveal Himself to you, did I know what He said to you?” In that instant, Moshe cries out in anguish and says, “Rather a hundred deaths than a single pang of envy. Master of universes, until now I sought life. But now my soul is surrendered to You.”

This Midrash imagines a more complex Moshe than we see in our parsha. Moshe of the Midrash wasn’t at all happy with God’s decision. He thought he deserved more time. But during the little bit of time he had left, Moshe saw that his new life was too hard to imagine, too hard to bear.

I think we can reconcile the two Moshe’s with the commentaries of Seforno, ibn Ezra, and a little Torah trope.

Our parsha begins with the words

 וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

“Moshe went and spoke these words to all of the Israelites.”

The commentator Seforno translates “vayelech” as “hitor’er” – Moshe “woke up” or “came to truly understand” his situation….

And then, and only then…

ַ וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה

“He said these words.”

So Moshe came to terms with his new status, moved beyond whatever anger or resentments he had. He realized what he had to do, and then he went to talk to the people. Not just the people, but “kol Yisrael,” all the people.

The word וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר (va’yidaber) has that great Torah trope called a tevir….it elongates the word. The elongated word could indicate that Moshe did a lot of speaking. Also, the notes go down, then end higher. This might explain this next comment of Ibn Ezra:

הלך אל כל שבט ושבט להודיע שהוא מת שלא יפחדו

He didn’t just speak to the group as a whole, Kol Yisrael, but, according to ibn Ezra, Moshe went to     each    and     every     tribe     to inform them that he was about to die… but they should not fear; God would be with them.

As hard as it was for him, Moshe must have realized that by first confronting his emotions, then going out, and connecting personally with the people, he could help them move forward, directing their energy towards the future. By the way, the name of this Torah trope, Tevir, means broken. Moshe, facing the end, started going downhill emotionally, but engaging with others helped him end on a high note.

Change was clearly hard for Moshe as a leader, and for Bnai Yisrael as they prepared to enter a new Land. As we enter a new year, with its new realities, we too face challenges: as individuals, as citizens, and as part of a global community. So how do we confront our fears? How do we move forward? The key, I believe, is actually in the scariest part of the Mahzor – the Untane Tokef. Cue the dark, foreboding music….

Beginning with Rosh HaShana we recite: UTshuva, U’Tfilla UTzedaka ma’avirin et roa ha’gezera

For many centuries, this phrase was understood quite literally: repentance, prayer and tzedaka will ma’avir (synonymous with mevatel)– they will cancel the bad decree on Yom Kippur.

As Professors Judith Hauptman and Jeff Hoffman have shown, this phrase, and this theology, are clearly in line with Biblical and Rabbinic sources and beliefs. It has meant what it said for centuries. But, as Hoffman points out, this theological formula has also bothered people for centuries. Not only is it scary, but it isn’t always true! Some of us have seen righteous people suffer calamity and even die between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, or right after Yom Kippur. In other words, Tshuva, Tfilla UTzedaka don’t always work.

Acknowledging that Tshuva, Tfilla UTzedaka don’t always avert the final decree, be it poverty, illness, or even death, newer Mahzorim express the hope that these three actions will lessen the severity of the suffering as one deals with the decree.

But that still leaves us with an inconvenient theology: namely, that I can do Tshuva, Tfilla UTzedaka for days, and I can plead with God…but I can still get bad news.

Trying to preserve the original language, but making it less dogmatic, Hoffman suggests that “reading a prayer is not the same as davening a prayer.” He thinks “that we should understand this prayer not as a statement of theology” but rather as a dramatic push to do teshuvah. In other words, he says, “don’t take it literally, but do take it seriously.”

While some of us may not fear an actual death sentence on Yom Kippur, what is true for almost all of us is that we fear more change, more trauma, more loss, more curve balls. We are anxious about living, yet again, within new, reconfigured realities.

So, I offer you yet another translation of “ma’avireen et roa ha’gzerah.”  Instead of asking God to cancel the Yom Kippur decree, or to relieve our pain once the decree has been decided, maybe what we should be asking God to do is to help us be His partners, to help us be the ma’avireen: the people who help others transition through the severity of our times.

It’s tempting to retreat, to cocoon in our homes and take care of our own needs. But we need to be ma’avireen: the kind of people who give others the strength to face the unknowns of the next chapters in their lives, just as Moshe did.

And the way to do that is through the intentions, words, and connective actions of Tshuva, Tfilla and Tzedaka. Here’s how it works:

T’shuva helps us see who we’ve become, to ourselves, to others, and to God, and to see what’s facing us.

T’filla helps us externalize and affirm our values and commitments, and our connection to our community. Our prayers, just like our lives, are in the plural.  We need to communicate horizontally, as well as vertically. Our devarim, our words, can lead to real things, to real change.

Tzedaka is fed by, and embodies T’shuva and T’filla. Interaction with others reduces stress and cynicism; it evokes feelings of gratitude. Acts of Hesed encourage us to imagine a brighter future.

Whether it was Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11 which was exactly twenty years ago today, COVID, January 6th, Delta, or personal crises, we have all lived through events that forced us to re-examine who we are, what we believe, and how we think about our neighbors and our country.

To be ma’avee’reen, the first step is  וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ  (va’yelech)  we have to wake up, and take stock of our new realities, of who we are now.

Then, וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה  we need to engage with others, with words of compassion, with words that connect rather than divide, with words that recognize that we are all finding our way. We have to go אל כל שבט ושבט from tribe to tribe, encouraging, reassuring one another through words and actions that things will get better.

Through our words and our actions, we can help ma’avir et roa ha’gezera- we can help ourselves and others transition from fear to hope, from trauma to joy.  Ma’avireen et roa ha’gzerah is not about the depth or quantity of suffering; it’s about the power of our response to it.  It’s the work we have to do now.

As we move forward, from this Shabbat Shuva, through Yom Kippur and beyond, may we all turn towards God and towards one another to truly ensure a Gmar Hatima Tova.