Category Archives: Divrei 5783



By Joel Elkins, November 26, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is there something we can learn from this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress, not perfection.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Adonai Ho Nachalatam: El Maleh Rachamim

Adonai Ho Nachalatam:  El Maleh Rachamim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment”:

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

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








Shabbat Sukkot

Shabbat Sukkot

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

Shabbat shalom, moa’dim l’simcha. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom and moa’dim l’simcha. 


שמות פרשת משפטים פרק כג

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

שמות פרשת כי תשא פרק לד

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

ויקרא כג

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

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

במדבר סיני כד

(ה) מַה־טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל:

ספרא אמור פרשה יב

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

שולחן ערוך או״ח תרכה:א

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

רמב”ן שמות הקדמה

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

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת כי תשא

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