Category Archives: Divrei 5783


Parshat Shofetim

By Russell Cohen, August 19, 2023

Shabbat shalom! I want to thank Rabbi Susan Laemmle and Rachel Berwald for their invaluable help in preparation for this drash. Here we are, Parshat Shofetim, with the end of the journey in sight. In these chapters, Moses transmits as much wisdom as he can before he must let the people go on their own, presenting forty-two commandments, by Rambam’s count. Early on, we encounter the parsha’s most famous line, D’varim 16:20, “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof” – “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” which perhaps serves as a thesis for the many societal instructions that follow and the source of countless drashes. “Justice, justice” – the word is repeated for emphasis, reminding us of the importance of pursuing justice through just methods. But reading the laws in Shofetim, another pair of justices appears, as they do throughout the Torah, that stand in stark contrast. Chapter to chapter, paragraph to paragraph, even within the same paragraph, we see the tension between two moral frameworks: one that can be called more primal, more instinctive, the other that feels more progressive, more deliberate.

To try to define things more clearly, when I refer to a primal framework of justice, I mean an instinctive, straightforward idea of right and wrong: show no mercy on this wrongdoer, avenge this loss, wipe out this enemy people. In contrast, by a more progressive framework, I mean an approach to justice that is intentional, considers nuance and ambiguity, and demonstrates real deliberation. Think Inspector Javert vs. Lieutenant Colombo. Again, these dual impulses can be felt throughout the Torah, but here in Shofetim, with its laws for creating a just society, we can really see them in action. There are multiple spots in the parsha I could parse to demonstrate them, and I recommend examining chapter 20 sometime for the juxtapositions within its instructions of how to wage war, but the laws regarding witnesses provide a great example.

In D’varim 19:15-19, paraphrasing for brevity, we read, “A single witness may not validate against an [accused] party any guilt or blame for any offense that may be committed; a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more. If someone appears against another party to testify maliciously and gives incriminating yet false testimony… you shall do to the one as they schemed to do to the other.” We see here a sophisticated series of safeguards in place meant to protect the innocent and minimize the possibility of false witnesses. A single person’s testimony cannot be enough to incriminate his or her fellow, multiple witnesses are required. Interestingly, the literal translation of the passage does not read “two witnesses or more” but “shnayim eidim o shlosha eidim”, “two witnesses or three witnesses”, which various commentators argue means that a court must call in as many witnesses as possible, whether it be two, three or a hundred or that if any witness in a group provides false testimony, all the rest are automatically disqualified, however many there are. Furthermore, if someone does testify falsely and is caught, they are punished the way the victim of their false testimony would have been punished, a strong deterrent. Through these commandments, we see a system that is deliberate, that is meant to avoid writing off accused criminals too quickly and to maximize the odds of catching any inconsistencies before they are punished, and that treats testimony as sacred speech. It demonstrates progressive values that continue to guide justice systems today.

One interesting note on these verses, though: many commentators gravitate towards the phrase “you shall do to the one as they schemed to do to the other” in verse 19 regarding false witnesses, with Rashi, among others, pointing out that this law only applies if the punishment has not yet been carried out. As Nachmanides justifies it, writing in 13th century Spain, G-d would not permit judges to spill innocent blood by executing someone who was not guilty. Perhaps this interpretation would have been harder to make in Spain a couple hundred years later when Jews were suffering under the Inquisition; it certainly doesn’t land quite as smoothly upon our 21st century ears.

Indeed, just after offering us this progressive, intentional system of justice, Shofetim presents us with a more primal approach to justice that proves troubling even to the rabbis, let alone contemporary sensibilities. D’varim 19:21 provides one of the Torah’s three commandments that, in this case for false witnesses, “Nor must you show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Rabbis and commentators galore, from Rashi to the JPS, argue that this commandment is meant to be taken figuratively, advocating for simply proportional punishment, not a literal law of retaliation. The editors of the 1960 Soncino translation of the Torah even state in their commentary that “there is no instance in Jewish history of its literal application ever having been carried out”. Even if that is the case, it seems to all be the result of general discomfort with how harsh the law is, the brutal instinctiveness with which it operates. But here in Shofetim, the mandate comes in tandem with the requirement that false witnesses should be punished as the intended victim of their slander would have been, and the law’s appearance in Sh’mot stands in direct contrast to a different case when only a fine is imposed. There is something clean and satisfying about an eye for eye approach to justice. It feels even, it doesn’t require a lot of thought, it appeals to an instinct for a straightforward solution. And it sure makes for a deterrent for those false witnesses. Our bothered progressive sensibilities may try to soften this law, but it’s part of the Torah as much as the rules about requiring multiple witnesses, so we continue to grapple with it century after century.

The Torah demonstrates an awareness of the tension between its two approaches to justice and often tries to bridge the gap between them. One clear example of this effort is the idea of cities of refuge. Commandments about these cities appear in several places in the Torah, including Sh’mot 21, B’midbar 35, and finally here in Shofetim, D’varim 19. G-d commands that the people demarcate three cities spread out across the land of Israel to which an accidental manslayer may flee to avoid a blood avenger’s wrath. If the killing was indeed accidental, no one may go into the city to harm them in revenge. The Torah knows basic human nature, it understands that the instinct of a victim’s relative is to take justice into their own hands and seek retribution for the life lost, regardless of the details of the circumstances. So instead of requiring the elimination of this instinct, the Torah offers protection for the accidental killer, a place where they cannot be touched. It creates a boundary against the primal desire for revenge, even while allowing that desire to endure. And, as Nehama Leibowitz points out in her Studies in Devarim, perhaps the Torah even managed to achieve the goal of reducing the instinct towards vengeance in the long run. While all three references to the cities of refuge in the Torah describe the manslayer as “fleeing”, references in Mishnah instead refer to “they who are exiled”, implying that by that time the law had become such a natural part of society that the idea of personal vendetta had been eliminated. The Torah acknowledges people’s primal instincts and, at least in some cases, presents laws that offer a more creative, progressive solution.

So what can we take away from the radically different elements of justice found in Shofetim, the ones that remind us of the importance of deliberate, fair trials and the ones that call for strict retribution and methodical bloodshed? Perhaps it can remind us that such underlying tensions live within all traditions and all people. We live in a country that was dedicated to the ideas of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” even as it was built on the backs of slave labor and over the graves of the land’s native inhabitants. Many of us struggle with how to respond to ongoing events in Israel, where the dream of a Jewish, democratic state is facing the challenging realities of reconciling those two core identities. We all want to pursue justice, but what instincts must we control to achieve it? Must we mandate brutal punishments to deter false witnesses? Must we annihilate Canaanites to reach our promised land? How do we avoid becoming those very Canaanites we seek to destroy? The Torah tries to strike a balance, often restraining primal instincts, sometimes finding ways to acknowledge them while still containing them, and sometimes urging actions that have shocked Jews for centuries. But if we can always remember that such a side lives in all of us, in our history, perhaps even our biology, we can find inspiration from the Torah to control it, to channel it, to gain empathy and self-awareness from it. Justice, justice we shall pursue. Justice that feels natural and straightforward, and justice that feels hard, contrary to our instincts. But that’s part of the responsibility we take on as Jews. As we approach the new year, and it’s now Elul, so I can really say that, may we all have the humility to think hard about ourselves, our instincts, and our assumptions, and may we renew our efforts towards justice for all.

Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Re’eh

Parshat Re’eh

By Moe Scott, August 11, 2023

There is a lot to talk about in this parsha. We have the centralization of worship in the site of the future Temple and all of the laws of sacrifice attendant on it; the protocol for responding to idolatrous instigations by false prophets, relatives, and friends, including the subversion of an entire town (in short: all of them are to be put death); a reprisal of the laws of kashrut (in case you didn’t get the memo the first two times), of shmittah (the remission of debts in the sabbatical year), and of indentured servitude; and a summary of the three pilgrimage festivals: Ḥag HaMatzot, Shavuot, and Sukkot. And in case you haven’t yet caught on, this is my way of telling you that I’m going to talk about none of it.

Instead, I’m going to focus on just the first two and a half verses—which we heard Rabbi Dr. Berenbaum leyn for us so nicely:

“See,” Moses proclaims, “this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God …”[1]

That’s how the English reads in our Etz Hayim, the specifics of the “blessing” and “curse” coming three weeks from now in parshat Ki Tavo (I won’t spoil them). But it’s not what the Hebrew says, at least not on its face. I’ll read it to you:


אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה׃

אֶת־הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ

אֶל־מִצְוֺת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם׃


this day I set before you blessing and curse:

the blessing that you listen

to the commandments of the LORD your God

which I command you this day …

In other words, the blessing is not on condition that you, Israel, listen to the commandments of God; the blessing is itself that you listen, that you are able to hear God’s voice at all. The Sefat Emet—Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, the preeminent Hasidic commentator living in Poland in the latter 1800s—picks up on this phrasing in his commentary on this verse. He writes (quoting from Rabbi Art Green’s translation):

In everything there is a living point (nekudah ḥiyyut) from the Life of Life. … When you attach yourself to the point within each thing, you will come to see that it is the blessing. Then, indeed, “See” (re’eh)—by negating yourself before the point.[2]

This “point,” this source of divinity the Sefat Emet identifies, is not external; it’s embedded deep within ourselves and the other. This is what we are called to listen to—not with our ears, but our souls. I’m reminded of a reflection I once read by Simone Weil, a French (and, perhaps not incidentally, Jewish) philosopher and mystic, on what it means to truly love our neighbor:

It’s a “way of looking,” she says—of seeing, re’eh—“[that] is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he (or she) is, in all his (or her) truth. Only [one] who is capable of attention can do this.”[3]

Thankfully, since Weil’s time almost a century ago, we’ve become increasingly capable of giving undivided attention to one other. (That was a joke.) I’m not sure even she could have anticipated just how scarce a resource attention would become in a world that treats it like a commodity to be bought and sold. Between social media and streaming services and twenty-four hour news cycles, phones and smartwatches and Apple Vision Pro, everything is vying for our attention except for the person in front of us. We spend arguably more time looking at pictures of friends on screens than we do looking them in the eyes. It’s not long before those screens begin to impair our eyesight and impede our insight, so that we can no longer see the living point, the nekudah ḥiyyut, the innate blessing in all that is. That’s the real curse.

What’s the corrective? How do we cultivate our capacity for sustained attention? Simone Weil suggests struggling with Latin prose or hard geometry problems. (As a former math teacher myself, I can vouch for that.) The Sefat Emet offers something more in line with what we’re doing here: Shabbat. “Shabbat,” he writes, “is a self-negation and inclusion within the point … where the blessing dwells.” By “self-negation” he doesn’t mean depriving ourselves of our devices, but that is what we need to do if we want to be present enough that the boundaries between us dissolve, that our souls empty themselves enough to receive each other and be enveloped together in the blessing of this day.

That’s what a “Shabbat shalom,” a sabbath of peace, would truly be. The sages in the Mishnah speak of peace as a “vessel that holds blessing.” “It brings all things to be,” adds the Sefat Emet, “and is called ‘peace’ (shalom) because it is the shlemut, the fullness of all things, the blessing.”[4] May we all see it for and experience it as the blessing that it is.

Shabbat shalom.

[1] Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, senior ed. David L. Lieber (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 1061.

[2] The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, translated and interpreted by Arthur Green (Philadelphia: JPS, 1998), p. 301–2.

[3] Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1951), p. 115.

[4] Green, The Language of Truth, p. 302.

Journey Into The Shema

Journey Into The Shema

By Bert Kleinman, July 29, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה  אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה  אֶחָֽד

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More questions… more ideas for exploration and reflection.

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

Shavuot Second Day 

Shavuot Second Day 

By Batya Ordin, May 27, 2023

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach. I’d like to speak about yesterday’s Haftorah, Ezekiel’s vision of the divine Glory, which has intrigued me for a long time.

Those of you who know me, know that I am a pretty down-to-Earth person. I like to think of myself as someone involved more in the “pots and pans” of Judaism rather than the esoteric. But to quote my favorite television show, today I would like to “boldly go where no one has gone before”. I’m going to speak about the afterlife.

My interest in this topic began several years ago when sadly, my Orthodox friend and neighbor lost her grown daughter after a long bout with cancer. She loaned me a book by Dr. Brian Weiss, head of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami. His book, Many Lives, Many Masters, is a study on the subject of reincarnation. For two or three years, she and I passed dozens of books on related topics back and forth across the street. These books were written by respected professionals: physicians, scientists, psychiatrists, academics, physicists, and Rabbis and I found this subject matter very compelling.

Let me share with you a story of two elderly friends: Moishie and Chaim. They made a pact that whoever passes away first would come back and tell the other what it’s like. Eventually, Moishie passes away. Sometime later, to his surprise, Chaim hears his name being called.

“Chaim, Chaim”.

“Moishele, is that you?”

“Yes, it’s really me.”

“So, nu,” asks Chaim. “What’s it like?”

“Oy…It’s beautiful. There are birds chirping. The sky is blue with light fluffy clouds floating by. There is a lake with crystal clear water, rolling hills, green grass.”

“And Moishele, what do you do all day?”

“Well, I get up, I eat a piece of fruit from the tree, I go for a walk, I have sex, I take a nap.”

“Wow, so that’s Heaven”.

“Heaven? What Heaven? I’m a moose in Idaho!”

Ezekiel’s vision begins with a description of four celestial creatures holding up the throne of God. These creatures defy the imagination with four animal faces each, wings, human hands, spinning wheels below them, the rims of which are covered with eyes.

Though these images are astonishing, the idea of celestial creatures is not unfamiliar to us. Every Shabbat morning during Shacharit we recite “El Adon”, the last line of which states “Tiferet U’Gedulah, Serafim Ve’ofanim Ve’chayot Hakodesh”. “The Serafim, Ofanim, and [other] Holy Creatures declare God’s wonder and greatness.” These images of holy creatures that Ezekiel describes are followed by his description of the Presence of God.

Was Ezekiel hallucinating? Dreaming? Too much THC?

Or…could this have been an actual glimpse into the spiritual realm?

In today’s world with medical advances such as CPR and defibrillators, we have brought people back from death. In a time where data is shared globally, we have many thousands of accounts of what happens to people between the time they are pronounced clinically dead and the time they are resuscitated. This can be just a few minutes or much, much longer. From a strict medical standpoint, these people should have seen or felt nothing. Surprisingly, they did not experience a black nothingness, but to the contrary, a very rich, vivid procession of sensations which they believe is a visit to the spiritual realm. There are consistent key components to near-death experiences, and amazingly, they seem to corroborate much of Ezekiel’s account.

Let’s explore the “near-death experience” further. The term was coined in 1975 by Dr. Raymond Moody, a physician at the University of Virginia, in his groundbreaking book, “Life After Life”. The near-death experience crosses all geographic, socio-economic, religious, gender, age and cultural boundaries. Dr. Melvin Morse, a Seattle pediatrician, published a study he conducted of young children between ages 3 and 16 who had technically died and had been resuscitated. The children reported remarkably similar experiences to the adults. Research estimates that 400 million people worldwide have had a Near Death Experience. That’s 5% of 8 billion people.

Though there are variations, a near-death experience may contain many or all of these features:

A person, say, has a heart attack… The chest pain is excruciating, and he passes out. What seems like moments later, he awakens to find himself floating above his body, where he watches the medical team administering CPR. He tries to communicate with them, but it becomes obvious that they can’t hear him. Suddenly, a dark tunnel appears…and he finds himself zooming up the tunnel with the whooshing sound of speed.

His trip ends in a garden…glowing with unearthly light. He looks at his own hands and realizes that he too is composed of light. Relatives and friends who had died earlier approach him. They are glowing too. All of them are happy to see him. They express their feelings nonverbally with their warmth. A master Being of Light appears. He is so bright and loving that the visitor feels drawn to him. With more unconditional love, caring, feelings of peace and joy than this visitor had ever felt from anyone on Earth, the master Being of Light engulfs him with his Presence.

He is then taken on a three-dimensional review of his life. In addition to experiencing the way he felt during each event shown, the visitor feels every emotion he caused others to feel by his or her actions. The Being of Light compassionately communicates to the person what he did right and wrong and indicates things he might do better in the future.

The person wants this heavenly experience to go on forever. He doesn’t want to leave the bosom of the Being of Light, but he is told he must return to his body. That it isn’t his time yet. Suddenly, he feels himself sucked back into his own body. The pain of his injuries returns. His near-death experience significantly transforms him into a changed person. The type-A behavior that made him edgy, angry, or a workaholic is now gone. Replacing these traits is a greater concern for others, lack of fear of death, a thirst for knowledge, less concern for material goods, and an enhanced appreciation for life.

How do we explain all of this? Could they be hallucinations? A lack of oxygen in a dying brain? The brain simply shutting itself down? Medications? The research disproves all of these alternative theories.

If a person is looking down onto their own body, seeing, hearing, thinking, yet the brain is in a state of clinical death, where are these perceptual and cognitive activities taking place? This is clear evidence for the existence of a transcendental part of the human being. It points to the existence of a soul.

When people who are blind from birth have a near-death experience, they report “seeing” both this world and the next. Dr. Kenneth Ring, Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, has done research on near-death experiences of the blind. Those who died in surgery, for example, were asked to describe the surgery room, the hospital and other environmental factors, which a blind person would not be able to do. They were blind before their death and they are blind after resuscitation, yet during the interim period some can describe what only a sighted person can perceive. Vision can be impaired in the physical body, but when the soul is separated from the body, this impediment is removed because the soul does not depend on the physical body for vision. The soul is perfect even if the body is impaired.

From his book, “Does the Soul Survive?” by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz and Ya’akov Astor’s book “Soul Searching”, I learned that throughout Jewish history, many opinions emerged on the nature of the world to come, with no one theory becoming dogma. Jewish ideas about the afterlife have never been static. The intergenerational debate between sages, while varying in time and place, shared a consensus that the soul survives this Earthly plane of existence. From Ecclesiastes, “And the dust returns to the ground as it was and the spirit, or ruach, returns to God who bestowed it”.

Nearly every aspect of the near-death experience has parallels in Jewish tradition. Let’s look at a few of the correlations:

Immediately after death, a person finds him or herself floating above their body. Our tradition teaches that “for three days, the soul hovers over the body”. The Talmud also states “the dead one knows all that is said in its presence until the grave is filled in.” Our entire mourning and burial rituals are based on the assumption that the soul is present. This is why, for example, the body is watched over before burial and never left alone. The soul departs and returns at various stages which coincide with the stages of mourning…7 days of Shiva, 30 days of Shloshim, and a year.

What about being greeted warmly by our departed family members? The death of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Aaron, and Moses are described with the conspicuous phrase “and he was gathered to his people.” Abraham was the first of the patriarchs to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah. Who, then, was he gathered to? Obviously, the phrase “gathered to his people” cannot be talking about the physical burial location. Similarly, Aaron and Moses were buried alone, and still it says that each was “gathered to his people.” The Midrash states explicitly: “All souls go forth and are gathered each one’s soul to the generation of his fathers and to his people…when the soul goes forth from the body, then the righteous come to meet them and say ‘Come unto Peace’.”

Now, the life review: Jewish tradition speaks of the “sefer hachaim”, the Book of Life, where all deeds are recorded. This is a primary focus of our High Holiday liturgy. The Talmud states that a person’s own soul testifies at one’s judgment after death. According to the near-death accounts, it’s not a literal book of life, but more like a 3D sensa-round movie that is played where each event in a person’s life is re-experienced in the fullest detail. It is lovingly presented and experienced as a learning opportunity.

Most importantly, it is seeing the Being of Light that connects the near-death experience with Ezekiel’s vision. In a Midrash commenting on Shemot, when Moses asked God to show him His glory, he was told that “Man cannot see me and live; however, when he ceases to live here [i.e., when he dies], he will see Me.”

Let’s look at Ezekiel’s description of the presence of God in v. 22:

“Above the heads of the [celestial] creatures was a form: an expanse with an awe-inspiring gleam as of crystal was spread out above their heads.”

He continues:

“Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire, and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form. From what appeared as his loins up, I saw a gleam as of amber – what looked like a fire encased in a frame; and from what appeared as his loins down, I saw what looked like fire. There was a radiance all about Him. Like the appearance of the rainbow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord.”

In his description of the presence of God, Ezekiel seems to be searching for words to describe the intensity of the light. People who have returned from clinical death have also expressed the inadequacy of words to describe the light they encountered. In the following two near-death accounts, listen for the same kind of struggle for words that Ezekiel seemed to have:

“At first, I became aware of beautiful colors which were all the colors of the rainbow. They were magnified in crystallized light and beamed with a brilliance in every direction. It was as if all this light was coming at me through a prism made by a most beautiful and purified diamond, and yet at the same time it was as if I were in its center…even now when I try to describe something so beautiful, I am mute with awe. There are no words in any language to describe such grandeur.”

And in a second account, “In the middle of one circle was a most beautiful being…I was filled with an intense feeling of joy and love. I had the overpowering feeling that I was in the presence of the source of my life and perhaps even my creator. In spite of the tremendous awe it inspired, I felt I knew this being extremely well. With all my heart I wanted to embrace and melt into it as if we were one….”

Before we say Yizkor in a few moments, let us consider both Ezekiel’s description of the Presence of the Divine, along with accounts of near-death experiences. When someone dies, we often say they have gone “to their eternal rest”. If we accept the idea that we merge with the Divine light of unconditional love, then we can take comfort that our loved ones are experiencing that indescribable love and peace after leaving this world.

As Jews, we do not long to expedite our reunion with the Divine Light. We are here now to experience all that God has given us in this Earthly world. But when it is time for me to go, I hope that I will merge with Ezekiel’s brilliant light of God’s presence and unconditional love and not discover myself as a moose in Idaho.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.

 Partial Bibliography
Jewish sources:

Astor, Yaakov, Soul Searching

Sonsino, Rifat and Syme, Daniel B, What Happens After I Die? Jewish Views of Life After Death

Spitz, Rabbi Elie Kaplan, Does the Soul Survive?

Afterlife and Lessons Learned

Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth and David Kessler, Life Lessons

Chopra, Deepak, Life After Death

Near-Death Research: ( is a good resource)

Atwater, P.M.H., The New Children and Near-Death Experiences

Atwater, P.M.H., Beyond the Light: What Isn’t Being Said About Near- Death Experience: from Visions of Heaven to Glimpses of Hell

Atwater, P.M.H., Coming Back To Life: The After-Effects of the Near-Death Experience

Moody, Raymond A., M.D., Life After Life

Morse, Melvin, M.D., Closer to the Light, Learning from Children’s Near-Death Experiences

Morse, Melvin, M.D., Transformed By the Light

Ring, Kenneth, Ph.D., Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near-death Experience

Ring, Kenneth, Ph.D., Life at Death, A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience

Ring, Kenneth, Ph.D., Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind

Ring, Kenneth, Ph.D., Heading Toward Omega, In Search of the Meaning of the Near-Death Experience

Ring, Kenneth, Ph.D., A Near-Death Researcher’s Notebook

Personal Near-Death Accounts

Alexander, Eben, M.D., Proof of Heaven, A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife

Atwater, P.M.H., We Live Forever, The Real Truth about Death

Besteman, Marvin J., My Journey to Heaven, What I Saw and How It Changed my Life

Brinkley, Dannion, Saved by the Light

Eadie, Betty J., Embraced by the Light

McVea, Crystal, Waking Up in Heaven

Neal, Mary C., M.D. To Heaven and Back, A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again

Piper, Don, 90 Minutes in Heaven

Reincarnation and Past Life Regression

Weiss, Brian L., Many Lives, Many Masters

Weiss, Brian L., Messages from the Masters, Tapping into the Power of Love

Weiss, Brian L., Only Love is Real

Weiss, Brian L., Same Soul, Many Bodies, Discover the Healing Power of Future Lives Through Progression Therapy

Related Topics:

Kessler, David, Visions, Trips and Crowded Rooms, Who and What You See Before You Die

Moody, Raymond, Jr., M.D., Life After Loss, Conquering Grief and Finding Hope

Morse, Melvin, M.D., Parting Visions, Uses and Meanings of Pre-Death, Psychic, and Spiritual Experiences

Morse, Melvin, M.D., Where God Lives, The Science of the Paranormal and How Our Brains are Linked to the Universe

Schroeder, Gerald L., The Hidden Face of God, Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth

Schroeder, Gerald L., The Science of God, The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom

Siegel, Bernie S., M.D., Love, Medicine and Miracles, Lessons Learned About Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients





By Henry Morgen, May 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



By Joel Stern, April 15, 2023

Who here has ever led a seder?

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

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

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

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

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

וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃

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

They were, quite literally, fired from their jobs.

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

Interpreting their behavior negatively, you have these opinions:


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


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

And on the positive side you have these opinions:


They thought that they were doing something favorable before Him.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When a Chazzan gets it right – everybody feels holy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, let’s see…

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!



By Larry Herman, February 25, 2023 (5783)

Terumah Trauma

Shabbat Shalom.

I have a confession to make.

I suffer from a personality disorder.

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

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

It’s called TTSD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they are not really the same at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Parashat Bo

By Jim Rogozen, Jan 28, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it was because of what God predicted:

וַֽיהֹוָ֞ה נָתַ֨ן אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֛ם בְּעֵינֵ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם

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

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

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

The two most common explanations for gathering these objects are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Israelites emptied out or despoiled Egypt.

וַיְנַצְּל֖ו is from the verb נצל.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

לא שמעו להם

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

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

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

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

So what about our verse in Shemot?

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

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

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

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

Orach Chaim #417 Shulkhan Arukh

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

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

In the Magen Avraham commentary we read:

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

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

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

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

…this reward continues in the world to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keyn yehi ratzon.

Jim Rogozen

Heiche Kedusha

Heiche Kedusha

By Rabbi Jim Rogozen, January 14, 2023

Good Shabbos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are additional downsides to doing a heiche kedusha:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom



Vayechi, Jan 1, 2023

By Rachel Rubin Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom