Rabbinic Reflections -Re'eh                                             August 19, 2017     27 Av, 5777

08/17/2017 03:18:00 PM


Although in general we characterize senses as physical and material, and the heart and mind as spiritual, it is possible to make the same or a similar distinction among the five senses themselves. We can consider touch to be the lowest sense of Humankind, as does the great Maimonides; it is even shameful to him and he cites Aristotle as agreeing with him.  When Touch is specifically associated with sex, the point is even sharper.

Taste, if associated with eating, is the next on the ladder going from the material to the spiritual. Both sex and food are stipulated for negation when a higher spiritual state is required. Thus the people are told not to "approach a woman" three days before the epiphany at Sinai, and the affliction of fasting is one of the central features of Yom Kippur. Smell is also associated with food but it is more delicate than eating.

Seeing and Hearing are, as a pair, used in the area of spirituality, despite the fact that they are grounded in material being. Within this pair, I believe we can associate seeing with the mind and intellect, while associating hearing with the heart and obedience. Parshat Re’eh begins with the word Re’eh, “See.” This is not the lower rung physical seeing, but a linguistic borrowing of the term for the concept of understanding. In English we say: See, in the sense that we appeal to the mind. We also say hear, as in Hear Me, or Listen, in the sense of obedience. In Biblical Hebrew, Re’eh is connected with knowledge, as in the verse: “It has been shown to you, to see and know that the Lord He is God. “Whereas Shema Yisrael means, “Obey O Israel,” as in “you shall obey [God].”

Rabbi Jacob Chinitz, in pointing all this out, notes with interest, the anthropomorphic interaction between God and humanity when the Torah describes each. Does God hear, see, smell, touch, taste? Does Humanity hear, see, smell, touch, and taste with regard to God or God’s Forces in the world? In the Psalm for Wednesday the Psalmist chastises the wicked who think God does not see or hear the evil they do. He says: “The One who turns the ear will certainly hear, the One who creates the eye will see.”  Jeremiah says: “God touched my mouth.”  When Noah offers offerings on the altar after the Flood, Torah says: “God smelled the good aroma. ”Even though, as Yechezkeil Kaufman explains, the Jews were so estranged from physical notions of God, they, nevertheless, did not fear to use the terminology of food and aroma with regard to the Sacrifices, yet we do not find the particular sense of taste attributed to God even anthropomorphically.

So, four of the five senses are found in Biblical speaking of God. What about humanity? The Torah teaches of the Elders of Israel after the Revelation at Sinai: “They saw God.” This contradicts the verse which says [Humanity] cannot see Me (God)and live. Isaiah speaks of seeing God on God’s Heavenly Throne in his prophetic vision. On the other hand, Moses stresses to Israel: “you saw no image at Sinai.”

Hearing is much more in tune with Torah thinking. Shema Yisrael. “Hear O Israel,” even though that hearing may be taken as obeying. But Moses does remind them how they heard the Voice. “You heard [God’s] Voice from the midst of the fire. “Taste and see,” says the Psalmist. Is he speaking of Torah or of God? “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” If Jacob wrestled with God, as it says: “You have contended with God,” then the sense of touch must have been involved in the encounter.

But humanity does not smell God as God smells the sweet savor of the offerings on the altar. Unless we see a linguistic connection between Reiach,”Aroma,” and Ruach, “Spirit.” Elsewhere, we read: “He blew into his nostrils the breath of the spirit of life.” Is that the sense of smell since the nostrils are involved? It is interesting to note after this examination of the use of the five senses, both in the anthropomorphic sense with reference to God, and in actuality with reference to humanity, that there are warnings in the Torah against following the senses, but not in the case of all of them.

Hearing:  “Do not listen, hear, the words of that (false) prophet.” Touch: “No hand shall touch it” (Mount Sinai). Sight: “There shall not be seen any fermentation” (during Pesach). Yet, there are no negative references to Smell and Taste. However, with regard to the superior functions of humanity’s body and spirit, namely the heart and the mind, we find both positive and negative references. Mind is not mentioned in the Torah, not in terms of Moach, “Brain,” the noun. Thought as a verb, as in Maase Choshev, “Thoughtful work” (in the making of the Tabernacle), is found.

The heart is found, both in the positive and negative forms. In the Shema we have: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” But in the third paragraph of the Shema, the Parshah of Tzitzit, it says: “You shall not stray after your hearts.” The question arises, if the heart can love God, and it can also stray away from God, which faculty in humanity decides the direction of the heart? There seems to be a hidden implication that humanity, presumably through the mind, controls the direction of the heart. Intellect should manage emotion, seems to be the Biblical message.

Anthropomorphically, as with the senses, thought and emotion are ascribed to God: “God regrets the making of humanity” (before the Flood). Can this be called thought? The verse continues: “[God] was sore at heart.” And we also have: “Because [God] loved your fathers.” Is this soreness of heart and love emotion? It appears to be so.

Apparently even the tendency towards anthropomorphism is not formless but rather normative. Even in non-literal language, in metaphor and simile, and perhaps even in hyperbole, there exists logic, a controlling and limiting restraint which permits some forms of anthropomorphic language and does not permit other forms. This study by Rabbi Jacob Chinitz of the five senses, and the two functions of thought and emotion, mind and heart, as used by the Torah in describing relations between God and humanity, illustrates this truth about Biblical language.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Ekev                               August 12, 2017    20 Av, 5777

08/11/2017 02:27:25 PM


“See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you?  Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles?  Or do you believe that people just get lucky?”
                                                                 --M. Night Shyamalan, film director

How is your faith doing today?  Whether our faith may be Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist or just plain “spiritual”, the overwhelming majority of human beings on the face of our planet have faith in a spiritual force beyond themselves.  It’s both a beautiful as well as a very dangerous thing.  Of course, it’s wonderful that the human race has always strived to find ways for people to connect to each other, and ways to reach beyond our mortality for something that guides us and gives us reason for our miraculous and special existence within an infinite universe.  However, just as easily as faith is the justification for spiritual elevation, faith is also often found at the core of war, terrorism and hatred.  Faith is undeniably a powerful thing that can be used to elevate mankind, as well as recklessly and abusively used motive to justify atrocity.

I think about the way we view “signs from God”, and I wonder about how safe it is.  Signs are common to most religions as the way people perceive that God interacts with mankind in a physical way in order to guide actions.  In the story of the Buddha’s search for enlightenment, the Buddha experiments with many different approaches to spirituality.  At one point he creates a test to help him along his way.  He places a bowl in a river and says, “If I am on the correct path, may this bowl float upstream”.  The bowl miraculously floats upstream, and the Buddha feels assured of his path. 

There are many similar Jewish examples of interpreting signs from God, but my personal favourite is the Talmudic story of Rabbi Eliezer’s dispute (Bava Metzia 59b).  Rabbi Eliezer and the other sages were in the study hall, engaged in a dispute over the ritual purity of a particular variety of oven.  While Eliezer presented argument after argument as to why the vessel should be considered pure, the other sages were not convinced.  Exasperated, Rabbi Eliezer called out, “If the law is in accordance with my opinion, may this carob tree uproot itself”, and miraculously the nearby carob tree uprooted itself and hovered over the counsel.  Unimpressed, the other rabbis replied, “one does not derive proof from a carob tree”.  Then Rabbi Eliezer called out, “If the law is in accordance with my opinion, let the stream reverse its direction”, and miraculously, the nearby stream reversed its direction.  Unimpressed, the other rabbis replied, “one does not derive proof from a stream”.  Once again, Rabbi Eliezer called out, “If the law is in accordance with my opinion, let the walls of the study hall cave in”, and miraculously, the walls of the study hall began to shake and sway.  Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls, commanding them to stay out of the discussion, and the walls remained in a leaning position.  Finally, Rabbi Eliezer said, “If the law is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it”, and miraculously, a Divine Voice called out from Heaven, saying, “the law is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer”.  Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and said “God is the God in Heaven, and the Earth He has given to mankind”.  The Holy One Blessed Be He smiled and said, “At last my children have triumphed over Me”.

I think that the modern Jewish rationalist approach to the idea of signs from God today, is that our sense of God in ourselves interacts with our desire for guidance and affirmation.  We don’t expect miracles, but we do notice coincidences, that when combined with our own conscience, we self-affirm what our gut-instincts tell us about which choices are good and wise, and it gives us confidence to act on them.  And just to be clear, I see God as the real informer of what our ‘guts’ tell us, and so God is a most crucially active participant in this process.

In Parshat Eikev, the Moses puts the Israelites on ‘God-Notice’.  Moses reminds the Israelites that they haven’t exactly behaved in the most ideal manner these last 40 years in the desert.  There was the Sin of the Spies, the Sin of the Golden Calf, and let’s not forget about the constant complaining.  Moses lets the Israelites know that it is not on their merit that they are entering the Land, but because this was the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  And so, living in the Land comes with a few provisos; if you follow these rules, you will live in the Land happily for many generations.  One of these provisos is also a part of the Sh’ma “Beware, lest your heart be misled, and you turn away and worship strange gods and prostrate yourselves before them. And the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will close off the heavens, and there will be no rain, and the ground will not give its produce, and you will perish quickly from upon the good land that the Lord gives you.” (Deut. 11:16-17)

The Sh’ma is all about ‘signs’ (upon arm and between your eyes, among other things).  I don’t believe that they are the kinds of signs that we are meant to follow blindly without the intervention of our own thoughts and wisdom.  They are meant to work in tandem with them.  So too, does God.  When we forget God, we forget what we stand for.  When we forget what we stand for, we lose our community and our sense of self.  The fabric of social order breaks down, we get anarchy and senselessness.  Signs are there to reconnect us to what we already know.  Signs are not what we see, but a reflection of the wisdom in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Vaethhanan                                 August 5, 2017     13 Av, 5777

08/03/2017 05:19:13 PM


Once there was a woman who worked on being humble for three weeks.  Finally, she was talking to her friend and this was the conversation that took place: "I finally did it!  I finally reached the humble nature God wants me to be at!"

"Gee," her friend said. "I bet you're proud."  She looked over her shoulder to see the woman had bought herself many gifts for the occasion.

The woman exclaimed: "You bet I am!"

So much for humility; indeed, our society seems to be ruder than ever. I was in a department store the other day and overheard this fellow say to the woman next to him: “I'm not saying your perfume is too strong.  I'm just saying the canary was alive before you got here.”

Throughout the ages, when biblical commentators had disagreements with the text or with each other, they didn’t say, “it’s stupid” or “you’re an idiot!” Instead they would state their disagreement with the words kasheh li, “this is hard for me to understand.” These commentators throughout the last thousand years are not merely adopting a more respectful tone. They are adopting a posture of humility that seems to be increasingly rare in our society. When I assert that something "doesn't make sense," that implies that I have thoroughly mastered it in all its nuances but that there's something faulty about IT, and I really don't have anything more to learn. Whereas if I assert that something is difficult for me to understand, I leave open the possibility that I have NOT thoroughly mastered it in all its nuances. Perhaps I still have a lot to learn.

Asserting that one still has a lot to learn, about everything, seems to be a particularly Jewish trait. We can see evidence of this trait in the book of Deuteronomy, in the Torah portion of Va-etchanan. Towards the beginning of this Torah portion, Moses recalls having a conversation with God and saying to God, "You have only just begun to let me, your servant, see your greatness and your mighty hand." The medieval philosopher Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (France, 13-14th century) offers a startling comment about this episode. He writes, "It is appropriate for human beings not to glory in their wisdom and achievements, making the claim that they have achieved many things. Rather we should always be aware that we are missing a great deal, and we are only beginners. When all is considered, who was greater than Moses? And yet when Moses beseeches God, he says, 'You have only just begun to let me, your servant, see your greatness and your mighty hand.' “With all of Moses' great achievements, he considered himself only a beginner.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg (USA 20th century) opines: Perhaps this is a component of what we can define as a spiritual outlook on the world: a belief that nothing in the world is ever understood fully, and no matter how much we learn, about anything, we remain beginners. I find this to be an especially important message for people who are relatively young. Jewish tradition has much to say about the differences between young people and older people, in terms of wisdom and understanding. So often in our society, it's younger people who are more competent with technology, more adept at the multi-tasking that characterizes our society, and more comfortable with the quickly changing nature of our society and culture. I fear that this leads some people to conclude that younger people just understand today's world better than older people do.

Well, Jewish tradition differs. The Torah tells us (Lev. 19), "rise when you encounter the aged." In the Talmud, the question is asked: Why should one rise upon encountering the aged? One answer that is presented is that we rise out of respect for the wisdom that characterizes the aged. Older people are presumed to have this quality of 'wisdom,' which is a very different quality from knowledge, or intelligence, or cleverness, or problem-solving ability. Wisdom, refers to a deep understanding of what is most important in the world. It refers to an ability to understand details and events in their larger context, in the context of the flow of generations. It refers to an understanding of our lives' peaks and valleys and strategies to manage them. And there's only one good way to acquire these qualities that we refer to as 'wisdom' - and that's -- to live for a long time.

Then, of course, we consider that Moses was at age 120 when he considered himself still a beginner! The Torah reminds us never to stop learning and never to stop growing -but also to teach ourselves to admit how much we don't know, and how much we have yet to learn.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Devarim                                July 29, 2017     6 Av, 5777

07/27/2017 05:34:38 PM


“Love is lovelier the second time around // Just as wonderful with both feet on the ground // It’s that second time you hear your love song sung // Makes you think perhaps that love, like youth, is wasted on the young.”
--Sammy Cahn (1913-1993), Jewish-American lyricist/songwriter

If you are spending a Shabbat in Israel and you want to experience Israeli-style davening, don’t go to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, and instead, go find a small neighbourhood shul.  Services will typically start around 7:30am and you can expect to be having kiddish by 9am.  Davening is “chik chak”, that is, fast, no frills, no sermon, and usually no rabbi or cantor.  If there is any congregational singing at all, it’s done double-speed.  When you are finished, you still have the entire day to do whatever you like.  That’s an Israeli-style Shabbat.

The Great Synagogue experience is something quite different.  On a typical Shabbat there, you can expect to be inspired by some of the greatest rabbis and Jewish intellects of our era speaking on a host of different topics of Jewish interest from politics to archeology.  You can also expect to be serenaded by the greatest cantorial voices in the world, performing a varied repertoire of traditional classics and new high-art compositions.  Don’t expect to be finished by noon.

I can certainly understand why many Israelis prefer their quickie-style davening, especially for the sort of shul goer who has a strong enough Jewish education to be his or her own rabbi.  That style is especially attractive to those who don’t really need any English explanations or sermons, who are never lost in the service, and who don’t need the music as a necessary accessibility device.  Personally, I can imagine being in the mood to daven this style once in a while, and have the rest of the day to myself to relax and do whatever I like – not every week, though.

Like expensive caviar, the Great Synagogue is not something I would want to experience every Shabbat either.  But what foodie could possibly resist an opportunity to geek-out on a rare delicacy?  On my visit this summer, I sat and listened to three of the greatest living cantors leading davening jointly, accompanied by the legendary Great Synagogue choir directed by one of the top conductors of Jewish music on earth, performing music by (and in the presence of) one of the leading composers of synagogue music of the modern era.  To me, it is fine caviar served on a sterling-silver platter.

Twelve years ago, the first year of my graduate studies took place in Jerusalem.  While there, I joined the choir at the Great Synagogue and part of my magical year was spent in that magnificent building, learning at the feet of the greatest masters of Jewish music in the world.  At the time, I was only months into my first year of cantorial studies.  I was like a university freshman with Albert Einstein as his first year math professor – full of awe, to be sure, but not yet able to fully appreciate, let alone take advantage of.  All this is to say that today, a part of me wishes I could spend another year in the Great Synagogue choir.

Our parsha this week is Dvarim, the beginning of the final book of the Torah.  The entire book is comprised of the last speeches of Moses before his death, before the Jewish people finally cross the Jordan River and settle the Promised Land.  The Israelites, however, had already been to this exact location 40 years prior, remember?  The Israelites were ready to cross into Canaan, but the spies’ reported that the opposing army was too powerful and they were afraid.  Their lack of faith in God cost the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the desert.  But now the 40 years have been completed, and the Israelites are once again on the banks of the Jordan, overlooking the land they are destined to settle.

Moses addresses the Israelites, “The Lord your God has given you this land to possess it; pass over, armed, before your brothers, the children of Israel, who are all warriors” (Deut. 3:18).  For 40 years, the Israelite nation was molded by the harsh environment of the desert.  They have been battle-hardened against the Amalekites, the Midianites and others.  All the while, they have led lives of dedication to God and their fledgling nation.  These are not the same Israelites that feared the armies of Canaan.  These Israelites are warriors, and this time, as they stare towards their destiny across the Jordan river, things will be different.

Sometimes life can feel cyclical.  Rather than journeying to a destination, we seem to be retracing our steps and find ourselves at similar crossroads, and this can make us feel like we are not getting any closer to our goals.  We take comfort, though, in remembering that whenever we come to a critical moment in our lives that we feel is the same, although the moment may feel the same, we are not.  We are never the same people we once were.

I may not be planning another year in Jerusalem at the Great Synagogue any time soon.  But I am forever grateful to appreciate a Shabbat there, once again, as the man I am today.  It was a pleasure to reconnect with my teachers, and to spend time learning once again, if only for a short while, at the feet of the masters.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Matot-Masei                             July 22, 2017     28 Tammuz, 5777

07/21/2017 08:02:26 AM


The Torah portion of Masei recounts the forty years of the journeys of the Israelites (masei b'nei yisrael) from Egypt to the Promised Land. Moses then provides instructions for conquering the land, defining its borders and dividing it among the tribes. How ironic that we read of the conquering and division of the land, as well as of a war against an enemy at a time when the State of Israel is engaged in a war to protect its borders and define not only those borders, but the meaning of its existence. Sadly, more blood will be spilled, of soldiers, civilians and terrorists. Both sides will continue to know death, destruction and hatred. However, what we must keep in mind the divine-human qualities of compassion, openness and acceptance. These are the only qualities that can ever lead us to a true peace, whether in our times or for future generations.*

One Shabbat, while visiting Israel, I wandered into Gan ha'Paamon, the Liberty Bell Garden. This beautiful garden, situated between the German Colony and the area around the King David hotel was built with money donated by North American Jews. It contains not only gardens, but playgrounds, picnic areas and basketball courts. Not to mention a replica of the Liberty Bell! As I walked through the garden, I first saw a group of young Jewish men and women, some wearing more traditional Shabbat clothes, others in shorts and sleeveless shirts, all sitting together sharing Shabbat lunch, laughing, singing, and eventually playing a game of touch football. They were clearly enjoying the peace of Shabbat. Not far from them, there sat an Israeli Arab family from one of the nearby villages. They were preparing a feast for themselves while numerous children ran around the garden or road their bikes on one of its many paths. Not far from them was another Arab family enjoying an afternoon of leisure.

As I watched these Arabs and Jews sharing the same space I took notice of joyous, raucous music that was being played through a nearby sound system. I soon found that these sounds emanated from a gathering of about 30 Ethiopian Jews beneath a grape arbor in the garden. They were eating, laughing and dancing together to the beat of their native music, many of them wearing traditional Ethiopian garb. As I watched them, I noticed an older Jewish couple, the man wearing a kippah/yarmulke and the woman a traditional head scarf, walk by, stop and smile, before continuing on their Shabbat afternoon walk. Not far from there, both Jews and Arabs were playing pick-up games of basketball, children played on the playground and others, like me, simply enjoyed taking in the beauty of the day, the park, and what was happening within its confines.

As I sat there I could not help but wonder why all of Israel could not be like that park. Of course, I knew the answer to that question all too well, but that did not prevent me from asking. Why, I wondered, couldn't everyone stop focusing on their differences and instead focus on their similarities. And yet, I knew that this was the idealist within me speaking, for that was not what was happening in the park at all. For in reality, each of the groups was interacting only with its own members and not with members of the other groups. Of course, they recognized the existence of the other, and this was not a problem, but true interaction was not occurring. Nevertheless, even peaceful co-existence without interaction is better than hostility and violence. Would that the parties in the current conflict could even reach that point!

But what is it that prevents this from happening? As I considered this question I remembered that what was in the center of this beautiful park: a replica of the Liberty Bell! What a strange thing to find in Jerusalem! However, we must remember that written on the Liberty Bell is a verse from Vayikra/Leviticus (25:10): "Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof." The word “liberty” in Hebrew is d'ror and is more accurately translated as "release." It is part of the greater theme of redemption found in that passage of the Torah. This redemption involved the return of the land to the tribes that possessed it at the time it was conquered by Joshua, as well as the release of Israelite slaves from their indentured servitude. In short, it was an effort to release in order to restore balance to the system.

Rabbi Steven Nathan (20th Century, USA) teaches that this twin concept of release/redemption involves the ability to let go. The parties involved must release the story line that something or someone "belongs" to them. Possession does not matter anymore according to the Torah. What matters is the moment, which is one of release, freedom, and redemption. It is a moment when we let go of our attachments and simply let things be as they were "meant to be." On some deep level, probably unknown to those present, it was the essence of what occurred in the Liberty Bell Garden. At least for those minutes or hours, those present were able to let go of their individual stories of hurt or hatred. They were able to release themselves from the tyrannies of their stories and simply enjoy God's creation. What happened after those hours in the park I cannot tell you, but what happened during that time was indeed a lesson for all of us.

Ultimately, this release from excessive attachment to history, to pain, to one's story and to the sense that "this is mine and I am right" can bring about peace and liberty. It allows us to open our hearts to the pain of others and feel compassion for all of creation, not only for ourselves. How long it will take to bring that vision to fruition I cannot say. Realistically, I doubt that it will happen during my lifetime, though I hope and pray that I am wrong. Yet, for those few moments on a Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem, the holy city of peace that has too often known hatred and violence, I witnessed what may perhaps have been a first step, no matter how small, towards this ultimate goal. And if each step on the journey is in itself a destination, then that step, no matter how small it may seem, can have cosmic significance.

Am I dreaming? Perhaps; but without dreams it is impossible for us to work towards creating new realities for us and for our world. Over 100 years ago Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism said "If you will it, it is no dream." His dream was of a homeland for the Jews. But ours must be that all peoples will have a homeland and know peace, freedom and redemption. If we will it, it is no dream. But we must also remember that if we do not dream it, it can never become a reality!

Shabbat Shalom!

*Adapted and edited from a commentary by Rabbi Steven Nathan and used with permission.

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Pinchas                                 July 15, 2017     21 Tammuz, 5777

07/13/2017 03:34:14 PM


“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty, but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon.  When we love a woman, we don’t start measuring her limbs.”
--Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Greetings to all from Yerushalayim!  It has been wonderful spending time back in the spiritual capital of the Jewish world, recharging my religious batteries.  For an entire year during my studies, Jerusalem was my home, and whenever I return, I am always surprised by two things.  On the one hand, I am amazed at how wonderfully familiar to me it is to walk the streets, see the sites, speak the language, pass by the shops and listen to the haunting Shabbat siren on a quiet Friday night before the entire city shuts down.   On the other hand, I am inspired to see all of the new modern additions and changes that make Jerusalem the ever-evolving capital of the Jewish people worldwide, Mamilla shopping plaza, the ultra-modern light-rail, the First Station boardwalk, the pristinely clean and modernized Ben Yehudah Street and Shuk, and the every growing plethora of exotic (and kosher) restaurants, cafés, bars and clubs.  The heat, I could do without.

I am here first and foremost to celebrate with my two young cousins, Daniel and Jacob, as they reach the age of Bar Mitzvah (mazel tov to both of you!), reading Torah and leading morning services entirely by themselves, mere inches from The Kotel.  But there are many others here who are near and dear to me with whom I am reconnecting, and among them, my Chassidic cousins living in the ultra-orthodox community of Yemin Moshe.  After giving group piano and guitar lessons to eight of their ten children (the eight sisters are between ages 3 and 16), I had a heart to heart with my cousin, Baruch Nissan.  Though his way of life, worldview and personal philosophies are so different from my own, he has always had a way of seeing right through me, and helping me to reconnect with my own deeply held beliefs and values that I use to guide my life choices.  His lesson for me last night was this: the True Torah is the white behind the black.  As a chassid, a true inheritor of the Jewish mystical tradition, Baruch Nissan’s lessons often need some careful deciphering, so we’ll walk through it together.

This week’s parsha is Pinchas, which contains the narrative of the daughters of Tzelafchad.  The story goes that Moses is preparing to divide up the new Israelite territory into tracts of land to be owned by each family, and inherited by male descendants.   One family patriarch, Tzelafchad, dies without any male heirs, and his five daughters are terrified that they will receive no inheritance according to the established rules.  The daughters appeal directly to Moses who consults God.  God replies, “The plea of Tzelafchad’s daughters is just.  You shall give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsman; transfer their father’s share to them.  Furthermore, speak to the Israelite people as follows – if a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.” (Num. 27:7-8)

Of course, as modern Jews, we applaud the progressive egalitarian stance of the ancient Israelites in lieu of what was, at the time, a highly patriarchal society.  But the critical element to note is that God changed the rules.  There was one rule, the rule became obsolete as a result of a new predicament, and the rule changed.  In theory, the Torah is supposed to be timeless – the rules are supposed to stand forever.  So what do we take home from this story where God changes his own rule?

The rules of Judaism can be compared to the rules of music.  Music has many very strict rules, and when we study music formally, we must learn them all and follow them quite religiously.  I certainly did.  As we learn the basic rules of scales and chords, fingering and posture, we move on to ever more complex rules of modern music theory, atonalism, serialism, and the like.  There are seemingly endless rules for everything.  Strangely though, as we learn more and more, we realize that the rules are not meant to confine our music, but to unleash it.  Rules are bendable, some are even breakable.  The critical thing is that before we have the level of understanding required to throw the rules away, we have to become an expert in them and make them a part of who we are.  The more rules of music we learn, the more we realize that there are no rules, just music.

The Torah is written in black ink on white parchment, and the rules are laid out for us in the text to learn, to contemplate, interpret and ultimately to make a part of our lives.  But the “True Torah”, as Baruch Nissan meant, is the negative space behind the black letters, “the white behind the black”.  The rules, in fact, do not exist, because there are no rules when it comes to God and spirituality.  God exists beyond rules and if we want to connect to God, the last step is to realize that we have to relinquish our dependency on the minutia of corporeal rule-based existence.  God isn’t found in the rules of music, God is the music.  But even though accessing God means leaving the rules behind, we are not exempted from the obligation to first become an expert in those rules.  A master composer must first learn to play an instrument.

In today’s Judaism, living any amount of a Jewish life requires learning about some of the rules and guidelines.  What is kosher?  When do we celebrate Passover?  Why do we light candles on Friday night?  Which direction do we face when we pray?  How do you wrap teffilin?  Where is the nearest Chinese food restaurant open on Christmas?  All of these (some more than others) are questions which really are asking the same thing -  how do we access our spiritual Jewish selves and connect with God?  The ultimate answer is that we build that connection, from all of the little rules and factoids that make Jewish life unique and special.  We build it up as much as we can, until we are finally able to see beyond.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Balak                                   July 8, 2017     14 Tammuz, 5777

07/06/2017 05:49:10 PM


I just read a list of "The 100 Things to Do before You Die."  I was pretty surprised that "Yell for help" wasn't one of them!  Judaism has always been a religion about life.  The Torah teaches (Deuteronomy (30:19): “Choose life!” Judaism wants us to live meaningful lives in this world and not focus so much on the World-to-Come; after all (TB, Sanhedrin 90a), “All the righteous have a place in the World-to-Come.”  This is unlike the other Abrahamic religions which place great emphasis on the End of Days, rather than on the here and now.  And ancient Egypt was repugnant to the Jews, in part, because its whole society focused on the cult of death.

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, king of Moab, sees the defeat of his neighboring kings by the Israelites.  Fearing a similar fate, he hires the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. However, Bilaam is a true prophet and can only say what God has commanded, so he utters blessings instead of curses. Looking out over the Israelite camp, Bilaam says (Numbers 23:10): “Who can count the dust of Jacob, / Number the dust-cloud of Israel, / May I die the death of the upright, / May my fate be like theirs.”

On “may I die the death of the upright,” Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak (11th Century, Provence) says simply – “among them.” The Hafetz Hayyim, Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen (19th Cntury, Poland), explains:

Bilaam did not want to live as a believing Jew, but very much wanted to die as one. Why? Because the life of a God-fearing Jew is not an easy one: he has to restrain himself and keep away from many things. There are many commandments he must perform. Each day and every hour he has various obligations. The Jew’s death is not like that. For the believing Jew, death is only a transition from a temporary life to a permanent one [the afterlife, which the Rabbis call the World-to-Come] . . . and that is why Bilaam wanted to die as a believing Jew. But it is no great feat to die a proper death. The real feat is to live a proper life.

For most of us, the World-to-Come, however we may understand it, is earned by the deeds of an entire lifetime.  In other words, as the Hafetz Hayyim teaches, living as a Jew is far more important than dying as a Jew.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our age, comments Rabbi Joyce Newmark (20th Century, USA), is that millions and millions of people are being taught that God cares more about how we die than about how we live. Impressionable, usually young, people are being told that the surest path to the World-to-Come is through acts of “martyrdom,” through dying; even if that death involves the unforgivable sin of murder.  This is not what the God of the Torah, and the world, asks of us.  The Torah teaches that the point of religion, the point of mitzvot, is this (Leviticus 18:5): “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live.”  The Talmud adds this explanation: “Live by them – and not die because of them.”

Bilaam had it wrong. This is the true blessing: “May I live the life of the upright, / May my fate be like theirs.” Let this be our blessing.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Chukkat                                 July 1, 2017     7 Tammuz, 5777

06/30/2017 09:02:29 AM


“There is never a moment when God is not in control.   Relax!  He’s got you covered.”
               --Mandy Hale, New York Times Best Selling author of “The Single Woman”

We recently concluded our latest adult education seminar series at Beth Radom, entitled “10 Things I Wish I Didn’t Know About Judaism”.  It was an exciting journey into the weird and bizarre corners of Jewish belief and practice that usually don’t get much sermon time for exactly that reason.  We covered Jewish sources on angelology, demonology, sorcery and spells, charms and amulets and the supernatural magic of God.  We had so much fun exploring these topics that I am considering a Part Two of the series.  There are still so many oddities of Judaism that are very humbling in their esotericism, inspiring in their complexity, and meaningful when we challenge ourselves with the intellectual exercise.  With some work, at least for myself, I have found that it is possible to find fragments or generalities in such studies that can be surprisingly practical in deepening my modern rationalist Jewish ideology.  And if I can do it, as a consummate post-maimonidean rationalist, I think anybody can. 

One of these topics that we simply didn’t have time to talk about in our adult education series, but deserves real attention and exploration, also happens to be the main theme of our Parsha this week – the Red Heifer.  Here’s the general idea: Different breeds of cows come in a variety of colours and colour patterns, but if we happened to have one that is born entirely, perfectly, uniformly red… we’ve got ourselves a very rare and magical cow, known biblically as a “Red Heifer”.  Now, our special cow doesn’t perform spells, or have powers of speech, or anything so shocking.  Rather, it is an extremely rare ingredient in the most powerful purification ritual that a priest can perform.

Purity, in Judaism, is a big deal.  Previously at Beth Radom, I’ve spoken and written at length of the topic of purity in Judaism, and it is a deeply involved topic.  Suffice it to say, for our purposes, that the Jewish concept of purity is very different from the one our secular western, Christian-based culture has instilled into us.  Impurity is not bad, evil or dirty.  It works more like electricity – you cannot see, smell or touch it, yet an object can be charged with it, giving it power… “spiritual energy”.  In the case of a person, one must be charged with spiritual energy in order to be able to perform certain Jewish rituals, particularly in the Temple.  The entire Jewish people are currently in a state of general impurity, and the power of a Red Heifer, according to the Torah, would be our nuclear solution for a mass-cleansing of impurities.

Since there is currently no Temple and no sacrifices to be made that require a state of ritual purity, we’re not in too much of a rush to find a Red Heifer.  Just imagine, though, if the mashiach suddenly came, and ushered in the era of the Third Temple, all of a sudden, we would seriously be in need of our magic cow.  The 2015 tv series set in Jerusalem entitled, “Dig”, was about a Jewish cult trying to actively bring about the messiah, and one of the pieces of the puzzle was that they went ahead and genetically engineered a Red Heifer as part of their plan.

So, for all of us post-maimonidean rationalists, what usefulness can we derive from this strange practice?  Like most mystical lessons, the trick is not to look at the problem head-on.  It’s not so much about the magic produced by the Red Heifer, and more about what that magic means to Jewish society, historically and now.  Two thousand years ago, the sacrificial cult was the essential form of Jewish worship.  Today, Judaism has evolved beyond the need for sacrifices, but yet, there are many who continue to pray for the reestablishment of the Temple and a return to that way of life.  There are three things needed to see that happen:  the arrival of the mashiach, the restoration of the physical Temple building, and the restoration of the Kohanim to their priestly duties. 

Several times in Jewish history, the Jewish community has had to deal with false messiahs.  There was Bar Kochba, who was proclaimed the messiah and led a failed revolt against the Romans in the 2nd century.  There was Shabtai Tzvi in the 17th century who ended up converting to Islam to save his own life.  Oh yeah, and let’s not forget about one young outspoken Jewish guy named Jesus of Nazareth.  All this is to say that messiahs seem to come and go every few centuries. 

The restoration of the physical building of the third Temple is not a hard thing to imagine.  It’s really a simple matter of money… and perhaps the small problem that the Muslims still currently occupy the Temple mount, but one fine day, right?

The last item, the Red Heifer, is the only piece of this puzzle that is completely independent of man’s activities.  The Red Heifer is born, or it isn’t.  Which means that no matter how many messiahs come along, or how many billions of dollars are spent in building contracts, the sacrificial cult cannot return to the Jewish people until God, personally, gives His say so.

Whether or not we believe in the restoration of the Temple, whether or not we agree as to the evolution of Judaism, whether or not we see the sacrificial cult as a part of our history or as something we yet aspire to again, it seems, as always, and as it should be, God is in control of the destiny of the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Korach                                June 24, 2017     30 Sivan, 5777

06/23/2017 11:36:10 AM


Rabbi Dr. Geoffrey Haber, DMin, DD

One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. They picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him. The scientist walked up to God and said, "God, we've decided that we no longer need you. We're to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don't you just go on and get lost."

God listened patiently and kindly to the man and after the scientist was done talking, God said, "Very well! How about this? Let's have a man making contest."

To which the man replied, "OK, great!"

But God added, "Now we're going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam."

The scientist said, "Sure, no problem" and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.

God just looked at him and said, "No, no, no.  You go get your own dirt!"

We like to disagree; it’s in our DNA.  Just watch a session of Parliament—or better still—the Knesset in Jerusalem and you will see what I mean.  And we’ve all heard that for every two Jews there are three opinions.  Jewish tradition is aware of this tendency and distinguishes between good and bad arguments.  Pirke Avot teaches (19:5): "A controversy for Heaven's sake will have lasting value, but a controversy not for Heaven's sake will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for Heaven's sake?  The debates between Hillel and Shammai.  What is an example of a controversy not for Heaven's sake? The rebellion of Korach and his associates" against Moses and Aaron.  Two thousand years ago, the Talmud was teaching about arguments that Jews have with each other, and at least one of the examples they used was an argument that went back more than a thousand years before that.

That's good!  There isn't anything wrong with Jews disagreeing with each other, as long as they are disagreeing about the right things. For example, lately, people have been asking me questions about denominational issues.  What do I think of Orthodox congregations becoming Conservative and other such questions?  And what do I think about the whole denominational thing anyway? What difference does it make if people call themselves Orthodox or Conservative or Reform?  “Post-denominationalism” is a big word in the Jewish world today.  Why can't we all just get along?  The truth is that there is no reason why all Jews have to agree on how they want to worship, how they want to be Jews, how they want to teach Torah, how they want to observe their Judaism.  People will disagree.  They always have.

It isn’t a question of people not getting to know each other.  One of the interesting things about our Torah story is that it is made clear to us that the two main characters in our story, Korach and Moses, are hardly strangers.  They happen to be cousins!  Actually, they don't happen to be.  The hint we get is that Korach feels empowered to challenge Moses precisely because he, too, is a Levite.  Why should Moses be greater than he?  That shouldn't surprise us either. No one can get into a nastier, more bruising fight than people in the same family who know each other well, know each other's strengths and weaknesses and know how to manipulate each other's emotions.  Fighting within the family is always more colorful, and more brutal, than fighting with strangers.

And yet, it is sometimes necessary.  Rabbi Harold Berman writes that if we always stand by our family, our tribe, our people, and refuse to get into serious issues with them, even when we believe they are terribly wrong, then we will always be hostage to whatever schemes they impose on us.  If we can't criticize when we think someone has behaved badly, and perhaps brought discredit on the family, or the tribe, or the community, then we are tacitly, if not explicitly, saying that whatever someone who is "one of mine" does is okay.

I remember reading that Meyer Lansky, a rather tough Jewish gangster of his generation, was deeply hurt by the fact that the State of Israel would not take him in and help him avoid indictment when the U. S. government was trying to arrest him.  He had, after all, helped Israel on a number of occasions.  Israel made the decision that it wasn't going to be put in the position of accepting a Jew who was wanted by American law.

Rabbi Berman reminds us that there are times when we have to disassociate ourselves from our fellow Jews.  He reminds us of the way in which Jews across America spoke out against Meir Kahane. He was a racist who preached violence and hatred by Jews against others.  We have to be willing to stand up for what we believe is right, even when our own people may be found on the other side of the issue.

Rabbi Berman also observes that we see the alternative around us. Before and since September 11, 2001, and even more so now, there is a pronounced reluctance in the Moslem community to condemn or to stop funding the groups that send out terrorists to wreak destruction.  People condemned the deed itself, but with a lot of hemming and hawing, and a strong desire to limit condemnation to the narrowest circle possible.  Very quickly that gave way to new conspiracy theories, until you find today that if you do a survey in the Arab world, a very substantial percentage of people will tell you that 9/11 was really a Mossad/CIA plot in which Arabs were framed. Look for criticism in the Moslem world of terrorist bombers who kill and maim in Israel and then celebrate their ghastly attacks.  You will not find a lot.

He rightly concludes that until there is a lot more, there can't be peace.  The outlook suggesting one must stick by one's people, right or wrong, leaves the entire community hostage to the most extreme of the group.  Extremists will always push to the edge, and unless the community responds by saying that some things are unacceptable, the community will always get dragged in, and will always pay a price.

A disagreement, for the right reasons, will help to save a community, not destroy it.  We ought to know.  We have had our disagreements through history, and we still do.  We disagree about little things and big things, and we always have.  And some would say that it is our ability to disagree that makes us a stronger people.  But, we have to remember what we are fighting about.  The Mishnah tells about arguments that are for the sake of heaven, arguments respectfully presented that are about important issues, not about personalities, not about who is in power and who isn’t, but goals, values and beliefs that really matter.  If it is done right, a good fight within the family can make the family even stronger and can help to make the community and the world around us even stronger and safer as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Shelach                                  June 17, 2017     23 Sivan, 5777

06/16/2017 10:35:51 AM


“If you hear a voice within you saying ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means, paint and that voice will be silenced.”
--Vincent van Gogh

The narrative of Parshat Sh’lach L’cha is one that rabbis have hotly debated for thousands of years.  The controversial nature of the story is right up there with the Binding of Isaac and the Sin of the Golden Calf.  This one is called “The Sin of the Spies”.

Here’s the story in a nutshell:  Moses sends out twelve spies to scout the territory on the other side of the Jordan River which is destined to become the land of Judea, the new Israelite homeland.  All of the spies describe a land of beauty and natural wealth, a land “flowing with milk and honey”.  They also report, however, that the inhabitants are defended by powerful armies and giants.  Ten of the spies advise Moses that conquering the land will be impossible, while only two of them trust that God will ensure victory for the Israelites.  When news of the report is disseminated amongst the general population, the Israelites cry out in despair, wondering if it wouldn’t have been better had they remained in Egypt.  For their lack of faith, God decides that this generation is not mentally ready to enter the land, and decides that they must all wander the desert for forty years until they are replaced by a new generation that has never experienced Egyptian slavery.

There are a lot of wonderful little life-lessons to derive from the story – don’t lose faith in God, keep a positive outlook, slavery can be a mentality, etc.  But there is one very troubling element to this story that has baffled the greatest of our sages.  According to the biblical narrative, God’s punishment, initially, was not to force the Israelites to wander for forty years.  Rather, the plan was to give up on them and annihilate them all and start over.  “I will smite them with the plague and annihilate them, and I shall make you [Moses] a greater and more powerful nation than they.” (Num. 14:12).  As disturbing as this is, Moses’ response is what is truly mind-boggling, “Then the nations who have heard of Your fame will say, ‘because God lacked the ability to bring this people to the Land He had sworn to give them, He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’” (Num. 14:15-16).  It seems that Moses is appealing to God’s vanity, and more amazingly still… Moses’ argument compels God to change His mind.

Let’s highlight the issues:

1.     God resolves to annihilate the Jews, i.e. God resolves to break his own covenant

2.     Moses tries to reason with God, warning Him that people will think He wasn’t powerful enough to keep up his end of the bargain.  In other words, not only does Moses believe that God hasn’t thought this through thoroughly, but also that God is vain by nature, and responds to peer pressure.

3.     God thinks about it, decides Moses is right, and changes His plan, i.e., God is the sort that easily changes His mind.

This should (and does) bother many modern Jews.  Our basic approach to theology is supposed to be centered around the belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-perfect God.  Yet, it seems from the Torah that God can break His own promises, be made aware of things that He wasn’t before, and seemingly has some limitations on His power over other people.  As long as we are here, let’s also mention that in the Ten Commandments, God describes Himself as “El Kanah”, a “jealous God” (Ex. 20:5), and let us also not forget how much of our liturgy is about lauding, extoling, thanking, exalting and praising God.  Dare we say that God might have what we could call a character flaw?

Imagine the Israelite nation was a single individual who was in therapy after having spent his/her whole life to date as a slave… and God is the therapist.

 “Doc, you’re such a great guy,” says Israel, “You saved me from a really unhealthy place.”

“Well, I’m glad to help you,” says God, “you’re doing a lot better now, and I think your next goal should be to get you out of temporary housing, and properly settled down in a more permanent home.”

“Thanks Doc,” replies Israel, “but I’m not ready, I like living in temporary housing.  Permanency is too big a step.  I’d have too many responsibilities.”

 “Well,” says God, “let’s think it through together and see what would happen if you did that.  I would have to report that you are not complying with the treatment I have prescribed for you (Torah), and your government aid would run out (God’s commitment to Israel).  Without funding, I couldn’t be your doctor anymore and eventually you’d be kicked out of temporary housing anyway.  And where do you think you would be then?”

 “Fine!  Then I’ll just tell everyone what a terrible doctor you are!” screams Israel.

 “Really?  Can you not see the obvious problem that you need to have more faith in yourself and in your doctor?  Very well, we’ll do it your way.” Says God.

 “Ok! Ok!  Fine!!!”, relents Israel, in terrible fear.

 “Then I’ll continue to be your doctor.  I’m disappointed in you for not being more willing to try, but clearly you’re not ready yet”.

Shabbat Shalom,

06/16/2017 10:35:32 AM


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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Behaalotekha                           June 10, 2017     16 Sivan, 5777

06/09/2017 10:42:29 AM


Sometimes, we just feel that we can’t carry the burden alone; we feel we need Divine Intervention. It’s like the fellow who fell in the lake and he couldn't swim. When a boat came by, the captain yelled, "Do you need help, sir?" The fellow calmly said, "No, God will save me." A little later, another boat came by and a fisherman asked, "Hey, do you need help?" The fellow replied again, "No God will save me." Eventually the fellow drowned and went to heaven. He asked God, "Why didn't you save me?" God replied, "Fool, I sent you two boats!" We seek Divine intervention, but don’t realize when it comes to us.

In Beha’alotcha we begin a series of revolts against the authority of Moses and his brother Aaron, the High Priest (Kohen Gadol). In spite of all that God does for the Israelites, they complain bitterly against Moses and Aaron, and by extension, God. Even though they were given food, in the form of manna, each day, sufficient water and safety from their enemies, it was not enough. They complained. Moses, in response to the grumbling of the Israelites, complains to God that he cannot carry the burden alone.

In response to the Israelite complaint that there is no meat, God promises to send meat to Israel. In addition, God takes the burden off of Moses by appointing seventy elders to help him. Thus the Lord said to Moses (Numbers 11:16–17): “Gather for me seventy of Israelite’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people. Bring them to the Tent of Meeting. Let them take their place with you. I will come down and speak with you there. I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them. They shall share the burden of the people with you. You shall not bear it alone…” That is exactly what God does. Moses “power” is spread over the seventy elders. As soon as Moses power is spread to them, they begin to prophecy. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, complains, implying that Moses has lost some of his authority. Moses reply shows his greatness. He tells Joshua that he wishes all of Israel had his power.

Rabbi Steve Bayar (20th Century, USA) teaches that this is a poignant lesson in leadership, a poignant lesson for all those who wish to accomplish anything in the world of tzedakah (charity/righteous giving). There is only so much we can do ourselves. Eventually, to be effective, to insure that our program has continuity after our efforts have finished, we must delegate the activity. In this way our dream can not only be accomplished, but it can thrive as well. Like a candle, from which hundreds of candles can be lit without diminishing its flame, tzedakah only grows brighter when more people are brought to it.

Yet the people are not satisfied. Although they have the manna, they are not satisfied. They want meat. They want the satisfaction of chewing something with a different texture. God promises them meat – and Moses is amazed. God’s reply? The Lord answered (Numbers 11: 21-23): “Moses; is there a limit to the Lords power?”

Rabbi Bayer opines: we believe theologically, that there is no limit to what God can do. Yet, in the Torah, as sacrilegious as this sounds, God seems limited by what people are willing to do for God. God needed Moses to redeem the Israelites from Egypt. What if Moses refused to go (and he did four times!). What would God have done? Perhaps a better (and theologically safer) way to answer the question is that there is no limit to what God can do – there is only a limit to how much we think we can accomplish with God’s help. Rabbi Bayer concludes: We learn that in order to make tzedakah succeed, we must learn to share our goals and delegate the programs, we must believe that God will give us unlimited support, all the while acting with respect towards others who work with us.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Naso                                   June 3, 2017     9 Sivan, 5777

06/02/2017 12:45:00 PM


“Everything is best until we know better.”
--James Lendall Basford (1845–1915), author, Seven Seventy Seven Sensations, 1897

I’ll admit that many of my commentaries tend to begin with a claim that “this is my favourite”, or “this is the most interesting part”, or “no statement in the Torah is as critical as…”.  Sadly, I do not have an exciting way to introduce parshat Nasso.  In fact, I challenge anybody to stay awake while listening to the seemingly unending list of dedication offerings brought by each of the tribal chieftains, day after day, in dedication of the completed Tabernacle.  There’s one word that comes to mind… tedious.  It’s true, that if we dig deeply, we can find all kinds of interesting commentaries to make surrounding each of the different dedication offerings.   Certainly the sheer quantity of dedication offerings is also worthy of note.  But in terms of the actual biblical narrative, we’re tuning out… except for one little spot.

Did we just hear what we think we heard?  A married woman is accused of infidelity and must prove her innocence by drinking a magic potion?  What religion is this again?

In Hebrew it is called Sotah, in English, “Trial by Ordeal”.  Many religions have some form of trial by ordeal in which innocence or guilt is proven not by arguments and words, but by magic or divine intervention.  As recent as three hundred years ago in Christian communities, women who were accused of being a witch were tied to a stone and thrown into water, and if the woman floated, it would mean she was a witch and she was immediately burned at the stake.  If she drowned, it meant that God had claimed her and she died in purity.  Even today, some traditional Bedouin tribes continue to practice the ritual of Bisha’a, an ordeal by fire as a form of lie detection.  The accused party would lick a burning metal spoon, and the burn marks on the tongue, interpreted by a tribal leader, would indicate whether or not the person was lying.

The Jewish version of trial by ordeal, thankfully, is a little bit less horrifying.  In the presence of a priest, the accused woman (by the way, in the technical translation of the ordeal as described in the Torah, the man she is accused of sleeping with is not held accountable at all, but the rabbis of the 2nd Temple period reinterpreted the passage to mean that the man “may” be held responsible as well) must drink a potion made of sanctified water, dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, and a dissolved piece of parchment upon which was written ten curses containing God’s name.  According to the Torah, the potion would cause a guilty woman’s belly to distend, and her thighs to sag.   Otherwise, it meant she had remained faithful to her husband.

Find me a modern Jew, and I’ll show you a Jew who has a major problem fitting the concept of Sotah into their Jewish identity.  It’s 1 part wizardry mixed with 2 parts misogyny, and no part of it makes sense in today’s world-cocktail.  Nevertheless, it’s in the Torah, and if we are Torah observant Jews, we are forced to contend with it, and luckily, Rabbi Jacob Milgrom has a very interesting approach to do just that.

Women had few rights in the ancient male-dominated Jewish world, a woman accused of having an affair could be in serious danger of being lynched.  Milgrom reasons that the Sotah ritual prescribed by the Torah puts her directly under the protection of the priests, and while her punishment may be physical disfigurement, she is, at the very least, saved from execution.  More importantly, it provides an accepted practice which completely removes the punishment from human hands, and a priestly legislator may have the indisputable authority to clear her of any remaining suspicion.

Perhaps, one way to see this very bizarre passage in the Torah is that it is the priests attempt to wrestle away some of the patriarchal overreach of ancient world.  It may not quite rise to the level of egalitarian, but it’s not bad for 1500 BCE.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Emor                                   May 27, 2017     2 Sivan, 5777

05/26/2017 10:46:30 AM


“One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do. /Two can be as bad as one; / It's the loneliest number since the number one.” In 1969, the rock band Three Dog Night sang this song to the top of the charts. While it is a song about loneliness, it is also a song about numbers. Yes, one can be lonely, but two can also be lonely if the two do not share any mutual interests, commonality or the desire to speak with each other. Indeed, “two can be as bad as one.”

So why this fixation with numbers? This week we begin reading the book of BeMidbar whose Hebrew name translates at “in the wilderness,” for this book is the narrative of the almost 39 years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness until they finally come to the Land of Israel. In English, however, this book is known as Numbers because it opens with an account of the census taken early in the second year after the Israelites leave Egypt.

The Torah teaches (Numbers 1:2): “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.” Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 11th century France),  says that “head by head” means that this census was taken in the same manner as the one described in Ki Tissa (Shemot 30:11-16) – that is, by means of a half shekel brought by each person. The total population would then be determined by counting the coins. There, the Torah says each person is to bring a half shekel so that no plague shall come upon them.

However, Rabbi Joyce Newmark points out that there is no indication in this week’s text that the census was conducted by indirect means. It clearly implies that the Israelites were counted directly. Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 13th century, Spain) cites this passage from Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah: “The Holy One ordered Moses to number them in a manner that would confer honor and greatness on each one of them individually. Not that you should say to the head of the family: how many are there in your family? How many children do you have? But rather all of them should pass before you in awe and with the honor due to them and you should number them.”

According to Rabbi Yitzhak Arama (15th century, Spain), this census was intended to teach the Israelites “they were not just like animals or material objects [to be counted one, two, etc.], but each one had an importance of his own like a king or priest and that indeed God had shown special love toward them, and this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status; for they were all equal and individual in status.” As the late Israeli master teacher Nehama Leibowitz noted, this has particular resonance for our own era. The great plagues of the 20th century – fascism and communism -- and the current rise of Islamic fundamentalism reject the importance of the individual, the uniqueness of each human being.

The census of Bemidbar not only counted each individual (actually, each adult male), but reinforced the message that because he or she is a unique reflection of the image of God, each individual counts.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Behar-Bechukotai                                   May 20, 2017     24 Iyar, 5777

05/19/2017 10:46:30 AM


Cantor Jeremy Burko

“We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” 
--David Brower (1912-2000), environmentalist 

I began my cantorial studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2005.  At the time, the first year of the study program didn’t take place in New York City, where the seminary is located, but rather, in Jerusalem.  Together with one of my fellow matriculating cantorial students, I found an apartment to rent in the Katamon neighbourhood.  It belonged to a physics professor who was doing a sabbatical in Paris for the year, and he was excited to find two respectable young clergy students to stay there while he was away.  It was an amazingly beautiful apartment, and for a year, me and my colleague, Ben, lived like kings.  There was a library full of books on music and philosophy, ornate Persian carpets, beautiful paintings on the walls and art sculptures on the tables, and a Steinway grand piano in the living room.  I’ll never forget, though, what our land lord said to Ben and I before he left for Paris.  He said, “boys, for the year, this is your home, and I want you to treat this place and everything in it like it’s yours.  I often find that people treat their own property better than they treat someone else’s.” 

This week’s parsha is another double-header, B’har-Bechukotai.  It begins with rules about Sh’mita, which is the last year of a seven-year cycle, on which Israeli landowners allow their land to lie fallow for.  For a full year, they do not plough, sow seeds, or harvest anything.  Whatever grows naturally, a landowner may pick and eat for himself, but must also invite everyone – his servants, strangers and even animals to collect and eat from his fields as they like without restriction.  The Torah also discusses the rules of the Jubilee year, every 7 cycles of 7 years, all land that has been sold automatically reverts back to the original owner, all slaves are freed, and all debts are erased.  The Torah states, “the land is Mine; for you are sojourners who are residents with Me.” (Lev. 25:23).  It turns out, we are all just tenants living on planet earth, and God is the landlord. 

One could make a different argument, after all, we know from Ps. 115:16 (which we sing every time we recite the Hallel) “The Heavens are the domain of God, and the earth is given to mankind”.  In other words, God has His house in Heaven which belongs to Him, and we have ours which was given, and now belongs to us.  But really, what exactly was the nature of this contract in which we were given this land?  “God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it” (Gen: 2:15).  We are not owners of the earth, we are its stewards, and our role is to both to work it and to guard it, to both use it as well as protect it. 

Going “Green” is the modern age method of taking responsibility to care for our planet.  Everything from recycling programs to clean energy initiatives all contribute in significant ways towards living up to our responsibility not only as human begins, but also as Jews, to care for the earth.  Today’s political climate seems intent and rolling back the major strides we have made as a human race towards reducing our carbon footprint, preventing climate change, and saving endangered species and their habitats.  Let us remember, we are Jews, and it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s not just the healthy thing to do, it’s a mitzvah. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Emor                                   May 13, 2017     17 Iyar, 5777

05/10/2017 04:36:55 PM


When I was a rabbi in another community, the leadership of the congregation did not want us to bring our newly diagnosed son with autism to shul.  At a Board meeting to which I was not privy, but later told about, they discussed the inappropriateness of having a rabbi with a special needs son; it was a poor public relations image for the congregation.  Needless to say, we did not remain long in that community.  How could we be part of a community that would not accept my son, would not accept all Jews?  Indeed, there was another incident in which a deaf individual was barred from entering the sanctuary because she had a service dog and the usher would not let that “filthy beast” into the sanctuary.  Clearly, this congregation was intolerant of those with disabilities.

Yet, we find a very troubling text in this week’s portion which describes the laws of the Kohanim (priests), those who will offer sacrifices to God in the portable Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, we read about their qualifications (Leviticus 21:16 – 23): The Lord spoke further to Moses, “Speak to Aaron and say ‘no man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified.  No man who is blind or lame or has a limb too short or too long, no man who is a hunchback or a dwarf or who has a growth in his eye… He may eat of the food of his God of the most holy as well as of the holy.  He shall not profane these places sacred to me.’”  Is it the same with the Temple as it was with that synagogue?  Are those who have short limbs, hunchbacks, dwarves, are they all too grotesque for God to have preside over the sacrifices?  But, if God is all knowing and all-powerful, how can God not know about them?  I guess we should be thankful that, as priests, they can still eat the priestly food portions.  They will be taken care of, but they will not be allowed to preside.

I know that by the standards of the time this position was considered very liberal and sensitive.  Many ancient cultures would simply do away with those “children of a lesser God.”  But, if I believe that the Torah is a vessel of the Divine, then to make a statement that infers that the time determines the standards is to state that God did not so determine them.  So, is it as our Reform brothers and sisters believe; that the moral laws are from God, but the ritual ones are from mankind?  That the moral laws are eternal, but the manmade ones are temporal and that we’ve “out grown them”?   Am I ready to make this statement?  Yet, I cannot reconcile this contradiction, especially in light of what the last portion taught in protecting the rights of those who are vulnerable (Leviticus 19:14): "'Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD;” or (Leviticus 19:18) “…love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD; or (Leviticus 19:2) “You must be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” It seems to me that these verses shout the need to be inclusive of those with disabilities!

Similarly, I get no support from this verse either (Leviticus 22:31-32): “You shall faithfully observe My commandments.  I am the Lord.  You shall not profane My Holy Name that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people; I, the Lord, who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.”  Does the presence of a physically handicapped person profane God’s sanctuary?  If this be true, how can we live with this verse (Leviticus 24:20-22): “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye tooth for tooth.  The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.  You shall have one standard for the stranger and citizen alike? How can a God that would demand equal justice that calls on us to maim others prevent the maimed from entering God’s sanctuary?  Leave aside the rabbinic interpretation of equitable justice meaning monetary compensation, the point is that the injured, the maimed the disabled are all still God’s children and surely worthy of the love, respect and inclusion in the Jewish community.  After all, this is what Moses declares before Pharaoh, when the latter asks who will leave Egypt (Exodus 10:9):  “Moses answered, ‘We will go with our young and our old, with our sons and our daughters, and with our flocks and herds, because we are to celebrate a festival to the LORD.’”

“Young and old” is a hendiadys meaning “everyone”–everyone is to be included in the Jewish community, not just the smart, the strong or the beautiful.

While the kohanim in the Mishkan and the Temple may have had to be perfect and blemish free, I do not believe we should hold God responsible for the reticence so many show to make sanctuaries accessible to the handicapped?  I do not believe we should hold God responsible for how difficult it is for a handicapped person, or how impossible it is for a learning disabled person, to navigate Jewish life, Jewish learning and the Jewish community.  That is our doing, not God’s and we must change to be more inclusive so that we can truly proclaim:  We are holy because God is holy.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim May 6, 2017     10 Iyar, 5777

05/05/2017 01:09:19 PM


“God will only push you off a cliff if He’s going to give you wings to fly.”
--Matshona Dhliwayo, African-Canadian author, philosopher

Our parsha this week is yet another double-header; first we read Acharei Mot followed immediately by K’doshim.  It’s easy to miss parshat K’doshim, because it only gets highlighted with its own dedicated Shabbat when there is a leap year.  Otherwise, it is a short parsha that is always tacked on to the end of Acharei Mot.  Parshat K’doshim, in my humble opinion though, is the absolute most fundamental parsha in the Torah.

If it were up to me, all kids learning Torah would begin with parshat K’doshim; that’s before learning about the Creation story, before Abraham, before the 10 Commandments, before the Exodus from Egypt, all of it.  K’doshim is where it all begins.  So, what could possibly be so important, so fundamental to Judaism, even more than the Exodus?  In a succinct and simple way, parshat K’doshim teaches us how to be mensches – good, caring, respectful, and honest people.  Knowing Jewish history, theology, philosophy, is all rather useless to any human being who is not first, and foremost, a mensch.

What’s in parshat K’doshim?  Only all your favourite one-liners!  Don’t put a stumbling block in front of a blind man.  Don’t insult a deaf man.  Don’t be a gossiper.  Leave the corners of your field for the poor.  Don’t stand idly upon the blood of your brother.  Do not hate your neighbour in your heart.  Rebuke your neighbour for his sake.  Don’t cheat in business…  and the list goes on.  They are all rules to live by that grant you self-respect, and make you a good person in the eyes of God and the community.

The most important one-liner of all, however, is the opening of parshat K’doshim, itself.  God instructs Moses to say to the entire convocation of the people of Israel, “you shall be holy, for I, the LORD am holy”.  It’s the top of the list.  It’s the reason why we are all required to be menschen.  For better or for worse, we get to be the chosen people, representatives of everything we believe that God is.  As Jews today, we all know that we, along with Israel, are held to a serious double-standard.  While senseless mass-murder is rampant is Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran… Israel is nevertheless at the center of attention on the world stage, mentioned in the same breath as war crimes, rogue nation, apartheid and aggression.  We are accustomed to tuning out such accusations, as we dismiss them as typical anti-Semitism that is no different today as it has been throughout the ages.  Even so, we can and must always strive to be better, not because we’re wrong, but because we can always be better.  I say, let them have their double-standard.  We will strive to rise above it, not for their sake, but for our own.  We are a holy nation, and the responsibility of a holy nation is to always strive to be better; a better nation of menschen.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tazria Metzora                         April 29, 2017     3 Iyar, 5777

04/28/2017 01:14:50 PM


In Judaism, because of its monotheistic nature, we are constantly faced with the dilemma of what causes pain and suffering. If we believe in an all-powerful God and no other divine power, then does not everything come from God? The prophet Isaiah seemed to make that statement when, in order to counter the Persian belief in dualism – a god of light who does good and a god of darkness who is responsible for evil – he said, “I am the Lord and there is none else, I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe” (45:6-7). And yet when the Sages incorporated this verse into our prayers (the first blessing before the Sh’ma) they changed the word “woe” (in Hebrew ra) to “everything.” Were they reluctant to have us say so blatantly that God creates “woe” – evil – even though it is incorporated into “everything”? I believe so.

 If all illness comes directly from God, and if God is not capricious but good, then illness would have to be seen as a punishment. It is true that there are some specific instances, including one which is connected to the diseases described in our portion, where God punishes with illness. I am referring to Miriam’s being stricken with leprosy as a result of her speaking ill of Moses (Numbers 12:10). Similarly, God punishes Pharaoh and the Egyptians with the plagues. Yet if the Torah’s view is that all illness is a punishment for sin, why is nothing done in our portion to counteract the sin? The individual is not asked to repent, to confess, not even to ask God for healing – as Moses does when Miriam is stricken.

So what, then, do we make of our Torah reading? We read in this week’s Torah portion a description in some detail, probably more than we might like, the symptomatology of some skin diseases (Leviticus 13:2): “a swelling, a rash or a discoloration…a scaly affection.” The priest looks at the diseased area and then—depending upon the symptoms—declares the person either clean or unclean (Leviticus 13:3). He does not prescribe any ointment or other treatment, nor does he utter any spell or prayer. If the person is unclean the priest isolates him, sending him out of the camp (Leviticus 13:4). Later he examines him again and determines when the person may be permitted to return. Only then, when the person is “clean” does the priest perform any ritual actions (see chapter 14). If we expect the priest to be a doctor or healer, as in some other religions, we will be disappointed.

What then is the role of the priest? It is to protect the sanctity, the purity of the settlement, for the disease defiles it from the standpoint of ritual purity. From a practical point of view this may also have served well to prevent the spread of the disease. But if there is a cure or treatment, aside from isolation, the Torah does not know of it. The priest is not a witch doctor. Yehezkel Kaufmann, the great Israeli Bible scholar, points out that “the distinctive feature of biblical  purifications when compared to those of paganism is that they are not performed for the purpose of banishing harm or sickness. The pagan seeks to avert harm; his purgations are in effect a battle with baleful forces that menace men and gods…This absence of a combat with baleful powers accords with the fact that Israelite priests were neither wonder-workers nor healers.” In other words there is no realm outside of God, no demonic force, which causes illness and can be warded off with spells and magical rites.

 Rabbi Reuben Hammer comments that the rules of “leprosy” that we have here do everything they possibly can to separate the disease not only from demonic powers, but from God as well. To quote the British anthropologist Mary Douglas:

There is no attempt to identify a sin that caused the disease. This is very striking. Nowhere does Leviticus say that the disease can be attributed to the sin of the victim…Leviticus is not at all inclined to search out causes of disasters or attribute blame. (Leviticus As Literature, p.185)

Rabbi Hammer continues: If there is any message that emerges clearly from the Book of Job, it is that one may not infer that suffering is a result of sin. That is exactly what Job’s so-called friends try to tell him, but he resists and insists upon his integrity (Job 27:5-6): “Until I die I will maintain my integrity. I persist in my righteousness and will not yield. I will not remove my innocence from me” And God Himself says to the ‘friends,’ (Job 42:8): “…you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job.”

We must be very cautious about ascribing illness or disaster directly to God. Ascribing terrible natural disasters to some punishment from God are not only baseless but also defamatory both to the victims and to God. I do not profess to have the answer to the problem of “evil” in the world, but there are times when silence is better than speech and when the acknowledgment of the dilemma is better than facile answers that are untrue.

The Sages coined a wonderful phrase – “The world goes on in its way” – meaning that natural law operates and is not constantly interfered with by Divine intervention, the result being that illness and disaster visit not only the evil but the good as well. Perhaps that is what Einstein meant when he said that he did not believe that “God plays dice with the universe.”

The laws in this week’s portion are silent on the cause of illness, but their very silence teaches us that we are not to believe in demonic forces and that we are not to seek out the sin of the sufferer or attribute any unrighteousness to him. That may not answer our dilemma, but it is an important truth that should guide our thinking.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Shemini                             April 22, 2017     26 Nisan, 5777

04/21/2017 01:38:27 PM


“There are no wrong turnings.  Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.”
                                                           --Guy Gavriel Kay (1954-), Canadian author

Here’s a Conservative Jewish idea that would never fly in the orthodox world – I believe that today’s version of sacrifice-free Judaism is a more authentic form of Jewish observance than that which is described in the Torah, the version of Judaism that is centered around the sacrificial cult.

Since the inception of Judaism, and for more than a thousand years, sacrificial offerings were the main form of Jewish worship.  There were no shuls, no prayer services, no siddurs… just sacrifices.  It is only since the destruction of the second Temple (70 CE) and the rise of rabbinic Judaism, that a code of Jewish law was put into place, Jewish worship took shape and the synagogue became the focal point for Jewish communities.  Today, in lieu of sacrifices, we simply pay homage to the sacrificial cult by paying lip service in our prayers to those sacrifices which would have been done on a given day or for a given occasion.  Clearly, though, the sacrificial cult was part of Jewish worship at the very beginning.  So how can we possibly justify a claim that Judaism without sacrifices is more authentic?

The story of Parshat Shemini is a tragic one.  Once the Mishkan (portable altar) is complete, the sons of Aaron are chosen as the holy family whose lineage will become the priestly class (kohanim) and are charged with officiating all sacrifices.  Moses then instructs Aaron's sons in the precise manner how to perform a sacrifice.  Two of Aaron’s sons, however, in their excitement and zeal, perform a sacrifice incorrectly and offer instead, what the Torah describes as a “strange” sacrifice.  The two sons die immediately.

Can we blame Aaron’s two sons for being a bit over-excited about their new job?  Could it have been such a terrible a thing to simply make a mistake in the sacrifice amid their exuberance?  I can certainly remember times in my own life when getting too excited has led to errors, and I imagine we could all say the same.

Human error is understandable.  However, it is incumbent upon us to understand the potentially dangerous nature of the tools we work with.  Parents teach their children not to run with scissors.  Children gradually learn what objects could be dangerous, and as they mature and learn to respect those objects, they are allowed to handle them.  Adults drive around every day in cars, which are really just gigantic mass-killing machines when used carelessly.  Governments regulate who is responsible enough to use them properly and how they can be used.  Each time we get behind the wheel, we understand that if we are careless and cause damage, we are responsible for it, even if it was accidental.

So Aaron’s sons clearly didn’t respect the power they wielded.  But why did they deserve death?  As it turns out, sacrifices are a very  spiritually dangerous thing.  The practice of sacrifice existed long before Judaism, and according to the Torah, Cain and Abel, the first naturally born human beings on earth, offered sacrifices.  Anthropologists believe that ancient civilizations could not even comprehend a religion that did not sacrifice.  It simply didn’t make any sense.  If the Torah had said, “God does not want sacrifices”, nobody would have accepted the Torah, and Judaism today, would be non-existent.  In other civilizations, sacrifices included all kind of things from human feces to human beings themselves.  Judaism was the first ancient civilization to set rules and limits on sacrifices.  So strict were these rules, in fact, that breaking them meant death.  Aaron’s two sons were a lesson to all Israelites that if sacrifices are going to be made, there are going to be laws that govern them, and severe consequences for those who abuse those laws.  To do a sacrifice, you need a license.  Just like a car.

God does not need sacrifices.  The Jewish view of the nature of God is that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, without body.  What does God want with sacrifices?  The answer is that at the time, the Israelites needed sacrifices.  For them, it was a way to manifest their spiritualty and show gratitude to the God that they recognized.  Recognizing the need, God allowed sacrifices to be done, but only within clear guidelines.  Jews, eventually, evolved beyond the need for sacrifices, and I find it unsurprising that Judaism was set and ready to evolve to suit the modern Jew at exactly the same time.  Just as kids eventually grow beyond the need for training wheels, Judaism grew beyond the need for sacrifices, and I believe, became what it was really designed for in the first place.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic  Reflections - Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach           April 15, 2017     19 Nisan, 5777

04/14/2017 02:49:20 PM


Two boys were causing trouble in Religious School so the teacher sent them to the Rabbi’s office. It was not the first time they’d been there; they were known to be disruptive. The rabbi called them into his office and sat them down in front of his desk. He stared at them above his glasses for some time and then asked them: “Where is God?”

The boys sat there in fearful silence and said not a word. The rabbi now leaned toward them and in a sharper tone repeated his question: “Where is God?” The boys shifted uncomfortably in their seats, but remained silent before the towering figure of the rabbi.

The rabbi, now quite agitated, stood up from his seat, pointed his finger at the boys and shouted: “WHERE IS GOD?”

With that, the two boys leapt out of their seats, ran out of the rabbi’s office, down the stairs, out the doors, into the parking lot where they hid among some of the cars. Quaking in their shoes, the first said to the second: “Someone’s stolen God and they think we took him!”

In the Torah reading for Shabbat of Passover, we read of an incident that occurred shortly after the sin of the golden calf. You will recall that while Moses was atop Mt. Sinai, the People of Israel urged Aaron to make a golden calf to which they could pray. The calf was to be a stand-in for God, since Moses was absent and it appeared that God was too. When Moses returned from the mountaintop, he heard the feasting and saw the pagan idol worship going on in the camp below. In a fit of anger he smashed the tablets of the commandments and condemned those who failed to join him in worship of the true God. Many lives were lost that day and Moses begged God not to destroy the entire people. God relented, but the people were punished for their actions.

Then comes the portion we read on this Shabbat. Moses said to God (Exodus 33:13): “Show me your ways that I may know You…” Moses asks to see God’s face, to which God responded (Exodus 33: 20): “No one shall see My face and live.” God offered, instead to pass by Moses and show him God’s back.

Now wait a minute; didn’t Moses just ask God to do what the people wanted to do when they got punished? To see God in their midst? And when they couldn’t, they fashioned the golden calf! So how can Moses now ask the same thing? And yet this time God did not punish, but agreed to show Moses God’s back.

I think there is a profound lesson in this episode. God says to Moses, in effect, no one can see me in the moment; you can only see me in the after effect. It’s like the wind. We cannot see the wind, only the leaves rustling in the wind. So too, we cannot see God’s presence in the moment; we can only see the aftermath of God’s presence in our lives. But we have to be open to the experience. We have to willing to acknowledge that God’s presence was among us. Moses was blessed with seeing God’s back, and we too can be blessed with seeing God’s presence in our lives when we reflect back on those critical moments and realize “there but for the grace of God go I.” So, rather than place our faith in false gods, let us take a moment to consider the blessings in our lives and realize that at those moments, God was present in them. And even in moments of difficulty, God was with us, giving us internal strength to see it through. For when we have faith, we can find hope. And with hope comes perseverance to overcome our difficulties. And with perseverance comes triumph—perhaps not always as we expect, but triumph nevertheless.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Tzav                                   April 12, 2017      12 Nisan, 5777

04/07/2017 03:37:53 PM


This week, I'm happy to pass along a dvar torah from my colleague, Leo Beack College London rabbinical student, Daniel Lichman.  Even though his perspective come from Reform Judaism, he highlights the internal conversation we all have with ourselves each Passover.                   --ChazJ

It’s a good thing that the Torah is discussing rituals at the moment – I have some decisions to make about my own ritual observance because it’s that time of year again: the night of asking questions is soon upon us. The internal questions and responses start now:

‘So how am I going to observe Pesach this year Daniel? You say that eating hechsher-ed stuff is too frum for you – so how are you going to decide what is ok and what is not? What about yoghurt, mayonnaise, vinegar, Daniel, how strict are you going to be? Why don’t you just decide and then I’ll shut up!’

It seems that this year, like every year for as long as I can remember, I will follow the Lichman family Pesach minhag of confusion.

I am not going to resolve this confusion in this short D’var Torah, however, it is worth considering the general approach behind how we make decisions about observance. I want to offer two approaches to consider.

The approach that I learnt in my time in RSY-Netzer was to make a personal informed decision about Jewish observance. This would involve beginning with the principles and moving from them to consider the observance. For example: Pesach celebrates freedom and justice. It reminds us to free ourselves from that which constrains us, to support those around us to become free and to orient ourselves towards awareness of injustice, recognising our responsibility to free others. Pesach observance can then follow in such a way that might enable these teachings. This certainly affirms the seder and matzah eating, yet it does not get stuck into the minutiae of hechshers and covered kitchen tops.

I recently came across a fascinating rabbinic text which offers a perspective counter to this approach:

Ben Zoma said: ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole of the Torah: ‘Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.’

Ben Nanus said: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Ben Pazi said: ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole of the Torah: ‘You will sacrifice a lamb in the morning and another at dusk.’

And Rabbi, their master, stood up and decided: ‘The law is according to Ben Pazi.’1

The first two statements by Ben Zoma and Ben Nanus are similar to the approach that I suggested above – the principles are what is fundamental. We can reason out the rest of Torah from a principle; we can understand what is required from us; the rest of Torah can make sense based on it.

Yet Rabbi, affirms Ben Pazi, who states that Torah is contained in the ritual.

Ben Pazi’s approach offers a different way for us to think about our Pesach observance. Rather than reasoning our observance of the rituals from the principle, he suggests that we travel in the opposite direction: it is the rituals that will make the space for that will enable, freedom and justice to become known. Thinking about observance this way round acknowledges that our ability to reason our behaviour from principle is only half the story: principles arise too from our behaviour. Religious practice orients us to the details, training us and enabling us to practice the attention to detail which we can learn to apply to freedom and justice.

The internal narrative returns: ‘This is all very well Daniel, but does this mean I can eat something even if ‘modified starch’ is on the ingredients list?’

It seems that the confusion will remain. This voice which questions my observance is not going to quieten after all – if anything it has become louder: knowing how much there is at stake.

Daniel Lichman LBC rabbinic student
Shabbat Shalom

Rabbinic  Reflections - Parshat Vayikra                                 April 1, 2017     5 Nisan, 5777

03/31/2017 02:41:37 PM


This Shabbat we begin reading the third of the Five Books of Moses: Leviticus. It gets its English name from the general content of the book, which is about the rites and rituals incumbent upon the Kohanim (Priests) to carry out in the Mishkan (Sanctuary) that accompanied the Israelites throughout their desert wanderings and then in the Jerusalem Temples once the people of Israel were in the Land of Israel. The Kohanim derive from the family of Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was from the tribe of Levi, hence they are Levitical priests and the book is about the LEVITI(cal) CUS(toms) = Leviticus. In Hebrew, the name derives from the first important Hebrew word in the text: VaYikra (“And [God} called…”). The Book of Leviticus is difficult for the modern reader because its primary focus is the ancient sacrificial cult.  This book is the "how-to-do-animal sacrifice" manual for the priests.

What is similarly difficult to understand is that Leviticus is the first book children are introduced to as they begin their Jewish education. There is a beautiful custom of placing a drop of honey on the first page of Leviticus so that the children lick up the sweetness of Torah; but why begin with such a book? Would it not be better to teach of the Genesis stories or the Exodus which is so pivotal in the collective consciousness of the Jewish People? Why start with Leviticus?

Rabbi Howard Siegel reminds us that discomfort with sacrificing animals is hardly a modern phenomenon. The Samuel said to King Saul (I Samuel 15:22): “Does God have as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices as in hearkening to the voice of the Lord?” The implied answer is “No, he does not!” The prophet Isaiah lashed out at the indifference shown in carrying out the sacrificial cult (Isaiah 1:13): “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!” The ancient Rabbis showed even more disdain for the corruption that had infiltrated the ancient Temple and the ritual sacrifices. With the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE, the Rabbis substituted prayer for sacrifice as a means of drawing near to God.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is "Korban"—which, literally, means "to draw near." For the ancient Israelite, this was his/her means of coming near God. For us, prayer becomes our "Korban." Coming near to God is an act of spiritual purification. The Book of Leviticus spends considerable effort educating the priests and the people in the Divine benefits of seeking purity in the way we live our lives. This is one reason why children in a traditional setting begin their Jewish studies with Leviticus. What could be purer than a child at the first stage of a moral/ethical education? Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his commentary, also suggests that "Jewish learning began here to teach from the outset that life involves sacrifice. In sacrifice we could for a fleeting moment imagine our own death and yet go on living. No other form of worship can so effectively liberate a person from the fear of living in the shadow of death."

Rabbi Siegel concludes: The Book of Leviticus is difficult to understand, but so is life! On the surface it presents the reader with a blur of unnecessary and irrelevant detail, not unlike the detail of everyday living. The key to understanding Leviticus is to first cast aside the notions of "unnecessary" and "irrelevant" and seek out the hidden sparks of meaning that lie just beneath the surface of detail, just as you would (or should) in life!

Shabbat Shalom

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Vayahkel-Pekudei                   March 25, 2017      26 Adar, 5777

03/23/2017 01:04:43 PM


“It is not objects that are holy.  It is human action and intention in accordance with the will of God that creates holiness.”

--Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom

For the last several weeks, the Torah has spent a great deal of focus on documenting all of the details of the construction of the Mishkan – the portable sanctuary which would contain God’s presence as the Israelites wandered through the desert.  Finally, in this week’s parsha, the work is complete.  “The Israelites had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses. Moses saw all the work, and behold - they had done it just as the Lord had commanded. So Moses blessed them.” (Ex. 39: 43)  According to the Torah narrative, at this point, a visible cloud of God came down and rested upon the completed Mishkan.

The super-keen reader may notice something familiar about the Torah’s language in the quote above – and all the work was done… saw that it was satisfactory... and he blessed…

“And God saw all that He had created, and behold it was very good… and God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it He abstained from all His work.” (Gen 1:31-2:3).  The familiar trope that reminds us of the Creation story, creates a beautiful parallel: God builds a home for man, and when man is finally spiritually ready, man builds a home for God.

Each must build the home for the other, one which they are not capable of doing for themselves.  God creates the earth just-so, what astrophysicists call “the sweet spot”, a planet that is not too close to the sun to be too hot, but not too far so as to be too cold, just enough water, just enough land, everything in perfect balance in order to support life as we understand it.  Meanwhile, it is man’s job to create a just society, a welcoming community that loves the stranger, defends justice equally for the weak just as for the powerful, promotes compassion, wisdom and spirituality.  God may prescribe it, but man must create it.  In doing so, man creates a home for God so that He may “dwell among them”.  In Judaism, it is man that imbues objects or places with holiness, not God.  The character of holiness describes only what we, human beings, decide is holy by making it significant to us – something we place our care and love into, something that may be physically ordinary, but means so much more simply because we decide that it does, and we pour our emotional and physical resources into it.  So too, the Israelites gave of themselves towards the Mishkan.  The donations were so great, in fact, that Moses had to make an announcement to tell the people to stop giving.  It signified that the Israelites had built a community that was ready to be the dwelling place of God.  God saw that it was good, and so He dwelled within it. 

Today we have no Temple, nor do we have a Mishkan – the ancient focal points which a young Israelite civilization needed in order to better understand how to direct their spiritual energies.  Two thousand years have taught us that the real Mishkan, the real home of God is the one that we create as a result of a caring community that upholds the ideals of Torah.  It is a place within and created between ourselves, in which God continues to reside.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbinic  Reflections - Parshat Ki Tissa                                     March 18, 2017     20 Adar, 5777

03/17/2017 12:50:29 PM


My mother passed away [in October of 2011]. During the final moments of her life, in preparation for her funeral, and in the week of mourning, we—family & friend—shared countless memories of moments in time. Conversations began with, “Do you remember when…” and usually concluded with a sigh, smile, or even a tear. In describing my mother’s life to friends who didn’t know her, I inevitably painted a portrait of time. Through all of this, I have come to realize that my mother is not of the flesh, but of the spirit. While her physical presence bore the limitations of mortality, her true essence was measured in moments of time. The more time we had to spend together, the more moments there were to remember and inspire.


Rabbi Howard Siegel points out that in a curious juxtaposition, the Book of Exodus concludes the instructions for building a portable sanctuary in the desert (“Just as I have commanded you, they shall do” Exodus. 31:11) with the command to observe the Sabbath (“Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My Sabbaths….” Exodus. 31:13). The ancient rabbis noted that even something as “holy” as building a sanctuary to God must be halted in observance of the Sabbath. The Rabbi Chaim Potok writes, “If there is a conflict between the holiness of space and the holiness of time, the holiness of time takes precedence. Time came first; the first thing that God sanctified was the Shabbat. It is accessible to everyone. One cannot defer it or return to it. If one misses the moment, it is gone forever.” There is no harm in appreciating the beauties of natural surroundings or finding inspiration in the works of human hands, but it is the preciousness and sanctity of time that too often eludes us.


The Sabbath is a celebration of moments of time. Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us “it is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.” The Sabbath is a day defined by “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and Thou”; a moment to peer through the window of timeless eternity and glimpse the promise of a Messianic era. The Sabbath is a moving away from the daily chores defined by space, and embracing the warmth, compassion, and spiritual significance of time.


Although most Jews think of Yom Kippur as the holiest day of the year, in truth it is the Sabbath. Think for a moment: On Shabbat, we give out seven aliyot to the Torah, on Yom Kippur, six, on Rosh HaShanah and the Festivals, five, On Rosh Hodesh four and on other Torah reading days, three. It is the only holy day that is mentioned in the Ten Commandments; it is the day after which all other holy days are modeled; Shabbat is the holiest day of the year, but often familiarity breeds contempt, for as the famous Zionist writer, Ehad HaAm observed: “More than the Jew has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jew.”


In a world of objects, people too often become just another “thing.” The Shabbat is the Jew’s weekly reminder that we are more than just an object; we are defined by more than just physical presence. We exist in moments that touch lives, create memories, and preserve hope and faith in humankind. My mother now exists in time. I am thankful for my moments with her and cherish the memories she has left behind.


Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Tetzaveh                         March 11, 2017      12 Adar, 5777

03/10/2017 11:31:43 AM


Parshat Tetzaveh begins with commandments to provide fuel for illuminating the Tabernacle. Fuel, made from the purest olive oil, along with other precious metals and materials from Egypt were all donated by Israelites towards the Tabernacle. Today, we continue to recognize the generosity of the members of our community who donate to synagogues so that they can continue to provide services. In our siddur, every Shabbat, we acknowledge them – “May God who blessed our ancestors, bless… those who give so that we can have light in our shul, wine for Kiddush and Havdalah”. Thank God, we live in a community where between all of us, we can afford to maintain our synagogue in splendor, and provide for our communal needs. But what if this was not so? What if the cost of community needs outweighed what we could afford to give? We tighten our belts, and we do what we have to do in order to serve the community in the best way we can.


This week, the Toronto Jewish community was shocked to hear that CHAR would be closing its doors. CHAR (Community Hebrew Academy of Richmond Hill) is the north Campus of Toronto’s iconic Anne and Max Tannenbaum Education Centre, better known as CHAT (Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto), a cross-denominational institution of learning that has served Toronto’s Jewish community for over 50 years. When I attended CHAT is was just one campus, located on Wilmington. The building was originally designed for about 600 middle school students, but when I began studying there in grade 9, it was packed with 900 high school kids. I still remember the water fountains that only came up to my knees. Each year, the school swelled with more and more students. A town of portables gradually consumed our playground while major renovations closing down entire wings of the school at a time, forced the growing number of students into even tighter quarters. By the time I was in grade 12, CHAT had 1400 students, and when rotating between classes, it was often better to leave the building in order to walk around it to get to your next classes, rather than try to navigate the tightly packed hallways. The year after I graduated, not only were the major renovations completed, but an entire second school campus had opened and began accepting new students, CHAR.


In those days, CHAT was expensive. By the end of my last year in high school, tuition was hovering around $14,000 per student, each year. It was expensive, but it’s nothing compared to today’s tuition, which stands at a whopping $28,000. Task forces within the Jewish community have spent years trying to come up with solutions to this critical problem while Jewish teens miss out on their Jewish education because their families simply cannot afford it. A new initiative set out by the Jewish Federation of Toronto will cut tuition next year by $10,000 and keep the total under $19,000 over the next 5 years. As a result, CHAT and CHAR will merge to the Wilmington campus, and the north branch will close. It is a sad thing to see a Jewish institution shutter its doors, but there can be no question of the greater good. And even though the CHAT campus will be bursting at the seams with crowded classrooms and hallways once again, due to the renovations, it still won’t be as overcrowded as the years that I went there. And I still loved it. It may be the end of an era, but it’s also the beginning of a new one where more Jewish teens in Toronto can get a high quality Jewish education.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic  Reflections - Purim                                           March 4, 2017     6 Adar, 5777

03/02/2017 05:01:20 PM


How is it possible to tell a story of redemption without even once mentioning the name of God? Yet that is what we find in the Purim story. The Jews overcome their enemies and are saved from destruction. Although the story of Esther hints at a special providence, it is not the main emphasis of the book. Its focus is on the people of Israel, not God. Its purpose is to teach active political responsibility, not passive faith in Divine providence.


The first chapters describe the court of Ahasuerus as a world of grandeur and intrigue. Esther is one of many Persian women taking advantage of a one-time opportunity to rise to a glamorous, powerful position. Why should she name her people and her homeland if it will hurt her chances? She is Persian in her speech, dress and manners; no one would ever dream that she is a Jew.


And Mordecai, who warns her not to reveal her origins, is quite familiar with the life and manners of a courtier. From his Judean aristocratic lineage and his behavior in the Persian capital, it is evident that he is shrewd: quick to leap at an opportunity, cautious to spoil one. Having saved the king from the plot of Bigtan and Teresh and having watched his niece crowned queen, he must feels secure in his prospects as a courtier.


But Mordecai makes a mistake in not bowing to Haman. The Book of Esther does not explain why he refuses to bow, and the commentators have never managed to come up with an explicit religious prohibition against bowing to a human being. The story line lends itself to only one interpretation: Mordecai misjudges his position in the court. Out of self-importance, he imagines that he is above the law requiring all courtiers to show Haman this deference. But the minute Haman is told that the courtier who offended him is of foreign origin, he determines to take revenge on the whole people.


When Mordecai hears the decree, he is at once overwhelmed with horror and regret. Suddenly, he is forced to recognize that he is not just a Persian courtier but a Jew. Haman's decree stings his conscience, and in this moment of spiritual crisis, Mordecai adopts the practice of his ancestors, appearing outlandishly dressed in sackcloth at the king's gate.


The act is partly a ritual of mourning over the decree, and partly an external expression of Mordecai's inner feelings of shame and remorse. For the first time, he presents himself in public as a Jew. Esther, who hears of his strange behavior, is shocked.

It is hard for Mordecai to persuade Esther to take action on behalf of her people, for she has not undergone the crisis that overwhelmed him. When he demands that she go to the king, she at first refuses. Only by appealing to her self-interest can Mordecai succeed in overcoming her resistance.


"Do not think that out of all the Judeans you alone will find refuge in the royal palace. For if you should dare be silent at such a moment, the Judeans will find rescue and safety elsewhere, but you and your line will perish." Salvation, proclaims Mordecai, depends mainly on the Jews themselves and the readiness of their highly placed brethren to take charge of their fate.


At the end of the story, Mordecai succeeds Haman in his high rank and Esther remains in the harem. But they are changed. Both of them now know that when a Jew reaches for high status, it is his duty to seek the welfare of his people.


And so the question of the absence of the name of God is resolved. The allusions to God's name and His intervention that generations of commentators have forced into the text obscure the author's real intention: to teach us--through the inner development of the characters--that we Jews are responsible for our own fate, as we are responsible for one another.


(With thanks to Prof. R. Scheindlin)


Shabbat Shalom

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Mishpatim                             February 25, 2017      29 Shevat, 5777

02/24/2017 01:03:43 PM


“Having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting.  It is not logical, but it is often true.”
                                                                                                --Mr. Spock

Some commandments in the Torah seem obvious – don’t steal, don’t commit murder, do not swear falsely.  Others seem to have no earthly reason at all – don’t wear a garment made of a mixture of wool and linen, do not erect a pillar in a public place of worship (and in case you didn’t know, yes, these ARE two of the 613 commandments in the Torah).  Obvious commandments, the torah calls “mishpatim” from the root “PSHT”, meaning simple.  The more curious commandments are called “chukim”, or “statutes”.  A commandment categorized as a chok will typically be followed by the phrase “Ani Adonai” – “I am the Lord”, the biblical way of saying “do it because I said so.”

Our parsha this week is called parshat Mishpatim, or the parsha of “obvious commandments”.  It includes such gems as “a mistreated slave must be set free”, “welcome the foreigner in your midst”, and “an eye for an eye” – 53 commandments in total.  One other commandment listed under these mishpatim is “do not cook a lamb in its mother’s milk”.  It is from this commandment that the rabbis have derived the prohibition from separating all milk from meat.

While Donald Trump has his book, The Art of the Deal, the Jews have had a better one for a few thousand years that might as well be called, The Art of the Argument, but better known as the Talmud.   In fact, the Talmud is an entire 63-volume set of books of Jews arguing.  Studying it for thousands of years, it is no wonder why Jews continue to love to argue today!  But in the Talmud, arguments are developed over chukim just as much as mishpatim.  One might think that it would be rather silly to argue over a chok because, after all, part of the point is that there is no real reason.  Yet, they argue anyways.  They come up with all sorts of possible reasons why God, in his infinite wisdom, must have commanded us to observe strange statutes.  But in the end, all agree that regardless of the reason, we still observe the commandment, ultimately, because the Torah says so.

Mr. Spock, from TV’s Star Trek once pointed out that “having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting.  It is not logical, but it is often true”.  Similarly having purpose and meaning in life, is not so satisfying a think as searching for one.  While Mr. Spock might be confused by this, I find it perfectly logical.  When we are searching, we are imagining all kinds of possibilities and are free to be tempted by all of them.  But when we have decided, we are suddenly beholden to that one perspective and our world of possibilities contracts profoundly.  We must also defend that perspective when it is called into question, or suffer the indignity of being wrong.  Similarly, the rabbis enjoyed discussing various different possibilities and explanations for these chukim, but never established one as the answer because it was neither appropriate nor spiritually satisfying to do so.

As it happens, even the obvious commandments, mishpatim, have limits to their obviousness.  Does the phrase, “an eye for an eye” really mean that we literally poke out somebody’s eye who has poked ours?  No.  The rabbis understood it to mean “fair monetary compensation”.  Some Jews today rationalize the discarding of many Jewish observances saying, “we know better today, than they did then.”  For example, perhaps pork was considered unkosher because they didn’t know that it must be boiled first to kill the bacteria, therefore pork should be considered kosher today because we are no longer in jeopardy of getting sick from it.  Others might say that it’s silly to refrain from using electricity on Shabbat because electricity didn’t exist when the Torah was written, therefore turning on a light can’t be a transgression against Shabbat.  All of these things may be true, but they are rationalizations based on assumptions that we really know what’s going on in God’s mind.  Let us only keep in mind that whenever we think we know exactly what God intends, our understanding of God must then contract profoundly as well.  This isn’t to say that we can’t explore different possibilities, argue, search for meaning.  But, when all is said and done, we do these things because we are Jewish and this is our heritage, and not because we think we’ve figured it all out.  Figuring it all out should be a life-long process that never really completes because whatever the answer is, wouldn’t it be fun if it was something better than what you came up with?

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Yitro                                 February 18, 2017     22 Shevat, 5777

02/17/2017 01:28:37 PM


In the late 1960's a strange circumstance took place in Jerusalem. A man was visiting the morning minyan at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Neve Schechter facility there, and was given an aliyah. He chanted a variant form of blessing (found in some Reconstructionist Prayer Books) that says Asher Kervanu La’avodato, V'natan lanu et Torato, “Who has (God) brought us closer to His service, and gave us His Torah.” We don't use it in our services. Whereupon, the scholar in residence asked him to use the blessing found in every traditional siddur and the guest refused. It was a controversy for the students there that day. We asked the professor why it was so vitally important to him to have the exact blessing form. Isn't hospitality to a guest more important than the exact form of blessing over the Torah? His answer was that the individual had denied the vital principle of Divine Election of Israel found in the prayer that many of us recall: Asher Bachar Banu Mikol Ha’amim, “who has chosen us from all nations.” The Scholar said that we cannot deny the Divine Election of Israel and for its responsibility in fulfilling the commandments given by God in love.

Rabbi Geoffrey Botnick, in his essay on this topic, feels we need to reckon with the curious statement by Edmund Fleg in 1929, “We are God's people, for we will it so.” Is it so? It misses something crucial in the portrayal of God's selecting us. Fleg’s thought almost loses its worth if we don't read first of the Divine Election of Israel in the portion of Yitro, and, that is, with conditions of, if “you listen to, or obey God's call and keep my commandments.” In fact, Fleg’s stated idea of the people becoming God's people by choosing God is in contrast to the choice by God to choose us, if we earn it, as it is described in such beautiful terms in the reading of the Sidra: “And if you obey my voice and fulfill my commandments, you shall be my treasure above all peoples.” Moreover, the prophets Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Ezekiel each echo the thought. In fact, the three select the exact same phrase in Hebrew of soothing in their respective messages: as we read in Hebrew, V’hayu Li L’am, “and they shall be my people.”

Of all the important parts of the Torah, surely the Ten Commandments are among the most notable. Of all the portions of the Torah, then, today's reading is seen as one of the most important and among the most memorized. However, in looking so closely and even nostalgically, at the Decalogue, we unfortunately tend to downplay God's election and adoption of the Hebrews, of the Israelite people, and God’s challenge to them to be God’s People. These themes are there in Yitro, in the chapters which appear before the narrative describes how we received the Commandments. This verbal expression which affirms the special relationship between God and our ancestors, before the experience at Sinai has unfolded, is both energizing and full of rich expectations.

Rabbi Botnick reminds us that when we study the texts surrounding the receiving of the Law at Sinai, we cannot help but notice that the Revelation, the receiving of the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, is only AFTER we have heard the declaration by God: “And you shall be to me a treasure among peoples.” It reminds us that there is responsibility to keep earning that description. Even though Torah begins to look at the Patriarchs, and focuses its and our attention on the individuals in the chapters in Genesis, and shows them to be capable of inspiring other people, we need to see the development of an Israelite people. In fact, teaches Botnick, in the course of our following the Patriarchs, we meet individuals who accept the call of God, embrace God and take on themselves the limited amount of specific responsibilities for their tribe, family, and immediate circle.

It is fascinating that this portion of Yitro, which contains the Ten Commandments, and is among the best known of the chapters in the Torah, has something of unique importance, and that unifies the peoplehood of Israel. Along the way, Botnick points out, we notice that Yitro, Jethro, thinks of Israel more specifically as Moses’ people, less than God's people. We have to wait for that step to develop. We have to become convinced through the text that follows that Israel is actually God's people. It happens. The fact of Israel's being God's people and that they may be unified by God's love for Israel is quite special.

The question is "How shall we earn the status of being God's people?" as the text indicates: “my People” Is it in mitzvot? Is it in recollection that God elevates us by obligations? Can we elevate ourselves by taking the mitzvot more seriously? What do we do with the conditional "if" as in, "If they obey me and fulfill my commandments, then you shall be to me a treasure beyond all the nations." Doesn't it mean that we have to earn the title time and again of being God's treasure?

What is significant is that the Torah invites us to see deeper:  ``And you shall be to me a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People.``  Botnick proclaims: We need to make choices to warrant that description and we need to help others see their potential in being seen as part of that sacred job description. What is noteworthy is that the verse applies to people of all kinds of mental abilities–even the mentally impaired. That is the reason why we are so proud of our Masorti congregations that have made special room for the developmentally challenged students who observe a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the most creative ways of unconditional love. In our own Camp Ramah, there is a Tikvah program for the mentally challenged children. In some of our synagogues there are special Sedarim for the Developmentally Disabled population. They all are able to feel God's love and His election and His expectation of us to be earning God's designation of us as a treasure. Every Jew is potentially a treasure.

Edmund Fleg’s view is only partly correct. He says that ``we`` are God's people for we will it so. We are choosing to be God's people only after we sense the invitation and the challenge of being God's treasure, and helping others to feel treasured.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Beshalach                               February 11, 2017      15 Shevat, 5777

02/10/2017 11:06:20 AM


“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

--Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868-1956), writer


Shabbat Shirah or “Shabbat of Song”, is so named for the climax of the entire Torah, which we read about in our parsha we read this week.  After enduring all ten plagues and allowing the Israelites to leave, Pharoah has changed his mind one last time, and pursued the Israelites into the desert with his armies.  Unable to outrun the Egyptian chariots, the Israelites find themselves cornered, with their backs up against the Red Sea.  God parts the Sea and Moses leads the Israelites through on dry land.  The Egyptians continue to pursue the Israelites through the walls of water, but as soon as the last Israelite reaches the other side, the Red Sea returns to normal, swallowing up the Egyptian army.  At last, the Israelites were finally free.


“And so sang Moses and the Children of Israel this song unto God, saying: We will sing unto God for He is great.  Horse and rider has he cast into the sea.” (Ex. 15:1)


As the Israelites burst into spontaneous song, Miriam leads the women in dance with timbrals and drums… the Torah describes this moment of catharsis with amazing colour and imagery.  The rabbis of the Talmud, however, are disturbed by the scene.  While death and killing, they recognize, is a part of survival, Jewish philosophy does not support the idea of rejoicing over death.  The sixth commandment is often mistranslated as “do not kill”, but it is more appropriately translated as “do not commit murder”.  While killing can sometimes be justified, we do not dance on the proverbial graves of our enemies.  The rabbis imagine at the moment the Israelites are singing the Song of the Sea, the angels are singing as well, but God becomes angry with them and says, “The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you would sing?” (Sanhedrin 39b).


Denis Prager, the Jewish Californian radio personality has an excellent YouTube channel where he posts a series of mini-lectures on a wide variety of issues, many of them of strong Jewish interest such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I welcome everyone to check them out on your own (the channel is called “Prager University”).  I was struck by a very recent video addition to the channel entitled, “Why I Left the Left”, a video on why Prager believes he can no longer describe himself as a Progressive.


The nature of progressivism, Prager argues, has fundamentally changed in recent years.  Almost exactly one year ago, a cake shop in Texas refused to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, and it sparked an international discussion.  The Conservative right claimed in the name of freedom of religion that the cake shop should be able to serve or not serve whomever they want.  Meanwhile, the liberal left cried foul, and argued that the law should be such in order to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation.  On the surface, this might seem like a classically divided argument between Conservatives and Liberals.  However, Prager argues, a true progressive liberal should have agreed, in this case, with Conservative argument.  They may not like how the cake shop chooses to conduct their business, but the law should not be preventing them from honouring their religious beliefs, or taking a non-violent stand on their ideas.  A true progressive liberal would, instead, organize a boycott and combat ideology with ideology, not with law. 


Prager notes that once upon a time, one of the central creeds of progressivism, an ode to freedom of speech, was embodied in a quote from Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906, who wrote under the pseudonym, S. G. Tallentyre, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  It is a notion that is seems to be less and less understood in our modern changing world that even amongst enemies, there must be rules of conduct and respect.  Today, as I continue to watch the news and shake my head in disbelief, one thing I notice is that respect for an opponent seems to have evaporated.  Arguments are confronted not by argument, but by ridicule and bullying.


We must live up to our responsibility as a Light Unto Nations, as Jews, and show grace, maturity, honour and respect, and it begins with the respect we show to one another, especially with those with whom we disagree.  On this Shabbat Shira, we extend a hand in all directions in fellowship and sing not in spite, but with respect.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Bo                                 February 4, 2017     8 Shevat, 5777

02/03/2017 12:11:15 PM


The new US President, Donald Trump, wants to fulfill his campaign promises and recently did so through a series of Executive Orders, one of which effectively closed the US’s borders to immigrants from seven Middle Eastern countries for 90 days while his government works out the details comprehensive policy meant to protect Americans from infiltration by terrorists. In response, protest—both for and against—took place at major airports around the country. President Trump feels he’s doing the right thing to protect America, but detractors feel it is the wrong thing and anti-American and the right thing to do is to let the people in. Both sides motivated to do what’s best for America in their eyes, but who is right? Pharaoh, in Egypt, faces a similar question in Parshat Bo.

In the Torah portion this week, the Hebrews finally get to leave Egypt. It's been a long haul. The Torah spent three parshiyot - twelve chapters - taking us from slavery to redemption. Why so long? God did it the hard way. It took ten plagues - each one more horrific than before - to convince Pharaoh to let us go. So, why didn't God intervene more forcefully? The Creator of heaven and earth surely had enough power to end everything at once! The Jews wouldn't have continued suffering under slavery, and Egypt wouldn't have to endure the ten plagues, or would they?

Rabbi Shaina Bacharach, in her commentary on the portion, says before we consider alternatives to the plagues, we have to look at the issue of free will. Of course, God hopes we'll choose goodness, but we're just as free to choose evil. Who would intentionally make such a choice? The answer, of course, is that no one chooses evil, or rather, they don't think of it as evil. As the Talmud says, “No one ascribes guilt to himself.” God endowed us with creative minds. Unfortunately, that includes the ability to rationalize our behavior. “No one ascribes guilt to himself” because we're good at convincing ourselves that we're doing the right thing!

This is human nature in general, but is this the case with this Pharaoh? It appears in the Torah that God hardened Pharaoh's heart and actually deprived him of free will. However, as I pointed out in my remarks last week, if we look at the Hebrew, we see that for a long time, Pharaoh actually hardens his own heart. At every step, Pharaoh could have stopped the misery and freed the Hebrew slaves. Moses warned him again and again. The haughty Egyptian king ignored these warnings. And, given Pharaoh's exalted status, he had no real incentive to listen to, let alone believe, these raggedy Hebrews. There really was no way to convince this absolute ruler, who was a god in his own mind and in the minds of his people, that he was doing something wrong.

Still, God wanted to try. God gave Pharaoh and his people chance after chance to turn from their evil ways. Now, as Rabbi Bacharach points out, God could have taken away Pharaoh's free will and forced him to free the Hebrews at once. However, we have to remember that God is “Sovereign of the Universe,” so God is God of Egypt as well. The Egyptians just didn't acknowledge God. So, it wouldn't be enough to just win Jewish freedom. God had to make God’s self-known to the Egyptians as well; if not for the sake of Egypt, than certainly for the sake of anyone else the Egyptians enslaved! Therefore, God brought plagues to Egypt, each time giving Pharaoh a chance to change his mind. Pharaoh came close to relenting during the middle of the plagues, but as soon as the danger let up, he changed his mind.

The sages of the Talmud and Midrash pointed out that: “This is just like the wicked: when they are in trouble, they affect humility; but as soon as they have respite, they return to their perversity.” In fact, the worse the plagues got, the more Pharaoh dug in his heels. We learn further from the Talmud that this is simply human nature: “Rav Huna said: ‘When a man has committed a sin once and a second time, it appears to him as if it were permitted.’” Pharaoh was so convinced he was right, he completely ignored the suffering of his own people. Will this be the same for President Trump? Pharaoh didn't relent until his world literally crashed and death filled his own house. What will be south of the border?

Unfortunately, Pharaoh’s change of heart won't be permanent: next week, we'll see Pharaoh pursue us to the brink of the sea. Pharaoh never did learn. The more he sinned, the more he rationalized his own actions. He destroyed himself and took his family and his country down with him. And while this sounds like a story about an evil king who lived thousands of years ago and certainly doesn't pertain to us, we must keep Pharaoh before us as a reminder. Likewise, not all ill-will falls upon President Trump, citizens in the US need to face the reality of terrorism and give the government an opportunity to put a respectful and appropriate policy in place that protects their shores while welcoming duly vetted immigrants to the US. Immigration, in this day and age, cannot simply be carte blanche.

Rabbi Bacharach reminds us that we must guard against complacency and resist the temptation to convince ourselves that everything we do is okay. Rather, we must learn from the ancient sage, Ben Azzai who said: “Doing one mitzvah brings another in its train, and one transgression draws another in its train.” The reward for doing a mitzvah is the opportunity to perform another mitzvah, and the recompense for committing a transgression is the temptation to commit another transgression. We cannot afford to be like Pharaoh and justify our every action to ourselves. As we learned, “when a man has committed a sin once and a second time, it appears to him as if it were permitted.” By the same token, we must never underestimate the potential of doing mitzvot to unleash goodness in our lives. May we recognize our own potential for filling our lives and the lives of others with mitzvot and God's love!

Shabbat Shalom!

Mon, August 21 2017 29 Av 5777