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Cantorial Comments - Parshat Chukkat                                June 23, 2018 - 10 Tammuz 5778

06/21/2018 03:11:14 PM


“There’s nothing new under the sun.”

In this week’s parsha, Chukkat, the Israelites have been wandering for some time, and the begin to get annoyed with both God and Moses, saying, “Why did you [God and Moses] make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread, no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food [mana].” (Num. 21:5). As punishment for their insolence, God sends “Han’chashim has’raphim” (literally translates ‘serpent angels’) to bite and poison many Israelites who ultimately died from, possibly, their wounds or venom (Num. 21:6). The Israelites repent, and God instructs Moses to have the Israelites fashion a figurine of a serpent to be mounted on a banner, and all those who look upon it will be healed from snake bites (Num. 21:7-9).

Immediately, this story strikes us as odd, but what becomes intensely uncomfortable is when we realize that this serpent figurine could be interpreted as a form of idol. More bothersome still, is when we ask the question… how is the serpent figurine any different from a Golden Calf? There answer is: not much. This answer is also the reason that many rabbis avoid this topic altogether. In fact, the very existence of a serpent figurine constructed on orders from God was so problematically close to idol worship that, hundreds of years later, Israelites had even become accustomed to offering sacrifices to it, forcing the Judean King Hezekiah (reigned 729-687 BCE) to order the serpent’s destruction (2 Kings 18:4). King Hezekiah then encouraged the Israelites to refer to the destroyed serpent as the “Nechushtan”, which translates “a mere piece of brass”, the term we now use today.

The simplest, cleanest answer to the difficult question of the legitimacy of the Nechushtan vs the Golden Calf, is that in the case of the Serpent figurine, God commanded its creation, which, by definition, legitimizes it. The Gold Calf was not created by Divine command, and therefore it is illegitimate. Understandably, most of us feel that this doesn’t quite resolve the issue, and so we’ll dig a bit deeper. In a careful reading of the text of the Torah, what God specifically commands regarding the serpent figurine is actually the creation of what God calls a “Saraph” figure to be set atop a banner, which Moses and the Israelites refer to thereafter as the “Nachash N’choshet”, meaning ‘Copper Serpent’. So, what is a “Saraph”, and how did become a copper serpent? Our liturgy refers several times to the seraphim as ‘Burning Angels’, as they are described in the book of Isaiah, “The Seraphim stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. And one would call to the other, ‘Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!’” (Isaiah 6:2-3). It may be understood that God is instructing the creation of the figure of an angel, not unlike the two angels (cherubim) that God instructed to be fashioned on top of the Ark of the Covenant (in a previous commentary, we discussed at length how these cherubim represent royal charms of protection). Though Isaiah describes a 6-winged human-like figure for his vision of the Seraphim, there is no earlier description in Torah of what this angel looked like, upon which the wandering Israelites could base a likeness. So… why, then, did they make a serpent? In a word, the image of the serpent, as it is connected to medicine and healing (the caduceus is still the modern symbol for the practice of medicine), goes back a very long way through ancient history. In Greek mythology, the serpent is connected to Asclepius, god of healing (the Staff of Asclepius), and minor serpent gods of medicine can also be found in various other Mesopotamian cultures dating as far back as 4000 BCE. All this is to say, at the time of Moses, the serpent was already a well-established symbol for healing in the region. At the time, the Israelites were praying for healing (from the bite of a serpent, as it happens), and so, as they were instructed by God, they created an image of their angel of healing… a serpent.

My last trip to Israel was almost exactly one year ago, during which one of the highlights was a tour of the Migdal David [David Citadel] Museum. My high school friend, Ariel, who works for the museum gave me an absolutely fascinating personal tour, including many areas that typical museum guests don’t get to see. I noticed that a few of the exhibits had mesh screens above them that could be drawn down to hide the contents, which I had assumed was for when the museum was performing maintenance work on the artifacts, or changing the contents. I asked Ariel about them, and the answer was so shocking for me it took me a moment to collect my thoughts. The screens, Ariel explained, were drawn down when orthodox groups come through the museum, in order to hide exhibits that show that, in fact, many ancient Israelites practiced idolatry IN ADDITION to Israelite monotheism. Archeological digs within Jerusalem found small idol figurines of serpents, fertility gods, and other idols derived from Canaanite, Moabite and Phoenician theologies, dating back to various periods of the ancient Israelite Kingdom, and had been placed on display in the museum.

It bothers me to know that many ancient Israelites embraced idol worship, just as it bothers me today that some Jews consider themselves “Jewbuhs” (Jewish Buddhists), just as it bothers me when children of mixed Jewish and Christian (or other) marriages are raised in both religious traditions. While we’re at it, I cannot overstate how much I absolutely deplore the mere idea of the existence of Jews for Jesus. That said, what sense is there in denying reality? In a way, I actually find it somewhat comforting and reassuring to know that our problems in Jewish religious integrity today, are not at all a new thing. It would seem, even in our Biblical history, we dealt with a significant amount of ambiguity within our own religious tradition. There is no perfect resolution of the concept of the Nechustan within our tradition. By our modern sensibilities, there is no question that such an item would constitute an idol, just as it did to King Hezekiah, and the Israelites of that period. But before then, perhaps it could have been clearer to the Israelites that the Nechushtan was not an idol to be venerated, but rather a charm, a conduit for God’s healing. Clearly though, the distinction in the Judaism of 3000 years ago between an acceptable charm and a forbidden graven image was ambiguous at best, and was forced to become better defined. Today, the process continues as we strive to respectfully and honestly help define the behaviours, beliefs and practices of the modern Jew. I find it is a comfort to know that our problems today as a Jewish community, are not new at all.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Korach                                June 16, 2018 - 3 Tammuz 5778

06/15/2018 01:06:45 PM


Last month’s volcanic eruptions in Hawaii are just the most recent example of the violent displacement and destruction that natural disasters can cause. Looking at the photos, I was grateful to learn that no lives had been lost, but I couldn’t help thinking of the fate of Korach and his followers for spurning the Lord (Numbers 16:32): “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households.” Why were they punished in this way?

Korach and his followers accuse Moshe and Aaron of raising “themselves above the Lord’s congregation,” despite the fact that holiness extended to all the people through Revelation at Sinai (Numbers 16:3): “You have gone too far!” they cried. What did Korach and his followers expect to gain by such mutiny? Did they hope to call attention to what they perceived to be an injustice? Did they want Moses and Aaron to share power with Korach and others? The parasha states, “Vayikach Korach, and Korach took…” (Num 16:1) The use of the singular for Korach (and the other actors, Datan Aviram, and On) could imply Korach and the rebels aren’t plotting to lead the people.  They just don’t want Moses telling them what to do. They each want to make their own decisions individually. That’s why they cite God’s declaration the Israelites are a nation of priests and a sacred nation (Ex. 19:3-6); they want to replace Moses with a flat hierarchy of equals.  Several traditional commentators suggest that the rebellion was provoked by personal jealousy: Korach was infuriated that God favored his first cousins Moses and Aaron. Datan, Aviram, and On were angry that God favored the tribe of Levi over the tribe of their ancestor, the first-born Reuben.

Regardless of the motivations, Korach and his followers not only rebelled against Moses, but against the People of Israel and most importantly, against God’s will. The Kli Yakar (1550-1619; Torah commentator and poet) connects this episode to the verse (Pirkei Avot 3:2), “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, men would swallow each other alive.” Korach and his followers seek to dismantle the existing leadership structure.  This might be great for the individual but would be terrible for the community.  Because their advice would have led the Israelites to swallow each other alive, they are punished with that very same fate.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Shelach                                  June 9, 2018 - 26 Sivan 5778

06/08/2018 09:07:34 AM


“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.”
-Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990)

While my reflections this week are my own, I must give credit to my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Adam Cutler, for first noticing this brilliant connection between a new meme currently trending in our popular culture and an ancient Jewish teaching from our Kabbalistic tradition.

Do you hear “laurel” or “yanny”? I hear “laurel” every time. Four weeks ago, a sound clip quickly made its way around the world, reaching millions of people through twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and even the mainstream media when it was forced to take notice. Whether you listened on your smartphone, or whether you heard it on tv, this sound clip has people scratching their heads. While you might very distinctly hear the word “laurel” spoken in a deep male voice in the sound clip, the person standing next to you is almost certain to defiantly tell you that they only hear a high woman’s voice, clearly saying the word “yanny”. Check it out for yourself with a quick search on google or YouTube. Just be sure to have a few people standing around for the inevitable shocking argument that is certain to erupt.

The science behind how this phenomenon is possible is well understood, and there are now even more YouTube videos explaining it in detail for the especially curious. In a nutshell, it has to do with psychological prompts, sound distortion, the age of the listener, and the condition of the listener’s high-frequency sound sensitivity, which all together demonstrate that a person uttering a single word can be experienced by a listener in more than one way. Personally, I’ve studied a great deal of audio engineering, and I find it absolutely fascinating from a technical perspective, but what is far more amazing than this, is how it sheds new light and clarity on a very old and strange Jewish mystical teaching. 

Have you ever wondered why we always light at least two Shabbat candles every Friday night? The candles we light represent the two mitzvot of Shabbat that are mentioned in the Torah. We are commanded “Shamor et Hashabbat”, to guard [keep/observe/protect] Shabbat, and “zachor et Hashabbat”, to remember Shabbat. Both of these commandments are referenced throughout the Shabbat liturgy, and are highlighted in the Kiddush recited on Friday night. The Kabbalistic tradition teaches that when God spoke these two words, “shamor” and “zachor” regarding the commandments of Shabbat, they were spoken in a single utterance, thereby giving equal weight to both commandments, and making one inseparable from the other. The poem L’cha Dodi, which we recite during Friday night services, was composed in the 16th century by Kabbalistic Master Rav Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, and it expresses this concept. In the first stanza, the poem reads “shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad // hishmi’anu El hamyuchad”, “shamor [keep] and zachor [remember] spoken in a single utterance // we all heard the One God.”

Kabbalism is known to be a rather difficult area of study, mainly because on the surface, its teachings at best sound like complete nonsense, or at worst, like the worst kind of heretical thinking. Only after a great deal of reflection and personal processing, can we hope to glean any useful insight into a particular item of Kabbalah, if any at all. For hundreds of years, this Kabbalistic notion of the words “shamor” and “zachor” spoken in a single utterance from God could be readily dismissed as an idea too odd to be taken seriously. Today, suddenly, the Laurel and Yanny phenomenon has forced us to revisit this ancient teaching (and consequently begs us to also reconsider many other bizarre teachings of Kabbalah on the basis that we simply may not yet be wise enough to understand). So what does this new insight into the mystical ‘single utterance’ offer us?

One of the fundamental principles behind Conservative Judaism today, championed in recent years by its modern leaders is the concept of “Big Tent Judaism”, that is, authentic Jewish belief and observance is not a unilateral system of rules and ideologies, but rather a large spectrum of approaches, local customs that differ as broadly as country to country, or as specific as congregation to congregation, or even family to family. Of course, Judaism does have certain fundamental rules that we all agree on, but so much of our own personal Jewish identities are based on what “speaks” to us. While some may bemoan the fact that shul attendance is down in the Conservative movement over recent years, we must not ignore the fact that involvement of young people in Israel activism and charity work is significantly up. Who are we to judge those who express their Judaism in a manner that is different from our own? This is the way Judaism speaks to them, and it becomes how they choose to express their Jewish identities. No matter how often I hear the Laurel-Yanny sound clip, I still just hear Laurel, and as I learn about Judaism from great Rabbis, philosophers, politicians and other leaders, I hear their words in the only way that I can. Meanwhile, the person next to me, may well have heard something entirely different. Certainly there are times when only one way to hear something is the correct way to hear it (in fact, the professor in the sound clip is ACTUALLY saying the word “laurel”), but there are times as well, when there truly may not be a correct answer. In this case, the diversity of our collective understanding grows and breathes life into the intellectual process. We integrate our understanding into ourselves and use it to help define ourselves as individuals and then we pass our ideas along to our friends and family. And so, Judaism evolves for another generation, just as it has in generations passed, constantly renewing our understanding of the universe for the modern Jew.

Judaism is the only surviving culture of the ancient world, and I believe this is so for three reasons. First, because we are God’s people. The Torah is our contract in perpetuity that so long as we maintain our relationship with God, God will maintain a relation with the Jewish people. Second, we survive because we are a resilient people. We have proven ourselves time and again through our history, that as a people we will endure any hardship, any insult, and any injury if it means our survival. And finally, we survive because we evolve. Our culture, traditions and ideology are always renewed through the lives and experiences of the next generation, ever adapting, ever self-criticizing, and ever striving to be better, in order to reflect the best values of the age; to ever remain a Light unto the Nations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Behaalokha                          June 2, 2018 - 19 Sivan 5778            

05/31/2018 05:32:35 PM


Growing up I loved camping. I was in Scouting for 14 years and found the outdoors rejuvenating to my spirit. So, when I had a family of my own, we went camping with the kids. Almost everyone loved it but one of my daughter’s idea of camping was a four-star hotel instead of five. She didn’t inherit the “camping gene!” In this, she shares a lot in common with the ancient Israelites.

In Beha’alotcha we see the interplay of the story of the Israelite experience in the wilderness with the communal laws. It is interesting to note how the Israelites reacted to the wilderness. They hated it. 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.

At some point, Moses reached the limit of his patience. He complained to God that he cannot deal with the Israelite’s complaints any more. God’s response was to get help for Moses (Numbers 11:16 – 17): “Thus, the Lord said to Moses, ‘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 was exactly what God did. Moses “power” was spread over the seventy elders. As soon as Moses power was spread to them, they began to prophecy. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, complained, implying that Moses had lost some of his authority. Moses reply showed his greatness. He told Joshua that he wished all of Israel had his power.

This is a poignant lesson in leadership, a poignant lesson for all those who wish to accomplish anything in the world. Rabbi Steven Bayer, in his comments on the portion, reminds us that there is only so much we can do ourselves. Eventually, to be effective, to ensure 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, our vision only grows brighter when more people are brought to it.

Meanwhile, back in the desert, the Israelite people were not satisfied. Although they had manna, they were not satisfied.

They wanted meat. They wanted the satisfaction of chewing something with a different texture. God promised them meat – and Moses was amazed (Numbers 11:21-23): Moses said, “The people who are with me number 600,000 men. Yet you say, ‘I will give them enough meat to eat for a whole month.’ Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them?” God’s reply? “The Lord answered, “Moses, is there a limit to the Lord’s power?” Again, Rabbi Bayer reminds us: We know, theologically, that there is no limit to what God can do. Yet, in the Torah, as sacrilegious as this sounds, God seemed limited by what people were 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? Rabbi Bayer concludes: 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. We learn that in order for us to succeed, we must 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 Nasso                                  May 26, 2018 - 12 Sivan 5778

05/25/2018 11:15:10 AM


“Too often… we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
-- John F. Kennedy

Egalitarianism and women’s rights, law and order, slavery, healthy living, social responsibility, personal accountability – Judaism revolutionized thoughtful approaches to all of these and more in the ancient world, and continues even today, to teach and guide us in the modern era.  That is the special power of timelessness that Torah possesses.  That said, it is easy to find examples in Torah of ideas that seem quite incompatible not only with our modern sensibilities, but also seem to challenge what we know as fundamental concepts within Judaism.  How do we reconcile the Torah’s disapproval of homosexuality with a God who we understand to be all-powerful and loving?  How do we reconcile the Torah’s account of creation with our God-given thirst for a scientific understanding of our universe?  How can we possibly maintain that Judaism asserts an abstract understanding of the nature of God, when we are confronted in the Torah by example after example of clear anthropomorphism of the Divine?  We are accustomed to these types of questions as they continue to be debated regularly, even in non-Jewish forums.  We often shrug, and accept these to be continuing discussions, as we become comfortable with the unanswered question.  However, intellectual honesty needs us to be uncomfortable in order to keep our discussions going. The Torah has many such uncomfortable questions to keep us debating, and at the very end of this week’s Parsha, Nasso, we are hit with a real ‘doozy’.

“And when Moses would come into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the covering which was over the Ark of the Covenant.” (Num. 7:89).  This is the last verse of our rather lengthy Parsha this week, and we are left with two uncomfortable issues: First, the Torah has forbidden idols and graven images of any kind – so what are two idols doing on top of the Ark of the Covenant?  Second, up to this point God seems to have no problem speaking to whomever He wants whenever He wants – is it not unnecessary, and possibly contradictory to our understanding of God, that God suddenly has a spot in space from which He now must speak?

In order to address these questions, we must first do a little bit of investigative ancient linguistics, comparative religion and anthropology.  The word in Hebrew for cherubim is likely a derivative from the ancient Akkadian language (which pre-dates Hebrew) “karābu”, a word the means ‘to bless’, and also, according to Akkadian theology, refers to a class of genie or low-level divine spirit that serves as a supplicant before a deity, praying on behalf of others.  In Akkadian, they are typically depicted as colossal bulls.  In the nearby ancient Assyrian culture, colossal bull-like divine beings, called lamassu, are depicted in pairs guarding over gates and passageways (original lamassu sculptures from the Assyrian civilization are currently on display at the Louvre).  If we return back to the examples of cherubim as described in the Torah, we find a pair of cherubim assigned by God to guard over the gates of the Garden of Eden, prohibiting Adam and Eve from returning.  The cherubim guarding over the Ark of the Covenant are also in a pair. “The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.” (Ex. 25:20)

Clearly, there are very important distinctions between the Akkadiankarābu, the Assyrian lamassu and the Israelite cherubim.  While the former two are meant to take the form of bulls, cherubim are winged human-like creatures.  Nevertheless, noting that they appear always in pairs and as guardians are similarities that are too coincidental to ignore, given the linguistic parallel.  But what if the comparison between these creatures could be connected even further?  Pirkei Eliezer describes a prophetic vision of God’s chariot, which is being drawn by cherubim.  The account notes their wings, but also insists that these creatures have four-faces, depending upon which direction you are looking at them.  They are the faces of a lion, and eagle, a human and… a bull.

Finally, before we at last address our initial questions, let’s take a brief look at the wings of the cherubim.  The wings are significant only because they now represent the major depictive difference between the Israelite cherubim, the Akkadian karābuand the Assyrian lamassu.  Currently on display at the Egyptian museum of Cairo, we can visit the ancient throne of King Tutankhamun, beautifully preserved from the 13thcentury BCE.  One of the notable icons depicted on the throne on both sides are a set of wings.  Wings can only be found on the depiction of the throne of Ahiram, King of Babylos (Phoneicia).  In fact, in ancient middle and near eastern cultures, wings are a common icon found associated not only with royalty, but specifically with the seat of royalty.

What does this all mean?  It means that the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant are certainly a form of idol.  It also means that it is very odd that the voice of God suddenly has a physical place from which to emanate.  Both of these things continue to be contrary to basic precepts that we understand about Judaism.  That being said, we can see from the perspective of the ancient Israelites why they would not have understood it this way.  To the ancient Israelites, the cherubim were not beings to be worshipped, but they would have been understood as symbols of Divine protection and guardianship, watching over that which is most sacred to them.  In the view of the Israelites, God needed a throne, but without a God-body, what shape was that throne to be?  The Israelites envisioned a physical place from which their new concept of God could emanate – a place that they could consider holy, and adorn with riches befitting the King of Kings.  And so, the Ark of the Covenant is not only a container, but it is also the throne of God, a seat for the One who does not sit.  It is an object that reflects the understanding of a new nation, developing their own iconography, exploring their understanding of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Bamidbar                            May 19, 2018 - 5 Sivan 5778

05/17/2018 04:30:41 PM


A guy walks past a hospital and hears a moaning voice "... 13 ... 13 ... 13 ..." The man looks over to the hospital and sees a hole in the wall, he looks through the hole and gets poked in the eye. The moaning voice then groans "... 14 ... 14 ... 14 ..."

This week we begin reading the book of Bemidbar whose name means “in the wilderness,” for this book is the narrative of the almost 39 years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness until they finally came to the Land of Israel. In English, this book is known as Numbers because it opens with an account of the census taken early in the second year after the Israelites left Egypt.

The Torah says, “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 Yizchaki, 11th Century, Province) 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, as Rabbi Joyce Newmark (20th Century, USA) observes, “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 Bemidbar Rabba has his explanation for how the Israelites were counted: “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.”

Rabbi Newmark, in concluding her observations on the portion notes that the late Israeli master teacher Nehama Leibowitz taught that 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 12, 2018 - 27 Iyar 5778

04/26/2018 02:45:41 PM


In Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, we have a lengthy list of rules and regulations pertaining to land, farming, real-estate transactions, and ownership, culminating in one particular verse that seems to establish that God is our landlord: “The land shall not to be sold permanently, for you are strangers who reside [temporarily] with Me.” (Lev. 25:23)

The following is an open letter to the Landlord on behalf of the Jewish People.

Dear Landlord,

We, the Jewish People (hereafter referred to as ‘tenants’) assume, since we have not heard from You directly in a while, that You have received on time and in full, all of our regular payments of prayers and supplications.  We have also been doing our best to live respectfully by Your rather lengthy and limiting list of terms and conditions as prescribed by the lease agreement.  You must admit, that it seems unfair that you haven’t really given us a good reason why bacon is forbidden on the premises, particularly given how good it smells (we have checked thoroughly, and there is no mention in the agreement about forbidden smells).  There also doesn’t seem to be much detail in the lease regarding the 7th day maintenance break procedures, so we’ve just resorted to shutting down all utilities for the day.  We hope that that is acceptable.  There are various appliances on the property that are in desperate need of repairs.  We understand that Your repair guy is on his way, and that everything will finally work perfectly when he gets here, but we thought we’d just mention that it’s been a few thousand years, and he hasn’t shown up yet.  We know You are busy managing many other properties, but we could really use those repairs, now more than ever.

It has come to our attention that our lease is the only one you have among Your agreements with other tenants that contains an extensive list of terms and conditions.  When we initially signed the lease, we had just gotten out of an abusive relationship with Egypt, and had been wandering homeless for about 40 years.  All this is to say that we were going through a difficult time, and due to our predicament, we signed the agreement with the attitude that we would adhere to the agreement first, and learn to understand it later.  At the time, we didn’t quite understand what we were signing up for.  Please understand that due directly to our lease agreement, we’ve had to endure persecution, pogroms, and endless threats from some very angry neighbours.  Through all of this, we have had to bear the responsibility and burden of living up to the very high expectations set forth by the lease agreement.  All this is to say that the throughout the term of our lease, life on your property has not exactly been easy.

We have had a few thousand years to read the lease agreement carefully.  It turns out that among the many things that You did, in fact, promise, one thing that you didn’t was that living here was going to be easy.  You promised that we would be would be prosperous, and indeed, today, we are more prosperous that we have ever been in history.  You promised that we would lead lives of virtue and nobility, and indeed, we recognize that living by your terms and conditions, we have become a light unto the nations, held up as the standard for morality, ingenuity and scholarship.  You promised that we would be safe and secure within our borders, and though this one was hard to realize, we cannot overlook the fact that among all the other lease agreements that You have had with ancient tenants, ours is the only one which continues to be active to this day.  And even though it has taken us some time to get here, we have the most secure property on the block, and the only property that maintains equality for all who reside there.

For these reasons, we accept that our lease agreement was never going mean that our lives would be easy.  We accept that others will be jealous of the special relationship that we have with our Landlord, and as a result, we must be ready to defend our property in word and in deed.  For these reasons, we, the tenants, are very interested in renewing our lease indefinitely. But, if you happen to be in touch with the repair guy, though, please just let him know we’d really like to see him come by the property as soon as possible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Emor                                    May 5, 2018 - 20 Iyar 5778

04/26/2018 02:43:51 PM


A farmer had some puppies he needed to sell.  He painted a sign advertising the 4 pups and set about nailing it to a post on the edge of his yard. As he was driving the last nail into the post, he felt a tug on his overalls. He looked down into the eyes of a little boy." Mister," he said, "I want to buy one of your puppies."

"Well," said the farmer, as he rubbed the sweat off the back of his neck, "These puppies come from fine parents and cost a good deal of money."

The boy dropped his head for a moment. Then reaching deep into his pocket, he pulled out a handful of change and held it up to the farmer. "I've got thirty-nine cents. Is that enough to take a look?"  "Sure," said the farmer. And with that he let out a whistle. "Here, Dolly!" he called.

Out from the doghouse and down the ramp ran Dolly followed by four little balls of fur.  The little boy pressed his face against the chain link fence. His eyes danced with delight. As the dogs made their way to the fence, the little boy noticed something else stirring inside the doghouse.  Slowly another little ball appeared, this one noticeably smaller. Down the ramp it slid. Then in a somewhat awkward manner, the little pup began hobbling toward the others, doing its best to catch up...

"I want that one," the little boy said, pointing to the runt. The farmer knelt down at the boy's side and said, “Son, you don't want that puppy. He will never be able to run and play with you like these other dogs would."

With that the little boy stepped back from the fence, reached down, and began rolling up one leg of his trousers.  In doing so he revealed a steel brace running down both sides of his leg attaching itself to a specially made shoe.  Looking back up at the farmer, he said, "You see sir, I don't run too well myself, and he will need someone who understands."

With tears in his eyes, the farmer reached down and picked up the little pup and gave it to the little boy.

Throughout our Torah and Tradition we find teachings that emphasize that we must be compassionate, forgiving and patient because God is. Although God might be perfect, we certainly are not and our Torah teaches that while we should strive for perfection, we will never reach it. Which is why I find a very troubling text in this week’s Torah portion. Emor describes the laws of the Kohanim, 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.’” It seems that God wants only perfect people to serve as holy priests in the Temple!

Rabbi Steven Bayer, likewise struggles with this passage and relates it to his experience of visiting St. Petersburg when it was still Leningrad.  He was traveling to visit Refuseniks entering Leningrad by train at about 5 AM.  As he taxied to the hotel he noticed that not only were the streets clean, but for the first time in almost 8 days, he saw disabled people on the streets.  he saw amputees, crutches, all manner of physically handicapped people.  Where were they during the day? The answer was quite simple.  They were not allowed out.  Their presence would give a bad “impression” to the Soviet public. So he asks: “Is it the same with the Temple?  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.”

By the standards of the time this position was considered very liberal and sensitive, but if, as I believe, the Torah is a vessel of the Divine.  To make a statement that infers that the time determines the standards is to state that God did not; that these values were human and not Divine. Are we ready to make this statement? Yet, how do we reconcile this contradiction, especially in light of what the last portion taught in protecting the rights of those who are vulnerable? 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.” If God’s Law punishes through maiming another, does this mean that we hold God to the same standard as well?  If so, do we hold God responsible for the reticence so many show to make sanctuaries accessible to the handicapped?  Do we hold God responsible for how difficult it is for a handicapped person, or how impossible it is for a learning-disabled person to become a rabbi? These are questions I intend to ask, one of these days, at the right time, of the Creator of all.

I cannot believe that this would be so and, indeed, the Sages of Old legislated such laws out of existence for the same reasons. Perhaps to officiate in the Temple a priest needed to reflect God’s perfection and thus be “perfect” in form, but in the context and content of our lives, God loves us warts and all, for our Tradition teaches: “With a great love God loves us” (Maariv Service). It is not a callous god but the God of empathy that is the God or our belief and Tradition.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim   April 28, 2018 - 13 Iyar 5778

04/26/2018 01:34:57 PM


“People can choose between the sweet lie or the bitter truth. I say the bitter truth, but many people don’t want to hear it.”

--Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli Minister of Defense

In this week’s parshah, Acharei-Mot Kedoshim, you won’t find an exciting story.  There aren’t any exciting miracles, no riveting narrative, no real iconic moments of Jewish biblical history, and truthfully, the parshah amounts to little more than a list of rules.  Nevertheless, it is among my absolute favourite parshiot, and if you haven’t already, I recommend taking the time to read deeply.  This list is not only the basis for ethical Judaism, but it is arguably the foundation beneath all of modern Western social behaviour.  When children begin learning Torah in a traditional Hebrew school, they begin not with the story of Creation, but with the rules found in parshat Kedoshim.  In the bar and bat mitzvah classes that I teach here at Beth Radom, I also begin with a careful study of this parshah and the various laws in contains.

Of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, parshat Acharei-Mot Kedoshim accounts for a whopping 81 of them, more than 7 times the average.  Among them, you will find laws pertaining to the treatment of one’s parents, ethical treatment of the disabled, charitable giving, equal treatment of all human beings before the law, personal accountability for enabling others to commit a crime, and the list goes on.  Regarding the overwhelming majority of these laws, it would be hard to find any civilized individual in the western hemisphere, Jewish and non-Jewish alike that did not believe in each of these values as fundamental to secular society.  Indeed, many of these same statues can be found in Canadian law, American law, and so for many other countries.  Though others may see these laws as self-evident today, I believe the Jewish people deserves to be proud to lay first claim to them.  I, for one, am happy to share them with the world, and I believe we are certainly all better off for it.  However, in our ever increasingly politically polarized society of Conservatives and Liberals, and to a great extent, religionists and secularists, I wonder if perhaps for the first time, some of these essential values may be under a veiled threat.

Our civil legal system is designed to keep church and state separate. Nevertheless, an educated secularist/atheist will grant that our civil laws are still based on a cultural Judeo-Christian code, i.e. the Bible, i.e. the Torah, i.e. God.  But given the theological origins of our civil legal code, can that code be truly divorced from God?  And if so, so what?

While I consider myself socio-politically liberal, I loathe to join up officially with that group, for one reason among many, its stance on Israel.  I find the political-left critique of Israel reckless, ignorant, naiive and ultimately dangerous not only to the Jewish people, not only to the Middle East, but to the entire world, including Muslims.  (For specific details on examples of factual errors, misleading statements, poor moral equivocation, I happily refer you to a set of videos on the Beth Radom website resource page for my most recent adult education seminar.)  Why do so many people fall for such obvious manipulation of truth?  It’s easy –  all you have to do is flash a picture of a suffering child and you get to name whatever perpetrator you like.  In today’s world, it seems that in so many cases, truth has been usurped by emotion; how we feel carries more legitimacy than facts.  Often times in a whirling cacophony of opinions about any given topic, we seem to kowtow to whoever is the angriest, or in the most pain, and not who makes the most sense.

When God is removed as the source and center of our sense of law, ethics and morality, we replace that center with ourselves.  How we feel, our experience, then, carries the most weight when we assess what is morally right.  On the surface, it doesn’t sound too bad.  But when we realize that that entitles every individual to their own conclusion of morality based on each of their own feelings and experiences, then all opinions are suddenly legitimate.  While truth may still be found among those opinions, it is so easy to simply lose it among the myriad of “alternative truths”.  As a result, debate is no longer a search for truth, but simply a contest of who can yell the loudest; and a picture of a suffering child yells loudly, indeed.Truth can sometimes be cold and uncomfortable.  I mean this without any sarcasm or joking intended that if a congregant asked me to perform a Jewish funeral for his beloved pet dog (yes, it has happened), I would have to refuse.  Most of you know how attached I am to my dear canine friend, and I can completely understand that person’s need to hold a service.  Nevertheless, Jewish law forbids it, and so the discussion is over. But what if… what about… could we possibly…?  The aphorism, ‘the cold, hard truth’ says it well.  It is so, because it doesn’t care how you feel about it.  The truth remains independent, immutable by cultural relativism. Truth disappoints a child when she learns that eating too much sugary food will rot her teeth.  Truth also stands in judgement of the world as it responds to the resurgence of Neo-Nazism.  While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, truth is not.  Truth belongs to God alone, and our sense of morality, our respect of law and our duty to social justice is meaningless without it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tazaria-Metzora                  April 21, 2018 - 6 Iyar 5778

04/18/2018 03:35:51 PM


The teenage years are not kind to most kids.  In addition to social and peer pressures, many feel gawky, gangly and awkward. Their bodies are growing and changing faster than their emotional maturity and in the midst of all this, many suffer from acne or other skin ailments that they find embarrassing and shameful, even though many of their friends have the same conditions.  While the cynic reads a section of the Bible, like Leviticus Chap. 13 (dealing with the ritual purification from skin diseases) and dismisses all religion as a lot of "hocus pocus," superstition and taboo, many teens read it with their acne in mind and hope that “this too shall pass.” 

Chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus describe the role of the ancient Israelite priesthood in diagnosing and responding to people afflicted with tzara'at, commonly but erroneously translated as leprosy.  It is highly unlikely that what the ancients called "leprosy" thousands of years ago was, in fact, what we today refer to as Hansen's disease.  The word tzara'at probably referred to any number of skin ailments.  The priest's job was to determine if the skin disease in question was contagious or not. If contagious, the person was removed from the rest of the population until the priest determined it was safe to readmit him.  In Torah terms, a person was considered Tamai (ritually impure) when diagnosed with the skin ailment and could not remain among the Children of Israel until he/she was Tahor (ritually pure).

The role of the priest extended beyond responsibility for the ancient sacrificial cult to include medical responsibilities, as well.  A priest had to be both educated in theology and medicine. In a way, the Torah is describing the ideal prototype for the modern physician.  Indeed, as Rabbi Howard Siegel points out, one of the greatest influences on Judaism was Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204 C.E.), known by the acronym, Rambam or Maimonides.  Born in Spain, he became a rabbi, philosopher/theologian, and a practicing physician.  In addition to his writings, he taught an important lesson by example. Science and theology, the concrete and the transcendent, must exist together.

Rabbi Siegel recounts that poet and storyteller Danny Siegel tells the following true story of an encounter he had several years ago: "An eminent physician is taking his students on morning rounds. Here and there he explains to his entourage some fine point of the art of healing, adding to their store of insight and knowledge so that when they assume their positions as Healers, they, too, will demonstrate the requisite skill and wisdom needed to ease suffering and pain. The professor's expertise impresses the interns and residents.

As they go from room to room, the professor and students encounter an older woman recently arrived as a "social admission."  She is not desperately ill, but her complex of ailments makes it impossible for her neighbors and friends to take care of her.  The professor sees that she is depressed, withdrawn. She refuses to eat.  There is nothing here to be revealed in the way of book-knowledge; no advanced scholarship is needed.

The professor stops, and for twenty minutes feeds the woman.

She is capable of feeding herself, but she refuses to do so.  So, with deliberate and gentle care, the teacher teaches a lesson in kindness.  He does not do it as a demonstration to the students. No, he spoon-feeds this old woman because that is what the demands of the hour are.  If, as a result of this long delay, the students will have missed some detail of graduate training, some fact concerning prescriptions or diagnosis, it matters little to the professor.

Human beings must be served with a touch of humanity."

As both Danny Siegel and Rabbi Howard Siegel teach: One becomes a physician to heal the sick; a lawyer to defend the innocent. A firm grounding in a system of morals and ethics is a prerequisite for whatever we choose to do in life.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Shemini                                    April 14, 2018 - 29 Nisan 5778

04/12/2018 02:05:44 PM


“May we think of freedom not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.”              --Peter Marshall (1902-1949), author and theologian

The Torah likes separating things... all kinds of things. Most of us know about separating meat and dairy, but there really is much more to it: it is also forbidden to wear a garment that contains a mixture of wool and linen (‘shatnez’), you can’t sow a mixture of different seeds in the same field (‘kilayim’), you can’t plow using an ox and a donkey yoked together. If you visit a more orthodox community, you will see men and women separated to varying degrees, from a simple rope down the middle of a synagogue (‘mechitza’), to local ordinances restricting men and women to separately designated sides of the sidewalk, and using separate entrances to public buildings. We also do a lot of separating holy from profane, such as the ritual of separating the end of Shabbat from the regular weekday is called “Havdalah”, “the separation”. We separate kosher from treif, ritually pure from the ritually impure, and I, personally, find it rather amusing that in the Talmud, the euphemism used in Aramaic for ‘going to the bathroom’ also translates to ‘making a separation’.

What’s with all the separating? Our modern sensibilities teach us to be averse to separation; togetherness is the overarching philosophy that guides most of what we believe to be socially beneficial. Borders and walls that separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ are bad, unity and a welcoming spirit is good. Exclusivity and privilege are bad, while inclusivity and equal opportunity are good. Invoking a highly controversial topic such as immigration policy quickly rouses some strong views, but for the most part, I think we all agree that in an ideal and perfect world, all people should be welcome everywhere. It is only over how much risk to take, sacrificing personal security and economic prosperity that compel us to pick our sides of the immigration argument. Meanwhile, contrary to popular ideology, it seems that Jewish tradition likes separating things, and indeed, jumps on every opportunity to do just that.

In this week’s parsha, Shmini, we learn about all kinds of separation. We are told we can only eat those animals that have split hooves and chew their cud. We also learn that we can only eat those sea creatures with both fins and scales. The Torah lists various birds which are prohibited to eat, and the four categories of locusts which are kosher (yes, some locusts are kosher!). But after listing all of the various rules and regulations about which animals are kosher and which are not, the Torah gives us an explanation as to why. “For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” (Lev. 11:44).  Obviously, this answer does not give us much clue as to what is so special about split hooves and cud, as so in that respect we are left to wonder and speculate. However, inherent in the answer we are given, there is a suggestion that the issue about split hooves and cud is actually completely beside the point.

God intends for us to be a holy people, and the act of separating is part of the means to achieve that holiness. Separation, in this case, is simply the practice of self-restraint. When we restrict ourselves, we show discipline, forethought, measure and purpose, all of which are among the basic building blocks of holiness. God also tells us that he will make Israel an “Am Segulah”, “a nation apart”; that is, a separate and distinguished people. And perhaps it is with this intention that the Torah offers most of its seemingly arbitrary rules, for no other reason than to have some rules at all, to have a challenge that we are meant to overcome, and an opportunity to distinguish ourselves. The Mishnah teaches “God wanted to reward Israel, and so he gave them Torah and Mitzvot” (N’zikin 3:16). That’s the direct translation, but I have my own translation that I think is just as valid: “God wanted to give Israel the opportunity to be rewarded, and so he gave them Torah and Mitzvot.” The reward for observing these laws of separation, of mastering self-restraint, is holiness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Eighth Day of Passover                        April 7, 2018 - 22 Nisan 5778

04/05/2018 11:53:03 AM


Just imagine what would happen if the events of the Exodus had occurred in our century. Moses would be on the cover of every magazine, from CARP (“Changing Careers at Eighty”) to Business Week (“How to Succeed at Relocation Planning”), from Readers’ Digest (“The Ten Commandments – Condensed Version”) to Popular Mechanics (“Innovations in Marine Engineering”). Barbara Walters, Brian Williams, Katie Couric, and Piers Morgan would compete fiercely for the “get,” the first on-camera interview with the man everyone was talking about. Moses artifacts (real and fake) would appear on EBay, and rumors about Moses’ youthful misadventures would circulate on the internet. “Moses ben Amram” would consistently rank among the most popular searches on Google. There would be a Moses fan page on Facebook and a #Moses Twitter feed. After all, today, almost everybody wants his or her “15 minutes of fame.” It doesn’t matter how you get it, as long as you can appear on television (think about the behavior of reality TV performers or the antics of some sports fans). You haven’t lived until you have been on videotape. “I don’t care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right.” PT Barnum was right: even bad publicity is better than no publicity!

But Rabbi Joyce Newmark reminds us that things were different 3600 years ago. So much so, that Moses is absent from the Haggadah. The usual explanation for this is that the Rabbis wanted to emphasize that it was God who redeemed us from Egypt, not any human being. But there is something more. The Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 34:10): “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Lord singled out, face to face.” The Torah also tells us (Numbers 12:3): “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” So it seems that Moses had every reason to claim celebrity status -- but he didn’t. And this is a reason for praise.

And why should Moses’ name be missing from the Pesach Haggadah in particular? In preparation for Pesach, we remove chametz from our homes, offices, and cars. In fact, we don’t just remove it – we search it out, we burn it, we nullify it, we obliterate it. Why? The simple reason is that the Torah prohibits the consumption or possession of chametz during Pesach. But Rabbi Newmark reminds us that there is also a symbolic reason:

The Rabbis interpreted the removal of chametz as a metaphor for the removal of the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination. Philo of Alexandria, the Greek-Jewish philosopher, narrowed the focus to pride. “Just as leaven is banned because it is puffed up, so too must we guard against the self-righteousness that puffs us up with false pride.” The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Ephraim Solomon of Luntshitz, noted, “Leaven is a symbol of arrogance, pride, boasting, and pursuit of recognition.”

Pesach, Hag HaAviv, the Spring festival, is a time of rebirth and renewal. And this process of renewal requires the removal of spiritual chametz, false pride, unwarranted ego. Rabbi Newmark concludes: Each of us should look to the example of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, and remember that – just maybe – I am not the center of the world. It’s hard to be humble when you are surrounded by messages telling you that you could be the next “American Idol” – but you know what the Torah says about idolatry!

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Passover                                                March 31, 2018 - 15 Nisan 5778

03/28/2018 03:01:04 PM


“There are two great days in a person’s life – the day we are born, and the day we discover why.”
--William Barclay (1907-1978), Scottish author and theologian

 Amongst the many greetings you hear amongst the Jewish community today, Shabbat Shalom, Chag Kasher V’Same’ach, Gutt Yontif, the phrase “Shanah tovah” seems out of place.  Different holidays, right?  Well… that depends on how you look at it.  In the Torah, the month in which we celebrate Rosh Hashanah is called “chodesh hashvi’it” or “the seventh month” (yes, you read that correctly), and if you do your math, that makes the first month THIS MONTH!

If you are already confused, it’s understandable.  Defining the “New Year” is something of an odd subject in the Torah.  In fact, there are four distinct new years that the Torah discusses.  Rosh Hashanah, which takes place in the month of Tishrei is the New Year for the earth.  If we approach the Torah from a literal standpoint and do our biblical math, the creation of the earth at the beginning of the book of B’reishit took place on the first day of Tishrei, 5778 years ago.  But the Torah enumerates the months not from Tishrei, but from the month of Nisan.  Why?  Passover.  (For the curious, the other two new years are the fiscal new year for tree tithing on the 15th of Shvat, and the fiscal new year for cattle tithing on the 1st of Elul.)

On the one hand, you might think this makes perfect sense.  After all, what single event defines the Jewish people more than the exodus from Egypt?  But perhaps you might argue that the giving of the Torah is the more critical event.  In that case, we should probably be counting the months from the Festival of Shavuot in the month of Sivan.  But no, the Torah has made it’s choice – Passover, and Nisan get the grand prize, but on what basis?

I often tell my bar and bat mitzvah students to compare their coming of age to the experience of the Israelites becoming a nation.  I find that this paradigm helps kids find material in their parsha that they can then expand into their bar and bat mitzvah speeches.  Just as our parents actively protect and guide us during our formative years, so too, God behaved as an active parents, intervening on behalf of the Israelites, bringing them out of Israel, guiding them through the desert, providing mana for food, and the like. 

Ultimately, coming of age is about learning self-sufficiency and independence, so that we are able to survive on our own, relying less on our parents.  So too, the Israelites slowly learned how to rely less on the active intervention of God; they learned to organize themselves, establish systems of government and justice, establish a legal  code, norms for social behaviour and an army to defend themselves.  Once the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the mana ceased to fall, the guiding pillars of cloud and fire dissipated.  Does this mean that God left?  Does this mean that the Israelites no longer had any need of God?  Certainly not.  Similarly, our parents never truly leave us, even though the ultimate passage one day separates us.  We still draw on what we have learned from our parents, and they continue to inform our choices.  Forever, they remain a presence in our lives.

Within this same paradigm, the Israelites receiving the Torah can be compared to a bar or bat mitzvah.  The Israelites accepted the Torah, and bound themselves to it, but the task of learning Torah had really only just begun.  So too, our b’nei mitzvah kids have an entire lifetime ahead of them that we hope will be rich in Torah study.  The Exodus, however, is the birth of the Israelite nation, complete with birthing pangs.  It is a helpless infant, unable to fend for itself, or understand the nature of freedom.  This is the true beginning of the Journey.

Happy Birthday, Israel!

Chag Kasher V’Same’ach,

 Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tzav                                 March 24, 2018 - 8 Nisan 5778

03/23/2018 11:53:19 AM


Someone recently remarked: “I’m 35 but I still feel like I’m 20…until I hang out with 20-year-olds…then I’m, like, nope, never mind, I’m 35.” Apparently we are the company we keep. It is a lesson our Torah teaches us in Parshat Tzav.


This week's Torah portion spells out more of the laws regarding the sacrifices the Jewish people brought. God commands (Leviticus 7:19): "... flesh that touches any contaminated thing may not be eaten, it shall be burned in fire..."  Why would flesh that was pure suddenly become contaminated by merely "touching" something else that was contaminated?


Rabbi Adam Lieberman teaches a valuable and powerful lesson; namely, we are profoundly influenced by our surroundings. We do become a product of our environment. Being around any type of behavior that we don't want to fully engage in ourselves is never a good idea. The fact is, when we’re around people we don't want to become more like, their behavior - whether we decide to presently do it or not - will eventually rub off on us. We can't just declare that "I will never become like them." Good or bad, our environment will affect us.


This is true even if people aren't involved. If someone has a problem controlling his drinking, then it's clearly unwise for him to keep alcohol in his possession. Merely seeing the alcohol or knowing that's it's easily accessible could tempt an otherwise strong and determined person. In many cases, we just have to completely distance ourselves from any behavior we don't want to engage in.


Whether we like it or not, we're influenced by the company we keep. And given enough time, we can eventually become more and more like those who surround us. So we should choose our environment wisely. No matter how much willpower and conviction we have to stay "true to who we are," we're all human and for better or worse, we'll change every day whether we like it or not.


Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parsha Vayikra                              March 17, 2018 - 1 Nisan, 5778

03/15/2018 04:58:06 PM


 “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.”
--Theodore Roosevelt

An enormous archeological discovery in Israel this week has got a lot of people very excited.  About 30 km south of Haifa, a royal burial chamber was uncovered that scientists believe had been undisturbed for more than 3600 years.  That means that the last time that this chamber saw the light of day, Israel was known as Canaan, and the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  The chamber was discovered in the remains of the ancient city-state of Megiddo - a trade hub, a coastal port city, a rest-stop for traders travelling between Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa, and a place mentioned often in the Torah.  In the National Geographic article that I read on this exciting discovery, I learned a new little “fun-fact” that has given me a lot to think about.

 “The ancient site of Megiddo dominated a strategic pass on major international military and trade routes for nearly five millennia, from 3000 B.C. to 1918. Overlooking the Jezreel Valley, the site has witnessed numerous decisive battles that have altered the course of history, earning it the figurative name of Armageddon (from Har-Megiddo, or 'Hill of Megiddo') first coined in the Book of Revelation.”

How deliciously amazing is language?  I believe that language gives more substance to history and culture than any other factor, be it food, lifestyle, dress, dance, music, folk-legend… anything.  The way language evolves and spreads over time is directly related to what is happening in the lives of the people who speak it.  For example, the word “Lechem”, most commonly understood as Modern Hebrew for “bread”, is a word used in the Torah that migrated to many other ancient languages, and took on different meanings in different places.  In coastal regions, “Lechem” meant “fish”.  In the plains, it meant “meat”.  In ancient Hebrew, particularly in this week’s parsha, Vayikra, “lechem” could also mean “food”, or even “sacrifice” – and that’s a big problem for Jewish theologians.

One of the principles of pagan idol worship is that the gods require sacrifices not only for worship, but also for nourishment.  An offering to an idol is meant to be food for the god, from which that god derives sustenance in the same way that human beings need food; to survive.  In Judaism, the idea that God requires any sustenance from human beings is entirely against our concept of who and what God is.  In ancient Judaism, sacrificial offerings were not given to sustain God, but rather they were acts of contrition, submission and/or devotion to God. 

Jews sacrificed because Jews needed to sacrifice, not because God required anything from Jews for His own sake.  What this means is that Jewish sacrifices could not be understood as “food” for God, and yet, the language in the Torah suggests that this is the case.  No doubt, this is an ideological conflict that is tough to swallow (pardon the double-entendre).

Modern rabbis understand this to be a linguistic fossil – the term “lechem” is likely one of the oldest words in the Hebrew language, obviously, much older than the Torah.  It is a word that was in use a time long before monotheism, when sacrifices were thought of as food, “lechem”, for a pagan god.  The Torah certainly could have defined entirely new words so as to remove any link between the idea of pagan food-sacrifices and Jewish devotional sacrifices, and in many cases it does just that: the “olah” (burnt offering), “shelamim” (peace offering), “chattat” (sin offering) and “asham” (guilt offering).  Instead, the Torah borrows from terminology already in use, well-understood by society.

Sometimes, when we want to build a new building, we have to tear down the previous building, right down to its foundations – to completely wipe away the old, and start fresh.  The Torah describes God doing as much with the entire earth when bringing about the Great Flood in the time of Noah.  However, it can also be wise to build on top of an existing foundation – to retain something familiar, particularly amidst fundamental change.  Modern Jews often wonder why the Torah mandated sacrifices at all – after all God doesn’t really need them, the Jewish people seem to be in agreement that Judaism is managing just fine today without them.  The answer is that at the time, we needed them.  At that period in history, civilization itself, let alone religion, could not be separated from human urge to sacrifice to a deity.  Institutionalized sacrifice was necessary, and so, the Torah offered an avenue for it, in the language that satisfied that urge.  But it is amazing, that inherent within the language that invokes an antiquated sense of the meaning of sacrifice, simultaneously addressed the need of the time, as well as invited modern thinkers to recognize that sacrifice was only meant as a temporary measure, to be shed when Jewish society was ready to embrace a more thoughtful and honest understanding of the nature of God, and His relationship with humanity.  This is yet another example of the timelessness of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vayaqel-Pequdei                    March 10, 2018 - 23 Adar, 5778

03/09/2018 01:11:36 PM


When I was a younger rabbi working in Chicago, I was invited to my uncle and aunt’s 40th wedding anniversary party in Montreal. I was extremely busy, with two individuals expected to pass away imminently and felt I was just too busy to get away for the family simcha. Two weeks later, my uncle died of a heart attack and I went to the funeral; indeed, I conducted it. Later I turned to Gilah and said, “If I can make time to come to a funeral, I should be able to make time to come to a simcha.” Since then, I have never missed a family simcha. Unlike the procrastinator, who says, “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow,” I say, “Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” This is an important lesson that we learn in this week’s double portion, which concludes the Book of Exodus (Sefer Shemot).

The latter half of the book, once the Ten Commandments are given, deals with the instruction to build the Mishkan, the Sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites throughout their desert wanderings. After elaborately giving instructions to the Israelites over the past few Torah readings, in today’s portion, the Israelites actually build the structure in accordance with the previously given instructions. And, essentially, the Torah repeats what we already read, as the Torah describes how each element was made just as instructed. Even the great medieval commentator Rashi has almost nothing new to add.

However, because we trust the belief of our Sages that there is nothing superfluous in the Torah, we continue to search these portions for lessons to learn and discover that the Torah does have important things to teach us. Rabbi Joyce Newmark of NJ, in her reflections on this portion, points out that near the beginning of this week’s reading, we learn that Moses asked the people to donate the materials needed to make the Mishkan. The men and women responded generously, so much so that the Torah says (Exodus.36.5-6): “The artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came . . . and said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.” Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp – let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary.” Newmark writes: “Certainly, this was the first – and very possibly the last – time in the history of Jewish fundraising that people were told to stop donating.

However, as Moses’ accounting shows, all the donations were used for their intended purpose, with nothing left over for operating expenses or an endowment fund.”

According to the midrash Tanhuma, it took only two days to collect all of the materials needed for the Mishkan. That being the case,  there must have been hundreds, even thousands, of people who had things they sincerely wanted to contribute to the project, but they waited – just a little bit—and thus missed out on the opportunity. Perhaps they had something else they wanted to finish first, or they got distracted. Perhaps they were tired or the weather was lousy. “I’ll get to it tomorrow or maybe the next day,” they thought. But suddenly, it was too late. Everything that was needed had been collected and the procrastinators lost their chance to be part of this most holy effort. Newmark concludes: “We never know how much time we have. We go around assuming we can take care of this or that task tomorrow or next week, and quite often this is fine. Our parasha reminds us that sometimes putting it off for even a day or two means you will be too late.” What we learn is precisely the hard lesson I learned with my uncle’s passing: Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today!

So, as Rabbi Newmark emphasizes, if it’s really important to  make that phone call, thank someone who helped you, visit a family member, see the doctor, offer an apology, buy a gift, or say, “I love you,” don’t wait until it’s too late; do it now!

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Ki Tissa                                March 3, 2018 - 16 Adar, 5778

03/02/2018 12:48:56 PM


“Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?”
--William Shakespeare

In this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa, the Sin of the Golden Calf, known in Hebrew as “chet HaEgel”, has bothered Judeo-Christian theologians and Biblical scholars for millennia. It seems beyond human reason that the Israelites, having witnessed only days earlier, ten plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the public Revelation at Sinai, could then doubt and contravene God so profoundly by fashioning and worshiping an idol of their own creation. What could have possibly been going through their minds? Let’s also not forget, that the Israelites had already received the Ten Commandments verbally, in which God made it quite clear that worshiping idols was a serious infraction, not to mention the rather ominous sounding bit about God being very jealous, who visits punishment upon the third and fourth generations of a transgressor. There’s a flaw in the logic of the story vis-a-vis human reason, and it’s even harder to accept than an invisible God who parts the Red Sea.

Human beings have an amazing capacity to suspend their disbelief as we watch a movie, a tv show or a play. We know we are observing actors reciting a script, but we tell ourselves to forget all that, to just go with it, and allow ourselves to be taken over by the story. It is quite amazing how far we can push ourselves to accept far-fetched realities in which all of the events we are witnessing make perfect sense (I really enjoyed “Black Panther”). The unspoken agreement between story teller and audience is that the former lies, while the latter agrees to forget that they are being lied to. Strangely, while we have this seemingly unending capacity to accept new realities, what sets off our internal alert system and makes us suddenly see the actor as opposed to the character, is a flaw in human logic, a plot hole, a sequence of events that doesn’t follow the rule of cause and effect. The story of the Golden Calf makes no sense, and if we want to re-enter the story of Torah and continue to suspend our disbelief, we are going to have to work hard to give it some validating context.

In Christian theology, the story of Adam eating the apple in the Garden of Eden is known as the “original sin” and it plays a critical role within Christian ideology. In a nutshell, God holds children accountable for the sins of their parents, and Adam and Even are parents to all mankind. Therefore, everyone is born with Original Sin hanging over their heads, and only belief in Jesus can grant absolution which grants access to an afterlife in Heaven. But what’s so bad about Adam eating the apple that all of humanity is doomed forever? Now here is where Christianity and Judaism agree – God told Adam directly and specifically that he was not to eat the fruit of that particular tree, and he did it anyways; violating a direct order is a big one. But what could have possibly compelled Adam to violate such an order… direct… from GOD? Our tradition teaches that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s skin was luminescent, radiating with the direct knowledge of God’s existence. When we recite the blessing of the Havdalah candle, we hold up our hands to observe the light of the candle reflected off of our fingernails to imagine what Adam and Eve’s skin must have looked like. The rabbis teach that to transgress a commandment of God for Adam, must have been like poking a needle into his own eye; an act that would have to have contravened all sense of human reason. This means, that the only way for Adam to have committed the sin of eating the apple was for Adam to have been convinced that, however mistakenly, God intended for him to do it.

How did Adam become convinced that eating the apple was God’s intention? You can take your pick – perhaps he thought it was a test of asserting independence, perhaps he was led to believe that God intended for mankind to gain knowledge of good and evil by first understanding the meaning of transgression. Let us, however, apply this logic to our original issue. Can we justify the idea that the reason that the Israelites committed the Sin of the Golden Calf was because they thought that this was God’s intention?

In the Torah, God states that the Israelites are to “become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:16). To achieve this incredible feat, God supercharges their spirituality – beginning with a heritage of slavery, the Israelites watch God defeat their enemies for them by supernatural means, led through the desert by pillars of smoke and fire, they witness the Revelation at Sinai whereupon God speaks amidst thunder and the blast of an unseen shofar. Chazal teaches that at this point, it was simply too much spiritual juice for the Israelites to handle. Without the guidance of Moses (he was busy on the mountain), they craved a physical manifestation of God in which to pour out their surging spiritual energies. My imagination conjures an 8 year old kid who has just figured out on his own how to use his parents’ espresso machine, and has led to a dangerous caffeine overdose. The Israelites went a bit bananas (shout out to my Purim buddies!). What is important to consider however, is that the Israelites may not have believed that this was a sin, but rather an outburst of raw, un-channeled spiritual exuberance. Who among us can’t relate to the idea of getting carried away with a good thing? We all know how easy it is to fall into that trap, and how devastating the repercussions can be. Maturity and moderation go hand in hand – this is an axiom that hold as true for individuals as it does for a nation. (Yes, there is a political statement here.)

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tetzaveh                      February 24, 2018 - 9 Adar, 5778

02/22/2018 07:09:58 PM


A woman was standing in line at McDonald’s wearing those jeans; you know the ones with the patch on the back pocket that says "Guess." The guy behind her says: “I'm thinking 250, maybe 300 pounds!”

This week’s portion, Tetzaveh, deals with the people who will serve in the sanctuary – the kohanim (priests). We read about the elaborate vestments that were to be made for Aaron, the kohen gadol (high priest) and the special garments that were to be made for his sons. We also read about the ritual of consecration of the kohanim. The Torah tells us that on the day of their ordination, Aaron and his sons were to be dressed in their priestly vestments. Aaron was to be anointed with special oil and then sacrifices were to be offered on behalf of the new priests.

The Torah then says (Exodus 29:20): “Slaughter the ram, and take some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear and on the ridges of his sons’ right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet.” This marking of ears, thumbs, and toes is obviously symbolic, but just what does it symbolize?

Rabbi Joseph Hertz’s Torah commentary explains: “The ear was touched with the blood, that it might be consecrated to hear the word of God; the hand, to perform the duties connected with the priesthood; and the foot, to walk the path of righteousness.” In other words, this ordination ritual was intended to symbolize piety and devotion to God and God’s Torah. Another explanation, by Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, explains: “These three, the ear, the hand, and the foot, are what the Kohen and every leader must have: an ear to hear the cries of the Jews, to know and understand their needs and requirements; hands, not only to accept the offering due the priests, but also to bestow a blessing on whoever needs it; and feet which hasten to run and help whoever is in need.” That is, the kohanim were never to forget that their mission was to serve the people, particularly those in need.

Rabbi Newmark, in her comments on the portion, asks: so which is it? She answers, and I agree, that it seems clear to that it must be both. The kohanim were ordained to serve God and their fellow human beings. Torah and mitzvot are not an end in themselves, but a means to building a just and compassionate society. We are taught in Bereshit Rabbah 44:1, “Rav said, the mitzvot were given only in order that human beings might be refined by them. For what does the Holy Blessed One care whether a person slaughters an animal by the throat or by the nape of the neck? Hence its purpose is to refine human beings.”

This is more than a nice teaching. Rabbi Newmark tells of an incident that happened to her in NJ this winter: I had to dig my car out of huge mounds of snow many times. On several of these occasions, young men from a nearby yeshiva walked by singly or in pairs, some of them actually turning their heads away so they could pretend that they didn’t see me. I wondered, what good were their long hours of Torah study if none of these young men was willing to take a few minutes to help a 60-something-year-old woman struggling with a snow shovel only a few hundred yards from their beit midrash? Isn’t the point of learning to help bring God into the world?”

The Torah tells us that Aaron and his sons were installed in the priesthood through the marking of their ears, hands and feet. Moreover, the Torah also tells us (Exodus 19:6) that God has called us to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Like the very first kohanim, we fulfill that destiny when we turn our ears, hands, and feet to the service of God and to the service of our fellow human beings.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Terumah                    February 17, 2018 - 2 Adar, 5778

02/16/2018 01:21:16 PM


“What do you have to do with the Kotel? Reform [Jews], go bar-mitzvah your dogs.” 
                                                                                                           --MK Eliezer Moses

I apologize.  For the regular readers of my Shabbat column, I usually begin with a fun, uplifting or interesting quote that serves as a little spiritual cookie; a thematically relevant morsel of soul food to nibble on over Shabbat.  This week’s quote is anything but that.  It was quoted just this week from a member of the Israeli Knesset, Eliezer Moses, at a government special committee meeting discussing the administration body and protocols for the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem.  The meeting was also boycotted at the last moment by the government-appointed Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall and chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.  Not that it makes any significant difference, but it should also be mentioned that in the above quote, MK Moses is referring collectively to both the Reform Jewish community and the Conservative Jewish community when he uses the term “Reform”.

 The Western Wall plaza has been run like a privately owned orthodox synagogue since its first chief rabbi was installed, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, by the Israeli government, immediately following the 6 Day War.  Upon Rabbi Getz’s death in 1995, he was succeeded by the current incumbent, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch.  For most of the entire history of Israeli control of the site, these two rabbis assumed broad authority over the Western Wall Plaza at the behest of the Israeli government, drawing a government salary, without every actually being bothered by the Knesset as to the manner in which the site was run.  In all this time, in accordance with orthodox Jewish practice, women at the Western Wall have been separated from the men, women have not been permitted to touch a Torah scroll, they have not been permitted to wear a tallit (although, in recent months, women wishing to wear a tallit have been allowed to get around this particular site rule by wearing the garment in the same manner as a scarf), women may not even be permitted to be heard praying too loudly.  In recent years, activist groups such as the Women of the Wall, and various other lobbying groups representing extra-orthodox Jewish interests, have brought to light the fact that non-orthodox Jews have been prohibited from worshiping at the kotel in their traditional manner.  Fearing a loss of key financial support from American non-orthodox Jewish organizations, the Knesset had promised to review the issue, and some solutions have since been considered – all without the consent of Rabbi Rabinovitch, the government appointee, supposedly charged with managing religious affairs of the site.

This week, a government meeting, carefully planned in order to accommodate Rabbi Rabinovitch’s schedule was snubbed by the rabbi, at the recommendation of the ultra-orthodox Shas party.  At the meeting, MK Moses, member of the Shas party, asserted that it was beneath Rabbi Rabinovitch to have to answer to the Knesset on the ritual regulations and policies that he maintains and institutes to manage the Western Wall site.  Then, as MK Moses rose to leave the meeting in disgust, he blasted the quote that began this article.

As an ironic coincidence, this week’s Parsha, Tetzaveh, deals primarily with the rules and rituals governing the Tabernacle – the object that marked the place of the resting presence of God, to whom all Israelites, rich and poor, came to offer sacrifices, gifts and donations.

Who gets the privilege of being close to God?  Most other religions require some kind of anointed intermediary, a person imbued with a Divine gift (priest, Imam, etc.) who acts as a bridge between God and common folk.  This is not the Jewish way.  Becoming a rabbi or cantor or any other Jewish official does not involve any process by which they are imbued with any more holiness than anybody else.  The title “rabbi” represents scholarship and leadership.  The title “cantor” represents the skill of being able to jazz up an otherwise dry Hebrew prayer service.  One of the many uniquenesses of Judaism is that none of us needs an intermediary to talk to God.  Just like Tevye, any one of us is welcome to look up and say “I know we are the chosen people, but once in a while, can’t you choose somebody else?”

Jewish tradition has evolved over the millennia into a wide range of ideas, beliefs and traditions, but yet, all still united by a basic theology, and a common heritage.  I am a Conservative Jew because I think that Conservative Judaism is the most legitimate form of Judaism, more so than Orthodoxy, more so than Reform.  But never, would I ever claim that my belief in the legitimacy of my practice gives me the right to deny someone else the freedom to practice theirs.

The Western Wall belongs to all Jews (and really, all people) around the world – not just orthodox Jews, and certainly not Rabbi Rabinovitch, to dictate how we practice our Judaism at our holy site.  It is important to remember that comments like that of MK Moses do not reflect the feelings of all orthodox Jews, and that his words of ignorance, stubbornness and narrowmindedness are not shared by all members of the orthodox community.  Nevertheless, it is a belief that is supported by many within Israel’s religious leadership.  Luckily, it is offhanded comments like these that expose such people as the bigots they are.  We hope that the fallout will awaken the sensibilities of the majority to the issues, and begin the process of change for the better.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections—Parshat Mishpatim                  February 10, 2018 - 25 Shevat, 5778

02/07/2018 03:24:17 PM


A red-faced judge convened court after a long lunch. The first case involved a man charged with drunk driving who claimed it simply wasn't true.

"I'm as sober as you are, your honor," the man claimed.

The judge replied, "Clerk, please enter a guilty plea. The defendant is sentenced to 30 days."

In this week’s Torah reading, we learn about Mishapatim, laws and ordinances, which add to the basic teachings of the Ten Commandments.  However, for the Jewish People, the literal word of the text is not the final word in understanding Torah. The Judaism we celebrate today is largely the product of the ancient Rabbis of the first centuries CE.  In transforming Judaism from a biblical to a modern tradition, they introduced a method for making Torah relevant to generations present and future.

Their methodology of Torah study consisted of four levels of understanding and examination: P’shat-first understand the “literal meaning” of the verse; Drash-then, look for the interpretative meaning; Remez-discover the philosophical underpinnings, the homiletical/moral lesson learned from this verse; and finally, Sod-pursue the hidden, mystical meaning. By means of these four levels of understanding, the ancient Rabbis empowered every generation with the authority to interpret the meaning of Torah in their times.  They also made clear that the Torah is a God-inspired document.  As mere mortals, we cannot hope to completely understand the reasoning or moral underpinning of every verse (thus, the notion of Sod/hidden meaning).

This week’s Torah portion contains two good examples of rabbinic method. The famous principle of lex talionis (retaliation) states (Ex. 21:24-25): “…. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for a hand, foot for a foot, burn for a burn, wound for a wound, bruise for a bruise.”  There is no doubt in the context of biblical times these verses were meant to be understood literally.  Their origin is attributed to King Hamurabi of Babylonia in the 18th century BCE.  However, later rabbinic literature never understood it this way. The Talmud understands "an eye for an eye" as meaning that someone who damages an eye must pay the value of that eye.  An eye's worth for an eye.  The Drash (interpretive meaning) and Remez (moral lesson) become as important as the P’shat (literal meaning) in understanding this portion of Torah.

Another example (Ex. 22:17) teaches: “You shall not let a sorceress (witch) live.”  Rabbi Howard Siegel points out that this verse, understood literally, became the basis for executing innocent women in 17th century Salem Massachusetts. However, already by the 2nd century CE the ancient Rabbis understood this verse to mean “you shall not provide a witch with a livelihood.”  Today, the Wiccan religion and neo-paganism—the modern religious practice of witchcraft—bears no semblance to the ancient taboos addressed by the Torah. This verse requires a re-interpretation and understanding in our own day.

By placing Torah at the center of Jewish practice, we recognize the centrality of God’s presence and the never-ending evolution of God’s word.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Yitro                                    February 3, 2018 - 18 Shevat, 5778

02/02/2018 11:31:02 AM


“There is no Wi-Fi in the forest, but I promise, you will find a better connection.”            --Unknown

When I served my first pulpit in London, England, one of my duties was to teach the conversion class.  Of all duties that I have performed as a career cantor, this may perhaps have been my favourite.  The conversion classes that I taught were typically full of young professionals around my own age, all eager to learn and absorb everything they possibly could.  Many of them were present together with a Jewish fiancée, supporting them through the process, who, themselves were often learning many things about Judaism for the first time.  In my mind, there is absolutely nothing like watching people become exposed to Jewish ideas for the first time, particularly those concerning behaviour and values that will forever alter their perceptions of personal integrity, relationships, accountability, priorities and focus.  Our discussions on Shabbat invariably hit on all of these simultaneously, and this made for the most exciting sessions of the entire course.

For a newbie, the idea of Shabbat is extremely hard to process.  On the one hand, we’re supposed to rest, on the other, we are not supposed to have access to many of the things that help us do that in the modern age – no TV, internet, music, we aren’t even supposed to turn a light off if we want to take a nap.  On the one hand, we are meant to spend Shabbat with family, but on the other, we aren’t supposed to travel so that we can go and visit them.  On the one hand, we are meant to have a break from our usual obligations, but on the other, we still have to wake up early so that we can spend half our day in shul.  It’s easy to see why this could be very confusing to the uninitiated.  As Jews, we have great answers to all of these very legitimate questions.   To answer them requires a long discussion, often drawing on cultural and textual references that can easily go right over the head of a rookie Jew.  For me class, I needed a simple answer; one that would instantly appease initial curiosities and also help facilitate a deeper understanding.  For my class, we developed a motto, “sometimes, you have to DO it in order to UNDERSTAND it”.  

In the case of Shabbat, it is so clear to so many that you can never appreciate what Shabbat means from the outside looking in.  To everyone else, the rules of Shabbat appear to be anything but rest-inducing.  To experience it once won’t change a newbie’s opinion either, and that’s because it only works once you get used to it.  It’s like camping.  A first time camper seems to be experiencing withdrawal symptoms when he or she can’t recharge a cell phone.  The seasoned camper can’t wait to turn the phone off for the weekend. 

In this week’s parsha, Yitro, the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments.  Three times, the Israelites verbally acknowledge acceptance of God’s law.  The third time, the Israelites respond, “Na’aseh, v’nishma” – “we will do, and we will listen”.  The idea of being forced to do something before being able to understand something is one of the great Jewish principles that is in direct conflict with today’s modern sensibilities: “doing” and “understanding” are in the wrong order.  We are conditioned to need proof, to be given a reason, before we are finally convinced to take action.  Can you imagine a social action campaigner asking for money first, before explaining what the money is for?

As a conversion class teacher, regardless of the context of almost any discussion, this simple concept is the fundamental principle that the entire course is trying to teach – that in order to get most things in Judaism, you sort of have to shoot first and ask questions later.  This doesn’t negate the need for questions.  Judaism loves questions!  Ask lots of them, challenge the conventional wisdom, weigh different approaches, a true scholar of Judaism is never afraid of any of these things, and is often inclined to do them him or herself.  But for anyone, Jewish scholar or newbie alike, to assume to ever have a complete understanding of the wisdom of Torah is the ultimate expression of hubris.  In the meantime, it’s the Torah, and as Jews it is our duty first to “do”.  We have the rest of our lives to pursue the endless endeavor that is learning to understand.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Tu B'Shevat                                 January 20, 2018 - 11 Shevat, 5778

01/26/2018 01:46:24 PM


“Oh, the weather outside is frightful / But the fire is so delightful; / Since we've no place to go / Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. / Doesn't show signs of stopping / And I brought some corn for popping / The lights are turned way down low / Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow... “For many of us, the frigid temperatures outside and the blowing wind are rather less romantic than the lyrics of "Let It Snow," a song written by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne in July 1945; just one of many "Christmas hits" written by Jews. It was written in Hollywood, CA during a heat wave as Cahn and Styne imagined cooler conditions. Although the song's lyrics make no mention of Christmas, it is played on radio stations during the Christmas season and is often covered by various artists on Christmas-themed albums.

So, "if the weather outside is frightful" why entitle a blog "Spring Already?" Because, January 31 will mark the onset of Spring... in Israel, with the celebration of Tu B'Shevat, "The Jewish New Year for Trees!" Tu B'Shevat, the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat, is a holiday also known as the New Year for Trees or Jewish Arbor Day. The word "Tu" is not really a word; it is the number 15 in Hebrew, as if you were to call Remembrance Day, November 11, "November XI" (XI being 11 in Roman numerals).

Judaism has four different "new years." This is not as strange a concept as it sounds at first blush; in Canada, we have the calendar new year (January 1), the school new year (September), and many businesses have fiscal new years and each of us celebrates our birthday as a new year for each of us. It's basically the same idea with the various Jewish new years.

Tu B'Shevat is the New Year for the purpose of calculating the age of trees for tithing. In the Book of Leviticus 19:23-25, the Torah states that fruit from trees may not be eaten during the first three years; the fourth year's fruit is for God (tithed), and after that, we can eat the fruit. Each tree is considered to have aged one year as of Tu B'Shevat, so if you planted a tree on Shevat 14, it begins its second year the next day, but if you plant a tree two days later, on Shevat 16, it does not reach its second year until the next Tu B'Shevat.

However, Tu B'Shevat is not mentioned in the Torah. There is only one reference to it in the Mishnah (an early Jewish Law Code c. 180 CE) and the only thing said there is that it is the new year for trees. In fact, in the Mishnah, there is a dispute as to the proper date for the holiday. The followers of the great Sage Shammai (Beit Shammai) said the proper day was the first of Shevat, when the almond trees blossom in the lowlands; but the followers of the great Sage Hillel (Beit Hillel) said it should be the 15th day of Shevat, when the almonds blossom in the Galilee (the highlands) and the whole of Israel is in bloom. As is the legal tradition in Judaism, we follow Beit Hillel. Hence the New Year for Trees begins on the 15th of the month, rather than on the first of the month of Shevat.

There are few customs or observances related to this holiday. One custom is to eat a new fruit on this day, or to eat from the Seven Species (shivat haminim) described in the Bible as being abundant in the land of Israel. The Shivat Haminim are (according to Deuteronomy 8:8): wheat, barley, grapes (vines), figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (honey). One can make a nice vegetarian pilaf from the shivat haminim: a bed of cooked bulgar wheat or wheat berries and barley, topped with figs, dates, raisins (grapes), and pomegranate seeds, served with a dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar (grapes) and pomegranate juice.

Some people plant trees on this day, particularly in Israel through Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayyemet L'Israel). In my childhood, Jewish children commonly went around collecting money to plant trees in Israel at this time of year. For each x cents (growing up, for me, it went from 5 to 10 to 25 cents per leaf) we'd get a leaf on a tree. When the tree was full, we'd submit it with the money and a tree would be planted.

In the 16th century, kabbalists, developed a seder ritual conceptually similar to the Pesach (Passover) seder, discussing the spiritual significance of fruits and of the shivat haminim. They drank four cups of wine and said blessings over the fruits beseeching God for a fertile and bountiful year. This custom spread primarily in Sephardi communities (Jews of the Mediterranean basin) and Mizrachi communities (Jews of Arab lands), but in recent years it has been getting more attention among Ashkenazi (Jews of Northern, Eastern and Western Europe).

Nowadays, it has also become a Jewish expression of environmental awareness and ecology, with many using it as an opportunity to do something that helps preserve and maintain conservation and ecologically fragile or important areas here, in Israel and abroad. I encourage all of us to take a moment to give thanks for the natural beauty we have here in Canada, around the world, and especially in Israel; and to commit ourselves to living lives that acknowledge the importance of preserving our ecosystems for future generations. And to pray for an early spring!

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments:  Parshat Bo                                           January 20, 2018   - 4 Shevat, 5778

01/19/2018 01:33:56 PM


“What I fear most is power with impunity.  I fear the abuse of power, and the power to abuse.”
--Isabelle Allende, Chilean-American novelist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari in connection with the #MeToo movement has been at the center of a hot debate this week.  This past Sunday, Ansari was awarded a Golden Globe for best actor in a TV series for his role in “Master of None”.  In is award photos, he proudly displayed his #MeToo and #TimesUp pins, in support of the movement that is encouraging women to speak about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, at last holding offenders accountable for their crimes.  A woman, under the pseudonym “Grace”, seeing the photos, decided it was time to tell her story as a victim of Ansari, stating that it was, “cringeworthy that he was wearing the Time’s Up pin”.  When the story was picked up by mainstream media, the public shaming began.  Ansari was immediately black-balled by the Hollywood industry, as his name was being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.  The problem is, according to Grace’s own story, Ansari never actually committed any act of sexual misconduct.

Avoiding crude terms, there’s no question that Grace’s episode with Ansari was unpleasant for her – unpleasant, but consensual.  She engaged with him voluntarily until she decided she would go no further, at which point, she left without further incident.  Once again, according to Grace’s own story, at no point was Ansari in a position of power over her, he did not use any force or coercion, and as soon as Grace made it verbally clear that she was uncomfortable, he withdrew.  Some notable few are defending Ansari, like CNN host, Ashleigh Banfield, who stated in an open letter, “You [Grace] have chiseled away at a movement that I, along with all my sisters in the workplace, have been dreaming of for decades, a movement that has finally changed an oversexed professional environment that I, too, have struggled through at times over the last 30 years.”  Others remain critical of Ansari, saying that he behaved boorishly; that he should have been better tuned in to Grace’s body language and understood that she was uncomfortable without her having to say so.

Though the comparison may be a strange leap between sexual assault and the story of Exodus, our parsha this week, Bo, illustrates the criteria for willful negligence on the part of Pharoah, which incurs punishment from God.

The timeless phrase that Moses says to Pharoah, “let my people go”, is actually misleading.  Up until the very last plague, Moses never actually asks Pharoah to free the Israelites.  Far less dramatically, Moses asks Pharoah only that the Israelites may be allowed to go to the desert for a time, specifically to celebrate a festival to God and worship, and though the Torah doesn’t say so specifically, the language makes it seem that the Moses plans to return with Israelites to Egypt when they are done.  “Moses and Aaron were returned to Pharoah and he said to them, ‘Go and serve your God; which of you will be going?’  Moses said, ‘with our youngsters and with our elders shall we go; with our sons and with our daughters, with our flock and with our cattle shall we go, because it is a festival of God for us.’” (Ex. 10:8-9)

By this point, seven plagues have already been visited upon Egypt.  Pharoah is worn down and so he concedes to Moses, “’Let you go with the men [to the desert].  Serve your God, for that is what you are asking.’  And he drove them [Moses and Aaron] out from Pharoah’s presence.” (Ex. 10:11)  A part of me wonders what might have happened to the Israelite civilization if Pharoah had been a better listener here.  We would have gone to the desert, had a nice little festival, returned to Egypt as slaves and perhaps that would have been the end of the story of Judaism.  Herein lies the willful negligence – Moses made his intentions clear – everybody gets to go.  Even though Pharoah believes he is conceding by allowing only the men, he has missed the critical point that it is his failure to listen, to heed the warnings, that is leading him to his own destruction.

Today, power has the uncanny ability to inhibit listening skills.  Awareness of the needs of others requires a semblance of humility, the ability to put aside our own wants and needs, to quiet our ego, which is often contrary to the nature of power and dominance.  This is equally true for world leaders as it is in the workplace relationships, and indeed, any situation in which one person holds power over another.  The nature of the #MeToo movement is to call attention to those instances where power is willfully abused in the most heinous of ways.  However, when if this cause is invoked where there is no misuse of power, and communication is clearly acknowledged, it is the cause that is abused, and its value diminished.


Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vaera                               January 13, 2018 - 26 Tevet, 5778

01/12/2018 10:14:32 AM


This week I share the insights of Rabbi Joyce Newmark who writes: Everyone knows that thirteen is the age of Bar Mitzvah. What is less well-known is that in Pirkei Avot Yehudah ben Tema offers a complete chronology of Jewish life:  At five years of age - the study of Bible, at ten - the study of Mishnah, at thirteen - responsibility for the mitzvot, at fifteen - the study of Talmud, at eighteen - marriage, at twenty - pursuit of a livelihood, at thirty - the peak of one's powers, at forty - the age of understanding, at fifty - the age of counsel, at sixty - old age, at seventy - the hoary head, at eighty - the age of strength, at ninety - the bent back, at one hundred - as one dead and out of this world.

At eighty - the age of strength?  That's certainly not how most of our society perceives eighty. Someone who is eighty, in our Western mentality, is “over the hill,” useless, frail and sickly, just waiting to die, and often seen as a burden to his or her family and community.  It's no wonder that nobody wants to be old - or to be perceived as old.  We spend billions of dollars to cover up gray hair and bald heads.  We rush to buy the newest product that promises to conceal wrinkles and age spots.  We squeeze aging bodies into clothing designed for teenagers.  And if none of this works - well, there's always cosmetic surgery.  Old age seems to be a modern form of leprosy.  We hide old people in nursing homes, retirement communities, and senior citizen centers because we don't want young people to be frightened by glimpses of their future.

In this week's Torah portion, Vaera, we come to the heart of the Exodus story. Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go. Pharaoh, of course, refuses, and so the plagues begin, but before the first plague we read, “Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three, when they made their demand on Pharaoh.”  They were old men! Moses and Aaron should have been living in the Egyptian equivalent of the Jewish Home for the Aged, not contending with Pharaoh for the future of the Jewish people.  Yet the Torah actually stops in the middle of the narrative to tell us that Moses was 80 and Aaron 83 at the beginning of their mission.

The 12th century Spanish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra writes, “We do not find prophets anywhere else in Tanakh about whom the text points out that they prophesied when elderly, except these.” Why? Ibn Ezra continues, “Because [Torah] attributes greatness to them beyond all other prophets, for onlyto them did God appear . . . for only to them was the Torah given, and thus through their hands do the righteous inherit the world to come.” Ibn Ezra's comment makes it seem as if, somehow, the greatness of Moses and Aaron was attributable to their age, as if 80 years were required to learn the lessons that would be needed to carry out their mission.

And what are the lessons of age?  The compassion that comes from seeing that everyone is capable of foolishness and that no one is immune to pain.  The humility that comes from seeing plans and aspirations - one's own and others' - fall short and discovering that success can strike without warning. The strength that comes from learning, finally, that your most important judge is yourself, that the favor of kings and princes is worthless if you have no self-respect.  The strength of eighty is not physical.  Few people who reach eighty do so without aches and pains, without slowing down, and some only reach this age with severely diminished powers.  The strength of eighty is the strength of character that comes from a lifetime of learning.

When we see only the physical, the external, and when we fear aging and therefore the aged, we sacrifice a precious resource. The Torah commands us (Leviticus 19:32), “you shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old” because the word for old, zakein, is often used in Rabbinic literature to mean scholar, the Talmud asks: does this apply only to an old person who is wise and scholarly, one who is to be respected for his learning? The answer is no, even an am ha-aretz, an uneducated person, who has reached old age has something worthwhile to teach.

The elderly are not to be hidden away and shunned as if carrying some dread disease. “Rabbi Yehuda said, be careful with an old person who has forgotten his learning because of his circumstances (Rashi explains, because of illness or poverty). The Tablets [of the Ten Commandments] and the broken pieces of the [first] Tablets were both placed in the Ark.” (Berakhot 8b) And never forget, by the way we treat our elders we are teaching our children how to one day treat us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments: Parshat Shemot                          January 6, 2018-  4 Tevet, 5778

01/05/2018 10:33:24 AM


"What children need most are the essentials that grandparents provide in abundance. They give unconditional love, kindness, patience, humor, comfort, lessons in life.  And, most importantly, cookies." – Rudy Giuliani

My parents enjoy telling me the story of the first musical I ever went to see.  In 1983 we were living in Santa Barbara, California, and I was taken to a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance at a local theatre; I was eighteen months old.  You might wonder, what exactly does an eighteen-month-old baby get out of a theatre experience?  Why bother taking them?  They don’t form lasting memories at that age, they can’t follow a complex storyline, and nothing holds their attention for more than 3 minutes.  An eighteen-month-old is likely just as happy playing with a two-dollar red rubber ball as they would be on an expensive vacation to Disney World.  Nevertheless, I am told that after coming home from the production, I would not go to sleep.  Rather, I stood up in my crib and screamed over and over at the top of my lungs, “I AM THE PIRATE KING!  HURRAH FOR THE PIRATE KING!”.

I have no personal recollection of that experience, but for as long as I can remember, I have had an infatuation with music and theatre.  What about my Jewish identity?  To what magical combination of experiences in my history do I owe that?

This week, we are kicking off the next book in the Torah, the book of Exodus.  The entire previous book, Genesis, you might even just think of as a long introduction – kind of like what The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  We are about to get started into the main epic story of the Israelite nation, and we are at last introduced to our main character… Moses.  In a few quick chapters, Moses has already grown up as a prince of Egypt, he flees to Midian where he has a psychedelic experience with some holy shrubbery, and is on his way back to Egypt with a divine mission.  Before he arrives in Egypt, though, Moses arranges to do some very critical recruitment.  He meets up with his brother, Aaron in the desert, along with “kol ziknei beit Yisrael”, “all of the elders of the Israelites”.  In Midrash Shmot Rabbah, Rabbi Akivah explains that it was critical to bring aboard the elders of the Israelites before Moses makes his first move against the Pharoah.  As an educated prince of Egypt, Moses understood that for an insurrection to be successful, it must be supported by the people, and the people had no reason at the time to trust or believe in him as their leader.  So, Moses first had to win over the people who were considered by the Israelites to be their beloved leaders, and carriers of the wisdom of their forefathers.  Rabbi Akivah compares Jewish elders to wings on a bird – that they are the very things that give a bird its identity, and enable it to be where it belongs, in the sky.  Clearly, Rabbi Akivah hadn’t considered penguins, ostriches or other flightless birds, but his metaphor, is nonetheless easy to understand.  He believes that our elders are the source of our Jewish identity.

I remember Friday night dinners at the homes of all of my grandparents – my paternal grandparents, I called Grandma and Grandpa, and maternal grandparents I called Bubie and Zaidy.  At Grandma and Grandpa’s, I remember the distinctive sounding Mason & Rich piano, the layout of the split-back house, and my Grandpa’s distinctive Hungarian-Chassidishe accent when he made Kiddush.  At my Bubie and Zaidy’s, I remember the smell of the basement, the plastic wrapped sofa cushions, the sound of my Bubie’s voice reciting the blessing of the candles, and the taste of Crown Royal that I was allowed to dip my finger into to try.  These memories will last my entire lifetime, and I have heard countless stories from others whose similar warm memories of grandparents are also the root of their Jewish identities today.

Montreal Chassidic singer/songwriter of the 1960s, Moshe Yess, sums up Rabbi Akivah’s philosophy in his song, My Zaidy:

Zaidy made us laugh, and Zaidy made us sing. And Zaidy made a kiddush Friday night

And Zaidy, oh my Zaidy, how I love him so. And Zaidy used to teach me wrong from right.

His eyes lit up when he would teach me Torah. // He taught me every line so carefully

He spoke about our slavery in Egypt // And how G-d took us out to make us free.

But winter went by, summer came along, // I went to camp to run and play

And when I came back home, they said “Zaidy’s gone. // And all his books were packed and stored away.”

I don’t know how or why it came to be // It happened slowly over many years

We just stopped being Jewish like my Zaidy was // And no one cared enough to shed a tear.

Many winters went by, many summers came along // And now my children sit in front of me

And who will be the Zaidy of my children? // Who will be their Zaidy, if not me?

Who will be the Zaidys of our children? // Who will be their Zaidys, if not we?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vayechi                    December 30, 2017 - 12 Tevet, 5778

12/29/2017 01:35:02 PM


These are from actual resumes: REASONS FOR LEAVING THE LAST JOB: "Responsibility makes me nervous." "They insisted that all employees get to work by 8:45 every morning. Couldn't work under those conditions." "The company made me a scapegoat - just like my three previous employers." Aaron Lieberman of Aish HaTorah teaches us an important lesson from this week’s Torah portion about personal responsibility:

Right before Jacob passed away, he asked his son, Joseph, to promise him that he would be buried in Israel and not in Egypt. Joseph immediately said (Genesis 47:30): "I will personally do as you have said". Lieberman writes: We've all had the experience after being told that something will get done, that for one reason or another, it never happens. The person might have had all of the best intentions to do it himself, but quite often he asks others to assist him, or he delegates it to someone else entirely, and then someone drops the ball and it never gets done at all, or gets done poorly.

But when someone assures us that he will personally do something, taking full responsibility for the task, it almost always gets done right. This is what Joseph did -- he told Jacob that he will do as he said, making a personal guarantee that his request will be done. This is because a piece of the person is now on the line. People who take explicit ownership for something will feel a sense of healthy pressure to make sure that it gets done because their own self-esteem and self-respect are now all tied into the completion of this task.

Many people don't take personal responsibility because it's so much easier just to pass the buck. By verbalizing to others that [we're] taking on a task [ourselves], then [we] will now gain enormous self-esteem. This is because [we’ll] now see [ourselves] as someone who isn't afraid to commit and as someone who keeps our word.

It's also comforting to hear someone say he'll personally take care of something. It shows just how much the person cares and the importance he places on our request. So the next time [we’re] asked if [we] can do something, don't just agree. Say "I will personally do as you have said," and watch the contentment and ease flush the requester's face. And since taking full, total, and complete responsibility will also dramatically increase [our] own self-esteem, [we’ll] feel even better than the requester does.

Shabbat Shalom,
                     Rabbi Geoff

Cantorial Comments: Parshat Vayyigash                 December 22, 2017 -  4 Tevet, 5778

12/22/2017 02:58:39 PM


Cantor Jeremy Burko


"Wise men speak because they have something to say.  
Fools speak because they have to say something."  

Two weeks ago, the United States officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and initiated plans to move their embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. My last article explored the history of this momentous decision, along with some important considerations and consequences of this change in policy. However, I ultimately (and reluctantly) applauded President Donald Trump for championing this important issue for Jews around the world, and boldly forging a stronger American-Israeli relationship, than had existed under the Obama presidency. Since that decision, world Jewry has been carefully observing the inevitable fallout – violence from the Palestinians, outcry from the Arab/Muslim world, and condemnation from other world leaders. By the time you all read this article, the next card will be played by the United Nations, as they will have voted on a resolution to formally condemn America’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

As I write this article, the vote has not yet happened, but as the UN is perhaps one of the most outlandishly anti-Semitic international organizations on earth, I’m going to go out on a proverbial limb here and assume that it passed (sarcasm intended). In fact, I don’t think I’m being overly pessimistic in imagining that Israel and the United States will be the only countries to vote against the resolution. I hope that Canada will vote against it. I hope that Germany and the United Kingdom will vote against it. I hope, but I do not expect.

I’ve been wondering, what would I say if I had Nikki Haley’s job as the US Ambassador to the UN? What would I say to this shameful body of delegates who’s vote against me is a forgone conclusion? Do I try and butter them up with flattery? Do I try and actually compose a logical argument in some futile effort to change their minds? Or do I publicly shame them for what they are going to do anyway, and stand up for my own beliefs and principles? Ambassador Haley took this latter approach, and while I don’t blame her for a single second, I’m also not sure what she accomplished. That being said, I know that I certainly couldn’t have done any better.

Oddly enough, our great Rabbis of Blessed Memory, have a very similar argument over this week’s parsha, regarding Judah’s speech to Joseph which begins the Torah reading. In the Biblical narrative, the eleven sons of Jacob have returned to Egypt to meet with Pharoah’s second-in-command (Joseph in disguise) to beg and plead for food. Joseph has tested the familial bond between the brothers by framing Benjamin for stealing, and observing their reaction. Rather than give up their youngest brother to a life of slavery, Judah, addresses Joseph and the Egyptian court with a tear-jerking and impassioned speech on his youngest brother’s behalf.

Judah carefully uses every rhetorical skill he knows – he appeals to Joseph with flattery, appeals to Joseph’s emotions, he uses argumentative logic, he admonishes Joseph for imposing such a harsh punishment, and finally, offers himself to accept the punishment in place of his brother. Upon hearing these words, Joseph bursts into tears and reveals his identity – a happy ending. But which of Judah’s rhetorical tools or arguments was the one that clinched the deal? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch is certain that it was the flattery, Rashi says that it was the admonishment for the overly harsh punishment, Nachmonides says it was the emotional appeal. Nachama Leibovitz points out that Judah uses the term ‘father’ four times in his speech, that Judah was appealing to Joseph using the most basic understanding of love that a human being can have, the love of a parent.

Ultimately, though, does it matter which argument was the one that worked? Rabbi Harvey Fields says no - that what was important was not so much what was said, but that Judah said it. He stood up for his brother, defended him in the best way that he knew how, and in so doing, Judah became a champion for justice. The Torah teaches “tzedek tzedek tirdof” “true justice shall you pursue”. Sometimes we don’t get justice, but this never negates the commandment to pursue it with everything we can muster. It is a world that seems to always be upside down as time after time, the Jewish people are forced to stand up alone in front of a room filled with adversaries, those who seek to undermine justice, those who propagate intolerance, and those who support hatred and conflict. Yet, even if we are alone, we stand up for ourselves nonetheless. We stand up for ourselves, and for the state of Israel, now and always.

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Miqetz                      December 16, 2017 - 28 Kislev, 5778

12/13/2017 06:21:07 PM


The secular New Year is around the corner and with it comes our New Year’s resolutions. We have dreams about the things we’d like to accomplish in the New Year: quit smoking, lose weight, by kinder and so forth. The problem is that most of our resolutions last only a couple of weeks. So, my New Year’s resolution is to stop hanging out with people who ask me about my New Year’s resolutions.

In a similar vein, the story of Joseph is filled with dreams: Joseph’s dreams about the sheaves of wheat and the sun, moon, and stars that caused his brothers to hate him and brought him to Egypt as a slave; the dreams of Pharaoh’s courtiers, the cupbearer and the baker, which Joseph interpreted correctly and led the cupbearer to suggest that Joseph be brought to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams; and Pharaoh’s dreams of the cattle and the grain which Joseph interpreted as a message from God to Pharaoh to prepare for the future and then led to Joseph’s appointment as viceroy of Egypt. We all dream and, to shift the meaning of the word slightly, we all have dreams – things we want to accomplish, ambitions we want to fulfill, goals for ourselves and those close to us, hopes.

But how do hopes become reality? Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was known for the saying, “Im tirtzu, ein lo aggadah,” If you will it, it is no dream. But it takes more than will, more than wishing, more than prayer.

In my Rabbinic life, the synagogues I served often spoke about creating a strategic plan.  It is the idea that shul should not just lurch from year to year, but should invest in planning where they wanted to go over the next five-year (or longer) period. So, we hired consultants to help us create strategic plans, and spent fortunes for binders full of data outlining mission statements, goals, and strategies. Too often, though, the congregations just used these documents to fill several feet of bookcases and didn’t do anything that was recommended in them. It wasn’t that the plans weren’t good. The problem was that the synagogues didn’t know how to turn them into reality. Knowing this, one of my shuls had an in-house retreat on a Sunday for the staff and board where we had to prepare a list of specific things they were going to do on Monday morning (when we returned to our offices) to implement the plan. The success of the plan depended on taking concrete actions right away.

And this was also the basis of Joseph’s success. Rabbi Joyce Newmark (20th c., USA) teaches that when Joseph heard Pharaoh’s dream, he did not merely explain that God was warning the king about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine; he also offered a plan of action: Let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom and set him over the land of Egypt; and let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land; and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities; and let that food be a reserve for the seven years of famine. And since it was Joseph’s plan, he was appointed to carry it out, so that he saved not only Egypt, but also his family, from the ravages of starvation. Rabbi Newmark observes: it’s not enough to have a dream, it’s not even enough to have a plan. To accomplish anything worthwhile, you have to know what you’re going to do on Monday morning. It need not be a huge task, but it must be a real one – not a wish or a fantasy, but a concrete action.

Like Rabbi Newmark, I often speak to people about becoming more involved Jewishly, taking on new mitzvot, participating more fully in services and synagogue life. I tell them, don’t worry about doing everything – just do something. After all, many people find the idea of becoming kosher or shomer Shabbat daunting – it’s too much, “I don’t want to completely give up my current life, I’m not sure if my family can live with the change.  I understand that. It’s a big commitment” – so start with a small commitment. Decide that you won’t eat pork products any more, or that you won’t use the computer on Shabbat. These are real, solid, important steps on a Jewish journey. The point is to decide to take action and to do it – on Monday morning. The Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So take that first step from dream to reality.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Geoff

Cantorial Comments: Parshat Vayyeshev                December 9, 2017 - 14 Kislev, 5778

12/08/2017 02:14:43 PM


“May you live in interesting times.”
--Traditional Chinese curse

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel!  This big announcement was issued from the White House this past Wednesday, and in related news, in turns out that water is wet, dogs have a tendency to bark and children should avoid performing brain surgery on their younger siblings.

Since the 6-Day War, when Israel captured the Temple mount and East Jerusalem from the Jordanians, it was never a real question as to which city Israel considered to be its capital.  In Jerusalem, you will find the Knesset (Israeli parliament building), Israel’s supreme court, the residences of both the Israeli prime minister and president, along with pretty much anything one would expect to find in a capital city, with one exception… foreign embassies.  Whether we attribute this to anti-Semitism, or strategic non-partisanship on the issue of middle east peace, what we can say for certain is that the ambiguity of Israel’s capital city is not a question of the ignorance on the part of state leaders around the world.

On the world stage, Jerusalem is considered contested territory between Israel and Palestinians, and until now, every other nation in the world has been reluctant to formally recognize Israel’s assertion that Jerusalem is its capital.  Even on some commercially available maps, the capital of Israel is identified as Tel-Aviv.  The USA has considered it strategically important as the mediators of Middle East peace talks to very careful avoid making any mention as to which city it officially recognizes as Israel’s capital.  However, in 1995 Congress (under Bill Clinton) passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which, in addition to authorizing the relocating of the United States’ Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  One would imagine that that would clear up any ambiguity, but since that time, every American president, every six months, has signed an executive waiver, delaying the relocation plan of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv (the waiver has been signed 44 times).  On Monday, President Trump could have signed the waiver once again, like all of his predecessors, but didn’t, and as a result, America officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital, and the relocation of the American embassy is in progress.

Do we, as the Jewish community, jump up and shout ‘hurray’ on this one?  Certainly, a big part of me wants to – at long last one of the annoyingly not-funny, long-running jokes of American politics on Israel has come to an end.  Israeli legitimacy scores another point, and perhaps it paves the way for other countries to follow American lead (news reports say that some countries are already considering it).  But the Jewish community has learned to be cautious in playing this game.  We have learned to often sacrifice the small token victories in order to gain leverage for larger victories in the future.  We also look ahead and consider how the other shoe might drop in response to our actions.

In response to the American decision, Palestinian leaders are calling for ‘Days of Rage’, i.e. acts of violence and terrorism, Hamas has called for a new intifada, and clashes have already taken place in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem.  As frightening as this is, we as Jews know that responding to terrorism with fear is what proves that terrorism works.   Furthermore, we know that if it wasn’t for this reason today, the same response from the Palestinians should be expected for some other reason tomorrow.

My knee-jerk reaction is to loathe anything that Donald Trump supports, and I imagine that I am not alone in this feeling.  However, Trump does not suffer a bully, and in this he is correct. Throughout the Obama administration, Israel has been scolded by the Americans over taking necessary steps to ensure the safety and security of Israel’s borders and its citizens while it has simultaneously placated and gingerly coddled the disgruntled Palestinian leadership, known for executing anyone suspected of sympathy towards Israel.  Trump’s decision may perhaps mark the end of senseless American middle eastern policy.

We, the Jewish community in the Diaspora, stand with Israel as it faces the brunt of the backlash from this latest development.  Despite the threats and dangers, I reluctantly applaud Trump for this first major decision on middle east policy.  For now, I will walk this road, and hope that it leads to new strength for Israel and the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections:  Parshat Vayishlach                    December 2, 2017 - 14 Kislev, 5778

11/30/2017 03:34:00 PM


A religious man is on top of a roof during a great flood. A man comes by in a boat and says "get in, get in!" The religious man replies, "No, I have faith in God, he will grant me a miracle."

Later the water is up to his waist and another boat comes by and the guy tells him to get in again. He responds that he has faith in God and God will give him a miracle. With the water at about chest high, another boat comes to rescue him, but he turns down the offer again because "God will grant him a miracle."

With the water at chin high, a helicopter throws down a ladder and they tell him to get in, mumbling with the water in his mouth, he again turns down the request for help for the faith of God. In the end he drowns.

The man arrives at the gates of heaven with broken faith and says to God: “I thought You would grand me a miracle and I have been let down." God chuckles and responds, "I don't know what you're complaining about, I sent you three boats and a helicopter!"

This week’s portion begins with Jacob sending messengers to greet his brother Esau. They return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, and the Torah tells us, “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.” And, of course, this wasn’t without reason – Jacob had not seen his brother for 20 years, since he had fled from his home after Esau had threatened to kill him for stealing his blessing.

So what did Jacob do? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, 11th C. France) quotes the Middrash Tanhuma, “He prepared himself for three things – for a gift, for prayer, and for war.” When you think about it, it’s an odd combination. God had explicitly promised to protect Jacob and to be with him both when he set out on his journey to Haran and when God commanded him to return to Canaan.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark (20th c., USA) asks:  If Jacob truly trusted God and His promise, wasn’t his prayer enough? Why did he also need a gift (a bribe) and preparations for defense against attack? On the other hand, if Jacob believed that his options were buying Esau off or fighting him, what good would praying do? Sh answers her own question by observing that Jacob prepared for both human and divine aid. And that’s not really so strange. When someone is ill, we try to find the best doctor, the best hospital, and the best medicines, but we also say a Mi Shebeirakh prayer for healing and pledge tzedakah for their recovery. And we expect that the physician who uses all of his or her training and skill on a difficult case also asks for God’s help to do it right. Likewise, a farmer prepares the soil, gets the best seed and fertilizers, and then prays for the right amount of sun and rain. Simialrly, parents do everything they can to raise their children to be responsible, to stay out of trouble, to do the right thing – and they pray every time their kids go to a party where there might be alcohol or drugs and when they’re out driving on a rainy night.

Rabbi Yitzhak Arama (, 15th c., Spain) wrote, “The proper way is for man to keep both in mind, to make his own plans, as far as possible, not to shun industry and self-help neither relying on merit nor giving himself up to despair, but doing as much as is humanly possible in furthering his interests, not trusting however in the success of his own efforts but in the will of God in whose hands is everything.”

In other words, there’s a time for prayer and a time for action. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt and stood at the shore of the Reed Sea, they were terribly afraid. They berated Moses, saying, “better that we serve the Egyptians than die in the wilderness.” Moses replied, “Do not be afraid; stand here and see the deliverance that God will do for you today.” Yet God responded, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the people to go forward!” In other words, prayer alone is not enough – even on a day on which God performed miracles in the sight of all Israel and Egypt. Indeed, the Talmud teaches (Pesachim), we are not to rely on miracles. Quite simply, if we lie down in the middle of the street and expect God to perform a miracle to save us, we deserve to be run over.

God can’t do it alone – not because God is unable to do whatever human beings might need or want, but because leaving everything to God robs our lives of meaning. Rabbi Newmark teaches: It is fundamentally wrong to abdicate responsibility for ourselves or others, to simply trust that God will provide. And it is also fundamentally wrong to believe that everything is within our control, that God plays no role in our lives.

There was a popular song during World War II called, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” That’s what Jacob did. He prepared for three things – for a gift, for prayer, and for war. He did everything he could to help himself and also prayed to God for His aid. And so we learn from our father Jacob that as long as we live we must never stop trying and we must never stop praying.

Shabbat Shalom

Sun, June 24 2018 11 Tammuz 5778