thoughts, writings, and photographs by your rabbi
March 1, 2022 * LINK Article
As a child, I did not like Purim. The carnivals were too loud, the energy too crazy. I have always been on the more serious side of things, happy to have an intellectual conversation in the library, not as happy to have to dress up and perform. I worked through these feelings, finally appreciating Purim in my 20s when, as a community organizer in New York City, I was tasked with bringing the “action piece” to support immigrants to our organization’s Purim Party. It was the perfect role for me: bring the “what’s next” piece to the party.
When I say “party”, don’t imagine balloons and streamers, think of the most well produced Purim Speil in the city done by professional actors, artists, and performers. Think about a gathering of the city’s progressive community to drink, dance, and celebrate another year of working to make New York a more equitable place for all. That night I enjoyed dressing up on Purim for the first time. I had also seen enough of the world’s harshness to understand that a night where we can all let loose is extremely important. My brother, always loving and supportive while recognizing that he is clearly the “cooler” sibling, said it may have been best party he had ever been to, certainly the best in a good long while. Perhaps the biggest triumph of the night was the esteem I gained in my little brother’s eyes.
Purim is the only holiday that is not mentioned in the Torah and part of the way that it gained the legitimacy of the other holidays was the public reading of the book of Esther during the holiday. Esther is the only book of the Bible that does not take place in the Land of Israel and is almost exclusively focused on the concerns of Diaspora Jews. It is also one of the later books of the Bible, having been written around 300 BCE and incorporated into the canon as late as the 1st century CE.
Biblical scholar Adele Berlin notes in her introduction to the book of Esther in The Jewish Study Bible, that while the celebration of Purim is very much a Jewish carnival complete with comedy, farce, and burlesque, “the book does have a serious side, and an important function as a Diaspora story. It promotes Jewish identity, solidarity within the Jewish community, and a strong connection with Jewish (biblical) tradition. It addresses the inherent problems of a minority people, their vulnerability to political forces and government edicts, their lack of autonomy, and their dependence on royal favor.” Haman’s false claims against the Jews also anticipate modern antisemitism.
Berlin continues, “In the end, though, the message is positive: Good triumphs and evil is eradicated; the threat of Jewish annihilation is averted and the Jewish community is assured of continuity and prosperity.” In this time of continued uncertainty, strife, and war may we all merit the blessings of Purim: laughter, health, and safety. Hag Purim Sameach! Happy Purim!
Friday, February 25, 2022 * Parashat Vayakhel
Welcome to your Weekly Vort!
The interaction of Jewish people with words of Torah creates Judaism: religion and culture.
It is from this week’s Torah portion that we begin to understand what it means to keep Shabbat. Moses brings the whole community together and says that one works for 6 days but on the 7th day “you shall have a Shabbat Shabbaton, a sabbath of complete rest.” The very next sentence states “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat.” The Torah is a 3500-year-old text with important statements that future generations have had to interpret to truly understand how to live righteous lives. We understand that we must observe Shabbat, but it is not immediately clear HOW. It has something to do with complete rest and not transferring fire. The first practical consideration is that if we can’t kindle fire, we can’t cook on Shabbat. Thus, the days before Shabbat are devoted to preparing food so that we have enough to enjoy during the day of rest. We have also interpreted the prohibition to mean that we don’t turn on and off lights or start our cars. As an environmentalist I have trouble with the idea that I should leave lights on in my house for the 25 hours of Shabbat, so I turn them on and off with a “change” aka my elbow, to get around this rule. In the 1950s, the Conservative Movement ruled that people may drive to and from shul as the value of being together on Shabbat overrode (pun intended) the prohibition of turning on one’s car. In the past few years, the Conservative Movement has also been quite creative and made new rulings to make it possible for people to use their computers to livestream and Zoom services. Again, it is more important to be together on Shabbat online through a pandemic than to not engage technology.
The prohibition against kindling fire on Shabbat has also long been understood that we should not be angry on Shabbat. As a rabble-rousing teenager who loved to talk politics, I was very surprised to learn at a Shabbat lunch in Israel that some interpret this rule to mean that we are not to bring up controversial topics on Shabbat. This is a fence around the Torah as it is possible to have a healthy and fun debate, to be passionate, and not be angry. I still subscribe to the idea that talking politics may be fine on Shabbat if everyone present is comfortable with this discussion. As I’ve grown older and wiser, however, I also understand how difficult it is to gauge everyone’s true comfort in the moment.
For this Shabbat I wish you a day of complete rest, good food, time with friends, and passionate conversations. Shabbat Shalom.
Thursday, February 24, 2022
I woke up wide awake at 2am, thinking and worrying about Russia’s assault on Ukraine. I don’t usually have insomnia in this manner. What is happening is disturbing on many levels. In this moment I truly feel the Jewish concept of “kol Yisrael arevim zeh baZeh” The Whole Jewish People are responsible for each other. I’m thinking about the Jews of Ukraine, I’m thinking about ALL the people in Ukraine. I’m thinking about people in our KI community who are from Ukraine, who have family and friends there. I spoke to some folks today who mentioned that they’d been crying all day, watching the news and worrying. I’m thinking about how this could be the start of WWIII or, equally disturbing, Russia refighting WWII. I’m thinking about all the people who don’t want war, Russians included. I’m holding my loved ones close. I’m praying for peace.
Thursday, February 10, 2022
Happy Torah Thursday! There is a super cool Israeli organization/project that is starting it’s 3rd learning cycle THIS WEEK! Everyone reads 1 chapter of TaNaKh (Bible) per day from beginning to end. I’m planning to participate and read Everett Fox’s Torah translation, perhaps flipping over to Robert Alter’s for the Prophets and Writings. Care to join me?
Wednesday, February 2, 2022
I was honored to give a eulogy for my dear friend who died of breast cancer.
Friday, January 28, 2022 * Parashat Mishpatim
I love reading Rabbi Aviva Richman’s weekly Torah Commentary on Hadar.org. This week she writes: “The law of “when you acquire a Hebrew slave” signals to the recently redeemed Hebrew slaves that one day some of them will inhabit power over their own, and some of them will be subject to each other. While imaging this in the recent wake of Egyptian slavery should be horrifying… it would be wrong to pretend that the reality of power imbalance won’t reemerge. There is only one way to wield power to create a world without oppression. Power must be a means of empowerment, with a clear timeline and clear parameters along the way. When we acquire, we must acquire like God, not like Pharaoh. Shabbat Shalom! Happy Torah Friday!
Thursday, January 20, 2022 * Parashat Yitro
We’ve got the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah portion! For a long time Jews recited them during morning prayers every day but when Christianity began to forward them we took a step back. We still hold by them, to be sure, we just wanted to create a distinction between us and them. If the Ten Commandments were THEIR thing then we would recite something else on a daily basis. I don’t think it was a one-for-one switch-a-roo but we now recite the Akedah/Binding of Isaac in our daily morning prayers! Many Jews have the custom of reciting the entirety of Shir HaShirim/ The Song of Songs every Friday evening as Shabbat begins. Of the three, this is my favorite. Love poetry! Happy Torah Thursday and see you next week.
Thursday, January 13, 2022
Eleven years ago on Parashat Beshalach we lost Debbie Friedman, one of the greatest Jewish musicians of the 20th century. It is fitting that she died on this date as one of her best songs is about Miriam and the women dancing after we finished crossing the sea. To Debbie! To Miriam! To Freedom!
Thursday, January 6, 2022
This week we have one of my favorite passages in Exodus 12:38
וְגַם־עֵ֥רֶב רַ֖ב עָלָ֣ה אִתָּ֑ם
“Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them.” The pasuk (Biblical quotation) is discussing the group of people who walked out of slavery in Egypt towards The Land of Promise. For most of Jewish History this has been interpreted as “the hangers on” who took advantage of the Exodus and joined the Israelites even though they were not ethnically Hebrew. They eventually assimilated into the people but not before causing most of the problems during our 40 years of wandering.
In recent decades we have begun to understand in this verse the Bible’s reflection of the diversity of the Jewish people that we see before us today. The group of people who “were down with the cause” and excited to leave Egypt were a diverse bunch, in the most positive sense that word evokes.
They were a “mixed multitude,” just like our communities today. We are a community made up of Jews and people of other faiths (or none), parents of other faiths (or none) raising Jewish children, spouses of different faiths actively involved in Jewish life, to say nothing of our racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity!
Happy Torah Thursday!
Amen to the mixed multitude!
Amen to the erev rav!
Thursday, December 23, 2021
This week we begin to read the book of Exodus. The first chapter contains one of my favorite examples of ‘it’s all how you translate it’ or ‘the Hebrew language has a lot of double meanings.’
M’yaldot HaIvriot can mean either ‘the Hebrew Midwives’ or ‘the (non-Hebrew) midwives who attend to the Hebrew women.’ What we are discussing in the 15th verse of the first chapter is the episode where Pharaoh orders the midwives to kill all the Hebrew baby boys right after they are born. Pharaoh is oppressing the people and wants to make sure that there aren’t any boys in the next generation who will fight back. The first issue with this scenario is the assumption that girls or women won’t fight back. The next issue is whether these noble midwives, named women in the Bible – Shifra and Puah, are members of the community who courageously if, understandably, defy Pharaoh’s orders, or are non-Hebrew women who act in solidarity with the Hebrew people? The words, in the Hebrew, could mean either one. A lot of ink has been spilled by different commentators over the centuries puzzling this one out and I’m happy to raise up both interpretations. Thank God for courageous women who defy the powerful in the name of what is just and what is right.
Wednesday, December 22, 2021 * 18 Tevet
Thinking of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on his Yahrzeit
Friday, December 17, 2021
Shabbat Shalom, y’all!
Thursday, December 16, 2021
Happy Tunes Thursday! I’ve brought this tune in to Shabbat Morning Services the past few weeks. I’ve been singing it a cappella in shul for almost a decade and love the way it sounds in a round. Here is a version, by the composer Rabbi Miriam Margles, with instruments. Come sing with us this Shabbat AM!
December 9, 2021 * VaYiggash
Happy Torah Thursday! We are deep in the middle of the Joseph story, and we ended last week on a cliffhanger. Joseph, who his brothers don’t know is Joseph, has just declared that he will take his younger brother Benjamin as his slave for the “crime” of stealing Joseph’s goblet. But it was a set up as Joseph had had his goblet placed in Benjamin’s bag so that this confrontation could unfold. Judah steps forward and says that if the brothers return home to their father, Jacob, without his youngest son it will kill him. He says:
נַפְשׁ֖וֹ קְשׁוּרָ֥ה בְנַפְשֽׁוֹ
Which translates as “since his own life is so bound up with his” or “his soul is connected with his soul.” This is such a beautiful way of describing a relationship between two people that an acquaintance’s wife, an artist, had it inscribed on their wedding rings, with the appropriate modifications in the Hebrew to account for a Husband/Wife pair of rings. As luck and fate would have it, I met this person 8 months before my wedding so Kieran and I, too, have this inscription inside our rings. Mine is in Hebrew and Kieran’s is in English. Shabbat Shalom.
Thursday, December 2, 2021
Happy Hanukkah! Happy Torah Thursday!
This week’s Torah is a very cool article about an ancient Jewish holiday in the time that Hanukkah happened (well… a little later) and celebrated before Purim. Curious? Read on!
Tuesday, November 23, 2021
Happy Torah Tuesday! This week we have one of the coolest and most rare trope symbols in our Torah portion. The Shalshelet occurs only 4 times in Torah and connotes a person’s indecision or the gravity of the situation. The name of the trope mark, or musical notation, “shalshelet” means “chain” and is a long and elaborate string of notes on one word. In our story Potifar’s wife has just propositioned Joseph and he refuses, eventually. The shalshelet is meant to show his indecision, for she was a very beautiful woman. Yes, this story is racy and fun!
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Happy Torah Tuesday!
This week’s portion includes a very special feature: a word with 6 diamonds above the letters! “And he kissed him” describing what happened when Jacob’s brother Esau saw him for the first time in 20 years. The Rabbis of 2000 years ago wanted Jacob to always be the hero and Esau the villain so they reinterpreted this pasuk: “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” Gen 33:4.
Esau didn’t kiss Jacob, he grew ivory fangs for teeth and bit Jacob’s neck! Thus Jacob cried.
Tuesday, November 9, 2021
Thinking of our members, Rabbi Sue Greenberg and Joe Kahn, who lived through Kristallnacht in Germany 83 years ago today. Both of their fathers were arrested and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Never Forget what was done to our people. Do Tikkun Olam/ Repair The World so that the horrors visited upon us are not visited upon anyone else, anywhere. Neither upon Jews nor our cousins of other peoples.
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Here’s… Torah Tuesday!
Do you have relatives or friends with whom you don’t speak? Do you wish you could mend some bridges? Well, this is a story as old as time. Take inspiration from this week’s Torah Portion, Chaeyi Sarah, which shows how even after all they’d been through, all the ruptures in their family, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father, Abraham.
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
The Sisterhood brunch was great! I agree with much of what our speaker said. In the interest of point/counterpoint this book might be of interest. It was written by a congregant at my previous congregation and while I haven’t read it, I very much respect his work and other public statements he has made in the past.
10/15/21 This week I was honored to perform a funeral for one of our member’s mothers.
I got a lot of compliments on the eulogy I wrote from her family and friends so I thought I would share it with you all.