Looking Up: The Copper Serpent

When the Children of Israel complained, after not being able to cross through the land of Edom, God sent snakes to bite them. The cure for the snakebites was the creation of a copper serpent for the people who were bitten to look up at to cure them of their snakebites.[1] In the 2nd Book of Kings, it teaches however, that this copper serpent had become an idolatrous figure. As a result, “He (Hezekiah) removed the high places, shattered the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake that Moses made, for until then the Israelites were burning incense to it. It was called Nehushtan.”[2]

          What is this story all about? Ramban (Nahmanides) teaches that “God did not tell Moses to make a ‘serpent’ but a ‘seraph figure’”-in other words an angelic figure which was represented by a fiery serpent. He points out that the seraph “removes the damage by way of the damager” and that it demonstrates “that it is God who ‘deals death and gives life.’”[3] In other words, the point of the story is not the mythology but that only God can give or take life. Rashsbam expands on this, saying that anyone bitten by the snakes needed to look at the copper seraph, “thereby looking up, towards heaven.”[4] By turning towards God, the sinner would repent and be healed from the snakebite.

          The point of this story is that rather than complaining about the harshness of their journey through the desert, even though it was long and arduous, Israel needed to be reminded to maintain its faith in God. The serpent, just like in the example of Pharaoh’s court, is a reminder about who truly has power, and that Israel must always turn its eyes heavenward to be focused on the Divine. May this Shabbat remind us to do just that, to turn our eyes upward, finding gratitude, godliness, and positivity in everything we encounter rather than complaints, evil speech, and negativity.


[1] Numbers 21:9

[2] 2 Kings 18:4

[3] Ramban on Numbers 21:9. He quotes 1 Samuel 2:6 at the end of his comment.

[4] Rashbam on Numbers 21:8

Looking Up

          When the Children of Israel complained, after not being able to cross through the land of Edom, God senet snakes to bite them. The cure for the snakebites was the creation of a copper serpent for the people who were bitten to look up at to cure them of their snakebites.[1] In the 2nd Book of Kings, it teaches however, that this copper serpent had become an idolatrous figure. As a result, “He (Hezekiah) removed the high places, shattered the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake that Moses made, for until then the Israelites were burning incense to it. It was called Nehushtan.”[2]

          What is this story all about? Ramban (Nahmanides) teaches that “God did not tell Moses to make a ‘serpent’ but a ‘seraph figure’”-in other words an angelic figure which was represented by a fiery serpent. He points out that the seraph “removes the damage by way of the damager” and that it demonstrates “that it is God who ‘deals death and gives life.’”[3] In other words, the point of the story is not the mythology but that only God can give or take life. Rashsbam expands on this, saying that anyone bitten by the snakes needed to look at the copper seraph, “thereby looking up, towards heaven.”[4] By turning towards God, the sinner would repent and be healed from the snakebite.

          The point of this story is that rather than complaining about the harshness of their journey through the desert, even though it was long and arduous, Israel needed to be reminded to maintain its faith in God. The serpent, just like in the example of Pharaoh’s court, is a reminder about who truly has power, and that Israel must always turn its eyes heavenward to be focused on the Divine. May this Shabbat remind us to do just that, to turn our eyes upward, finding gratitude, godliness, and positivity in everything we encounter rather than complaints, evil speech, and negativity.


[1] Numbers 21:9

[2] 2 Kings 18:4

[3] Ramban on Numbers 21:9. He quotes 1 Samuel 2:6 at the end of his comment.

[4] Rashbam on Numbers 21:8

Looking Up

          When the Children of Israel complained, after not being able to cross through the land of Edom, God senet snakes to bite them. The cure for the snakebites was the creation of a copper serpent for the people who were bitten to look up at to cure them of their snakebites.[1] In the 2nd Book of Kings, it teaches however, that this copper serpent had become an idolatrous figure. As a result, “He (Hezekiah) removed the high places, shattered the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake that Moses made, for until then the Israelites were burning incense to it. It was called Nehushtan.”[2]

          What is this story all about? Ramban (Nahmanides) teaches that “God did not tell Moses to make a ‘serpent’ but a ‘seraph figure’”-in other words an angelic figure which was represented by a fiery serpent. He points out that the seraph “removes the damage by way of the damager” and that it demonstrates “that it is God who ‘deals death and gives life.’”[3] In other words, the point of the story is not the mythology but that only God can give or take life. Rashsbam expands on this, saying that anyone bitten by the snakes needed to look at the copper seraph, “thereby looking up, towards heaven.”[4] By turning towards God, the sinner would repent and be healed from the snakebite.

          The point of this story is that rather than complaining about the harshness of their journey through the desert, even though it was long and arduous, Israel needed to be reminded to maintain its faith in God. The serpent, just like in the example of Pharaoh’s court, is a reminder about who truly has power, and that Israel must always turn its eyes heavenward to be focused on the Divine. May this Shabbat remind us to do just that, to turn our eyes upward, finding gratitude, godliness, and positivity in everything we encounter rather than complaints, evil speech, and negativity.


[1] Numbers 21:9

[2] 2 Kings 18:4

[3] Ramban on Numbers 21:9. He quotes 1 Samuel 2:6 at the end of his comment.

[4] Rashbam on Numbers 21:8

When One Person Sins

          What type of God do we have? Is it one “who revisits the sins of the fathers onto the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation”[1] or is it one who asserts “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for his/her own sin.”[2] God at the time of Korach is more similar to the latter rather than the former. When Korach sins, God says “Stand back from the community that I may annihilate them in an instant!”[3] Moses replied, “When one man sins shall you be wrathful with the whole community?”[4] God takes Moses’ side, only punishing those directly involved in the rebellion.

          At times people feel collective punishment is the most effective deterrent for crime. For example, Israel blows up the homes of terrorists as a deterrent against terrorism. On the other hand, as a democratic people, we believe in innocent until proven guilty and that only those who have committed crimes should be punished. Which approach is correct? Like most things, it depends on the situation at hand. If one’s actions could lead to others taking the torch unless a severe punishment is meted out, then perhaps collective punishment makes sense. On the other hand, if one acted independently of others, they need to be punished but not at the expense of others. It’s like the school troublemaker to whom the teacher responds that the entire class must stay in during recess.

          We are not like God and do not know who has sinned and who has not. Therefore, we can only punish those who we know have done wrong and leave the others to God. As Parshat Nitzavim teaches, “Those things which are hidden (we leave) to God, but those things which are revealed are to us and our children (to handle) forever.”[5] Let us learn from Moses to stand up for those who are innocent while handling those who are guilty of wrongdoing.


[1] Exodus 34:7

[2] Deuteronomy 24:16

[3] Numbers 16:21

[4] Numbers 16:22

[5] Deuteronomy 29:28

The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend

As a student of History, I was always fascinated by the United States’ alliance with “Uncle Joe” Stalin against Hitler. Talk about strange bedfellows: a man who murdered twenty million of his own people, sent millions more to the gulags and professed a totalitarian system of government antithetical to western beliefs. Why form an alliance with Stalin? Simply because we faced a greater enemy (may his name be obliterated) who we needed to defeat.

I view the recent Israeli government coalition in this light. Three individuals who have little to nothing in common: Naftali Bennett of the far-right Yamina party, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, and Mansoor Abbas of the Israeli Arab party Raam join together with five other parties in a coalition. A man who has said “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life and there’s no problem with that” is set to become Prime Minister in the first coalition to have an Israeli Arab party. Here’s a picture of a smiling Bennett next to Mansour Abbas.

May be an image of ‎5 people, including Ami Cohen and ‎text that says '‎لاعلا ي نواف النباري‎'‎‎

What gives? Simply, the desire to oust Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the longest serving Israeli Prime Minister ever. This is an example of where the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The hatred that one-time allies Bennett and Lieberman appear to have for Netanyahu, as well as strategic thinking on Bennett’s part, is what has led to this. 

‘Under the terms of the agreement, Bennett will be Prime Minister for the first two years with Lapid serving the next two. Only in Israel can one whose party was in 5th place, a mere 7 seats out of 120, become Prime Minister. However, the two have mutual control, as anything that Bennett wants to sign Lapid will be able to veto.  I just hope the government lasts long enough for Lapid to get his chance at being Prime Minister. We saw what happened with the Gantz-Netanyahu government last year which lasted a matter of mere months.

Strange bedfellows Bennett, Lapid and Abbas are striving to fell a common enemy. By June 14 we will know if they are able to do so or if Bibi, the ultimate survivor, can find a way out of this one as well.

The Wayward Woman (Sotah)

          In Parshat Naso, there is a woman who is accused of an illicit sexual affair. The women needs to drink bitter water with God’s name broken up into it. If her thigh doesn’t sag and her belly doesn’t distend she is innocent; if not she is guilty.

          What is sad is that a husband can be jealous and accuse his wife of an illicit relationship but not vice versa. A woman who has evidence that her husband has cheated has no recourse, whereas a man is able to force his wife to perform this ritual. The rabbis were uncomfortable with this practice.  The Mishnah states that an early rabbinic leader discontinued the ritual of the sotah (Sotah 9:9). The entire body of rabbinic literature cites only one example of its implementation. It is evidence of shinui haitim, the changing nature of the times. What made sense in one time period does not in another.

          As we read the passage on the Sotah as well as the Nazir, one who according to the rabbis should be criticized for making an excessive vow, let us recognize that not every biblical passage needs to correspond to our lives today; however that does not mean that there are not lessons that we can derive from them. We have moved from a world of the Sotah to a world of #MeToo, where women’s testimonies are believed and valued. Let us recognize that the Sotah is a vestige of our past that teaches us how society used to function and let us praise God that our society has moved on from there.

It Ain’t Easy Being a Kohen

          There’s a guy who set up an urgent meeting with his rabbi. He said, “Rabbi, I’ll give you $1000 if you make me a Kohen.” The rabbi looks at him and says, “I’m sorry Bernie, but I can’t do that.” Bernie, thinking the money was the issue, says “Rabbi I’ll give you $10000.” The rabbi strokes his beard and says, “Still can’t do it.” Finally, Bernie says “Ok, Rabbi, you win. I’ll give you $100,000.” The rabbi, considering this, says “Ok, but Bernie why do you want to be a Kohen?” Bernie replies, “Because my father was a Kohen.”

          The grass always appears greener on the other side. As a child I wanted to be a Kohen. While I enjoyed hearing the priestly blessing from under my father’s tallit, I yearned to be one who blessed the people, as well as who received the first Aliyah on Shabbat. Upon reading Parshat Emor, I rethought this, recognizing, as Kermit the Frog would say, “It ain’t easy being a Kohen.”

          As the priestly holiness code in Emor details, Kohanim are limited as to who they can marry,[1] whose funerals they can attend[2] and could not serve with a broken limb or deformed body part.[3] These limits were strictly enforced as a Kohen, God’s servant, needed to follow rules and restrictions to keep him in a state of טהרה, or purity.

          The Conservative Movement has lessened the restrictions on a Kohen in terms of marriage. Rabbi Arnold Goodman wrote responsa allowing a Kohen to marry a convert[4] and a divorcee.[5] In the latter paper he uprooted from the Torah the prohibition on a Kohen marrying a divorcee. On the other extreme, I know of Orthodox Kohanim who will not enter a public or natural history museum because of the existence of mummies. The museum itself is considered an ohel, or tent, and the impurity of the bones can transmit themselves to the kohen, rendering him impure.

          This is another lesson in being happy with who you are. Wanting the honor or privilege someone else has can come without recognizing the restrictions they have to live by. There’s the story of people who took all their צרות, their troubles, put them in a package and set them down a river, prepared to exchange with someone else. When they saw what the others had, they quickly ran after and picked up their own package. When we crave honor or another position, let us recognize that things often appear better than they are and let us rejoice within our portion.


[1] Leviticus 21:13

[2] Leviticus 21:11-12. In the Torah a Kohen could not even attend his parent’s funeral. Rabbinic law allowed a Kohen to “become טמאby attending the funeral of anyone for whom he is a direct mourner. Now most cemeteries have a separate section right outside the cemetery, where the Kohen stands

[3] Leviticus 21:21

[4] Goodman – Marriage Convert (rabbinicalassembly.org)

[5] Goodman – Marriage Divorcee (rabbinicalassembly.org)

Why Does One Get Tzaraat?

How does one end up with Tzaraat, the scale disease that existed in biblical times? This is not a medical disease but rather a spiritual disease inflicted by God and where only God can heal the afflicted. It does not relate to leprosy, to Hansen’s Disease or anything in our modern age.

The rabbis link Tzaraat with Motzi Shem Ra,[1] speaking poorly about someone else, giving him/her a bad name. However, there is another meaning behind Tzaraat that I wish to share tonight: a lack of faith.

Ibn Ezra comments on this latter definition of Tzaraat. He writes in his comment on Moses ‘What if they don’t believe me?’ the following:

“We know that God knows the entire future. This statement is against Moses. After God said, ‘They will listen to your voice (Ex. 3:18),’ Moses said, ‘I am afraid that they will not all listen to my voice.’”[2]

         How many times in life do we doubt ourselves or our true potential? How many times have we said ‘I’m not the right person’ when precisely we are? Even our greatest leader, Moses, did not believe in his abilities. Yet God knows our true potential. We are part of a story that is still being written and could go in any number of directions. What we need to do is maintain faith in ourselves and in our abilities to effect change.

         This is not a blind faith or an escape from reality: rather it is the importance of stepping up to the plate when that is what we are called to do. When we have doubts about the difference we will make or we say to ourselves ‘What’s the point?’ it is at those moments that we need to have Emunah, faith in ourselves and belief in our future. If we do not than we are in trouble. Yes, we should not disparage people, as Rashi indicates Moses and Miriam did, giving them Tzaraat; yet of equal importance we need to keep our faith strong. When we put our full effort forward, there is no limit to what we can achieve.


[1] See Rashi Exodus 4:6

[2] Ibn Ezra Exodus 4:8

Masorti Shabbat: Building an Israel Where all Jews are Fully Welcomed

The beginning of Parshat Tazria/Metzora begins with an inequality: when a woman gives birth to a son she is טמאה a word I think no translation does justice to (generally “impure” or “unclean”) with him for 7 days until his brit milah and then she remains טמאה, for an additional 33 days.[1] For a daughter the numbers are doubled: the woman is טמאה for 14 days and then has an additional 66 days of being טמאה.[2] Why is this the case? I have often said tongue-in-cheek that women love their daughters so much that it is that much harder to part with them-the daughter gets to stay alone with her mother for 14 days as opposed to the son which is only 7 days. However, it is a clear example of inequality.

We also see an example of inequality through tzaraat. Biblically, a man would become impure through a semin30al emission[3] just as a woman would through menstruation.[4] Rabbinically, however, the laws about a man with a seminal emission (known as a baal keri) disappeared after the destruction of the Temple, whereas the laws of menstruation remained.

Today we join with Conservative congregations throughout the United States in devoting this Shabbat to our sisters and brothers in the Masorti (Conservative) Movement of Israel including those of our sister congregation Kehilat Netzach Israel in Ashkelon. The Masorti movement is burgeoning, with 87 Masorti communities throughout Israel. I have personally prayed at 10 of them, including the flagship Moreshet Yisrael in Jerusalem. Yet we see modern day inequalities. Strange but true, 73 years after Israel’s founding, we are still faced with questions as to why the Jewish homeland is not fully welcoming to Jews of all streams, genders and cultures from around the world.

Many people are shocked when they hear that Israeli couples married under Masorti-Conservative auspices will not have their marriage officially recognized by the State of Israel. Israel only recognizes marriages conducted by Orthodox rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate. In fact, Dubi Hiyun, a classmate of mine during my year of study at the Schechter Institute, was arrested after performing a wedding in Israel.[5] Couples who wish to be married by a Masorti rabbi often have to go (pre-COVID) to Cyprus in order to do so.

People are also surprised when they hear that women are harassed while praying at the Masorti Egalitarian Kotel – which should be a place of peaceful, spiritual introspection where all Jews are safe to pray in a way that is most meaningful to them. They would be shocked to know, as I learned from Rabbi David Golinkin, that there was no Mehitza at the Kotel until after the Six Day Way in 1967.[6] Now not only is there no space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, but the Southern, egalitarian section known as Robinson’s Arch is the target of people being spit at and rocks being thrown. Israeli politicians have promised an egalitarian section at the Kotel only to conveniently forget their promises after being elected.

These are among the reasons why it is so important for Bet Shira to strengthen its partnership with Masorti Israel as it works tirelessly to offer 800,000 Israelis seeking Jewish life based on the inclusive Jewish values we all treasure.

When we partner with Masorti, we are standing for our values to create an Israel where caring, inspiring services rooted in traditional Jewish values continue to move Israel closer to its founders’ vision of a pluralistic, egalitarian Israel; one that we want to see for ourselves and for future generations.  

Change doesn’t come easily. It took over 15 years of advocacy by the leaders of the Movement and other liberal streams of Judaism to finally get the Israel Supreme Court to make a decision two months ago to recognize conversions to Judaism under the auspices of Israel’s Masorti and Reform Movements for the purposes of gaining Israeli citizenship and the right to make Aliyah.

This was a historic victory for Masorti – Conservative Judaism and for Klal Yisrael, but there is still much to be done. I ask everyone in our congregation this coming year to learn more about Masorti Israel and support its work to create a more just Israeli society.

One in which Israelis in 87 Masorti communities and beyond don’t have to travel outside of Israel to have their marriages recognized by the State, where Israelis with disabilities can fully participate in Jewish religious life and be counted as part of the minyan, and Jews of Color – such as the observant Abayudaya Jews of Uganda – will have the right to live and study in Israel – and make Aliyah.

The Masorti Movement has succeeded through its TALI Schools, which provide a non-Orthodox yet strong Jewish education, as well as through the Schechter Institute’s Masters Program, which trains per year 1,200 students, many of whom are principals and teachers at Israeli schools as well as in the Israeli Ministry of Education. It also has a political party, Mercaz, who last year I urged us to support so that the Masorti Movement receives more government funding.

This Masorti Shabbat, I ask the members of our synagogue to recommit to building an Israel that we can all feel good about and be inspired by. Let us not be blinded by the negative news that often comes about Israel – and instead focus on ways we can make a difference through our partnership with Masorti Israel.

Together, we can transform the lives of hundreds of young Israelis with disabilities. How wonderful it would be the next time we are in Israel to take part in celebrating with the families of teens with disabilities as they can once again have their Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies in front of the entire community.

Together, we can end isolation for older Israelis suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia: Masorti’s recently launched K’Sharim program is helping to give seniors with dementia a greater sense of dignity. This program, another offered by Masorti’s Adraba Center for People with Disabilities, preserves the cognitive abilities of these seniors through art, music, studying Jewish texts and sources, and movement activities.

And together, we can strengthen the Movement’s advocacy work to make Aliyah possible for Ugandan Jews: Masorti will not rest until the “Law of Return” fully applies to Abayudaya Jews. With the help of the powerful advocacy of Masorti Rabbi Andrew Sacks we as a People were able to swear in Yosef Kabita as the first Ugandan Jewish Israeli citizen a few weeks ago.  

Masorti is increasingly a voice for women’s leadership and empowerment in Israeli Jewish life. With its new Movement leader, Rakefet Ginsberg-who was my Shlicha in Milwaukee, and the growing number of women rabbis, Masorti resonates with thousands more Israelis of all genders seeking a Judaism espousing inclusive, egalitarian values and leadership that reflect the beautiful diversity of the Jewish People. 

This year, I invite all those who care about Zionism and an inclusive Israel to work with Masorti Israel to strengthen its efforts to further create a Jewish State where Israeli youth with disabilities will be nurtured by our community’s embrace, Israeli seniors with dementia will benefit from community connections, Abayudaya Jews will become full, productive citizens of Israel, and the Masorti – Conservative officiated weddings in Israel will be recognized by the State.

All our hopes for a more inclusive Israel are within our reach if we work together, and yes, support Masorti Israel as generously as possible. Please check out the Foundation website at www.masorti.org to learn more about the Movement’s work or speak to me if you would like to get further involved with Masorti Israel.


[1] Leviticus 12:2-3

[2] Leviticus 12:5

[3] Leviticus 15:16

[4] Leviticus 15:19

[5] See my post https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/what-i-learned-from-dubis-arrest/

[6] Also see https://www.timesofisrael.com/when-men-and-women-prayed-together-at-the-western-wall/

The Eighth Day: Celebration or Tragedy?

          Is the eighth day (yom hashemini) one of celebration or tragedy? On the one hand we have the dedication of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, the first House of God. After seven days of anticipation, now is the day to celebrate. We have a similar narrative in 1 Kings, where after seven days of celebration of the Temple’s being dedicated on Sukkot, we have an eighth day where King Solomon bade Israel to go home. Today we have the Brit Milah, the celebration of welcoming a baby boy into the covenant and giving him a Hebrew name, after 7 days, an entire week, of celebrating his arrival into the world.

          Yet there is a tragic element as well. This week we read of the deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. With the Temple we know that it did not deter idolatry and turning away from God, as from the example of most of the Israelite kings, which ultimately led to its destruction. At the Brit Milah, the baby must endure pain before his family and friends can celebrate. Thank God there is no tragedy here; yet we must acknowledge the pain that accompanies the celebration.

          What does the eighth day represent? Seven we know is the number of completion, the number of days of the week. Eight, on the other hand, is beyond completion. It is the day on which we acknowledge potential, whether it is of a baby boy or of our nation to make good choices and establish a positive name. At such a liminal moment, so much is ahead of us, and we need to take a moment to celebrate it; yet we also must acknowledge that just is there is the opportunity for a new beginning, so too, if we are not careful, we can be led astray. We hope and pray for the former rather than the latter.