How Lavish a Shul Do You Want?

In the United States we often have an “edifice complex.” We want synagogues to be bigger and more elaborate, with more and more donations for capital campaigns. At the same time, we know that bigger does not always mean better. Many synagogues today wish they had a smaller building that was easier to take care of.

We see in this week’s reading that our ancestors were the same in being directed to have embellishment. They were told to make an ark out of acacia wood, which needed to be imported, as well as overlaid with pure gold. The ark cover also needed to be overlaid with gold. Four gold rings needed to be attached to the four feet of the ark. The poles needed to be made out of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. The cherubim outside the ark needed to be made from hammered gold.

Why does everything need to be ornate and elaborate? Why not take a more simple approach? An obvious answer is because this is God’s house so it needs to be as elaborate and high-end as possible. Rashi comments that the mishkan “symbolizes the crown of royalty” and “represents wealth and greatness.”[1] Rashi comments further on the requirement for hammered work for the Menorah “it shall not be made of segments; it must all be made from a single piece of metal.”[2] This is much harder to do and requires the best craftsman in order to construct it.

Ever since the story of Cain and Abel we understand the importance of giving G-d the best that we have. We needed the best craftsmen and the most expensive materials in order to build a home fit for The Almighty One. As each synagogue is considered a מקדש מעט, a miniature sanctuary, and our contemporary synagogues were constructed in a similar way: the best craftsmen, the most majestic structures and the most expensive materials one can afford. We were awed by the clergy team from on high, as if they were in the heavens. At the same time, many today, especially of my generation, are not impressed by these majestic structures of yesteryear, questioning their value. If G-d is everywhere, and we can connect at any place, why do we need such a “pretty room”?

When I was a rabbinical student, I prayed at independent minyanim which were located in church basements. I remember someone covering the image of Jesus with a sweater before Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kol Zimrah. Although it was not a beautiful space, I got such intense feelings of spirituality based on the people I was praying with and the prayer experience itself. At the same time, I feel the inherent beauty in praying in a gorgeous space like this. In my experience, it’s the people and the music which together create the sense of beauty more than the structure itself.

The challenge is that prayer spaces have been set by those who came before us, so how do we create a prayer space that speaks to younger people? I would argue that more than the space it’s what we do that attracts people. If we do not have a worship product that touches people’s souls, it does not matter how gorgeous the prayer space is. Conversely, the more inspirational the prayer experience, the more people will come despite what the room might look like. Today it might feel that our gifts from the heart matter more than the previous generation’s gifts from the pocket which endowed such a beautiful Sanctuary.

When we think about what our Terumot, our personal contributions, will be, let us consider gifts from the spirit as much if not more so than gifts from the pocket. Let us appreciate our beautiful prayer space, which is not “free” to maintain but may we also consider how we can shape our prayer experience to be welcoming and inviting to those of all ages. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Rashi on Genesis 25:24 ד”ה וצפית אותו זהב טהור

[2] Rashi on Genesis 25:31 ד”ה ועשית מנרת זהב טהור


Are Our Leaders God?

We know that people have short memories. One of the key questions that gets asked subconsciously is “What have you done for me lately?” The comforting news is that as Ezekiel said “There is nothing new under the sun;” our ancestors were exactly the same way-and we can learn from their example of what not to do.

In his book The Rational Bible, Dennis Prager details crises between Moses/God and Israel that arise after Israel crosses the Sea of Reeds. The first is when they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. Prager points out “It took the Israelites a mere three days to lose sight of all the miracles God had performed and to start complaining.”[1] After Moses throws his staff in the water to sweeten it, the second crises emerges when our ancestors complain about food. They whine, “If only we had died by the hand of G-d in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!”[2] Prager has a compelling insight there: “It is a myth people yearn most for freedom. Some people, thank God, do. But many, if not most, people prefer to be taken care of-even at the price of a loss of freedoms-rather than to have to take care of themselves.”[3] So quickly Israel goes from a triumphant people celebrating the Song of the Sea to a nostalgic people with an “exaggerated, idealized picture of the past.”[4]

The result of the dearth of food is manna raining down from the heavens. Yet God brings manna with a test, instructing Israel to eat their entire portion on the day they receive it as well as that they will receive a double portion of manna on Friday as they will not receive it on Shabbat. Moses and Aaron find this compelling, proclaiming that “by evening you shall know it was God who brought you out of Egypt.”[5] Will the miracle of the manna do what the plagues could not? Not at all. As Prager points out, “miracles sustain faith for only a brief period.”[6] Israel disobeyed Moses twice: “Some of them left some of it until morning and it became infested with maggots and stank”[7] and “the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found nothing.”[8] By this point God is furious, proclaiming “How long will you men refuse to obey my commandments and teachings?” (Ex. 16:28).

What’s fascinating to me is the interplay between Moses and God in this week’s reading. First Moses cries out to God to save Israel after they are in danger of being engulfed by Egypt at the Sea of Reeds. God’s retort is “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to Israel and move forward!”[9] Later on Israel cries to Moses, “Give us water to drink,” and Moses replies “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try God?”[10] It is as if “the Israelites do not seem to differentiate between God and Moses; they demand that Moses, not God, provide them with water.” On one hand this should not surprise us, as Pharaoh viewed himself as a God, so Israel is used to viewing themselves as God. God has already placed Moses in the role of God (elohim) to Pharaoh. On the other hand Moses fears Israel asking God “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!”[11] It is as if Moses is not comfortable with his role as the representation of God before Israel.

I think of how as a man of faith and the one viewed as God’s emissary this interplay works out. In rabbinical school I heard a story about a man whose wife was very ill. The rabbi came in for bikkur holim (visiting the sick). The husband shouted out, “Rabbi-we’re not ready for you yet!” It is as if the rabbi was God’s escort (or for a more negative reading the Angel of Death), bringing the woman up to heaven. How often are the leaders of the Jewish community viewed as God-like? Moses might have felt like he was just a man but that’s not how he was viewed by the people.

As we celebrate Jake!s Men’s Club Shabbat, let us bless the leaders of our Men’s Club representing that while they might feel they don’t do much, they do a great deal to sustain the Jericho Jewish Center. Let us thank Michael who tirelessly organizes the service leaders, Torah and Haftarah readers year after year; Dan who does all the behind-the-scenes work to make Jake!s Mens Club operational; Sherwin for doing the beautiful Shabbat sheet and Jake in abstentia who is the face of the Men’s Club just like Moses was the face of the Jewish people. We are so grateful to be able to celebrate together with you at Shabbat Shirah and demonstrate by example the power of Jake!s Mens Club. When we (God forbid) have a short memory and think “What has JJC done for me lately?” let us remember this special Shabbat and give thanks to our leadership for making it possible.

[1] Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible, page 176.

[2] Exodus 16:3

[3] The Rational Bible, Page 182.

[4] Ibid

[5] Exodus 16:6

[6] The Rational Bible, Page 184.

[7] Exodus 16:20

[8] Exodus 16:27

[9] Exodus 14:16

[10] Exodus 17”2

[11] Exodus 17:4

Uncircumcised Lips

It is so wonderful to have my parents and siblings here for my daughter’s special Simhat Bat weekend.

Last week we discussed Moses going outside his comfort zone but not without challenging G-d. In Parshat Shemot Moses described himself as כבד-פה וכבד לשון, “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”[1] In Parshat VaEra, he took things to another level. He said ואיך ישמעני פרעה ואני ערל-שפתיים, “How will Pharaoh listen to me for I am of uncircumcised lips.”[2] Aaron becomes his spokesman and G-d replies נתתיך אלקים לפרעה, “I have placed you in the role of G-d to Pharaoh.”[3] In other words, your perceived weakness is really your strength. It is through Moses repeating G-ds words, and Aaron translating them to Pharaoh, that the plagues will occur.

In life there are plenty of things we wish we did not have yet the fortunate person views them as gifts from G-d. When other kids were going to soccer practice or dance, I was going to speech lessons two to three days a week. I had trouble with many different letters, including “s,” “r” and “th.” There were periods in my life where I thought I would never get the letters right. However, I kept going, and eventually three days turned into two, then one and finally zero. At that stage in my life I would have never imagined that I would be giving public speeches every week. Nor would I have envisioned going to nationals in Forensics (Speech and Debate) in Student Congress in High School, winning First Place in, among all things, Catholic Forensics League National Qualifiers. Without taking small steps, day after day, I would never have made it to a point where most people could not tell that I have had speech therapy and where my speaking has become my strength.

By the end of the Torah, Moses goes from having “uncircumcised lips” to becoming our people’s greatest teacher, so much so that he was referred to as משה רבנו, Moses our teacher. As G-d said in a rebuke to Moses in last week’s parsha, מי שם פה לאדם, “Who gives man speech?”[4] Often in life, rather than wishing things were otherwise, we need to appreciate both our perceived strengths and weaknesses as gifts from   G-d.

Another lesson from our reading is that when we have a weakness we work together with others as a team to overcome it. Moses was given his brother Aaron as his spokesman. As we know from Ecclesiastes, טובים השניים מן האחד אשר יש-להם שכר טוב, בעמלם “Two are better than one for they have good reward through their labors.”[5]

In a similar vein to Moses and Aaron working together, Karina and my hope and prayer is that Ariela and Leora will do the same. Each of our daughters will have strengths which will shine forth in the world as well as challenges to overcome and one way to help do that is to have a support, a friend for life, a sibling. Moses’ weakness, his uncircumcised lips, was Aaron’s strength. Looking at what Moses and Aaron accomplished together, we see the power of siblings: both were needed to blaze the trail forward and get our ancestors out of Egypt. So too may it be the case for us and for our family members and life partners.

[1] Exodus 4:10

[2] Exodus 6:12

[3] Exodus 7:1

[4] Exodus 4:11

[5] Ecclesiastes 4:9

Uncertainty: Going Outside Your Comfort Zone

We are creatures of habit. We get used to patterns and ways of life. Yet sometimes something occurs which pushes us out of our comfort zone. Sometimes it’s a “burning bush moment” where we’re hit in the face with what we are supposed to do. At other times it’s more subtle.

At breakfast after Monday morning minyan, we discussed predestination versus free will. In a world which is predestined, everything is certain: we can be like Joseph and believe that everything occurred because of Divine Providence. In a world centered on free will, however, nothing is certain: we are like Moses, questioning everything. That is where we find ourselves in this week’s reading.

At the burning bush, Moses questioned G-d not once, not twice, not even three times but four. He began with מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה וכי אוציא את בנ”י ממצרים?, “Who am I to go before Pharaoh and lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”[1] This is often showcased as Moses’ humility. Rashi says, “How am I important enough to speak with kings?”[2] Ibn Ezra comments, “Who am I to free such a great people?”[3] Rashbam sees it differently, that Moses is assessing the futility of the situation: “Even if I were worthy of entering Pharaoh’s presence for other matters, as far as freeing the Israelites goes, what could I say to Pharaoh that he would accept? Is Pharaoh foolish enough to listen to me and send a huge people, who are his slaves, away free from the land.”[4]

I wonder what would have happened if Moses had gotten his way-instead of going to Pharaoh, he would have stayed and continued shepherding his father-in-law Yitro’s flock. Certainly it would have been a simpler life and put fewer gray hairs on his head. Yet Moses would not have been fulfilling his purpose in life. Part of what it means to be a “man of faith” is to step outside one’s comfort zone and go in the way one is pulled. The key is to remember G-d’s reply to Moses: כי אהיה עמך, “For I will be with you.”[5] When we feel vulnerable and alone, let us remember that G-d is with us. Similarly, when we feel that what we’ve set to do was futile or a waste of time, let us remember that G-d is present in the moment. Going yesterday to The Bristal Assisted Living to lead Shabbat services for 2 Jewish residents who had just moved in was far from a waste of time for me. I remembered my rabbi who taught me Amos in high school who said ‘I will teach you even if it’s just you and me,’ and look at the impact he made.

There are infinite possibilities in store for us in 2019. What we need to do is to be open to each of them as they arrive and accept them as they are. Rather than engage in the whirlwind of negative thoughts and emotions, in which I include “false humility” (undervaluing your strengths and thinking you are not the right person for a task when you are), let us strive to ascend to greater heights rather than staying within our comfort zone or resting on our laurels. Most importantly, when we feel uncertain or we second guess, let us remember that just like with Moses, אהיה, the Divine Presence, is in our midst, and may this give us the courage to do what we must. כן יהי רצון-may it be our will to do so.

[1] Exodus 3:11

[2] Rashi on Genesis 3:11 ד”ה מי אנכי

[3] Ibn Ezra on Genesis 3:11 ד”ה מי אנכי

[4] Rashbam on Genesis 3:11 ד”ה וכי אוציא את בנ”י ממצרים

[5] Genesis 3:12

What Is Your Spiritual Legacy?

Have you ever heard a song which brings tears to your eyes? For me that was a Jewish song learned at an NCSY retreat called המלאך הגואל אותי, “The angel which redeems me,” based off a verse in this week’s Torah portion. Many synagogues sing this when they call up the children for their Aliyah on Simhat Torah-and we do when we have kids present at our morning service.

These beautiful words come from this week’s Torah portion. Jacob blesses his grandsons with them, stating “The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm-bless the youths. In them may my name be recalled, and in the names of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac. May they multiply on the earth as fish do (in the sea).”[1] Jacob’s blessing presupposes a number of things. First, as Rashi indicates, there is a guardian angel sent to us when we are in trouble.[2] God’s actions on earth are performed by intermediaries-it might be a chance encounter or feel like a coincidence but each of us has guardian angels or messengers (מלאכים).[3]

We also learn from Jacob’s teaching that we should be called by the name of Jacob-Israel. Israel is Jacob’s spiritual name, and Jacob is bequeathing unto Ephraim and Menasseh his spiritual legacy, going back to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. He is saying, as emphasized by Rashbam, that their offspring and the offspring of their offspring will live on.[4] Third-that we will multiply in number, and while that might not be true in physical terms, just look at the contributions of Jews to so many aspects of the world in which we live, whether in terms of the sciences, the arts/culture or literacy.

Often in life we focus on our physical legacy. We act philanthropically, endowing departments at universities or giving to organizations whose work we value. We also focus on the financial resources we will leave to our children. Here, however, Jacob is imparting on his grandchildren his spiritual legacy-that they will truly be בני ישראל, guided by the example that he as Israel has set. Similarly we should take the time to think about our spiritual legacies: how we will encourage our children and grandchildren to follow in our footsteps, valuing Judaism in all its beauty. We have the opportunity to write an ethical will in addition to a physical will, thinking about what is are the values and teachings we want to leave for our descendants. We should model for them what is important to us through taking them to shul or fun holiday events. Most children and teens who I’ve spoken to say their best Jewish memories are when they make haroset or matzah ball soup or were home for the Passover Seder led by a parent or grandparent.

Let us strive to be like Israel, valuing what we have to contribute spiritually. When things don’t go our way, let us not take this a sign of failure of “G-d frowning on us” but rather as a message either to try again or to try to learn from the experience. Similarly, when unexpected positive developments occur, let us not take all the credit but give some of it to G-d working through us. May we always strive to think about our spiritual legacy and how we can strengthen it through the example we make in this world.

[1] Genesis 48:16

[2] Rashi on Genesis 49:16 ד”ה המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע

[3] Radak on genesis 49:16 ד”ה המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע

[4] Rashbam on Genesis 49:16 ד”ה ויקרא בהם שמי

Fake News

How do we know what to believe? What’s truth and what’s fiction? In our age of “alternative facts” and “fake news” that is a commonly asked question.

If you are stumped do not worry-this is not a recent conundrum but rather has been an issue for the ages. When Joseph’s brothers tell their father Jacob that Joseph is alive, Jacob could not believe them. ויפג לבו כי לא-האמין בהם, “his heart went numb for he could believe them.”[1] Why at this moment could Jacob not believe his sons? Rashi comments, נחלף לבו והלך מלהאמין, לא היה לו פונה אל הדברים, “His heart changed and he ceased believing-his heart was not swayed by their words.”[2] Because the brothers were deceptive, pretending that a wild beast devoured Joseph, at their “moment of revelation” their father will not believe them. He thinks it is fake news.

What causes Jacob to change his mind? The following verse reads וידברו אליו את כל דברי יוסף, “They (the brothers) spoke to him (Jacob) regarding all of Joseph’s words.[3] However, Jacob is not swayed by words. He does not believe Joseph is alive until וירא את-העגלות אשר-שלח יוסף לשאת אותו, “he saw the wagons that Joseph sent.”[4] At that point,ותחי ,רוח יעקב אביהם Jacob’s spirit revived.[5]

As the adage goes, “seeing is believing.” Jacob needed to see physical proof that Joseph sent something in order to know that he was alive and well. We all know that “talk is cheap”-that is the problem with fake news. I can say anything I want to and you have no way whatsoever of verifying its veracity until you see it for yourself. The brothers also “cried wolf” and you can only do that so many times and still be believed.

A rabbi who I worked with told me a story related to this. He went to a USCJ rabbis and presidents conference in New York City. His congregational president wanted to buy a gift for his wife in the Diamond District and wanted a discount. The Israeli would have given a rabbinic discount but he did not believe that the president was accompanied by a rabbi. The rabbi answered all sorts of halachic questions but the Israeli was undeterred. Finally the rabbi pulled out his rabbinic credit card, and the Israeli finally said “Now I know you’re a rabbi” and gave him the discount.

It is difficult to know when something is “The Truth” versus a tall tale, fabrication or stretch. That is why “fake news” is such a common thing. Jacob did not believe his flesh and blood until he saw a mark of physical proof. Can we expect anything less from us?

When we see something on the news or get told a story, let us take the time to verify that it is true before jumping to conclusions. We know how easy it is to start rumors and get the ball rolling to such an extent that we cannot stop it. It is often better to be skeptical rather than gullible, although not always showing it. It is too bad that we need to question things but whether we watch FOX, CNN or SHALOM TV, let us take the time to get things right before we jump in to believing hook, line and sinker. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Genesis 45:26

[2] Rashi on Genesis 45:26 ד”ה ויפג לבו

[3] Genesis 47:27

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

Jacob: The Tactician or the Coward?

Welcome back to those who were on the JJC Congregational Israel Trip. We look forward to hearing more about your trip, including a special presentation by Steve on a Shabbat morning.

One of the highlights as expressed to me by Richard was being at the Kotel on Friday evening and seeing 100 Israeli soldiers with M16s and Uzis davening. This image stuck with me: the prayer to G-d while at the same time the belief that one must protect him/herself at all costs. I thought of the Yom Kippur War when Israel was surprised by 5 Arab countries and how this can never happen again.

This leads into this week’s Torah portion. In anticipation of his militant brother Esau, the one who said “Let the mourning period for my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.”[1] Jacob prepares cattle, donkeys, sheep and male and female slaves in order to placate him. Instead of being “at peace,” Jacob’s messenger reports “Esau is coming to meet you, and there are 400 men with him.”[2] Jacob panics: in his anxiety he divides his family into two camps, thinking “If Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”[3]

In my Questions for the Week, I asked if Jacob’s move was one of a strategic military tactician or of a coward. One could argue that Jacob was wise, knowing that nothing could be taken for granted with his spur-of-the-moment brother. He put Rachel and Joseph last, his favorite wife and his favorite son.[4] As Ibn Ezra comments, he hoped they would escape for he loved them.[5] Like any good general he goes first, running up to Esau and then bowing before him. Rashi comments that Jacob went first because “if this evil man wants to fight, let him fight me first.”[6] It appears that Jacob was intentional and smart as he went out to meet his impulsive brother.

One could argue, however, that Jacob was a coward. He brought multiple gifts in an attempt to placate his brother. He behaved extremely obsequiously, bowing low to the ground 7 times.[7] He forced his wives, concubines and children to all bow low before Esau, as if to say ‘We will serve you as you wish.’ Jacob indicates that he brought the lavish gifts in order to curry favor with his brother and begs Esau to take them even after he refuses.[8] This manner of groveling and subservience to his brother does not show Jacob as a strong leader but rather a weakling coward.

This appears to be the turning point in the Jacob story: after his encounter with Esau it’s all downhill. His sons Shimon and Levi deviously murder the men of Shechem after Jacob cuts a deal with him. Jacob’s firstborn Revuen sleeps with his concubine Bilhah, a sign that he wants to take over for daddy. All of the brothers gang up against Jacob’s favorite son Joseph, offering Jacob false comfort as he deals with misery and wretchedness. I wonder if the brothers saw Jacob’s obsequiousness and thought ‘Daddy’s weak; it’s my turn to take over for him.’ Perhaps this is why Jacob describes his years as “few and hard”[9] to Pharaoh.

The point is that things are never as cut and dry as they appear prima facie. I always thought Jacob was a brilliant strategist but now I see him as more of an anxious coward. While we should not judge someone until we’ve been in his/her shoes and there is always the danger of the ‘Monday morning quarterback’, Jacob’s example does give us cause to pause. In the end we might not have an answer, or maybe we can see Jacob as both a brilliant general and a fearful coward. This, however, is what makes his story so compelling and why I hope each of us will continue to study it year after year.

[1] Genesis 27:41

[2] Genesis 32:7

[3] Genesis 32:9

[4] Genesis 33:2

[5] Ibn Ezra on Genesis 33:2 ד”ה ואת רחל ואת יוסף אחרונים

[6] Rashi on Genesis 33:3 ד”ה והוא עבר לפניהם

[7] Genesis 33:3

[8] Genesis 33:8

[9] Genesis 47:9