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.

Korban: Drawing Close

          In this year of COVID, what have you done to draw close to God or to others? At times when you feel apart or adrift, what actions have you taken to be connected to others? The entire principle of korbanot, animal sacrifices, was not to kill animals for animals’ sake: rather it is to draw close to the Holy One.

          Imagine offering your choicest flock on the altar with the Kohen granting you atonement for a sin. The thoughts going through your head are likely “That could have been me. Time to repent for my actions.” By seeing an animal’s life taken instead of your own, it would jolt you into returning to God.

          Today we have prayer for atonement, but prayer is much less visceral and tangible. Saying words from one’s lips is not the same as being part of the sacrifice of an animal. Those who have been to the Samaritan sacrifice at Mount Gerizim, which will occur again this coming week, know the impact this sacrifice has in bringing a community closer together and towards God.

          I am not calling for a return to animal sacrifice: rather for a reflection on what you can do to draw closer to your community and to God. While COVID has made us physically apart, now is the time to begin thinking about how to come back together in joy, warmth, and closeness. May we think about what our Korban, our efforts to draw close, will be as we approach Passover.

Blueprint Versus Reality

          Why does Parshat VaYakhel repeat so much that has already been said in Parshat Terumah? Many lines from the first aliyot of each parsha are identical. A common theory is that Parshat Terumah represents the “blueprint” of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) that Moses learned when he was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights. Parshat VaYakhel, in contrast, represents the reality of building the Mishkan. The Ishbitzer Rebbe in his book Mei HaShiloach mentions that the 72 elders (6 from each tribe) made shinuim, changes, when building the Mishkan because of constraints.[1]

          Often our blueprint represents our greatest vision for the reality. However, there are noticeable differences between what we intend and what we achieve. The place I have seen this most in my life is with the births of my daughters Ariela and Leora. We have all sorts of hopes and dreams for our children, a blueprint laid out, yet we know that the people they will become are different from the people we envisioned-and that is great! My hope and prayer for my daughters is that they continue to construct their own, independent reality, with the guidance from our blueprint, but that their reality will be even more beautiful than we could have envisioned, just as the Mishkan, God’s home, upon its completion was even more wonderous upon its completion than in its blueprint in Parshat Terumah. May our hopes, dreams and what we desire (R’tzei) from God become actualized-to a greater degree than we could have imagined.


[1] Mei HaShiloach Sefer Shemot, Volume I, Parshat VaYakhel, ד”ה ויקהל משה

Responsibilities of a Leader

          What are the responsibilities of a leader? It clearly isn’t to “let the people run wild” as Aaron did. When Israel came to Aaron to demand a God to worship in place of Moses, he didn’t object. Instead he said “give me your gold jewelry” and used it to make a molten calf.

          The word being used for how Aaron let the people get is פרע[1], to go wild or let loose. It is the same root as פרעה. Pharaoh, who thought he was god, is at the end of the story governing an Egypt which is out of control. Similarly, by acquiescing to the Israelites’ request, Aaron enables them to get out of control. Aaron thus abdicated his duty in Moses’ absence.

          As a leader, sometimes the right word to say is “no”. There is a Midrash that Aaron only said yes because he could not control the mob; they had killed Hur and would kill him as well. However, I see that is apologetics and instead of bringing patience to the Israelites, Aaron enables their destructive behavior. As Moses’ partner in crime with Pharaoh, Aaron is quick to turn away from Moses and give the people the molten god they demand. He is also quick to throw in an excuse, telling Moses “Don’t be enraged; you know that this people is bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us a god to lead us; for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt-we do not know what has happened to him. So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off! They gave it to me, and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!”[2] In other words, he exonerates himself, acting like he wanted to burn the gold rather than create the calf.

          The lesson to learn from this is that leaders need to take responsibility for their actions rather than make excuses. We need to admit when we fall short. I hope that we will be able to learn this lesson rather than repeating the mistakes of Aaron by enabling destructive behavior.


[1] Exodus 32:25

[2] Exodus 32:22-24

What’s Your Terumah (Your Personal Contribution)?

Help me make of my life something fine.

Help me take of the gifts which are mine

And create days of meaning and worth.

Help me see that from moment of birth,

Life was given to me through God’s grace

With skills taught that would help me to face

Life’s adversity and its success

Let firm faith help transcend every stress.

Let me give to the world all my love

And absorb from the world only love.

Help me sight in mankind the Divine

Conscious that all world’s children are ‘mine.’

Let me say while existence is mine

I will make of my life something fine.[1]

          Tonight begins my Grandma Lucille’s 4th Yahrzeit. My grandmother is the single greatest influence on my becoming a rabbi. She came to synagogue every Saturday at 8:45 am, 15 minutes early, eyes closed and prayerbook open. Though she rarely got passed the preliminary service, that was not important to her: what was important was to connect with the Holy One, blessed be God. She was the most spiritual person I have ever met.

          This week we read from the Torah that everyone should give a Terumah, or voluntary contribution. The Torah teaches מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו,[2] everyone should give whatever his/her heart desires. What does your heart desire to give to Bet Shira Congregation for this celebratory year, its 36th, Double Chai, Anniversary? If you have the means to financially give a gift of gratitude towards our spiritual home, please do. If you do not, there are many additional ways one can give from his/her heart. My grandmother was not a woman of great financial resources, but she gave of her time, energy, and spirit to whichever synagogue she belonged. It is my hope and my prayer that each of us, if we have not already, will give a Terumah from the heart, a voluntary contribution to our House of Worship. This week Karina and I gave the largest amount we have ever given to Bet Shira in my grandmother’s memory. I hope you will join us, as well as the Israelites we read about in the Torah, in giving to something greater than ourselves: the sustaining of a House of God.

          Help me to know

          The preciousness of minutes.

Yield to me the consciousness to see

My purpose and my place within all timespan,

And each moment’s purpose within me.[3]


[1] Lucille Frenkel, Creation Wondrous (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 2013)

[2] Exodus 26:2

[3] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983)

Being Happy with What You Have

          I have often stated that the 10th commandment is the hardest commandment-that is until I reflected on how difficult it is to avoid lashon hara (bad speech). Still, it feels like human nature to long for what you lack and to covet what others’ have. Noom taught me that 99.9% of humanity negatively filter-that means that they choose to see the negative, or what is lacking, rather than what they have.

          The Ethics of the Fathers teaches us איזהו עשיר: השמח בחלקו “Who is rich? One who is happy with what s/he has.”[1] People who truly rejoice in their lot don’t care if they have the latest iPhone, a Maserati car or a trip to Hawaii: they appreciate all the blessings and privileges that they have in life. They recognize that things could always be worse and are able to count their blessings.

          It is my hope as we read the 10 Commandments and Parshat Yitro that we rejoice in our lot, developing a Dayenu mentality. In other words, if God had only done some things for us but not others, it would have been enough. Now that God has done so much for us, all the more so should we be happy with what we have. If on the other hand, we feel our lives would be better with another thing, another spouse, or another job, we wind up in an insatiable pit where it will never be enough; as soon as we achieve that desire, we will long for something else. Instead, it is my hope and prayer that we find ways to rejoice with the bounty of all that we have.


[1] Pirkei Avot 5:1

Strike the Rock or Speak to It?

          It’s strange how in Exodus 17 when Israel complains about a lack of water God tells Moses to strike a rock to bring forth water, whereas in Number 20 God tells him to talk to the rock. Why not have Moses strike the rock again (as he does)?

          The best way I’ve to understand this is that between Exodus and Numbers the children of Israel were supposed to undergo an evolutionary approach. In Exodus they had just left Egypt and still had a slave mentality. They needed time to believe that God, through His servant Moses, was the authority figure. That is why Moses striking the rock there and water gushing out directly gets their attention. By Numbers, however, the Children of Israel are supposed to have evolved to such a degree that they believe that God, with Moses as His conduit, can do things supernaturally. God can merely have Moses speak to a rock and water will gush forth, quenching Israel’s thirst.

          We know that we do not say the same things to a toddler that we do to a teenager. Furthermore, we would not give a lecture in Anatomy 101 the same way we would to a medical resident. As people evolve, the content they learn and the way they are taught must also evolve. By Numbers the Children of Israel were supposed to already believe in a God who could provide water in the midst of the desert. Unfortunately that was not the case.

          As we prepare to read Parshat BeShellach tomorrow, may we examine how our faith is evolving day by day and where it is at in this particular moment. Hopefully our relationship with God is not in the same place that it was when we were in 5th grade but has evolved through our life experiences in the same way that our intellectual acumen has. If we look hard enough for them, we will always find opportunities to grow and to evolve into the people we are meant to be.