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

Growing from One’s Failures

What is your salary? We do not ask this question as salary is considered to be private. Many people erroneously consider how much we make to be equal to how much we are worth as a person. However, others realize there is something more important than money. The reading The Crown of a Good Name that I do at the end of a shiva minyan reads “Wealth like health will pass away, but a good name can live on forever.”[1]

Discussions about wages and monetary worth are nothing new: they go back to this week’s Torah portion. As Lavan and Jacob parted, Lavan asked, “What are the wages due you?”[2] Jacob replied, “Pay me nothing!”[3] Why does Jacob not want to be paid for the 20 years he worked for Lavan? Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, said, “Nothing from all the sheep that you now have, since I have been serving you for your daughters.”[4]

Often we think money sells. We look for the jobs that pay the most money. We care about our salaries and benefits; after all maybe it will lead us to retire at a younger age. Jacob, however, couldn’t care less. What he realized is that there are some things that money can’t buy, and one of them is love. He worked 7 years expecting to marry Rachel yet was tricked by Lavan into marrying Leah. He had to work another 7 years for Rachel and then worked 6 years more for Lavan’s flocks.

One might interject and say, ‘Rabbi, look at what follows’; context is everything. Jacob said to Lavan that his wages would be determined by goats which are streaked, speckled or spotted and sheep which are dark-colored. Lavan agreed, and Jacob used mating rods to ensure that the stronger young goats and sheep that would be born would go to him. This appears to be another example of Jacob as trickster, using the mating rods to acquire the better quality goats and sheep. I choose, however, to view it differently: Jacob knew animal husbandry so well from his time tending Lavan’s flocks that he knew what to ask for and was thus able to acquire it. He was so talented as a shepherd that he won the wager with Lavan.

The lesson to take from this is the importance of continually honing one’s skills and not letting failure get you down but rather learning from it and using it to propel you forward. Jacob could have been bitter at having been tricked by Lavan into marrying Leah, and yet he learned from this trickery. He had more time to shepherd Lavan’s flocks and became an even better shepherd. The acquisition of the strong sheep and goats came about because Jacob honed his skills and bested his uncle.

In life we learn more from our failures than from the times we don’t put ourselves out there. Jacob grew greatly from his failure to marry the right woman. He also learned that one might want to peek under the veil to make sure he is really marrying his intended J. Perhaps most importantly, Jacob recognized that in life there are always strings attached to everything. If he had said to Lavan “Pay me the wages you owe me from the past 6 years,” he might have felt beholden to his uncle despite being entitled to the payment. Instead, Jacob creates a clever way to get the wealth he needed in terms of livestock by outsmarting Uncle Lavan. In so, let us recognize that life’s a long time and there is always the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and grow into the people we want to become each and every day.

[1] “The Crown of a Good Name” found in A Minyan of Comfort p. 136

[2] Genesis 30:31

[3] Genesis 30:31

[4] Rashbam on Genesis 30:31

Nature Versus Nurture: Is It An Appropriate Comparison?

Last August I saw two movies in the theater: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (referenced last week) and Three Identical Strangers. The latter details what occurs when triplets who were separated at birth become reunited. These boys did not know each other at all during their formative years and yet they all became wrestlers, smoked the same cigarettes, and had the same taste in women. The brothers had a happy reunion, settling in New York City and opening the rowdy and popular SoHo delicatessen Triplets. Each brother had a different upbringing: one was from a blue-collar family in Queens, another from a middle-class family in New Hyde Park, the third the son of a prominent doctor in Scarsdale.

Unfortunately the story takes a dark turn. They discover that in being given up for adoption by the Louise Wise Adoption Agency, they were put into a psychological experiment conducted by the Freudian psychologist Peter Neubauer on separating twins and triplets at birth.  The brothers meet their biological mother and have a difficult encounter with her. They have in-fighting, one of them leaving the Triplets business and stopping communication with his siblings. That brother was also charged in the slaying of a woman during an armed robbery. Another brother (the son of the prominent Westchester physician and the “popular” one of the three) commits suicide.  All three end up in psychiatric hospitals at different times in their lives.

Most of us would be horrified if such an experiment took place today; the cruelty of separating biological siblings. It is especially difficult to fathom that it was conducted by a man who fled Nazi persecution, as we know Mengele’s infamous experiments with twins. Three brothers with identical genes have completely different turn of events. This leads to the famous question: does nature or nurture dominate-and is it even worth looking into?

In this week’s parasha, we have the birth of two siblings who cannot be more different. We have the ruddy haired hunter Esau and the quiet Jacob. Isaac favors Esau for his hunting, whereas Rebecca favors Jacob. As twins both brothers grew up in the exact same home at the exact same time, so why are they so different? Even if Jacob and Esau are fraternal, I would not imagine them to be polar opposite in personality and temperament.

Three Identical Strangers gives us insight into this. The age-old question of nature versus nurture is not what we should be asking. Rather, our focus must be on what makes each person unique from his/her peer and how we can find a place for both of them. It is not supporting Jacob while castigating Esau but rather finding things to love about both personalities. Even three siblings with identical genes have completely different fates. The one with the hardest economic background, David Kellman, the son of a grocery store owner, appears to fare the best of the three. Is that because his parents were around more, or perhaps because he had to struggle more with adversity? Should we even be asking this question-after all it seems hutzpadik.

We are so quick to make comparisons, so eager to view things in black-and-white rather than in shades of gray. We do that all the time with Jacob, ignoring his faults while looking to vilify Esau, the one who threw away his inheritance over a bowl of stew. Yet what if we look at these characters through the complexities that comprise each human being’s life? What if instead of jumping to conclusions in our brains, we take a step back and appreciate each person for who s/he is and what s/he can contribute? It’s far too easy to look for answers: Why did Eddie Galland kill himself, why did Bobby Shafran disassociate himself from the other brothers? The answers are far more complex than the questions. Similarly, why did Esau want to kill his brother? Was he just talking, as many of us do when we are angry? Why did Jacob deceive Isaac? Did he want to do this or did his mother Rebecca manipulate him into doing it?

The goal is not to come up with “the answer” but rather to ask the questions and leave space for silence. Maybe we will get a satisfactory answer, maybe not. The bottom line, however, is we cannot wrap it in a nice, neat little bow. That’s what I found most powerful about the film Three Identical Strangers: the triplets and their parents never get a satisfactory answer as to why they were separated at birth for this eugenic, sickening psychological experiment. Anyone watching the film can come up with his or her own conclusion but the key question is left open-ended. That ambiguity has a realness to it; just like life.

May each of us, when we have uncertainty, whether about a major event in our lives, the Torah portion we are reading, the film we have just watched, the book we have just read, find comfort in knowing that life is about the uncertain. We can look for an answer but that doesn’t mean we will find one. Life is not a Hollywood film with a “happy ending” where everything makes sense. It is, rather, complicated. So too is Torah. There are 70 faces to the Torah, meaning one can continuously turn it over and arrive at an answer only to see something else and jump to a completely different conclusion. If our understanding of God or of characters such as Jacob and Esau remains where it was in 4th or 5th grade, then we have a stunted Judaism. My hope and prayer instead is that we continue to ask the questions with open eyes and an open mind, not knowing the answer our outcome we will reach. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our choice to do so.

Celebrating Life: A Response to Pittsburgh

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

Let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor? [1]


When I got home from elementary school, I watched two shows on PBS. The first was Sesame Street; the second was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers always managed to capture my imagination with his insight and creativity. It’s very rare that I see a movie nowadays so I need to make it worth my time; when I was a “bachelor” for a week in August the first movie I saw was Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I knew I’d use it in a sermon but was unsure when. Today’s the day.

Last Saturday a man filled with hate, who used the social media site gab.com to spew his venom, walked into Congregation Tree of Life and murdered 11 people. The congregation is located in Squirrel Hill, a very Jewish area of Pittsburgh but also the neighborhood of Presbyterian Minister Fred (Mr.) Rogers. Unfortunately such an incident is the anathema of everything that Fred stood for; he used television as his ministry to bring children together, make them learn important life lessons such as kindness, patience and generosity. In the movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Mr. Rogers is shown after the 9/11 attacks, and it mentioned that before his public address, he was ashen and wondered what difference it would make. Yet he gave his final message, saying “I love you just the way you are.” I wonder what Robert Bowers would have turned into if his parents and classmates told him “I love you just the way you are.” I wonder if he still would have acted like Amalek, going on a rampage and shooting the vulnerable and elderly congregants in the rear of the synagogue.

What would Fred Rogers say in light of this massacre in his hometown? No one will know-לא המתים יהללו יה. I cannot look to my childhood exemplar for guidance-I need to do this on my own.

This week we read the Torah portion Haye Sarah, “the life of Sarah.” The portion begins ויהיו חיי שרה, these are the days of the life of Sarah.[2] The funny thing is the portion begins with her death-why therefore does it say the days of her life? The answer I like best is that we are celebrating each and every day of every week of every month of every year of Sarah’s life; who she was and the impact she made in the world.

I will now share about the days of the lives of every victim who was shot down in cold blood by the Jew-hater Robert Bowers at Tree of Life and New Light Synagogues. I do this to celebrate who they were and all that they contributed during their length of years; though each was taken before his/her time.

These are the days of the life of Joyce Feinberg z”l, a former research specialist who had been married to a world famous statistician. As a world traveler, she could not imagine living anywhere outside of Pittsburgh. She was a worrier about other people’s needs, devoted to her family and to her belated husband Stephen z”l. Her memory is for blessing.[3]

These are the days of the life of Irving Younger z”l the shamas and schmoozer of Tree of Life who had been a small business owner and youth baseball coach. Irving would arrive early and stay late at synagogue. He was an usher, guiding people to a seat and handing them a prayerbook. I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw this gunman walk into the room where the services were and his first thought was ‘Can I help this stranger get settled?’ — until he saw what the stranger was doing — because that’s the kind of thought that he would have,” said Barton Schachter, a past president of Tree of Life. His neshama should have an Aliya.[4]

These are the days of the lives of Bernice and Sylvan Simon z”l.  Sylvan Simon was a retired accountant with a good sense of humor. He was best friends with Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Berkun, who would have been in synagogue sitting next to the Simons if his wife had not asked him to stay home. Bernice Simon was a former nurse. She loved classical music and devoted time to charitable work. The Simons were going to celebrate a family birthday after Shabbat services. תהי נשמתם צרורה בצרור החיים.[5]

These are the days of the lives of Cecil and David Rosenthal z”l. Two brothers, each with their own challenges, who greeted attendees of Tree of Life Synagogue on Shabbat with prayerbooks as well as at weekday evening minyan at Beth Shalom. According to brother-in-law Michael Hirt, “David loved anything relating to the police or fire department.” Cecil was referred to as the “unofficial mayor of Squirrel Hill,” unafraid to go after what he wanted. He became a part of a Best Buddies chapter in 2005 when the organization shared a space with the disability services group Achieva, which helped and housed the Rosenthal brothers.” The brothers were inseparable, always together. Their memories are for blessing.[6]

These are the days of the life of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz z”l. This man never stopped smiling, and was believed by those who knew him to be a malakh, an angel. He compassionately took care of those who suffered during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. He was always present and smiling at whatever he was doing, even when filling the Dixie cups with grape juice. יהי זכרונו ברוך[7]

These are the days of the life of Daniel Stein z”l, a member of New Light Synagogue. A man who recently became a grandfather, Daniel had recently retired and worked at a funeral home and as a substitute teacher. He picked up his grandson from daycare each and every day, this simple gesture giving him the joy he needed. He will not be forgotten.[8]

These are the days of the life of Rose Malinger z”l, a 97 year old woman was a stalwart, attending services each and every Saturday. Her family reports that she retained her sharp wit, humor and intelligence until the very last day. Tree of Life Congregation was “her place to be social, to be active and to meet family and friends.” Her 61 year old daughter Andrea was wounded in the attack. We will remember her.[9]

These are the days of the life of Dr. Richard Gotfried z”l. Rich was a dentist who tried to ‘Heal the World’ with work treating immigrants and refugees at a health clinic. He was a father figure to many on his staff, and he truly engaged in tikun olam, repairing the world on a daily basis. His soul will rise higher and higher.[10]

These are the days of the life of Melvin Wax z”l. Melvin knew so much yiddishkeit and was the default lay service leader at Tree of Life. He often did bikur holim, visiting ill people in the congregation. His soul is bound up in the bond of life.[11]

Please Rise-God, Healer of the Broken Hearted, we turn to you at this moment of grief. We ask in Your mercy that those massacred in Pittsburgh, who came to synagogue to worship You, that they not have been murdered in vain. May we never forget their example, the devotion they gave to their congregational home, the love and kindness they demonstrated in how they lived their lives. Let their example inspire us to be vigilant, not jaded; active, not silent; focused, not distracted; strong, not weak. May those of us who showed up special for this Shabbat continue to honor us with your presence, recognizing that regardless of our beliefs, each of us is grateful to be alive and to be able to call the Jericho Jewish Center our spiritual home. May we remember these 11 righteous and pure souls not in how they were murdered but rather in how they lived. In your almighty name we pray, Amen.

[1] “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” by Fred Rogers

[2] Genesis 23:1

[3] https://nypost.com/2018/10/31/the-light-refuses-to-be-dimmed-family-honors-synagogue-shooting-victim/

[4] http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2018/10/28/Pittsburgh-Squirrel-Hill-mass-shooting-victim-Irving-Younger-Allderdice-school/stories/201810280226

[5] http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2018/10/28/Bernice-and-Sylvan-Simon-a-married-couple-from-Wilkinsburg-synagogue-shooting-victims-squirrel-hill/stories/201810280231

[6] http://time.com/5439625/cecil-david-rosenthal-pittsburgh-service/

[7] https://nypost.com/2018/10/30/renowned-aids-doctor-killed-in-synagogue-shooting-laid-to-rest/

[8] https://nypost.com/2018/10/28/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-victim-just-became-a-grandpa/

[9] http://www.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2018/10/28/tree-of-life-mass-shooting-pittsburgh-victim-rose-mallinger-daughter-andrea-wedner/stories/201810280202

[10] http://time.com/5437946/richard-gottfried-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting/

[11] https://abcnews.go.com/US/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-victims-joyce-fienberg-melvin-wax/story?id=58872459

How Can Faith Assuage the Fear of Death (In Newsday’s Ask the Clergy)

The last words we say at the end of Shabbat morning services, as well as before we go to bed, are “God is with me and I will not fear.” In saying these words, we acknowledge that the world can be a scary place and at times we might feel alone and vulnerable. We turn to God as a source of comfort for when we are afraid. This is most certainly true in regard to death. The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th (a taste) of death so before going to sleep, when we have no control over our bodies, we acknowledge God’s role as our protector.

Much of our fear of death stems from a fear of not being in control. We love life and living and fear for a time when we will no longer be on earth. We love our families and cannot imagine a time when we are no longer here for them. What religion and faith entail is a belief that everything will be ok. We are commanded to teach Torah to our children who in turn will teach it to their children, ensuring that the moral and religious blueprint that we follow will remain eternal. Furthermore, we will live on in the next generation, as they are shaped by how we raised them: the values we taught them and our modeling for them how to live our lives. While we cannot control how many days we will live on this planet, we have ultimate control over the example we set for our children and our grandchildren, our nephews and nieces, our cousins and dear friends.

The Jewish faith also teaches that while we bury the body, our soul (or “spirit”) lives on and will never be extinguished. We will never truly be gone: we will always be present in spirit. This belief system ensures that there is nothing to fear about death that it is a part of life that each of us will experience. It’s not a vanishing into nothingness but rather a step in a process. By letting go of our need to have all the answers and by seeing death not as oblivion but as a part of what it means to be a human being, we recognize that we have nothing to fear.

As in the words of the anonymous poet: “If you continue to love the one you lose, you will never lose the one you love.”

The Cursed Land

As I was preparing for a class on the Hoshanot during Sukkot, I noticed the peculiar language of the 6th Hoshana that we said of Hoshana Rabba. The prayer begins הושע נא אדמה מארר, save us from the cursed land. What cursed land? The note in our Artscroll Mahzor for Sukkot points to this week’s Torah reading. When Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden, G-d said to him ארורה האדמה בעבורך, “The land is cursed because of you.”[1] The verse continues, בעצבון תאכלנה כל ימי חייך, “You shall eat by the sweat of your brow all the days of your life.”[2] The following verse begins וקוץ ודרדר תצמיח לך “Thorns and thistles shall the land sprout for you.”[3] Not exactly the most pleasant or comforting images.

Before Adam’s transgression he had it easy: all he had to do was to pluck the fruit from the trees. As Radak, Rabbi David Kimhi, commented, “You (Adam) will not have to work before you can eat… ‘to till it and to tend it’[4] meant nothing more than light work-not work that would raise a sweat.”[5] Adam now had to work hard in order to yield any fruit. As a matter of fact, Rashi says that the sproutings will be “Artichokes and cardoons, which can only be made edible with great effort.”[6] A lot of effort will be needed in order to produce a little food.

This fate of Adam is transposed onto each of us through the Hoshana we said less than a week ago. While at times in life we feel like we are in Eden, that things flow naturally without effort, at other times each of us strives to produce something yet our hard work and best efforts fail. We might even feel (G-d forbid) cursed just like Adam’s land is cursed. We might feel unproductive, that our efforts do not bear fruit. The Hoshana is a prayer for G-d to save us from this: to make our efforts bear fruit and to make sure  that we do not give up.

We might take a more ecological approach, arguing that with global warming our efforts things which used to be easier are taking even more work to yield fruit. With drought preventing crop growth and fires destroying thousands of acres in California, flooding wiping out entire crops of fruit in Florida as well as the Carolinas and numerous other natural disasters, the Hoshana could be calling on G-d to save us from our worst inclinations and tendencies, reducing our carbon footprints, however inconvenient that might be. Alternatively it could be beckoning us to think twice before doing something destructive, reminding us that hard-earned respect and careers can be ruined in an instant over something foolish. It can be equally important to pray that G-d save us from ourselves as it is to pray that G-d will save us from natural disasters and scorched earth where the earth appears to be cursed.

As we began the Torah anew this morning, let us think about what we can do to make our lives a little more Eden-like and feel a little less cursed. At the same time, may we recognize that sometimes we need to work by the sweat of our brows in order to achieve results about which we feel proud and accomplished. Perhaps Adam’s Eden was not an ideal but rather something meant to be short-lived. The next time we feel that our land or our lives are cursed, let us pray to G-d that we have the inner strength and fortitude needed for transformation, and may we be the change we want to see in the world.[7]

[1] Genesis 3:17

[2] Ibid

[3] Genesis 3:18

[4] Genesis 2:15

[5] Radak on Genesis 3:17 ד”ה ארורה האדמה בעבורך

[6] Rashi on Genesis 3:18 ד”ה וקוץ ודרדר תצמחך לך

[7] Attributed to Mahatma Ghandi

Heading Back to Reality

Whether we like it or not, change and transition are part of our lives. We can attempt to follow one schedule or routine only to have it thrown out of whack by something unexpected. The same goes with the Jewish calendar. We can bask in the heat of summer, but fall will come in due time. Similarly, we can love the High Holy Day season but eventually it will come to an end and we will head back to reality.

While there is a dispute as to whether Shemini Atzeret is a רגל בפני עצמו, a holiday in and of itself, or the 8th Day of Sukkot, all agree that after Shemini Atzeret the High Holy Days are over. Some synagogues change the ark and curtains right after Shemini Atzeret services. All agree that one no longer eats in the Sukkah after today.

A special prayer is recited upon leaving the Sukkah for the final time each year. The prayer goes as follows: יהי רצון מלפניך ה אלקנו ואלקי אבותנו, כשם שקימתי וישבתי בסכה זו, כך אזכה בשנה הבאה לישב בסכת עורו של לויתן. לשנה הבאה בירושלים! “May it be your will G-d and G-d of our ancestors that just as I established and dwelt in this Sukkah, so too may I merit in the year to come to dwell in the Sukkah made out of the skin of the Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem!” This is a prayer for the Messiah to usher in the World to Come, the same reason we read the Haftarah of Gog of Magog, the apocalyptic, cataclysmic battle ushering in the Messiah. We are praying for change; to leave this physical world and bask in the glory of a Messianic Age.

According to Jewish tradition, the mythic sea monster known as the Leviathan will be slain as one of the steps to usher in the Messiah.[1] Many scholars, including Maimonides, highlight that we will feast on the Leviathan in the Messianic Age. The question, however, remains as to why we say this prayer. In a class on this topic, Rabbi Ethan Tucker asks, “What will happen to Leviathan’s inedible hide? This prayer prompts us to imagine it as the material out of which we construct our sukkah. Animal hides are completely invalid for sekhakh, the sukkah’s water-permeable roof—we will see why below—so, the image of Leviathan’s skin here is meant to conjure up the walls of our future sukkah in our mind’s eye. Why are we talking about the sukkah’s walls at all? Isn’t sekhakh the essence of what a sukkah is about, the part that must be carefully constructed to conform to the expectations of our halakhic canon? Why would the walls be the focus of our point of departure?[2]

As Rabbi Tucker points out, rabbinic tradition teaches that the material to make the walls of the Sukkah is immaterial. The Mishnah only focuses on the roof, the sekhakh. It teaches: “…This is the rule: Anything that can receive impurity and which does not grow from the ground may not be used as sekhakh; anything that cannot receive impurity and which does grow from the ground may be used as sekhakh. Bundles of straw, wood and reeds may not be used for sekhakh. But if any of these bundles were untied, they are valid, and they all are valid as walls.”[3] The medieval commentator Rashi continued on this theme, asserting, “And they are all”—of the items that are invalid for sekhakh. “Valid as walls”—Because whenever the verse speaks of a sukkah, it is referring to sekhakh , because a wall is not called a sukkah …”[4] This is further pointed out by Rambam, who asserts “דפני סוכה כשרין מן הכל”/The walls of a sukkah may be made of anything.”[5]

If we do not care what comprises the walls of our contemporary Sukkot, why should it matter what the Messianic Sukkah’s walls are made out of, and why should we make such a big deal out of this by saying a prayer upon leaving the Sukkah for the last time?  The answer I suggest is that we are marking a transition. We had seven days of feasting in our temporary booths which despite the rain served as a nice respite from the ordinary routine of our lives. For some of us it might have been a vacation or a break from reality. In two days more, we will be transitioning back to the “real world” with all of its routine and with all of its challenges. We will be returning perhaps disappointed that the Messiah has not come and that we are unable to dwell in the Sukkah with Leviathan skin. Yet we are to return with undaunted hope and belief in a better future. That is precisely what the prayer we say today is about: just as we merit the physical joy of this Sukkot holiday, so too may we merit seeing a better future, a day where there is peace in the world and each of us can dwell in G-d’s home, the great “Sukkah in the Sky,” made out of the Leviathan’s skin.

Today we gather to say Yizkor, on this one extra day of Shemini Atzeret, the day on which G-d told us “Stay with me one more day.” Some of us might be eager to return to our routines; at JTS we said המבדיל בין קדש לחול and yelled the word חול-yet Yizkor cautions us to slow down to take a moment to remember our loved ones; from parents who gave us life to siblings who we reveled playing with, to children we nurtured, to spouses with whom we shared our deepest hopes and dreams. Yizkor hearkens us to close our eyes and remember the dear moments of love and friendship, joy and companionship.

Before we go, leaving the presence of G-d, let us take the time we need and deserve to remember our loved ones who are no longer physically present. We will also dedicate the memorial plaques purchased during the past year, honoring those who have chosen to give their loved ones a permanent remembrance in our Beit Midrash.

We continue with Yizkor in the booklets.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 75a.

[2] Rabbi Ethan Tucker, “The Sukkah of the Leviathan”-Sukkot 5778.

[3] Mishnah Sukkah Chapter 1 Mishnayot 4-5.

[4] Rashi on Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 12a

[5] Rambam Mishneh Torah Laws of Shofar 4:16