The Rules We Live By

Goal of Shavuot Prayer

To hold in awe

Those words of law

Inscribed on stone

Which God had hewn

Then to cause truths

Those laws impart

To transpose to

The human heart.[1]


It’s not fair-why are there rules? Why can’t we live in a time of איש הישר בעיניו יעשה, every person does what is right in his own eyes?[2] After the giving of the Torah and the conquest of the Promised Land, our ancestors make this same mistake again and again. There were forty years of turmoil wandering in the desert because of the bad report given by the spies. Then there was calm with the conquest of the land. Yet throughout the Book of Judges G-d sends an adversary to rule over Israel (as a punishment for Israel engaging in idolatry), Israel cries out, G-d sends a judge to defeat the adversary and then the land was quiet for 40 years only to have the same cycle be carried out again and again and again.

People of my generation often shy away from rules, wanting to do whatever they feel like at any given moment. We are a generation of choice-as Peter Berger teaches, “we are all Jews by choice.”[3] However, is that necessarily a good thing? Sometimes having too many choices can be overwhelming; seeking freedom might actually be more enslaving. By having boundaries and a blueprint, even though it is limiting, it can keep one on the straight-and-narrow as opposed to being wound up in chaos.

Social scientists say that our basic personality formation is complete by age seven.[4] We might not know yet who we are but we know what we value and what’s important to us. Much of this is learned behavior primarily from our parents, then our siblings then our teachers and our friends. As we grow older, we often lash out against those areas of our personality that we see as weaknesses passed on from our parents. My teacher, Dr. Mona Fishbane, says, however, that as we mature we transition from viewing ourselves as victims to becoming the authors of our own lives. We recognize that our parents did the best they could in raising us; we give thanks for all the wonderful things given to us in our upbringing. As for those things we don’t like, we actively work to change them.

In life we often dwell on the negative and forget the positive. When we are in the middle of a tense situation with a loved one, we often see the trees rather than the forest. Yet at Yizkor we attempt to seek out the positive, how a loved one lived their life and the values that s/he taught us. We nostalgically remember the experiences we shared, the lessons learned and how we were shaped by them. The tension and frustration melts away as we turn to the wonderful memories. We start to recognize that some of the rules they set up for us were there for a reason: to protect us and give us guidance through the topsy-turvy road called life. We also remember the Torah they taught us, for the direct translation of Torah is instruction: the instruction needed to have a positive, meaningful and purpose-filled life.

As we now turn to say Yizkor, let us remember our loved ones, getting a picture of them in our minds eye, thanking them for giving us the gift of life, recognizing that when things were difficult they did the best they could to provide for us and to raise us to go out into the world as strong, independent beings. Whether they were imposing or “loosy-goosy,” libertarian or authoritarian, they strove to do their best for us in their own way. Let us remember them for good (זכור לטוב) and keep them in our heart especially today, at the end of Shavuot.

We turn to Page 16 for our Yizkor prayers to read “as We Remember Them.”

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “Goal of Shavuot Prayer,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 159.

[2] Judges 17:6

[3] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory (New York: Integrated Media, 1967).

[4] Studies by Christopher Nave, UC-Riverside and Ganz Ferrance, PhD.

The Priestly Blessing

What for you is the most moving part of services? For me, it’s those moments where we actively live out ritual, where we’re able to close our eyes and envision ourselves back in our ancestors’ time. The key moment for this occurs for Ashkenazi Jews in the Diaspora only 13 times in the year: on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simhat Torah, Passover and Shavuot. As a child, I loved attending services, but I especially loved going on Yom Tov to receive the blessing from the Kohanim.  We attended both Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in which this prayer was done.  My head was covered by my father’s tallit, and I could hardly wait to hear the words of the shaliah tzibbur, the prayer leader, followed by those of the Kohanim.  יברכך ה וישמרך-May G-d bless you and guard you.  יאר ה פניו אליך ויחנך-May G-d shine G-d’s face upon you and be compassionate onto you.  שלום לך וישם אליך פניו ה ישא-May G-d turn G-d’s presence to you and may G-d grant you peace.[1]  These fifteen words would touch my soul on every holiday and enable me to feel G-d’s presence.

I am not the only one who is enamored with these words of the Priestly Blessing.  Jews used to wear these words on their necks as amulets for God to protect them.  Two amulets containing the Priestly Blessing were found in 1979 at a site called Ketef Hinnom southwest of Jerusalem, a site which we visited during the 2015 congregational Israel trip.  These amulets were dated by archeologists to 600 BCE, during the First Temple Period.  They continue to be the oldest copies of a text from the Hebrew Bible that has been found.

What is it about these fifteen words that make them so prominent?  There are so many interpretations of these blessings, but my favorite is that of Rabbi Yitzchak Karo, a 15th century commentator and uncle of Yosef Karo.  In his commentary Toldot Yitzchak, he provides ten explanations for the threefold priestly blessing.  I like best Karo’s third interpretation: that the threefold blessing corresponds to the three types of blessings that we recite.  The first blessing, “May God bless you and guard you,” corresponds to ברכות המצות, blessings that we recite upon performing commandments, such as putting on a tallit.  The second blessing, “May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you,” corresponds to השבח ברכות, blessings that we recite to praise God in gratitude.  The third blessing, “May God’s presence be with you and may God grant you peace,” corresponds to ברכות הנהנים, blessings that we recite upon seeing something that we enjoy, like a rainbow or a loved one’s face.[2]  Rabbi Yitzchak Karo’s understanding is just as we bless God through these three types of daily blessings: those regarding performing commandments, praise, and witnessing wonders, so too does God bless us through the threefold priestly blessing.

What I find compelling about Rabbi Yitzchak Karo’s interpretation is that it illustrates a reciprocal relationship between us and G-d, one that is full of blessing.  Our blessing G-d through performing rituals and witnessing the daily miracles of life is reciprocated by G-d blessing us, guarding us, bestowing grace upon us and giving us peace.  This demonstrates what I believe is an essential teaching: the reciprocity inherent in relationships, both in terms of our relationship with God and our relationship with people.  Through blessing others, we are blessed; through viewing each moment of life with wonder and excitement, we bring wonder and excitement into the world.

I see this reciprocity also in my personal connection with the priestly blessing.  Receiving the priestly blessing while under my father’s tallit was a spiritual and emotional experience through which I could feel G-d’s presence.  Now that I bless others as a rabbi, I pray that I can continue to be part of the formation of such experiences.  This is what I think Heschel meant in his work God in Search of Man: that just as we are looking to create spiritual experiences through which to connect with G-d, G-d is looking for opportunities to connect with us and bless us.

On this Holiday of First Fruits when we hear the Priestly Blessing, let us think about our own, personal connection with the Almighty. Whatever challenges or struggles we are going through in life, let us feel that there is a beneficent G-d who loves us and cares for us and may this help us not only persevere but thrive and succeed through what faces us. Sometimes a blessing can give us a moment of inspiration to help us get past a place at which we are stuck. It can lift us up when we feel down in the dumps or quiet us at a moment of turbulence inside. May we pay special attention to each word of the Birkat Kohanim, focusing intently and coming to a moment of stillness and inner peace to receive this blessing.

[1] Numbers 6:24-26

[2] Toldot Yitzhak on Numbers 6:24 ד”ה יברכך ה וישמרך

A Mathematician’s Dream

Parshat B’Midbar is often described as “a mathematician’s dream.” It features lots of numbers with the census of the Israelites to prepare them from entering the Land of Israel. It therefore makes perfect sense that we have made this Accountants and Financial Professionals Shabbat.

It’s essential to account for every person, whether it is 24 (as we had on our 2015 congregational Israel trip) or 240,000. Every ten years we have a new population census which directly affects states’ electoral votes. For the Israelites’ sake they needed to be counted in order to make preparations for war and for the districting of the Land of Canaan. At the same time, how can we read this list of population without glossing over sections or becoming distracted? How do we impart meaning to each detail of the list?

Rashi gives a very interesting take on this. He comments מתוך חיבתן לפניו, מונה אותם כל שעה[1]  “Because of their (Israel’s) dearness to Him, He counts them at every moment.” What is most dear to us is what we count, whether it is our money or the number of grandchildren we have. For G-d, what is most dear is the Jewish people so they merit counting.

It is important to note, however, that while G-d can count us, we cannot count ourselves. Our portion begins with G-d saying to Moses to speak to Israel take a census. It was not initiated by Moses but rather by G-d. In 1 Samuel, when King David decides to take a census of the Israelites, it brings about seven years of famine.[2] Why would this be the case? Perhaps because G-d’s motivation for counting Israel is to delight in our growing numbers and in His chosen people whereas our motivation for counting might just be pride or curiosity. Therefore, we cannot be the ones to count.

In Parshat Shekalim, Israel was counted not by number of people but by the number of half shekels received. In other words, each person was counted by virtue of his/her contribution as opposed to by number. This demonstrated that our value is not just a number (i.e. I’m number 798 to be counted) but by what we brought to make G-d’s home. Of course, the numbering of people often has disastrous consequences, as we saw in the Shoah. Each of us is so much more than a number: we are a person with unique talents and gifts to contribute to better humanity and the world.

We also do not count Jews during minyan. To ensure there are ten, we use a roundabout technique: reciting a biblical verse of ten words and ascribing to each person present one of those words. A common one is הושיעה את עמך וברך את נחלתך ורעם ונשאם עד עולם, “bring salvation to your nation and bless your inheritance; rejoice and lift us up forever.”[3] By counting with this verse, we raise people’s spirits; that as we call out to G-d to save us so too are we saying that each person’s presence is lifting up our congregation.

There are some dangers in counting: the emphasis of quantity over quality, of numbers over people and their unique contributions. However, we also see some opportunities: through counting ourselves and those around us, we give hope that together we can make a strong, unified impact as well as that each of us matters, that “everyone counts.” It is in this spirit that I want to honor the accountants and all of the financial professionals here for this Shabbat. We greatly value the work that you do on a daily basis and the impact that you make in bettering our lives. Thank you for taking time from your busy schedules to celebrate Shabbat with us. As we are on the eve of celebrating Shavuot and rejoicing in the giving of the Torah, we pray that with your guidance and expertise we can find the joy in each and every moment of life.

[1] Rashi on Numbers 1:1 ד”ה וידבר, במדבר סיני, באחד לחדש

[2] 2 Samuel 24

[3] Psalms 28:9

Walking in My Ways

אם בחקותי תלכו-if you follow my laws.[1] Why do we need to follow G-d’s laws? Why can’t we just do whatever we want when we want to? The reason given by Rashi is הוו עמלים בתורה לשמור ולקיים[2], labor in the Torah to guard and establish it. That the word “labor,” or עמל, is used is not by accident: living a life of Torah requires a tremendous amount of work. We know that in order to master something, one needs to practice-often over and over again. Seforno expands on this thought when he comments חוקות הם גזרות מלך שינהג האדם בהם בשתדלות עסקי חייו, והתנהג בהם יקרא הליכה[3]. The laws are the decrees of the King that a person behaves by exerting effort in the affairs of his life, and one who behaving in accordance with them is called “walking.” In life we can take numerous, diverse paths, yet through following the structure of Jewish law and tradition, we will walk down the correct path.

Who sets the guidelines for the path down which we walk? When we are children, from babies until our B’nai Mitzvah (though for some it never ends) the ones setting those rules are our parents. At times the rules might seem overly restrictive, yet they are there for our protection. When one gets older, however, we set those rules in how we live our lives each and every day. G-d willing our parents have set a solid foundation for us to continue, and hopefully that includes wisdom from Torah and from Judaism. At the same time, it is up to us as to what we do with it.

Today we are here to celebrate the naming of a very special girl, Samantha Brooke Cohen. In looking up the origin of the name, it says that in Hebrew (I think erroneously) that it is derived from שמוע, “G-d heard,” which would be a very fitting name. G-d heard your desire to have a child and gave you a beautiful baby girl. However, I see a better origin of the name as being סמן, or sign. Having a baby is one of the greatest signs of G-d’s presence in the world, especially as the child grows and learns from everything that you do, often emulating it and viewing it as an ideal. Our role as parents is a derivation from the Divine Parent, G-d.

The origin of Brooke is a stream. We often find G-d’s presence in the beauty of nature. We go out to waterfalls, grand mountains, white-sand beaches and vistas to find a sense of serenity and joy. Not so for a child, however. S/he finds beauty in almost everything, experiencing it for the first time. We know that as Samantha Brooke grows, her curiosity will continue to abound and through looking at you as her example, you will both grow as well.

Carlee and David-we are blessed to have you living back in New York after having lived in Philadelphia for a number of years. We are also honored to celebrate with you ten months after we celebrated at Jilliane and Joshua’s daughter’s baby naming. In addition, we are blessed to have Samantha Brooke’s grandparents Erv, Bonnie z”l, Robert and Marlene, great-grandparents Edward and Eva, great-aunts Rosalyn and Mindy, great-uncle Andrew, aunts Jilliane, Rebecca and Lori, uncles Joshua, Douglas and Stu.

We gave Emily Brooke the Hebrew name בלימע שרה after an incredible balabusta, Bonnie Hoffman z”l. Blima is Yiddish for the Hebrew Shoshana, a flower at times translated as “lily” or “rose.” Shir HaShirim contains one of my favorite expressions, כשושנה בין החוחים, like a flower amongst the thorns.[4] Bonnie definitely exemplified this persona, and I know Samantha will as well, flowering not only in terms of beauty but also in developing a strong, independent personality, like her grandmother, z”l.

Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous and most beautiful day! To crystallize the joy of Samantha receiving her Hebrew name, I’d like to call Carlee, David and Samantha to the Bimah as we turn to Page 840 and continue responsively.

[1] Leviticus 26:3

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 26:3 ד”ה אם בחקתי תלכו

[3] Seforno on Leviticus 26:3 ד”ה אם בחקתי תלכו

[4] Song of Songs 2:2