What’s Wrong with Egypt?

          Among the first words said by Jacob to his son Joseph in Parshat VaYehi are “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty, please do not bury me in Egypt.”[1] Similarly, at the end of Joseph’s life, he told his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that God promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”[2] He made the children of Israel swear “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”[3]
          What is wrong with Egypt? After all, it’s a lush land that saved the children of Israel’s lives during the 7 year famine. In order to understand what is wrong, we need to understand the definition of Mitzrayim as “place of constriction.” Despite the lush, fertile nature of the Nile river, our ancestors remember that this is not their true home and only when they return to the Land of Canaan, the Land of Israel, shall they be secure.

          In Jacob’s case he wants a continuation of the covenant of Abraham and Isaac. Just as they were buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs and just as they received the covenant to inherit Israel, so too does Jacob want to ensure that will occur to him. In Joseph’s case it’s more of a sense of not being abandoned. He senses the coming enslavement as well as the exodus from Egypt and he doesn’t want his bones left in Egypt when his descendants leave there.

          Where we are buried plays a very significant role in our lives. Just as our ancestors, we want to be buried in a place where people will visit us. We also want burial in a Jewish cemetery, with possible exception of those who fought in battles who prefer a military cemetery. Like our ancestors, our final resting place matters to us a great deal. Though Jacob lived 17 of his 147 years in Egypt and Joseph lived 93 of his 110 years there, it was never truly home for them. Home was the place of their roots, the Land of Canaan. As we conclude Sefer Bereshit, let us reflect on where we feel at home, where (if we haven’t decided) we’d like our final resting place to be and what will be important to us when we reach the end of our days on earth.

[1] Genesis 48:29

[2] Genesis 50:24

[3] Genesis 50:25

The Great Reconciliation: Or Was It?

This week Joseph and his brothers reconcile. Jacob goes down to Egypt and everyone has one big, happy family reunion. All’s well that ends well-or is it?

          The brothers’ first reaction to Joseph revealing his identity is to be shellshocked. While Joseph tells them not to be distressed, for he has been sent ahead to Egypt to ensure survival during the famine, the brothers don’t seem convinced. Next week, in VaYehi, they concoct a story: “Before his death your father left this instruction: ‘So shall you say to Joseph: forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’”[1] For the brothers to react in said manner must indicate that they have apprehension that all is not well, and Joseph will exact vengeance against them.

          Furthermore, when the brothers do Joseph’s bidding, telling Jacob that he is alive, “Jacob’s heart went numb; for he did not believe them.”[2] He doesn’t believe Joseph is alive until he sees the Egyptian wagons with choice goods. Next week in VaYehi, Jacob will excoriate half of his sons on his deathbed for their behavior. It does not seem that Jacob has forgiven his sons for their behavior. In addition, when Pharaoh asks Jacob “How many are the years of your life?”[3] he replies, “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty, Few and hard have been the years of my life.”[4]

          It does not appear there is a Hollywood ending to this story. While Joseph does not exact vengeance, there are hurt feelings, uncertainty, 3030and apprehension. With our own families of origin, we might feel similar things. It is up to us, as we approach the secular new year, to try to get past our past and see if in the present day we can act to reconcile past estrangements. If we do not try, we will certainly not achieve and if not now, when?

[1] Genesis 50:17

[2] Genesis 45:26

[3] Genesis 47:8

[4] Genesis 47:9

Our Fears: Are They Valid?

          When Joseph’s 10 eldest brothers descend to Egypt to secure food during the famine, Joseph (in disguise as Pharaoh’s vizier) immediately accuses them of being spies. They offer information that they have a younger brother in Canaan to which Joseph said he would put them to the test: they must bring back their youngest brother. At this point the brothers said to one another “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why distress has come to us.”[1]

          There is a rabbinic principle of מדה כנגד מדה, measure for measure. When you sin, you will be punished in a similar manner. It makes sense that Joseph’s brothers would feel they are being punished now for what they had done in the past. Yet I must ask is this a helpful way of thinking? When things don’t go our way is it better to analyze what we did wrong or to learn from it and move on as best we can? I would argue the latter is the healthier approach.

          When our conscience tugs at us, as it did here for Joseph’s brothers, there is a lesson to be learned from it. However, to overanalyze and beat ourselves up over it is counterproductive. The past is the past; what we can and must do now is work towards building a better future. When we feel off course, lost or estranged, we need to remember that there is always a place for us, an area where we can thrive. Let us also recognize that our fears, while real too us, are often overstated. Even after Joseph reveals himself to the brothers, he says “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”[2] May we have faith that we are currently exactly where we are meant to be in life and that God will lead us in the direction we are to go.

[1] Genesis 42:21

[2] Genesis 45:5

Be the Light

       What is Hanukkah about? It is true that one lights candles at the darkest time of the year, inspiring a message of brightness and hope. Yet concurrently I would argue that we must be the light. When things look bleak, we are required to turn a positive spin on them. When we feel hopeless, we are required to find the silver lining.

          As the Prince of Egypt teaches us, “There will be miracles when you believe. Though hope is frail it’s hard to kill.” The next time you struggle with your situation, I want you to keep this line in mind. God sometimes works in mysterious ways and there is a light at the end of the tunnel in this rollercoaster that we call life. That is the message of Hanukkah: to never give up and to not only light the candles but to be the source of light, vitality and strength that we want for ourselves, our families and for all of humanity.

What I Learned from Watching Election Results

1. The top issue Americans care about is the economy. As I learned in Poli Sci 101, “Americans vote by their pocketbooks.” The pandemic was by and large the third issue exit polls showed Americans caring about, with the economy first and racial equality a distant second.

2. Things can change. I don’t view this as a repeat of 2016. It was fascinating to me to see Arizona, a state I lived in and considered very red, to have voted for Biden and now have both senators who are Democrats.

3. The “blue wall” is officially demolished. Regardless of how WI, PA and MI are called it is clear that Trump has significant support in them. As I’ve watched Arizona shift from red to blue I’ve watched Wisconsin take a shift from blue to red since 2010, a time when they had two Jewish, Democratic senators. Wisconsin is now purple and unable to be taken for granted as a Democrat state. Neither are Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The rust belt is up for grabs and very Trump heavy.

4. The Latino community in Miami Dade has shifted FL further right. This wasn’t a surprise to me. When I go running Trump signs outnumber Biden signs 10-1. It is likely there are more Biden voters who are not putting up signs but what further demonstrated this to me was the huge car rally with Trump flags and MAGA hats I saw on Sunday.

5. The polls continue to undercount Trump voters. This election as I thought is a 50-50 tossup. we shall see where it ends up but I’ll enjoy watching and of course will accept the results…WHEN ALL THE VOTES ARE COUNTED.

The Election from a Jewish Perspective

       Many of us, myself included love politics. As a rabbi I have always been blessed to serve a “mixed” congregation, full of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents. It is a blessing to be in community with those we disagree with, as we both challenge and bolster one another’s perspectives.

          Often politics is eschewed by rabbis because by its very nature it polarizes us. We often lose sight of the humanity of others, believing that “everyone’s entitled to MY opinion” or failing to believe that someone with diametrically opposed views is just as caring and compassionate a person as we are. Personally, I have experienced this on multiple fronts: in rabbinical school, where I was more conservative than the majority of my peers and in a previous synagogue where some felt I was a “bleeding heart liberal.” I take it in good stride, believing that if I displeasing people on multiple sides, I’m doing my job 😊.

Some are worried about the implications of this election regardless of the outcome. There is fear of a civil war or of the results not being accepted no matter what they are, undermining our country’s democratic foundation. As I hear these comments, I think what happened to “Mahloket L’Shem Shamayim,” arguing for the sake of heaven? What happened to the days when people vehemently disagreed and (as lawyers on opposing sides still sometimes do) shook hands and broke bread together? Has one’s political party really become his/her tribe or religion, a club for those who agree to be “in” and for those of opposing views being “out”? As one who strives to be an independent thinker and not succumb to peer pressure, I ask these questions frequently.

As we prepare to vote (or reflect on our previously casted vote) I want to share a poem and a prayer. May they give us personal insight and a feeling of being “at peace” regardless of the outcome of this coming election. The poem is by Israeli poet-laureate Yehuda Amichai and is titled The Place Where We Are Right:

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

  The prayer is A Prayer for Voting

by Rabbi David Seidenberg:

Behold, I am intending
    through my vote | through my prayer
    to seek peace for this country,
    as it is written (Jer. 29:7):

“Seek the peace of the city
    where I cause you to roam
    and pray for her to YHVH (Hashem/Adonai/God),
    for in her peace you all will have peace.”

May it be Your will, YHVH, that votes
    be counted faithfully
    and may You count my vote
    as if I had fulfilled this verse
    with all my power.

May You give a listening heart
    to whomever we elect
    and may it be good in Your eyes
    to raise for us a good government
    to bring healing, justice and peace
    to all living in this land
    and to all the world, and upon Jerusalem,
    a government that will honor the image of God
    in all humanity and in Creation,
    for rulership is Yours.

Just as I have participated in the election
    so may I merit to do good works
    and to repair the world through all my efforts,
    and through the act of… [fill in your pledge]
    which I pledge to do today
    on behalf of all living creatures,
    in remembrance of the covenant of Noah’s waters,
    to protect and to not destroy
    the earth and her plenitude.

Give to all the peoples of this country
    the strength and will to pursue righteousness
    and to seek peace as unified force
    to uproot racism and violence
    and to make healing, good life and peace flourish
    here and throughout the world
    and fulfill for us the verse (Ps. 90:17):

“May the pleasure of Adonai our God
    be upon us, and establish
    the work of our hands for us,
    and make the work of our hands endure.”

I pray that regardless of whether your candidate(s) win that each of us acknowledge the common humanity of the other and build bridges so that we can together constructively make a difference in our community and in our country.


I’ve put off writing this article because of its political nature but I can do so no more.

What is negligence? According to Webster’s it is “failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in life’s circumstances.”

When President Trump’s Chief if Staff Mark Meadows bluntly said “We’re not going to control the pandemic” it solidified the negligence of the Trump administration. Over 80,000 Americans and 1,000 deaths per day over the weekend from Covid and over 225,000 deaths since the pandemic began. We know Judaism’s primary value is pikuah nefesh, safeguarding life. To know measures which work to curb covid, such as masking and social distancing, and deliberately not advocate, worse make fun of, people who wear them is negligence of the first degree. We know there are measures that can slow the spread yet the presidents chief of staff wants no part in them.

Thank God I live in Miami where I can spend a sufficient amount of time outdoors in the winter. I feel for those in Denver where it’s currently 7 degrees or Missoula where it’s 1 degree. This cold winter is not going to stop people who need to from going to work in multi story buildings or from essential business travel. Having an administration who admits they will do nothing to combat Covid, essentially advocating for the herd mentality, and which advocates for “learning to live with it,” is committing negligence of the first degree.

The Torah states “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.” An administration which purposefully withheld information in January and February so as not to “cause a panic” has placed a massive stumbling block which led many people I know to become infected with covid. The Torah also states “build a parapet for your roof” so that those in danger of harm will be protected. Where’s the parapet protecting the “essential” meatpackers or our essential teachers risking their lives day after day going into work?

While in the end I became a rabbi and not a lawyer, this administration is clearly guilty of negligence. I am tired of being a guinea pig in it’s futile experiment to “do nothing” and see how many get Covid.

Stop Burning Masks: Choose Life Over Death

In seeing footage of members of the Orthodox Jewish communality in Brooklyn publicly burning masks has filled me with outrage and disgust. It reminds me of when Hitler burned Jewish books in Nazi Germany. I recognize that this came in reaction to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s increasing restrictions on what is largely Orthodox Jewish communities where COVID is spreading like wildfire. Yet I cannot get over how something that is life-affirming can be treated with so much anger. Wearing a mask is so important it even has a blessing, creating by my colleague Rabbi Michael Knopf בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ‑יָ אֱ‑לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל שְּׁמִירַת הַנֶּפֶשׁ which he translates “You are bountiful, Infinite our God, majesty of space and time, who has sanctified us with divine commandments and has commanded us about protecting life.” How can something that protects life, that is invaluable to our stopping COVID-19, be treated with so much derision? How can masks be burnt in the streets of Brooklyn, just as the Nazis took our holy works and publicly burnt them?

There is a larger lesson here as I see it. Leadership beings at the top. When our President steps out of a helicopter after being released from the hospital and takes off his mask, it sends a message to others. As Orthodox anti-mask activist Heshy Tischler told The Forward, “When I’m on the street, I don’t have to wear a mask, just like the president.” Our leaders either affirm the importance of life through the wearing of masks in this pre-vaccine era or they use the mask as a political weapon to be discarded on a whim.

Similarly, seeing ads saying “My Body, My Choice” as a way for people not to wear masks fill me with rage, especially as many of these same people don’t respect a women’s right to her own body. I am grateful that the President received a speedy recovery with a treatment that contained fetal tissue. In Judaism, the life of a person supersedes the life of a fetus. At the same time, I would hope that he and his followers would consider the maxim of pikuah nefesh, the safeguarding of a human life at all costs, and how wearing a mask helps us do this. Wearing a mask is not a wussy thing for the “macho man” to avoid; rather it sends a message that I value your life equally to my own and will do whatever I can to safeguard it. It sends the message that each of us is responsible for our actions towards each other.

Let us appreciate and be grateful for all our measures of safeguarding life, masks being a crucial one. May we also be appreciative of the rapid progress in vaccine development and pray that the day comes soon when we see at least one vaccine. If we are angry, stressed or frustrated with how our lives have been upended since mid-March, let us try to find a constructive way to handle that anger, rather than burning masks. In the end, creativity, resilience and constructive activity will win out over those who act destructively.

Yom Kippur-How We Can Change

          This summer, I was officiating at a funeral for a member of “the greatest generation.” In speaking with his family, I came to appreciate those whose lives have changed so much in one instance. In one fell swoop, this man left Germany at age 16 with nothing but the clothes on his back, barely escaping the Nazis. He journeyed to New York, a place with a different language, a different culture, and different customs, with no financial resources. Yet he was resolved to make a life for himself, and he did so in the women’s clothing business.

          Many of us have been blessed. We have not had our world changed overnight in such a drastic manner. Even with our struggles from COVID and even if we lost our job, moved cross country, or had a bad divorce, we still live somewhere with the same language and similar customs. While Florida is different from New York or California, or even from Mississippi, Vermont or Kansas, it pales in comparison with the differences between Germany and the United States. Yet when there is resolve to survive and to make a difference, what is not possible?

          Many of us, myself included, can get stuck in a rut. We get complacent with our lives as they are and do not exert the energy and effort to make meaningful changes. We are comfortable with what we have and struggle to make the changes that would be beneficial for us. Daily habits are so strong and so powerful, so even when we take the first baby steps, we get pulled back into life as it was.

          In a sermon seminar for the Miami Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Shai Held taught Maimonides Hilchot Deot indicating that Judaism is neither pollyannish nor naïve. One cannot just say “I give up” out of anger. Rather, as I was discussing last night, spiritual life is the place between what is difficult and what is impossible.

          Rabbi Held brought in four points that apply to us today. First the idea of a fixed, immutable I, that “we are who we are” is a heresy in Judaism. While we might have natural proclivities in certain ways, being influenced is not the same as being determined. It is difficult but not impossible to overcome natural character traits.

          Rabbi Held also stated that we are too married to our “fixed” identities. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t; we would rather be at peace with what we know about ourselves than open a Pandora’s Box to the unknown. How often do we say “I’m just the kind of person who…” or “This always happens to me”; in other words, I’m always the victim/culprit rather than the author of my own life. Rather than embracing a problematic identity, we must embrace our evolving identity, even if that means being uncertain about who we are at any given moment in time. This allows us to properly respond to an issue at hand rather than habitually react to it.

          In addition, we need to be mindful of how difficult it is to change. Through doing the weight-loss program Noom and reading the book The Elephant in the Brain, I have become more mindful of the fact that most of our choices are unconscious or subconscious. We need to recognize the courage and determination it takes to change ourselves for the better. Sometimes life thrusts us into a situation where we need to change, to adapt out of necessity; more often it is a choice between remaining comfortably where we are at or recognizing that we need to do the hard work of Heshbon Hanefesh, soul searching, to become the people we want to be in our lives.

          Finally, we recognize the importance of going in deep rather than remaining on the surface. The Netivot Shalom, Slonimer Rebbe, teaches us that spirituality is about going in deep into our areas of discomfort, as opposed to, in Rabbi Held’s words, playing “spiritual whack-a-mole.” It is about working on the foundations of our spiritual house with utmost gentleness, rather than ripping apart the foundation and building it from scratch. While we might believe that today, Yom Kippur, brings about a tabula rasa, (clean slate) we recognize that we are never starting from scratch but rather are influenced by all that we have learned up to this point. It takes great courage to enter our greatest vulnerabilities and fears in a deep, nonjudgmental way, being aware that what is true for us and what might be in our heads but does not reflect the reality in which we live or in which we want to live. As Gersonides (Ralbag) teaches, “We need to register our fears but make sure they do not have the last word.”

          As we prepare for Yizkor this afternoon, I want us to think about the story I began with, the “rags to riches” approach of those who began with nothing but who made a life for themselves and to whom we owe a great degree of gratitude. We need to understand that while for the most part we do not make widespread, systemic changes in our day-to-day lives, we can adapt to almost any circumstance. If those who came before could quickly learn new languages, new trades and adapt to new customs and traditions, what stops us from doing it? I hope and pray in the year 5781 we will go deep into ourselves, getting a greater understanding of what makes us the unique people that we are. In so doing, let us do what we can to change ourselves for the better rather than getting stuck in a rut, and let us move one step at a time.

It would be a mistake not to acknowledge the over 200,000 people who have perished from COVID-19, all those who are in intensive care in hospitals, those who were victims of the fires in the West Coast and the Hurricanes in the Gulf. We need to be mindful of the fact that so many are suffering from this plague and from the consequences of global warming, which I had discussed last week. We mourn all the Israeli soldiers who were killed in battle, defending the Jewish State each and every day. We also mourn Yitl Ruhel bat Natan v’Tzirel Leah, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

At the same time, as people of the greatest generation persevered despite the Nazis (Yemach Shemam) the greatest evil of the 20th century, how much more so should we persevere. Let us mourn those great souls who have been taken before their times yet let us also be grateful for all the blessings life has bestowed upon us. This afternoon we will remember our congregants who died this year as well as all the great people in the world who died. May we remember them for good and strive to live in accordance with the example they have set us-Anachnu Maaminim-we will believe in ourselves and in our futures.

Kol Nidre-The Bet Shira We Need

          On this, the holiest night of the year, we need to look at where we came from and to where we are headed. We continue to live in an age of COVID-19, which I addressed of Day 1 of Rosh Hashanah from the perspective of how to respond as individuals. Tonight, I am addressing it from the perspective of how to respond as a community.

          In April 2020, one month into the pandemic, the NY Times Opinion section produced a piece titled “The America We Need.”[1] The premise was “this pandemic has shown Americans how far apart they are. But out of this crisis there’s a chance to build a better nation.” Rather than go through the opinion piece, which you can read on your own, I want to highlight the central message of building a better nation from the perspective of Bet Shira-how we as a congregation can build a stronger community.

          Let us start by examining some highlights of these past months since the pandemic began. In May we witnessed NASA SpaceX perform a successful space shuttle launch, the first one in a decade. This led to other successive, successful launches. We witnessed the Israeli Air Force flying into German air space for the first time ever, with homage to those Israeli athletes who were murdered in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. We saw the first Israeli peace deal in over 25 years between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and a second one between Israel and Bahrain. If these things are possible, what is impossible? If we can make history multiple times in a matter of months, why can’t we continue to do it?!

          There are so many famous quotations about achieving the impossible, but I want to share one less well-known from Francois de La Rochefoucauld (pardon my French): “Nothing is impossible; there are ways that lead to everything, and if we had sufficient will we should always have sufficient means. It is often merely for an excuse that we say things are impossible.” It is my hope and my prayer that 5781 will be a year for each of us and for Bet Shira Congregation as a whole to “achieve the impossible” to, in Don Quixote’s words “dream the impossible dream” and as Jean Lu Picard said, to “boldly goal where no one has gone before.”

          In life, one needs to first dream something in order to make it into a reality. Anything that we dream we can establish-but the dream has to come first. Before SpaceX, the Israeli flight over German airspace, and peace between Israel and two new Arab countries someone had to have a dream and to fight for it, even in the face of resistance. The impossible only comes to pass when we believe in it and fight for it, having the courage of our convictions and the willpower to carry on.

What is our dream at Bet Shira Congregation that is going to be so strong and powerful that it is going to come to pass? By the entire South Dade Conservative community uniting together around one dream, not merely to be “the only Conservative synagogue in South Dade” but rather “to become a dynamic center for daily Jewish living,” a community where we look out for one another and work together to build on one another’s vision. I yearn to move to a Judaism without walls, where the Bet Shira campus will be a central hub but where we can do services and classes in one another’s homes, to create new Havurot to bolster the ones we currently have, to be a Big Tent to bring people together from all over the county and beyond-whether for virtual cooking demonstrations or concerts, a Peloton FUNRAISER for a Jewish charity and more! I long for us to invite our family members from around the country and around the world on Zoom for family education-along with members of our sister congregation Kehilat Netzach Israel in Ashkelon. If you are a member of Bet Shira, your extended family is also a member-whether they are in St. Louis, Mexico City, Seattle, or Bogota, Columbia.

          What we need is for our “I” as members of Bet Shira Congregation, to come together with others to make a “we,” a sense of oneness, recognizing that the “I” does not diminish when this occurs but rather compounds. What we need to avoid is the sinat hinam, or baseless hatred, of the Second Temple, when “Jew vs Jew” led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. May we find a way as congregants of Bet Shira to come together in loving connection, while also recognizing what makes us unique. In so doing, Bet Shira Congregation will be a united “we” of loving people not limited to South Dade but open to everyone in the world. May we value our relationship with one another much more so than any issue or outcome at hand. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] “The America We Need,” NY Times Opinion, April 9, 2020.