Who Is Truly Wise

         Pirkei Avot, or the Ethics of the Fathers, was a text I studied in day school from my teacher, Adon Morgan. At the beginning of each test, we had to write down “Who is truly wise?” followed by three answers: 1.) One who learns from all people[1] 2.) One who foresees the consequences of his actions[2] and 3.) One who lives out what he has learned. This, along with the statement “Learning never ends,” was the mantra for the course of study.

         Of these three points, the third of which was Adon Morgan’s personal addition, I have found the second to be most significant. In making decisions, can we foresee the path down which those decisions will lead? Can we be like a chess player, looking five moves ahead, rather than just at what is directly in front of us?

         A man who would have done well to heed this advice is Noah. After leaving the ark, Noah is described as “a man of the land, the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became intoxicated, and he uncovered himself in his tent.”[3] Ham saw his father’s nakedness and told his brothers, who proceeded to cover him. When Noah found out what happened he cursed Ham’s son Canaan, making him a slave to his brothers.[4] The Torah does not specify why Canaan rather than Ham is cursed or what exactly was Ham’s sin. The Talmud states that Ham castrated Noah, depriving him of a fourth son. Thus, Noah cursed Ham’s fourth son, Canaan.[5]

         How much blame should Noah be given for the occurrence of this incident? Perhaps he did not know any better and this was his first time getting drunk. He also was not harming anyone, being inside his tent, and he had just spent 40 days and 40 nights on a boat, not knowing when he would see dry land again. More interesting is that this incident occurred with one of our sacred weekly ritual items. Our tradition that “wine causes the heart of man to rejoice”[6] and that “there is no joy without wine.”[7]

         Despite these texts, Noah is at fault for not foreseeing the consequences of his actions. He was supposed to set an example for his children and grandchildren. True, he worked hard tilling the ground, yet that did not give him the right to overindulge in alcohol and pass out in his tent. Noah demonstrated that he was concerned with himself and his own happiness, not the needs of his family. He did not understand how his sons and grandsons would react to their patriarch acting in this manner.

         Did Noah commit a sin, a violation of the Torah? From the text I cannot say he did. However, he certainly did not act as a role model. It reminds me of the Talmudic interpretation quoted by Rashi that if Noah was in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered righteous, as he was only concerned about himself as opposed to anyone else.[8] Noah’s mistake was taking something sacred, the fruit of the vine, which we consecrate every week through the Kiddush, and abusing it, thereby profaning it.

         I recently learned that Sacramento has a chapter of JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others). I was privileged to attend one of their Shabbat retreats in 2010 as an observer. I saw and learned about people who had hurt themselves and their loved ones through abuse of alcohol. A number of them had started to drink gradually, in high school or college, and increased their level of drinking over the years. At one point they hit rock bottom-perhaps a friend advised them to join a 12-step program, or they recognized they needed to make changes in their lives. They understood that they had not only an addiction but a disease, a condition which required medical treatment. They also knew that they had each other for support, to cheer when they said, “I’m sixty days clean!” or “I’m two years clean!”

         Unfortunately, Noah did not have the luxury of a hevre to support and encourage him. Even so, he had to establish a strong foundation for future generations. He could have begun by creating a beit midrash, a school for his children, or planting trees for fruit. Instead, he planted a vineyard, not for the purpose of Kiddush wine but for immediate, worldly pleasure through intoxication. Had he known how his family would react, he might have acted differently, and would not have ended up cursing his grandson, pushing him away and making him the progenitor of our enemy, the Canaanites. If only Noah had foreseen the consequences of his actions.

         We cannot read the minds of others, nor do we have crystal balls. However, before we act, we need to think about whether this action would make our friends and family proud of us. Even if the act is legal, that is not always enough-rather, we need to do the best we can to model good behavior for our friends and families. May we strive to be truly wise, understanding the impact our decisions make not just now but down the road.

[1] Mishnah Avot 5:1

[2] Babylonian Talmud Tamid 32a

[3] Genesis 9:20-21

[4] Genesis 9:25

[5] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 70a

[6] Psalm 104

[7] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 109a

[8] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 58a

Three Leadership Models

         How does a leader lead best? We have three examples of leadership in our patriarchs. Abraham embodies Hesed, or lovingkindness. He defends to people of Sodom and Gomorrah when God wants to destroy them, asking “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”[1] Abraham also embodies ‘radical hospitality,’ rushing to greet three men who visit his tent despite the pain he was feeling from his circumcision. Yet there is concurrently something lacking in Abraham. He rushes to Sarah and has her drop everything she is doing in order to feed the men. He hurries to Mount Moriah with his son Isaac as a sacrifice, prepared to kill him until an angel intercedes. Abraham is ‘anxious to please,’ pleasing other while neglecting the needs of his family.

         In contrast to Abraham, Isaac embodies gevurah, which I choose to translate as resilience. Despite the trauma of almost being sacrificed by his father, Isaac marries Rebecca and fathers two children, Jacob and Esau. He chooses to put aside the anguish, the hurt that a beloved father would kill him to please God, and begins a new generation. Yet some of Isaac’s trauma remains; he is permanently scarred. Isaac becomes a passive character, manipulated by Rebecca and Jacob. In Parshat VaYetze, Jacob says “the fear of Isaac.”[2] Pahad Yitzhak is a waay I understand our patriarch, though not in the traditional sense. He was too afraid to act and thus became the object of other people’s actions.

         Jacob’s approach is the one I think leaders should emulate. Yes, Jacob the kniver, who took Esau’s birthright for a bowl of stew. According to tradition, Jacob embodies tiferet, the glory of God, and also emet, truth. He is a visionary who begins with the end in mind, and then seizes the opportunity to obtain his goals of receiving the birthright and blessing. Even with God Jacob has a plan. When he is a refugee from his home, running in fear of his brother Esau, using a stone as a pillow, Jacob vows that he will believe in god only “if God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear.”[3] A leader needs to be able to speak his/her truth with conviction while also being receptive to the truths of others. Being in active dialogue about what we need and doing things not because they are popular but because they are right (in other words, having the courage of our convictions) is the hallmark of effective leadership.

         In her article “Why the Most Successful Leaders Don’t Care About Being Liked,” [4] my former life coach Deborah Grayson-Riegel wrote “When does being liked become a problem? When it comes at the expense of being respected.” She continues, “According to scientist Cameron Anderson of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, overall happiness in life is related to how much you are respected by those around you. Nevertheless, when we sacrifice what it takes to be respected for the quicker, and often easier, win of feeling liked, we lose out on the benefits that respect yields.” Grayson-Riegel concludes “For professionals who want to grow in their roles and careers, being liked is good, but being respected is a requirement. As Margaret Thatcher once remarked, ‘If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.’”

         We recognize this week in Parshat VaYera the dangers of Abraham doing God’s will in blind faith. We will see in Parshat Toledot the dangers of Isaac being so restrained he loses all sense of agency. While Jacob is far from perfect and certainly did not have an easy life-especially at the end-his sense of how to achieve what one needs is what we should emulate.

[1] Genesis 18:17

[2] Genesis 31:42

[3] Genesis 28:21

[4] Why the Most Successful Leaders Don’t Care About Being Liked | Inc.com

Liminal Seasons and Theological Masks

What a privilege to have been able to attend the Rabbinical Assembly convention in St. Louis this past week. Seeing colleagues from throughout the movement, including Israel, Buenos Aires and Germany, and from all different ages and types of rabbinates was extremely moving. It was the largest turnout of rabbis within their first five years of ordination ever at a convention. In addition, there were amazing insights from the convention that I want to begin sharing today.

I learned the most from a 3-day session on liminal seasons and the soul of the institution from Reverend Susan Beaumont and from a three-day small group on theological masks by Rabbi Ira Stone. Reverend Beaumont defines liminality as “a quality of ambiguity and disorientation that occurs in transitory situations and spaces, when a person or group of people is betwixt and between something that has ended and a new situation not yet begun.”[1]

 We discussed the challenges of liminality-that we are not in a season disrupted by covid on a way back to a new normal-or worse yet to “what was”-but rather are in a time when we don’t know what the future holds. We know that covid caused or accelerated a paradigm shift yet we do not yet see where that will ultimately hear and feel the ambiguity of the moment. One of the advantages of such a period is we get to look at the soul of our congregation-who we are, where we are going and different ways in which we can get there. The creativity that can be present as such a moment is exciting and full of potential. At the same time those who highly value stability and the status quo might be afraid. They might say “is this the world that I’ve always known? Is this still the same synagogue?” Those fears are real and yet with taking a step back and examining what we are really afraid of we can better understand it.

The other aspect we spoke about with Rev. Beaumont is the difference between decision making and discernment. Rather than do what we often do-take big problems and narrow them down to the point where we take a vote, discernment enables us to open something up in all its complexity, hear everyone’s perspective and arrive at consensus. Consensus is not unanimity but rather making sure that every voice in the room has been heard and after that there is a process for people choosing to stand aside. Dealing with the larger questions of who we are and what we stand for is essential.

Applying this to Torah, we see a lot of liminality in Genesis 22 with the Akedah. When God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his first born, Isaac senses the ambiguity of the moment. He tells Abraham, הנה העץ והעצים ואיה השה לעולה “here is the wood but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replies אלהים יראה את השה לעולה בני  “God will see to the lamb for the burnt offering my son.” This is often taken as Abraham evading the truth yet one can see it instead as Abraham saying “we don’t know what will be. Let’s see what God wants in the end.” That is the difference between decision making and discernment. In decision making everything lies with the group making the decision; with discernment we consider what does God want from us in this moment.

We also seeing when Abraham is standing at Petach HaOhel (at the threshold of his tent)[2] he is also at a liminal point. He is standing in the threshold and needs to decide does he want to move forward into the unknown or step back into the familiar. He chooses to go forth. Interestingly the Conservative Movement’s conversion manual is called Petach HaOhel. Jews by choice always need to decide if they want to go forward into an unknown-assume a new religion and perhaps a new identity or if they want to stay within the unknown. We celebrate them when they choose to join our people when they are standing within the threshold.

This leads me to what I learned from Rabbi Ira Stone, the director of the Center of Contemporary Mussar. Rabbi Stone led a discussion on the masks we wear and the ideal to have a mask as a semi-permeable membrane-not being so rigid that we close ourselves off nor so open that we lose our sense of self. The goal is to determine which masks are good and which are defensive. If it’s a defensive mask the trigger for it is fear so we need to ask what do I fear and is it real? The parallel in the Torah portion is Sarah’s fear of Ishmael. She was too rigid to have a place for Hagar and Ishmael in her home. Was her fear justified? One who reads Rashi would say yes; one who reads Ramban would say no. It’s a good practice when we get triggered by what or who we see or what or who we hear to take a step back and ask ourselves why this might be the case. Which expression do we wish to show on our face?

As a congregation I hope we can learn from both Reverend Beaumont and Rabbi Stone. When we are afraid of the liminal season in which we find ourselves, the uncertainty this creates, the ambiguity we are left with, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves what is really going on for us. At times this involves stepping into a threshold and at other times we might wish to hold back. Similarly, when we put on a mask, we need to determine whether this mask helps or hurts us, whether there is fear behind us and if that fear is real or perceived. Had I not attended the Rabbinical Assembly convention, I would not have had these pearls of wisdom for which I am most grateful as I have the privilege to help lead Mosaic Law Congregation into its next chapter.

[1] Reverend Susan Beaumont, “Leading in a Liminal Season,” session for Rabbinical Assembly members 11/7/22.

[2] Genesis 18:1

Saving a Life

G’mar Hatima Tova. It is so wonderful to see each and every one of you on the holiest day of the year. For those I have not yet had the chance to meet in person, I look forward to getting to know each of you and learning your stories over the course of 5783.

Many of us have heard the Talmudic dictum “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if s/he saved an entire world.”[1] What does this mean in practicality? Is it only physical life or does it also have a place in the spiritual realm? I always admired my dad who as a physician saves lives. I have often thought what do I do-save souls?

         Saving a life is considered of the highest priority in Judaism. Pikuah Nefesh, the Hebrew term for saving a life is so important that it supersedes Shabbat observance.[2] We will examine Pikuah Nefesh and how it relates to us and antisemitism. Then, as we prepare to say the Yizkor prayer, we will take a closer look at how our actions today can impact the future.

 One of the most overlooked fighters to save lives during the Holocaust was a man named Peter Bergson.[3] Formerly named Hillel Kook, the nephew of Rav Kook, he acted to try to persuade the United States to save Jews. His nemesis was Stephen S. Wise, about whom I wrote my undergraduate thesis.[4] Wise, as head of the American Jewish Congress, wanted to tread lightly with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Raise your hand if you saw any part of the Ken Burns series on the Holocaust. If so, you might have seen a different view of Roosevelt than that to which we are accustomed. Bergson began doing mass rallies, pageants, and concerts to draw attention in the United States of the atrocities occurring in Europe. One of the most famous was musician Ben Hecht’s pageant “We Will Never Die” with 40,000 people filling Madison Square Garden.[5] Slogans, such as “Action-Not Pity, Can Save Millions Now!” and a full-page ad in the Washington Post with steps to save Jews in Europe were some of Bergson’s many techniques.[6] Was Bergson ultimately successful? One could argue not-the United States had the opportunity to bomb Auschwitz and chose not to. Roosevelt did not relax quotas on Jews allowed to enter the United States. Yet by bringing world attention to this attempted genocide, his followers and he certainly saved lives. Bergson made the argument “remember, Americans, this is not a Jewish problem. It is a human problem.”[7]

         We need to be especially mindful of this now, as last week for the third time in a month we saw an antisemitic swastika at our local campus, Sacramento State.[8] We also saw a swastika shaped trench saying F Jew on the Cherry Bach Golf Course outside Sacramento.[9] This past summer there were antisemitic flyers distributed in Carmichael[10] and antisemitic banners on the UC Davis campus.[11] Such acts cannot be condoned and must be responded to strongly. The Holocaust teaches us that appeasement does not work, that as Deborah Lipstadt said, we need to stop this “normalization of hatred” and recognize that “nothing is solved by silence.”[12] Actions speak louder than words, and we must respond effectively to stop this human problem.

         Every Yom Kippur, we rehearse our deaths. We refrain from eating and drinking, washing ourselves and having sexual relations, so we can be like the angels, who need none of these physical comforts. Whether we are comfortable with rehearsing our deaths or not, the purpose of this is to prepare us for tomorrow and for days to come. We want to make the most of this one, precious life[13] we have been given to make a difference in this world. We must speak and act against injustices such as antisemitism so that when we meet God, we will be able to say that we acted as a force for good against those who seek to harm us. We never know the impact our actions or our words can make.

         This brings me back to my opening question-how does one save a life? Some of us are doctors who have performed emergency c-sections or surgeries that have saved lives. Others are psychologists or social workers who have saved lives by talking people off the ledge, away from suicide or opioids. There is a metaphorical meaning to saving a life as well. We never know the impact or importance of our simply being present, giving an encouraging hug or a listening ear. Similarly, we do not know what we say that will impact someone who is troubled or going through a stressful time. These are opportunities to save lives (or if you prefer to transform lives) which are crucial.

         Today we are reciting Yizkor for loved ones who have, to quote my grandmother, become eternal. I used to think that was an absurd phrase; now I understand its meaning and value. Our tradition teaches us that while our body arrives at a final resting place, our soul, that which is unique and an essential part of us, continues to make an impact in the world. If we believe that life has a purpose, we have greater power than we might have imagined. We never know when we are a malakh, an angel there for a godly purpose, to make a difference in others’ lives-in the right place at the right time.

         Yizkor is all about remembering how fragile life is. We might not need that reminder after the past 2.5 years of COVID. There is likely not anyone in this room who has not been touched by COVID. As we learn in a Mishnah near the end of Tractate Yoma,  מיתה ויה”כ מכפרין על התשובה “Death and Yom Kippur atone through returning to God.”[14] Whether we leave this physical world or spiritually practice leaving this world, either way we are returning to, our Source, the Holy One. The viddui, or confessional that we recite on Yom Kippur-and which Sephardim recite every weekday-also parallels the confessional prayer recited before death. Luckily, however, we are granted another chance the day after Yom Kippur and in the days to follow. Our actions matter, and we can make the choice to be better people, the best versions of ourselves.

         Think about the loved ones we are remembering this year at Yizkor. What are we doing to act in a way that is aligned with their values so that this day is not a day of rote performance? How are we going to realign ourselves and our actions so that for days to come we can be the best version of ourselves? How are we going to remember our loved ones, all the sacrifices they made for us to have better lives? How will we choose to live in a way that they will be proud of us? What bad habits and actions have we undertaken that we want to avoid doing in the future?

         There is a poem called “Niggun Hadash” that I read in Hebrew class at the University of Wisconsin. To summarize it, everyone shuffled out of shul after the blowing of the shofar ending Yom Kippur, leaving a poor father and a son who had nowhere to go to break the fast. The synagogue members were so quick to ‘get back to life’ that they overlooked what Yom Kippur is all about: caring for those most vulnerable in their community. They missed Isaiah’s dictum “Is this the fast that I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies…No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness…to let the oppressed go free…It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin.”[15]

         Every moment, even now, when we are in prayer before the Holy One, is an opportunity to connect with those around us. We never know the difference a simple smile, a pat on the back, a word of comfort can make in someone else’s life. That is why in addition to saying the confessional prayers, I like to recite Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Ahavnu, an alphabetic acrostic pointing out all the wonderful things that we are doing. Rabbi Weiss mentions that the Ashmanu is written in a major tone, very unusual for a somber prayer, and so he wrote this beautiful, positive version. As we recite it, let us remember our loved ones who passed away before our time and think of all the wonderful things in life that we are doing to make them proud of us.  Cantor Rosner will read each word in Hebrew and then I will read Rabbi Avi Weiss’ English translation.

אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִִִּבַּרְנוּ  יֹפִי
We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.

הֶעֱלִינוּ, וְחַסְנוּ, זֵרַזְנוּ
We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically,

חָמַלְנוּ, טִפַּחְנוּ אֱמֶת
We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,

יָעַצְנוּ טוֹב, כִּבַּדְנוּ, לָמַדְנוּ, מָחַלְנוּ
We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,

נִחַמְנוּ, סָלַלְנוּ, עוֹרַרְנוּ
We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,

פָּעַלְנוּ, צָדַקְנוּ, קִוִּינוּ לָאָרֶץ
We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel,

רִחַמְנוּ, שָקַדְנוּ
We have been merciful, we have given full effort,

תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּוּ
We have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.[16]

         Before we continue with Yizkor, I am going to read my grandmother’s poem “Voicing the Mourners Kaddish for My Mother’s Yahrzeit.” They are only words-I know.

How, then, can it be such pain

To say them?

Is it that I would roll the snow

Back from your whitesmooth winter grave

As coverlet-and see your face,

Your form once more before me.

They are only words to say.

How, then, can it be such pain

To say them-can it be the way

I take spring’s flowers out to you

When I would give them to your hand.

Though they are only words to say,

These words became such pain to say

Because I would have you alive!

And yet, I speak the words each year.

With tears, I tremble and repeat

The Kaddish-for within that prayer

The best and fullest which was you,

Your dreams and your ideals


[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1

[2] See Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 121b

[3] Special thanks to Rabbi Dov Peretz-Elkins for introducing me to Bergson with his new book Peter Bergson-The Jewish Lobbyist Who Advocated to Save Jews During the Holocaust (Mazo Publishers, 2022).

[4] “From Pacifist to Interventionist: Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and World War I,” University of Wisconsin Undergraduate Thesis, 2005.

[5] Elkins, pg. 44.

[6] Ibid, pg. 45.

[7] Ibid, pg. 47.

[8] Sacramento State finds another swastika on campus | The Sacramento Bee (sacbee.com)

[9] Sacramento police tight-lipped after Swastika trench dug at golf course – J. (jweekly.com)

[10] Antisemitic leaflets in plastic bags left in Carmichael neighborhood (yahoo.com)

[11] Antisemitic banners at UC Davis prompt campus police probe – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com)

[12] Deborah Lipstadt talk to American Rabbis September 30, 2022.

[13] Reference to a Mary Oliver poem

[14] Mishnah Yoma 8:8

[15] Isaiah 58:5-7

[16] Rabbi Avi Weiss, “Ahavnu,” Ahavnu, beirachnu: Yom Kippur is also a time to confess our good | Avi Weiss | The Blogs (timesofisrael.com)

[17] Lucille Frenkel, “Voicing The Mourners Kaddish for My Mother’s Yahrzeit,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), pg. 120.

Moral Behavior

What makes up moral behavior? Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, Rabbi Emeritus at Beth Tzedec congregation in Toronto and a friend of Rabbi Moses’, states that “moral behavior doesn’t start with having the right beliefs. Moral behavior starts with an act — the act of seeing the full humanity of other people. Moral behavior is not about having the right intellectual concepts in your head. It’s about seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path. Morality starts with the quality of attention we cast upon another.”[1]

In Judaism, there is a principal תכו כברו, which I like to translate as “one’s exterior persona must match his/her interior character.” David Brooks, who wrote The Road to Character, also wrote an article entitled The Moral Meltdown of the Southern Baptist Convention. He asserted, “They dedicated their lives to a gospel that says that every human being is made in the image of God. They dedicated their lives to a creed that commands one to look out for the marginalized, the vulnerable. The last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the Earth.”

“Yet when allegations of sexual abuse came, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention betrayed it all. Those men — and they seem to have all been men — must have listened to hundreds of hours of pious sermons, read hundreds of high-minded theological books, recited thousands of hours of prayer, and yet all those true teachings and good beliefs had no effect on their actual behavior. Instead, according to an independently produced report released by the convention, those leaders covered up widespread abuse in their denomination and often intimidated and belittled victims.” In other words, “Leaders’ stated beliefs and sacred creeds had zero effect on their actual behavior.”[2] Unfortunately I also know many in the Jewish community who have been convicted of abuse, so this is not only a Christian problem.

It is my hope that we view Yom Kippur not only as a clean slate, a tabula rasa, but as an opportunity for serious introspection. Where have we fallen short? Where are we failing to practice what we preach? We might think we have fooled others but not only does the truth often come out, but we also don’t fool people as easily as we might think-especially children. If we are truly going to stand for something moral and ethical, becoming the best version of ourselves, we must be prudent at all times not to be hypocritical; saying one thing while doing another. That is a message I hope each of us will take with us not only today on Yom Kippur but more importantly on the day after Yom Kippur and in the days to come.

[1] Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, Ravnet post

[2] David Brooks “The Southern Baptist Moral Meltdown,” New York Times, May 2, 2022.

Hazak V’Ematz

         This has been an extremely difficult couple of days. I watched the town of Fort Myers Beach, where our family stayed in February 2021, become decimated by Hurricane Ian. I have some seashells from Sanibel Island, which is now disconnected from mainland Florida. I saw Times Square in Fort Myers be reduced to rubble, boats overturned on each other.

         It has also been very challenging at home. Yesterday the third swastika in a month was discovered at Sacramento State University, a university which is a 10 minute run from my home. UC-Berkeley has developed “Jewish free zones” to prohibit any Zionist of Israeli speaker. On Day 2 of Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the importance of dialogue with people with diverse perspectives but this only applies if they will listen to our perspective rather than intimidating us and engaging in antisemitism. Such people cannot be reasoned with.

         My sole consolation is Moses saying to Joshua “Hazak V’Emetz” three times in Parshat VaYelekh. Moses recognized that Joshua’s task was difficult. It would not be easy to keep the Israelites together, as they were facing nations who sought their destruction. We saw how at the slightest sign of conflict, Israelites wanted to return to Egypt. Moses lived this, which is why he told Joshua no matter what happens Hazak V’Ematz-be strong and resolute. And so we shall be. We shall not give into antisemitism nor shall we run away when others attempt to marginalize us-rather we shall fight back. When disasters strike, we shall not throw up our hands but rather rebuild. We will be strong and we will not take the easy path, the course of least resistance, but will remain resolute in facing the challenges that face us.

What Are You Afraid Of?

Shana Tova. It’s so wonderful to see each and every one of you. It has been a wonderful start to the new year, and I’m looking forward to getting to know each of you over the course of 5783. Together we will strengthen our wonderful spiritual home, Mosaic Law Congregation.

Out of all of the places I love, Israel is near the top of the list. Ever since attending the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, a transformational experience, I have reveled in our Jewish homeland. I grew up in a strong Zionist family. My grandfather was in Lehi, the Stern Gang. He witnessed the sinking of the Altalena and was wounded in the head by a Jordanian during the Israeli War for Independence. My uncle founded Beitar Milwaukee, bringing Menachem Begin in to speak twice. My father was President of the Milwaukee chapter of ZOA, the Zionist Organization of America. As a child I was introduced to the book Myths and Facts by Mitchell Baird and shown the video Jihad for Kids. Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial was the Israel textbook in my household.

While I certainly have Israel yihus, I developed my own, personal connection to defending Israel. In high school Forensics (Speech and Debate) I went to National and the Wisconsin State Tournament in Student Congress where I debated against a bill to convince Israel of major war crimes as the sole dissenting vote. I remember the opening line being ‘The United Nations has convicted Israel of 150 war crimes; the next highest country was Iraq with 5’ to which I responded, ‘Well, 1 of the 5 of Iraq must have been Sadaam Hussein gassing 30 million Kurds, whereas 1 of the 150 of Israel must have been stopping a Palestinian at a West Bank checkpoint.’ While attending the University of Wisconsin I was part of MadPAC, a subsidiary of AIPAC, and I gave out a weekly newspaper in support of Israel. I argued before the Madison City Council that Rafah should not become a sister city of Madison, a resolution that only failed by one vote, 4-5. For the second year in a row, I will be attending the Israel American Coalition conference, forging strong ties between Americans and Israelis.

With that being said, my Israel story is far more nuanced than this list of pro-Israel accolades. Last summer, I was in Israel with the Miami Jewish Federation, my 7th trip to Israel, to show solidarity with Israelis after the rocket attacks which occurred in May 2021. The day that stood out most to me was when we visited Lod. We stopped at four sites, including the synagogue of the Garinei Torah, many of whom came from Judea and Samaria (vernacularly known as the West Bank) to bring Torah to Lod; and an Arab school for troubled teens where the teens had been involved in the riots including burning an Israeli flag. At the end of the day, our heads were spinning. We realized that who started what did not matter as much as the power of each of the narratives that we heard. The leader of the Muslim school was in my opinion the most compelling speaker; she took responsibility for her students’ behavior while concurrently stating she was proudly an Israeli Arab and just as she owes things to Israel, so too does Israel owe them to her.

This year on December 9-10, I will be bringing in a rabbi from the settlement of Alon Shvut in Judea and founder of the organization Roots (Shorashim) to engage in dialogue with one of his Palestinian friends about their friendship and personal stories. It will not be the first time we have such a program. In 2019 we brought in Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, who in their own words “offers a hopeful path for bridging the divide between the two communities in conflict.” I know that some congregants are concerned about having a Palestinian speak on campus as well as how this will be the first Shabbat Israel program during my tenure (I will be speaking at CUFI’s Night to Honor Israel at The Center on Sunday December 3). I respect those concerns but decided to invite the speakers because the following question nagged at me: What are we afraid of? Are our views of hearing a real-life narrative foreign to our own so fragile that we should avoid it? In this polarized world perhaps that is the case-yet as one raised to be an independent thinker who is outside the box, I would hope it is not so. If you are interested in hosting a Focus Group/Parlor Meeting before the weekend, please contact Program Director Taliah Berger of myself.

There are of course requirements before implementing such a program. One needs to vet and verify as best as possible that narrative is not divorced from fact, which I have done and encourage you to do during the Question and Answer session. This is of course easier said than done.  I remember in college hearing David Horovitz, former editor of The Jerusalem Report and The Jerusalem Post and founder of The Times of Israel, being asked of Palestinian leaders supportive of Israel. The three names he gave were Abu Mazan, who is the current head of the Palestinian Authority and a Holocaust denier; Marwan Barghouti, who is currently in jail for plotting terrorist actions against Israel; and Sari Nusseibah, a Professor of Philosophy and former President of Al-Quds University. One out of three is not a great track record. With that being said, at what point can we put away suspicion and our guarded nature to hear perspectives different than our own?

I started by giving you some of my Israel bona fides. I have been to more AIPAC events and conferences than I can count and have heard speakers from the gamut of Danny Pipes, Michael Oren, Alan Dershowitz and Danny Gordis defend Israel. I have visited family friends and teachers in Efrat, Karnei Shmoron, Shilo and Maale Adumim, each of which is a beautiful place in Judea or Samaria. At the same time, I have also participated on Encounter, where I spent an evening at a Palestinian family’s home in Bethlehem. I spent a day with Breaking the Silence, going to Hebron and hearing the narrative of Israeli soldiers who will not serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. I was placed by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs with the Muslim organization IMAN (Innercity Muslim Action Network) on the South Side of Chicago-a Jew working with Muslims to help Christians in inner-city Chicago with criminal justice reform. Did these experiences change my perspective? Certainly. What they also did, however, is made me more willing to engage with others who are different from me.

Clearly there are boundaries and lines that must be drawn. I would never invite Ilhan Omar to speak to Mosaic Law, nor would I invite a local Imam to give the sermon on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah, as did my predecessor at Bet Shira Congregation in Miami. With that being said, I believe in the power of personal narrative and its ability to have a transformational effect. I also believe in the importance of stepping outside one’s comfort zone. I have watched Tucker Carlson, just as I have watched Rachel Maddow, because I believe in the importance of hearing what others have to say-even if I disagree with almost all of it.

I recently spoke with a newly appointed regional director at StandWithUs, whose materials you can find in our KOH Library and whose curriculum I intend to use in teaching the 7th Graders at Mosaic Law’s MERCAZ Religious School. We had a powerful conversation at which we finally got to the core of our differences. He said he did not grow up with my strong pro-Israel background and was pro-Palestinian entering college. He later became a strong supporter of Israel and has an insecurity in losing his support for Israel. I never thought of that before-that because I was blessed with such a strong pro-Israel background that I am able to handle other perspectives without losing my secure faith in Israel-whereas someone else who did not have that background or who was hearing a more critical or nuanced approach for the first time might react completely differently. Nevertheless, I ask the following question: does people’s lack of background regarding the facts of Israel mean we should only have strong right-wing speakers on Israel or can our beliefs be strong enough to hear from people with diverse perspectives? Education needs to be a primary focus, and student in the Mosaic Law educational programs must have a strong factual basis in Israeli history. For adults who have not had a strong Israel foundation, I recommend Jonathan Lightman’s Melton class Beyond Borders: History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. At the same time, I want us to be open to hearing different perspectives from what may be our own without jumping to conclusions. I would hate for someone to pigeonhole me, saying “Rabbi Herman is…” without understanding that like others here I have a varied background and I support a variety of speakers from diverse perspectives, while concurrently having boundaries such as those mentioned earlier.

As I look at Israel, I see a country beleaguered by rocket attacks by those who seek its destruction, where Israel has bent over backwards to support peace, whether with the Peel Commission of 1936, the UN Resolution of 1947, the Oslo Commission of 1992 or the Camp David Summit of 2000. I also see a country where a minority of its citizens who have had to endure pain from a Nation State Law, from checkpoints, a wall and some Knesset members who publicly have sought their deportation. The latter does not take away from my concern for the former as well as my marveling in Israel’s numerous technological and medical advancements despite threats to its survival, which I speak about each Shabbat at my Israel Update before the Prayer for Israel. I see a country that I love and will always firmly back while at the same time wanting to hear the real-life narratives of those who live there, regardless of whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze or Bedouin. Each of them has a story to tell, and to those afraid to hear certain stories I ask-Why? Is one’s faith in their beliefs so fragile that it will be shaken by hearing a different narrative? Or is it strong enough that we have the courage of our convictions to do what I taught in the Mahloket Matters course: engage in a 49-49 conversation not to change our opinion or that of the other but rather to recognize that each of us has some access to the truth. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin said, we must work to diffuse this “increasingly uncivil atmosphere that characterizes American life.”[1] In our increasingly polarized world, I hope we are able to have difficult but important conversations with those with diverse perspectives on Israel-especially with those who live there-and have faith that who we are and what we believe in will not disappear if and when we do so. Shana Tova-may this be a resolution for each and every one of us in the year 5783.

[1] Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Zionist Rabbinic Coalition High Holy Day Seminar, August 25, 2022.

Let’s Retire Shame…But Keep Constructive Criticism

Shana Tova. It’s so wonderful to see each and every one of you. It’s great to have my parents, Bruce and Laurie Herman, in to enjoy this holiday with us. For those I have not yet had the chance to meet in person, I look forward to getting to know you over the course of 5783. Please let me know what you’d like to see happen at Mosaic Law Congregation and we will do our best to make it so (no promises though).

I would love for each of us to devote these High Holy Days to turning over a new leaf, a desire to begin anew, as God is the one who “renews the acts of creation every day.”[1] I also would love for us to have gratitude for the gift of life and for another year.

Yet there’s another element to these Days of Awe” centered on three amorphous words: guilt, remorse and shame.

One of those three words I want to retire this year: shame. Every month before Rosh Hodesh we pray for חיים שאין להם בושה וכלימה, “life which is free from shame and humiliation.”[2]  In addition, our daily liturgy has four pivotal words: ולא נבוש לעולם ועד, “May we never be brought to shame.”[3] To understand this, we need to differentiate shame from remorse and guilt.

In Judaism remorse is a crucial step in the process of repentance, striving to become a better version of ourselves.[4]As a colleague on the Ravnet, the Rabbi Listserve, wrote, “We don’t need more people who act badly to feel shame — we need them to feel remorse.”[5]

Guilt, the feeling of wrongdoing, also necessary in repentance. As another colleague put it, “Guilt says I did something bad.  Shame says I am something bad. Guilt has a role in our lives but shame does not.”[6] We know the destructiveness of causing shame to others. The Talmud teaches us, “Publicly shaming another is akin to murder, for the red color of one’s face disappears and becomes white.”[7] This is how the modern scholar Brene Brown views shame when she writes, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, or connection.”[8] This is precisely the opposite of what we ask God for in the daily liturgy, that we should NEVER EVER BE PUT TO SHAME.

There’s a story in the Talmud that illustrates the danger of shaming others.

Our rabbis taught: A person should always be gentle as the reed and not unyielding as the cedar. Once Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Shimon was coming from the house of his teacher, and he was riding leisurely on his donkey, feeling happy because he had studied much Torah. He happened upon an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you sir.” He did not return the salutation but instead said, “Good for nothing, how ugly you are! Are all your fellow citizens and ugly as you are?” The man replied, “I don’t know. Go ask the craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel that you made!’”

When Rabbi Eleazar realized he did wrong, he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I submit myself to you. Forgive me. The man replied, “I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to Him ‘How ugly is the vessel that You made.’”

Rabbi Eleazar walked behind him until he reached his native city. When the people of the city came out to meet him, greeting him with the words, “Peace be upon you, Teacher, Master,” the ugly man asked them, “Who are you addressing thus?” They replied, “The man who is walking behind you.” Thereupon he exclaimed, “If this man is a teacher, may there not be any more like him in Israel.” The people asked him, “Why?” He replied, “Such and such a thing he has done to me.” They said to him, “Nevertheless forgive him, for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah.” The man replied, “For your sakes I will forgive him, but only on condition that he does not act in the same manner in the future.”[9]

We must be extremely careful and sensitive as to when our comments towards others might lead to shame, embarrassment or humiliation. With that being said, there is a commandment to rebuke one’s fellow when s/he is doing something wrong: הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך ולא תשא עליו חאט “Reprove your kinsman and incur no sin on their account.” [10]

Rather than the term “reprove” I prefer to translate Tohecha as “constructive criticism.” My mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught me that criticism does not mean personal dislike but rather is a way to grow. We should be able to receive criticism-in fact withholding it could be a sin! Many commentators[11] indicate that the sin being referred to in the biblical verse is the hatred or resentment we harbor towards another in our hearts-that rather than hold it in we need to find the correct place to say “When you say _________ I feel __________”or as Maimonides indicates, “”Why did you do this to me? Why did you wrong me regarding that matter?”[12]

The challenge is how does one rebuke another without shaming him/her or how does one ensure that the criticism will be constructive rather than destructive? It is so delicate a balance that “Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said that nobody in his generation could do it correctly.”[13] Yet there is a process for constructively calling out one’s wrongdoing while avoiding shaming another. The goal of constructive or “sensitive Tohecha” is to encourage “T’shuvah (repentance) because it is grounded in the belief that the receiver is also created B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and thus inherently capable of growth and change.”[14]

Estelle Frankel writes about 3 qualities necessary for effective Tochecha: Timing, tone and intention. The rabbis teach that just as it is a mitzvah to offer words of tochecha when our words are likely to be heard, it is a mitzvah to stay silent when our words will not be heard.[15] A great story of proper timing is told by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his book Words that Hurt: Words That Heal.

Rabbi Israel of Vishnitz and his assistant stopped by a house of a certain wealthy bank manager…Rabbi Israel knocked on the door, and when a servant opened it, entered the house. The puzzled assistant, without asking a word, followed the rebbe inside. The bank manager received his distinguished guest respectfully and politely. The rebbe took the seat that was offered him, and sat for quite some time without saying a word…After a good while, the rebbe rose to leave, and bid his host farewell. The bank manager accompanied him to the door and, his understandable curiosity getting the better of him, asked: ‘could you please explain to me, rebbe, why you honored me with a visit?’

‘I went to your house in order to fulfill a mitzvah, the rebbe replied, ‘and thank God I was able to fulfill it.’

‘And which mitzvah was that?’ asked the confused bank manager.

“Our Sages teach that ‘Just as one is commanded to say that which will be listened to, so is one commanded not to say that which will not be listened to.’ Now if I remain in my house and you remain in yours, what kind of mitzvah is it that I refrain from telling you ‘that which will not be listened to?’ In order to fulfill the mitzvah properly, one obviously has to go to the house of the person who will not listen, and there refrain from speaking to him. And that is exactly what I did.”

“Perhaps rebbe,” said the bank manager, “you would be so good as to tell me what this thing is. Who knows, perhaps I will listen?”

“I am afraid you won’t,” said the rebbe.

The longer the rebbe refused, the greater the curiosity of the other to know the secret: he continued to press the rebbe to reveal ‘that which would not be listened to.’

“Very well,” said the rebbe finally. “A certain penniless widow owes your bank quite a sum for the mortgage of her house. Within a few days, your bank is going to dispose of her house by public sale, and she will be out on the street. I had wanted to ask you to overlook her debt, but didn’t, because of the mitzvah of ‘Not saying…’”

“But what do you expect me to do?” asked the bank manager in amazement. “Surely you realize that the debt is not owed to me personally, but to the bank, and I am only its manager, and not its owner, and the debt runs into several hundreds, and if…”

“It’s exactly as I said all along,” the rebbe interrupted, “that you would not want to hear.”

With that he ended the conversation and walked away. The bank manager went into his house, but the rebbe’s words found their way into his heart and gave him no rest until he paid the widow’s debt out of his own pocket.

Knowing how to offer criticism and effect change even when you are not directly criticizing-that is a trait we should all strive to acquire.[16]

Estelle Frankel also cautions us to be mindful of our tone as well as of our own emotional state and that of the listener. If we are emotionally triggered or angry, or notice that the listener is in a state of agitation, it is better to wait for a more opportune time — one that is mutually agreed upon and in private. It is best to communicate tochecha with humility and empathy. Remembering that we are all flawed and that we all possess the capacity for wrongdoing is crucial. As it teaches in Pirkei Avot, “Do not judge your neighbors until you have stood in their place.”[17] 

In addition, we must be conscious of our intention: Tochecha is not simply a matter of venting; rather, it involves a conscious effort to heal a breach in a relationship or to help others to awaken to their spiritual and moral deficits. Tochecha is most effective when we make use of our psychological capacity for integration — the ability to see ourselves and others as whole beings with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. With integration, we do not define people by their mistakes and flaws; rather, we point out specific criticisms while concurrently remembering the person’s essential goodness. When giving tochecha, it is helpful to express our loving concern, respect, and appreciation alongside any critique. Doing so reduces defensiveness and any sense that the criticism is an assault on the individual’s character.[18] 

In our 5 part Mahloket Matters series with material from the PARDES Institute, we saw the importance of constructive disagreement, with the goal being to hear the other’s perspective and engage in a 49-49 conversation, code words for “I have some access to the truth and you have some access to the truth. Let’s listen to one another with the goal of understanding rather than changing each other’s perspective.”[19] It empowers us to hear different perspectives, even those with which we might strongly disagree, without reacting negatively but rather from a point of view of curiosity and mutual respect.

We began with three ambiguous terms: guilt, remorse and shame. At this time of year, we feel remorse for times we missed the mark. We might feel guilt over our behavior towards others, striving to do better in the coming year. However, what I hope we never do is translate our actions to our beliefs about ourselves-feeling shame for who we are. We can and should accept constructive criticism about specific issues as long as they never devolve or translate into ad hominem attacks.

In the year 5783, my goal for each and every one of us is that when we disagree we do so with humility and out of kindness and respect. There is a time and place for criticizing others, but we NEVER want to do so in a way that will cause shame or public embarrassment. Instead, let us connect out of the mutual respect that comes with recognizing and appreciating who the other truly is, rather than viewing them as a flawed version of ourselves.

As we prepare to hear Cantor Rosner chant Hineni, a powerful prayer written by an anonymous Hazzan, I want to first read you “A Different Kind of Hineni” by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who began Congregation Beth Ohr, in walking distance from my last synagogue in Miami.

Hineni.  Here I am.
A little bit nervous, a little bit self-conscious.
After all, whom am I talking to?
And what have I done?
Am I a sinner in search of grace
or a saint seeking salvation?
Am I so evil
or so good
as to warrant this season of introspection?
And yet here it is, and here I am:
this time of change and correction.
this heart of confusion and contrition.
Oh, if I could change!
If I could be so sure of myself
that I no longer had to imagine the sights of others;
to be so loving of myself
that I no longer had to ration my loving of others;
to be so bold with myself
that I no longer had to fear the bravery of others.
Oh, if I could change
there is so much I would change.
Maybe I will, but it scares me so.
Maybe I won’t and that should scare me more,
But it doesn’t.
So let me pray just this:
Let no one be put to shame because of me.
Wouldn’t that make this a wonderful year?
Hineni. Here I am

[1] Translation for Siddur Sim Shalom Page 98.

[2] Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom Page 418

[3] Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom Page 98.

[4] See The Four Stages of Repentance: Remorse – Jewish Holidays

[5] Rabbi David Kay, Ravnet Post, August 2, 2022

[6] Rabbi Michael Gold, Ravnet Post, August 1, 2022

[7] Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 58b

[8] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, MN: Hazleden Publishing, 2010), pg. 56.

[9] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Taanit 20 a-b. Translation in Carol Ingall, Transmission and Transformation: A Jewish Perspective on Moral Education” (New York: The Melton Research Center of the Jewish Theological Seminary, 1999), pgs. 25-26.

[10] Leviticus 19:17

[11] See Ibn Ezra, Ramban and Bechor Shor on Leviticus 19:17

[12] Maimonides Mishneh Torah Hilchot Deot Chapter 6 Halachot 6-8

[13] Babylonian Talmud Arachin 16b

[14] Rabbi Neal Loevinger Ravnet post

[15] Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 65a

[16] Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt Words that Heal: How the words You Choose Shape Your Destiny (New York: Harper Collins, 2019 printing), pgs. 108-09. Rabbi Telushkin got the story from Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, A Treasury of Hasidic Tales on the Torah (New York: Mesorah Publications/Hillel Press, 1980), pgs. 189-91.

[17] Pirkei Avot Chapter 2 Mishnah 5

[18] Rabbi Eli Friedman, Tochecha: How We Rebuke – Rodeph Shalom

[19] Pardes Institute of North America, “Mahloket Matters: How to Disagree Constructively”

[20] Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “A Different Kind of Hineni”

Returning to Who We are Meant to Be

         How excited I am to have my first Rosh Hashanah at Mosaic Law Congregation-and on my secular birthday nonetheless! Being with you at our spiritual home is a wonderful way to begin 5783.

Return again, return again
Return to the land of your soul
Return again, return again
Return to the land of your soul

Return to what you are
Return to who you are
Return to where you are born and reborn again

Return to what you are
Return to who you are
Return to where you are born and reborn again[1]

            These words, written by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, which continue to be sung by his daughter Neshama, are what Rosh Hashanah is all about. Here we are, returning (engaging in Teshuva) once again at synagogue at the dawn of a new year, reflecting on who we are and who we are meant to be. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner puts it, “Teshuva is the ever-present urge, possibility and gesture of returning our Source, the Holy One of All Being.”[2]

         Just over two weeks ago, we read Parshat Ki Tetze. One of the 74 commandments mentioned there is השבת אבדה, returning lost objects to their owners. The Gerer Rebbe, in his book Sfat Emet, has a unique take on this commandment. He writes, “When one becomes adept at noticing what is lost, one cannot tolerate losses within oneself. Then one may truly be redeemed.”[3]

         What Sfat Emet is emphasizing is not material objects which are lost but rather the lost, or fragmented, parts of ourselves. Each of us has things which are lacking, and rather than ignoring or dwelling on our shortcomings, Rosh Hashanah is a perfect time to work on restoring a sense of wholeness and completeness in ourselves. This also applies to those who are here with us in synagogue, who might appear to us to be ‘broken, wayward souls.’ In her commentary on Sfat Emet, Dr. Erin Lieb Smokler writes, “Welcome them. Root them. Give them a sense of belonging once again. Recognize your shared humanity and your shared vulnerability. Join in solidarity.”[4] She continues, “The community is only whole when it makes space for the broken.”[5] The goal of these High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, is not to strive towards an elusive perfection but rather, in Carlebach’s words, to “return to what you are, return to who you are.” This is our opportunity not to sweep our broken pieces under the rug but rather to embrace them as they are. That is my prayer for each and every one of us during these poignant 10 days of introspection, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and culminating with Yom Kippur. K’tivah V’Hatimah Tovah-wishing each and every one of you a sweet, happy new year.

[1] “Return Again,” Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

[2] Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, I’m God, You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego (Woodstock: VT, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010), pg. 102.

[3] Sfat Emet, Ki Tetze, 1878

[4] Dr. Erin Leib Smokler, Commentary on Sfat Emet, Ki Tetze, 1878.

[5] Ibid.

Moses’ Transition from Stuttering to Speech

         Moses, the man who was “slow of speech and slow of tongue”[1] certainly does not have that problem in the fifth and final book of the Torah. He shares many דברים, words which are mostly harsh rebuke,[2] with Israel throughout this book. How did Moses transition from a stutterer, one who needed his brother Aaron to speak on his behalf, to an excellent orator?

         One answer is practice makes perfect. Moses certainly had ample opportunities to practice his speech in the Torah so that by Deuteronomy he was a skilled speaker. However, I do not buy that being the sole reason. For example, I am not the most coordinated individual to say it mildly. I can work on my hand-eye coordination for hours a day through playing tennis, and while my game would improve, I will never be competing in Wimbledon or the US Open, or even a semipro tournament. It appears to me that something additional is occurring here.

         The Sefat Emet, or Gerer Rebbe, whose writings I study every week, sheds light on this question. He quotes the proverb “a healing tongue is a tree of life…”[3] which the Midrash interprets as “the languages of the Torah liberates the tongue…regarding Moses, until he merited Torah, it is said of him, ‘I am not a man of words.’ When he merited Torah, his tongue was healed and he began to speak.”[4] Had the Midrash been the end of Sefat Emet’s comment, I would not have bought into it either. However, he interprets the Midrash as follows: “Moses our teacher represented the collective wisdom of all of Israel. Therefore, so long as the Israelites were not ready (to receive God’s words), Moses was not “a man of words” because his speech included the speech of all of Israel.”[5] What the Sefat Emet is saying, is that Moses’ initial impediment was not due to his own inability to speak but rather to his inability to be heard…it was the fact that he was already leading them, already bound up with them, that made him see how ineffective he would be without Israel’s full buy-in. Israel’s unreadiness to listen made him unwilling to speak. Moses’ journey towards words, then, was not a move from silence to speech, but from isolation to solidarity, from a ruptured relationship to a repaired one.”[6]

         Today is Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, the exile of Spanish Jewry, and numerous other calamities in our people’s history. While the fast and observance of the day is pushed off until tonight because we do not want to rush towards sad occasions, nor do we want to experience them on Shabbat, we recognize where we are on the Jewish calendar. The rabbis say that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred between Jews.[7] While actions speak louder than words, it is not true that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ We know, as is the title of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book, that there are “words that hurt” and “words that heal.” Moses was reluctant to lead because he saw the stubbornness, the “stiff-necked” nature of Israel, so he was not able to speak. Similarly, as Rabbi Dr. Erin Lieb Smokler writes, “Tisha B’Av lies not only in the breakdown of communication between God and human beings, but importantly, in the rupture of communication between people.”[8]

         At the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, we ended each day of retreat in complete silence and continued silence for the first half of the next day, observing without speaking, taking everything in without verbally reacting. Tonight, at the end of our outdoor Maariv services, we will leave without saying anything to each other, not even the word Shalom. There is a time and place for speech, and Moses recognized that speaking at the outset would lead to resistance. As a matter of fact, the first time he spoke before Pharoah, Israel had to gather their own straw, causing the Israelite leaders to erupt against Moses and Moses to cry out למה הרעותה לעם הזה למה זה שלחתני, “Why have you brought evil onto this people? Why have you sent me?”[9] Tisha B’Av reminds us, in the words of Kohelet, that there is “a time for speaking and a time for silence,” [10] and Tisha B’Av is the time for silence: to take it all in, to feel with our emotions but not respond with words. May we have a meaningful Tisha B’Av where we observe without reaction, where we recognize there are no words for the calamities that befell our people, and where in doing so we draw closer to the Holy One-for we can only start to rebuild towards the New Year when we recognize the broken aspects of our lives.

[1] Exodus 4:10

[2] See Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:1

[3] Proverbs 15:4

[4] Devarim Rabbah 1:1

[5] Sefat Emet, Devarim, 1877

[6] Rabbi Dr. Erin Lieb Smokler, Torah Study to Sustain the Soul, Devarim, Instutute for Jewish Spirituality, 2022, Page 4.

[7] Yoma 9b.

[8] Smokler, Page 5.

[9] Exodus 5:22

[10] Ecclesiastes 3:8