Celebrating Our Achievements: Mercaz Shabbat

A guy set up an urgent meeting with his rabbi. He said, “Rabbi I’ll give you $1000 if you make me a Kohen.” The rabbi looks him in the eye and says, “I’m sorry, Bernie, I can’t do that.” Bernie, thinking the money was an issue, retorted, “Rabbi, I’ll give you $10,000. The rabbi stroked his beard and asserted, “No dice. Still can’t do it.” Finally, Bernie said, “Ok rabbi, you win. I’ll give you $100,000.” The rabbi, considering this, said “Bernie, why do you want to be a Kohen?” Bernie replied, “Because my father was a Kohen.”

 The grass always appears greener on the other side. As a child, I wanted to be a Kohen. While I enjoyed being blessed by the Kohanim from under my father’s tallit, I yearned to be the one who said the blessing, as well as who received the First Aliyah on Shabbat. However, Parshat Emor taught me, as Kermit the Frog would have sung, “It ain’t easy being a Kohen.” Kohanim were limited in terms of who they could marry, forbidden to have contact with a corpse and restricted in how they wore their hair and clothes. Some of this continues into the modern day. I have met Kohanim who will not go into a natural history museum because there are mummies there.

One can make the similar argument that “it ain’t easy being Jewish.” Our services are in a different language, our sacred text is without vowels and there are a panoply of holy days, fast days and communal events. Going to Hebrew School when your friends are outside playing ball or in a special club is not easy. Neither is sitting in a service almost 3 hours in length in a language that many here don’t speak outside of the synagogue and Religious School. At the same time, there is so much richness from taking a day off to spend with friends and family, growing in one’s education and becoming a B Mitzvah. There are privileges as our students grow in their participation in our congregation each and every year, asking new questions and strengthening their Jewish identities.

I want to imbue the words of my teacher Adon Morgan: “Learning never ends.” The advantage as you grow is you get more choice in what you learn; however Judaism is about continuing education and lifelong learning. That is why we are honoring students today by presenting them with sacred texts from our tradition. We will be presenting our 3rd Graders with a copy of our Siddur Lev Shalem to cheer her on as she continues to learn prayers-not only the content but also what they mean and why we say them. We will give our 6th Graders a Tikkun, a text used to read the Torah. It has Hebrew with vowels on one side of the page and the text as found in the Torah without vowels on the other side. We honor these four special students, who recently received their B’nai Mitzvah binders, as they will soon begin to learn Torah and Haftarah trope and their Torah and Haftarah portions. As learning never ends, the Tikkun is a gift so that they will continue to learn their Torah portions.

To all the Mercaz parents, we are most grateful to have you as part of our Mosaic Law family. Thank you for imbuing your children with a  Jewish education. We are excited to celebrate today as one of many milestones in Jewish life. Taking this moment enables us to see how far we’ve come and propel us towards even greater achievements. Baruch Atah Hashem Elokeinu Melech HaOlam Sheheheyanu v’Kiyimanu v’Higiyanu LaZman HaZeh.

Tzaraat and Shmirat HaDibbur (Guarding One’s Tongue)

          Rabbi Berel Wein tells a story about a man asking his rabbi if a chicken was kosher. After getting the facts, the rabbi remained uncertain about the answer. Some would have said that with the doubt the rabbi should automatically declare the chicken treyf. This rabbi chose a different approach. He first looked at the person and saw if he could afford to buy a new chicken. If he could, the rabbi would say the chicken is treyf; if not, the rabbi would say it is kosher.

          Why tell this story? It teaches us that one needs to consider the situation and the people involved before jumping to conclusions. It can be far easier, especially when information with an agenda is spoon-fed to us, to form an opinion or take a position based on incomplete knowledge. As we celebrate Israel’s 75th Birthday, hearing Megilat HaAtzmaut and from Dr. Matthew S. Shugart on Israel’s Judicial Reform tomorrow morning, we need to be mindful of where we get information on Israel, just as we do about where we get it on every other topic, and whether it is verifiable. So much is out there and it is too easy to read one article or see one news snippet and jump to a conclusion.

That danger leads us to Parshat Tazria-Metzora. In the Bible, tzaraat is a skin disease that can take many different forms, and in particularly bad cases can manifest itself on one’s clothing, belongings, and house, in addition to the skin. According to the rabbis, tzaraat is caused by sin (specifically the sin of Motzi Shem Ra, giving someone else a bad name). This makes it a disease like no others; part medical condition, part spiritual pathology.[1]

Through the class Awareness in Action from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, I learned to equate Malchut or Shechinah, the attribute of Gd which is closest to us, to Shmirat HaDibbur, guarding one’s tongue-that by refraining from bad speech we are increasing Gd’s presence in the world. The steps taken when emotions got hot were hitlamdut, non-judgemental awareness of sensations, emotions and thoughts; the bechirah point, becoming aware of the choice of following one’s reactive habit or additional choices for action/inaction; and teshuvah, returning to one’s intention. For example, if something has been bubbling up emotionally, rather than an impulsive reaction one needs to take a step back and become aware of what’s going on; make a choice whether to follow habituated behavior or go in a different direction; and then act in a way that is the best version of oneself.

In Mercaz Religious School using the Shalom Learning Curriculum we taught Koach HaDibbur, the strength on one’s words. Judaism is not a religion of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”; rather it is a religion where words have great power and must be used with extreme care and caution.

Today, if we speak badly of others, we will not have a physiological change as in Tzaraat. That makes it all the more important to guard our words. We must follow the text by Mar son of Ravina at the end of the Amidah:

אלהי נצר לשוני מרע ושפתי מדבר מרמה

ולמקללי נפשי תדם ונפשי כעפר לכל תהיה

פתח לבי בתורתך ומצוותך תרדף נפשי

“My God, guard my tongue from evil
And my lips from [speaking] deceit
And [to] those that curse me, let my soul be silent
And let my soul be like the dust to all.
Open my heart to Your Torah and to Your Commandments”[2]

          Lashon HaRa, speaking badly about someone else even if it is true, is in my opinion the most difficult commandment, because many of us speak without a second thought. We are works in progress in trying to be B’Tzelem Elohim, in the image of Gd. Gd spoke and created the world. We speak and create either positivity/good energy or negativity/bad energy with our words. We have the potential to build others up or to take them down with our speech. There is power to our words which is why we need to guard them carefully-especially in the age of social media, where so much can be screen shared or sent without a second thought. Shmirat HaDibbur is so important today, not because one will be punished with Tzaraat but rather because our words matter, can be more easily transmitted than ever before, and cannot be taken back/removed from the ethernet. Going back to Rabbi Wein’s story, rather than a quick judgement and reaction, we need to take the time we need to give a proper response to whatever situation we face, whether public or private; written, phone, or face-to-face; and being thoughtful and ultimately decisive rather than impulsive or perseverating. Ken Yhi Ratzon-may it be our will to do so.

[1] Tzaraat–A Biblical Affliction | My Jewish Learning

[2] Prayer at end of the Silent Amidah

Build Me a Sanctuary

Parshat Terumah says “Build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”[1] Why does God needs us to build a sanctuary? Why can’t God just do it? Furthermore, isn’t God dwelling in our midst with or without a sanctuary?

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, a 16th Century Italian commentator, comments on this verse as follows: “The Torah itself, for which the Holy Ark served as repository, was in an ark constructed of wood but overlaid with gold on the inside and on the outside, to reflect the saying of our sages[2] that every Torah scholar whose external appearance did not reflect his internal stature is not a Torah scholar at all.”[3] The way I interpret this is that it is not enough to look at one’s external structure but rather who an person is in his/her essence. After all, externalities fade away over time-one’s legacy is determined by who s/he truly is.

Sforno goes on to say “The levels of sanctity in the Tabernacle, beginning already with the courtyard around it, were not sealed off from one another, but, on the contrary, were connected to one another all the way to the innermost sanctuary to demonstrate that sanctity is attainable progressively.”[4] The way I examine this is that like the Temple, each and every one of us is interconnected. As each of us is interconnected, so too is each and every one of us responsible for the well-being of others. [5]

This is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. An important point, as Dr. Hanoch McCarty remined me, is that many disabilities cannot be seen. There are some people for whom holding up a pen and writing or being able to speak are beyond their abilities. Similarly, there are those with emotional disabilities, who are out of touch with what they are feeling or who cannot empathize with others. We are all interconnected and need to give our attention to all disabilities, both those which we see like autism, down syndrome, being a paraplegic or being hearing impaired to name a few; or mental or emotional disabilities. The goal is to be authentic-to make our inner spirit match our outer strength.[6]

As Yosi Kahana, Director of the Jewish National Fund’s Task Force on Disabilities, writes, “people with disabilities make up the world’s largest minority group. Globally, around 10% of the world’s population lives with a disability of some kind. Twenty percent of people in the U.S. have some disability and 1 in 10 suffer from a sever disability. Over 10% of people in Israel have some form of disability that can make life’s daily activities a struggle.”[7]

Neil Jacobson, who became disabled at age 59 due to his cerebral palsy, writes “This week’s Torah portion reminded me that we all need assistance. Even God needed help to build the Temple. Not only is it OK to ask for help, but it is also required. The text clearly shows us that while God knew precisely what was needed, it was only through requesting assistance that God’s needs could be met. Terumah goes on to show us how each one of us has our unique skills. It is only when we all offer to use the skills we have to build a better world can true progress be made.”[8]

As we continue reading about the Mishkan, the Tabernacle which was God’s home, we should recognize that every person, regardless of one’s ability, had an integral role to play in the Mishkan’s construction. Had I lived back then, I would not have been a builder, as I have a “brown thumb.” However, I could have contributed in other ways. Even if our abilities are not currently prized by society, we should find ways to value them and recognize that each and every one of us is needed in order to bring a congregational project to fruition.

          It is now my pleasure to call on Shari Zeff to share some personal words of gratitude for how Mosaic Law Congregation has been there for her family.

[1] Exodus 25:8

[2] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 72a

[3] Sforno on Exodus 25:8

[4] Ibid.

[5] Shavuot 39a

[6] See Yoma 72b on tocho k’baro

[7] Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month – Jewish National Fund (jnf.org)

 [8] https://www.respectability.org/2019/01/shabbat-smile-terumah-by-neil-jacobson/

Refugee and Reproductive Rights Shabbat

Parshat Mishpatim contains many laws that are necessary for society to function. Two of them deal with special Shabbatot that are this month. One is the HIAS Refugee Shabbat. As it teaches in Mishpatim, “You should love the stranger: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[1] The term “ger” means one who arrives from another land who seeks to live with of another people. Today we see many people who are refugees leaving carnage in hopes of a better life. One of them is the Shpilman family, who came from the destroyed Ukranian city of Mariopul to Sacramento thanks to our Welcome Caravan. Mishaptim reminds us that we never fit in Egypt and that we need to remember those who are at the margins of societies.

Parshat Mishpatim also relates to the NCJW Repro Shabbat. As we look at a series of laws relating to damages, we come across this statement: “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”[2]

It is telling that in causing a miscarriage a person is fined whereas in harming one who is born the punishments are far more severe. In order to understand why this is the case we need to look at the Mishnah where we have the following statement: “If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the fetus in her womb and bring it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of [the fetus]. But if the greater part [of the fetus/baby] has come out [of the person giving birth], one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.”[3] As soon as the head crowns, one is considered a human being-until that point, lesser than a human. Another section of the Talmud illustrates this further: “If she is found pregnant, until the fortieth day it is mere fluid.”[4]

These are well-known texts, which I taught at my class on abortion in August and in the first Jewish Take video produced. It is important to acknowledge that Judaism does not permit abortion on demand. Furthermore when a baby is born all efforts must be made in pikuah nefesh, saving the life. Concurrent we must acknowledge that Judaism does allow abortion not only to save the mother’s life but when the birth of a child threatens emotional well-being. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, who not only received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Soloveitchik but also a PhD in English Literature from Harvard, wrote “saving a life is not the only sanction for permitting an abortion. It would seem to me that issues such as kavod ha’briyot (human dignity), shalom bayit (domestic peace) and tza’ar (pain), which all carry significant [Jewish legal] weight in other contexts, should be considered in making these decisions.”[5] This is a broad definition of emotional harm, including the need for peace in the house as a reason why an abortion may be permitted.

Returning to our Torah portion, it is important to acknowledge that at a very different time period than ours, one where slavery wasn’t allowed and where women’s rights was certainly not primary, a distinction is made between a miscarriage and a baby who is born. At the same time I would be remiss to not touch on a related topic also of emotional harm: the couple who strives to have a child only to not be able to become pregnant, who becomes pregnant only to miscarry or who has a pregnancy where they find out that the baby will not have a quality of life and that termination of the pregnancy is recommended. In each of these cases, there is so much emotional harm-just as we see in the stories of our matriarchs who wanted children yet struggled to become pregnant. We need to acknowledge that we are dealing with real people and that everyone’s situation is unique from others. Whenever we take an ideological position, be it “Life begins with conception” or “Abortion should always be allowed” we deny the voices of people who are going through very personal struggles. We need to spend more time helping people realize, in the words of Dear Evan Hansen, that “You are not alone.” Our feelings, our emotions and our stories matter. Similarly, often in life we feel one way until we meet someone from a different lived experience that changes our perspectives. As we gather together in a month that has become known for both Refugee Shabbat and Reproductive Rights Shabbat, let us not lose sight of this-that when we truly make an effort to get to know the other, we have the potential to go through transformative experiences.

[1] Exodus 22:21

[2] Exodus 21:22-25

[3] Mishnah Oholot 7:6

[4] Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b

[5] Aharon Lichtenstein, “Abortion: a Halachic Perspective,” in Tradition: a Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Summer 1991, Page 10.

Where is Tziporah?

How blessed I am to have reached my installation weekend as rabbi of Mosaic Law Congregation. In so doing I want to relate a section of Torah on which we might not agree but which teaches us some valuable lessons.

We spend a lot of time looking at Moses’ greatness. We are amazed by his impeccable work ethic, his humility, his ability to challenge God. Yet there is one area in which Moses was not successful: his family. Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, tried to convince Moses not to burn himself out through bringing in other judges.[1] Yet there is another, less commented upon verse at the beginning of the portion to which I want to bring your attention. וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ׃  And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Tziporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home.[2] Why was Tziporah sent home, and why doesn’t she appear in the story after this point?

          The Midrash quotes the following story: When God said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt … and Moses took his wife and his sons…..Aaron went forth towards him and met him at the Mount of God.”[3] Aaron said to Moses, “Who are these people?” Moses answered, “This is my wife whom I married in Midian and these are my children.” Aaron then asked Moses, “Where you taking them?” and Moses replied, “To Egypt.” Aaron then challenged Moses, asserting, “We have cause to grieve over the Israelites already there, and you propose to add to their number?!” Moses therefore said to Tziporah, “Return to your father’s house” — she took her two sons and went away.[4]

          This is certainly not the story of a happy marriage. I agree with the opinion that Moses divorced Tziporah and that is what Miriam and Aaron were gossiping about in the Book of Numbers.[5] Moses sending Tziporah away as mentioned in our portion is the sign that he divorced Tziporah. Sending away ones wife with young children would create permanent scars. As a matter of fact, Moses’ children, Gershom and Eliezer, are not heard from again after this week’s Torah portion, and according to one tradition his grandson Yonatan created an idol![6]

          This has much to do with why we are here this special Shabbat. I am honored to be installed as Rabbi of Mosaic Law Congregation, a position I feel privileged to have and which I hope to keep for decades to come. I am  excited about all the things we can achieve together to strengthen the Jewish community in Sacramento. At the same time, I recognize that in loving this work it can become easy to be swept up into it and not make time for my family. The work-life balance is always challenging: we read about the challenge in Moses’ life. Perhaps with spending more time with his family and by working on his weaknesses, including his anger, Moses’ teachings would have lived on through his children and grandchildren. Instead, not only do we not know where Moses’ is buried,[7] we also don’t know what happened to his grandchildren. Aaron’s grandson is Pinhas, Ruth’s great-grandson is King David, and Moses’ progeny (besides being of the Levitical line) are unknown.

          I choose to share this Torah not to castigate Moses but to remind each and every one of us that no one gets everything in life. Moses received legacy in being known by every Jew for time immemorial. Yet he lost opportunities to parent. He didn’t even fulfill his obligation of brit milah by circumcising his own son![8] At times we can get so busy with work, with hobbies or with what we are passionate about-or unfortunately various addictions we might have-that we neglect our loved ones whom we care most about.

I want to share the story about when I knew I wanted to propose to Karina. After dating for under two months I found out that my position as Rabbi Educator in Tucson was being eliminated. I drove to Karina’s apartment, tears streaming down my eyes. While sobbing, I said to her, “I’m going to have to move. I know you didn’t sign up for this.” I expected our relationship to be over: such had occurred when I met someone near the end of my year in Israel. Karina instead replied to me, “I didn’t sign up for this. I chose this.” In so doing she made me the happiest man in the world. In raising our two daughters, Ariela and Leora, I am grateful to be in a position where I can spend time with them-not every evening but many-as well as Shabbat afternoons and many Sunday afternoons. I am grateful to my parents, Bruce and Laurie Herman, for having given me the strong foundation and instilling in me a love of Judaism that I have taken with me wherever I go. I feel that the rabbinate is a calling-it is more than my job-it is my way of life. At the same time, I have learned that the identity “Rabbi” can too easily take over the identity of “Ben.” Both identities are important together. I hope I not only can successfully model-at times with your help-not only how to be a good rabbi but also how to be a good father, a good husband and a good son. It is a blessing to be able to work on this with you, my dedicated congregants, growing a little more into the person I’m meant to be each and every day.

[1] Exodus 18:17-18

[2] Exodus 18:2

[3] Exodus 4:19-20

[4] Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael Chapter 18 Mishnah 2

[5] See Rashi on Numbers 12:1

[6] Look at Judges 18:22 and the hanging nun turning the word Moshe into Menashe.

[7] See Deuteronomy 34:6

[8] See Exodus 4:24-26

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.