Connection Between Shmitah and Mount Sinai

With Appreciation for Rabbi Jonathan Slater

          One of the favorite questions of the rabbis is מאי שמיתה אצל הר סיני, what do the laws of the sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai (on which they are given)? As Rabbi Jonathan Slater taught, a contemporary question we might ask is “How much is the price of tea in China?” In other words, what does this have to do with me?

          The Gerer Rebbe, in his book Sefat Emet, teaches that the relationship between the sabbatical year and Mount Sinai has to do with condition of humanity. He writes, “Humans are both heavenly and earthly: the soul from the heavens, the body from the earth. When our soul is more powerful than the body, we can be like angels.” He references a teaching by Rabbi Yitzhak that “the usual way of things is that a person will fulfill a commandment for one day, for one week, even for one month. But is it likely that they will do so for the rest of the days of the year? But here, one sees their field untilled, their vineyard untilled, and yet they pay their taxes and keep silent! Have you a mightier one than this?”[1]

          The connection between the sabbatical year and Mount Sinai is that each of us has the potential to rise to heavenly beings through earthly acts. By letting our land lie fallow, trusting that we will have enough for ourselves, we are demonstrating our faith in the Holy One. Sefat Emet further quotes the Zohar which teaches “Whatever is in your power to do, do with all your might. With all your might-this signifies the soul.”[2] Our task as holy beings is to utilize our full potential to serve God. In the rat race of life we can lose sight of this, striving instead to get ahead of our fellow without recognizing that everything in life is a gift gratis from God.

          The connection between the physical and the spiritual is profound yet it is often overlooked or separated. What is taught in Sefat Emet is that we concretize the spiritual through our actions in the physical world. By resting once day a week, or letting our produce grow as it naturally does one year out of 7, we bring godliness into the world. Thus something which is as earthly as tilling the soil has the deepest spiritual significance.

          The next time we read a series of laws like that of the sabbatical year and think “That only applies in Israel” or “That’s the farmer’s domain” may we recognize that everything is interconnected and how we use (rather than ab303use) our land has Divine impact.

[1] Sefat Emet Behar 5663 (1903)

[2] Zohar I 196b commenting on Ecclesiastes 9:10

Lag B’Omer

With Appreciation to Rabbi David Golinkin

         This coming week we have the celebration of Lag B’Omer, a strange custom. Thanks to the research of Rabbi David Golinkin, I have some insight into some of the customs surrounding this day. In the Talmud there is a story of Rabbi Akiva’s 12,000 pairs of students dying from a plague because they didn’t treat each other respectfully.[1] Rabbi Nahman said dyptheria, but we are uncertain if this was the plague. In the Geonic commentary it teaches that the plague ceased on Lag B’Omer. Yet this does not explain why we mourn: why we cease from haircuts and shaving, going to concerts and conducting weddings. The customs of mourning surrounding it go back to the late Gaonic period, where Rav Natronai Gaon or Rav Hai Gaon was asked about the custom. Dr. Aaron Amit said that the story has no historical basis, yet the custom persists.

         Further evidence that there was no one custom is the fact that some mourn between Passover and Lag B’Omer, others between the 1st of Iyar and Shavuot and others between Passover and Shavuot excluding Lag B’Omer. But why not Lag B’Omer besides the story of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples? In a tradition attributed to the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai said to his disciples “on my Yahrzeit you should rejoice,” and he died on the 33rd day of the Omer. Hence why people gather at his grave on Mount Meron every Lag B’Omer. There were flames lit and a tradition of shooting bows and arrows to ward off evil spirits.

         Still we need to determine what import Lag B’Omer has to us so that it is meaningful. Dr. Salo Baron reinterpreted it as being for most massacres of Jews during the crusades, as they occurred in Iyar and Sivan, based off Sefer Minhag Tov. Rabbi Golinkin says we should mourn for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Shoah. To me that makes sense. We know there were fast days and days of mourning that fell into desuetude when everything became lumped into Tisha B’Av. Why not as Rabbi Golinkin argues, להחזיר עטרה ליושנה[2]  revitalize ancient customs which fell into disuse?

         Whatever the reason for your desire to celebrate Lag B’Omer, I hope you will join us Sunday morning for the last day of Religious School and our community Lag B’Omer celebration.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62b

[2] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 69b

The First Fruits

          There’s a relatively modern custom that was once solely the practice of Hasidic Jews and has since become in vogue: the upshurin, or first haircut of a boy at his third birthday or on Lag B’Omer the year \of his 3rd birthday. I will speak about Lag B’Omer next Friday; today I want to address the source for why one waits 3 years, which comes from Parshat Kedoshim. The portion says, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden (literally ‘uncircumcised’) for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before God. and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I am Adonai your God.”[1] Is this like the shmitah practice, that by not eating the fruit the trees become more productive and their yield increases? That seems implausible. Rather it has to do with an appreciation of the First Fruits as gifts from the Holy One.

          Rashi, the 11th century biblical commentator par excellence, says that this has to do with the word ערל, or uncircumcised. He comments, “You shall regard it as enclosed: the meaning being that it shall be, as it were, closed up and barred so that no benefit may be derived from it.”[2] It must have taken great effort to close off, or restrain oneself, from luscious produce. Just look at Adam and Eve consuming the fruit-and they were not even wandering in the desert for 40 years! Yet Rashi is saying that one must treat it as one treats the foreskin: something from which one derives no benefit, and therefore must abstain from.

          The concept of “uncircumcised” in the Torah means “closed off from.” Uncircumcised ears or an uncircumcised heart means one is denying the cry of those in pain. Uncircumcised lips are closed off from the need to counsel and respond with words of wisdom. The fruit treated as if it is uncircumcised is one from which no benefit can be derived. Furthermore, when benefit can be derived, in the fourth year, one does not consume it but presents it to God out of gratitude for arriving to the Holy Land. It is not until Year 5 that the fruit can be consumed.

          This is an ultimate test of faith, of patience and gratitude. Rather than having a scarcity mentality, that the fruit must be consumed as soon as possible, one must develop restraint, appreciating the fruit as a gift of God’s benevolence. This is also why we say a blessing before we consume anything: to show gratitude for what we have and to remember the source of where it comes from. Similarly, with the upshurin: we remember those first curls of hair, the beauty that they have and that credit must be given to the Holy One who is the one who enables it to grow. As we approach Shavuot, may our gratitude only grow and may we have patience and restraint when needed, not jumping in on the consumption train but instead appreciating all that we have.

[1] Leviticus 19:23-25

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 19:23 ד”ה וערלתם ערלתו את פריו

Purifying Ourselves in Order to Purify God’s Home

With Appreciation to Rabbi Shai Held[1]

          I’ve often been taken aback by how many people come to services on Yom Kippur and then are not seen again until the following Rosh Hashanah. I know that today I’m preaching to the choir, those who not only attend for the High Holy Days or for Yizkor but for every Shabbat. Nevertheless, I think about what the rationale is for th303ose who view the High Holy Days as a period of introspection and reflection but not the rest of the year.

          Parshat Aharei Mot sheds light on this idea. The parsha begins by discussing the importance of maintaining the purification of the Tabernacle. Aaron, who has just seen the death of his two eldest sons, must offer a bull as a purification offering, atoning for himself and his household[2] and enabling him to return to work as Kohen Gadol. If they attempted to serve God in a state of impurity, “God remained offended, so to speak, and the danger of His wrath and possible alienation was imminent.”[3] This immediately precedes the expiation of the sins of the people of Israel, for whom two goats are taken: one as a sacrifice to God and one inscribed with the sins of Israel taken out to Azazel.[4]

          The idea that we could atone for our sins through the sacrifice of an animal, or today through words of prayer, and that this occurs once a year strikes me as “lip service.” Why then do we strike our chest three times a day in every weekday Amidah, asking God to forgive our transgressions? Every day is an opportunity for a fresh start, and one does not need to wait until the following Yom Kippur. In fact, Rabbi Eliezer the Mishnah teaches us “transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur effects atonement; but transgressions against people, Yom Kippur effects atonement only after one has appeased one’s fellow.”[5] This is put more eloquently by Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz in his text Kli Yakar, where he asserts, “before God will atone for him, every person must purify himself from head to toe.”[6]

          Rabbi Shai Held writes “We may be tempted to imagine at times that we can somehow go around the mess our human interactions have created, that we can go straight to God, who after all, is the ultimate Forgiver of sins. But the Mishnah will have none of it: God will not forgive our interpersonal sins unless and until we have worked to repair the damage we have done in the human sphere. There is no theological bypass around the interpersonal pain we have inflicted.”[7]

          The lesson here is clear: there is no shortcut to repentance. As awkward as it can be to return to someone whom we have wronged and asked for forgiveness, we have no choice but to do it. Rabbi Held concludes his words with this beautiful teaching: “We cannot sidestep the people we have hurt on our path to God: on the contrary, God insistently directs us towards these very people. Repair the breaches you have caused, God says, and then come see Me. But don’t forget to come see Me, because a violation of your fellow is always also a violation of Me.”

          As we continue to count the Omer and look at approaches for how we can better ourselves, let us not forget that before we can purify the Tabernacle, or in modern times the Synagogue, we must purify ourselves, making amends for past mistakes while concurrently striving to be the best version of ourselves that is possible. This is an ongoing process day in day out, certainly not one for solely the High Holy Days. It is my hope that each of us engages in this process every day, both through looking for ways to make amends for past behavior and striving to ensure that our present selves are as pure and Godly as possible.

[1] Rabbi Held’s D’var Torah for Aharei Mot is entitled “Yom Kippur: Purifying the Tabernacle and Ourselves”

[2] Leviticus 16:6

[3] Baruch Schwartz, Leviticus, page 99.

[4] Leviticus 16:10

[5] Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[6] Kli Yakar Leviticus 16:30

[7] Rabbi Shai Held “Yom Kippur: Purifying the Tabernacle and Ourselves,” Aharei Mot 5774.

The Purpose of Sacrifices

         In Aharei Mot, there is a strange section which highlights the purpose of sacrifices. Moses says to Aaron and all of Israel “if anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp, or does so outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to God, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that party: having shed blood, that person shall be cut off from among this people.”[1] These verses prima facie seem to indicate that no one can kill an animal without sacrificing it to God. With that being said, we know that the Israelites ate meat and were even commanded to eat parts of the sacrifice of well-being, so what could this be referring to? By continuing with the text, we get a sense of what is going on: “That they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goats after whom they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.”[2]

          What is going on here? The grammarian Ibn Ezra points out that this is a pun on words. The word for goat, שעיר, was also a word used for demon, because the body of one who sees them “storms.” (סערה). The person who sees them is agitated (צער). He goes on to say “it appears that they are so called because the insane see them in the form of goats (שעירים).[3]  Nahmanides, basing his comment off Ibn Ezra, says that they are called goats (שעירים) because on seeing them a person’s hair (שער) stands up on his body.[4]

          As moderns, what are we supposed to get out of this besides the similarity in Hebrew of the words for ‘goats,’ ‘storms,’ ‘agitated’ and ‘hair’? It seems apparent that this is a pedagogical exercise in the Israelites presenting their animals as offerings to God out of gratitude. While not all of the animal was burned on the altar, each Israelite had to at least go to the Tent of Meeting and present the animal as an act of both thanking and drawing near to God. This required a recognition that the animals were not there solely for one’s consumption and enjoyment but rather that they served a higher purpose in connecting Israel to the Holy One.

          We finished Passover last week but are still in this holy period leading up to the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot. It is imperative that each of us find a way to draw near to God during this time so that we will be prepared to receive the Torah anew in just 5 weeks’ time.

[1] Leviticus 17:3-4

[2] Leviticus 17:7

[3] Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 17:7 ד”ה לשעירים

[4] Ramban on Leviticus 17:7 ד”ה ולא יזבחו עוד את זבהיכם לשעירים

The Red Heifer: Avoiding Perfectionism

You’re a perfectionist!” When a therapist shared these words with me, I was taken aback, like when I found out that I’m a J on the Myers Briggs Personality Test. Since that time I’ve worked on not being a perfectionist, yet I wondered what was so bad about it? Why do we need to be satisfied with the good enough?

A comment in our Etz Hayim Humash on the red heifer intrigued me. When one had contact with a corpse, he becomes ritually impure and was unable to offer the paschal lamb. A Kohen must burn a 3-year-old unblemished red heifer, mix its ashes with water, hyssop, and crimson yarn, and pour it on the impure man. The man becomes pure and the Kohen who burned the red heifer becomes impure.[1] This is an extremely strange law, the ultimate Hok[2] which the rabbis taught to study for purposes of receiving a law, not to enact on it. While it might not matter in a post-Temple age, as each of us who has been to a cemetery is ritually impure, there is a group known as the Third Temple Society trying to keep the children of Kohanim away from cemeteries and to create a 3-year-old unblemished red heifer to use for the Third Temple. They have been trying for decades but have yet to create an unblemished 3-year-old red heifer.

In order to read Maftir Parah every year, a Maftir which the rabbis say is the second most important after Maftir Zachor, we need to come up with a modern rationalization for it. A note in the Etz Hayim Humash caught my attention. “A modern commentator suggests that the ritual’s purpose is psychological. To heal a person burdened by a sense of wrongdoing, who feels the purity off his or her soul has been compromised, we take an animal completely without blemish and sacrifice it, as if to imply that perfection does not belong in this world. Perfect creatures belong in heaven; this world is given to the inevitably flawed and compromised.”[3]

The lesson of the red heifer for moderns is that perfection is impossible to attain, nor is it desirable. Having read the book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brene Brown writes “Perfectionism isn’t the same thing as striving to be your best…healthy striving is self-focused…perfectionism is other-focused.”[4] The goal in being your authentic self it to own your faults rather than looking to others for acknowledgment.

This week many of us will begin Pesach shopping and cleaning as we get ready for the holiday. The tradition is not to see any of these 5 grains: wheat, barley, oat, spelt, rye. We will clean our pantries, our offices, our kitchens, and our dens. Some of us might clean our cars and go through each and every book on our shelf searching for bread crumbs. To whichever lengths we go let us remember not to strive for perfection in hametz eradication. We need to recognize that each of us will do our best to prepare for the upcoming holiday and that for those areas we overlook that is what the words after the Hametz search and burning are for: “All manner of leaven (Hametz) that is in my possession that I have seen or have not seen, that I have removed or have not removed, shall be null and disowned as the dust of the earth.” This prayer helps us let go of our desire for perfection of a Hametz-free home while not stopping us from doing our best to prepare for the holiday. Perhaps the unblemished red heifer has been a modern-day unicorn precisely to help us recognize to leave our fears at the door-that good enough is exactly where we need to be.

[1] See Numbers 19:1-8

[2] A law without rational explanation

[3] Etz Hayim Humash Page 880

[4] 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: Hazelden Publishing, 2010), pgs. 75-76.

Bless Me Rabbi!

          When I was a Student Chaplain at Belleview Hospital in New York City, I’ll never forget going into a patient’s room to see how they’re doing. The patient was agitated and in pain. Her reply was “Bless me rabbi!” As a rabbinical student I had never learned how to do spontaneous prayer. I didn’t know what to say and, in the end, I said something similar to our Mi Sheberach for the ill. The patient closed her eyes and immediately seemed to feel comfort and ease. Since that encounter, I have learned how to do personalized, spontaneous prayer.

          Often Jews are uncomfortable with spontaneous prayer from the heart. We rely on the words 3030in our Siddurim, our prayerbooks. Yet spontaneous prayer is part and parcel of our tradition. Isaac’s meditating in the field[1] is an act of spontaneous prayer. Moses saying אל נא רפא נא לה “Please God heal her please!”[2] regarding Miriam’s leprosy is as well. In Parshat Shemini, we read “Aaron lifted his hands towards the people and blessed them.”[3] We don’t know what Aaron said or how he said it, but we know the result. The presence of God appeared before everyone, fire came forth and God consumed the sacrifice on the altar. Aaron’s blessing Israel results in the Divine Presence emanating directly before the people.

          There have been times in my career where I have felt inadequate to the task at hand. One of them is when I have been asked to bless people. It likely has to do with my father being a doctor and knowing that he has saved peoples’ lives. In comparison, what does a rabbi do: save their souls? Over time, however, I have learned that we should never underestimate the power of a heartfelt prayer. There have been studies that when people know they are being prayed for, all the more so when they are being prayed for in person, they fare better. Is this a placebo effect or is this part of something beyond human comprehension? We can understand principles of physics, but metaphysics is more challenging to know and the exact spiritual connection between people is perhaps the most difficult of all.

There is a power to prayer. When we pray for someone on the Mi Sheberach List with all our heart and all our soul, we feel a connection to him/her that is profound. Similarly, when in the moment we utter a prayer from the heart, we feel something deep. That is what prayer is all about עבודה שבלב, the worship of the heart.

The next time someone asks you to bless them or to pray for them, recognize that we have a strong basis for it in our tradition, including in Parshat Shemini when Aaron lifts his hands and blesses Israel. You don’t need a High Priest or a Rabbi: each of us is independently a spiritual agent who can connect with others through invoking heartfelt prayers asking the Holy One to bring a complete healing of body, mind, and spirit. In addition to blessing one another, we can bless God through the beautiful words of the Hallelujah.

[1] Genesis 24:63

[2] Numbers 12:13

[3] Leviticus 9:22

A Message on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

I am angered by Vladimir Putin leading a Russian invasion of Ukraine. My great grandparents are from just outside Kiev and I have briefly visited that city. Unfortunately, Putins rhetoric and actions feel eerily similar to that of Adolf Hitler. Let us not forget Putin’s takeover of Chechnya and his annexation of Crimea under false pretenses, the latter which is Ukrainian land. Putin’s rhetoric and systemic attempt at dismembering Ukraine region by region reminds me of Hitler and Czechoslovakia: first the Sudetenland and little by little the entire region. He is obviously a very different person from Hitler (Yemach Shmo) with completely different goals and objectives yet his spoken desire to recreate the Greater Russia that existed with the Soviet Union reminds me of Hitler establishing greater Germany. Putin’s false claim of the need to “deNazify Ukraine” and of Ukrainians persecuting Russians are eerily reminiscent of Goebbels’ propaganda machine.

To those who ask why should we care let us remember the wise words of Pastor Martin Niemoller-especially “then they came for me and there was no one to stand up for me.” Let us also not forget George Santayana’s words “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.” First the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, leading to a rapid reassertion of Taliban rule. Now if Russia is allowed to retake Ukraine what will stop them from moving on to Poland? Would NATO really rise to the test if that occurs? How about Xi Jingping taking over Taiwan?

My heart goes out the Ukrainians who are making gutwrenching decisions as to whether to flight or flee as hundreds of thousands of Russian trips bear down on them. Those who are fleeing don’t know if they will be able to return to their homes. Those who are fighting know that they are severely outnumbered with over 200,000 Russian troops on the border. I pray for the families of those of the 137 Ukrainians killed, the 316 wounded. I pray for those abroad who have family in Ukraine who are uncertain how or if they can get them out. I pray for the welfare of President Vladimir Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, who is Jewish, as well as for all the Ukrainian people.

May we see the day when the Russian invasion is repelled and the Ukrainian people can return to self-determination as they choose. Unfortunately I doubt that sanctions in and of themselves will accomplish this objective.

I applaud the Rabbinical Assembly for its statement yesterday-this is part of it:

Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine is only 100km from the border with Russia, and has been hit the hardest so far, experiencing explosions in the early hours of this morning. Entrances and exits to the city, as well as schools have already been closed, and the Russian army is getting closer. We are trying to get all of our communities in Ukraine to our western-most community in Chernivtsi, as it is the safest option right now, where Rabbi Reuven and Lena Stamov, our shlichim in Ukraine are currently with their family. This means organizing immediate transport, and reserving accommodation for refugees fleeing from other cities. In the meantime, we are also arranging for 150 packages with cookies, chocolate and juice, to be brought to the children, to try and lift their spirits in this challenging time.

Turning Towards Each Other

One of the challenges with Parshat Ki Tisa is that it deals with turning away from the proper path rather than turning towards it. After our ancestors made the golden calf, G-d said to Moses “They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them.”[1] Because they turned away from G-d, G-d turned away from them, proclaiming “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them…”[2] Moses, however, intervenes, refusing to let G-d destroy Israel. He says words which we repeat every fast day: שוב מחרון אפך והנחם על-הרעה לעמך; “Turn away from Your blazing anger and renounce the plan to punish Your people.”[3] In so doing, Moses makes two very important points: Israel remains G-d’s people as opposed to a “stiff-necked” people independent from G-d, and G-d does not need to turn away from Israel just because they have turned away from Him at this particular moment.

The term “turn away” struck me because of the work done by marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman. Dr. Gottman writes that the married couples he see who turn towards one another at times of conflict stay together 86% of the time, whereas those who turn away from each other stay together only 33% of the time.[4]  In our tradition, G-d and Israel are a couple, bound together by a ברית, or covenant, just as a married couple is bound by a Ketubah. In our portion because Israel has forsaken its end of the bargain, worshiping other gods, G-d is going to follow suit and strike them from the earth-that is until Moses intervenes. He says to G-d, ‘calm down; take a chill pill,’ and he gets G-d to refrain from forsaking the covenant. וינחם ה על-הרעה אשר דבר לעשות לעמו, “G-d forsook the evil that G-d had said he would do to His people.”[5]

There are two reasons to speak about this today. First we are celebrating the dedication of Robin Schaffer, who is always willing to step up at Bet Shira, from leading the Tu B’Shvat Seder to Sisterhood Shabbat. She is a hallmark of dedication, a regular at morning minyan, often from work. She has taught the Bet Shira minyan so many new tunes over the years.

The second is to celebrate Robin and Ed’s aufruf in honor of their marriage tomorrow here at Bet Shira. Marriage is a brit, a sacred covenant between two people in a relationship. Each relationship is a give-and-take, whether the work-family balance, the public-private life or the sacrifices versus benefits. Robin and Ed model an essential truth of Judaism-that we get up each and every day attempting to grow in our relationship with G-d while concurrently striving to make the world into a better place.

Marriage is one of if not the most important relationship in life, a partner with whom one forms a team. There are benefits as well as responsibilities with marriage, many of which are detailed in the Ketubah. I know that in continuing to grow together in your Jewish observance you will also grow in your relationship with one another.

My prayer for you, Robin and Ed, is that you always turn towards each other, recognizing that your relationship supersedes any specific issue at hand, and in so doing may you strengthen your true love each and every day. Mazal Tov on the celebration of your aufruf. As we are at Bet Shira, House of Song, let’s sing siman tov u’mazal tov again.

[1] Exodus 32:8

[2] Exodus 32:9-10

[3] Exodus 32:12


[5] Exodus 32:14

Imminence or Transcendence: Finding the Balance

         As we continue to read about the Mishkan, I ponder the divide between transcendence and imminence. God said in Parshat Terumah ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם “Let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell amongst them.”[1] The medieval rabbis view this as God’s Shechinah, the feminine, most earthly part of God, will come to dwell in the Mishkan.[2] Later commentators, however, take a different stance: that each of us should take engage in an active process of making God manifest in us-that the goal is to experience the Divine residing within oneself.[3] The medieval view, exemplified by Sforno, is of a transcendent God who descends from on high to dwell in the Mishkan. The later view, exemplified by Malbim, is of an imminent God who resides within us, and our job is to bring out God through our actions in this world. This includes physical actions (those who describe our body as a temple), spiritual actions (actively conversing with God through prayer and study) and relational actions (deeds of lovingkindness for those who need our help).

         The modern view, largely influenced by the mystics, of bringing out the Divine from within us rather than seeking God out from the external, is one with which I resonate. However, the truth is one must find a balance between the two. At the beginning of Parshat Tetzaveh, Aaron and his sons can find God through the imminent act of beating olives to consecrate them for the Menorah, as well as through the transcendent act of taking a step back and reveling in the bright lights of the Menorah immediately following its lighting.

         Rabbi Shai Held writes about the need for balance between imminence and transcendence in his book The Heart of Torah. He states, “Wherever the Israelites go, God will go with them. But as inspiring as having God close by can be, it is also fraught with peril. If a sense of God’s immanence is not amply balanced with robust awareness of God’s transcendence, we run the risk of thinking we can domesticate God. We run the risk of thinking we can truly know who God is, or worse, we come to think that we can simply get God to do our bidding. Under such circumstances religion becomes about God serving us rather than us serving God. Faith very quickly descends into idolatry.”[4]

         The balance between imminence and transcendence is essential, and it is fitting to speak about it today when Ellen Gall chants her first Haftarah in a long time, tutored by Hagit Simkovic. Ellen is someone who demonstrates the importance of transcendence. She is at our daily minyan every day, praying to God. Joe and she have a beautiful backyard filled with the most gorgeous palm trees and plants, expressing the wonder of nature and the great gifts of the one above who gave them to us. At the same time, she understands the role of an imminent God in her everyday actions. Through Caring Kehilla she reaches out to congregants in need, seeing what can be done to help them. By chairing our congregational Torah Fund campaign, she helps ensure that Bet Shira congregants help students at Conservative institutions who need financial assistance. Ellen always made sure we had lunch on Yom Tov, and she has provided a Kiddush this morning in honor of this simcha She exemplifies holding the balance between God up high and God in our hearts, ready to help those in need through the performance of Mitzvot. Mazal Tov Ellen! May your joy increase each and every day as you shine God’s presence on everyone you touch.

[1] Exodus 25:8

[2] See Sforno on Exodus 25:8

[3] See Malbim on Exodus 25:8

[4] Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah (JPS, The University of Nebraska Press, 2017), pg. 196.