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

The Strength of Zelophehad’s Daughters

         In Parshat Pinchas, we learn about the strength of women, specifically the five daughters of Zelophehad. We learned in Parshat Shelach Lecha that none of the men would survive entry into the Land of Israel except for Caleb son of Jephuneh and Joshua son of Nun because of the spies’ bad report showing their lack of faith in God. In Deuteronomy we learn that all of the men perished except for Moses, Caleb and Joshua. Rashi has an interesting comment there. He writes, “All the men but not all the women. The men said זכרנו את הדגה, ‘remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt,’[1] whereas the women said תנה לנו אחוזה, ‘give us an inheritance in the Land of Israel.’” [2]

         We often look at the fact that Zelophehad’s daughters wanted to inherit yet we overlook the importance of this inheritance being in the Land of Israel. In spite of the lack of water and meat, the rebellion of Korach, the battles with Sihon and Og, these women wanted to be in the Land of Israel. They were not part of the caravan that formed to go back to Egypt, nor were they part of the cultic worship of Baal Peor. Their desire to have a foothold in the Land was paramount.

         In life we have to look at our personal mission and keep our eye on the prize-our focus on our mission. It is far too easy to divert our eyes, to be taken in by all of the distractions and to be all over the place. The goal is to know what we are looking for, both individually and as a congregation and to not stop trying when the going gets tough. Rather than diverting our eyes or giving up at the first sign of difficulty, we need to be like the daughters of Zelophehad-knowing what we want and trying to get it, working strategically, with both patience and perseverance.

         There’s another equally compelling part of the Zelophehad narrative. After hearing the daughters’ request, Moses takes it to God, one of only a handful of times when he does so. God says כן בנות צלפחד דברות, “Yes, the plea of the daughters of Zelophehad is just.”[3] By taking the case to the Higher Power, Moses admits that he does not have all the answers. Equally important to being focused on one’s mission is not becoming an ideologue-when one recognizes that s/he doesn’t have the answer, the goal is not to make something up but having the courage to say, “I don’t know.” As such one’s mission can change with new information or new situations-as long as it does not change every time something (or someone) gets into one’s ear. Finding the balance is challenging; recognizing that there is a balance is crucial.

         As we continue in the three weeks of mourning, a time of intense soul searching, let us be mindful of reflecting on who we are and what we value most. May we have the strength to stay the course when that is required, while concurrently having the humility to admit that we don’t know everything, as well as the wisdom to see when someone else is right and we are wrong.

[1] Numbers 11:5

[2] Numbers 27:4

[3] Numbers 27:5

Things Beyond Reason

In my first interview to become rabbi at Mosaic Law Congregation, I mentioned that I would like to unite a congregation behind a common goal. Rabbi Moses, who was at the interview, asked me to say more about that. I said that for my first year I would set a goal behind connecting a topic, be it Torah, Israel, Social Action or something else, to the congregation through 4 dimensions, or if you’re kabbalistically inclined, through the four worlds.

My Hevruta Mitchell Chefitz taught me about the 4 worlds. The way I found this most constructive is when someone asks me a question from which world is it coming? Is it Asiyah, about constructive action, Yetzirah, emotional or feelings, Beriah, idea focused, or Atzilut, spiritual emanation.

Using Torah as an example, through Asiyah, the dimension/world of action, we would engage in Torah through physical engagement with Torah, be it a Torah roll out, interactive activities with our illuminated Torah, or allowing B’nai Mitzvah families to bring a Torah home the weekend before their Bar/Bat Mitzvah (liability insurance permitting). Through Yetzirah, the dimension/world of emotions, we would explore having Torah connect with our hearts through guided meditation/reiki practice (I’ve actually done a reiki Torah guided meditation), small group discussions about Torah teachings have entered our heart or our relationship with Torah. Through Beriah, the dimension/world of ideas, we can explore resources for giving a D’var Torah (luckily MLC has plenty of excellent darshanim), compelling adult education classes including but not limited to Shabbat Torah Study and connecting Torah to current events. If all three of these are done well than the fourth dimension/world, Atzilut, or spiritual emanation, takes care of itself.

         Why go through this list of possibilities? Because different people relate to torah differently. Those of us who are concrete, centering ourselves in the world of action, or intellectual, focusing on the world of ideation, both would struggle with this week’s portion. What logical rationale is there for someone declared “impure” to take a three-year-old, unblemished and unyoked red heifer, and have it sacrificed on your behalf, its ashes sprinkled upon you? Furthermore, the one who sprinkles the ashes becomes impure through carrying out this ritual. This is the ultimate Hok, law for which there is no rational explanation, which is likely why it commences Parshat Hukkat.

The Piatzetzner Rebbe, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, writes in his instruction manual Derekh HaMelekh, “We understand that a Hukkah is a law beyond reason/understanding (שכל/sekhel). Rashi explained the derivation of this word from the phrase (see Numbers Rabbah 19:1): “I have decreed this decree [and you are not permitted to trespass my decree]”. This, then, has the sense of “a decree that shall never be trespassed” (Psalms 147:6). In the end, these interpretations are actually one. The command [a parent gives] their child according to some reason (שכל/sekhel) can be investigated by the child, seeking some reason. If it is appropriate, they will do it; otherwise, they will ask its reason. But that command which is given because it is a decree (חוקה/chukkah), because this is what the parent desires beyond explanation/reason is a “decree that shall never be trespassed”.[1] Let’s make this concrete with an example. You tell your child, “Don’t touch the stove!” You have a reason-you don’t want your child’s hand to get burnt. Your child may not understand the reason but does understand from the tone and volume of your voice how serious this is. The Piatzetzner concludes “God has indicated to us that every innovative interpretation [in Torah] that we express (“say”) from our mind (שכל/sekhel) is not “new” from our mind alone, but instead from the innerness of our soul, which is beyond our mind.”[2]

Some things we feel in our gut, our kishke, but we don’t have a rationalization for it. Think about our feelings, especially in relationships. I remember during my year in Israel I fell for a girl at the Hartman Institute who (I didn’t know at the time) didn’t share those feelings for me. After a few dates she said we can’t be together because I’m leaving Israel in 3 months. I tried to reason, saying “We still have 3 months together. Let’s see how it goes. If it works out, I could even come back over Winter Break.” However, logic is no substitute for what she emotionally felt. It is no substitute for what any of us feel, even if we can’t intuit exactly why we feel that way. Thankfully I later met Karina and the rest, as they say is history.

As different people connect with Torah in different ways, I plan to explore this year our engagement with Torah in all of these dimensions. Having opportunities to physically interact with the Torah scroll, emotionally connect with the teachings of Torah and intellectually relate to Torah are all important. It is my goal that in the year 5783 MLC will be united in our engagement in Torah. The goal is not reason alone but rather connecting with Torah in all its complexity. Mind you there is risk involved: one might begin a rationalist and emerge a mystic or an initiative planned to the T might flop. Yet it is our responsibility to continually find new ways to connect with Torah for God is המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית-the one who renews the acts of creation each and every day.

[1] Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, Derech HaMelech, Parshat Hukkat.

[2] Ibid.

Making Torah Fixed

         One aspect I love about Judaism is that the opinions of the minority are preserved in the text. Generally, the school of Hillel is victorious over the School of Shammai. However, the words of Shammai are preserved in the text. Shammai says the following in Avot: עשה תורתך קבע אמר מעט ועשה הרבה והוי מקבל את כל אדם בסבר פנים יפות “Make Torah a fixed practice, say little and do much and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”[1] While the last statement might seem ironic given other stories, we know about Shammai, it’s the first that I want to focus on-making study of Torah fixed. The Gerer Rebbe from 19th century Poland, in his book Sefat Emet, writes ופי’ חקת כמ”ש עשה תורתך קבע. הפי’ להיות נקבע בגוף האדם ידיעת התורה כיתד שלא תמוט… Another explanation for “hukkat” is, as it says, “make your [study of the] Torah fixed” –meaning, knowledge of the Torah should become fixed in the body of a human being like a stake that will not move.[2] The statement from Pirkei Avot is usually interpreted to mean: “choose a regular study time and stick with it.” But the Sefat Emet interprets it rather to be an injunction to “fix” Torah–or to engrave Torah–within. The act of engraving here is linked to stabilizing. Internalizing Torah is a way of making it stay put, lodging it resolutely within. Like a stake planted firmly in the ground–maybe anchoring a tent for shelter, maybe asserting a territorial claim– “fixed” Torah is immovable.

How do we engrave Torah on our hearts and in our bodies, as a well that nourishes and/or as a stake that stabilizes? It’s easier said that done. We often view study of Torah as an intellectual exercise, yet for the Sefat Emet is talking about it as a physical and an emotional act. Tomorrow morning, I will speak about the four worlds: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, and how each and every one of them connects directly with immersion in Torah. It is my goal that Mosaic Law Congregation continues to be a community in which Torah is fixed-not only Torah Study but also where we explore our feelings of engagement with Torah, where we physically feel Torah in our bodies and where Torah helps us draw spiritually to the Holy One. It’s not an easy task yet perhaps this Shabbat can become a starting place through engagement with it.

[1] Mishnah Avot 1:15

[2] Sefat Emet on Parshat Hukkat

Creating a Holy Congregation

         Shabbat Shalom. It is so wonderful to be here at my first Shabbat as Rabbi of Mosaic Law Congregation. I look forward to many joyous Shabbatot spent together and to getting to know each and every one of you.

         As I did during my interview, I have included a cartoon called Keep on Truckin’. This was featured at my Institute for Jewish Spirituality training on Emunah, or trustworthiness. What could it possibly have to do with Judaism, you might ask? Judaism teaches us about always aspiring towards increased growth. When we feel stuck, depressed or unsure of what to do, we need to Keep on Truckin’.

         Korach is a common Shabbat for a rabbi to begin his/her tenure, as it often falls out at the beginning of July. In the past I have contrasted Korach to Yitro: Korach as the person who aligns people with different interests all of whom jump in to make accusations against Moses; Yitro as one who observes a situation, asks questions and speaks in a way that reflects Moses’ best interest. Two different types of leaders-one who is admonished and one who is praised. However, there is an equally valuable lesson that does not only reflect the leader but also the culture of a synagogue.

         In May I was at the concluding retreat for my JOIN for Justice Fellowship on Community Organizing when Meir Leikin taught me this fascinating piece of Torah, giving new insight as to what is wrong with Korach’s approach. At first blush it appears that Korach merely wants to democratize the leadership process, accusing Aaron and Moses for taking too much for themselves. However, in the spirit of egalitarianism he cleverly makes a problematic statement: כי כל העדה כלם קדושים-for the entire community is all holy.[1] Sounds good, right? The problem is that’s not what God told Moses דבר אל כל-עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם קדושים תהיו, “Speak to the entire community of Israel and tell them you should aspire to be holy.”[2] Israel is addressed in the future tense, not the present.

         Is this merely a matter of semantics? Not so. Meir quotes Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who said if you are already holy, you have the license to do anything. If you aspire to be holy, the work is not finished. That is the lesson God imparted to Israel-everyone needs to continue striving to be the best version of themselves, to learn from their mistakes and to grow each and every day. Holiness is a continuous process-not something which one reaches and then can rest on his/her laurels.

         An example of this is from Rebbe, the biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Joseph Telushkin, where someone tells the Rebbe that he is retiring. The Rebbe looks at him horrified and advises him to find something to do. Telushkin writes that, “for the Rebbe, retirement was premature death.”[3] Each of us has a mission to do in this world, and it is our task to continue to aspire both to better ourselves and to move ahead. In other words, to keep on truckin’, even, or perhaps especially, when we feel frozen or stuck.

         This lesson applies not only to each and every one of us as individuals but also to our congregation as a whole. Being and becoming a קהילה קדושה, a holy and a sacred community, is an ongoing process. It involves seeing people for who they truly are, learning their stories, discovering their talents and passions and increasingly bringing them into Mosaic Law Congregation to strengthen us. Believing that we are holy as is and that’s enough-that’s the Korach approach-settling for the status quo and being threatened by growth and development. Aspiring to be better each and every day-that’s the Godly approach. It’s a lot harder but it benefits us greatly in the long run. It also creates a culture of ownership, where each and every person is valued for what they are able to contribute to our congregation. For some that might be in religious services; for others social action; for some social programs; for others ways and means. Each person’s contribution is valuable as part of our קהילה קדושה, our sacred community. May we never forget that the work is never done and that each of us plays an integral role day after day in making both ourselves and our congregation holy.

[1] Numbers 16:3

[2] Leviticus 19:2

[3] See also https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/62177/jewish/1972-The-Rebbes-Thoughts-on-Retirement.htm

Lashon HaRa

         Shabbat Shalom. How wonderful to be with Mosaic Law Congregation for my first Shabbat-the first of Gd willing 30 years together, one day at a time 😊.

         I want to briefly tie last week’s portion into this weeks’. Miriam and Aaron spoke against the Cushite woman whom their brother Moses married. Miriam was stricken with tzaraat and Moses prayed for her healing. One can link Moses’ actions in Shelach Lecha with Korach. Because Moses’ own brother and sister spoke against him, it opened the door for Moses’ cousin Korach to “take others” who had different agendas and to bring them all together against Moses. Two people engaging in lashon hara created the opportunity for Korach, Datan, Aviram, On and 250 priests to conspire against him. Things left unchecked tend to snowball until it’s too late.

         Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ z”l has the following words about lashon hara. He writes “You should practice zero tolerance toward lashon hara. Allowing people to speak badly about one another will eventually destroy the integrity of the group. Evil speech generates negative energies. Within the group it sows the seeds of distrust and envy. Directed outside the group it can lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, racism and prejudice, all of which are fatal to the moral credibility of any team. Whether or not you are the leader of such a group, you must politely make it clear that you will have nothing to do with this kind of speech and that it has no place in your conversations.”[1]

         As your rabbi, I will have a zero-tolerance policy for lashon hara. Negative energy can increase exponentially, skyrocketing until it is out of control. We must distance ourselves from the behavior taken by Korach and his assembly. The Chofetz Chaim teaches that lashon hara is the most difficult commandments to avoid, [2]so we have to work extra scrupulously to avoid it. Let us do our part to be a Kehilah Kedoshah, a holy community, through watching what we say and treating each other with kindness and respect.

[1] Miriam and Lashon Hara (sefaria.org)

[2] Chofetz Chaim, Introduction to the Laws of the Prohibition of Lashon Hara and Rechilut, Positive Commandments 13 (sefaria.org)