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

[4] https://www.gottman.com/blog/turn-toward-instead-of-away/

[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.

What Bet Shira Means to Me

         The first time I ever heard of Bet Shira Congregation was in October 2018 when I asked one of my colleagues about it and he replied, “I hear it’s a wasp’s nest.” Upon applying to Bet Shira, I learned that nothing was further from the truth. I was interviewed by an impressive Search Committee led by current President Steve Goldstein and Past President Linda Truppman. At my in person visit one member of the committee spent an hour and a half with Ariela while Karina, Leora and I toured the Early Childhood Center. We were impressed not only with the Shabbat program but with the myriad offerings of the Early Childhood Center, including Generations Day, the Shalom Sefer Book Fair and Family Holiday Bridges. We were also impressed by Shabbat morning, when Mitchell Horwich welcomed Karina, Ariela and Leora to the Family Corner and by the Kiddush Lunch prepared by Tobe Marmorstein and the Sisterhood Women-with one of the most impressive displays of Kiddush, a washing station and motzi with an Emanuel Challah Cover that I have ever seen. We spent Sunday morning at the Purim Carnival, the best synagogue carnival I have ever been part of, with a panoply of outdoor games, pizza and Sno Cone trucks and a dunk hat.

         Bet Shira has always brought its best foot forward. Attending Camp Gilah was one of the best summer experiences my children have ever had, each week with an attraction such as a magician, a petting zoo and Disney characters. Four congregants opened their homes to me, including President Elect Stuart Koenigsberg and Sisterhood President Debby Koenigsberg. Reinstating the Drive Through Sukkah and creating the Drive In Shabbat are programs I will never forget, not to mention Havana Nights and our 36th Anniversary Bash. I learned how to play darts and relearned dominos, while enjoying axe throwing along the way. I met some incredible people who became among Bet Shira’s most active new members and are still going strong. The Judaica that people bought for my kids, from an Aleph Bet Tape Measure, to Leora’s First Siddur, are also things I will not forget. In addition, partnering with two incredible Executive Directors, the best Office Staff I’ve ever worked with, Torah reader extraordinaire and musician Avron Smolensky, Paul Hoyle who performed at my Installation, Cantor Andres Levy and Cantorial Soloist Sharon Alcalay-Leibovici and last but not least our amazing Musical Director Dr. Alan Mason have been fun, enriching, spiritually rewarding and unforgettable.

         People often think that a rabbi’s final months at a congregation are a lame duck period. Not so according to Rabbi Bill Lebeau, who said there is never such a thing as a lame duck rabbi. I still am as devoted to Bet Shira Congregation as I was when I was warmly welcomed in, and I will be through my departure in mid-June. The wasp’s nest that was talked about by my colleague couldn’t be further from the truth-this is an incredible community, and I am honored to be part of it.

The Significance of 2 Adars

         This is a Jewish leap year. A regular Jewish year is anywhere from 353-355 days. On average it has 11 fewer days than a Gregorian year. Therefore, our sages, in their infinite wisdom, added a leap month 7 out of every 19 years. We are currently in the 6th year of the 19 year cycle, when a leap month is added, making the year anywhere from 383-385 days. The month is added because we are commanded שמור את חדש האביב ועשית פסח לי-ה-ו-ה אלקיך “Observe the month of Aviv and make a Passover for Adonai your God.”[1] While Aviv was the original name for the month of Nissan, it later came to mean spring, and Passover became associated with spring. Hence when Passover is getting to early (before spring) a leap month is added.

         Which is the leap month? Most sources say that Adar Rishon, the first Adar, but I believe it is Adar Sheni, the second Adar, as one would not have known s/he needs to intercalate a year until that point in time. The reason most believe that the leap month is Adar Rishon is because Purim is pushed to Adar Sheni. However, that is done because of the connection between Purim and Passover: we are commanded to start (re) learning the Passover laws thirty days after Passover[2]-right after Purim. Thus Purim needs to remain thirty days before Passover and is pushed to Adar Sheni.

         A common question I am asked is when someone has a loved one who passed away in Adar in a non-leap year when should his/her Yahrzeit be observed in a leap year. Most authorities say it should be observed in Adar Rishon. That is why the only Yahrzeits that will be listed in Adar Sheni are those for someone who passed away in Adar Sheni during a leap year. Some have the custom of observing the Yahrzeit in both Adar Rishon and Adar Sheni.

         The laws surrounding two months of Adar are confusing yet the truth is there are only two practical applications. First, Purim is pushed one month later so that it remains 30 days before Passover. The 14th of Adar Rishon is called Purim Katan, “little Purim,” yet nothing major ritually changes as a result of it. Second, if you have a Yahrzeit in Adar, you can observe it in Adar Rishon or in both Adar Rishon and Adar Sheni.

         We are commanded מכנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה, “when the month of Adar arrives, our joy increases.”[3] My family and I hope that you only experience joy during both months of Adar in 5782.

[1] Deuteronomy 16:1

[2] Shulchan Aruch Laws of Passover Siman 429 Seif 1.

[3] Mishnah Taanit Chapter 4 Mishnah 6

Reaction to The Publicity Around Dara Horn’s Bestselling Book

To be honest, I have not wanted to read Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews: Reflections of a Haunted Present. I have Holocaust educators in my family and it has been dwelled into my head to never forget. I also am astutely aware of the rise in antisemitic attacks in the United States. At the same time, to read a book with that title makes me recoil. It is the same reason I have not been able to bring myself to go on the March of the Living, although I do plan to go when the COVID numbers go down. I finally purchased a Kindle copy on Amazon and will read it. I’ve learned from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality about the importance of acknowledging one’s fears, especially what makes him/her recoil, yet concurrently having the courage to face them.

What concerns me most about this book knowing not much more than the title is how we want to perceive ourselves as a Jewish people. Do we want to be loved as martyrs, as victims of antisemitic hate crimes, or do we want to be loved because of all of the joy, positivity, learning and spirituality that Judaism has to offer? People Love Dead Jews won the National Jewish Book Award in 2021 and the positive reviews abound. At the same time, in his book review entitled KEEP JEWS INTERESTING: IT’S TIME TO STOP BEING DEFINED BY ANTI-SEMITISM, Professor Shaul Magid quotes Professor Salo Baron z”l who wrote “All my life I have been struggling against the hitherto dominant lachrymose conception of Jewish history because I have felt that an overemphasis on Jewish sufferings distorted the whole picture of the Jewish historic evolution and, at the same time, badly served a generation which had become impatient with the nightmare of endless persecutions and massacres.” Do we want to be defined by antisemitism, by pogroms, persecutions and Jew-hatred, or by who we are as the Jewish people and all that we offer. Magid ends his review by quoting Jacob Neusner, “If the Jews can’t somehow get beyond the Holocaust they will survive. But they just won’t be a very interesting people.”

Interestingly Dara Horn, as quoted by Haaretz, said about her book that she “wishes people liked it a little bit less, because that would make its depressing points less true.” Horn’s accounts certainly have veracity to them and on one hand it’s important for people to know how strong antisemitism is in the United States. On the other hand, I certainly do not want my work as a rabbi to be defined by antisemitism.

As I have not yet read the book, but intend to over the weekend, I will comment more after I read it about its specific aspects. I hope to finish it before Adar Rishon, a month in which our joy is supposed to increase, not to be in denial of the truthtelling that I am certain it contains but rather to be able to focus on bringing joyful Judaism into Bet Shira and South Dade, while concurrently being vigilant and aware of the antisemitism in our midst.

What I Have Learned from Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker

I have not had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Cytron-Walker. However, I saw him being interviewed as well as speaking at the healing service last night. Here are seven things as a colleague that I have learned and/or which have been reinforced for me.

1.) More emergency preparedness trainings for all situations. The last training I have had was fall 2019 just before the High Holy Days. While we are blessed to have a Security Guard and Police Officer, we saw at Beth Israel how a person with a motive can sweet-talk their way past a guard. I was amazed that among the trainings Rabbi Cytron-Walker had was how to handle oneself in a hostage situation. I recognize the need for more trainings, included but not limited to active shooter/lockdown, hostage, fire and flooding, among others. I need to learn or relearn best practices for each of these situations as well as make sure my congregation has an emergency preparedness plan for all of the above that is regularly reviewed in staff meetings.

2.) Regularly reminding congregants where the exits are in the event of an emergency.

3.) Always working to deepen our relationship with local police officers and fire fighters. Making sure that they have a plan of our building. I have a panic button and have learned how to lock off the Sanctuary, yet it is equally important to have a strong relationship with local law enforcement.

4.) Staying calm when under attack. This is one of the most difficult of all. I don’t know how Rabbi Cytron-Walker remained calm with Malik Faisal Akram pointing a gun at him. His calm demeanor enabled one hostage to go free and worked to lower the tension in a situation that could have been much worse. He gave in to the gunman’s request to speak with Rabbi Buchdahl and was also calm when speaking with the FBI. Just thinking about what he went through makes me anxious so I don’t know how he did it.

5.) Looking for an opportunity to get out of the situation. When Rabbi Cytron-Walker saw Akram distracted, he has the remaining two hostages run and then threw a chair at Akram. He then ran out of the building as well. By being vigilant he was able to save himself and his fellow parishoners.

6.) Being vigilant at all times. Extremely difficult to do. Rabbi Cytron-Walker saw a man who said he needed help and he did what Abraham would have done, what every mentschlach rabbi would do: he sat with him and offered him a cup of tea. He had no idea that this man would point a gun at him minutes later. The vast majority of my colleagues and I did not become rabbis to be suspicious of people’s motives, to think that someone would manipulate us into welcoming us in only to later take us hostage. As hard as it is to turn people away we don’t recognize, I’m saddened to say that might be in the future. I hope that we don’t need to become hardened to the degree of European synagogues, where one needs to make a reservation in advance, and in some cases bring two forms of photo ID. In 2005 I went to the New London Synagogue, showed my passport and was still denied entrance because a background check was not done. In 2009 my classmate Phil and I visited the Jewish Museum in Istanbul, and we had to be led by two separate sets of security guards, turning three different directions before passing through metal detectors and then seeing a sign for a museum. We couldn’t find the synagogue we had a reservation for that Friday evening and had to do services on our own. While one does not want to overreact, we also need to take an abundance of caution and at times suspicion, especially when we are interacting with people we are just meeting for the first time.

7.) Having faith. This is the hardest of all. With another antisemitic attack and the Omicron virus surging, many clergy are saying they didn’t sign up for this, as I heard multiple times on a zoom meeting yesterday evening. A number of my younger colleagues are leaving the pulpit and a number of older colleagues are retiring early. There are at least 25-30 more Conservative pulpits available than candidates. When I saw Rabbi Cytron-Walker last night, I saw a man who is able to have the courage of his convictions, who knows that love triumphs over fear, who is able to build community and bring community together towards a common goal. That is to me what being a pulpit rabbi is all about, and that pastoral, kind presence is the type of leader who I would want as my rabbi.

As we prepare for Parshat Yitro, I want to echo Yitro’s words, Baruch Adonai, Blessed is God. I believe that there is more good than evil in the world and that we need to show gratitude to God for all our blessings. We cannot let the bad guys win by hanging our heads or giving up, yet we can also not be naive. Antisemitism is alive and well in the United States of America and we must always be vigilant and not let our guard down. It is a sad but true reality. At the same time, we must always keep hope for a better future, that together with God we will bring peace and equanimity, both to us and to the world.

Moses’ Special Nature

What’s so great about Moses? Last week God told him, “I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac and unto Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not make myself known to them by my name Adonai.”[1] That is factually inaccurate.[2] My belief is that God said this to Moses in order to build up his confidence during a difficult moment. If you recall from Parshat Shemot, Moses’ first visit to Pharaoh didn’t go so well. Pharoah not only didn’t let Israel go, he also made them gather their own straw![3] When the Israelites accost Moses, he exclaims to God “Why have you done evil to this people? Did you send me for this?!” למה הרעותה לעם הזה למה זה שלחתני[4]

         At this point God indicates to Moses how special he is, that he received a gift that even Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not: God’s special name becoming revealed to him. He will serve as judge[5] to Pharaoh, subjecting him to ten plagues including the worst of all-the death of his firstborn child.[6]

         From Shemot to Bo, we see a great evolution in Moses, indicating why he is truly a special leader. At the beginning of the Torah portion, Pharaoh, says to go and then asks Moses “who should go?”[7] He will only let the men go, but that’s a no-go for Moses. The man who once was so timid, refusing to serve God four times in Parshat Shemot and once in Parshat VaEra, here makes the ultimate statement of a leader. וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֙נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ כִּ֥י חַג־יְהֹוָ֖ה לָֽנוּ׃ Moses said “We will go with our young and our old, our sons and our daughters, our flocks and our herds-for it is a holiday of God for all of us.[8] Moses refused to leave anyone behind. He would not accept a partial exodus-rather the entire Israelite community needed to be free. The very people Pharaoh was afraid of[9] becomes a people in the fullest sense with these words of Moses.

         We learn three crucial lessons from Moses that should be applied to leaders today. First, it’s ok to be afraid of stepping up, as long as one eventually does the right thing and leads when s/he needs to. Moses’ fear dissipates when push comes to shove. He does not take a plea bargain or a settlement but, recognizing he has the upper hand and that the most vulnerable of Israel need to be protective, takes an all-or-nothing stance. Second, at times a leader will fail and the point is to learn from one’s failures. Moses’ first attempt to lead ended in disaster-the Israelites had to procure their own straw, working even harder than before. It took learning from his mistake and going back before Pharoah again and again for Moses to develop the confidence he exudes in Parshat Bo. Third and most important, all leaders need cheerleaders to encourage us to stay the course, especially when the going gets rough. Two weeks ago Moses was discouraged, doubting himself and his abilities, believing that his mission would never succeed. With God as his cheerleader, bolstering his confidence by telling him how special his role truly is, Moses developed the courage to go return to Pharaoh. He also had the aid of his brother Aaron, and the two of them together succeeded where one alone might have failed.

         In our new secular year 2022, it is my hope that each of us will look at situations in which we are a leader and evaluate how we might be more effective. Perhaps we need to find supporting hands to help us when we are afraid to try again. Maybe we need to learn a lesson from a past struggle. Whatever the case may be, let us recognize that we are not alone and that together, with the right partners, we can work together to make a positive difference in our communities. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Exodus 6:3

[2] See Genesis 16:7 and 24:3

[3] Exodus 5:6

[4] Exodus 5:22

[5] Exodus 7:1. Interestingly the word for judge, אלהים, is the same as the word for God, perhaps indicating that Moses, the foundling adopted by Pharaoh, will in fact hold up a mirror to him as God’s designee, showing who the true God is.

[6] Exodus 11:29

[7] Exodus 10:8

[8] Exodus 10:9

[9] Pharaoh is the first person to define Israel as עם, a people or a nation, in Exodus 1:9

Judah’s Rise to Excellence

A picture is worth a thousand words. Look at the cartoon by Charles Schultz, זכרונו לברכה, between Lucy and Charlie Brown.

How does one get an “upper up” to use Lucy’s words, in Judaism? Life is not only about ups: Chris Daughtry sings “Everyone knows life has its ups and downs.”[1] Getting an up requires being willing to embrace the downs, learn from them and try again. This is why we are called Jews, descendants of Judah. When Jacob blesses Judah, he calls himגור אריה, a lion’s cub, continues מטרף בני עלית, you have ascended from amidst the prey,[2] and concludes לא יסור שבט מיהודה, the scepter shall not depart from Judah.[3]  The French biblical commentor par excellence, Rashi, states that this means that the line of Jewish leaders will never depart from the tribe of Judah. Wherever Jews live, the leader, and eventually the Messiah, will descend from Judah.[4]

          Why did Judah merit this ascent? Let’s review the cliff notes version of the story of Judah. Picture the scene with Joseph in the pit, his brothers’ desiring to kill him. Then off in a distance, there is a caravan of traders. Judah craftily says, “What benefit is there if we kill our brother and hide his blood?[5] Let’s go instead and sell him to the Ishmaelites for he is our brother, our flesh.”[6]       What cruel words disguised within compassion: we won’t receive any money from killing Joseph, so let’s sell him and let him rot away in Egypt.[7]

          Let’s descend even further into Judah’s story, where he separates from his brothers and takes a Canaanite wife.[8] He also had intimate relations with his daughter-in-law (albeit unknowingly) and when he found out she is with child he proclaimed הוציאוה ותשרף, “take her out and burn her!”[9] He’s quickly ready to dispatch a relative again. When he realizes that Tamar is pregnant with his child, he says צדקה ממני, she is more righteous than me.[10] This is the defining moment of our story: Judah begins to ascend through doing תשובה, repentance, recognizing that past actions were wrong and it’s time to change course.

          Fast forward to Joseph accusing the brothers of being spies. Judah tells Father Jacob “I will function as Benjamin’s guarantor when he goes into Egypt.”[11] When Joseph accuses Benjamin of thievery, Judah finds himself at a crossroads: let another brother go into slavery or speak up and save him. This time he chooses the latter, begging Joseph to spare his brother. He proclaims, “let your servant remain as a slave instead of the boy.”[12] Judah has gone from devaluation and degradation of human life, treating a brother as an object off which to profit or a daughter-in-law as one to be burnt, to pledging his life on behalf of a younger, innocent brother. He took a roundabout, circuitous way to get there, but the fact that he changed and evolved is why he is the ones we need to emulate. G-d looked at Judah’s תשובה and said, ‘I want that to be what leads the Jewish people forward.’

We might think the most righteous are those who have yichus, pedigree, or are “Frum from birth.” That’s not true in our tradition. The Talmud teaches that in the place of a baal teshuva (one who has undergone repentance) a tsadik cannot stand.[13] There is also the story of a Jew asking his rabbi about who is more holy, who is higher on the ladder in God’s judgment: A person beginning to observe the commandments or a person who had been observant who is now moving away from observance? The rabbi replied that God’s judgment is not based on how high they are on the ladder of observance, but on whether one is ascending or descending the ladder. Let’s return to the Peanuts comic. What Lucy failed to recognize is the embodiment of what it means to be a Jew, a descendant of Judah. To be Jewish means to take on the ebb and flow of the roller-coaster we call life, to find the willpower to move forward even when one feels discouraged or in despair over where his/her life is at currently. In addition, being Jewish means to be able to admit when one made a mistake, as Judah did to Tamar, and more importantly, to take a different path in those moments where one is on the verge of making the same mistake again. It requires the one who sold a brother into slavery to, at a latter point in his life, say ‘No-take me instead.’ What makes Judah great is he learns from his past, changes course and, in one of the downward moments of his family’s history, can atone for past behavior. This is a vital lesson for each of us as we conclude the Book of Genesis. My prayer on this Shabbat is to take this to heart-to look at our lives and see the opportunities for personal growth and the lessons to learn at this moment in time. If we are at a “down” period, one of “descent” may we recognize that it might be for the sake of a great “ascent” in days to come. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so as descendants of Judah.

[1] Daughtry, “The Start of Something Good”

[2] Genesis 49:9

[3] Genesis 49:10

[4] Rashi on Genesis 49:10 ד”ה לא-יסור שבט מיהודה

[5] Genesis 37:26

[6] Genesis 37:27

[7] See Rashi on Genesis 37:26 ד”ה מה בצע, ד”ה וכסינו

[8] Genesis 38:1-2

[9] Genesis 38:24

[10] Genesis 38:26

[11] Genesis 43:9

[12] Genesis 44:32, 33

[13] Talmud Berachot 38b

What Is Your Spiritual Legacy?

Have you been the recipient of a spiritual legacy? Perhaps it is making haroset with a parent or grandparent before Passover. Maybe it is lighting Hanukkah candles as a family. For me one of the core parts of my spiritual legacy was having a family Passover Seder where everyone at the table got the opportunity to have a role. Picture me reclining on my Green Bay Packers pillow while drinking sparkling grape juice (Bartenura wine when I was of age), following the Afghani custom of lightly hitting my brother with scallions as we sang Dayenu. One year I wore a Where’s Waldo mask and went outside just before it was time to open the door for Elijah. You can imagine my family’s surprise as I entered the room.

          It is December and many of us are thinking about our financial legacy: which charities are deserving of our end of year financial contributions. That is holy work: it demonstrates what we value and care most deeply about. It is equally holy to look at this week’s Torah portion, where Jacob bequeathed on his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh a spiritual legacy. He says, “The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm bless these kids and call them by my name.”[1] Jacob’s blessing presupposes that there is a guardian angel sent to us when we are in trouble.[2] God’s actions are performed by intermediaries-it might feel like a chance encounter or feel like a coincidence, but each of us has guardian angels or messengers (מלאכים).[3]

          Jacob here is imparting on his grandchildren his spiritual legacy-that they will truly be בני ישראל, guided by the example that he, Israel, has set. As the secular year nears its end, in addition to thinking about our financial legacies my hope is that we take the time to think about our spiritual legacies: how we will encourage our children and grandchildren to follow in our footsteps, valuing Judaism in all its beauty. At Generations Day at Bet Shira Congregation, I worked with grandparents of preschool students on writing their spiritual legacies, both in the forms of a spiritual autobiography and an ethical will. To those of us who do not have children, there is still the opportunity for us to create a spiritual legacy-how do we want our fellow congregants at Mosaic Law Congregation to remember us and what do we want our students or those we work with to understand in terms of our core beliefs. That is holy work for us to engage in both this Shabbat and beyond.

[1] Genesis 48:16

[2] Rashi on Genesis 48:16 ד”ה המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע

[3] Radak on Genesis 49:16 ד”ה ויקרא בהם שמי

Divine Providence

         How often in life have we questioned where we are at only later to realize “I’m exactly where I need to be at this given moment?” Hindsight is always 20/20 and while some are critical of the Monday Morning Quarterback, it is human nature to look back at what was and try to connect the dots-whether one can do so or not.

         In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. Afterwards he says ועתה אל-תעצבנו ואל-יחר בעיניכם כי-מכרתם אותי הנה כי למחיה שלחני אלהים לפניהם. “Do not distress and do not be angry with yourselves, that you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.”[1] Rashbam, an 11th century French commentator, says “The Holy One arranged this for your own good.”[2] How could this be 3030for their own good? After all, the brothers went down to Egypt famished, they were accused of being spies, brother Shimon was taken into slavery and brother Benjamin was accused of thievery.

In Hasidic writings, there is a concept of Yeridah L’Tzorech Aliyah, descent for the sake of ascent. Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, in his book Meor Eynaim, writes, “Why does a person have to fall? The meaning of this contains secrets of Torah. One of these is the possibility of attaining a yet higher rung than one had previously reached. Every act of being is preceded by an absence of being. When you want to proceed to a higher rung, you need to lack for something first. Therefore, you have to fall from your prior rung.”[3] We cannot stay constantly in one place. The prophet Ezekiel teaches us “the life-force ebbs and flows.”[4]  We are either in a state of rising (Aliyah) or falling (Yeridah). If the latter, it is up to us to reflect on what we can do to rise again. The life force does not go in a straight line but takes a zigzag or circuitous route. Yet somehow, as Joseph intuits, we end up where we need to be in that given moment.            It is our challenge and our opportunity, when things aren’t going the way, we would like or had originally planned, to find the Holy One in those moments. In those states of descent, when we feel frustrated or depressed, may we find a way to learn from our situation and chart a course of ascent. This is not to ignore tragedies that happen, situations for which there is no rationalization or explanation. It entails, in the ebb and flow of the roller-coaster we call life, finding ways to connect to God during difficulty and challenges. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may each of us have the willpower to engage in this holy work

[1] Genesis 45:5

[2] Rashbam on Genesis 45:5 ד”ה כי למחיה שלחני

[3] Meor Eynaim Yitro

[4] Ezekiel 1:14