Reward and Punishment

So much of Deuteronomy is written from a cause-and-effect philosophy, and this week’s Torah portion is no exception. It begins by stating that if you observe the commandments you will be rewarded and if you disobey you will be punished. Can we really believe in such a philosophy in the 21st century? We all know of people who do bad things and appear to be rewarded and who do good yet are afflicted.

The rabbis took the philosophy that one’s true reward or punishment would come in the “World to Come” yet I’m not sure we can follow this philosophy either. After all, Judaism on the whole is a this-worldly religion. We also know from mindfulness work that we cannot focus too far ahead but rather must be centered on the present.

The philosophy that I embrace is that we need to focus on what we can do in this moment to enhance our lives, and the commandments can be guideposts to help us do that. In my Weekly Message, I gave some examples as to how being mindful of what we eat (keeping kosher), being mindful of taking time for family (keeping Shabbat) and having a conduit through which to examine how we are feeling or what’s going on with us (praying to G-d) can be invaluable tools through which to enrich our lives. I invite us this Shabbat and beyond to look for those tools for our own lives, not comparing ourselves to others or trying to come up with “the big picture” at the expense of what is going on for us right now. Ken yhi ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

Miami-area rabbi envisions innovative programming

Miami-area rabbi envisions innovative programming
Rabbi Ben Herman is the new spiritual leader of Bet Shira Congregation in Pinecrest. (Courtesy)

Since becoming spiritual leader of Bet Shira Congregation in Pinecrest last month, Rabbi Ben Herman has introduced programs that are considered innovative with the intention of encouraging increased understanding of Conservative Jewish practices and greater personal involvement.

So far in his new role at Bet Shira, Herman has introduced Torah Study classes which are taught on Thursdays and Shabbat mornings immediately after prayer services. He is also planning to teach Reiki Torah, a process of gaining greater appreciation of Jewish philosophy and practices through guided meditation, and also plans to organize several new events at the synagogue including “Hiking and Halachah and “Shabbat on the Beach.” He is also conferring with the congregation’s Programming Committee to introduce new experiential activities for family members of all ages.

Herman previously served as the senior rabbi at Jericho Jewish Center in Jericho, N.Y. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in History, Hebrew and Jewish Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and rabbinic ordination with a Master of Arts in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Visit or call 305-238-2601 for more information on the synagogue.

Korach vs. Yitro

I want to begin by saying how excited and privileged I am to serve as your rabbi, the rabbi of Congregation Bet Shira. To begin my tenure with an aufruf, marking the start of two people’s lives together, is an added bonus. I want to thank all those who have worked so hard to make preparations for Karina and my arrival, especially Linda Truppman, Jason Timmons, Steve Goldstein and the rest of the dedicated Bet Shira team. It has been such a joy and pleasure to begin to partner with you to ensure a strong and vibrant future for our spiritual home.

Five years ago I began my tenure at the Jericho Jewish Center also on Parshat Korach. I deliberately include some of those words within my remarks today as they share crucial lessons about leadership.

I think a case can be made that the antagonist of this week’s Torah portion, Korach, gets a bad rap.  Let’s start by looking at his words.  The first words Korach and his followers say to Moses and Aaron are “רב לכם כי כל העדה כלם קדשים ובתוכם יקוק ומדוע תתנשאו על קהל יקוק”-“It is too much for you, for the entire community is holy and Adonai is in their midst.  Why do you lift yourselves up over the community of G-d?”  Doesn’t Korach have a point here?  He is trying to democratize the Israelite nation rather than it being a theocracy governed by Moses and Aaron.  Furthermore, in Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro advised him to delegate court cases to others so that he would not get burned out.  Why, therefore, does Yitro get lauded by our tradition whereas Korach gets castigated?

I think the answer can be found in the specific linguistic choices of the Bible.  In Exodus, Yitro first saw what Moses was doing.  He observed the situation before he jumped to conclusions.  After observing, Yitro asked Moses why he was sitting alone while the rest of the people stood before him from day to night.  Rather than making an accusatory statement or giving advice, Yitro asked Moses for the rationale behind why he was the sole judge.  Moses’ reply is that the people come to him to inquire of G-d.  At this point Yitro tells Moses that what he is doing is not good as he will burn out, for this task is too heavy for him.  Yitro does not simply say “Do not do this” but rather demonstrates to Moses that to continue with the status quo will not be to Moses’ benefit.  Hence, judicial reform was needed.  Through first observing the situation, and then asking Moses why things were as they were and finally demonstrating to Moses that delegating court cases will enhance Moses’ ability to be the Israelites leader, Yitro becomes praised by Jewish tradition.

In contrast we have the example of Korach.  The portion begins by saying “and Korach took” but does not define what he took.  Rashi’s interpretation is that Korach took himself to side against Moses and the Israelite community.  His grandson Rashbam’s interpretation, which I prefer, is that Korach took other leaders (Datan Abiram and On and 250 priests) to join him against Moses.  Like Avshalom in the Second Book of Samuel, Korach was politically persuasive and influenced others, each with their own agenda, to join him in his quest against Moses.  By coming together in great numbers, Korach strove to threaten Moses and Aaron’s role as leader.

Next we get to the content of Korach’s words.  Instead of observing the situation first, or asking Moses and Aaron about their leadership, Korach jumps to the conclusion “It is too much for you” and ends by saying “Why are you lifted up over the congregation of G-d?” In other words, Korah’s point is ‘Who made you leader?’  Perhaps Korach was jealous that as a cousin of Moses he was not appointed to a leadership role.  While Korach perhaps is correct that the entire nation is holy, rather than confronting the issue from a point of respect he does so from a point of accusation, trying to bully Moses and Aaron into relinquishing power.  Moses and Aaron have no response to this except to fall on their faces.  Never before have they received a challenge this severe from another Israelite leader.

What does this mean for us?  I think there are 3 key lessons that we can learn from the contrast between Yitro and Korach.  The first is, when we see a situation that we do not like, we must properly assess it rather than jumping in and making accusations.  To be able to look at a situation from multiple angles rather than just one’s own is challenging, yet it is an attribute of the greatest leaders and one I think which is worth emulating.  If after looking at the situation we are still bothered by what we see, we need to ask the person responsible for the situation why things are as they are.  Again we must be careful not to use an accusatory tone, as Korach did, but rather speak from the point of inquiry and curiosity, as Yitro did.  Finally, if the person’s answer is still challenging then we can try to convince him/her to change, but only from the standpoint that change will be in his/her best interest.  This is not from self-righteousness but rather from a legitimate belief in trying to help the other.  Through following the example of Yitro, as opposed to Korach, we can first learn why certain situations exist and based on that foundational knowledge decide if it makes sense to retain the status quo or make changes.  This is the model that I will follow as Rabbi of Bet Shira.

Today we are celebrating the aufruf and upcoming marriage of two special people, Jennifer and Evan . Jennifer’s parents Jeffrey and Raquel have been long-time members of Bet Shira, with Raquel being one of our minyanires and a leader in our Caring Kehila. Jennifer and Evan met in July 2016 and quickly discovered that they have much in common, including a love of sports, movies and travel. They had a memorable trip to the Dominican Republic. They also are dog lovers, having a shi tzu named Whinnie the Pooh who will be clad in tallit and a yarmulke at their wedding.  The family is fortunate to be celebrating their second simcha in two months, with Evan’s brother Jason tying the knot in May.

Jennifer and Evan-you will receive lots of unsolicited advice in the next two weeks, so let me give some as well. My advice is that you follow the approach of Yitro. When you run into conflict as we all do in the roller-coaster we call life, first observe the situation before reacting. Next ask the other out of genuine curiosity why they feel a certain way of why things are as they are. Most importantly, remember that you are a team and that your successes are shared. This will help you look out for each other’s best interests as a unit.

Jennifer and Evan, my blessing for you is that your love continues to blossom each and every day and that you remain one another’s רעים אהובים best friends, always looking out for the other and letting your love conquer any challenge that comes your way in life. I also know that you will continue to stand by one another, providing confidence and bolstering the other up in times of need. In remembering that your relationship with one another is what is truly most important, much more so than the particular disagreement or issue at hand, may you strengthen your true love each and every day. In addition to being each other’s partners, always remember that you are best friends and then your marriage will thrive. Mazal Tov!

In order to crystallize this moment I ask that we turn to Page 443 for a special Mi Sheberach Before a Wedding.

Arise and Go Forth

I cannot believe that we are at my concluding sermon at the Jericho Jewish Center. I began at JJC 5 years ago with Parshat Korach. Now we are back in Numbers at Parshat Behaalotecha.

A little known theory about the Book of Numbers is that some assert it is 3 books. The first is what we have read up until now; the second is formed by two verses from our liturgy, one of which is well-known, and the third is what comes after those verses. The verses, which are set apart by upside-down nuns, read “When the ark was carried, Moses said, ‘Arise Adonai and scatter your enemies, make those who hate you flee from before you!’” and “When the ark was returned, he said ‘Return Adonai to the myriads of Israel.’” These words of war became memorialized at the core of our central service, the Torah Service. The traditional commentary is that these lines comprise a break between the punishment that came before, when the tablets were broken, and the punishment that comes after, when the people complain about how good it was in Egypt. For two verses we are away from the reality of our stiff-necked ancestors attacking Moses, hearing instead the “rallying cry” that united them in fighting their enemies to conquer our ancestral homeland.

What does this have to do with us? Both the ark and the proclamation as it was carried forth served to unite our people. Similarly, the sounding of the shofar was a call for unification before battle. It is my hope that the Jericho Jewish Center will remain united at this moment of transition. Transitions are often difficult, bringing a sense of uncertainty and of fear. We often say in life “better the one you know than the one you don’t.” Yet transitions are beautiful opportunities for organizations to reevaluate themselves: who they are and what they stand for. The liminal moment, or transformative point, is the time to set apart what came before from what is yet to be.

I will never forget the 4 Presidents I worked with at the Jericho Jewish Center. Mark Wilkow, who attended my wedding in Scottsdale and who really showed me the ropes when I came into the JJC very green and inexperienced, having never been the direct conduit with a Board or the one responsible for shaping the vision of a congregation. Mark organized 14 get-together events my first summer in Jericho. He also helped me get 120 people to my first Shabbat on the Beach and helped me created Hiking and Halacha and Friday Night Live. Martha Perlson and Diane Charet completely devoted themselves to JJC. Martha even worked here for a time as the Bookkeeper! I am indebted to them for their establishment of the Jericho STEM Preschool, which Ariela had the privilege of attending this year. Both have stayed involved at JJC, with Diane recently creating the Mitzvah 613 kippot for our new Torah initiative and Martha working on the finances of JJC. Richard Cepler I will refer to later in this speech. There are so many here who have helped us – but I would also be remiss if I did not publicly acknowledge my deep gratitude to Barbara Rosenblum – who has extended herself above and beyond for me and my family – as she has always done for the Jericho Jewish Center.  I have learned so much in these 5 years and thank everyone, beginning with these Presidents, who helped me achieve so much, from 120 people at the inaugural Shabbat on the Beach to the establishment of a monthly Friday Night Live Service to the Mitzvah 613 Torah Initiative. Each of you has made me a stronger rabbi, and for that I thank you.

One of the things I am most proud of doing at JJC was our involvement in the Sulam for Emerging Leaders initiative with Anita Haut. Following a United Synagogue curriculum, we had eight 2-hour sessions of training Religious School and Schechter parents, pairing Jewish texts with leadership questions. Many of the emerging leaders who participated have occupied important positions on committees and on the Board of Trustees. I am grateful to Linda Sussman for introducing me to Sulam for Emerging Leaders. I have learned, not only from Ron Wolfson but also from personal experience, that the relationships formed are what is integral to congregational success. I am also grateful to those who bought into my vision of the Mitzvah 613 Torah Initiative for the creation of a new Torah which JJC can benefit from for years to come.

This transition will be difficult for many, including me, yet let us view it as an opportunity. Rabbi Matthew Abelson is coming into JJC with fresh eyes and enthusiasm. As a congregation, I know you will strengthen him just as you strengthened me. You are all such mentschlach and kind people and that will transfer over to your new partnership with Rabbi Abelson to ensure that the JJC continues to evolve into the best synagogue it can be.

I want to extend a very public and heartfelt thank you to our current president, Richard Cepler, who took on this role at my personal request. Richard – we’ve been through a lot together, and I know that your term as president has been far more challenging than anticipated originally. I would like the congregation to know how fortunate we all have been to have had Richard at the helm. Throughout the last year, Richard has remained a leader of high moral character and principles – a true mentsch. Richard – I want you to know how much I respect and admire your conduct throughout this transitional process, and how much I will always value your guidance and friendship.

As I leave the Jericho Jewish Center to embark on a new and uncharted chapter in our lives, I have such mixed emotions. Each of us in life learns to balance our many roles. We have our professional lives, our lives as family members – as spouses, as children, as parents – our lives within our communities and our own internal lives. It’s often difficult to find the formula to balance all of these components, and for many of us, this is a continual quest throughout life. As I look out at all of you here today, I want you to know that the hardest part for me in leaving is that I will miss all of you so very much. I see people here whose parents or spouses I buried, whose children I Bar or Bat Mitzvahed. I have officiated at some of your family weddings, as well as so many joyous births. Karina gave birth to both of our daughters here. They say “it takes a village to raise a child”, and the Jericho Jewish Center has been the village that has helped raise Ariela and watched her grow, as well as welcoming our Leora into the world. This congregation has been such a special and important part of our lives. We are so grateful and thank you for all of the love and care you have given our family during the last 5 years. Life moves on, but people are irreplaceable. I will always remember the goodness and values that are at the heart of this very special community.

From today’s Torah portion, when the ark was carried forth Israel proclaimed, “Arise G-d!”. As we both embark on new beginnings, it is my hope and prayer that the Jericho Jewish Center rise up in strength and with renewed spirit.

Count the Leaders

Our portion begins by counting each of the leaders of the Family of Gershon, a division of the Levites. Each of them is recorded as he is. Each tribes’ gift being brought to the Tent of Meeting is listed individually. Each leader is also listed individually by name.

Richard was a reluctant leader. When I first came to JJC, Barbara Rosenblum told me he was the perfect choice for President. I asked Richard and each time he adamantly declined saying he was not cut out for the job. I gave a sermon one summer Shabbat morning about going outside your comfort zone and looked at Richard, whose face was to the ground. After that sermon he told me he would become President.

These 2 years have not been easy for Richard. There has been negotiations with the STEM preschool and a change in ownership of the school, Homeland Security Grants, a change in Maintenance Director, a rabbi and cantor search, repairs in the building such as a boiler, computers needing to be replaced and discussions about the server, a new awning in front of the Sanctuary, a 3 day power outage, security concerns, public assembly license meetings and many more things than can be enumerated. Luckily Richard had a partner in Jay who joined with him in steering the JJC ship and who has gotten excellent training in becoming the next President of JJC.

We are so grateful to Richard for stepping up to the plate and doing what he could to strengthen JJC. He always had time to talk and to take things to another level. We also would be remiss in not thanking Helene for all she did behind-the-scenes to strengthen Richard. Behind every man is a stronger woman. Richard and Helene were two of the first people I met at JJC, and their devotion and dedication to this spiritual home is boundless. How wonderful it is to have this special Shabbat with 3 generations of the Cepler family present.

It has not been an easy couple of years with the passing of two strong, loving parents. Yet when Craig, Seren, Belle, Emily and Sadie were here on the 2nd Day of Passover, Richard said to Emily on the Bimah לדור ודור, do you know what that means? It is a concept that Richard has internalized. He knew this was his time to step up and take the mantle of leadership, and we are all the richer for him choosing to do so. His Executive Board has worked tirelessly in supporting him these past 2 years, as has his Board of Trustees.

Transitions are always hard yet they are important. Life is always changing and when one door closes, another one opens. Richard has helped open the door wide to the capable hands of Jay who in two short weeks will take over as President of the Jericho Jewish Center. Jay did something that has not been done in years-assume the position of Executive Vice President so that he could be groomed into this role. He even began staying for Kiddush! Thanks to Richard’s tutelage and close relationship with Jay, I know he will be a strong, successful President.

We are commanded to count the leaders because true leaders are few and far between-especially people who will take on the Presidency of a congregation. Let us count the many achievements of Richard, his Executive Board and Board. While Richard should get a well-deserved reprieve, we know this is not the final time he will be in a leadership role at JJC. Let us celebrate the work of our JJC leadership by asking each Board member to please rise as we read on Page 825.

When We Feel Broken

When we feel broken

When the ground beneath our feet has slipped away

When we are unanchored

When we are vulnerable

We need somewhere to turn.

For some of us that is G-d

For others that is our family

For others that is our community

But each of us needs something to cling to, to hold dear.


I say words like this at the cemetery when explaining why we say words like Tziduk HaDin, that G-d is our rock in whom there is no flaw; or the Mourners Kaddish, when we sanctify and praise G-d’s great name. Why do we say these words at a time when we might be angry and frustrated with G-d? Certainly not for G-d’s sake but for our own. When we are broken, when we are rudderless, we need something to hold onto.

In the reading As We Remember Them, I think about the line “When we have decisions which are difficult to make, we remember them.” Those times in life we are at a crossroads, we think about what would the beloved matriarch or patriarch of our family have said? How would they have prompted us to act?

The connection to Shavuot is clear: the ark that Israel carried around the desert held two sets of tablets: the new intact ones that Moses had written and the broken ones that had come directly from G-d.[1] Why maintain the broken tablets?

Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider writes, “The bereaved, and especially those that have suffered painful loss, often live their life with two compartments within one heart – the whole and the broken, side by side. To be a good friend is to know this and to be respectful of the brokenness that always remains.” How often do we want to take away someone’s pain and sadness, to fix their suffering, rather than be present with them as they currently are? Our job is not to be the fixer but rather the one who is present with people, acknowledging their losses and their grief.

Rabbi Goldscheider continues, “The idea of brokenness appears in a number of significant places in Judaism: We sound the shofar with the broken notes of the shevarim; the Hebrew root ‘shever’ meaning ‘broken’. We begin the Seder breaking a whole piece of matzah. When the bride and groom stand under the wedding canopy, a glass is shattered into pieces. These important symbolic rituals represent shattered and broken events in both our personal and communal lives. Breaking the matzah represents the broken life of the slave, the repentant spirit of a remorseful person is symbolized by the broken sounds of the Shofar, and the breaking of the glass represents a world that is incomplete without the presence of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. The two sets of tablets in the Ark offer a striking metaphor. Namely, that brokenness and wholeness coexist side by side, even in Judaism’s holiest spot – in the heart of the holy Ark.” [2]

At times we feel complete, that nothing can touch us. At others we feel like we are the lowest of the low. Humility teaches us to occupy the middle ground between self-effacement and haughtiness. We should always strive for balance, yet at painful times like losing a loved one, we sink to great depths. It is our job, when we feel broken, to be present with our experience as it is and work day by day towards wholeness, recognizing that there will always be a void.

One prayer, based off Psalm 147, that illustrates this is Healer of the Broken-Hearted by Shir Yaakov. We sang this at the rally at the Mid Island Y following the murder of 11 precious souls at Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh. It goes “Healer of the broken-hearted, Binder of the wounds, Counter of uncountable stars, You know who we are.” No other person can understand who you are or what you are going through. Only G-d knows. When we are broken, no one can tell us to snap out of it; only we can do it with G-d’s help. When we are in mourning, no one can give us advice or rationalize how we can escape from it.

This has been a very difficult year of loss for the Jericho Jewish Center. A number of our steadfast congregants lost parents. While I cannot help you restore a sense of wholeness or a “new normal,” my heart goes out to you. I cannot fix but I can be present with you as we remember our loved ones who came before us. The brokenness and the wholeness lie side-by-side in the holy ark.

To Hold in awe

Those words of law

Inscribed in stone

Which God had hewn,

Then to cause truths

Those laws impart

To transpose to

The human heart.[3]

[1] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 14b


[3] Lucille Frenkel, “Goal of Shavuot Prayer,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 159.

The Goal of the Ten Commandments

Think not these laws mere rules set down.

Indeed, they pace the distance

Which raises Man from depths to heights-

Think not these laws but rules-they are

The essence of existence![1]

Why do we emphasize the Ten Commandments? My Senior Rabbi in Tucson taught the following when he did World Wide Wrap: the 613 commandments can be thought of as 6 + 1 + 3, making 10. The 613 are emanated in the 10. Similarly the 10 commandments can be thought of as 1 + 0, making the 1 true G-d. The 10 commandments thus emanate the 1 G-d.

Often we erroneously look at the 10 commandments as the blueprint for human existence. Rather than doing so, we need to look at what they signify. There are 10 commandments as a logical, sequential order in how we should act in this world. It begins with the belief in 1 God, which presupposes that one does not believe in any others. If we believe in a Creator of the universe, we must hold His Name to the highest of standards, never taking it in vain. Not only do we value His name, but we must act in His example, resting after 6 days of creative work. We further demonstrate this not only by following His example but by honoring those who are made in His image, the most central of whom being one’s parents, who are partners with G-d in our creation. Once we honor them, we also acknowledge that each person must be treated with great dignity and respect. We therefore cannot murder another, who is also made in the image of G-d. If we honor that each person is made in the image of G-d, we cannot have relationships with those with whom we are not supposed to. We also would not steal from another in the image of G-d nor would we lie about him/her. Last but certainly not least, we would not be jealous of his/her achievements, instead appreciating what we have and counting our blessings.

The goal of the 10 commandments is not a list of rules but a mindset for daily living. It is to understand that each of us has a uniqueness about us, as we are made in G-d’s image. Similarly, each of us has to respect the uniqueness of all the others who are made in G-d’s image. Through a mindset of turning to G-d and remembering the Creator’s role in our lives, we keep on the straight-and-narrow.

I hope as we continue with Shavuot, our holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, that we will take these lessons to heart and that we will continue to explore the Ten Commandments not as laws in and of themselves but rather as a theology for how to maximize our daily living.


For the Jew to choose life

Is not a simple matter,

For life is precisely that substance

Which the nations have consistently denied to the Jew,


And what is life to the Jew?


And what is life to the Jew

But every moment of lifebreath

Governed and evaluated by a system of law

God-revealed in a world God-ruled-


And God,

God is never

A very simple matter.[2]

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “The Ten Commandments,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 159.

[2] Lucille Frenkel, “The Ten Commandments,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 158.