Sign In Forgot Password

Rabbi Sabath's High Holy Day Sermons, Divrei Torah, Articles and Teachings


High Holy Day Sermons: 5784


"The Dawn of Our Redemption": Our Israeli-American Spring (Read here)

Yom Kippur


The Power of Knowledge and the Knowledge of Power (Read here)

Rosh Hashanah

September 22, 2023

What is the Ultimate Meaning of Your Life?
The Possibility and Promise of Yom Kippur

Nitzavim-Vayeilech Ha'Azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-52)

How would you summarize your life? What do you want the next generation to learn from you? 

To answer these questions, you’ll need to be in the right frame of mind and find the time and the space to think carefully, right? It’s exactly this opportunity that is the great promise of Yom Kippur. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Ha’Azinu, we hear in Moses’ words a shift toward a more reflective mode about his life, God, and the future. (How appropriate for this time of year!)  He takes a long pause to try to glean from the most significant moments of the Israelites’ history the greatest lessons. In a way, Moses models for all of us the powerful practice of writing “a living will.” In poetry and reflection, Moses clarifies what matters most. We, too, need to pause and think about what matters most. 

Although none of us is like Moses preparing to leave behind the most influential living will in the history of humankind, and hopefully none of us is close to the end of our life, nonetheless we have a similar opportunity. Yom Kippur offers us precious time to hold a powerful resource [the High Holy Day Machzor/prayer book] in our hands for hours at a time and to reflect. Yom Kippur offers us time to sit still and think more deeply about our lives and our relationships. Even just listening to the music and the sounds of the prayers can give you more clarity about what and who you care about most, and perhaps even clarify what you want the next year/s of your life to mean. Yom Kippur focuses the mind, heart, and soul. And it’s from this reflective place that we might consider writing down what we want the next generation to know. What we believe is worth passing on.  

In his final speeches, Moses reframes his own story and the story of the Jewish people.  Moses even speaks about God differently. He quotes God less as the God of war, and more of God as the gentle teacher and parent. “May my discourse come down as the rain,
my speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth,
like droplets on the grass.” (Deuteronomy 32:2).

But sometimes the words of a parent, teacher, or mentor may not feel so gentle. Sometimes we need to hear the less gentle words so that we can better see ourselves and so that we can grow. The medieval commentator, Rashi, teaches that the idea of God’s words being gentle as dew is a poetic description of Torah as the Source of Life. 

Just as the grass needs the rain and the dew, so do we need the words of Torah. But what about wind (another way to understand the Hebrew word s’irim, translated above as showers)? They might not be so gentle. But Rashi explains, quoting a Midrash: “How is it with the winds? They strengthen the herbage and promote their growth! So, too, the words of the Torah promote the moral growth of those who study them.”

This Shabbat and Yom Kippur offer us both gentle rain and strong winds. Especially at this time of year, we need to be aware not only of where we’ve succeeded, but also where we failed. We need to study the words of the prayer book and hear both gentle words of affirmation and words of criticism that can challenge us to change and grow.  

Each of our lives is filled with opportunities for growth. Yom Kippur in particular helps us look at our flaws, not just so that we can feel contrite and ask for forgiveness, but mostly so that we can recognize where in our lives we most need to change and grow. Yes, this may be hard at times, but it’s all for the sake of making us stronger and better in every way. And if we are stronger and better people, then we will be able to hear the moral voice inside of us more clearly and use it to call for moral repair to our broken world. Our lives will then have great meaning. 

The promise of Yom Kippur is the possibility of repair not only of ourselves but of the whole world.  How could we not grab onto this kind of opportunity with all our strength? 

Shabbat Shalom and Blessings for a Meaningful Yom Kippur!

September 8, 2023

The Power of a New Beginning: Preparing for Rosh HaShanah
Nitzavim-Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)

How wonderful to come together this Shabbat as we celebrate a new school year and the upcoming High Holy Days! Our children and grandchildren have begun new grades and stages in their lives, the school year and all its activities and sports swing into full gear, and the seasons may actually be changing, too.  

This Shabbat, we also prepare to begin anew. In just one week, we'll gather to eat apples with honey and hear the powerful sounds of the shofar as we celebrate Rosh HaShanah. What’s amazing about this moment is that we each get not only to taste the sweetness of the new year and all its possibilities, but we also have a powerful opportunity for transformation. Each of us is invited to stand at the crossroads of our lives. To make the most of this opportunity, we gather for a collective pause to celebrate and to consider the past, the present, and the future of our lives as individuals and as a community. We are full of memories of what was, awareness of what is, and hopes of what is yet to be. 

Thankfully, Jewish sages have spent millennia trying to help each one of us, the average human being, accept the sometimes painful truths of who we are, and figure out how to become better humans. There are also countless contemporary experts — economists and psychologists and spiritual leaders — who have written best selling books about how to change. On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I will share gleanings of these teachings and how combining some of their wisdom can help us change as individuals in the year ahead — how we can each live the best possible versions of ourselves in 5784.  

What’s powerful about these High Holy Days is that the opportunity to reflect isn’t only an individual one. We also have the chance to reflect on our relationships with our families, our congregation, our community, our country and our world. What will ensure that next year won’t be full of the same mistakes of last year? How can we live differently in the year ahead to ensure a better future for all those we care about? 

We will also ask questions about our Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation. How can we work together to ensure that our congregation is even more positively impactful in our community? How can we collectively have an impact in improving our world — whether it be politically, environmentally, economically or psychologically? In so many ways, our society and our world are in need of healing. The days ahead will give us the opportunity to reflect together on what role we can and must play. On Rosh HaShanah morning, I will speak about the wisdom we’ve inherited to help us in these endeavors. (Spoiler alert! I will be referring to recent movies including Oppenheimer, Barbie, and Golda.)

Our experiences as American Jews and those of our Jewish Democratic State of Israel offer us so many resources to help inspire us and guide us on this journey. There is so much we can learn from the wisdom, successes and failures of the past that we can harness for the future. In fact, this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, reminds us that the wisdom and insight we need are accessible to all of us. 

It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe (Deuteronomy 30:12-14). 

In other words, it’s up to each one of us to embrace and apply the wisdom of the past. Especially during our upcoming High Holy Days, we have the opportunity to embrace a moment of endless possibilities for ourselves, our loved ones, and the world. May we merit such an opportunity.

Shabbat Shalom!

August 25, 2023

Ensuring Freedom and Justice for All:
Reflections on the 60th Anniversary of "I Have a Dream"

Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

A few weeks ago, my family and I visited Philadelphia and had the chance to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. I hadn’t been there since I was a child, and I have to admit that I remembered the bell being much bigger and the US Constitution being much less interesting. Since then, however, I understand both the symbol and the text through the lenses of much more learning and experience. And, given the many challenges we face as a society, we should not underestimate how fragile they both are. 

Probably because this coming week marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington – where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered “I Have a Dream,” one of the most influential speeches in American history – I was stunned anew by what was inscribed on that old cracked bell in 1751 – a quote from the Book of Leviticus (25:10):

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.”  

וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ

Sixty years ago, on August 28, 1963, the nonviolent protest in Washington D.C. attracted as many as 250,000 to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Historians and legal experts argue that that march in that sweltering summer helped prepare the ground for passage of federal civil rights and voting rights legislation in the following years. But some of those same rights are under attack today. As one commentator wrote this week about the 60th Anniversary: It “is not an occasion for kumbaya — not in the face of eroded voting rights nationwide, after the recent striking down of affirmative action in college admissions and abortion rights by the Supreme Court, and amid growing threats of political violence and hatred against people of color, Jews and the LGBTQ community. The issues today appear eerily similar to the issues in 1963*.”

Our shared dreams of the kind of society we want to inhabit remain unrealized.

From the Bible to today, what “freedom and liberty for all” means remains the most fundamental and the most important debate in our country. From Leviticus to the Gettysburg Address; from the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the early 1900s; from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” sermon in 1963 to the debates of our day, we learn and relearn that constant vigilance and activism are necessary to protect and ensure freedom and equality for all.

In trying to explain my excitement about taking the kids to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, I found myself thinking about the parallels in our Jewish liberation narrative. Like our Exodus song, Mi Chamocha, that rings out in every service, we also need constant reminders of how fragile our hard-won freedom really is. And the Constitution is like Deuteronomy, a long and very wordy attempt to summarize a wide range of values and laws into a document that can be accessible and maybe even “user friendly” for a young nation. In the Constitution, one can hear the echoes of what Moses sought to teach our ancestors. He spends the entire Book of Deuteronomy trying to explain to the Children of Israel the fragility of freedom and the precariousness of justice. 

Freedom is not a moment, not even the Exodus from Egypt. Freedom is a constant journey on which any number of threats can throw us off track. It took the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the desert and plenty of missteps to get to the Promised Land. And every human society ever since has experienced its own threats. The Israelites also had to learn that simply reaching the Promised Land isn’t enough. The Promised Land isn’t simply a place but a way of life that ensures freedom and equality for all.

Today, we too must recognize how far we’ve come and just how far we have yet to go to fulfill both our Biblical and our contemporary dreams of freedom and equality. Engaging as a congregation in our current national debates is an expression of how much we still hold those values to be paramount. Like our ancestors, we too have to learn and relearn every day that it’s not enough to dream. Ensuring freedom and equality for all demands clarity about our core values, determination, perseverance, and the commitment to act for a better future not just for ourselves, but for every citizen. 

As Martin Luther King Jr. said 60 years ago, on August 28th 1963, we can walk the road forward together because we have come to realize that “our destiny is tied up” with the destiny of people of all races and identities. Allowing for racism today will surely ensure the future of antisemitism. 

None of us can be truly content until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream**.”

Shabbat Shalom!


*Aaron Morrison, “At March on Washington’s 60th anniversary, leaders seek energy of original movement for civil rights.” August 23, 2023. (read here)

**Amos 5:24

August 18, 2023

Why We Must Be The Prophets
Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

What does this week's Torah portion have to do with us? Everything. 

This week's Torah portion, Shof'tim, "Judges," begins by clarifying the inherent ethics of the judges themselves in who they are and how they adjudicate. Establishing and maintaining just courts is foundational to creating a just society. 

This section of the Torah emphasizes the need for multiple branches of power in order to create a healthy society. In theTorah, there are four different branches of 'government:’ kings, prophets, priests, and judges. In the ancient world, what the Israelites proposed was radical because humanity previously only knew about kings, pharaohs, and dictators. But our Jewish tradition introduced the idea that only well-functioning multiple branches of government could ensure a balanced power and a civil society. After just one generation of experimentation with leadership in the desert, Moses already knew that each branch of government must not only be balanced by another, but it would also need to be corrected for its failures. 

In our Torah portion, the Deuteronomist (the author of the book of Deuteronomy) insists that four categories of leaders are necessary: judges, kings, priests, and prophets. Each one had a unique role and was selected by both the people and God. None could achieve their position without meeting very high standards. To be a judge, one must not only be wise, trained, and experienced, but a judge must also be immune to the pressures of being in such a position of power. For example, a judge must be immune to seduction and bribery. 

The king must be ethical and not misuse public funds or resources. The authors of our sacred text knew that power is likely to corrupt. The priest must be ritually pure and spiritually strong. And the prophet must see clearly where other leaders are failing. The prophet must be a clear-headed visionary for creating a better society. Most importantly, the prophet must not be afraid to speak the truth. 

While we may not have kings and priests in our time, we still need impartial judges and courageous prophets in order to ensure that our society is just. This week, together with a few members of our congregation and some experts, I had the opportunity to see a judge in action in renters court. We wanted to learn about how the first level of this part of our justice system succeeds and fails. I could not but help hearing the power of our tradition as I watched and listened. This week’s Torah portion specifically insists that we need judges who will not pervert justice, who will not succumb to bribes to be appointed (Deut 16:18-19). 

After all, as we read, tzedek, tzedek tirdof: “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” (Deut. 16:20). But even with the right judges in place, rebellion and perversion will likely ensue in society. The Deuteronomist accepts this as part of the human social condition and seeks to create ways of diminishing its negative impact on innocent people. But judges, while necessary as a single system of leadership, will not be enough to maintain a civil society.

What about the prophet? Who plays that role today? We do. 

As a religious community, we must not be concerned only for ourselves. As Jews, we must also be the religious critics. Our society depends upon us to be like the prophets. Like the prophets, we must be especially sensitive to abuses of power, and brave in spirit, unafraid to speak out to those in power.  We must be the religious critics of the ills of our society. All societies need to be accountable to uphold their own values and standards. Otherwise, as the text — and history — teach us, any government and its leaders will become blind to what's really happening in society. Without our own prophetic sensibilities, we will lose track of what’s most important. We will — God-forbid — turn a blind eye to the innocent suffering in our midst, and most certainly, we will ignore our own failings. 

Today, we must continue to deepen our understanding and expand our knowledge about what’s happening in our world and in our community so that we can fulfill our role. Let us be vigilant about the use and abuses of power we witness. May we never fail to raise our voices and speak out to protect the vulnerable and ensure justice for all.  This is our prophetic role. This is our inheritance. 

Shabbat Shalom!

August 4, 2023

Are We What We Eat? Or How We Eat? Food, Jewish Spirituality, and Ethics
Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

Does what we eat really define who we are? To some degree, yes. Whether or not we’re aware of it, what we eat says a great deal about us. But who we are is much more fully defined by how we understand the relationship between the food on our plate, the realities of the world in which we live, and the kind of world we aspire to create. 

Every day, what we eat, how we eat, and with whom we eat speaks volumes about our culture, our upbringing, our education, our health awareness and concerns, and –quite often– our socio-economic class. What some call ‘food identity’ varies greatly around the world and throughout time. What one culture may consider a gastronomic delight, another may find disgusting. Just think of some of the insects that are delicacies in one part of the world but revolting in another. Eating, however, is never just about geography or biology.

Although our cultural or economic identity may influence what we eat, how we eat and what we do with the food we have access to speaks volumes about our ethics and our spirituality. In many ways, it’s the best indication –three or more times a day– of who we are. 

What and how we eat is also about how we relate to the people and world around us. Jewish identity has long been expressed through our various beloved foods whether it be bagels, matzah ball soup, or latkes. While none of these foods existed in Biblical times, the Torah certainly pays great attention to three main questions about food: 1) What types of animals and foods are permissible? 2) How should permitted animals be slaughtered [as humanely as possible] in order to be “kosher” or fit for eating? and 3) Most importantly, what state of mind should we have before and after we eat?  

These may seem like separate questions, but in this week’s Torah portion, all three aspects are deeply interconnected. Of course, most Reform Jews are less concerned about what the Torah says about what exactly is permissible and whether or not the meat on their plate is kosher. But we care very deeply about health, ethics, and gratitude. Even while most of us may not be looking for kosher labels on what we buy, all of us are likely very concerned with the quality of the food we eat and its impact on our health. Many of us are also deeply concerned about how the animals or field or workers are treated in the making of the food on our fork. Hopefully, we’re also keenly aware of the horrific absurdity of food insecurity and hunger in a world where there is more than enough food for everyone. Eating is a profoundly biological, environmental, sociological, religious, and political subject.

At Har Sinai - Oheb Shalom, so many are involved in helping to assuage food insecurity and constantly seek to relieve some inequities through ongoing commitment to Weekend Backpacks, Bunches of Lunches, our High Holy Day food drives, and other initiatives. But do we understand these deeply ethical acts on a spiritual level as well?

In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses reminds us of both the fear of hunger as we began our ancient trek from Egypt to the Promised Land, and the experience of miraculously receiving “manna from heaven.” In recalling this, the author of the Book of Deuteronomy, reminds us that it wasn’t just the experience of being fed that we should remember, but that we should also learn that “a human being does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

For the Deuteronomist, it’s not just bread that makes survival possible. Rather, a human being fundamentally needs more than food. For our ancestors, when facing death in the desert and all the unknowns of the road ahead, their survival depended not only on food but also on a sense of God’s presence; a sense that their deeper needs and spiritual yearnings will be fulfilled. Yes, food itself was a necessity for physical survival, but spiritual survival depended on understanding where/Who the manna came from (God) and the responsibilities of having food— that we must express gratitude every single time we eat, and every single day we must be sure to share what we have with others. 

Part of building that constant awareness of gratitude and responsibility is the reason why we say blessings before and after we eat. Every time we say blessings ‘over’ the wine or the challah bread, we are actually blessing God for the creation of those things. In doing so we are acknowledging that human beings are not the source of everything. We are connected to a meta-ecosystem filled with miracles. We are also deeply connected to the earth and responsible for its health. Saying blessings helps us to build that awareness and a sense of awe and gratitude. 

While the sages of the Talmud cared a great deal about what food was “safe” to eat, how it should be prepared, with whom we should eat, and how animals, fields and workers were treated, they also focused on our state of mind before and after eating. This week’s Torah portion and its commentaries emphasize the importance of blessings as expressions of gratitude for the land and its produce, and create a culture in which every meal is an opportunity to affirm our identity and our connection to each other and to God. In Judaism, it’s not just what and how we eat, it’s about what eating means spiritually. Eating Jewishly –or eating with our Jewishness in mind– means being rooted not only in our concern only for our own bodies, but also in a sense of gratitude for creation, a concern for the earth, and for all of humanity. 

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.”

Before you begin a meal, pause for just a moment and, in whatever way works for you, express gratitude for what is on your plate — and perhaps for all your blessings. But even more important than blessing the meal beforehand, this Torah portion teaches us to pause with gratitude after a meal. It’s obvious to be grateful when you are hungry and have food in front of you ready to eat, but it’s an even deeper state of spirituality to pause after you’ve “eaten and been satisfied.” That’s when we take our reality for granted and may forget about the larger reality in which we live. Rather than just running ahead to the next thing, pause for just a moment, consider all the processes that needed to happen and work that needed to be done in order for your meal to have been possible. Pause and refocus on what you want your relationship with the greater ecosystem of our existence to be.

When we bring this kind of gratitude and amazement to everyday experiences including to every meal, it can make us more spiritually rooted as human beings and strengthen us as we strive to create a world in which no one’s plate is empty. 

Shabbat Shalom!

July 28, 2023

Learning About Life by Learning Torah
Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

“You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them ... ” (Deuteronomy 6:7)

While we don’t agree on much, over time and space we religiously minded Jews do seem to agree on one central thing: the supreme importance of the study of Torah. From the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai to the first public reading of the Torah in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah to the study of Talmud in Babylonia and then Europe — and today, especially in Israel and North America — ongoing spiritual and intellectual investigation of our ancient scriptures is at the core of Jewish life and culture.

But what is Torah study? And why should we still study such an ancient text? Since the birth of the modern era, what constitutes “Torah study” has widened substantially to include historical, linguistic, and ethical concerns. A newfound openness to secular sciences, the increasingly busy lifestyle, and the proliferation of diverse intellectual pursuits means the value of Torah study can no longer be taken for granted. As modern movements in Judaism emerged, the methodologies and types of questions asked of the texts shifted dramatically. The Torah, while understood to be sacred, was not necessarily seen as being of divine origin, and thus its commandments were not automatically acknowledged as absolutely obligatory. Given the historicist concerns (Is the Bible true?) regarding the religious question of its source, the question arose: Why learn Torah? The necessity, the meaning, and the nature of Torah study is indeed a real question for many Jews today.

Several answers can be given to this question from within our tradition. They can, I believe, be categorized under four primary models.

1.“O how I love Your teaching. It is my study all day long (Psalms 119:97).

Torah as an encounter/conversation with God is the first model. Here, Torah study needs no rationale; it is simply inspired by one’s natural desire for the word of God. Torah, for the psalmist, is an object of love, of constant engagement, absorbing the learner and filling her entire being. Unfortunately, this spontaneous outburst of love for Torah is a foreign notion to most modern Jews.

2.“You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them …” (Deuteronomy 6:7).

This second model, championed in this week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan is followed by many Jews today. This mode views Torah study as part of a basic, rudimentary Jewish education. Torah (here I use the term in the wider sense of all classical Jewish texts) becomes the source of one’s foundational knowledge of Judaism, its central stories, holidays, and values. A great deal of resources are thus invested in teaching Torah to primary- and middle-school-age children, ensuring that every Jew starts out her or his life with the basic facts and figures of Judaism. For many in the non-Orthodox Jewish world, Torah study ends here, and is about as relevant to adult life as eighth-grade geometry.

3.“… Let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching…” (Deuteronomy 17:19).

In the third model (reflected upon in a later Torah portion) the Torah serves as a source of religious authority; learning it is a way of perfecting one’s religious practice. Adherents of this model, mainly observant Jews, consult the Torah whenever they have a question relating to Jewish law and ritual: What is the ethical way of giving money? How should one get married? What are the laws of Shabbat? When should one pray? Torah, according to this model, remains relevant throughout one’s life, but as no more than a technical guide, rather like a useful phone book or road map.

4.“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it, for then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8).

The fourth model also regards the Torah as a source text, though in a much wider sense. Far beyond a mere handbook of Jewish law, the Torah is seen as a wellspring of wisdom on virtually every aspect of one’s life. Whether it is a question of religious practice or ethical conduct, political ideology or economic policy, metaphysical conviction or aesthetic creed — followers of this model, a precious few, seek the Torah’s guidance at every turn.

While all four models provide tenable answers to the question — Why learn Torah? — it is this last model that I believe ought to be promoted in the modern Jewish world and in the Reform Movement in particular. We must strive to educate our children, our communities, our families, and ourselves to regard the Torah as a vital, dynamic text, as relevant to our lives today as it was 2000 years ago. We must come to be so engaged in the ideas and questions of Torah that it becomes a source of insight into our daily existence. Together, its ancient forms and modern commentaries can expand our understanding of the world around us, challenge our beliefs and preconceived notions, and inspire us to become more of who we want to be. It is only once we allow Torah to enter our lives, to permeate every aspect of our being, that we may someday come to exclaim with the psalmist, “O how I love Your teaching. It is my study all day long.”

Shabbat Shalom!

July 21, 2023

Saving Israeli Democracy for the Sake of Our Shared Future: Tisha B'Av in Light of the Current Crisis in Israel
Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

This is a watershed moment. The future of the State of Israel — and thus the future of the Jewish People — hangs in the balance.

As many of you know, I have been deeply concerned about the proposals for judicial reform and new anti-democratic laws in motion in Israel. I have participated in rallies in four different cities in Israel and three times in Washington, DC. Like many of you, I have been concerned about the appointment of unworthy government leaders and potentially destructive new laws that the current government has been pushing forward. A government without checks and balances led by people who have already broken many laws and who threaten the safety of minorities is very dangerous. Despite the lack of consensus in Israeli society and despite the warnings of world leaders including President Biden, the current coalition endangers democracy and pushes Israeli society to the brink of civil war. Some say that the week ahead will determine if Israel, as we know it, will survive

How can any of us sleep given the possibility of losing all that is great about our beloved State of Israel? 

The State of Israel is a historical miracle for the Jewish People. While Israel has been a life-saving refuge for persecuted Jews around the world, its greatness is not only because of the safe haven it still offers all of us. Israel’s greatness is because of what it strives to be. At its establishment, its founding fathers created a Declaration of Independence which defined the kind of democratic nation it sought to be. This document remains the centerpiece of Israel’s identity. Why do I mention this? Because what’s happening now is the antithesis of the ideas at the foundation of the State. Most of Israeli society is in a state of revolution to prevent the uprooting of the values of its core. Israel was founded on a commitment to democracy, to equal rights for all, to protecting minorities, and to seeking peace with its neighbors. Israel is meant to be a shining beacon of justice and hope — a “light unto the nations.” Israel has been the hope of what Judaism can be when we can flourish as a free people in a sovereign state: “l’hiot am chofshi b’artzeinu” as we say in HaTikvah, “The Hope” — Israel’s national anthem.

Out of a deep love of Israel — Ahavat Yisrael — I speak out about the current crisis from three different perspectives. 

On Wednesday, when I spoke at a rally to welcome Israel’s President to Washington, DC, I spoke as an American, as an Israeli and as a Rabbi. When I speak, I speak on behalf of generations of American Jews, on behalf of five generations of Israelis who have risked their lives to establish, defend and protect the flourishing of a Jewish Democratic State in our ancient homeland, and I speak as a Rabbi for whom my commitment to Israel is an essential aspect of what it means to be Jewish. I blew the shofar at the end of the rally in celebration of Rosh Hodesh Av, and as a call to action. 

As a proud American I said, of course, thank you to President Biden for his lifelong commitment to Israel and to peace in the region and throughout the world. I thanked Biden for seeking to help the state of Israel be true to its commitments to democracy and peace. We, the committed Jews of the Diaspora, must continue to support Israeli society as it strives to create a society based on democratic values. We cannot stand by as a few leaders lead Israel toward an abyss and becomes a country that we no longer recognize and cannot support.


As an Israeli, I also welcomed — from afar — Israel’s President Herzog as he arrived to speak to the US Congress. I reminded him that we have met before when we were both in very different roles. I remember well and know today because of my involvement in a project he supports, how committed he is to the relationship between Israel and American Jews and to democracy. When President Herzog spoke to the joint session of Congress, he said that he believes that Israel’s democracy is “resilient.” At the same time, he also hears the thundering shouts of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis — including my husband Rabbi Ofer — who march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as I write this. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis from all walks of life, from across the religious and political spectrum, have been protesting and marching for days and weeks and months because they are doing everything in their power to prevent Israel from becoming a dictatorship. They have called out to us, to America and to world Jewry: SOS!  

As a Rabbi, I speak about the meaning of this moment as we approach Tisha B’Av, the date every year when we remember and mourn the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Before Jerusalem was destroyed, the Talmud and outside historians teach us that the Jews were divided and fighting among themselves. Some were willing to risk it all in order not to let others remain in power. They even sacrificed each other to the cruel murderous Roman authorities. Others fled to the desert and eventually committed mass suicide on Masada. The result was that the Romans were able to conquer Jerusalem, destroy the holy Temple, and many, many innocent people lost their lives. We were exiled from our homeland because we could not stand united. 

It took thousands of years of dispersion and much suffering before we could return to our homeland. Now that we have a sovereign Jewish State, however, similar challenges return. Israel faces profound internal conflicts about how it sees itself and its role in the world. If we, the Jewish people, want to be worthy of survival and worthy of our role in the world, then we must be vigilant to ensure we don’t lose our way again. 

This Shabbat, as we begin to read the Book of Deuteronomy, we are reconnecting to the long journey of the Israelites from slavery to the Promised Land. They too faced crises, but they too knew that they must build the strongest civil society, one that protects the most vulnerable — the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor. The Book of Deuteronomy is also emphatic about creating a society where no leader can take advantage of the people or lead it toward self-destruction. Even in the ancient sovereign Israelite nation, they knew that there must be checks and balances, that they needed kings and prophets, priests and judges. None can have total control. 

If we can all hold Israel to its own standards, then I believe there can be a bright future. If we can also recommit to the importance of the relationship between Israelis and North American Jews, then I believe that our shared future will be strong and that together we can continue to have a positive impact on the world. 

If we’ve learned anything from our past, it’s that we must remain true to our highest values if we want to survive. As the ancient Temple was destroyed, there were also those who fled and began a new phase in Jewish history. They survived destruction and began anew, and created the Judaism that we know today. Something like this new beginning is what I think is happening in Israel today. There is a reawakening of a new generation ready not only to protect democracy at all costs, but also ready to lead it to become a healthier and more pluralistic society and toward an even brighter future. 

All of us who care about Israel must unite to ensure that our Israel, and that our entire Jewish people, are held to the highest standards. We must support Israelis striving to ensure that Israel is worthy of being called the Jewish-Democratic State. We must ensure that Israel’s democracy continues to be resilient so that we all can be worthy of this historic opportunity to be a source of light and peace for all of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom!

June 30, 2023

The Blessings of Authentic Jewish Leadership at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom
Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9)

This week at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom we celebrate our leadership. It’s not just a matter of elections and good governance, however. It’s a time to reflect on what principles of authentic Jewish leadership are most important for our congregation. 

At our Annual Meeting last night, the Congregation elected and installed a new president, Abby Hoffman, and we thanked and blessed our outgoing president, David Buchalter. We also elected and installed a new Executive Committee and new members of the Board of Trustees. One might think these are simple facts of good governance, but for our congregation, the work of our leaders reflect our vision and our values. 

But let’s pause before we leap toward the future to reflect on the blessings of the authentic Jewish leadership we are fortunate to celebrate. Many thoughtful leaders have worked tirelessly, lost plenty of sleep, attended infinite hours of meetings, confronted difficult challenges, made innumerable decisions, managed significant change, recruited and supported our professional team, and gave generously of their resources in time, wisdom, and money. We would not have reached this moment without all of this commitment and without all of these human and financial resources. But what makes any of this Jewish? Or sacred? 

Our leadership engages in sacred work because of the distinctly Jewish values and the distinctly Jewish leadership principles that clearly guide our congregational leadership. In these first two years of serving as your rabbi, I have witnessed so many aspects of Jewish leadership exemplified by our lay leadership nearly every day. 


The former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, described what he called the “Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership.” As we celebrate this leadership transition, I want to share just a few of the principles as food for thought and discussion in the months ahead. 

  1. Leadership begins with taking responsibility. “At the heart of Judaism,” writes Rabbi Sacks, “there are three beliefs about leadership: We are free. We are responsible. And together we can change the world.”
  2. No one can lead alone. We cannot live alone. We cannot lead alone. Leadership is teamsmanship. Or, as I like to say, nearly every aspect of what we do at HSOSC is a “team sport.” The work of our Board of Trustees, the Executive Committee, all the committees, our staff, our clergy, and all of our members make our congregation the kind of vibrant, joyful, social justice committed community that we are.  What makes us a sacred community, a Kehillah Kedoshah, however, is that our endeavors are based on our shared Jewish covenantal commitments. 
  3. Leaders learn. This is especially true of our outgoing and incoming Presidents. They study regularly. They are curious, they ask questions, they seek to learn more about every issue or question or opportunity that emerges. Sacks thought that “without constant study, leadership lacks direction and depth.” I believe that and seek to model that as well. At HSOSC, our lay-leaders are in a constant chevruta/study partnership with their clergy. Or as Sacks writes, “study makes the difference between the transformative leader and the manager.”
  4. Leadership is about the future. It is vision-driven. Sacks argues that before you can lead, you must have a vision of the future and be able to communicate it to others. But for HSOSC, no single person determines the vision of our congregation. The vision that drives our future is something we will all be involved in creating together.


These are just a few principles of authentic Jewish leadership that we might consider as we celebrate a new group of elected lay leaders and work together to continually lift our congregation to new heights. We can reach new heights if we keep our shared Jewish values in focus. As we continue to learn, grow, experiment, and celebrate we can also strive to be something more than we are. We can have stronger relationships with each other, deepen our knowledge and have We must strive as individuals and as a community to model our values. If we want to be a sacred community, a Kehillah Kedosha, however, we must also continue to nurture sacred relationships and partnerships among us. 

May we continue to thrive together for many years to come.

Shabbat Shalom!

June 23, 2023

How We Disagree For The Sake Of The Future
Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:2)

This week’s Torah portion is especially potent for this moment. For the ancient Israelites, as for us, intense national debate can threaten to destroy the entire people.  On our way to the Promised Land, we experienced both incredibly joyous moments of celebration and revelation as well as times of deep discord when it all seemed to hang in the balance. 

Korah, from the house of Levi, gathered around him others who disagreed with Moses and Aaron’s leadership. Together with “two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute” Korah called for an uprising against Moses: “They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?’” (Numbers 16:1-3)

For generations, every person who reads Korah’s question finds his question powerful and perplexing. Why are some people chosen over others to lead? When and how should we be part of a protest or uprising against leadership? Yes, in every human endeavor there will naturally be those who will question the leaders and their decisions. But at the same time, no community or society can exist without leaders and some shared values that unify them. We need leaders who are humble enough to hear critique but who are also supported by the community so they can be strong enough to lead toward shared goals. 

Korah’s challenge to Moses and Aaron, however, was not just the result of differences of opinion. It was the result of ongoing infighting and the emergence of destructive sub-groups who ultimately led a catastrophic rebellion. Although Moses responded to the challenge of Korah and his gang with humility and clarity, the conflict escalated and essentially led to a division within the people, a kind of civil war, the result of which was that a good portion of the people never made it to the Land of Israel. 

Over the ages, our sages debate what the problem with Korah’s challenge really was. Most of them point to Korah’s problematic motivation (jealousy) and to the manner (destructive and not creative) in which they protested. Their uprising led to division and death and not to respectful debate and unity in their shared mission. In this case, the disagreement was ultimately not constructive but destructive. 

The Mishnah also points to this Torah portion when it categorizes disputes: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, l’shem shamayim, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, ayno l’shem shamayim, will not endure.” And in case we weren’t already clear about which is which, the Mishna brings us two well-known examples: “Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korach and all his congregation.”  (Ethics of Our Ancestors, Pirkei Avot 5:17) 

From this week’s Torah portion we can learn that even when we disagree, there are ways of doing it that are constructive and other ways that are destructive. When we want to challenge others we should be very aware of what our motivations are. Is it really for the best interests of the community? Or are we really motivated by jealousy? When we disagree, is there a more respectful way of doing so? Is there a way we can articulate our views that can be constructive and not only destructive? 

It seems to me that these are also good questions to ask ourselves about our interpersonal disagreements as well. Before we criticize others, consider carefully 1) what our motivations really are; 2) what the purpose of our critique is; and 3) what the consequences might be, especially given our method of critique. Pausing to consider each of these aspects might help us be more careful in our own lives to ensure that respect is at the core of how we approach others and also take greater care to ensure that our words and actions lead to greater strength of the relationship and deepening possibilities of shared joy in the future. 

Shabbat Shalom!

June 16, 2023

Peoplehood, Responsibility, and Hope
Sh'lach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

This week I’ve been in Israel teaching and speaking at an international conference for emerging Jewish leaders between the ages of 25-40 from 18 (!) different countries worldwide. It's been a week of learning about the myriad of challenges facing Jewish communities around the world and the dynamic responses to these challenges. The seminar is part of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, which is a project of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (MFJC). It’s possibly the only pluralistic learning and leadership program for young Jewish leaders from around the world that creates and sustains a network that truly builds Jewish peoplehood.

These amazing young Jewish leaders of vastly different religious and political affiliations have taught me a great deal about the true realities of Jewish people today and about our future. We studied ancient and contemporary texts, sociological data and trends, and of course the complex realities of Israel today and what the role of Jews living outside of Israel should be in the current crisis. Despite the differences between an African fellow who’s teaching Judaism to his Jewish tribe, a Ukrainian who has fled the war, and a secular Israeli, they each want to understand what keeps the other up at night and they all feel a strong sense of mutual responsibility. 

The sessions I taught were on leadership, the changing US-Israel relationship, gender and identity in ancient Jewish texts, and I spoke at a plenary entitled “What Binds the Jewish People?” alongside an Israeli Orthodox scholar, Rabbi Dr. Sam Lebens. Yesterday, I spoke on a panel with the well-known author Yossi Klein HaLevi (who will visit us soon in Baltimore!) and Dr. Danny Fainstein, a scholar from Latin America. The MFJC and the fellowship is fearlessly led by a colleague and friend, Rabbi Dr. Jeni Friedman, with whom I’ve been learning for many years because of the Wexner Foundation fellowship we share. 

I am grateful to the leadership of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom who supports my ongoing development and learning as a rabbi and scholar. Not only is it intellectually and spiritually renewing to be part of such an amazing global project, but my participation offers our congregation broader resources as we engage with our own challenges and opportunities. In the weeks ahead, I look forward to sharing more of what I’ve learned about our diverse Jewish world, the trends, and the possibilities. 

Shabbat Shalom!

June 2, 2023

What Do We Really Want?
Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

Sometimes the words of the Torah seem very ancient and far away. How can we possibly relate to ancient nomadic tribal people who had multiple wives and engaged in strange rituals? And, according to what we read in the Torah, it seems that they dealt with their fears, uncertainties, joys and sorrows, and expressed their ultimate desires through sacrificial cult practices.  

In other ways, however, it seems that these ancient characters are very much like us. Like us, they faced fertility concerns, family dramas, interpersonal jealousies, warring nations, illness and the loss of loved ones. Like us they also felt passionate love, and yearned to protect their children and loved ones. And like us, they also had big dreams for the future. 

This week’s Torah portion, however, includes the prayer that reaffirms how similar we are to those ancient folks from whom we inherited so much. While there are many prayers throughout the Bible, the Priestly Blessing — which appears in this week's Torah portion, Naso— includes our oldest and most fundamental human desire for connection to God.  

May God bless you and keep you;
May God’s light shine upon you and be gracious to you;
May God turn his face toward you and give you peace.

We recite these words for baby’s when they receive a Hebrew name, for a couple under the wedding chuppah, for Bnai Mitzvah standing before the ark, and on our most sacred days. The Priestly Blessing expresses our most profound human desires and helps us focus on what really matters. While we may be distracted by the superficial or material aspects of the ceremony or the people involved, this prayer reminds us that ultimately we all share the same ultimate needs: physical safety, being valued, and being at peace. 

These three things are what we ask for from God and what the ancient priests/rabbis could and can bestow upon us. Today we still need and crave a sense of security, knowing that our life matters in God’s eyes, and knowing that we will be blessed with peace, even if we’re not experiencing it in the moment. Knowing that God’s presence, light, and blessing can rest upon and within with each of us can comfort us and strengthen us. It can deepen our experience of joy and all the blessings in our lives. 

The former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, emphasizes that this is the best example of “we are what we pray for.” In his analysis,

"The Jewish people did not ask for wealth or power. They did not hunger after empire. They had no desire to conquer or convert the world. They asked for protection, the right to live true to themselves without fear; for grace, the ability to be an agent for good in others; and peace, that fullness of being in which each of us brings our individual gifts to the common good. That is all our ancestors prayed for, and it is still all we need."

This summer, let’s also strive to focus on what really matters and focus on what we can give of ourselves to the world. Let us reclaim who we really are and what we really want.

Shabbat Shalom!    

May 26, 2023

How Do We Live a Life of Meaning?
Shavuot II (Deuteronomy14:22-16:17)

This is the season of our transitions and transformation. From graduations to confirmations, this time of year is ripe with an awareness of time and its meaning. It is a time of imagining the possibilities for the future and looking back with a sense of accomplishment of the past.

Every culture measures time in particular ways, but Judaism teaches us to constantly re-frame it, to measure it and even to try to transcend it. A life of meaning comes from being “hypersensitive” to the passage of time which should cause us to strive to live our deepest values every day.

As an “operating system,” Judaism promotes a life of daily rituals and a yearly cycle of holidays that reinforce numerous core values including human equality, the supreme value of life, and the communal ethics of the Torah.

Now, as we celebrate the third of our yearly major festivals,– the holiday of Shavuot – we once again feel the rhythms of the seasons. Shavuot celebrates the culmination of the grain harvest and the inauguration of the fruit harvest. Shavuot is also the holiday on which we celebrate receiving the Torah, zman matan Torahteinu. This is when we celebrate that "the Torah is a tree of life."

On Shavuot we also read the Book of Ruth which begins with a sense of loss after Ruth loses her husband and her mother-in-law, Naomi, mourns the loss of her sons. At first the situation appears to be a time of hopelessness, but suddenly new possibilities for the future emerge. Naomi insists that her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, return to their fathers’ homes where they will have guaranteed safety and security. But Ruth rebels against this rational advice and clings to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth insists on returning with Naomi back to Bethlehem. (Ruth 1:14) It is at this moment that Ruth makes a dramatic declaration of faith and commitment which has come to characterize what it means to be part of the Jewish people:

For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. (Ruth 1:16)

The story of Ruth is the story of a radically different understanding of the meaning of time and the possibilities of the future. Rather than choosing the safe, rational option of returning to her father’s home, Ruth chooses to re-attach herself to a people whose sense of time transcends the immediate experience of it, even in our darkest hours. She has a sense that maintaining this kind of faith in a person, in a community, and in God is, quite literally, stronger than death itself.

Ruth takes risks in order to give her life a completely new meaning. By the next season she is remarried and the mother of Oved, who will become the grandfather of King David. From the moment we meet Ruth, she has a profoundly broad sense of history. She even transcends tragedy and imagines a future that no one else could have seen. Ruth embodies ultimate hope. It is no wonder that Judaism makes her the first ancestor of the Messiah, and a time of perfection.

This Shavuot, may we strive to be like Ruth, open to the future and filled with incredible optimism for a world that – today – we can only begin to imagine.

Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!    

May 12, 2023

Our Bodies, Our Stuff, and Our Souls
Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

How we treat our bodies, our belongings, our space, and our time defines who we are. 

We live our connection to Judaism and the Jewish community by pausing on Shabbat and holidays to celebrate. Shabbat helps us pause in the blurry rush of time to reflect on the preciousness of time and relationships. And coming to this sacred space helps us feel more connected to each other and to our traditions and values. Community gatherings like this one are essential for sharing our joys and dreaming the future together. 

Figuring out how to manage our bodies and our souls can be more complicated. These final two Torah portions of the book of Leviticus, however, offer some tools to help us figure it out. First of all, the idea that the body is sacred and that we must respect all human life is a core value. The Torah doesn’t shy away from how bodily functions might make us feel and affirms the life-giving capacities of the human body. 

Because our bodies are gifts, we cannot misuse or mistreat them, and we certainly can’t mistreat or objectify anyone else’s body.  

The Torah also reminds us to have a unique relationship with our stuff — with our material possessions and our property. The laws of Sh’mita/the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee Year (every 50 years) are ways of ensuring that our land is treasured and protected. In our Torah portions, the commandments of the Sabbath and Sabbatical year are powerful mechanisms to achieve a higher level of relationship with our stuff. During both the Jubilee and the Sabbatical years, working the land is prohibited. Not only that, but sold real property reverts to its original owner, outstanding monetary debts are erased, and slaves are set free. As Sarah Rinder reminds us in her article entitled “Leviticus, Leonard Cohen, and the Paradox of Rest,” “The quote inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, ‘And thou shalt proclaim liberty in the Land for all its inhabitants,’ derives from the Jubilee as described in our Torah portion. This description of the Jubilee year might lead one to assume that the underpinnings of the mitzvah are, at heart, economic or social. In truth, the relevant context in our Torah portion is almost purely theological. As God declares (Lev. 25:23): ‘But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.’” 

Yes, you read correctly: We are just sojourners on borrowed land living in borrowed time.

These ancient ideas confirm both environmental and theological ideas: even if we use the land, it ultimately ‘belongs’ to itself, to God who made it. The Sabbatical Year is one way of ensuring that the land and those who tend it are not abused. It’s also our first Labor Law. Respect for human beings includes ensuring a sustainable life. 

In other words, whatever we think we “own” is really just on loan. What we have are gifts and it’s our responsibility and privilege to strive to merit continuing to “use” it. We can only ‘have’ or ‘use’ natural resources in the long term if we also protect them. 

In a 19th century commentary about the idea of the Sabbatical Year, The Mei Shiloach teaches, this ancient set of laws corresponds to how we should act. It helps us live in ways that are less about ownership and more about creating a shared civil society. This way of acting is also mentioned in the Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers, 5:10]: 'One who says "What's mine is yours, and what's yours is yours," this is a righteous person'. This approach to our stuff is an existential stance about the material versus the spiritual.  

In other words, every single day we show who we think we are. If we strive to be righteous then we know that our stuff is not really ours, but meant to be shared; we know that all human bodies must be cared for; and we know that time is sacred and every moment is precious. 

The psalm we recite each night after counting the Omer from Passover to Shavuot says it even more clearly: “Teach us to number our days so that we will attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)

May we each be blessed with this kind of heart,

May 5, 2023

Who Are We and How Do We Become Holy?
Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

These questions can be answered in a myriad of ways. Most of the teachings of Jewish culture, about what it means to be Jewish and to be considered a sacred people, are based on thousands of sacred books and millions of words. Nonetheless, I think that Judaism is made up of a few core ideas.

These core ideas are expressed in just a few powerful phrases that sum up who we are. You might even say that these phrases are ‘mantras’, phrases and ideas that we repeat so often that they become part of who we are. One of them is that we are lovers and pursuers of peace, “Ohev Shalom v’rodeph shalom”. Another is that we protect the vulnerable because “we were slaves in Egypt,” “Avadim Hayinu.” Another is the call: “You shall be holy.” 

This phrase, “kedoshim tehiyu”, “you shall be holy”, occurs hundreds of times in the Torah and hundreds of thousands of times in the commentaries. But our Torah in these weeks really spells it out: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: “You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.”(Leviticus 19:2) The text continues to list many behaviors that must be avoided in order to ensure that we are good, moral, and thus holy people. This section, known as the “holiness code” includes a wide range of laws, ranging from behaviors of purity of body to the ways in which we need to act toward others to ensure that we live in a civil and moral society. 

One commentator, Rabbi Shimon Shkop, in his Introduction to "The Gates of Righteousness" writes: 

“And so, it appears to my limited understanding that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to benefit the community.” All our behaviors, he argues, should have “some element of helping another.” In other words: “all holiness is about living for an honorable purpose.”

I love this interpretation because it emphasizes another key Jewish idea: “It’s not all about me.” Our behavior, in every situation, should take into account not only how it affects us and how it defines us as individuals, but also how it affects the community. If we keep this larger perspective in mind, then everything we do will be filled with clarity and purpose. If we can act with the goal of goodness and morality in all that we do, then over time, we will become holy.

April 28, 2023

On Sharing Our Torah in Israel
Achrei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

What an amazing journey we had in Israel! Our inaugural congregational journey in Israel concluded just yesterday and many of the participants will share their insights and experiences in our May newsletter. All of them, however, highlighted the power of loaning one of our 15 Torah scrolls to a Reform congregation in need in the Galilee. In the meantime, I want to share the prayer we all said together at the ritual celebration:

Blessing for Sharing Our Torah Scroll:

Creator of the Heavens and the Earth,
We stand here together – your people – Am Yisrael 
just as our ancestors stood at Sinai so many years ago.
From that day to this, the earth has continued its journey around the sun,
the seasons have passed, and we, as your people, 
have traveled through many lands where we have loved and grown, 
sorrowed and rejoiced, prospered, and suffered.
We have cared for this Torah Scroll at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom for over 150 years. Throughout the years it has been with us, Torah has been our faithful companion,
guiding us, sustaining us, and lighting our pathways.


On the fifth day of the week, the 29th day of the month of Nissan, in the year 5783 
since the creation of the world according to our accustomed reckoning, 
corresponding to April 20, 2023 in the City of Tel Aviv: 
We, members of the inaugural Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation 
Journey to Israel hereby share with you, the Ruach HaGlilit Community, 
this sefer Torah-- this sacred Torah Scroll. 


[Rabbi Sabath hands the scroll to Rabbi Zohar who responds:]

On behalf of Ruach HaGlilit Synagogue, we promise to consecrate ourselves,
individually and communally to our shared Jewish tradition, represented here today 
by our new sefer Torah, just as our ancestors consecrated themselves
when they stood at Sinai. 
We promise to make the words of Torah sweet by loving, honoring, 
and cherishing each other and the works of Your creation.

We promise to work as a community to make 
for this sefer Torah a sacred Jewish home in the Land of Israel. 
We will deepen our committed to deeds of loving kindness and tikkun olam
and with this Torah scroll we will be able to deepen learning 
and spiritual fulfillment and increase opportunities for holiness with music and prayer.
May we always merit the honor of guarding and protecting this Torah scroll; 
May we always merit the presence of the Shechinah – of God. 

Together we say:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Sh’natan Torah l’Amo Yisrael.
“We give thanks to the One who has given us Torah.”  


May this sharing of one of our Torah scrolls in Israel be just one way our connections and support of Israel continue and grow in the years ahead. 

April 14, 2023

Mixed Emotions: Our Upcoming Days of Mourning and Celebration
Shmini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

In a few days we will commemorate Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and the following week, Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and security forces). And just when all this heavy remembering seems just too much, the entire country suddenly erupts in joy and celebration! Immediately at sundown after Yom HaZikaron, the fireworks and celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut, (Israeli Independence Day) begin. Each of these days offer us the opportunity to learn, remember, honor, and celebrate. Jewish history and culture make us very good at all these things. But is it enough? 

Our culture is all about remembering the injustice and misery of slavery alongside the celebrating how we thrive in our hard-won freedom. Over the years, I’ve spent many of these days of mourning and remembrance leading groups on March of the Living -- literally marching from Auschwitz to Birkenau with thousands of Jews and survivors from around the world, pictured in the photo here. I’ve also spent them in Israel at Yad VaShem or at ceremonies in cemeteries. Members of our family were murdered by the Nazis and their cruel collaborators at Babi Yar. For so many of us, the possibility of a very different fate is embedded in our subconscious. But our family story, like many of yours, also includes much joy in the enormous possibilities, successes, and privileges possible for us largely because of where and when we live. 

In Israel on Yom HaShoah and on Yom HaZikaron, a loud siren is sounded throughout the country at precise times. When the siren sounds the entire country comes to an absolute standstill. In a country where nearly every person has lost a loved one or family member who was a victim of the Holocaust and/or who died in defense of Israel, these days hold indescribable power.  

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), Israel’s national poet – also referred to as its ‘irreverent poetic conscience’ – once wrote: “And how does one stand in a Memorial Ceremony? Erect or bent, rigid like a tent or limp as in mourning, head humbled like the guilty or raised in defiance against death, eyes wild or frozen like the eyes of the dead, or shut, to view the stars within?”  

Such palpable questioning about what to do with the heaviness of memory and survival is profound. I must admit that no matter how much I’ve studied, or how many times I guided others through places where great horrors or battles took place, and no matter how many memorial ceremonies I’ve led or lectures I’ve given, I’ve never felt as though it was enough. Although I find all of this incredibly powerful, it never feels like it’s enough. 

But what if we truly enacted our remembrance? What if we were so inspired by the past and by those the millions lost that -- in addition to all the usual ways we remember-- we focus primarily on acting in meaningful ways to make our local and global communities better. We can do this in small and large ways whether by organizing or participating in a blood drive or food drive, or by funding new medical research, or by supporting Israel’s right to sovereignty and safety, or by taking part in social action to create more social justice in the world. If we do these things because we honor those who were lost who lived these shared values, then we are truly enacting remembrance and, at the same time, we can change the future. If we do these acts of repairing the world – tikkun olam – then the memory of our loved ones and all the fallen in defense of our people – will truly be for an eternal blessing.

March 31, 2023

Celebrating Who and What We Are
Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

Tonight, we affirm who we are and what we are as a holy congregation. 
Like naming a baby, naming our new congregation is a time to celebrate
all the possibilities of the future and our gratitude to all those who came before us.

On this sacred Night, Adonai, be with us
as we affirm our values and affirm our name, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation.

Calling ourselves Har Sinai -- Mt. Sinai -- we affirm our connection
to the moment when You first called us to become a people of justice and compassion.
Tonight, we declare anew that we are a congregation committed
to upholding our Jewish values by being a force for good in the world.

Calling ourselves Oheb Shalom -- Lovers of Peace -- we declare anew
that we are a congregation committed to loving each other
and to pursuing peace in our community and peace in the world.

Source of All Blessings, bless us with the joy of knowing who and what we are.
Bless us with courage as we pursue the justice
You first taught us at Mt. Sinai -- Har Sinai.
Bless us with Your love as we strive to embody the love
You inspired in us, commanding us to be
lovers and pursuers of peace -- Oheb Shalom.

May we always be worthy of Your blessings;
May we always be worthy of our name.


March 24, 2023

Prayer for Inclusion of All People
Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

God of our ancestors, support us as we take on the sacred work of helping our holy communities evolve to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. 

May our words and actions help to create an open, inclusive, accessible, and welcoming Jewish world.

Source of Mercy and Love, just as You take note of those who call out to You, help us to pay attention to all of the people in my community, including those with disabilities, and to take the time to listen as they communicate their needs, desires, and emotions.

I know that this sacred work is mine alone. We all are doing this holy work together.

Help us to build partnerships and to remain mindful of our own limitations, and to continue the work even when it is difficult.

Source of Life, sustain us as we continue to build communities that value the gifts of each individual and that respect the challenges that each individual faces. 

Guide us as we work to create spaces where each unique person feels comfortable and seen, and where differences are seen as a blessing.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי מְשַנֶּה הַבְּרִיּוֹת
Baruch Atah Adonai meshaneh ha’briyot.

Thank you, God, for making Your creations varied.  

[Rabbi Rachel Sabath adapted from Rabbi Michelle Greenfield]

March 17, 2023

Celebrating the Power of Friendship: Shabbat Brotherhood & the Women's Passover Seder
Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

This morning, the youngest of our three children reached a significant milestone in his Jewish education. As a 5th grader at Krieger Schechter Day School, he participated in a grade-wide celebration during which he wore his own handmade prayer shawl/tallit for the first time. Our Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom master teacher, Bill Bronstein, taught him how to tie the fringes on the four corners. This morning, the 5th grade led the community in prayer. 

Each student chose a verse or a teaching to put on the collar/atarah of their tallit. Without any involvement from his parents, he chose the following teaching from the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 1:6):

Make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend; and judge every person favorably.

עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת

Given that both his parents are rabbis, of course I love that he connects the word rabbi with the idea of teaching, friendship, and companionship. But when I read what he wrote about why he chose this verse, I began to see the Mishnah in a new light. Although I rarely speak about my children in public, much less write about or quote them, on this weekend when we celebrate brotherhood and sisterhood, I am particularly struck by what we can learn about the power of friendship from this verse. 

When asked by his teachers to explain why he chose this particular verse from hundreds of possibilities, he wrote: “I like this verse because everyone needs a friend and a teacher and everyone needs close people in their lives who can help them and guide them.” For him, friends and teachers help us figure out who we are and how to live our lives. Now I see that this verse teaches us that friends and teachers are not just good companions, they also help us to become better people. Until today I never fully understood the connection between the first part of the verse and the second. If we have good friends and teachers in our lives –“make for yourself a rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend” – then we are more able to be more kind and more forgiving of all people: “and judge everyone favorably.” We become better people because of who our friends are and because of how they inspire us to become better people. 

May our celebrations this weekend help us embrace the power and possibilities of true friendship and remind us of the blessings of who our friends enable us to be for each other. A true friend is not only a companion but also someone who guides us toward becoming a better person by helping us to be more kind and forgiving of others. Each one of us at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom, in fact, has the potential to teach and learn from the other.  If we are not only members of the same congregation but also strive toward becoming each other’s friends, then we can lift each other even higher and together become an even stronger and more sacred community.

March 3, 2023

Which Kind of Jew are You? A Purim Jew or a Passover Jew?
Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

Today begins one of the four special Shabbatot before Passover. It’s called Shabbat Zakor – reminding us “to remember and never forget” the dangers of our enemies in every age. This seems too relevant in this age of rising antisemitism in the US and around the world and rising terrorism against Jews in Israel.

As we turn toward Purim, this special Shabbat also reminds us of the well-known and yes, I know, overused humorous summary of Jewish history and culture: 

"They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” 

It wouldn’t be so funny and so poignant if it weren’t also so true. 

I have a precious colleague and friend, Yossi Klein HaLevi, who is fond of saying: “There are two kinds of Jews: There’s the Purim Jew and the Passover Jew.”

For many years at this time of year, we had the same argument about this false dichotomy. He would make this statement and I would fight against it. I argued against the idea that there are two kinds of Jews, mostly because a) I don’t like false dichotomies and b) I refuse to choose between core values. But c) I also fought against this binary view because I was sure that he was clearly a Purim Jew and I was clearly a Passover Jew. 

Here’s how Yossi Klein HaLevi put it: “Jewish history speaks … in the voice of two biblical commands to remember:

  1. The first voice, the Passover voice, the voice of liberation. Passover commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: Don’t be brutal toward others. All who are hungry, come and eat. “Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed. 
  2. The second voice, the Purim voice, commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek, “commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: Don’t be naive.” “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat.  

Ultimately, we agreed that both are essential; “one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.”

Indeed we must be wary of leaning too far in one direction or the other. We should also refuse to choose between our core values — even though we certainly love a good Jewish debate. 

Given today’s realities, we continue to have much to learn about these tensions and how they continue to play out in our world, both Jewish and universal. As we learn and grow and celebrate together this Purim and Passover, I look forward to exploring these core particular and universal values in new ways. 

However we might define ourselves and regardless of our individual reactions to present day realities, may we be sure to embrace anew the core values of both holidays — with both the vigilance, the ethics, and the joy they inspire. 

February 24, 2023

Shalom From Israel
Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

Over the past week, I have been with over 250 Reform Rabbis who have gathered in Israel as we do every 7 years in order to study and engage with the current realities of Israel. 

Our program began with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the URJ (who was with us in Baltimore a few weeks ago) as he interviewed the American Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides. He gave us some hope that if we continue to engage our American and Israeli leaders, the disturbing anti-democratic moves of the current government might be slowed down, if not halted. 

We also met Israeli politicians including friend and colleague, Member of Kenesset Rabbi Gilad Kariv. We've heard from Palestinian leaders, toured Jerusalem and Ramallah, and for the next couple of days we're in Tel Aviv. While in Jerusalem we celebrated Rosh Hodesh/the first of the month with Anat Hoffman (who visited us last October) and prayed with Women of the Wall. The situation is tense and at the same time there is so much positive energy and clarity about the importance of a free and democratic country. Especially now. 

I am so proud to represent our congregation Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom. Our very name says so much about who and what we are: At "Har Sinai" (Mt. Sinai) we received the command to build a just society and the term "Oheb Shalom" reminds us that we must constantly strive to pursue peace and justice. Our commitments are not static, but rather our name embodies the values that we must live every day.

I miss you all very much and can't wait to share more next Shabbat when we are together again

February 3, 2023

Freedom Alone is Not Enough: What Matters is How Human We Are
Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

Freedom by itself, only for oneself, is not enough. When the ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, they initially demanded spiritual freedom for themselves – they wanted the spiritual freedom to serve their God. Only when they had both spiritual and physical freedom could they begin the journey toward Sinai to receive the Law; and only once they possessed a guiding legal and moral code could they begin to imagine building a just society in the Land of Israel. It was the Torah that taught us that the gift of our freedom is the ability to uphold a system of law that repeats, like a chorus, our responsibility to those who are most vulnerable.

From that first terrifying and joyful moment of freedom echoed in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), to the difficult challenges of upholding the responsibilities of Torah and building an ethical society, freedom has not become any less demanding with the passing of time. Freedom is not, and never was, just about us.

God’s critique of the angels who sang as the Egyptian forces drowned in the Red Sea when they pursued the Israelites running frantically toward freedom is one indication of the complexity of freedom. The Israelites, having been saved, sang a song of thanksgiving to God — the great Song of the Sea in our weekly reading (Exodus 15). When the angels tried to join in, God reproved them: “My creatures [here, meaning the Egyptians] are drowning in the Sea and you are uttering praises?” Even the Egyptian soldiers were God’s “creatures'' (Babylonian Talmud, Megila 10b).

We should never rejoice in the suffering of other human beings, even if they are our enemies. If we do, we fail God and we fail humanity.

This powerful Midrash reminds us that, even when we’re free, we cannot forget the humanity of others. God never forgets the humanity of any single human being and neither should we. Freedom comes with enormous responsibility to God, to the Jewish people, to all other human beings and even to our enemies.

The classic commentators called ours a “difficult freedom” because of the complexity of the transformation from being enslaved to being free and because of the enormous responsibilities incurred. Jewish French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) called it “difficult freedom” because our ethical responsibility to the other is infinite and ultimately impossible to fulfill. Responsibility is inscribed – literally written into our DNA – upon us from every encounter with another human being. This is the power of our inheritance. May we never cease to be worthy of it.

January 27, 2023

Translating Our Reform Values into the Work of Our Hands
Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

We have so much to celebrate this weekend! As the oldest continuously Reform congregation in North America, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom is particularly honored to host Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the URJ, the Reform Movement. This weekend also gives us the opportunity to reflect on how we live our Reform values and how we want to live them in the future as part of an incredibly powerful movement.

As we look forward to the next 180 years, we have incredible sources of wisdom to draw upon. For example, what inspiration can we draw from the vision of Reform leaders?

Below is an excerpt from one of the most inspirational sections of a core document of our Movement, the Platform of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The section outlines some of our core values that still shape what and who we are: bringing Torah into the world through tikkun olam, dialogue, loving kindness, pursuing justice, and righteous giving.

How much of what we do and who we are as a congregation reflects these values? How might each of us measure our own efforts in these areas? The section reads, in part:

1)    “We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God's creation. Partners with God in tikkun olam, repairing the world, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age.

2)    We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom and justice to our world. We are obligated to pursue justice (tzedek) and righteousness, to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth's biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage. In so doing, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.

3)    We affirm the mitzvah of righteous giving, tzedakah, setting aside portions of our earnings and our time to provide for those in need. These acts bring us closer to fulfilling the prophetic call to translate the words of Torah into the works of our hands.” (Pittsburgh Platform)

As we engage with each other and with Rabbi Jacobs this Shabbat, I look forward to learning more about how these values guide the priorities of our Movement and how they can continue to inform how we, at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom, live our Judaism in the future. We have much to learn, discover, and do together!

January 20, 2023

What Can Moses Teach Us About Our Own Imperfections?
Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

What do the great writers William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Franz Kafka (1883-1924), the famous neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and just about every oppressed person throughout history all have in common? They all share the same source of inspiration: the Biblical Moses. 

Moses (circa 1250 BCE) was a complicated character. He was an orphan and adopted. He was an immigrant and a lonely shepherd. Torn between three separate identities, and while he was multilingual, he was also self-consciously disabled and seemed to have a speech impediment. He also had emotional issues. He struggled with anger management and was sometimes unnecessarily violent. Yet he was the imperfect human being that God chose for the greatest mission of human history. 

These are the stories we read as we begin our journey through the Book of Exodus. Moses’ life story is striking. He was an abandoned baby, grew up in a palace, and as a young man was horrified by injustice and spurred toward social activism. Moses was a life-long immigrant who became a political activist, a prophet, and a diplomatic negotiator. With Aaron’s partnership, and God’s might and instructions, Moses led the liberation of the Israelites from generations of slavery. Over decades he had to lead an ungrateful and unskilled population on an impossible mission through an unforgiving desert toward receiving the Torah at Har Sinai and ultimately toward the Promised Land of Israel.

As we read through the Book of Exodus in the weeks ahead, we will watch with trepidation as Moses grapples with his weaknesses and we’ll breathe a sigh of relief whenever he is able to embrace his own complexity. But even while he struggles, and even while he is sometimes consumed with self-doubt, he never stops focusing on his ultimate goals, or being guided by ethical imperatives. 

Perhaps most importantly, he never lets his many character flaws prevent him from becoming who he needed to be. He was courageous enough to argue with God and with powerful leaders for the sake of the collective good. Even when overcome with doubt and regularly falling on his face in frustration, despair, or fear, he carries on.

Moses is a man who grows and learns, who struggles with his demons and fatal flaws, but never abandons his vision for the future for his people – even if he doesn’t get to live it. As Kafka wrote: “Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short, but because it is a human life.” 

We, too, succeed and fail. We, too, each have our imperfections. But the more we face our flaws and still keep ethics and our vision of the future in mind, the greater meaning our very human lives can have. 

January 6, 2023

Who Are We? Our Past, Present, and Future
Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

Our congregation, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom, is in the midst of an incredibly exciting process. 

We are now a thriving fully merged congregation and we’re taking a few months to learn and think about what name we want to carry with us into the future. Learning together about the slate of four names has been an incredible experience. Each of us has had the opportunity to learn, reflect, listen and connect to each other. Not only have we been learning about the meaning and power of the Hebrew words themselves, but we have also been able to share how we connect to the different Jewish values and implications of each name. 

This process, led by two facilitators and advised by a task force, offers all of us not only an opportunity, but also the privilege and the responsibility to consider with intentionality the values that shape who we are today, who we’ve been and who we hope to become. All three of these elements are crucial as we move forward in the process.

As Jews, we’re never just acting as single individuals. Important decisions cannot only be about what any individual preferences are here and now. Or even in this generation. We always need to remember: “It’s not all about you.” An authentically Jewish decision is simultaneously about the Jewish people past, present, and future.

Our covenant, the brit, invites us to make decisions with present concerns foremost in mind, of course. At the same time, however, we can’t be authentically Jewish if we abandon what we’ve gained from the past or if we forget that we must always be future focused. These are deeply Jewish sensibilities. The answers are not always clear. 

According to our current mission statement, we’re committed “to live our Jewish values through the lens of a dynamic modern world.“ We do this through “transformational experiences that stimulate a lifelong love of Judaism in all generations.” In this way, our love of being Jewish is expressed precisely in how we stand simultaneously together with past generations, our generations, and future generations. 

In his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, VaYechi, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg shows what the Torah –received at Mt. Sinai– reveals to us:

“In a covenantal life, every moment is multidimensional.” 

One lives in the moment, he says, but the past and the future are part of the present and affect it. “Every life lived is individual, but also a continuation of those who have lived before. After death, one’s life will be continued by later members of the covenant.” In other words, we are links in a profoundly important unbroken chain. What the rabbis call “Shalshelet HaKabbalah” the unbroken chain of the Jewish people.

However we move forward, let us be mindful of some universal wisdom: 

“We stand on the shoulders of giants.” In other words, no matter how different we are from previous generations, we should be grateful for all that our predecessors put in place for us and seek to be worthy of it. Their commitment to Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom congregations enables us to thrive in the present because they carry us on their shoulders. We can also carry the future on our shoulders because of the strength of our past. 

How so? Every single day we benefit from the commitment and investments of those who came before us at Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom. In this way, they continue to lift us up. Every time we walk into our grand building, and in all the ways we benefit from enormous resources put in place before us– including a remarkable endowment– we are standing on their shoulders. We thrive today not only because of all the thoughtful, and visionary work of those who made the merger of our two legacy congregations possible, and who are in leadership roles today, but also because of thousands of people like us who were committed to the Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom community/ies and to our future.

We too seek to preserve the best of the past, respond to the urgency of the present, and open up new possibilities for the future. May we continue to be strong links in a chain so that our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will be lifted up toward the future as they stand on our shoulders. 

December 30, 2022

What's Your Story? Knowing the Past, Living in the Present, and Imagining the Future
Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)

How we tell our stories reveals a lot not only about our past, but also about the possibilities for our future. Think about how you tell the story of your childhood, or how you met your partner, or decided on your career. How much do these stories explain who you’ve been and who you’ve become? In so many of the life stories people share with me I am struck by how a single experience or a single moment of decision influences an entire life. A single chance meeting or health challenge or unexpected opportunity become turning points out of which our future emerges. 

Sometimes people retell the same story several times in different ways. The way you tell the story about when you met your true love, experienced a professional breakthrough, or dealt with a challenging relationship, reveal so much about us.

In the chapters of the Torah we read during these winter weeks, Joseph tells and foretells his own story. Through sharing his dreams and those of others he helps people better understand the past and imagine the future. First he interprets his own dreams and then those of others. 

Early in his life, Joseph’s dreams foretell how he will become a powerful person and how desperately his family will need him and bow down to him. Needless to say, sharing that story infuriated his brothers. In other cases, his dream interpretation foretold the short term and long term agricultural and economic forecast of an entire region of Africa. His ability to imagine the possibilities saved countless lives.

Remarkably, at every turn, Joseph is able to transcend the immediate situation and help others see the bigger picture– to imagine the future and prepare for it. Even though he is a survivor of being thrown into a pit by his brothers, sold into slavery, and imprisoned by an Egyptian ruler, he remains future focused. Instead of dwelling on the past and on his personal suffering, Joseph was motivated much more by his love of others and his concern for our collective future.

One of the reasons I think we retell these stories over and over again each year is so that we, too, can be inspired to see the bigger picture and focus on what’s really important. 

We can also see in the story of Joseph not only the stories of an individual but also the unfolding meta-narrative of a people. Joseph’s struggle in the pit, his survival, rise to power, and use of that power to save and protect his family are not just about that particular family. When all is said and done, his particular story is also the story of the Jewish people as a nation. 

We have been thrown into slavery in Egypt and into other nightmares, but we, like Joseph, have been able to persevere and constantly keep the long view and the ultimate goal in mind. Retelling the story of Joseph and his brothers, the Exodus from Egypt, or how we miraculously created a sovereign Jewish state, remind us of who we have been and the choices we’ve made at the crossroads of history.

We have always been, and can continue to be a people of courage, strength and hope – a people gifted with the power of the past, clarity about the present, and confidence in the future. 

December 16, 2022

Dysfunction and Reconciliation: Our Family and the Families of Genesis
Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

What can we learn from the Bible? While we may not be able to learn about the most recent scientific discoveries or immediate political predictions, we can certainly gain profound insight into the eternal complexities of human nature. 

When we revisit these stories, we can reflect on our own families and the roles we play. Simultaneously, we can also learn the significance of each family and each person in the larger narrative of Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood. This is especially true for the Genesis narratives we read during these winter weeks when, ironically, we’re most likely to be having reunions with our own family members.

We can learn a great deal from the dramatic Genesis narratives we read during these winter weeks. The narrative draws us into the complex nature of Joseph's apparent self-centeredness, his father's destructive favoritism, and his brothers overwhelming jealousy and capacity for violence. Yes, we learn how jealousy and hate can destroy a family. But, at the same time, we learn how despair can become hope. And above all, we can't miss this message: If even the most dysfunctional family can transcend the past and reunite (stay tuned for that drama in the weeks to come!) then each of us must also be able to find ways to reconcile with those from whom we might be estranged. Hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation are always within reach.

December 9, 2022

The Dizzying Possibilities Of Hanukkah: What Are You Celebrating?
Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

There is no greater antidote to darkness than light. In these darker nights and shorter days of winter, we need to make more light. Judaism to the rescue!

While the ancient sages argued about exactly how, when, and where one should light the Hanukkah menorah (more on that during our Hanukkah study), they all agreed that the very act of lighting candles in the darkest nights of the year meant more than light itself.

You’re likely familiar with the most famous reason we light the candles: we recall an ancient miracle of oil in the Temple lasting for eight days instead of just one. But Hanukkah teaches us about so much more than just that eight-day miracle.

Depending on the place and time in which you live, Hanukkah has a deeper and greater significance. In some historical sources, Hanukkah is all about a miraculous military victory of the few against the many – of the Maccabees over the Hellenizing Greeks who wanted to extinguish the minority religious uniqueness of the Jews. For the emerging young state of Israel as well as for Israel today, this remains a very important narrative of military might protecting us from the great forces around us. In other words, Hanukkah is also about self-defense, sovereignty, and survival.

In many other situations, Hanukkah is about the precious and precarious nature of religious freedom. Think about Natan Sharansky and the other Prisoners of Zion, or about Jewish people persecuted during the Nazi regime. Think about any minority population just about anywhere, anytime in human history and we remember how precious and precarious religious freedom is.

Today, even here in America, we’re aware of how present antisemitism continues to be and we cannot take our protected minority status for granted. We depend on the kind of religious freedom for which the ancient Israelites fought and which all democracies must protect.

Still for others, Hanukkah is about having faith in the future despite our total uncertainty. Nothing emphasizes uncertainty more than a game based on chance. At our Hanukkah celebrations when we spin the dreidel – that ancient spinning toy – we’re very aware of how much chance is involved. The letters on the dreidel – Nun, Gimmel, Hey, Shin נ ג ה ש – are meant to spell out “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” – or ״A Great Miracle Happened There.״ We celebrate the miracle that we’re told happened far away, there in the Land of Israel. But if you’re in Israel itself, you’ll find the dreidel has a different letter. Instead of the shin (ש), there’s a pey-(פ) for the word poh, meaning here in English, because of the great miracle that happened here, in this place.

We’re still connected to that miracle and to the land where it happened. And we still can find inspiration in all these additional ways of relating to the meaning of the holiday. Whether you’re a spiritual Jew, an Israel-focused Jew, concerned about our Jewish survival, or simply someone who is committed to diversity, equality, inclusion and religious freedom, Hanukkah is your holiday.

The very fact that we, the Jewish people, have continued to embrace all of these different meanings of this otherwise minor post-Biblical holiday is something of a miracle itself— and definitely something we should celebrate with all our might and with as much light and joy as possible.

December 2, 2022

The Holiness Of This Place: Experiencing The Sacred
Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:32)

What makes a particular place or space different from any other? Think about your home, about a place you love, about our sanctuary or another. For some, that place is where you or a loved one celebrated a marriage, gave birth to a baby, your holiday table, a beach, a mountain, or a city, like Jerusalem. These places became special because of what we’ve experienced there, either personally or collectively. Meaningful experiences make a space meaningful, even sacred. 

When Jacob runs away from his older brother Esau, who likely wants to kill Jacob because he stole Esau’s birthright blessing from their father, Jacob eventually lays down to sleep in the desert. When he closed his eyes, the desert place seemed like any other place in the desert. The rock he takes to be his pillow is just a rock. But while asleep, Jacob has the most fantastical dreams. He experiences something so profound (which we’ll study this Shabbat) that when he wakes up, he declares: 

“Surely God is present in this place, 
and I, I did not know it!” 
(Genesis 28:16)

His experience, even while asleep, revealed to him something undeniable about God’s presence. But what’s equally important about this realization is that he can admit his initial lack of awareness. At first, he didn’t feel God’s presence in his life. But that experience made that place sacred. But the very next verse (Gen. 28:17) gives us an even fuller sense of Jacob’s experience: “Shaken, he said, 

‘How awesome is this place! 
This is none other than the abode of God, 
and this is the gateway to heaven.’” 

In our Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom sanctuary and chapel, whether in person or on Zoom, we have the opportunity to experience God’s presence in our lives. Whether in a moment of song or prayer, whether in study or in discussion, we too might suddenly feel that something very different just occurred. Sometimes we just need to pause and become aware enough to realize it. If we can be present enough in those moments, then we might even begin to understand something new about ourselves or our lives. Such experiences can change our lives even when we leave the moment and the place. This kind of transformation, while fleeting, is part of what worship, ritual and spirituality are all about.

Just as God goes with Jacob on his journey from the sacred space and back again, so, too, can we seek out an awareness of God’s presence in our sacred spaces and in our lives. I pray that we, like Jacob, can take a sense of spirituality and wholeness with us on our journeys out into the world and, like Jacob, back again to our sacred place. 

November 25, 2022

Family Drama: What Role Do We Play?
Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

Our founding fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not perfect. Neither were our founding mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. Each had challenges, each had flaws. Some deceived each other and others struggled to understand their role in a drama bigger than them. 

What’s remarkable about Rebecca, whose role in her family leads to unforgettable drama in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, is her persistence. Against all odds she embraces the full adventure of her life. In last week’s Torah portion Rebecca willingly leaves home and embarks on an adventure to meet Isaac. At first sight she falls in love with him. Immediately, we learn that Rebecca is the only one who can help Isaac find hope and love after his father nearly sacrificed him and his mother dies. Their love was the kind of love that heals. 

Rebecca later confronts her own challenges head on. For me, she is the original model of what it means to persist no matter what. In the face of uncertainty she seeks out God to help her understand her role and her destiny. She is the first woman to pray openly to God and who challenges God and who asks the eternal question: “Why Me?” But with or without clear answers from God, nevertheless, she persists and keeps moving forward. 

Her persistence isn’t just her insistence that she has a role to play in the evolution of her people. She persists even in the face of her own suffering and in the face of having to make difficult decisions. She’s inspiring because her suffering doesn’t dissuade her from ensuring not only her own destiny but that of her people. After struggling with infertility and praying to God together with her husband Isaac, she becomes pregnant with twins. But, as the text reads: “...the children struggled in her womb, and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of Adonai.” The Hebrew actually says she went “Lidrosh et Adonai,” literally meaning that she went ‘to demand’ an answer from God. 

“And God answered her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body….’” From that moment, she learned what every parent and every sibling must learn: No two children are alike. Our job is to help each one find out who they are and strive toward self-actualization. Our job is to teach our children what it means to persist even in the face of huge challenges and uncertainty.

Thanks to Rebecca's insight and persistence, however, she not only fulfilled her own destiny but she also ensured that the next generation was given the tools to achieve their destiny as well. 

May each be blessed, like Rebecca, with full awareness of who we can be, the strength to move forward even in the face of challenges, and a deep awareness of the positive roles we can play in the lives of others. 

November 18, 2022

The Mayflower and the Exodus: Celebrating Who We Are this Thanksgiving.

Chayei Sara (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

Thanksgiving reminds us of who we are as Americans. We’re proud of so much of who we are, grateful for our privileges, and also aware of our complex history. As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I am struck by the difference and connection between the two major stories that make us who we are as American Jews. Being mindful of where we came from, what we left behind, and the kind of society we want for our children is so important.

The first of the two stories that makes us who we are as Jews, is, of course, the story of the Exodus. Redeemed from Egyptian slavery, the ancient Israelites – our ancestors – wandered through the desert. Eventually, they received the wisdom of the Torah that would help guide them as they created a new world. That story we celebrate every Passover.

On Thanksgiving, we also celebrate a journey toward freedom. We recall an origin story of the first American pilgrims and their desire for religious freedom and equality. The two stories have much in common, but we remember them very differently. Speaking before the UN’s Peel Commission in 1936 more than a decade before the declaration of the independence of the State of Israel, the not-yet first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion said:

“300 years ago, there came to the New World a boat, and its name was the Mayflower. The Mayflower’s landing on Plymouth Rock was one of the great historical events in the history of England and in the history of America. But I would like to ask any Englishman sitting here on the commission, what day did the Mayflower leave port? What date was it? I’d like to ask the Americans: do they know what date the Mayflower left port in England? How many people were on the boat? Who were their leaders? What kind of food did they eat on the boat?”

“More than 3300 years ago, long before the Mayflower, our people left Egypt, and every Jew in the world, wherever he is, knows what day they left. And he knows what food they ate. And we still eat that food every anniversary. And we know who our leader was. And we sit down and tell the story to our children and grandchildren in order to guarantee that it will never be forgotten. And we say our two slogans: ‘Now we may be enslaved, but next year, we’ll be a free people.’”

This Thanksgiving, as we gather with family and friends and eat our delicious foods, let us celebrate what it means to be both Americans and Jews– inheritors of both big stories and their messages for humankind. Let’s tell our children about the common elements of freedom and equality of all parts of our identity. Let’s be sure that they, too, will not only continue to tell the stories but also ensure that freedom and equality will remain our core values.

November 4, 2022

What is our Mission? Acting with a Vision for the Future.

Lech L'cha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

Our mission begins with the dramatic call heard in this week’s Torah portion. God calls out to Avram (later to be renamed Abraham) to “go forth!” – Lech L’cha(Genesis 12:1) Leave your past behind you, leave your homeland and all that you know and love, and go on a journey into an unknown land, and toward an uncertain future. Avram accepts what must have seemed like an impossible mission. In ways that thousands of years of sages cannot explain, he simply knew that this was his mission and declared: “here I am”-- hineni! He said “yes” even though they didn’t have anything that they might need to fulfill the mission of becoming a great nation, much less the capabilities to “be a blessing” – to have a positive impact on the entire world. (Genesis 12:2) How could they commit to the future when they didn’t have even the most basic elements? How could they envision a world for their descendants when they had no children? 

All that Avram and Sarai (later renamed Sarah) had for the journey was 1) the love between them; 2) the community around them; and 3) a sense of God’s presence. Apparently, they believed that love, community and faith would be enough. They also had the kind of profound courage we might call a ‘leap of faith’ that propelled them with optimism into the future. 

Our Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom community also has the essential elements that we need to envision our future with confidence. Every day, members of our community demonstrate to each other incredible loving kindness, mutual responsibility, a connection to a particular people and place, and a sense of the sacred. And, like Abraham and Sarah, we also have faith in what we can create for future generations.

Later chapters of the Torah tell us what happened after Abraham and Sarah took that first leap of faith. They are the first to model the loving kindness that is at the heart of Jewish communal life. Repeatedly they model a commitment to ethics, to taking care of the sick, to welcoming the stranger, to comforting the mourner and toward forgiving each other. While they certainly had some doubts along the way, they never lost faith in the future. May these be our blessings as well. 

October 28, 2022

Can We Still Hope for a Moral Society?

Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

What defines morality? 

From the first moments of human history, this question has invited many different answers. The first human beings we read about last week, Adam and Eve, learned the hard way about making choices. Exiled from the perfect world of the Garden of Eden, they learned that they needed to choose between good and evil, between life and death. But did their children, Cain and Able, the first brothers and the first fratricide, really know good from evil? 

This Shabbat we read about another crisis, the Flood of Noah’s generation (Gen. 8-9). The entire society was held responsible for the immorality of their time. (Interestingly, humanity was vegetarian until after the Flood, and only then permitted to eat meat and only in the most ethical ways). (Gen. 9:4-7)

So what did humanity learn from the Flood? According to Jewish sages, we learned the necessity of basic morality and the urgency of shared ethical standards. These first moral principles are known as the seven “Noahide Laws” (Sheva Mitzvot B’nai Noah): 1) the positive injunction to set up courts that justly enforce social laws; 2) the prohibition of blasphemy (there must be tolerance for worshipping the one God of the universe); 3) the prohibition of idolatry; 4) the prohibitions of grave sexual immorality, such as incest and adultery; 5) the prohibition of murder; 6) the prohibition of theft; 7) the prohibition of eating the limb of a live animal –-- which represents human cruelty (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a).

But whether these Noahide Laws were originally part of the Torah as Maimonides (1135-1204) claims, or only established later as the Rabbinic sages claim, nonetheless they represent what our ancient sages understood to be shared universal values and hopes for humanity. 

Even those ancient minds who set the Jewish people apart from –-- and often above -- all other cultures also knew that Judaism does not and should not have a monopoly on morality. And perhaps more importantly, they knew that there must be a way to establish some universal common moral ground so that we can peacefully share God’s world by sharing in God’s most basic expectations. I love how such pluralism and mutual respect emerges out of our most ancient sources. 

When we see immorality in our time, we might find hope and inspiration in the Noah story. If the idea of sharing moral principles across cultures wasn't unthinkable after the Flood, reclaiming a renewed shared morality shouldn’t be unimaginable to us now. But we must be courageous enough to know we need to reclaim it before it’s too late. 

This is why our congregation must be so vigilant in holding ourselves and our community to the highest moral standards. When we do, we can be part of making a shared future possible for us and for all of humanity.

October 21, 2022

Beginning Anew: From the Beginning There Was Light

Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

This Shabbat we begin reading the Torah from the beginning. Genesis Chapter 1, verse 1 reads: “In the Beginning God created….” 

Beginning right now, we can find new life and new meaning in our Jewish tradition and its sacred texts, beginning this Shabbat with the ancient story of creation. God creates order out of chaos and then leaves us, humanity, to sort out the rest. Among the first things God created was light: Va ye’hi or: “And there was light… A first day.” 

Beginning reading the Torah anew gives us a new opportunity to search for the ‘light’ – the insights – that can emerge from the past and illuminate the present. If we are patient, these insights we can even begin to illuminate the future – a new dawn for our people that we cannot yet know, but for which we can prepare.

We are not the first to seek the light that radiates from our ancient texts and to help us find our way.

Consider two beautiful examples from the vast interpretations:  

1)  When Moses descended from the top of Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets inscribed with the ten commandments the ancient sages imagined that the skin of his face was ablaze with light because he had been speaking with God. His face only began to glow when he had the text in his hand and in his heart. 

2)  Another midrash tells us of a discussion between two older sages about a new student. The teachers notice that a certain student went to a certain place to study and upon returning, the other students saw him and said: “he must have found a treasure!” Their teacher asked them, “How do you know?” They replied: “Because his face is glowing.”

The other teacher said: “But perhaps his face is glowing because he has learned a new interpretation of Torah?” The student then appeared, and the teacher asked him: “What have you learned?” He replied, "I have discovered an ancient interpretation of Torah!" The teacher applied to him the verse:

"A person's wisdom causes his face to glow." (Ecclesiastes 8:11)

As we begin Torah anew this Shabbat, may we, too, experience our faces aglow. May we, too, know both the great light from creation and from the wisdom of all those who engaged in Torah before us. If we can open ourselves up to its wisdom perhaps we, too, can find our own new ways of understanding what it means for our time so that it will continue to illuminate our path into the future. 

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784