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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

June 28, 2024

Perception is Everything: The Problem of Truthiness and the Necessity of Values 
Shlach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

Some people are worried that we live in an age of “truthiness.”

According to one definition: “Truthiness is the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” Some say that this is an increasing phenomenon of our American political discourse. 

But this week’s Torah portion, Shlach, reflects a similar phenomenon that might be instructive for us today. In the story of the twelve spies that Moses sent in “to scout out the Land of Israel,” they return after forty days with vastly different reports about what they saw, how they felt, and what was possible. Ten of the spies report that the Land is uninhabitable and that they were terrified because they saw themselves “as grasshoppers” and perceived the other peoples living there as “giants” who, they assumed, must also see the Israelites as puny unworthy insects: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33) 

But two of the spies broke from the assertions of the majority. Joshua and Caleb report that while there are indeed challenges awaiting them in the Land of Israel, we, the Israelites, are strong and will be able to overcome them. “Come, let us go up to the Land for we are surely capable!” (Num. 13:30) Twelve people went to the same place at the same time but returned with completely different perceptions of reality and very different perceptions of themselves in relation to it. They told vastly different stories that impacted the community in vastly different ways. 

Was this a case of “truthiness”? Truthiness “can range from ignorant assertions of falsehoods to deliberate duplicity or propaganda intended to sway opinions.” The ten scouts’ assertions about the people dwelling in the land had such an impact on the community that they started to panic. Many became so terrified that they said: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt” and “if only we might die in this wilderness!” The impact of the truthy negative report of the ten scouts caused the people to lose a sense of who they are and who they were capable of becoming; it caused them to lose hope, lose faith, and lose direction. 

Indeed the report of the ten scouts was an ancient example of how destructive “truthiness” can be. Their exaggerated and inaccurate report enflamed the fears of the people and led many to believe absurd inaccuracies about the people dwelling in the Land. They were not actually giants nor were the Israelites actually grasshoppers in any real or relative sense. But the impact of the report on the people threatened to completely derail the central goal of the Jewish People according to both our ancient Torah and our modern Declaration of Israeli Independence reflected in the Israeli National Anthem, HaTikvah: To be a free people in our own land “L’hiot Am Chofshi B’Artzeinu.

What enables them to move forward, however, is that both groups’ reports confirm that the Land “does indeed flow with milk and honey” and both agree that its fruit is gigantic. (In fact this shared report about the fruit becomes the image of two scouts returning with enormous grapes becoming the logo of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism!) 

But the conflicting assertions about reality and what the people are capable of presented a choice for the Israelites, for Moses, and for God. How each of them respond will be at the heart of our Torah study tomorrow, but today I encourage us to think about what is at stake for them and for us. Ours is not the first human society that has struggled with the tensions between how two sets of people view the same reality or experience the same phenomena and emerge with very different conclusions. While we may obsessively “fact check” the assertions of those with whom we vehemently disagree, the full truth – or even the “ultimate truth” – is sometimes hard to find. In most cases, however, for the Israelites and for us, it is essential to learn all the facts through as clear a lens as possible and to interpret what they mean and determine how we should act on them according to our core values. Neither the Israelites nor we can chart our course forward without a strong sense of who we are and who we want to be. 

We may be facing enormous challenges in our time but we are not grasshoppers without humanity or values. Neither should we, American Jews, act on our most base instincts and irrational fears. Rather we must stand tall and proud and remember who we are commanded to be. We are commanded to aspire constantly and to act toward creating a world that is better for all its inhabitants. At the same time, we must also be as clear-headed as possible about the reality in which we find ourselves, as careful and as smart as we can be about the facts that can be proven, and as courageous as we can possibly be about the future. If we can view reality through the lenses of Joshua and Caleb, we might also see our future as they did, as something that is “exceedingly good: טוֹבָ֥ה הָאָ֖רֶץ מְאֹ֥ד מְאֹֽד “Tovah haAretz me’od, me’od.”  

While we, like the Israelites, will continue to face challenges, we must hold on every more tightly to our core values, to what we know to be true, and to what and who we know we can become.

Shabbat Shalom!

June 14, 2024

Jealousy, Adultery, and the Spiritual Power of the Truth
Nasso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

In a world where power and knowledge can control one’s destiny, there are very few cases in our ancient Jewish literature where women had either. Especially in a world where men’s jealousies could determine a woman’s fate, it is remarkable to encounter a Talmudic story in which a woman’s knowledge and spiritual strength prevail. 

This week’s Torah portion, Nasso, tells the infamous story of the suspected adulteress — the Sotah —  and the public ordeal — she was forced to endure simply because her husband was jealous and suspected that she committed adultery. Whether or not she was guilty, she was forced to undergo this public ordeal. 

A woman whose husband was overcome by jealousy was not only publicly accused and humiliated, but she was also forced to drink a special concoction of “bitter waters” or “mei sotah.”  If the woman was indeed guilty of adultery, then the bitter waters she drank would cause significant physical suffering in her abdomen which would become distended. The potion, it seems to me, would cause a miscarriage of a fetus that might have been conceived through an adulterous relationship; in other words, a forced early abortion. (Yes, some men have sought to control a woman’s uterus and her choices for a very long time.) 

Most discussions of this text focus on the power of the public ceremony to punish an adulterous woman and thereby perhaps serve as a deterrent. But more contemporary interpretations focus on the powerlessness of the woman and her suffering at the hands of a suspicious man and the culture of men which supported him and not her. 

But what was the goal of such a public ritual? In addition to the punishment of an adulterous woman and its deterrent for other women, the public ritual highlighted the ancient priest’s authority to oversee an ordeal which sought to publicly establish the truth and re-establish the marital relationship. Nothing can be more destabilizing to a relationship and a community than the lack of trust and the absence of accepted truths. 

So after the ritual the truth of what happened behind closed doors could be acknowledged publicly and the husband and wife as a unit could continue without him worrying about whether or not she was carrying another man’s child. (If only they had DNA tests back then…!) 

But one of my favorite sections in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Berakhot 30-31) turns the whole Biblical ordeal of the suspected adulteress on its head. Referring to the story of the infertile Hannah praying for a child — the text of the Haftarah that we read on Rosh HaShanah — the Talmudic sages bring forth an extended series of pleas that Hannah makes to God as she prays for a child. Some of the prayers the sages put in Hannah’s mouth challenge God’s greatness and sensitivity. 

Even more shockingly, in one of Hannah’s pleas to God, she brilliantly uses the text of the Biblical ritual of the Sotah — the wife suspected of adultery — that we read about in this week’s Torah portion to threaten or even force God to give her a child! She knows that at the end of the description of the ritual in this week’s Torah portion the text also tells us what happens if the woman suspected of adultery is actually innocent. If she is falsely suspected of adultery and drank the sota water, the Torah says: “And if the woman was not defiled, but was pure, then she shall be acquitted and she shall conceive.” (Numbers 5:28)

In the Biblical text, Hannah asks God to “look upon” her and to “take notice of her,” and allow her to bear a child. This doubling of the idea insisting that God must pay attention to her leads to a wild new interpretation in the Talmud. In interpreting the Biblical verse, “if you will truly look upon [im ra’o tireh] me,” 

“Rabbi Elazar said: Hannah said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, if You will look upon [ra’o] me now, fine, and if not, in any case You will see [tireh].” In other words, she threatens God: “Either grant me a child or you will see how I will use Your own words of Torah to force You!”

What was Hannah threatening? She said: I will go and seclude myself with another man before Elkana, my husband. Since I secluded myself, they will force me to drink the sota water to determine whether or not I have committed adultery. Since I didn’t commit adultery, I will be found innocent, and because I know that You will not make Your Torah false, I will bear children. With regard to a woman who is falsely suspected of adultery and drank the sota water, the Torah says: “And if the woman was not defiled, but was pure, then she shall be acquitted and she shall conceive.” (Num. 5:28 quoted in Talmud Berakhot 31b.) 

Hannah, in the eyes of the Talmudic sages, was a brilliant Talmud scholar and able to use her knowledge to force God’s hand. Throughout the text, the sages argue about whether or not these kinds of arguments against God make Hannah irreverent. Shockingly, they conclude that Hannah’s powerful prayer and capacity to argue against God to change one’s fate make her not irreverent but rather a very powerful force. In fact, the sages compare Hannah to Moses and Elijah because of their chuztpah and because of their fearlessness and ability to argue, even with God, in order to force truth to emerge. All three engage in passionate and even angry prayer with God in order to make change possible. 

Perhaps we, too, can find inspiration from Hannah. Let us not hold back in our prayer, as Hannah did not hold back. Whatever is in our hearts, the Talmud seems to say, “bring it on!” God wants to hear what’s truly in our hearts and what we believe can and must change. When we are in distress — like Hannah was — let us be prayerful, courageous and empowered to act. 

Shabbat Shalom!

May 31, 2024

Re-Charging Reform Judaism: Why? and How?
Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:4)

I am so grateful that I was able to attend and speak at a conference this week in New York on Reform Judaism and Israel as part of a new initiative called “Re-Charging Reform Judaism.” According to its founding leadership based at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, Re-Charging Reform Judaism is “the exciting grassroots convening of clergy, educators and lay leaders to begin to address the existential challenges facing the North American Reform Movement.” The initiative is funded by some of the most influential foundations in the Jewish world.

Speaking and teaching at conferences all across North America and Israel was a core part of my professional life before I came to be your rabbi at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom. While the travel can be exhausting, I loved the intensity and energy of conferences — most of the time. I love it when the sheer excitement of the people gathering together for a shared purpose is incredibly energizing. I especially love conferences when there’s a sense of urgency along with plenty of opportunity to learn from the best minds and practitioners in a wide variety of fields. And yes, I love it when I can connect with old friends and colleagues — often mentors and former students.  Conferences can also be opportunities for inspiration and professional growth. Often I have the opportunity to share new ideas and become smarter and better because of how people ask great questions and challenge me. I often leave conferences filled with new ideas and excitement about how to apply my learning to my life and work. But a really great Jewish conference offers all of this and the opportunity for prayerful experiences and deep spiritual regeneration. The conference this week offered all of it and more!

While I definitely didn’t share the viewpoints of some of the presenters, I do appreciate the ways in which the initiative seeks to bring a “constructively critical eye” to examine some of the biggest questions in our time in relation to Reform Judaism, Jewish Peoplehood, Zionism, and Jewish education. Last year at the inaugural conference I taught a session on reimagining synagogue education with a focus on Jewish Peoplehood. Last year I felt well-prepared to lead such a session. But this year was entirely different. 

This year I was invited to present in the final plenary entitled: “A New Vision for Reform Zionism.”  This was an entirely different and very difficult assignment. Do we really need a new vision? Is our old way of teaching about Israel insufficient? Are our children truly knowledgeable about Israel and connected enough to the full story of such a diverse and complicated society to be able to respond to the challenges that they will face as Jews on campus and in the broader world?

This year the sessions focused on how October 7th forever changed the course of Jewish history and also how it exposed deep rifts in North American society, as well as within our own Reform movement. Some of the sessions focused on our liberal Reform Jewish values and reexamining the partnerships we’ve spent decades building in pursuit of social justice; antisemitism on the college campus; liturgy and spirituality; and imagining educational models that will guide the next generation in valuing the significance of Israel and the Jewish people to our identity as Reform Jews. One of the sessions was entitled: “Generational and Ideological Differences on Israel in the Reform Movement: Engaging in Dialogue and Finding a Path Forward.” We are in a truly unprecedented moment in Jewish life.

I agree that so much of what we’ve experienced and witnessed over the last eight months forces us to re-examine all of our assumptions about Reform Jewish education around Israel, about what it means to be a Reform Zionist, and what role Israel and Jewish Peoplehood might play in the life of our congregation. We need to dive more deeply into what it means to be part of a global Jewish People in our time. 

I look forward to speaking about all of these issues and learning together how we might approach them at Har Sinai – Oheb Shalom. In particular, I look forward to thinking about how our lifelong learning can better help all of us, our children, and grandchildren respond to the questions, challenges, and opportunities of this moment. 

Shabbat Shalom!

May 24, 2024

The Meaning of Time and Living a Life of Meaning
Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

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, of hope in the future and a sense of accomplishment of the past.

Every culture measures time in particular ways, but Judaism teaches us to constantly reframe it, to measure it and even to try to transcend it. There are, for example, many different interpretations of the meaning of these weeks between Passover and Shavuot. But whether one understands this period of time traditionally, as a period of semi-mourning; or of preparing for the revelation at Sinai; or of celebrating the meaning of Israeli independence; or of simply being aware of the turn from spring toward summer, there is a common theme that connects each of these interpretations: the significance of counting days and years toward something of greater significance than any particular day itself.

A life of meaning comes from an intense sense of time, in which we have the possibility of living out our deepest values. As a system, Judaism promotes a life of daily rituals and a year of holidays that reinforce numerous core values, including human equality, the supreme value of life and the communal ethics of the Torah. Daily prayer teaches the individual gratitude for the opportunities of each day, and reinforces one’s sense of responsibility for how that day should be spent.

The holidays approach time and duty on a grander scale. For example: Hanukkah teaches about the importance of religious freedom and tolerance; Passover reminds us to ensure that those held captive are freed and the vulnerable are protected.

Through the rhythms of holidays and life-cycle events, values are reinforced and the individual and the community have an intense sense of the passage of time and the particular possibilities of each day, of each season, of each phase of our lives.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is probably the best-known ancient text that expresses an intensified sense of the significance of how we should understand the potential significance of each period of time:

“There is a season for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born a time to die… a time for peace and a time for war…. A time to speak and a time for silence.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

We liturgically read Ecclesiastes’s somewhat powerless sense of time and even depressed sense of its possibilities only in the fall, on Sukkot, when uncertainty about the autumn harvest and what the coming winter will bring prevails.

Yet on Shavuot, as we turn toward summer, we read the Book of Ruth, which begins with a sense of loss of time and a depressed sense of the lack of possibilities of the future, but suddenly surprises us with new possibilities for the future – even when it seems that there may be none.

The Book of Ruth opens as Naomi weeps over the loss of husband and sons and her lack of options, insisting that her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, return to their fathers’ homes, where they will have more possibility for the future. Yet Ruth rebels against this rational advice, and clings to her mother-in-law and insists on returning with her to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:14).

Ruth then makes a 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 reattach 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 indeed remarried and the mother of Obed, who will become the grandfather of King David. Her sense of time and its possibilities transcends the obvious. Ruth thus embodies the ultimate hope. It is no wonder that Judaism makes her the first ancestor of the Messiah.

Measuring our days carefully through the counting of the Omer or in the mindful celebration of new phases and opportunities of life should not only ensure that we make good use of whatever time we have, but help us each focus on the essence of what we want our lives to mean. 

May 17, 2024

How Does Shababt Change Our Lives?
Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

Every Shabbat since I became a rabbi – almost 29 years ago! – I’ve been asking myself some version of the same core questions: 1) What am I most grateful for this week? And 2) How can I help make this Shabbat a time of holiness, healing, and inspiration for others? These questions are especially relevant this week, when the Torah points to how Shabbat is something that we human beings have to make happen. (Leviticus 23:2-3

To be honest, depending on where I am and who I’m celebrating Shabbat with, the answers to the two questions change. Yes, as you’ve likely heard, I focus a lot on how Shabbat offers us the opportunity to pause, reflect, and renew ourselves to become the best version of ourselves as individuals and as a community. Shabbat offers us what I call ‘a holy pause.’ When we observe some aspect of Shabbat – even if only to step away from our screens and the infinite other distractions – we can experience a holy pause that helps us focus on what really matters. 

But how can I or any of us make sure that Shabbat is not only a time for rest but also a time of holiness, healing, and inspiration? Most of the time the holiness emerges simply because of the joy of communal song and prayer, or because of a particular life-cycle celebration, or because of how a particular Torah portion opens my mind and heart in a new way. Sometimes, the holiness of Shabbat emerges simply in the act of gathering. Gathering together as a community on Shabbat with people who share and declare together our commitment to Jewish values is so often a source of spiritual strength.  

Especially since becoming a wife and mother, I’ve been asking a version of the first question – “What are you most grateful for this week?” – at our family Shabbat table. As our kids have gotten older, their answers to these questions have – not surprisingly – changed as well. Sometimes someone shares that they are just relieved to have passed a test or scored a point in a basketball or lacrosse game even if the team lost. Other times, one of us is just happy to have gotten over a cold or have the chance to spend time with friends. Most of the time, I respond last, and often find myself saying the following: “I am grateful for this moment.” It is by now a predictable – and perhaps annoying – answer, but it organically springs out of me in the moment. And then Ofer and I often add something we are especially proud of about each of them that week. 

Given the chance to pause for even a moment, I find myself so grateful to have reached Shabbat, grateful to be able to share a meal with my family, and grateful that we can recognize how much we have to be grateful for and proud of. Without this Shabbat pause, I worry that we might lose sight of all that is good in our lives. Without Shabbat, I worry that we might lose a sense of Jewish joy – the special joy that comes from seeing each other's faces in the light of the Shabbat candles, from the taste of the challah, and from the sense of connection and purpose that emerges from shared prayer and blessings. 

Social justice is also a core element of Shabbat. The command to observe Shabbat was, in fact, the very first labor law. It’s striking that Shabbat originally was a radical idea. The idea of a day of rest is a gift of the Jewish people to all of humanity, for we were the first to teach and model the idea of the human right and need for a day of rest every single week. Without it, the human body and spirit can become exhausted and depleted. Shabbat allows for healing from exhaustion, and the renewal of the spirit toward all that is good and sacred in the world. 

At the end of the day, it’s up to each one of us to make Shabbat holy, to bless candles, to pray, to study, and to celebrate. God may have taught us the concept and given us some ideas of how to celebrate Shabbat, but in every age each one of us has to figure out how to observe it so that it’s meaningful for us. Each of us needs Shabbat because we need it in order to grow and change because of how it invites us to renew and sustain our souls. 

May each of us be blessed this Shabbat with a deep sense of gratitude, holiness, inspiration, and peace. 

Shabbat Shalom!

May 10, 2024

A Prayer for This Shabbat Before Mother's Day
Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)

For the new mothers who have just given birth and are nursing and caring for their babies through endless sleepless nights; 

For every mother who worries about the water her children drink, the air they breathe, the school they attend, and the neighborhood they live in;

For adopted moms, foster moms, “super-moms,” “tiger moms,” working moms, stepmoms, and self-doubting moms;

For mothers estranged from their children and to mothers who talk and text with them all the time;

For the mothers who labor long hours every day day in roles that require nurturing skills – such as as teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers, EMTs, therapists, and clergy – who come home late at night or early in the morning to children who need help with homework, a shoulder to cry on, and someone who believes in them no matter what; 

For the mothers serving in the armed forces in the US and in Israel while their children remain at home;

For the mothers with children in the military, who pray for their children’s safe return; 

For the mothers in prison, jail, and detention centers whose interactions with their children are relegated to visiting day, visitors’ hours, visitation rules, and monitored phone calls; 

For every mother who has endured the loss of a child;

For the not-yet mothers who yearn to have a child; 

For the widowed mothers, divorcees, single moms, welfare recipients, and Medicaid participants;

For mothers rich and poor, straight, gay, bisexual, and trans, mothers of every religion and race;

For all mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, happy and unhappy, perfectly content, and utterly exhausted;

For all the women who are ‘like a mother’ to us: 

Whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever you do, we pray that the Shechinah, God’s sheltering presence, is always near you, guarding you, comforting you, giving you strength, and blessing you with peace. 

Happy Mother’s Day from All Your Children.

(Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D., adapted from prayer by Rabbi David Wirtschafter)

May 3, 2024

Who Do We Want to Be in These Tumultuous Times?
Achrei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30)

Many of you — our members — have reached out in recent days and weeks about how recent events and the constant barrage of news and images of a constantly changing world are affecting you. I hear you and I couldn’t agree more with your concerns. Regardless of our different viewpoints about America’s support of Israel’s war against Hamas (and its related world-wide network of anti-Israel and anti-American terrorist organizations), we all share a profound concern about what all of this means for us and our loved ones, for the future of America, the Jewish people, and for our world.  

I know that many of you, like me and my family, are deeply concerned about the crises on a wide range of college campuses across North America and our loved ones who are part of — or soon will be part of — these academic communities. In each context, the situation is different and the actions or inactions of the Jewish students, student leadership, university administration, and local law enforcement vary greatly. I encourage you to use these important ADL Resources as part of our response to the situation on our college campuses. 

While I will be speaking about all of this in sermons and Divrei Torah tonight and in the weeks ahead, I want to share in writing a caution for all of us:

Yes, we must be fully engaged with what’s happening and vigilant about the protection of our family members and our people, but we must also be wary of generalizations and very slow to lay blame before we know all the facts. Before we can establish responsibility and act (for instance to boycott a particular university or the products of a particular country) we must first learn everything we possibly can from as many different sources and perspectives as possible. 

While we want to be sure that we hold the right people, institutions, and others responsible for illegal actions, we also must remember to be very careful as we seek to blame others — especially groups of people. The recent case of an AI generated recording of profound racism and hints of antisemitism that was falsely attributed to a local high school principal is an important case study. As Jews, we know too well what happens when an entire group of people is held accountable for the actions of a few. We should be especially careful about such temptations.

This week’s Torah portion, Acharai Motincludes an instructive reminder of the human need and lure of scapegoating. This Shabbat, we read about the very first scapegoats. We read about two goats that were chosen by lots — one is killed and one is sent out to the desert to die. The goat sent out to die carries on its head all the sins of the society. Simply put, the ancient scapegoat allowed the ancient Israelite community to rid itself of that which was perceived to be dangerous and destructive. The ritual is so powerful that we read it again every Yom Kippur, a time when — as individuals and as a community — we seek to expunge sin from among us. 

According to scholar and psychologist René Girard, scapegoating itself is part of human nature. Envy gradually builds up in a society until it reaches a tipping point, at which order and reason cede to mob rule, chaos, and violence. To quell this 'madness of the crowds', which poses an existential threat to the society, an exposed or vulnerable person or group is singled out as a sink for all the bad feelings, and the bad feeling bred from the bad feeling. 

If we want our community and our society to be peaceful and if we want mutual respect and a future of shared success, we must also address the many root causes of such madness. Judaism gives us many tools, most importantly the principles of seeking truth, and pursuing justice for all (even for those with whom we disagree). 

Regardless of all the crises and violence around us, and even while we continue to do everything we can to ensure safety and protection for ourselves, our families, and our community — at the very same time each of us must commit to learning about the ‘other’ and to ensuring that no one, no institution, and no country is a victim of scapegoating. 

Only in this way can we hope to live in a world that upholds perhaps the most important and universal value of Judaism: “You shall love our neighbor as yourself — v’ahavta l’rei-echa ka-mocha. (Lev. 19:18) May this be the supreme principle that continues to guide us all.

Shabbat Shalom.

April 26, 2024

Human Sexual Fulfillment and The Song of Songs
Pesach Shabbat Chol haMoed (Exodus 33:12-34:26)

The Song of Songs is traditionally read on the Shabbat of Passover. For Rabbi Sabath's full commentary on the Song of Songs click here.

Among all the canonized texts of the Jewish tradition, the Song of Songs is the most erotic. No other text describes female desire in such vivid terms, with an urgency that immediately pulls us into its passionate search for sexual fulfillment. Is it possible that female sexual desire is not only acceptable but also even glorified in a sacred Jewish text? Traditionally read in the synagogue on the Sabbath of Passover, the Song of Songs is a poetic and potent tale of sexual desire. Some scholars understand the text to be a collection of ancient love songs, while others are certain that it is a unified composition. Regardless, one is struck by this sacred Jewish text in which a woman's desire is the central subject and force of the text. How does our tradition handle such a text? Like the female protagonist of the Song of Songs, might we understand our own sexuality as a natural part of what it means to be human and whole?

While other biblical texts speak of sexual encounters and even of love to the point of tears, only the Song of Songs speaks the language of passionate love and desire for the body of the beloved. Sexually charged images and dialogue flow from nearly every verse.The opening verse itself proclaims: "That he will kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine" (1:2). In the majority of such verses, the woman is the main actor: It is she who speaks, acts, responds, and turns repeatedly to the chorus of the daughters of

Jerusalem, saying: "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem; do not stir up, nor awake my love, until it please" (3:5). And it is she who turns over and over again toward her beloved, seeking him out both in dreams and while awake (chapters 3 and 5). This is not a model of a passive or hidden woman. Unique to this book is the fact that the woman does not hide her sexual desire. She proclaims to her lover, without shame: "If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me" (8:1). She is willing to seek out her lover all through the night and against all odds.

The possibility of human sexual relationships devoid of power struggles or manipulation is certainly a central element of feminism as well as of modern ethics. While the woman in the Song of Songs is repeatedly hindered in her search for her beloved by a variety of factors -watchmen and foxes, for instance- the very fact of her search and passion is not denied. This woman is never thwarted because of her gender; she is neither shamed by others because of the force of her passion, nor is she ashamed of it herself. The intensity and importance of a woman's quest for fulfillment are equal to those of a man. For Jewish feminists, this awareness allows for the creation of a religious system and spiritual community in which men and women are allowed equal expression of their full selves, intellectually, religiously and physically.

The world we seek to create is one in which desire to seek full union with the beloved, both human and Godly is unhindered by the law, or by gender.

Ultimately, among many lessons, the text teaches us that as human beings we are by nature dependent on each other in order to find fulfillment. We need the love of another human being, and we will be frustrated without a sense of his or her complete love and support. The woman of our text calls out: "His left hand should be under my head, his right hand should be embracing me!" (2:6) She is aware of the interdependence of humanity in every realm and is aware that to be denied such fulfillment is not only unhealthy, but signals the lack of wholeness in the world itself. Such a conclusion necessarily means that the repair of the world is dependent on the establishment of equally supportive and fulfilling relationships among all humanity.

April 19, 2024

 

 

April 12, 2024

Can Our Past Redeem the future? Our Passover Celebrations Must Affirm our Moral Identity.
Tazira(Leviticus 12:1-13:59)

Does Jewish history define who we are? Will the present moment define who we become? Not necessarily. But how we remember and interpret it will define us. How we remember our history ultimately determines not only our cultural identity, but it determines our moral identity for the future as well. 

As we approach Passover, we drench ourselves in history and its meaning. At the Seder table, we’ll remind ourselves that “we were slaves.” We’ll read and internalize — especially as we eat the maror/bitter herb — that we, as a people and as individuals, are deeply aware of what it means to suffer. We also know the experience of being free. Soon after Passover, when we celebrate Shavuot, we’ll celebrate the gift of Torah and the morality it gave to the world. And soon thereafter, on Yom HaShoah, we will commemorate the near genocide of the Jewish people; and soon thereafter we’ll celebrate our rebirth in the creation of the Jewish-Democratic State of Israel as we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut.

Why do we concentrate all of this intense celebrating and commemorating in the space of just a few weeks? To immerse ourselves anew in the moral focus of what it means to be Jewish. 

To the onlooker, given the intensity of these ritualized remembering, Jewish tradition might seem preoccupied with the past. In many ways, we are, but not just because it’s our unique story. We return to relearn and reflect on our past because of who we have become because of it. How we understand the moral implications and imperatives of our past can teach us how to redeem our future.   

Passover is the supreme example of how the interpretation of history determines morality in the future.

The story of the Exodus from Egypt wouldn’t have such a deep influence on the character of Judaism if we weren’t both 1) constantly recalling it in our daily prayers and rituals — re-enacted and brought to a climax at the Passover Seder — and 2) interpreting that history toward moral imperatives of what it means and how we should act because of it. 

The ancient sages were wise to teach us not to remember the past as though it happened to someone else, but to remember it as though it happened to us. As the Haggadah insists: “Each of us is required to see ourselves as though we personally went forth from Egypt.” As Jews, we feel and know in our bones and in our hearts, what is moral-- what is just.  

It’s not just retelling our story that Passover encourages. Rather, our tradition encourages us to engage anew with our story in a way that makes us more — and not less — sensitive to the plight of all human beings. All Jewish celebrations may seem like we’re just telling stories. But in fact, if we dive into them, we learn that each one reorients us to act to create a world in which all are free; a world in which all people can know justice and peace. 

May our celebrations this Passover fill us with joy as well as with the moral clarity and courage we'll need for the journey ahead.  

Shabbat Shalom!

April 5, 2024

Who Are We? Defining Ourselves by Our Actions
Shmini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

So much of what defines us as human beings is not only how we describe ourselves with words, but how we act. To a great extent, we define ourselves by what we do and what we don’t do. Where are our boundaries? When are lines crossed that force us to respond? How do we maintain our own sense of who we are, especially in a world where it is constantly challenged? 

Being Jewish, since the time of the Torah, has been about defining who we are by being aware of our boundaries of behavior. Lots of Jewish texts focus on the ways we should act - and should not act - in the world. Beginning with the Ten Commandments, our behavior defines us as good ethical humans. In other words, we are what we do and what we don’t do. 

Being ethical and true to Judaism can be described in the negative or in the positive. For example, this week’s Torah portion, Shmini, includes many of the laws about keeping Kosher. Part of Jewish practice for millennia can be framed by what we don’t eat in order to stay healthy and pure. Today, this section of the Torah might be viewed as an ancient version of our current wellness and longevity cultures. It seems that most of us are following similar guidelines about what one should and shouldn’t eat in order to stay as healthy as possible. In other words, we too focus on what we should eat to be the kind of people and live the kind of lives we value. 

The Torah portion also includes a disturbing scene of how Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, acted without concern for their own safety and that of their community by offering “a strange fire” in the holiest place at the wrong time and in the wrong way. They ended up dead. They crossed sacred boundaries of behavior, both in violating holy space and behavior. 

It’s a puzzling moment. Did they do this as part of an attempted coup? Was it well-intentioned but based on faulty intelligence? All we know from the text is that because of the seriousness of their crime and the cruelty of the situation, they were killed. Aaron, their father, is silent. As we will learn in the coming weeks, like anyone grieving the untimely loss of a loved one, he must nevertheless find a way to carry on. 

The questions the situation raises hang heavily in the air for the rest of the Book. Was it necessary for them to be killed? Did they do something so horrific that their lives must be sacrificed? Couldn’t they just have been fined? Or exiled from the priesthood, or even the people? And what of the responsibility of their father? Did Aaron fail to make the boundaries and the consequences for crossing them clear enough? 

This evening I’ll speak about the ways in which the present - and very complicated - reality for Israel and for the Jewish people raises similar questions. What are the boundaries of behavior in our time that must not be crossed? How do we respond when they are violated? What are we willing to sacrifice or endanger to protect our borders? Our boundaries? What do we risk when we remain silent? How should we act to protect our community? Our People? Who and what are we willing to sacrifice? What kind of people are we? 

Our willingness to ask these hard questions - and of course how we respond to them - will define not only what kind of people we strive to be, but it will define what we want our community, Israel, and the Jewish People to be in the future. I pray we are up to the task.

March 31, 2024

What Kind of Leaders Do We Need? Learning from the Precision, Ethics, and Leadership of the Ancient Priests
Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

For most of us, some sections of the Torah might seem irrelevant, incomprehensible, reprehensible, or all of the above. This is particularly true of much of the Book of Leviticus, which we began reading last week. It is filled with details of the complex rituals of animal sacrifices in the ancient Temple and the specific roles of the ancient priests. These details might seem far away from anything that we might consider meaningful, much less relevant. 

What can we possibly learn from the minute details of how Aaron and his sons were supposed to burn animal sacrifices in a Temple that was destroyed two thousand years ago? 

In fact, for decades, many of our Reform prayer books have omitted, rephrased, or reinterpreted all liturgical references to the priesthood (sorry to all the Cohens, Kohans, Katzs etc.!), the Temple, and, of course, the whole idea of sacrificing animals as a way of communicating with God. And yet we still read all of these passages in the Torah every year. Yes, Reform thinkers sought to find meaning in the ancient priesthood and in the culture of the ancient Temple cult, but generally they found them to be archaic, hierarchical, meaningless, and/or a barrier to spirituality. 

So why should we keep studying these passages so carefully when their direct relevance is long gone and their meaning for us is often hard to find? 

Consider, for example, this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, which focuses on the role of the priesthood in offering each of the sacrifices. The text emphasizes how very careful the priests must be in carrying out these rituals and emphasizes that they do so on behalf of the community. 

When I read these texts they strike me as incredibly relevant. The priests had to have the necessary knowledge, ability, precision, and character. These are precisely some of the qualities we definitely need in our leadership today, whether it be in the religious, educational, political, or military context. It’s not just what leaders say, or even what they do that matters, but who they are, and how carefully they attend to their responsibilities that matters. 

Leaders also need to be transparent about what they ultimately intend to achieve, and how their goals mirror what the people they serve need and want. The work of the ancient priests shaped not only the way society functioned, but how it saw itself and its potential, its way forward. In fact, according to the great 20th-century anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), all kinds of leaders can transform how we see ourselves. Real leaders put the needs of the community first, and can help us see ourselves as greater and better than we believed we were before.

The Torah reminds us that our leaders today, like the ancient priests, must also demonstrate the clarity of who they are and what their goals are. In every fiber of their being they know that, ultimately, they are public servants with absolute and sacred obligations to create the best possible world for all the people in their communities, countries, and — as much as possible — the entire world.

May we be inspired to uphold the highest standards for our leaders and for ourselves. May we have the courage to demand of ourselves and our leaders the kind of knowledge, ethics, and commitment that will ensure that our community is a place where all can thrive and experience holiness not only in our time but far into the future as well. 

Shabbat Shalom!

March 22, 2024

What Kind of Jew Are You? Purim, Passover, and the Urgent Question of this Moment.
Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

Every year at this time of year — and especially this year — I find myself deep in a debate. It’s a debate I first had with colleague and friend, the well-known writer Yossi Klein Halevi. Along with many other Jewish thinkers, Yossi insisted that there are two kinds of Jews: The ‘Purim Jew’ and the ‘Passover Jew’. As many of you know, I thought it was clear that I am primarily a Pesah (Passover) Jew. But since October 7th I’m not so sure. 

The distinction between the Purim Jew vs. the Passover Jew is, of course, not based on a preference for hamentashen over matzah, or the spiel over the haggadah, but rather on what each holiday emphasizes about who we are. Which kind of Jew you are is determined by how you see yourself and how you understand Jewish history. 

I argue against such an either/or assertion for two main reasons. The first one is that I instinctively reject such false dichotomies. Very rarely can anything so complex be reduced to an either/or. The second reason I rejected such an approach is that I was quite sure that he was a Purim Jew, and that I was, at my core, a Passover Jew. 

But before I share my changing perspective, let’s first remind ourselves what each kind of Jewish stance involves. According to this theory, Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two very distinct commandments “to remember.” This is the name of this special Shabbat just before Purim: Shabbat Zakhor — or the ‘Shabbat of Remembering’.

The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that experience is: Don’t be brutal. 

The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked the ancient Israelites without provocation while we were wandering in the desert. The message of that experience is: Don’t be naive.

The first command is the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim, commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek.

“Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat. 

Yes, the unfathomable horrors of October 7th, the unending plight of the hostages, the ongoing and brutal war Israel must fight, the suffering of thousands of innocent people, and the awakening of a new era of worldwide antisemitism constitute a new era. There is no doubt that I, like many of you, when faced with an unprecedented new reality, are thinking differently about the world and our place in it. Even with enormous Israeli military might, vast economic and political power, and the ‘best’ counter-terrorism intelligence, we were, apparently, nonetheless too naive about all the threats we were actually facing. Purim insists that we not be naive about the existential threats we face. 

So this year, while celebrating Purim and Passover will be challenging, I think the perspective they give us is even more important. We need them both, especially now because they allow us to see the world through many different lenses. Each holiday also invites us to take the long view of history — even from within a crucible, and especially from within the crucible that we find ourselves in at the moment.  

Even now, however, I want to remind us of the overarching view of these two holidays: “Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.”

In other words, we hold the messages of both close to our hearts. “The goal,” writes Yossi, “is to create multidimensional Jews.” 

Today, I think this is more important than ever. We must be sure that we hold the widest possible range of perspectives in mind; we must be capable of holding more than one truth about who we need to be here and now. This is hardly a prescription for the battlefield or for hostage negotiation or for arguing a case at the ICJ or the SCOTUS. Rather, this is a perspective I can recommend for the rest of us for the long haul because it is based on Jewish values. 

If we insist that only one viewpoint on the entire meaning of Jewish existence is possible and that we have the monopoly on truth and that any other perspective is absolutely false, then we will be trapped forever in a false dichotomy. We will also have no way to communicate with each other, much less will we be able to find a new way out of this new kind of ‘Egypt’ we are in, or to protect ourselves against whatever kind of ‘Hamans’ may rise to destroy us. 

I am also convinced that there is great wisdom in the rhythms of the Jewish calendar that are essential for us right now. Purim comes first so that we can purge from ourselves the understandable human desire to utterly destroy and annihilate whoever we perceive to be the enemy — no matter the cost. We must not be naive and, at the same time, we must not become brutal. 

Thankfully, Passover will soon be upon us with its very different message. At the Seder table we will declare “all who are hungry — come and eat.” We will reread and re-enact our story of knowing the suffering of oppression and experiencing the universal right to be free and to live with the dignity of self-determination. May it remind us never to squander our hard won modern day freedom. 

May this Passover see the redemption of our present/day hostages, and may all suffering come to an end. Let our celebrations inspire us to create a future in which we all can thrive.

March 15, 2024

Finding Hope and Strength in Each Other
Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38)

Learning with our Hoffberger Scholar, Prof. Shaul Kelner, this weekend couldn’t be more timely. Shaul is a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and his work is crucial for us to better understand what’s happening to us, American Jews, in this time of dramatic cultural and political shifts. Some read the shifting winds and the increasingly extreme voices of antisemitism — from both the right and the left — as causes for anxiety and pessimism. An important piece from this perspective is the recent article in this month's Atlantic,The Golden Age of American Jews Is Ending.”

I totally reject such a conclusion. While I don’t disagree that we have had a wonderful “Golden Age'' in America, it’s far from over. Yes, the data show the increase in antisemitism and the political outrage about Israel’s rightful response to Hamas post-October 7th, but our situation today in America is not at all comparable to any previous moment in history. We may be accustomed to keeping memories of past destruction in mind, but let’s not declare “the sky is falling”, when there is still so much to do to prevent it. For so many reasons our situation is not only unique, but the character – or ‘goldenness’– of our era in America is still in the making. And, as Shaul says, it’s a very un-Jewish stance to give up. We must not give in to dooms-day thinking, especially while we’re thriving! Instead of crying about the end, let’s focus instead on the many opportunities for us to emerge from this moment even stronger. 

As I write this, the War against Hamas continues, and our hostages are still being held in Gaza. We Israelis are still burying our dead. For these reasons alone it is much too soon to say what the impact of this storm is while we are still in the midst of it. We can’t possibly declare defeat. Yes, we must be vigilant and report and raise our voices against the rising anti-semitism directed at Jews now more often because of what’s happening in Israel. But we also can’t ignore how so many are inspired by this moment to connect ever more deeply to their Jewish identity and are increasing their involvement in Jewish communal life. 

So, please, let’s not let our hand wringing overtake us and prevent us from seeing and acting upon the possibilities of this moment. The conversations we should have might instead focus on how we can ensure that we Jews and Jewish identity continue to thrive. Simultaneously, we must organize to leverage our influence – political, financial, social – to ensure that America lives up to its pluralistic and democratic promises to us and and to other minorities. 

Perhaps this is the moment to re-evaluate old political alliances and create new ones. 
Perhaps this is the moment to re-think Jewish education to take into account the complexities of Israel and the realities of the current war. 
Perhaps this is the moment to increase the breadth and depth of how we listen and work with Millenials and Gen-Zers who are experiencing this moment very differently than Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers, and those of the Greatest Generation. 
Perhaps this is the moment for bold and daring experiments in rethinking Jewish life.

A Midrash on this week’s Torah portion gives voice to our collective strength and clarity of vision while in the midst of the storm of slavery in Egypt. Somehow, even while suffering a horrific reality when the Pharaoh separated men and women and prevented them from creating a future, the ancient Israelites found courageous ways not only to deepen their identity but they also ensured their ability to procreate even in such harsh circumstances. How did they do that? 

The Midrash (Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 9) offers a wild R-rated story about how incredibly successful the Israelite women were in their fishing, in their gourmet cooking, and in their commerce. This gave them the financial means to cook for their husbands, meet them in the fields where they were forced into backbreaking labor, and seduce them into having sex. These regular and daring seductions ensured the future. 

We, too, need to find the possibilities of this moment. We, too, must not fall into the pull – or trap – of pessimism. To do so, will be to hand those who have sought – and still seek – to destroy us, a terrible victory. The Midrash can inspire us not to give up on the future even when things seem as though they can’t get any worse. 

Let us be inspired by the daring women and men of our people who never give up. Let us also find the courage to learn whatever new capacities we need for resilience and to ensure that we, too, will thrive long into the future. May our future be at least as beautiful and may our actions in our time make us worthy of the inheritance that their courage made possible for us.

March 1, 2024

The Opportunity of Uncertainty
Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

Have you ever heard someone correct you when you refer to some difficult situation as a “problem” or a “crisis”? Instead of seeing a difficult situation as a problem to be solved or a challenge to overcome, some well-meaning advisor (or someone less concerned or more optimistic than you) encourages you to see the situation as an “opportunity.”

But in the midst of a crisis and enormous uncertainty, it’s often very hard to see the opportunity. We are definitely living in such a situation today. It might be reassuring to remember in such times that we Jews are experts in navigating crisis and uncertainty. I’m not saying that we always did such a good job in moments of crisis and uncertainty, we have definitely made many mistakes over the years. Yet, the Jewish people, as reflected in our texts and testimonies, have done our best to make sure that we learned from such situations so that future generations might handle crisis and uncertainty better.

For example, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, after a long trek through the desert, the Israelites finally reach Mt. Sinai only to find themselves in crisis. Moses disappears for a long time and they are terrified. They likely felt abandoned and terrified about the future. They didn’t know where to turn or what to do.

Among the questions that arise in the text are: Are they really able to trust their leaders? Can they really leave idolatry and polytheism behind? Or will they forever be tempted by false gods and the lure of materialism? It’s a dangerous phase of profound struggle and self-discovery. Can they weather the absence of Moses and any signs that it’s all going to be alright?

So what did they do in that moment? They did everything that they were forbidden from doing. They built a golden calf and engaged in all the idolatry and other forbidden stuff. In other words, in their moment of crisis, they forget who they are and what their ultimate values and goals are – and they party like crazy. When God discovers what they’ve done, God is furious and ready to destroy them because, well, they’re clearly just not ready for the mission at hand and certainly don’t deserve to receive the Ten Commandments.

But just when it seems that the whole journey is going to end right there and then and the earth is about to open up and swallow them alive, God gives (most of) them a second chance to receive a new set of the Ten Commandments (after Moses smashed the first set). God still believes in us even when we fail to navigate the waters of crisis and uncertainty. God believes that we can learn from our mistakes. The opportunity to grow into the best people we can be is always a possibility.

One of the things that the Torah teaches us is that it takes time to understand what a crisis is meant to teach us.When we’re in the midst of a crisis, it’s natural to be paralyzed – at least for a while – by uncertainty. But with time and experience we can gradually learn new ways of thinking about ourselves and the new opportunities ahead of us. Only after we face our fears, re-group, and learn from our mistakes can we move forward.

Given the watershed moment reflected in this week’s Torah portion and the watershed moment of the multiple crises that face us right now as Americans and Jews, we should be sure not to miss the opportunity of this moment. We, too, have to decide how to navigate all the uncertainty of our time. We, too, have to be laser-focused on our mission and be true to our values as American Jews and as lovers of Israel.

Yes, we, too, have imperfect leaders and huge differences of opinion, just like the Israelites. And we, too, can learn from this week’s Torah portion not to give up even when we are afraid, and to stay true to who we are and resist giving in to the temptation of joining the masses and doing what’s easiest in the moment. In this moment we also have the opportunity to resist the lure of just carrying on with our lives and doing what’s easiest. We, too, can learn from the past so that we might better navigate these complex times and ensure that our Jewish future has a chance.

So we, like the ancient Israelites, must gather up our courage, support each other, and focus on our shared values so that we, too, can journey toward the Promised Land of the future, together.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

February 16, 2024

What Makes Our Congregation Whole and Holy?
Parshat Terumah

Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

What makes a community whole and holy?

That depends on much more than what or how much each person gives. Don’t get me wrong, all the membership dues and additional annual gifts are incredibly important and without them we cannot do what we do! But building a sacred community depends on so much more. It depends on how each one of us gives, our intent, and on our ability to work together to create something whole, stable, sustainable, beautiful, and focused on its values. Only then can it be holy. 

The complex architecture and interior design of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, is explained in great detail in this week's Torah portion, Terumah, and will continue to be a central theme for several weeks. The Mishkan is an elaborate tent designed to be the place where the tablets of the covenant were kept in a special ark and where ancient sacred rituals took place. (Yes, think Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.) 

The Mishkan, God tells Moses, will also be the place where God comes to dwell among the people, to be present among us — not just at the top of Mount Sinai but also on earth with us, with the Israelites. “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I can dwell among them” V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham. (Exodus 25:8) 

Our sanctuary, like the Mishkan, is also the place we go together to be spiritually close to the sacred and to God. V’no’adeti l’cha “There I will meet with you.” (Ex. 25:22) Our sanctuary’s ark, in fact, is designed to recall core elements of the first holy ark that we learn about in this week’s Torah portion. 

But the Mishkan wasn’t just any tent. It was composed of several different kinds of wood and precious metals and colorful linens all meant to be connected by hundreds of special clasps. The complex details of how each of these elements is connected to the other and integrated into the whole is what makes it particularly glorious. 

All the clasps and heavy hardware made of gold and copper and silver had to come together just so in order for it to become one whole. The whole thing stands only because of how the elements and the people work together. They must have had to work very carefully and mindfully together to make it work. 

Repeated throughout is the reminder that the Mishkan is created not from the basic taxes or membership dues of the community, but it is created from the additional gifts, the gifts above and beyond all requirements that each person’s heart moves him to give, “Asher nidveinu libo” (Ex. 25:2). Building the Mishkan depended on generosity of heart and mind and skill, along with the capacity to work toward a shared vision of something grand and worthy of God’s presence and blessing. 

But it wasn’t just about creating a beautiful space for us to meet God and engage in offering up gratitude to God. The most sacred place inside it was a set of values. Also inside the Mishkan was the Ark which held the Ten Commandments. At the center of it all was the reason for the whole structure, the reason for the project, the reason for our people. The Ten Commandments are the closest thing we have to the words that ultimately make us who we are — a people focused on creating a more equal and ethical world. 

Similarly, our Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom community is also only as strong and as beautiful as we make it and only as worthy as our commitments to our shared values. Ultimately, it is how we, each member of our community, generously bring our resources, our hearts and minds, and how we live our shared values that makes us whole and holy. 

We must continue to work generously and holistically together while keeping our values clearly in focus. When we do this, we, too, can fulfill our core mission of creating a flourishing sacred community that inspires people from within and without with a sense of God’s presence and God’s blessing. 

Shabbat Shalom!

February 9, 2024

Justice for All Bodies: Reproductive Freedom is a Jewish Issue
Shabbat Mishpatim - 'Repro Shabbat'

Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

This Shabbat, when we read the Torah portion Mishpatim, has become known as “Repro Shabbat.” Since 2021, Repro Shabbat is an annual Shabbat celebration that honors the Jewish value of reproductive freedom. Together with the Reform Movement – including the Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) and the Religious Action Center (RAC) – we join together with the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and the larger Jewish Community in marking this Shabbat as a time to recommit ourselves to reproductive health and rights

Our Torah portion, Mishpatim, highlights the ways in which legal standards help protect the most vulnerable. Our Torah portion also gives expression to the understanding that human life begins only after birth, not at conception or at any time before birth. Causing a miscarage is not, according to the text, murder. Thus abortion cannot be considered murder. This view is part of our earliest legal text. The Torah portion contains these verses commonly referenced as the foundation of Judaism’s approach to reproductive health, rights, and justice. So on the Shabbat when we read these verses, individuals and communities across the world gather to celebrate Repro Shabbat and the Jewish traditions it honors. 

Sometimes people wonder how Judaism, a tradition that prioritizes life, could support abortion rights. The answer is that yes, Judaism prioritizes human life over all else. However, Jewish law does not consider an embryo or fetus to be human beings with rights. Only when the fetus fully emerges from the womb does it have human rights. Before then, the woman’s health and life take precedence. 

As the leaders of our Reform Movement and the NCJW proclaim: “Reproductive freedom is a Jewish value, and we’re going to celebrate it!”

In studying these sources, we learn that abortion is not only permitted in Jewish law, but it is required when the life of the pregnant person is in danger. Abortion is also an issue of Jewish values: Abortion bans deepen every structural inequality that exists and disproportionately harm those struggling financially, BIPOC individuals and communities, disabled people, young people, trans men and some nonbinary people, immigrants, and others. As our Torah portion teaches us, we are commanded to create a more just society; therefore, we must fight for abortion access for everyone. 

Our access to reproductive health care is guaranteed not only by the Fourteenth Amendment — the right to equality and privacy — but also by the First Amendment’s guarantee that no one religion or religious interpretation will be enshrined in law or regulation. We must not remain idle while barriers to health care place any individual’s health, well-being, autonomy, or economic security at risk. Learn more about the Reform Movement’s advocacy here

In ancient times and in our time, rabbinic leaders of all Jewish denominations agree that abortion is not wrong and that women should have agency over their own bodies. No governmental authority or rabbinic court can take away a woman's autonomy over her body and her right to an abortion.

As my friend, Professor Michal Raucher, of Rutgers University writes: “Unless you support a person’s right to bodily autonomy, then you are supporting a system wherein someone else determines what you or anyone else can do with their bodies. It does not matter whether that person is a lawmaker, a judge, a contemporary rabbi or one from 2,000 years ago. It does not matter whether that person would permit most abortions or even require some.” In other words, it’s a fundamental right to choose what happens to our bodies.

A religious argument based on Jewish law and rabbinic texts supports reproductive care and the fundamental rights of every person to receive medical care. As we read the Torah portion Mishpatim this Shabbat, let us recommit ourselves to advocating for laws and a society in which all are equal. 

As we mark this special Shabbat, please consider this special prayer:

A Prayer for Reproductive Freedom

May we always remember that each person is created in the image of the Sacred, endowed with the inherent right to autonomy and respect.

May we create a caring and loving community and nation that reveres this dignity in each of us. May we understand our obligations to one another; we are all inherently holy and should be treated as such.

May we find within ourselves the collective will to create a just society in which reproductive justice- the holy right to own the personhood of one's own body, to have or not have children, to raise any children in safety and community- is foundational.

May we endow each other with the strength, resolve, and courage we need as we walk together towards a liberatory world.

May we always follow the leadership of those most impacted by the harms of reproductive oppression. May we listen and learn.

May our country become a place of true liberty and justice for all. May our relationships with each other be ones of care and deep respect. May we walk together on the path of community as we work together to ensure truly accessible abortion care for all.

Amen.

May we be blessed to live in a world of equality and justice. 
Shabbat shalom!

For more resources and readings about this Special Shabbat click here.

January 12, 2024

The Triumph of Hope: How to be Jewish Even in Times of Despair
Vaera (Exodus 6:9-9:35)

The Jewish people are, by nature, incredibly optimistic.

You could even say that Judaism is a religion of optimism. Being Jewish is about having hope even in times of darkness. Spiritually, we are called upon to always embrace hope over despair. Given what we’ve been through and what we’re going through, this is not at all an obvious cultural norm. 

Saying that being Jewish means being optimistic may sound trite but it is historically true. Our synagogue – and most of us – wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for the ways in which our ancestors were incessantly optimistic about the future. Whether we were successfully flourishing or whether we were facing profound challenges, our ancestors modeled for us an insistence on holding on to hope. 

From a religious perspective this optimism is embedded. Jewish faith and practice include turning to God for strength and hope even in the darkest moments. We’re constantly referring back to being slaves and, at the same time, we’re constantly celebrating being freed from slavery. We read about being lost in the desert and about all the arguments Jews have about every detail of the journey but at the same time, we’re always focused on reaching the Promised Land. We’re always focused on how the “best is yet to come.”

For some, this has meant feeling a sense of God’s presence especially in times of trouble. The Biblical books of Genesis and Exodus are filled with how our ancestors experienced this. It often happened when they had the greatest doubts or were experiencing paralyzing fear. God says to generation after generation of the descendants of Abraham: "I am with you, and I will be with you." 

Initially, our ancestors connected with God over and over again because of what they called “the covenant of our ancestors” or brit avot. In the Book of Genesis it’s about how God showed up somehow for individuals, but in the book of Exodus God shows up for an entire people, enslaved in Egypt. The Covenant of the Jewish People with God is about knowing that God is with us, even when God seems absent. 

Enslaved, without a sure sign from God for generations, a hidden God, ultimately does take notice, visits, and hears the cry of the Israelites crying under the burden of slavery and still hoping for freedom. Now too God takes notice, but the verbs become stronger and more numerous: God remembers, God hears, God sees and God knows the suffering of the Children of Israel. (Exodus 2:24-25). While hidden for centuries, God turns to a new kind of leader, Moses, and through the burning bush and a mysterious voice, makes Godself be heard (Exodus 3:1-2). This is how the saga of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and our future as a people begins: We hear each other, we take notice, we believe. 

Even generations later, the theme and the same verbs repeat in the text, reminding us of the foundations of a life of faith. In the Book of Ruth, the narrative begins with her mother-in-law, deep in mourning, hearing that after a long famine in the Land of Israel, God has again pakad, visited his people and given them bread. Once again, God appears in the historical narrative, takes notice of his people and brings hope and faith back to those who seemed otherwise lost. 

This underlying chorus of assurance and optimism about the future is felt throughout the Torah. Today we also have this choice to make. We can throw up our hands and give up, as some of the Israelites certainly wanted to do, or we can look around us for sources of inspiration and light. 

Perhaps if we carefully notice all the good that is happening, see and hear how people are showing up for each other, we will be inspired to act similarly and we, like God, can show up for others with our presence and support. Then we can all turn toward the future with courage and optimism. 

Shabbat Shalom! 

January 5, 2024

What we Need Now: Clarity, Courage, and Vision
Shemot(Exodus 1:1-6:1)

This Shabbat is a new beginning! 

Not only are we beginning the new year of 2024, but we are also beginning a new journey through the Book of Exodus. Without a doubt, Exodus is the most important book of the Torah. Of course you might hear me say the same thing about every single book of the Torah and many other books, but it’s clear that without the story of the Book of Exodus, we would not know who we are or what our core values are. That “We were slaves in Egypt,” experienced redemption, received the Torah, and had the opportunity for self-determination are all essential to Jewish identity. Our experience ensures our sensitivity to suffering and our commitment to the values and possibilities of human freedom. 

The ancient dictum “May you live in interesting times” is definitely both a curse and a blessing. To say that we are living in interesting times is a huge understatement. We are living in an age filled with both curse and blessing. I don’t need to reiterate the curses because you hear about them all the time thanks to the unrelenting barrage of news that floods our screens — and which also floods our minds and affects our souls. What I must share, however, is the Jewish wisdom that reminds us of who we are, what our core values are, and that helps us clarify how we should act in such times. 

Given what’s happening in our world, I am in awe of the wisdom of what we can learn from the Book of Exodus at this particular moment. It reminds us how a time of profound crisis — the rise of “a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” — the loss of Jewish power and influence and the experience of the first massive antisemitic assault on the Jewish People — also led to the most profound and eternal clarity about basic human rights, about our rights, and about who we can become. In fact, our experience of slavery and suffering is the crisis that ultimately allows for a new beginning in human history. 

Moments of collective or personal crisis can — if we are wise enough — help refine for us who we are and what we value. While the peace of mind we have in times of safety and success can allow for reflection and renewal, crisis and trauma are the crucibles that can force us into acting with greater clarity about who we are and what role we want to play in the world. That is the blessing of living in “interesting times.” Slavery was unspeakably horrific, but it also taught us about justice and equality, about the fundamental rights of religious freedom and self-determination. 

Even — or especially — in the midst of very stormy times such as these, we must focus on what the Israelites focused on throughout the Book of Exodus: the uniqueness of their culture, their covenantal commitments to God and to each other, and an unrelenting hope for a future in which they would create an ideal society in the Land of Israel. Our story is one in which any age offers us the possibilities of the blessings of clarity, the power of courage, and the opportunity to create something new and better for all of humanity. 

What we as individuals, as a congregation, and as the Jewish People, create out of the crises of our times will depend on the same things: our core Jewish identity, the clarity born of crisis, the power of courage, and a renewed vision for the future.

May we know these blessings and have the wisdom to act upon them.

Shabbat Shalom!

December 29, 2023

What's the Meaning of Life?
Our Unbreakable Covenant with the Land of Israel

Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

What is the meaning of life? How do we ensure a life of meaning for ourselves and our descendants? Such big questions return like a chorus over and over again throughout the book of Genesis. At the climax of the Book we read this Shabbat, our first fathers respond to these questions. What better questions can we also ask ourselves this Shabbat as the year 2023 reaches its finale?

For our patriarch Jacob, the very fact that he lives to see his beloved son Joseph again after thinking he’d been killed, is a source of profound meaning. 

This Shabbat we can’t help but think of the families of the Israeli hostages who, like Jacob, wonder if they will ever see their loved ones alive again. Have they been murdered like Jacob thought Joseph was? Or taken hostage as the Torah tells us Joseph was? 

Thankfully, by the end of the book, Jacob embraces his son Joseph and even witnesses him reconciling with his estranged brothers. Jacob even lives to meet and bless his grandchildren. All of this surely gives his life profound meaning. What more could he want? 

The words of the blessings Jacob gives his grandchildren are, to this day, the introduction to the evening blessing for children in the traditional prayer book:

“May the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm— Bless these lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac. And may they become great multitudes upon the earth.” (Genesis 48:16) 

What greater blessings can we ask for our children than that they 1) be protected from all harm; 2) be connected to their heritage; and 3) that their future will be bright?  Even on his deathbed, however, Jacob is aware that these blessings are not enough. Even though he and his family have survived and are thriving in Egypt, this kind of success is not the only source of meaning of life. As Jews, we seek out greater meaning and purpose because we are part of a much bigger story. 

Jacob has a vision for his family that is greater than his own lifetime. “I am about to die,” Jacob says to Joseph, “but God will be with you and bring you back to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”  Even on his deathbed, Jacob knew that no chapter of our story should end our connection to the Land of Israel. It’s our historic homeland. The Jewish people are more than indigenous to the Land of Israel from the beginning and throughout our history until this very day — we are from it, of it, headed toward it, and committed to it always — no matter what. 

While we struggle to process and better understand the horrors of October 7th and as we seek to find ways to support Israelis as they are forced to fight a defensive war on multiple fronts, we are also called upon to consider the purpose and meaning of our lives. Is it enough just to thrive where we are? Or is our destiny ultimately interlinked with the destiny of the Jewish people? While we  may not always agree with what a specific government is doing or saying, being Jewish means to connect to Israel as the place of our origin and the place where more than half of the Jewish people live. Our covenantal commitment means we have a responsibility to them. No matter what. 

Our Covenantal commitment today, however, is also to help ensure the safety of the Jewish people and all citizens of Israel. And yes, being Jewish means we must also weep at the loss of life of all innocent people. To fail to feel the pain of the suffering and loss of life of innocent Palestinians would be to fail our Jewish commitment to the value of the life of every single human being, created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. This is the fundamental principle of the ideal society we must continue to seek to create in Israel. No matter what. 

In the meantime, regardless of how difficult things get, we need to continue to model, like Jacob and Joseph did, our intergenerational covenantal commitment to Israel. In this way, we will be ensuring the continuity not only of the Jewish people, but of the dream of our eternal ethical commitment to strive to create an ideal society in the Land of Israel. If not today, then tomorrow. No matter what. 

Shabbat Shalom!

December 8, 2023

"We Each Must Banish Darkness and Bring Light"
Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

The chorus of one of my favorite Hanukkah songs, “We Each Must Banish Darkness and Bring Light,” seems especially powerful and strikingly relevant. Celebrating our Jewish identity and increasing the light in the world has never felt more urgent!

Especially on this Hanukkah, we are all called to: 

  • Insist on making light even in the darkness;
  • Celebrate how the Jewish people don’t just survive but thrive;
  • Affirm our right to self-defense, religious freedom, and safety; and 
  • Believe and act so that good will ultimately triumph over evil. 

Hanukkah literally means “dedication”, or re-dedication. Hanukkah celebrates not only the ancient triumph of the Maccabees and the miracle of the eight days of light, but it also affirms our ability to re-dedicate ourselves to the sacred tasks ahead of us, no matter how daunting.

May this Hanukkah remind us of the power of hope even in darkness and inspire us to rededicate ourselves to our people and to our congregation and to each other.  

As the Chief Rabbi of Israel and another rabbi wrote this week:“The light of the Hanukkah candles express the words of the entire nation. Light the candles of liberty and freedom, gather beacons to demonstrate the great light that the People of Israel inspire in the entire world.” 

With blessings for peace, for return of the hostages, and for more light in our world this Hanukkah.

P.S. I look forward to sharing more light from Israel during an upcoming Rabbinic solidarity Mission.

December 1, 2023

Sexual Violence, Rage and Revenge: What Can the Torah Teach Us Now?
Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

Please note that the following includes a discussion of sexual violence in the Torah and today, and may be disturbing. 

In the midst of all that we — the Jewish people — are facing at this moment, this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is both deeply disturbing and startlingly relevant. 

In the section we read on this Shabbat, the text depicts scenes of violence, rape, pain, rage, deception, failed negotiations, and the desire for revenge. Hardly a story for children! Although it seems highly unlikely, the text also includes the power of the yearning for peace even with one’s enemies. On this Shabbat, the text and its interpretations can offer us some affirmation of how many of us are feeling and perhaps some consolation and inspiration.  

Our Torah portion begins with the horrific story of the rape of Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s daughter, followed by the violent responses of her father and her brothers. First they negotiate with the rapist, then deceive his whole nation, and then two of Dinah’s brothers massacre all the males of the village of the rapist. It is perhaps one of the most sexually violent and disturbing texts in the whole Torah. I offer these reflections today with both hesitation and a sense of urgency of this moment. 

The test reads: “Dinah … went out to observe the daughters of the Land.” But then: “Shechem … saw her. He (the Prince of Shechem) took her, lay with her, and violated her.” (Genesis 24:1-2) According to the chronology, it’s possible that Dinah was only 6-8 years old at the time of the rape. 

Today, such violence against girls and women is still too prevalent. According to a recently released international study, women are the targets of the vast majority of violent threats online and the victims of increasing rates of sexually violent crimes. How shockingly relevant is this week’s Torah portion– especially because of the sexual violence and murder of Israeli women on and after October 7th. 

On this Shabbat, it’s impossible to read this text without hearing the screams not only of Dinah, but also the screams of our Israeli sisters during the massive and brutal attack on Israel on October 7th and in its aftermath. Like many of you, I cannot hear the stories about what happened to our people or read this text without feeling not only some of Dinah’s pain, but also a sense of her brothers’ rage, desire for justice, and perhaps even revenge. Today, we are not Dinah’s brothers, but we are all the brothers and sisters of all the victims of sexual violence in Israel and of all those fighting terrorism everywhere.

We have no idea of what Dinah’s desires might have been, or what she needed to heal, or what kind of justice she wanted. But we do know that her father and her brother are appropriately enraged. The powerful rapist offers her father any price to be able to marry her. He even agrees to having himself and all of the males of his city circumcised in order that they be acceptable to Dinah’s family. But while all the men are weak post-op, two of Dinah’s brothers – Simeon and Levi – slaughter them all. Much later, we learn that on his deathbed, Dinah’s father Jacob never forgives her brothers for their horrific act of violent revenge against a whole city, largely because of how it compromised their ability to negotiate to protect their whole tribe. 

How can we not weep at the ways such acts of rape, violence, revenge, collective punishment, and war continue among nations in our time? 

Yes, the response of Dinah’s brothers to those who ‘defiled’ their sister was likely a ‘necessary’ and historically ‘normative’ response. But let’s not forget to first and foremost be victim-focused. After being raped, Dinah is silent and completely disappears from the narrative. There is no mention of Dinah’s return from captivity. In fact, we never hear anything of her until the Torah makes a single mention of her in Genesis 46:15, long after being abducted and raped: her name is mentioned as one of the 70 who descended to Egypt.

We’re also hearing another kind of silence following the horrific sexual violence against Jewish women today – the ‘deafening silence’ of too many organizations and rights groups following the rape of so many Jewish women in Israel. Organizations that we might have previously thought of as our allies in our shared fight for human rights for all women have failed to condemn the horrific acts of sexual violence by Hamas and other terrorists against women in Israel and in Gaza. (Please listen to this podcast for an excellent analysis and discussion on gender and sexual violence in the current conflict).

As one scholar writes: “Ignoring the unprecedented, premeditated and extreme cruelty of the sexual violence committed by Hamas," means that they [human rights organizations] are not only failing Israeli women but failing the entire international human rights system. Prof. Halperin Kaddari adds, "I still am a believer in this system. But this was a huge blow to this belief." Amazingly, to mark this year's recent International Day for the Prevention of Violence against Women, Israeli women – Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze – gathered at the President's Residence in Jerusalem with First Lady, Michal Herzog. Amazingly, they met “in the lingering shock of the violation of our rights, and with the profound sense that all of us who believe in those rights have been betrayed.” 

Despite this silence and betrayal, Herzog concludes: “Yet we will persist in presenting the truth to the world and to every human rights organization. We owe it not only to our own victims, but to all women who will face these crimes in the future and must know that they are not alone.” 

Continuing to present the hard truth of these experiences and our sense of betrayal by parts of the international community is one important way we must express our rage and desire for justice in our time. This is also one way we can be sure to remember and honor the victims of sexual violence before, during, and after October 7th. May this also be one way we honor the memory and experience of Dinah and ensure justice for all victims.

With prayers for healing, justice, and peace.

November 24, 2023

A Message of Gratitude on this Shabbat Thanksgiving:
Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

On this Shabbat Thanksgiving, I want to share a few of the things that I am especially thankful for:

As your Rabbi, I am deeply thankful to be part of and help lead our Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation. I am proud to be the Rabbi of a congregation so committed to each other, to Jewish celebrations, learning, prayer, spirituality, social action, and social justice. I am grateful for all the ways in which we work together in sacred partnership. With mutual commitment and mutual respect, we have created a community which lives its values. 

I am thankful for all of you! When you come to pray or learn, to seek counsel, plan your simchas, share your hearts in joy and in sorrow, pack food for the hungry, support Israel, host us in your homes, or shmooze at an Oneg Shabbat, each of you makes being your Rabbi the greatest privilege. I am so moved to see how you support each other, and stand together for what you believe is right. Every day in my private prayers of gratitude, I express gratitude to God and to all of you for the incredible privilege of dedicating my life to this congregation.

I am grateful for our leadership, especially Abby Hoffman, who works tirelessly to ensure that we are as strong and as mission-driven as we can be in every aspect of our congregation. Every single day I am thankful for an incredible professional team. Cantor Marcus is an incredibly dedicated and full clergy partner and member of our senior leadership team. Leading prayer with her is a constant source of spiritual fulfillment. I am also grateful for the dedicated work of Lee Sherman and our entire professional team. These people regularly go ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ to make our congregation everything that it is— a joyful and welcoming space for everyone who wants to engage in so many aspects of Jewish life.

I am in awe of how we are constantly striving toward being the congregation we say we are, including being “a congregation that advances our foundational value of repairing the world at home, in the Baltimore community, and far beyond our walls. We are committed to performing acts of loving-kindness, providing service to others, and advocating for justice and peace.” 

As an American Rabbi, I am thankful for the extent to which America has been a place where Jewish communities like ours can thrive. For more than 181 years, our congregation has been a place where American Jews in Baltimore can join together to celebrate Jewish values and holidays, where we engage in social action and social justice, and where we learn and grow together.  

As an American Jew, I am thankful that each of us can live as free and equal citizens. Despite current rising antisemitism, we must be thankful that we live in a society in which the government and its law enforcement agencies assure that we can freely practice our religion. 

As an American Jew, I am grateful to be part of a society where Jewish people have reached the highest levels of success and influence. I am grateful and confident that we can use our strength and power to ensure that current acts of violence and harassment against us will be prosecuted and we will work together with many allies to strengthen a society in which antisemitism —and racism of any kind— is not tolerated. 

As an American-Israeli, I am thankful for the gift of dual citizenship. I am grateful for a life in which I have been able to live the best parts of our dual cultures and raise a family that speaks Hebrew and English, that celebrates Thanksgiving and Yom HaAtzmaut, a family that values the best of American and Israeli cultures, that weeps with sorrow for all those who have fallen in defense of the democratic values of both nations. I am grateful for all that we receive and all that we can give.

In these trying times, I am deeply grateful for America’s partnership with Israel, the only Jewish-Democratic State and our Jewish homeland. American Jews have been able to be powerfully supportive of our Jewish-Democratic State of Israel since before Israel was founded in 1948 to today — when Israel’s needs for our American partnership are equally essential for our mutual survival. 

As a wife, mother, sister, friend, and human being, I am weeping tears of gratitude and relief as some of our hostages, vulnerable women and children, are being released. May we see more hostages released very soon. Among the prayers of gratitude we pray in every service, we also make petitions.  One of them is for the ‘release of the captive’, Matir Asurim. I have found this prayer to be especially powerful during these hours as we hold our collective breath and pray for more hostages to be released from the bondage of their captors.  No wonder we’ve kept the ancient daily blessing for God ‘who redeems the captive’ in our Amidah for thousands of years. I pray that the stories of all the hostages and all who have fallen — and our collective experience of this historical moment — will continue to inspire us to continue to pray for and to work even harder for the values of freedom and safety for our people, and for all people. 

On this Shabbat Thanksgiving, I pray that when we look back on this moment years from now, we will be thankful for all the opportunities we’ve had to make our world a better, safer place for all. Years from now, when we reflect on this era in the life of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom, I pray that we will be proud of what we’ve been able to do as a congregation and as human beings. Let us be especially thankful on this Shabbat for all that we’ve received from the generations who’ve gone before us, and for the opportunities and freedom we have to help ensure that our people and our community continues to thrive for generations yet to come. 

Shabbat Shalom!

November 17, 2023

"None Shall Make Us Afraid
Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

The following was originally published in JMore

Especially in times of crisis, our sacred Jewish texts can offer us enormous wisdom. So what can we can learn from the Bible that can help us in this moment?

While we may not be able to discern military wisdom or political predictions from the Book of Genesis, we can nevertheless gain profound insight into how our collective experiences and core values might apply to this situation. Some of these insights can be found especially in the Genesis narratives we read during these early winter weeks.

From Abraham to Joseph, the ‘first’ families of Genesis — like all families — certainly know their share of suffering, jealousy, deceit and love. But no narrative is filled with more hope than the narratives of Joseph and his brothers reconciling with each other (Gen. 44-45). 

In his youth, Joseph, the wild dreamer and over-confident little brother, is thrown into a pit and nearly murdered by his brothers. Sold into slavery and later into jail, it is his capacities not only to dream but to interpret the dreams and hopes of others that enable him to save himself repeatedly (Gen. 37-41). But the story is not only about his individual survival.

Joseph’s struggle in the pit, his survival, rise to power and use of his power to save and protect his family are not just about that particular family, but ultimately it is about the family of the Jewish people as a nation and that nation’s longing not only for survival but for homeland. The last demand Joseph makes is that his bones not be buried in Egypt but that they be brought to the Land of Israel (Gen. 50 and Ex. 13). From the pits of history we have survived, and from the thrones of power we have responsibility.

The possibilities of peace and reconciliation always seem most impossible in the midst of conflict and war. Not every conflict can end in reconciliation the way the Joseph narrative does. The Bible also teaches us that even in a time of peace, we need to be aware of every pharaoh who comes to power and the ways they might seek our destruction.

This is so difficult to do, especially in the midst of war. Like you, I am deeply mourning all of the innocent people in Israel who were murdered on Oct. 7th and since. As I write this, we are all praying fervently for the speedy and safe return of all the captives and for the protection of the Israel Defense Forces and all of Israel’s citizens. Yes, it’s much too soon to say anything about the current war that our beloved present day State of Israel is facing, but it is never too soon to pray for peace and to imagine “the day after.”

It may take months, but one day we will get there.

How many months — or years — will we need to process the events of the current reality? How best can we support the State of Israel, the world Jewish community, and each of us individual Jews as we respond? How many years — or generations — will we continue to be overwhelmed by the horrors and suffering of this time and for how long it will cloud our vision of the future?

I pray that —while we continue to mourn every soul we have lost, rebuild the destroyed communities in Israel, and begin to incorporate all the lessons we need to learn— we will also be able to transcend this suffering and this war in ways that will enable us to dream beyond this moment.

This may not be possible until we reach Simchat Torah next fall, but when we do, we will be able to focus anew on the grander humanistic goals of the State of Israel and of Judaism itself. Even in these terrible moments, we cannot forget that we are a people committed to the sanctity of human life.

And we must not forget our ultimate goal — articulated best by the prophet Micah (4:4) — to bring about a world in which each of us, every human being, “can sit beneath our vine and fig trees, and none shall make us afraid.”

Shabbat Shalom.

November 10, 2023

Our Jewish Peoplehood Test
Chayei Sara (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

Throughout our history, the Jewish People have faced many tests. In each case, our collective identity and solidarity are tested. Will we splinter into many factions or will we stand together, stronger in our solidarity? Obviously it’s not always black or white. Even in cases where there were profound disagreements about how to respond to an existential crisis, we survived and passed the test because of our overwhelming commitment to each other. Over the last 35 days of Israel’s war with Hamas, the Jewish People worldwide have demonstrated once again our massive and collective commitment to Israel and to each other in a wide variety of ways. So far, it seems we have passed the Jewish Peoplehood test once again. 

Given the disagreement among Jewish leaders over Israel’s various government policies since 1967 and more emphatically since 1982, many scholars — myself included — have wondered whether or not Israel as an issue for North American Jews was more unifying or more destructive. I wondered whether or not that impulse to respond “we are all responsible for one another” (Kol Yisrael arevin zeh ba-zeh) restated and re-enacted throughout Jewish history, would self-activate strongly enough in a crisis. 

Thank God, our muscle memory is strong and our commitment is deeper than ever. Across time and space, across political and religious differences, across cultural and ideological debates, we continue — for the most part — to stand together and we are once again passing the Jewish Peoplehood test. As scholar and friend, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, put it recently, our Jewish peoplehood muscle is still strong. 

Here at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation, our Jewish peoplehood muscles are in phenomenal shape! Within 48 hours of the Massacre of October 7th, we gathered as a congregation to share our concern and to learn and to demonstrate our solidarity, and you have continued to do so in many ways. We have also increased our awareness and actions to respond to shocking increases in antisemitism through North America and globally. 

As a congregation, we have raised significant funds for our sister community in Ashkelon, for the Israeli Red Cross, the Magen David Adom, for many different kinds of emergency needs on ground in the area around Gaza, for a community in the north struck by Hezbollah rockets, for the basic needs of the huge number of new orphans, for a generator for an unprotected community near the border, for Israel Bonds, and for many other emergency needs. 

Together with more than 50 volunteers from our congregation and seven other synagogues and organizations in Baltimore, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom hosted the Empty Shabbat Table for the Hostages — #BringThemHomeNow —last Friday. Hundreds gathered in solidarity with the families of the hostages and in prayer and HaTikvah. The event was covered by at least five different news outlets. We have participated in other gatherings, rallies, vigils and so much more. 

While we cannot actively march into Gaza and save those innocent hostages or physically protect our people in Israel and throughout the world, we have proven to ourselves and to our people that our Jewish Peoplehood muscles are becoming even stronger every day. This coming Tuesday, we will be part of something historic. We will join thousands of our fellow Jews and allies in our nation's capital to protest antisemitism, to ensure that the hostages are freed, and to stand with the Jewish State. We have an absolute right to self-defense and to living safely wherever we dwell. We will not be silent. We will become stronger. We will not only pass this test, but our Judaism and our Jewish life will become more vibrant and more inspiring than ever. 

Am Yisrael Chai! 
Shabbat Shalom.

November 3, 2023

Especially in the Face of Evil, Remember Who You Are
Vayera (Genesis 18:1-33)

These past few weeks have definitely been dramatic and terrifying. And at the same time, there have been so many inspiring stories of courage and we’re witnessing incredible communal solidarity. As sad and worried as I have been about what’s happening in the US, Israel, and throughout the world, I have also been deeply moved by how our congregation has mobilized all kinds of resources and demonstrated solidarity with Israel and witnessed great courage. In particular, I am moved by the ways in which we — the Jewish people — even when facing the unimaginable, still strive to maintain our identity, our moral character, and our human values.

In just the last month, we — the Jewish people — have experienced unprecedented antisemitism in North America, Europe and Russia, while at the same time our people in the sovereign State of Israel have experienced an unspeakable massacre and are now fighting a terrible but necessary war of self-defense. Nearly 250 innocent people are still being held hostage by terrorists and we are praying for negotiations to save the hostages and, at the same time, we pray for peace and an end to the loss of innocent lives. 

Over recent weeks, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have spent many days and terrifying nights trying to protect the innocent even while simultaneously seeking to eradicate evil forces and free hundreds of innocent captives. It has been an impossible war filled with constant choices between terrible options.  

Although Israel has the absolute right to defend itself and to destroy forces that seek to kill its innocent civilians throughout Israel and elsewhere, because of its own code of purity of arms, the IDF continues to do everything it can to avoid causing civilian casualties. No matter what other sources might claim, the IDF trains and judges its soldiers and officers according to uniquely high standards. If ever someone has failed to uphold them, Israel itself brings to trial those who fail. While any other military in the world might largely consider such civilian deaths as unavoidable ‘collateral damage’, the IDF constantly strives to avoid such tragedies — even when this compromises its own military goals.  

These dilemmas are in fact the focus of this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. The Torah portion includes the powerful story of Abraham arguing with God about God’s plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham argues that God must save the cities if there are any innocent people living there. While God is ready to destroy them entirely, Abraham argues that regardless of how many evil people are living there, if there are any innocent people, God must protect them. 

Abraham argues with God and defends the innocent. According to the Biblical text, Abraham questions God:

“Will you actually sweep away the righteous with the wicked? ….Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty so that they innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the judge of the whole earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:23-25)

According to a Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 49:9), this is exactly the kind of argument that God wants to hear because this is exactly the kind of person God is looking for:

“The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Abraham: "Abraham, 'You love justice' — you love to justify my creatures, 'and you hate wickedness' — you hate to condemn them; 'Rightly has your God, your God, chosen to anoint you….”

In other words, Abraham’s impulse to protect the innocent even in a sea of evil is exactly why God chose him. This is the story of the first Jew in the midst of crisis. He didn’t abandon the innocent even while he was running to save his own live. Even in the face of evil, Abraham argues for what is just and right. While we must always protect and defend ourselves, to be a Jew also means seeking to defend and protect all innocent people — even if it means arguing with God. 

Even in these days of the necessary war in Israel and our own rightful demand for security and protection wherever we live, let us not forget who we are — people who seek not only justice but morality as well. 

With prayers for safety, peace and the speedy return of all the hostages.

October 13, 2023

For the Love of Israel and All Humanity:
An American-Israeli Rabbi Reflects on Terrorism and War in
Israel
Remarks taken from Community Israel solidarity Gathering at Beth Tfiloh
on Tuesday, October 10

Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

The Jewish People and so many others in our inspiring start-up nation, our beloved State of Israel, are experiencing unfathomable suffering and are now engaged in an unprecedented war of defense. In our anguish and our deepening sorrow, we must find comfort and strength in gathering together. Let’s not forget: We are experts not only in suffering, but also in spiritual, communal and, if need be, military resilience as well. Our determination – the determination of the Jewish People and the State of Israel – is unbreakable.

Even as we mourn the more than 1,300 innocent people who have been murdered, and even as we pray for healing for the wounded, and for — God-willing — the safe return of all those held captive by inhuman and barbaric terrorists, we also have a message for the world: We call upon all nations and all decent people to ensure the immediate release and safe return of those so brutally taken hostage by Hamas. We call upon the nations of the world to stand with Israel in this unprecedented crisis and to affirm its right to exist in peace.

When any Jew is suffering, we feel their pain acutely. We share one body. We are one family. We are responsible, Arevin zeh b’zeh, one for the other. We are one people: we share one fate and we share the same destiny.

So what do we do now? What can we do here and now?
First of all,
 we have enormous collective strength and influence. Immediately, we must bring to bear any and all pressure on the nations of the world to speak out against Hamas and insist on the safe return of the hostages. We must speak out in support of Israel and never let the world forget each of the names of the hostages. We must post on social media and write op-eds in our local and national news outlets, speak out at schools and other institutions so that the world cannot but hear our call.

Secondly, we must remember that together, we can give enormous support for the huge needs of Israelis on the ground — on all the front lines both north and south, east and west. And of course, we can offer enormous support to all the citizens of Israel on the home front. Support the amazing mobilization of Israelis as they seek to defend and protect every citizen.

In the short term, once the hostages are returned and the bodies are buried, we will need to help Israel rebuild so that all its citizens can live in safety and peace. We will also need to support Israel as it strengthens its civil society and becomes a more stable and strong community of mutually committed citizens. This is what will ensure that Israel prevails.

In the long term, we also need to ensure that the United States not only continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel but that it also does everything in its power to create a more sustainable middle east.

We — the Jewish people in Israel, in Baltimore, and throughout the world — cannot and will not allow the forces of evil to overcome us. Refuse to give in to despair. We are strong, we are resilient, we are determined to continue to thrive as Jews and as Israelis. Ultimately, one of the most important things we can all do is to wear our Jewish identity proudly. Let’s wear our Stars of David. Fly our Israeli flags. Celebrate everything we love about being Jewish. Let’s recommit to living full and joyful Jewish lives. Let this be part of how we protest against the darkness of this time.

This Shabbat, as we gather for Solidarity Shabbat, we read from the Torah portion Beresheet, about the creation of the world out of a chaotic void. We will read about the creation of light and darkness, and about the distinction between the two.

God said, Vayehi Or: ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Even in a time of such chaos, we must continue to distinguish between darkness and light. We must help the world continue to distinguish. L’havdil ben yom v’lilah….

Against evil, we must be even greater forces for good by being even more committed to our basic human and Jewish values. We must each be sources of light, just as Israel is a light unto the nations.

Last Shabbat, on Simchat Torah, when we concluded our yearly cycle of reading the entire Torah and just before we immediately began anew, we called out:
Chazak. Chazak. V’Nitchazek. Let us be courageous, Let us be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Tonight, let us say it together again, but even louder, so that it rings over and over again in our ears in the difficult days and months ahead:

Chazak Chazak V’Nitchazek!

October 6, 2023

The Joy of Torah: Turning it Over and Over Again
V'zot Habracha (Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17)

Tonight we reach the final climax of the holiday season: Simchat Torah. After the blasts of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah, the fast and repentance of Yom Kippur, and the shaking of the lulav and etrog fruit on Sukkot, we finally reach Simchat Torah. We’ll sing and dance with the Torah scrolls and we’ll celebrate both completing a year of reading the entire Torah and then we’ll immediately begin again. There isn’t a moment without a focus on Torah and all that it gives us. 

As we begin a new year of reading and exploring Torah, it’s a good time to ask: Why study Torah? What role can it have in our lives? The appeal, the necessity, and the personal meaning that comes from Torah study is different for different people and in different stages of our lives. Why did our ancestors love to study Torah?  Throughout Jewish life for millennia and throughout the Jewish world today, there are so many reasons to study Torah and so many ways of approaching Torah and Torah study. Consider these three models: 

  1. Studying Torah as a Spiritual Practice:   

“Oh how I love your law, it is my meditation all the day” (Psalms 119:97) 

In the first model, Torah study needs no rationale; it is simply inspired by a natural desire to hear the word of God. A love of Torah, for the Psalmist, emerges from a love of God and desire to know the Giver of Torah. Torah, as our best access to God, is a living entity – affecting everything about one’s existence as all real love does. Studying Torah is a way of encountering God, engaging the Supreme Teacher of law and ethics in conversation, and coming to know God’s character and will. 

2. Studying Torah to Learn about Judaism 
“You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them”
 (Deuteronomy 6:7) 

The second model, followed by the majority of Jews today, views Torah study as the core of Jewish education. Torah becomes the source of one’s knowledge of Judaism, its central stories, holidays and values. A great deal of resources are thus invested in teaching Torah to young people, ensuring every Jew starts out her or his life with the basic knowledge of the narratives and values of Judaism. Yet because this learning is rarely continued into adulthood, for the majority of the non-Orthodox Jewish world Torah study is about as relevant to adult life as 8th grade geometry. Nonetheless, most Jewish adults still desire a basic Jewish education for their children, many seeking much greater depth and detail then they themselves had.   

3. Studying Torah Helps us Navigate Our Lives and Our World
"Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it." 
(Pirkei Avot 5:27) 

  Far beyond being a mere handbook of Jewish law, the Torah can be a wellspring of wisdom on virtually every aspect of one’s life. Whether it is a question of ethical conduct, political ideology, or economic policy, metaphysical conviction or how to approach the climate crisis, Torah study can help us clarify our core values. What kind of a world do we want to live in? What kind of a society takes care of its most vulnerable? What kind of person do I want to be?  

When we become engaged in Torah study, we can begin to appreciate its power to guide us through our daily existence, inform our understanding of the world around us, challenge our beliefs and preconceived notions and inspire us to strive to achieve more and to be more. 

This Shabbat Simchat Torah, let’s celebrate all the joy that being connected to Torah can bring us. I look forward to beginning a new cycle of reading the Torah and experiencing together in all the adventures that await us!

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! 

September 29, 2023

Hearing the Call of the Earth Anew this Sukkot:
What is Our Role in Responding to the Climate Crisis?

Sukkot I (Leviticus 22:46-23:44)

I absolutely love this time of year. Yes, the summer has passed and the High Holy Days are behind us, but the best festival –Sukkot– is just beginning! I love how we share in the building and decorating of our Sukkah at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom and I love celebrating in our home Sukkah with our family. It’s like a week-long picnic and mini-camping trip and we only have to go out to the backyard. 

I also love Sukkot because it reminds me of some basic truths about our existence. First of all, we should be sure to celebrate everything, especially the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Secondly, as we shake the lulav, we can express our gratitude for the bounty of the fall harvest, and everything we have. And third, it reminds us of our original role of responsibility for the natural world. 

Sukkot is also the holiday when we read Ecclesiastes. It’s famous for the verses it offered for the famous song “To Every Thing There is a Season.” At this time of year we definitely feel the changing of the seasons. But in a Midrash on Ecclesiastes we are also reminded: 

"Do not destroy My world, for if you do, 
there will be nobody after you to make it right again."

But how can we recommit to taking care of the world when so much of our lives are spent trying to protect ourselves from it? But not on Sukkot. When we celebrate in our temporary, humble huts we can’t but help but become more aware of the power of nature, our vulnerability, and our place in the big scheme of the universe. As the weather gets colder and the days grow shorter, instead of hunkering down inside our homes, we do the opposite. We go outside to dwell in our tiny huts. We go out into nature not just for a few hours, but for a whole week. 

A whole week? While each of our three harvest-based festivals originated in week-long celebrations, today I think we need a whole week because we need that much time to fully experience a reunion with the natural world. It’s enough time to be more keenly aware of how even a little bit of rain or sun affects existence. It’s enough time to look up at the sky and watch as the full moon of the first night begins to gradually wane. It gives us enough time to experience the natural world so alive with colors and to feel the changing of the seasons. Maybe it’s even enough time to become more aware of the fragility of the world and the seriousness of the climate crisis? 

Dwelling in a Sukkah is also one way we can recognize our true state of dependence on the environment and our role in it. We might hide from it or ignore it most of the time, but we are vulnerable to the natural world, to the weather, and to the state of the climate. 

Our congregation has not been blind to the increasing urgency of the climate crisis. We have committed to multiple projects to decrease our negative impact and to be a force for good in the environment. Our synagogue is already committed to recycling, we’ve planted dozens of trees, and we’re investigating solar panels and additional ways of becoming a more “green” congregation. But there is so much more we can –and must– do. 

This year, like more and more of our sister Reform Congregations, we can commit to becoming a congregation of zero waste. This year, we can commit our hearts, our homes, and our shared Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom home, to becoming places of environmental sustainability. If we continue to move in this direction, then we will be fulfilling our role in God’s glorious world. And, if we are really committed to it, we might be blessed with many more years of Sukkot celebrations. May it be so. 

Shabbat Shalom v’Chag Sukkot Sameach! 
Shabbat Shalom and Blessings for a Joyous Sukkot!

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.

Amen.

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. 

Mon, July 15 2024 9 Tammuz 5784