Let me ask you this – if you were one of those fabulously wealthy people who kept an animal refuge on your estate and someone offered to give you a special animal, and you could only choose one of either a unicorn or a rhinoceros, which one would you choose? I think most people would choose the unicorn, don’t you? I mean, unicorns are beautiful and gentle. They have magical powers. They are radiantly white with a perfect shimmering horn and a golden tail. People write fables about unicorns and make icons out of unicorns. Unicorns are perfect. A rhino is a perversity to unicornism – it has a single horn like the unicorn but it is short and stumpy. It is ungainly, short legged, squat. They look smelly too. Maybe they aren’t but they look like they are quite odiferous. A rhinoceros is very imperfect.Read More
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There once was a drought in the Land of Israel. Amidst the suffering, the great sage, Rabbi Eliezer, beseeched God to release water from the Heavens. Rabbi Eliezer revered far and wide as one of the great scholars of his day. His students described him as a plastered cistern who never loses a drop of water for he retained every detail that he learned.Read More
In Dara Horn’s most recent book Eternal Life, the main character is the mother of the great Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, leader of the Pharisees forecast that Vespasian, the Roman General leading the siege would become the next Caesar. When Vespasian received news that this was to become so, he offered Ben Zakkai one wish and Ben Zakkai asked, “Give me Yavneh”. Yavneh was a small town away from the fighting factions in Jerusalem. He was willing to forego the physical edifice of the Temple for the spiritual and portable message of Torah.Read More
In 2013, the Pew Research Foundation study of Jewish Americans, found about 4 million people who identify as Jews. Many more acknowledged Jewish lineage or Jewish connections but only 4 million actively identify as Jews. The survey found that Jews exhibit lower levels of religious commitment than the general public (about 26% of Jews said religion was very important to them compared to 56% of most Americans). Less and less Jews observe traditional rituals such as a Passover Seder or fasting on Yom Kippur. Reform Judaism which is the largest denomination is in danger because a third of their membership is intermarried and their synagogue numbers are boosted by Gentile members. Conservative Judaism is a synonym for failure, according to one Jewish journalist, no longer even attempting to uphold a façade as a Halachic movement. The movement has lost membership at such a rate that in the 13 years between the 1990 Jewish population survey and the Pew Survey in 2013 the Conservative Judaism went from the largest of the three major movements to barely numbering more than Orthodoxy.Read More
It is Rosh HaShanah Eve and I know that there is one question on everyone’s mind at this moment – how long are these services because I have a brisket waiting for me at home and I can almost taste it. But if you will indulge me a few minutes I would like to share a story because stories feed the soul too.Read More
We read this morning that at Har Sinai God was already teaching the people rules for settling the Land and how the people would institute rules of land management into a future none of them would probably see. “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you” and the continuation of the parasha describes the Seventh year Sabbatical for the land and the 50th year Jubilee observance when land acquisitions were returned to the original families who inherited these portions. But this eventuality was years in the future. 38 more years of wandering and then another 50 years until the first Jubilee. Nevertheless it must have emboldened the people to know that settling this land for generations to come was to be their legacy.Read More
Our Torah portion begins this morning, Va Yidaber Hashem el Moshe Aharei Mot shnai b’nai Aharon b’korvatam lifnei Hashem vayamutu God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God. We begin this Shabbat acharei mot Lori Gilbert Kaye v’hevrei Bet Knesset Tree of Life, after the death of Lori Gilbert Kaye at Chabad of Poway CA and the members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh back in August who were drawn to the presence of God coming to worship in their communities on Shabbat.Read More
Every year I learn something from cleaning for Pesah.
This year I realized that cleaning for Pesah teaches us to accept life as it comes.
What do I mean?
When I begin to clean for Pesah, I begin with an ambitious plan: I will not just clean out the hametz but I will use this opportunity to clean parts of the house that never get cleaned. Since I am cleaning the house anyway lets really clean! For example, the armoire in the dining room with glass shelves, filthy with years of accumulated dust. Get the windex!
And I won’t just clean the floor, I am going to pull out the oven and clean all that shmutz in the crevice next to the oven that I can see but can’t reach. I will move furniture to clean the dirt as opposed to sweeping the dirt under it.Read More
Bereisheet, the Israeli space rocket that was headed for the moon, only the fourth nation in the world to reach it, crashed on landing this past Thursday. Which seemed like an apt metaphor for many as to the political direction of Israel after this week’s elections.
While almost half the country voted against Netanyahu retaining the premiership, and his party only gaining 27% of the vote, it is still not hard to see why he remains prime minister with the most right wing, anti pluralism, and racist government in Israeli history. As Michael Oren, the former US Ambassador pointed out, the economy is doing well, Israel’s international relationships are the strongest in a generation, terrorism is sporadic and Israel is one of the leading nations in the world in science and technological advancement. Despite the growth of world wide anti Semitism and Anti Zionism, the world needs Israel.Read More
This past week I was at the conference for Rabbis who Serve Small Conservative Congregations in Wilmette. It is a conference that my colleague David Krishef in Grand Rapids and I created 8 years ago and this was the fifth conference that we organized with help from the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. This year 15 rabbis from all over the country came together to hear from rabbis and educators and therapists speak to us about issues that affect our work. We always have at least one session on self care and this year we brought back Mary Jo Barrett an expert in healing therapy who has done extensive work with rabbis in the field to talk to us about compassion fatigue. Compassion Fatigue is a display of chronic stress resulting from caregiving work.Read More
This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim. The special reading today is about Amalek and his attack on the Israelites as they were escaping Egypt. The haftarah describes Saul and his army’s defeat of the Amalekites under their leader Agag and Saul’s disgrace at not wiping out this vicious tribe in order to keep the spoils. Haman the genocidal enemy in the book of Esther is a descendent of Agag. So this is good week for paranoid Jews to remember “everybody hates the Jews”.Read More
This morning’s Torah portion is the final portion in Exodus and concludes the building and setting up of the Mishkan. For the last five weeks we have been focused on this very special structure. While the first portions in Exodus are quite exciting with lots of action and drama, describing the foundational stories of our people, these last parashiyot (with the exception of the sin of the Golden calf) cause anyone but a contractor’s eyes to glaze over. For good measure after describing the details of materials and plans of the Mishkan, the last two parashiyot review the details as the Mishkan is constructed. We get to hear it twice.Read More
Years ago at a Rabbinical Assembly Convention in Los Angeles when the issue of welcoming gay Jews into JTS rabbinical school and solemnizing gay marriage was causing great consternation in the movement, the Convention happened to invite Dennis Praeger to be one of the guest speakers. Praeger used his talk to plead with members not to give in to the growing swell of support for normalizing homosexuality, insisting that the verse in Leviticus had to mean something. During the response period, Harold Kushner got up and stated, “It is not that we choose verses we like, and dismiss others. But we take the entire Torah seriously. There are verses which teach us that God is compassionate, that we should love our neighbors, that we should love the stranger, the outsider, and not to oppress the powerless. These verses contradict that verse. If we observe the verse which tells us that homosexuality is not permitted, we will be violating these other mitzvot. The Torah is not either/or, we have to use our judgment and understanding to balance all of its teachings.”Read More
Ishmael Reed, the black activist and awarded poet and playwright, recently had an article in the online Jewish magazine Tablet. In the article, called Do American Jews Still Believe They’re White, he called out Jews as naïve who are shocked at the level of anti Semitism in this country. He wrote, “Appearing on CNN, presidential historian Tim Naftali said that the massacre at the Tree of Life was the canary in the coal mine. That it was a warning of dire events to come. What Naftali doesn’t realize is that the canary was killed by the carbon dioxide of hatred decades ago, even though some Jews, those who have successfully assimilated into the American mainstream, hadn’t noticed.”Read More
In February 1964, in a paper presented at the Metropolitan Conference on Religion and Race, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Abraham Joshua Heschel offered a midrash on a portion of this morning’s Torah portion. The climax of our Torah portion is the splitting of the Sea of Reeds; according to the Sages this moment was comparable to the Revelation of the Divine at Sinai. And yet just verses later, in fact in the very same Torah aliyah, we are told that three days into the desert the people are complaining bitterly that they have no water to drink. Heschel pointed out this seeming discrepancy, how was this possible?Read More
Last week was the yahrtzeit of Miriam Price, Paul Price’s mother. Miriam was a tremendous individual and a passionate Jew. A great businesswoman, she owned a popular children’s clothing store here in South Bend, Buttons and Bows, a lover and supporter of Jewish music, she and Manny her husband gave the synagogue funds to bring Jewish musical programs to our congregation, and a true baalat tzedakah. When I came to South Bend, Miriam and a few other members of the synagogue – Ilene Golden and Susan Sandock were regulars too – were part of a group that would visit Jewish members of the nursing homes in town. They brought me along for the first couple of years I was here. It was a tremendous commitment because there were about 5-6 places and maybe one or two Jews in each location. Nursing home populations are also quite fluid. Every time we would go, we would check the lists of who was in each nursing home. But our lists were usually out of date and it was not unusual to show up at the location and the Jewish person was no longer a resident. And every time, after pouring over the lists, Miriam would conclude, "Well when we get there we will see who is there". Because the goal for Miriam and the others was to do acts of gemilut Hasadim, and whoever we visited would be the recipient of kindness. In acts of spiritual sublimity, you just have to respond to what the situation calls for.Read More
The accused stood before the lord, head down, aware that his guilt had been uncovered. Years of covering up the heinous crimes had finally caught up and now his only hope was to admit the pain he had caused and hope for mercy which he knew he did not deserve: “What can I say to my lord? How can I plead, how can I prove my innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servant.”
OK actually Michael Cohen did not say it exactly like that, but I was getting confused between the news reports and the Torah portion. This morning’s Torah portion opens with a heartfelt plea by Judah on behalf of his brothers before the Vizier of Egypt who has accused their youngest brother of theft. Judah senses that this can’t be serendipitous, but rather that God is now avenging the crime that he and his brothers committed against their brother Joseph years before. In the East they call it ‘karma’, but we Jews call it ‘Midah k’neged Midah’ or measure for measure.Read More
Last week when our city celebrated the initial lighting of the South Bend Community Menorah – thank you to Jodie Freid and all the donors – the TV news stations wanted an interview about Hanukkah. I don’t like giving interviews but I flippantly said, “If I can’t talk about Hanukkah off the cuff, I am in the wrong business”. Ha, Ha, except that Hanukkah is the most difficult holiday to talk about off the cuff, and if there is one thing that I am grateful for to our Talmudic ancestors it is the story of the miracle of the oil. Because that story, which you can tell in 5 minutes in a way the littlest child can understand, which is about all the complexity that TV news can handle, is completely apocryphal and has no bearing on reality. Great story, not historically accurate.Read More
…[A]t the time when the Holy blessed One created the world, God created first man, and when God saw that [this man] was alone, God immediately created a woman from the earth like him, and he called her Lilith, and he brought her to Adam. Immediately, the two of them began a quarrel. He said: “You will lay on the bottom.” She said, “You will lay on the bottom, since we are both equals. We were both made from the earth.” They would not allow each other to be heard. Once Lilith saw this, she uttered the special name of God, flew off into the air, and escaped…” (Eli Yassif, The Tales of Ben Sira in the Middle-Ages: A Critical Text and Literary Studies, (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1984), 231-232)
This midrash comes from a medieval collection called the Alphabet of Ben Sira. Lilith entered the popular imagination as a demon who endangered babies. This is why according to Ginsburg’s The Legends of the Jews, Jewish mothers placed amulets on the cribs of their children.Read More
Over Shabbat Shuvah and last night I spoke of how teshuvah is about change. The Maharal of Prague taught that teshuvah was about changing and correcting the transgression but also changing the transgressor. Last night I showed how our sacred literature changed the image of Aaron from his characterization in the Bible to that which we find in the rabbinic period and how that can serve as a model for change for us as well. These ten days are about change. But not just change for its own sake, change for the better. This idea of personal transformation is not unrelated to another key motif in the our Jewish conceptual universe – that of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Just as we seek to improve ourselves, so it is understood by most Jews that we have a responsibility to mend the brokenness of the world.Read More