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1102 East Lasalle Avenue
South Bend, IN, 46617
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Sinai Synagogue – an integral part of the South Bend community since 1932.

Sinai Synagogue is a proud part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, a dynamic blend of our inclusive, egalitarian approach and a commitment to Jewish tradition.


Shabbat Korah - Can words kill? 

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, June 24, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

Can words kill?  According to the Talmud (BM 58b) “Whoever publicly shames his neighbor, it is as if he shed blood”.    On gossip, the Jerusalem Talmud taught that the gossiper stands in Syria and kills in Rome. (Peah 1:1)

This week a decision was handed down in a controversial case that was almost a real life example of the Talmudic teaching. 

The case was not gossip but two mentally troubled teenagers, who dated mostly via text messages, with the girlfriend in her home encouraging her suicidal boyfriend sitting in a Wal-Mart parking lot to finish his planned suicide. 

Michelle Carter, 17 at the time of her crime, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for urging her depressed 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself. Mr. Roy had flirted with the idea for weeks, and Ms. Carter — after initially telling him to seek counseling — seemed to warm to the idea, consistently egging him on via text: “The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it! You can’t keep living this way. You just need to do it like you did last time and not think about it and just do it babe.”  What the judge in the case said determined her criminal act was ultimately one phone call.  Just as Conrad Roy stepped out of the truck, he had filled with lethal fumes, due to last minute doubts about suicide, Ms. Carter told him to get back in the cab and then listened to him die without trying to help him.

The texter stands in a small town in Southeast Massachusetts and a person dies in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

The case is controversial from a legal standpoint.  While all agree that what Ms. Carter did was reprehensible, it is not clear that she committed a criminal act.  Robby Soave, an editor at Reason magazine, writing in the New York Times, stated, “speech that is reckless, hateful and ill-willed nevertheless enjoys First Amendment protection. While the Supreme Court has carved out narrowly tailored exceptions for literal threats of violence and incitement to lawless action, telling someone they should kill themselves is not the same as holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger.” 

Other legal scholars expressed concern about the ramifications of such a decision. David Rossman, a professor of law at Boston University, wrote that the implications of this decision are very unclear, “Do doctors advising patients about end-of-life decisions have to worry about criminal prosecution if a patient stops taking medicine and dies as a result? Will family members have to urge their terminal relatives to do everything in their power to stay alive, lest they be prosecuted on the same theory as Carter’s?

The legal ramifications of this decision will be debated for a long while but the moral issue is more clear.  Words are powerful and if used nefariously and duplicitously they can cause tremendous damage.

This week’s Torah portion open with a elision – that is the opening sentence is missing an object.  “Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, took, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben.  And they rose up before Moses.  The Tanchuma states that the words “and he took” only refer to using seductive words to draw others to him.  He took words and seduced other leaders in the community to rebel openly against Moses.

“For all the community are holy, all of them,” pronounced Korah”,  and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?”  This was unsettling because the community, true, had been told that “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy”.  But they were not intrinsically holy, God was not always to be in their midst, Moses and Aaron did not raise themselves above the congregation, they were ordered to lead by God.  Yet this insidious insinuation developed legs and soon the community was standing against Moses and Aaron.  Only by dint of Divine intervention were they saved.  And even after their accusers were punished, the people blamed Moses!

Words are powerful.  They can create and they can destroy. 

The world was created in words.  The Torah teaches us that the entire world was created in 10 statements over the seven days.  When the people were liberated from Egypt, they were led to Sinai where the sacred Torah with its wisdom and guidelines, its ethics and legal teachings were given to the people that they might find meaning and purpose in life – through words, Aseret Hadibrot – literally the Ten Words most famously.

Words could also be destructive.  Michal was King David’s wife before he was king.  She cemented his ties to the court of King Saul for she was Saul’s daughter.  But they grew apart.  After David was made king and chose to bring the ark of the Covenant to his new capital of Jerusalem, he led the way in dancing.  She bitterly attacked him, “Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today- exposing himself …as if one of the riffraff might expose himself!”  David’s response was even more cutting, “That’s right.  I danced before the Lord Who chose me instead of your father and all his family.”  The remark was extremely cruel since David and Saul had become bitter enemies before Saul was killed in war with three of his sons.  The Bible then records “To her dying day Michal, daughter of Saul, had no children.”  Why record her childlessness at this point?  Joseph Telushkin suggests that perhaps because of this brutal exchange never again could they be intimate with each other. 

Words spoken directly to each other can hurt or can heal.  Yet in our contemporary age of social media a new danger to the seductive power of words is to be found in Facebook and twitter and texting.  While many find opportunities for positive social interaction by using them, they are also vehicles that allow people to express hate, vituperation, and anger without facing the recipients.  By adding that additional layer of distance between conversants, the immediate reaction to hurtful words and comments is missed.  This enables people to write and express very hurtful and damaging statements such as what Michelle Carter did.  Could Michelle have so easily encouraged Connor Roy to get back into the car if she had been standing next to him?

And sadly this misuse of words, this destructive use of distance language starts at the top.  We have a President who seems unable to control his impulses.  He has been caught passing along misinformation, inveighing against imaginary enemies, promoting untruths, and deviating from his own administrations policy statements sewing confusion.  The reason this is so significant is that the president of the United States is a role model for American citizens and for America in the world.  His use or misuse of language permeates the citizenry as to what is acceptable or not. 

Joseph Telushkin quotes psychiatrist Antonio Wood that when a person employs unfair speech against another, it is damaging to the speaker as well, it is alienating from humanity. The more negative the comments the more distant one feels, thus one who speaks unfairly of many people, comes to distance and alienate himself or herself from many individuals.  Alienation leads to depression and other unhealthy behaviors. 

And non-facial, indirect, instantaneous distance communications alienates us even more, for we never have to see or know how the impact of the verbal blow affects the other.  Twitter and Facebook posts conceal the recipient, like the army soldier who pushes a button so a drone thousands of miles away destroys a settlement without knowing who or what has been killed, a vicious tweet or post can destroy without ever affecting the writer.

Dr. Stephen Marmera psychiatrist recommended in Telushkin’s book Words that Hurt Words that Heal that in dealing with anger we should think in terms of layers of control:

Control of our initial reaction; Control of our initial response; control of our initial reaction to the other’s response; Control of our succeeding reactions.

How much the more so is this true in the age of twitter and Facebook!  Harold Kushner wrote, “Only God can give us credit for the angry words we did not speak.”  How many acts of destructiveness could be averted if we looked for divine approval before we send any tweet or post or text? 

Rabbi Haim of Volozhin was a great scholar and educator, the leading student of the great Jewish sage, the Eliyahu ben Shlomo, the Gaon of Vilna.  In his seminal work, Nefesh HaChaim, he wrote about the mystical power of speech:  “A person may ask, ‘in what way can trivial speech and talk have any impact whatsoever on the world?’  He should know that nothing is lost.  Each and every word which comes out of a person’s mouth ascends to the Supernal Realms and breaks through the heavens and enters a high place… if it is positive speech it adds power to the powers of holiness…it ascends upwards and arouses the Holiness of the Supernal Kingand it is crowned on His Headresulting in rejoicing in the Supernal and lower realms… a supernal light emanates and crowns the person who utter it all day.  In contrast with speech which is not good, God forbid, he creates false heavens and… destruction of the worlds.”  Rabbi Haim uses an imagery of winged birds which take hold of our words to bring them upwards to the heavens.  As Rabbi Meira suggested, perhaps this is why it is called twitter and tweeting!

The common aphorismsticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me has been proven to be a feeble truth.   Our sages in the Talmud had a different approach – The impact of speech is greater than physical action – “Gadol haOmer b’feev min haOseh ma’aseh” -  Greater is the one who speaks than the one who acts.

If before the invention of twitter and Facebook and texting we were taught to use our words wisely, how much the more so today in an age of twitter and Facebook.  For today a person can truly speak in Syria and kill in Rome.

Shabbat Bemidbar - The Power of Noble Ideals in a Wasteland

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 27, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

It’s a pleasure when you get to hear an inspiring story on the radio.  Robert Siegel who is retiring from “All Things Considered” on NPR has been reviewing some of the stories he has done in the past.  Recently he visited with a person he met some 20 years ago who had been a drug dealer in his youth and decided to get out after going to the 17th friend’s funeral in a year.  He participated in a program that helped rehabilitate young men by giving them basic jobs skills.  He started in waste management.  What impressed Siegel with this young man was unlike the others in the program, he had very specific dreams and goals.  Twenty years later he reconnected and found that he had worked his way up to become a supervisor and had even created a number of entrepeneurial businesses.  In assessing his life, the man said that the key was being able to imagine very clearly what his dreams would look like when they were actualized.  Siegel concludes that having an imagination of what can be is essential to overcoming obstacles and challenges.

Imagination is essential to fulfilling our ideals, goals, and hopes.  Animals are what they are.  Mammals don’t aspire to fly, fish don’t imagine protecting all their spawn from predators.  Our ideals and aspirations separate us from animals. 

Of course some ideals are more noble than others.  I had a friend who aspired to be a millionaire by the time he was 30.  And he succeeded in that goal.  However he was still the insufferable egotist who never listened to what you had to say.  He was the same at 30 as he was at 16, just with more money.  A suite mate of mine in college was the guy we teased as the bleeding heart liberal.  He was involved with every human rights cause.  He too succeeded in his dreams, becoming a lawyer who worked for the US Institute for Peace and spent months at a time helping war torn countries learn to become societies that prized the rule of law.  It was frustrating work but many of the countries he worked in have functioning governments today.  Achieving one’s ideals is important. But some ideals are more noble than others. 

Judaism has always sought the highest ideals:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’, ‘Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’, treat the land and your animals with utmost respect.  We Jews prize ourselves for our noble ideals which continued to develop under the rabbinic leadership in ancient and medieval times and we are proud that our values and ideals influenced other religions and cultures. 

And I think that is what is causing so much contemporary malaise and vitriol in our nation today.

It is not just the lack of professionalism of the current administration.  Late night comics have had a field day comparing the accusations that Candidate Trump made against President Obama and Hillary Clinton and President Trump who has been guilty of the very same claims.  It isn’t that - it’s the smallness of vision and the narrow idealism of what the current leaders in Washington have expressed through their actions over 4 months – taking healthcare away from people in order to fund tax breaks to the very wealthy; aligning our foreign policy with autocrats and dictators who have no respect for human rights in order to defeat ISIS which has no respect for human rights or human life.  Is the enemy of my enemy my friend our highest aspiration for engaging the world?

Noble ideals make us human.  It extends out ability to empathize when we can acknowledge that those who are different from us are actually a lot like us.  It broadens our ability to love.  Noble ideals and moral grandeur makes life worth living by giving us assurance, encouragement and hope that the world can be a better place – not only for ourselves and our descendants but for all others.

We will celebrate Shavuot this week.  Shavuot celebrates the Jewish commitment to noble ideals.  Shavuot celebrates the Revelation of God at Sinai which informs us that God and humans can relate and interact.  The opening of the revelation is God’s expectation that we are memlechet kohanim – a kingdom of Priests - and a Goy Kadosh, a holy nation.  What does that mean?  The kohanim’s role was ultimately to serve both God and humans.  We fulfill that role as Jews when we see our role as individuals and as a people who would serve others and serve to fashion the world in God’s image.  A Holy people acts with compassion and concern for the world around them, striving to remove the harmful intentions of evil elements of the world.

It is fascinating that the Torah and the revelation occur in the midbar, desert and that the book we began reading this Shabbat is Bemidbar – literally “In the Desert”  which transfers its focus from the Tabernacle, the emphasis in Leviticus, to life in the desert.  This book, the book of ‘In the Desert’ or ‘In the Wilderness’ always comes before the Shavuot holiday.  They are connected.

On the one hand the desert experience is a failure.  They could have concluded their desert journey in a couple of months but instead due to grumblings, deceit, betrayal of ideals, the trek became a 40 year death march – “In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop…until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness… n this very wilderness they shall dieto the last person.  (Numbers 14:29, 32, 35).  The wilderness became a place of emptiness and void.

And yet the word midbar carries within it the word davar – to speak .  To speak , to use language and to communicate is to imagine, to create ideals in the mind which can be actualized.

Even in the midst of the midbar a time when Israel persistently failed to live up to its highest and noblest ideals – such as faith and trust in God, trust in the goodness of God’s vision for the world, respect for their fellow Jews let alone respect for other humans – the ideals were there all along.  The ideals remained even in the face of betrayal to God, burrowing deep in our DNA, to flower forth in future generations. 

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water.

So wrote T S Eliot in ‘The Wasteland’.  The midbar is a wasteland – a heap of broken images where the sun beats – broken hopes and ideals for the generation of the desert.  But because they carried with them the experience of revelation and the knowledge of Torah and the Ten Commandments, the broken heap of imagination and noble ideals would never truly be lost.  The generation of the Exodus might die out but not their holy aspirations.

As long as the noble aspirations remain noble aspirations, as long as we can be ashamed at not fulfilling our highest ideals, there is hope.  May we remind ourselves of the s spiritual majesty as we welcome Shavuot this week. 

Shabbat Behar Behukotai - The Allusion of Eternity

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 20, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

New York Times had a story this week about the sale of Jean Michel Basquiat’s Untitled which in this layman’s eyes is a horrible, yet colorful, graffiti picture of a screaming skull, for 110 Million dollars.  Now to be fair I know that art aficionados might very well be able to explain why this is an important and valuable piece of contemporary art.  But for it to sell for $110 million dollars means someone has way too much money for their own good.  

But in this world we venerate ‘things’.   And especially when we can put a monetary value on something, that level of veneration grows exponentially.  Basquiat is now being compared to Picasso.  Said one collector of Basquiat art – “It’s a historical moment.  It does cement this artist once again.”  What he means is that because someone was willing to pay lots of money for this picture, the artist’s greatness follows.  Artistic talent is defined by the value of the artist as commodity. 

Judaism has always had an uneasy alliance with art.  The Torah’s command “Thou shalt not make any graven images” was considered by some to be a general prohibition not a specific rule against concretizing images of God.  And yet the Temple and Tabernacle had artistic components to them.  David Wolpe points out that “art is the means by which we are visibly reminded of the intangible; great art points beyond itself.  But great art is,  in its iconic power, uncomfortably close to idolatry.  The difference between an idol and a sculpture resides in the mind of the observer and boundaries of the mind are notoriously porous.”

We Jews uplift that which is intangible.  Art that leads us beyond the physical and material can enhance devotion.  But even more so, it is holiness in time and space that we are encouraged to honor.

You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God.  You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord’s.   

These verses conclude the first of our two Torah portions this morning, Parashat Behar.  But they also act as a coda to the final verses of the Book of Leviticus.   A coda is a concluding section of a text that serves as a summation of certain preceding themes.

Jacob Milgrom shows how these two verses, which include two positive mitzvot and three negative mitzvot line up closely with the three of the first 5 of the Ten Commandments and with the opening verses and closing verses of Leviticus 19, the Holiness code.  

The first two of the Ten Commandments are “You shall have no other gods before Me” and “You shall make no graven images”  which parallel  You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God.  The term here for idol – elilim – sounds very much like elokim aherim found in the 10 Commandments.  The second verse:  You shall keep My Sabbaths is of course the fourth commandment.  In Leviticus 19 it opens with a command to venerate Shabbat and a prohibition against idolatry and it closes with an almost exact parallel to the verses in Behar –  “You shall keep My sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary: I am the LORD”. 

This continuous refrain to warn against idolatry in the context of promoting Shabbat and the holiness of the sanctuary is of profound significance because it is a message the Torah very much wants to instill.  Rabbi Wolpe writes, “Ultimacy takes precedence and ultimacy is intangible.  Value that which you cannot see, and hold aloof from a world that is too much with you, a world of getting an spending, “I am the Lord your God”.  Idolatry is forbidden because ultimacy cannot be made into a commodity .  An idol is forbidden because you can see it, and that which you can see you will want to own or to control.”     

This is why idolatry is contrasted to Shabbat and the Divine Sanctuary in several locations in the Torah. Placing these mitzvot in opposition to one another expresses this central teaching of the Torah.

Shimshon Raphael Hirsh, the great 19th century German leader of Orthodoxy, explained that the reason a dead body is the source of impurity in Judaism is because looking at it one might believe that the body is all, and forget the truth that a person is in the image of God.  Regarding this verse he wrote, “Not by means of statue and pillar, not by means of likeness and memorial stones have we to keep ourselves conscious of God and His rule; the Sabbaths of God, the Sabbath of Creation and the Sabbath of the Land, the Sabbatical year and Jubilee, which regulate the whole of our private and public lives with the thought “God,” … these are our sign and covenant… from these do we draw the inspiration which makes us find ourselves at one with God.”  It is from the intangible, the ineffable that we link ourselves to God and raise ourselves up to a higher order of being. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel who used puns effectively  referred to the world as an allusion – not illusion.  What did he mean by that?  “The sense of the ineffable is not an esoteric faculty but an ability with which all (people) are endowed…just as (a person) is endowed with the ability to know certain aspects of reality, he is endowed with the ability to know that there is more than what he knows…What we encounter in our perception of the sublime, in our radical amazement, is a spiritual suggestiveness of reality, an allusiveness to transcendent meaning.”(Man is Not Alone, p. 20,22)

Experiences that we share in this world can allude to something beyond that we may not be able to express in concrete language or symbols.

As Rabbi Wolpe said, art or sculpture may allude to something beyond or they may be worshipped as an object to own and control.  But Shabbat is sacred time, there is nothing of Shabbat which we can control or own.  On Shabbat we simply exist.  One must prepare for Shabbat, must learn to refrain and to breathe, to limit oneself and one’s reach in order to find that sanctity.   Otherwise the hours of that day will slip away like sand in an hourglass.  But if we make Shabbat properly, it alludes to something greater, and holier, beyond; this is the meaning of the rabbinic teaching that Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come, a day when we receive, not take; a day spent in harmony with the world not attempting to be in control of it.

Likewise is the space within the sanctuary – mikdashi.   The desert sanctuary had places within for cultic rituals but what made it sacred was that God had determined this space be set aside from all others.  Most of Parashat Behar concerns land issues.  The reference to a portion of that land as a Mikdash, a holy space, reminds us that while the whole earth is the Lord’s, parts of this world are infused with greater concentrations of the Transcendent.  What creates that concentration of transcendence is the gathering of God’s people for the purpose of engaging the Divine.

As we close the book of Leviticus a book which has focused so much on the sensual – sacrifices, incense, skin disorders, physical abnormalities, dietary rules – the author brings us back to the essential lesson of Judaism which is that the most real is that which is ineffable and that which we can see and feel and sense is significant when it alludes to the transcendent source of all being.

Or in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson “The first and last lesson of religion:  the things that are seen are temporal, the things that are unseen are eternal.”

May we all be blessed with the gift of recognizing that which is truly eternal.

Shabbat Tazria Metzora - Reflections On Israel’s 69th birthday

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, April 29, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

This week’s Torah portion is Tazria Metzora and deals mostly with a skin disease whose description is very gross.  So let’s not talk about that.  But it begins with rules regarding sacrificial offerings given by a childbearing woman after the birth of the child.  And since this coming week we celebrate the birth of Israel in 1948, let’s talk about that.  How’s that for a segue.

69 years ago this week, enthusiastic yet anxious crowds lined up along Rothschild Boulevard in the relatively young city of Tel Aviv to watch the leadership of the Peoples’ Council in Palestine hastily make their way up the steps of the city’s art museum just before 4 PM.  Rumor had it that David Ben Gurion and the leadership would declare the establishment of a Jewish state.  Dr. Isadore Shalit who was Theodor Herzl’s personal secretary and had been at the very first meeting of the Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 hobbled into the building.  Children climbed the trees that lined the street, planted in honor of Baron DeRothschild “twittered and tweeted just like birds”  not the kind of tweeting we do today, but a human throated tweeting in anticipation of the historic announcement. David Ben Gurion read the declaration which read in part:

“In the year 1897 the first Zionist Congressinspired by Theodor Herzl’s vision of the Jewish State, proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national revival in their own country…This right was acknowledged in the Balfour declaration of November 2 1917 and reaffirmed by the Mandate of the League of Nations…On November 29 , 1947 the general Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Resolution requiring the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael…It is the natural right of the Jewish people to lead as do all other nations an independent existence in its sovereign state.  Accordingly we the members of the National council, representing the Jewish people in Eretz Yisraeland the World Zionist Movement…by virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish people…we hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael to be called Medinat Yisrael, The State of Israel.”

Moshe Shertok who would become the second prime minister of Israel after Ben Gurion and Hebraized his name to Sharett, left the museum and walked to his mother’s apartment down the street.  When people recognized him a great shout went out and followed him all the way to his mother’s home, screaming and demanding that he come out and make a statement.  He eventually did come out on the porch and proclaimed, “We have begun to perform a mitzvah and we will continue”.

At about midnight amidst dancing and celebrating a loudspeaker announced that the British mandate of Palestine was now over.  The crowd broke into a spontaneous singing of HaTikvah.  Immediately after another announcement reminded the crowds that there was a curfew due to the threat of attack by Egyptian and other Arab forces.  Ben Gurion the great leader of Independence later wrote in his diary watching the crowds celebrate this new beginning, “I was again a mourner among celebrants.”

The Zionist movement and the birth of the state of Israel is the greatest extended moment in the history of the Jewish people since Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai asked the Romans bent on destroying the last Jewish sovereign state, Give me Yavneh.  In the year 67, in the midst of destruction, Rabbi Yohanan’s vision of exile and reestablishing the Jewish people as a landless Diasporan nation bound by Torah and halakha saved the remnant of Israel and gave us a language which held our people together for 2000 years.  In 1897, visionaries such as Moses Hess, Herzl, and A D Gordon could see that future danger awaited a Jewish people who had no control over their national fate, a stateless landless cosmopolitan people who were at the mercy of the anti Semitic and often violent nativist majorities.  And then the great tragedy did occur destroying one third of our people.  But the seeds and roots and shoots sprouting from the early Zionist enterprise merging with Jewish communities that had long lived in Eretz Yisrael offered a future for our decimated people. 

We all know that the history of Israel is complex and filled with highs and lows, some of the tragic events caused by the continuing hatred against our people by neighboring states and peoples and some caused by decisions made by we Jews ourselves.  But it has been one of the great periods of redemption in our people’s history. 

One of my favorite podcasts, one which should be a new mitzvah, is to listen to the Promised Podcast from TLV1.  Three American born Israeli academic/educator/journalists, Noah Efron, Alison Kaplan Sommer and Don Futterman,  coming from the left side of the political spectrum debate issues of the day in the State of Israel.  Even though they are all liberal Zionists because they are Jews there are at least 4 opinions to every issue amongst the three of them.  But unlike so many American shows that deal with our politics, they are thoughtful, passionate well reasoned and make you think.

This last week they did a thought experiment.  They posited two woman refugees coming to Israel in 1948, one from Czechoslovakia, a survivor from Theresienstadt, the other coming from Morocco.  If you could transport them 69 years into the future, as the Midrash does with Moses, bringing him into a classroom with Rabbi Akiva, in order to see how the Israel they arrived at as refugees in 1948 had transformed to today, what would make them proud, what would amaze them, what would sadden and disturb them. 

Alison Sommer chose the bounty of food and lifestyle opportunities that their offspring would enjoy.  For refugees being able to look into the future and see the wealth and relative safety that the Jewish state had achieved would be remarkable.  I think for those of us in America to hear an Israeli acknowledge the safety of living in Israel is so important.  We get snippets of news about Israel that only focus on wars and attacks and it is so easy to assume that Israelis live on the edge and have an “eat drink for tomorrow we die” philosophy when in fact, in daily life terms, Israel is far more comforting place to live than many American cities.

Don Futterman expressed that he believed that they would be amazed that Israel still existed.  In 1948 it was not a guarantee that Israel would survive the coordinated attacks of established armies and the still great anti-Semitism of much of the world.  They would be shocked and pleased at the technological advancements.  A country that barely 70 years old had brought so many important positive changes to the world through its technological innovations.  Futterman who is the most critical of the Israeli political establishment of the three also felt that our two visitors from the past would find it remarkable that 20% of the population of the Jewish state was Arab and at least under the law, if not in most cases reality, had equal rights in Israeli society.  Noah Efron seconded this, saying he did not know if they would be impressed or fearful that the head of surgery at a major hospital is a Palestinian Israeli; amazed that there is a peace treaty that has held between Israel and Egypt and with Jordan; that Germany is Israel’s best friend in Europe; that Israelis are so open and aware of the world around them that young Israelis take months long journeys to India and the like after army service; that the kibbutz movement and agriculture which was the core economic activity in 1948 was now marginal to the country’s welfare.  Seeing over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews and the rise of ultra Orthodoxy after the Shoah would be a shock.  And the reality that in 69 years, it is Arab countries that are dissolving into chaos while Israel is the cohesive stable nation in the Middle East could not have been predicted.  There would be disappointments as well – the advancement in the role of women and how they are treated in society is not that much improved, the huge disparity of wealth in the country, a country in which everyone in 1948 from the Prime Minister to the newest refugee were not so far apart in economic expectations but today has as severe an income inequality gap as the United States.  There would be a sadness that Israel is so riven by tribal divisions – ethnic, religious, that is intra religious and inter religious, economic. 

Don Futterman concluded the discussion by stating that these two woman brought to modern Israel would be impressed and grateful that a new nation birthed into a fight for its very survival had persevered and achieved beyond what would might expect.  The frustration for those of our generation is that we see how much better Israel could be, how much discrimination, exploitation, craven power politics and moral blindness the nation suffers from.  But why shouldn’t it?  Our country is no better and arguably much farther from the goals we set for this nation.  But both America and Israel are great nations because both have the power to redeem – not only those who have suffered and come to their shores as oppressed refugees and have the opportunity to grow into free proud self-differentiated individuals, but also the nations themselves, recognizing their deficiencies and self-correcting.

Let me conclude by quoting one of my favorite modern Zionists, President Barak Obama: “the story of Israel, is ... the story of a people who, over so many centuries in the wilderness, never gave up on that basic human longing to return home. It’s the story of a people who suffered the boot of oppression and the shutting of the gas chamber’s door, and yet never gave up on a belief in goodness.”

“[J]ustice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea.  Israel’s exceptionalism is rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision of the Jewish faith.”

Ken Yhi Ratzon.

Shabbat VaYikra - Imparting Pollution on Sacred Space

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, April 1, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

The front page of our USAToday insert in the South Bend Tribune for Friday had as the lead story the 50th anniversary of what the paper called “three extraordinary acts of courage” – the calls and actions of Martin Luther King, Jr, Muhammad Ali and Eugene McCarthy in opposing the Vietnam war.  These were acts of courage because all three stepped out of the arenas in which they had acquired prestige or success and put that prestige in jeopardy in criticizing a war effort that the government waging and many Americans supported.  All three were attacked and lost support for their stand and all three have been vindicated by history.

In the USA Today article, Martin Luther King called for an permanent end to bombing and immediate ceasefire, not only to stop the destruction to the Vietnamese people but “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read, ‘Vietnam.’

What struck me in this quote was the focus on the American collective soul being at risk due to an unjust war.  I think there is no doubt that his concern was proven correct.  The War was the next greatest war effort after World War II, much more extensive and longer and more damaging than the Korean War.  Unlike World War II American was not seen, nor did many Americans see America, as fighting the great fight against tyranny but rather fighting to support a tyranny.  Doubt and a lack of trust in government reached deep into the collective psyche and I think the vestiges of that mistrust continue to this day on both the left and the right.

King’s lesson compares to a teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel that “Some are guilty, but all are responsible”.  In a collective, not everyone may be guilty of wrongdoing, but ultimately it effects everyone unless means are made to stop it.  Thus all are responsible to make amends in some way for the sins of the few.

In this week’s Torah portion, there is a valuable lesson about the dangers to the community by the sins of a few.  As we begin the book of Leviticus we are introduced to the ritual and cultic practices in the Tabernacle, mishkan.  The opening chapters describe different sacrificial offerings made by the priests and by individuals.  One of the offerings is called a Hattat.  In older translations, the hattat sacrifice is translated as ‘sin offering’, because a het is a sin and the offering was made in response to an inadvertent sin.  But our Humash follows the studies of Jacob Milgrom who insisted that the hattat should be translated ‘purification offering’ because the offering by the sinner brought purification.  Milgrom clarified that hattat was a purification rite brought for sins committed by people which generated impurity in society; these sins “attacked” the sanctuary, where they accumulated. The hattat purified the sanctuary.  Milgrom refers to the blood of the offering which was sprinkled on the curtains of the Ark, the altar of incense in inner court, and the sacrificial altar in the outer court in different situations as a ritual detergent.  The inadvertent offender did not need for himself to be purged by the hattat blood because his sin was washed away by his acknowledgement that he made a mistake and his remorse.  What he needed to do was receive forgiveness for the consequence of his actions.  His offense caused the sanctuary itself to become polluted. 

The theology behind such a system argued Milgrom was that the God of Israel will not abide in a polluted sanctuary.  The merciful God will tolerate a modicum of pollution but there is a point of no return. “More grievous than all the other transgressions in the Torah is the imparting pollution to the sanctuary and its sancta taught Rabbi Shimon in the Tosefta Shevuot 1:3.  When that point is reached the community is in great danger. “The Lord has abandoned his altar, rejected his Sanctuary.  He has handed over to the foe the wall of its citadels” (2:7), writes the author of Lamentations. 

Milgrom shares a number of examples from comparable ancient texts that Israel was in full accord with its neighbors’ obsessive compulsion to purify its shrines.  The key difference between Israel and pagan nations was that the pagan world was suffused with fear that impurity was caused by and would lead to demonic possession of its sancta; Israel had removed demonic power from its concern with impurity.  “Malefic impurity does not inhere in nature; it is the creation of man.  Only man, even by inadvertence, can generate the impurity that will evict God from his earthly abode”. (p.261)

Milgrom’s description of ancient Israel’s cultic theology resonates with a Jewish theology that would develop 1500 years after the destruction of the Temple.

Among the medieval kabbalists there developed a theology that human sin not only was detrimental to the sinner and not only caused punishment due to the breaking of covenantal bonds, but affected God and the cosmic realms.  Sins impact negatively on the Godhead and gum up the sefirotic structure, the process by which the Divine enters into this world.   There is a notion of “tzorech gavohah” – a Divine need that must be addressed in human behavior.

What effect does sin have on the sefirotic system?

Elijah deVidas in his Kabbalistic Mussar work Reshit Hochmah uses a metaphor about a spring of water that flows down and irrigates beautiful fields and orchards.  If someone comes along and diverts the pipes such that the water flows instead into a garbage heap, the landowner will become angry that the valuable water is being used for this purpose, and that the fields are being neglected while the resources are flowing into the trash-heap.

Teshuvah is the reparation of those broken irrigation pipes and restoring them to their original position so that the Divine flow can return. 

Among the Kabbalists in an even more profound way than the Priestly authors in the Torah, each of us by our actions impacts on the community as a whole, each action we take has cosmic ramifications.

We know this to be true in our world today.  When we act in ways that treat our environment poorly –from small acts like littering, or idling our cars when we are waiting somewhere instead of turning the car off, to more serious acts of environmental harm by unsafe corporate practices, the entire community is affected, and even the entire universal ecosystem.  Science shows us that global climate changes over the last century have been caused by human actions.  Our unwillingness to, as it were, purge our sins of wanton destruction of the environment and exploitation of natural resources are polluting our sacred space – the earth.

Danny Gordis, many years ago attempted to defend the second paragraph of the Shema which connects moral defects to environmental catastrophe – “Take care lest you be tempted to stray and to worship false gods.   For then God’s wrath will be directed against you.  God will close the heavens and hold back the rain;  the earth will not yield its produce and you will soon disappear from the good land that the Lord is giving you.”  The Reform movement removed that paragraph because they disagreed with a theology that taught that God uses nature to punish ethical wrongs. But Danny Gordis argued what is acid rain – that was the environmental challenge at the time – but a reaction to ecological exploitation?

We still live in a closed universe.  Our actions have consequences, not only on ourselves but on our community and on the Divine.  Sinful behavior, exploitive behavior, hateful acts give off ripples that impact our collective psyche for generations.  But just as such actions cause harm, so we have the ability to rectify such negative acts.   Observing the mitzvot, demanding an end to harmful policies, defending the vulnerable, insisting that all are equal before the law, these are some of the ways that we too like our ancestors can purge the pollution from our society.

Shabbat Ki Tisa - Taking a Deep Breath

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, March 18,2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

After parashat Yitro in which the Ten commandments are presented until the end of the Book of Shmot, the Torah is almost exclusively concerned with the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, and the creation of the priestly institution.  But opening up every few chapters, like a window of fresh air, are verses mentioning the observance of something we are familiar with - the Sabbath.  It is in the 10 Commandments, of course, but we also find it here in Ki Tisa and next week before we read of the actual construction of the Tabernacle, verses about the significance of Shabbat observance are offered again. These verses about holiness in time stand as a counterpoint to the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which is holiness in space.  For the Bible it is not one or the other but both in their proper balance.

As if to underscore that point, according to the Sages, activities that were needed to create the Mishkan, are the very activities we refrain from doing on the Sabbath.  In this way the Shabbat is a remedy to the possible malaise that can come from over extensive engagement in any kind of spatial context, holy or not.

The verses about Shabbat in this week's Torah portion make this very point.   

  “Let all of Israel guard the Shabbat, keeping the Shabbat in all generations as an everlasting Covenant. It is between me and the Children of Israel, a sign forever, that in six days, the Lord made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day, paused and took a deep breath."


'Shavat viyanafash' is what we called our Kallah this year.  Shavat means to cease, refrain and VaYiNafash comes from the word 'nefesh,' which means both soul and breath.  Shabbat is about pausing and taking a deep breath. 

Shabbat is a day for catching our breath, for taking a break from the crazy overextended life we are caught in the rest of the week.  It is a day when we imitate God by standing back from what we have done, a day when we are not money-making machines or money-spending machines.  It is a day when we are not machines at all, but human beings, made in the image of God.

When people hear about Shabbat in these terms they are enthralled.  Who wouldn't like a pause from the busy lives we live?  But the challenge is to translate the words of the Torah from parchment into life.  How do we make these words that we have just heard, words that are several thousand years old, words that come from a world before there were computers or cars or credit or cash ... how do we make these words resonate for people in our own time?

I shared this article by Lilith writer Nancy Maxwell a number of years ago but it still resonates.  Nancy Maxwell is a woman who has a career and a family and a host of other interests.  She like many of us here attempts to juggle all the responsibilities and vocational activities in her life without losing our minds.  But one day it all snapped – she writes:

“When I burst into tears over the laundry basket, I knew that something would have to change.  As I sat there convulsively sobbing, my tears inundating the still-warm, lemon-scented sheets, I had to admit that things just could not continue.

“It was easy to diagnose the cause of my emotional outburst.  I, like an entire generation of sister working Moms, was exhausted.  With a husband, daughter, job, graduate school class and house all demanding my time and energy, my tears betrayed the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not 'do it all.' Though I had always prided myself on maintaining an organized, though hectic, schedule of household duties and errands, my tears revealed that even with all my lists, systems and constant motion, I still could not manage to get everything done.

“I could not enlist my husband to do more, nor could I give up something.  My husband is already as stressed and exhausted as I am.  He works longer and harder at his job than I do.  Though he has offered to take on more chores, I failed to see how having him crying over the laundry basket instead of me would help matters.

“Nor could I find any activities I was willing to eliminate.  I love my full-time job and I refuse to give up the intellectually-challenging graduate class I take each semester.  I have already lowered housework standards, paid for what services we can afford, and stopped doing lots of little things.... 

“(A)s my weeping laundry session revealed, even these changes were not enough.  I needed to try something radically different.

“I found my "radical solution" in a most unlikely source; at least it was an unlikely place for a non-Orthodox Jew like me.  My solution was to resurrect the ancient biblical observance of Shabbat. 

“But, as a liberal modern Jew, I could not and would not observe a completely Orthodox Shabbat, with all of the prohibitions against driving, turning on lights, answering the phone, et cetera.  I decided that I would 'reconstruct' Shabbat in a way that would let me observe a traditional day of rest, but in a way that made sense for a contemporary Jewish career woman.

“I was still sitting on the floor amidst my tear-dampened bed sheets when I began to construct 'Nancy Maxwell's Save-Your-Own-Life Shabbat rules.'  If my ancestors could cease their brick-making and their olive-tending for one day, surely I and my family could manage if no laundry or housework was done one day a week.”

What Nancy Maxwell was struggling with was not just how to bring some peace and tranquility into her home but how to incorporate the wisdom of our ancestors into a modern context.  Too often we make the mistake of taking a bifurcated approach to religious obligations.  It is either all –which of course is crazy and fanatical – or nothing.  But adaptation is what has kept our faith vital over 2000 years.

What I find weak in Nancy Maxwell’s approach is that there is no broader context.  Her Shabbat rules do not place her in a communal covenant with fellow Jews or within her religious heritage, they are simply another self-help doctrine ala Jewish sensibilities.  Kind of like Madonna studying kabbalah.

In any case here is Nancy Maxwell’s list:

No shopping-No housework-No grocery stores-No laundry-No bill-paying(No even thinking about money)-No stops at the ATM, the gas station or any other errands.-No major cooking or baking.-No obligatory or guilt-induced phone calls-No doing anything else that I find unpleasant(Provided it can be put off a day without inconveniencing other members of the family.  After all, I am still the Mom.)


And these are her 'yeses.'

Yes to reading and studying.

Yes to just being with my husband

Yes to playing with and reading to my daughter

Yes to having friends and family over for dinner

Yes to any outing that I find pleasant

Yes to anything else that gives me peace and joy

The list is pretty good in terms of creating an island of tranquility in the midst of a hectic week.  Yet I would guess that after 6 months or so, maybe a year, Nancy Maxwell may well have had difficulty maintaining her new program.  Because without the appreciation that one is following a course of action because one is compelled – as Jews because our brit with God demands of us to observe Shabbat – and with a community to support her vision – if everyone in her neighborhood held to those rules – follow through is very difficult.  That is the strength of weight watchers – a community meets weekly to encourage each other (maybe fear of shaming) to keep to the program.

Art Green, a scholar of Mysticism and head of the rabbinical school at Boston Hebrew College, years ago had his own “Ten Commandments” of Shabbat for the modern Jew that sound similar to Nancy Maxwell.

Stay at home, Celebrate with others, study or read something that will edify challenge or make you grow. Be Alone , take time for your self and review your week.  Mark the beginning and end of sacred time through Friday night and Havdalah rituals

Don’t do anything you have to do for your work life, Don’t spend money, Don’t do business, Don’t travel long distances, stay free of encounters in which people are likely to tell you “Have a nice day”.  Don’t use commercial or canned video entertainment, be in situations in which you are face to face with people.

The list are similar except that Art Green includes religious rituals to mark the time.  Neither though suggest joining with others in communal religious experiences which are essential to the success of making Shabbat unique.  Our passage tells us today “It is between me and the Children of Israel, a sign forever”.  If not for God one could attempt to make Shabbat Wednesday or Sunday as the great Reform Jewish theologian Kaufman Kohler suggested to early 20th century Jews.  But our Shabbat is from Friday night to Saturday night because in holding to that time we engage in a Covenantal commitment with the Divine.   

Nancy Maxwell did a great service by acknowledging that there is a great practical element to keeping Shabbat in a way that makes us to cease and desist in order to draw a clean breath.  Her approach is most worthwhile in helping us to see that God’s covenantal demands are in essence an act of great love and compassion for God’s people. 

Shabbat Mishpatim - For He Will Cry Out and I Will Hear Him

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, February 24, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

Sometimes what seems to be the simplest of Torah verses to understand present significant questions.

In this morning’s Torah portion there is a verse that poses a textual and a theological problem. 

“Every widow or orphan, you shall not afflict. Oh if you afflict afflict him!... For then he will cry, cry out to me and I will hearken, hearken to his cry.  My anger shall blaze forth and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”

Let’s begin with the textual problem.  The translation of that verse is my own.  If you look in the Humash that we use you will see that the translation is “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me”.  The Hebrew text use the biblical form of the doubling of infinitive construct for emphasis.  This is common.  What is difficult is, in the Hebrew, the initial verse is in the plural – Kol almanah v’yatom lo t’anun but the second verse which our translation glides over is in the singular Im aney t’aneh oto.  And masculine.  What happened to the widow?  Not only that but are we to extract from the verse that we are only not allowed to afflict widows and orphans?  The previous verse suggested a wider application: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  And why does the text emphasize “every widow and orphan”, are there some widows and orphans we might think it is okay to afflict? And finally the verse suggests that “if you afflict the widow and the orphan, and they cry out from the suffering, than God will respond”.  So only if the persecuted express suffering, God responds?

Many commentators have weighed in on how to read these verses.  Let’s start with Rashi and his response.

Rashi answers the question about why does the text specify “Each widow and orphan” because the Torah offers us the most likely case of oppression.  Widows and orphans in many societies are the weakest and most easily mistreated.  Don’t assume that it is okay to mistreat others, but the Torah uses the example of the most vulnerable.  Rashi also suggests that the text in the next verse is elided.  “Oh if you afflict afflict him!...(I am threatening you and will punish you because) when he will cry, cry out to me then I will hearken, hearken to his cry.”  But Rashi does not respond to the grammatical issue.

Ramban (13th C) disagrees with Rashi that the text has a gap that needs to be filled in.  He says what God is saying is “If you afflict him, all he needs to do is simply cry out to Me and immediately I will seek out the perpetrator and punish him.”  No need to draw up a detailed case against one’s oppressor, a groan is enough.  Ramban also understands the significance of “every widow and orphan” as even wealthy widows one may not afflict.

The commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, (15C) helps explain the switch from plural to singular – do not afflict the widow and orphan followed by “oh, if you afflict afflict him” by noting the text suggests that if you afflict either of them, the widow or the orphan, God will respond harshly.  You need not be a serial abuser.

But the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz, (16th C Poland) has a more intriguing explanation, two in fact:  On the one hand we can say that sometimes a person only afflicts the orphan and the orphan’s mother, the widow, sees with her own eyes, helplessly longing to do something, but is powerless to save her child.  As a result of one affliction both are afflicted and both cry out, and God hears both and punishes the afflicter doubly in that his own wife and children will suffer.  This is why the text refers in the second verse to “Oh if you afflict afflict him”

However the Kli Yakar has another reading:  We can also suggest that since God is referred to as the “Father of orphans” in Psalm 68:6 then certainly all the orphan’s pain cause God pain, so to speak.  Therefore the doubling of the word afflict in the verse should be read “if you afflict (him the orphan) you also afflict Him (God).  Both cry out – the Justice from above and the orphan from below.  And God will respond to both.

 I like the Kli Yakar’s response very much because by closely reading the text he is able to offer us a psychological and a theological understanding of the consequences of abuse.  The identified victim is not the only victim in a case of abuse.  Bystanders, especially those who care deeply for the victim, suffer as well from the oppression and mistreatment of those who are vulnerable.  When we see pictures of victims whether it be our own people, as those who had a chance to see the Anne Frank exhibit in Elkhart, or when we watch the news and see suffering of oppressed individuals inSyria, or parts of Africa, or the refugees desperately trying to escape to freedom, it is debilitating to us too.  We see the suffering and we want to help.  It can become too much but we have an escape valve?  We turn off the TV.  The mothers of the orphans don’t have that luxury.

The Kli Yakar also recognizes that there is another victim of the oppression – God.  Human acts of cruelty wound the healer of shattered hearts, the Creator who intended his creation to be for Good. 

The Tzror Hamor, Rabbi Avraham Saba (Spain/Portugal/Morocco 15thC) read our verse in context.  The verse before states, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  Just as we are not to oppress or mistreat the stranger, the foreigner, so too we are not supposed to mistreat the widow and orphan.  We are dealing with those who are most vulnerable in society.  The juxtaposition of the verses insists on the power of empathy.  We should be sensitive to the needs of the foreigner, the stranger, because we were once in that position.  We should be kind to the most vulnerable because one never knows when we will need to depend on the kindness and compassion of others. 

There is a story of a group of beggars who were lined up on a busy street begging for alms.  A newcomer to town watched as the busy people ignored almost every beggar.  They were obviously familiar with people begging to the point of being inured to assisting them.  But there was one beggar for whom people seemed to stop, read his sign and give.  The man ran over to the sign to see what powerful slogan he had that was successful.  The sign said, “Today I am asking, but tomorrow it might be you.”

We Jews have long been in the position of the stranger, the refugee, the widow, the orphan.  We have often in our long history been among the most vulnerable in society.  Today thank God, many many Jews are on the other side of the equation – we are the haves with the opportunity to help.  And not only financially.

Last night I listened to Eva Kor tell her story of resistance and survival in Auschwitz.  She and her twin sister were the only family members to survive.  They were victims of Mengele, the Nazi doctor of Auschwitz.  After the war they returned to their little village in Romania and eked out an existence until in 1950 they were able to get visas to Israel.  She served in the Army for 8 years and eventually met her husband, a survivor of Buchenwald, who was living in Terre Haute, IN.  She moved back with him and as she described it, the only comparison between Tel Aviv and Terre Haute was that they both begin with the letter T.  Having lived life as a survivor, a refugee and an immigrant in a strange land, I asked her before the program what her feelings about the President’s order to restrict immigration.  Her answer was surprising but full of understanding for the life of a stranger.  She said, “It is a terrible thing to be a refugee.  The suffering of homelessness, the loss of one’s culture and familiarity with one’s surroundings.  We should have done more to allow these people to stay in Syria, to have given them a safe space to remain whole in the homeland.”

And this leads to the theological conundrum of this verse.  The verse states “For then he will cry, cry out to me and I will hearken, hearken to his cry.  My anger shall blaze forth and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”

What do we say to the Eva Kors and the Syrian refugees of the world, to those who suffer oppression and mistreatment, who cry out to God, asking for relief, for salvation which never comes?  The verse teaches that God will strike down the oppressor in like measure.  Some interpret the doubling of verbs to insist God will immediately respond.  But the suffering continues.

So if you are Richard Dawkins, the answer is there is no God, you are a sucker to hope that a transcendent God will save you, you lose, too bad you were born in Syria, or a Jew living in Nazi Europe.

The religious response is perfect justice is impossible in this world.  There is another world, after this one, in which evil is punished appropriately, and unjust suffering is relieved.

I like that answer better but it is still troubling that such suffering continues in this world.  So the more I live in this world, the more I have come to believe that when the Torah tells us that God is going to respond with Divine Justice, what God is really saying is that I challenge you human beings to be my shlichim, my representatives, in raising up justice.  If I hear the cry of the oppressed I will be listening.  Listening to what you my people, my followers, those who dare speak in my name do.  If you do nothing, if you permit this injustice to go on, then V’kharah api v’haragti etkhem bekherev. I will be furious and I will punish you – you and your world will continue to suffer from violence and cruelty because you refuse to respond. 

It is sad that even our nation, long valued for its commitment to human rights and its internal progress on civil rights, is returning to fears based on prejudice and false facts that in the 1930s caused millions of our people to die because this country refused to let them enter.  The Torah in its own way indicates to us that our world operates on some level in a measure for measure system.  If we don’t act to stop oppression and mistreatment of the most vulnerable, we too will suffer mistreatment.  Let us hope our tradition’s commitment to compassion as expressed by our ancient sages triumphs.

Shabbat Va'eira - Amazing Feats at Any Age

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 28, 2017

Judith Falzon

When Rabbi put out the offer to us members of the congregation to share d'var Torah, I was intrigued. But as a relative newcomer--and as someone not even sure what a d'var Torah is--I was hesitant. I had no idea what I could possibly say to you, my friends and mentors.

What I can say to you is: thank you. I've come to appreciate so much over the last two years the incredible richness of Jewish tradition. In the simultaneous simplicity and complexity that is Jewish life and thought. It's all there--just waiting to be uncovered. With a little digging or a lot of digging there are beautiful pieces to tickle mind, heart and soul.

In the Pirke Avot 5:21:
“Yehudah ben Teima used to say: Five years [is the age] for [the study of] Scripture, Ten [is the age] for [the study of] Mishnah, Thirteen [is the age] for [observing] commandments, Fifteen [is the age] for [the study of] Talmud. ..”

Okay, well here I am well past the age of five, ten, thirteen and fifteen and I am still a beginner at Scripture.

During our first year of study I remember being at Fiddler’s Hearth along with some of my classmates one evening and. With Rabbi’s guidance,we were puzzling over the story of Abraham and Isaac. After a beer I told Rabbi that I'd never understand how Abraham could actually intend to kill his son. I have since learned that there are many layers to that story, many lessons that can be drawn from it.

Also during our first year of study came the intoxicating and sublime discovery of the life and writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Thank you Rabbi for that.

After conversion I had the opportunity to study chant. It was an amazing moment when I was privileged to chant Torah for the first time. Even now, just thinking about it makes me smile It took a lot of practice. As an adult learner I had to become much more open to experiencing frustration and failure. But when the Hebrew words and the tropes finally came together
there was nothing like it! It was another connection between our community and the generations that came before and that will follow us.

So far this Jewish journey has been one very fun, wild ride. The minute one challenge is finished I want another. And another…and another. It’s never too late to learn new skills: if I could do it, anyone can.

In today's parsha we hear about Moses acquiring some new skills. He speaks with his new mentor, Adonoi. You just can't do better than that for a mentor. But, even so, Moses is daunted. Finally Adonoi gets tired of Moses' overthinking and tells him to just go out and do it.

I can in some small sense have an idea what it might have been like for Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam to roll with the tide of events. At this point in time, we are reminded that Moses is 80, Aaron is 83 and Miriam is at least 87 years old. I try to imagine them getting up in the mornings (without benefit of coffee--and then up each day for the next 40 years!)

We hear that our guys, Moses and Aaron, try to rally their dispirited and disheartened community. Then they are off to speak to Pharaoh; then, they're back to persuade the community to trek off from home base, and lose three days of work for a spiritual retreat in the wilderness.

The story continues with twists and turns and plagues--and the parsha ends (to be continued next week) with the Israelites still enslaved, Pharaoh still uncooperative, and the boys (who are 80 and 83) still with so much more to do.

Medieval commentator Ovadia Seforno (Spain 1500s) commented on Exodus 7:7 verse: In spite of their advanced age they rose up with enthusiasm to fulfill the will of their Creator Indeed he who had reached the age of 80, even in those days, had already passed the age of elder status and reached those of strength, as Moses attests to in the psalm ascribed to him, Psalm 90: The days of our years are 70, or even by reason of strength, eighty years. (P 90:10)

The cool thing about these three, Moses, Aaron and Miriam, is that they rose up and did all those remarkable things. These octogenarians, the ultimate poster children for AARP.

As Jews we are called upon to do amazing feats--at any age. I watched a documentary last week about a 91 year old Holocaust survivor who speaks to prisoners and to schoolchildren AND runs a her own small business 6 days a week. Why does she do it? Because she feels called to speak on behalf of all those who cannot speak. And what she has to say resonates 70 years later, to convicts, to trauma survivors, to schoolchildren. They all know she understands what it is like to be imprisoned and powerless--and yet to emerge with and to effect a different life script--one of service and compassion.

We all can say we are too young, too old, too busy, too sad, too frustrated. But regardless what we say, and what we sometimes feel, we as Jews are nevertheless called to act. That inner drive to better the world is neverending. The drive to learn new things and to keep learning at any age is strong. That is what I love about this community and about the Jewish people.

Thank you all again for the honor to be part of this community, and a part our Jewish journey.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Shemot - President Barack Hussein Obama: the Great Zionist

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 21, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

It is quite amazing that this Shabbat of the Inauguration of a new President coincides with the opening of the book of Exodus.  For as we know Exodus opens with the ominous line: VaYakom Melekh hadash al Mitzrayim asher lo yada et Yosef : “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph”.  Let’s hope the subsequent history of the new President turns out better than that of the new King.

But if the new King knew not Joseph, that is, a new Egyptian King who did not recognize the positive attributes and contributions of Joseph and the Jewish people, well, there must have been an old King who did know and recognize the contributions of the Israelite immigrants to Egypt.  And for the last eight years we in the United States, and especially the Jewish community, have been blessed to have had a President who did know the Jewish community.  Obama considered Jews among his mentors and closest friends and advisors; the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg referred to him as the first Jewish President.  Whether or not it makes sense to claim him as the first Jewish President, I suggest that he is probably the first President to be a true Zionist.

This is a very important claim because of the many atrocious attacks thrown at this President, the most malignant canard was that President Obama was an enemy of the Jewish people and hated Israel. It seems that this canard pained him very much.  Not only because it was not true – all Presidents weather harsh attacks on their character and personalities – but because more than any previous President his support for Israel stemmed from his deep belief in the power and meaning of Zionism.

Every president of the United States has supported Israel.  Some like Bill Clinton had a deep affinity for Jews.  But for most, the support for Israel was strategic - serving American interests in the Middle East.  Even known anti-Semites like Richard Nixon saved Israel when Israel was in danger of losing the Yom Kippur War.  President Obama’s administration was no different in this regard.  Before President Obama left office he agreed to a $38 billion military aid package over the next 10 years, making it the largest bilateral military aid package ever, which includes $5 billion for missile defense, additional F-35 joint strike fighters and increased mobility for its ground forces.  President Obama, unlike President Bush, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the development and production of the Iron Dome project, so crucial to Israel’s defense.

But that is what all Presidents do even if they don’t get along with their Israeli counterparts.  Obama is different because Obama is a Zionist.

Before I make my case, it is important to define our terms. 

What is Zionism?  Unfortunately most people assume that Zionism is what the government of Benjamin Netanyahu says is right for Israel.  But considering that the current Israeli government is not allowing Conservative Jewish converts from South America or Africa to enter the country – that is, not allowing them to enter the country, not questioning their right to make aliyah, just not allowing them to receive visas to enter– it is hard to argue that this current government embodies the highest values of Zionism. (*note – this sermon was written before the Israeli government under internal and world pressure allowed these converts to enter Israel, thank God)

Zionism has many schools of thought.  Developing from our age old Jewish dream of returning to the Land of Israel, modern Zionism grew out of nationalist and neo-messianic movements in the mid-19th century. Look, Zionism is a Jewish ideology, so, of course, there are multiple opinions.  But at its core Zionism was a movement that insisted the Jewish people had a right to self-determination and sovereignty in its ancient homeland. The ideals of justice and morality were seen as essential to many Zionist thinkers.  According to the picture drawn by Zionists such as the historian Ben Zion Dinur, it was Messianism, a secular Messianism, that was the primary element of modern Zionism.  The movement evoked the dream of an end of days, a release from Exile, and the consummation of Jewish history. (Hertzberg, “Introduction”, The Zionist Idea, p. 18) The creation of Israel was a modern Hanukah story with Zionists playing the role of the Maccabees.

Cultural Zionists such as Ahad HaAm saw in Zionism a path to the transformation of Judaism. “Of all the great aims to which Zionism aspires for the time being, it is within our powers to draw near…to only one…the moral aim.  We must liberate ourselves from inner slavery, from the degradation of the spirit caused by assimilation, and we must strengthen our national unity until we become capable and worthy of a future life of honor and freedom. (from “The First Zionist Congress”, in The Jew in the Modern World)  Ahad HaAm’s Judaism was a vision of the prophetic ideal updated for modern consciousness.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine, saw the growing Zionist movement, led by secularists as a sign of the advent of traditional Mashiachtzeit: “All the civilizations of the world will be renewed by the renaissance of our spirit… The active power of Abraham's blessing to all the peoples of the world will become manifest, and it will serve as the basis of our renewed creativity and Eretz Israel.( from Abraham Isaac Kook:”The War”, The Zionist Idea, p.22)

Louis Brandeis writing at about the same time in the United States, praised his coreligionists overcoming horrific hardships to rebuilding the Holy Land, comparing it to the creation of the United States, and referred to the Zionists as the “Jewish Pilgrim Fathers”.

It is clear that Barack Obama sees that affinity as well. In his comments at Adas Israel synagogue in 2015 he shared, “To a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world -- that idea was liberating.” 

Ari Shavit, the Israeli journalist, noted that the greatest expositor of Liberal Zionist ideals in recent memory was Barack Obama.

In 2013 addressing an audience in Israel, Obama linked the achievements of modern Israel to its past.  It was the history of Biblical slavery and wandering in the desert to ultimately being redeemed in the return to the land;  in the common era it was years of oppression and wandering in Exile that led to the ultimate expression of redemption – the Creation of a State with its goal of making the desert bloom.  He cautioned his audience that for the Zionist goal to sustain itself peace would be necessary because without peace Israel cannot endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state. And eventually that would require the creation of a Palestinian state not because the world deserves another Arab state but because justice requires that Palestinians also be allowed self determination.  And he connected the Zionist project to tikun olam, the reparation of the world. Linking Jewish history to the Jewish present to the messianic future is in line with the best of Zionist thought.

At Shimon Peres’ funeral he reiterated that “[J]ustice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea.” And “Israel’s exceptionalism”, that is our status as the chosen people, is “rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision” of the Jewish faith.  He also offered, “The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people.”  Now one may say that this is a naïve liberal view and hutzpadik for Obama, who is not Jewish, to suggest that.  Except that he was quoting Shimon Peres, the last of the founding fathers of the Zionist state.

And to those who think that the recent abstention by the US of the United Nations resolution on settlements was proof of Obama’s hatred of Israel?  Well, you must think that Ronald Reagan was a raving anti Semite.  For Obama’s abstention was the only time the US abstained on a resolution critical of Israel in 8 years, in every other instance they voted against criticizing Israel.  But Ronald Reagan’s government abstained or voted to censure Israel 21 times during his presidency (Lara Friedman, NY Times op-ed, April 10, 2016 research by Americans for Peace Now).

In one of his many interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg Obama expressed his concern, like many of us who are liberal Zionists, that Israel must act to maintain a majority Jewish democracy.  Holding on to the West Bank risks that possibility – either Israel remains a true democracy in which case the growing number of Palestinians in Greater Israel will outnumber and outvote the Jewish state or more likely, Israel will be forced to rule over a majority population only a portion of which will be allowed to vote, destroying Israel as a democracy. 

And if you think that concern is overblown, I would recommend to you the words of Zev Jabotinsky, father of Revisionist movement to which Benjamin Netanyahu is heir: “The precondition for the attainment of these noble aims (the solution to the question of Jewish suffering and the creation of a new Jewish culture) is a country in which the Jews constitute a majority. It is only after this majority is attained that Palestine can undergo a normal political development on the basis of democratic, parliamentary principles without thereby endangering the Jewish national character of the country.” (“What Zionist Revisionists Want” in The Zionist Idea)

Jabotinsky understood as does Barack Obama that for Israel to succeed as a democratic Jewish state it must have a majority of Jews in it.  And today, that is only possible if Palestinians are allowed sovereignty over themselves.

But even before he became President, Barack Obama had a deep understanding and appreciation for the true meaning of Zionism.  In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in 2008 he offered this explanation of his affinity to Zionism: “You know, when I think about the Zionist idea, I think about how my feelings about Israel were shaped as a young man -- as a child, in fact. I had a camp counselor when I was in sixth grade who was Jewish-American but who had spent time in Israel, … he shared with me the idea of returning to a homeland and what that meant for people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home. That was something so powerful and compelling for me, maybe because I was a kid who never entirely felt like he was rooted. That was part of my upbringing, to be traveling and always having a sense of values and culture but wanting a place. So that is my first memory of thinking about Israel.

And then that mixed with a great affinity for the idea of social justice that was embodied in the early Zionist movement and the kibbutz, and the notion that not only do you find a place but you also have this opportunity to start over and to repair the breaches of the past.” (interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic Monthly May 12, 2008)

I think America is going to profoundly miss the sagacity and nobility of President Barack Hussein Obama. But we Jews will also miss a President whose affinity with our people runs so deep that he represents the best ideals of Zionism.


Shabbat VaYeshev - Chrismanukah: What’s the difference?

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 24, 2016

Rabbi Michael Friedland

Today is Erev Hanukah and amazingly Erev Christmas as well.  Every December we Jews deal with the phenomenon known as the December Dilemma – Christmas programs are held in schools, everyone (despite the alleged war on Christmas) wishes you a Merry Christmas, you can’t walk five feet without hearing a Christmas song, Christmas trees and wreaths are everywhere.  This may be nice for Christians but for us Jews it feels sometimes like it is being rammed down our throats.  But it needn’t be.  Some people including many Christians bemoan the commercialism of Christmas but that is our culture - it affects Hanukah and every other sacred event in our nation – don’t look now but 9/11 sales events and 9/11 cards will be coming soon to a town near you.  Christmas has a powerful religious message for its adherents that we can appreciate just as Hanukah has a powerful message for us Jews.

Some people link the two holidays.  They are both in the winter, they both fall on the 25th of their respective months, they both include lights and candle lighting as part of the experience.  But beyond these elements there is little to connect the two.  Not everyone is aware of that.  As when the radio show producer called me for an on air interview about Hanukah when I was just starting as a rabbi in Appleton WI.  “So rabbi,” he asked, “what can you tell our listeners about how Hanukah is the Jewish celebration of the birth of Jesus?” Huh?! Radio silence as I tried to figure out how not to start a pogrom against the Appleton Jewish community. 

But there is another very interesting connection between the two holidays and that has to do with Sukkot.  We are all familiar with the classic rabbinic explanation of why we celebrate Hanukah:  When the Maccabees under Judah took back control of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from the Hellenist Syrians they found only one kosher cruse of olive oil to light the menorah in the Temple.  They lit it and instead of lasting only one day it lasted 8 until new oil could be procured. 

The problem with this explanation is that we happen to have a number of historical sources which refute the story of the miracle of oil.  The story of the oil is found in the Babylonian Talmud, redacted in the late 5th century of the common era.  But there are two historical chronicles from a few generations after  the events related to the Hanukah story which occurred in 164 BCE which know of no miracle oil story.  According to these sources the victory and restoration – rededication of the Templewas celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev because: (The purification) happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners…They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths (Sukkot), remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. 2 Maccabees 10:1-9.

At the Kallah I taught the important connection between sacred space dedications and 8 day periods throughout the Bible.  But the connection with Sukkot is significant.  Sukkot is the most joyous of holiday festivals.  It is the season of ingathering, when the cupboards are most full.  As a Biblical festival it is also a Temple-centric observance.  Every Jew was supposed to show up and present himself on the festival. 

It so happens that Sukkot is also connected to Christmas.  According to the Gospel of Luke (2:8) when Jesus was born, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks in the fields.  Sheep do not go roaming around the fields in December, even in Israel. Luke also records that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel to inform her that she was pregnant in the 6th month of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother.  Elizabeth became pregnant when Zechariah, her husband, who was a priest returned home from serving in the Temple.  This was in Sivan, the summer.  John the Baptist was born 9 months later in Nisan, the spring, and the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was 6months younger.  Thus Jesus was born in Tishrei – the month of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.  From other gospels and Luke we can guesstimate that the reason Joseph and Mary were stuck in a manger in Bethlehem was because the Roman empire had declared a census be taken and each family was to return to the city of his ancestors, to be registered and taxed. Joseph went to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.  Given that it was Sukkot, and Bethlehem is near Jerusalem.  You couldn’t find a vacancy and they were stuck in the barn.  Most likely Jesus was born on Sukkot. 

So everyone is asking why do Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th?  The historical answer is because Christianity under the leadership of Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, set out to convert the Pagans. December 23th , as the winter solstice ended , was a Roman holiday of Saturnalia.   By making December 25th a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christians could take an already popular holiday and instead of eliminating it coopt itmaking the Christianizing of the population easier.

Jon Sorenson, a writer for Catholic Answers website, states that “Although the date of Jesus’ birth is not given to us in Scripture, there is documented evidence that December 25 was already of some significance to Christians prior to A.D. 354. One example can be found in the writings of Hyppolytus of Rome, who writes that

“For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years.”

What is the connection to Adam?  In order to relate the birth of Jesus to the Creation story.  For Jesus would have been conceived in Spring which as we know according to Rabbi Yehoshua the world was created in Nisan, Spring time.

OK got it?  Jesus was born during Sukkot according to the gospels but his birth was celebrated on December 25 to link his conception to the conception of the world.  Hanukah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev to make up for the absence of the celebration of Sukkot that year when the Maccabees were fighting a guerilla war.  The Sages of the Talmud, ignored the Sukkot/military victory explanation in order to emphasize a more pacifistic miracle story. 

Both religious communities chose to offer different spiritualized mythic versions of history.  According to Jon Sorenson quoting Pope Benedict 16, it was to connect Jesus to Adam.  Jesus would be the new Adam, creating a new world order.  But it also coopted holidays that celebrated the births of gods in other cultures.  The idea in Christianity is that without Jesus, you have nothing.  You cannot be saved or liberated without going through Jesus.  God is made human, and that human’s sacrifice offers atonement for the world.  Adam sins, and the world begins, for his expulsion from Eden is the beginning of world history.  Jesus dies and the spiritual world for his followers begins.  Jesus is heroic in that his death gives life.  But only his death.  Without it, there is no life.  And his story, not so unlike the god birth stories of pagans exhibits a common human desire for a miracle man. Someone to do it for you when you become tired and sick, when you become fatigue and frightened.

Judaism also has a hero story.  The Maccabees were victorious and God is involved, but the message is if you want salvation, it is up to us Jews to work together to achieve it.  We are responsible for our own salvation.  The rabbis de-emphasize the role of the Maccabees in their miracle story but not the role of the victory.  In the daily addition to the Amidah during Hanukah, there is no mention of the miracle of the oil that lasts 8 days, only the victory of the minority against the majority, the weak over the strong, the righteous over the wicked.  The Maccabees are deemphasized because eventually their descendants become corrupt, just like the Hellenist rulers.  They recognize that while we human beings can achieve salvation, we are ultimately fallible and so each generation has to work for its own salvation, fight the same battles against evil and not rely on past victories or on a few heroic individuals. 

Rabbi Harold Schulweis in commenting on the differences between Christianity and Judaism, remarked, “You have no excuse in Judaism… you are not born a sinner. You have not inherited any sin in Judaism and you have not transmitted sin. You are the sons and daughters of God, each of you, each of us. No one stands higher than another. Nobody is closer to God than you. And if someone says to you, “that man has closer contact to God”, know that that violates the very essence of Judaism.”

The actual Christmas should be during sukkot.  Hanukkah was an actualized Sukkot.  Both religious cultures transformed the historical into myth.  But how and what motivated the transformations tell us much about the different religious cultures.  For us Hanukkah was transformed from a holiday that could have venerated military heroism into an appreciation for the human effort in achieving salvation and the role God plays in that effort. 

Hanukah teaches us to oppose the apotheosis, or divinization of any human being.  IN 164 BCE we refused to accept Antiochus IV as Epiphanies - Epiphanies means God manifest.  And we have continued to refuse to accept the idea that any human should be considered God, just as much as we resist the concept that God needs to become human to truly understand God’s creations.

Yohanan ben Zakai says, if you hold in your hand a seedling, a sapling and people cry out, “Behold! The messiah has come! Look, the messiah is coming!” Get down on your knees and plant the sapling in the earth first before you investigate whether or not the Messiah has come, because that's the way the world is going to be saved.  One tree, one planting, one candlelight in the darkness, one act of salvation at a time


Shabbat Toldot - Staying True to Our Values

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 3, 2016

Rabbi Michael Friedland

We are a couple of months out from national elections and the one thing we can say about the impact of the elections is – Not so good for the Jews.

Much has been said about Steve Bannon, the choice for Chief Political Strategist. That he himself is anti-Semitic, that his cyber magazine Breitbart, encourages and foments racism, misogyny and anti Semitism, and misinformation. Michael Flynn the National Security appointee likes to retweet neo-Nazi, white supremacist views. And the pick for Defense secretary, James Mattis, has been quoted as suggesting Israel is headed for Apartheid and the pro Israel bias of the US harms America’s interests in the Middle East.

On the Democratic side, a leading contender for the post of chair of the Democratic National Committee is Keith Ellison, congressman from Minnesota. In the past Ellison has been a supporter of Louis Farrakhan. Despite his insistence that he now disavows such views and supports a two state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, he regularly votes against support for Israel. Now all of these individuals have apologists who insist that they really are not anti– Semitic or anti-Israel. And that may be fair and correct. For we are now in the midst of a very popular parlor game played by Jewish partisans of the left and the right called “Find the Anti-Semitic statement”. In this game everyone attempts to undermine the other sides’ argument and political views by parsing comments, tweets, sentences to show that “Your side is represented by an anti-Semite, but my side, which you accused of being anti-Semitic, is actually unfairly represented.”

In the meantime, the Jewish in-fighting allows politicians to ignore Jewish communal concerns.

Here in South Bend, a growing number of Jewish community members need assistance from Jewish Family services and the Food pantry. But the current Congressional leadership have proposed making changes in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and Healthcare that will severely hurt members in our community and many other Americans.

Israel is going to need American support more than ever as the Middle East and the world as a whole becomes more unstable. The incoming administration has promised to continue American support for Israel but it also promises closer ties to Russia, which supports Iran and Assad in Syria, whose goal is the destruction of Israel. 

And the choice for Secretary of State is from the oil industry which has always been supportive of a more Arab friendly foreign policy. Donald Trump has said that America needs to focus on itself and recede from the world stage. Who will be there to assist Israel if the U.S. is pulling back?

We have to train ourselves not to get exercised over every obnoxious comment or foolish statement that political leaders make and focus on policies that make a difference in our society. Gutting the safety net will destroy lives. An ugly swastika can be painted over. Sympathizing with Palestinian hardship, does not an anti-Semite or anti-Zionist make, but ignoring the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement and allowing it to link arms with legitimate human rights causes will endanger Israel and intimidate many Jews from speaking out in support of Israel.

Our patriarch Isaac showed us an approach that we might learn from. “Isaac sowed in the land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. The Lord blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth.”

Water means life for all living creatures. Especially in the desert. Why were the Philistines destroying the wells –so that they too could not benefit from them? Was it simply out of spite?

The Biblical commentator Rabbi Jacob Tzvi Mecklenberg from Germany in the 19th century offered this explanation: “ ‘Isaac called their names after the names by which his father had called them’ – Isaac named the wells – ‘The Lord is my sign’, or ‘The well of Him that Lives’ just as his father did. For Abraham would call the well by a name that would drive home the lesson of the true existence of the One God. Wells were a necessity and by using the nomenclature of the well to promote the knowledge of the one true God, Abraham was able to initiate people into the true faith. Abraham strove to turn the hearts of those who denied God. While he was alive he was greatly respected by the people of the land. When he died though they reverted to idolatry. Stopping up the wells was a way for them to erase belief in God and return to false
opinions. The Torah teaches us that Isaac followed in his father’s footsteps and endeavored to dig out these same wells and resurrect their names in order to restore the crown of the true faith to its former glory.” 

According to Rabbi Mecklenberg, we are not really talking about wells. The Torah’s language indicates that destruction of wells were a mask to the true intention of the Philistines of the day – they wanted to destroy the development of ideas and policies that would undermine idolatrous practices. If Isaac was focused exclusively on repairing the wells, he would have lost the bigger picture – promoting the flow of monotheistic revolution and its values.

Isaac was able to see the big picture. He was following in his father’s footsteps in promoting values that enhanced human life – belief in One God which leads to a consistent moral vision, treating all human beings with respect – and he was successful in working and negotiating with those who seemed to be enemies to continue to promote his vision.

The conclusion of this passage illustrates that Isaac was successful. The Philistines come to him for support and make new agreements, feast together and “they exchanged oaths. Isaac then bade them farewell, and they departed from him in peace.”

If we as a Jewish community on a local and national scale can focus on our values and policies that promote those values and try hard, and it will be hard, not to get side tracked on ad hominem attacks, or alleged anti-Semitic statements from one side or the other, we like our ancestors can be successful in digging deep wells of righteousness and justice in our society. 

Shabbat VaYayrah - Reflections on the Election

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, November 19, 2016

Rabbi Michael Friedland

When I was in rabbinical school there was a joke that I believe was borrowed from medical students.  It went like this:  What do you call a rabbinical student with a C average? Answer: Rabbi. The cynical idea behind it was the same for rabbis or doctors.  The title of rabbi accorded its bearer with respect and honor no matter how poor a student he or she may have been.  The rabbi was the symbolic exemplar, as the late Rabbi Jack Bloom called the rabbinic role, and at least initially, the quality of the person was secondary; the title was a mantle by which whoever wielded it was acknowledged as harboring wisdom and moral authority and owed deference.

In my own life I have seen this played out especially among Gentiles.  I noticed immediately when I first became active in the United Religious Community that though some board members were Christian clergy, non clergy would refer to them by their first name.  I was always Rabbi Michael.

But as our South Bend community knows all too well, the title means little if the person who holds it engages in unbecoming behavior.  To deserve the respect that comes automatically with the title, one must constantly be vigilant to act in ways that are just and righteous and thoughtful.  One must be committed to promoting Judaism and its values and to living those values.  Then the title of rav, rabbi, fits.  

America has just elected to the Presidency a man whose behavior during the campaign was completely unbecoming of a President, let alone a mensch.  A man who mocked a disabled journalist; who made the accusation that Mexico intentionally sends criminals to the United States who sell drugs and rape Americans; who suggested that black people are thugs and destroy the cities they live in; made innumerable misogynist statements; refused to apologize and made light of his admittance of sexually violating women;  approved anti – semitic advertisements for his campaign; promised to halt Muslim immigration to America and lied that he saw Muslims celebrating on 9/11; threatened to put his political opponent in jail; and has vowed vengeance against journalists and publishers of newspapers that were critical of him.  

And now we are being told in the interest of unity we must let go of all the bluster during the campaign, accept the results of the election and respect the office.  

Well of course it is our duty as part of our brit, our covenant, as Americans to accept the results of the election.  Our ancestors wisely created the Electoral College as the vehicle for electing Presidents – wisely because such a process rather than popular vote gives minorities in each state a greater weight in the outcome of the election.  Jews are barely 3% of the electorate but our votes carry tremendous weight in key states.  So while supporters of Hillary Clinton may be disappointed that her majority in the popular vote did not achieve political victory, the fact remains that Donald Trump will be the President.

But Donald Trump will have to earn his respect.  You can’t say the grotesque and horrible things he said and then in one election night victory speech wipe it all way.  He certainly said the right things in the speech.  He spoke of how he intended to be President of all Americans and how he wishes to reach out to those who voted against him for guidance and help “in order to work together and unify our great country.”

And yet he continues to tweet against the New York Times coverage about him.  His initial appointments give pause.  He chose Steve Bannon, whose internet site traffics in conspiracy theories, anti-semitic, anti-islamic, and misogynistic attacks as his White house chief strategist.  His choice for National Security advisor, Michael Flynn, does not accept that Islam is a religion, rather it is a political philosophy.  His choice for Attorney General is Senator Jeff Sessions.  Senator Sessions was denied a federal judgeship because of statements he made that were deemed racist.  In Alabama.  If Alabamians consider you too racist, that is a very bad sign.  We will need to monitor President elect Trump and demand that he uphold the hopeful rhetoric of his election night speech and not the persistent mocking and hateful comments of his campaign.  That is, we want to see if President Trump can do teshuvah for candidate Trump.  Because we are Jews we believe in the power to change and transform bad behavior.  Let’s hold out hope that Donald Trump can change.  But we will need to see it to believe it and shame on us if he can’t and we become complacent.

Now having said that I think it is also important to acknowledge that many of us who are liberal in our political views, and this was pointedly true of the media, were so titillated by his racist, islamophobic and misogynistic statements that we missed the bigger issues that Donald Trump convey to listeners.  Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times wrote that, “Experience told (journalists) that Mr. Trump’s misstatements, flaws and gaffes would prove disqualifying, which at times led them to present their journalism with a knowingness that only served to convince a large subset of voters that reporters… didn’t get them.”   We misunderstood the deeper connection that Donald Trump was making with voters.  A teacher in Hillel’s school who supported Trump referred to his insensitive and hurtful statements as “pottymouth” but did not take them seriously.  Rather what she saw as valuable was his sympathy for the losses that many middle income and blue color workers had suffered and her trust that a billionaire businessman had a clue about how to restore that economy.  

Joan Williams, professor of law at the University of California, in an article for Harvard Business Review, wrote, “One little-known element of (the class culture gap) is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” … Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.”

There were understandable reasons for the many people who voted for Donald Trump.  And those opposed to him have to have an open mind about that.  It is too easy and unfair to dismiss Trump voters as racists.  

But here is the concern for us as Jews. Steven Bayme, a scholar on American Jewish life, noted that for the last 60 years, openly anti-Semitic rhetoric has been taboo in American politics.  That taboo was breached repeatedly by Trump’s supporters and he never reprimanded supporters for doing so.  And as Joan Williams pointed out, working class Whites despised professionals – doctors, lawyers, teachers, academics.  That is what we Jews do.  We are heavily ensconced in positions in the economy that many who supported Trump despise.  So there is no doubt that fear is warranted.  

What mitigates that fear and what makes the comparisons to Germany in the 1930s over the top is that America not only has a long tradition of democracy, 240 years of developing democracy to give greater and greater numbers of citizens a voice, we are also a nation of immigrants.  Our nation is diverse. We acknowledge that our identities are not only hyphenated but they are complex.  People who voted for Obama twice, voted for Trump in this election.  Superficially, that seems impossible but our identities multifaceted.  

So where do we go from here? 

First and foremost we need to have faith in our country and its values.  They will prove stronger than the authoritarianism and third world populism that Trump expressed during the campaign.

We need to monitor behaviors and make sure that the hateful rhetoric expressed against any vulnerable group – women, Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans and Latinos, Jews, Blacks, LGBTQ – does not turn into action and that the rhetoric itself must not be allowed to become acceptable discourse.  That means we have to watch our mouths too.  No off hand comments or jokes about any “other”.  And when we hear prejudice we have to be courageous enough to tell the speaker that such words are unacceptable.

Creating coalitions with other minority groups is important too.  One way that cynical politicians maintain power is to exploit divisions among various minority groups.  Building coalitions with other slighted groups keeps a united front against those who would exploit such divisions.

And finally we have to remain united amongst ourselves.  In the letter to Sinai this week, I mentioned that what just five years ago used to be a strength of this community – our weekly Shabbat gathering for worship, fellowship and lunch has diminished considerably.  If we are not connecting on a consistent basis with each other, it will be very hard for us to link as the Jewish community with other groups to maintain American values of respect, tolerance, and pluralism.  

Finally we have to renew our faith in God.  For us having faith in God does not mean praying really hard that God makes everything ok in America.  To have faith means to have faith in the values that God inspires us to live by and to act on those values. 

In our Torah portion, Abraham makes a great effort to welcome strangers into his tent despite his personal distress after circumcision.  He insists that God follow God’s own rules about justice, defending the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah. He makes treaties with other chieftains and reprimands them when they break his trust.  Abraham is our model of faithfulness. Like him we trust that if we abide by mitzvot that demand we protect the most vulnerable, welcome those who are different from us, work to make sure that justice is done in our communities, America will continue to develop in a positive progressive direction that will make her again a light to the nations of the earth.

Shabbat Lekh Lekha - In Our Own Image

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, November 12, 2016

Rabbi Meira Chmiel

Smart phones. Smart computers. Machines that seem to have a mind of their own and take you where you don’t want to go, strong-arm you into a major upgrade that can take hours, and you can’t prevent it. Who’s in charge here? Apparently not you.

Now we’re creating autonomous cars to go with our smart streets. Our son has been recently shopping for an autonomous car. Thus, a recent South Bend Tribune article [“In Autonomous Cars, Lax Motorists A Danger”, Oct. 15, 2016, South Bend Tribune, reprint Los Angeles Times, by Russ Mitchell] caught my eye. There was a photo of a couple in the front seat of their car enjoying their smart phones while cruising along. Russ Mitchell of San Francisco had this to say:

Until recently, there was no question about who’s responsible for an automobile’s operation: the driver. One-hundred percent.
When driverless cars without a steering wheel or brake pedal start hitting the highway, your only role will be ordering the car where to go. 
Between now and then…the relationship between drivers and their cars will enter uncharted and potentially hazardous territory. Robot-like features will take over an increasing share of the driving duties—but not all of them.
Humans and robots will share the wheel, and it’s uncertain how well people will adapt to this in-between state—whether they will remain appropriately vigilant or leave everything to the machine, possibly at their own peril. ..A recent State Farm survey [of drivers found] that if a semiautonomous car took over part of the driving duties, they’d eat, read, text, take pictures, and access the internet while driving. That would not be safe.
“There’s something we used to call split responsibility,” said.. the director of Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab. “If you give the same responsibility to two people, they each feel safe to drop the ball. Nobody has to be 100%, and that’s a dangerous thing.”….
The in-between period could last awhile… In car-maker lingo, there are six levels that generally describe a vehicle’s driverless capability, from zero to five…. “From a technical perspective, there are really only two levels,” said.. an autonomous-driving executive at Volvo Car Group, “Whether the driver is responsible or not.”

This raised red flags for me—a lot of them. What kind of American future do I want for my children and grandchildren? Our rambunctious, do-it-your-own way society becoming highly programmed and self-contained, designed to keep everyone comfortable and safe in a uniform sort of way—like in the book “The Giver” or like in a nursing home. Cars with speed monitor chips inserted to keep people like me from creatively navigating the morning commute across town. Speaking for myself, if you turn me into a passenger again with a bossy robot for a chauffer who won’t even listen to a back-seat driver, I’ll just turn into a bowl of gelatin. I need to drive the vehicle myself to stay actively engaged. Responsible.

As these autonomous cars become increasingly smart, what will these human passengers become? Increasingly dumb? Or—zoom just slightly ahead—imagine we create robots to drive our buses, our taxies, fly our airplanes, work our assembly lines, police our streets, fight our wars, create and design new robots not just for us but for themselves too—giving rise to a whole new form of reproduction—capable of learning and becoming smarter, and, by sophisticated design, increasingly sentient and sensitive—what? Will we, their creator, become irrelevant to their ability to operate and autocorrect? Will we even become a hindrance to their efficient functioning and therefore a kind of “carbon-based contaminant” in their self-designed world, especially as they become more self-aware?

We have seen movies and read a number of science fiction scripts created in the last 200 years about robot-machines and drones and mutant super-beings that threaten to take over the world, even a whole star sector, doing their job too efficiently, perhaps recreating the world in their own image. Will they also acquire a soul? Will God’s Spirit be breathed into them? We don’t have very far to look for such plots: the opening chapters of our own Torah contain a few scenarios.

In Parashiot Bereshit and Noach, we can find four stories of the creation of the first humans, even a fifth story, not to mention land animals and birds, all of which become a living soul or nefesh. The version in chapter 1 opens with “In the Beginning” and tells us near the end, “And God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness..”. Chapter 2, verse 4 begins a second version with: “These are the ‘Toldot’—the generations or begettings—of the heaven and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven… then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the nishmat hayyim—breath of life; and man became a living soul—nefesh hayah.” Later in this version God clones a companion for Adam by severing a part of his body and redesigning it to be a living complement, able to stand opposite. By chapter 5, a third version, combining aspects of the first two, begins: “This is the book of the ‘Toldot’—the generations or begettings—of Adam. In the day that God created man—or Adam—in the likeness of God created He them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam in the day when they were created. And Adam.. begot a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth.” The begettings of Seth and his descendants that follow do not refer any more to the image and likeness theme.

By chapter six, a different kind of generating emerges, a fourth version, that seems to take place after man has already reproduced a large population of his own kind and multiplied across the landscape, generating daughters as well as sons. Remember, the first female was a clone of the first Adam. These begotten daughters are attractive to certain unspecified beings called “the sons of God”, who select wives from the progeny of Adam according to their own personal inclination—choice. 

At this point it seems that God has a conundrum. God says, “My spirit shall not abide in man forever, since he also is flesh; therefore his days are to be [limited to] a hundred and twenty years.” We begin to hear of Nephilim, a new breed, when the sons of God beget children with the daughters of Adam’s descendents, who grow up to become unusual men of physical stature and superior quality, powerful creative men—famous. But God also sees the corruption that develops and proliferates among these teeming human populations, generated by the unbridled, ever creative imagination and inventiveness of the human mind, supercharged with power and self-centeredness. And God wishes He had never created any of these living-soul creatures, and He exterminates all of them—almost.

By chapter 11, a final creation scenario emerges after the flood, once human begetting is underway again. One of the family clans of Noach, led by his great-grandson Nimrod, a famed “mighty hunter before the Lord” and possibly embodying the qualities of a Nephilim, collectively journeys east to the valley of Shinar. United by one language and idiom, they decide to stick together and avoid dispersion, avoid becoming scattered like so many of their relatives across a very vast earth. They propose to erect a city, later called Bavel. They undertake the building of not just the city but also a sky-scraper reaching far up into the very heavens, a feat that will make their name famous. This work of their hands will endure despite the limited life-span God has imposed upon each one of them.

We have here our first Biblical example of national unity with a unifying aspiration: so what could be wrong with that? Let’s examine that aspiration. How unifying is it? 

Up to now, God’s emanation of his own progeny, Adam and his progeny have been designed by one means or another according to God’s own image and likeness. Now, the human collective seeks to override its human limitations by manufacturing its very first selfie—a towering tower reflecting the image and likeness not of God, but of man’s daydream about himself, his ego as a god. (Next thing on the agenda will be a robot—a man in man’s super-image!) God visits their construction site and tests the builders’ team cohesiveness by giving them the gift of diversity in spoken languages—the gift of tongues. In short time they find they cannot work together. They realize they only can function in fixed uniformity, not in pluralistic cooperation. And so they reject each other and abandon the team and go their separate ways, baffled.

Regarding these works of our hands, seriously!—are you sure you really want a robot driven world where you can tune out and just kill time? Given we could simulate the seven or so criteria that define life in designing and building a robot, what would make a human superior to such a robot? Does our conscious awareness, which we call mind or soul, and our intuitive conscience factor, which we call heart or spirit, and which in synergy alert us to be morally sensitive and responsible, set us apart from anything and everything we could construct? When we do check out mentally, leave our bodies on auto-pilot, unsupervised, what happens? The body continues to operate based on the habits we have programmed into its operation. Peculiar things can happen, like a tin can cast into the soup, its contents poured out into the trash. Similarly, an army unit, trained like a machine to follow orders unquestioningly, may commit an atrocity. What’s to prevent it? 

Yes, it is useful to us that we invent and use computer brains as tools which speed up our data processing while we mastermind a bigger project. As long as our processors don’t invade our desk top. For if we abdicate our responsibility, these helpers whom we have created may someday strong-arm us into a massive societal upgrade designed to keep all of us collectively safe and well-monitored, running smooth as clocks, highly supervised, prevent us from speeding faster than the speed limits of our smart streets or from making split-second, off-the-wall decisions, like with our bank accounts and wall-street investments. 

The acts of abdication of responsibility can be very gradual and deceptive and not seem to be making any difference until it’s too late. Like giving over too much authority to the Feds, so you can blame them. Be vigilant and wary, and remember: it might be necessary for us to activate our emergency override—sof l’kha—drop our fascinating, addictive smart phones and these other technological works of our hands and take our leave of Ur, of Bavel, of Haran and other high-tech life-styles as Avram did, and to lekh l’kha ourselves to a simpler place—an unknown place—that God will show each of us, a place where we can find time alone in our intimate connections and become a blessing there. Give up trying to magnify what we are in this world and find out instead how God, our prime director, chooses to use our name and our talented hands and far seeing imaginations. Be prepared for surprises along the way.

Lekh L’kha and Shabbat Shalom 




Remarks from Rabbi Friedland after a divisive election season

Steve Lotter

Rabbi Michael Friedland

This is a time for looking inward in order to focus outward. Perhaps we have become so comfortable with the concept of identifying America as a place where democracy is safe, where rule of law is the norm, and where persecution of minorities for being in the minority is a process that is receding into the past, that we have forgotten just how precious these values are and how vigilant we must be to protect them.

We must vow:

not to give in to hatred of the other. When we hear negative comments about Muslims or Latinos or African Americans or Jews or LGBTQ or women or any other minority that has been vilified by the future administration, we cannot be silent. We must also make efforts to engage these communities and create personal relationships with each other.

to strive to assure that voting in this country is made safe and accessible

to support immigrants to the country especially those who are not white, make sure to protect them against any verbal or physical attacks and not to forget about the numerous undocumented workers in this country who will now be more vulnerable than ever

to do whatever we can to protect the environment and our planet by demonstrating actively against the status quo on climate change

to support a free and unfettered press by subscribing to newspapers that do real investigative journalism

And finally to put our faith in God that kindness and compassion and goodness will eventually be drawn out. Never have the words of the Psalmist wrung more true for me: " Put not your trust in princes, nor in mortal man who cannot save". (Psalm 146)

Might be time to also put our trust in women!

Rosh HaShanah Day 1: That Which is Hateful to You, Do Not Do to Others

Steve Lotter

Rosh HaShanah, Monday AM, October 3, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland

One Yom Kippur, a simple tailor came to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev to ask forgiveness for having been disrespectful to God.  “Disrespectful?  What did you say?” asked the rebbe.  “I said, God you wish for me to repent of my sins but I have committed only minor offenses.  I may have kept a little left-over cloth from a sale, or maybe once I ate bread without saying a bracha before eating.  But you O Lord have committed far more grievous sins.  You have taken innocent children from their mothers, and mothers from their children.  I will make with you a bargain – if you forgive me, I will forgive you.”

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Rosh HaShanah Day 2: What is God's Agenda for us during the Election Season?

Steve Lotter

Rosh HaShanah, Tuesday AM, October 4, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland

What is God’s Agenda for us during the Election Season?

We stand at the precipice of the Yamim Noraim, which we translate literally as Awe-filled days.  But we also stand on the verge of an election that many termed just plain awful.  Many people are asking at this critical time in our nation’s history, in this great nation of 300 million people, really, these are the two best choices we have to lead our nation at this vital junction?  Now, part of me feels this critique is too facile – one cannot get to this point in politics without significant ability.  Nevertheless our country heaves a great sigh as we weigh the choices before us.

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Shabbat Parashat Shoftim - Listening to All Sides

Steve Lotter

Shabbat AM, September 10, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland

Over the summer I shared the comments of African American Sports talk radio host, Jason Goff, who spoke from the heart about the fears he has for his unborn child, raising him in a society in which black men have to be taught how to how to behave when accosted by the police lest one wrong move or comment end in tragedy. But on Thursday I heard from the other side. A neighborhood pastors group of black and white pastors is forming to discuss ways in which our communities can improve our neighborhood together and know each other better. Our first invite to the group was to officers who patrol our neighborhood. The police responded to the request eagerly. Four officers, one a Captain – Captain Boykins, two lieutenants and one patrolman, joined the three pastors who made the meeting. For the next hour and a half the police answered questions and shared their frustrations. Our police department is short staffed at this time – not for budgetary reasons but because so few are interested in joining police forces. The force is also depleted due to a new protocol that now sends two squad cars automatically in response to every call, instead of one, due to concerns about recent controversies at police stops. Police are very defensive knowing that every action they take is being filmed by a cell phone. The skills required of policemen has increased greatly – not only must they serve and protect, they are called upon to be computer technicians, social workers and truancy officers. In thanks for putting their lives on the line on a daily basis, not only is there rarely an expression of gratitude, people have developed a negative attitude towards them. One officer said he recently visited Stanley Clark, not a school where most families have negative experiences with the police, and a child in the class he visited told him that “police are bad people”.

We know, of course, that most police are good people. The number of activities and programs that the South Bend police organize to help children in our community is terrific. Much of this is volunteer time by police. We pastors were surprised to find out about these wonderful programs and encouraged the police to promote them more successfully.

The Torah in Deuteronomy calls for “Shoftim and shoterim to be placed in your gates”. Rashi explains this means in every city. Shoftim are judges but what are shoterim? According to biblical scholar Moshe Weinfeld, the ancient shoter filled three job descriptions that sounds not so different from modern police : [A] secretary for recording, a constable for executive-punitive measures, and a messenger or attendant for rendering service to the court. Most biblical commentators also understood the shoter to serve as law enforcement – making sure that the pronouncements by the judge were carried out.

And such a function was necessary of course. The Sefer Ha Hinukh, notes that while most people wish to do good, people are also impelled to break rules, and a society cannot stand that does not have a mechanism to insist people follow its rules.

And perhaps this is why the verse “tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “Justice justice shalt thou pursue” follows the command to set up judges and law enforcement. Why is the word ‘tzedek’ doubled in the verse? Most likely it simply means an intense commitment to pursuing justice. But Abraham Ibn Ezra suggests that it means the judge must speak to both parties in the dispute. That is, to judge fairly we must be open to both sides, to not see such disputes as one-sided. Listening to the frustrations of local police whose sincere goal is to improve and protect the lives of South Bend residents, I realized how much my perceptions have been shaped by the barrage of news about those cases of actual injustice, magnifying them as if that was the norm.

True justice requires that we listen to all sides in a dispute. Not just out of practicality but because justice according to Torah is an eternal religious obligation, at the very core of what it means to be a Jew.

The rabbinic sages who lived during a period when the return of the Temple and the sacrificial service was their greatest hope nevertheless taught in a midrash that God loves justice even more than sacrifice (Devarim Rabbah). This bears out what a verse in the book of proverbs says: "To do what is right and just is more desired by the Lord than sacrifice." Not as much as sacrifice, but "more than sacrifice."

Pursuing justice in our social circles, our communities, in our nation and in our world is a demand of whom we are as Jews. But it has to begin with ourselves. Opening ourselves up to hearing all sides in a dispute is a necessary requirement in the process of determining justice. That does not mean we follow a path of moral relativism or an ethic of ‘everybody is right and no one is in the wrong’. But it does mean we have to try not to prejudge and to acknowledge what sources influence us.

The Talmud tells of the judge, Rabbi Hanina ben Eliezer who had a tree in his field, the branches of which spread out into someone else's field. One day, a man came to Rabbi Hanina's court requesting his neighbor to remove the branches of a tree that reached into his field. Rabbi Hanina told the claimant to return the following day. This was highly unusual as Rabbi Hanina rendered his judgments immediately. But Rabbi Hanina did not respond to questions.

As soon as the man left, Rabbi Hanina sent workers to cut down the branches from his own tree that were falling into the field of his neighbor.

The next day, when the complainant came back and his neighbor was ordered by Rabbi Hanina to cut off the branches of his tree, the neighbor protested: "Why, you yourself have a tree with branches falling into someone else's area!"

Rabbi Hanina calmly answered, "Please go out to my field and check - make sure to keep yours the same way mine is kept."

Before a person can serve as a judge of others, one must first stand in judgment of oneself. This is why the Torah states, “Shoftim v’Shoterim titen l’kha” Usually translated as “Judges and magistrates you shall provide for yourselves”, but it can be read as “Judges you shall make yourselves”. A judge, like a parent or a teacher, is called to both stand in judgment of others and model for them. A judge's effectiveness, as is a parent or teacher, is dependent as much upon who he/she is as what he/she says.

As we enter the month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, let us consider how we judge others, and make sure that we judge ourselves first.

Shabbat Mevarchim - How is our Siddur like a Sadhana? Part 2

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, August 27, 2016

Rabbi Meira Chmiel

Click here to read Part 1

Words of the Baal Shem Tov, as told by Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, in Likutim Yekarim:

“If you wish to ascend on high, you must go from one step to the next. 

“First, you should have in mind that you are ascending only to the first Firmament… In your mind, expand this firmament on all sides. It should not appear small and narrow in your mind, but broad, filling the entire mind.

“Once you stand there, you must strengthen your mind to go higher, and then still higher. You must go step by step, however, since you cannot ascend through all Seven Firmaments at once.

“The only time that it is possible to do this is in the middle of prayer… Since in your mind you are literally in the First Firmament [in Assiyah], you can then ascend to the next Firmament. [You can climb from one Firmament to the next] until you reach [Yetzirah], the world of Angels. You can then climb to [B’riyah], the world of the Throne. 

“Finally all that remains is the Universe of Atzilut. When you reach this level, you bind your thoughts to God…” [from Meditation and Kabbalah by Aryeh Kaplan, pp. 294-5] 

We have dimensions to our soul we are largely unconscious of, which require that we train our consciousness to ascend and expand into these farther reaches. The primary hazard in such an undertaking is ego—inflating that mental mirror-image of ourselves into a massive narcissism. Which is a complete distraction that sends us crashing. How do we avoid it? Study Musar and what Moshe is saying in Deuteronomy and don’t flatter yourself. Walk with your Holy Guide. Long for the Source of your spirit and keep your mind focused on that. When you get directives, obey them. Don’t lose your focus.

Two words describing states of consciousness: gadlut [gadol] and katnut [katan]. In the state of katnut, contracted consciousness, you are on the ground floor looking up at God on high. In the state of gadlut, expanded consciousness, you are on the top floor gazing out at the universe through God’s eyes, like a child riding on his father’s shoulder. But if you forget your father, the king, who has raised you up so high and instead start complimenting yourself on all your supposed power and achievement, you will be put back down. 

But we are not always in katnut for rebuke. We are fragile in our material existence and need to rest and be refreshed. Moreover, it is our task to bring the gifts we experience in gadlut down into our earthly garden to plant. Which is why there always is a descent from the high place of our soul’s origin, as Jacob’s ladder teaches us. Because we are here as pioneers planting fresh seed.

The siddur is our Jewish map into our divine soul and up its many narrow and twisting flights of stairs and sudden escalators to the spindle-top and down again via that panoramic glass elevator that displays our vast world to us. Last week I briefly listed the four worlds or levels of expanded consciousness and defined them. Now we will walk them, following our map. 

At the beginning of a morning service we visualize ourselves at ground level: Assiyah. The world of making and building and planting and harvesting, acts of using matter. We have seven Firmaments to ascend in Assiyah, according to the Baal Shem Tov; the Ariz”l counts eight, including Keter, the final height. The Ariz”l refers to each Firmament as a Heikhal, a bimah, like we have surrounding the Holy Aron at the front of the sanctuary, because it involves making an aliyah to open the Ark. In our old Birnbaum siddur, pp. 37-41 of the Korbanot section, these Heikhalot are symbolized by the “Places of sacrifice in the Temple”. By this point of the service, we will have already read through the Birkhat HaShachar, the early morning blessings and some Talmudic writings to contemplate, which help us focus and settle our minds to ascend even to that first Firmament or Heikhal.

The first Firmament is called the Star Sapphire or, in the Ariz”l siddur, Heikhal Livnat HaSaphir Yesod [v’Malchut] d’Assiyah, the sanctuary Star Sapphire of emanated aspects of God called Yesod [joined with Malkhut] that is on the level of Assiyah. Gaze around you. The ceiling, so high and far above you, even down here, is like translucent glass, through which you can see into a corresponding chamber of the next higher universe, its radiance shining as if through a filter. Keep traveling through Assiyah and you step up into the next adjacent sanctuary, slightly higher, entering a new dimension within. And keep going, gradually ascending upwards through each of these sanctuaries of sacrifice, atonement, and thanksgiving, till you reach the eighth sanctuary, Keter, the Crown, expressed by the offering of the first-born of kosher animals, the tithed cattle, and the Pesach lamb. Both the first-born and the Pesach offerings reflect Litziat Mitzraim: when Israel came forth out of bondage and was trapped by the Red Sea, and God’s supreme power was activated to disrupt natural law as Redeemer and Savior of Israel. Through this Keter in Assiyah ceiling you can glimpse coming down from the Keter sanctuary of the next higher universe that same redemptive light we are experiencing here in this more down to earth universe.

This, so far, is our practice model: each of the four universes or Olamot is like a different floor inside an infinitely immense glass tower, and on each floor there is a series of glass chambers or sanctuaries, each linked, floor to ceiling, with corresponding chamber above it in the next higher universe, each sharing the same name, each embodying the same dimensional quality emanating from the Godhead.  As you ascend the four universes, or building levels, the light or energy from each of these emanations of God becomes increasingly intense. The universes serve as filters so that the unveiled high pitched energies above won’t destroy the creation that is becoming more manifest and revealed in physical form below. 

Here below in Olam Assiyah, our first level, these sanctuaries ascend one to the other in an orderly, down to earth way. They are: 1) Star Sapphire, the sanctuary for Yesod 2) Center of Heaven, the sanctuary for Hod, 3) The Glowing, the sanctuary for Netzach, 4) Will, the sanctuary for Tiferet, 5) Merit, the sanctuary for Gevurah, 6) Love, the sanctuary for Hesed, 7) the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary for Hokhmah and Binah, also Da’at, and 8) Keter, the sanctuary for Keter the Crown, from which emanates everything else below it.

How do we ascend to the next Universe? Gradually, step by step through the first seven or eight sanctuary rooms stepping up into each other in sequence, then, arriving at Keter, making a rapid ascent up an escalator that, in our prayer guide, is called a kaddish. Suddenly we have arrived at Barukh Sh’Amar, our entry door into the P’sukei D’Zimra, which symbolizes the Universe of Yetzirah. We are in a new kind of universe, where creation is done through formation, manifesting as vocalized sound, utterance. In the universe of angels and souls we ascend sanctuaries that are symbolized in our siddur by psalms and songs. The Ashrei, psalm 145, expresses very high crown and kingship energies, orienting us to proceed. 

From here we move on to psalm 146, entering the sanctuary of the Presence of God among us, Shekhinah as Malkhut, kingdom. Psalm 147 takes you through the Star Sapphire sanctuary, then half-way through the psalm brings you over into two higher sanctuaries that have become merged in this universe: The Center of Heaven and The Glowing. Thus, psalm 147 shows us a merging of the emanations of the lower limbs or qualities expressed in a King portrait we are beginning to catch the vision of. Downstairs these qualities were distinct, but now they are synchronized, like two legs working in synchrony. The next sanctuary is psalm 148—called Ratzon, the sanctuary of God’s Will, housing the emanated Torso of an emerging Kingly visualization, called Tiferet—Beauty.  Psalm 149 brings us to the upper pair of sanctuaries, Merit and Love, also synchronized, housing the emanated “arms” or “hands” of the King, which are Gevurah and Hesed. Love, the King’s right arm, dominates this psalm.

Psalm 150 takes us up into the Sanctuary of the Holy of Holies, housing the emanation of the head of the King, the unified qualities of Hokhmah, Binah, and Da’at: Divine Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge. The remainder of the P’sukei D’Zimra belongs in the sanctuary of Keter, the King’s crown. The theme of God’s redemptive salvation culminates here in the Song of the Sea and the overcoming of enemies.

After the Yishtebach hymn of praise we are carried up a second escalator by the Hatzi Kaddish into the third Universe, B’riyah. The Barchu and the opening of the Yotzer Or blessing bring us over its threshold into the exalted atmosphere of Thought. Creative thought. Over the length of the Yotzer Or blessing we flow through the three lower sanctuaries: Star Sapphire, the Center of Heaven, the Glowing, and we end in Merit, the sanctuary of Gevurah, the King’s left arm, and its repeated theme of renewal. But what has become of the sanctuary of Tiferet, called Will? Instead, beginning with the Ahavah Rabbah, we enter the sanctuary of Love that houses Hesed, the King’s right arm, and Ahavah continues through the Sh’ma and the three paragraphs that go with the Sh’ma. 

Emet at the end of the Sh’ma section brings us at last into the sanctuary of Ratzon, Will, which houses Tiferet, the Torso. And here Tiferet, in this Universe of B’riyah, has become unified with the head emanations of the Holy of Holies sanctuary, joining together as one to direct the work of the arms and legs and creative center emanating from it. Our entry into the final sanctuary, the Crown, begins before the Mi Kamokha section at the words, MiMizraim. It concludes with the blessing for Gaal Yisrael, and suddenly, without even a Hatzi Kaddish, we are transported in the Universe of Atzilut, the universe of Emanation, the Nothingness before manifestation, standing on nothing, a cosmic spindle-top above a tower we can no longer see or touch or comprehend, deep in the S’phirot of God’s Glory.

In Atzilut, your only method of orientation is to stand and pray the Amidah Prayer. This provides your only foothold. There are details to this, yes. And also to fall on your face when you pray Tachanun. And to rise and stand before the open ark to receive your King and hear God’s utterances, whispered as well as inscribed in the Torah of Heaven and Earth.

Yes, there is a glass elevator that takes you swiftly down afterwards, like we said earlier, but now today we must end here. The details for those who seek them will be made available to you on request. 

The Handout for the Ekev talk is available at the office in Rabbi Chmiel’s mail slot. Ask Judy for help.

Shabbat Shalom  



Shabbat Nachamu - How is our Siddur like a Sadhana? Part 1

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, August 20, 2016

Rabbi Meira Chmiel

Over the last few weeks I have advertised the question: “How is our siddur like a sadhana?” Well, you might answer the question with a question, “What is a Sadhana?” and I could ask right back, “What is a Siddur?”

We usually just think of our Siddur as a prayer book that helps us coordinate our prayer. We have been taught that the prayer service replaced the Temple sacrifices, and so we have fixed times of day and night to pray our services, usually with a minyan of ten who are obligated by covenant. And yes, that is true. So, what have we in this well-organized prayer book? A morning seder. An afternoon seder. And a night seder. 

What is a seder? We know that word as a ritual symbolic dinner on Pesach—the Seder. Seder is the same root as Siddur. It is a Hebrew term meaning organized, in order, arrangement. A sadhana is a type of prayer book seder and has similar schematics and objectives. Except the word is a Sanskrit word and is used by Hindus and Buddhists referring to their own liturgical meditative practice. It is especially a Tantric or Vajrayana practice that incorporates visualizations with the aid of an icon, veneration for one’s teacher lineage, a liturgical invocation and description that evokes the visualizations, often accompanied by various postures and movements, for example, full body prostrations, not to mention mudra and yoga. Also there are mantras and malas—strings of beads for keeping count of ritual repetitions. Catholics also have a liturgical seder or sadhana, which they call a mass, and they too use a rosary to count prayers in a cycle.

These are all practices. A seder is the keva or fixed format of a practice. It is a tool like a ladder, so that you can climb up somewhere. Or journey inward with increasing concentration. We use the same seder or sadhana over and over—why? Yes, doing so can become boring. It’s not meant to entertain us, captivate our attention to it, because that will distract us. When you drive a good car, you don’t want to be ogling all those strange looking aps and icons on your radio dial. You keep your attention on the destination, the objective before you; the car or the liturgical formula just helps you move in the right direction.

About twenty years ago I was a Vajrayana Buddhist tantrika. I practiced daily with a sadhana, and was part of a well structured and established branch of Tibetan Buddhism headed by a highly esteemed Tibetan master. I was also an iconographer, a painter and scribe of thangkas and illuminated Tibetan liturgical texts. I had graduated from the Naropa Institute with a master’s degree in Buddhist Studies. 

I was finishing the final chapter of the first draft of my second novel just two weeks after my fiftieth birthday, when I was interrupted. It started with a police detective show on TV where a Jewish lady had been murdered and the men were chanting kaddish at the shiva. I heard the Kaddish for the very first time that night and became very emotional. The chapter I was working on was about the death of my longago Jewish husband, but I knew nothing about Jewish practices. Since my conversion nearly thirty years previous, I had been an agnostic secular Jew, turned off by my husband’s warning that the men didn’t want women at their prayer services. So I knew nothing. But I needed to know what this kaddish was, so I got books and more books from the library. 

That’s how I found this book [holding it up], Rodger Kamenetz’ The Jew In The Lotus.  [brief summary] It was through this book in particular that I got my call. It introduced me to Reb Zalman, who, it turned out, lived just across town and was now teaching at my college, Naropa. Another book revealed Shabbat to me, triggering my complete t’shuvah. And a PBS program on TV astonished me even further—women were now becoming rabbis.

These three things added up to one thing for me. Kamenetz had made a strong point about young, Jewishly educated Jews, uninspired by their American Jewish upbringing, especially the traditional images and theistic language, had been turning in droves to Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, for their spiritual development. He urged his readers, “the issue today is different. The job for Judaism is to make sure that the very powerful esoteric language of Judaism does become more widely available—so that when the next strong wave of spirituality occurs among Jews, it takes place within Judaism. This, in essence, is what the Dalai Lama told us when he advised us to open the doors of our esoteric teachings.” [Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew In The Lotus, p. 241]. I realized that I was to engage in the reversal of that trend, become a Buddhist who turns to Judaism in quest of that hidden, nearly lost esoteric tradition, learn Jewish meditation and Kabbalah, and practice the practices of divine unification and synthesis. The dissolving of Yesh (ego) into the Ain Sof. I also knew I was to become a rabbi. But the first step was to start going to shul. Also, learn Hebrew—from scratch.

One of the core principles in meditative training, also called “taming the mind” is cultivating mindfulness. Jewish practice has the essence of mindfulness built into it. Time—of day for prayer, of calendar, navigating in and out of Shabbat, Festivals, and Fasts. Kashrut—in the kitchen, in the grocery bag, wherever you eat, whatever you handle. Mindfulness, not asleep at the wheel. God—major mindfulness of the Presence everywhere around us in whatever we do, whatever we touch, to raise up a blessing and maintain an attitude of gratitude instead of grumble, and see the world, even during the morning commute, with a good eye. Remembering to give thanks after you eat, and bless the Holy One for your food before it goes in your mouth. Being here now with what your body reaches to do—yoga at your fingertips, mind-body synchrony. Halachah?—Ram Das said to himself: “If I were an Orthodox Jew who loved God, how would I understand my religion? Then the halakhic laws fell into place, not as an authoritarian patriarchal or paternalistic law giving, but rather these incredible guides [practices], for how to remember God from moment to moment.” [Ibid, p.267-8] 

Cosmic Emptiness, which to Buddhists is True Reality, for many of us evokes loss, absence, abandonment. The shock of our Temple in ruins, and what has become of that Holy Presence which resided there? That very shattering of the tangible reveals what the tangible had kept hidden and forgotten for so long. We need to make an Ascent. Move out of the tangible, and climb up out of our-selves, lekh l’kha, draw close to God’s holy level, and come into the Emptiness or Nothingness that finally reveals its Fullness, Absolute Presence with no separation into I and Thou. Spinoza called it Blessedness. Our parashah today teaches us it is God Who is the totality of our being, all that is, Ain Od, there is nothing else. Our temporary, separate ego is the Yesh, there it is, having. Absolute Reality—God’s nature in its unmanifest quality, Ayin, the Nothingness (or no-thing-ness), which is beyond comprehension or description of any sort, is called Ain Sof, without end. The Buddhist Tantrika enters that Emptiness of no separation and calls that Immaculate Space the Dharmadhatu. That Space is pregnant with an emerging Dharmakaya, a supernal seed that becomes a teaching, on another level an utterance, and in our world manifests through the vehicle of a holy teacher who channels the utterance. Thus we have the heavenly Torah and the Torah of this world.

We enter the practice, using the holy mandala or blueprint laid out in our siddur for a guide, and we proceed via a prayer cycle to follow the stepping stones that show us the way up. That is our purpose. We are ascending Jacob’s ladder. Using our esoteric super-senses—which we all have, perhaps like little muscles never before used—we learn to navigate four cosmic worlds or levels by means of the ten palaces within each level. The higher you get, the more rarified these palaces, the more transparent our stepping stones become, until we arrive at the very throne room itself, a Holy of Holies you can’t see or touch. Because you aren’t you anymore. Only a memory in the deep heart of that Vastness we call God.

Afterwards, the descent is made, like in a glass elevator in the side of a building carrying us swiftly down as we gaze out through the transparencies over a panorama of many rooftops until we descend to the rock-bottom streets once more. Moses coming down from Sinai carrying something—a Word from God—into the world.

Today I will give you the names of these four worlds or levels and next Shabbat we’ll go through our somewhat modified and abridged Conservative siddur together to locate the sign posts of this Ascent and Descent. 

The first world is the World of Assiyah: the world of workmanship and building structures with physical matter; also called the World of Firmaments. We living beings, nefesh souls, dwell on earth, encircled by the lowest of Assiyah’s seven firmaments of the heavens. 

The second world is the World of Yezirah: the world of formation, a place of spirit beings and angels. We are in a dimension of creative energies and spiritual emotions, ruach. It is called the World of Souls, who are at rest, some in Gan Eden, some preparing for rebirth into the material world of the firmaments. 

The third world is the World of B’riah: the world of creation through thought and intellect and the spoken word, the utterance which creates the world; also the very breath of Life itself. It is the place of the higher soul, neshama, and is called the World of Thrones and is the place of the Throne of Glory.

The fourth world is the World of Atzilut: the World of Emanation. This is the Holy of Holies of God’s creation, the Divine Source, the place where the unmanifest gives rise to the seeds of manifestation, something from nothing. From here emanate God’s 13 attributes of mercy as well as the 10 qualities of God or the 10 s’phirot (depicted in this model as palaces or sanctuaries).  

When we meet next week, we will navigate this blueprint in its particulars and spot the sign-posts kabbalists have marked for us along the way. And we will learn what unites daily personal meditative practice with solitary walks in the woods and jogging through a crowd across a busy intersection.

Shabbat Pinhas - Give Us Our Inheritance!

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, July 30, 2016

Rabbi Michael Friedland

It is quite appropriate, you might call it bashert,  that Hillary Clinton was nominated this week to become the Democratic party’s candidate for President.  As the first woman nominated by one of the two main political parties, she broke figuratively,  and literally if you watched the graphic on Tuesday evening, the ultimate glass ceiling in America.  It is bashert because this morning’s Torah portion has more women designated by name than any other.  There are nine of them: Yocheved, Moshe and Aaron’s mother, Miriam their sister, Serach a daughter of Asher, the five daughters of a man Tzelophahad, whom we will get to in a moment and one Gentile, Cozbi the daughter the daughter of Tzur. Yocheved, Miriam and Serah are mentioned cursorily in the census of leadership.  

The others play significant roles in the parasha for different reasons. Cozbi bat Tzur was the Midianite princess whom Pinhas kills with her Israelite lover after she and the Midianite women tempt the Israelite men into idolatry and sexual license. For Zimri, the Israelite chieftain, and others these seductions released impulsive desires that were repressed after decades of wandering in the desert.  Her actions lead to plague and destruction.  

Now compare her to the five “daughters of Tzelofhad,”: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah.  Why in a Torah devoid of most women’s stories do these five sisters get mentioned by name? 

Moshe is getting ready to divvy up the Land of Israel as an eternal inheritance, as the people reach the end of their wanderings in the desert and prepare to enter this new stage of their national existence. But in the system being established by Moshe, land will be given only to men and passed on through men. Having no brothers, the sisters realize that there is no one to inherit what would have been the portion allotted to their father; their immediate family will not share in the Land. And so they come forward to petition Moshe for a different outcome.

“The daughters of Tzelofhad…came forward …They stood before Moshe, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of Korah’s faction which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding, an inheritance, among our father’s kinsmen!” (Num. 27:1-4)

Moshe takes their plea to God – Who responds:

“The daughters of Tzelofhad speak correctly; you will surely give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen, transfer their father’s share to them.” (27:6)

God goes on to impart to Moshe a more broad principle that in any case in which a man dies without living male descendants, his daughters then become his heirs.

The daughters of Tzelofhad accomplish something quite significant; a change in the law going forward that gives women a degree of rights that they did not have before.  It is still not an equal system –it is true that they inherit only when there are no sons.  But in a society in which women live in the background, the daughters of Tzelofhad are bold in taking action and asking for what they want, and they most certainly make history in a positive way. 

The system Moshe is trying to establish for the Israelites is a society of God’s people in the Land. One could argue (and certain rabbinic midrashim did) that throughout the Torah, there are examples in which women have better values than the men to whom the land is supposed to go: It was the men who were ready to give up under Egyptian oppression, it was the men who offered the gold to make the Golden calf, it was 10 male spies who discouraged the nation from entering the Land, and now the daughters of Tzelophahad were protesting the Land’s apportionment so that their ancestral family not lose its share.  And as Rabbi Gayle Labovitz, professor of Talmud at American Jewish University points out, they challenge the system from within the system.   Unlike Korah and others who rebel against Moshe and God’s program, they are motivated by a commitment to the system and its ideals.  In so doing the change they advocate for makes a change for the better.

A rabbinic midrash expands on the commitment the sisters have to God’s system: When the daughters of Tzelofhad heard that the Land was being divided among tribes, to males, and not to females, they gathered each with the other to consult. They said: “God’s mercy is not like the mercy of human beings. For human beings have more compassion for males than for females. But the Holy and Blessed One is not like that; God’s compassion extends to both males and females. God’s compassion extends to all, as it is written: ‘The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works.’ (Psalm 145:9)” (Sifre Bamidbar 133)

Professor Labovitz notes that in the midrash the rabbis display recognition of the unfairness in the treatment between men and women in Judaism and Jewish law, and that this unfairness is not in keeping with God’s feelings for God’s creatures, all of whom are equal in Divine eyes. And yet…she adds, “The very rabbis who authored this midrash and placed it into this midrashic collection also authored many other passages that are not so compassionate to women. They made legislation that was and is harmful to women’s material well-being. They did not live up to their own, brief insight into God’s compassion for both genders.

Seeing the problem is not enough. Complaining to yourself or to your family or to a few friends about the problem is not enough. To make history, positive history, means taking responsibility for actively seeking the change that needs to happen. And it means showing the system that its own values are not being fully realized.”

Rabbi Gordon Tucker in a passage in his teshuvah arguing for inclusion of homosexuality, in “Halakhic and Metahalakhic Arguments Concerning Judaism and Homosexuality” describes how positive change came about in the early days of egalitarian communities:

Before there were any legal arguments for the full equalization of women and men in the synagogue and house of study, there were communities that had formed themselves with a vision of such equalization. They were committed to Judaism in a way that included ritual and liturgical traditionalism, but their own narrative, their own understanding of our texts, led them to the conviction that the tradition was wrong in excluding women from any public roles… here were egalitarian communities that were preserving, not dismantling, Jewish tradition. Their commitments were familiar: the texts they venerated were the Jewish sacred texts (though they, of course, had their own interpretations of them), their liturgy was structured traditionally and was recited in Hebrew, they were Zionists, they contributed to Jewish scholarship, they supported the philanthropic institutions of mainstream Jewish society, and so on. Their vision was of a law that was being created by this encounter, this interaction. It was in fact a law “waiting in the wings” that eventually became mainstream. And it did so to our great blessing, and to that of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Labovitz is grateful for the growth of egalitarian communities in the Conservative movement, now clearly the majority, but wonders, “What does that really mean”?

She references a responsum “Women and Mitzvot,” by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, that the CJLS passed 2 years ago. Rabbi Barmash writes at the very outset of her paper, “Egalitarianism, the equality of women in the observance of mitzvot, is not just about the participation of women: it is about fostering the fulfillment of by all Jews” (emphasis added).  Rabbi Labovitz points out that the Jewish legal system differs in an important and fundamental way from that of the United States and most modern, Western countries: One is built on rights, the other on obligation. To be equal in the American system is to have equal rights: To vote, to control one’s own finances, to say what one wants. But the measure of full status as a “citizen” under Jewish law is to have full obligation to the system of commandments, ritual and interpersonal. Rabbi Barmash thus demonstrates at length and with great erudition that women’s tradition exemption from much of public Jewish ritual practice is “… because they had subordinate status. They were exempted from the mitzvot that Jews are obligated to observe in the normal course of the day, week, and year because the essential ritual acts should be performed only by those of the highest social standing, those who were independent, those who were heads of their own households, not subordinate to anyone else. Only males were considered to be fitting candidates to honor God in the most fit way.”

If we believe that women in our communities are of equal worth and ability as men (if they serve as our synagogue presidents and rabbis and school principals – and as lawyers and judges and doctors and professors in the world beyond the Jewish community), then the way that ought to be reflected Jewishly is by equality not just of opportunity, but of actual obligation and participation. And so, the p’sak, the legal conclusion of Rabbi Barmash’s argument is quite straight-forward: “We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.”

Rabbi Labovitz and Rabbi Barmash are calling out the  institutions of our movement, but it is also a call to the individuals in our egalitarian congregations.

It can’t be enough just to declare ourselves egalitarian, just to say that anyone who wants to participate may and leave it at that. Making history, making historic change, demands that we take ownership of the changes we want to see.

We have seen that change in the significant number of women at Sinai who put on tefillin and wear a Tallit – not just when they come up on the bima -  and lead davvening and read Torah.  That is the sign that egalitarianism has truly begun to take root. 

Being an egalitarian community means equal.  The enthusiasm of some of the women in our community to take on these mitzvot is terrific.  The men in our congregation know they have been obligated over the centuries but many are lax in our contemporary age.  Egalitarianism means that men should see the opportunities of participation with the same enthusiasm as women just now learning.  Our congregation has made great strides in this direction. Participation was named in our communal conversations as something very special we encourage and share at Sinai.  We need to continue to move in that direction, encouraging women to continue to take lead in ritual and to make sure that when they do, the men in the congregation don’t recede and leave it to them, as if all of a sudden minyan or Torah reading and learning is a ‘woman’s task’.  We all need to come forward, go to Moshe, and say “Give me my Land; Give me my inheritance!”  Let us all insist that we take our rightful role as heirs to our noble heritage.