Word from Our Rabbi

Hanukah—A Festival of Light Over Darkness!, December 2018

I speak often of the number of times I am asked in December by my well-meaning Christian friends, “Isn’t Hanukah the Jewish Christmas?” Now, I know my friends are only expressing an interest in my faith and a concern about things that are important to me, but how can I politely tell them that there is almost no similarity between Hanukah and Christmas other than occurring at about the same time of year? In reality, the one major similarity the holidays do share, their commercialization, would not be considered a good thing by many people. Christmas, of course, marks the birthday of the central figure of the Christian faith and object of their worship. One might say that without Christmas there would be no Christianity. Judaism has no such central human figure.

Hanukah, by comparison, is a relatively minor religious celebration commemorating the cleansing or rededication of a holy place. It was, for centuries celebrated very simply by just the lighting of candles, sharing of meals, and saying of prayers. In fact, most people are not aware that Hanukah is not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It does not rank among the major observances like the Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, each of which is commanded several times in the Torah itself. Hanukah’s first mention in Jewish sources is in the books of First and Second Maccabees. These two books were not included in the Hebrew canon of scripture, but are assigned to a collection of writings known as the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha.

At a time in the second century before the Common Era, when the Syrian Greeks were occupying the Land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem, and the practice of Judaism had been forbidden by the maniacal ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, a small band of Jewish rebels rose up under the leadership of Mattathias, of priestly descent. Though vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped, these Jewish guerrillas, led by Mattathias’ son, Judah, nicknamed “Maccabeus—The Hammer,” succeeded in defeating the Syrian armies in battle after battle, ultimately taking back the city of Jerusalem, including the Holy Temple and the area surrounding it. Once the Temple was back in Jewish hands, attention was turned to the problem that the Temple fallen into disrepair and had been defiled. Repairs were quickly made, and a new and undefiled altar was constructed. Then, according to tradition, three years to the day after Antiochus had defiled it, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, a festival was inaugurated for the cleansing and rededication of the holy place.

According to the Book of Maccabees (Chapter 4), the festival for the dedication of the Temple lasted eight days. That is not surprising to scholars, because when Solomon built the first Temple, he chose to dedicate it during the feast of Sukkoth, an eight-day festival. Since the Jews under Antiochus’ harsh rule would not have been able to celebrate the festival of Sukkoth in the Fall, it is only natural that they would have wanted to do so, even belated, as a part of the Temple’s rededication. It is not until Talmudic times (100-300 C.E.) that we find reference to the “miracle of the oil.” The Talmud (Shabbat 21b-23a) tells us that as a part of the rededication, vessels of undefiled oil were sought for the lighting of the menorah. According to the Torah (Exodus 27:20-21), the Temple menorah is to burn day and night perpetually. Unfortunately, only one vessel of oil was found uncontaminated, about enough to burn for one day. Miraculously, that one day’s supply of oil burned for the eight days of the dedication —the time it took for a fresh supply of kosher olive oil to be prepared. Josephus, who also writes in the Roman period, referred to Hanukah for the first time as the “Festival of Lights” (The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13, Chapter 7).

For centuries Hanukah was celebrated by Jews very simply with the lighting of a Hanukiah, a nine candled menorah used specifically for Hanukah evenings. Historians believe the exchange of gifts did not begin until relatively recently when Jews in areas where Christmas was celebrated with gift giving decided that in order to keep their own children from becoming jealous they too would begin to givegifts. Even so, Hanukah gifts were quite modest, usually a small sum of money or Hanukah “gelt.” It was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and mostly in America, that that began to change. Dianne Ashton, professor of Religious Studies at Rowan University, in her book, Hanukah in America (NYU Press, 2013), has shown how in America the evolution of Hanukah and Christmas have gone hand in hand in many ways. The growth and development of both holidays have been fueled by rapid industrialization and the resulting blossoming of a consumer-based economy. Th e marketing around both Christmas and Hanukah, designed to promote the consumption of goods, has led to the popularization of both holidays that is far beyond any celebrations that occurred in previous centuries. Now, nobody enjoys the benefits of our free enterprise economic system more than I do, however, I think most people would agree with me that the extreme commercialization of these holidays has detracted from their intended deeper spiritual meaning.

One of the wisest Rabbis of our own time, Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Isles, writes, “Hanukah is about the freedom to be true to what we believe without denying the freedom of those who believe otherwise. It’s about lighting our candle, while not being threatened by or threatening anyone else’s candle” (http://www.rabbisacks.org/). The name Hanukah is based on the Hebrew word, chanak (chet-nun-kaf), which means “to dedicate.” While remembering that our ancestors, in centuries past, struggled to maintain their religious freedom and to rededicate the place considered most holy to them, shouldn’t we also rededicate ourselves to the things that matter most— faith, justice, and love? There is no doubt that the observance, prayers, acts of contrition, and seeking of forgiveness that we observe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are of greater import biblically and historically. But, we do have, during these cold winter months, an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the promises so recently made at Yom Kippur—to uphold the high moral and ethical standards of our Jewish tradition. It is, in fact, the pursuit of social justice and peace which, according to the Hebrew Prophets and echoed in our Aleinu prayer, will hasten the acknowledgement and sovereignty of the Creator encompassing the entire earth. This year, as you observe our Festival of Lights, will you pledge yourself to those values that the Prophet Isaiah says will make the Jewish people a “light to the nations”? Isaiah records Adonai’s message to us: “I will make you a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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Thanksgiving—The American Holiday Rooted in the Hebrew Bible!!, November 2018

On the eve of every Shabbat, the proclamation of the Psalmist is read or chanted in the synagogue:

    Come, let us sing for joy to Adonai;
    let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
    Let us come before God with thanksgiving
    and extol God with music and song.
    For Adonai is a great God,
    the great King above all gods.
    In God’s hands are the depths of the earth,
    and the mountain peaks belong to God.
    The sea is God’s, for God made it,
    and God’s hands formed the dry land.
    (Psalm 95:1-5 [my translation], Mishkan T’filah, pp. 130-131)

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite among the American holidays. There is just something powerful in a whole nation coming together across religious, political, racial, or any other lines that are drawn to divide us, to give thanks to the Creator and Source of our blessings. In past articles, I have written in some detail about the possible historical connections between the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the origins of the American holiday of Thanksgiving. It is known from many sources that the Puritan Separatists who began the custom of a Thanksgiving celebration were firmly grounded in the Hebrew Bible. Some writers have asserted that in many ways the Puritans were closer to Jews than to other Protestants in that regard (e.g., Hugh Fogelman, “Puritans Were More Jewish Than Protestant,” http://www.christianity-revealed.com). The Puritan Separatists considered themselves to be God’s chosen people. They viewed King James I of England as the oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh. Their crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was likened to the ancient Israelite crossing of the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. Their arrival in the New World was seen as the Israelite arrival in the Promised Land. American children learn in elementary school that this religious group was called the Pilgrims. This is actually a name they gave themselves in commemoration of their wanderings in search of religious freedom. There is no question that the Puritans’ grounding in the Hebrew Bible instilled them with the centrality of giving thanks for God’s gifts. It is a fact that of the twenty-eight references to the word, “thanksgiving,” in the King James Version of the Bible, all but six are in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (Mario Seiglie, “Is Thanksgiving Rooted in a Biblical Festival,” http://www.ucg.org).

The Jewish tradition of giving thanks to the Creator, which is deeply embedded in our ritual and customs, derives, of course, from the same source. For example, the tradition of saying a minimum of 100 blessings a day goes back to the Talmudic period. The sages considered the verse, “Now, Israel, what does God, your God, ask of you? To walk in God’s ways and to serve God” (Deut. 10:12). The Rabbis of the Talmud pointed out that the Hebrew word used for “what” in that verse, mah, could also be read as meah, “one hundred.” Thus, they opined, the verse could be read as saying, “Now, Israel one hundred things (blessings) does God ask of you…” (Menachot 43b). Jewish commitment to the principle of giving thanks to God is also evident in the fact that the first prayer prayed every morning by an observant Jew is the Modeh Ani: “I thank you, living and enduring king, for you have graciously returned my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness” (translation, http://www.chabad.org). Jews who pray thrice daily and recite the traditional blessings required by Halacha do, in fact, end up giving thanks to God for the various miracles of daily life over one hundred times a day (See, Rabbi Marci Bellows, “How to Pray a Hundred Blessings a Day,” www.thejewishweek.com). God is thanked for allowing the person to wake up, for the miracle of biological functions (upon using the bathroom), for food, for drink, for natural phenomena, to name but a few. In fact, what other religious group prays a prayer of thanksgiving after the meal is eaten, the Birkat Ha-Mazon? That prayer is based on the passage in Deuteronomy 8:10, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you.”

As you sit with your family over a bountiful meal this Thanksgiving, keep in mind that what you are doing in celebrating the prosperity and freedom we enjoy in America, and in giving thanks to God, has deep roots in Judaism, spiritually, if not literally historically. As you give your thanks, remember to invoke the ancient Hebrew blessing over bread, the Ha-Motzi. You might also say the traditional Shehecheyanu prayer, which is reserved for such special occasions. Indeed, in this country Jews have more to celebrate than perhaps at any time in our history. The level of religious freedom and economic independence we enjoy in the United States surpasses that of any previous era. And, in our lifetimes we have witnessed the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the establishment of the state of Israel. Such a restoration was only a dream for almost two millennia.

But, in celebrating our freedom, we must remember that being so blessed comes with great responsibility. I am thinking primarily of the responsibility to bring freedom to others who are still in bondage. Whether that be bondage to a literal oppressor, to disease, to hunger, to poverty, or to any other malady, it is our sacred obligation as Jews to strive for the freedom of all of God’s children. May the time not be far off which was spoken of by the Hebrew prophets when all mankind will be able to give thanks for freedom from disease; freedom from hunger; freedom from poverty; freedom from war. If you are bold enough to believe, the Prophet Micah foretells such a time with power yet simplicity (ch. 4, vv. 3-4), “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But they shall sit every person under their own vine and under their own fig tree; and none shall make them afraid….” What a day of thanksgiving that will be!!

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Second Chances - Life Lessons from Torah Portion Noach, October 2018

What an amazing time we have shared together for our High Holiday services at Temple Beth Shalom! As I travel around, speaking to other spiritual leaders, and visiting other houses of worship, I am always thankful to return to our Temple family. We have truly been blessed with something special here at TBS, and for that I am deeply grateful! When we next gather for the reading of the Torah on Shabbat, October 13th, we will be reading from Torah portion Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32. This Torah portion covers a broad range of very interesting topics, beginning with an introduction to Noah and his family. About two chapters are devoted to explaining God’s decision to destroy the world, including most of mankind and most of the animal kingdom (6:9-8:22). That is followed by an account of life starting over again, the Almighty promising not to destroy all life by flood again, and the establishing of a set of laws which our rabbis have called the Noahide Commandments or laws of Noah (9:1-17). Most of chapter 10 is taken up with the repopulation of the earth, including specifics on the families and their descendants. Then in chapter 11 we get the fascinating story of the Tower of Babel, and the decision by God to scatter mankind over the earth, and to give the various family groups each a different language (vv. 1-9). Chapter 11 concludes with the records of the descendants of Noah’s son, Shem, culminating in the first introduction in the Hebrew Bible of our patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah (vv. 10-32).

What a strange coincidence that as I read these verses about the destruction of the earth by flood, and as I study the passages about God’s promise not to destroy the earth again by flood, including the placing of the rainbow in the clouds as a remembrance or sign, the news is full of terrible images from Eastern North Carolina of the devastating floods that they have just experienced from Hurricane Florence. Meteorologists have said that North and South Carolina have received rainfall amounts which are only expected at five hundred year intervals. My heart breaks as I see the displaced families, the destruction of property, and the loss of life. I know that I am moved to take action through charitable giving, and I hope that many others will be as well. As we will see, one of the strong themes of Torah portion Noach is that rebirth, renewal, and rebuilding are possible. I know that we will pull together as Americans, in the face of this disaster, in order to make that happen.

Regarding the present Torah portion, it is my sincere belief, that like hundreds of generations of Jews before us, we too in the modern age can find light and inspiration from these ancient passages of Scripture. That may, however, require deep study, questioning, and discussion. One question that might arise from the accounts in Genesis 1-11 is how did the creation get so off track if when observed by God in Genesis 1:31 it was said to be “very good,” and by Genesis 6 we read the chilling passage, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of humans was great on the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that humans had been created on the earth, and God was grieved to the heart” (vv. 5-6)? Surely this demonstrates that being created in the image of God, as man and woman are, brings with it an extremely high level of free will or choice. That freedom of choice obviously has amazing potential in both directions— evil or good. Clearly evil was prevailing in the days of Noah leading up to the flood. But in our own day, I would like to believe that we have learned the lesson of history, and that we are channeling our choices toward good. I think I see evidence of that around me. For example, when we had the horrific, racially motivated murders at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, rather than sparking more racial hatred and friction, I believe the crime moved many, many individuals to reach across racial lines and show a willingness to enter into dialogue and even expressions of brotherly love. When a disaster befalls our country like the recent floods in the Carolinas, are not the hearts of many stirred to help and to give what is needed to bring healing and restoration to the affected areas?

Another question that naturally arises from the flood story as it begins in Genesis 6 is, “Why would the Almighty choose to destroy not only the evil men and women, but also a very large portion of the plant and animal life on the planet?” This question is difficult to answer. Could it possibly be to show that those creatures which were created in God’s image, namely man and woman, bear a deep responsibility for everything that happens on this planet and for all species both plant and animal? Surely we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries how our decisions, our use of resources, and our lack of proper waste disposal have had a profound impact on the entire earth ecosystem. Once again, I believe that we are learning from the past and from our mistakes. We are taking definite steps to rein in many of the wasteful and polluting practices of the last 200 years. Of course, more needs to be done!

Also on a global scale, it is from Torah portion Noah that the rabbis of the Talmudic period derived seven laws applicable to all mankind. A discussion of these Noahide Laws or Commandments, as they are called, can be found in the Talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin a-b. Those seven laws are the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual immorality, stealing, eating the flesh of a living animal, and the positive commandment to establish courts of justice. One of the amazing things about these seven laws is the universalist view of God’s relationship with humans that they convey. Going back to the earliest days of the Jewish faith, our sages never saw the need to convert all humankind to Judaism, thus the absence of proselytizing from our religion. The laws of Noah were seen as elevating all people to the will of the Creator, and making them equal partners in the perfection of the creation that was entrusted to man and woman from the very beginning (Gen 2:15). All men and women share the Divine image, and it is incumbent upon them all to make choices which are “godlike.” In so doing, the earth, including the plant and animal kingdoms, can be moved in a positive direction, fulfilling the ultimate plan, expressed by the Hebrew Prophets, of what God intended this garden planet to be.

The Haftorah portion associated by our sages with Torah portion Noah, Isaiah 54:1-55:5, reinforces this view of individual and corporate responsibility for our actions, and also reinforces the idea that while negative things may happen as a consequence of poor decision-making, there is always the opportunity for turning from our ways (repentance) and the insurance of a brighter future. The prophecies found in this passage from Isaiah come on the heels of severe destruction which was delivered to the people of Israel through the hands of the Assyrians in the seventh century B.C.E., and then from the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E. We learn elsewhere in the Prophets that those destructions were the consequence of the northern ten tribes, Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah not being faithful to the laws and precepts of God. But, the message of the Haftorah portion is one of hope. It is connected by the Prophet Isaiah with the situation in the time of Noah. We read, “For this is like the days of Noah to me; when I swore that the waters of Noah should not flood the earth again, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you nor will I rebuke you…. My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken, says the LORD” (54:9-10). Amazing promises are they not? The entire Haftorah reading is full of hope. Look, for example at verse 8, “In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you.”

Heartening that though we may make mistakes, and though we may fall short of the ideals set forth for us in God’s law, bringing consequences that are sometimes severe, there is always the opportunity of turning from our wrong choices and changing the course of events for ourselves and for our world. I notice that this Isaiah Haftorah reading closes with a mysterious statement, referring obviously to a future time, “Behold, you will call a nation you do not know, and a nation which knows you not will run to you, because of the LORD your God, even the Holy One of Israel.” I have some definite views on who that nation that will turn to the Jewish people is, but I will save that for another message. For now, as we ponder the passages of Torah portion Noah and its Haftorah from Isaiah, may we receive insights that inspire and elevate us to partner with the Creator in bringing not harm, but good to all of the amazing creation with which we have been entrusted! Ken yehi ratzon!!—May this be God’s will!!

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The Month of Elul—An Auspicious Time in Jewish History and Tradition, September 2018

Temple Beth Shalom’s August Shabbat service was originally scheduled for August 25th. I had to change it back to the18th when I learned that my father’s 85th birthday party was being held on the 25th in Orlando, Florida!! It was only later that I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had inadvertently rescheduled our service for Rosh Chodesh Elul, the New Moon of the month of Elul, a very important time in Jewish history and tradition! Elul, which is the sixth month of the Festival Calendar and the twelfth month of the Civil Calendar—leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the “head of the year,” has, since Talmudic times, become a season of particular introspection, repentance, and restitution.

Historical Connection

According to the Sages of Israel, it was on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the month of Elul, that Moses ascended Mount Sinai following the people’s sin of the “golden calf” to make intercession before Adonai. You will recall that Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days. That would have covered the thirty days of the month of Elul and extended ten days into the month of Tishri, bringing Moses’ sojourn on the mountain to an end on the very day of Yom Kippur. It was on that particular visit to Mount Sinai that Moses received the second set of stone tablets containing the Law of God, since the first set had been destroyed at the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 33-34).

It was also on this visit to Sinai that Moses had the opportunity to glimpse just a tiny portion of God’s glory. This amazing self-revelation by the Creator has become known as the “Thirteen Attributes” of God, and is chanted in Hebrew at many of our most moving prayer and worship services, particularly during the High Holidays: “Adonai, Adonai (God’s Name repeated twice), compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7).

Hidden Meaning

Many Jewish sources have pointed out that the name of Elul, spelled aleph-lamed-vav-lamed, could serve as an acronym for the verse, "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li—I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). The Sages have long interpreted this verse as an allegory for the relationship between God the beloved, and the people of Israel. Just as Moses drew close to the Almighty on Mount Sinai at this season of the year following the Israelites’ miraculous redemption from Egypt, so should we draw close to our beloved Creator in the period preceding our holiest of days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (See Tracey R. Rich, “The Month of Elul and Selichot,” http://www.jewfaq.org/elul.htm).

The Chassidic master, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, used to liken the month of Elul to a time when “a great king is in the field,” as opposed to a time when the king is confined to the palace. When in the field the king is among the people, and easily accessible to anyone desiring a royal audience (“Elul Observances in a Nutshell,” http://www.chabad.org/holidays/).

Drawing Near to God

Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire Torah is the verse following the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’chal levavcha uv’chal naphshecha uv’chal me’odecha.” It translates, “And you shall love the LORD (Adonai’s Name) your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” My congregation at Temple Beth Shalom probably gets tired of hearing me ask the rhetorical question, “Now, loving someone or something with all your heart, soul, and might…, what exactly would that look like?” Would you have a hard time getting that one out of your thoughts? Would that one’s name be the first thing that entered your mind upon arousing from sleep in the morning? Would your thoughts be on that one as you drifted off to sleep each night? Would you be overwhelmed with joy when in that one’s presence, and perhaps saddened to the point of sickness upon being separated from that one? I know that despite my best intentions and re-commitments each year, I fall far short of honoring and remaining conscious of the Source of All Life to the level directed by the Torah. And, I am sure that many of my co-religionists must feel the same. The month of Elul is a wonderful opportunity to re-examine our relationship with the Creator, and to map out strategies for greater devotion, more diligent study of Torah, more prayer and giving thanks, and perhaps greater support for our house of study and worship.

Relations with Others

Elul is also an opportune time to examine our relationships with our fellow men and women. You will recall that in one of the most powerful of our High Holiday prayers, we pray actually quoting from the Mishna, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another” (Gates of Repentance, URJ High Holiday Prayer Book; Mishna Yoma 8:9). In Jewish tradition, we have an entire month, Elul, to consider our behavior toward others and make amends, and possibly even restitution where needed. This month is also an ideal time to consider becoming more proactive in our relationships with others, perhaps by increasing our acts of social justice, tzedakah (charitable giving), and gemilut chasadim (acts of compassion), for the sake of tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Rich Traditions

Over the last two millennia, the Sages of Judaism have developed the richest of traditions to serve as guideposts for the implementation of our faith principles. Beginning on the second day of the month of Elul and continuing until two days before Rosh Hashanah, it is the Ashkenazi custom to blow the shofar daily after morning prayers, as a call to reflection, introspection, and repentance. The shofar is not sounded, of course, on Shabbat; nor is it blown the day before Rosh Hashana, in order to separate rabbinic custom from Biblical command. Also, during the month of Elul, Psalm 27 is added to the morning and the evening prayer services. In that Psalm, David exclaims, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the refuge of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? … One thing I have asked from the LORD, that shall I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.” These words are a clear reminder that the Protector of Israel is continuously in our midst, and we are continuously in God’s presence. Finally, at sunset on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, S’lichot prayers, special petitions for the mercy and forgiveness of the Almighty are added before the shachrit/ morning prayer service (Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “ABC’s of Elul,” http://www.aish.com/).

It’s Up To You

As I encourage all members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom to study our precious Jewish heritage and implement more and more of its lofty principles, I like to honor the teaching of my beloved mentor, Rabbi Theodore Gordon, who used to say, “As a liberal rabbi, I am certainly not going to tell people what they need to do to be Jewish. BUT, DO SOMETHING!” There are, according to the sages, 613 commandments/mitzvoth in the Torah. Explore it! Find which ones resonate and are meaningful to you and in your life. And, I remind you regarding all the commandments, as we pray in the Shabbat morning service, “…sh’adam okhel peiroteinu b’olam hazeh v’hakeren kayemet lo l’olam haba— the one [who keeps them] eats their fruit in this world, and reward accrues to that one in the world to come.” As we say in Hebrew, “Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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King or Prophet Like Moses?....You Choose!!, August 2018

I have long considered it somewhat ironic that almost all of Christianity and a very large segment of traditional Judaism have put their hope in the coming of a Messiah, an anointed king of David’s line, when a plain reading of the Hebrew Bible suggests to me that God never wanted a king for the people of Israel to begin with. If this statement surprises you, then read on! My explanation begins in the next Torah portion that we will consider at Temple Beth Shalom, Shoftim—Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9. Shoftim is the Hebrew word for “judges,” the first word of this Torah portion. Shoftim is the 48th weekly Torah portion in the annual cycle; it is the fifth reading in the book of Deuteronomy. In general, the portion deals with an ideal balance between three “branches” of the government of the emerging Israelite nation—priest, king, and prophet. Interesting that the founders of the United States also composed the Constitution balancing three branches of government, but that is a topic for another day.

Getting back to my claim that Adonai never wanted a monarchy for Israel, the first thing one notices when one reads the book of Deuteronomy is that with respect to just about every law, the Israelites are commanded not to do as the nations around them have done. But, when it comes to the command concerning kings, we read, “When you enter the land which Adonai your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, you will say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations around me.’ You shall surely set a king over you….” (Deut. 17:14-15). The fact that the establishing of a king was the only way in which the Torah allowed the Israelites to be like the nations around them did not escape the notice of the sages of our people over the centuries. Commentary on this portion has been ample and varied. While Maimonides considered the appointment of a king to be an obligation, Ibn Ezra asserted that it was an allowance. Abarbanel claimed it to be concession by the Almighty, and Rabbenu Bachya went as far as to say that it was a punishment (See, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Shoftim —Learning and Leadership,” http://www.aish.com).

One cannot help but notice that the commands regarding kings are predominately prohibitions. The king was not to “multiply horses for himself,” nor “multiply wives for himself,” nor “greatly increase silver and gold for himself.” Many of our sages have pointed out that two of Israel’s greatest kings, David and Solomon, broke all three of these commands (See, Talmud Sanhedrin 21b).

Torah portion Shoftim refers us ahead to a time when the children of Israel would come into the land which God had promised to the patriarchs and matriarchs. The actual occurrence of this eventuality is recorded in the book of I Samuel. The Israelites had indeed conquered and occupied the land promised to them under the leadership of Joshua and successive judges. Samuel was serving as prophet and judge in Israel at the time. Samuel has been considered by many Jewish sages to be a prophet second only to Moses in wisdom and spirit. Late in Samuel’s life, the elders of Israel approached him saying, “Behold you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations” (I Sam. 8:5). Samuel was grieved by the request, and Scripture tells us that he turned to Adonai in prayer. Adonai’s answer to Samuel is instructive. “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all they say to you for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (v. 7). And, as if that were not bad enough, Adonai goes on to compare the Israelite’s request for a king with the many rebellious things they had done during their forty year sojourn in the wilderness.

While Samuel is told by Adonai to grant the people’s request for a king, he is instructed by God to give the people the following “solemn warning:”

    This will be the custom of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen…. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. And he will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards, and give to his officers and to his servants. He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys, and use them for his work. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but Adonai will not answer you in that day (I Sam. 8:11-18).

Pretty bleak! In fact, quite scary! What is even scarier is that according to the biblical history recorded in the rest of I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, and I and II Chronicles, all of these dire warnings were, in fact, realized. The transgressions of Israel’s kings led first to the splitting of the nation into northern and southern kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. This was followed by several destructions and captivities. Northern Israel was destroyed and taken captive by Assyria, and Judah, in the south, was destroyed and taken captive by Babylonia.

It was in the midst of these destructions and exiles that the great prophets of Israel, Isaiah; Jeremiah; Ezekiel; and others, began to get glimpses of a future time which would be very different than what the nation was currently experiencing. They foresaw a time of peace and prosperity, a time when war and famine would be no more. And, while there are references in the Hebrew Prophets to a messianic King of the line of David, those references are very few in number. What has tended to happen, primarily by Christian commentators and to a lesser extent by Jewish commentators, is that every future good deed mentioned anywhere in the Prophets has been superimposed on the idea of a messianic king. Now, fortunately, Reform Judaism, has progressed beyond this interpretation, and does attribute most of the good things promised in the Hebrew Prophets to the actions of righteous men and women of all nations.

I have often wondered if some of the great things spoken of in the prophetic books might not be facilitated by another leader who is introduced in Torah portion Shoftim. This figure has been referred to by many sages as a “prophet like Moses.” In Shoftim, the fledgling Israelite nation is told that they did not need to resort to witchcraft, divining, or fortune-telling. Adonai promises, “I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like [Moses], and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deut. 18:18). Just a disclaimer here, that while the ancient text uses the masculine pronoun, my interpretation would be more egalitarian. I would assert that the point of this promise is that there would always be a Divine connection—prophesy among the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. We read often in our ancient, sacred writings about such a connection historically. Where is that clear direction from the Almighty today? Is it something that we should be hoping for, perhaps even praying for?

This is why I find the study of Torah and the Prophets so exciting. Not only do they detail amazing interactions between the Creator and humankind in the past, but I believe they contain the seeds of profound changes that are possible in the future. But, the task is ours to study, interpret, and apply these ancient holy writings of our rich Jewish tradition to the difficulties we face in the modern age. Won’t you join me for services at Temple Beth Shalom as we make an effort to do just that? Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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A Parting Word Before Summer…., June 2018

It’s hard to believe that I have been Temple Beth Shalom’s “student” rabbi for four years now. Where has the time gone?! It is truly an ongoing privilege for me to serve this congregation. Studying the Hebrew language and reading and translating the foundational documents of our faith: Torah, Talmud, and Commentaries, is a passion of mine. Observing the holy Sabbath and all of Adonai’s annual holy times: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, etc. brings meaning to my life and connects me with our ancestors’ thousands-year long walk in the light of the Torah. While I do not push keeping kosher on others, it has been a central part of my observance for many decades now, always making me mindful of Adonai’s instruction, and leading to many personal benefits, I believe, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That I can share my passion for the Jewish faith and teachings with this congregation, and even receive a little financial benefit for doing so, is an honor beyond words. I truly cannot thank you enough, Temple Beth Shalom, for this opportunity to serve.

I know that I speak often from the bimah of the centrality of the V’ahavta to the Jewish walk. While there is no creedal statement in Judaism per se, one might say that the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Numbers 15:37-41, are the closest thing we have to a “statement of faith.” The Sh’ma affirms that Yod-Heh-Vav- Heh (I, of course, use “Adonai,” in keeping with tradition, though the Tetragrammaton, as it is called, is truly a name and not a title.) is our/Israel’s God and that Adonai is one. Jews have prayed this prayer for millennia in times of joy, plenty, and health as well as in times of trouble, persecution, and even death. We at Temple Beth Shalom say the Sh’ma as the center piece of every service we engage in. A very observant Jew would recite the Sh’ma four times a day: two times during morning prayers, once as a part of the evening prayer service, and finally just before going to bed. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 667)

It is the line following the Sh’ma that has always intrigued me, “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’chal levavcha uv’chal naphshecha uv’chal me’odecha.” It translates, “And you shall love the Lord (Adonai’s Name) your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all of your might.” I like to ask myself and others, “Now, loving someone or something with all your heart, soul, and might…, what exactly would that look like?” Would you have a hard time getting that one out of your thoughts? Would that one’s name be the first thing that entered your mind upon arousing from sleep in the morning? Would your thoughts be on that one as you drifted off to sleep each night? Would you be overwhelmed with joy when in that one’s presence, and perhaps saddened to the point of sickness upon being separated from that one? Is this level of love really what the author of Deuteronomy had in mind?

There is a story that I talk about often which is found in the Palestinian Talmud (B’rachot 9:5) about Rabbi Akiva, the second century spiritual leader who was tortured and ultimately killed by the Romans for his support of Bar Kochba in a revolt against Roman hegemony in the Land of Israel. The story goes that while Rabbi Akiva was being tortured, the time for the saying of the morning Sh’ma arrived. To his torturers Akiva appeared to be calm and even joyful in spite of his agony, leading one Roman soldier to ask Akiva whether he was, in fact, some kind of sorcerer. Akiva reportedly replied that he was not, but that all his life he had pondered the meaning of the words he had recited daily, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul (life), and with all your might.” He stated that he knew in his heart that he had never truly fulfilled them and was saddened. But, in that moment, as death approached, Rabbi Akiva said, “Now that I am giving up my life (soul), and the hour for the reciting of the Sh’ma has come…, should I not smile?” The Talmud reports that as the rabbi spoke those words, his soul departed.

How might we translate this into action? I love the way my first rabbi and mentor in the Jewish faith, Theodore Herzl Gordon, of blessed memory, used to put it. It was, in fact, Rabbi Gordon who opened the door for me to this amazing faith tradition that is Judaism, through conversion. He used to say, “As a liberal rabbi, I am certainly not going to tell people what they need to do to be Jewish. BUT, DO SOMETHING!” There are, according to the sages, 613 commandments/mitzvoth in the Torah. Explore it! Find which ones resonate and are meaningful to you and in your life. And, keep in mind regarding all the commandments, as we pray in the Shabbat morning service (Gates of Prayer, p. 285), “…sh’adam okhel peiroteinu b’olam hazeh v’hakeren kayemet lo l’olam haba”—translating roughly - that the one (who keeps them) eats their fruit in this world, and reward accrues to that one in the world to come.

By the way, did you know that in the Hebrew Bible there is something Adonai promises to do with all of God’s own heart and soul? In Jeremiah 32:36-44, God is speaking to Israel who had just been oppressed, defeated, and deported first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians. The Almighty promises, “I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in my anger….” Stating further, “I will make an everlasting covenant with them….” And, finally, “I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will faithfully plant them in this land (current Israel) with all My heart and with all My soul.” I have some deep thoughts I would like to share with you on the prophetic meaning of that statement, but I will save that for a future message. For now, shalom u’vrachah (peace and blessing)!!

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Is the Torah “Inscribed” in the Human Soul?, May 2018

The Book of Leviticus, Vayikra in Hebrew, definitely betrays the hand of a priestly writer. There are constant references to the Levites and Cohenim, most with minute detail in the laws and precepts for which they were responsible. Leviticus also goes into great detail on the specifics of animal sacrifice, a subject that is not very appealing to the discerning 21st century reader. But, embedded in the priestly laws and statutes is a theology of individual and corporate responsibility that has become a cornerstone of Western society. It is no secret that I see the grounding of Western law and ethics on principles enunciated in the Torah as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. We chant, as a part of every Shabbat Torah service, the second part of Isaiah 11:3: “For the Torah will go forth from Zion, and the Word of Adonai from Jerusalem.” But we stop just short of verse 4, which goes on, “And God will judge between the nations and will render decisions for many peoples. And they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore.”

A good example of Leviticus/Vayikra’s emphasis on individual and corporate responsibility is Torah portion Bechukotai, which is read this year on Shabbat, May 12th. That portion begins, “Im bechukotai telechu—If you walk in my statutes” or alternately “by my decrees….” The passage goes on to enumerate the rewards that will accrue to the people of Israel for keeping God’s laws, but also providing a list of some of the direst consequences in the biblical text for breaking God’s commandments. The Hebrew root of that parshah’s name, Bechukotai, is chuk (chet-quf). Translated as “statute” or “decree,” the root literally means “engraved.” This undoubtedly hearkens back to the idea that God’s laws, the Ten Commandments, were engraved on stone tablets. Later sages have invoked the root meaning of the word to demonstrate that the Torah of Adonai is imprinted on an individual’s soul. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi put it, “There is a dimension of Torah that is chuk, engraved in our being. There is a dimension of Torah which expresses a bond with God that is the very essence of the Jewish soul.” (“Parshat Bechukotai In- Depth.” www.chabad.org)

The rewards detailed in this Torah portion for the keeping of God’s statutes are many and lush. It should also be pointed out that they are given by the Almighty in the first person. God says, “If you walk in my statutes and keep my commandments…, I will give you rains in their seasons…, the land will yield its produce…, the trees of the field will bear their fruit. Your threshing will last until your grape gathering, and grape gathering will last until sowing time. You will thus eat your food to the full and live securely in your land. I will also grant you peace in the land… I will also eliminate harmful beasts from the land, and no sword shall pass through your land… You will chase your enemies, and they will fall before you… I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will confirm my covenant with you… I will make my dwelling among you… I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Lev. 26:3-12)

The punishments ascribed for disobedience to God’s laws are devastating to the point of being catastrophic. Again, they are stated by the Almighty in the first person, “But if you do not obey me and do not carry out all these commandments…, I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that shall waste away…. You shall sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies will eat it up. You shall be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when no one is pursuing you.… Your land shall not yield its produce and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. … I will let loose among you the beasts of the field which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your cattle and reduce your number so that your roads lie deserted.” (26:14-22) It gets far worse, but let this suffice for our discussion now.

The blessings and curses enumerated in this passage have sparked the ages-long debate over whether these rewards and consequences are to be taken naturally or supernaturally. The supernatural view would envision an omnipotent God sitting in the heavens dealing out divine judgments for obedience or rebellion. A more natural view would assert that a mindful Creator has built into the universe certain laws of cause and effect that cannot be abrogated. One cannot jump out of a second story window, for example, and expect not to smack into the ground. Actions have consequences. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, “You cannot over eat and take no exercise, and at the same time stay healthy. You cannot act selfishly and win the respect of other people. You cannot allow injustices to prevail and sustain a cohesive society. You cannot let rulers use power for their own ends without destroying the basis of a free and gracious social order.” (“Bechukotai—The Politics of Responsibility,” www.aish.com) There is nothing necessarily supernatural about these consequences, but as Rabbi Sacks points out they are absolutely moral.

One of the many things I love about progressive Judaism is that it gives to every individual the freedom to choose whether a supernatural, natural, some combination, or even neither of the two views of positive and negative consequences resonates best with his or her own conscience and convictions. Regardless of the view one chooses, it cannot be denied that this concept of justice, tzedek—“doing the right thing,” has been chuk—engraved on the Jewish conscience from ancient times. The Torah’s view of individual and corporate responsibility as it relates to social justice is deeply ingrained. The rich cannot buy special favors, nor should the poor be deferred to because of their poverty. Every soul is an indispensable part of the social fabric and should be treated as such. The needs of one are seen as the needs of all. This Jewish sense of individual and corporate responsibility, purpose, and destiny is very succinctly stated in the words of the British Catholic historian, Paul Bede Johnson:

    No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. At a very early stage in their collective existence they believed they had detected a divine scheme for the human race of which their own society was to be a pilot. They worked out their role in immense detail. They clung to it with heroic persistence in the face of savage suffering. Many of them believe it still. Others transmuted into Promethean endeavors to raise our condition by purely human means. The Jewish vision became the prototype for many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man-made. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose. (A History of the Jews, p. 2, Harper Perennial, 1988)

In affirming Mr. Johnson’s historical analysis, I attempted to find words to inspire my readers to take the precepts of the holy Torah to a new level, applying them daily in their own lives in ways that are meaningful to them. But, I am hard-pressed to find words more moving than those already written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his comment on Johnson’s observation:

    The people who change the world are those who believe that life has a purpose, a direction, a destiny. They know where they want to go and what they want to achieve. In the case of Judaism that purpose is clear: to show what it is to create a small clearing in the desert of humanity where freedom and order coexist, where justice prevails, the weak are cared for and those in need are given help, where we have the humility to attribute our successes to God and our failures to ourselves, where we cherish life as the gift of God and do all we can to make it holy. In other words: precisely the opposite of the violence and brutality that is today being perpetrated by some religious extremists in the name of God. (“Bechukotai—A Sense of Direction,” www.aish.com)

All I can add is…Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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The Miracle of Passover: A Kingdom of Priests, A Holy Nation is Born!, April 2018

I cannot talk enough about the profound effects that the writings and teachings of Judaism have had on the other two major Western religions, Christianity and Islam. Through those two faiths, concepts of the Creator and principles which originated in the Torah have been disseminated worldwide. The Passover was a critical link in the development of the Jewish faith-tradition. As we prepare for our annual observance of that ancient holy event, my thoughts turn to what might be the greatest Passover miracle of all: through faith in the Almighty God, a battered down and oppressed group of slaves was ultimately liberated and transformed into a chosen people, a blessed nation, and a “light to all nations.” That light, of course, is to be a reflection of the Holiness of Adonai—God’s creation, God’s ways/laws, and God’s purpose for humankind’s future.

The concept of holiness is addressed often in the Torah, but perhaps nowhere more forcefully and succinctly than in Torah portion Kedoshim which we read this month. That portion, the 30th weekly portion in the Jewish Torah reading cycle, is the 7th reading in the book of Leviticus (19:1-20:27). At 64 verses, it is one of the shortest portions in the Torah reading cycle. Kedoshim is read twice a year, both as part of the weekly cycle and as the special reading on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Some of you may recall that Kodoshim is also the title of the fifth order in the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud.

The Torah portion begins, “And Adonai spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” Now, I have said in jest many times that the Almighty did not choose the descendants of Abraham and Sarah because they made good bagels, although they do. The Torah is very clear that these descendants were called for a very specific purpose, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). The Creator apparently saw in Abraham and Sarah the qualities of loyalty to God, to God’s laws, and to God’s plan for humankind, and the Creator must have known that these qualities would carry on in Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. I like to call this the “Family Plan” for spreading the Torah message to all humankind, because as the descendants of Abraham and Sarah role model these lofty statutes and ethics, the Prophets tell us that eventually all humankind, indeed every nation, will adopt the Creator’s laws and plan. This will lead to a time when war, sickness, and famine will be completely done away with according to the Hebrew Prophets.

Kedoshim is the masculine plural form of Kadosh—holy. But, what exactly does holiness mean as the term is used in the Hebrew Bible? When one thinks of holiness one usually envisions a monk, cloistered in a medieval monastery, reading holy writings, meditating on heavenly things, and abstaining from most of the joys of everyday life, such as eating, drinking, etc. This view derives from a Greco-Roman concept of holiness, often referred to as a dualistic worldview, in which the heavenly realm, the spiritual, is deemed to be good, but in which earthly things, the physical, is considered inherently corrupt or tainted. That is not the Hebraic view. At the time of creation, Adonai saw six times that those things which were created were good. Upon the completion of God’s ultimate creation, man and woman, the Hebrew Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:32). So it is, in Jewish tradition, that holiness is not entailed in the abstinence from enjoying those elements of creation that God has graciously given to us, but rather in their judicious and moderate use. As summed up in Talmud, Yevamot 20a, we are instructed, “Sanctify yourself also regarding that which is permissible to you.”

Holiness in Judaism is not so much a state of mind, and definitely not a system of belief. Rather, it is the demonstration of very specific behaviors toward God and toward our fellow human beings. Those behaviors cannot be done in seclusion. That is why many sages have pointed out that the opening words of the Torah portion, “speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel…,” have the implication that holiness is not something done while cloistered away, but is something that is engaged in with and for the community. The specifics of the behaviors that define holiness are not left to subjective choice. Fortunately, they are very clearly spelled out in the Torah and in the later writings of the Jewish sages. Chief among the enumeration of those laws would, of course, be the Ten Commandments, given in the Torah in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In the Midrash Rabbah, Rabbi Levi shows us that the Ten Commandments are, in fact, restated in Torah portion Kedoshim:

  1. “I am the Lord your God,” is stated here also as “I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:3).
  2. “You shall have no other gods before me,” appears as “Nor make to yourselves molten gods” (19:4).
  3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” is written here as, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name” (19:12).
  4. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” is restated as, “And keep my Sabbaths” (19:3).
  5. “Honor your father and mother,” is rendered here as “Every man shall fear his mother and his father” (19:3).
  6. “You shall not murder,” is conveyed in the passage, “You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (19:3).
  7. “You shall not commit adultery,” appears here as, “Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (19:10).
  8. “You shall not steal,” is written here as, “You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie to one another.” (19:11).
  9. “You shall not bear false witness,” is entailed in “You shall not go about as a talebearer” (19:16).
  10. “You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s,” is more than reflected in, “Love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18).

    (Translated in “Parshat Kedoshim in Depth,” www.chabad.org)

It has always impressed me that in this “holiness code,” as it is often called, relatively few of the verses are devoted to our relationship with the Creator and to holy things such as Sabbaths and offerings. The vast majority of verses are devoted to our relations with fellow human beings. The level of compassion given to that topic in this portion is palpable. Think for a minute about such seemingly simple, but powerful, actions as not reaping to the corners of your field so that there will be gleanings left behind for those who are in need (v. 10), not allowing the wages of someone hired to remain with you even overnight (v. 14), not allowing injustice in judgment even to the extent of being partial to the poor nor deferring to the great (v. 15), not going about as a talebearer, or in other words slanderer, among your people (v. 16). And then, of course, there is the ultimate commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18). This principle has become a cornerstone of most of the world’s major religions. And, lest one think that one’s neighbor only refers to fellow countrymen or women, the Torah is crystal clear: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you; you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (19:34).

The level of devotion to one’s neighbor and compassion for those in need found in this Torah portion connects strongly with the constant theme of the Hebrew Prophets, social justice. Micah sums it up best in the statement, “What does Adonai require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). The fact that “love your neighbor as yourself” has become a core belief of so many world religions is proof to me that the Almighty’s “Family Plan” is working. When the adherents of those religions truly apply those lofty principles, putting them into action through their behaviors, behaviors laid out so specifically in this Torah portion, humankind will surely enter the time spoken of in the Prophets when nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4). My prayer is that we could live to see this fulfilled in our day. Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

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L’Shanah Tovah—Again!!, March 2018

Of course, Purim is just around the corner, and if you would like to revisit my last article on that holiday, it is still available on the web at http://www.hickoryjewishcenter.com/messages.html (Go to article). But I want to turn our attention to another holiday that is just a bit later this March—the Jewish New Year. Did I get your attention??? In last month’s bulletin I discussed the Spring readings known as the “Four Parshiyot.” Two are before Purim and two before Passover. The readings are Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat Hachodesh. Saturday, March 17th, is Shabbat Hachodesh. The additional Torah passage for Shabbat Hachodesh, done in most synagogues as the maftir reading, is Exodus 12:1-20. Shabbat Hachodesh is the Sabbath that corresponds with or immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year, 2018, Shabbat Hachodesh falls on the first of Nissan.

The twenty verses in the Shabbat Hachodesh maftir reading detail the taking of a Paschal lamb into the home in preparation to observe the Passover, followed by instructions for the seven days for the eating of matzah, unleavened bread. The passage opens, “Now Adonai said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you.’” (Ex. 12:1-2) This is quite an amazing statement to a modern Jew who has grown up with the understanding that Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishri, is the Jewish New Year. The Talmud records an interesting debate between Rabbi Eliezer who believed the world was created in Tishri and Rabbi Joshua who believed the world was created in Nissan. “It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer says: in Tishri the world was created; in Tishri the patriarchs were born; in Tishri the patriarchs died. Rabbi Joshua says: Whence do we know that the world was created in Nissan? Because it says, ‘And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit.’ Which is the month in which the earth is full of grass and trees [begin to] produce fruit? You must say that this is Nissan.” (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a) The ruling, based on the Mishnah, Rosh Hashana 1:1, is that “There are four New Years; the first of Nissan is the New Year for kings and for festivals; the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing animals; the first of Tishri is the New Year for years, for agriculture, and for vegetables; the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees, the School of Shammai, and the School of Hillel say it is on the fifteenth.”

It should not seem unusual to a modern reader that a year might contain many beginnings. The beginning of our calendar year is January 1, but a fiscal year typically begins on July 1. The school year traditionally begins in early September. It has also been pointed out that the progression of times and seasons is cyclical. You will recall that a circle famously has no beginning or end. So, truly, any point on the circle might be designated as the beginning. (See, e.g., “Our Other Head,” by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, http://www.chabad.org/) What is interesting is that this very first commandment given to the Israelite people as a nation involves time at all. According to Rashi, these verses are “the true beginning of the Torah.” (“Shabbat Hachodesh,” Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, https://www.ou.org) You see, prior to Exodus 12, the Almighty had already given humankind ten laws, according to the sages. The first, of course, was the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” found in Genesis 1:28. That is followed by the seven Noahide laws, derived by the rabbis from Genesis 9. These eight taken together would apply to all humankind. Later in Genesis we read that God gave our father Abraham the commandment of circumcision specifically for himself and his descendants. (Gen. 17:10-14) The tenth ordinance in the Torah is the prohibition given to Jacob and his descendants of eating the sciatic nerve of any animal. (Gen. 32:33)

What makes the laws of Exodus chapter 12 different is that they are given to the entire nation of Israel and that they relate to time. Moses and Aaron, upon the receipt of these instructions, are commanded, “Speak to all the congregation of Israel.” (v. 3) It is significant that these first national commands involved the keeping of time. Slaves do not need to mark time. They go to bed, get up, eat, and work as they are commanded by their master. Free peoples, on the other hand, are in control of their own destiny and thus have the need to order and budget their time. Even more importantly, the new nation of Israel was being called to a very specific purpose, according to the Torah, to be witnesses to the Creator God and to role model the Creator’s laws to the other nations of the earth. The Torah records the Almighty’s passionate words to Moses while on the holy mountain, Sinai, “Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:5-6) A crucial part of being witnesses for Adonai was the observance of “holy time,” most notably the weekly Sabbath, the seventh day, as instructed in the Ten Commandments. (Ex. 20:8-11) The Sabbath calls humankind’s attention to God’s creative work, but also to God’s redemptive work as the One who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt to be a holy nation. (See Deut. 5:15) In addition to the weekly Sabbath are the annual festivals, which the Almighty refers to in Torah as, “Adonai’s appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations—My appointed times are these.” God is referring, of course, to Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. These holy times are detailed quite clearly and concisely in Leviticus, chapter 23.

But the whole concept of marking time in general, and holy time in specific, begins for the Israelite nation in the 12th chapter of Exodus. One can understand why Rashi viewed this as the true beginning of the Torah. It is instructive that the rabbis of the Mishnah viewed the first of Nissan as the “New Year for kings and for festivals,” for surely a large part of the responsibility of being a “kingdom of priests” is the observance and communication to others of the importance of Adonai’s holy times. It is a sad fact that for many centuries the vision of the Jewish people to be a kingdom was purely a matter of the heart. Living in exile we did not have an earthly kingdom of our own. But our longing for one never faded, as is summed up poignantly by this poem of the German-Jewish poet, Ludwig August Frankel, from a century and a half ago. It is entitled, “Juda’s Farben (Judah’s Colors)”:

    The Jew turns his gaze to the east
    And the worries of his soul;
    He thinks of his kingdom’s fate
    And the morning of freedom.
    Like a ruler who has been banished,
    Who, in the pains of exile
    Still feels himself in his heart
    To be the king of his lost country.

    from “Judaism: The Meaning of Shabbat Hachodesh,” Daniel Pinner, https://www.ou.org

I have remarked many times, what a miracle it is that we have lived to see the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in our ancient, sacred land. Something that was only a dream for our people for almost 2000 years is now a reality. But, with this great miracle/gift comes great responsibility. May we as a people never waver from the high ethical standards of the holy Torah that is entrusted into our care. So, as we begin the biblical cycle of another Hebrew year, will you join me in recommitting to those lofty statutes and to this high calling. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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Shabbat Shekalim -The Power of Giving!, February 2018

When congregation Temple Beth Shalom next assembles for the public reading of the Torah on Sabbath, February 10, 2018, we will begin a special s e r i e s o f To r a h readings often known a s t h e “ F o u r Parshiyot.” These four readings occur in the Spring, two are before Purim and two before Passover. The readings are Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat Hachodesh. Saturday, February 10, is Shabbat Shekalim. The additional Torah passage for Shabbat Shekalim, done in most synagogues as the maftir reading, is Exodus 30:11-16. According to the Mishnah, Masechet Shekalim 1, “On the first of Adar a public announcement is made concerning the payment of the shekel.” So, customarily, Shabbat Shekalim coincides closely with Rosh Chodesh Adar—the first of Adar, the 12th month of the Hebrew calendar, or with Second Adar in the years when the 13th month is added (as it is this year). This public announcement then gave the people one month to prepare, as the sages tell us the actual collection occurred historically on the first of Nissan, the 1st Hebrew month.

This special reading details instructions for a census that was taken during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness where the commandment is given to pay a half shekel “tax” toward the maintenance of the tabernacle in the wilderness. The Torah states, “When you take a census of the children of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the LORD…. This is what everyone who is numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary.” (Exodus 30:12-13) While the reading for Shekalim is brief, only six verses, the sages of Israel have derived many important teachings from these verses. Some sages have assumed from the reading of the portion that individuals 20 years of age and older paid the half shekel assessment. Then the money was counted, not necessarily the individuals. This would reinforce the idea that souls are of very high importance in the sight of Adonai and are never mere numbers on a ledger sheet. (See Tracey R. Rich, “Special Shabbatot,” www.jewfaq.org)

According to the Torah, “The rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than the half shekel…” The half shekel assessment was to be paid equally by the well-off and the needy! Not only does this command remind us that all humans are equal in the eyes of the Creator regardless of financial status, but it also stresses the importance of putting aside personal position in favor of uniting for a common good. Imagine how important this corporate responsibility must have been at the time when a loosely affiliated group of slaves escaped from the greatest superpower on earth and began to establish a new and unified nation. Individual needs and wants would have needed to remain secondary to the good of the community. (See Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, ArtScroll Stone Edition of the Chumash.)

The Torah goes on to say, “And you shall take the atonement money from the children of Israel, and shall give it to the service of the tent of meeting.” The Talmud is very explicit that in the current absence of either the Tabernacle or the Temple in Jerusalem, we are not technically obligated to the half shekel contribution. Yet, the principle remains that support of holy places, such as houses of learning and houses of prayer and worship, is a critical part of a person’s responsibility to the community. In modern terms, the spirit of this mitzvah could be maintained by contributions to our local synagogues. (Most rabbis are quick to point that out…very big wink!)

The reading for Shabbat Shekalim is also connected with the holiday of Purim on another level. Resh Lakish said, “It was revealed and known before the one who spoke and the world came into being that Haman would spend a large sum of money in order to destroy Israel, as it is so written in the third chapter of Megillat Esther. Therefore, God preceded Haman’s silver by Israel’s silver. And, this accords with what the Talmud says in Masechet Megillah, ‘On the first of Adar, an announcement is made concerning the shekalim.’” You see, the sages were skilled at making connections based on the Hebrew words. They saw in the phrase “and you shall take the silver/ money of atonement,” kesef hakippurim in Hebrew (Ex. 30:16), another Hebrew phrase, kesef ha ki purim—“the silver which is on account of Purim.” Thus, it is believed that the atonement money which was paid by the congregation in the wilderness served as the ransom for the deliverance of the children of Israel from the evil plot of Haman centuries later. (See Orthodox Union, “Parshat Shekalim, www.ou.org)

Another interesting ancient reference to the half shekel census/assessment is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:4. It states, “Rabbi Meir said, ‘the Holy One, may God be blessed, took a type of fiery coin from under the Throne of Glory and showed it to Moshe. God said to him, “This shall they give.”” One might ask what connection the fiery coin might have with the mitzvah of the half shekel. The connection, again, is based on the Hebrew words. The Hebrew word for silver or money is kesef. In other verses in the Torah, for example Genesis 31:30, the same Hebrew root is used for the translation “strong longing”—kasaf. When one acts upon the principles of Torah with a deep passion for the Creator and a deep longing to serve the Jewish community and all humankind, one truly fulfills the commandment of the mechazit hashekel— the half shekel contribution. This is the meaning of the “fiery coin” that Moses was told we must give to Adonai. (See Rabbi Zvi Belovski, “Shekalim: The Power of the Fiery Shekel,” www.aish.com)

The special Haftorah reading on Shabbat Shekalim is from Second Kings 11:17-12:17. It recounts a time during the history of Israel and Judah when repentance was being made for having engaged in the worship of the Canaanite god, Baal. The Temple in Jerusalem had fallen into disrepair until Jehoash, the King of Judah, once again implemented the practice of using the census money for repairs on the Holy Temple. Interestingly, the priests took a box and put it beside the altar with a hole in the lid for worshipers to make contributions. The priests and the leaders were amazed at the amount of money that was placed in the box. People clearly went above and beyond the half shekel requirement.

Many of the specifics of commandments in the Torah are not possible in our place and time, because we are outside of the Land of Israel or because the Holy Temple no longer stands. But the lofty ethical principles behind the mitzvot endure forever. As the psalmist affirms, “The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever.” (Psalms 19:8-9) The Hebrew Prophets tell us that one day, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14) Support for houses of prayer, worship, and study is an ongoing need. And, those who do so, particularly with a cheerful heart, can rest assured that they are paving the way for a brighter future by fulfilling an ancient command. Will you give your “fiery shekel” today? Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will.

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Shemot—The First of Many Redemptions!, January 2018

As we head into a new year, 2018, we also turn to a new book in the Torah reading cycle. Leaving Genesis (Bereishit in Hebrew) on Sabbath, January 6th, we read from the book of Exodus (Shemot in Hebrew). Thus, we consider once again the exciting story of Moses and the liberation of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. We begin in Torah portion Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1, with the appearance of Adonai to Moses in the “burning bush” on Mount Horeb. (Ex. 3:6). It is here that Moses receives his first commission to go to Pharaoh and to the children of Israel. The Almighty reiterates the commission to Moses and Aaron a second time to go to Pharaoh requesting freedom for the Israelite slaves in Torah portion Va’eira, Exodus 6:2-9:35. This is followed by a brief genealogical discussion, tracing the descendants of just three of the sons of Jacob/Israel: Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. It is obviously interjected to establish the pedigree of Moses and Aaron and to identify Aaron’s descendants who were to become priests or cohenim. (Ex. 6:14-25)

After Moses and Aaron’s first commission in Torah portion Shemot, they do approach Pharaoh as commanded, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to me in the wilderness.’” (Ex. 5:1). Not only do we learn that Pharaoh is unresponsive to their request, stating, “Who is the LORD that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” Pharaoh intensifies the burdens of the Israelite slaves by instructing their taskmasters to no longer provide the straw needed to make bricks while keeping the quota of bricks the same. This forced the Israelites to add the task of gathering straw to their labors. When these requirements proved difficult to fulfill, Pharaoh accuses the Israelites of being lazy and subjects their leaders to beatings. This situation causes Moses to question the Almighty’s plan, “Oh LORD, why hast Thou brought harm to this people? Why didst Thou ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Thy name, he has done harm to this people, and thou hast not delivered thy people at all.” (Ex. 5:1-23) Thus closes Torah portion Shemot.

Va’eira opens with a quizzical self-identification by the Almighty. “God spoke further to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yod-heh-vav-heh; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as El Shaddai (usually translated Almighty God), but by my name, Yod-heh-vav-heh (usually rendered as Adonai), I did not make myself known to them.’” (Ex. 6:2-3) I use the term quizzical because there are several instances earlier in the Torah where the text specifically states that Yod-heh-vav-heh/Adonai did appear to the patriarchs and matriarchs. One vivid example is in Genesis 18 where we learn that Adonai appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. This appearance was to inform Abraham of the coming destruction that God had planned for Sodom and Gomorrah. If the Divine Name had in fact not been revealed at that time, it is puzzling that the Almighty would say of Abraham, “For I have chosen him in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of Yod-heh-vav-heh by doing righteousness and justice in order that Yod-heh-vav-heh may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” (Gen. 18:19) Now, there are two possibilities here. A conservative scholar might say that the text of Exodus 6:3 is literal, and that the Tetragrammaton, Yod-heh-vav-heh, was not known to the patriarchs and matriarchs, but was written back into the earlier accounts by the Torah author, presumed to be Moses, after the revelation of the Name. A second possibility is that the verse was not intended to be taken literally, but to subtly differentiate between different aspects of God’s interaction with the creation, and, perhaps, to criticize Moses for his questioning and lack of faith.

The tradition in Judaism is that the creator is, in fact, very far beyond our ability to comprehend God’s greatness—absolute, infinite, and limitless. Thus, in many respects it is inappropriate to limit God by using the name. In this line of thinking, the names of God become descriptions of various aspects of God’s character and of God’s interactions with the cosmos. Rashi contends that the use of the name El Shaddai in this passage was to demonstrate the matriarchs’ and patriarchs’ complete trust in the Almighty. Promises were made to them about the multitude of their descendants and about their possession of the Holy Land, most of which they did not live to see fulfilled. Yet, they trusted God without questioning. On the other hand, here was Moses directly questioning the Divine plan. (See Rabbi Yehoshua Berman, “Va’Eira The Tightest Bond,” www.aish.com)

In many respects then, the plagues with which Adonai punished Pharaoh and the Egyptians can be taken as signs not just for Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, but also for the Israelite people and their leaders, and by extension, the entire world. The plagues bear a progression that is seemingly part of a larger didactic purpose. Surely, the Almighty, given God’s limitless power over creation, could have flattened Egypt with a single blow and allowed the children of Israel to go free. Yet, the Almighty chose to work in stages, with careful attention to the response of Pharaoh and the Egyptians to each phase of the plan. Taken as a whole, the plagues can be seen as countering four definite misconceptions which were held by the Egyptians. It might also be argued that since Moses was raised as an Egyptian and since the Israelite people had lived among the Egyptians for so many centuries, they too might have been subject to these same misconceptions. 1. They denied the Creator, believing that the world was infinite and had no beginning or end. 2. They denied the Creator’s interest in or care for God’s creation. 3. They denied the Creator’s ability to intervene in the laws which were part of the creation. 4. They denied prophecy, the Creator’s ability to communicate with human beings through ongoing revelation. The plagues were orchestrated by the Almighty incrementally to counter these misconceptions and to show that: 1. God did create the universe and all that we perceive. 2. God does, in fact, care about human beings and their actions. 3. God does have the ability to intervene in the laws of nature. 4. God does communicate with humankind—Moses being the first in a line of prophets that was intended to continue throughout time. (See Deut. 18:18-22) It has been pointed out that the ten plagues correspond with the ten “utterances of creation.” In the creation account of Genesis chapters 1 and 2, God says, “Let there be…” exactly ten times. This would reinforce the idea that the plagues were Adonai’s proof of control over the very natural realm that God had willed into existence. (See Rabbi Avi Geller, “Pharaoh’s Stubbornness Earns the Egyptians a Serious Beating,” www.aish.com)

Further proof of the targeted nature and the didactic purpose of the plagues is that they seem to stem almost naturally from the first plague, the turning of the Nile River into blood. This is clearly a direct affront to the ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, who had claimed ownership over the Nile River and was even considered by himself and the Egyptian people to be a god or the son of a god. The Haftorah portion associated with Torah portion Va’eira, Ezekiel 28:25-29:21, makes this clear. Pharaoh is referred to as “the great monster that lies in the midst of the rivers.” In Ezekiel, Pharaoh exerts his own deity by saying, “the Nile is mine, and I myself have made it.” In this context it becomes clearer why the Almighty would have chosen to exact punishments on the Egyptians appropriate to their level of evil and idolatry. Now, in general, Judaism would reject the idea that our faith is based on the need for miracles. Rather, as Martin Buber has pointed out, our traditions are rooted in an ongoing historical interaction between the Creator, God, and the descendants of Abraham. That historical interaction is verifiable fact. Time and time again events have intervened to deliver our people from the hands of oppressors. It is our faith to attribute those serendipitous events to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. (See Rabbi Yehuda Appel, “Miracles and Magic,” www.aish.com)

We see in the book of Exodus the Almighty’s reassertion of power over the creation, as God opposes the greatest superpower on earth at that time, Egypt, and begins to form a family clan of slaves into a new nation. Perhaps one of the more controversial elements of that plan is God’s statement in Exodus 7:3, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt,” and the implications that such a statement has for the concept of free will. Many sages have wrestled with that topic, and the ideas are as interesting as they are diverse. But, I will save that discussion for another message.

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