Geshem Sheet Music (but really just for the piyyut that begins Zekhor Av Nimshakh Acharekha KaMayim)

Check it out here!

Applied Happiness (Bulletin Message for Congregation Sons of Israel in Amsterdam, NY: Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah 2014/5775)

After the solemnity and awe of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the first season of happy holidays are finally approaching. As we greet Sukkot’s arrival on the 15th day of 5775, we also greet each other with the words chag same’ach (“Happy festival”)! Although we will not hold services on Sukkot proper, we will gather for two special days that mark the border where Sukkot ends.

The first day of Yom Tov (literally, “Good Day,” meaning festival) is Shemini Atzeret. One of the classic explanations of the purpose of Shemini Atzeret goes like this: All of Sukkot had been like a big feast for God—a 7-day party where we kept dining in the royal Divine court. At the end of this party, the Host of Hosts says to us guests, “I’d love if you can stay a little longer—just one more small bite.” Shemini Atzeret is the small nosh we have, so we can still eat sacred fruits in the company of the Eternal Sovereign (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 55b).

Moreover, because Judaism is a religion that sanctifies the 7-day week, when we can extend whatever happens on the 7th day into the 8th day, we undergo something supernatural. We bend time. We drag the joy of one day into the emptiness of another. This fusion of two days must be what leads Rabbi Isaac Me’ir of Gur (1799-1866) to teach, “The notion of 8 transcends nature.”

Not only is 8 a special number, but Sukkot nearly becomes a 9-day festival when we add onto it the climactic celebration of our completing the Torah reading for the year: Simchat Torah. One of the customs of Simchat Torah is to dance with the Torah in what we would call a hakkafah (“a circling”). In the days of the Talmud, it was a custom of our people to do a special ritual when they purchased new land. They would take a walk around the new property, and, by walking the borders of their new possession, a piece of the Earth would become their own. We declare our ownership and responsibility of the Torah when we dance in circles with the Torah, teaches Rabbi Isaac Me’ir. We might have finished reading the Torah for one year, but our lease is far from up. We’re renewing our contract.

Taken from another angle, Rabbi Isaac Me’ir transmits the words of the Kotzker Rebbe: Sukkot is a time of great festivity. What do we do with our surplus of happiness? We take our joy and place it in our Torah (Chiddushey HaRim, Sukkot). The Kotzker Rebbe’s teaching is not about how to be happy, but what to do with our happiness.

Let’s come together this Shemini Atzeret and make a little more time just to be together. Let’s stay another day and come on Simchat Torah to express our gladness—to impress our Torah, the pride and possession that binds us together as a community. Let us embed within it the joy that motivates us to do good in the world, to bring peace, and to pursue the happiness that helps us transcend the limits of nature.

Break for a Day of Opportunity: Rosh HaShanah 5775 Day 1 Sermon

Click this link to access a formatted PDF of my sermon for the first day of Rosh HaShanah 5775.

See below for the unformatted version of the 5775 Day 1 sermon.

Shanah tovah—a good new year!
I1 am delighted to be back at Congregation Sons of Israel in Amsterdam2 this year.3 I am blessed with an unusual opportunity as a rabbinical student: to work twice with the same community. Since two years ago, when I last served here as Student Rabbi, some people in our lives then have left our lives now. And since that time, we may have merited to welcome new people in our lives.
As for me: My own life has changed dramatically in at least two ways. First off, I got married. Many new friends and family members have entered my life. I went overnight from being an uncle to one nephew, to becoming the uncle of three nephews and three nieces—which is altogether six “niblings,” as I like to call them. (That is, by the way, a 500% increase.)
Second, the change that frightens me most is my becoming a senior rabbinical student. This is my fifth of five years at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical School. On top of that, since I studied Jewish Music as an undergraduate at JTS—the Jewish Theological Seminary—this is actually my ninth of nine years at the Seminary. This ninth year is the marker of a near-decade at JTS, and it is likely to be the end of an era for me. Just a few days before Shavu’ot, if all goes well, I will graduate from life as a student. I will soon enter the workforce. I will soon move from a primary occupation where I pay tuition, to a primary occupation where I’m paid a salary.
The rabbinate is tough work. But then again, so is being a medical professional, or a legal professional. Or a politician, or a camp director. Or an investor. Or a teacher. Or a repairperson. Or a caretaker. Or a parent. Or any kind of work—salary or not.
And this makes me nervous.
As a whole, we Americans work more hours a week, with fewer vacations, with later retirement than any other nation.4 Along these lines, President Barack Obama has noted that “the United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave.”5 Every country in Europe demands that employers provide paid annual leave. In contrast, our government does not require that employees get any paid annual leave whatsoever. Between 1990 and the beginning of this decade, wages have not shot up so tremendously. Meanwhile, the cost of living in the United States increased approximately 67%, and employment opportunities decreased despite a national increase in worker output.6 For those of us lucky enough—or unlucky enough—to be employed in America, we might take comfort knowing that the 9-5 work-day might still exist in some sense: that the national average of hours put in for a full-time job during the work-week has shot up now, but only to 8.5 hours. That being said, working Americans with full-time jobs are on average working now over 11 hours on the weekend.7 And, as for when the employee leaves the office, the workday is still not over. In 2011, over 1/5 of employed e-mail users reported to be “expected to respond to work e-mail when they’re not at work,” over 1/4 were said to check e-mail on vacation, and approximately 1/2 would check work-related e-mail on sick days.8
You and I might not be workaholics, but the United States is a workaholic.
We are lucky when we can take a break from our responsibilities. We cannot necessarily expect our employers to tell us when to take our breaks. As the internet becomes a more pervasive part of life in the USA and the developing world, and as people spend more time with cell phones, and business demands, and demands for instant gratification; we spend less time with each other.
Americans who work can’t be left alone. Nor can they be with the people they love the most.
I want to share with you a teaching from a rabbi who passed away this July: Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. To say that he was eccentric might be an understatement. He led a very unusual life.
Born in Europe, Zalman Schachter and his family fled the Nazis, leading him to a safehaven in Belgian Antwerp, whereat he joined, and studied Torah among, Chasidic Jews. Not long after moving to the United States and becoming an ordained Chabad rabbi, Reb Zalman became disenchanted with the Orthodoxy around him. He called for an experiment in renewing Judaism: with more music, more meditation, more inclusivity, and more of the attributes that made the 60s such a radical and controversial time, including drug use and the spirit of free love—which, by the way, are not exactly “kosher” in the Jewish tradition. Reb Zalman’s love for meditation led him to explore other faith practices—so much so that, in 1975, he became a Sufi Sheikh (all while he was still a practicing rabbi and professor of world religions).
We might not be mystics, and we might find discomfort—and we might disapprove—when we consider Reb Zalman’s life. Yet, his obsession with world religions might be an exact parallel of the dream Jews have only begun to realize over the past two centuries: How can we be citizens of the world, and also be members of Am Yisra’el (עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל)—the people Israel? More forceful than an inquisitive dream, Reb Zalman liked to state this question in the form of a challenge: “If you’re such a universalist, why be Jewish?”
In a way, because Reb Zalman was a champion of so many cultures, he could possibly be among the best people to answer this question.
The short version of Reb Zalman’s answer—why be Jewish when the secular world is so grand—goes like this: Every people has special gifts to give the world, and the world needs those gifts. The Ancient Greeks gave us philosophy and math. The Buddhists and Sufis have given us different meditation practices. What do the Jews bring? We bring a few gifts.
First off, the Jews bring this idea that we have to be mindful of what we consume, and that what we consume must be attained through ethical means. We call that kashrut (כַּשְׁרוּת)—“keeping kosher.” Second, we Jews have this notion that wisdom should lead to action—that what we study, which we call Torah (תּוֹרָה), is not only to be read, but to be lived. And third, we Jews bring to the world an understanding that there are two kinds of time. The first kind of time is time as a social construct9: We decide when it is time to go to work, when it is time to check e-mail, when it is time to watch TV, etc. And then there is natural time10: time to say Modeh Ani (מוֹדֶה אֲנִי)—“I thank You, living, steadfast Sovereign, for having returned my soul to me”—and other morning blessings as the Sun rises up; time to say the bedtime Sh’ma (שְׁמַע) when night has fallen. Moreover, our sense of natural time checks in with our bodies and tells us that we need to rest. Human nature was designed for a weekly 25-hour break fromt the rest of the world, a special break we call Shabbat (שַׁבָּת). And our bodies don’t work exactly like clockwork. We need more rest than just one Shabbat a week. Because our bodies cannot handle working six, or even only five, days a week for weeks on end, throughout the year, the Jewish gift of natural time reminds us that there will be different times—separate holidays—over the year, when our bodies call for days of rest beyond Shabbat. The gift of balancing socially constructed time with naturally determined time is one of the greatest gifts that the Jews can bring the world.11
Technically, today is not Shabbat. Today is Yom Tov (יוֹם טוֹב), literally “a Good Day,” and I suspect we call today “a Good Day” because we know it is Good to rest. We believe it is good to be with friends and community. In the Maftir (מַפְטִיר) reading today12, we read that on the first day of this Jewish month of Tishrey (תִּשְׁרֵי)13, we are required to observe several different rites. Aside from offering various sacrifices, we are told 3 things:
Rosh HaShanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה)14 will be a mikra kodesh (מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֨דֶשׁ֙)—“a sacred calling” to gather together.
We may not perform any work on Rosh HaShanah. And…
Today shall be a Yom Teru’ah (י֥וֹם תְּֿרוּעָ֖ה).
The question we are left with is: What is a Yom Teru’ah? Our translation15 says “a day when the horn is sounded.” But, we have reason to doubt this translation. You might be familiar with a more “literalist” sect of Jews known as Karaites. Karaites are a group of Jews who split from “rabbanite” Jews when the Karaites essentially said, “No more rabbis reinterpreting the Bible for us. We’re going to take matters into our own hands and read the Torah as it is.” Well, Karaites observe Yom Teru’ah, but they don’t blow a shofar (שׁוֹפָר), because they consider it to be too much of a “work”-like activity, and we’re supposed to do no work on this Yom Teru’ah. Yet, without blowing any horns, Karaites agree that today has to be a Yom Teru’ah!16
In Aramaic, one of the languages in which parts of our TaNaKh (תָּנָ”ךְ)—our Bible—is written, the root letters of the word Teru’ah appears in the word yitre’ey (יִתְרְעֵי),17 which means something along the lines of “choosing,”18 “willing,”19 “desiring,”20 or “being acceptable.”21 The most frequent of these meanings is the notion of יתרעי as “choice.” Yom Teru’ah, as I see it, is a Day of Choice: a Day of Opportunity. On this Day of Opportunity—this Day of Presence22—we gather together for the Mikra Kodesh, we commit to no work, and we permit ourselves to become enveloped in the Mystery of Yom Teru’ah— the miracle of Being Present. We can make this miracle happen. We can be present when we say “No” to work (hard as that can be): when we rest, when we dwell among those whom we most love.
In an attempt to bring life to the Torah’s dream of Shabbat, our rabbis, nearly two millennia ago, identified 39 kinds of activities that qualify as “work.” These sages prohibited planting, plowing, harvesting, grinding, dancing, baking, weaving, tying, hunting, building, and 29 other kinds of actions that might not seem like “work” to us; however, these actions somehow alter our reality, changing the universe around us, reawakening a world that needs to rest.
There is a misconception that Shabbat is a day of Don’ts. It is in fact a day of Don’ts and a day of Dos. We don’t write on Shabbat, but we do read. We don’t touch money on Shabbat, but we delight in the pleasures and leisures we have already earned. We don’t send e-mail, but we do gather and have those face-to-face conversations we’ve been missing during the work week. For every Don’t, there is a Do, and our world is thirsting for a true Shabbat: this week, next week, the week after next, and every week from here on out.
Some translate the word mitzvah (מִצְוָה) as “commandment,” and others say it is “a good deed.” I believe that a mitzvah—related to the Aramaic word tzavta (צַוְתָּא), meaning “togetherness”—is “a connection.”23 Shabbat is a mitzvah not because it’s a commandment. Shabbat is a mitzvah because it’s a connection. Shabbat connects us to our bodies, which need a break; to our souls, which need a rest; to our world, which needs some stasis; to our community, which needs togetherness; and to our God, who needs our presence—for God, for ourselves, and for each other.
Because a mitzvah is a connection, the best I can do is to urge each of us. I cannot command; I can only compel. I would like to urge each of us to know that we need more Shabbat in our lives. We need more rest from work.
If you can, close your eyes.24 (And, if you can, don’t fall asleep.) Imagine yourself on Friday night. Friday night this week. It’s a bit past 6:30. Shabbat is beginning. Are you home yet? If not, how long will it take before yo ucome home? Remember—“the day is short, and the work is long.”25 In fact, the day is shorter than the work is long. There will always be more work to do. This is the hardest part now. It is just past 6:30, and Shabbat is beginning. The world is asking you, “Am I ready yet?” Really, the world is asking you, “Are you ready yet?” Shabbat is coming, and the world is longing just to stand still. Are you ready? Ready to let go of insurmountable obligations? Ready to say, “The world is not perfect, and I can perfect it better if only I rest?” The world is waiting for us to tell the world, “You’re good enough;” waiting for us to say, “I will take a break. Work, I will return again to you soon.” Keep your eyes closed. Imagine each of those overwhelming obligations that will consume you at 6:30 on Friday. They are standing before you. Take a deep breath. Take in each of those obligations as you breathe in. Breathe in those obligations. Now release all of those obligations as you take a deep breath out. With your eyes still closed, imagine one thing you will not do this Shabbat. Everyone thinks of work differently. For some people, work is going into an office. For some people, work is watering plants. What kind of work are you going to refrain from this Shabbat? When you’ve chosen a Don’t for yourself, hold onto it. Now, with your eyes still closed, think of one thing that is not work-related, one thing that you can commit to doing this Shabbat. Now, once you’ve decided on that thing that you will do this Shabbat, hold that image. Think back to what you told yourself you won’t do this Shabbat, and breathe it in. Imagine what you’re committed to doing, and breathe that out. Breathe in the Don’t. Breathe out the Do. Breathe in the Don’t. Breathe out the Do again. You may now open your eyes.
I learned recently from Rabbi Dr. Laura Gold, a licensed psychologist and a teacher of mine at the Seminary, that, we sometimes hold back from saying the “No” that we believe we ought to say because saying “No” makes us feel too uncomfortable. We may tell ourselves that we’ll start saying “No” once we feel more comfortable with doing so. But if we know we should be saying “No,” we can’t wait until we feel fine about saying it, as if merely thinking about the merits of saying “No” and the passage of time will somehow make the discomfort fade away… If we know we should say “No,” we just have to feel our discomfort and say “No.”26
As far as giving up work goes, it’s hard to say, “I’ll just quit work for a day.” What about the money I need? What about the people we’ll let down? Doctors always have more lives to save. Rabbis always have more souls to save. Store-owners always have more customers to please. The work is never over, and it never will be. The reason to say “No” is because we must say “No.” (In fact—and this might help to know—we are more efficient workers when we’re less tired.)
I want to share with you something that blew my mind recently.
Dan Buettner is an American-born explorer, and he travels the world in search of what he calls “blue zones.” “Blue zones” are places on Earth where people, in large numbers, live past the age of 100. These are the kinds of communities where, if you’re 99 years old, there’s a whole group of people who can tell you, “You’re too young to understand.” Buettner has explored “blue zones” in Italy, in Japan, and throughout the world. But—believe it or not—one of the greatest “blue zones” in the world is in the United States itself: in American communities of Seventh Day Adventists. Seventh Day Adventists, though Christian, do something really similar to what our rabbis had in mind for us Jews. On Friday night, Seventh Day Adventists drop whatever they’re doing, and they observe a 24-hour sabbath, during which nobody works. On their Sabbath, Seventh Day Adventists gather to socialize, to pray, and to take nature walks. I don’t know about you, but this sounds to me pretty darn similar to Shabbat (except for the nature walks, which, quite frankly, aren’t a bad idea). This consistent Sabbath-observance permits Seventh Day Adventists to live to be 97-year old heart surgeons, 103-year-old surfers and 104-year-old weight-lifters.27 It is almost as if, as a whole, Seventh Day Adventists are able to live longer, beacuse they take more breathers. After all, on the Seventh Day, when God finished creating the Heavens and the Earth, shavat vayyinnafash (שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ): God rested, and God breathed.28
The worlds needs a breather. The Jewish people can give the world the gift of rest. After 2 centuries of proving that we can be the hardest-working financiers, doctors, lawyers, clergy, musicians, artists—in every field from poetry to dance to filmmaking—the Jewish people has proven itself to be talented workers to the outside world. In fact, some of us Jews make up some of the most talented people this world has seen! But, in becoming so hard-working, we have not been fair to ourselves. We permitted America to become a workaholic. If the whole point of our Torah is to treat others as we would like to be treated,29 then we must ask what right we have to enable a workaholic nation.
As for me, I’m very afraid. When I become a rabbi, will I spend all my waking hours at a synagogue? Will I be visiting congregants in hospitals all night? Will I be studying Torah all day? Something’s got to give, because when you’re a rabbi, Shabbat just might be a workday. Yet, I’m going to need Shabbat. Maybe I can take off Wednesdays, or leave some personal time on Tuesdays. However I manage it, I pray that I have the strength to say “No” to workaholism, to say that the world can go on even when I’m not at work, to know I always will have more work, and I will never fulfill all my obligations.
Shabbat is not just a day of the week. Shabbat is a way of life. Shabbat is a gift Jews can bring to the world. I invite us all this year to come together for a mikra kodesh—to offer our gift of Shabbat to the world.

1. Jonah Rank.
2. In New York.
3. Delivered on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah 5775: September 25, 2014.
4. “Americans Work More Than Anyone” by Dean Schabner on ABC News, May 1, 2014: accessed September 24, 2014.
5. Obama, Barack, “Family-Friendly Workplace Policies Are Not Frills—They’re Basic Needs” on The Huffington Post. From June 23, 2014: accessed Septembet 24, 2014.
6. “Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil” by Dave Gilson at Mother Jones (July/August 2011); accessed at on September 24, 2014.
7. Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Labor), “American Time Use Survey — 2013 Results,” published June 18 2014, accessed at on September 24, 2014.
8. “Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil” by Dave Gilson at Mother Jones (July/August 2011); accessed at on September 24, 2014.
9. Reb Zalman would refer to this as “commodity time.” See Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi with Joel Segel, Jewish With Feeling A Guide To Meaningful Jewish Practice (Riverhead Books: New York) 2005, p. 37.
10. Reb Zalman would refer to this as “organic time.” Ibid.
11. Ibid., pp. 186-192. Reb Zalman references other ideas the Jews can bring to the world: most notably, how to excel in exile (i.e., p. 195).
12. Book of Numbers 29:1-6.
13. Technically, not mentioned by name here in the Torah.
14. Technically, not mentioned by name here in the Torah.
15. From Mahzor Lev Shalem (edited by Ed Feld: Rabbinical Assembly: NY, 2010), p. 106.
16. See, for example, Shawn Joe Lichaa’s “A Karaite’s Experience of Yom Teru’ah” at A Historical and Contextual Approach accessed at on September 22, 2014.
17. Below is a broad, but not necessarily comprehensive, listing of instances in which variations on the term יתרעי (as soon to be defined) appears in the Pentateuch.
18. See for example, Targum Onkelos to Numbers 16:5: …וית דיתרעי ביה יקריב לשמושיה…; and similarly at Genesis 6:2, Numbers 16:7 and 17:20 and Deuteronomy 4:37, 7:6, 7:7, 10:15, 12:5, 12:11, 12:14, 14:2, 14:23, 14:24, 14:25, 15:20, 16:2, 16:6, 16:7, 16:11, 17:8 17:10, 17:16, 18:5, 18:6, 21:5, 23:17, 26:2, 30:19 and 31:11. Note that this sense is not used in Targum Onkelos to Exodus or Leviticus.
19. See for example, Targum Onkelos to Exodus 25:2: …מן כל גבר דיתרעי לביה…; and similarly at Exodus 35:5, 35:21, 35:22, 35:26 and 36:2. Note that this sense is not used in Targum Onkelos to Genesis, Leviticus, or Numbers.
20. See for example, Deuteronomy 12:20: …ארי תתרעי נפשך למיכל בשרא…. See also Genesis 34:19 and Deuteronomy 14:26, 21:11 and 21:14. Note that this sense is not used Targum Onkelos to Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers.
21. See for example, Targum Onkelos to Leviticus 1:4: …ויתרעי ליה לכפרא עלוהי…; and similarly at Genesis 33:10 (where the meaning is more related to “finding acceptable”) and Leviticus 22:23 and 22:27. Note that this root-sense is never used in Targum Onkelos to Exodus or Numbers.
Alternatively, note that the root of ת.ר.ע. appears in the word יתרעון, which appears to mean “shattering” at Leviticus 11:35: …תנור וכירים יתרעון…. This notion of shattering or destruction also appears in Targum Onkelos to Exodus 34:13, Leviticus 14:45, and Deuteronomy 7:5 and 12:3. This appears to use the root of ת.ר.ע. fully—whereas previously referenced instances of יתרעי are likely itpe`al (אתפעל—reflexive) forms of a triliteral root that does not include the letter tav.
Also, note that Targum Onkelos to Genesis 18:2 and Exodus 12:22 uses מתרע to refer to the “opening” of Abraham’s tent—related to the Hebrew word שַֽׁעַר (“gate/opening”), with the shin (ש) becoming a tav (ת) and the order of the ayin (ע) and reysh (ר) being reversed. This same sense of “opening” recurs in Targum Onkelos to Exodus 32:17 and Leviticus 8:3 and 10:7.
Also of note is that Exodus 17:3’s ואתרעם appears to come from the root of ר.ע.מ.—hence the grumbling of the people Israel having little to nothing to do with the root of ת.ר.ע.. (and also little to nothing to do with one of the probable roots of יתרעי—ר.ע.י. (reysh, ayin, yod), א.ר.ע. (alef, reysh, ayin)., or ר.ע.ע. (resh, ayin, ayin).
22. Note the frequency with which the terms related to יתרעי, especially in Deuteronomy, come in the context of a chosen “place.”
23. Bradley Artson, “Mitzvot: Imperatives of a Loving Heart” in CJ: Voices of Conservative Judaism, Fall 2011: http:?/ . Note also that this definition is a traditional Chasidic teaching, attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov, and likely preceding the Chasidic movement.
24. Closing one’s eyes is not recommended for anyone reading this sermon via visual means. The remnant of the meditative exercise herein can still remain effective sans closing of eyes. Parts of this exercise pertaining to eyes closing or opening should be ignored for the visual reader of this sermon.
25. Pirkey Avot 2:15. Note that the order and divisions of the teachings of Pirkey Avot vary widely from print to print; thus, the numbers here might appear to be slightly “off.” For a thorough review of Pirkey Avot’s history, see Shimon Sharvit (שמעון שרביט)’s Massekhet Avot L’Doroteha (מסכת אבות לדורותיה): Bialik (Jerusalem, 2004).
26. The italicized words here are from Rabbi Dr. Laura Gold: e-mail exchange on October 1, 2014. I have chosen to use her words from that e-mail (even though I did not in the sermon)—as I always prefer to give a teaching in the words of the teacher from whom I heard it first (lest I contort anyone’s words).
During my giving of this sermon on Rosh HaShanah, I did not have the fortune of quoting her. I hope that my paraphrase of Gold’s teaching then did justice for the sake of teaching in the community in Amsterdam, NY.
27. At,d.cWc accessed on September 24, 2014.
28. Exodus 31:17.
29. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

Of War & Shalom: A Devar Torah on Parashat Mas’ei 5774

Formatted version of this Devar Torah, which has been modified from its original version.

Not formatted below (delivered in modified form this past Shabbat):

הָרְֿשָׁעִים בִּרְשׁוּת לִבָּם…
אֲבָל הַצַּדִּיקִים לִבָּם בִּרְשׁוּתָם.
The wicked are controlled by their conscience…
The righteous control their conscience.1
All of Jewish history can be summed up as one war that has never ended. For as long as there have been rabbis, rabbis have alluded to this never-ending war. In the ancient collection of rabbinic wisdom Pirkei Avot (פִּרְקֵי אָבוֹת), the sage Ben Zoma asks:
אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר?
Who is a hero?
הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ!
The one who conquers their [evil] nature!2
There is an ongoing war the rabbis talk about called Milhemet HaYetzer (מִלְחֶֽמֶת הַיֵּֽצֶר), “The War of Nature”—a war between the Yetzer HaRa (יֵֽצֶר הָרַע), humanity’s “Evil Nature” and the Yetzer HaTov (יֵֽצֶר הַטּוֹב), humanity’s “Good Nature.” When a person chooses the Good, the Yetzer HaTov, and rids one’s self of the Evil inclination with which we are born, the Yetzer HaRa, is the moment when the Good Yetzer HaTov begins to win in the battle of Milhemet HaYetzer.
One of the greatest opponents of the Yetzer HaRa, Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares, lived towards the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century—around the time when Zionism began to activate, leading Jews from the lands of their birth, towards the Land of Israel. At the turn of the 20th Century, such active Zionism came at a cost, of which our hero in Milhemet HaYetzer disapproved. Jews were moving into parts of the Holy Land where locals, already settled, were resistant to and even violent in response to the influx of Jewish newcomers. Whether it was how Jews entered the land, or how Arabs held onto their land, realizing this Zionist dream meant Jews and Arabs would break into war—an aggression that epitomizes the worst of the Yetzer HaRa.
Calling Lithuania his home, and guarded by the shield of Torah, Rabbi Tamares authored a book that focused on what once might have been hypothetical in nature, but was now a serious question with practical implications: Keneset Yisra’el UMilhamot HaGoyim (כְּֿנֶֽסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִלְחֲמוֹת הַגּוֹיִם), The Assembly of Israel & Wars of the Nations. The very title of the book alludes to his assertion that war is what he calls “עֲבוֹדַת אֱלִילִים מוֹדֶֽרְנִית” (“the modern worship of false gods”).3
His opposition to Zionism4 was not uncommon in the Jewish world when he was writing. We might like to think that common Jewish public opinion on the necessity of a Jewish homeland would have changed by the time the Holocaust had demonstrated that a post-Enlightenment Europe is no cure for anti-Semitism. Yet, even in 1948, Professor Louis Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary—where I am in Rabbinical School today—refused students’ request for permission to sing “HaTikvah,” the unofficial anthem of the newly formed Zionist State. Finkelstein was one of the many Jewish leaders who felt that the militancy involved in maintaining a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was antithetical to Jewish religious values.
Yet, today we are dealing not with a hypothetical question of whether or not we should set up a State of Israel. There already is a State of Israel in the Middle East. Israel proclaims itself a Jewish state. And that begs those of us concerned with the Jewish values of a Jewish state to ask the question: Where are we now?
Ari Shavit, a relative leftist in the Israeli political sphere, wrote recently that, despite whatever ways we might be able to critique Israel, we must confess that “Israel is in the right.” Shavit writes that the terrorist organization Hamas has become a bunch of “neo-Nazis.” In the few years since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, Hamas has become a totalitarian government, oppressing Gazan women, oppressing the gay and lesbian people of the Gaza Strip, and—quite frankly—oppressing everyone in Gaza. Instead of directing their attention to providing the resources that are so sorely lacking in Gaza, Hamas spends millions of dollars on weapons to be used against Israel. On top of that, whenever they go to war against Israel, Hamas uses Gazan civilians as human shields.5
A nation that has worked so hard to become who it is today is not so quick to leave. If Israelis’ strategy for surviving Hamas’ constant rockets is anything other than leaving Israel, the Israel Defense Forces must work towards demilitarizing the untrustworthy terrorists of Hamas, who even fire at Israel during mutually agreed upon “time-outs” from armed activity.
In demilitarizing Hamas, Israel is left with the terrible quandry of how to remove missiles from an organization who uses innocent Palestinians as human shields to protect their weaponry. Indeed, a midrash in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) teaches that, in Genesis Chapter 2, Adam was created alone to teach us a very important lesson: Were anyone to kill a single human being in the time that Adam walked the Earth alone, that would have been the end of human life on Earth. And so it is with any single human being today. We destroy all the humanity of the universe whenever we bring one person’s life to an end.
Because murder is forbidden—and the stakes of the humanity of the universe are so high at war—we must be careful in any instance when human life is in our hands. We might want to resort to claiming the value of Pikku’ah Nefesh (פִּקּֽוּחַ נֶֽפֶשׁ, literally “the guarding of a soul”)—the principle whereby Jews are permitted to commit acts that would be considered sins were our lives not in danger at that moment. But, Pikku’ah Nefesh is a principle that the rabbis generally permit—but not always. The three common exceptions are:
(1) גִּלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת (gilluy arayot)—sexual impropriety: Rather than be forced into conducting a sexually immoral act, this tradition tells Jews that they should prefer death.
(2) עָבוֹדָה זָרָה (avodah zarah)—pagan worship: Rather than worship a foreign god—when we are told, “Bow down to this God, or die,”—we Jews must say, “I’d rather die.”
(3) שְֿׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים (shefikhut damim)—the spilling of blood: Rather than spill the blood of our neighbors, we Jews are commanded that we should, instead, take our own lives. Better that they should spill our blood than we spill an ounce of theirs.
So, if spilling anyone else’s blood is worse than us permitting ourselves to be killed in the name of the Jewish tradition, we must find another way of defending the work of the IDF. And their work can be—from a Jewish legal, Halakhic, perspective—defensible. After all, the lives of soldiers in the IDF are not merely the only lives that are in danger. The lives of all Israelis are endangered when the IDF fights. The IDF soldier does not choose between one’s own life or an enemy’s life; the IDF soldier chooses between the destruction of all inhabitants of the State of Israel or the destruction of enemies. Moreover, Pikku’ah Nefesh still applies for the other mitzvot that are being threatened during war in Israel: for example, all the mitzvot that are connected with settling in the land of Israel. We have a basis on which to say that Pikku’ah Nefesh can still apply in the doings of the IDF.
Yet, we must not gloat over the right to self defense. Having to perform one aveirah (עֲבֵירָה)—one transgression—in order to fulfill a mitzvah is never the ideal way to perform a mitzvah. The Gemara imagines, for example, Sukkot is coming up, and someone needs to shake a lulav and etrog—the special species of the holiday—but the person can’t afford a lulav, so that person steals one. The Gemara asks: Did this Jew fulfill the mitzvah of shaking a lulav? The answer: Our protagonist shook the lulav but did not fulfill the mitzvah.6 Mitzvah habba’ah ba’aveyrah eynah mitzvah (מִצְוָה הַבָּאָה בַּעֲבֵירָה אֵינָהּ מִצְוָה—“a mitzvah that is made possible only by way of a transgression does not count as a mitzvah”). Going through the physical motions of the mitzvot does not suffice. The IDF should not have to rely on Pikku’ah Nefesh—the permission to kill—in order to defend Israel. When we rely on Pikku’ah Nefesh to permit the performance of other mitzvot while bystanders are killed, we can bring to life only a non- ideal, adulterated Torah. Bringing Torah to life is not about the exception to the rule; the Torah of shalom—of peace—is about bringing the rule to life.
The vitality of Judaism depends on our ability to strive towards shalom. The Mourner’s Kaddish, the Amidah and Birkat Ha-Mazon all conclude with prayers for peace—Oseh shalom bimromav (עוֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמַיו, “The One who makes peace up high”), Sim shalom (שִׂים שָׁלוֹם, “Bring peace”), and Yevarekh et ammo vashalom (יְֿבָרֵךְ אֶת־עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם, “God will bless God’s people in peace”)—because Torah itself must be a means towards the ends of shalom. Moreover, the rabbis of the Middle Ages debated matters of Jewish law that often resulted in specific legal decisions intended to be upheld mippeney darkhey shalom (מִפְּֿנֵי דַרְכֵי שָׁלוֹם “because of our concern for peace”). When we are living a form of Torah that prevents us from experiencing shalom, we are living a compromised Torah—a Torah of the exception, not the rule.
In the Parashah we read today, Mas’ey (מַסְעֵי) we read about the journeys of the Israelites as they leave Egypt and venture into the wilderness. The Hasidic master Rabbi Kalonimos Kalman Epstein (1751-1823) of Krakow, known best for the anthology of his teachings on the Torah, Ma’or VaShemesh (מָאוֹר וָשֶֽׁמֶשׁ), highlights several pieces of the Israelite itinerary recounted in our Parashah. He notes that, before embarking on a journey towards Sinai, where the Torah would soon be received, the Israelites set up camp in a place called Refidim (רְֿפִידִים). Though Refidim is not a name of a place we would recognize today, Ma’or VaShemesh identifies Refidim as a spiritual lowland and sees the Hebrew letters of Refidim as an abbreviation for, and an allusion to, Rippuy Yadayim (רִפּוּי יָדַֽיִם), “a weakness of the hands.” Ma’or VaShemesh sees this Rippuy Yadayim as a lackluster handiness: that is to say, laziness. He imagines the soul of the Israelite nation sitting in Refidim, the land of Rippuy Yadayim, all too slothful to be able to take in any words of Torah.
In a way, this conjures up the scene that Rabbi Tamares paints in the beginning of Keneset Yisra’el UMilhamot HaGoyim: Two Jews sit across from each other at a house of Torah. Their Gemara lies open in front of them, and the two friends are positioned, ready to study the words of the tradition. But the words that exit their mouths are not words of the book in front of them; their mouths merely whisper anxiously about the war going on outside their Lithuanian hometown. War dominates, and it dominates their opportunity to seek new spiritual heights and insights. War is the only thing that they can talk about, and all the torah that lies in front of them remains dormant until the Jewish soul can overcome the temptation of the Yetzer HaRa—that selfsame Yetzer HaRa from which war is promulgated, and by which the study of Torah is obstructed. The war on the physical battlegrounds has brought Milhemet HaYetzer—the war between the good nature and the evil nature of humanity—into the house of study. Though the words of the sages sit exposed, waiting to be read, the house is filled with the quietly whispered words of violent fear, of nationalist pride, of gossip, of distraction.
This moment that Ma’or VaShemesh would call the moment of untapped potential, of the weak hands of Rippuy Yadayim, will finally come to an end when the Israelites are ready for Sinai. For Rabbi Tamares, Sinai will be the moment when the words we say are exclusively the words of shalom.
Revelation at Mount Sinai will be the moment when shalom is not the exception. Sinai will be the moment when shalom is the rule.


1. All translations here are original to this devar torah. This saying (with the ellipses omitting prooftexts from Psalm 14:1 [“אָ֘מַ֤ר נָבָ֣ל בְּ֭לִבּוֹ,” “A scoundrel says in one’s conscience...”], Genesis 27:41 [“וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו בְּלִבּ֗וֹ,” “Esau said in his conscience...”], I Kings 12:26 [“וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יָֽרָבְעָ֖ם בְּלִבּ֑וֹ,” “Jeroboam said in his conscience...”], Esther 6:6 [“וַיֹּ֤אמֶר הָמָן֙ בְּלִבּ֔וֹ”, “Haman said in his conscience...”]—proving a wicked person always speaks “in one’s conscience,” “בְּלִבּוֹ”) is a direct quote from Esther Rabbah 10:3 on Esther 6:6. (Following the second half of the quote above are prooftexts from I Samuel 1:13 [“וְחַנָּ֗ה הִ֚יא מְדַבֶּ֣רֶת עַל־לִבָּ֔הּ,” “Hannah was speaking of her conscience”] and 27:1 [“וַיֹּ֤אמֶר דָּוִד֙ אֶל־לִבּ֔וֹ,” “David said to his conscience”], Daniel 1:8 [“וַיָּ֤שֶׂם דָּֽנִיֵּאל֙ עַל־לִבּ֔וֹ,” “Daniel placed upon his conscience”], and Genesis 8:21 [“וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה֜' אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ,” “God said to God’s conscience”]—all proving that the righteous do interact with their conscience, but never “in one’s conscience,” “בְּלִבּוֹ.”) This teaching also appears (sometimes with minute differences in phraseology and spelling—most significantly, yet still relatively insignificantly:הָרְֿשָׁעִים הֵן בִּרְשׁוּת לִבָּן… אֲבָל הַצַּדִּיקִים לִבָּן בִּרְשׁוּתָן, a mere reflection of different trends in the grammar of Rabbinic Hebrew) in Genesis Rabbah 34:10 on Genesis 8:21, Genesis Rabbah 67:8 on Genesis 27:41, and, later in the history of Jewish literature, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 5:1 on Ecclesiastes 5:2 (with the addition of Psalm 37:15, speaking of the wicked—“חַ֭רְבָּם תָּב֣וֹא בְלִבָּ֑ם,” “their sword shall enter into their heart” [“into their heart” and “in their conscience” each being able to be understood from the Hebrew “תָּב֣וֹא בְלִבָּ֑ם”]).
2. 4:1.
3. Warsaw: 1920, p. 16; הרב אהרון שמואל תמרת.
4. His opposition may have also been rooted in what he saw as a secular movement. In the same book, he writes, “כׇּל־בַּֽיִת שֶׁאֵין דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה נִשְׁמָעִים בּוֹ… סוֹפוֹ נֶחֱרַב” (“Any home in which words of Torah are not heard… will in the end be destroyed”), and explains that he means this to refer also to the building of nations, not simply physical homes (p. 17). It is possible that his disillusionment with political Zionism may have even be based in his own understanding of Torah differing from the religious political Zionist peers of his.
5. “In this sad war story, Israel is in the right,” Haaretz, July 24, 2014, accessible at
6. See in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 30a.

JTS Purim 5774 Roundup (Part 2 of ?)

The following is the script which, for reasons related to length, I cannot post into a YouTube video that may or may not one day be made available to the public.

For the meantime, enjoy CPE as CJLS.


Co-written by Jonah Rank and an anonymous ghost writer. Presented on Purim 2014 at JTS Purim Se’udah 5774.
EMCEE: For the first time ever, the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly has elected among its members only rabbis who have been trained in the methods of clinical pastoral care. These new rabbinic legal authorities are specialists in opening up the heart and awakening the soul to the depths of humanity.
Today’s topic is eating hot dairy out: Pizza, pasta, and soul food.
RABBI SPRINGER: As the supervisor, I am here for you. This is your time. What is everyone sitting with?
<awkward silence>
RABBI NEVINS: Rabbi Springer, why is there an empty chair?
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Nevins, According to Maimonides’ Laws of Inter-Personal Relations, every IPR group must sit in a circle. Today, we are processing our spiritual reactions to eating hot dairy out.
RABBI ROTH: It is asur! Food manufacturing and processing is so complicated in our times, you can’t know what is in anything unless there is proper supervision.
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Roth, it sounds like you’re having a strong reaction to that.
RABBI ROTH: Of course I am! Kulei de’alema are chosheshin!
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Barmash, how does it feel to hear Rabbi Roth say that?
RABBI BARMASH: It resonates with me. I too am deeply committed to the importance of halakhah and correct niqqud.
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Nevins, how are you experiencing the interchange between Rabbi Roth and Rabbi Barmash?
RABBI NEVINS: I feel saddened and concerned. I’m wondering what it is that’s causing Rabbi Roth to feel such distress. I would like to join in empathy with his experience of struggle.
RABBI ROTH: Rabbi Nevins, this is about respect for the tradition of our ancestors! Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu!
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Roth, how are you experiencing Rabbi Nevins’ concern?
RABBI ROTH: Well… for instance, non-kosher dyes are used in many foods. And a grill is often used for meat, dairy, and vegetables at the same time. There is also the matter of knives cutting a dvar harif. It is simply not possible to eat kosher in a non-kosher establishment.
RABBI BARMASH: Davar charif is interesting language to use in this context. It means a sharp matter. Are you experiencing this question as particularly sharp? Is there maybe some transference about a sharp person in your life?
RABBI NEVINS: Bringing in my own story, I found that as I learned chassidut, some of the sharpest and most harif questions strengthen our faith the most.
RABBI SPRINGER: That resonates with me as well. I remember this one time, I was on call in a hospital and I was asked to…<interrupt>
RABBI ROTH: <Interrupting>So, about my teshuva…<interrupted>
RABBI SPRINGER: <Interrupting> Rabbi Roth, we are here for each other. The whole point of the book of Shemot is that we and God become irrelevant if we do not suffer.
RABBI ROTH: First off, you should read Sarna’s commentary on Exodus if you want to know the whole point of Sefer Shemot. Second, I don’t care where the Torah comes from or if it has a point. We have to follow it anyway!
RABBI NEVINS: I’d like to share my personal story.
RABBI NEVINS: Several decades ago, when I was a new ordainee of the Seminary, I had a congregant come up to me and ask if me it was okay to eat davar charif in The Kitchenette. Who cares that they were asking about a place in Manhattan, when we were in Michigan? As we say, ani bamma’arav velibbi bammizrah–I am in the West, my heart is in the East. Typically, I would have said “No” to this question, but the difference between a good rav and a good posek is the rav can feel the pain of the Jew asking the question. In that moment, I became one with the entire people Israel, and I felt as if I was saying “Yes” to every question rising in the hearts of every Jewish neshamah.
RABBI ROTH: That’s asur! That is no way to pasken.
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Roth, you’re making a lot of assumptions about Rabbi Nevins’ intentions. Why don’t you check in about what he meant?
RABBI ROTH: Rabbi Nevins, what in the world could you have meant?!
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Roth, how does the silence feel?
RABBI ROTH: Asur. <pause>
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Barmash, I’m experiencing your silence like my sister’s silence in childhood. Who is Rabbi Roth to you in this interaction? A fatherly figure? An uncle? Your annoying little brother? A police officer? A clever bank robber who mugged a dear friend who was a member of MENSA? A lousy bartender who once stepped on your foot? A cashier who wrote down your credit card number, and then tore up the piece of paper, and then glued it back together, and then called you a bad word? A clerk at misrad happanim? A teacher you once had as a young rabbinical student? <pause> Can you identify transference in this encounter? Who is Rabbi Roth to you?
RABBI BARMASH: <pause> Um… <slowly> None of the above.
RABBI BARMASH: <pause> Pass.
RABBI NEVINS: I feel reluctant to take up space with this point. But, as deeply as I feel what I said before, it actually weakens my heart to see a Jew make the choice of eating at a non-kosher restaurant when they could easily hop on a subway to go to the kosher restaurant only 35 blocks away–or just hop on a train to go to the kosher restaurant 35 States away. But I’m present to the fact that not everyone is in a place to take that step <pause> even though most American Jews do live on the Upper West Side. <pause> I think we should vote now.
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Nevins, I appreciate your initiative, but, I am the chair of the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards. <pause> I think we should vote now. <pause> All those in favor of the Nevins teshuvah, say “Aye.” <watch beeps immediately> We’re at the time boundary. I really appreciate and am present to everyone’s presence through the process of this processing process.

New Melody for an Old Passover Ditty with female characters!

Here is the sheet music, here are the words with commentary, and here is a recording!

I have not yet seen it sung at a Passover seder, but thanks go out to R’ Hillel Hayyim Lavery-Yisraeli for having pointed out this piyyut to me.

One fun way to do this is to assign each person at the Seder one of the following characters, and they each sing their own lines, but everybody can sing the last line of each stanza:












Happy Passover!

JTS Purim Se’udah 5774 Roundup Part 1

The festive meal and party which I hosted this year for the Jewish Theological Seminary seems to have gone over quite well. This year we presented The Pew-rim Report: Se’udah ’74.

Here are just a few highlights from this year:

- Dr. Raysh Weiss’ brainchild mockumentary, A Very Special JTS Chanukkah Special

Ishah El Achotah‘s video honoring women rabbis: “Rabbinical Girl”

- The Pew-rim Report 5774: the latest statistics on American Jewish life.

- Slides from the trendy Gershom Scholem Presents: Major Fashion Trends In Jewish Mysticism

- A responsive reading: A Mi SheBerakh For A Child Considering Rabbinical School

- Study sourcesheet for a bio and teachings of “the Yente Rebbe”

- Text of a Medieval poem about a spurned cantor, Adon Ulam (“Master of the Hall”)

- An excerpt of the JTS Purim 5774 band (Raysh Weiss, Louis Polisson, Daniel Novick, Jaxson Dermer) + me + Rabbi Danny Nevins playing “Sweet Home Alabama” (or something a lot like it) at the after-se’udah jam session

- Another excerpt of the aforementioned musicians playing Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu

More to come soon!


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