Senior Sermon on Lekh Lekha 5775

In a student’s last year of studies at the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of the outgoing requirements/rituals is the delivery of a senior sermon. Here’s the senior sermon I delivered yesterday. Click HERE for the formatted version.

Read below for the unformatted version.

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Tzohorayim tovim; good afternoon.[1]

Before I begin, I want to thank my friends, family and teachers who have come to JTS today in honor of this big day for me. Were it not for your love, support and teachings, I would not be able to stand here today. Special thanks are due to my family who is here today: my in-laws (in all the way from Skokie, Illinois), my sister Shuli, my great-uncle Irving, and my parents, whose love for Judaism rubbed off on me so much that I decided to make Judaism my lifework, just as they did. Of course, a special thank you is in order to my father for being my first rabbi, and for having agreed to mentor me in writing this senior sermon. As someone very attached to my family, I am also thinking of my family whose schedules did not permit them to travel to the Seminary today: my brother and all my siblings-in-law, my nephews, my nieces, my cousins, my uncles, my aunts, and Grandma, to whom I used to give Hebrew lessons when I was in 1st grade. I am also thinking today of my family who no longer walks this earth: in particular, my grandfather Pop, without whose love and generosity I never could have had the gift of a day school education or the opportunity to have studied at JTS for 9 years. And, you know, you spend enough time going to minyan at JTS, you eventually meet your life-partner. Or at least I did. Raysh, thank you for being my daily inspiration, my teacher, my rabbi (may your official ordination come speedily and in our days), my best friend, and my נַפְשִׁי קְשׁוֹרָתִי, my soulmate, who renews everyday my relationship with Torah, with the pursuit of justice, with the pursuit of happiness, and with life.

When I was in first grade, my father asked me what book I had read for the book report that was due that day.

Nothing At All,” I replied.

“You didn’t read anything?” asked my father, shocked by the idea that I hadn’t done my homework.

“No,” I said. “I read Nothing At All.”

“You didn’t read a book!?” My father was concerned.

I was really trying my best to express myself, but apparently, my father was unfamiliar with Wanda Gag’s children’s book Nothing At All. Though my mother had been entertaining herself listening to the conversation from across the room, she eventually did intervene and clarify that I had actually read something; I had read a book called Nothing At All.[2]

In first grade, I learned the power of words having more than one meaning. Little did I know in first grade that I was destined for a lifetime of wordplay. For me, wordplay is one of the most exciting and meaningful parts of the Jewish religion. Rabbi Akiva would argue that every single word in the Torah hid within it a teaching that no other word in theTorah intended to teach. Rabbi Yishma’el is said to have argued the opposite:

דִּיבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן[3] בְּנֵי אָדָם.

The Torah spoke in the language of humans.[4]

Though a lot of early rabbinic literature agreed with Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yishma’el’s counter-argument came to be adopted by the entire rabbinic collective.[5] That being said, Rabbi Yishma’el’s assertion—that “the Torah spoke in the language of humans”—still bears multiple meanings. On one level, this aphorism reminds us that our Sacred Teachings were ultimately transmitted through the words of imperfect humans. Hence, our teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory would fondly teach that the Torah is a midrash—a rabbinically sanctioned allegory for, or an interpretation of—in this case, revelation itself.[6] The Torah is not the revelation, but it is our attempt at recallingrevelation.

I want to suggest yet another reading of Rabbi Yishma’el’s principle for how we read Torah:

דִּיבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם.

The Torah spoke in language referring tobeney adam, to humans, to express its deepest feelings.

The Torah spoke in the language of humans, which is to say, the Torah anthropomorphizes: It makes human that which is not human. A clear example of this principle is how the Torah speaks of God. In the Torah, God has a mighty hand that strikes our enemies, an outstretched arm that releases us from Egypt, a face we cannot see, a nose that snorts anger, and feet in need of a footstool. God talks and God even walks. God is anthropomorphized in our Torah. Though God is not a human, the “Torah speaks ofbeney adam, of humans, to express its deepest sentiments,” and, thus, the Torah turns God into a human.

I believe that this storytelling device—turning characteristics into characters, principles into principals (spelled with an A at the end)—is a very powerful tool of pedagogy and communication. There is a reason that Oscar the Grouch is a character on Sesame Street, but Grouchy the Mood is not.[7] Anthropomorphism lies at the very core of Judaism’s foundational myths. Were it not for our ability to anthropomorphize moods and ideas, we would hardly have any true stories to tell that took place before the 8th Century B.C.E.—and probably even later.[8]

Jews do not read the Torah literally. We leave literalism to literalists. Instead, we inherit traditions of interpretation. When we read the Torah, we uncover the layers of interpretation that inhabit each word.

About 200 years ago, Rabbi Naftali Tz’vi Yehudah Berlin taught that the entire Torah is poetry—multi- faceted, aesthetic, illusive, and allusive.[9] About two centuries before him, the Ba’al Shem Tov drew on a Jewish teaching that was perhaps 1,000 years old in his own day: that every person is a small universe, a microcosm in which the Torah takes place.[10]

Arguably, the most famous part of this week’s Torah reading, Lekh Lekha, comes when Avram first receives a sacred communication. This is a communication from the God whose four-letter-name yod-heh-vav-heh seems to be, as the Biblical scholar William Albright noted, a causative verb that means “Making Become.” The God of Becoming says toAvramLekh lekha,” meaning “Go for yourself,” or perhaps, “Go towards your self.” In essence, the Being of Beings, or perhaps better yet the Becoming of Becomings, tells Avram, “Now is your time to come into this world—to become who you really are.” The God of Process promises to show Avram an undefined place at an undefined time. So here wasAvram, setting out on a journey, seeking the Torah of the God of Becoming, and where does he end up? In Shechem, beneath a tree made famous by pagans:Elon Moreh. What kind of place was that for a nice Jewish monotheist?

In his JPS commentary to Genesis, Professor Nahum Sarna picks up on the common translation of Elon Moreh, “the terebinth of Moreh” (a terebinth being a kind of tree). He notes that Shechem must have been famous for its “traditions about trees of special significance.”[11] He enumerates five other points in our TaNaKH where Shechem is mentioned alongside a special tree. Sarna reads the word Moreh, meaning “teacher,” as indicative that we should read Elon Moreh not as a place-name, but as a reference to a tree that was known as a sort of oracle.[12] Indeed, rabbis throughout the ages read this place-name similarly. The Zohar suggests that Elon Moreh was a place of study, and other sages would come to teach that Elon Moreh was a place of prophecy, or even the place where the Torah would be revealed. But again, what would a place of pagan idolatry have to teach a person as radical and iconoclastic as Avram?

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s understanding of the Torah as a narrative that repeats in our own lives is true. Our Torah was not created in a vacuum. Our religion was not created in a vacuum. And we were not created in a vacuum. Reading that Avram rested beneath a pagan tree is a startling reminder that none of us exist in a vacuum, and even a personality as great as Avram had what to learn from the pagan world. It is foolish to presume that any of us could be where we are today were it not for our living in environments that offered ideas and values that we can identify as Other. It would be equally foolish for us to presume that we must entirely remove ourselves from the Other. And according to the rabbis, we don’t.

You might recall that midrash whereAvram smashes the idols in his father’s shop.[13] Avram’s father’s name is Terah—which is no coincidence! Terah is the utterance of the idol-maker who builds his god of clay, looks that figurine in the face and says, “Terah!”—meaning “Breathe!”[14] Only centuries later would a Psalmist come along and say of idols:

אף להם ולא יריחון

They have a nose, but they cannot breathe.[15]

Terah would never hear such a song sung in his own lifetime. Instead, the principle of Faith In Idolatry, which the Torah personifies, anthropomorphizes and names “Terah,” eventually gives birth toAvram. But then who exactly is this Avram?

        Avram is an idea. Avram is made up of two words: Av—“parent;” or better yet, a “source”—and ram—“exultantly great.”Avram is The Great Source. Avram is The Great Source of The Idea we call not “monotheism,” as you might expect, that is, belief in one God, but “henotheism”—that no matter how many gods there are, we serve only One God.[16]

It may be the case, as some have argued, that neither Avram nor Terah ever walked this earth in the body of a singular human being. Yet, humans living long ago must have latched onto expressions ofAvram—of henotheism—and expressions of Terah—of idolatry. So Avram certainly existed, and Terah certainly existed—as movements, as tendencies, as philosophies, though not necessarily as individual humans. דִּיבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם. The Torah speaks in the language of humans—turning characteristics into characters, principles into principals (again, spelled with an A at the end). When we anthropomorphize, it makes for far better storytelling than a psychology textbook, or a philosophic treatise.

But we might still be wondering what Elon Moreh—the teaching tree—could have taught Avram. For this we move to the 15th Century, to the Spanish commentator Isaac Arama. In Akeydat Yitzchak, Arama writes that Avramarrived at Elon Moreh

בְּשָׁלוֹם וּבְהַשְׁקֵט,

In peace, and in quietude,

אין שָׂטָן וְאֵין פֶּֽגַע רע,

Without adversary, and without the harm of evil,

עם הֱיוֹת שהיתה שְׁעַת חֵירוּם.

Though it was an alarming moment in time.

As Avram’s worldview was turning upside down, Isaac Arama says Elon Moreh was a place of peace; in a world of metaphysical static and noise, Elon Moreh was a place of silence.

So, our hero Avram sought peace and could only find it along the once-trodden path of idolatry, from whichAvram had fled not too long ago. But this should not startle us too much; our rabbis often attempted to turn places of idolatry into places of Torah. After all, in Elon Moreh, at least people thought about powers greater than themselves. ForAvram and for our sages, Elon Morehdeserved a little credit—for giving us a starting point for a great idea. Terah begatAvram; idolatry gave birth to henotheism.[17]

But, what drew Avram to Elon Moreh specifically? Did Avram go there to fill a space of no god with the Oneness of the One true God? Did Avram go there because that Divine Lure had uprootedAvram, leading Avram and Avram’s family along a challenging journey, leaving Avram worn and exhausted—in need of a place of peace and quiet where our ancestor could meditate?

In Elon Moreh, Avram brought along not the God of the outstretched arm or the snorting nose, but the God who requires no anthropomorphisms—the god of Process, of Being, of Energy, of Courage, of Righteousness, and of Intellect; the God who moves us to deeper levels of sensitivity and inspires us to develop great ideas for humanity. At Elon Moreh,Avram found the peace to meditate on the God who defies all description and metaphor, the God who is almost Nothing at All. Avram went to Elon Moreh to listen: to listen in silence—to listen in silence for the Oneness of the God who embodies nothing yet encompasses the universe. In the silence of Elon Moreh,Avram listened for the God who looks, sounds, tastes, feels and smells like Nothing at All, but at the core is Something: the God who is the Something that is All.

 

[1]   Footnotes in this senior sermon were not read aloud. This is such an example.

[2]   Although this is the version of the story I did tell at my senior sermon, I have now been informed by my sister Shuli that she was most likely the one intervened and clarified.

[3]   I thank Rabbi Dr. Joel Roth for calling to my attention (after the sermon) that my selection of the version of this teaching with the reading of כלשון (literally, “as/like/as-if the language”) rather than בלשון (literally “in the language”), as seemingly later traditions would put it, is essential for the theological and literary stance I am purporting.

[4]   Seemingly attributed to Rabbi Yishma’el in the Babylonian Talmud, Kereytot 11a.

[5]   Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 41b.

[6]   Saying that the Torah is an interpretation of our encounter with the Divine, and not a record of our encounter with the Divine might lead us to question how trustworthy our Torah is. It might beg us to ask: Had all of us in this room been standing at Sinai 3 millennia ago, would we have written the same Torah that we read in our synagogues today?

[7]   Grouchy the Mood would be some invisible, nebulous entity who overcomes certain characters at different points. Instead, the only character on Sesame Street who is grouchy is Oscar the Grouch, the embodiment of Grouchy the Mood par excellence.

[8]   Within my understanding of early Jewish religion, our mythology owes more credit to transformers than Michael Bay’s Internet Movie DataBase profile. (Because I realize that I am delivering this sermon at the premiere institute of critical Jewish studies in America, I hereby note that Michael Bay directed four live-action Transformers films. I will now return to my senior sermon.)

[9]   See Ha’amek Davar: Kidmat Ha’amek III (העמק דבר: קדמת העמק ג’).

[10] For a historical exploration of this tradition, see my “When Humanity Became the World: When You Became the Torah” at theBIMA Artists Beit Midrash Source Blog (published June 28, 2012 and accessed October 21, 2014) at http://bimaartistsbeitmidrash2012.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/when-humanity-became-the-world-when-you-became-the-torah/ .

[11] P. 91 of his commentary.

[12] Focusing on the word Moreh, the Zohar suggests that Elon Moreh was a place of teachers and students: a sort of public beit midrash—a Jewish house of study (I: 80a). Scholars are doubtful that there was a beit midrash in Abraham’s time because: How could Abraham have studied Torah if neither Jewish Lights Publishing nor ArtScroll had been founded in his time? Nonetheless, this idea that Elon Moreh was a place of insights can resonate without us having to imagine a place of Torah study. The words Torah and Moreh come from the same Hebrew-root of Yod-Resh-Yod, meaning “projection.” The Torah is a teaching, and a teacher is one who projects information. This idea of projectionmust have interested the grammarian, Rabbi David Kimhi of the late 12th Century and early 13th Century. He elaborated a teaching of his famous predecessor Rashi (at Genesis 12:6), suggesting thatElon Moreh was a place whereat Avram projected a prophecy—a troubling vision of how Avram’s great grandchildren would come to fight with the people of Shechem in response to Shechem’s torturing Avram’s great granddaughter Dinah. At that place of prophecy, says Kimhi, Avram prayed that Avram’s fourth generation would be saved in the events of this catastrophe; andAvram’s descendants did indeed persevere. In fact, Kimhi writes that it was revealed to Avram here that Elon Moreh would become the site of the revelation of the Torah. After all, as many mystics would later note, that “oracle tree” of Elon Moreh might be an allusion to the Ilan Kadosh (“the holy tree”), which is that Etz Chayyim, that Tree of Life for those who hold onto it: a.k.a. the Torah itself. Attributing even more power to this site, the Chasidic master Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Epstein, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th Century, suggested that Elon Moreh must be related to the Hebrew word Harah—pregnancy. Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Epstein taught that Elon Moreh was an allusion to Harat Olam—the Divine pregnancy that gave birth to our world.

[13] Genesis Rabbah 38:13 on Genesis 11:28.

[14] Here, I must note that I am indebted to Dr. Choon-Leong Seow, whose commentary on the Book of Job is, as he is (as I learned from studying the Book of Job with him in my first year of JTS), inclined towards a particular and relatively conservative yet creative approach to reading the text of the Hebrew Bible that I have found meaningful. I hope that I can here do some justice to explaining some of the reasoning behind—or at least the method of—one of his principles of reading the TaNaKH. Through such a lens as Seow’s, the reader is inclined to work with the presumption that there is rarely a problem with the consonants of the Hebrew text; however, the reader may be willing to doubt whether the Masoretic notations of vowels has been transmitted without error. Such an approach might appear unfavorable towards Masoretes; however, it does not deny the authority or the rigorous effort of the Masoretes of the Ge’onic era in their attempting to systematize a grammar for the Hebrew Bible. In a way, this approach of Seow’s and others is a theory that requires us to acknowledge some degree of yeridat haddorot (“the decline of generations”)—that while the consonants were preserved well, the vowels were obscured. We know this to be somewhat true, for the pronunciation of God’s four-letter-name was lost. Moreover, we can believe that regional differences in dialect led over time to people pronouncing the same words differently (both in terms of consonants and vowels)—such that the original pronunciations of words would get muddled over time. While midrash as a genre often suggests the changing of vowels (and sometimes the changing of consonants) in particular words, so as to yield meanings a more common reading of the text would suggest, we can believe that some of these readings were not mere rhetoric, but were matters of serious debate, affecting personal practice. We read a literally striking example of this, in the Babylonian Talmud, at Bava Batra 21a-21b, where one such debate leads to one Jew literally killing over another based off of one’s misvocalization of a single word. In short, we have reason to believe that the vocalization of the Masoretic text was, for centuries, in critical flux. Because of this, we have reason to trust the consonants of the text we have inherited more than we have reason to trust the vowels of the text we have inherited. In light of phenomena of conservative orthography—that is to say, when the scribes of our tradition selected to write fewer consonants and not to write the matres lectionis (the non-consonantal appearances of symbols that, in other contexts would be consonants, but thereat indicate, without effecting, vowels, such as the א in רֵאשִׁית, the ו inמוּם or הוֹן, or the י in הֵשִׁיב)—the reader of an unvocalized text of the TaNaKH might note instances wherein the consonantal text could have been vocalized differently by Masoretes had the consonantal tradition they inherited included the matres lectionis. It then becomes the duty of the reader of the TaNaKH to note when a word’s meaning is allusive, especially when the vowels that the Masoretes attributed to the consonants render the word less meaningful than the way in which we might choose to vocalize a text, had we ourselves been Masoretes living a millennium ago, attempting to vocalize a text that, in its oral transmission, had been misvocalized at times to the point of incoherency. Thus, it is my assertion that תֶּֽרַח may be a misvocalized name. After all, when it comes to those same “weak letters” that also constitute the matres lectionis, it is nothing short of common when one of these letters disappears for reasons that can only be summed up as: exceptional, or following a pattern culturally determined as that which sounds subjectively euphonic (patterns that do not repeat in all eras of the Hebrew language). It is my belief that תרח is a name plagued either by the vocalization of תֶּֽרַח being an exceptional second-person masculine singular imperfect hif’il verb form (as uttered by a proto-Semite, as opposed to today’s conjugation of תָּרִֽיחַ) or another similar verb; or the letters of תרח having been intended only ever to be pronounced, differently from תֶּֽרַח, as, sans matres lectionis, תָּרִֽחַ or the like.

I thank Rabbi Dr. Joel Roth for calling to my attention (after the sermon) that it is helpful for the grammatically inclined to have my translation of Terah be grounded in something.

[15] Psalm 115:6.

[16] You might recall that God in the beginning of Genesis says, “Let us make humanity in Our own image.” Though God may be speaking in the Royal We, the quotation may also be the Torah’s acknowledgement that our neighbors had many gods. Our Torah never speaks fondly of our neighbors’ gods, but it does not deny their existence.In Pirkey Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma teaches: (איזהו חכם? הלומד מכל אדם.””) “Who is wise? One learns from all humans.”Our henotheism does not immediately excuse xenophobia.

[17] Terah brings into this world Nahor—whose name essentially means “nostril:” a succinct reminder of the idol-ideology, that  an ideal idol breathes. Unfortunately Avram’s kin (הָרָן) Haran—meaning literally “the joyous one”—dies, perhaps having gone too far in exploring the ecstasy of spiritual mystery. Indeed, just asHaran’s life is shrouded in mystery, Haran produces the child Lot, whose name means “enveloping,” “cleaving,” and even “mystery.” It is the cleaving youngster Lot, the Enveloping Mystery who accompanies Avram on their journey of bringing new follows along to aspire towards a sacred ethical, henotheistic life. Though Lot’s name may have signified different mysteries throughout the life and times of Lot, it is telling that Avram—the philosophical Great Source Idea—needed to be accompanied by, and balanced by the wonder and awe of Lot. When Lot accompanied Avram, henotheism found company in mystery.


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: http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93364 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: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barack-obama/family-friendly-workplace_b_5521660.html?1403532355 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 http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/speedup-americans-working-harder-charts 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 http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/atus.pdf 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 http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/speedup-americans-working-harder-charts 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 TheTorah.com: A Historical and Contextual Approach accessed at http://thetorah.com/a-karaites-experience-of-yom-teruah/ 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:?/www.uscj.org/Mitzvot_Imperatives_8679.html . 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 https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CCEQtwIwAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ted.com%2Ftalks%2Fdan_buettner_how_to_live_to_be_100%3Flanguage%3Den&ei=nBMsVLyqB_b9sASKyYCgDw&usg=AFQjCNEWpEFJ7yUJKgVU1HyNZNj-aT80vw&sig2=j6s3aCeAGHMlakvKWqQrVw&bvm=bv.76477589,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 http://tinyurl.com/o93y5q6.
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.
OFFICIAL SCRIPT
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 SPRINGER: Please do.
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?!
<pause>
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 SPRINGER: Then who?
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:

ASKER

ANSWERER

PRIMEVAL OX/LEVIATHAN

WINE

MOSES

SOLOMON

DAVID

MIRIAM

DEVORAH

ELIJAH

AHARON

Happy Passover!


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