Shana Tovah: Happy New Year

shofar_and_applesIt’s getting pretty crazy around here – I don’t know how it happens, but every year, the date of the New Year sneaks up on me.  Same date, every year – Tishrei 1 – but it still sneaks up. Whoa. 5775.

So, what with preparing for services (I act as cantorial soloist for an alternative service each Rosh Hashanah at a synagogue and lead a service for a senior center) and work and cooking and other “stuff”….well, this week’s Dvar Torah just isn’t getting written.

That’s ok – let me just say this.  There is a line in this week’s parasha, Netzavim, that says “Lo bashamayim hi” – It’s not in the heavens.  One of my favorite lines.  What’s the “it”?  The Torah. It’s Jewish living- not religious living, not this mitzvah or that commandment…it’s living in a Jewish heart-melody.  It’s here. It’s in our grasp.  It’s not too esoteric or foreign, or out of reach.  It’s ours, to use, learn, grapple with, argue with, turn over and over.

I hope this year you find time to use, learn, grapple with, argue with, turn over and over. Jewish learning is a joyous lifelong journey. Take a step, try something on, see if fits, and then try something else.  To start the year off right, check out Limmud Chicago.  It’s the fifth annual festival of Jewish learning, Nov 16, 17.  Details on website.  Art, history, music, text study, Israel, and more.   Neshama Carlebach, Josh Nelson, Amichai Lau Lavie, Joel Grishaver….and you!  Registration is open, and early prices go through Sept. 30.   Get on it!!

Sometimes it’s a great, vast silence out there – not sure who’s reading, who’s reacting, who’s upset, who’s disagreeing.  I always welcome your comments at the end of these posts.  Let’s talk a little more this year.

I may find a few things to share over the next week, but for now, I wish you all a year of sweetness and joy, health and purpose, sustenance (paychecks!) and meaning.

Shana Tova u’metukah.



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Ki Tavo: Approaching a new beginning

mt gerazim mt ebalThat which is unknown, will be known.

One might think that this is a statement all about the High Holidays that are coming up in a couple of weeks (!).  And that would be true, but it also encapsulates a part of this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo.

This parasha is about a balance between privacy and public awareness, acting as an individual and acting as part of a community.  In Ki Tavo, we read the last of the recap of laws Moses lays down for the Israelites, before they move into the Land.  The focus moves to what actually is supposed to happen when they get there, and settle in.  There are rituals of bringing the first fruits, presenting them to the priest that happens to be in charge at the time (not necessarily the Temple.)  And then there are the lists of blessings and curses.  Very explicit curses, and rather more general blessings.

The Torah describes all the people gathered between Mt Gerazim and Mt Ebal, six tribes on each mountain.  Then the Levites are supposed to proclaim the curses in a loud voice, and the people respond, “Amen” to each one.  Now, it’s not the actual curse (consequence) that’s listed, it’s what a person would do that would engender a curse from God.  It’s a “don’t do this” list.  (Deut 27:15-26)

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) commentary on Deuteronomy notes that there is a pattern to the 12 curses listed.  The first and last ones talk about the relationship between a person and God:  cursed is anyone who makes a “molten image”, which is the ultimate betrayal of the exclusive relationship God and Israel has; and the last one curses the person who doesn’t uphold the Teaching (Torah) and observe them.

The ones in between, JPS says, are like a concentric circle.  The  four “inner” curses are about very private behavior, specifically sexual behavior.  The next circle out are about social sins, like misdirecting a blind person, moving a person’s landmark, or accepting a bribe in a capital case.

Much like the list of “averot” (misdeeds, wrongdoings) we recite during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these cover both the ones that other people know about, and the ones that only God would know about;  that which is unknown, will be known.  Because these behaviors are proclaimed in public, in both Ki Tavo and the High Holiday liturgy, no one can claim that they didn’t know it was wrong.

These curses in Ki Tavo are supposed to be read out immediately after coming into the Land, at the edge of a new life.  Each year, we too are at the edge of a new life, a rededication, a renewal, a re-statement of commitment to behaving in ways that enhance our personal spiritual lives, the society in which we live, and the acts that are intensely private.

We are midway through the month of Elul, leading up to the holidays.  Ki Tavo’s not a bad way to approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.


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Ki Tetzei: A wedding, a community, the next step

chuppahKi Tetzei is such a mish-mash of ideas.  It’s kind of like Moses’ brain dump at the end of Deuteronomy, just as he is about to leave the people, go up the mountain and die.

I have no intention of going up that mountain anytime soon, but the idea of laying our wisdom at the feet of our children is not new.  This last weekend, I was at a wedding and had the opportunity to speak to the couple before they signed their Ketubah, their marriage contract.  I told them about about Ki Tetzei.  I told them how the people were about to cross over, just as they were, into a new land where only they could go.

I told them that just as this was the last chance for Moses to tell the people everything he could remember to say, hoping they would take it all to heart as they began their new lives,  the bride and groom were there,  having received years of teaching and guidance from everyone in that room;   and we all hoped that they took it all to heart, too.

The Torah teaches some core values for the people, and for a new couple building a new family, too.  Just like the man who sees his fellow’s ox astray and must help get it back to the owner, be good to other people, and act with kindness.   Just as you must take care to build a house with a parapet, so no one would fall off and hurt themselves, be a good and conscientious neighbor, protecting others around you….especially each other.  Just as you are not to turn over a slave who has sought refuge with you, be a place of refuge for the community and each other.  Be honest in business, and be honest in the business of tending to your relationship.  The bride particularly liked the text about being her husband’s primary focus for the first year of marriage (“….to give happiness to the woman he has married.” Duet 24:5)  The family unit is to be protected and cherished.   And as Torah tells us it’s important to be kind to the needy, regardless of whether they are “countrymen” or strangers,  I told them to live lives of ethical and moral awareness.

Like the Israelites, they will build a community based on the teachings and values of those that guided them to that point.  They will be on their own, but not alone, because Torah teaches us to build a community that reflects those values.

Did Moses send off the Israelite people with a mixture of joy and tears?  Certainly, we did.



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Shoftim: Pursuing Justice

scales of justiceTzedek tzedek tirdof….Justice justice shall you pursue that you may thrive and occupy the Land that Adonai your God is giving you.  (Deut 16:20)

The Torah doesn’t mince words.  Neither does it repeat words unnecessarily, so there must be something to be learned from the fact that the word “justice” is used together in this week’s parasha, Shoftim.   One can almost feel the urgency behind the words, especially when the word “tirdof” (pursue) is used.  Torah doesn’t say “justice, justice you shall do” or “Justice justice you shall work towards”;  it’s pursue.  Get on with it, and don’t give up.

But still, why say “justice” twice?  Of course, the rabbis of the Talmud had thoughts about it.  Rabbi Ashi (first editor of the Babylonian Talmud, lived in Babylonia and re-established the Great Academy) said the first one refers to decisions based on strict law, and the second refers to decisions based on compromise.

Other rabbis referred to the distinction between letter of the law and spirit of the law, “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments in accordance with Biblical law…they based their judgments strictly upon Biblical law, and did not go beyond the letter of the law” (Bava Metzia 30b)  The rabbis suggested that, when a case was ended, the judges had to ask themselves, simply, “Was justice served?”, and if not, they needed to go back and look for the spirit of the law.

When you pair these thoughts with the latter part of the verse, “…that you may thrive and occupy the Land that Adonai your God is giving you.”, it’s clear that not just our survival in the Land that is at stake, but our ability to thrive there.

We would do well to ask ourselves, here and in Israel, whether justice is being pursued these days.  As of this writing, there is a cease fire between Israel and Gaza, at last.  Thousands of people on both sides of the war have been killed, injured and displaced from their homes.  Thousands of people on both sides have been scarred and damaged inside their hearts by having to live in fear and danger.  Once again, Israel and the Palestinians are faced with the need to figure out next steps.  Now is a good time to think about “tzedek tzedek tirdof “ in order to continue thriving in the Land

The occupation must end.  Call it compromise, call it the answer, “No” to the question of whether or not justice is being served, call it the spirit over the letter of the law, but it must end.  It is distorting the pursuit of justice, for it takes place under an unjust situation.  The rabbis said strict adherence to the law becomes destructive, for we begin to worship the law itself, not the effect or purpose of the law.  The Israeli government, and those who support it unconditionally, keep the letter of the law (or substitute the word “policy” here) in a death grip, choking off the pursuit of justice.  Using the strictest interpretation of the law, but arriving at an unjust conclusion, is not the just society Torah envisions.

This week’s parasha reminds us that the law is there to create a harmonious, productive and above all, a just society.  We can’t thrive when we are trying to build a just society on top of injustice.  As Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.”    The bombs have stopped for now;  now is the time to pursue justice, justice.



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Re’eh: Gates and fences

fenceWhen the other person left, I was the only one left.

To get rid of dust, I dust.

That car could really go, until it started to go.

You know how much I love language and words, and I’ve learned a new one: contranym. It means a word that is its own opposite.  Like oversight – are you watching over something, or letting something slip by?  When you screen something  are you showing it or hiding it?

There is the Hebrew root “a-s-f”, which means to gather or add. Out of context, it doesn’t seem like a contranym, but  I think it’s its own opposite in this week’s parasha, Re’eh.

Tishm’ru la’asot lo tosef alav v’lo tirga m’menu”  Observe the things I commanded with care, neither add to or take away from it.  (Deut 13:1)  So, how is the word tosef, from the root “a-s-f” (add to) both itself and its opposite?

There is a concept in Jewish thought called “making a fence around the Torah”; it comes from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, a compendium of collected wisdom, thoughts about how the world works, advice on ethical and moral behavior, and more.  Chapter 1:1 states, “…And make a safety fence around the Torah.”  We take that to mean that, to avoid even getting near to violating a Torah law, build a fence around that action to keep an accident from happening.  For example, many Torah-observant Jews won’t pick up a pencil on Shabbat, just to lower the chance of writing on Shabbat.  The writing is prohibited, the pencil is the fence.  Or to avoid mixing meat and milk by accident (“you should not cook a lamb in its mother’s milk”, seen as the Torah basis for the law), have separate dishes and silverware in your kitchen.  The separate dishes are the fence.

There is a tendency in more strictly-traditional observance communities that stringent is better, the more fences is better, doing the bare minimum of a particular halacha (law) is somehow not as valued as exceeding that law. The danger here, however, is  more and more fences around something take you further and further away from the essence of the practice.  In the name of “observance”, you can’t even see the original law from that fenced-off distance.  The experience becomes too far-removed, literally.   I would suggest that requiring men and women-only buses, measuring women’s hemlines and inspecting the thickness of a woman’s stockings, or a frenzied, exhausting, panicky “preparation” for Shabbat are fences gone awry.

And here’s where the “adding to a commandment” actually takes away from it.  The tosef has become the tirga.  The adding has become the detracting.

Now for some people, strict observance is a pathway to a deeper spirituality.   I am a fan of meaningful ritual and observance, because I do think that ritual presents us with an opportunity.  Ritual is a vessel into which we can continually pour fresh water.  But the pressure to become more and more strict, more and more “kosher”, build more and more fences to be a “real, authentic  Jew” does the opposite, driving people away or worse yet, isolating people so much from others that learning, understanding, exploration, even experimentation, are locked up behind a fence.   Where is the room for choice?  Where is the room for deciding to do (or not do) something, if the fences have become jails?

Build meaning, not just fences.  And make sure to put in a gate.

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Eikev: Lest we forget

eikev“When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God, who freed you from the land of Egypt…the house of bondage…” (Deut 8:11-14)

Don’t forget what it was like before you made it good.

Moses is giving the people a retrospective of the last 40 years, before they head into the Land.  He keeps reminding them to obey, learn , follow, and heed the “Instructions”, the Torah, the commandments.  If they do, good things will happen.  And don’t for a minute, Moses says, think that things will go well for you because you deserve it.  God reminds them they are a stubborn, stiff-necked people who keep messing up.  So they should be grateful for God’s steadfastness, not their own.

Eikev warns the people not to get too self-righteous, too comfortable, because they might stop seeing what’s around them.   There has been a lot written lately about Israel, of course.  No matter what side of the issue , now filling our inboxes  for months now, almost all agree that Israel must be able to defend herself, that the tunnels are a significant and serious threat, and that Hamas is using its civilian population in the most dreadful way.

How we got to this place, however, is of great debate, and once again, the lines are drawn with a steel cord, not to be cut or bent.  In my humble opinion, however, if we go back to the same old policies, and the same old philosophies, the place Israel will once again find itself is to be found in this week’s Torah portion.

Lest your heart grow haughty.  Lest you forget that you were slaves in Egypt.  Lest you forget that occupation, keeping a people down, enslaved, is not the way for either people to live, and eventually, they will rise up and demand their freedom.  Hell, we did it. We were led out after God heard our cries, so says Torah.  Egypt had fine houses to live in and they had prospered and their cattle increased.  And now, with our own silver and gold increasing (the gap between rich and poor in Israel is for another time, but the country has thrived these many decades, to be sure) and the fine houses being built on other people’s olive groves, well, our hearts have grown haughty.  This is not an argument of a border here or there, ten kilometers further or closer.  This is the situation that many others have written about:  the occupation is tearing down Israel.  The occupation is draining it of resources, both human and financial, spiritual and moral.  Hard decisions are going to have to be made when this particular “situation” is over…for the moment.

If there’s one motif that is sung throughout Torah, it is that we must take care of the outcast, the vulnerable in our society, since we know what it’s like to be that vulnerable.  And with all motifs, there is a counter-motif.  The counter-motif is “yes, but….”Compassion is our watchword; certainly not to the extent that we endanger ourselves.  Eikev teaches us that we can be in moral and spiritual danger, and move away from God’s protection if we forget our own history.  It didn’t work out well for the ancient oppressors, nor the oppressed.  I’m not comparing Israel to Egypt…hold your keyboards.  But after the rockets stop and the rebuilding begins, we have got to think clearly about the next steps. We got to where we are by forgetting where we came from.   We will do well to steel ourselves from haughty hearts.


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V’etchanan: Enough already!

enough-550x250Thank you, Ibn Ezra.  Ibn Ezra was a 12th c Biblical commentator from Spain and England.  He was a linguist; he loved language.  Today, he’d be one of those guys who posts memes from Grammarly and finds typos in menus.  My kind of guy.

But before I continue with how Ibn Izra fits in here, let’s focus first on this week’s parasha, V’etchanan.  It’s the second parasha in the last book of the Bible, D’varim.  It’s a recap.  Moses is going over everything that happened to the people since Egypt, and as the joke goes, for a guy who said he was slow of speech back at the burning bush, he certainly figured out how to talk.  The whole book of D’varim/words (aka Deuteronomy) is of Moses talking.

Apparently, even God got tired of his talking.  Moses says, “I pleaded with Adonai at that time, saying, ‘O Adonai God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand….Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…;” (Deut 3:23-25)

This is a sore spot between Moses and God.  Moses struck that rock a couple of times back in Numbers, and God said, “That’s it…you’re not going into the Land with the rest of the Israelites”.  What an incredible disappointment for Moses, to have come all this way with the people and not get to enter the Land.

Here in D’varim, God says, “Enough!  Never speak to Me of this matter again!” (Deut. 3:26)  The Hebrew here for “enough” is rav lach”.  Moses has asked too much.   But here’s where my friend Ibn Ezra, and his buddy Rashi (11th c Franch) come in.  We’ve seen this phrase before, back in the story of Korach, the guy in Numbers who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, “They (Korach and his followers) combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them ‘You have gone too far!’”  The Hebrew?  Rav l’chem (l’chem is the plural form, but it’s the same word.)  Korach says that Moses and Aaron have put themselves too high above the rest of the congregation, for, as Korach points out, isn’t the entire community holy?  Basically, it’s “what makes you so special?”

And what does our linguistic friend Ibn Ezra say here about this phrase?  It means “you have enough! You have taken the greater share!” or as Rashi says, “You have taken too much greatness for yourselves”

You got greedy, Moses.  And God is saying the same thing to Moses here – don’t bother Me again with this whining.  You have had enough.  Maybe back with Korach, God was willing to overlook Moses wanting more;  in fact, God made that earthquake happen and swallowed up the rebels.  But here, even God shuts him down.   What more does Moses want? Moses had a remarkable life, living so close with God that he remains the only one to whom God has shown the Divine face.   No one has been or ever will be as close to God as Moses was.  That’s saying something.  So, enough.  Don’t be greedy.

It’s hard to know when we’re asking too much.  What may seem perfectly reasonable to us, in the midst of wanting something so badly, seems to others, rav lach, too much.  It’s so hard to step back, though, and see it in ourselves.  Right now, there’s a trend on Facebook to post daily, listing things for which we are grateful.  It’s a good exercise. It’s good to see how much we really have, what we can really appreciate in our lives.  That daily list is a barrier against rav lach, whining and wanting more and more.

Except for peace.  The one thing we can ask more and more for is peace, shalom.  As we welcome a Shabbat with more peace (well, less killing) than last week, may we also be aware to when we have become rav lach, and experience the sweet exhale breath of knowing when we have enough.

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