What We Talk About When We Talk About Karet

Guest Post – Dr. Dan Fertel – Tefillin on Chol HaMoed

This week I went to morning minyan during Chol Hamoed. I brought my tefillin with

me. It was not the first time I attended minyan during Chol Hamoed, but it was the first time I

had my tefillin with me there during Chol Hamoed. No one there put them on. Should I have?


If you answer yes, you are correct. The argument here is that weekday Chol Hamoed is not a Shabbat

or Yom Tov. We wear tefillin on holidays during weekdays without Yom Tov’s including Rosh Chodesh,

Chanukah, and Purim. Therefore we need to be wearing them on Chol Hamoed.


However, if you answer no, you are also correct. We do not wear tefillin the Yom Tovs of the major

holidays in the Torah as we read in Emor on the second day of Peasch, this past Sunday and on the first

two days of Succos. Since Pesach lasts 7 days and we are eating Matzah throughout that holiday, and

since Succos last 7 days, not including Shemini Atzeret and Simchas Torah, we are still saying the Succos

prayers with the lulav and esrog and eating in the Succah. We are still celebrating those holidays on chol

hamoed. Therefore we need not be wearing tefillin on chol hamoed.


The Shulchan Aruch advocated not wearing them on chol hamoed. Sephardic Jews follow this custom

and therefore do not wear tefillin on chol hamoed. I read that Yemenite Jews wore tefillin on Chol

Hamoed. As of now I haven’t confirmed this.


What about early European and Ashkanazic Jews? In the Mishna, Rabbi Yehudah teaches that one may

write and correct Mezuzahs on Chol Hamoed. Rashi explains that with that it is permitted to use

Mezuzas and tefillin on Chol Hamoed and many but not all have interpreted Rashi that one must wear

tefillin as that is what the Mishna is teaching. Many early religious European Jewish communities did.

Some did without reciting a blessing, which included those that followed Jacob Ben Asher from the 13-

14 century who was born in Germany and died in Spain, Moses of Coucy from France in the 13th century

and David Halevi Segal from the 17th century Poland. Others recite a blessing in an undertone which

follows the RAMBAM, Maimonides. There were those who took their tefillin off before Hallel and those

who may have put them on only for the early blessings and took them off before the major portion of

shacharit. Two of the most influential rabbis and scholars in Eastern Europe for Ashkanazic Jews on

whether or not to put on tefillin on chol hamoed were the Rama and the Vilna Gaon.


Moses Issereles, also known as the Rama, who lived 16th century Krakow, now part of Poland and at one

time part of the Austrian empire, wrote interpretations of the Shulchan Aruch and was very influential,

especially in what is now southern Poland and adjacent countries. He believed in wearing tefillin on chol

hamoed. His custom was to take them off before Hallel which I was told (by Lazlo) followed by the

religious Jews of Budapest, Hungary and is also followed by Ashkanazic Jews in the United States whose

follow the custom of wearing them.


Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman also known as the Vilna Gaon was a famous Talmudic scholar in the 18th

Century in Vilna which is now in Lithuania and his teachings were very influential on those living in what

is today northern Poland and Russia and today all over the world. His teaching on this subject was that

tefillin not be worn on Chol Hamoed. Also from the same general area as the Vina Gaon was another

influential rabbi, Shner Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad rebbe also known as the Alter Rebbe, who also

taught that tefillin not be worn. Therefore the Chabad Chassidic Jews and those Ashkanazic Jews

around Lithuania, that part of northern Poland, and that part of Russia did not wear them for chol

hamoed. Even though Chabad Lebavitch do not wear Tefillin on Chol Hamoed, I was told by Yossie

Nemes’s brother Menachem Mendel that there are other Chassidic sects who wear tefillin on Chol



For Ashkanazic Jews in United States, it is to follow whatever tradition followed by the family. If the

father put on tefillin of chol hamoed, he did. If the father did not, he did not. Those who didn’t know

the family tradition would follow those around them and whatever their rabbi answered when asked. I

was told by Norman Fertel that in the 1950’s those at Chevra Tehillin did and those at Anches Sfard did

not. It was not as clear about those at Beth Israel in the early days, but it may have been mixed. I asked

Rabbi Bienenfeld about the 1970’s when he was here, and it was his recollection, that those who

attended Beth Israel minyans at that time did. Rabbi Bienenfeld did put on tefillin on chol hamoed, and

therefore there may have been those who followed his lead. The last time I was at Beth Israel before

Katrina for chol hamoed which I think was Pesach 2005, it was the opposite. Rabbi Schiff did not wear

them and told those who brought tefillin that it was Chol Hamoed and they didn’t have to wear them,

and therefore no one put them on. I asked our current Rabbis at Beth Israel their custom. Rabbi Gabe

as many or most of you know by now, does not put on tefillin on Chol Hamoed. He mentioned to me

that his mother’s family who was from Galicia in an area which is now bordering Poland and Ukraine did

not. The rabbis at the Yeshiva in Israel where Rabbi Gabe studied also did not put them on. On the

other hand, Rabbi David as many or most of you know, puts on tefillin on Chol Hamoed. He told me he

does not know his family custom and follows the custom of his rabbinic teachers who do.


Rabbi Bienenfeld also told me about a Halachic Discussion as to whether there should be two minyans

for those who put on tefillin and those who do not when there are enough men for both minyans. For

the next holiday, Succos, there will be 2 minyans at Beth Israel for Chol Hamoed. Rabbi David will lead

the minyan for those who put on Tefillin and Rabbi Gabe will lead the minyan for those who do not.

(Note: This was intended to be a joke). Actually, Sion Danishrad told me that when goes to New York to

visit his sons, he goes to such a center that has two separate minyans, and they combine for Musaf. Rav

Moshe Feinstein did write in Orah Chaim (5:24:7) that it was fine for multiple people in one shul to

practice different minhagim whether or not to wear tefillin, but mentions that the chazzan should be

practicing the shul’s minhag. His opinion was also if someone has no minhag in regards to wearing

them, they should wear tefillin with a blessing as that was the minhag going back a long time. There are

those who would probably not agree with this, including those who follow the Vilna Gaon and those

influenced by Chabad.


I initially read that most Israeli Ashkanazic Jews follow the Vilna Gaon and do not. Shabi Perl told me

that where he goes to Minyan where he lives in Israel, some do, some don’t. Shabi told me that he used

to wear tefillin on Chol Hamoed, but no longer does after spending time at Chabad Center for years

before moving back to Israel. Though Rabbi Bienenfeld told me he used to put them on for Chol

Hamoed following his father’s custom, he changed his custom after moving to Israel when he was told

by the great poskim that the minhag in Israel was not to wear tefillin on Chol Hamoed, and he used the

terms great poskim and minhag.


What about me? Until recently, I never really knew what my father’s family did. I also never knew what

my Grandfather Blotner and his family did. My great grandfather Shaul or Charles Blotner passed away

when my Uncle Joe and my mom were little. I was told by my cousin Malcolm Blotner, a descendent of

Shaul’s brother Moshe, that Moshe was not religious. Like Rabbi Gabe’s family, the Blotners also came

from Galicia and came from the part which is now part of the Ukraine and it is possible they may not

have. The only one I knew about was that my grandmother Hilda Blotner told my cousin Jonathan that

her father and our great grandfather Joseph Levin who was the first generation Beth Israel member did

not wear tefillin on chol hamoed. My grandmother was born in Russia, and they were from an area of

Russia influenced by the Vilna Gaon and the Alter Rebbe and, with previous discussion with family

members, there may have also been Sephardic influence with her family.


I don’t remember what I did at minyans before moving back to the New Orleans Area approximately 26

years ago. I may have just followed the custom of those there, but I do not remember putting them on.

I have spent time attending services approaching 20 years at Chabad Center, including Chol Hamoed.

For at least 20 years and probably longer, I have not worn tefillin attending Chol Hamoed minyans at

Chabad Center following Chabad custom, and as I discovered later, also following the custom of my

maternal grandmother’s family.


Recently, I have been in contact with my father’s half-brother, Norman Fertel and with one of his sons

Baruch and they wear them. Norman told me that he was following the custom of those at Chevra

Tehillim at that time around the 1950’s. That also makes sense for another reason. If you remember

the talk given by Randy Fertel, our Great Grandfather Samuel Fertel, a Chevra Tehillum member, was

born in Krakow, the home of Rabbi Moses Issereles, the Rama, and all the rest of my father’s family

including the Deiches and the Cohens came from England, but were also originally from Krakow.

So should I now start putting them on because it is probably the original custom of all of my dad’s

family, or do I not since this is what I have done all these years. I have not sought advice from any of the

rabbis, but in discussing the situation with Yossie Nemes’s brother, Menachem Mendel, his comment

was that in not putting on tefillin all these years, that I have developed my own custom, and therefore, I

have continued not wearing tefillin on chol hamoed, including this week. Talking to others faced with

the same situation, including Shabi Perl and Rabbi Bienenfeld, I have found it easier to not to put them

on since I haven’t been all these years, than it is to start or restart putting them on after not putting

them on in the recent past.

Difficult Episodes in Jewish Thought – Session 1: “All Those Who Claim that David Sinned”


Part I – “Those who say David Sinned Are Simply Wrong….”

Feb 24, 2016


  • Reuven and Bilhah


  1. Genesis 35:22

And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve: the sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun.

וַיְהִ֗י בִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֔ןוַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖עיִשְׂרָאֵֽ֑ל (פ) וַיִּֽהְי֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר׃ ;בְּנֵ֣י לֵאָ֔ה בְּכ֥וֹר יַעֲקֹ֖ב רְאוּבֵ֑ן וְשִׁמְעוֹן֙ וְלֵוִ֣יוִֽיהוּדָ֔ה וְיִשָּׂשכָ֖ר וּזְבוּלֻֽן׃


  1. Genesis 49: 3-4

Reuben, thou art my first-born, My might, and the first-fruits of my strength; The excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, have not thou the excellency; Because thou went up to thy father’s bed; Then defiledst thou it—he went up to my couch.

רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣רִי אַ֔תָּה כֹּחִ֖י וְרֵאשִׁ֣יתאוֹנִ֑י יֶ֥תֶר שְׂאֵ֖ת וְיֶ֥תֶר עָֽזפַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֙יִם֙ אַל־תּוֹתַ֔ר כִּ֥י עָלִ֖יתָמִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ יְצוּעִ֥י עָלָֽה

  1. Tractate Shabbat 55b
  2. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan’s name: Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve” – teaching that they were all equal.  Then how do I interpret, “and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine?”  This teaches that he switched his father’s couch,  and the Torah describes it as if he had lain with her. As it was taught, R. Simon ben Elazar said: That righteous man was saved from that sin and that deed did not come to his hand.  Is it possible that his seed was destined to stand on Mount Ebal and proclaim, Cursed be he that lieth with his father’s wife,  yet this sin should come to his hand? But how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine’? He resented his mother’s [Leah’s] humiliation. Said he, “If my mother’s sister [Rachel] was a rival to my mother, shall the bondmaid [Bilhah] of my mother’s sister be a rival to my mother?” [Thereupon] he arose and switched her couch.


  1. Netziv (19th cent. Torah commentary)

וישכב את בלהה. לא הי׳ מעשה ח״ו אלא שמר שלא יבא אביו לחדרה

There was no actual sexual incident, chas v’shalom; rather he stood guard and did not allow his father to enter her room.


  1. Mishna Megilla 25a

מעשה ראובן נקרא ולא מתרגם

The incident of Reuven is read but not translated.

  1. Radak (13th cent. French commentary on the Torah)

וילך ראובן, הלך לאהל בלהה ושכב עמה.

Reuven went, walked to the tent of Bilhah, and slept with her.


  1. David and Batsheva
  2. Book of Samuel II: 11-12

And it came to pass at eventide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. (3) And David sent and inquired after the woman. And one said: ‘Is not this Bath-sheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?’ (4)And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness; and she returned unto her house. (5) And the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, and said: ‘I am with child.’….And it came to pass in the morning, that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. (15) And he wrote in the letter, saying: ‘Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die.’ (16) And it came to pass, when Joab kept watch upon the city, that he assigned Uriah unto the place where he knew that valiant men were.(17) And the men of the city went out, and fought with Joab; and there fell some of the people, even of the servants of David; and Uriah the Hittite died also. …

1) And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him: ‘There were two men in one city: the one rich, and the other poor. (2) The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds; (3)but the poor man had nothing save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and reared; and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own morsel, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. (4)And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him, but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.’ (5) And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan: ‘As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this deserveth to die; (6) and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’ (7) And Nathan said to David: ‘Thou art the man….

(9)Wherefore hast thou despised the word of the LORD, to do that which is evil in My sight? Uriah the Hittite thou hast smitten with the sword, and his wife thou hast taken to be thy wife, and him thou hast slain with the sword of the children of Ammon. (13) And David said unto Nathan: ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’


  1. Tractate Shabbat 56a

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yonathan: Whoever maintains that David sinned is merely making an error, for it is written, “”David was successful in all his actions and God was with him” and if he was a sinner why would God be with him?” How then should I understand the statement (II Sam. 12:9) – “why have you despised the word of God?” – he wanted to do [evil] but did not do it…You have killed Uriah the Hittite by the sword – you should have executed him after a legal debate at the Sanhedrin; “You took his wife as your wife” this insinuated that she was eligible to him,since Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yonathan: all of David’s soldiers would divorce their wives before the war…


  1. Tractate. Ketubot 9a

Like the incident that happened, wherein the woman was raped!

Rashi: This refers to Batsheva…


  1. Contemporary Insights
  2. Maharatz Chajes Sotah 36b

“One opinion says he entered to fulfill his desires”

It is generally the way of the Sages in several places to highlight the positives of the righteous ones, and to always emphasize the good and to judge favorably even in places where the simple reading of the text indicates that they sinned. Ie  David, and Shlomo. What, then, did they see here, to judge the righteous Joseph in a negative light – that he entered to fulfill his desires.


  1. Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, Bnei Banim 4:9 (contemporary US & Israeli rabbi)

According to the plain meaning of the text, one could certainly describe the scandals of Reuven and David and the others, but what gain would come of this? Similarly, we must ask people today whose tendencies are to be myth-busters in their Tanach-study – what gain will come of it?

…Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani lived two hundred years following the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Sanhedrin. These verses teach us that even the greatest of our nation can sin, but what type of news is this to Israel in a generation of Roman oppression, in a generation who had no leader?

Even Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani himself would agree that if there were a positive result in explaining the verses according to their pshat, one should do so. Elsewhere he describes how the Sotah woman would be told of the sins of Reuven and Yehuda, in order to convince her to admit to her own sin…. bar Nachmani bends the explanation of the verses towards a generous view of Reuven and David – for a particular purpose. But this is just like the Torah “bends” the language of their deeds more negatively [assuming they did not, in fact, sin], and that too is for a purpose! But in neither case is it helpful to describe the sins of leadership in a leader-less generation. In his generation, it was important to emphasize and highlight the previous leaders, to strengthen the hope and yearning that these good years would return once again….

Parshat Beshalach – Going in through the Front Door

The center-piece of this week’s parsha, and in some senses the center-piece of the Exodus narrative is Keriat Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea and the Israelites walking through.

Its a crescendo, etc, etc… even the terrible special effects of 1956’ The Ten Commandments cannot mess up the emotion and thrill of the moment.

The Biblical text is a bit unclear as to exactly how does the splitting take place. First, the Jews complain when they see Egypt bearing down on them. Moshe says, dont worry, God will save you. Then God says to Moshe – what are you looking at me for? Speak to the Jews and tell them to travel (ie travel into the Sea!). Moshe – lift up your staff and split the water.


And then, Moshe lifted up his arm over the Sea, and God brought a wind over the sea over the course of the night, splitting it into “walls” on either side.


-So the questions is: what exactly caused the Sea to split? Was it the people moving forward; or Moshe’s waving of his hands, or God’s intervention?


The rabbis of the midrash try to answer this question, which gives rise to several inter-related midrashim which I will describe.



  • Midrash “V’atah” (cited in Netziv 15:15) And you Moshe, lift up your hand. Meaning, if you, Moshe, do not do it, no one else will.


→ The lesson according to this midrash is that Moshe is still ambivalent about his leadership position. Perhaps its the enormity of what they are about to do… in any case, Moshe wants someone else to do it, either one of the Israelites, or Hashem… but not himself. GOd says – you must lead, even in this very difficult circumstance.


but on the other hand…


  1.     b) (Meshech Chochma, Ex. 14:15) According to the pasuk, Mah Titzak Eilay, Dabeir El B’nei Yisrael Va’yisau – Why are you crying to Me, Speak to the Israelites and tell them to travel? One interpretation of this is in the Mechilta (3:1), which has God saying to Moshe – “don’t you realize? All they have to do is keep walking forward.” The Meshech Chochma interprets this as follows: normally, Moshe was leading the Israelites through the desert. But here, God wanted the Israelites to move first, and for Moshe to follow behind them.

→ At this juncture, there’s already a beautiful midrashic lesson: namely, that the key that God desired from the Israelites was to take the initiative and leadership into their own hands. Yes, they can always follow Moshe, but are they able to move on their own? Is their faith, and self-confidence, strong enough to handle that?


Assuming its true that the Israelites will go first, we have conflicting midrashic accounts of who, exactly, will take the lead:


  1. c) The Talmud (Sotah 36b-37a) relates, R’Meir says: each tribe was fighting for who had the merit to go first; each tribe wanted the honor. The tribe of Benjamin ran first towards the sea, but the tribe of Judah said, no, we want to be first. They picked up stones and threw them at Benjamin. They were able to overtake them, and it was shevet Yehuda who ultimately entered first. (side question asked by the Rif: why did there have to be one tribe that went first, why couldn’t all the tribes enter at once? Answered by the Ben Ish Chai in Ben Yehoyada).


→ According to this midrash, everyone had faith, and it was a fight as to who would get the glory. Nice idea that seems to go against the grain of many other descriptions.


  1. d) The gemara (R. Yehuda): That’s not how it went! Rather, no tribe wanted to go first. And they were all just talking (natlu eitzah), oh, maybe this way would be better. But one leader, Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah, saw, oy, they are just going to keep on talking. No one is actually going to step up. I can tell. So he just jumps in. And – the sea splits for him!


→ Generally known midrash, that it took someone who was willing to be the first, the pioneer. To have complete faith in what was going to happen, even while around him no one else could.


  1. e) Further midrash: And this is what I’d like to focus on. An alternate version of the same midrash claims that once Nachshon jumped in, he was able to walk forward. But then, when the next person came up, the sea came back together; and then that next person had to walk through themselves! Each of the 600000 people had to experience the act of faith of walking up to the sea, it wasn’t just that one person broke the faith-barrier for the rest of them.

→ What is the lesson here? As hard as it is to imagine the entire miraculous scene, it seems even more difficult to imagine a situation where the sea was coming back together time and again. But the authors of this midrash are invested in the point: each person must make the leap for themselves. We don’t want to have to get in a back way – oh, someone else opened the door for us. I want to be able to look back and say, I have a place here.


There is a beautiful story told about Rav Shlomo Carlebach (Holy Brother, pg 31-33). A man who had been brought under Shlomo’s wing, started showing up time and again at the synagogue on the UWS of Manhattan. He showed up one night, not knowing that a Shlomo concert was scheduled.  He really wanted to go, but didn’t have any money, he was on welfare at the time, totally destitute. He thought about sneaking in, but there was someone collecting the $10 admission fee in a very determined fashion. He considered throwing himself at the bouncer’s mercy, but didn’t feel good about it…. he tried to catch Shlomo’s attention, and succeeded, Shlomo comes up to him, and the guy explains his problem to Shlomo. He asks, “Can you sneak me in”” Shlomo thinks about it, and says, “why don’t you come upstairs with me?”


Shlomo lived above the shul in a couple of rooms. The man was sure that Shlomo was going to take him to a side entrance of the shul. They go to the back room, but the guy sees there is no special staircase or exit. Rather, Shlomo opens up a drawer, and begins rooting around in it. Finally, finds the object he was looking for, and emerged triumphant from the closet, clutching a well-worn pouch with many zippered compartments. Then Shlomo proceeded to zip open each compartment, only to find it empty. Finally, he opened the last compartment and jubilantly pulled out a $10 bill, which he handed to me. “There!” He said with great satisfaction. “Now you can buy a ticket!”

Shlomo could’ve easily gotten the guy in for free, said a couple of words to the guy out front. But Shlomo understood the impact you experience when you go in the front door, of your own power and purchase.  We dont want a freebie. We dont want to be snuck in. We want to go through the front door.

I think the rabbis of the midrash are saying the same thing. God wanted this group of just-freed slaves to have purchase, impact, dignity. To go through the front door, in this case of Yam Suf. For each person to make the decision themselves, and not to have to rely on someone else’s largesse, whether spiritual or otherwise.

Our hope is that we too can be bold and brave, finding the wherewithal to do that which we find scary, daunting – that which requires faith. We have God’s promise goading us on – “Why do you cry to Me? Move forward!”

Parshat Bo – Freedom and Freedom, MLK Weekend

The gemara in Masechet Berachot 9a notes a difficulty between two passages in the Torah. Both passages are discussing when, exactly, the Israelites left Egypt.


In Deuteronomy 16, the Torah relates that hotzeeacha Hashem Elokecha miMitzrayim Layla – God took you out of Egypt during the night. While in Numbers 33, the Torah claims: MiMacharat ha Pasach yatzu Bnei Yisrael, meaning from the next day after the night of eating the korban Pesach.  So which was it, night or day? Says the gemara – the redemption began at night, but the main act of leaving took place during the morning.


And that is where the gemara leaves it.


What then, is the significance of the Jews being redeemed at night? What did that look like? Remember what’s happening that night; the Jews are bunkered down, not going outside, because there was the Divine Destroyer – HaMashchit – going around killing all the firstborn not in a home on which the doorframe has been painted in blood. There was screaming outside “tza’aka g’dola” going on outside, as Egyptian families found their dead, family by family.


We can try to imagine some of their emotions; I would suspect fear; anxiety, nerves, tension.


While that is all going on, the Israelites are also – feasting! On the korban pesach, with their friends and family.  What a contrast! Outside screaming and fear, and inside, the attempt to celebrate and commemorate their upcoming departure.

Some of this tension is played out in the rules about how the Pesach should be eaten. Our parsha (12:46)  tells us that no bone of the Pesach may be broken while eating it (etzem lo tishb’ru vo). The Chinuch explains that this is because our inclination would be to eat it hurriedly, like a starving person who finally has food. But no; this is to be a nice of dignity, of celebration; make sure not to eat ravenously, in a way which might break bones of the meal.


This night was the beginning of the redemption. Amid all the terror, the recently slaughtered animal in front of them, would Israelites feel, experience, redemption?


There is an insightful claim by the Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin of the 19th cent.
He notes that the verse which the gemara in Berachot quotes about the “beginning of the redemption at night” nevertheless uses the language of God took out the jews at night.  But the gem. interprets “took out” against its literal meaning.  It  seems geographic – I’m taking you from place X to place Y – but is interpreted as the beginning of a process which will really bear fruit in the mornig claims that that act of redemption wasn’t an emotional one, the Jews didn’t necessarily feel redeemed that night, but it was a metaphysical status change. In his words, “What was the “taking out” that God performed that night? God took us out from the status of being enslaved to Pharoah.”


In other words, what the Netziv is saying is this: Pharoah owned our bodies; and then, at midnight of the 15th of Nissan, Pharoah no longer did. Amidst screaming, and eating – we experienced a status change; perhaps in the words of the social media generation, for those who use Facebook – there was a status update.


If we accept the Netziv’s explanation, we are left with an interesting paradox.  On the one hand, the Israelites were free women and men. Owned by noone. But they weren’t truly free to leave; stepping out of their front door would be death to the first born. It was too dangerous. And, we know further, that Pharoah would still, even after ten plagues, not let them leave without a fight, and that a split Sea as still needed to complete that part of the story.


I think this is a dissonance that rings true in our personal stories and in our national stories.

Thank God, no on ein this room, to my knowledge, has ever suffered as an actual slave. We all have retained full agency, and free will, in our own lives. But despite that personal freedom, we nevertheless all have times where we are in dark places – vayehi b’hatzi halayla – and it was in the darkest midnight. Narrow places – meitzarim, Mitzrayim. Times when, on the one side, things look like they cannot get any better.  We feel hopeless.


And yet internally, we are free. No one can tell us what to do, how to do it. We can take on our circumstances and situations in whatever way we see fit. We are free people, who struggle to reconcile what to do in difficult surroundings. This is in many ways the state of being; how to use our freedom, as humans, as Americans, to engage with and affect our difficult world in which we live.


And there are particular historical manifestations of this. It is most reminiscent, I think of how the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan 1st 1863) affected 3 million slaves (of 4 million us slaves) who were living in the South; but the vast majority of which were still enslaved.  Those slaves that learned of the Proclamation (which by no means was all of them, Juneteenth commemorates those slaves who heard about their freedom some time later), and for many they saw it as an internal status change.


As the Chicago Tribune noted three days prior to the Proclamation:

“Old Abe’s Proclamation is beginning to work. The Negroes are counting the days and hours when the 1st of January shall come. They meet in little knots, and talk over the whole matter, and lay their plan for going. The day of Jubilee they think, has surely come.”


Its no accident that the term Jubliee was used. This is the English word for the Hebrew, Yovel, which the Torah employs to describe a time when all slaves in the Land of Israel would be freed. The Yovel itself is modeled in some ways on Yitziat Mitzrayim.


Frederick Douglass wrote as follows in 1876, looking back:

“Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget that night…? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance …. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation…we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness… we were thenceforward willing to allow the president all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.”


On this shabbat parshat Bo, leading up to MLK day on Monday, one cannot help but marvel at the parallels between our parsha, and the night of Pesach; the great and terrible night of Pesach, torn between screaming, violence, and terror, with a moment of joy, emancipation, redemption. Bayamim haHem b’zman Hazeh. Just like in that day, in our day as well.

In this past year, we have seen Black Lives Matter activists agitating for change, forcing the country to confront the variety of ways in which there still exists a gap between the legal status of freedom, and the great oppression still experienced by African-Americans. If we have truly absorbed the lessons of Yetziat Mitzrayim, then we must rededicate ourselves to eradicating this chasm between “freedom” and freedom. We must ally with all peoples as they move from midnight, b’chatzi haLayla, into the daybreak of true freedom.

Chanukah, Yosef, Vayeshev and the Meshech Chochma


Yosef, Chanukah and Miracles
Gen. 37:22-24And Reuben said unto them: ‘Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him’–that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father.And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colours that was on him; and they took him, and cast him into the pit–and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.

Gen 50: 14-15

And Joseph returned into Egypt, he, and his brethren, and all that went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father. And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said: ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us, and will fully requite us all the evil which we did unto him.’

Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b-22aR. Kahana said, R. Nathan b. Minyomi expounded in R. Tanhum’s name: If a Hanukkah lamp is placed above twenty cubits [from the ground] it is unfit, like sukkah and a cross-beam over [the entrance of] an alley.R. Kahana also said, R. Nathan b. Minyomi expounded in R. Tanhum’s name: Why is it written, and the pit was empty, there was no water in it?  From the implication of what is said, ‘and the pit was empty’, do I not know that there was no water in it; what then is taught by, ‘there was no water in it’? There was no water, yet there were snakes and scorpions in it.


Meshech Chochma (Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843–1926):


One who sees the place where a miracle was done, recites the blessing “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam Sh’Asi Li Nes BaMakom HaZeh.” Blessed are you God who did a miracle for me in this spot. We understand this to mean supernatural miracles. For instance, on Chanukah we recite a blessing over Chanukah candles, because the miracle of the oil, which was supernatural. But behold – the main aspect of the miracle was the military victory over Antiochus, and the following Jewish sovereignty which lasted 200 years.  For the remembrance of this we light candles, for which, normally, simply being able to see them would be sufficient.  But in order to spread the message about the jug of oil, this requires [the halachic requirement of] “one’s eyes gaze upon it”, ie within 20 cubits…


Regarding Yosef, Rabbi Tanchum said in a midrash that when Yosef returned from burying his father, he passed by the pit and looked upon it; but his intentions were towards heaven [and not on revenge against his brothers]. He was reciting: “Blessed is God who did a miracle for me in this spot.”  But the main aspect of the miracle was that he was raised up from the pit, and through various acts and episodes became an Egyptian minister. But the blessing itself nevertheless only applies to something supernatural.  And this is why Rabbi Tanchum states, “there were snakes and scorpions in it”; for surviving such a pit is supernatural.


And this is why the Talmud juxtaposes the two statements of Rabbi Tanchum: to teach us the parallels of the Yosef story and of Chanukah.  Namely that in both the deepest miracles came about through political gains and victories, but that the bracha in one case is on a snake-filled pit, and in another case is on a jug of oil….


והבור רק אין בו מים. הרואה מקום שנעשה לו נס מברך ברוך שעשה לי נס במקום הזה. הפירוש כדברי אבודרהם דוקא שיצא מדרך הטבע. והא דמברך על נר חנוכה משום שנעשה נס בפך השמן שזה נגד הטבע. והנה עיקר הנס היה לנצחון מלכות אנטונינוס וישראל קבלו מלוכה מאתים שנה ולזכרון צריך להאיר נרות. ולזה סגי בחזותא בעלמא. אך להורות על נס פך השמן צריך דוקא דיהא שלטא ביה עינא תוך עשרים אמה …

והנה ביוסף אמר ר’ תנחומא במדרש שבשעה ששב יוסף מקבורת אביו שהציף בבור ולשם שמים נתכוין לברך ברוך שעשה לי נס במקום הזה. ועיקר הנס הוא מה שהעלוהו מהבור ובסבות השגחה נעשה לשר על כל מצרים, אך הברכה צריך לברך על דבר יוצא חוץ מהטבע, וזה שאמר ר’ תנחום שבת כ”ב אבל נחשים ועקרבים יש בו והיה נס יוצא מטבע העולם. ולזה בירך ברוך שעשה לי נס, לכן נסמכו שני מאמרי ר’ תנחום הוא ר’ תנחומא דבמדרש כידוע להורות שבחנוכה וביוסף הנס היה הסבות מההשגחה נצחון ומלוכה רק שהברכה היה כאן על הבור שלא הזיקוהו נחשים וכאן על פך השמן….

Vayetze: Love, Optimism and Hope

Parshat Vayetze – Love and Waiting

This morning’s Torah reading has one a line that is quoted occasionally by those in love.  Jacob has to work seven years before he is able to wed Rachel, but as the Torah tells us (Gen 29:20): They were in his eyes as only a few days, because of his love for her.

When we are in love, time passes quickly….

But this year, I realized for the first time – this seems to be the inverse of what we would expect! He and Rachel are not yet wed, nor living together. Wouldn’t the seven years seem… very long? Almost interminable?  If you are in love, but can’t be with the person you love, that would be terrible!
What does the Torah mean here?


As with all good questions on the Torah, they have been asked before. And once I had this question, I saw that it was asked (at least once before), by R. Hayyim Zev Rosenfeld, in a sefer called Sefer ha-Hayyim . His answer is that Jacob’s love for Rachel had no sexual component. It was almost platonic in this sense.  And somehow, for R Rosenfeld, the lack of sexual desire made the time pass more quickly, because the love was an idealized, non-corrupted one.


Its an interesting answer (and he quotes a fascinating Maharsha in Yevamot that adds additional proof to the idea that Jacob was non-sexual [or “post-erotic”?]), but not one that is particularly satisfying. He seems to love her fully, erotically and personally alike.


The Radak , R David Kimchi of Provence, 13th cent. also chimes in on the question. He notes that it was only afterwards, when looking back, did the seven years shrink down to seven days worth…But in the moment, that wasn’t necessarily Jacob’s experience of the events.

I think Radak’s view is a nice one, but it still doesn’t answer our question. For isn’t this true for everyone; events in retrospect always seem shorter in the mind’s eye and memory than they did at the time? So what is special in this particular case?


I think the answer can be found in the words of the Shadal; Shmuel David Luzzatto, the 19th cent. Italian Torah and Hebrew scholar. This is what he writes:


ויהיו בעיניו כימים אחדים: גם במשך זמן עבודתו היה נראה לו שהזמן קצר בערך השכר המקווה שהיה גדול מאד בעיניו: ומלבד זה היו לו הימים ההם ימי שלוה ותענוג, כי היה מתענג באהבתו ובתקותו (ואין לנו טובה למעלה מן התקוה) וידוע כי

ימי השלוה והתענוג קצרים בעינינו וימי הרעה ארוכים.


During the period of his working, it seemed to him that the time was short when compared to the value of the anticipated reward, which was tremendous in his eyes. Additionally, these were peaceful and sweet days, as he exulted in his love and expectation – and there is no greater good than hope. It is known that tranquil days of enjoyment seem shorter while bad days seem longer.


What a profound insight from Luzzatto! “There is no greater good than hopeAin lanu tova lma’alah min haTikvah).  When, in our life, things are difficult, hard – if we have the hope that a better time is on the horizon, is on some level immanent; this knowledge can trump the negativity that is being currently experienced.  In Jacob’s case,  seven years of toil and drudgery are redeemed, and in fact, sweetened, by the knowledge of what will come after them.


It can be difficult to hold on to this notion of hope. Jacob knows he will get to marry Rachel, it is their destiny, and he trusts Lavan; which of course ends up being the wrong move…


But for us, when we are mired in a difficult place, it can feel impossible to acknowledge that things will, in fact, get better. I think it is helpful here to share a distinction offered up by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book, The Dignity of Difference.

One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Knowing what we do of our past, no Jew can be an optimist. But Jews have never – despite a history of sometimes awesome suffering – given up hope.

Sacks is claiming: Its true! Today’s world, events in Paris, Africa, Israel, the US… “optimism” seems dead. But hope – must, for,  us, remain alive. And if we can harness it, especially during these dark days, our lives achieve a dash of salvation.


I’d like to share a story that is coming out of Israel this week.  Some of you may have heard that a father and son were murdered last week outside a small west bank town, R Yaakov Litman and his son Netanel. They were going to spend a Shabbat Chatan, celebrating with the groom of an upcoming wedding for their daughter, and sister Sara-Techiya. But they were attacked, shot and killed.


So the wedding was postponed. Halachically, you may not have a wedding during the seven days of aveilut, mourning. But they announced this week in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot; that they will not postpone the wedding long. In fact, it is going to be rescheduled for Nov. 26th, this coming Thursday.  And the guest list has expanded; as they said in the paper, Bo’u l’chatuna shelanu. Kol Am Yisrael Muzman l’Tekes. Everyone is invited. Everyone.


In the depths of their darkness, they are allowing the hope, the promise of their future marriage and family, to trump. It is, to me, inconceivable, but there you have it.


There is no greater good than hopeAin lanu tova lma’alah min haTikvah


And so, as we reflect on Yaakov’s seven years, we learn about how to endure not good times, but bad.  We focus on the future, the hope, belief, knowledge, that there must be good times ahead.  Let us not be naively optimistic. But let us hope, and bring in a positive vision into our present; we may infuse and sweeten our days with this happiness and holiness, even though we cannot fully taste it yet.

Sefat Emet, Chaye Sarah – Peace, Blessing and Everything

Sefat Emet, Chaye Sarah, 1887

כתיב ואברהם זקן כו׳ וה׳ ברך את אברהם בכל. ובמדרש הכל נתברכו עיי אברהם ומי בירך אותו הקביה. כי פי׳ בכל הוא אותו הנקודה שכוללת הכל שכתיב עליו וירא אלקים את כל אשר עשה כו׳. והוא כלי מחזיק ברכה שנקרא שלום שכולל הכל וזה ברכת האמת בכל מכל כל. ואלה הג׳ הס הג׳ סעודות בשבת קודש שנקרא שלום וכתיב ויברך כו׳ יום השביעי. והוא המעיין שממנו נמשך התיות והברכה לכל הבריאה:


And God blessed Avraham with everything (baKol).


And the midrash states on this verse: “everything was blessed through Avraham… and who blessed him? God.” For the interpretation of “everything” is that central point [in a person?] which envelops “everything”. As the Torah states (Gen 1:31): “And God saw everything that God had made.” And this [central point] is a vessel containing blessing, which is shalom – that which can envelope everything, it is the true blessing of “bakol mikol kol.” These three are the three meals of the holy Sabbath, which is itself known as Shalom, as the Torah states: “And God blessed the seventh day”.  It is the spring from which flows the life-energy and blessing to all of creation.

Mishna Uktzin 3:12

Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta says: God has no vessel containing blessing other than peace, as it says (Tehillim 29:11), ‘God gives strength to His people; God blesses His people with peace


Parshat Chaye Sara – The Head vs the Heart, and the World Series!

– At the beginning of Parshat Chaye Sarah (“The Life Of Sarah”), Sarah passes away (the irony of the title and the opening action has not gone unnoticed).


– Avraham, after weeping and eulogizing Sarah, goes to acquire the plot of land where she is to be buried, ma’arat haMachpela, the Cave of Machpela.
– Ephron the Hittite is the owner of the field, and Avraham has to negotiate with him.

Their conversation is an interesting one, and somewhat repetitious:


Avraham says he wishes to pay for the field, and Ephron wishes to give it for free.

They go back and forth,and finally Avraham persuades Ephron to accept the full value of 400 shekel, which he pays Ephron and thus acquires the field, and buries Sarah.


-Why the back and forth? What is so important about Avraham paying the money? And why does Ephron wish to give the gift?


It seems that what is taking place in this conversation is a tension between rules vs feelings, or standards vs compassion; or perhaps, the head vs the heart.


What motivated Ephron? Seemingly the fact that Avraham and Sarah had ben greatly respected by the locals, as we see from the Midrash which notes that the villagers had all come to pay their respects at Sarah’s funeral.

Ephron wanted to give a gift, as is the way of many in the Middle East. Its hospitable, you’re invited in, given gifts, food. That is a way of showing that you are a good host. So Ephron says, “You are my friend, we respect you, take this plot of land.”


But Avraham refuses. Why? Avraham wants this purchase to last forever, to stay within his family, and his kinship, forever. He therefore realizes that it is best to sign all the paperwork, cross the t’s and dot the i’s as it were. It was established as such, as we see in the final verse of the narrative: וַיָּ֨קָם הַשָּׂדֶ֜ה וְהַמְּעָרָ֧ה אֲשֶׁר־בּ֛וֹ לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם לַֽאֲחֻזַּת־קָ֑בֶר מֵאֵ֖ת בְּנֵי־חֵֽת


Ephron is negotiating using his heart. He wants to give a gift to someone he respects. BUt AVraham is using his head – he wants to acquire this field, with no questions or doubts about its validity.


The tension of head vs heart is present all the time in our life.

A great illustration just took place in the baseball worldseries.

The NYMets went into the 9th inning of Game 5 of the World Series, with the Mets leading the Royals 2-0, and the Mets’ season was on the line. Mets manager Terry Collins had a difficult decision to make. Should he keep starting pitcher Matt Harvey in the game (though his pitch count was a bit high), or should he take him out for the Mets’ closer, Jeurys Familia? TV cameras caught the dugout discussion, and Collins gave into Harvey’s wish, and sent him out for the 9th.


The manager, Collins knew that, on some level, it made more sense to send the closer out, the guy who is entrusted with finishing games. That’s his job. and more than that, the rule of thumb in such a situation is that if you send out the starting pitcher against your gut feeling, you immediately remove him when he allows his first baserunner. Harvey walked the first batter, Collins did not remove him from the game, and after a stolen base, the next batter knocked in the runner, making the score 2-1. The Royals ended up tying it at 2, and won it in 12 innings, 7-2.


Collins went with his heart, as he admitted later, not with his brain: “So obviously I let my heart get in the way.” Few people would have faulted him had he removed Harvey to start the 9th. It was the logical thing to do. And one could argue that keeping him in ended up costing the Mets the game, and a chance to continue the World Series.

Going with your heart over your head often feels like the right thing to do, but often it is your “head” that knows what’s actually the right thing to do. In this example, it may have cost them the game and the World Series for not following the right path.


Does Judaism believe this too? Are we to be people of the Book – people of the Brain, and not of the heart?

It may look that way, especially when you look at the halacha, code of Jewish living. Its all about rules and standards. And the many books, codes, and tractates that make up the halachic system – is very “head”-centric, very intellectual based.


But we must remember – that the “head” is not the point! Its not just about keeping halacha, its not just about learning. Rather, its what those things will ultimately lead us towards; what they support. What’s the goal of all this “head”-centeredness? Why, its the “heart”! Its the love, the emotion, the feel. As the talmud tells us, rachmana liba bai, God wants the heart. The point is the emotional, felt connection with the divine. But the rules, the head are how we get there. Remember that the word for jewish law is halacha – the path. But where is the path leading? Towards clinging to God – dveikut, oneness, completion.

Meaning: in Judaism, its not head vs heart. Head – meaning rules, standards, laws, is the kli, the vessel, for how we approach and strive towards the “heart”, the taam, the feeling.


Avraham isn’t some hard-hearted businessman who just loves contract law. He knows that the meaning of acquiring ma’arat hamachpelah is that it will serve as a core for his family’s generations going forward. Yitzchak and Rivka are buried there; Yaakov and Leah are buried there; according to the Zohar Adam and Eve were buried there, and Moshe and Tziporrah will be buried there.  It is about family, love, destiny, place, home.  But to ensure that these values are all realized, Avraham needs a formal acquisition. He wants to follow the rules, to a t. He wants to leave no question.
Modern people struggle with this same tension. To follow the head, or the heart.  I think that Judaism, and Avraham in our parsha, provide a healthy way forward. We honor the heart, the emotion, but we must be smart, and systematic in how we get there. Our Jewish tradition provides us, we believe, with the best and most holy method of living in this world, following the halacha, on our path moving forwards towards the heart, towards completion and sanctity.


Parenthetically, its worth pointing out that this notion of heart vs head is an odd one, right?

In antiquity, the heart was seen as the seat of wisdom and decision making, much as we understand the pre-frontal cortex.  (Think “hokhmat lev” as the Torah’s description of people who knew their crafts very well and therefore participate in constructing the mishkan.)

The kidneys (kleiyot) controlled emotions.

Nobody knew what the brain did.

Our contemporary idioms assigning emotion to the heart and intellect to the brain are also just cultural conventions.  Scientifically, both intellect and emotion emerge from brain function.

Parshat Lech Lcha – You are My Sister

One of the principal themes of our tradition is maaseh avos siman l’banim.


The stories, narratives, and predicaments of our ancestors serve as models, predictors, of what the banim, the children, descendants – us – will live through in our own lives.
Some of these examples are more obvious than others.


Our ancestors had to leave Israel to go to Egypt – we too, live in exile.


Our ancestors struggle to keep parts of the Torah, but excel in other areas – we too struggle in parts and succeed in others.


In this week’s parsha, there are several stories which can be seen as pre-figuring future events:

Avram engages in war of the 4 vs 5 kings; and has to deal with ethics of war-time, dealing with captives; peace-making….

The incident with Hagar and Yishmael, (read on RH), which can be seen as anticipating the future relationship between Yishmael and Yitzchak – cousins who are intricately connected but vacillate between love and fighting….


Then we get the story at the end of the first aliyah. Avram and Sarai are forced to go to Egypt because of a famine.  On the way their, Avram “realizes that Sarai is beautiful”, and worries that the Egyptians will kill him on her account if they realize she’s his wife.

Why would they do that? Different explanations offered: she’s beautiful, they will want to marry her, and if she’s married, easiest solution is to off the husband.  Or they are worried that if they seize her, he’ll report their violence to the king.

But Avraham proposes: if the Egyptians think that they are siblings, then rather than kill Abe, they’ll do well by him, trying to entice the family to give Sara as a bride.


What happens? They go to Egypt, indeed Pharoah is smitten by Sara, A plague prevents the Egyptian king from touching her, and convinces him to return her to Abram and to compensate the brother-revealed-as-husband with riches and booty.


Question: huh?

How are we supposed to learn from this story?


Interestingly, it seems to prefigure a famous story… which will happen in the Torah itself!

Namely – the Israelites descending into Egypt with Joseph.  You’ve got a threat to the males, Divine intervention with the Pharoah, and leaving with great wealth.


But, if the only point of the story were to inform a later story, what message is there for us to glean from it?


Beautiful insight from the Radziner Rebbe, R. Gershon Hanoch Henech Leiner. Rebbe of Radzin, in Poland near Belarus. 19th cent., before I tell you of his insight into our story its worth sharing one fact about him.


He was known as the “baal tcheiles”: He was dedicated to the restoration of the use of tcheiles, the blue ink used in tallitot. He travelled to Italy numerous times to study at what was then one of the world’s largest aquarium in Naples.  He identified a particular squid, the cuttlefish,as the match for the original chilazon.
(Parenthetically while on those trips, legend says that he went to Rome, and convinced the Vatican to allow him to look in the catacombs at the Keilimof the Beit HaMikdash, to match the tcheilet of the kohanic garb).

His own Izbhitz chassidm, and Breslover Hassidm, took to wearing tzitzit with this new techeiles, but it didn’t catch on in the rest of yiddishkeit, and those that wear tcheilies today use the ink from a different creature.


Back to our Torah. He looked at the verse, imri na achoti at

Say I am your sister.


He says, its true, this isn’t just about Avram speaking to Sara. This is Avram and Sara, speaking to God.  Saying, God, we’re about to go down to Mitzrayim. Egypt. Leaving the good land which you promised us.  These are dark, scary times. We dont know what will be.  Please, God, say that you are our sister.
Meaning: there are two types of relationship – wife, spouse, partner, husband: choice, intimacy, a flame which burns stronger or weaker. Can end (often does).
Sister, brother, family: always there,. No choice. Not often passion, dont have to call every day. Dont have to write love poetry. But always there. Even if never talk. You dont choose. Not dependent on actions. Always there.


Saying – when we are in our darkest places, God, our bond to you is still there.  Not feel it.  Not into it. Not excited by it. But you are still my sister, my brother. Imri na achoti At.


In fact, another chassidic teacher noted that Achoti stands for

El CHai V’Kayam Tamid Yimloch Aleinu – GOD, rule over us forever….

Meaning: especially at that very moment where we feel lost, abandoned, wondering if things will be okay, we invoke Achoti, my sister, my family, remain with me.

Powerful way to imagine our relationship with God. One that is familial, in addition to being a partnership. We dont always feel the partnership aspect, but we can know that the familial remains with us.


I find this to be a compelling take on the story, and it also allows us to learn something even from this seemingly odd moment of Avraham telling Sara to lie about their relationship.


But it works very well even in the story itself. How so? Look what happens next.

Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who was with them during this travail, ends up wealthy as well.  He and Avraham split up (the midrashim discuss possible reasons why), Lot goes one way, Avraham goes another.

Their relationship soured, either a bad business deal, perhaps Lto acted unethically; Avraham realized that they didn’t share the same values, lifestyle, so they split up.


But in the next chapter, Lot is captured. And Avraham realizes – he’s family; he’s my brother (nephew, technically) – I gotta go bail him out.  That’s what family does.
Imri na Achoti At – say you are my sister;

At the best of times, our relationship with the tradition is passionate, fiery, joyful the love of a spouse. But always remember, that even when we dont feel that, the covenant is there for us as family.


Rav Eitam Henkin and Tu B’av – Parshat Noah


  • I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that a young couple Eitam and Naama were killed as they drove home with their kids in the backseat. Every death is precious, but this caught the attention of a segment of Orthodox jews in america because the father Eitam, is a member of an important Jewish family. Father, Yehuda Herzl, author of Bnei Banim, and his great grandfather was Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, major Russian rabbi who moved to America. Founded Ezras Torah: we use their luchot.


  • Opening line of our parsha:
  • אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ

Would’ve expected to hear about his progeny, but we here about what he did. Teaches us (Rashi quotes)Sh’Ikar Toldoteihem Shel Tzadikim Maasim Tovim


-As a way of giving honor to Rav Eitam, I went through his some of his work this past week.  All of it is in Hebrew, none that I can find has been translated into English.  He wrote about the rise of bug-checking in veggies, he wrote about Rav Kook, Yechiel Michel Epstein, Shmitta. He wrote in several places about the mitzvah of living in the land of Israel.  But I chose to go through a work about Tu B’Av.  Called, Tu B’Av HaM’cholot v’haChag:

Tu B’Av the Dances and the Festival.


-Minor holiday; not really observed in any way nowadays….


-But it is referred to in a way which really calls attention to it. Namely, the mishna in Taanit claims:

Amar Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel – Lo hayu Yamim Tovim l’Yisrael c’Tu B’ Av ukYom HaKippurim.


Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says, “Never were more joyous festivals in Israel than the fifteenth of Av and the Yom Kippur, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments—borrowed ones, in order not to cause shame to those who had them not of their own;—these clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus they went out and danced in the vineyards, saying, Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose [as a spouse]; regard not beauty [alone], but rather look to a virtuous family, for ‘Gracefulness is deceitful, and beauty is a vain thing, but the woman that feareth the Lord, she is worthy of praise’


  • I’d like to briefly share what I learned about R Eitam’s thought and methodology by learning this piece. Both that relate to the issue itself but also about his broader methodology and approach.


He describes various problems with this mishna, some more obvious than others. The first is that it describes single women dancing in the fields and being watched by the single men, who would choose ones as their wives. He notes that the modern standards of modesty, tzinus, which are all the rage in Israel today, would seem to completely not work with this mishna.


In dealing with this question, he raises the traditional answer to this question, which was offered by the Ritva (13th-14th cent. Spanish rabbi) who says that in this day, Jews were on such a high spiritual level, they’d defeated the yezterhara, they had nothing to fear of being tempted.


R. Eitam then dismantles this approach; respectfully, but shows from a variety of angles why it doesn’t really work. From a religious perspective, and also from other statements in the Talmud which indicate that there was no such time in Jewish history when people were at such a high level…. He says no, we have to engage with the fact that yes, the scene being described simply doesn’t work with what we know today to be the accepeted orthodox standard for male/female interactions.  Then he tries to explain why..(ultimately cites Aruch HAShulchan that the boys from Binyamin would hide in bushes and watch them… solves tznius problem)

R Eitam displays a wide breadth of knowledge both of the original sources of mishna/gemara, but also of later commentators (Ritva, Maharsha, the lesser studied Kol-Bo) in his analysis.

Not afraid to take on approaches which are considered canonical if they do not make sense.


He then examines another odd part in the mishna: Mishna seems to say that also on YK, women would go to the vineyards and dance! On YK?

-Obviously, this doesn’t seem to make sense.

-Connects it to another problem; Mishna says that bnos Yerushalaim would go out to the fields/vineyards…. whats the problem – there were no vineyards close to the Jerusalem!!!

To solve both problems, he offers up that perhaps our mishna is not the best version of the text. Notes that the Yerushalmi (and Rif, Meiri, others) has not bnos Yerushalaim, but bnot Yisrael.  Based on this, he is able to split up the mishna into a more understandable reading, wherein YK is when everyone would where white, and borrow clothes from one another; and Tu B’Av is when the girls would go dancing.


This is a great example of R Eitam’s approach. He is willing to reject the mishna’s standard text for an alternative text, based on the evidence before him. He looks at all the evidence and says, this other mishna must be authoritative. This is related to an academic talmudic approach, willingness to look at different manuscripts and choose based on reason and logic.


Lastly, he tries to give reasons for what connects these two holidays.  He poses a question raised by an earlier thinker, which asks why doesn’t the Simchat Beit HaShoeva, the water drawing ceremony of Sukkos, described as the most joy the Jews would have? Certainly that would be as joyous, if not more so than Tu B’ Av?

The answer is that on Simchas Beis HaShoeva, only the leaders of the community: scholars, Kohanim, would dance and celebrate.  But YK and Tu B’av, everyone in the nation took part. And not only that, they did so in a way that brough thtem closer together.  They borrowed each other’s clothes. They wore white so that they would be indistinguishable from one another.  Let’s look together on your sheets for his claim:


Tu b’Av was also the festival of the Jewish people – most of the reasons brought in the Talmud hinge on that, and the practices of that day point to this. “Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel says, “Never were more joyous festivals in Israel than the fifteenth of Av and the Yom Kippur”. Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, the “nation” in Israel; meaning for the society living within it. In terms of this, there were no greater days for Israel than these, for on these two days the nation of Israel were more unified than at any other time, and there can be no greater joy than the unity of the nation.(Translation: Mordechai Torczyner)


R Eitam sought in this piece, as well as in his writings on the Land of Israel and the mitzva to live there, a sense of unity, achdut within am Yisrael. This was one of his deepest yearnings, that all Jews would see themselves as one people, regardless of differences amongst them.


In his and Rebbetzin Naama’s honor, let us recommit to a pursuit of achdut within Am Yisrael.

Rosh Hashana Day 2 – The Shofar and our Best Selves

I want to think this moment about the Shofar blasts.  As we hear them blown, yesterday and today, what is the meaning? What is happening who is calling out to whom?


Is it we, the Jewish people, both as a group and each one of us individually, coming forward to cry out to Hashem: Oh God! Hear us! Remember us for good! Let us live! Judge us favorably! Or is it God, calling out to us – wake up! Hear Me! Recognize the Higher Calling! The Higher Path! Your deepest and best self must rise up!


This dual nature of the shofar has always puzzled me, I’ve struggled between the two. They are of course both there.  They even both show up in the halachic discourse about the shofar blowing.


As we will recite shortly, the bracha on shofar blowing is “shomaya kol shofar” , but there are some rishonim, early commentators, who say we should bless al tkiat shofar (RT and SMaG) – reflecting an ambiguity in whether the mitzvah is to hear, or to blow.  THis might parallel the underlying question of who is speaking to whom – if it is us to GOd, it seems more important that we blow (and maybe bracha is al tkiat shofar), but if it is God speaking to us, then maybe its shomaya kol shofar. So we see that both are present even in the halachic discussion….


Instead of trying to once and for all decide the question, I’d like to cede to the Polish Hassidic Master of the 18th cent., Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. He used to explain the shofar blasts on RH with the following story.


A queen was once traveling in the forest and lost his way, until she met a man who recognized that she was the queen and escorted his master out of the forest and back to her palace. The queen later rewarded him with many presents, and elevated him to a powerful minister’s post.

After a while, however, the man committed an act which was considered rebellious against the queen , and he was sentenced to death. Before he was taken out to be executed, the queen granted him one last request.

The man said: “I request to wear the clothes I wore when I escorted Her Majesty when he was lost in the forest, and that Her Majesty should also wear the clothes she wore then.”

The queen complied, and when they were both dressed in the garments they wore at the time of their meeting, she said, “By your life, you have saved yourself,” and called off the execution. (Excerpted from R Eli Freedman, Days of Awe, Days of Joy.)


According to R Levi Yitzchak – The Queen is God; the peasants in the forest are the other nations; the wise peasant is Israel, the day of the trial is Rosh Hashana, and the original clothing is the shofar.

God was “lost in the forest”, as it were, no one was proclaiming God champion, no one identified the underlying unity of the world before the Jewish people, before Avraham.  All the nations were peasants, and one peasant nation had just enough faith to recognize the Queen.  We held hands as we walked the Queen back to the Palace.  We became ennobled.  We were bold, strong and proud.

And then we sinned.  All the Glory we had attained was lost.  We were lowered to the bottom rung yet again, deserving of death.  Comes RH, the day of judgment, and we are afraid. Yom HaDin, we want Sefer HaChaim, the Book of Life.  SO what do we do – we put back on our old clothes, our original garment – the Shofar.


In what way is the Shofar our original garment? The Shofar symbolizes many things, but one of the most potent and poignant is Akeidat Yitzchak, from today’s Torah reading.  The ram in the thicket caught by its horns- vaYar v’Heenay Ayil Achar ne’echaz bas’vach b’karnav. The horns of the ram – the Shofar – a reminder of our spiritual father and founder, Avraham, the ultimate sacrifice that he was prepared to make.  And not just Avraham, but Jews in the centuries and centuries since – the deep sacrifices that so many of them made, and were ready to make, to defend, protect and honor the legacy of yiddishkeit.

So today, on Yom HaDin, we invoke this legacy, of Avraham and our ancestors after him, women and men of valor and faith.

How – we blow the shofar.

And – its so beautiful to think about – it works. God is so moved by the remembrance of our earlier, best self – of our original garment when we found God wandering in the woods, that God is moved.  God grants us clemency.  God returns us to life.

Picture this, then, as the shofar is sounded – we are crying out to GOd, and God is crying out to us – I’m sorry, I forgive you, I love you, I love you. We want to return to You – Return to Me.

The shofar blast is child and parent, subject and ruler, two friends, two trusted confidantes, two lovers, trying fitfully, to return to one another.

If R Levi Yitzchak is correct, and this is a proper framing of the shofar moment, then this is truly an ambivalent moment.  For on the one hand we are having an emotionally heavy and fraught expression of re-connection with Hashem.  BUt on the other hand, it is a moment of deep shame; embarrassment, busha. In trying to remind Hashem of our illustrious pasts” (Norman Lamm), we are confronted by how far we’ve fallen – as a people, and individually.

And how far have we indeed fallen? Where is our commitment to yiddishkeit? TO prayer? To learning? TO observance, to the commandments? How many times a day, a week, a month? DO we open up a book of Jewish learning? Even once a month? How often do we say the Shema, morning at night? More than three times a year? Or for those who come to shabbat services – once a week?

How many men lay tefillin every day? How many of us have grown in our kashrut observance? Do we have fidelity to Jewish beliefs? Or to the political beliefs of our parents, and the popular interests of the masses?


Our people have fallen; and today, on RH, we must confront that, mourn that, and sincerely desire to re-connect to GOd.

As Rabbi Norman Lamm put it beautifully,

The shofar – “This token, this symbol, is effective in stirring God’s compassion towards us for this coming year, only as we allow it to affect our own inward feelings.  When we turn with regret to view our year just past, and determine with high resolve that this coming year we shall return to God and never betray Him again, then the Shofar will remind the Almighty King of the Universe that we indeed are His beloved people in Israel.”


As we turn now to the shofar service, we will recall ourselves calling out to God, God calling out to us, and our deepest desire for us to be reunited in faith and action.


Rosh Hashana Day 1 – Our Chosen Blindnesses

Rosh Hashana Day 1


On July 1st, a new worldwide celebrity burst onto the scene.


Cecil the Lion


He was hunted and killed in a national park in Zimbabwe.  Oh, the outcry! Cecil became a brief cause celebre, everyone mourning the death of this beautiful, innocent creature.  And how the hunter was condemned; death threats, protests as he went back to work last week.


And, we must admit, it was sad to hear about the death of this lion.  But , where is the outcry over the other lions being hunted, all the time, throughout africa? Thousands of lions have been killed, hunted for sport, in recent years.
ANd what about elephants, of whom hunting for ivory, or sport, is decimating their population? Where are the talking heads on CNN bemoaning the killed elephants?


What about all the cows being killed? According to the USDA report for 2013, there are almost 100,000 cows and heifers killed in the US – daily. Today -100000 cows killed. And unlike Cecil, most of these cows did not freely roam the pastures soaking up the sun, before their death.  It was a more brief, unkind existence.


The truth is – we know about these things, but we dont really want to know.


We choose to look away from facts and realities that we do not wish to confront.

When a lion is killed that has a name- Cecil – it wakes us up from our self-induced blindness on this issue, but only for a moment.  We soon stop caring about Cecil, or other lions, elephants, cows.


In today’s Torah reading, we learn of the birth of a child to an infertile woman (which is also what the Haftarah takes up as a theme). This alone could be the message of today’s reading: focus on the incalculable worth, the infinite depth, of a single human life.


But the reading does not end with the birth of Isaac to Sarah.  It continues to describe the story of Hagar and Yishmael, the other part of the Abrahamic family, who are cast out on Sarah’s orders.


Sarah does not like the way that Yishmael and Isaac interact, and over Avraham’s initial resistance, the mother and son are sent away, presumably to die in the desert.


As Hagar weeps over their impending death, God hears the voice of the child crying out, and saves them.  The Torah tells us,


VayifKach Elohim et Aineha vaTeireh B’air Mayim.  God opened her eyes and she saw a well, and she went and filled the flask with water, and helped the boy to drink.


What does this mean – God opened her eyes, and she saw a well.


Had she not seen it previously? Had there been an actual well there which this woman, dying of thirst and scared for her son as well – she had just missed it? What is going on here?


(Side note: one can visit this well today, in Yerucham, in the northern negev, the local arab population calls it Bir Rachma, “Well of mercy”.)

Midrash Rabbah 53:14

אמר רבי בנימין הכל בחזקת סומין עד שהקדוש ברוך הוא מאיר את עיניהם מן הכא ויפקח אלהים את עיניה ותלך ותמלא את החמת הדא אמרת מחוסרת אמנה היתה

We all have the status of blind ones, until the Holy One opens our eyes.


HaKol b’Chezkat Sumin – we are all assumed to be blind….


This is the deep insight of today’s Torah reading, and in a sense of Rosh Hashana.


And not just the Torah reading, but the message of the shofar as well.

The blasts of the shofar are meant to get us to open our eyes! To wake up!


But are we really blind? Do we really need to be woken up?


The gemara discusses the recitation of the Shema, and asks whether someone who is in a drowsy stupor can fully recite the Shema appropriately.  This status is called mitnamnem.  This means they are half awake, and half asleep.  If you ask them a question, they may be able to reply, but they are not fully with it, and will immediately fall back asleep.


This is like in class, growing up.  If you had tuned the teacher out, and then they call on you – “What did I just say?” You may be able to turn the tape back and repeat their last sentence, but you dont really know whats going on in a meaningful way.


In this sense, we are all guilty of going through life to a degree, like the mitnamnem.  half with it, half out of it.  Half awake, half asleep.  Like Hagar, we are not fully aware of everything going on around us.


And therefore, Rosh Hashana comes as  a moment of awakening.  Of opening our eyes.  The assumption is hakol b’chezkat Sumin, we are all blind, so we need RH to help us open our eyes.


In what ways do we experience this blindness? In two arenas – in our self-perception, how we see ourselves, and how we see the world around us.


Self – perception:

STORY from R. Yisroel of Rhizin – A poor person was hungry and had heard that in the next town there was a wealthy individual who invited in every collector and treated them to a large warm meal, and at the end of the meal, he would present a handsome check to each collector before appropriately sending him on his way. You can imagine then, the excitement of our collector – who came to the town and came to what he thought was the home of the wealthy Nadvan. He knocked and came face to face with the Nadvan’s neighbor – an extremely miserly man. When asked about perhaps finding a place to eat, the miser told him “sure – but I’m not into freebies” He took the man and gave him a number of projects to complete. The collector found it odd to be working for a meal as he had not heard about this part of the gig. However, he obliged. After he finished working, the miser told him it was time to eat and took him across the way into the home of the wealthy, charitable soul, and sat him with the other collectors where he proceeded to eat a meal that was truly fit for a king. The poor person was so happy to sit down at this wonderful meal.  He had worked hard, endeavored, and had earned this food in front of him.  And the miser had told him that if he returned to his house the next day for more work, the miser would take him back to this same house again at night.  The poor person was feeling very good about his situation.

As he ate, he turned to the person eating at his left.  He asked him, what kind of work they had to do in order to be allowed to sit down at the table.” Work? I didn’t have to work, I just showed up here to eat. “ The man couldn’t believe it – he turned to the person on his right – same story. The man you worked for last night is not the same man feeding you right now.

The man’s assumptions were shattered.  He became very angry.  I worked hard, I deserve more than what you all have. The beautiful meal he was eating turned bitter in his mouth – he could no longer eat.  He left the wealthy man’s house, and did not return. (based on R Jonathan Schwartz)


What happened to this man? he was perfectly happy, content, even proud of his day.  But he allowed the story of his neighbors to trump his own happiness.  He shunned the very thing he had been seeking, which God had provided him.  But ultimately, he is like Hagar; unable to see the beautiful well which God had provided him, right before his eyes.


The Mishna in Pirkei Avos has always struck me as the most concise, striking articulation of what can cause a person to be blind to the world around them.  Rav Elazar HaKafar says in Pirkei Avos 4:28, three things take a man out of the world: Jealousy, Lust, and the Pursuit of Honor.   (Repeat list). jealousy, lust, honor – perhaps you find one of these is your own particular weakness, deficiency – or yours isnt on this list.  I think in the story I just told, he beggar suffered both from a bit of jealousy, a bit of desire for honor and respect, maybe something else…
But whatever it is that takes you out of the world, as Rav Elazar says; today, Hayom, is the moment to own up to it, to confront it squarely, and to attempt to see the world more clearly, out from under its weight. To see both the well in front of us, and to know what usually blocks us from seeing it.


If you haven’t taken the time yet this season to think about your own stumbling blocks, your own blindnesses, those things that take you out of the world; it is time today to get to work.


Then we come to the blindness in our relationship with the rest of the world.

I opened with some examples of blindness in the way we relate to the world – namely, our choice to not see the slaughter of animals, worldwide, and the ways that we participate in this slaughter.


But we needn’t limit our discussion to animals – there is blindness regarding the plight of humans.


The refugees leaving the war in Syria: over 9 million Syrian displaced, over 200,000 killed in Syria, or died leaving.  And we know these things, they trouble us, we put it out of our minds.

And then, two weeks ago Aylan Kurdi a 2 year old boy, drowned as his family tried to make it to Greece. The picture of his dead body, lying in the sand, aroused world condemnation, acknowledgment of the plight of syrian refugees.  Again, one name, one picture rouses us from our stupor; and we shall see for how long it lasts.


Our ability, or preference perhaps, to live life aware, but unaware, mitnamnem, can be  unconscious, or it can be willful, or other times it can be perpetrated upon us as well by the media, or by other institutions of power.


In his instructive and scathing book, Between the World and Me, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the way in which Americans choose to look away often from the legacy of racism in America. He says, “THere exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.  And it is so easy to look away…”

It is so easy to look away.  HaKol B’chezkat Sumin.


I am not, here, proposing a solution for what to do about elephant poaching, or how to address the industrial system of animal slaughter in our country, or how to deal with the syrian refugee crisis, or the ongoing legacy of racism (though I have thoughts on all of those things!). Rather, I use these as examples of the ways in which we live our lives without seeing the truth that is often in front of us.


Similarly, it is up to each person to figure out what is blocking them from seeing themselves clearly, to work through their own issues of self-perception and awareness – I have here only mentioned that the phenomenon exists.


Today, Rosh Hashana, our task, through the davening, through hearing the shofar, is to try and wake up.  To take off our blinders. TO see the well in front of us.


As we enter into the Musaf service, this is what the Malchuyot section is about.  Translated as Kingship, what it really speaks to is the acknowledgement that we are all part of a universal system that we call Hashem, God. We must recognize this ultimate reality, to see our place in it.  As the Machzor states, and we will read this in just minutes from now:

Veyeda kol pa’ul ki ata pe-alto veyavin kol yetzur ki ata yetzarto

We pray that every living thing, every created thing: creature, humans, objects, will “know” that they are all intricately connected to each other and to God.  We pray to God to help us clearly see our place in the vast system of Creation. We pray that, like Hagar, we will be able to see.

Korach – Strict Justice vs Mediation in Judaism


R Gabe Greenberg, 6-18-2015


  1. Midrash Rabbah 18:9

כל הדברים האלו פייס משה לקרח ואין את מוצא שהשיבו דבר לפי שהיה פקח ברשעו אמר אם אני משיבו יודע אני בו שהוא חכם גדול ועכשיו יקפחני בדבריו ואני מתרצה לו בעל כרחי מוטב שלא אזקק לו כשראה משה שאין בו תועלת פירש הימנו.

With all these arguments Moses tried to win Korach over, yet you do not find that the latter returned him any answer.  This was because he was clever in his wickedness and thought: If I answer him, I know quite well that he is a very wise man and will presently overwhelm me  be reconciled to him against my will. It is better that I should not join issue with him.  WHen Moses saw that he could do nothing with him he took leave of him.

2. Mishna, Pirkei Avot

כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:

Any argument which is for the sake of heaven will ultimately endure.  Any argument which is not for the sake of heaven will ultimately not endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? – That of Hillel and Shammai. And what is an example of an argument which is not for the sake of heaven? – That of Korach and his peers.


The Concept of P’sharah, Arbitration

3. Talmud Sanhedrin 6b

R. Eliezer the son of R. Jose the Galilean says: It is forbidden to arbitrate in a settlement, and he who arbitrates thus offends…rather, let the law cut through the mountain  for it is written, For the judgment is God’s. And so Moses’s motto was: Let the law cut through the mountain. Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man, as it is written, The law of truth was in his mouth, unrighteousness was not found in his lips, he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity….

R. Judah b. Korha says: Settlement by arbitration is a meritorious act, for it is written, Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates.  Surely where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no strict justice! But what is that kind of justice with which peace abides? — We must say: Arbitration.  So it was in the case of David, as we read, And David executed justice and righteousness [charity] towards all his people. Surely where there is strict justice there is no charity, and where there is charity, there is no justice! But what is the kind of justice with which abides charity? — We must say: Arbitration.

4. Rambam, Laws of the Sanhedrin 22:4

מצוה לומר לבעלי דינים בתחילה בדין אתם רוצים או בפשרה אם רצו בפשרה עושין ביניהן פשרה וכל בית דין שעושין פשרה תמיד הרי זה משובח ועליו נאמר משפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם אי זהו משפט שיש עמו שלום הוי אומר זה ביצוע וכן בדוד הוא אומר ויהי דוד עושה משפט וצדקה לכל עמו איזהו משפט שיש עמו צדקה הוי אומר זהו ביצוע והיא הפשרה בד”א קודם גמר דין אע”פ ששמע דבריהם וידע להיכן הדין נוטה מצוה לבצוע אבל אחרי שגמר הדין ואמר איש פלוני אתה זכאי איש פלוני אתה חייב אינו רשאי לעשות פשרה ביניהן אלא יקוב הדין את ההר.


It is a Mitzvah to tell the parties at the beginning ‘do you want Din (strict justice), or Pesharah (arbitration)?’ If they want Pesharah, we compromise for them. A Beis Din that always does Pesharah is praiseworthy. Of them the verse says, “A just peace was made in your gates.” What kind of peace is also justice? We must conclude that this is Pesharah. As it is stated regarding King David, “And David made justice and righteousness to the nation.” What is the justice that has with it righteousness? We must conclude that it is arbitration.  This is before the verdict, even if you heard their words and know which way the verdict leans. Once the case finished, and he said “Frank, you are liable, Earl, you are innocent,” you may not do Pesharah, rather, let the Din pierce the mountain.


Lunch and Learn – Secular Courts in Jewish Law

Lunch and Learn – Secular Courts in Jewish Law

R. Gabriel Greenberg, Congregation Beth Israel

1. Exodus 21:1

וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם:

And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them.


2. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki on Ex 21:1

לפניהם. ולא לפני גוים, ואפילו ידעת בדין אחד שהם דנין אותו כדיני ישראל, אל תביאהו בערכאות שלהם, שהמביא דיני ישראל לפני גוים מחלל את השם ומיקר שם עבודה זרה להחשיבה, שנאמר (דברים לב לא) כי לא כצורנו צורם ואויבינו פלילים, כשאויבינו פלילים זהו עדות לעלוי יראתם

But not before gentiles. Even if you know that they [gentiles] judge a certain law similarly to the laws of Israel, do not bring it to their courts, for one who brings Jewish lawsuits before gentiles profanes the [Divine] Name and honors the name of other deities in giving them importance, as it is said: “For not like our Rock is their rock, but [yet] our enemies judge [us]” (Deut. 32:31). Which means – When [we let] our enemies judge [us], this is testimony to [our] esteem of their deity…

3. Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 26:1 (16th cent. Israel)

אסור לדון בפני דייני עכו”ם ובערכאות שלהם(פי’ מושב קבוע לשרים לדון בו) אפי’ בדין שדנים בדיני ישראל ואפי’ נתרצו ב’ בעלי דינים לדון בפניהם אסור וכל הבא לדון בפניהם הרי זה רשע וכאילו חירף וגידף והרים יד בתורת מרע”ה: הגה: ויש ביד ב”ד לנדותו ולהחרימו

It is prohibited to go in for judgement before gentile judges or a gentile court, even if they were to judge according to how Jewish law would rule in a particular case, and even if both parties – the plaintiff and defendant – had agreed to go in for judgment by these judges. It is nevertheless prohibited, and any who use these courts is a rasha (evil one), and it is as if they have insulted and raised their hand against the Torah of Moses. ReMah: the Jewish courts may excommunicate such a person…


4. Aruch HaShulchan, Choshen Mishpat  388:7 (19th cent. Russia)

As is widely known, in times of old in places far away, no person had any assurance in the safety of his life or money because of the pirates and bandits, even if they took upon themselves the form of government. It is known that this is true nowadays in some places in Africa where the government itself is grounded in theft and robbery. One should remind people of the kingdoms in Europe and particularly our ruler the Czar and his predecessors, and the kings of England, who spread their influence over many lands in order that people should have confidence in the security of their body and money. The wealthy do not have to hide themselves so that others will not loot or kill them, as they have a system of justice to protect them…. On all of this [the presence of looting and killing] hinges the rules of informing [moser] and slandering [malshin] in the talmud and later authorities….

  1. Jewish Daily Forward, 2/8/2013, “Victory for Chained Wives”

In his opinion, Judge Mark Gould found that enforcing the BDA prenup was no different from enforcing a secular contract. He cited several precedents where secular courts had enforced Jewish and Islamic marriage contracts, including Odatalla v. Odatalla , when a New Jersey court enforced an Islamic mahr agreement — a payment made by a groom to his bride upon their marriage — which had been signed in Iran.

Gould noted that the Odatalla case relied on three prior decisions related to Jewish religious divorce. In the best known of the three, Avitzur v. Avitzur , the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 1983 that it was constitutional for a secular court to enforce a ketubah , or marriage contract, drawn up by Conservative Jewry to prevent agunot.

6. United States Court of Appeals,Second Circuit.

COMMACK SELF–SERVICE KOSHER MEATS, INC., v. Patrick HOOKER, Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Markets of the State of New York – Decided: May 10, 2012


Plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of New York State’s kosher labeling and marketing statutes, enacted as the Kosher Law Protection Act of 2004 (the “Kosher Act” or “Act”)….The court found that the challenged laws do not violate the Establishment or Free Exercise Clauses and are not unconstitutionally vague.

For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


Plaintiff–Appellant Commack Kosher is a delicatessen and butcher shop in Commack, New York, that specializes in kosher foods. Commack Kosher operates under the kosher supervision of Rabbi William Berman, a Rabbi of a Conservative Jewish Synagogue.

In 1996, the plaintiffs filed an action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, challenging the constitutionality of the prior version of the Kosher Act that imposed inspection and labeling requirements on food marketed as kosher. The plaintiffs alleged that those statutes violated the religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution… During that litigation, the plaintiffs challenged only the portions of the law which “define[d] kosher as prepared in accordance with orthodox Hebrew religious requirements, require[d] adherence to those requirements, or [we]re integral to the State’s enforcement of such requirements.” In 2000, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the challenged portions of the law facially violated the Establishment Clause because that version of the Kosher Act required state officials to apply religious doctrine—namely Orthodox Jewish standards of kashrut—in order to determine whether the food was kosher. On appeal, this Court agreed, noting that although the State had a valid interest in protecting the general public against fraud in the marketing of kosher food, the challenged laws violated the Establishment Clause “by fostering excessive State entanglement with religion and by producing a primary effect that both advances and inhibits religion.” Specifically, the challenged laws excessively entangled the State with religion because, “the challenged laws interpret[ed] ‘kosher’ as synonymous with the views of one branch [of Judaism], those of Orthodox Judaism.” The prior Kosher Act also had the effect of both advancing religion, namely the dietary restrictions of Orthodox Judaism, and inhibiting religion, by preventing labeling of food products as kosher that did not meet the Orthodox Jewish religious requirements.

Following this Court’s decision, the New York State Legislature passed the Kosher Law Protection Act of 2004. This law repealed certain sections of the prior Kosher Act…The new Kosher Act imposed requirements on sellers and manufacturers that market their food products as “kosher” to label those foods as kosher and to identify the individuals certifying their kosher nature, but did not define kosher or authorize state inspectors to determine the kosher nature of the products.


Parshat BaMidbar – The LEgacy of Giving and Spiritual Parenthood


1These are the descendants of Moses and Aaron on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai. אוְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת אַהֲרֹן וּמשֶׁה בְּיוֹם דִּבֶּר יְהוָֹה אֶת משֶׁה בְּהַר סִינָי:


The verse seems to be missing something.  “Here are the descendants of Moshe and Aharon”, and then goes on to say


וְאֵ֛לֶּה שְׁמ֥וֹת בְּֽנֵי־אַהֲרֹ֖ן הַבְּכ֣וֹר ׀ נָדָ֑ב וַאֲבִיה֕וּא אֶלְעָזָ֖ר וְאִיתָמָֽר


It only in fact lists the children of AHaron.


Two explanations given:


THe Rashbam notes that this makes total sense. In this Parsha, The Torah has counted the descendants of the people at large, followed by that of the Kohanim, and now the L’vi’im.  Basically, says the Rashbam, the TOrah includes Moshe’s children within the general camp of the Levi’im, as in verse 27 the Torah states Kehat, the family of Amram, the family of YItzhar.”  BUt Aharon’s have the additional distinction of being sanctified, and are mentioned specifically.


The second approach is offered by the midrash and quoted by Rashi.  Rashi:


These are the descendants of Moses and Aaron: Yet only the sons of Aaron are mentioned. However, they are considered descendants of Moses because he taught them Torah. This teaches us that whoever teaches Torah to the son of his fellow man, Scripture regards it as if he had begotten him – [Sanh. 19b] ואלה תולדת אהרן ומשה: ואינו מזכיר אלא בני אהרן. ונקראו תולדות משה, לפי שלמדן תורה. מלמד שכל המלמד את בן חבירו תורה, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו ילדו:
on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses: they became his descendants, because he taught them what he had learned from the Almighty. ביום דבר ה’ את משה: נעשו אלו התולדות שלו, שלמדן מה שלמד מפי הגבורה


What a fascinating idea. That by teaching someone else, by bringing them further into the tradition, you become, as it were, a parent to them.
Is this only true of Moses – maybe -because he taught the nation Torah, learned it from Sinai? I don’t believe so.  In Jewish law there are several times when the community takes on parental roles and responsibilities.  For Instance, if there is a jewish boy born, and his parents do not, or cannot circumcise him, for whatever reason, it falls onto the community to do so, acting as his parents.  If a bride wants to get married and cant afford the dowry,the community is supposed to take on that obligation to help marry off the bride.


So there are actually a variety of ways that a person or group of people, the community, can become , as it were, like the parents, as Rashi suggests.


Its not just mitzvot that can do this, but other actions in the world.


The story is told of an Israeli doctor, who specialized in transplant surgery, a very delicate and stressful occupation.


Before every surgery, the doctor would step outside and smoke a cigarette. He said it helped calm his nerves, relax him before the big surgery.


Over the years, he became more observant, and ultimately began keeping Shabbat.  HOwever, due to the nature of his profession, he was often asked to work on SHabbat. Now, this is of course permitted – pikuach nefesh is docheh Shabbas, we do whatever we need to help save someone’s life, or even limb, on shabbat.


But a really interesting question emerged: – was he still allowed to smoke his cigarette on Shabbat?


He said he needed it… the question was ultimately brought to Rav Yosef Elyashiv, the pre-eminent halachic of the late 20th cent. in Israel of Lithuanian Jewry.


Rav Elyashiv gave a great answer, that relates to our idea from earlier: he said, two things:


  1. Smoking is assur.  Stop doing it.
  2. Imagine that each of your patients is our own child.  If you were operating on your own child, and I said you couldn’t have a cigarette, are you really telling me that you wouldn’t be able to muster your best skills, all of your cohot, your powers? No – you’d still perform at your best.

And, says, R. Elyashiv, its true, each of your patients, becomes, in a way, like your own child. So you must treat them like this, and you may not smoke a cigarette on shabbas before the operation.


INteresting tangent, some rabbis have ruled differently, that if the doctor still thinks he’ll be better with the cigarette, perhaps he can.
But the point for us is that R. Elyashiv says – a doctor to his patients can also be like a parent to children.


THis shows us that really, any person who is bestowing kindness, chesed, to another becomes in a way like their spiritual parent.


I was thinking about this fact this week, after we lost Gertrude Beerman.  In many ways, Gertrude exemplified this very quality.  She always was so gracious and friendly, and particularly with the children of the shul.  THey all loved her, and she them, and she gave them all gifts and would love to laugh with them.

From Moshe who became the spiritual parent of the Jews by teaching them TOrah, to the doctor who had to see himself as a parent treating his children, to Gertrude who was the spiritual bubbe to kids in the shul, we all have the capabililty to give to others, bestowing chessed and becoming spiritual parents and guardians to the next generations.

We should be zoche – we should merit, to act in the memory of Gertrude, Gitel Ruchel bat Sigmund v’Sara, and to pass on our own legacies and kindnesses to those around us.


Parshat Behar-Behukotai

This past shabbat we heard a guest sermon from Head of School Sharon Pollin of the Jewish Community Day School.  She spoke beautifully and powerfully about the connection between the Shmitta (Sabbatical Year), education, and the future of our own Jewish community in New Orleans.  I’m sharing her talk with us here.   Beth Israel Drash



Shavua tov,
Rabbi Greenberg

Parshat Emor – Shtei HaLechem Jews and Omer Jews

As you know, we have been counting the omer in this period between Pesach and Shavuot.


THe count of the omer really represents the move from one offering to another – the Omer offering on PEsach, to the shtei halechem offering on Shavuot.


THe omer offering is a sheaf of barley, the grain in ISrael which ripens first.  This sheaf is brought to the Temple; and in so doing, now all of the grain can be eaten for the new year.


We then begin counting, 49 days, until the bringing of another grain offering that of the shtei haLechem.  Two loaves of bread made of wheat.  This is seen as the highest form of grain offering – bread.


So the omer count is a movement from barley, the lowest form, to wheat, the highest.


Now – if that is the case, we then have to note an interesting thing: that bringing of the omer is described in our parsha as reishitרֵאשִׁית קְצִירְכֶם
This implies the “first”, from a temporal standpoint – the barley was first to ripen


But reishitcan also imply the best of – and we have to note that the bringing ofthe barley permits the eating of all types of grain, even those “higher” than it. We would therfore expect that the omer should be brought from the best part of the crop, the choicest grain – wheat.


What can we learn from this commandment?


There are two categories of people, regarding religious observance:


THe first are the many fine punctilious Jews whom we could characterize as “shtei ha-lechem” Jews. Every aspect of God’s service must always be “le-khatchila,” in the best possible way. Any other kind of service has no value in their eyes. According to this approach, we would never dare bring mere barley as a Temple offering.

Yet what can we do – “first” means not only “best” but also the temporal first, and barley just happens to ripen months before wheat. In commanding the bringing of the omer, the Torah seems to be telling us: Don’t be a “shtei ha-lechem Jew.” Of course, God’s service demands the best, but the best is determined in practice according to what is possible and practical. If the only grain available at Pesach is barley, then by all means bring barley to the altar!


This seems to indicate that we should be the second type – Omer Jews – settling for second best, reconciling ourselves to what’s available in a certain situation? The Torah rejects this extreme also. We ARE allowed, and even commanded, to bring barley – on the condition that we IMMEDIATELY begin counting the days towards the time when we will be able to fulfill the mitzva of bringing the new grain crop to the Temple in its fullest glory – the “first fruits” of the wheat crop represented by the two loaves. God’s forbearance towards us should never be an excuse for indolence.

The ideal, then, seems to be this middle ground between the two camps – we have to Omer Jews at certain points, but yet we strive to be Shtei HaLechem Jews – and the counting of the omer between the two hits this connection home…


In thinking about these categories, I thought of two examples outside of the Jewish world that were reflective of these ideas.


The notion of being an OMer offering individual, again, is that you use what is available to you at that moment.


As some of you know, we’ve dbeen doing some building in the backyard.  WHen building, you have options.  You can buy the best and most expensive items… you can also use salvaged, used materials.  We tend to do a mix of the two, and in our building, i’ve had opportunity to visit the Green Project.


The Green Project’s mission is to develop a culture of creative reuse by building a marketplace for reclaimed materials and cultivating a respect for their value.  In carrying out this mission our warehouse store diverts an average of 6 tons of usable materials from landfills EACH DAY,  keeps 40,000 gallons of paint from finding our marshes annually, and prevents green house gasses from being produced.


The Green Project is an Omer offering approach to building.  Use what is available when you need it, even if not of the highest quality – it gets the job done, and in the case of the Green project, it has positive environmental effects as well.


When thining about the  Shtei HaLechem type of person, one thinks about the person for whom every step must be absolutely correct.  These are the punctilious, the perfectionists.  Passing on the good, in favor of the great.  There are of course many examples of these – but one that comes to mind easily is Steve JObs.


seemingly everyone on the planet knows, Steve Jobs’s defining quality was perfectionism. The development of the Macintosh, for instance, took more than three years, because of Jobs’s obsession with detail. He nixed the idea of an internal fan, because he thought it was noisy and clumsy. And he wanted his engineers to redesign the Mac’s motherboard, just because it looked inelegant. At NeXT, the company Jobs started after being nudged out of Apple, in 1985, he drove his hardware team crazy in order to make a computer that was a sleek, gorgeous magnesium cube. After his return to Apple, in 1997, he got personally involved with things like how many screws there were in a laptop case. It took six months until he was happy with the way that scroll bars in OS X worked. Jobs believed that, for an object to resonate with consumers, every piece of it had to be right, even the ones you couldn’t see.


It could be literally expensive: back in the eighties, Jobs insisted that in magazine ads and on packages the Apple logo be printed in six colors, not four, which was thirty to forty per cent more expensive. And there were more important costs: Jobs’s vision required Apple to control every part of the user experience, and to make everything it possibly could itself. Its hardware was proprietary: the company had its own Mac factory and favored unique cables, disk drives, and power cords, rather than standardized ones. Its software was proprietary, too: if you wanted to run Apple software, you needed to own an Apple computer. This made Apple’s computers more expensive than the competition. It also made them hard to customize, which businesses didn’t like. So, while Apple changed the world of computing in the eighties, with machines that were more user-friendly and powerful than your typical I.B.M. clone, most users never touched a Macintosh. They ended up with P.C.s instead.

Jobs followed the Shtei HaLechem model – wait until you can do things exactly the right way.  Even if not everyone can follow you there.
BUt as I mentioned earlier, the TOrah seems to indicate that the best path is the middle path – finding ways to temper this punctiliousness with a dose of realism and accessibility.


… But his obsession with control had been tempered: he was better, you might say, at playing with others, and this was crucial to the extraordinary success that Apple has enjoyed over the past decade. Take the iPod. The old Jobs might well have insisted that the iPod play only songs encoded in Apple’s favored digital format, the A.A.C. This would have allowed Apple to control the user experience, but it would also have limited the iPod market, since millions of people already had MP3s. So Apple made the iPod MP3-compatible. (Sony, by contrast, made its first digital music players compatible only with files in Sony’s proprietary format, and they bombed as a result.) Similarly, Jobs could have insisted, as he originally intended, that iPods and iTunes work only with Macs. But that would have cut the company off from the vast majority of computer users. So in 2002 Apple launched a Windows-compatible iPod, and sales skyrocketed soon afterward. And, while Apple’s designs are as distinctive as ever, the devices now rely less on proprietary hardware and more on standardized technologies (from New Yorker article, 2011).

The iPhone signalled a further loosening of the reins. Although Apple makes the phone and the operating system itself, and although every app is sold through the App Store, the system is far more open than the Mac ever was: there are more than four hundred thousand iPhone apps written by outside developers. Some are even designed by Apple’s competitors—you can read on the Kindle app instead of using iBooks—and many are so inelegant that Jobs must have hated them. Such apps make the iPhone messier than it would otherwise be, but they also make it much more valuable. The old Jobs might well have tried, in the interest of quality, to contain the number of apps: he always talked about how saying no to ideas was as important as saying yes. Though Apple does vet apps to some extent, the new Jobs essentially said, Let a thousand flowers bloom.

In this period between Pesach and Shavuot, we are called upon to count the omer, to heed the call of God and find the middle path between being Omer Jews and Shtei HaLechem, two-loaves Jews.  We accept that fact that often our lives and our religious lives are centered around what we can do, what we can muster, what we can afford, at that moment and at that time.  But we must strive for the perfection, we strive to improve, to do more, to learn more, to daven more.  And we pray that counting the omer up to Shavuot will help us get there.


Parsha Study April 30th and May 7th, Acharei – Kedoshim and Emor




Letter to the leadership of the Jewish National Fund’s Southern Region

To Beth Gluck, the Director of JNF’s Southern Region:

My name is Gabriel Greenberg. I am the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern-Orthodox, community synagogue in the greater New Orleans area.

Our congregation is deeply committed to supporting the people of Israel, and the land of Israel, and the State of Israel.  We also have had a significant relationship with JNF in the past, and my predecessor was a member of the JNF Rabbinic Solidarity Mission to Israel in 2009.

One of the many reasons we as a community stand up for Israel is due to its progressive record on LGBTQ rights. This is one of the things that buttresses Israel’s claim towards being a bastion of Western values in the Middle East.

The importance of this record is why it is so puzzling, and even upsetting, that JNF would choose to honor to Dr. Charles Stanley with the Tree of Life award. Dr. Stanley is well-known for his homophobia and anti-gay statements made in writings and speeches, as I am sure you are well aware.



On our shul’s website, we have a page entitled “Our Values.” One of these is: “Recognizing Eretz Yisrael as our homeland and affirming the religious and historical significance of the State of Israel for all Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.”  Another one of the values is: “our commitment to providing a safe space for Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Queer Jews.”  This might seem surprising coming from an Orthodox synagogue; but there is in fact no difficulty in recognizing the Torah’s claims in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13, and yet still advocating for full protection, rights and inclusion of LGBTQ people, both in our Jewish communities and in the world.

By honoring someone who maligns this community, the JNF has placed us in a position of ‘tartei d’satrei’, a talmudic term indicating a contradiction between two values or assertions. As a community that is deeply committed to the inclusion of Jews of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, we ask that you, Mrs. Gluck, demand the revocation of the award to be given to Dr. Stanley on April 23rd.

Thank you,

Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg




Bircat Kohanim on Shabbat Yom Tov

One of the highlights of the Yamim Tovim is that, in America at least, it is the time for Birkat Kohanim.


I say, “in America at least,” because in Israel in many shuls the practise is for the Cohanim to bentsch everyday, and it is worth mentioning that for many Sefardim worldwide the custom is to bentsch everyday as well.


There is nothing intrinsic about the custom that would make one think it should only be done periodically – whether daily, or weekly – so the onus seems to be on the ashkenazi diasporic custom to prove itself: that is, why do we only have Birkat Kohanim during Yom Tov?


-And then there is a subsidiary question, which is: do we still have Birkat Kohanim when YT falls on Shabbat?

Lets review a bit of the background material and then address our question as it relates to Beth Israel.


There are two major reasons discussed by the rishonim and achronim as to why it is not done every day.


The first, which surfaces in Italy in the 15th century, is that there was a hesitancy to do Birkat Kohanim in a state of impurity – including the impurity that follows from a sexual intimacy.  Doing BK after sex would require mikvah, and it was unrealistic that the Kohanim in the community would all go to the mikvah every day. So BK became a more periodic custom.

Now, as many commentators have noted, this explanation holds very little water. There’s no requirement to mikvah after sex, one may certainly do BK without it, BK is d’orysa, and Jews all over the world don’t seem bothered by this. So that argument is quite week.


The second reason is raised by the Rema, Rav Moshe Isserles, the 16th Polish rabbi who’s gloss on the Shulchan Aruch is considered authoritative for Ashkenazi practise.  The Rema notes a second reason; namely, that one of the prerequisites for BK is that the kohen be in a happy, positive mood.  The Kohein must feel whole-hearted towards his fellow jews in order to bestow blessing upon them. And, according to the Rema, this is not possible on a daily basis, when people are worried and preoccupied with their occupations.

It is only on Yom TOv, goes this argument, that people are fully able to let their worries go, knowing that theyre going to have a yuntif meal, etc.


To recap thus far: two reasons why Ashkenazim seem to have abandoned BK every day – one has to do with Purity, and one has to do with emotional state needing to be joyful, which is only possible regularly on YT.


In recent centuries, rabbis have pushed back and said, we should be doing this daily. No reason not to. The Aruch HaShulchan, Yechiel Michel Epstein, late 19th, early 20th cent. Russia  speaks of the story he’d received of the two major leaders of the past generations who’d tried to bring back the tradition of daily BK.  On the day they had set to start BK again, nitbalbel haiyn v’lo alah aleihem. V;amru sh’roeim sh’min hashamayim nigzarah kein.  It all got messed up, they weren’t able to re-establish the custom, and they viewed it as if by a divine decree that the custom should remain as is.

I saw later in an uncited source that this was a reference to the VIlna Gaon, who was imprisoned on the day before this was supposed to take place.


So the custom has remained as such throughout Ashkenazi custom in the Diaspora.


The secondary question is, what about YT that falls on shabbat? For already the past several hundred years, scholars have note the existence of this custom, and they have uniformly disparaged it.  THe Magen Avraham, the Taz, and later the Aruch Hashulchan and the Mishna Berura all critiqued it and said i was in error.   One seeming reason behind it is the fact that, as you see in your siddurim, there are petitionary prayers to God that are said by the congregation during the kohanim’s blessing.  These prayers might have been seen as inappropriate on shabbat, as shabbat is not a time for petitionary prayer. So perhaps the custom arose not to recite BK so as to not say these passages.

But a much better solution, note these sages who disapprove, would’ve been not to recite these petitionary passages on Shabbat YT, but to still do BK!


The tradition of not duchening on Shabbat YT came along with Jews to the states, and in the first part of the 20th century many shuls did not do it. A very popular used in the US was the Adler Machzor (edited by the nephew of the Chief Rabbi Herman Adler), which was used in hundreds of Orthodox shuls – and it quite explicitly notes that on shabbat YT one skips BK.  However, over the last century, in deference to the sages who found this custom to be in error, the custom has been changing.  American Orthodox rabbis have accepted the ruling of the major poskim, that BK should certainly be said on Shabbat YT.  In particular, Rabbi Soloveitchik was noted for his insistence that shul communities return to the correct ruling on this matter.


And that is what happened, most Orthodox shuls in America do have duchening on shabbat YT.


So what about Beth Israel?


I have heard from multiple members of the shul that the custom was not to have duchening on shabbat YT.  Unsurprisingly, the shul used the Adler machzor before it used the Birnbaum.


But when RAbbi Bienenfeld came in 1970, he changed the custom.


Dan Fertel told me as follows:

When the idea of Duchoning on Shabbat Yom Kippur came up, I was sitting behind long time cantor, Cantor Schram and I remember him implying that even though they weren’t Duchoning on Shabbat of the other holidays, they may have been on Shabbat Yom Kippur, since there was an opportunity to duchon during the other day of the holiday, but Yom Kippur was only one day.


Well, I reached out to RAbbi Bienenfeld to ask him why the change – he told me as follows:


“Rav Soloveitchik was quite insistent about durchaning when Yom Tov and Shabbos coincided.


It was a simple duchaning with none of the petitionary prayers or singing. Without the recitation of these prayers, the Rav saw no contradiction  between Shabbos and duchaning. In fact, the duchaning becomes obligatory as on every Yom Tov .”


SO under R. Bienenfeld, throughout the 70s, there was duchening on Shabbat YT. Following him, different rabbis had different traditions.  Rabbi Uri did advocate ducchening on Shabbat YT.


SO – what should we do tomorrow?


Before i give you my answer, i’d like to relate a story about the Maharil. Yaakov ben Levi Moelin, late 14th, early 15th century talmudist, author of an important book of Minhagim that is frequently quoted by the Rmah. Important source for the customs of German Jewry.


ספר מהרי”ל (מנהגים) הלכות יום כיפור

(החלק המודגש מובא ברמ”א סוף או”ח תריט:א)

[יא] .. אמרמהר”יסג”לאיןלשנותמנהגהמקוםבשוםעניןאפילובניגוניםשאיןמורגליםשם.

וסיפר לנו מעשה בעצמו שהיה שליח ציבור פעם אחת בקהלת רעגנשפורג בימים הנוראים, והיה מנגן כל התפלה כמנהג מדינת אושטרייך כי כן המנהג שם. והוקשה בעיניושהיו אומרים הפטרה בניגון בני ריינוס.

ואמר שבאותו פעם היה הוא אומר סליחה אני אני המדבר אשר יסד רבינו אפרים לומר לתפלת מוסף, וסבר שמצוה לומר שם לכבוד רבינו אפרים המחבר אשר מנוחת כבודושם. ואמרו המנהיגים אליו שאין מנהגם לומר אותה הסליחה ולא שמע אליהם מסברתו דלעיל.

לימים מתה בת הרב ביום כפור והצדיק הרב הנזכר עליו הדין שלקתה בתו על מה ששינה מנהג המקום.


משנה ברורה תריט,ז



Incredibly sad, and poignant story. He held himself responsible for his daughters death due to trying to change a minhag.  NOt even changing, by the  way, but INSERTING something new.


THis emphasizes the weightiness of halachic decisions that deal with potential changes to a local custom.
That brings us to what to do tomorrow.

There is halachic consensus that we SHOULD duchen on SHabbat YT.

IF we had kept our tradition of not doing so, I would certainly not chagne it. but because the change has already happened, under the leadership of multiple, competent rabbis, we should keep the change going, in accordance with halachic opinion and the general shift in American Jewry.


Thank you and chag Sameach.


Achron shel Pesach – Emunah of our Ancestors

In the opening of Parshat Vayera, Avraham is sitting at the opening of his tent, three days following his circumcision. He spies angels passing by, and runs out to gree them and to welcome them into his home.  In one of my favorite verses in the entire Torah, Avraham hurries Sara (who is notably ‘inside’ the tent) to “hasten three se’ah of meal and fine flour, and knead and make cakes (lushi v’asi ugot). Now, as someone with a perennial sweet-tooth, I admire that Avraham had the presence of mind to ask Sara to make cake in this situation.


However, ugot most likely does not mean “cake” in the sense that we would use it today; rather it probably refers to general making of bread.


This word, ugot, comes up in Exodus 12 as well, in the description of the Exodus:

וַיֹּאפ֨וּ אֶת־הַבָּצֵ֜ק אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצִ֧יאוּ מִמִּצְרַ֛יִם עֻגֹ֥ת מַצּ֖וֹת כִּ֣י לֹ֣א חָמֵ֑ץ כִּֽי־גֹרְשׁ֣וּ מִמִּצְרַ֗יִם וְלֹ֤א יָֽכְלוּ֙ לְהִתְמַהְמֵ֔הַּ וְגַם־צֵדָ֖ה לֹא־עָשׂ֥וּ לָהֶֽם

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual.


Because of the conection between these two words, the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah (48:12) connects the bread baked by Sara for the visiting angels, and declares

“לוּשִׁי וַעֲשִׂי עֻגוֹת” הדא אמרת פרס הפסח הוה

She bakes matzot for them as it was Pesach.


Now, something about this should be challenging for us. What is it? Namely, that Pesach hadn’t yet occurred! How could it be that Sara would be making matzas for Pesach hundreds of years before the Jews had even entered into Egypt?!


There are various answers to this question, and it is part of a broader inquiry into the question of whether the avot and imahot kept the Torah, before it had been given.
But speaking to this particular manifestation of the question, I would like to offer one approach.  Avraham and Sara had a full and complete faith in God, and God’s promise to them.  Recall that a few chapters earlier, Avraham had experienced the brit bein ha’b’tarim, the covenant of the pieces, as it is called. God promised him as follows:

Yadoa teidah, Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. but…. afterward they will come out with great possessions…


God had already foretold what would happen to Bnei Yisrael.  And from those brief lines of text, Avraham and Sarah believed, and acted accordingly.  According to this approach, they intuited the very date that the exodus would occur, and that matzah would be part of the commemoration.  In other words, already knowing that Pesach WOULD happen, they started celebrating “early”.


Now, whether you accept this explanation or not is besides the point. What it points out to us, however, is the deep faith, the deep bitachon, that our avot and imahot had. This is, of course, in contrast with Bnei Yisrael later in the desert.  They had seen many open and revealed miracles, and STILL grumbled, complained, distrusted that what HaShem was doing was for their good.  They wanted to go back to Egypt.


Just like the the Jews in the desert had a lesser faith than their forefathers, so too we today.  Our own ancestors had a simple faith; emunah peshutah, and for us faith , belief, practice is much more difficult.


And there is another connection as well – the same midrash which claims that Sara baked matzas because it was Pesach, concludes as follows – in the merit of those ugot, those cakes, those matzot baked for the visiting angels, in the merit of that baking, the manna fell from heaven to feed Bnei Yisrael in the midbar.


Thats a powerful idea, and it holds true as well. Our own ancestors had emunah, had faith, had bitachon, and we today reap the benefits of it, in their merit, manna falls for us.  Whether its the religious institutions that they founded, the shuls they supported, the families that they brought with them, or started anew in America, the faith that they keep with them through trials and travails – by being here today, we reap the benefits of their faith, their manna falls for us until today.


As we enter into Yizkor now, we honor our family members who have died, and we remember all of our ancestors from whose wells of emunah we still drink.


Parshat Vayikra – Israeli Elections


Mardi Gras Beads and the Holy of Holies – Parshat Teruma

Mardi Gras Beads and the Holy of Holies


One of the craziest aspects of Mardi Gras season (having just experienced my first!), is the nature of the throwing, but more precisely the attempts at catching, the beads.  As the necklaces are lofted into the air, folks down below try everything they can to get their hands on the beads.  Its as if they are throwing gold coins from the floats.

But if a bead necklace is not caught, and it instead hits the ground – it immediately becomes trash. One might have expected that people would scrounge around n the ground for those beads – but it does not happen.  Rather, they are ignored, and were one unsuspecting rabbi to try and pick some up from off of the ground – he would be ridiculed and mocked (hypothetically speaking, of course….).


What is happening here? Why is it that the exact same object – while it is in the air, we view it one way, and the moment it is no longer being thrown, we view it a completely different way?

One question that many people have about Judaism is why does it seem to stress separation to such a large degree.  There are so many separations – between holy and mundane, man and woman, Shabbat and the rest of the week, impure and pure, kosher and not kosher. There are times when it seems that this separation is taken to odd extremes.

To name one of them – there are stringent laws in Halacha about going to the bathroom.  While in the bathroom, one is prohibited not only from speaking words of Torah or mentioning Hashem’s name; but one is not even supposed to think about Torah or holy concepts.  One must actively change your thinking to think about something else.

Now, this of course leads to one of the great halachic Catch-22s – if I enter the bathroom and say to myself, “Okay, I’m in the bathroom now, time to think about non-Torah thoughts” – haven’t I ipso facto been engaging in Torah thoughts by instructing myself not to do so?


It seems fair to ask – does God really care if I think Torah thoughts in the bathroom? From God’s perspective, as it were, is the bathroom any different from the living room, or the kitchen, or the porch?  What about the dining room – isn’t eating as much a physical act as going to the bathroom – what does God care?

I think we can see one answer in this week’s parsha.

In Parshat Teruma, we learn about the various laws of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert.  There are two alters, a washbasin, menorah, table with bread stacked upon it.  And then we come to the Ohel Moed (or the Heichal in the Temple), the Tent of Meeting itself, and within it, the Kodesh K’doshim, the Holy of Holies, which was the innermost sanctum.  Inside the Kodesh Kdoshim was the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant, which contained within it the tablets – both the broken ones and the secondary ones.  Between the Holy of Holies and the rest of the tent hung a curtain – the Parochet.  It was quite beautiful, blue, purple, and scarlet linen, held by gold rings hanging from acacia wood.


The verse states as follows (26:33):

V’Natata et ha Parochet Tachat haKrasim v’heiveita shammah mibait laParochet eit arohn haeidut v’heevdeelah ha-parochet la’chem bain ha-kodesh uvein kodesh hakadoshim

You shall hang up the veil under the clasps, and shalt bring in there within the veil of the ark of the testimony; and the veil shall divide unto you between the holy place and the most holy.

One its face, this verseis simply a description of how the veil should be hung, where it should be hung.  But a great Torah scholar of the 19th century and early 20th cent., in Dvnisk, modern day Latvia, Meir Simcha Kohen, notes that the verse has an extraneous word: lachem.  The veil shall separate for you between the holy and the holy of holies.  That division is for us, as Reb Meir Simcha says, because for God,

There is no distinction.  Its true, that for the Jewish people, we have divisions between the High Priest, the Cohen Gadol, who is allowed to enter the ark (only once a year, on YK) –  and the rest of the Kohanim, who themselves have acess to the tent of meeting, to light the menorah, to replace the bread on the table.  But those distinctions are “lachem” for us. From God’s side, its all God, its all Good.


Powerful insight. These distinctions that the Torah and later Halacha set up, according to R Meir Simcha are human constructions.  That’s not to say they aren’t divinely ordered and inspired, but the separations “don’t’ exist” from Hashem’s point of view.


IF that is the case, the obvious next question then, is, why do we need them? Should we not do away with all differences, with all distinctions in Jewish life? Tear down the mechitza!! Let’s go learn Torah in the bathroom!!


Not so fast.  These distinctions have important meanings, and values to impart upon our lives.

Why should we not learn Torah in the bathroom? Its true, from God’s perspective, Godliness exists no less in there than out here. But the tradition understands that we, people, humans, have negative, or dirty , let’s say, associations with the bathroom.  Even when it is clean and sanitary, we implicitly understand it as not being “as clean the living room.” That’s built into our consciousness.  And therefore, the Halacha reflects that – don’t think these thoughts in the bathroom – lachem – for us, because of our associations of what the bathroom means.


And perhaps, this is what is happening as well with the Mardi gras beads.  When they are thrown – we associate them as special, something magical is happening as they fly through the air. Cathcing them out of the air is a magical experience, its special.


But once they hit the floor, the sparkle fades.  They return to being what they are, plastic junk, hazerai, lying on the floor.  Who wants that.


This is how quickly our human desires fade, how quirky they can truly be.  Against that, the Torah proclaims, ther are certain things in life which we declare to be INTRINSICALLY holy.  Against our fickle nature, the Torah prescribes eternality. Objectivity.


Shabbat begins when the sun goes down, not a moment after.  Why not, whats really changed in the world? The Torah understands that there need to be hard-and-fast rules of yes and no. Do this, don’t do that.


These laws can seem to us to be arbitrary, or at worst unfair and unjustified.  So, in this same parsha, God makes a promise to the Jewish people.

V’Asu li Mikdash v’shchanti b’tocham. Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell within You.


We would have expected the Torah to say make a sanctuary and I’ll dwell within it – I’ll be in that Temple.

But no – if you build a Temple, if you follow my rules, my Torah, my commandments, I will, in turn, live with you, and in you. Godliness can be with us at all times, at all moments, not just in the Temple.  This is the most crucial reminder that while our lives rock back and forth between the transitory and the fleeting, Judaism provides a solid path on which to walk, one we can walk with dignity comfort, and the presence of God.

Who Speaks for My People?

Who Speaks for the Jews   disputatio_news_large   Following the terrible terrorist attacks in France last year, there was a unity march in Paris, attended by many of the world’s leaders – our own was, sadly, absent. One of the marchers was Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who came to show his solidarity.  I, and many others were very happy that he was there, representing Israel. However, something that Netanyahu said gave me pause. Namely, he claimed that “I went to Paris not just as the Prime Minister of Israel, but as a representative of the entire Jewish people,”   Which is a bold claim to make, that the democratically elected leader of the State of Israel somehow becomes the representative of all world Jewry.  And it caused me to wonder, Does Bibi speak for all the Jews? And if not – who does? Does anyone, can anyone, in this day and age, speak for the Jews?   Before we look at some Torah texts that I believe shine some light on this subject, its important to note that I do not think this is a question of politics; in that you can love Bibi’s politics or hate them, but still approach the question of – can one person speak for the Jewish people today.   There’s also the issue of who de facto speaks for the Jews – meaning, if the world, or a country or group thinks that a person speaks for the Jews, then in a sense they do whether or not that is justified or not.   I acknowledge that this might be the case here – namely, that many people who don’t know about jews, or don’t know any jews, see the president of the Jewish state, and assume that he speaks for all the world jews.  I think this point is incontrovertible, and will not explore it further this morning. Rather, what we are going to speak about is, internally, do we, as a people have one person who speaks for us?   In the Torah, the leaders of the Hebrew people did, generally, speak on behalf of the collective.  We see this often when Moses would argue with God on the Israelites’ behalf.  Who was Moses to do this – was he democratically chosen as our leader? Not exactly, and in fact, one can see the rebellion of Korach as, to some degree, a challenge to that very leadership structure that Moses represented.   But Moses did have something else going for him that gave him this right; namely, that God very clearly favored him as the leader and figurehead of the people. In fact, this week’s parsha speaks to this very point, in 23:20 – (כ)הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָךְ לְפָנֶיךָ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ וְלַהֲבִיאֲךָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר הֲכִנֹתִי. (כא)הִשָּׁמֶר מִפָּנָיו וּשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ אַל תַּמֵּר בּוֹ כִּי לֹא יִשָּׂא לְפִשְׁעֲכֶם כִּי שְׁמִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ. (כב)כִּי אִם שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ וְעָשִׂיתָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר וְאָיַבְתִּי אֶת אֹיְבֶיךָ וְצַרְתִּי אֶת צֹרְרֶיךָ. Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee by the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Take heed of him, and hearken unto his voice; be not rebellious against him; for he will not pardon your transgression; for My name is in him.   Now, some interpret this angel that God will send to lead the people as just that – an angel.  But other commentators believe this is a description of Moses.  Moses is the messenger of God, leading the people.  And in this understanding, it is clearly God saying Moses is the guy, listen to him, follow him, my name is in him , I choose him as the leader. Very clear. So naturally, Moses can speak for the people (over and against the cries of Korach) for God has explicitly chosen him. And this is so, as well, for later rulers of the Hebrews in the Torah. Joshua, the Judges, some of the Kings, are clearly invested with Ruach HaSHem, the Spirit of God, and their speaking for, and to, the Jewish people, is done in their role as divine ciphers. That is to say, they speak for the Jewish people, because God says so.   It also seems like this is what is supposed to happen in the future time.  As we’ve discussed before (and we spoke about in one of the recent Asking the Big Jewish Questions class), the tradition expects a Melech HaMashiach, a future appointed King of Israel, who will reassert Jewish sovereignty over the Jewish people, and reign halachically and lawfully over our people in the Land of Israel.  This future ruler, similarly, will represent us to the other nations.   So, the TOrah does believe that we can have rulers who speak for all the Jews, but they have existed in our ancient past, and hopefully in our redeemed future.   What about in our current state – post-biblical, pre-redemptive?   Here, it seems that there have been figures who have spoken for the Jews as well.   One early and powerful example is that of Yochanan ben Zakkai.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Yochanan  ben Zakkai was a leader of the rabbinic class living in the late 2nd temple period, middle of the first century CE.  Jerusalem was under siege for several years, and while the state of the Jews got worse and worse, there was sectarian violence within the Jewish people.  There was a group of zealots, who wished to keep fighting the Romans until death; there were others who wished to side with them, there were others who retreated to the mountains.  Yochanan ben Zakkai, according to our sages, escaped the besieged Jerusalem in a coffin, pretending to be dead.  Once out of the city, he approached the camp of the general, and soon to be emperor Vespasian.  Once granted a meeting, he announced that, on behalf of the Jews, they had one wish – to be allowed to move the center of Torah study from Jerusalem to Yavneh, a small city on the Mediterranean (and that center of TOrah study would ultimately move more times throughout the country).  This request was granted; this was a major step in the transformation of Judaism from post-biblical 2nd Temple Judaism to rabbinic, and exilic, Judaism, which we are the inheritors of today.   Yochanan ben Zakkai is seen by the sages, in posterity, as a great hero for seizing the moment, thinking strategically about long-term prospects, and choosing to “speak for the people.” He had not been elected to do so – he understood the needs of the people, and stepped up. However, I would argue that this “Speaking for the People” was done out of a place of collective weakness. We were in dire straits, and out of a place of powerlessness, one man succeeded in getting permission from the ruling authorities. This was not a claim of power, as it was with our earlier Jewish leaders, but a last-ditch effort at saving what could be saved.   Let me give you another example which I hope will help flush out this point. In 1263 , our great rabbinic sage, Nachmanides, known as the Ramban, was requested to debate aspects of the Jewish faith with Christian scholars at the time. This was known as the Disputation of Barcelona, worth investigating and reading about.  There had been other such debates, but generally speaking, the Jewish side was not permitted to speak as openly or directly about the differences of the fatihs, for fear of offending Christianity. It seems that Nachmanides opened the debate by requesting that he be allowed to speak honestly about the Jewish approach to Christianity, and it was granted. disputatio_news_large In a sense, Nachamnides was here “speaking for the Jews.” He did not CHOOSE this role, and i imagine he wasn’t thrilled about having to do so.  The Jews here were in a position of powerlessness, and the King’s court, and the Church, forced them into a position to have to choose a speaker to repesent their faith.  I can only imagine that NAchmanides was a fantastic, if not the best man for the job at that time, but the point is that this wasn’t a “good thing”, his being forced to speak on our behalf.  Again it came from our position as one of a dependent people, dependent on the surrounding governmental powers for our survival, and as such, had to acquiesce in their demands of us.   Again, in the early 1800s, the French Emperor Napoeleon decided that in order to support the position of the newly emancipated Jews of the French empire, it was in their interest to convene a Sanhedrin, a supposedly representative body of the great Jewish thinkers and scholars of the day. They convened half a dozen times, and ratified some Jewish laws into secular French laws which would help to govern the Jewish subjects of France in the future.   As you might imagine, having a French emperor declare that the Jews must reconstitue a thousands-year old body under his order was not met by great acclaim amongst the Jews, and few communities sent representatives.  But, in the eyes of the French governemnt, this French Sanhedrin did, indeed, speak for the Jews.   Again, the Jews were at the whim of the local ruling bodies, and had to agree to create this body which claimed to “speak for the Jews”, legally.   The point I am trying to draw out here is that, historically, the notion of “speaking for all the Jews” has only come out during times of powerlessness. But in the last 60 years, since the Holocaust and the formation of the state of Israel, as well as great Jewish success in the USA, we are no longer coming from a place of powerlessness, but rather from power.   What has that power looked like? It has meant great strides of Jews all over the diaspora, in the sciences, arts, politics.  It has meant a flourishing state of Israel, even as it deals with very serious political and humanitarian issues.  It has meant redefining Jews relationships to Judaism, which is still happening and will continue to happen.   In a word – these last 65 years have been a great time for our people, and with that has come great variety within our people.  We are not powerless, but we are quite diverse.   When PM Netanyahu claimed that he is “ a representative of the entire Jewish people,” it therefore struck a false note in two ways.  One is that we are far too diverse a people now to have any one person speak for all of us.  Secondly – Baruch Hashem!! We are no longer in a situation where we NEED to have one person, or one body, stand up for all of us.  We are diverse, we are unique, we like to argue –  I see it in this synagogue all the time!  This is beautiful and amazing, and we should be very grateful for it. Some people will disagree with my assessment.  They will claim that we SHOULD speak in one voice, that it projects power and unity.  This may be so.  But I believe that we should revel in our difference, and honor that difference, rather than try to elide it, to hide it.

Parshat Mishpatim teaches us the commandment of aharei rabim l’hatot –  to follow the majority in legal matters.  Some commentators have noted that the principle of following the majority only applies when the legal authorities considering the case have had the opportunity to discuss it with each other, in each other’s presence, as opposed to each person writing their own legal brief, and then counting the numbers of “yays” vs “nays”.  We should continue to discuss, to argue, to critique, within our big family, to each a distinct voice and insight into where we are going as a people.