“We hoped that the experiment would succeed and would be tried by others, and we knew that we had a lot to learn.

Joseph Baratz



            On October 29, 1910, ten men and two women founded the first kibbutz in Israel: Kibbutz Degania, not far from the Kinneret. Joseph Baratz, who had the first child to ever be born on kibbutz, was one of the ten men, and in 1960, he wrote his memoirs of half a century of kibbutz life. Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited Degania, wrote an introduction to the book. The social experiment fascinated her, and she observed that the “desire to live in common and share in common” represents “high thinking and unselfishness of action.”

            I saw the kibbutz last week and found an English translation of Baratz’ book and could not put it down. Looking around the green fields and early kibbutz stone buildings, it is hard to imagine what it was like to come to a desolate expanse of swampland, unprotected and rife with malaria. Baratz left his family in the Ukraine with the passion of a young Zionist at age 16 to become a peasant of the soil of Palestine.  He writes of reacting against his upbringing and the surrounding culture, believing that “in order to construct our country we had to first reconstruct ourselves.”

            He was afraid to tell his parents. When he finally confessed his desire to go to Palestine, his father went straight to the rabbi who offered an emphatic “no.” A boy of sixteen should not undertake such a journey; he might “fall among free-thinkers” and drift into irreligious ways. But his parents eventually broke down and gave him the money for the journey. His mother called out as the train left the station: “Joseph, my child, be a good Jew,” and Joseph was off to a new life.

            Joseph found a group of like-minded new friends willing to work the land. All the theory that they had discussed about nature and human nature was then put to the test. Growing food was not about supporting people, as necessary as this was to a country that was not yet a country. It was a philosophical statement for these fledgling Zionists about “the wholeness” they lacked in exile.

The group was totally committed to its goal of living collectively and tending the land and had a heated discussion about putting off marriage and children for at least five years until the kibbutz had initial success. One of the chief debaters against marriage at the time fell in love a month later, married and had the second child born on the kibbutz: Moshe Dayan.

The idea, radical as it was at the time, was that people would lack nothing because they possessed nothing; strength would come from the community and go back into the community. “Nobody would have to be ambitious or to worry for himself.”

Degania, which means cornflower in Hebrew, would, over the next decades, attract some of the most famous Zionists and politicians, including A.D. Gordon, Joseph Trumpeldor, and the poet Rachel. It became a flagship kibbutz, spawning other kibbutzim and collective projects. In Baratz’ words, it fulfilled a dream of what the Jewish nation could become on its own terms: “The land had lost its fertility and it seemed to us that we ourselves, divorced from it, had become barren in spirit. Now we must give it our strength and it would give us back our creativeness.”

The heyday of the kibbutz movement is long past. Much of the social experiment failed, but we also failed it. We have traded group laundry for the iPod, shared dining for Facebook networking. But we cannot forget Baratz’ youthful enthusiasm which turned into a mature philosophy of obligation to land and country. In its largely secular flavor, the kibbutz movement imprinted Israel with values that twinned the deepest biblical connection to the earth with the talmudic sensibilities of collective responsibility.

What will our modern ideologies build to replace what we have lost?


Shabbat Shalom


“Matters of Torah only endure in a person who kills himself over it.”

BT Shabbat 83b



            The Pew Research Center just released a global study of religion whose findings have appeared in newspapers and social media everywhere. They found that one out of every six people has no religious affiliation – the third largest group in relation to religion, equal to the world population of Catholics, about 16 %. Christians double that population. Jews are only about 0.2% of the world’s population. An increasing number of people, however, do not attach themselves to any world faith. This should be of concern to anyone who cares about religion.

Jon Stewart once said “Religion: it’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” In a world where religion has been the source of so much violence and internecine battling, many people will just walk away altogether from faith. But in the absence of religion people may lose a language in which to express deep universal sentiments about love, suffering and community. In the words of a friend who began his involvement in Judaism late in life, “Since I’ve become involved with Jewish life, not one day has passed where I have asked a question about my purpose in life.”

Clergy and religious leaders often spend the majority of their time trying to strengthen faith in those who show a sparkle of commitment, and yet the disengagement of tens of thousands should make us think more about what it takes to enhance faith in the world generally.

            Contrast this spiritual malaise to a passage of Talmud that highlights the role of passion and religion.  A rabbi entered a study hall and suddenly a matter he had studied for many years about an esoteric detail was suddenly clarified for him by one sage and he had yet another level of illumination. One cannot miss a moment of study for int  at one moment, all clarification can occur.  Torah is only attained by one who kills himself in a tent” ‘This is the Torah: A person who dies in a tent (Numbers 19:14)

Rabbi Yonatan said: One should never prevent himself from attenidnging the study hall or from engaging in matters of Torah, even at the moment of death.


I will sing to the Lord for God has been good to me.” “I trust in Your kindness; my heart will exult in Your deliverance.” Psalms 13:6


Take It Outside

“It is a commandment to place the Hanukkah light outside by the entrance to one’s house.”

BT Shabbat 21b

            We are entering the last days of Hanukah and filling our homes with sanctified light. In Israel today many menorot are lit on outside house walls in glass boxes fulfilling the legal requirement mentioned above in the Talmud. We traditionally light the menorah outside, but today we light it inside. Why the change?

            Hanukah is a holiday that has internal and external dimensions. Internally, we are supposed to reflect on ancient and current miracles; we add special prayers tucked into our regular prayers for gratitude that we have survived in impossible ways and add a whole section of prayer called Hallel to every morning service as hymns of appreciation and praise.

            But Hanukah has an external dimension as well. We are supposed to publicize miracles and not keep them to ourselves by lighting in places that will attract the attention of the street, both in terms of time and space. According to the Talmud, the menorah has to be lit as people are leaving the marketplace and can be lit until the last stragglers leave the market stalls. It was to be lit outside one’s house to maximize viewing. The text above continues: “If one dwells on an upper floor, one places it by the window that faces out to the public.” The menorah was the billboard of ancient times, letting fellow Jews and neighbors remember that our present is because of our past.

            Yet in darker days, publicizing miracles was also a way of publicizing the fact that you were Jewish. Sadly, the problem of anti-Semitism is almost as old as Hanukah itself. The Talmud continues: “In a time of danger, one places it on the table, and that is enough.” If you cannot publicize the miracle to the world outside your home, make sure that your home is filled with light and publicize the miracle to your family.

            Today we light inside as a leftover to sadder days; this residual practice should be overturned in times of Jewish security, as it has all over Israel. We should not be afraid to state who we are proudly and publically and feel protected enough in our ethnic and religious identity to share it with the world – a simple candelabrum signals not only miracles but our state of freedom.

            In this spirit, it is time to give the Gross family a Hanukah present and finally bring Alan Gross home from Cuba to his freedom. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that Alan is being held illegally and in violation of international law. The United States Senate unanimously adopted S. Res. 609 calling for Alan's immediate and unconditional release. Now it is time to do our work. One week out of the 25th anniversary of the March for Soviet Jewry on the National Mall, we cannot now stay silent. We didn’t then. We cannot now. If we can get one million Jews out of Russia, we can get one Jewish man from the United States out of Cuba.

Alan’s wife Judy sent a heartfelt letter this week calling for support because there has been recent media attention and genuine progress on the case in the past few weeks. In Judy’s words, “I really need some additional support. I have launched a petition on which urges the Government of Cuba to release Alan and also calls on both the Cuban and U.S. governments to sit down and get my husband's case resolved.”
You can find recent developments at
Please take a minute to click and sign the petition:

In December 2009, Alan was arrested. In December 2012, let’s get him out of jail. This Hanukah, be the light for Alan Gross.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah

To Redeem Suffering

“Why do you hide Your face…?”

Job 13:24


            Buddhists believe that Nirvana is the end of suffering. That is how you know that Judaism is not Buddhism. If we put an end to suffering, what would Jews talk about? We could have no more Suffering Olympics, where we debate who had the most terrible visit to the dentist and whose child has greater woes. Oppression was a second skin for us for most of history. It is hard to shed that skin. But in our most ancient text, the Bible, suffering is not a “Jewish problem.” It is a universal condition that demands a response.

            Rabbi Harold Kushner makes this point elegantly in his new book, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person: “Job’s problems are the problems of Everyman, not only of Jews.” This may explain why Job is not from the land of Israel, nor is any mention made of his being Jewish. The characters do not have Hebrew names; no one in the book alludes to earlier events in the Bible that are formative throughout the rest of wisdom literature, like Sinai and Exodus. One sage of the Talmud went further. Job was a fictional character, a literary platform to discuss human suffering and how a compassionate God could ever permit the cruelty we sometimes observe in our world.

            Kushner takes us through ancient and modern scholarship on the book to try to answer the profound theological questions posed by human suffering. He refuses to accept any reading where God is painted as inferior to human beings or where God’s master plan is so complex and elusive that we must make peace with randomness and accept fate with a beatific smile.

            Job, he contends, is not satisfied with God’s response of mystery as much as he is warmed by God’s presence. God took Job seriously. God engaged in conversation with Job about his suffering. God’s very presence was a solace. “I find God in the miracle of human resilience in the face of the world’s imperfections, even the world’s cruelty.” God is the force within each of us that prompts goodness in the encounter with evil. What is worse than suffering is abandonment, the sense that we face our ultimate trials alone.

            Resilience is a spiritual response to suffering. But it is not resilience alone. It is resilience fueled by compassion - strength powered by kindness - that colors the kind of resilience we embody when darkness approaches. When Job suffered immense, incomprehensive losses he asked, nevertheless, for the God who allowed the tragedy to happen not to hide His face.

            No one wants to look at suffering squarely. We do not want to look at the eyes of the homeless man, at the abused woman, at the neighbor who lost a child, at the friend struggling with chronic illness, at the spouse we hurt in an argument. But look we must. Because if we hide our faces then we have added immeasurably to the suffering of others. The most intimate form of communication in the Bible is to encounter the other, panim el panim – face to face. Anything less is inhumane.

We cannot explain suffering or why God is good and good people suffer. Anyone who claims to have an answer is either naïve or arrogant. In most instances we cannot eliminate it. But we have the capacity to  take away some of its sting.

And that is why Hanukah is a time of joy for us because we celebrate resilience in the face of oppression. When we could have given up, we did not. We did not let our underdog status compromise our hope in the impossible. The suffering is the process; the triumph of spirit is the outcome. Hanukah teaches us the lesson that, “All will be good in the end; if it is not good, it is not the end.” This does not mean that suffering is redemptive; it only means that we cannot always see, in the thick of trouble, our own resilience and capacity to make meaning out of the most challenging situations. We can. Hanukah teaches that we must.


Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah!

In God We Trust

“It is better to trust in God than to put confidence in human beings.”

Psalms 118:8


I was grabbing a cup of coffee on Tuesday morning at Penn Station in New York when I heard a well-dressed young man talking loudly on his cellphone in an agitated voice. He was holding an Amtrak police report and telling his mother that his wallet and ID were taken. I naturally overheard snippets of the conversation and asked him if he needed some help. He had no train ticket; I asked him where he was going and what it would cost and gave him the cash I had in my wallet. Thirty dollars. He was very gracious, leaned in to give me an awkward and unwelcome hug, said thank you and called my cellphone to leave his number. If I texted him my address, he would send back the money.

About a half an hour later (my train was delayed), I saw the same man speaking loudly on the phone in front of another woman waiting for the train. Suddenly the likelihood that I was scammed seemed certain. I walked over to the station police to find out if he really did file a report. He had. The office, nevertheless, looked at me from his newspaper with disdain. In a heavy New York accent, he cautioned me: “Lady, when you’re in a train station, do me a favor. Get on your train. Don’t give anyone money, OK?”

At home that evening, I discussed what had happened with my kids. “You’ll never see the money,” my son said. I didn’t expect to, but I texted the number anyway to see if he got home. Guess what? He did not write back.

Honestly, I would do the same thing again. It’s only money. After all, one of my children could easily have been robbed in a train station. I could have been in this man’s position, and I, too, would have had to rely on the kindness of strangers. The kindness of strangers is probably more important to us that any other kindness, following in the Abrahamic tradition. The kindness of a stranger affirms that we are on this planet not merely as self-interested beings who take care of those we know but are part of a universal grammar of humanity.

Today is Rosh Hodesh Kislev, the Hebrew month that houses the holiday of Hanukkah. On this day, we add special prayers of thanksgiving to acknowledge a new chapter of time and the goodness that it brings. In these prayers, we read the verse from psalms above that tells us not to place ultimate trust in human beings. Only God is our refuge, following the famous witticism of American statistician William Edwards Deming, “In God we trust; all others must bring data.”

Throughout the Hebrew Bible we read a great deal about the limitations of trust. In Proverbs 3:5, we are even told to minimize self-trust for a posture of humility: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding.” And during the ancient days of Hanukkah we could not rely upon the goodness of strangers. As a small people, we had to fortify ourselves for war. And today we find ourselves, sadly, in a similar position and must do all that we can to assure that Israel remains strong and secure in the vulnerable days ahead.

Although we ultimately can trust only in God, we cannot live a life of purpose and meaning unless we learn to trust other people. Some number of them will abuse our kindnesses and exploit our trust. They will think of us as naïve. Let them. That is the price we pay for being human. But the larger price would be to stop trusting people and withhold all small transactions of goodness out of suspicion. The result would be a world much contracted, devoid of sanctity and blessing. Giving of ourselves to strangers allows us to become more loving and gracious in a world full of pain. We can all afford to trust a little bit more in others.


Shabbat Shalom

The Art of the Impossible

“Her rulers judge for gifts; her priests give rulings for a fee; and her prophets divine for pay.”

Micah 3:7

            This has been a week of much drama and change in the United States. An important presidential election is over, and with it the spate of negative campaigning and character assassination is blessedly done. It’s time to reach across the aisle and heal the wounds. And it’s going to take a lot of time. At the same time, the landscape of much of the New Jersey and New York shoreline has shifted as people are only starting to come out from under a startling hurricane that left many homeless and in the dark. Both situations of uncertainty, different as they are, demand strong and honest leadership. Leadership matters most when stakes and outcomes are ambiguous, and we need a guiding figure of wisdom and clarity in situations of confusion.

            In continuing the third week of our view from the ancient prophets, we find Micha railing against poor leadership specifically leadership which is for purchase. The quote above does not single out any one paradigm of leadership. Kings, priests and prophets can all have a price when power is more important than integrity. In criticizing prophets, Micha is taking a jab at his own form of leadership, understanding that there is no one ideal platform for power. Any and all can become abused, particularly when money is involved.

            If you look carefully at the Bible, you notice that we have different models of leadership: king, judge, priest and prophet. Each of them comes under scrutiny because none of them can guarantee that power will be harnessed appropriately and transparently. Changing models of leadership helps us focus more on outcomes than on platforms.

            Micha does not leave us, however, with a depressing outlook on authority, suggesting only that every form of leadership is corruptible. Some of the most famous lines in the Bible come from Micha’s observation of a world where good leadership reigns:

·      “For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” ( 4:2).”

·      “Nation shall not take up sword against nation. They shall never again know war” (4:3).

·      “Every person shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him” (4:4).

·      “What is good and what does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice, and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God” (6:8).

When leadership is at its best, it seems that the impossible becomes possible. Nations put down swords. People live without disturbance. Vaclav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia, wrote a book called The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice. There he shares that he had become suspicious of himself as a person of power. He says that he and others “used to condemn the powerful for enjoying advantages that deepened the gulf between them and the rest.” But then he found himself in power:We are beginning, inadvertently but dangerously, to resemble in some ways our contemptible precursors.”

Havel was not only being modest. He was being honest. He realized that power always has dangers, even for those who thought themselves incorruptible. At least he was courageous enough to admit it and perhaps catch himself before falling.

Steven Covey writes in The Speed of Trust that, “Leadership is getting results in a way that inspires trust.” In the aftermath of consequential politics and heartbreaking natural disaster, let us hope and pray for responsible expressions of power ahead to clear the way for a better tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom

The Valley of Decision

“Multitudes upon multitudes in the Valley of Decision! For the day of the lord is at hand in the Valley of Decision.”

Joel 4:14


How strange, I thought, to call a place the Valley of Decision. But somehow if we could imagine decision-making in topographical terms, a valley might just capture what it is like to be in the throes of a difficult decision. A valley is a low area surrounded by mountains. We often make critical decisions from a low place, a place of insecurity and vulnerability; when we look all around us, we feel surrounded by heights that we believe we cannot climb. Joel continued to describe this place: “Sun and moon are darkened, and stars withdraw their brightness.” We’ve all been there.

This powerful image comes to us from one of the 12 minor prophetic books. They were minor only in size, not in spirit. The biblical prophet Joel bemoaned a plague of locusts that is described, in lyrical and devastating terms, as destroying crops and ruining the ancient Israelite economy.  Joel called for collective reflection and repentance. He used the plague as a parable for other large challenges that seem beyond our control and can have severe and difficult consequences.

This is not the first time we meet a Joel in the Bible. The prophet Samuel had two sons: Joel and Aviyah. We learn that these two sons did not follow in their pious father’s footsteps: “They were bent on gain; they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice” (I Samuel 8:3). Their evil paved the way for kingship because the people rightly rejected Samuel’s sons as leaders. Some midrashim, rabbinic embellishments on the Bible, actually identify these two Joels as one and the same person, believing that Joel saw the error of his ways and reformed himself. This would have given him a lens with which to speak to the people from a place of personal darkness and change. Perhaps only one who has spent real time in the Valley of Decision can speak with authority about its darkness to others.

An eighteenth-century German commentator, Rabbi David Altschuler, observes that this place was really the Valley of Jehoshephat, a word that means “The Lord judges” and also mentioned in Joel. This valley was likely the site of a court that made quick and definitive judgments. Multitudes would gather there for the sake of justice to have their cases adjudicated. In other words, you came to the valley to have your case decided. Someone will always leave court elated and someone else will leave despondent.

Deborah Grayson Riegel’s new book, Oy Vey Isn’t a Strategy (I actually thought it was), offers 25 solutions for personal and professional success. She shares that when she coaches clients, they have often experienced disappointment and are quick to self-soothe. Sometimes this takes the form of believing that someone else’s burdens are bigger, thus making theirs smaller. While she acknowledges that this strategy shows willingness to move to a happier place, she invites the person back into their pain: “Too many of us feel that we’re not entitled to mourn when others have greater losses, or that if we do grieve, we’ll never leave that dark place.” In the same chapter, she quotes the wonderful Yiddish expression: “God gives us burdens and also shoulders.”

One of the gifts of the prophets was to give us a universal language in which to express human experience. Joel gives us the gift of his Valley of Decision and allows us to enter a dark place of ambiguity and confusion where everything seems overwhelming and large. But once we can enter that place of pain and acknowledge it and make affirmative decisions, we find ourselves on the edge of the valley and getting closer to a place of greater stability and confidence. We can’t be afraid to enter the valley. If we are, we’ll never scale the mountain.


Shabbat Shalom

The Hand of God

“And I have grasped you by the hand.”

Isaiah 42:6


One of the most iconic images in the art world is the finger of God reaching out to the finger of Adam and raising him up in the act of creation. Michelangelo’s rendition of the creation story on the Sistine chapel ceiling remains a constant visual imprint for many of us who read these texts. The fingers almost touching communicates an intimacy that many of us strive for in our relationship with God or find forever elusive if we feel “out of touch.”


Andrew Graham-Dixon, chief art critic for London’s Sunday Telegraph, wrote the book Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel and describes the physical and artistic feat of this great artist. When working on some of the largest figure compositions, the entire fresco plaster became infected with “great blooms of fungus,” and Michelangelo compromised his eyesight working for years at the painting.  Graham-Dixon wonders why the artist rendered God’s creation of Adam with a finger since other artists depicted the scene differently. Here is his theory:


“I began to see it as the creation of the education of Adam, because that’s the symbolism of the finger. God writes on us with his finger, in certain traditions of theology…The finger is the conduit through which God’s intelligence, his ideas and his morality seep into Man. And if you look at that painting very closely, you see that God isn’t actually looking at Adam, he’s looking at his own finger, as if to channel his own instructions and thoughts through that finger.”


Perhaps – and this is just conjecture – Michelangelo read Isaiah 42, the haftarah reading that accompanies creation. There, we read that God created and stretched out the heavens and spread forth the earth and gave breath to people who live on the earth. But Isaiah’s creation account does not stop there. It takes an intimate and visual turn. “I the Lord, in My grace, have summoned you. And I have grasped you by the hand. I created you and appointed you a covenant people, a light to the nations…” (6-7)


God not only made human beings. In this account, God grasped us by the hand and took us on a tour of creation to give us a purpose: be a light to others. This image of light is quite literal as Isaiah continues: “Opening eyes deprived of light. Rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon of those who sit in darkness” (42:7). Being a light to others means going to places of darkness and shedding the light of rescue and relief. Wherever there is darkness, strive to bring the light.


This past Shabbat, we re-opened Genesis and re-read the majestic story of creation.  God was the Creator, all-powerful and distant. But in the second chapter, God invested the divine breath into the muddy form of man, imbuing human beings with sanctity, taking them from inanimate, powerless creatures to beings who – with each exhalation – were bringing the divine presence into the world. And when we finished reading Genesis about the creation of man and woman, we turned to Isaiah to understand not how we were formed but why.


It is there that Isaiah reminds us that God created light and then grasped us by the hand and showed us a world with many pockets of darkness. God called us a covenant people, meaning that we are to be partners in the act of creation. God created light in the world and created us. Now it is our turn to create the light. What are you doing to partner in the on-going creation and bring more light into the world?


Shabbat Shalom



Supporting Role


“And I have grasped you by the hand.”

Isaiah 42:6


One of the most iconic images in the art world is the finger of God reaching out to the finger of Adam and raising him up in the act of creation. Michelangelo’s rendition of the creation story on the Sistine chapel ceiling remains a constant visual imprint for many of us who read these texts. The fingers almost touching communicates an intimacy that many of us strive for in our relationship with God or find forever elusive if we feel “out of touch.”


Andrew Graham-Dixon, chief art critic for London’s Sunday Telegraph wrote the book Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel and describes the physical and artistic feat of this great artist. When working on some of the largest figure compositions, the entire fresco plaster became infected with “great blooms of fungus,” and Michelangelo compromised his eyesight working for years at the painting.  Graham-Dixon wonders why the artist rendered God’s creation of Adam with a finger since other artists depicted the scene differently. Here is his theory:


“I began to see it as the creation of the education of Adam, because that’s the symbolism of the finger. God writes on us with his finger, in certain traditions of theology…The finger is the conduit through which God’s intelligence, his ideas and his morality seep into Man. And if you look at that painting very closely, you see that God isn’t actually looking at Adam, he’s looking at his own finger, as if to channel his own instructions and thoughts through that finger.”


Perhaps – and this is just conjecture – Michelangelo read Isaiah 42, the haftarah reading that accompanies creation. There, we read that God created and stretched out the heavens and spread forth the earth and gave breath to people who live on the earth. But Isaiah’s creation account does not stop there. It takes an intimate and visual turn. “I the Lord, in My grace, have summoned you. And I have grasped you by the hand. I created you and appointed you a covenant people, a light to the nations…” (6-7)


God not only made human beings. In this account, God grasped us by the hand and took us on a tour of creation to give us a purpose: be a light to others. This image of light is quite literal as Isaiah continues: “Opening eyes deprived of light. Rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon of those who sit in darkness” (42:7). Being a light to others means going to places of darkness and shedding the light of rescue and relief. Wherever there is darkness, strive to bring the light.


This past Shabbat, we re-opened Genesis and re-read the majestic story of creation.  God was the Creator, all-powerful and distant. But in the second chapter, God invested the divine breath into the muddy form of man, imbuing human beings with sanctity, taking them from inanimate, powerless creatures to beings who – with each exhalation – were brining the divine presence into the world. And when we finished reading Genesis about the creation of man and woman, we turned to Isaiah to understand not how we were formed but why.


It is there that Isaiah reminds us that God created light and then grasped us by the hand and showed us a world with many pockets of darkness. God called us a covenant people, meaning that we are to be partners in the act of creation. God created light in the world and created us. Now it is our turn to create the light. What are you doing to partner in the on-going creation and bring more light into the world?


Shabbat Shalom

A Pair of Shoes

“We will buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes.”

Amos 8:6



W. H. Auden once wrote, “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.” I find this hard to accept. I really hope our poet had good friends. Not everyone in the world is out to exploit others. The Bible understood that some people were naturally susceptible to exploitation and warned us lest we begin to think too much like Auden and not enough like Amos.

Our verse above is often twinned with another from Amos: “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (2:6) One contemporary Israeli commentary observes that this is the price of injustice. Those in positions of power and authority will have become so corrupt and extortionist that in order to live under their leadership, the poor will sell themselves for basic necessities.

Another interpreter believes that shoes are an inexpensive, insignificant item and that the choice of this metaphor illustrates the depth of a corrupt society. Another posits the exact opposite.  Most of the poor go barefoot because shoes are expensive; corrupt leaders will sell out the poor to keep themselves in shoes. Yet other commentaries understand this verse more literally. Shoes were often used in business or other deals as a sign of transaction – this is true in the rejection of Levirate marriage as described in the book of Ruth. Rashi sees shoes as representative of land purchase, perhaps because land was often measured by footfalls.

Rashi translates this term not as shoe but as a reference to a “locked door” since the two words have a common Hebrew root. The rich would buy up land from the poor, locking away real estate for themselves and taking away the little security that a needy person might have.

There is a very old midrash on this expression that states that when his brothers sold Joseph, they used the money to purchase shoes for themselves. In essence, they were benefitting personally from the sale of another human being. While this purchase never makes an actual appearance in the Bible, Genesis does tell us that after Joseph’s brothers threw him in a pit, they sat down to eat lunch. This small detail tells us everything we need to know about their callousness at that moment. Subsequently, the expression “to sell someone for a pair of shoes” is used to capture particularly harsh and cutting behavior that lacks compassion and humanity.

There is a Hasidic story that I have always loved and think of sometimes in the face of rejection. A young yeshiva student who was dirt poor went door-to-door in his village to ask for a few dollars to buy himself a pair of shoes. The young man was considered a prodigy but still his feet were bare. He approached the door of the village’s most wealthy family only to have the door slammed in his face. He was utterly humiliated. Years passed and the young scholar achieved great fame and was scheduled to speak in the village of his old yeshiva. The wealthy man who ignored his plea years earlier approached him and offered to cover the cost of publishing the scholar’s first book. In earnest, the prodigy looked him straight in the eye and rejected his offer with these words: “No thank you. But there was a time when you could have had me for a pair of shoes…”

            Amos understood that compassion must be a greater driver in creating a just society than self-interest. The fact that you can buy someone for a pair of shoes does not mean that you should. Those who have that kind of power over others – be it financial or emotional - must temper it with grace. Kindness is the measure of a good society.


Shabbat Shalom

Peace on High

“Oseh Shalom Bimromav”

(Who Makes Peace on High)

Job 20:25


            In Leonard Bernstein’s symphony “Kaddish,” the composer begins the lyrics with a call to an ancient and hallowed Father who has been rejected by the universe. He says that he wants to pray. He wants to say his own kaddish in case there is no one to say it after him. He wants to know when his own life will end and will it be while everyone is singing. He claims to approach God not with fear “but with a certain respectful fury.” The anger gives way eventually to surrender and submission and ends with a call of tenderness: “We are one, after all, You and I; together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other.” This last line perhaps best represents the prayer struggle on Yom Kippur. We reflect on our own weaknesses but also on a broken world. We have to make peace with ourselves and peace with God.

In the traditional Kaddish, “Oseh shalom bimromav” is perhaps one of the best known lines of Jewish prayer, the line that begins the closing of Kaddish and one we will hear again and again this holiday season. Many people do not recognize that this expression is from the book of Job, lodged in a very specific spiritual context. The kaddish, which today is most associated with mourning, never began that way. It is a product of Babylonian Jewry and is almost two thousand years old. It is written in Aramaic with snatches of Hebrew, pasted together with clauses from the Hebrew Bible. It was originally uttered by rabbis at the end of study or teaching, and this custom is still practiced today. While we do not know exactly why the practice of prayer after study emerged it may have provided an important transition from intellectual to spiritual space or the move from the cognitive to the emotional.

            When the kaddish became associated with mourners, most likely during the medieval period, it became apparent that it functioned as “tziduk ha-din” or the rationalization of God’s judgment. In the Talmud, we are mandated to bless on the bad as we do on the good because as humans we are not aware of a larger master plan where good turns to bad and bad turns to good. What we see and experience never provides the full picture or context of events and emotions. Kaddish never mentions death, it only mentioned praise of God, in accordance with a verse from Ezekiel 38:30 where God says that His name will become enhanced and sanctified and known in the world. These very words form the basis of kaddish’s first line where we are tasked with enlarging God’s name and presence in the world.

            And here is where Job, the ancient Leonard Bernstein, comes in. Job is the Bible’s suffering servant who never lost faith despite the intense difficulties he faced. He was a pawn in a great theological debate between God and Satan. Satan provoked God, waging that people only believe and worship God because their lives are filled with blessings. Take it away and you will take away their faith and loyalty. God pointed to Job as an example of a person whose faith would never cave in due to a change in circumstance. To prove the point, God took apart Job’s life piece by tragic piece. This wager was regarded as so unlikely that the Sages of the Talmud believe that Job was a fictional character, a platform for discussing the theodicy, why bad things happen to good people.

            By the end of the book Job was rewarded with a return of his wealth and children to “replace” those he lost. But before God restored Job’s abundance, God told Job that he would never understand the master plan. There are mysteries he would never plumb, discoveries he would never make. He must walk the world humbly because so much will never be revealed and more will be beyond his control. Connecting kaddish to Job is critical because they accomplish, in many ways, the same outcome. Magnified and sanctified – we acknowledge in our times of grief that so much eludes us.

This theme is central to our prayers on Yom Kippur. We acknowledge that God is the King of Kings, the Father of all Fathers and we can only hope and pray for a good year ahead but what will happen is beyond us. When we read “who makes peace on high” in Job, we are actually acknowledging that God can make peace in the heavens, a place that we will never access. As for peace on earth, that’s our job. It’s a lot harder.  We may never know what happens on high, but that cannot minimize our responsibility and accountability for what happens in the here and now. Magnify and sanctify life. Pray for yourself, your people and the world and then go out and do whatever is in your control to change yourself, your people and the world.


Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!

Year in Review 5772

“Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”

Deuteronomy 32:7


            It’s that time again: the last week before a new Hebrew year is upon us. It’s time for the Jewish year in review based on a mandate from Deuteronomy that we remember days past because they teach us life lessons for the future. And when our memories fail us, we are told to seek out the help of others. Yehuda Kurtzer in Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past makes a fascinating observation: “One of the great ironies of modern Jewish life is that we now know much more about our origins, our history, and our ancestry than we ever did before; and as a collective, we care about it considerably less.” But we should; to help we need a quick review of 5772.

We started out of the gate with the long-awaited but highly controversial release of Gilad Shalit only days after Yom Kippur. Our prayers were finally answered.  Close to the same time, good news of a different kind hit the papers; Israeli chemist Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery that atoms could fit together inside of crystals in a nonrepeating pattern. Got that?

He was not the only Israeli to distinguish himself in 5773. In the Paralympics, Israeli tennis player Noam Gerhsony took the gold in wheelchair tennis. And while Israel did not take home any gold medals in this past Olympics, gymnast Aly Raisman brought her team to the gold in a floor exercise performed to Hava Nagila as the first American woman to win the gold for floor exercises. The honor she accorded to the fallen of the Munich Olympics 40 years earlier did not compensate for the fact that Olympic organizers would not honor their memory with a moment of silence. “Shame on you International Olympic Committee because you have forsaken the 11 members of your Olympic family,” said Ankie Spitzer. Her husband, Andre, an Israeli fencing coach, was a victim in the massacre.

On the entertainment front, Matisiyahu shaved his beard and the Israeli film “Footnote” was nominated for an Oscar. Edon Pinchot’s singing charmed the crowds all the way to the semi-finals of “America’s Got Talent” with his pop songs and his yarmulke. Speaking of music, while people may have said disco has been dead for decades, it really died this year with the loss of Donna Summer and Robin Gib of the Bee Gees. Neither of them were Jewish, but Marvin Hamlisch certainly was. He composed the music of a generation with “The Sting,” “The Way We Were,” ‘Sophie’s Choice,” and “A Chorus Line.” Another pearl of screen and book, Nora Ephron, succumbed to illness but at least doesn’t have to wear turtlenecks anymore. We lost Mel Stuart who directed “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with Gene Wilder.

On the American political front, this year brought us Jack Lew as a new chief of staff for the White House and the hysterical video of Rick Perry dancing with Chabad Hasidim around a menorah – and we’re still engaging in the ever-present question of how “Jewish” presidential candidates have to be to win this year’s election. In Israeli politics, the question of Iran’s threat still looms large as two veteran politicians said their last farewells; former MK Hanan Porat died as did former prime minister, Yitzchak Shamir.

In July, 250,000 people mourned the death of the influential authority, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv at his funeral. He was 102 and had 1,000 descendants. In the ultra-Orthodox camp, we also had the Asefa or stadium-packed denunciation of the internet and social media and the Siyyum ha-Shas, the completion of the seven and a half year cycle of Talmud study, one page a day. Sadly, the Beit Shemesh controversy over schooling and the place of women garnered international attention prompting some very profound questions about tradition and modernity. In that spirit, Tamar Epstein is still fighting for her get – her Jewish divorce and another year has passed without resolution.

Three shootings in Toulouse and Montaubon, France shook the Jewish world with the loss of 7 lives in March. And Germany’s ban on circumcision caused a world outcry and more anguished debate.

The year that was tells a story of pain and triumph and influence on the world stage. What Jewish event rocked your 5772? What event do you hope for in 5773? Pray hard and hope, and let’s see how history unfolds.


Shabbat Shalom and blessings for a year of wonder!


Laugh a Little

"God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me."

Genesis 21:6

            As we prepare for the Days of Awe, it is easy to focus on tears and fears and not the joy that the holiday also invites. One of our central characters, Isaac, is named precisely for the experience of laughter. The first child born Jewish was named for happiness. Isaac was a much awaited child, the product of much anguish. And his breathless fate on Mount Moriah that we read on Rosh Hashana was also a time of anguish. And yet, he is still named for joy, perhaps because he was a source of relief and a sign that impossible things can be possible: an important message as we face any new year.

Both Abraham and Sarah laughed when they heard the good news. It seems however, that just like there are different kinds of tears, there are different kinds of laughter. In Genesis 18, when the angels tell Abraham that he will have a son, Sarah overhears and laughs. This was the laughter of disbelief, and it was regarded as a sign of disrespect towards God. “So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” God was angry that this magnanimous gift was snubbed. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?’” There is laughter of relief and laughter of joy and laughter of the skeptic. Sarah’s laughter fell into the last category. “Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh.’ But he said, ‘Yes, you did laugh.’” Arguing with God is usually not a good idea when you’re not telling the truth. We’ve all had Sarah moments when we laughed but denied it later because laughter was inappropriate to the moment.

Pianist and singer Regina Spektor came to America from Russia when she was 9. She discovered her voice on a sponsored trip to Israel for gifted Jewish teenagers. The rest is history. He song “Laugh With” posits that God is actually funny, but that at key times of life drama, no one laughs at God:

No one laughs at God in a hospital

No one laughs at God in a war

No one's laughing at God

When they're starving or freezing or so very poor


But God is responsible for joy as well, and people who embrace joy also bring God into the world. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav discusses suffering and how one suffering person holds it in, unable to share with others the extent of his pain. But then sometimes you meet someone with a laughing face. That face is powerful according to Rabbi Nahman because such a person can revive others with his joy. And this, Rabbi Nahman concludes, is a very great act of kindness: “To revive a man is no slight thing.” They say that laughter is the best medicine but to believe it you must believe that laughter is a form of medicine – that it is an act of healing and has redemptive powers. Jerry Seinfeld said, “The greatest Jewish tradition is to laugh. The cornerstone of Jewish survival has always been to find the humor in life and in ourselves.”

Spektor ends her song with the words, “We're all laughing with God.” Sarah said that people will laugh with her when they hear the news. We laugh with God about the immensity of our blessings. Spiritual joy is not minimizing possibility but enhancing it and believing that good things – maybe even the impossible stuff of dreams – may be ours to actualize. It happened before. It will happen again. Maybe even this year.

Shabbat Shalom


“I wish to announce that there is a God in the world.”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev


During the Hebrew month of Elul, we blow the shofar every morning in synagogue. This ritual coheres with a general principle of Jewish law, namely that we begin to prepare for a holiday 30 days before its arrival. We do not want to trip into a day of significance. We want to feel emotionally and physically prepared. As someone who prays at home daily but does not go to synagogue every day, I feel every year at this season that I’m missing out on an important wake-up call to prepare me and remind me of the importance of change and repentance.

The shofar’s blast is not like an alarm clock, however. The daily sound in Elul is one plaintive cry but when blown on Rosh Hashana, it is “played” in a more staccato fashion. The shofar blower must squeeze out 4 different but related sounds. The tekiah is 3 unbroken blasts. The sheverim is a tekiah broken into 3 parts. The teruah is 9 rapid fire blasts, and the tekiah gedola is one long cry for the duration of at least 9 seconds. Many blow the shofar until they are winded, trying to produce a long and wailing noise to pierce the solemnity of the day.

Because our tears over what we have done wrong, what we have not yet accomplished and who we mourn for are not the same tears, the shofar must capture all kinds of crying. We are broken, and so the sounds the shofar makes reflect our brokenness. Sometimes we sob uncontrollably in short, breathless bursts. At other times, we sigh loudly until the air is knocked out of us. The shofar can only wake us up and encourage us to return to our best selves if it mimics our inner emotional landscape: our anger at injustice, our hurt over personal wounds and our defeat at the hands of temptation.

But when you do not hear the shofar every day leading up to Rosh Hashana, it is less of a wake-up call and more of a fire alarm. I don’t know about you, but I often feel that when I walk into my synagogue for the first service of the High Holidays, I feel caught off-guard. How is it Rosh Hashana already? Where did the year go? Why am I so unready? I am unready because I did not pace myself spiritually. I did not hear the shofar calling me a month earlier, pulling me in with its cries.

Last year, because of this vacuum, I took upon myself a unique project. I began to write essays for each day of the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – the aseret yemei teshuva or ten days of repentance. It was a personal ladder for me to try to achieve a greater sense of holiness and responsibility and go into the Days of Awe feeling the requisite awe. Each day I scaled a new topic for self-improvement rooted in Jewish tradition. I was so absorbed in it that I expanded it into a book that has just been published, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe. In addition to a daily essay, I included portions of study on repentance in translation from Maimonides – the rationalist, Rabbi Kook, the mystic, and Rabbi Chaim Moshe Luzzato, the ethicist. I attached a life homework assignment to integrate study and action, using myself as a test case. I feel privileged to share what I learned.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, one of the great defenders of the Jewish people to God, was disturbed that many of his disciples were observing Jewish law but were not leading a moral life. One day he made a bold statement, “I wish to announce that there is a God in the world.” The shofar is our way of making the same announcement but without words. On Rosh Hashana we coronate God as our king and relinquish the feeble control we have over our lives. We think about who we are and what possibilities we can bring to a new year. Are you ready?

Shabbat Shalom

Travel Blessings

“Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.”

Deuteronomy 28:6


For many of us, this last week of summer represents the end of waking up late, being off schedule and “chillaxing.” For many of us, the prospect of school approaching and structure is a long-awaited wish, wondering how it is that we ever thought taking children who are not farmers out of a learning environment for 10 weeks. It is also the last week of summer travel for many who want to squirrel away every last day. And for those who travel, the words of Deuteronomy have a special meaning. We hope that we are blessed in our comings and blessed in our goings.

In the days of old, coming and going had many meanings. It may have been a reference to war, which makes sense with the verse that follows: “The Lord will put to rout before you the enemies who attack you; they will march out against you by a single road, but flee from you by many roads.” In times of battle, enemies may approach you from multiple directions. Be prepared. Hopefully they will get to you by a single road, coalesced into a force that makes an easy target and scatter haphazardly because of your military might. If you are blessed in your going out to war and in returning from war, it means that you have suffered minimal casualties and leave victorious.

Among medieval commentators, the verse is typically understood as a reference to traveling out of cities. Abarbanel, a fifteenth century Spanish statesman, believes the blessing to be a request for safety when traveling out of cities. What travel anxieties did the ancients manage? They worried about wild animals on the way and dangerous river crossings. They worried about ambushes and robbers. They worried about being cheated in unfamiliar territory where they did not know who could be trusted. We have many Talmudic anecdotes that illustrate each of these travel problems. In such circumstances, our ancestors relied on the biblical words of blessing to find comfort in the newness and strangeness of uncharted places and unfamiliar faces.

On a spiritual plane, Rashi – the French 11th century commentator – saw this blessing in the broadest of terms. “May your leave taking from this world be without sin just as you came into the world.” Rashi is not talking about a trip but the trip, the journey of a lifetime. May you exit the world with the innocence with which you came into it.

            Why do we need this blessing today? It was written in ancient days when no one worried about flight delays or car accidents or hotel rooms that did not look like the website photo. Today, we tend to focus on pre-trip anxieties. Did we pack appropriately? Will our accommodations meet expectations? Will we get sick because of new foods or new bacteria? Will the planes, trains and buses get us to where we need to go reliably?

            But our blessing offers us solace for the way there and the way home, acknowledging two different states of worry. Coming home hardly has any of the nervousness of leaving. After all, we are returning to a place of familiarity. And yet, there are those few minutes when you wonder if all will be as you left it. After a vacation, I find myself standing before the front door holding my breath and hoping that the house will be as orderly as I left it, that the car battery will not have run out, that there will not be any bad news on my answering machine, that I will get no e-mails to let me know that the world has collapsed in my absence. Maybe the worries are silly, but they are there nevertheless. And so as I stand at the front door, I think of Deuteronomy and this blessing that my return be worry-free, kiss the mezuzah and feel blessed to be home.

Shabbat Shalom

Stiff Competition

“May the One who causes His Name to dwell in this house cause love and brotherhood, peace and camaraderie to dwell among you.”

BT Brakhot 12a


            This small prayer for grace and love is tucked into the early pages of the first volume of the Talmud. Until I came across it in the daily cycle of Talmud study, I had never before heard of it. It is not a custom to say it today; it was written in very particular circumstances and recited on a very specific occasion. In the days of the Temple, there were 24 cohorts of priests – cohanim – who served for approximately 2 separate weeks a year each before setting abck to their homes. The new watch would come for Shabbat and then the change of the guard would occur on Shabbat. All of the tasks of one cohort would transition to the next. The incoming priests were given this blessing to inform their service.

            It would be wonderful if we all began our work with a blessing. Imagien finding the language that enabled and inspired us to work harder or care more or devote more time and attention to others. This must have been an extraordinary changing of the guard and the ultimate statement of excellent succession planning: the group leaving blesses the group arriving, offerin ghtem the confidence and trust to continue sacred work.

            The idea of conferring a spirit of peace and love on the priests makes sense since it was they who blessed the people, and the blessing that they recited before blessing the people ended with the word “love.” We give blessings from a point of love. If that love was deficient then the priest is exempt; if, for example, a priest lost a beloved family member and was in mourning, he was exempt from this blessing. His own sadness and understnadbale self-absorption prevented him from conferring complete love on others.

According to the Maharsha, however, this blessing may have been inspired by a less noble sentiment. In the days of the Temples, there were more preists than there were tasks and some roles were more public than others. The choice of which particular priest would perform which function was based on stiff competition. We have a number of legendary battles among priests recorded in the Talmud, and they did not all resolve themselves pleasantly. If you thought the Olympics was a trial of talent and gumption…

In the new Koren  Steinsaltz Talmud, the Maharsha is cited as explainging the blessing as a wishful hope that “the incomign watch would be blessed with brotherhood and peace” precisely because enmity and envy developed among them around the anxieities fo competition. It raises the interstign question about the value of competition.

Today, many want to minimize the importance of competition by letting everyone win and wishing grades did not matter. This has not always had a positive result either, reducing the drive for indidivual success and often leaving children ill-prepared for a universe where competition is a constant. Instead, the priests of old understood that competition could bring out masterful performance and that the desire to best another could energize the sacred ritual lfie of Temple worship. Instead of elminaitng competition, the priests blessed it, asking that those in service give the best of themselves but retain a spirit of love and camaraderie because allw as done to bring greater love into God’s house.

The tension between personal excellence and communal peace

Fifty Shades of…

“If one commits a sin and is ashamed of it, all his sins are forgiven.”




            I was thinking of writing a bestselling novel called Fifty Shades of Black about a young Hasidic man in Williamsburg who decides to buy a new hat. Then I thought of writing a novel called Fifty Shade of White about a kabbalist who is thinking of buying a new robe for Shabbat. In the end, I decided my novel would be called Fifty Shades of Black and White because, to tell you the prudish truth, I feel mighty uncomfortable about all the attention Fifty Shades of Grey is getting. I’ve heard any number of conversations about the book (no, I haven’t read it) where people forgot to blush. In a black and white world, we’d call it like it is. It’s pornography and not a beach read on a family vacation.

            We justify what we read in all sorts of ways. I’ve heard people say that they read this book, which has been called soft porn or even mommy porn, for work (and what line of work are you in, exactly?) or to make sure they understand a cultural phenomenon (although they don’t seem to be reading much on global warming). My friend Sally Quinn – who read this for “research” - wrote about the book in the religion pages of The Washington Post stating that women have found God in this book, relating some of the explicit sexuality to submission to God. Fascinating idea but let’s be honest, who are we kidding? Is the ultimate justification for engaging in subversive reading to say that it helps us become better servants of God? There are many paths to faith, but there are dead-ends too.

            I was once teaching in a university and picked up the college newspaper. It had an interview with a woman on her porn star career who was coming to the campus to speak about job options. I am afraid to know what her declared major was, but it probably had more to do with frat parties than the library. All of this has raised pornography to a legitimate art form and job instead of seeing it as the ultimate weapon against a woman’s right to be treated with dignity and reverence. There was time when women had to use their bodies as sole sources of power, but we’ve come a long way, baby, too far to now walk backwards.

            In the Talmud [BT Brakhot 12b], Rabba makes an observation about shame. Shame is critical to the person of faith. It is a moral barometer of permissibility and transgressiveness. It helps us understand that there are boundaries of person and soul and that when they are crossed, confusion and pain often result. Rabba, a Talmudic giant, understood that being able to experience the shame of doing something wrong puts us one step closer to personal redemption.

In comparing definitions of the word “shame,” I noticed that it is universally regarded as a painful emotion usually caused by a combination of a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness or disgrace. But what interested me more was that shame is also defined as the capacity to have such a feeling.

When we blush, discomfort and shame show up on our faces. The novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote in Writers at Work that, “After a certain number of years, our faces become our biographies.” Let our facial biographies show that our society has not lost the capacity for shame. And let us not minimize the impact on ourselves and our children of a sexuality so open and shameless that we no longer have the ability to turn fifty shades of pink.


Shabbat Shalom

Empowering Children

“My son, the future of your great, martyred people lies in your hands!”

Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog

When your father says this to you at your bar mitzvah, it’s a pretty heavy message. It’s one thing to say you’re a man to a kid who hasn’t started shaving and whose voice cracks when he speaks. It’s another to lay the entire Jewish future in his hands. But this was no ordinary bar mitzvah, either. This was said by the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel Rabbi Isaac Herzog (who held the position from 1936 to 1959) to his son.  The Herzog child took this message to heart and Chaim Herzog, the son he spoke to, became the sixth president of the State of Israel, thus taking the future of the Jewish people to heart.  It’s remarkable what one good bar mitzvah sermon can accomplish!

Rabbi Herzog’s message might have been more weighty than most, but its essence is something we tell our children all of the time in different ways. They are a continuation of an amazing legacy. Our people use the expression “dor va-dor” – from generation to generation - like tagline candy. It’s ubiquitous. And we mean it when we say it. We believe strongly that children are our future. Herzog articulated it beautifully “My son, strive to know yourself, to know and understand your Judaism, your wonderful and unique history, the inseparable connection of your people with the patriarchs and the prophets…”

So if we truly believe that our children are our future and Judaism’s future, how can we understand the day school teacher who was just arrested for possession of child pornography? How can we read front-page stories in national newspapers about the cover-up of child abuse in religious communities? Are we doing enough to protect our future?

It is all indefensible. We do have to do more to protect our children. The world of technology has empowered kids with adult information and access but also disempowered them as victims of stalkers and abusers who – in another universe – may have restrained their perverse inclinations. But when pictures of compromised children are only a click away, too many people give in to their basest desires.

Child abuse hurts everyone. It hurts our community, too. Published national child abuse statistics include:

·      A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds

·      More than five children die every day as a result of child abuse.

·      Approximately 80% of children that die from abuse are under the age of 4.

·      More than 90% of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way.

·      14% of all men in prison in the USA were abused as children.

·      36% of all women in prison were abused as children.

·      Children who experience child abuse & neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime.

·      Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.


Organizations likeness Darkness to Light, JCADA and local domestic abuse awareness organizations offer prevention programs to help us recognize the danger signs. They need our support, but they also need us to take advantage of their programming and counseling opportunities in our schools, synagogues and area institutions.

Rabbi Herzog ended his speech to his son with these words of hope: “May you become a source of blessing to yourself, to those dear to you, and to the entire house of Israel, Amen.” May all of our children be loved, blessed and protected so that they, too, can continue our legacy.

The Flowering of Spring

The sign on a local church this week read: “Spring has sprung. Is your faith blossoming?” Faith does blsossom when we see a world regenerating. We hear the birds after a silent winter. We see cherry trees flowering and the weather warming and we feel the relief of

There are four blessings that are only recited once during the Jewish calendar year, and one of them can be done only in the month of Nissan, giving you only a few weeks to get it in. During Nissan, we are obligated to make the blessing over flowering fruit trees when in their presence. This blessing gnerlaly does not apply to fruit trees and generally only to  If you can’t identify the other three for the double jeopardy win, see below.

Countries where the Trees Blossom at other Times
However, in the United States a problem exists, for not always during the month of Nissan do the trees begin to blossom. Therefore, the question becomes whether or not one is permitted to recite the Blessing of the Trees in the month of Iyar. 

The Sefer HaEshkol (authored by Rabbeinu Avraham Av Bet Din, one of the great Rishonim, page 68) writes that one should recite the Blessing of the Trees during the month of Nissan; however, this does not mean specifically Nissan, rather, it means the first time that year that one sees the trees blossom. Similarly, the Ritba (Rabbeinu Yom Tov ben Avraham Elashvili) in his commentary on Tractate Rosh Hashanah (11a) writes: “Not necessarily Nissan, rather, every place based on when the trees blossom there.” Many other Poskim rule likewise. 

Thus, one may recite the Blessing of the Trees based on whenever the blossoming of the trees happens to occur in his current location, for there is no specific requirement for it to be done in the month of Nissan; the only requirement is the spring blossom, which usually occurs during Nissan. 

On Which Trees one May Recite this Blessing
One may only recite this blessing on fruit-bearing trees and it may not be recited on barren trees. Nevertheless, if one mistakenly recited this blessing on a barren tree, he should not repeat it upon seeing a blossoming fruit-bearing tree. 

One may only recite the Blessing of the Trees upon seeing two trees and it is halachically sufficient even if they are from the same species. It is especially praiseworthy to bless upon several kinds of trees. 

Grafted Trees
Regarding trees that are grafted from two different species, for instance a tree grafted from etrogim (citrons) and lemons, some are of the opinion that one should not recite the Blessing of the Trees upon seeing them since their existence is against the will of Hashem; thus, one should not thank and praise Hashem for them. Others argue and say that since this blessing is with regards to the entire creation in general, one may even recite it upon grafted trees. Although if one wishes to recite this blessing on such a tree we shall not protest, nevertheless, it is preferable not to recite the blessing on such a tree due to the famous rule, “When in doubt regarding a blessing, do not bless.” 

However, there is much room for leniency in this matter regarding trees which are not so clearly forbidden to graft, such as citrus trees including citron, lemon, “Chushchash” (wild oranges), and grapefruits, for according to Maran Harav Ovadia Yosef Shlit”a (see Responsa Yabia Omer, Volume 5, Chapter 19 and Halichot Olam, Volume 2, page 200), one may tell a non-Jew to graft such trees with one another. Based on this, the existence of such trees is certainly not against Hashem’s will and the Blessing of the Trees may be recited on them just as it is customary to recite the “Shehecheyanu” blessing on such fruits, as we have explained in another Halacha.

Breaking the Habit

“is too late to prepare when temptation is actually at hand.”

Rabbi Yizchak Meir of Ger


They say that bad habits are hard to break but Charles Duhigg, in his recent book, The Power of Habit, argues that the more we know about how we form our habits, the easier they are to change. He amasses scientific evidence to show that difficult tasks repeated multiple times become rote. We may barely think about what we do when he shoot a basket, drive a car or take a shower because we go into automatic pilot. We’ve done things so many times that our bodies engage even if our minds coast. David Brooks, writing on Duhigg, claims that, “Your willpower is not like a dam that can block the torrent of self-indulgence. It’s more like a muscle, which tires easily.”

If repetirion is the key to habit then recalibaratign behaviors and doing them again and again in a different way becaomse one critical way that we break bad habits and willfully choose new ones. When we learn new routines and practice them repeatedly we “teach” ourselves how to adopt best practices. It is awkward at first but far from impossible. Research done at Duke Unviersity shows that 40% of our behaviors are made through habit rather than intentional decisions. With a little concerted mental effort, we can shape this

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir (1798-1866) was a Talmudic scholar and the first Gerer Rebbe, a Hasidic sect popular in Poland. Many stories and legends have evolved about the rebbe’s piety and knowledge. Martin Buber, in Tales of the Hasidim, shares a well-known story about the Rebbe when his mother died and he followed her bier, begging for forgiveness. He spoke to his mother’s coffin, “In this world, I am a man who is much honored and many call me rabbi. But now you will enter the world of truth and see that it is not as they think. So forgive me and do not bear me a grudge. What can I do, if people are mistaken in me.”