When the plumbers stop society’s moral leaks

7 Feb
Lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan has had dire consequences for its 100,000 residents.

Lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan has had dire consequences for its 100,000 residents.

There’s an old joke about a plumber who was called to a doctor’s home to fix leaking faucet that had kept the surgeon awake late at night. After a two-minute job the plumber demanded $150. The surgeon exclaimed, ‘I don’t charge this amount even though I am a surgeon.” The plumber replied, “I agree, you are right. I too, didn’t either, when I was a surgeon. That’s why I switched to plumbing!”

We can joke about how sometimes we’re at the mercy of a plumber when something goes wrong in our house. However, think about how indispensable they are. Their technical know-how helps preserve the hygiene of entire communities. This week I developed a new appreciation of plumbers. In fact, a lot of them have become my heroes.

I’m sure many of us have been shocked and appalled by the environmental disaster in Flint, MI, Government officials at all levels, but particularly at the state level forced Flint to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to a local river that was full of toxic pollutants, including lead. Thousands of children are suffering from the effects of lead poisoning from which they will never recover. Flint is a depressed working-class town consisting mostly of minority populations. I can’t help but wonder if Flint were an affluent mostly white community. It’s doubtful they would have been forced to switch to an inferior water supply to begin with, but if it were, there’s no way it would be systematically ignored and even mocked by public officials. I hope that there a criminal investigation and that high-ranking government officials go to jail over the poisoning of Flint.

To a large extent, the damage has been done. However, in the midst of this man-made disaster there is also a glimmer of hope. According to a report last week, 300 plumbers from unions across the country descended on Flint to install new faucets and water filters for free.

Many Flint residents needed new faucets because their existing faucets were so old they could not accommodate water filters provided by the state.

The effort was coordinated by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, known as the United Association. The fixtures were donated by the Plumbing Manufacturers International.

For some in Flint, however, even new faucets with modern water filters won’t be enough to fully abate the lead contamination. New tests released recently revealed that, in some Flint homes, the levels of lead “exceed the ability of filtration systems handed.” The filters can safely remove up to 150 parts per billion of lead. Some Flint homes were found to have lead levels of more than 4,000 parts per billion. Residents of Flint, however, are still encouraged to use the filters. For most homes, they will work.

The plumbers saw the basic humanity in the people of Flint when officials in power refused to do so. Their example is precisely the approach that our Torah portion calls upon us to take. The text in Parashat Mishpatim reads:  כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן “You shall not harm any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat one, and if he cries out to me, then I will surely hear his cry. And My anger will blaze forth, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children will be orphans” (22: 21-23). God is certainly talking tough here with the measure for measure message. Looking at the big picture, God is described as the defender of widows and orphans, which is a euphemism for the most downtrodden members of society.

My late friend Matthew Eisenfeld studied this passage in depth for a research paper “God As Defender of Widows and Orphans” that he presented to Prof. Moshe Greenberg (1928-2010) shortly before Matt’s untimely

death twenty years ago. (This essay is excerpted from a collection that I recently published: Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker.) As Matt notes various commentators point out that note that the verse (22: 21) employs three grammatical peculiarities that serve as strengthening devices, including the word kol, the precedence of subject to verb and the final nun of the word te`anun. The first word of the verse, kol, seems superfluous, as the law could have been taught without its usage. It’s there for emphasis. The subject-verb order also is a point of emphasis. The nun at the end of te’anun is a poetic flourish. From a literary point of view the text instructs us: make no mistake—it’s God’s way to protect the weak and vulnerable.

According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, where societal justice is concerned, God is at stake. In Heschel’s words, “People act as they please, doing what they will, abusing the weak, not realizing that they are fighting God, affronting the divine, or that oppression of man is a humiliation of God.” On the other hand, a society that functions well reinforces faith in God. Furthermore, God takes special interest in the weak not only because they are the measure of whether or not the justice system really works but because their welfare reflects God’s own power and effectiveness.

Our Torah portion anticipates the statements of the Rabbis in the Midrash and Talmud: Just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too should be gracious and compassionate (Difre Deut. Ekev); As God clothes the naked, you should clothe the naked. As God visits the sick, you should visit the sick. As God comforts the bereaved, you should comfort the bereaved. (Sotah 14a).

If our society today thinks it’s ok to pump toxic water into poor cities, then we have a serious leak of the most basic values of decency. Thank God for the plumbers who remind us not only how to fix pipes but also how to stop up the leak of values. The plumbers in Flint got the message that God expects us to defend widows and orphans and other vulnerable members of society. Wouldn’t it be wise of us to follow their lead?

#LoveFinerThanWine now published

4 Feb
Love Finer Than Wine Edited by Edward C. Bernstein Foreword by Mike Kelly, author of The Bus on Jaffa Road

Love Finer Than Wine
Edited by Edward C. Bernstein
Foreword by Mike Kelly, author of The Bus on Jaffa Road


With gratitude to God, I am pleased to announce the publication of Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker.

The Sound of the Aleph: Remembering the Challenger

29 Jan
Remember the Challenger

Remember the Challenger

Many of us who have been in Israel in the spring are familiar with the peculiar transition Israeli society undergoes from Yom HaZikaron, a somber day to remember Israel’s fallen soldiers, to Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day that is always an exuberant celebration. There is nothing like this transition that encapsulates the story of the Jewish people. This week I was reminded of a sequence of events thirty years that was the exact opposite. Exultant joy turned into intense national mourning.


Thirty years ago, I was a high school student in Chicago. The victory of the Chicago Bears in Superbowl XX for their first (and still only) Superbowl championship was a momentous and joyous occasion for everyone in the city. That was January 26, 1986. The next day, a typically frigid January day, a boisterous rally  celebrated the Bears as players hoisted the Superbowl trophy in Daley Plaza in front of the giant Picasso sculpture. Then, tragedy struck, and joy turned to sorrow.


The next day, January 28, was the 25th Space Shuttle mission.  Seven astronauts were on board the Challenger orbiter. They included Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher who had answered President Reagan’s call to be the first school teacher space who is now memorialized by the middle school in our neighborhood bearing her name. The crew also included Judith Resnick, the first Jew in space. She had a traditional Conservative upbringing in Akron, OH. Since I served eight years as a rabbi in nearby Cleveland, I can attest that her loss on the Challenger is still felt profoundly by the Jewish community in Northeast Ohio. This week, we also recall the other crew members: Gregory Jarvis; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka.


This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, contains an interstellar, “other worldly” experience: the Israelites encounter God at Mt. Sinai and receive Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments. The text tells us that their senses were so overloaded they did not want to encounter God directly. They wanted Moses to be their emissary and communicate with God on their behalf. It’s like with the astronauts only a select few who pass the numerous physical and psychological tests are deemed fit to leave the confines of the earth. And then, as we learned from Challenger and later Columbia, sometimes even these extraordinary people don’t make it.


Amidst all the thunder and lightning at Sinai, the rabbis wonder what the Israelites actually heard at Sinai before their senses shut down. Some say they heard God proclaim all ten utterances. Others say that God spoke only the first two, declared in the divine ”Anochi,” “I,” and that Moses added the remaining eight in which God is referred to in the third person. One Hasidic master taught that the Israelites heard only the first letter of the first word (the alef in anokhi). Alef is a silent letter, yet from this letter, the Israelites intuitively understood the rest (Menachem Mendel of Rymanov).


In recalling the seven Challenger astronauts we recall seven lives whom most of us knew only from a distance. And yet, we all intuitively discern the profound level of loss of these outstanding individuals.


In returning to Judy Resnick, rabbinic colleagues of mine were reminiscing online about her Jewish legacy. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, former President of the Rabbinical Assembly who served for several years as rabbi of Beth El in Akron, Ohio, remembers Judy who came to shul regularly as a youngster. Though her career brought her away from active religious involvement as an adult, she held her roots and heritage close to her heart. It was recalled that shortly before her first launch in 1984 she was in Akron and paid a visit to Rabbi Abe Feffer , then serving as rabbi of Beth El. She asked him to recite tefillot with her in the chapel as part of her preparations for the launch. In his eulogy after her death, Rabbi Feffer addressed the feeling he had heard voiced by some people that Resnick was “somewhat distant from our people.” He said, “Frankly, when a young American astronaut still calls her father ‘Abba’ and her grandmother ‘Bubbie,’ that astronaut is not too far from our people.


Most of us probably didn’t know Judy Resnick, and yet we did. It was like the Israelites hearing an aleph at Mount Sinai. We got it.


In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, another Conservative rabbi, Kenneth Berger of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Tampa, mused on what the astronauts themselves might have been thinking in their final moments. How did they contemplate the aleph? He gave a prescient sermon the following Yom Kippur that became a viral sensation long before the Internet entered our lives. In the sermon titled “Five Minutes to Live,” Rabbi Berger reflected on the seven astronauts on Challenger who perished earlier that year. Evidence was found that the astronauts did not die in the explosion but when the capsule impacted the ocean waters. Rabbi Berger said, “For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain.”


Rabbi Berger then asked his congregation to consider the question: “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?” He challenged his congregation to live their lives as though they had five minutes left. Not in a cynical way by saying, “What’s the point?” But in a spiritual way; a way that will help us channel our direction. He spoke about serving God in those five minutes and expressing our love for our loved ones.

Less than three years later, in July 1989, Rabbi Berger was with his wife and two of his children on United Airlines flight 232 to Philadelphia. After the engines failed, the flight was forced to make an emergency landing.

In the crash landing 185 out of 285 passengers were killed, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, Aviva, while their children survived. During those moments as the plane was descending rapidly to an uncertain fate, I imagine that Rabbi Berger thought about his own sermon.

The aleph in Hebrew makes no sound, and yet when we listen intently to it, it contains all the wisdom we need to live as a decent human being. It is a silent sound that says it all. The aleph introduces the Ten Commandments and stands for the values of our tradition that are so precious. The aleph challenges us to live our lives as if we had five minutes to live. As we remember the astronauts who died 30 years ago, let us honor their legacy by living our lives as if we had only five minutes to live and fill each moment with goodness and kindness. May the memory of the astronauts be for a blessing.

#TieBlog #Bo

15 Jan
15 Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread; the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. (Exodus 12:15).

15 Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread; the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.
(Exodus 12:15).

When people see me wear this tie in the winter they often fret that Passover is around the corner and that they have to start preparing their kitchens to be kosher for Passover, an arduous rite of spring. Have no fear, that’s still three months away. However, our Torah reading this week, Parashat Bo, describes the final three of the ten plagues. As a prelude to the climactic tenth plague, the slaying of the first born, the Torah describes the ritual of the Passover sacrifice that becomes the basis of the Passover Seder observed to this day. The roasted lamb must be eaten with matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs). The Passover rituals are designed to spark discussion about the significance of the Exodus from Egypt in Jewish consciousness. Even if it’s not spring, it’s never to early to engage in these important teachings.

#TieBlog #Va’era

8 Jan

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

"Frogs here, Frogs there. Frogs were jumping everywhere." “Frogs here, Frogs there. Frogs were jumping everywhere.”

Many of us learned the song in pre-school as we were preparing for our Passover Seders:

One morning when Pharaoh awoke in his bed
There were frogs on his pillow and frogs on his head.
Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes,
Frog here, frogs there, frogs were jumping everywhere.

This week in Parashat Va’era, we read about the first seven of ten plagues that God sent to Egypt to pressure Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free. With the children’s song about the frogs, it’s easy to make light of the plagues and even laugh about them. However, at the Seder we remind ourselves not to rejoice by removing a drop of wine from our wine glasses as we recite each plague. We rejoice that the plagues led to freedom for an enslaved people; we do not rejoice…

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May the Light Be With You

4 Dec
The Jedi Rabbi lights the Hanukkah candles.

The Jedi Rabbi lights the Hanukkah candles.

Here is Temple Torat Emet’s new intergalactic Hanukkah-Star Wars video, May The Light Be With You.

#TieBlog #Vayeshev #OurGang

3 Dec

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

"The Little Rascals" get into mischief, and so do the sons of Jacob in this week's Torah portion. “The Little Rascals” get into mischief, and so do the sons of Jacob in this week’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Vayeshev, we meet Joseph, the spoiled brat and favorite son of Jacob. He torments his eleven brothers with his dreams in which he predicts his dominance over them. They can’t take it any more. In a puzzling act of parenting, Jacob sends Joseph out one day to find his brothers and inquire after their welfare. They plot to kill him but relent when Judah sells him into slavery instead. Joseph goes down to Egypt and eventually achieves a position of immense power. One can only imagine what living in a house of twelve sons must have been like on a day-to-day basis. The mischief of the “Little Rascals,” may offer some clue into the brothers’ lives when they were young boys.

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