Archive | May, 2013

Shelah-Lekha: “Being Honest to Oneself and Others”

31 May


(Derived from sermon by same title by Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El: Highland Park, IL, 2013, pp. 205-207

Last week, during the long weekend, I was a good dad, and I took my boys to see the new Star Trek movie: “Into Darkness.” For me, there was definitely an element of nostalgia I grew up watching the reruns of the original series with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Now a new cast was playing the same characters, and I could share this piece of Americana with my children. For both boys, it was their first exposure to Star Trek, so I was interested in seeing how they would react. One son loved it, as did I. He loved the action and the complex plot. He’s practically on his way to becoming a full-fledged Trekkie, and next Passover, when we fulfill a family tradition of reciting the four questions in multiple languages, he will probably be the one to recite them in Klingon. The other son had a very different response. He hated it. He said there was too much action and that he didn’t understand the story. At the end of the film as Captain Kirk was reciting “Space, the final frontier…” I was reciting the captain’s oath along with him. The son who didn’t like the film shushed me.

Whose perspective was correct–the one who liked the movie or the one who didn’t? Well, part of me certainly says of course I was correct—it was a great movie! In a larger sense, though, it’s an amazing feature of the human condition that two people can sit in the same dark movie theater at the same time, hear the same sounds and watch the same images, and interpret the movie completely differently.

Parashat Shelah-Lekha teaches us that truth can easily be found in the eye of the beholder. The parashah describes how Moses dispatched twelve scouts to survey the land of Canaan. They return with identical reports concerning the beauty of the land: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). All the scouts agree on the objective data. But the interpretation of the data brings about disagreement. The majority, ten of the scouts, report that they would not be successful in their attempt to conquer the inhabitants. But Caleb and Joshua disagree: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). All see the same facts and, yet, come to different conclusions. If the majority report is correct, then Caleb and Joshua are mistaken; if the latter are right, then the former are wrong.

So often, the truth is hard to find, difficult to discover, and almost impossible to evaluate. A mentor of mine, Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, in a recently published collection of sermons, notes that when we find praises of truth in the Bible, they often refer to three kinds of truthfulness: truthfulness to God, to one’s fellow and to oneself.

How can we be truthful to God? After all, can we hide anything from God even if we wanted to? Rambam offers an interpretation on Leviticus that sheds light on the relationship between religion and inner truth. The Torah states that a good animal set aside for a sacrifice must not be exchanged for an animal of inferior quality. Similarly, an inferior animal may not be exchanged for one of superior quality. Rambam suggests that being truthful to God means that we must give the best we can.

A story illustrates the Rambam’s point. A wealthy man was sailing a ship that was besieged by a violent storm. The man began to pray to God: “Dear God, if I survive this voyage, then I shall give all my wealth to charity.” The storm soon abated. The man then had second thoughts. “Perhaps,” he said to himself, “I shall only give away one-half of what I own.” Immediately the storm began anew. He looked up to the heavens and declared, “Dear God, can’t you tell I was only fooling?” Being truthful to God means establishing high ideals and living by them.

The second aspect of truthfulness is integrity in one’s dealings with others. The Torah emphasizes the need to be truthful and just in all our relationships and business dealings: “You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures” (Deuteronomy 25:15). Ethical behavior is the rule in all our business and commercial endeavors as well as in our relationships with others.

The words we utter must be truthful, and we should be loyal to our word. A story is told about a man who married a woman because he was promised a dowry of $25,000 by her father. After the wedding, the father-in-law took his new son-in-law aside and gave him the check. “Son, now that you are part of the family, I want you to know that we keep no secrets from one another. We always tell the truth. The check I just gave you, it’s no good. It isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Being truthful to one’s fellow dictates honesty and absolute integrity in all matters: in words, in thoughts, and in actions.

The third aspect of truthfulness is being true to oneself. Too often, we are prone to rationalize our failings and find excuses for not being able to achieve personal goals of success.

A Peanuts cartoon strip shows Peppermint Patty calling Charlie Brown on the telephone. “Guess what, Chuck,” she said. “Today was the first day of school, and I got sent to the principal’s office. It was your fault, Chuck.” “My fault?” he responded. “How could it be my fault? Why do you always say everything is my fault?” “You’re my friend, aren’t you, Chuck? You should have been a better influence on me.”

Being truthful to oneself suggests the need to admit personal failures and mistakes. Scapegoating may bring a temporary sense of relief, but it won’t do anything for ultimate success. The Kotzker Rebbe believed that the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” should be interpreted as “Thou shalt not steal from thyself.” This wisdom has echoes in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in the line “To thine own self be true.”

The Talmud in Shabbat 55a states: “The seal of the Holy One, blessed by He is truth.” In all that matters, we must be truthful: to God, to our fellow human beings, and to ourselves.

Perhaps this was the grave sin of the spies in today’s parashah. Their data were correct, but they colored the truth in such a way that it was impossible for them to be objective. They were not truthful to God. They didn’t give God the best they had, and they were prepared to settle for much less. They were not truthful to their fellow Israelites. And they were not truthful to themselves. They convinced themselves that they were bound to fail and were unable to assume personal responsibility for their actions.

So, you and I might watch a “Star Trek” movie together, and one might like it and the other not. We’ll have an honest discussion about it. But as we have our open dialogue and listen to each other, we need to be truthful to God, to one another and to ourselves. When we are truthful in these ways, we are much more likely to “live long and prosper.” Ken Yehi Ratzon.

#TieBlog #ShelachLecha #ISpy

30 May
I Spy

I Spy

This week’s Torah portion describes the debacle of the twelve spies who go into the Promised Land to scout it out and report back to the people. Ten of them report that it will be too dangerous. The people protest that they would rather go back to Egypt. Only Joshua and Caleb give a positive report. In response to their lack of faith, God decrees that the generation of the Exodus must wander in the desert for 40 years, as they are not fit to inherit the Promised Land. Only their children will have the fresh outlook and confidence necessary to carry out this mission. In this week’s Haftarah/Prophetic reading, we fast forward to the next generation. Joshua appoints two trusted spies to scout out Jericho prior to the Israelites’ conquest. This more subdued, but successful mission stands in contrast to that of the twelve spies. With all this discussion of spies, now you can play “I Spy” on my tie of the week.

Using social media to strengthen culture of welcome

29 May

Using Social Media to Strengthen Culture of Welcome

Temple Torah’s executive staff utilized Darim’s Social Media Bootcamp to strengthen the culture of welcome at our synagogue. Over 25 years, Temple Torah evolved from a seniors-only congregation to a full-service, multi-generational congregation. We now operate a pre-school and two after-school supplemental religious programs. Our challenge is that there is a sense of bifurcation in the congregation and a lack of a  holistic sense of community. People in different segments of the congregation often express a “fee-for-service” mentality. Furthermore, many feel that the expenditure of financial and human resources on one segment of the community means that other segments will not get served. Older people often complain that “all this money is spent on young families who never come to synagogue.” Younger families complain that they don’t feel welcome in other segments of the congregation and that programs and services offered outside of the school wing are not relevant to their lives.  Our staff team sought to use social media as one tool to break down barriers and spark conversations online and offline that would increase the sense of community.


Initially, we sought to embark on this endeavor through short You Tube videos. We succeeded in making one video (see slide 2) that re-oriented people to the main synagogue entrance in a post-Newtown, CT, concern for security.  We were unable to sustain the energy, creativity and commitment to produce more videos, so we switched gears to focusing on Temple Torah’s Facebook page at The page had been under-utilized and was overshadowed by Facebook groups run by various arms of the synagogue. It took some time for us to find a groove where people would like and comment on the page. Pictures of events that were posted received positive attention, but event announcements might as well have been invisible. In March, we fine-tuned our efforts to revamp our Facebook page with a contest asking people to share the manner in which people are welcomed at their seder (slide 3). Whoever received the most likes would receive a prize. It seemed like a good question that people could relate to, yet we received only minimal response. A couple weeks later for Yom Haatzmaut, we discovered a secret sauce: Constant Contact. We were able to drive much more traffic to the Facebook page by sending a Constant Contact email to the congregation, posing a question and directing them to the page (Slide 4). We received more lively online dialogue on why people love Israel (Slide 5).


Having discovered Constant Contact as an effective means to drive traffic to the page, we then went right to the issue of creating a culture of welcome at the synagogue. People were asked to complete the sentence: “My first time being welcomed to Temple Torah was…,” and there was great response (slides 6-7).  One older congregant was bold enough to post that she didn’t feel so welcome (Slide 8), but I utilized this opportunity to reach out to her publicly and privately, and she appreciated that.  That same week, I gleaned from the discussion to deliver a “social sermon” on Shabbat, one in which congregants take part in the writing through their online comments before Shabbat. The sermon was then posted after Shabbat (Slide 9) to allow the posting to continue.


For the rest of this spring, each member of our staff took a turn posting a question for discussion that was rooted in his or her area of expertise. The result is more traffic on our Facebook page and more interaction among different segments of our population. We hope to continue creative ways to drive traffic to the page, spark conversations and build real live relationships among our congregants.

#TieBlog #Behaalotekha

22 May


Parashat Behaalotekha begins with instructions to Aaron to light the lights of the Menorah in the Tabernacle. In addition, the haftarah (prophetic reading) is taken from Zechariah and contains the prophet’s vision of the Menorah. This same selection is repeated on Shabbat-Hanukkah. The text of the haftarah inspired the lyrics of Debbie Friedman’s classic song: “Not by might, and not by power. But by spirit alone shall we all live in peace.” May the light of the Menorah inspire all of us to such a vision.

#TieBlog #Naso The Hair of the Nazirite

16 May

image Parashat Naso introduces the laws of the Nazirite, a person who takes a vow of piety for a finite period of time in which the person is prohibited from consuming any grape product, having contact with the dead and cutting hair. The Haftarah for Parashat Naso is from the book of Judges and describes the birth of the most famous Nazirite in history, Samson. He had the unusual especially unusual status of being subject to the vow from birth. He is known for the link between his hair and his physical strength. The hair-care products on this week’s tie remind us of the Nazirite.

It’s all about relationships

14 May

image imageThings aren’t always as they seem. As reported recently in the New York Times, what you and I might recognize as a Vincent Van Gogh painting is not how the artist saw it or painted it. Using an electron microscope and X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, scientists analyzed his masterpiece “The Bedroom.”  They discovered that, among other differences, the walls that generations have thought to be blue were actually violet when Van Gogh first painted them. It seems the paint pigments of the era were not stable, and with the passage of time the color has changed substantially from its original. For art historians, this news has resulted in a dramatic revision not only of this one painting, but of our understanding of Van Gogh’s artistry, influences and subsequent influence on his craft. (NYTimes, 4/30/2013).

A friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, noted this story and asked a piercing question: Which painting is the actual painting? The painting we see or the painting as it was actually intended? Which has more authority, the original, or the artwork as it has been received and understood over time? The article in the Times reports that beginning this fall, next to the original Van Gogh Museum in Holland will hang a digital reconstruction of what the painting looked like when Van Gogh first painted it. Rabbi Cosgrove asks, if it were possible for experts to restore the painting to how it looked as the paint dried, should we do so? Or is it possible that more important than what the artist wanted is the reception of the piece of art by us – the viewing audience of subsequent generations.

Rabbi Cosgrove then explores the implications of the Van Gogh findings as it relates to Torah. Which is more important–the Torah as God meant when God gave it, or the Torah as it has come to be understood by successive generations?

Rabbi Cosgrove eloquently discusses how we understand the evolution of Jewish law and the authority of an ever changing yet eternal Torah. I’d like to explore the Van Gogh issue from a slightly different angle. The question of what is the authentic painting is a question of relationships. How are we to relate to the painting? What demands do the painting and artist make upon us, and what demands can we make in return? In pondering this question on Shavuot, we note that this is z’man matan Torateinu, the season of the giving of the Torah. The giving of the Torah, including the articulation of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) marks the deep relationship between God and the Jewish people. The relationship has the status of brit or covenant. Earlier in the Torah, God makes covenants with individuals, such as Abraham and Noah. Now God makes a covenant with the Jewish people. What does it mean to be in a covenantal relationship?

I recently read an important new book by Dr. Ron Wolfson, “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community.” Wolfson notes the great challenges that Jewish institutions across the board face today in projecting relevance and maintaining support. Through scholarly research and anecdotal reporting of best practices in the field, he makes the case that the future of Jewish institutions lies not in the programs they produce but in the relationships that they cultivate and nurture. Every interaction in Jewish institutions should be rooted in the sense of brit, sacred covenant. Just as our ancestors made a covenant with God, we as a Jewish community need to cultivate covenantal relationships within our community.

Wolfson notes an irony in the verb used to describe the creating of a covenant. He writes: “The words used in the Torah to describe the establishment of a covenant are likhrot brit—literally, “to cut a covenant.” “Cut” is an interesting term. We “cut a check,” a promise to pay. We “cut a deal,” an agreed upon transaction. But, we also “cut someone out of a will” and “cut off” a bad relationship. Cutting can mean both separating and binding, depending on the context. In either meaning, the individuality of the two parties in relationship is recognized” (35).

There is a nexus between covenants between individuals and covenants of communities.  Wolfson writes: “The idea of covenant is, as Rabbi David Wolpe, author and rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has noted, “the spine of Judaism.” We are constantly reminded of our covenantal relationship with God and each other. Shabbat is a sign of the covenant. The Passover Seder reminds us that God keeps promises: V’hi she’amdah l’avoteinu v’lanu, “God who safeguards God’s promises to our ancestors and to us.” The pageantry of the Torah reading service reenacts the revelation of the covenant at Sinai. The goal of the covenant is celebrated at the climax of the ceremony—the returning of the Torah to the holy ark: Etz hayim hi l’machazikim bah, “It is a tree of life for those who take hold of it,’ v’tomkheha m’ushar—“and those who support it are enriched.” In other words, those who embrace the covenantal relationship discover how to live a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. Moreover, covenants form the foundation of “community”—a group of people bound together in relationship based upon reciprocal responsibilities” (37).

Wolfson builds his case further by identifying nine key relationships that each Jew ideally should have and that Jewish institutions, such as synagogues, are most successful when they help in cultivating these relationships. These relationships are with oneself, family, friends, Jewish Living, Community, Jewish Peoplehood, Israel, the World and God. Four of them, Self, Family, Friends and Jewish Living, can be described as personal relationships. Community, Peoplehood, Israel and World are communal relationships. The bridge between personal and communal is God.

Relationships between people and paintings, such as the Van Gogh’s, are complex and dynamic; all the more so relationships between people. This holiday, like all others, is a time for us to reflect on the complexity of our relationships and to renew our personal and communal covenants. It’s an opportunity for us to take our virtual X-ray spectrometer to examine our synagogue. It’s a time for us to re-envision our shul as a place that not only provides services, but, as its essence, helps us create vibrant relationships with one another.

On Shavuot we imagine ourselves standing at Sinai entering into a covenant with God, however we choose to imagine that. Just as scientists examine paintings with advanced technical instruments, we examine ourselves and our relationships with the instrument of our heart. And we do so with our ancestors and departed loved ones who have bestowed Jewish tradition upon us. We have inherited Jewish tradition form them, and it is upon us to interpret it, just like an old painting.

As we observe Yizkor, we express gratitude to God for the gift of our loved ones. Even though they are no longer with us, we are different people because of them. Just as Shavuot incorporates different elements, we recall our loved ones who touched us in so many different ways. During this harvest season, we recall how we have reaped the benefits that our departed loved ones have left us, even as we regret they are no longer here. During this season of the giving of the Torah, we recall all of the wonderful teachings and insights into life that our loved ones gave us. They enriched our lives with texture and color more than any painting ever could have. May their memories be for a blessing.

Introduction to Talmud, Berakhot 16a-b

14 May

image Discussion over whether workers can fulfill the mitzvah of saying Sh’ma while on the job and whether a groom is obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of Sh’ma on his wedding night. 

#TieBlog #Shavuot #10Commandments

14 May


Shavuot is “Zman Matan Torateinu,” the season of the giving of the Torah. We recall our ancestors’ encounter with the a Divine at Mt. Sinai and their receiving the Ten Commandments. Hence, this tie. Hag Sameah!

The Torah’s Call for Openness: A Response to the Hawking Episode

10 May

imageimageThere’s a Hasidic story about a rebbe who was journeying through an unfriendly village. Hooligans lined the sides of the road and made ready to pelt his carriage with stones. Unafraid, the rebbe recited aloud a verse from the Torah, “The might of Your arm shall make them rigid as stone” (Exodus 15).” Immediately, the arms of the would-be attackers became paralyzed. A listener to the story reacted in great surprise, “If that’s the case, why did you rebbe return home with a swollen eye?” The Hasid explained, “One of the hooligans was hard of hearing.”

Throughout the ages, the Jewish people have seen many hooligans who have been deaf to our yearning to live at peace. Many inflicted physical harm on our people. Others have sought harm to Jews in more subtle ways. Still, few could have anticipated that the latest “hooligan” to insult the Jewish people would be none other than Stephen Hawking, the renowned cosmologist and wheel-chair bound victim of ALS. Hawking had initially accepted an invitation to appear next month at Facing Tomorrow: The Israeli Presidential Conference under the auspices of President Shimon Peres. Then, Hawking backed out of attending the conference. When the news media reported that it was due to Hawking joining an academic boycott of Israel, first Cambridge University released a statement that he cancelled due to health reasons. Then, as memos leaked clearly revealing Hawking’s true rationale, Cambridge was forced to clarify that in fact he was withdrawing out of sympathy for the boycott. The university released a statement indicating that Dr. Hawking had told the Israelis that he would not be attending “based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott.”

Hawking apparently came under the influence of  our modern day hooligans, the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, or BDS.  They are often more subtle than tormenters of Jews in generations past. For one thing, they often say they have no problem with Jews, only the State of Israel. However, the Jewish yearning for a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel is intricately connected with our religious tradition, and attacks on the legitimacy of Israel often feel like anti-Semitism and in fact often are. People who espouse such a view are “hard of hearing” in the sense that they don’t hear our pain over this ostracism.  The insidious attacks on the legitimacy of Israel through BDS are carried out by a modern day, sophisticated, gang of hooligans who have intoxicated Western circles of intelligentsia and academia. While most Israelis and Jews around the world are sympathetic to the national aspirations of Palestinians, it is disheartening, to say the least, when seemingly intelligent people are willfully deaf to the aspirations of the Jewish people. Israel is a democracy that promotes free expression and advanced scientific inquiry. Through scientific discovery, Israel contributes more per capita to the world’s quality of life than just about any other nation. Furthermore, Israel has committed itself to a two-state solution in which a Jewish state would sit peaceably side-by-side with a Palestinian state. Yet, this is not good enough for the BDS Movement that seeks to undermine the very legitimacy of the State of Israel through prevailing upon academic institutions, scientists, professors and artists from dealing with Israel or Israelis in a spirit of open exchange of ideas.

Before discussing the Hawking episode further, it’s important to note where we find ourselves in the Torah reading cycle this week. We begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers.

The way our calendar works, this week’s Torah reading usually falls the week in which we are to observe Shavuot, the Festival celebrating the gift of the Torah to the Jewish people. The midrash note the juxtaposition and wonder aloud why God gave the Torah in the desert.  One midrash reads: The Torah was given in the desert so as not to incite dissension among the tribes, so that one will not say “In my land the Torah was given,” and the other will say “No, in my land it was given.” Therefore, was the Torah given in the desert, in no-man’s land (b’farhesia). This midrash continues: The Torah was likened to three things—desert, fire and water—to teach you that just as these things are free, the words of the Torah are free to all who come into this world.

(Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Yitro, Remez 286)

The Talmud elaborates further on the theme of openness and transparency: “One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah” (BT Ned. 55a). It is intimidating to open oneself to the demands of God, to a new and morally demanding way of life. The Torah portrays the people Israel as periodically wishing they were back in the predictable, morally undemanding servitude of Egypt. Yet Israel’s willingness to accept the Torah, to be “as open as the wilderness” to let the Torah’s morality fill the moral vacuum in the lives of former slaves, was the essential first step in God’s remaking the world. For the first time, God’s world will contain a model people, guided by the Torah to live a God-oriented life.

The image of the desert in the eyes of the rabbis is not one of barrenness. Rather, it is one of openness. A journey through the desert provides time and space for thinking and open inquiry. It is unencumbered by the biases of specific societies. In modern times, scientific conferences should serve the purposes of scientists coming together from all parts of the world for the sake of the betterment of humanity. Political boycotts run afoul of the very purpose these conferences serve.

Sadly, Stephen Hawking, despite all of his well-deserved accolades over the years, sullied his reputation with his decision to cancel a trip to Israel. It was strikingly odd in light of the fact that he appeared in Israel four times previously. Aside from his recognized genius in exploring the origins of the universe, Hawking is also known for being paralyzed from ALS and using a computer to speak.   One can hardly overlook that much of the sophisticated computer technology that enables Hawking to speak was made in Israel. In addition, Israel has been at the forefront in developing treatments for ALS.

In response to Hawking’s cancellation, Israel Maimon, the chairman of the conference, strongly criticized the professor’s decision, saying in a statement, “The academic boycott of Israel is in our view outrageous and improper, certainly for someone for whom the spirit of liberty lies at the basis of his human and academic mission.” He added: “Israel is a democracy in which all individuals are free to express their opinions, whatever they may be. The imposition of a boycott is incompatible with open, democratic dialogue.”

As we begin our reading of Bemidbar and prepare to celebrate Shavuot, let us take to heart the spirit of the desert that it will continue to inspire in us the thirst for knowledge and inquiry that for thousands of years has been a beacon of light for humanity. We may encounter obstacles that seek to obscure this light, but let us not waver from our noble pursuit of truth.

#TieBlog The Book of #Numbers Parashat #Bemidbar

9 May


Another numbers tie? Well, that’s because we’re starting to read the Book of Numbers, or Sefer Bemidbar in Hebrew. Bemidbar literally means “in the desert.” The English name “Numbers” relates to the census of the people described in the opening of the book.