Archive | November, 2013

#TieBlog #Thanksgivikkuh

26 Nov
Dreidel tie for Hanukkah

Dreidel tie for Hanukkah

We spin the dreidel into another Hanukkah, and this time, in America at least, Hanukkah combines with Thanksgiving. In fact, with the quirks of the lunar calendar and its adjustments to the solar calendar, this is the first time Hanukkah and Thanksgiving have ever fallen one same day, and it won’t happen again for another 75,000 years! I like this tie because it has the two kinds of dreidels–nes gadol hayah sham (a great miracle happened there–in Israel) and nes gadol hayah po (a great miracle happened here–for those living in Israel). The miracle refers to the miracle of lights. According to the Talmud, the Maccabees liberated the Temple and found only enough oil to kindle the lights for one day, but they lasted for eight days. This year, we Americans might also reflect on the great miracle that is America and the blessings of freedom, including and especially religious freedom, that we enjoy on these shores. The “Peh” dreidel can work here too, at least on Thursday.

Looking ahead to Shabbat, #TieBlog proposes a connection between this tie and Parashat Mikketz. Joseph’s life has been like a game of dreidel. He landed on some hard times and is lying forgotten in an Egyptian jail. Then his fortunes turn dramatically when he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams an disappointed viceroy of Egypt. He saves the people from starvation and ultimately his own family as well. In the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Joseph says upon his new appointment: “Anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break!”

Yes, the game of dreidel is a game of chance and luck. At the same time people have to make miracles happen, whether it’s crushing olives to make enough olive oil to kindle fire even for one day, let alone eight, or to cross the Atlantic in the Mayflower to a strange new land in search of religious freedom.
Happy Thanksgivikkuh!

Like #Lincoln and #Kennedy, we all can change the world

22 Nov
President Abraham Lincoln and President John F. Kennedy

President Abraham Lincoln and President John F. Kennedy

On Thursday of this week, I was pleased to participate in the formal kickoff of our adult education season in tandem with Temple Shaarei Shalom. Rabbi Fratello and Cantor Bain from Shaarei Shalom, and Cantor Mondrow and I each reflected on different aspects on the state of American Jewry today against the backdrop of two monumental anniversaries in America this week. On November 19, we marked the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Yesterday, November 22, we marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas. The coincidental proximity of these anniversaries may have lent fuel to those who suggest that there must have been some cosmic, pre-ordained connection between these two slain Presidents. It’s easy to get caught up in the trivia that they were both shot in the head on a Friday, that they were each succeeded by Johnson and that Kennedy’s secretary was named Evelyn Lincoln. I think we would be better off reflecting on who these men were, why they were important and how we might strive to carry on with their unfinished work.

In recalling two momentous events in American history, it’s worthy first to explore a momentous event in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Vayeshev. The parashah begins with the ironic statement that Jacob had settled down in the land where his fathers wandered. Based on what happens next, nothing is settled about daily life in the house of Jacob. Jacob showers favor upon Joseph, son of his favorite wife, Rachel. he presents him with a k’tonet passim, a striped, or, perhaps, “technicolor” coat. The favoritism naturally created a rift between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s arrogant personality did not help to assuage the tension. One day when the brothers are away, Jacob sends Joseph to find them and see how they’re doing. What a fateful mistake that was. Or was it?

On his way towards Shechem (Genesis 37:15), Joseph meets a man who says basically he saw them and they went “thataway” towards Dothan. Joseph finds his brothers. They pounce on him, nearly kill him, and ultimately sell him into slavery.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, who is coming to Temple Torah on January 15 (and you should all buy tickets), writes in his Torah commentary about this mysterious man on the road who meets Joseph.

“We never hear of this man again,” he writes. “Yet if Joseph had not met him, he never would have been sold into slavery. The family would not have followed him into Egypt. There would have been no Exodus. The history of the world would have been so different! Could that man have known how his chance encounter changed history? Do we ever know the consequences of the little acts of thoughtfulness we perform?”

Each one of us may be that man or woman on the road that knowingly or unknowingly profoundly influences the life of someone else. Knowing that, our task in life is to try to do so with positive energy and intentionality. This week, we pause to reflect two giant historical leaders, President Lincoln and President Kennedy. There may be coincidental similarities between the two, but they served with great purpose and intentionality. Without their leadership, the world as we know it might be a very different place.

For Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address is a masterpiece not only for its brilliant, concise rhetoric, but also for stating in clear terms Lincoln’s vision of his lasting legacy, the end of slavery and the defense of the union. Had Lincoln not entered the historical stage, how would America have evolved from its status quo in the mid-1800s? Would there even be a single United States of America? We can only speculate, but we know our world is different because Lincoln lived. As we reflect on the meaning of Lincoln this week, let me share all 272 words of the Gettysburg Address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

For Kennedy, his term was shorter and his legacy less clear-cut but still significant. The Cold War weighed heavily on the mood of the time of his inauguration. His rhetoric that day acknowledged the national stress, and inspired principled leadership of the free world. He said: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

During his term, he averted nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis. He went to Berlin and inspired the people in this enclave of democracy stuck in the midst of Communist East Germany that freedom and democracy were precious and necessary. Back at home, he laid the groundwork for the sweeping Civil Rights legislation that his successor President Johnson would sign into law. On June 11, 1963, during the desegregation of the University of Alabama, President Kennedy said: “If an American, because the color of his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public schools available, if he cannot vote for those public officials that represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

“I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Finally, President Kennedy channeled his magnetic charisma to inspire a generation of Americans to think beyond their personal wants and desires and to serve their nation. The Peace Corps is one product of that legacy. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” are his immortal words from his inauguration that continue to resonate today.

Had Kennedy not served as President, what would our world look like today? Would we have experienced nuclear war? Would we have put astronauts on the moon? We can only speculate, but certainly our world is different because President Kennedy lived.

In reflecting this week on these two fallen Presidents, we can think about that man on the road to Shechem whom Joseph encounters. He’s a reminder to us that our words and our actions matter. Anything we do or say can have a profound effect on the lives of others and even to affect the course of history. Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy were great statesmen who channeled powerful oratory and deft leadership skills towards serving our nation and making our world a bit better. Their lives were both tragically cut short, and their work was unfinished. It is up to each of us to see ourselves as that “person on the road to Shechem” who can change the world. May we be blessed to make the world a bit brighter and better.

#TieBlog #Vayeshev #OurGang

21 Nov
"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.

#TieBlog #Vayishlach #JacobWrestling

14 Nov
Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being in Parashat Vayishlach and is renamed Yisrael.

Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being in Parashat Vayishlah and is renamed Yisrael.

Parashat Vayishlah presents the climax in Jacob’s journey from a trickster youth who gets his way through deception to a mature adult who faces life’s challenges with integrity. He is about to confront his estranged brother Esau for the first time in 20 years. He fears for his life as he believes Esau is still angry over being cheated out of his birthright. The night before meeting Esau, Jacob encounters a mysterious being on the banks of the Jabbok and they wrestle all night. Towards dawn, Jacob prevails but the sparring partner strikes him in his hip and causes permanent injury. Jacob emerges triumphant but wounded. He is renamed Yisrael- the one who wrestles with God and man and prevails. Later (33:18), Jacob is described as “Shalem,” whole or at peace. Even though Jacob is hurt in a wrestling bout, he is a much more whole person for finding within him the integrity to repair his relationship with his brother.


8 Nov

November 9, 2013

November 9 marks exactly 75 years since Kristallnacht. On that dark night and the following day, November 10, more than 1000 synagogues were set ablaze, Torahs and prayer books were burned, Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and more than 7500 shops and businesses were vandalized without intervention by the police, fire department or local citizenry. The streets were littered with broken glass. Ninety-one Jews were murdered. More than 30,000 Jews in Germany and Austria were arrested for the “crime” of being Jewish and sent off to the newly enlarged concentration camps in Dacau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen where hundreds of them perished. To add insult to injury, Jews were blames for the pogrom and had to pay for the damages as well. The Nazis imposed on the Jewish community a fine of one billion Reichsmarks—equal to about 400 million US dollars at the 1938 rate.

Kristallnacht marked a turning point in the Holocaust. The persecution of the Jews became the official Nazi policy of unrestrained violence and murder. And through it all, the world stood silent. Hitler took this as a clear go-ahead signal to proceed with the extermination of all the Jews in every country under his control.

Kristallnacht did not happen in a vacuum. It was a result of years of propaganda and progressive escalation of anti-semitic persecution by the Nazis. Their hatred was initially expressed in words, blaming the Jews for economic woes and marginalizing them in society. Through propaganda, Jews were made “other,” and Kristallnacht became easier.

The lesson that words matter is evident in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze. Those of us who are familiar with the story probably know that there is a lot of tension in the household of Jacob between Leah and her sister Rachel, both of whom are married to Jacob. There is also tension between Jacob and Leah who was the lesser favorite of his two wives. What we might not realize as readily was that there was also tension between Jacob and Rachel, his most beloved wife.

The text tells us: va-teire Rachel ki lo yaldah l’yaakov va-tekane Rachel Ba-Ahotah, Va’Tomer El Yaakov hava li banim v’im ayin meitah anochi. When Rachel saw that she had borne Yaakov no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rahel said to Yaakov, “Give me children, or I shall die.”

Imagine you’re Rachel. You’re barren and can’t conceive. Your sister who is married to the same man is popping out babies. How would you feel? Now, if you were Jacob, how might you respond to your wife? Here’s his response:

Vayihar af Yaakov b’Rachel Vayomer Hathat Elohim anochi asher mana mimech pri baten. VaTomer hinei amati Bilhah: Bo eilehah v’teled al birki v’ibaneh gam anochi mimenah.

So Yaakove became furious with Rahel and said, “Am I to take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?!” She said, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.

The midrash offers the following interpretation of this exchange (BR 71,10):

The Holy Blessed One said to Yaakov, “Is this how you answer people in distress?! I swear by your life that your children [i.e. from your other wives] will stand before her son [i.e. Yoseph]!”

The midrash spells out that Yaakov was wrong. Plain and simple. This is not the way you speak to people when they are upset. Even if Yaakov was correct in the substance of his claim, he had no right to be so cruel to her. For this one moment of speech, this one instance in which Yaakov was caught off guard and behaved wrongly to his beloved Rachel, the fate of his children was determined. We can look forward in coming weeks to that drama.

Words have tremendous power. Things we say quickly, without thinking, without taking the time to notice the situation of the person to whom we’re responding, without considering what that person can or should hear right now—these unthinking comments that we all make now and then can have huge consequences in the world. All the more so when evil words are said with malicious intent to marginalize people like the Nazis did with Jews in Germany.

While words hurt, words can also heal. Imagine if countries had condemned Germany for Kristallnacht and enacted harsh sanctions. Instead, the world was silent. That was a moment demanding people of good will to cry out, and they didn’t. On this Kristallnacht anniversary, let’s of course take to heart the commandment Zachor! Remember the Shoah. Let’s also go a step further that words lead to hatred and hatred leads to violence. God forbid that should ever happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

#TieBlog #Vayetze #Jacob’s Ladder

7 Nov
Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder

A stairway to heaven that could very well be Jacob’s ladder.


1 Nov

Isaac Blessing JacobTomorrow in Shabbat services I will facilitate a discussion on giving blessings, based on the drama surrounding Isaac blessing his sons. Consider the sources in this study sheet. Think of a time when you felt “blessed” by someone else through praise, words of encouragement or the like. In what way(s) were you transformed by the blessing? Let’s begin the discussion now! You can Tweet responses at #blessingAsAgentForChange. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Bernstein