Archive | July, 2015

Comfort as an action

31 Jul

This week is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of comfort. We are supposed to derive comfort that Tisha B’Av is behind us. Last week, we recalled how the destruction of the Temple was brought about by sin’at hinam, the causeless hatred that Jews showed towards one another. When we enter the month of Av, we nickname this month Menachem Av, the month of Av the comforts. The name of the month de-emphasized the prominent day of destruction and emphasizes the hopeful tone of the rest of the month. We are supposed to be more optimistic about our redemption. Alas, this Shabbat follows a very difficult week in Israel that leaves me wondering where the comfort is.

On Thursday, six people were stabbed and injured at the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem. The alleged perpetrator was a Haredi man who had just been released from prison a few weeks ago after serving a sentence for the exact same act at the exact same parade ten years ago.

Then, Thursday night, another shocking incident occurred outside of Nablus. The home of a Palestinian family was burned down in a savage arson attack that killed an 18-month old Ali Saad Dawabsheh and injured his parents and brother. Hebrew graffiti was sprayed nearby with the word nekamah, revenge, appearing next to a Star of David. Authorities suspect this was the work of the Price Tag gang of thugs, Jewish terrorists who attack Palestinians in the name of their ideology of a Greater Israel.

Both incidents have been strongly condemned, and rightly so, by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Yet, we brace ourselves with great concern for what may follow, particularly in response to the firebombing.  Hamas and Hezbollah, backed by an increasingly confident Iran, may be looking for excuses to stir up trouble in the West Bank and beyond.  What can be done?

The answer comes, in part, from the special haftarah this Shabbat. After 45 years in exile, following the destruction of the first Temple, the Jews now have an opportunity to return to their homeland.   The 40th chapter of Isaiah begins Nachamu nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem.  This phrase is often mistranslated as: “Be comforted, my people, says God.” Perhaps more familiar is the King James version sung in Handl’s “Messiah:” “Comfort ye, my people.” On closer analysis, this reading is problematic. Nachamu is not a reflexive verb calling on people to comfort themselves. That would read hitnachamu. Rather, it is a transitive verb in command form: “Comfort! Comfort my people!” If that is the case, then we must ask to whom is God speaking? Commentators differ. Some say God is speaking to the prophets. Some say the priests (LXX). Some say all the nations of the world are commanded to comfort the Jewish people. Professor Shalom Paul of Hebrew University argues that God is speaking to the Divine Council, commanding the celestial beings seated there to comfort the Jews.  Whatever interpretation you choose, the common denominator is that comfort is not a passive process that just happens to someone. It is an active process that one must do to bring comfort to someone else.

Yair Lapid, a centrist Knesset member, wrote an op-ed piece yesterday titled We Are at War, arguing that those who care for the survival of a vibrant Jewish State need to combat extremism. “He who burns a Palestinian baby declares war on the State of Israel. He who stabs young people at a Pride March declares war on the State of Israel.” He cites other recent examples of violence and incitement and calls extremists “natural partners of Hamas, of Hezbollah, of ISIS. They look like us but they aren’t like us. They are traitors to all that is sacred to us, traitors to the very idea on which the State of Israel was founded, traitors to Judaism.” He concludes: “We’re at war. For the future, for Zionism, for our existence. As in every one of Israel’s wars, we cannot afford to lose.” On the surface, his words are not exactly comforting. When is it ever comforting to speak of war? Yet, in the spirit of Isaiah, comfort is an active process. People of good will must be vigilant against violent extremism for the good, and ultimately the comfort, of all.

Where racism, hatred and indifference are allowed to fester, particularly towards vulnerable members of society, it is not a long road for that culture to transform into a culture of violence. I pray that this week’s events were aberrations and not a new normal for Israel. There is some reason for hope.

Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern visited the victims of the anti-gay terror attack on the gay pride parade. He called on the public to pray for the recovery of the victims and condemned the attack in the strongest terms, saying the attack was the polar opposite of everything Judaism stands for.

Furthermore, Netanyahu and leaders of his government, including Naftali Bennett, condemned the arson as an act of terror. Their task going forward will be to face down the extremists in their own camp so that this violence is not repeated.

I’ll conclude with a poignant statement released by the Masorti Movement in Israel.

“Jewish fundamentalism is neither better nor worse than any other fundamentalism. The knife, raised against the parade in the heart of Jerusalem last evening, and the match that ignited a family home in the village of Douma, near Nablus, in the early morning hours, are the despicable products of religious fanaticism. Tendentious use of verses can justify almost any wrongdoing, yet the legacy of Israel throughout all generations has always known to maintain a firm moral rule, “Do the right and the good” (Deuteronomy 6:18). Those who educate for hatred, spread evil, and call for harming innocent people are distorting Judaism, not building it. Murder, attempted murder and lust for murder have nothing to do with Jewish tradition.

We extend a comforting hand and embrace to the LGBT community that suffered a severe blow yesterday, send strength to their families, and offer prayers for the injured hospitalized in Hadassah and Shaare Zedek hospitals in Jerusalem.

We send condolences to the family Daobasa, whose infant son was burned to death last night by Jewish terrorists, and pray for the safety of other family members who are still hospitalized.

Oseh Shalom Bimromav/May God who makes peace on high,
Hu Yaase Shalom Aleinu Make peace for us,
v’al kol Yisrael/For all Israel,
v’al kol yoshvei teivel/And all who dwell on Earth.
V’imru/Let us say, Amen.”

And I’ll add: may we find the strength as a people to take meaningful action to bring comfort to our people and the world.


#TieBlog #Vaetchanan #Shabbat Nachamu

31 Jul

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

The Ten Commandments are read three times a year, including this week. The Ten Commandments are read three times a year, including this week.

I love my Ten Commandments tie because there are three occasions during the year when I can wear it in connection with a public reading of the Decalogue. They are read in Parashat Yitro, which falls in the winter. They are also read on Shavuot at the beginning of summer. Both of these readings are from Exodus Chapter 20. Parashat Vaetchanan is the one time during the year when we read the version from Deuteronomy Chapter 5. Believe it or not, there some subtle differences. Exodus instructs, “Remember (Zakhor) the Sabbath day….” Deuteronomy instructs “Observe (Shamor) the Sabbath day….” Exodus explains the Sabbath in spiritual terms, invoking God’s initial Sabbath following the creation of the world. Deuteronomy appeals to social justice, reminding the reader that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and that all human beings and animals…

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Open Letter to “The Voice of Formerly Affiliated Seniors”

30 Jul

Yesterday, I received in the mail an interesting letter. The envelope was hand-addressed to me and marked personal; curiously, however, there was no return address. I opened the letter and immediately scanned to see who wrote it. It was merely signed “The Voice of Formerly Affiliated Seniors.” The letter was cc’d to Temple Torat Emet (my synagogue in Boynton Beach) Temple Anshei Shalom (Delray Beach), Temple Beth Kodesh (Boynton Beach), Temple Sinai (Delray Beach), Temple Beth Tikvah (Greenacres) and Temple Shaarei Shalom (Boynton Beach). These are all Conservative and Reform congregations in the south-central portion of Palm Beach County.

As Rabbi of one of the congregations to whom the letter addresses, I wish to acknowledge the pain and frustration expressed by the author and believe the author raises important points that should concern all synagogues in our area and beyond. It troubles me that the author did not feel safe personally approaching any of the rabbis of the congregations to whom the letter is addressed. In this light, I’m sharing this letter publicly, not to embarrass the author but to give a public voice to the genuine concerns expressed. I will then respond to the individual concerns and offer a helping hand.

July 27, 2015

Dear Rabbi:

From time to time, articles appear in the Jewish newspapers about the low rate of affiliation among Jews in Palm Beach County. The rate is well under twenty per cent.

Some of the reasons given are “retired people already joined up North and do not wish to do so again,” “other Jewish organizations and activities suffice”, etc. Sometimes efforts are made to remedy this, such as recent programs to welcome LGBT Jews, which is as it should be. However, I believe that many more of the unaffiliated Jews would be members, or at least attend services from time to time, and donate some revenue, IF THEY FELT WANTED.

As a 20 year resident of Palm Beach County who was always and is no longer affiliated, here is what I see:

  1. When a member drops out of a temple, nobody calls to ask why. It would be nice if somebody noticed the sudden absence and called to see what happened. Membership retention activities do not seem to exist. Maybe the person is ill, has financial problems, or other reasons for not attending. Long time members do not suddenly abandon their Jewishness. Nobody inquires. Yet sometimes arrangements can be made.
  1. Many seniors are visually impaired and cannot read the prayer books. There are large print prayer books and they can be obtained FREE OF CHARGE. Most temples do not have any and refuse to stock them. Sitting through a two or three hour service with no text to follow is not pleasant so such members drop out.
  2. Transportation to and from services is a major problem for many seniors. Many do not drive at night or do not drive at all. Two things could be done about this. Every temple could have a volunteer group to drive people to services — occasionally, not every week. Volunteers could be recruited from each community and lists of potential drivers made available to anyone needing a ride to services. Also, just as the JCC has a minivan available to take folks to their activities, temples could do this on a low-cost-fee basis.
  1. Regarding adult education courses, it would be nice if some of them could be offered in the afternoon rather than the evening. Also, let us enroll in just the course or courses we wish to attend — not an entire list of courses that are too expensive when all we want is one!

In Palm Beach County, we are largely an aging population which has caused temples to close or merge, leaving many former members without accessible temples. For the first time in their lives, they have no way to get there. Doesn’t anyone care? If not we will see continued erosion of affiliation — and financial support. If only 30 people come to a temple occasionally and donate $100 each in a year, the temple gains $3000 in revenue. And, if more become members, the revenues will result in the needed funds to continue running the temples.

Overheard in a recent conversation among active temple people is the following: “If they are not active, who needs them?” Hardly a Jewish attitude, I think.

I believe the elderly Jews in Palm beach County deserve attention. Many of us want to come but, with present conditions, we are completely disenfranchised. We are the ones who built and sustained these temples with our work and our money. We are the former founders, officers and committee members who built and sustained these temples. We want and deserve better.

Rabbis should use their community leadership positions to make temples more welcoming to everyone, not just the young and the wealthy. Many elderly Jews become poor due to the expenses of ill health and loss of spousal income. We still love Judaism and wish to participate but it becomes impossible for many. We are “Jewishly homeless.” With your help, this could change!


The Voice of Formerly Affiliated Seniors


CC: Temple Torat Emeth

Temple Anshei Shalom

Temple Beth Kodesh

Temple Sinai

Temple Beth Tikvah

Temple Shaarei Shalom



Rabbi Edward Bernstein responds:

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for your letter. I very much appreciate that you took the time to express your concerns. Our Torah teaches Mipnei seivah takum, v’hadarat p’nei zaken, “You shall rise before the elderly and honor the presence of the aged” (Leviticus 19:32). The value expressed in this verse is a cornerstone of Jewish tradition.


It pains me that even one Jew in our community feels underserved by our area synagogues, which, I believe, are the bedrock for Jewish life in the broader community.  It also troubles me that you felt the need to remain anonymous. I don’t know how many people for whom “The Voice of Formerly Affiliated Seniors” speaks; however, whether it’s one person, 30 people or 1,000, you are welcome in my shul.  I honor the wealth of experience that you have earned through years of Jewish communal involvement both prior and since your relocation to South Florida. The community can only benefit from the contribution of your wisdom to meet today’s challenges.


I detect from your letter a yearning to return to synagogue life, but perhaps you’re not sure how to take that first step. Let me address the specific points you make, and perhaps we can find a way for you to reenter the warm embrace of shul.


  1. It sounds like you had a prior affiliation with a local shul, you did not renew your membership and no one called. That troubles me, and you deserved appropriate outreach. You remind us that we in synagogues need to do better. That said, at Temple Torat Emet, we have a hard-working Tov Team that keeps close tabs on members who are ailing or feeble or who otherwise have difficulty coming to synagogue. In many cases, they organize rides to synagogue, deliver meals to the home during acute illnesses and make phone calls just to show we care. Our membership committee also tracks members who may be on the margins to remind them that they are important to us. You note the financial challenges and write, “sometimes arrangements can be made.” Indeed, many of our members have made special need-based arrangements in a dignified, confidential process. Our membership dues provide vital funds without which we could not exist. At same time, our doors are open 365 days a year with an active daily minyan morning and afternoon and vibrant Shabbat services every Friday night and Saturday. These are open to the public. Please come.
  2. I’m sorry that you have not found large print prayer books at shuls you’ve attended. I can assure you that at Temple Torat Emet we have an ample supply of large print books easily available at every service. Recently, a visually impaired member of our congregation pointed out that while the words in the large print siddurim were readable, the page numbers were too small. So, we fixed that! A young lady performed her bat mitzvah service project by working with the congregant and placed stickers of enlarged page numbers throughout each of the 20 copies of our large print siddur. In this one act of kindness, an intergenerational bond was created between a senior adult and a teenager, plus the congregation will benefit from the product of her labor for years to come. That’s what a synagogue community is all about. By the way, Temple Torat Emet also has assisted listening devices available to congregants who need for all services and programs in our Main Sanctuary. Our bimah is equipped with a ramp so everyone can receive an honor, irrespective of any mobility limitations.
  3. Transportation should not be a deal breaker for you. For one thing, as I’ll note in #4, we have lots of programming during the day. Unfortunately, a shuttle service is very costly and investment in that service would necessarily divert funds from other precious programs and services. That said, give me a call and I’ll find you a ride. We have many congregants who drive from different parts of our area, and many people carpool to services and events. As you may know, last year our congregation became Temple Torat Emet when the former Temple Emeth of Delray Beach joined forces with the former Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach. As such, we have many members who regularly make the modest five-mile trek up Jog Road from Delray to Boynton. Plus, you never know—maybe a cost-effective plan for a shuttle could be found. You can help determine that by contacting us directly, and we’ll research the matter with you.
  4. Three of the synagogues on your list, Temple Torat Emet, Temple Shaarei Shalom and Temple Beth Tikvah, formed a vibrant consortium for adult education. Here is last year’s course lineup (last year it was just Torat Emet and Shaarei Shalom; Beth Tikvah joined us for the coming season). You will see that the majority of courses are during the day, and the pricing is very reasonable (my weekly Talmud class is free!).


I am sorry that you overheard in a recent conversation “If they are not active, who needs them.” It must have hurt to hear that. I disagree with you, however, that you are disenfranchised. Palm Beach County is blessed with a strong Jewish community of which senior adults are a significant population. All of the synagogues you address, including mine, enjoy active participation by our seniors.  Given everything I said above, I humbly ask you for your trust to give synagogue life another try. I extend to you an open invitation to participate in worship services and educational and social programming at Temple Torat Emet. My hope is that you will not only come to our events but you will stay involved because of the warm personal relationships you will develop with other members of our community.  I wish you good health, and I hope to see you and your friends soon.


Sincerely Yours,

Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein

Temple Torat Emet

Boynton Beach, Florida



Remembering Matt and Sara on Tisha B’Av

24 Jul
Campers at Ramah Darom examine the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, June, 2015.

Campers at Ramah Darom examine the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, June, 2015.

As Tisha B’Av approaches, my late friends, Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, of blessed memory, will be very much on my minds. Twenty years ago this fall, Matt and I began our second year of JTS Rabbinical School at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. Sara came to Israel for the year to work in a biology lab at Hebrew University and to be near Matt as their loving courtship was continuing to blossom. They died on February 25, 1996, in a brutal suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem. Matt and Sara’s lives, their tragic death and their family’s quest for justice are profiled with great care in Mike Kelly’s acclaimed book, The Bus on Jaffa Road. In 1997, one year after their death, the Jewish Theological Seminary dedicated a Beit Midrash in Matt and Sara’s memory. In conjunction with that ceremony, I compiled a scrapbook of many of Matt and Sara’s writings that their parents shared with me. The selections include handwritten journal entries, essays, sermons and scholarly papers, in which they each express passion for Jewish life and Israel. Since 1997, the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash Memorial Volume has been on display and available for perusal at the JTS Beit Midrash.

The Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, a collection of their writings, on display in the JTS Beit Midrash.

The Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, a collection of their writings, on display in the JTS Beit Midrash.

As the twentieth anniversary of Matt and Sara’s death approaches, I’ve undertaken to transcribe, edit and publish the Memorial Volume so that the general public may read Matt and Sara’s writings and experience the depth of their souls. They might not be with us physically, but their spirit lives on. This collection is scheduled to be published in early 2016 under the title: Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker.

Rabbi Ed Bernstein transcribing handwritten sections of Memorial Volume (Photo by Rabbi Hillel Norry at Ramah Darom, June, 2015).

Rabbi Ed Bernstein transcribing handwritten sections of Memorial Volume (Photo by Rabbi Hillel Norry at Ramah Darom, June, 2015).


Tisha B’Av is a time when the Jewish community reflects on Israel’s physical and spiritual security. Like so many times previously, both seem precarious now. And yet, we continue to persevere with great hope that the future will be better. Matt and Sara each recognized the challenges faced by Israel and the Jewish people, both external threats and threats from within resulting from Jewish infighting. From their collected writings, here are two selections that seem appropriate for this season of reflection on the state of our people. May Matt and Sara’s memories be for a blessing, and may their enduring spirit inspire us all to create the better, more peaceful world that they sought.


Israel and Our Ongoing Spiritual Revolution, by Sara Duker
Winner, Israel Aliyah Center Essay Contest, 1995

“Israel put the kippah back on our heads,” declared our Ramah director during the summer of 1991, in an effort to demonstrate the impact the founding of the Jewish State had upon young American Jews of his generation. Jews, once reluctant to acknowledge their Jewish identity began to come out of the woodwork in response to astonishing underdog military victories, pressing national needs and the realization of two-thousand-year-old hopes. Today, on Jewishly active college campuses, similar ideals are invoked in order to bolster Zionist pride and activism. Zionism is considered one among many outlets for Jewish expression, a source of national and cultural heritage, including among those who do not consider themselves ritually religious. However, changes in the State–both the development expected of a modern country and problems unique to Israel and its society–have uncovered an erosion of Jews’ automatic support for Israel and our ability to use Zionism as a quick ticket to Jewish pride. Thirty years ago, [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel foresaw the potential crisis in Jewish national building and personal identity in his book, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, in which he emphasizes the need for continued Jewish vision, “realizing that,” even in 1995, with advanced technology, a booming economy and prospects for peace, “the economic, political, and spiritual development is still in a stage of beginning.”

Is Israel unique? Does it set an international standard of care for its citizens and hold a moral banner even higher than most democracies? Are those Jews who founded and live in the State stronger and more Jewish? The answers seem easy to a Jewishly active college student, until she is confronted with “ISRAEL: THE HIJACK STATE” emblazoned on a pamphlet being distributed in the student center by a socialist group. A young man with great visions of social justice claims that Israel is nothing more than a capitalist, imperialist arm of the most corrupt elements of the western world. It has greedily expropriated the land of the natives, and continues to exploit the laboring class, he says. Other students find their assumptions about the sacredness of their nation challenged by mainstream political correctness–the best liberals have taken up the cause of Palestinian rights, and Zionism is dismissed as a glorified racism. Even students who tend to be removed from the campus political arena (with the hyperbole it often engenders), can’t help but be aware of the newspapers, which tell us that Israel is far from perfect. Political parties experience corruption there, too. Extremism characterizes political debate, with deep [divisions] between the religious and secular Jews. And, no matter what our national and religious beliefs are regarding the West Bank and Gaza, there are few Jews who do not experience at least some discomfort with Israeli politics toward the Palestinian Arabs. The temptation arises to distance oneself from such a contentious state–to deny one’s Jewish connections (or apologize for them), or to claim an American Jewish ideology separate from Israeli dilemmas. It often seems tempting for us Americans to pursue Judaism as we think best, and to leave difficult ideological decisions of defending the Jewish State to Israelis.

How are our Israeli peers faring? A young Israeli man in New York, recently released from his three-year tour of duty in the [Israeli] army, used to tell anyone who asked him that he did not believe in God. He believed in his people and the horrors that have happened to them. He went to the army, he said, so that a Holocaust, which decimated his parents’ generation, would not do the same to his.  An American olah [immigrant to Israel], a tour guide in Yad Vashem, related incidents during her presentation of the required tour to Israeli soldiers being inducted to the army. She says that she hears frequent grumbles from her mostly secular groups when they are addressed with the Holocaust. “This doesn’t affect us,” they say. “When are we going to get over it and move on?” If this group–at the forefront of Israel’s material progress and  already uninterested in the religious nature of its country–finds that even national tragedies are losing their power to motivate and unify, what then will inspire the next generation of Israeli Jews to continue to fulfill the heavy demands of their people?

Until now, we have taken for granted that Israel would “put the kippah on our heads,” that Israel would do much of the work of shaping Jewish identity. As Israel continually struggles with its own identity, it is important to be reminded of the essence of Heschel’s statement: “The State of Israel is a spiritual revolution, not a one-time event, but an ongoing revolution.” The key ideas are “spiritual” and “ongoing.” A spiritual revolution goes beyond the national security and material support Israel was built to provide to Jews, to look at a larger raison d’être. We pour forth catch phrases about history, martyrdom, God’s land and community, but how often do we think carefully about what each of these really means? Why is Jewish community so important in our time? Is our history unique? Do we believe that we are God’s chosen people and Israel is a chosen land? What implications does this have for our behavior–not just on a large political scale, but for the everyday life of a Jew? How does this inform our treatment of one another? If we do not believe in God as a presence in Jewish history, then what other ideologies do we have to guide us? What is the role of Diaspora Jewry? What can we contribute beyond our yearly checks to UJA? This is not to suggest that we can automatically provide deep and meaningful answers. Each reconsideration of old questions constitutes a revolution, by recreating and renewing our visions of Israel.

This process, of course, must be ongoing. We face a startling sense of inadequacy when our notions, unchallenged, become irrelevant in the face of new situations. The effort of building a physical home and the cooperation it required was a communal, spiritual process for the pioneers, but we lacking that same urgent sense of need, soon find that the tangible construction is not enough to answer the spiritual questions of this generation. We have not come into full national self-awareness. And, as with any other process of development, disuse of spiritual sense causes it to erode. In the end, Israel will not guarantee our Judaism until we give the labor of our hands as well as our hearts and minds to guaranteeing Israel’s Judaism.


Reflections on the Assassination of Yitzchak Rabin by Matthew Eisenfeld in His Journal.
[Monday, November 6, 1995]

The night before last, יצחק רבין [Yithak Rabin] was killed by a Jewish assassin who believed himself to be serving the Jewish people. Rabin had been a general who had fought in Israel’s wars and died as a man who worked tirelessly for peace. His accomplishments among others are a peace treaty with Jordan and a formation of an autonomous Palestinian state in which Yasser Arafat, a former enemy, became an ally. I admired Yitzhak Rabin and had confidence in the Israeli government because of him. I feel like the country is in disarray at this point because nobody can really fill his shoes.
What sickens me even more is that a lot of Israelis don’t seem to understand the significance of what has happened. People say things like, “another victim in the peace process. It hurts that we’ve lost a Jew to a Jew, but really is he any more significant than any other terror victim? One shouldn’t mourn too much.”
Or worse: “Rabin should not be allowed burial in a Jewish cemetery because he was a traitor.” They just don’t understand–the Prime Minister has been killed. Will this country ever be the same again?
In the בית מדרש [Beit Midrash] yesterday, the school tried to conduct classes as usual, but we students voted otherwise with our feet. We said תהילים [Tehillim/Psalms], sang dirges, cried and listened to a הספד [Hesped, eulogy]. I am subdued, sleepy and feel lousy. My nose keeps running and I’ve got a canker sore at the place where my tongue connects to the bottom of my mouth. I’m bothered by cigarette smoke and the fumes from the candles which are lit in the crowds that gather to walk quietly and cry. Today I will try to walk in the לוויה [levayah/funeral procession] and watch the funeral speakers on TV. I want to hear the nations of the world speak and pay tribute to יצחק רבין [Yithak Rabin]. I want Israelis to understand whom they’ve lost.

יצחק רבין יהי זכרו ברוך
[Yitzhak Rabin, yehi zikhro varukh, may his memory be for a blessing.]

#TieBlog #Devarim

24 Jul

Rabbi Ed Bernstein


“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite the Red Sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab” (Deuteronomy 1:1).

When Moses is first called upon by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt he tries to get out of the task by saying he can’t speak. Now, 40 years later, Moses delivers to the people a long succession of speeches that are compiled in the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy. Moses has found his groove as a speaker, and he spends the fifth book of the Torah reminding the people of their sacred mission. His facility with Devarim/ words inspires this week’s crossword-themed tie.

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The Power of Words

18 Jul

There’s a Jewish expression that one is likely to hear from observant Jews. Those words are bli neder, literally, without an oath. Despite the inherent negativity of the statement, it is generally used to commit to something. For example, “Honey, what time will you be home?” To which the spouse responds, “Bli neder, I’ll be home by 6:00 for dinner.”
Words matter. Words have power. That is the message of the opening of today’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Masei. Moses instructs the heads of the tribes saying: Ish ki-yidor neder l’Adonai o hishav’a shevu’a l’esor isar al nafsho lo yachel devaro—If a person makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing a self- obligation, he shall not break his pledge; k’khol hayotze mipiv yaase, he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

Rabbi Harold Kushner comments, “The power of speech is one of the unique gifts of a human being, a power we share with no other creature. In these rules governing vows and oaths, we see that human beings, like God, have the power to make things holy by words, by proclaiming them holy. By uttering words, an Israelite can impose an obligation on himself or herself as binding as God’s commands in the Torah.”

Words matter. Words have power. Words can change the world. Yet, words are sometimes ambiguous. The meaning of words spoken by one person might not be understood the same way by another. The misunderstanding that results unfortunately can lead to bitter conflict and, God forbid, sometimes war.

The meaning of words on paper is the top news story this week as the US, together with its P5+1 partners concluded an agreement with Iran to curtail Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. To be clear, the agreement delays Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Is a 15-year delay a good thing? On the surface, it should be. If we were discussing rational actors, there would be widespread relief that the world will have fewer nuclear bombs for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, with respect to Iran, we are not discussing rational actors. Its mullahs fantasize about wiping Israel off the map. A bomb in the hands of religious fundamentalists is a terrifying prospect. Furthermore, the conventional weaponry that Iran will now be able to purchase with the lifting of sanctions is not much less frightening. Yossi Klein Halevi, a well-respected centrist journalist in Israel has said that Jewish history teaches us that when enemies threaten to destroy us, we believe them.

Like many of you, I’ve read what I could about the accord. I also participated in a conference call for rabbis convened by AIPAC and another by the Rabbinical Assembly. There is indeed much to be concerned about this agreement. I don’t claim to have any more expertise than anyone else in this room. Like many people, I have my deep reservations about it. It’s interesting to note that within Israel, not only has Prime Minister Netanyahu voiced protest—we all expected that—but so have his liberal opponents in the Knesset, Yitzhak Herzog, Tzippi Livni and Yair Lapid. In coming days and weeks, there will be spirited debate in Congress whether or not to accept this deal. We will all be following this closely.

I’ve tried to keep up with the vast amount of coverage of this issue and have tried to find statements that speak to me on a spiritual level. One such piece was written in the Times of Israel by Yehuda Kurtzer, a renowned Jewish educator and thought leader affiliated with the Hartman Institute.

He writes the following:

“You negotiate without ever letting go of the weaponry that makes your negotiating possible, and without ever letting go of the fear which enables you to use that weaponry when needed without hesitation. This is part of the existential state of Jewishness in light of the 20th Century, and many of the preceding centuries too. Keep reciting the ve’hi she’amda of the Passover Seder – the mantra that in every generation they rise up to destroy us – even when you have tools at your disposal to fight against those enemies and not merely rely on divine intervention.

“But in addition to this vigilance, the very act of negotiating is the act of faith in the belief — the deeply Jewish belief — that you can and must commit on an ongoing basis to creating different realities than the ones you have inherited, and different realities than the ones which will be inevitable as the result of the kind of stagnation that has its own momentum. Why else have agency if you don’t take seriously the opportunities that it creates?

“[T]he only way I see forward is to negotiate, to agitate, to activate, to legislate, to investigate — perhaps once in a while, to pause and meditate — to do the kinds of actions in the world that make hope, “Hatikvah,” something which is neither banal nor messianic but the mechanism that changes status quos rather than allowing us to be imprisoned by them. This commitment to hope need not be belittled as naivete; it is in fact, a commitment to responsibility.”
On this Shabbat, we contemplate the significance of words. Words have power. Words can destroy, and words can heal. Words declare war and words declare peace. We are witnessing a challenging juncture in history that will hinge on the interpretation of words of a complex document. May we all be guided by sound judgement in how we ourselves use our words towards one another so that we can contribute to a global atmosphere in which words lead not to violence and fear but to trust and hope.

#TieBlog #Matot-Masei

16 Jul

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

Journeys around the world

“These are the journeys.” The last Parashah of the Book of Numbers, Masei, enumerates 42 stations in the desert where the Israelites stopped along the way. Rashi asks the obvious question, why? Aren’t these superfluous details? The answer he provides, derived from the Midrash, is that it was a sign of God’s compassion. No one should say that God decreed the Israelites wander for 40 years without rest. This week’s tie shows travel around the world in slightly more luxurious environs than those experienced by our ancestors in the desert. Summer is a time many people travel. If you are, enjoy the oases God has provided wherever you go.

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10 Jul

Rabbi Ed Bernstein


Pinchas is the Torah’s “Dark Knight.” He is a vigilante who takes the law into his own hands. When the Israelites were seduced into a mass orgy by the Moabites, God and Moses are incensed. Pinchas is too and pushes the envelope by stabbing to death a prominent Israelite man and Moabite woman who are copulating in public. Parashat Pinchas begins with God rewarding Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, with a Brit Shalom, a Covenant of Peace. The rabbis struggle to justify this reward when Pinchas acted outside of any legal jurisdiction to take such action. In the Jerusalem Talmud the rabbis go so far as to say that Pinchas should have been excommunicated were it not for God’s own intervention. Batman is a similarly complex figure who stands for justice but operates outside the established legal system. A Batman tie, therefore, seems apt this week.

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#TieBlog #Balak #BalaamandTalkingDonkey

3 Jul

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

Shrek and his talking donkey friend are reminiscent of Balaam and the talking donkey. Shrek and his talking donkey friend are reminiscent of Balaam and the talking donkey.

Balak, King of Moab, seeks a cost-efficient means to destroy the Israelites and hires Balaam, wizard extraordinaire, to curse Israel. It’s puzzling that rather than bless his own people, Balak sought to curse another. In today’s world, too often people’s hatred of others is greater than their love of themselves.

In the meantime, every time Balaam the Wizard-For-Hire goes to curse the Israelites, out of his mouth come warm blessings. Balaam is not pleased by his performance that God has caused, and he takes his frustrations out on his donkey–who talks back to him! You can read the dramatic exchange below. As you do, take a look at my tie of the week. You may want to picture in your mind Shrek (voiced by Mike Meyers) as Balaam and the donkey (as voiced by Eddie…

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