Tag Archives: Exodus

Have You Murdered and Taken Possession? Thoughts on Parashat Mishpatim

18 Feb

Delivered as a Guest Sermon at Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, Boca Raton, FL, 2/18/23.

My cousin, Chuck Edelson made aliyah to Israel in 1950. He has lived for the last several decades on a moshav where he has worked hard as a farmer producing delicious citrus fruit and living the Zionist dream of making the desert bloom. He has also devoted his life to his avocation of art. His works in multiple media have appeared in exhibitions and galleries around Israel. 

Chuck has lived the fullness of the history of the State of Israel through its great blessings and its worst of tragedies. He lost his daughter in a terror attack. He writes in his book how that event affected his art work: 

“After my daughter, Michal, was killed in a terrorist attack in 1974, soon after the Yom Kippur War, I stopped painting, because to paint required a concentration and pressure that were more than I could handle, and turned to sculpture, whose physical demands were to a great degree therapeutic. Not surprisingly, my choice of subjects centered around the biblical stories of the sacrifice of Isaac and the daughter of Yiphtach.” (Yonatan Charles “Chuck” Edelson (b. 1929), The Last Amateur, 2010, p. 78.)

Many of Chuck’s works are also centered another Biblical story of harrowing violence: Kerem Navot, the Vineyard of Naboth (I Kings 21).

Ariella and I with our son Noam visited Chuck and his family at their moshav home last month when we were in Israel. Chuck is now 93 and looked and sounded marvelous. He reveled in taking us through a converted cow barn that now serves as his art gallery. Ariella and Noam were there for the first time, and it was my first time there in nearly 30 years. We were all amazed by Chuck’s vast output of works and their emotional depth. 

Chuck repeatedly showed us different interpretations of his of the Kerem Navot story. As a parting gift, he gave me this sculpture depicting that scene. 

Kerem Navot is a remarkable and disturbing story in I Kings 21 and does not get as much attention as it should. 

In brief, Ahab, the King of Israel, covets the vineyard of Navoth just outside his palace. Ahab reaches out to Navoth and makes a generous offer to purchase the vineyard. Navoth says that the vineyard is his family’s vineyard for generations, and it is not for sale. Ahab is dejected and reports his failure to his Phoenician wife Jezebel, who is portrayed in Kings as the evil outsider who has a corrupting influence on Israel. Jezebel calls out her goons and puts a hit on Navoth. We’ll pick up here with the text: 

(15) As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Go and take possession of the vineyard which Naboth the Jezreelite refused to sell you for money; for Naboth is no longer alive he is dead.” (16) When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out for the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite to take

possession of it. (17) Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: (18) “Go down and confront King Ahab of Israel who [resides] in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard; he has gone down there to take possession of it. (19) Say to him, ‘Thus said the LORD: הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession? Thus said the LORD: In the very place where the dogs lapped up Naboth’s blood, the dogs will lap up your blood too.’” (Here is another interpretation of I Kings 21 by Chuck Edelson through he medium of collage. Compare to the sculpture above.)    

I’d like to propose that this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, is a direct response to this story. On a surface level, I’ll point out, Ex. 21:14:

When one party schemes against another

and kills through treachery, you shall take

that person from My very altar to be put to


For a deeper explanation on Parashat Mishpatim’s response to Kerem Navot, I turn to my colleague Rabbi Ed Feld, a distinguished Conservative rabbi and scholar. You might recognize his name as the Editor-in-Chief of Siddur Lev Shalem and Mahzor Lev Shalem. 

Rabbi Feld recently published a masterpiece, The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets and Kings That Birthed the Torah

Rabbi Feld draws upon contemporary academic Bible scholarship and archeology to paint vivid pictures of the historical origins of three major codes of law in the Torah. Today’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, also known as the Covenant Code, is one of those three, along with Deuteronomy and the Holiness Code of Leviticus. 

I’ll leave for another day discussion of whether the Torah in its entirety was literally transcribed by Moses from God on Mount Sinai. Scholarly evidence doesn’t support that. Rather, Feld uncovers for us our ancestors’ judicial genius in the face of repeated crises and upheavals. In this trend, I see the hand of God guiding us on a path toward justice.  

Focusing on Parashat Mishpatim, Rabbi Feld takes us into the book of Kings. It’s about a hundred years since the united kingdom of David and Solomon was split into the entities of the Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The Bible describes Ahab and his court in a negative light. Elijah and his prophetic heir Elisha call out the injustice in Ahab’s palace. Elisha ultimately anoints a king named Jehu who the Bible  characterizes as a great hero. The letters that spell his name are you, heh, vav, the same letters that spells the personal name of the God of Israel. Jehu champions the God of Israel. He does away with the idol worship prevalent in the realm of Ahab and Jezebel. His household reigns for another century, and it’s a time of judicial, social and religious reform. According to Feld and the scholarship from which he draws, Jehu’s reforms are reflected in the Covenant Code of Exodus. There are strong parallels between Jehu and a later reformer, King Josiah of Judah, whose reign is credited with spawning the Book of Deuteronomy. That’s a separate section of Feld’s book. To focus on Jehu and Parashat Mishpatim, here are some poignant quotes from Rabbi Feld: 

“What distinguishes this law code, first of all, is its ethical bent. While other Near Eastern codes differentiate between nobles and freemen, the Covenant Code makes no such distinction. Even slaves are treated as persons, though there is some differentiation between their status in the law and that of freemen. The exhortations at the end of the code affirm the ethical behavior demanded of each individual, even when there can be no judicial enforcement. A distinction is made between the Israelite and the foreigner, especially in the slave law, but even one’s “enemy” deserves kind behavior. Even the stranger—that is, the nonnative, or noncitizen—should not be oppressed. Secondly, the code is not simply a civil code regulating judicial processes and everyday behaviors of people: it is a code that demands the exclusive worship of the God of Israel. Civil and religious law are intertwined… (Edward Feld, The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets, and Kings That Birthed the Torah, The Jewish Publication Society, Kindle Edition, p. 36.)

“The [Covenant] [C]ode reflects the religious and ethical principles fought for by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Thus, the very revolution instigated by these two prophets in Northern Israel resulted in the first law code recorded in the Bible. And central to its authoritative role is the very idea of covenant, a critical political concept of Northern Israel… (39)

“What triumphed with the revolution of Jehu was a prophetic vision: Israel stood in relation to Israel’s God, Adonai; the two were attached to each other, covenanted with each other. Israel’s God demanded exclusive worship, the exercise of uncorrupted justice, and the formation of a society in which the least among them was cared for. In return, the people Israel would receive God’s protective care. God will be “an enemy to your enemies” (23:22) and “God will bless your bread and your water and will remove sickness from your midst” (23:25). The code is a fusion of the culture of the Near East, the new reality of an increasingly wealthy Northern Israelite confederation, and prophetic ideals. This fusion creates a new national consciousness, a covenanted relation between Israel and its God. If the people Israel remain loyal to this covenant, God will protect them. God and Israel are related to each other, covenanted with each other. Indeed, the latter prophets in Northern Israel, Amos and Hosea, would describe the covenantal relationship as that of husband and wife, or parent and child, metaphors for the most intimate of relationships” (39-40).

Parashat Mishpatim is a direct response to the Vineyard of Navot and the atmosphere of injustice in which it that story is set. 

Since spending that day last month with Chuck, I can’t get out of my mind Eliyahu Hanavi’s phrase

הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

I have been following world events recently through the lenses of that verse, and I now have deeper understanding of my cousin’s obsession with it. 

הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

That’s what the people of Turkey are now saying about their leaders. No, the government didn’t cause the earthquake. But their negligence and corruption—their payoffs from builders who refused to abide by any sensible building code—led to catastrophic loss of life. 

הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

We have our share of problems in our county. This has been another week of senseless gun violence. A mass shooting at Michigan State University. Two shootings outside synagogues in Los Angeles as people were leaving morning minyan.  The 5th anniversary of Parkland. In the United States, people get shot in schools, synagogues, churches, grocery stores, movie theaters, concerts, 4th of July parades, everywhere. Meanwhile, gun manufacturers make billions. הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

A train wreck in Ohio that spilled harmful chemicals, devastating a community. There had been a federal requirement for trains carrying flammable materials to have electronic breaking systems that prevent derailments such as this one. In the spirit of deregulation to increase profits and fatten the pockets of railway executives, the previous administration revoked that rule in 2017. Tragically the rule had not  been reinstated by the current administration. הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

Finally, in Israel this week, 100,000 people demonstrated outside the Knesset, demanding the preservation of democracy. Israel currently has a strong, independent judiciary. The new government is threatening to neuter the court system and carry out other illiberal measures to undermine Israel’s democratic character. They are doing this in the name of consolidating power, undermining democracy and threatening vulnerable members of society. הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

Ariella, Noam and I attended a pro-democracy rally in Jerusalem last month. It wasn’t nearly as large as this week’s, but it was spirited. They did not say, “You have murdered and possessed.” Rather, they chanted a corollary of the prophet’s words, the positive outcome that must result in the face of injustice. Repeatedly, the crowd chanted:

!העם דורש צדק משפטי

Ha’am doresh tzedek mishpati! 

The people demand justice under the law!

The chant echoes this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, a code of law that is the cornerstone of a just society; a code of law that is the blueprint for other law codes in the Torah; a code of law that is a bulwark against injustice. 

Some 2800 years ago, Eliyahu HaNavi saw injustice, and he named it. הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—You have murdered and profited from the murder. As a result of his intervention, the laws of Moses took hold and revolutionized our people. There is a direct line from the prophets of old to the people in the streets of Jerusalem this week. העם דורש צדק משפטי! Ha’am doresh tzedek mishpati—The people demand justice under the law. May we have the strength, courage and resolve to create and maintain a just society. 

#TieBlog #Pekudei

11 Mar

Parashat Pekudei provides an accounting of the the Tabernacle treasury.

Parashat Pekudei provides an accounting of the the Tabernacle treasury.

Pekudei means “records.” Rashi explains that the records of this portion introduce an accounting of the metals used in the construction of the Tabernacle. A midrash posits that Moses overheard some Israelites speculate that he had derived financial benefit from the donations for the Tabernacle because he was the treasurer in charge. Upon the completion of the Tabernacle, Moses called for an accounting to show that he had not personally profited from the contributions of the people. Based on this midrash, the Rabbis derived that we must not appoint less than two people with control over the finances of a city or community.

Open Farook’s iPhone

4 Mar


The unlocking of Syed Farook's iPhone is the supbject of dispute between FBI and Apple.

The unlocking of Syed Farook’s iPhone is the supbject of dispute between FBI and Apple.

On Shabbat Shekalim, we read the special section from Exodus instructing the Israelites to collect a half shekel from rich and poor alike. The collection serves the spiritual needs of providing funds for the Temple and the pragmatic need of taking a census, particularly of adult male soldiers. The collection of the half shekel in ancient Israel would normally occur in Adar, but would be in Adar II in a leap year. Its collection coincided with a number of community centered projects. The Mishnah Shekalim describes that in the month of Adar, they would repair roads and highways and mikvaot, and they would carry out all public requirements, such as make new cisterns and make sure all graves were properly marked. Infrastructure may not be the most exciting topic for most of us. But the Mishnah’s linking these duties to the half shekel, I believe, spiritualizes these acts to a point that they’re part of the ongoing task of building and strengthening the nation.


The word “infrastructure” is relatively new to the English lexicon. It came in to popular use in the 1980s to describe the complex web of public works. Infrastructure refers to the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area, including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function. It typically characterizes technical structures such as roads,bridgestunnelswater supplysewerselectrical gridstelecommunications, and other services that provide “the physical components of interrelated systems providing commodities and services essential to enable, sustain, or enhance societal living conditions.”


The way our society works is that we pay taxes to the government who are charged with the task of maintaining our public works to protect our health, safety and well-being. When our infrastructure works well, we all succeed. When it fails, we all suffer.


The newest frontier in infrastructure centers around the Internet, cellular phones and cyber-security. Due to the relative newness of this field, lawmakers, law enforcement agencies and courts are grappling with the extent to which government should have access to the personal digital data of individuals. The struggle between government and the private sector has come to a head in recent weeks. The FBI wants access to the cell phone data of Syed Rizwan Farook who, along with his wife, murdered 14 of his co-workers in a San Bernardino, CA, social service agency. With evidence suggesting that their terror act was at least inspired by ISIS, the FBI is interested in unlocking Farook’s iPhone to access the data that may be vital to the investigation. However, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple that manufactures the iPhone, has resisted working with the FBI to unlock the phone. He cites the company’s needs to protect the privacy of its customers and fears that if government can access personal data that opens the door for improper surveillance by government and hacking of data by bad actors.


I own Apple products and find that they have created great tools to enhance my life. However, I believe Tim Cook is wrong. It is the government’s job to protect us. As taxpayers we pay for this protection. In a world that has gone mad, I want the FBI to have all the tools that it can lawfully have at its disposal in order to protect us.


When Target had its servers hacked exposing personal data of 70 million customers, there was understandable outcry by the general public. Yet, what the scandal showed about our society is that many of us willingly entrust our personal data to for-profit corporations whose main interest is not to protect us but to make money for their shareholders. With respect to the government, however, I find it is a sad commentary on our society that there is less willingness to entrust personal data with the government whose sole purpose is to protect the public.


Government is imperfect, and checks and balances must exist to ensure that the covenant between the government and people is not broken. Abraham Lincoln said: “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it.” I would add that at the same time constant revolution and weak government institutions are dangerous to our republic. Checks and balances, yes. “Trust but verify,” yes. But the the wholesale disempowerment of government institutions? No. We as a society invest in our public institutions to protect us, and when they fail, we must hold them accountable to uphold their highest duty. We entrust our government to require us to wear seatbelts and obey speed limits. We accept reasonable limits on our freedom like not yelling fire in a crowded theater. At airport security check points, we agree to take off our shoes and belts and throw away water bottles because we entrust authorities to screen for terrorists.  In this light, I believe we need to accept a reasonable limitation on privacy in order empower our government to deter terrorism. The FBI needs access to Farook’s phone, and Apple and other industry leaders need work with government to protect the people not only their profits.


Our sages interpreted the half shekel as symbol that everyone in society has an equal stake in building a strong, secure, prosperous and peaceful nation. On this Shabbat Shekalim, may we be inspired to do just that.

#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.

We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers

9 Jan

"Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4: 9) The Torah turns Cain's protestation into the essence of Judaism.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4: 9) The Torah turns Cain’s protestation into the essence of Judaism.

(This D’var Torah was inspired by a D’var Torah delivered by Rabbi Daniel Nevins at JTS Rabbinic Training Institute, January 8, 2015)

As we begin reading the book of Exodus, it’s fitting to review one key aspect of the previous book, Sefer Bereshit, the book of Genesis. Normative Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not have a concept of original sin. We are all born with a clean slate, and we have free will to do good or evil and shape our destiny. Further, one can argue that Adam and Eve should not really be considered to have committed the first sin by eating the forbidden fruit because 1) They didn’t hurt anyone; 2) God bears responsibility for planting the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the first place; 3) How could God have NOT desired that humans understand the difference? As far as the direction of the Torah and Jewish tradition is concerned, the first real sin in the Torah is when Cain kills Abel. Not only does he kill him, but he denies responsibility. When God asks him אי הבל אחיך–where is your brother Abel?–Cain answers: לא ידעתי–I don’t know–השומר אחי אנוכי Am I my brother’s keeper?

Cain’s contempt for his brother and his brutal violence set a tone for the rest of Genesis. There is terrible sibling rivalry. Brothers are not their brothers’ keepers. True, we don’t see another fratricide, but we come close. Esau almost kills Jacob. Joseph is almost killed by his brothers. Even sisters Rachel and Leah have a painful rivalry, even if it is not physically violent. Brothers are not kind to brothers, sisters are not kind to sisters and brother are not kind to sisters, such as Laban treating his sister Rebecca like a piece of chattel to sell for a significant sum. Simeon and Levi’s response to Dina’s liaison with Shechem–they’re not protecting her, they’re protecting their honor through horrific violence. One chapter after another, generation after generation, and our ancestors are not their brothers’ or sisters’ keepers.

Then, suddenly, when we least expect it, there is a change. Judah breaks the spell when he stands up before Joseph and protects his endangered brother Benjamin. Joseph, in a position to avenge the brutality of his brothers from years before backs off. He relents. He says אני יוסף אחיך–I am Joseph your brother. He welcomes them into his palace in Egypt. This is the first recorded act of forgiveness in human history. Genesis closes with siblings serving as shomrim, guardians for one another.  Genesis begins with a question–will siblings guard one another?After generations of struggle, by the end of the Genesis, the answer is finally yes.  This resolution sets the stage for the opening of Exodus.

A new Pharaoh arises who enslaves the Israelites and afflicts them with pain. Despite the pain, the Israelites are not broken. As the narrative zeroes in on one family, we see a reason why. An infant Moses is guarded closely by his sister Miriam until he is safely in the care of Pharaoh’s daughter. An adult Moses is called upon by God to lead the people out of bondage. He’s terrified and tries mightily to avoid the task. God tries to impress him with a fiery bush not consumed by fire. God turns Moses’s staff into a snake and turns his hand white as snow only to cure it just as instantly. God presents one final ace in the hole: Moses won’t be alone. His brother Aaron will be by his side to help. Only then Moses goes forward.

Exodus presents a new model. Siblings are each others’ keepers. They support one another and care for each other. The Torah is making a powerful statement. Sibling rivalry is natural. However, when siblings are there for one another, other people who are not biological siblings are more capable of looking out for one another. Indeed, a nation is born. When a nation of disparate tribes comes together, they have the capacity to enter a covenant with God.

The power of brotherhood, sisterhood or, if you will, siblinghood is as real for us today as it was for our ancestors. This weekend we join with people of good will of all faiths and persuasions in abject horror over the brutal terrorist attacks in France this week. The massacre of at least 12 people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the apparent murder of at least four at a kosher market in a related incident on Friday remind the world that the   depravity of militant Islam knows no bounds. Every time a horrific incident like this occurs, whether in Israel, Europe, the U.S. or anywhere, we hope that maybe, just maybe, the world will finally understand the Torah’s teaching that we are all created in God’s image and that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. After all, what does it take for the world to get it?

It is easy to fall into despair when we observe such evil and horrendous violence in our world. To a large measure it’s beyond our control, and we feel powerless. And yet, time and again we answer the call of our tradition to affirm life and attempt to bring loving kindness into the world.

This weekend, our community is celebrating a historic moment in the life of our congregation. We honor the trust, the fellowship, the sense of responsibility to the Jewish people that brought together two congregations, Temple Torah and Temple Emeth, to form one vibrant congregation, Temple Torat Emet. Our new name means the Torah of truth, a powerful phrase that is found throughout our liturgy, including the second blessing we say in a Torah aliyah. How do we discover the truth of the Torah? By acting as guardians of our brothers and sisters as we see in today’s Torah reading.

Our new venture as Temple Torat Emet came about through courage, trust and a great sense of responsibility to the Jewish people. Our success in the future depends on choices we make based on the Torah’s guidance. As a Kehillah Kedoshah, a sacred community, our task is to create a sense of caring for one another as if we are all brothers and sisters. Let us build a community in which we see one another, listen to one another, rejoice with one another, and, when necessary, weep with one another. We must ensure that all activities in our building are conducted with dignity and respect. At every service and program, we must remember the higher purpose to which we are called in creating this sacred community. Our sense of community and fellowship must extend beyond the walls of this building and include Shabbat and holiday meals in each other’s homes where we will build true and lasting friendships.

Our world is, tragically, a vicious place. We need a refuge. We need a laboratory for goodness and loving kindness. That is what Temple Torat Emet must be for our community.  If we can model for the broader community the meaning of shemirah, looking out for one another, we will give ourselves and the world a desperately needed gift. Let me close with the words of the Psalmist:

הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד

“How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony.”

May we be worthy of this sacred task.



Alice Herz-Sommer: An Inspiration Across Generations

28 Feb

Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest pianist and world's oldest Holocaust survivor, died at 110.

Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest pianist and world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died at 110.

On Sunday night, the Academy Awards ceremony will take place. Many of us will watch the coverage of this glitzy annual spectacle. I’m sure if we polled the congregation, we would hear about a number of films that we hope will win an Oscar. Let me tell you what I’m rooting for. In the category of documentary shorts, one of the nominees is a 38-minute film titled: “The Lady in Number 6: How Music Saved My Life.” It is about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer, a renowned concert pianist and survivor of of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She was known as the oldest living survivor of the Shoah, that is until she died last Sunday at the age of 110. Friday’s New York Times carried her obituary.

Herz-Sommer devoted her life to channeling what she regarded to be divinely inspired classical music through her hands playing a piano. She played up until her death. Well past her 100th birthday, one finger in each hand became immobilized, and she reworked her technique to play with eight fingers.

In reading about this feat late in her life, I was reminded of a text in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, and accompanying commentary.

As the Book of Exodus draws to a close, we read about the completion of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The text tells us:

Just as The Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. (Exodus 39: 42)

The text continues:

And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks–as the Lord had commanded, so they had done–Moses blessed them (43).

Absent from this verse is the text of the blessing that Moses offered to the Israelites as their new house of worship was opened for business. Rashi cites the Midrashic work the Sifra that posits that Moses offered the following blessing:

“May it be God’s will that the divine Presence rest upon the work of your hands.”

The rabbis do not pull this blessing out of thin air. In fact, there are 11 Psalms in the Book of Psalms that begin, Tefillah L’Moshe, a prayer of Moses. In Psalm 90, we read:

May Adonai our God show us compassion; may God establish the work of our hands. May God firmly establish the work of our hands (90:17).

Alice Herz-Sommer was a modern day embodiment of the divine presence resting upon the work of her hands. She was born in Prague on Nov. 26, 1903, one of five children of a cultured, German-speaking, secular Jewish family. The family traveled in artistic circles and were friendly with Franz Kafka and Gustave Mahler, both of whom Alice remembered. In fact, she remembered Kafka attending her family’s seder. Alice began piano lessons at five and at 16 began conservatory studies. Before her 20th birthday, she was giving well-received concerts throughout Europe. She married a businessman, Leopold Sommer, and they had a son Stephan in 1937. In 1939, many family members fled Czechoslovakia for Palestine, but she remained in Prague to look after her mother. In 1942, her mother was deported to Theresienstadt and was soon after killed in a death camp. She described this as the lowest point of her life, and she turned to music for solace. She resolved to learn and master Chopin’s Études.

In 1943, Alice, her husband and son were deported to Theresienstadt. Despite the deplorable conditions there, the Nazis used this camp for propaganda. Many Jewish artists, musicians and intellectuals were interned there. The Nazis allowed in the Red Cross three times a year where they would find orchestras playing concerts and leave thinking the Nazis were treating the Jews well. Alice was forced to play on a broken, out-of-tune piano. Through it all, the music sustained her. She performed over 100 concerts in captivity, including all of Chopin’s Études from memory. She said that the music kept her, and the other captives who listened to it, alive. Tragically, her husband was deported to Auschwitz and later died in Dachau.

Alice and her son survived in Theresienstadt until the end of the War. She returned to Prague, but moved to Israel in 1949, where she was a renowned teacher at what is now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Stephan grew up to become an accomplished cellist, and in the mid-1980s, Alice followed him to London to be near him. Tragically, he died of an aneurism in 2001 at the age of 64. Once again, she coped with her loss through her music. In her London apartment building, where she occupied Flat No. 6, her neighbors heard her practicing piano constantly. Thus emerged the title of the film that is up for an Academy Award: “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.”

Whatever happens at the Oscars on Sunday, Alice Herz-Sommer will remain an inspiration. In the film, she says that it was music that gave her hope in her darkest days. For her, she says, “Music is God.” Indeed, Alice Herz-Sommer mastered one particular expression of Divine energy and channeled it through her hands on a piano. In the time of the Torah, Moses blessed the people by praying that the Divine Presence would rest upon the work of the hands of the people. Let us be inspired by the words of Moses and the music of Alice Herz-Sommer that each of us can bring the Divine Presence into our world through the work of our hands. Our hands may feel broken at times, and the world is often unforgiving, but we can perform the work of our hands literally or figuritively.

May it be God’s will that the Divine Presence rest upon the work of our hands.

#TieBlog #Shemot

20 Dec

"And the bush was not consumed"  (3: 2).

“And the bush was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2)

In Parashat Shemot , Moses bursts onto the scene as the man appointed by God to go before Pharaoh to demand freedom for the Israelites. He hears the call from a humble bush–indicating that God’s presence can be found in places both majestic and modest. Moses was astute enough and open enough to experience God’s presence in the burning bush. As inscribed on the tie, “V’hasneh einenu ukal,” “And the bush was not consumed.”

#TieBlog #Vaetchanan

18 Jul


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 that serve them must have a day of rest each week. The Friday night hymn, Lekha Dodi reflects the midrashic view that God gave both versions of the Decalogue in a single utterance. Shabbat, therefore, is simultaneously a time for spiritual renewal and reflection on social justice in the world.