King Ahasuerus & Queen Esther in Apocrypha. Photo from Wikipedia.

Stepping back, stepping forward


Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, taught that God’s most powerful influence comes not through acting in the world, but rather through conscious and deliberate refraining from acting. He beautifully illustrates this concept with reference to one of life’s quieter, but no less amazing, miracles: teaching a child to take his first steps.

About the time that a small child begins to stand on his own, a caring parent will lean down and beckon, “Come to me.” The child will take a tentative, wobbly step toward his smiling mother. And then, the mother will do something profoundly frustrating: She will back away, creating more distance for the child to traverse.

At first there is confusion, even anger, on the face of the toddler. But, eventually, the distance coaxes him to take one more step, and then another. As the mother makes space, the child learns to walk. It is by pulling back, not swooping in, the Baal Shem Tov taught, that God and we create new realities.

The confluence of this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, and the holiday of Purim, which begins at sunset after Shabbat, is a study in stepping back and leaving space for something new to emerge. Tetzaveh is the only parsha of the latter four books of the Torah that doesn’t mention Moses. Purim’s central text, the Book of Esther, is the only volume of the Bible that doesn’t mention God. Both the parsha and the Megillah defy expectations with the conspicuous absence of ubiquitous characters, inviting us to lean in and listen more closely, to step into the seemingly empty space to discover new and exciting possibilities.

Parashat Tetzaveh describes the ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, the process of bringing human beings into the direct service of God. There can only be one Moses, but, over the course of Jewish history, hundreds of priests would be ordained to carry out their sacred tasks, and after the destruction of the Temple, thousands more rabbis would carry on the chain of ordination.

During this brief moment in which Moses steps aside, we learn that there are other ways to enter into the service of the Holy One aside from being called as a prophet. In Moses’ absence, we are invited to re-imagine our own role in the Jewish story, to envision ourselves as potential leaders and vessels of holiness.

Purim similarly invites us to consider our own power. In previous stories of deliverance from mighty enemies, our triumph always came directly from the hand of God. It was God who split the sea for the escaping Israelite slaves, and stopped the sun in the sky over Joshua’s armies, and protected Daniel in the lion’s den. The story of Esther is the first time we come face to face with the potential of annihilation and don’t have God at hand to save the day.

The Purim story is the most relatable of biblical tales for a world in which God doesn’t appear to sort out all our problems, in which we are called to faith in ourselves and our own abilities to do extraordinary things.

Instead, our salvation comes through human courage, the willingness of Esther to put her life on the line to speak her truth. In that way, the Purim story is the most relatable of biblical tales for a world in which God doesn’t appear to sort out all our problems, in which we are called to faith in ourselves and our own abilities to do extraordinary things.

By taking a step back in the twin stories that define this liturgical week, Moses and God invite us to take a step forward and discover our own capacity to act. A parent who never learns to give their child space will never equip them with the ability to survive and to thrive on their own.

Moses is mortal, and he will not cross over into the Promised Land with us, so we’ll need to be able to appoint a chain of leaders who will guide us into our new chapter. And even God can’t be with us every step of the way either, booming instructions, blessings and warnings.

Today we walk on our own, a path laid out by Moses our teacher, on a path toward God our parent. Like children learning to walk, we still stumble and fall sometimes, but as we come to trust our own legs, what a joy it is to learn to carry ourselves forward, with confidence in ourselves to set forth into the world.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (intro.aju.edu) and a lecturer at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

Genetic research can open book on Jewish identity — for good and bad


Father William Sanchez wears a Star of David pendant on the same chain as his crucifix, and he keeps a menorah in his parish office. After a DNA test confirmed his Sephardic roots, the Albuquerque priest has been actively reconciling this discovery with his Catholic beliefs.

“Knowledge of my Jewish ancestry has provoked me to question things, yes,” Sanchez says in the book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People” by Jon Entine (Grand Central, 2007).

Looking back over his childhood in New Mexico, Sanchez now recognizes the Jewish signs: his parents shunning pork, spinning tops during Christmas and covering the mirrors at home if someone in the family died.

For Crypto-Jews like Sanchez, DNA testing services can confirm or disprove suspicions about a hidden Jewish family history, uncover unknown genetic disease risks or inspire greater exploration of Judaism. For small populations in Africa and Asia, genetic research has shed light on claims of Jewish ancestry and provided a better understanding of Jewish migration over thousands of years.

But critics fear that Jewish genetic research also opens a Pandora’s box. The discovery of a shared genetic marker among men who claim to be descended from Kohanim grew into wild, exaggerated claims in the media that geneticists had confirmed the story of Aaron. Some have decried research exploring a genetic basis for Ashkenazi intelligence as politically incorrect and racist, since all humans are 99.9 percent similar.

Entine, who will be speaking at Adat Chaverim and Brandeis-Bardin this weekend, believes exploring that .1 percent is worth getting researchers riled up.

An American Enterprise Institute fellow and former NBC news producer, Entine is no stranger to controversy. He tackled the topic of race in sports with “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It” (PublicAffairs Books, 1999), which was lauded by Scientific American as a “well-researched, relatively thorough and lucidly written case.”

After “Taboo” was published, Entine learned his sister had breast cancer. As a teenager, he had lost his mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer over a period of three years. The family assumed it was a coincidence at the time, but recent genetic testing revealed the BRCA2 genetic mutation contributed to his sister’s cancer.

Since Entine has a young daughter, he decided to undergo testing, which confirmed he carries the mutation. The experience inspired him to research the link between Jews and DNA.

The result is “Abraham’s Children,” a survey of Jewish genetic research paired with a chronicle of Jewish history that explores the thorny question: “Who is a Jew?”

Entine writes that Jewishness is a function of religion and ancestry, shaped by faith, politics and culture. Given the Jewish community’s historically insular nature, most Jews also share genetic markers, which speaks to common ancestors.

This commonality inspired research in the 1990s that found the Cohen Modal Haplotype, a set of six identical genetic markers shared among Ashkenazic and Sephardic Kohanim, passed from father to son on the Y chromosome, which doesn’t change much over time and may have originated with a common ancestor. While the genetic markers alone do not prove the existence of Aaron, they can be seen to confirm a biblical tradition.

The haplotype, however, is also not unique to Jews — Kurds, Armenians, southern and central Italians share these same markers but to a lesser extent.

Researcher tracing Jewish genes meets the Kohanim of Africa [VIDEO]



Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his new book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.

For many people, genetics research conjures up frightening notions of racial or religious superiority — or the possibility of genetic discrimination. David B. Goldstein isn’t worried about either of these things.

“I take the view that there isn’t anything to be afraid of in our genetic makeups. So I really think that it’s interesting, fascinating even, sometimes important, but there isn’t anything scary lurking there,” said Goldstein, a professor of molecular genetics and the director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy’s Center for Population Genomics &Pharmacogenetics.

Goldstein, 44, even applies his open-research policy to a scientific study a few years ago that linked genetic diseases to intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. He calls that work “speculative,” but he doesn’t rule out research into the issue.

“That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be really careful in how you present what’s been done,” he said. “I think you do, and I think we’ve seen mistakes in how work is presented. I think it’s really reckless to overstate results. But I don’t think there are any areas that are unwise to investigate, because I’m just not afraid of what we’re going to find.”

In “Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History,” recently published by Yale University Press, Goldstein uses the latest genetic methods — including genetic mapping and advanced DNA testing — to illuminate compelling issues in Jewish history like the biblical priesthood, the Lost Tribes, Jewish migration, and Jewish genetic diseases.

Goldstein’s most startling finding: There are enough Y chromosome similarities among many who call themselves descendants of the Cohanim, the biblical priestly caste, to argue for genetic Cohen continuity.

He and his colleagues tested these similarities by comparing the Y chromosomes of Cohanim with the chromosomes of other Jews. Sure enough, the majority of the self-identified Cohanim, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews, had the same type of Y chromosome. Further testing by Goldstein and friends leads him to estimate that the Cohanim were founded before the Roman era — and perhaps before the Babylonian conquest in the sixth century B.C.E.

Even Goldstein was blown away.

“The apparent continuity of the Cohen Y chromosome was an out-and-out stunner; I would have never predicted that to be the case,” he said.

He also finds genetic evidence for the idea that the Lemba tribe in Africa might have some Jewish origins, a finding that the media simplified by saying he had shown the Lemba are one of Judaism’s 10 Lost Tribes.

In the section on the Lemba, and indeed throughout the book, Goldstein is careful about his conclusions. For him, the research is more about shedding light on themes of Jewish history, such as exile and Diaspora. As he puts it in the book, “What makes a people a people? What binds them together through time? What alienates them from some and aligns them to others?”

As admirable as the book’s scholarship is its readability. Goldstein’s jargon-free writing and sense of humor courts readers who are not hard-core scientists. At different points in the book, he calls himself a “lousy mathematician” and as “having a bit of the gambler in my genes,” and, in the section about the alleged link between genetic diseases and intelligence, he writes, “Now we geneticists have a genuine kerfuffle on our hands.”

Don’t be misled — Goldstein’s book isn’t “Jewish Genetics for Dummies.” But he has taken cutting-edge science and made it accessible to the general reader willing to make an effort.

It wasn’t easy, admitted Goldstein, whose academic work focuses on medical genetics — specifically, why some people control HIV better than other people and why some people respond better to some medicines than other people.

“I started writing this just about 10 years ago. The discussions of the science were dreadful, incomprehensible. And so I just tried it again and again until I found ways that worked and that people didn’t complain about when I showed it to them.”

Part of the motivation for the book, Goldstein says, stems from guilt he feels because he remained in graduate school at Stanford and didn’t go to Israel when the 1991 Gulf War broke out.

“I did feel like I should do something. And I think doing some work eventually at least gave me some kind of connection to read about Jewish history as part of my job, and that definitely made me feel better. I guess I finally got over it and started going to Israel regularly, which I still do.”

He’s frank about the limitations of genetic history. “[G]enetics can never, however, replace, or even compete with, the painstaking work of archaeology, philology, linguistics, paleobotany and the many other disciplines that have helped resurrect some of the lost stories of human history,” Goldstein writes.

Understandably, though, he’s proud that his research has yielded some insight into some vexing issues, and shares the notion that what he is doing on some issues — say, the Cohanim — borders on the fantastic.

“The continuity of the Cohen paternal line is an astounding thing,” he said. “And it’s a little tiny bit of history that genetics tells you about.”

Peter Ephross’ articles and reviews have appeared in the Village Voice, the Forward and Publishers Weekly, among other publications.

The voice of wisdom


Just like that, she was gone.

With no forewarning, Parashat Chukat tells us “Miriam died there and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1). “She died with a Divine kiss,” the Talmud says, and with that one kiss, the sole female voice in the Israelite camp was gone.

Who was Miriam? She is the only woman in the Torah who bears the title “Neviah” — prophetess. So who was she?

We first meet her anonymously, without any proper name. She is referred to as “his sister,” that is, the older sister of a little boy whose mother hid him in a basket on the Nile River. Once the mother placed the baby in the basket, “His sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him” (Exodus 2:4). When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket with the crying baby, “His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter: ‘ Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?'” (Exodus 2:7) Miriam is first described as a loving and caring sister, who saw to it that her baby brother Moses was protected and cared for.

We next encounter Miriam on the banks of the Red Sea, following the Song at the Sea. It is there that we first learn her name and title: “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister…” (Exodus 15:20). It is strange, the Talmud remarks, that she is referred to as “Aaron’s sister”: “Was she only the sister of Aaron and not the sister of Moses?” Through this question, the Talmud actually probes a deeper question: Why was Miriam accorded the spiritual title of “prophetess”? Rabbi Nachman taught in the name of Rav, that Miriam was referred to as “the prophetess, Aaron’s sister,” because at the moment in her life when she first experienced prophecy, Aaron was her only brother. This takes us back the early period of the Israelite enslavement, when Miriam is said to have predicted: “My mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel” (Seder Olam 3, Megilla 14a). When Moses was born, the Talmud says, the whole house was filled with light, a divine indication that Miriam’s prediction was in fact a prophecy.

At the Red Sea, Miriam the prophetess organized the first spiritual gathering for Israelite women. Miriam “took a timbrel in her hand, and all of the women went out after her in dance with timbrels, and Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:20-21). Miriam’s song and dance was, according to Rabbenu Bahya, a “direct address and praise to the Shekhina,” the feminine side of God. Miriam the prophetess was the first feminine voice to directly address the God of Israel.

Miriam’s next episode is more controversial. Miriam “spoke against Moses, because of the Cushite woman he had married” (Numbers 12:1). What happened to her younger brother that Miriam criticized him? He had now become Moses the devoted “Man of God,” and it was on this that Miriam had a critique. In becoming a prophet and “Man of God,” Rashi says, Moses first separated from and then ultimately divorced his wife, the “Cushite Woman” (understood by Rashi to be Zipporah). Miriam expressed disappointment at her younger brother’s abandonment of his wife, with an underlying critique of the concept of holiness achieved at the expense of a normal family life. God punishes Miriam, afflicting her with leprosy. How did the Israelite camp feel about Miriam’s words and her subsequently being “shut out of the camp for seven days”? The fact that the Torah tells us “the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Numbers 12:15) is a strong indication that the community understood the need for her powerful presence. Without her, they lacked the sensitive voice of a woman.

This brings us to Miriam’s sudden death. The lone prophetess of Israel dies, and in the very next verse, “The community was without water” (Numbers 20:2). The Talmud teaches: “Water is likened to Torah.” The impact of Miriam’s death was the drying of Miriam’s Well — a Well of Torah that had drenched the community with what Proverbs calls “Torat Imekha — “The Torah of your Mother.” The Israelites lost the sensitive, feminine voice of Torah — the voice that not only foresaw the birth of a savior but also instinctively protected him, the voice that sensually sang and danced to the Shekhina, and the voice that risked punishment by reminding the Israelites that spirituality is as much about family as it is about God.

Miriam did not speak often, but when she did, she mirrored the closing lines of the “Woman of Valor” poem, chanted every Erev Shabbat around the table: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue.”

Miriam reminded her brother Moses, and all of us, that “Torah” is a lot more than just a “Holy Scroll.”

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Please God, heal her now


In shuls across the world this Shabbat we will hear five short, simple Hebrew words: El na, refah na lah (Please God, heal her now).

Our prayers are never more heartfelt than when we ask for intervention in the process of sickness and death. God, we are saying, we acknowledge that the control and the timing are ultimately yours. We will provide the doctors and the medicine, the care and the concern, but the ultimate timing is Yours.

Please be gracious. Please.

Once a month we include a special healing service as part of our Saturday morning Torah service at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. We form a healing circle, first stating the names of all our loved ones who are ill.

“El na, refah na lah,” we chant, “Please God, heal her now.”

Our focus then turns to the personal. We take out the Torah scroll, and pass it around the room, all the while continuing to chant the five words of this week’s portion. Some enter the circle while holding the Torah, receiving the energy of the group, while others quietly complete a silent prayer for their healing while holding on to the Tree of Life. There is no magic, no miracle cure involved. It is merely a formalized way for us to acknowledge the support of the community, and our own vulnerability. It is prayer.

Often, the question is asked, “Does prayer work?” If the proof of the efficacy of prayer is that no one remains ill or, God forbid, dies, then prayer is clearly a bust. Despite the studies of numerous healing groups on the power of prayer, no one can report that prayer defeats death. With proper medication, good support and much “luck,” some will heal from an illness, others will not.

The Hebrew word “na” in our formula for healing means “please.” It takes up two of our five words. Please. It’s all we can ask.

So why do we pray? On one hand, we seek and provide community support for the one who is ill. The misheberach list each week, which asks for the blessing of healing to be bestowed on ill members of the community and all of those who suffer, alerts us to the needs of those around us. In the recitation of healing prayers, there is no need to detail the challenges facing each person mentioned, only their names. It is up to the rest of us to complete the mitzvah of “bikkur cholim,” visiting the sick, in our own timing and our own ways.

For the ill person who prays, prayer provides a direct engagement with the Source of All Being. We can only struggle through the essential questions of why me? Why now? Yet, in the process of prayer, we begin to appreciate and understand the larger perspectives of life and death, and the gratitude for every moment that we enjoy in this life that has been granted to us.

Like Moses, we pray to hold on to life, to be able to fulfill our goals to the end. Please God, please, is all that we can say. Should death occur, the first response of the living must be, baruch dayan ha emet, or blessed is the true Judge. But up until that final moment, we are to beg, wheedle, plead for God’s mercy — and often our very engagement with life will prolong and improve the time we spend on this earth.

Can there be healing even if a person dies? There are those who speak of “healing unto death,” and the process of prayer that opens the lines of communication between the ill person, their inner circle, and the Holy One. To die healed, or consciously, is to heal the wounded relationships of one’s life before passing. It takes tremendous effort but can be done.

Last spring, I was honored by a connection to a young woman who consciously met with, and healed, the relationships with all of the key players in her life before her eventual death. The wounds of mother-daughter, sister-to-sister, even old loves were pursued with conscious love and forgiveness. She healed and entered death in peace. I pray to have the courage to do the same.

It is patently not fair when a young person dies of cancer, no matter what their state of healing. Our Torah portion, in Numbers 12, tells a story that is riddled with inequities. Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses “because of the Cushite woman he married.”

They are also jealous of Moses’ power and position.

“Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they say.

God overhears, and calls them into the front office, along with Moses: “Come out you three to the tent of meeting.”

God chastises Aaron and Miriam, and when the cloud of God’s glory withdraws from the tent, Miriam is stricken with snow-white scales. Not fair! What about Aaron? He was gossiping, too — gossip seen by later sages as the source of her illness. Why only Miriam?

We ask this question every time one person gets cancer and another does not.

There is no fairness, no quid quo pro. All we can do is step up, pray and ask the Source of healing for mercy. Aaron does exactly that saying, “Let her be not as one dead,” and Moses cries out to the Lord, saying “Please God, heal her.”

Miriam is shut out of the camp for one week to heal. But she is not abandoned.

She is but prayed for by her family and community, and perhaps she, too, prays to the God of Mercy. Likewise, we do not turn our backs on those who are ill among us, nor do we despair in illness, no matter how unfair the situation may seem.

Together, we unite, and we pray for those who are ailing with those five words that resound through time, a gift of this Torah portion. El na, refah na la.

Please God, heal her now. May it be so.

Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.

Religious Fire


Religious zeal is on the rise around the world. It can be a wonderful blessing, and it can be a horrible curse. It all depends on how humans with free will manage it.

When God allows a Divine Flame to be ignited within the soul of an individual or within the collective soul of a community, the Almighty is empowering people to let the flame inspire them to live the godly life, to take the principles and ideals they associate with God into their hearts and souls and, in so doing, to draw closer to God in sacred intimacy. The ideals of love, compassion and justice then shape how they live their lives and how they define their relationships with other human beings, and they become partners with God in the daily process of renewing and completing the act of creation.

But God also runs a risk when a Divine Flame is shared with humankind. People can abuse the flame by believing that they and no one else are its sole bearers. They can be impelled by their egos — individually or collectively — to determine that the flame should be used to burn and destroy other humans whom they have defined as being devoid of the flame and, hence, in need of being purged.

They can allow themselves to play God and choose who shall live and who shall die. Sometimes they are willing to destroy themselves in the process, which they falsely interpret as opening a direct route to union with the Divine. This abuse of the flame results in the unleashing of primal chaos into the world and the undoing of God’s creative activity, threatening the world’s very existence.

The Divine Flame plays a central role in Parshat Shemini. Moses instructs Aaron and his sons, the priests and the elders of Israel to prepare to offer certain sacrifices as mandated by God. He concludes with exciting news: “For today the Lord will appear to you!” (Leviticus 9:4).

Once the offering is prepared and placed on the altar by the priests in conformity with God’s command, and once Moses and Aaron had blessed the people, “the presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar.

And all the people saw, and shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:23-28).

What an awesome, powerful moment of engagement between God and the Children of Israel. It was intended to demonstrate to the people that when God’s will was carried out, the Divine Presence, represented by the flame that came down from heaven, would be with them.

By way of contrast, we learn in a Midrash found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:5) that during the seven days of the consecration of the priests, when Moses functioned as high priest, the Shekhinah did not descend. Only after Aaron, wearing the vestments of the high priest, officiated at the altar, did the Shekhinah descend.

This means that the Divine Flame could appear in the midst of the people only when those whom God had designated to tend that fire — Aaron and his sons — were in charge of the worship in the Tabernacle. As great as he was, Moses could not bring the Divine Flame into the midst of the people.

Realizing the power of the flame, it was God’s intention that it be managed and channeled only by people whom God had chosen and to whom God had given specific instructions. They would be responsible tenders of the flame.

But, alas, God did not take into account the power of the human ego. Immediately after the wondrous appearance of the flame, the zeal of the moment engulfed Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, but with disastrous results. On their own initiative — and contrary to the will of God — they brought strange fire into the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:1). And, in an instant, “a fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).

Note the language. It is nearly identical to language that describes the first appearance of the Divine Flame in 9:24. I suggest that the Torah’s message is clear. The Divine Flame and the religious fervor that accompanies it can be a blessing, when the flame is handled with care and the fervor expresses itself in a way that conforms to the wishes of the Author of the flame. When the zeal engendered by the flame is abused by the power of human ego, the same flame becomes a destructive force.

Devoted adherents of the three religions that affirm a belief in the one God, who shared the Divine Flame through the faith and zeal of Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Miriam and the like, espouse a profound commitment to making God’s love, compassion and justice realities in the world.

Let the zeal of these true people of spirit fill all of God’s creation, allowing no room for the egotistical zeal of the false prophets of destruction.


Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

Kids Page


Aaron and the Almond

Moses’ brother Aaron, our first high priest, had a staff. One day, it grew almond flowers and fruit. It was God’s way of showing the Israelites that Aaron was personally chosen by God to be their spiritual leader. He became like a father to the Israelites. Almond in Hebrew is shaked, which also means diligent and fast. Aaron was very fast at one particular thing — stopping arguments and bringing love back to people who were angry.
Find the Aaron who lives inside you. Use him this summer when you are at camp, or meeting new people on vacation. Greet friends with a smile and with affection — and it will come back to you really fast.

Present Time

What You Need:
1. Plain white paper
2. Pair of white boxer shorts that will fit Dad
or Grandpa
3. Fabric crayons (these are special crayons labeled
for fabric)
4. Iron
5. Hard flat surface (such
as a countertop)
6. Scissors

How To Make It:
1. Draw a picture or design on the white paper.
2. Cut around the picture once it is complete. If you need to, darken in some of the lighter areas of the drawing so that it will transfer well.
3. Have Mom (or another grown-up) iron the design onto the shorts according to the instructions on the back of the package of crayons.
4. Wrap it up and give to someone special.

Father’s Day, Hooray!

Fill in the blanks to learn the history of Father’s Day:
birthday, June, Spokane, 1910, honor, five, Mother’s.

Sonora Louise Smart Dodd lived in _________, Wash.
After her mother died, her father raised her and her _______ siblings.
One day, in 1909, while listening to a sermon about _________ Day, she decided that she must create a day to _______ fathers.
She chose ________ 19, because it was her father’s _________. She gained national support and Father’s day was first celebrated in ______.

In Praise of Lambs


What do Cal Ripken Jr. and Aaron (the high priest) have in common?

Not much — except in the mind of a Jew who has
passion for Torah and sports. So here goes!

Aaron receives the commandment to light the menorah everyday. The Torah states: “Aaron did so; he lit the lamps, just as God commanded” (Numbers, 8:3).

The classic biblical commentator Rashi wonders why this verse is necessary. The working assumption is that Aaron — the model spiritual persona follows God’s orders. Thus Rashi comments: This verse (was necessary to indicate) Aaron’s virtue — that he did not change.

Rashi’s comments are troubling on several accounts. It seems counterintuitive to praise Aaron for not altering a basic ritual. Further, is this the best praise with which to adorn Aaron — the older brother who reveled in the ascendancy of his younger brother Moses, the great pursuer of peace beloved by all of the Jewish people, the man who was willing to sacrifice his spiritual destiny for the sake of the Jewish people?

It would almost seem that for all the extraordinary work Aaron accomplished in his lifetime — the ultimate praise flows from something fairly ordinary. Perhaps that is precisely the point

A famous midrash poses a fascinating question. What is the most significant verse of the Torah? Many would opt for the Shema — the raison d’être of the believing Jew. The socially minded might select “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” a creed that succinctly captures the Jewish motif of kindness. Indeed, the Sages present both suggestions.

In a whirlwind, the sage Rabbi Shimon Ben Pazi suggests the verse “and the one lamb you shall bring in the morning and the second lamb shall be brought in the afternoon” (Numbers 28) — a verse that relates the imperative of twice-daily offerings in the Sanctuary. The Midrash concludes — after a rabbinic vote — Ben Pazi’s verse emerged triumphant.

A verse extolling the praise of the daily morning and afternoon lambs trumps the Shema and love thy neighbor? What is going on here?

In a world that extols the grand gesture, Judaism elevates the sublime. In a society that disdains routine, Judaism demands it. Judaism is not a religion that features an annual worldwide Yom Kippur conference at a synagogue near you. Nor is it even a weekly religion. Judaism is a “daily” — daily prayer, daily study and daily Shema all form the normative core of traditional Jewish life.

The deep meaning of this Midrash is now revealed. Of course, we must believe in the Shema and truly we have to love our neighbor. But the lamb in the morning and afternoon, the obligation of the daily offering, a routine never to be departed from, serves as a paradigm for the commitment to a daily encounter with God — for the goal of Torah is to create a sensitivity to the constant presence of the Almighty, wherever, whenever, period.

Routine, however, is not to be confused with rote. Inspired consistency is the name of the game. Perhaps this was the greatest achievement of Aaron, the model spiritual personality. While he was the master of the grand gesture, he never ignored the sublime significance of daily service. Further, as Rashi stated, he never changed — i.e., he summoned the same inspiration in year 30 as he did in year one.

Hence, Cal and Aaron. Even the neophyte sports fan recognizes that the only mark in modern sports history not imperiled is Ripken’s remarkable streak of 2,632 consecutive games played spanning from May 30, 1982 to Sept. 19, 1998. Consider the fact that the closest competitor today has logged in about 550 games and you begin to fathom the magnitude of the accomplishment.

Move over, Cal! About six years ago, 70,000 Jews crowded Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum to celebrate the conclusion of the Talmud, a feat accomplished by covering one page of Talmud everyday for 2,711 days (without an offseason). I was fortunate to be one of the attendees. It changed my life and the life of several of my congregants. The march of the relentless pages of Talmud has both haunted and challenged us — but most certainly has inspired us. In March 2005 more than 100,000 are expected to fill New York and New Jersey arenas along with several thousand for a local Los Angeles celebration.

Not to oversimplify: The tension of daily inspirational living dare not be ignored; nor does lack of inspiration obviate Judaism’s absolute commitment to routine. Nevertheless, as modern Jews we need not seek the grand gesture or the right moment to begin our spiritual quest: The time is now and tomorrow and its morrow. Let the games (or the lambs) begin!

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.