Torah portion: Yom Kippur a coming home for the Jewish soul


It happens every year. People come to services for Rosh Hashanah and remember how meaningful Judaism can be in their lives. They fast and pray fervently on Yom Kippur and come up to the rabbi to talk about their great revelation: They are Jews and are going to start coming to services, classes and programming. They come to the sukkah multiple times and dance with passion on Simchat Torah. 

But within a few weeks, things start to come up in their lives and they miss a service or class, and then another, and within a couple of months, the wholehearted commitment they had made to themselves and to God to renew their Jewishness has been put on the shelf … until the next year, when the pattern repeats itself. 

And so it goes: always starting with the most honest passion and best of intentions, followed by a waning of participation due to involvement in secular activities. It’s a good thing we pray on Kol Nidre for these vows to be forgiven before we even make them!

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The first word of the Torah gives us a hint as to how to help ourselves and others keep our commitments. 

“Bereshit” is usually translated as “in the beginning.” But, we are taught, if you play anagrams with the letters, you can create the phrase “Shirat av,” meaning “father’s song.” The implication is that the universe is created with the music of God. 

But it can be opened up even more. Av can be broken into the letters alef and bet, the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, creating the phrase “Shirat Alef bet” (the song of the alef bet). It is through this understanding that I believe we can find a key to renewing Jewish practice and thought and keeping the passion of the High Holy Days alive throughout the year.

Jewish tradition teaches that each letter has a song representing the values and teachings that it holds within Judaism. In fact, “Sefer Yetzirah” (The Book of Creation, a kabbalistic text attributed by Saadia Gaon in the 10th century to the patriarch Abraham) says that the 22 Hebrew letters are the architectural plans of the universe. “Sefer Yetzirah” goes into detailed explanation of these “songs” of the letters and how they actually create existence on a metaphysical level. 

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s book, “Sefer HaMiddot” (The Book of Attributes) — often referred to as “The Aleph-Bet Book” — demonstrates the concept of the power of letters more simply. The book is a series of aphorisms, organized alphabetically, about how to live as a Jew. Each letter becomes a guide in our self-development and a pathway back to Judaism. It is that pathway that is needed to keep ourselves aligned with the commitments we make on Yom Kippur.

And let’s be honest, we need the help. The last few decades have seen a tremendous number of conversions in America from Judaism — not conversions to another religion per se, but leaving the Jewish practices in favor of secularism. The devotion to religious customs is often been replaced by a devotion to a political party or secular work. 

But the Jewish soul yearns to live as a Jew, and is reminded of that fully as we experience the High Holy Days (especially in prayers such as Ashamnu, where each letter is used as a reminder of each mistake we have made). It aches to return home to its Jewish roots, which is why we always seem to make that annual commitment around this time of year to get back involved in
Jewish practices and the community of temple life.

The Zohar (a pivotal text of kabbalah) teaches us that each soul has its own letter of the Torah, which is expounded upon further in “Megaleh Amukot” (a 17th-century text by Rabbi Nathan Nata Spira), which states, “Every one of Israel has for his soul one letter of the 600,000 letters of Torah.” Each of us has a letter, each of us a song. We just need to find our letter, find our song, and that will keep the fire of our own Judaism alive.

The same questions from Yom Kippur about why we are really here, what we were created to do, what our purpose is, must be constantly asked again and again. Like “Bereshit,” the first word of the Torah, which is repeated every year at Simchat Torah, we must constantly examine and re-examine the important questions in our lives … and none of those answers will come from the secular world, but rather from the path of our ancestors, the Judaism that we connect to during the holidays.

When we can each be aware of our own letter, our own place in existence and how it sings with the rest of the letters, the rest of the souls of the world, then we will truly have the sound of heaven here on Earth. 

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Simcha (nersimcha.org) in Westlake Village and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press, 2013). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.

Bereshit: Creation and stewardship


This post originally appeared on “Neesh Noosh.”

We start again this Shabbat at the beginning with Bereshit. The universe is created out of nothingness by God. “The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.” God creates light and dark, sky and earth, water and land, humans and all of the plants, animals insects, birds and others creatures of our planet, six days and Shabbat. The preciousness and chaos of the complex universe that God makes comes forth from separations, distinctions , enumerations and accountings. In our biosystems, and particularly our humanity, there is great diversity.

Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar writes,“among other things, then, the biblical creation story is like a hymn to biodiversity, which is seen as unambiguously good in its own right. For the Torah, then, creation is precious in its own right.”

This story is not about dominion over the earth but  our being accountable  for stewardship of all that God created. Rabbi Held continues, “the meaning of ‘but the earth He gave over to humanity’ is that the human being is God’s steward (pakid) over the earth and everything that is on it, and she must act according to God’s word.”

We are caretakers of our land; of our farms and our food systems. Bereshit can inspire each of us to take account of our individual and communal responsibilities about our food choices and their impacts. How are the workers treated who sow and reap our food? Are the animals treated humanely? Are the crops (and workers) exposed to pesticides? Do we conserve precious water when we grow food? Where is our food grown? How can our food choices enable us to be better stewards of God’s creation?

There’s a separation, too, in our food system. Some of us have access to local, organic, fresh produce while millions of other Americans (nearly 50 million) are hungry at some point during the year.

This is the challenge for humans. As Rabbi Held remarked, “We are created in the image of God and are thus mandated to rule over creation; this is a call to exercise power in the way Tanakh imagines the ideal ruler would, “in obedience to the reign of God and for the sake of all the other creatures whom [our] power affects.”

While there are so many challenges for humans to address in our US food system, there are great things happening. There are many wonderful organizations and individuals who are being good stewards of the land by expanding access to sustainable food systems to all, not just a few.

I am traveling to Italy to attend Salone del Gusto, the international Slow Food Conference in Turin, Italy, that begins next week. There, thousands of food activists, food purveyors, farmers, vintners, chefs and foodies from around the globe, will gather for a conference to eat, cook, learn, discuss and build better food systems in their respective countries.

“Saturday” in Italian is the same as Shabbat. “And without the Torah, and the Shabbat of Jewish tradition, there would be no Sabbath.That indeed is why the word for “Saturday” in Italian is sabato– because the Sabbath, introduced into Italy in Roman days by the Jews, began on the Jewish Sabbath and not on the Christian Sunday that subsequently evolved from it.”

Shabbat—part of God’s creation—is a separation from our regular lives. It’s a day not only for us to rest but to let God rest by stopping our actions. This Shabbat, from the simple beginnings of creation to the complicated, beautiful universe we live in, there’s much to bless and protect.

In creating this recipe, I  was inspired by water. It’s essential for survival and nourishment. Looking out at the misty Pacific Ocean on a cool day, I see kelp beds floating, dolphins cresting, birds plucking fish and feel the sticky, salty, heavy air. Am I witnessing a moment of creation anew?

This soup recipe is a basic miso stock. You are invited to create your own soup by adding a variety of fresh chopped vegetables, symbols of life and the fruits of the earth.

Bereshit soup for one

  • 2 tbsp miso paste (read instructions because amount may vary based on type of miso)
  • 1 ½ cup water
  • Suggested chopped additions:
  • Seaweed
  • Scallions
  • Tofu
  • Carrots
  • Ginger
  • Cabbage
  • Bok choy

Preparation

  1. Wash thorough and chop all additions.
  2. Boil water.
  3. Once boiled, pour into bowl over miso paste and stir. Add chopped vegetable additions.

For more recipes, visit Neesh Noosh.

Each day is a choice: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)


Only a couple of weeks ago, we were all feeling the holiness of Yom Kippur. By the end of the day of fasting, beautiful music, insightful teachings and prayers that deepened our self-awareness, we were remembering the real priorities in life. We had committed — to ourselves and God — how we would act this coming year. This year, we would be more spiritual, religious, conscious, awake, righteous or whatever term we each personally used.

So what happened?

Let’s be honest: In only a few days, most of us have already started to go back to our old patterns. The self-reflective process of the High Holy Days has been overshadowed by the daily grind and the same habits that were present before the Days of Awe. But the Torah cycle gives us a key so we don’t remain locked in the patterns we committed to changing.

Bereshit (“in/from the beginning”), the first word of not only this week’s portion but of the entire Torah, has probably generated more commentaries throughout the ages than any other single word. But there is also a deep and simple reminder that the parasha gives us at this time of year through the relationship between the Torah reading and the calendar cycle.

Our calendar has brilliance in it. Just as we are starting to let go of the holy possibilities we each recognize during the Days of Awe and fall back into our old ways, we are reminded that everything can be made new. The Torah ends with the last verses of Deuteronomy, and now, just as we are starting to drift away from the focus on the spiritual and ethical commitments we made to ourselves on Yom Kippur, we are reminded that everything can begin again. Even though the Torah ends, she starts right back up with the teachings about Creation. Similarly, even though we may feel stuck in the patterns of our past, we are reminded that we, too, can change and create ourselves anew, filling the world with our own light. We can and need to go back to the beginning.

That’s really the key: to go back to our beginnings. Why did we originally choose to become the doctor, lawyer, rabbi, businessman? Why did our soul make the choices it did so long ago, and how far have we strayed from our path in this journey of life? I know so many rabbis who went into the clergy to help people, but out of necessity have become professional fundraisers; so many doctors who originally just wanted to heal people, but who have become shackled by their own financial success and rarely interact with patients anymore. It doesn’t matter the profession; we find it everywhere: the civil servant who no longer has time to help people because he must deal with political pressures, the teacher who has forgotten the joy of teaching and is waiting for her pension, the lawyer who no longer cares about pursuing justice; the list goes on and on. This parasha comes at this time to remind us that we can always go back to our beginnings and recommit ourselves to living in a way that is deep and reflective of the highest desires of our souls: the potential life that we became aware of during Yom Kippur.

We read in this portion, “It was evening, it was morning, one day” (Genesis 1:5). Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 3:8 tells us that “it was evening” are the deeds of the wicked, and “it was morning” are the deeds of the righteous. Rabbi Yechezkel Taub, the Kuzmir Rebbe (1755-1856) taught that the distance between a good person and an evil person is just one day. It’s only one day, he teaches, because deep down the bad person also wants to be good. Each day is a choice to embrace the good person we saw as our potential on Yom Kippur; or a day to choose that we don’t have the strength to be better, the will to be righteous.

This parasha reminds us of our choices. Do we choose to fall back into old ways or strive on this day to create the person we saw we can be? Can we remember our soul’s true path and tikkun? Can we create inside ourselves the behavior that we need to become the ethical, spiritual, righteous person that we seek to be?

May we all find ourselves re-created into the best versions of ourselves that we perceived during the Days of Awe, and all make today be the day that we choose to create holiness in our own lives.


Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of The New Shul of Conejo (newshul.net) and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press, 2013). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.

In rural Uganda: Let there be light


We take light for granted. But in the Torah’s opening chapter of Bereshit, it was God’s first gift.

It seems fitting, then, that when a local synagogue committed itself to helping an impoverished village in rural Uganda, the first gift would be to turn on the lights — to give the gift of solar-powered electricity. With light, doctors can deliver babies with more than just candlelight late into the night; people can see one another and plan activities in the long evening and night hours. Indoor classrooms in schools can be lit, so students can learn more easily.

The project began a couple of years ago, when the spiritual community of IKAR first conceived of founding its first nursery school for its congregation. Rabbi Sharon Brous and IKAR executive director Melissa Balaban saw an opportunity to do more than just offer one more educational program in Los Angeles; they wanted to instill a sense of connection to a larger world in the “DNA of the preschool,” as Balaban put it. They knew it would take about $100,000 to establish their school, so they decided to allocate 10 percent of all donations to another school project somewhere else in the world, where it could benefit others. “To teach our kids, this is what it means to be a Jew; it’s our responsibility,” Balaban said. 

Brous and Balaban had both just read the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and they were inspired by its message that even a small amount of cash can have a ripple effect, effecting enormous change in communities by allowing people to rebuild their own lives.

“We spent a lot of time fretting about which school and where,” Brous told a group of supporters who gathered one evening last August at a Santa Monica home to learn about the project. After lots of research and one false start, Brous and Balaban, working with a group of IKAR volunteers, came across an organization called Jewish Heart for Africa (JHA — jhasol.org). It employs Jewish people in African communities to bring Israeli solar systems to power African schools, medical clinics, orphanages and water pumping systems.  

It was a perfect match for IKAR, to partner with a Jewish group that could oversee their project on the ground and to bring “the best of Israel,” as Balaban said — Israel’s technology — to a remote place where a little could go a long way.

JHA connected IKAR with the village of Katira, some five hours from the Ugandan capital city of Kampala. And in early August, the lights went on.

IKAR donated about $12,000 for this initial project, and JHA installed solar panels on the roof of the Katira Primary School, a simple, blocky building with large, unadorned classrooms, that serves nearly 1,400 students from the surrounding area, according to JHA. People in Katira live in primitive thatched-roof huts, and their school had the lowest academic performance in its district.

As it turned out, the school’s pitched metal roof was perfect for capturing the strong African sunlight, and the JHA representatives have trained the locals on the simple techniques of maintaining the panels so they can keep it working themselves, without outside help. And now, although the solar-powered electricity lights only the one building, students — who once had nowhere to go to do their homework after spending long days in school and then helping with the housework at home — can now go to the school to study late into the evenings. They will have the opportunity to study harder, enhancing their chances of future success.

No IKAR members could make it to Katira for the ceremony, but witnessing the lights going on was still important. So, Brous’ mother, Marcia Brous, made a connection to a woman she had met through Rotary Club here — Marsha Hunt, who travels regularly to Uganda through the Uganda Development Initiative (udiworks.org), an aid group. Hunt was already planning a summer trip there, and she readily agreed to become IKAR’s emissary, adding to her trip a visit to Katira to watch the ceremony of the lights being turned on.

“I thought I’d be doing a simple report,” Hunt said. Instead, she arrived at the village to a scene of “tears and celebration, singing and dancing.” She became a witness to a modern Bereshit.

The Israeli solar panels had already been installed. And as she watched, lights for the first time lit the school’s classrooms. 

“They were so gracious and wonderful,” Hunt said of the villagers. And in thanks, the people of Katira gave her gifts intended for her to bring back home to Los Angeles — a turkey, a chicken and a rooster. For obvious reasons, those didn’t make it back to L.A.

But what did was the sense of accomplishment, extraordinary joy and connection between the people of Katira and the people of IKAR, as evidenced through photos that you can see by viewing this article at jewishjournal.com. 

And the project continues, Balaban said. “We are now raising money to light the medical clinic, and hopefully to install a solar-powered water pump.”

The light that came from God is now being harnessed to power a different kind of light — an electric energy that will also sustain growth, vision and warmth into the future.

And it is being channeled from Los Angeles via Israel to a remote village in Africa.

As Balaban said, “This is what it means to be a Jew.”


Susan Freudenheim is executive editor of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. She can be reached at editor@jewishjournal.com. You can follow her on Twitter at 

Unique Capabilities: Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)


There are places in the Torah where many of us moderns have a hard time relating to our ancestors and the societies in which they lived. Oppression of women, slavery, animal sacrifice, a God that intervenes and directs our lives in a forceful and immediate way, to name a few. This parasha, however, is not really one of these moments. In fact, as I read through Noach again and again this year, I couldn’t help but think how much hasn’t changed since those fateful days, in primordial time, when the first humans brought about the destruction of the Earth.

“The Earth became corrupt before God; the Earth was filled with lawlessness (hamas). When God saw how corrupt the Earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the Earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the Earth’ ”  (Genesis 6:11-13).

Our ancestors quickly devolved into corruption, violence, greed and anger. Sadly, destruction was the only way to stop them. Rashi, followed by Ramban and others, understands the word “hamas” as “robbery/violence,” and the Talmud teaches us that while humans committed every conceivable transgression, their “fate was only sealed when they put forth their hands to robbery and violence toward one another” (Sanhedrin 108a). I see violence here not only as the physical

manifestation of hate toward one another, but also as the mental and spiritual manifestation of greed and selfishness, both toward other humans and toward animals and the natural world. The human being believed that they were the end-all and be-all of creation, endowed with rights and privileges that permitted any actions, including murder, to advance their evil ways. We see this lesson is not truly learned, even after the flood, for the end of Parashat Noach teaches us about the Tower of Babel, read by commentators old and new, as another physical manifestation of greed and desire for power. We have short memories, even as God has a long, full memory.

And so, as I look at the world in which we live today, a world that is being quickly passed to my children and all of the children soon to be adults, I am both afraid and emboldened. I am afraid because the pace of our world, filled with violence, war, planetary destruction, greed, indifference, poverty, genocide, hatred and intolerance, is moving so fast with the technological advances we celebrate in the life of someone like Steve Jobs, that I fear we will not, we cannot, stop, turn around and repair the massive damage we have done and continue to do on a daily basis, both here in America and the world over. Yet, I am emboldened by the same Parashat Noach that gives us the rainbow, a sign that continues to inspire awe and wonder in the hopefulness of our world and our capacity to do the right thing. The same technology that is speeding us up, blinding us, is also being used to open our eyes, be it with the global satellite pictures of Darfur that we can see firsthand, the capacity to provide enough food to end poverty, the incredible advances in medicine and healing, most of which are emerging from Israel, the social media that helped spawn revolutions in the Arab world and right here in America — all signs that we have the capacity to make good decisions for the betterment of all life. Let’s not forget Deuteronomy, which teaches,

“I place before you a blessing and a

curse … .” While things change, they often stay the same.

Human beings were not given dominion in Genesis in order to dominate, but rather we were given “unique capabilities,” a better translation of the Hebrew word that is usually translated as “dominion.” The midrash teaches that it actually took Noah 120 years to build the ark so that people might ask him what he was doing, hear the answer and repent of their evil ways and change course. It was a long drive to the destruction, with many signs and warnings along the way. Our ancestors didn’t listen. Will we? Shabbat shalom!

Curses and Blessings: Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)


“Gather, assemble yourselves and let me tell you what will become of you in the end of days,” Jacob says to his sons. These are the closing moments of the book of Bereshit (Genesis), and of all the portions in Bereshit, none is more poetic and none more opaque than Vayechi.

“And Israel’s dying days came closer,” says the text, and Jacob, perhaps propelled by this awareness, seems to muster all his creative energies and pours forth a series of perplexing blessings and curses that haunt our collective imaginations until this very day. Perhaps Jacob recognizes that this is his last chance to breathe some fire into this world, to leave his mark; to make the ascending angels of his youth take notice one last time of the dying dreamer they had visited two lifetimes ago at the bottom of the ladder.

What does Jacob mean by his stream-of-consciousness outpouring of poetic prophecy? From whence the passion and the decisiveness that had eluded him his entire life? How much do Jacob’s words to his sons affect us today? What is the difference between a blessing and a curse?

One could spend years poring over Jacob’s “blessings.” I’d like to touch on two of them.

The first blessing is personal: It is the blessing received by my namesake. “Dan Yaddin Amo. …” (“And Dan shall judge his people. …”) There are names one receives at birth that serve as guides, as gentle guardians throughout one’s life; names like Noam, pleasantness, or Zohar, radiant brilliance. Dan’s name is more a burden than a guide, more a hurdle than a gift. The name literally means “judgmental,” and it is given as a command: Go out and judge; be true to your name.

Samson, the most famous Danite, would rather do anything but. He spends his entire career running away from his vocation. He becomes Nad, a wanderer, instead of Dan, a judge. His ending, while spectacular, is not a good one, and it teaches us that one can no more escape one’s essence than a nightingale can escape its sweet voice. I have struggled with my name and its dangerous attributes my entire life. I consider my name a great blessing precisely for the warning it carries with it: Judge, when and if you must, but do so with mercy and compassion. Be careful, be kind, be sweet.

The second blessing I’d like to visit is Levi’s. The power of the words Jacob visits upon Levi is stunning. The “blessing,” it would appear, is really a curse. Levi, along with his brother, Shimon, is berated for the murderous rampage the brothers embarked upon after the rape of their sister, Dina.

Jacob’s words are harsh and unforgiving. He appears to doom Levi to the life of an eternal outsider. He and his descendants are to be scattered among the children of Israel.

Later on, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Levites are chosen by God to be eternal servants in the house of the Lord. Where’s the curse? Why the Levites, of all tribes? The action God takes is not unlike the wise teacher who picks on the most troubled child in class to be the teacher’s aid; to sit closer to the teacher than any other child in class. It is neither a reward nor a punishment. It is the exact tikkun (repair) that child requires. The most violent of tribes is chosen for holy work precisely because it is the tribe that needs holiness more than any other. The Levites are still scattered, landless, outsiders, but now they are doing so for the sake of holiness. Perhaps, those who are in service of God, those whose lives are spent in religious leadership, to this very day, are doing so because they are the ones who are most in need of it.

“Gather, assemble yourselves and let me tell you what will become of you in the end of days,” Jacob says to his sons, and his words to them are the blueprint of the Jewish people’s destiny. They are the markers of our lives: personally, according to our Hebrew names; collectively, according to the tribes of our ancestors. Family history does matter. Names matter. Words matter. To us, as Jews, words are the DNA of our history, our culture, our souls. Jacob’s words are curses embedded in blessings and blessings embedded in curses, and whether they serve us for good or for bad, for holiness or profanity, is still, and always will be, entirely up to each one of us.

Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazek! Be strong! Be strong! And we shall be strengthened!

Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.