Hear O Israel: The Shema’s centrality: Parashat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

As we emerge from Tisha b’Av and our annual three-week period of mourning the destruction and loss of our Holy Temples in Jerusalem, we are invigorated and inspired every year by Parashat Vaetchanan. It is the portion that includes both the Ten Declarations at Sinai (commonly mistranslated as the “Ten Commandments”) and the Shema: Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu. Hashem Echad (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One). The declaration is followed by the paragraph that begins: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your resources.”

The Shema declaration is the central affirmation in Judaism. It defines us. At its inception, it defied a world of atheists and polytheists by proclaiming monotheism, an uncompromising belief in one God who created the world and who rules over it.

Our morning and evening prayers are constructed around that declaration, the three paragraphs recited with it, and the prayer’s attendant three blessings during the day and four at night. We recite the Shema during the waking hours and again as we go to bed. Parents recite it nightly with their children as part of the loving bedtime ritual that follows such mundane preliminaries as brushing teeth and cleaning up. And as one faces the end of this life’s journey, a Jew recites the Shema as part of that person’s final affirmation of religious identity, faith in God and the afterlife.

The study and analysis of the Shema and its three paragraphs consume the first several chapters of the Talmud. We learn why the Shema is recited within the first three hours of day and again as stars come out at night. And how must we recite it? Must we move our lips, or does it suffice for our eyes to scan the prayer book? Why do we cover our eyes with our hand as we affirm the declaration? What if a king who holds the power of life and death over us enters the synagogue at that moment and starts a conversation as we are praying the Shema?

These and many other technical rules are passionately debated in the Talmud’s first 20-plus folios, comprising close to 50 pages of mostly Aramaic text amid some Mishnaic Hebrew in Tractate Berakhot. The technicalities and details take weeks, months, even years to master. They are the subject of several more chapters in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah compendium of Jewish law, and in the Shulchan Aruch, codified centuries later by the Sephardic Rabbi Yosef Karo. Subsequent insights and variant rules for Ashkenazic Jews were proffered by Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Poland.

Beyond the legalistic necessities for properly fulfilling the mitzvah to affirm night and day that our God is One, there also is so much more: the meaning and implications of the words.

As explained a century ago by the Chofetz Chaim, it is not enough to “love God” without action. When we find love and happiness, we share the word with others; the same is expected of Jews who love God with all our hearts, souls and resources. We are bidden to share the word with other Jews, to reach out and teach them what we have found, to bring them back home from foreign teachings and alien cultures. Like Abraham our Patriarch, who invited wayfarers into his tent to eat meals that Sarah and he prepared for visitors so that they would learn from his hospitality to thank and bless God for the food they eat, we are challenged to draw lapsed Jews closer to God.

To love Him more fully and with maximized appreciation, Rambam teaches that we also should acquire knowledge of His ways and His creation by studying the pertinent science. Gain an appreciation of how the rain-and-wind cycle operates through evaporation and condensation, with the wind directing rain clouds from oceans across the skies so that they shower drier inland regions, too. Learn how the human eye works: the role of the iris in regulating proper lighting, the retina, even the eyelids protecting from injury and repeatedly lubricating, while the eyebrows absorb salty sweat before it trickles down to irritate.

And the Shema’s message means learning to accept the “bad” with the “good,” to accept that there are some things we never will be able to understand, but to understand that His direction of our lives is purposeful and loving, and therefore to accept what comes our way. To acquire cognition that many things that initially seem to be awful setbacks often, with time’s passage, emerge later as having been among the greatest of blessings, that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, an attorney and adjunct professor of law, is a senior rabbinic fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values and congregational rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. Many of his writings are collected at rabbidov.com.

Roe Sie gained insight into ancient food customs and making better-tasting fresh bread after he decided to try milling his own grain.

Milling your own grain is a Biblical birthright

In Deuteronomy, we’re told that the one thing you can’t take as pledge for a debt is someone’s top millstone. This law seems archaic and meaningless, yet it speaks volumes about the pitiful state of American bread-eating habits — and gives a big clue about how we can repair it.

To our biblical forebears, millstones were so important that taking one as collateral left someone unable to make his daily bread. You don’t want your debtors to starve before paying you back. Bread was the staff of life, and there was no bread without milling the wheat into flour.

A mill is made by stacking two round, flat stones on top of each other. Grains are poured into a small hole drilled in the center of the top stone, and rotation crushes the grains between the stones.

Today, the vast majority of us get our daily bread from the supermarket, and the simple but critical process of milling grains has become invisible. The result is not good for the flavor of our bread — or our health.

Our daily grocery store bread generally begins as nonorganic grains, grown on government-subsidized farms, then transported many miles to huge factory mills where the grains are refined to become flour.

The refining process strips grains of their mineral- and fiber-rich bran and removes the vitamin-packed germ. This greatly lengthens shelf-life but has unintended health impacts. It turns out, we got so good at processing flour that we began to get sick as a result.

For instance, B vitamins found in wheat germ prevent pellagra, a disease that ravaged the United States in the early 1900s. These days, the government requires that white flour be enriched with vitamins; otherwise, it is imbalanced and without nutrition.

After learning all these facts, I decided to bake healthful bread for my family, using a natural yeast starter and the best organic whole-wheat flour I could buy. No more refined white flour for me! Only later did I learn I was leaving out a crucial step in the process: milling the flour myself, fresh from whole grains.

The same way an apple starts to turn brown the moment you cut it open, a whole-wheat berry starts to go bad as soon as it’s milled. Intact, a wheat berry will last decades, even centuries, and still sprout into a beautiful blade of grass. But the clock starts ticking when you break the outer seal.

The whole-wheat flour we’re used to tasting is a little bitter because the healthy oils quickly go rancid when exposed to air. I was going to great lengths to provide my family with a healthy staple food, yet I was using spoiled ingredients.

Mills have been around for thousands of years but are not found in regular stores. Digging on line, I found mills ranging from $200 to $500. So I ordered one and began my adventures in making bread with 100 percent freshly milled flour.

In those early days, I reinvented all the newbie-baker bread styles: the brick, the hockey puck and the concrete paving stone. How could I get my bread to fluff up like store-bought bread without adding white flour? There were all sorts of complicated techniques and a variety of modern additives I could buy. It was tempting to try them, but I thought again of our biblical ancestors. They couldn’t run to the store for instant yeast, dough conditioners or vital wheat gluten. There had to be a better way.

Leavening bread the old-fashioned way was not accomplished through instant dry yeast from a store shelf — instead, it occurred through the action of naturally occurring yeasts and lactic acid bacteria. The tradition of the unleavened matzo, one of the most well-known symbols of Passover, reminds us of the importance of leaven by living without it for a bit.

As a baker, I find the rules of Passover and the making of matzo fascinating because they give us clues to the differences between baking now and 3,500 years ago.

If you mix today’s refined flour and water, it can take a week of work to get a robust “leaven” from it. But mix water with freshly ground flour and you’ll discover that the yeast strains living symbiotically right on the seed begin to leaven the bread almost immediately. That could be why Jewish law still requires matzo to be baked within 18 minutes to avoid any leavening at all. Using modern, bleached, sterile flour, you have zero chance of getting any leavening action in 18 minutes — but use an organic, freshly milled flour and the process begins right away.

So I sat down with a 50-pound bag of hard, white wheat berries and my new grain mill. And drawing on what I had learned about bread baking up to that point, I set about relearning how to bake, using only wheat berries and salt water. That’s it.

After a few tries, I baked my first passable loaf of bread. Surprisingly, I didn’t even have to knead it much, if at all. It sliced easily and it tasted great. The kids even preferred it to store-bought bread.

After milling my own grain, I noticed that the bread we ate at restaurants was beginning to taste boring and flat. It’s like grinding your own coffee beans, then going to a restaurant that serves instant coffee.

Isn’t our daily bread at least as vital as our beloved morning coffee? It’s that sentiment that took me from being a user of millstones to being a merchant.  Millstones became my passion, then my business.  I opened The King’s Roost in Silver Lake, the first brick-and-mortar store in the United States to sell grain mills and locally grown grains in one place.

I tell my customers that using freshly milled grains will make their traditional flatbreads and crackers — even matzo — more flavorful than anything you can buy in any store or bakery. Not to mention the nutritional benefits.

Whole grains and seeds are readily available in many stores, and if you have a mill, you can make the kind of real flour that past generations enjoyed. Bypassing many of the steps in our modern industrial food system feels almost like an act of subversion — you now can buy whole grains that are grown a couple of hours from where you live, then turn them directly into food for your family. Not just breads, but cookies, cakes, pastries, tortillas and more. The possibilities are endless.

The ceasing of the sound of the millstone was a sign of desolation,” the prophet Jeremiah tells us.

Maybe it’s time for the sound return to our homes.


This is the simplest and least processed bread I’ve seen or tasted. While it can be done with a mixer, this recipe doesn’t need one. The only ingredients: freshly milled flour, kosher salt, filtered water, and wild yeast starter (ingredients being only live yeast, whole-meal flour, and water). None of “the good stuff” is taken out of this bread. It’s a 100 percent extraction bread … which is a fancy way of saying you don’t sift out any of the bran. Keep in mind this is a guide: it works well for my whole grains and you will need to adjust a bit for the type of grains/flours you end up using.

Mix 500 grams flour, 365 grams filtered water and 12 grams salt.

Rest between 20 minutes and 4 hours at room temperature (autolyse).

Mix in 100 grams of starter.

Bulk ferment anywhere from 5 to 24 hours (depending on the temperature). Hot day? You may only need 5 hours. In the fridge? At least overnight. Periodically stretching and feeling the consistency will help develop the gluten, avoid over- or under-fermenting the dough and allow you to adjust the hydration to get the consistency you prefer. When you notice a nice jump in dough size or activity level in your dough, you’re ready for the next step.

Shape the dough for the final proof, and move to the proofing basket for 20-40 minutes (poke test).

Gently move the dough to your loaf pan, your peel, cloche, cookie sheet, pizza stone, steam oven, etc.

Slash and bake at 400 F for 45 minutes.

Transfer to rack, wait a half hour (if that’s even possible) before cutting into it.  Enjoy!

Roe Sie sells do-it-yourself fermentation and bread-baking equipment (including mills) and teaches bread-baking classes at The King’s Roost in Los Angeles.

Why did we have to stand so long?

Standing. … Just standing. 

So tired.

Too long.

Still standing.

… grumbled the Israelites, as Moses spoke on and on. This was to be a powerful moment, when God promised, as Moses declared, that the brit (covenant) between God and the Israelite people would last for all time. 

Standing.  … Still standing.

Was something supposed to happen? 

Moses spoke again, “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem. You stand here this day — all of you — before the Eternal your God.” Everyone was included in the brit. 

Men and women, and everyone in between. The leaders and the followers, and those who marched to the beat of their own drummers. The citizens and the noncitizens, and those caught in limbo in between. Everyone was included in the brit. 

Those with means and those without, and the ever-shrinking group in the middle. Those who lived in the fancy tents in the center and those who lived on the outskirts, and those who lived in decrepit hovels that no one ever wanted to admit still existed. Everyone. 

Both those who stood in rapt attention and those who were bored out of their minds, and those who wondered why it was taking God (through Moses) so long to make the point because they just wanted to sit down. 


One young man wondered why the people had to stand so long: Was it to ensure we paid attention to what Moses had to say? That we would so completely internalize the message that even as we strayed from God’s path, we would understand that God would be there always to forgive our transgressions and welcome us back?

His friend, a young woman, countered that perhaps we had to stand so long, not so that we would be ready, but rather because God still hadn’t fully decided if God really, really wanted to enter into a covenant for all time with this people.

The young man continued her thought: Yes, we are a cranky people, given to lapses in faith, judgment and trust. We are more apt to undermine one another than to come together for a common purpose. From the trek through the wilderness alone, it is clear that we have elevated kvetching to an art form, turned moralizing into a career move, and sat comfortably while others suffered and struggled.

The young woman wondered if God was grappling with the foolhardiness of expecting a people to take responsibility for their own ethical behavior. Would the people who just endured 400-plus years of servitude and victimhood be able to rise, amid the comfort and wealth to come, to stand unwaveringly for those values most central to Torah? 

The young man considered the question and asked his own: When the time came, would we Israelites remain courageous and true … 

To chesed, that unending, overflowing, unconditioned, unconditional love of one another, that is the beginning, end and essence of Torah? Would we act with chesed toward those on the other side of the camp, and outside the camp? Those we know and those we don’t? Those we like and those … ?

To emet, speaking the truth, living the truth, even when it was awkward, even when it forced us outside our comfort zone? Would we speak emet to our own people, even when they did not want to hear it? Calling out those who bend the truth to their own purpose or lie through their teeth just because they believe they can get away with it?

To tzedek, that sense of justice that we must pursue both at its ends and through its means, that ignores the color of the skin or the weight of the purse, that demands equality under the law for everyone, since we all — Israelites and non-Israelites — were standing there together listening to Moses. 

Was God wondering if, when we were called to stand up, needing to be counted, we would even show up?

“Atem nitzavim hayom,” Moses said.

Darned right. We were standing. 

It was a test. 

To see if we would actually fulfill our part of the brit. 

Just by standing up.


That day. 

This day. 

Every day.

Are you standing up?

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. He and his wife, Michelle November, are authors of “Jewish Spiritual Parenting” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015). He blogs at paulkipnes.com and tweets @RabbiKip.

Our rightful place: Parashat Ki Teitze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

“If you should see your friend’s ox or sheep straying, don’t ignore them. Instead return them to your friend. But if your friend is not close by, or you don’t know the owner, bring it to your home and hold onto it until the owner finds you, and then return it to them” (Deuteronomy 22:1-2).

Often the Torah will teach us a law whose idea we may have come up with ourselves. In other words, a law that just makes sense. These mitzvot are referred to as Mishpatim. God is reminding us of something. It makes sense that if we want to live in a society where people respect one another, we should be careful with each other’s property and actually look out for their property as if it were our own. 

It is certainly important for Torah to provide us with a guide to decency. Yet, if the Torah is merely reminding us of something that makes sense, and something that we could have figured out ourselves, perhaps the Torah is also trying to convey to us something else. When the Torah exhorts us to respect one another’s property, creating a system of integrity of ownership and trust, it is offering us something so much deeper.

The Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Haim of Baghdad (1838-1908), was one of the most brilliant kabbalists and halachic authorities in the 19th century. He explained that a person who has sinned is like an object that has fallen from the upper realms of heaven and must be returned to its rightful owner, to its rightful place. When what falls is not an object, but a person, a soul that has literally become lost, either the angels or God must return the item. Had people been created from the lower realm of heaven, these souls would have been closer to the angel’s realm than God’s. The angels are beings of complete perfection. By adhering to absolute strict truth, they would have concluded that a person who has sinned must pay the ultimate price. As the Torah says, “A soul that has sinned, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). However, God created people’s souls from a much higher realm, above the realm of angels.  

When a person is lost, it turns out that it is God who is closest to them. God must return the soul to its rightful place. This is fortuitous because God’s way of returning is full of compassion. God doesn’t say that a person who has strayed from the holy path of Torah shall die. God doesn’t want the sinner dead. Instead, God wants that person to return to a path of a holy life.  

The same compassion elicited by returning a lost object is the same divine compassion that allows God to return a lost soul to its place. 

During these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we owe it to ourselves to help God restore our soul to its rightful place. Through treating ourselves and others compassionately and embarking on a path of spiritual growth, we can help maintain a close relationship with God. 

Yonah Bookstein is the executive rabbi of JConnect and founded Jewlicious Festivals (jewliciousfestival.com) in 2005 as a gathering place for young Jews of Southern California. Rabbi Bookstein is also the author of “Prayers for Israel” and conducts seminars internationally about solving the problems affecting young Jewish adults.

Glatt or not? Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

The Torah says that the laws of kashrut separate us from the nations and make us a holy people by precluding us from eating detestable things (Deuteronomy 14:2-3, 21). Inasmuch as kashrut is a defining aspect of Judaism and the Jewish people, it seems worthwhile to look a bit more closely at kosher rules. In doing so, we consider not only the Written Law found in the Chumash but also the Oral Laws that have come down through the Talmud.

With mammals, the Torah states that the animal must be a ruminant that both chews its cud and has split hooves. Classically, we associate cows and sheep as the permitted mammals, eating beef and lamb. Deer also would be permitted, making venison potentially kosher. Goats, too. For that matter, even giraffes.

To determine whether an animal’s meat is kosher to consume, we next must be assured that it is slaughtered properly. Among other things, the shochet (slaughterer) must use a chalef, a specific kind of rectangular knife whose blade must be at least twice as long as the neck width of the animal; it must also be exceptionally sharp and free of any nicks. The knife must achieve a rapid, smooth slice that severs the trachea and esophagus promptly. If the slaughtering errs, the meat is forbidden even though the mammal was a permitted species. 

Even if the slaughter is successful, as it usually is, the shechted animal’s lungs next must be inspected. If the lungs are found to have adhesions, particularly larger ones, that finding can render the animal non-kosher. The bodek (internal organ inspector) can determine which lung adhesions disqualify the slaughtered animal from being kosher. The simplest lung inspection result is when the slaughtered animal’s lungs are found to be smooth. (Glatt is Yiddish and chalak is Hebrew for “smooth.”) If smooth, with no adhesions, then the properly slaughtered meat is acceptable. It still will need to be soaked and salted, drained of its blood.

A quarter-century ago, kosher consumers were not as particular about whether meat was from an animal found to have had smooth lungs. If it had adhesions, consumers knew the inspectors would not have let the meat to market unless those adhesions were meaningless. But careful inspections take time, and time is money. Nowadays, with higher hourly rates, bodeks need to move faster, often operating from huge centralized plants that distribute across the country. The financial reality is that lungs with adhesions may not be getting as careful a look as they require and as they used to command, while glatt meat always is fine because it poses no added time demand. Hence, the new primacy of glatt kosher meat.

The rule on permitted fowl differs from that governing mammals. In the mammals’ case, we follow the two rules: chews its cud and split hooves. However, regarding birds, the Torah offers no “rule” but instead lists a wide variety of forbidden birds by name. Any fowl not on the list is deemed kosher. However, uncertainty exists about the exact identities of certain biblically prohibited birds, because some of those listed Hebrew names are esoteric. Therefore, for birds, the kosher rule is that the fowl is a permitted type only if the Jewish society has an unbroken tradition that, yes, this is a permitted bird. In America, such permitted fowl include chicken, ducks and geese. Turkeys, though, are tricky. After all, how could there have been a tradition regarding the kashrut of turkeys? Therefore, there were and still are some kosher consumers who avoid turkey. However, the greater majority note that kosher consumers in America always ate turkey, treating them as part of the chicken family, and that became this land’s tradition.

With this background, a few mysteries may be resolved. Buffalo meat, bison and yak can be kosher. Goat could be kosher, hence the kosher status of goat’s milk and cheese, but its meat tends to be tougher, so less desirable. Deer can be kosher, but they typically run too fast to be caught for shechitah (slaughter), and we may not eat animals that have been killed any other way. Goose is exceptionally fatty, so it is a less cost-effective buy except during Chanukah season when fried foods like potato latkes are in vogue. And the giraffe would be easy to slaughter, although fiercely violent, but the chance that its lungs will be found to have disqualifying abrasions is intimidating because giraffes are much more expensive than cows and harder to mitigate financial losses arising from an invalidated slaughter or bad lungs. Nevertheless, it is a myth that the absence of kosher giraffes is because slaughterers (shochtim) do not know where to slice. It is simply that, because of the steep financial risk, most slaughterhouses just don’t want to stick their necks out. 

Rabbi Dov Fischer, an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is the founding spiritual leader of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

Passing the Torch: Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30)

“Moses summoned Joshua and said to him before the eyes of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous…’ ” Deuteronomy 31:7.

Aware that he is about to die, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor in front of all the people. In a few short verses, he leads us on a journey through a plethora of emotions. Moses lets the people know that God is already aware of the many sins they will commit, but he is also aware that they will eventually arrive, succeed and triumph in Israel. 

This portion is “one of seeming contradictions — sadness on one hand and soaring optimism on the other,” Rabbi Berel Wein writes. But how can we use these apparent contradictions in our own personal journey through Yom Kippur, and especially through Yizkor?

An answer can be found in Moses’ interaction with Joshua. After decades of mentoring Joshua, Moses publicly blesses him as the new leader. “Be strong and courageous,” he says. 

These words of advice, and the public blessing, are some of the keys to making Yom Kippur that much more meaningful.

It is a true blessing to be mentored or guided by others. And mentorship becomes even more impactful when we are recognized publicly by our teachers and guides. The process of rabbinic smicha (ordination) is a public recognition by teachers that the “student” is now ready and should be accepted by the community. The moment that a person is recognized by his or her teachers in this public way is a moment of transition. It is the simultaneous blessing of both the mentor and mentee as the mantle is passed. As William Butler Yeats put it, “It seemed, so great my happiness, that I was blessed and could bless.” For Moses and Joshua, this public passing of the torch was just such a blessing. Rather than making the death of Moses that much more painful, it becomes a key to transforming the loss of Moses into hope for both Joshua and the people.

Moses’ words give us the guidance of what a mentor needs to always say. Joshua has shown his knowledge, wisdom and value throughout the years, and the great advice that his mentor can give is both simple and deep: “Be strong and courageous.” Isn’t this what we all need to hear as we take on a new endeavor, as we carry the mantle of our teachers?

And these are the words that we need to remember this Yom Kippur, especially as we enter the Yizkor ceremony.

Our loved ones have moved on, but they have left us a legacy. We have a responsibility to live in a way that makes them proud and honor what they taught us. We need to allow ourselves to deeply feel the loss of their presence but also rejoice in what we experienced with them and be grateful for how much our lives are a result of their influence and teachings. Yizkor is not just a time to remember the loss, but to be grateful for the relationship that we had with them in life.

I once heard someone come up to a fellow congregant after Yizkor and say to them, “You smell like a newborn baby.” The congregant had cried so hard, had embraced their pain so much, that they had literally been cleansed from the inside out. Because they had the strength and courage to go fully into the pain of their loss, they were able to come out the other side. The Yizkor process ultimately became one of mourning and cleansing, the remembrance and celebration of an important relationship.

This is the public teaching that Moses gives us as he is about to die. Allow ourselves to grieve, to mourn, but also to celebrate the future and what we have learned from those who went before us. A rainbow can only occur after the rain, and we need to let our tears flow so that we can appreciate and celebrate the lives of our loved ones.

May we each have the courage this Yizkor to experience the honest pain of our losses so fully that we can come through the other side cleansed, whole and strong. And may we always honor our mentors and mentees, our teachers and students, our parents and children.

May each of us, and all of Israel, have an easy fast and be sealed for blessings of sweetness, health and joy in the Book of Life.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of the New Shul of the Conejo (tnsconejo.org), and can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.

Parashat Ki Teitze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19): Conditionally unconditional

Dear Mom: It’s been a long time coming, but I owe you an apology. There have been simply too many jokes at your expense, like the time you told your friends I was such a devoted son that I spend $150 on you every week — talking to my therapist. Or, when you and Dad proudly announced the name at my bris as Dr. Joshua Hoffman. Wasn’t becoming a rabbi enough?! And Mom, about all those times you said I never called. I want you to know I would have called you first, but you always seemed to beat me to it — at 6 a.m.

I want to apologize for all those times I would get upset when you told me you loved me unconditionally. OK, the jokes imply that you love me when I give you attention, stay in touch and have a successful career. But they’re just jokes, right? I have to ask, “Can there ever really be such a thing as unconditional love?” The concept of anything unconditional is simply … romantic. Remember the joke about Oedipus? “Oedipus shmedipus, as long as you love your mother.” That’s what you always told me.

I admit I have been resentful in the past, but no longer. You told me to study the Torah, and I would like to share with you what I’ve learned. Devarim is a book that speaks in absolutes. Blessings and rewards, curses and punishments. Promises of a long life or the ejection from a land that spews us out for our disobedience. At first, hearing the consequences for our … errr imperfections … seems judgmental, even premeditated. I expected a book about God and humanity to speak of unconditional love, one that flows from parent to child without any conditions. It’s what I think I expected from you all those times you wished I chose the right tie from the two you gave me (Why didn’t I choose the other tie?). It’s frustrating to read verse after verse, chapter after chapter and realize we aren’t good enough, resilient enough, devoted enough.

Take the famous talmudic story drawn from one of the many mitzvot in this week’s Torah portion. After describing the circumstances in which one would find a bird’s nest full of eggs or little hatchlings, in which we are commanded to shoo the mother away (shliuach haken) and then grab the eggs, we read, “Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well (L’ma’an Yitav Lach) and have a long life (V’harachta Yamim)” (Deuteronomy 22:7). It’s a strange place for a mitzvah to have a condition placed on it, isn’t it? The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) takes this verse as a challenge, to describe the problems inherent in random and tragic moments of loss. “What is the reward for the child, who obeys his father’s command to ascend a ladder, shoo the mother bird away and accidentally falls off the ladder to his death?” The Talmud constructs a litany of responses, but we know there is no way to fully justify the utter devastation of this loss of life, loss of potential, loss of goodness in the world. It’s because everything in this world is conditional, even circumstances we could never expect to happen.

It hurts the most when we feel love is given with conditions that are impossible to meet. We expect, somehow, that the love we experience from another should be exactly the way we feel about them — as if the other’s affection is a mirror reflection of the love we feel. But love for another and love for God are always conditional. And I think that unfettered release of devotion and commitment is really the expression of so many discreet expressions of cause and effect, and that real love is so well practiced and habitual, it seems to happen without any forethought, as if it were unconditional.

I learned this lesson most from that word in the Torah, “L’ma’an” — in order that — as in, conditional love and affection. It’s a powerful word that has its root meaning in the Hebrew word for response — “L’anot,” as if to say loving God by observing the mitzvot is not on condition of the reward, but is a caring and enduring response to the command.

I know your love, Mom, has always been enduring, because God’s love is enduring — Ki L’Olam Hasdo. Despite the failures and the shortcomings, of which we always joke you haven’t missed an opportunity to point out, your love is always there. I’m sorry I missed more than a few of those moments along the way. Yes, your love is better than chicken soup, but as the joke goes, chicken soup is a lot cheaper.

Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative congregation in Encino.

From Pain to Peace Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

“Remember the long way that YHVH your God made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, that he might test you, by hardships, to learn what is in your hearts: whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).

My daughter just returned from Vietnam. When we heard her travel plans, her father and I struggled not to react as we did 40 years ago when someone pronounced the words, “I’m going to Vietnam.”

It is a testament to the Vietnamese people that they warmly welcome us as visitors. I think back on the 40 years since men (boys, really) of my generation struggled with the possibility of going to Vietnam, and I marvel at the healing process that makes friends of enemies and turns war into peace. I also think back to my own struggles “in the wilderness these past 40 years.” For in 1971, my mother and my sister both died.

“Ekev” — this week’s parasha — means “consequences.” As I ponder the collective trauma of the Vietnam War and my own personal trauma, I am filled with gratitude to know that unending rancor and suffering is not the inevitable consequence of hardship.

Moses posits that God tests us with hardships to learn what is in our hearts. While I don’t believe that our traumas are God-given, I know that life tests us. Each test offers an opportunity to search our own heart and learn what it means to be human.

We can find meaning in the pain, if we use it to open our hearts. A saying I once heard, “Grief is the knife that carves the space for the heart,” resonates with the last paragraph of the Kaddish, which reminds us that the end of mourning should be peace. But how do we find the compassionate heart of peace when we are so torn by the turbulent emotions that come in the wake of the losses that come with war — war between countries and war within the psyche?

We sit, our tradition tells us. While shiva, the seven-day period that follows a burial, translates as “seven,” it is also a homonym for the Hebrew word “to sit.” For seven days we sit, surrounded and sustained by community, looking for, in the words of the Mourners’ Blessing, “HaMakom,” “a Holy Place of Comfort” (actually, a name of God) “in the midst of those who mourn Zion and Jerusalem.” We look for comfort amid others who have known grief and carved hearts of compassion — hearts that have learned the Kaddish’s ultimate lesson: Seek peace.

Perhaps this is the intention of the biblical directive that those who encounter death, on the battlefield or elsewhere, should remain outside the camp for seven days (Numbers 31:19). They need time to ponder the consequences of acting precipitously after a trauma.  They need to sit.

But it doesn’t happen. Not only do we rarely sit shiva, more often than not we recoil from mourning rituals. Determinedly, we return to the world we once knew, demanding that it not be inexorably changed by our loss. We harden our hearts, remaining frozen by the contraction of heart, which happens at the moment of trauma. We don’t take the time to be taught by the fact of mortality or to listen to the words of the Kaddish. The consequence: We find no place for refining the heart. No space is created for tears to melt our trauma and soften our hearts or for anger to propel us to create the world, as it ought to be. We remain frozen, and our unprocessed trauma, pain, tears and anger ricochet through the generations and are acted out as depression, abuse and war. We don’t seek peace. We seek revenge. The consequence: more death.

These last 40 years have brought me a life I never could have imagined. I have traveled a wilderness through what poet Deena Metzger describes as a “wormhole,” in which my “assumptions about life [had to] dissolve to create a doorway through which something new [could] enter.” I welcome my daughter home from a vacation, unimaginable 40 years ago, as I anticipate Moses’ words during Elul, the month of reflection, and repeated on Yom Kippur, when he “place[s] before [us] life and death, the blessing and the curse,” and exhorts us to choose life “so that [we] and [our] descendants will live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). As this New Year approaches, may we sit in the midst of those who have made the courageous and surprising choice to cultivate life and peace as a consequence of heartbreak. May we find in our hearts the willingness to “seek peace and pursue it.”

Revisionist History: Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

My grandmother loved to tell family stories in which key details were changed. Sometimes she swapped out one time period or location for another. Sometimes key characters were replaced or motivations recast. More than slips of memory, these alterations were her way of putting the past into perspective, of teaching lessons and of casting a favorable light on the generations gone by. I lovingly called this trait “Nana’s revisionist history.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Devarim, Moses presents his own case of revisionist history. As he stands before the Israelites and recalls many of the events that took place during their wandering years, he includes the retelling of how, as the people grew in number, his task of serving as judge over all of their disputes proved to be too burdensome. As a result, he explains, he began delegating his authority to other able leaders. In the retelling, Moses says, “Thereupon I said to you, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself’ ” (Deuteronomy 1:9). From Moses’ point of view, this was a story about him relieving himself of certain arduous tasks in order to become a more effective leader.

But when we compare Moses’ recollection of this experience to its first recounting in Exodus, it becomes evident that Moses skipped over some key elements of the narrative. First, according to the book of Exodus, Moses was not the one to realize that he was overwhelmed in his position of judge. It was his father-in-law, the Midianite priest Yitro, who took notice of his plight, inquired about his judging process and suggested a new way of managing the situation (Exodus 18:13-27). It was Yitro who said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (Exodus 18:14). Second, from Yitro’s words, we realize that what Moses experienced as his own overburdened schedule was actually a much bigger issue. Moses may have been overburdened, but the people were also without justice — waiting all day to be heard.

In his retelling, Moses falls into two of the common pitfalls of people engaged in self-reflection: He fails to recall the significant input of others, and he places his own experiences at the center of a much larger narrative. Essentially, either way you slice it, Moses presents the past as being all about him.

And I wonder: What can we learn from Moses’ process of introspection? How might it inform our own soul-searching in the weeks ahead?

Parashat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. In this sense, Devarim serves as one of the gateways into the period of reflection preceding the High Holy Days.

The ancient rabbis teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred that existed between people (Yoma 9b). In the wake of destruction, people were asked to reconsider their place within their own societal narrative. In that generation, people failed to realize that their individual actions had very real repercussions on a more global level. In contrast to Moses, they failed to see that they were, in fact, at the center of a much larger narrative. In this case, the situation had everything to do with them.

And so, this week, we are presented with two moral lessons, which seemingly lead us to opposite conclusions. Both Moses and our Second Temple period ancestors remind us that, when looking backward, it is important for us to keep a sense of perspective regarding our own place in history. On the one hand, we are cautioned not to see our own stories and actions to the exclusion of others. On the other, we are reminded not to cede a sense of responsibility so completely that we fail to see the broader ramifications of our actions.

The real work of teshuvah comes when we are able to understand the difference between that in our past which was about us (mistakes made, hurts inflicted, etc.) and that which was not (actions taken by others, decisions made that affected us, the random and natural course of the universe, etc.). Our real learning lies in being able to differentiate between that which we could have changed and that which we could not.

At different points in our lives, each of us will be a Moses or a Second Temple-ite. Meaningful introspection comes when we are able to rise above these polarities. As the Serenity Prayer so wisely intones, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Listen and Respond

On the New Year we learn to pay closer heed to the words we speak, their impact on others and the subtle messages our words convey. As we listen more acutely
to the call for help from others, we also take upon ourselves the duty to respond in a timely manner and rally around those in need.

Ha’azinu begins with a word for careful, intentional listening. It is a type of focused attention. The root of the Hebrew word is ozen, an ear, or to lend an ear. One commentator suggests that it was strange to be told to listen before God’s words were actually spoken, but in reality, the opening of the heart and mind is a form of preparation to hear and receive (Kabbalah).

To paraphrase Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, who in his prayer book presents a prayer preceding the “Shema” that speaks volumes on this subject: Judaism begins with the commandment “Hear O Israel!” But what does it mean to hear?

The person who hears the news and thinks only of how it affects the market hears but does not really listen. The person who walks amid the songs of birds and only thinks of what will be for dinner hears but does not really listen. The person who hears the words of friends, husband, wife or child and does not catch the note of urgency — “Notice me, care about me, help me” — hears but does not really listen. The person who stifles the sound of conscience and says, “I’ve done enough already,” hears but does not really listen.

Cultivating our sense of listening is an essential skill for the sacred moments of a New Year. In the blessing we are commanded not to sound but to hear the sounding of the shofar. It gives us an opportunity for the sacred through holy listening.

Once we listen fully, how do we respond? Also contained in the sedrah for this Shabbat is a word that appears only twice in the Torah. “Like an eagle lights over its nest, over its young, does it hover.” The Hebrew word merachef, or hover, near the end of Deuteronomy, is found in Genesis describing God’s presence “hovering over the face of the waters” during creation.

Hovering implies an act of concern and an immediate presence. Our reaction to a call of distress cannot wait. On a personal note, friends who have lost loved ones, especially children, need to be surrounded by and given the overwhelming embrace of friends and family.

A time of crisis for our people demands no less. When we find Israel vilified at the European Parliament and by a former American president as an “apartheid state,” we cannot allow that perversion of truth and defamation to stand. When journalists like Philippe Karsenty expose the irresponsibility of the French state television in airing the fraudulent depiction of the killing of a Palestinian father and son, which resulted in mass hysteria in the Arab world, we must stand by him and demand justice. There will be many opportunities for us to listen and to hover in the coming year.

On these days of repentance and soul-searching, it is worthy to note that a teshuva, most commonly defined as repentance, also means a response. Let us listen and respond rapidly to the needs of our friends and neighbors. Let us be fully present for each other. May our prayers lead to actions that merit our inscription for a sweet year of life and peace.

L’Shana tova tikateyvu.

David Baron is rabbi of the Temple of the Arts at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills.

The Parent Trap

Teenagers in Tennessee who want tattoos need a note from Mom or Dad. A minor in Indiana had best have parental permission if he of she is planning to pierce anything other than ears.

In both Israel and America, parents and politicians alike are searching for some solution to the plague of outrageous crimes committed by teens. In classrooms, state houses and homes, arguments rage about whom or what is to blame. What causes youngsters, especially youngsters from “better homes,” to harm each other? Too many guns? Too few dress codes? Two-income families? A permissive society?

Predictably, teenagers have responded that parents don’t know what they are talking about, that their views are Victorian, if not moronic. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quip about his father: “When I was 17,” he is reputed to have said, “my father knew nothing. But when I turned 22, I was amazed to discover how much my father had learned in just five years.”

Although all parents who have raised teenagers — and all children who have survived their teen years and reached adulthood — can recognize the truism in this quip, we currently seem more perplexed than ever by the challenge of child rearing; by the dynamics involved in the “generation gap” that has led to the current gory headlines. Why are children deaf to the advice parents offer, and why does it take so many years before we understand the true value of our parent’s wisdom?

It is these questions that are answered in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah, in the third among the numerous mitzvot recorded in this portion, instructs us about the disturbing law of the ben sorer umoreh, “the stubborn and rebellious son,” whose terrible behavior causes him his life at the hands of the high court (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

But who is to blame for such a wicked son? Is it the child’s fault, the parents’ fault, or a combination of both? Maimonides declared that a son becomes “stubborn and rebellious” when parents are too permissive and allow him to lead a life of irresponsibility. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, an earlier 12th-century biblical commentator, agreed with this position and claimed that the Torah did not place the burden of responsibility entirely on the child. Based on the Talmud, he argued that the son could justifiably be tried and punished only if the conduct of his parents has been beyond reproach. If they did not provide a good example for him to emulate, then they have no right to bring him to court for “stubborn and rebellious” conduct.

The Torah notes this cause and effect when it states, “If a man has a rebellious son that hearkens not to the voice of his father or the voice of his mother….” Who, we must ask, is the Torah referring to? Who hasn’t hearkened to the voice of his parents? The simple answer is that this is referring to the child.

Perhaps, however, the Torah means that the parent himself didn’t listen to the voice of his parents. The “stubborn and rebellious son” never sees a living example of parents showing respect to grandparents. Is it surprising, therefore, that the Talmud instructs us to call our parents by the titles, Avi Mori — my father, my teacher — and Imi Morati — my mother, my teacher? A parent is supposed to teach, and teaching means setting an example for our children to emulate.

A philosopher once said, “Example is not the main thing, it is the only thing.” Although rearing children has never been easy, no child becomes suddenly intractable. The process of education begins at the very moment the child is born, and parents have to set the example for children to follow. If we do not do this, we shall produce what the Torah calls “the stubborn and rebellious son,” which will result in one more battle line across the “generation gap.”

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Aug. 20, 1999.

Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Being Our Own Gatekeepers

“Judges and officers shall you place at all your gates.”

Thus begins our parsha, which is one of the richest in rulings, teachings and commandments, and which is therefore concerned about enforcement. Rashi teaches us the difference between the two functionaries: Judges decide ambiguities and dictate the correct path to take, and officers are the police — in Rashi’s language they enforce the rulings of the judges with sticks and whips until the people accept the ruling of the judge.

This is the part where most of us start to squirm. Most Jews today reject the notion of an external authority that can compel behavior. Even (most of) those Jews who accept the binding authority of our tradition are offended by the idea of mitzvah police. We have seen what the combination of religious and police authority has done in some Islamic societies and what it sometimes threatens to do in Israel, and it is not attractive. We love our teachers, but would not want to see them armed.

The Torah does not seem to share such qualms. A few verses later into our parsha we are taught: “You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the instructions handed down to you; you must not deviate from whatever they tell, either right or left.” On this verse the Babylonian Talmud (also brought by Rashi) offers: “Even if they tell you that right is left and left is right.”

When religious rulings fly in the face of reason, what are we to do? Deuteronomy is clear: If the Torah says it, it must be moral and reasonable, even if we can’t see it.

This, of course, is not the last word on the subject. The Jerusalem Talmud has just the opposite interpretation: Listen to your judges, unless they tell you right is left and left is right. But if their teachings, rulings and interpretations are unreasonable, they are not God’s word. If there is a teaching that, after careful analysis, is immoral or illogical, we must have erred in our understanding of the teaching and must find an alternative.

Interestingly, the biblical accounts of the life of Abraham affirm both of these dispensations. Genesis 22 (familiar from the Rosh Hashanah reading) extols Abraham for suspending his own sense of morality to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, while Genesis 18 sees an Abraham boldly challenging God to act in accordance with God’s own moral world: “Will the judge of the world not act justly?”

Shall we have a show of hands to see how many prefer the Babylonian Talmud and how many prefer the Jerusalem, or Abraham 1 to Abraham 2?

Alas, that would be wrongheaded. Judaism embraces both of these traditions, contradictory though they are. Throughout the generations, some Jewish philosophers have insisted that everything Jewish is logical and compelling, while others have maintained that God is not bound by the human limitations of reason or even ethics.

One way around this dilemma is to follow the path taken by every president: appoint judges who will rule the way we want them to. Then, we hope, we will never have to have our loyalty to Torah challenged by our own sense of right and wrong. But who would want a tradition that only teaches (and demands) things we already agree with? This would be not only pointless, but boring as well.

The mystics remind us that “at your gates” can mean the gates to our bodies, that is, our ears, eyes, mouth and other organs. We are bidden to have strict scrutiny as to what goes in and what goes out. We can think of this as a sort of airport security for the soul. There are some innocent things, like gels and liquids that are fine in one place, but potentially dangerous if carried past the gate. Some foods are best left outside the mouth, some words best left inside.

The judges and officers we appoint for our eyes must be especially vigilant. Advertisers bombard us with images that objectify and debase, and we are obliged to consider carefully where and how to look. Jewish law has an important category called hezek re’iyah, or illicit looking. When we invade someone’s privacy, or laugh at someone’s embarrassing faux pas, we’ve let something in that should have been left out.

On the other hand, horrific images of human cruelties, on the television and on the streets, can deaden our senses so much that we stop seeing what we must see. A little personal police action to make us open our gates might be welcome here.

For these gates, we need to be the judges and officers and bouncers ourselves. We need to remind ourselves constantly — and, in our synagogues and other sacred convocations, remind each other — that not every thought should be spoken, not every joke should be repeated, and not every image should be shared. For these gates, the weapons we must deploy are not sticks and whips, but reason, consideration, and compassion.

Rabbi Dan Shevitz serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

Not By Bread Alone

“Carb” is a four-letter curse word in the estimation of most L.A. residents. Its nasty connotation came by way of one Dr. Atkins, whose “Diet Revolution” became more widely read than the Bible among many a secular Jew. Seemingly overnight, Atkins’ “prophecy” became an orthodoxy for consumption of food for the grace of that most coveted status: beauty by way of slenderness.

Suddenly carbs were cursed, and pasta, potatoes and, of course, bread became the stuff of guilt and suffering to be avoided like menstruating women on the bimah. In revolutionary proportions, the most nonreligious unknowingly joined in collective affirmation of the words of Parshat Ekev: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

That man should live instead by an In-N-Out protein-style Double-Double, however, was not quite the message. Preceding Deuteronomy 8:3, God explained the suffering He caused the Israelites in wandering the wilderness as a 40-year test of faith. “[God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat … in order to teach you that man does not live by bread alone, but by the word that proceeds out of the mouth of God does man live.”

Perhaps today’s anti-bread movement is essentially spiritual: a collective desire of our souls for greater consciousness and empowerment from within the realm of Creator. To be sure, giving up bread is a subjugation of hardship; no amount of corned beef can satisfy hunger for a fresh slice of rye bread underneath. The triumph in overcoming such attachments for a higher life experience is indeed sacred; seeking a tighter tush rather than a firmer faith is profane. Even if the spark of God within us inspired this widespread affliction of culinary deprivation, our egos haven’t quite caught on.

Carbolyte is a poor substitute for manna from heaven (and a noxiously gaseous one), as are the other artificially flavored and sweetened things by which carb-counting eaters try to satiate. They only add to the diseases of materialism: feelings of inadequacy, of wanting more in a world where you can “never be too rich or too thin.” If only we would recite the words of Ekev, recognizing that “God is in [our] midst, a great and awesome God” (Deuteronomy 7:21), the experience of our own perfection in an abundant reality would be revealed.

The bread battle is spiritual. Long before Atkins or Weight Watchers subjected us to the proverbial wilderness of carblessness, Judaism instructed that we “cast our bread upon the water” as offerings of lowly attachment for the receiving of higher sustenance. So, too, it warned us to temper consumption of yeast, which, like the human ego, causes physical and emotional turmoil when disproportionately swollen. And then there is the connection between the words lechem (bread) and milchama (war) by sharing the same root — explaining the battle between a smaller waist and a chocolate rugelach.

Eliminating bread, according to Judaism, is an ego diet. It is infliction of measured suffering on the greedy, possessive, instantly gratified, animal part of oneself so as to realign with the Godly part. It exercises faith and determination, a return to the experience of blessing. It took 40 years for our ancestors to get this: that they need not struggle nor worry nor want food, or anything else, but rather infiltrate their beings with faith in the providence of their Creator and gratitude for His miraculous offerings.

His manna appeared such that there was never any more or less than what was needed for daily sustenance. Anything leftover rapidly infested with maggots; the only thing they could hold was conviction in God’s presence. When they finally understood that everything needed was imparted by — and only by — the power of the Divine word, they were delivered into a land flowing with milk, honey and fabulous pita.

The war on bread may allow a victory over dependency, but it is in learning to love the enemy after the battle that perfection is truly realized. Manna was never meant to take the place of the wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates and grapes growing in Israel. Once our ancestors were able to fully trust in the sustenance and abundance of an Infinite Source, It restored them to their natural right for physical pleasure. The intention was ultimately that we live our lives in the luxury of beautiful tastes and recognize the blessing of its energy flowing though us as sparks of creation in service of their Supplier.

Man should not avoid bread; quite the contrary: the parsha proceeds with God’s promising our life experience in “a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing.” It describes an abundant existence, in which “when you have eaten your fill” of Mrs. Fields cookies, you will recognize that you have had enough, and “give thanks to the Lord your God for the good … he has given.” Carb-free living encourages the power to transcend attachments to comfort, and strengthens the will to live consciously and intentionally: the Sinai Diet. But the greater test comes in our heeding God’s word, not Atkins’.

The milchama with lechem stops when we can eat it proportionately and spiritually. When we enjoy our fill — rather than demonizing, avoiding or sinfully binging on it — we are redeemed. By the mouth of God, bread was created, as was light, as were we, in His image. Our purest source of nourishment is Divine love, manifest in our capacity to lift up the vital force in all foods through our own utterances of gratitude. The war becomes love when we bless Adonai, who takes bread from out of the earth. With these words, hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we also praise the Creator for taking war out of the world. Ah, to eat a knish in peace.

Using both bread and body to service the Divine, lightness and purity from within their mundanity shine in vital beauty. By mimicking the word of God, we consume the blessing we offer; our souls are fed by sacred words and our bodies are sated and sustained. We remember that while “carb” may be a four-letter word, so, too, is the unutterable name of God, and that’s the furthest thing from a curse there is.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

But Who’s Complaining?

Imagine there is something you have worked and hoped and longed for your whole life. (Perhaps you don’t have to imagine.) Just when you are on the cusp of
achieving/getting/doing/being it, a door slams in your face, and you learn that you will never live out what you dreamed. What occurs to you in that moment? What do you do next? What do you say — or wish to say — to the one slamming the door?

This is where I am supposed to tell you that answers to those questions appear in this week’s Torah portion. But they don’t. The answers appeared four Torah portions ago.

In Parshat Pinchas, God clarified that, despite speaking to Moses about how property should be allotted in the Promised Land, Moses would never lead the people there, nor set foot in the land himself. God’s harsh decree at Mei Merivah, where Moses hit the rock, would stand. Decisively, finally, God closed the door on Moses’ dream.

Moses’ immediate response was: “Let Adonai, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who will go out before them and come in before them, and who will take them out and bring them in, so that Adonai’s community will not be like sheep who have no shepherd” (Numbers 27: 16-17). Please, Moses asks, choose someone who can lead the people with loving care; find someone to carry on the work and the vision; make sure the military, spiritual and emotional needs of my flock are met, so that they can go to — and remain in — the Promised Land.

Twelve chapters and 426 verses later comes our Torah portion, Vaetchanan. Moses finally does what most of us would have done immediately: he complains. He blames the people: “Adonai was cross with me on your account.” (Deuteronomy 3:26). He rehashes history and pounds on the closed door. The meaning of the word “Vaetchanan” is “he pleaded.” Moses petitions, praises and pleads. However, he quickly realizes that God’s decision will not be overturned. He will never have his dream.

Moses is not at his most generous in this Torah portion, but his accusations and disgruntlement humanize him. His appeal to God makes him accessible to us humans. Moses wanted something for himself. He asked, in effect, “What about me?”

This question should come as no great shock. The shock is that it took 12 chapters and 426 verses to get there.

What took so long? Moses was busy doing God’s work, imparting to the people the information they would need to know in this new land, negotiating apportionments, designating cities of refuge. Pleading his own case simply had to wait.

How many of us put the tasks and ideals of our work ahead of our own personal status? How many times, when faced with a crushing disappointment, do we think first of others and how they will bear it? How often, how quickly and for what duration do we complain? Within two verses of his complaint and God’s rebuke, Moses is back to the business of imparting God’s word to the people.

Have you followed the story of the Rev. Will Bowen, who asked his parishioners to take a 21-day “complaint fast”? To cultivate gratitude, he suggested that people voice no complaints for 21 days. As of this writing, 5,907,266 requests have come in for the “complaint-free world” rubber bracelets that the reverend gave out to his congregation as a learning tool. He distributed them with the recommendation to switch the bracelet to your other wrist every time you complain. When the bracelet stays on one wrist for three weeks, you will have formed a new habit. So far, out of almost 6 million people, 231 report a successful 21-day run of complaint-free speech.

Yes, there is something natural, human and probably inevitable about complaining. As the people who raised murmuring to a high art during the desert trek with Moses, Jews may have more precedent to complain than others. I once invented a game called “alphabetical kvetch,” and I have rarely had a problem getting Jews to play along.

I don’t think we can eliminate complaining. Not only do we need righteous protests against inequity, we need, sometimes, to plead, carp, cry or just vent. Bowen himself felt the need of a phrase that he and his wife could use to express irritation without feeding it. Whenever tempted to complain about anybody, they say instead, “I bet he sure can whistle.”

Abstinence from complaining for some period of time is a noble spiritual exercise, but I wouldn’t ask, long term, that people stop complaining entirely. I would ask — and I personally aspire — to shift the energy and the odds. On any given day, let us express more gratitude than complaints. Let us wait longer to complain and jump in faster to thank, praise, and give. Let us remember our dreams and serve them — even if we can’t experience them exactly as we might like. Let us be a little more like Moses and a little less like that neighbor of yours — you know the one, the very close neighbor — who sure can whistle.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Tarzana (www.makom.org). She aspires to achieve 21 days of complaint-free living before Rosh Hashanah and to preach on the High Holy Days about how to crowd out complaining with an overabundance of gratitude and peace.

Within Us

Once upon a time, as God created the world, He decided to make beings in His image. As he generated his own reflection in man and woman, the angels got word of the
project, and were consumed with jealousy.

“How unfair!” they cried. “Those humans will have it all. They get to experience life on earth with all the perks: laughter, tears, ice cream, wasabi, softness, scratchiness. And as if that ‘being alive’ stuff weren’t blessing enough, they get immortality as well!” (If God is eternal, so, too, would be anything made in God’s image.)

The angels were furious; no being should merit both ice cream and infinity. If heavenly beings were denied earthly experiences, why allow humans celestial ones?

So, they plotted against the humans. They decided to hide immortality from them, and assembled to determine how it could be done. One angel suggested, “Let’s hide it far up in the mountains; I hear humans don’t like to shvitz much.
They’ll never climb that high.”

Another disagreed: “That won’t work. Those granola hippie Jews God put on the West Coast will surely hike to the top of the mountains and discover it. Better we hide eternality far out in the sea. Most folks won’t go farther than a cruise ship will take them.”

Again, others dissented. They realized that any God-like being would eventually access the heights of heaven and the depths of the ocean.

Finally, a wise old angel made a brilliant suggestion: “Let us hide the infinite between and within the humans. That will be the last place on earth they would think to look for it.”

And so it was.

Parashat Nitzavim illustrates the result of the angels’ prank. They succeeded in ensuring that the last place we look for God is right in front of us. The text beseeches the people to take a stand “this day” in testament that the “only God is Eternal,” but acknowledges that we have no idea how to affirm that truth. It speaks to our ignorance of accessing the Infinite, and tries to remedy our delusion. We need not struggle to reach the Divine.

Lo bashamiyim hi.

“No, it is not in heaven,” God explains. “It is very near to you.”

Contact with the Eternal is between us and within us.

The parsha speaks to our fantasy that we must search far and suffer long to retrieve this blessing. Were it not, the wording would be different. God would simply state: “Hey guys, check out this groovy commandment I’ve placed right in front of you.”

Instead, He addresses our misconception that good things are hard to come by. He elaborates: “[It is not] beyond the sea that you should say: ‘Who will cross the sea for us and bring it over to us that we may do it.”

In other words: “No need for drama, difficulty or complication; you don’t need a personal assistant to get this for you. Just open your eyes and see: infinite life is right here, within you.”

But we remain blind, instead assuming that if something good happens easily, it is suspicious. We spit three times, even knock on wood, or mumble a “God forbid.” We prepare for disappointment, assume a mistake, because in our estimation no blessing comes effortlessly. Life is hard. Good fortune takes work. Right?

Not according to the text.

Lo bashamyim hi.

Our divine legacy is found within us and between us: “See, I have set before you this day life and blessing or death and curse. Choose life.”

Easy. Stick with God for an endlessly good time. You’ll receive immortal prosperity through generations that will flow through you, always have what you need, and live a life of endless possibility.

Still, we continue cursing ourselves with dissident struggles — idolizing dramas of the difficult and inaccessible rather than recognizing the abundance we have now. The angels shake their heads as we look everywhere for our hats except our heads, running away from God while He waits within us; She is right here between us.

We need only see that the trees surrounding us don’t struggle to grow, they just grow; fish don’t try to swim, they just swim. It is their nature. And it is our nature to exist eternally in God’s image.

The angels are tired of laughing at us. They forgive us our good fortune and seek to help us remember. We stand this day, testaments of the infinite Divine presence. There’s nowhere else to look, no place else to be, nothing else as perpetually filled with blessing. We need only accept this present of a moment, this gift of being human.

We can stand here and now, present to all the feelings that the angels so covet, in eternal gratitude for having them. We can “Choose life, therefore that [we and our] descendents may live – by loving [our] God; listening to God’s voice.”

By adoring our experience, by hearing His voice in one another’s words. We choose life and death: by dying to our attachment to what was and will be.

By surrendering to this moment as being nothing but what it is, by appreciating the blessing of our curses. We choose it all, for it is revealed to us as One and the same present from our creator. Eternally within and between us, and we don’t have to shvitz or swim to get it.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch will be teaching at the University of Judaism’s continuing education program this fall. You can reach her at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

Alike, But Different

I am one of three totally different children, and my parents have assured me that none of us is adopted.

I find this hard to believe.

I am not sure if my siblings have thought about this, but it has certainly crossed my mind a few times. How could three such radically dissimilar children, with varying temperaments, tastes and tendencies have the same parents?

This is a question I hear from many of my friends and congregants with more than one child. Sometimes it is said with chagrin, sometimes with delight, but always with a mixture of surprise and resigned acceptance. This is just the way it is.

However, far greater than the biological mystery of unlike offspring from the same parents is the challenge of parenting these children. Many siblings have different temperaments and personalities, and they respond to the same things in widely divergent ways. A technique honed over years with one child might prove totally ineffective with another.

For instance, I have one child who is very susceptible to bribery. When he was young, I could threaten to take away dessert and often I would get the desired result. My power to deprive him allowed me some semblance of control.

But I have another child for whom deprivation means nothing. When he was young, I could take away every single video, game, toy, stuffed animal, food or anything else that gave him any pleasure, and he would shrug it off as if he were flicking schmutz off his shoulder.

Into this maelstrom of frustration comes a teaching on this week’s Torah portion with a very simple yet profound observation: “You shall not plow with an ox and ass together” (Deuteronomy 22:10).

On the surface, the commandment expresses straightforward agricultural advice: do not pair animals together of unequal strength. According to professor Jeffrey H. Tigay in the “Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary” (Jewish Publication Society, 2001), if yoked together, the stronger one (the ox) might exhaust the weaker one (the ass), leading to potential harm and injury of that animal.

However, going deeper we see that this could also apply to how we parent our children. Whether they have the same birth parents or just grow up in the same home, each child is different. They have different ways about them — different strengths, skills and interests. They have innate talents with certain tasks and natural gifts in other areas. And they have their very own shortcomings and weaknesses as well.

Each child is a unique manifestation of God, and we cannot lump them together blithely. We cannot place them under the same yoke, burden them with the same expectations, and assume we will get the same results. As with other human beings, different offspring should be considered as individuals. We need to see them for who they are and not bind them to someone else.

The Torah’s insight makes parenting both more difficult and easier at the same time.

On the one hand, parenting requires that we know and are sensitive to each child as he or she presents himself or herself to us. We cannot be on automatic, assuming that what worked for one will work for all.

On the other hand, the Torah releases us from the unrealistic expectations that we place upon ourselves and our children. Understanding that our children are not alike, we can free ourselves and them from the pressures of being like their siblings — or other children for that matter — and get down to the business of learning and enjoying who they are.

I’m now the father of three very different children with very different temperaments, tastes and tendencies. I wonder if they sometimes think that one of them must have been adopted. It is only natural, I suppose.

But personally, I just hope and pray that every day I am up to parenting them in the way that fits each of them best.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is the incoming senior rabbi at Adat Ari El.

Nourish Your Soul With a Helping of Jewish Learning

Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.

The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the “path” that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.

Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God’s world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither “too baffling” nor “beyond their reach.” He poetically anticipates their objections — that the words of God are too far way, either “in the heavens” or “beyond the sea,” for a mere human to even approach.

Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.

Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew — not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.

I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women’s section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.

It was a long, hard slog — college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.

Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time — through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.

But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I’ve seen them in the adult b’nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that “maybe I’m too old to learn,” worry that “everybody but me knows what they’re doing already” — all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they’ll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.

Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.

The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table — this kind of learning doesn’t happen with rows and a dais — although that kind of learning has its place too).

I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.

Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it’s often an adult b’nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.

For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women’s study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God’s actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.

Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader’s role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).

The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is myjewishlearning.com, which covers Jewish learning — from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts — in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.

Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week — although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b’nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children’s Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.

Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz’s “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts” (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is “The Commentator’s Bible” by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.

Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The Key Is Rejoicing

A story is told about a Chasidic rabbi visited by an enthusiastic follower. The man eagerly wanted to update the rabbi on his latest religious undertaking.

“I have decided to inflict my body and deprive myself from mundane pleasures,” the man said. “Every day I roll in the snow after receiving 39 lashes; I sleep standing, put nails in my shoes, drink only water and eat only raw vegetables. I feel that I am taking off my bodily garb and dress up in a spiritual, heavenly cloth.”

Instead of responding, the rabbi started walking with his follower around the village until they arrived at a stable. There the rabbi paused and, gazing admiringly at one of the horses, asked the man: “Isn’t this a magnificent animal?”

The man could not control his frustration.

“Rabbi, this is truly beyond me,” he complained. “I am talking spirituality here and you are thinking about horses?”

The rabbi remained unmoved by the man’s outburst and answered calmly, “This horse drinks only water and eats straw, sleeps standing and has nails in its shoes; its master uses the whip ruthlessly and rolling in the snow is its daily ritual, but after all it is still a horse.”

The rabbi might have been inspired by this week’s portion. At first glance, admittedly, it seems like an eclectic collection of laws and instructions, dealing with such disparate issues as dietary laws, agrarian laws anti-paganism campaign and more. A close look at the Re’eh, though, will reveal a key word that illuminates the working thesis of this collection of laws.

The root “shin, mem, chet” — be happy, rejoice — appears in the parsha seven times, and it is always in the context of the family and the community. You should rejoice in the place your God has chosen, with your sons and daughters, and servants, with the sojourners and with the Levites who have no permanent residence in the land of Israel.

This key phrase is an insight into what Judaism considers to be the true way of serving God. It is a way of life that is imbued with happiness and gratitude. It is sharing your blessings with family, friends and the less fortunate. It is one of the main reasons for the agrarian laws, which guarantee social justice and equality, as well as a partial reason for the rejection of paganism.

A bitter, angry man can only wreak havoc, even more so if he thinks he represents God. Jacques Barzun, the famous historian tacitly described the motive for religious wars: “Be my brother or I will kill you.”

This is exactly the pagan attitude shunned in Re’eh. The Torah warns against the pagan practice of wounding one’s flesh as a sign of mourning or spiritual fervor (Deuteronomy 14:1) and against the horrifying practice of offering one’s offspring as a burnt sacrifice to the gods (Deuteronomy 12:31).

These two practices not only are linked but they are the breeders of religious fanaticism.

If you are willing to inflict physical pain upon yourself as a service to your god, why not treat others to the same spiritual experience? Paradoxically, they will be killed or harmed because of your love for them.

What other atrocities can be committed by those who murder their own children in the name of God? We would like to think that such practices are extinct, but unfortunately this is not the case. There are still religious sects around the world who herald asceticism and acts that border with masochism. In some cases it leads to religious or ethnic terrorism, and in others to a complete apathy and indifference to the fate of the less fortunate (India, abundant with Yogi, Brahmins and fakirs, is a good example as home to spirituality seekers from around the world but also to millions of untouchable who live in subhuman conditions just because they were born into a certain caste).

The practice of human sacrifices did not disappear with the demise of the Phoenicians or the annihilation of South American cultures by the conquistadores as we would like to think. Since the dawn of humanity fathers and mothers have been marching their children off to unnecessary wars in the name of bloodthirsty gods.

The message of this week’s parsha reverberates with that of Isaiah: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the chords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home … then shall your light burst through like the dawn” (Deuteronomy 58:5-8).

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

Are You Listening?

“What’s the most important word in the prayer book?” the rabbi asked the congregation.

The congregants responded with a list of important words:
“shalom — peace,” “bracha — blessing,” “Torah — God’s truth,” “Hashem — God’s name.”

“All very important words,” the rabbi replied. “But there is one more important. The prayer book’s most important word is, “al-ken — therefore.”

“Therefore” connects all our fine sentiments and deep wisdom with the reality of the world. “Therefore” binds us to bring our values out of the vague realm of our subjectivity and into the hard objective world of work, family, politics and power. “Therefore” tests all our spiritual aspirations and visions against the limits of our courage, imagination and resolve. “Therefore” makes religion real.
Every day, someone confesses, “Rabbi, I’m a deeply spiritual person.”

Good, I reply. Where’s the “therefore”? What difference does it make? How does your spirituality shape the way you spend your money, speak to your housekeeper, raise your children? Do you vote spiritually? Drive spiritually? Watch TV spiritually? I am little impressed by those who profess to believe in God. I am moved by those whose faith is behaved. That’s my “therefore” test.

This week we read the stirring declaration of Jewish monotheism, Shema Yisrael. The most sacred words in our tradition, the Shema is the first affirmation a Jewish child is taught, and the last words on a dying Jew’s lips. Even the Shema must be subjected to the test of “therefore.” To do so, I suggest we read the Shema backward. And read it, not as a declaration, but as a set of questions.
“Write them upon the doorposts of your house….” Read your house! What values are written on the walls of your home? If someone visited your home, what would they learn of you from the art on your walls, the books on your shelves, the notices tacked to your refrigerator?

“Tie them as a sign on your arm and between your eyes.” Read your work! To what purposes and ends do you invest your bodily and mental energies? What do you spend your time and strength doing? What energizes you? What exhausts you? What renews you?

“Speak of them, at home and away, morning and night….” Read your words! What do you talk about? What concerns dominate your conversations and dialogues? With what tone of voice do you address the world? With what voice do you speak to those who share your home, your work, your neighborhood?

“Teach them to your children.” Read your kids! What have you taught your children? What have you taught them about success, about the purpose and meaning of life? What have you shown them matters most to you — the pursuit of prosperity or the practice of compassion? The acquisition of precious things or the sanctification of precious moments?

“These words … take them to heart.” Read your heart! What preoccupies your thoughts? What do you worry about? What do you dream about? What do you hope for?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your might.” The theologian Paul Tillich observed that every person, believer or nonbeliever, has a “god.” Our God, he taught, is the “object of our ultimate concern.” So the Shema asks us: What do you love most in life? What is your god? The answer is no mystery. Just look back at the answers to all the other questions. The values and concerns that decorate your home, drive your work, color your words, shape your children and animate your thoughts, those values constitute your ultimate concerns. So what do you worship? What is your god? What sacrifices does your god demand?

“Hear O Israel….” Are you listening? Are you paying attention to your own choices? Are you conscious of the patterns of your life?

“Hear O Israel….” Are you listening to the voice of your soul, your deepest ideals and principles? Can you open your ears to hear a voice calling you to a life lived differently?

For those of deep faith, the Shema is an affirmation and declaration of loyalty to God. For those of us who struggle with the “Therefore” – with the task of bringing faith into life, it is an unrelenting challenge. Shema for us is God’s most powerful question.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

How to Give Torah

There are some ideas so familiar to us that it’s easy to forget how radical they are. Every human being is created in God’s image. Every life is worth a world. The entire people received Torah at Mount Sinai.

For most people throughout history, including today, a spiritual quest or revelation has meant an individual encounter with the Divine — often on a mountaintop and in solitude. Definitely a personal, private relationship.

Shavuot commemorates the Jewish people’s grandest moment of revelation — on a mountain, but definitely not in solitude. Absolutely personal, but not in the least private. Zeman matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, had many of the (ecumenical) markers of great spiritual encounters: preparation and purification, fear and trembling, synesthesia and miracles, mission and covenant. But it had one rare and defining component: It was shared.

Biblical descriptions of giving the Torah vary in some details, but the message of inclusion is unmistakable. Exodus 20:15: “And all the people witnessed the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the shofar….” Deuteronomy 5:19: “Adonai spoke [the Ten Commandments] to all your assembly at the mountain … with a mighty voice that was not heard again.”

The most radical statement of inclusiveness appears toward the end of Deuteronomy (29:9-14), as Moses reviews the nature of the covenant: “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God — the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your children, your women and your stranger who is in your camp; from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water — to enter into covenant with Adonai…. Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with the one who stands here with us this day before Adonai our God, and also with the who is not here with us this day.”

Ancestors and descendants, women and men, political leaders and manual workers, natives and strangers, those present and those not present — everyone is included. And we are all present together this day — this day of revelation at Sinai (Shavuot), this day that our ancestors listened to Moses on the plains of Moab, this day — any day — that we open up the Torah and read this message. Revelation occurs in the eternal present tense. That is why the blessing upon reading the Torah is phrased “noten hatorah” — Blessed are You, God, who gives [or constant Giver of] the Torah.

Ancient rabbinic commentaries highlighted the diversity of participants at Mount Sinai. Converts were said to be present. Pregnant women were present, too, although the voice they heard was softer, so as not to startle and induce miscarriage. When Exodus 19:2 describes the Israelites pitching camp before Sinai, the verb used (vayichan) is singular. One interpretation is that, even with the enormous numbers and diversity of the participants, the Israelites were absolutely One with God and one another at Sinai.

In the classic rabbinic analogy, the experience at Sinai is like a wedding. The Jewish people and God enter into holy and mutual covenant. A wedding is, from one point of view, a rather strange custom. In honor of a most sacred, intimate bond and of joining your life inextricably and permanently to another in every arena, you invite 200 or so of your closest friends to watch — and then munch on kosher pigs-in-blankets.

Why does the crowd gather? Curiosity? An overweening sense of ownership? Brides and grooms have leveled these accusations, but the truth is that the crowd is vital. It not only bears witness, it also informs and shapes the covenant. Sneaking off to elope in Vegas is not a standard (or even rebellious) Jewish practice, because Jews know — going all the way back to Sinai — that covenant is a communal event as well as a personal choice. Whether it’s a wedding between two Jews or the marriage of God and an entire people, our holiest moments are communal moments. Not a solitary person on a mountaintop or a lone couple in a desert chapel, but an entire people, the whole mishpocha, sharing a connection with a Divine and/or human beloved and with one another.

The world has become very splintered. We separate and segregate: red states vs. blue states, religious vs. secular, us vs. them. The situation is not appreciably better within the Jewish world. Among Klal Yisrael, there is, sadly, a great deal of divisiveness.

The holiday of Shavuot reminds us: Torah means inclusion. Covenant means community. Not just some folks, or the people I agree with, but everyone.

We first received the Torah on Shavuot. But it was not the kind of “receiving” that is passive or complete. It is an active receiving, which demands being available and aware, continually integrating what we receive, and ultimately transmitting it, as well.

God is not the exclusive Giver of Torah. Each of us is called upon to teach it to our children. Torah is our bequest, as well as our inheritance. We invite it to leave its mark on us, and we strive, with all due humility and awe at the task, to leave our mark on it.

How shall we give Torah? Ideally, as God did: inclusively, irrespective of age, position or gender; lovingly, in holy covenant; with unconditional, radical acceptance, in the melee of imperfect community; united, amid the noise and the crowd and all the differences that seem to separate us.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life” (Jewish Lights), is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at www.makom.org.


Wisdom of the Ages

Ten years ago, when my parents, z”l, were 82 and 89, they traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles to be with my partner Tracy and me as we stood together under the chuppah. At the celebration of her daughter’s lesbian wedding, my mother was heard to say quite matter-of-factly: “I guess if you live long enough, you see everything.”

Amazingly, two-thirds of all the people who have ever lived past the age of 65 in the history of the world are alive today, according to Ken Dychtwald, author of “The Power Years: A User’s Guide to the Rest of Your Life.” This suggests that our way-beyond octogenarians in the Bible were the exception, not the rule.

The Bible gives skeptics many things to be skeptical about, but perhaps nothing so much as a verse in this week’s Torah portion: “Moses was 80 years old and Aaron 83 when they made their demand on Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:7).

Why would God call on octogenarians to lead the Israelites out from slavery and through 40 years in the wilderness? No wonder Moses was reticent, say the doubters (not a few of whom are octogenarians themselves, and know how it feels).

If the Torah mentioned Moses and Aaron’s advanced ages because here was yet another one of God’s miracles in redeeming us from slavery, then I’m beginning to think we’ve entered another age of miracles. For I have not only my parents (who lived to see, and even enjoy, ages 91 and 88), I also count myself blessed to have in my life a significant number of remarkable elders.

Last month at our synagogue, we heard a marvelous sermon from one of our oldest members, Harriet Perl, on the occasion of her 85th birthday. Her speech prompted us to embark on an oral history project at our synagogue (our recent newsletter profiled three of our elders, and includes Harriet’s speech). Last weekend I went to Chicago to visit four relatives and friends I’ve known all my life — ages 82, 89, 95, 96. They move more slowly than they used to, but give few other clues about their age.

In fact, surprisingly few commentators take note of the simple statement of Moses and Aaron’s ages in Parshat Vaera. But it should call out to us, reminding us that Moses is not the young man portrayed in the still-popular animated movie “The Prince of Egypt.” Maybe the filmmakers’ choice tells us something we need to know: God chose octogenarians to bring us out from slavery, while modern interpreters keep us enslaved to our worship of youth.

Fifty generations before ours, the Mishnah’s collection of wisdom known as Pirke Avot provides a list of attributes that come to each human being with each new decade. Ben shmonim ligvurah (80 years is the age of greatness and strength). Surely Yehudah ben Tema, the sage who said this, knew how old Moses was when God called him to lead.

These days, life expectancies are on the rise, or perhaps just returning to biblical proportions. At the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy was only 47 years, casting a different light on the 1880s choice to make 65 the “definition” of old age. Today “the United States’ Jewish community is disproportionately elderly. Close to 20 percent of Jews are already over the age of 65, compared to less than 13 percent of the general population. A significant number are over the age of 85 and need help with activities of daily living like eating, dressing and walking,” according to The Jewish Federation’s Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities project.

Perhaps our Torah verse this week about the ages of Moses and Aaron is overshadowed by the more well-known verse at Torah’s end about the death of Moses, 40 years later, at age 120, in which we are told: “his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). That one echoes God’s decision in Genesis 6:3 to cut back on the centuries-long human life spans mentioned there (remember Methuselah?), and leads us to the popular Jewish birthday wish ad meah v’esrim (until 120). Tradition says that in wishing for this impossibility, we are simply saying that no matter at what age someone dies, they died too young.

I don’t always offer that wish; I have seen people who have lived too long, and I’m not na?ve or removed from some of the traumas that come with aging. But more and more we are all also seeing some incredible septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians.

And since we’re talking about time, isn’t it time we stop making assumptions about elders based on “old” prejudices? Instead — as God did so long ago in calling two octogenarians to lead us to freedom — isn’t it time to appreciate the wisdom, the strength, the humor, the experience of people who have “lived long enough to see everything”? They are here to be seen and heard and known in our families, in our congregations, in our Jewish community, in our city, in our world. And all of us gain gevurah and countless blessings from their presence in our lives.

Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.


Dousing Dreams

Your child comes home and says she wants to be a doctor someday. Your spouse or serious beau tells you he or she dreams of being something greater. And you douse the dream with a comment: “You aren’t smart enough,” “You don’t have the skills needed to do that” or “No one will take you seriously.”

Or that same person, rather than dreaming of embarking on a career or changing one, dreams of intensifying her relationship with God or his Jewish religious practice, from lighting Shabbat candles to going to shul more regularly.

Again, the aspiration for something greater than mediocrity is doused: “But you are not really a religious person,” “You travel on Shabbat” or “Stop being a hypocrite, and just go to the beach on Saturday with the family.”

So much of life consists of dreams and hopes, aspirations for something greater that get stanched and vanquished by those close by. They might be family or well-intentioned friends. They think they know you and what’s best for you.

And, as you dream of sailing the stars in the skies, they remind you that you have never done it before, that no one in your family has done it before and that you should just stay home, crack open a beer or call some old friends.

In Ha’azinu, Moses delivers an epic poem to the Jewish people on the eve of his passing. He begins with the words: “Listen, O Heaven, and I will speak. And hear [from] me, O Earth, the utterances of my lips” (Deuteronomy 32:1).

On their surface, the words are not unusual in their repetition. Ancient Mideast poetry consisted of reciting phrases in couplets of symmetry and repetition. Archaeologists have found ancient Ugaritic poetry, for example, written in the same way.

But there is one nuance in that opening verse that stands out profoundly, despite its subtlety. “Listen — Heaven. Hear me — Earth.” The nuance is underscored by the prophecy of Isaiah that we read on the Shabbat leading into Tisha B’Av, where he tells the Jewish nation: “Hear [me], O Heaven, and listen [to me], O Earth” (Isaiah 1:2). Interesting difference: “Listen — Earth. Hear me — Heaven.”

A person asks someone else to “listen,” when the second person is close by. A person asks whether someone can “hear” him when he is separated by some distance. “Can you hear me back there?” “Moses, would you please listen more carefully?” We instinctively know when to use the words, having learned our language well. It is the same in Hebrew.

Moses was at the end of a lofty life and career spent in extraordinary communion with God. No one ever saw God as Moses did, and there never again has arisen a prophet among us of the elevated level that Moses possessed. So when Moses spoke to the heavens, he asked them to listen. They were proximate. And, as his moments in this world slowly ticked to the end, he reflected his growing distance by asking the earth to “hear” him, too.

By contrast, the prophet Isaiah was one of us, a more regular person, albeit of extraordinary holiness and sanctity, meriting his choice for the historic roles that God demanded of him in prophecy. But, despite that saintliness, when Isaiah addressed the earth, he asked it to “listen.” He asked the heavens to “hear” him.

Moses and Isaiah used words that reflected in the most natural way how they saw themselves. Moses saw himself, in all modesty, as closer to heaven; Isaiah to earth. As they saw themselves, they used the verbs that matter-of-factly conveyed that perception.

The way we see ourselves can affect how we speak, how we think, how we act. If we see ourselves as holier, we often move in that direction. Not always. No, not always. But we have a chance to grow to something greater.

When people around us douse those perceptions, particularly when the self-vision emanates not from hubris but from a humble dream to be greater, to grow and to take on something never tried before, those “well-wishers” are doing no service of friendship. They are dousing dreams.

It takes a great deal to dream. It takes even more to actualize dreams when so many friends and family are on hand to remind us that our dreams are foolish, hypocritical, ridiculous. Yes, we need a foot in reality. But it also is OK to dream and to strive for something greater. To set sail for the stars in the sky. If only they can hear us.

Or listen.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California, is rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine and an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School.


The Downer in Me

People always tell me that I am a downer, constantly talking about the world’s problems here, genocide there; conflict here, poverty there.

Nobody ever wants to talk to me at a party!

However, I also have a deep spiritual side, one that is open to the beauty and wonder of a sunrise, the power of my breath to focus my being, the depth and glory of prayer and praise of God. Together, these sides of me find a perfect home in this week’s parsha, Eikev.

Throughout Deuteronomy — which is Moses’ final clarion call to the people that they should love God, follow the mitzvot and have faith — we find an amazing combination of spiritual direction and powerful calls to social justice. We are not meant to separate prayer, Torah and God from the needs of the world, the demands of justice and the overarching call for equality and peace on earth. At the same time, God gave us free will, the power to decide and discern for ourselves, which is the most amazing and dangerous aspect of our being human.

The Torah says, “And now, O Israel, what does God demand of you? Only this: to revere Adonai your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God and to serve God with all your heart and soul, keeping God’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good” (10:12-13).

Moses understands that reverence and love are not attributes that can be commanded.

“Everything is in the power of Heaven, except whether a person will choose to revere God” (Talmud Berachot 33b).

As part of our inherent design, God made us the masters of our own destiny, giving us the path and the tools to succeed, but leaving the choice of using those tools up to us. This is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel understood as the great partnership between humans and God. That is why I understand Judaism to be the great combination of spiritual depth and social activism, prayer and action, Torah and the morning news. Without the action, the spirit is vacuous; without the spirit, the action tends to be ungrounded and temporary. God needs us to carry out the master plan; we need God to be reminded of that plan.

I am greatly disturbed at the direction our country is taking the world, as we are the greatest, richest and most powerful nation ever to exist, yet we continue to have a tremendous poverty rate, millions of homeless people — including children — and skyrocketing deficits, yet we give the lowest percentage of our GNP to foreign aid than any of the other major industrial countries. And even as we proclaim to be God-fearing and religious, we are not heeding the Torah this week, which teaches, “Take care lest you forget Adonai your God and fail to keep God’s commandments…. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in … beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God … and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that Adonai your God is the one who gives you the power to get wealth….” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14,17-18).

These verses remind me that forgetting God leads to greed and arrogance. Our country, with all of its amazing virtues and incredible individual generosity, is not living up to its greatest potential, because we are not leading the world by example. We don’t want to help others if it might hurt us. We don’t want to give up our luxuries, including unnecessarily large automobiles, to save the environment. We don’t want to participate in world treaties that might challenge our selfishness, requiring us to make less money so we can pass a cleaner, healthier and more balanced world unto our children. This is the downer side of me.

Yet, the spiritual side reminds me that this is what God demands: to seek justice, love, mercy and walk humbly with God. I cannot help but read the Torah this week and think of the Sudan, where millions of lives are being lost and disaffected while the world watches silently; of my own community in Pasadena, where there is homelessness and poverty because we don’t want to build affordable housing and give more to those in need; of the disappearing ozone layer and melting glaciers because we are burning so much fossil fuel in our SUVs for the sake of comfort and status, and of the thousands of lives being lost in Iraq for a war that appears to not be bringing us any closer to peace and security. The Torah tells us what God wants, but then leaves it up to us to achieve it.

As we inch closer to Rosh Hashanah, let us all find ways to remember God more often in our daily lives. When we eat and are full, let us give thanks. When we prosper, share it with others. If we can share God’s grace with the world around us, we have the hope of saving ourselves. And the next time you are at a party, maybe choose to be a bit of a downer for the sake of tikkun olam. If we don’t talk about it, nothing will change.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He serves on the executive board of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and is chair of the social action committee.


Is Tomato Sauce a Vegetable?

"I hate this healthy food. It’s tasteless and disgusting," says Gabe, my 17-year-old son.

He’s protesting the culinary revolution taking place in our kitchen. The white rice that is now brown, the white bread that is now whole wheat and the Cheetos that have morphed into Lite Cheddar Puffs.

But the most egregious of the new foods, in Gabe’s view, are the soy meatballs, which, breaking every rule for developing a trustworthy parent-child relationship, I try to pass off as turkey, hiding them under a pile of spaghetti.

He takes a bite and runs to the sink, where he spits out the offending mouthful.

"What is this?" he demands. "Why can’t we have normal foods?"

Yes, normal foods. To Gabe, who has never eaten a fruit or vegetable in his life, unless you count tomato sauce and onions, these are french fries, bagels, sodas and pizzas. Foods that have contributed, the surgeon general says, to tripling the number of overweight adolescents over the last two decades to 14 percent of all 13- to 19-year-olds.

My husband Larry and I don’t want to add to these statistics. Nor do we want to contribute to the $238 billion already spent annually, according to the American Obesity Association, for weight-related conditions.

It’s a tough "re-education" process. But one not unfamiliar to Judaism, which gives us the concept of shmirat haguf, the obligation to guard one’s physical health. As Maimonides says, "One must avoid that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger." Or, as we used to say in the ’60s: "You are what you eat."

The laws of kashrut assist in fulfilling this obligation, not, as some people assume, by ensuring that the foods we consume are hygienically safe but rather by elevating the act of eating to a spiritual realm. And even those of us who don’t keep strictly kosher (though we vegetarians are practically there), as Jews, ideally, we have a reverence for life and an awareness of pure and impure foods.

"You shall not eat anything abhorrent," the Torah (Deuteronomy 14:3) tells us. And while the Torah is referring to camels, rabbits, badgers and pigs, I would today include foods that that are high in fat and sugar and low in nutritional value. Foods that have been injected with hormones and antibiotics or treated with pesticides. Foods with a shelf life longer than the average life span.

"The more you can eat foods in their original state and the less they are messed with, the better," my friend Debby says. "But try telling that to any red-blooded American adolescent."

We get mixed messages in the United States, the land of overabundance and overindulgence, where, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 100 million Americans are overweight. Yet another 32.9 million Americans, including 11.7 million children, live below the poverty line, often facing barren cupboards at the end of the month when paychecks and Food Stamps run dry.

But this is the United States, where the abhorrent has become the obscene; where food is grabbed, gobbled and guzzled on the run; where single servings are super-sized; and where advertisers hawk green and purple ketchup, neon blue "funky" fries and pizza that magically (read chemically) changes colors.

Judaism gives us no mixed messages, however. Judaism teaches us, unequivocally, that the act of eating is holy: that we must be thankful for our food, that we must be reverent toward life, and that we must feed the hungry.

But to complicate matters, Judaism also gives us, save for the fast days, no occasion in which we don’t eat. In fact, Judaism practically mandates specific holiday foods. What is Shabbat, for example, without noodle kugel? Or Chanukah without latkes, Purim without hamentashen or Shavuot without blintzes? And try making a low-fat, healthier version of these favorites, as I did with noodle kugel.

"No offense, Mom," says Danny, 13, "but this isn’t very good."

Nevertheless, Larry and I continue to battle our kids’ propensity for junk food, reinforced by peer pressure and scores of food-related advertisements, all with unhealthy messages, that bombard them on a daily basis. And we receive no shortage of well-intentioned advice.

"Eat more protein," my pediatrician recommends.

"Eat five or six mini meals a day," a nutritionist advises.

"Eat carrots," my grandmother used to say.

But there are no easy answers — only temptations, good intentions, bad eating days and difficult choices. And those days when drive-though fast food is the best we parents can manage.

And, of course, there is the issue of balance.

"Why does everything have to be healthy, healthy, healthy?" asks Jeremy, 15. "Why don’t you ever have a double scoop of ice cream and a caramel Frappuccino? Live it up and be happy."

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

The Big Question

We’re now in the midst of a period called Bein HaMetzarim, a three-week period of national mourning for tragedies throughout Jewish history.

The most powerful of these tragedies was the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem; these three weeks culminate with Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates this tragedy.

While growing up, I resented that the Bein HaMetzarim fell during summer vacation. The summer was when we were out of school, unfettered by school rules and homework. Why did the rabbis have to put a damper on a kid’s summer by sticking such a sorrowful period of three weeks smack in the middle? I especially disliked the rabbis for their ban on swimming during the nine days between the first of Av and Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av). You want to restrict my swimming? Do it in February — not during a searing August!

Part of the mourning process is the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) on the evening of Tisha B’Av (Aug. 6). This five-chapter dirge is Jeremiah’s moving account of the First Temple’s destruction. Eicha — how? — was the first word that Jeremiah used to describe the devastation. It expresses the horrified bewilderment of a person who has witnessed his entire world crumble all around him.

The Midrash (Torah commentary) introduces Eicha by noting that three prophets used the word: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses said, “How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance?” (Deuteronomy 1:12); Isaiah said, “Howhas the faithful city become a harlot?” (Isaiah 1:21); and Jeremiah said, “How does the city sit solitary?” (Lamentations 1:1).

Rabbi Levi said, “It may be likened to a matron who had three groomsmen: one beheld her in her happiness, a second beheld her in her infidelity and the third beheld her in her disgrace. Similarly, Moses beheld Israel in their glory and happiness … Isaiah beheld them in their infidelity … Jeremiah beheld them in their disgrace; and all three exclaimed, ‘eicha!'”

We can understand the connection between Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s “hows.” Isaiah was lamenting the Jews’ spiritual nadir shortly before the destruction of the Temple, while Jeremiah was lamenting the consequent destruction. But when Moses exclaimed “eicha,” he wasn’t lamenting at all. He led the Jews during their spiritual apex, hundreds of years before the Temple era. He was saying, “Wow! What a colossal people. How can I, humble Moses, possibly bear the brunt of this massive nation?”

He was a doting parent, kvelling at the spiritual, emotional and physical growth of his children over the course of 40 years in the desert. Why, then, does the Midrash tie his “how” with the other two?

The fact that Tisha B’Av falls in the summer is not just a stroke of bad luck. God deliberately destroyed the Temple in the summer. Summer, when the world is outside their closed homes and offices, taking vacations, having fun. Summer, when there is the greatest propensity for calamity, because of our carefree attitudes. This is why it’s worthwhile to take some time amid all the fun to contemplate our sad history; to remember that it was these good times that precipitated a carelessness in our spiritual devotion that escalated into the ultimate destruction.

What’s the last thing we do at a Jewish wedding, under the chuppah? Break the glass. We deliberately put a damper on our simcha (celebration), to remind ourselves that our intense happiness should be channeled toward productive spirituality, instead of the narcissistic gratification — prevalent in too many marriages today — that leads to so much destruction. One thought of the Temple is all it takes to put our joy in the proper perspective. God, then, is not being a killjoy; He’s just reminding us that our “summer fun” should be integrated with spirituality, not estranged from it. And that’s precisely why Moses shouted “eicha.” Remember, says Moses, use your joy and prosperity as tools in the service of God instead of tools for self-destruction.

I know it may be inconvenient to have Tisha B’Av during summer. It may interfere with your summer plans, be it a cruise, family getaway or just a day at the beach. But try to take some time to appreciate all the divine blessings in your life, and connect them to the tragedies that have occurred throughout history and still continue. Connect the “how” of a prosperous today to the “how” of yesterday’s persecutions. Break the proverbial glass this year on Tisha B’Av. Appreciate that our heaven-sent blessings are tools for coming closer to our Maker. If we do our job correctly, next summer we’ll get to swim on Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehila at Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park.

We Must Share Our Blessings With the Poor

As we began our seders this week, one of our first acts was yachatz. We held high a matzah and recited, "Ha Lachma Anya" (behold, the matzah, the bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.)

The very flatness and blandness of the matzah remind us of the empty and oppressed lives of the Israelite slaves — and of downtrodden people in all places and in all times.

Lest we think that economic injustice is a thing of another place, consider the city of Los Angeles. How can the same city that registers 20 percent of all the Rolls-Royces in the United States also be known as the homelessness capital of the country? The disparity of income between the richest and poorest members of this city should shame even the banana republics.

More than 2.5 million residents of this region have no medical insurance, yet plastic surgery is a cottage industry in parts of Los Angeles. No wonder Los Angeles has been aptly characterized as "a ‘First World City’ flourishing atop a ‘Third World City.’"

This week, Jewish leaders conducted Passover seders to call attention to three local struggles to achieve justice. These three campaigns — for janitors, Santa Monica hotel workers and nursing home workers — represent efforts on the part of the religious community to bring some semblance of economic fairness to groups fighting for better wages and working conditions.

For example, take nursing home workers into whose hands we entrust our elderly, our infirm and ourselves. The annual median salary for California’s certified nurse’s aides, the front-line caregivers in nursing homes, is a shameful $17,638. These workers are 50 percent more likely to lack health insurance than the general population.

Each nursing home worker tends to 15-20 patients during the daytime and up to 35 patients at night, leading to compromised care and high rates of on-the-job injuries. Not surprisingly, certified nursing aides have a turnover rate of 78 percent.

For these reasons, more than 80 rabbis and 75 ministers and priests have signed a statement of principles in support of low-wage workers. The statement reads:

"We, as religious and business leaders, believe that we should strive for a state in which all low-wage workers, whether they are direct employees or contracted out, should be:

"Paid a living wage that allows them to meet the basic needs of their families.

"Provided with full health-care benefits for them and their families.

"Employed by companies that abide by all applicable laws — including the right to organize.

"Treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve."

This simple statement embodies the teachings of Judaism on the just needs of workers. For example, Jewish law absolutely prohibits oshek (withholding fair wages). The principle of oshek is based on two biblical commandments:

1. "You shall not defraud your fellow [man]. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning" (Leviticus 19:13).

2. "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger, in one of the communities of your land. You must give him his wages on the same day before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry out to the Eternal One against you, and you will incur guilt" (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

Both biblical and rabbinic law seek to prevent the recurrence of Ezekiel’s indictment: "The people of the land have practiced fraud and committed robbery; they have wronged the poor and needy, have defrauded the stranger without redress" (Ezekiel 22:29).

America has blessed the Jewish community with prosperity, freedom and security. The Passover haggadah calls on us to share our bounty, especially at this season.

"Let all who are hungry, come and eat," says the "Ha Lachma Anya." "Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover with us. Now we are servants; next year may we all be free."

Now our poor are exploited; next year may they — and we — know the fullness of America’s promise.

Rabbi Alan Henkin is regional director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

All the Children

On the eve of Simchat Torah, many synagogues auction the three major honors of the day, with proceeds benefiting the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. Two honors, Hatan Torah (for the one called to the final reading in Deuteronomy) and Hatan Bereshit (for the one called to the first reading in Genesis), usually receive the highest bids. The third, Kol Hanearim — supervising the blessing of all minor children as a tallit is held over their heads, while the honoree receives the next-to-last aliyah in Vezot Haberakha — can be a close second.

One year, however, the auction for Kol Hanearim in my synagogue was unusually competitive. When finally over, I asked the man who fiercely bid the highest, why he vied for this honor.

Surprised by my question, he replied as if it were self-evident: “The one who supervises scores of little children crowded under the tallit, reciting the same blessing Jacob uttered over his grandchildren, is himself guaranteed Jewish grandchildren. Could I want less for myself?”

These words come to me again and again, whenever I contemplate the unique Torah portion, Vezot Haberakha, the only parasha not identified with a specific Shabbat. Rather, it is reserved for the joyous Simchat Torah holiday, with its unique Kol Hanearim ceremony, and as such deserves close analysis.

The Talmud, in Sukkah 42a, referring to Vezot Haberakha, provides a provocative comment: “Our rabbis taught: A minor who is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah…. What could be meant by Torah? Rav Hamnuna replied, the Scriptural verse [Deuteronomy 33:4], ‘Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.'”

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, an early 20th-century commentator, questions why the Talmud chose this particular passage as the first Torah verse that a parent must teach a child. Epstein suggests that by referring to Torah as a morasha, an inheritance of all Jews — young and old alike — it rejects the notion that only mature adults are obligated to observe Torah. An inheritance is age-blind, and so too is the Torah.

The word “morasha,” however, may contain another dimension. An early 19th-century German scholar, the Ktav V’Kabblah, notes that the usual word for inheritance is “yerusha,” not “morasha.” In fact, “morasha” is best translated as “a possession” rather than “an inheritance.” The difference is crucial. One receives an inheritance without individual effort, but one attains a possession through personal exertion. Torah, in other words, requires personal exertion rather than effortless lineage. The only way to become fluent in Torah is to work at studying Torah.

Ketav Sofer, a 19th-century scholar, remarks that “morasha kehillat Yaakov,” “a possession of the congregation of Jacob,” means that no Jew is an island onto himself. No Jew can observe all of the mitzvot of the Torah, for the 613 commandments don’t all apply to any one person. Some only apply to Kohanim, others to Leviim, some to women, while others only to those who live in Israel. Only as a part of the congregation of Israel can we become complete Jews.

Certainly these lessons are themes that the beautiful Kol Hanearim ceremony emphasizes. First, each child has a right to Torah, an inheritance that comes with birth.

Second, Kol Hanearim suggests that Torah requires effort. Neither children nor adults will acquire knowledge unless they work at studying Torah. If they put in the effort, they will be rewarded with the greatest gift: the Torah itself.

And, finally, we must appreciate that a Jewish life must include the community of fellow Jews. The little children are blessed as part of an entire group — part of a future community — because Torah can’t be lived in isolation. Instead, our blessing emphasizes the need for everyone to be involved with the Jewish community, for only together do we comprise the congregation that both Vezot Haberakha and Simchat Torah celebrate.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.

Don’t Win the Battle

A professor in seminary once asked us to find themost important section in all the Torah. We offered Creation, theShma, the Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai. No, he argued, it’ski teze l’milchama (Deuteronomy 21): “When you go out to war against yourenemies, and the Lord God delivers them into your power and you takesome of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautifulwoman, and you desire her, and would have her. You shall first bringher into your house, and she shall cut her hair and her nails, anddiscard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in yourhouse, mourning her father and mother…and then you may come to her,and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you mustrelease her.”


“L’Amour,” by William Mortensen,1936.


Why would anyone think this the most importantsection of the Torah?

In my den, over my breakfast table, or in mydeepest thoughts, I can be a moral hero. It’s easy to be a tzadik intheory. Deep in the heart, everyone thinks of himself as a goodperson. But to moralize in the abstract is the height ofsuperficiality. Morality is what happens in the real world, in themarketplace, in the world of conflict and competition. And thechallenge of morality is not to recite pithy rules but to look deeplyat the darker parts of our own souls; to examine and know the drivesand desires that distract our moral vision; to appreciate ourinfinite capacity to rationalize, compromise and excuse our own moralfailures.

What is real morality? The Torah offers us a studyof the moral worst-case scenario: the most amoral of settings, themost unrestrained of moral actors, the most vulnerable of victims. Hesees her on the field of battle and desires her with all the lustsand passions of battle. With rape, looting and wanton acts ofviolence all around him, no one would know, no one would care. Afterall, what is she? A captive, an enemy, the spoils of battle. He wantsher. And just at that moment, in that most unrestrained and amoral ofall circumstances, amid the smoke and screams and confusion of war,the Torah says, Stop. She is not an object. She is a human being. Andyou must uphold her humanity and protect her dignity. All is not fairin love and war!

The genius of the Torah’s ethic, argued myprofessor, is found in this unique combination of realism andidealism. The Torah does not reproach him for his drives. It does notcondemn his desire. Desire is natural; it is not evil. But neitherwill Torah allow its untamed, savage explosion.

“Who is a hero?” asks Pirke Avot. “One whoconquers his yetzer, his drives.” One does not uproot the yetzer. Itis part of us. But neither is it given raw expression. Torah permitsthe expression of drives and desire only in the proper relationshipto human dignity. So this ingenious rite is followed by allowing thecaptive woman to mourn and heal, and by allowing our soldier’s ardorto cool and his judgment to return. She is actually made ugly — herhead shaved, her nails pared — and she lives untouched in hishousehold for 30 days. If, after that, he still wants her, he maymarry her and afford her all the protection of his household.Otherwise, she goes free. He may not sell her as a slave — thenormal fate of captives.

On all the battlefields we find ourselves — incorporate offices, in community politics, in the marketplace, inpersonal relationships — when passions are high and indiscretionsoverlooked, when anything goes, the Torah demands reverence for thehumanity and dignity of the other. What’s at stake, after all, is notjust the other but your humanity as well. Ki teze l’milchama, whenyou go out to war, don’t win the battle and lose your soul.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

Read a previous week’s Torah Portion byRabbi Feinstein

SEPTEMBER 5, 1997 So Where Are You?

AUGUST 29, 1997 What’s Wrong with aCheeseburger?

AUGUST 22, 1997 Finding the AdultWithin

AUGUST 15, 1997 Make the Time Count

AUGUST 8, 1997 ‘What’s the Meaning ofLife

AUGUST 1, 1997 A Warning toRevolutionaries


Finding the Adult Within

“So, tell me, what are you looking for in awoman?” I ask.

“Someone kind and gentle, intelligent, educated,cultured, witty, fun, a professional, independent, but interested intraditional things, Jewish, haimish, warm, family-oriented…andthin, tall, attractive, blond, well-dressed.” He continues, but Irealize already that I know him. He’s my 3-year old. The open mouthof the infant: “I want, I want, I want.”

I know what he wants: a Playboy playmate who willadore him, cook like his mother but make no demands on hissoul.

He isn’t alone. He belongs to a whole culture ofchildishness.

My kids’ favorite video is “Hook,” the Peter Panstory, as told by Steven Spielberg. In this version, Peter fell inlove with Wendy and left never-never land. The boy who said that hewouldn’t grow up has matured to become a driven corporate executive,chained to his cell phone, without time for his wife, his children,or his humanity. Stripped of all imagination, playfulness and love,he is everything Peter Pan always abhorred about adults.

Suddenly, his children are kidnapped by his oldnemesis, Captain Hook, and Peter is challenged to one final battle.He returns to never-never land to save his children and, really, tosave himself. He is powerless against Hook until he recovers thatpart of himself denied these many years: the child within, hisspontaneity, imagination, capacity for enchantment — all taught tohim by the wise, loving Tinkerbell.

It is a touching, enchanting film. And it is deadwrong.

The problem of our civilization is not that wehave lost touch with the child within. Our problem is that too manygrown-ups refuse to be adults. Our problem is not that we have losttouch with the sources of enchantment. Our problem is that too manyhave lost touch with the wisdom of maturity.

Judaism loves children. All of our festivals –Pesach, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Purim, Chanukah — put children at thecenter. God wakes up each morning, relates the Talmud, takes one lookat the world, and decides to destroy everything until He hears thesounds of children learning, playing, and laughing. He then decidesto let the world go on one more day.

Our tradition loves children, but we revereadulthood. Our tradition adores the spontaneity and imagination ofchildren, but we revere the wisdom of maturity.

This week’s Torah reading contains a sectionrecited in the daily Shema, a section that teaches the first lessonsof adulthood: “If you will obey the commandments that I enjoin uponyou this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all yourheart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season….Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow down tothem. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He willshut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground willnot yield up its produce, and you will soon perish from the good landthat the Lord is giving you.”

Adulthood is about making choices. And choiceshave consequences. We must live with the consequences of our choicesbecause, despite our childhood fantasies to the contrary, theuniverse does not revolve around any of us. If we choose values thatare real, eternal, expressions of the Source of Life, we grow inwisdom and prosper spiritually. We make the world our home. We learnto love and to hold others close. We create life. If we turn away andchoose the never-never land fantasies of the culture around us — itsaddiction to entertainment, amusement, distraction — then we shriveland starve.

Somewhere out there, there’s a 38-year-old man whohas just learned this wisdom.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

All rights reserved by author.


Read a previous week’s Torah Portion by RabbiFeinstein

AUGUST 15, 1997 Make the Time Count

AUGUST 8, 1997 ‘What’s the Meaning ofLife

AUGUST 1, 1997 A Warning toRevolutionaries