Four questions of Miriam


The name “Miriam” stems from the Hebrew word for “bitter” (mar), and Miriam has every right to feel that way. 

“Miriam who?” you might ask?

My point exactly.

I’m talking about the biblical Israelite heroine and prophetess, without whom Moses never would have been born and the Israelites would not have escaped Egypt, nor would they have survived 40 years in the desert. Miriam played an integral role in the story of Exodus, yet she’s all but ignored during Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Exodus. It’s not surprising, in a way; while Miriam’s feats, as depicted in the Torah and the Talmud, make her a woman worth celebrating, she is slighted, punished, ignored and underestimated for much of her life.   

In keeping with Passover’s emphasis on groupings of fours, I have compiled four questions (and answers) about Miriam’s life that reveal her courage, her spirit and her central role in the Exodus. You are encouraged to drink four glasses of Manischewitz as you read them. Or, better yet, ask a child (or four) to chant them aloud.

Did Miriam really save the Jewish people? 

Yes, and at the age of 6, no less. 

While one root of Miriam’s name is “bitter,” the other is the Hebrew word for “rebellion” (“meri”), and Miriam more than lived up to her name. According to the Talmud, Miriam was about 6 years old when Pharaoh commanded that all Israelite baby boys be killed at birth. In response to Pharaoh’s decree, Miriam’s father, Amram, divorced his wife, Yocheved, because he couldn’t bear the possibility of having a son who would be killed. Amram was the gadol hador — the most learned Jew of his generation in Egypt — and all of the Israelite men followed his lead and divorced their wives as well.

Miriam boldly rebuked her father for this action, saying: “Your act is worse than Pharaoh’s! He decreed that only male children not be permitted to live, but you decreed the same fate for both male and female children! … It is uncertain whether or not Pharaoh’s decree will be fulfilled. However, there is no doubt that your decree will indeed be fulfilled.” Amram’s decree that men divorce their wives would have led to the extinction of the Jewish people. Further, Miriam revealed a prophecy: that her mother would give birth to a son who would redeem the Israelites from bondage and lead them to freedom.

And Amram, the most learned and respected Jew of his generation, accepted his young daughter’s advice and acted accordingly. He remarried Yocheved, and all the other Israelite men remarried their respective wives. A little while later, a son was born: Moses.

When Yocheved could conceal Moses no longer, it was Miriam who kept watch as Moses was set adrift on the Nile in his basket. And when Pharaoh’s daughter retrieved Moses from the water, it was Miriam who boldly and cleverly offered to arrange for a Hebrew wet nurse to take care of the infant. In this way, Miriam arranged for Moses to be brought back to his mother, Yocheved, who nursed and raised her son.

And so, at the young age of 6, Miriam saved the Jewish people.

Did Miriam really choose music over food?

Yes. Who needs leavened bread when you’ve got tambourines?

We are told that we eat matzah on Passover because the Israelites were in such a hurry to leave Egypt that they didn’t even have time to let their bread rise before they departed. This might suggest that they were all caught unawares, but really, leavened bread was less of a priority than a full percussion band. Miriam knew the Exodus was coming — she had prophesied it — and she prepared for it not by telling the Israelites to stockpile bread, but rather by telling them to make tambourines and drums. Then, after the Israelites successfully crossed the Red Sea, she took out her tambourine and led the women in song and dance — a song you might recognize as the “Mi Chamocha.”

This is the first time Miriam is identified by name in the Torah. The story of Miriam’s rebellion against her father comes from the Talmud; up until this point in Exodus, we’ve heard only of an unnamed sister who kept watch over Moses on the Nile. Even here, however, Miriam’s relationship to Moses is not made explicit, and she is not connected to or identified as the unnamed sister who kept watch over Moses on the Nile. The Torah relates, “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and then all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.”

Aaron’s sister? Why not Aaron and Moses’ sister? Why, especially now, in the moments after  Moses’ greatest triumph as leader of the Jewish people? The Talmud contends that it is because Miriam’s major prophesy — that her mother would give birth to a son who would redeem Israel — took place before Moses’ birth, when she was the sister of only Aaron.  

Miriam’s song is notable not only because it provides the occasion for naming her, but also because the very activity she engaged in — singing and dancing in public — came to be banned by Orthodox Jews. Today, Orthodox women are not allowed to sing the “Mi Chamocha” — in synagogue or on the seashore or anywhere men might hear them, because Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from singing (and dancing, and wearing clothing that reveals their skin) in public because it might arouse men and distract them from their religious pursuits. It’s a distressingly contemporary issue: In January, an Israeli teenage girl was suspended from school because she appeared — and sang — on Israel’s version of the American TV show “The Voice.” 

 

What did Miriam do to deserve being struck with leprosy? 

She stood up to Moses, and was a woman.

In Deuteronomy, Miriam speaks out again, but this time she’s punished for it. 

This time, the object of her criticism is not her father, but her brother Moses. Still, the subject is the same: wives and conjugal obligations. 

Miriam learns that Moses has been neglecting his wife Zipporah: He has not had relations with her since he began communicating with God, and is behaving as though being a prophet means that the only person he’s beholden to is God. Miriam discusses the issue with Aaron, and they are in agreement: They reason that although they, too, are prophets, they haven’t distanced themselves from interpersonal relationships the way Moses has, and perhaps Moses ought to take a lesson from them.

The Torah relates that Miriam and Aaron questioned, “Is it but through Moses alone that the Lord has spoken? Has He not spoken to us as well?” God reacts swiftly: He calls a meeting with the three siblings, during which he chastises Miriam and Aaron for thinking that they are as important or close to God as Moses is, and informs them that he favors Moses over them. And, as punishment, Miriam is struck with leprosy.

Only Miriam. Not Aaron. Why is Miriam the one punished, when both Aaron and Miriam issued the same criticism? Some rabbis reasoned that it’s because Miriam initiated the conversation. Others reason that it’s because Aaron was the high priest, and a physical affliction would prevent him from doing his job. Either way, Miriam gets the short end of the stick.

Interestingly, although Miriam advocates the importance of conjugal and familial responsibilities and speaks out on behalf of wives and mothers, in the Torah, she is neither a wife nor a mother herself — a striking act of nonconformity. In the Talmud, the rabbis “fix” that “problem.” The Talmud claims that Miriam was married to Caleb, and with him, she gave birth to Hur, who valiantly tried to prevent the building of the Golden Calf. Later generation descendants of Miriam include Bezalel, the chief artisan of the Tabernacle, and King David. But Caleb and Miriam’s names never appear together in the Torah. Multiple women are identified as Caleb’s wife — none of them named Miriam. In one passage, Caleb’s wife is identified as being named Ephrath. In another passage, his wife is named Azubah. The Talmud says that Ephrath and Azubah are other names for Miriam. And, in yet another passage, someone named Ashur is said to have had two wives, Helah and Naarah. The Talmud identifies Ashur as Caleb and says that Helah and Naarah are both Miriam. 

Did anyone appreciate her gifts? 

Yes, but mostly after she died. Figures. 

During their 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites were sustained by manna and water from a rock well that accompanied them on their travels. The Talmud identifies it as “Miriam’s Well.” 

Its water is said to have the taste of milk, wine and honey, the same flavors attributed in the Torah, therefore connecting the well not just with physical nourishment but also with spiritual nourishment.

When Miriam dies in the Book of Numbers, at the start of the 40th year of wandering, the water from the well dries up, and the Israelites are left without water. It is only after her death that the Israelites fully understand that Miriam is to thank for keeping them alive — for providing them with the water necessary for their survival in the desert. They rally together and plead with Moses and Aaron to renew the well’s waters — otherwise they will die. Moses and Aaron pray to God for guidance, and God tells Moses to take his rod, gather the Israelites into an assembly and speak to the rock to request its waters. But Moses does not heed God’s orders: Instead of using words (as Miriam, the gifted linguist, did), Moses takes his rod and strikes the rock. Nothing happens. So what does Moses do? He again strikes the rock with his rod. This time, water comes gushing forth, and the Israelites are able to quench their thirst. But directly afterward, Moses and Aaron receive the ultimate punishment: God rebukes them for not heeding his orders (he said speak to the rock, not hit it with your stick!) and informs them that because they have not been sufficiently faithful, after all this wandering, they will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land after all. 

In the late 1980s, a Boston Rosh Chodesh group inaugurated a new Passover seder ritual to honor Miriam: Miriam’s Cup, a cup of water, intended to symbolize the life-giving waters of Miriam’s Well.

Although I appreciate the sentiment, I have to ask: Really? A cup of water? Miriam deserves more than that. Elijah gets a glass of wine and a ceremonial opening of the door — and he hasn’t shown up to a seder yet! 

In the context of an evening when we are each commanded to drink four glasses of wine, and we enjoy a large spread of foods, a single cup of water pales in comparative significance. 

As opposed to setting aside and designating a cup of water in her honor, why not discuss how water is the primary component of absolutely everything on the seder table? Without water, there would be no food. There would be no people, no us. Similarly, without Miriam, there would be no Moses, and there would be no free Jews. There would be no us.

So it stands to reason that Miriam deserves a central role in the Passover seder. A role more central, and more vocal, than a cup of water.

To start with, how about a song?  

Are you awake?: Parashat Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)


There is an old midrash to explain how Moshe discovered his Jewish identity and woke up to his calling as a teacher and prophet. Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, used to sing him lullabies and feed him familiar foods. As she weaned him and led him into the embrace of his surrogate family, the sounds, tastes and smells of his childhood were pushed deep into the recesses of his subconscious. It was when he walked among the Israelites that the sounds of those lullabies and the smells of those familiar foods awakened his Jewish consciousness, launching him on a journey toward the ultimate awareness of YHVH. 

Moshe was asleep for those years as Prince of Egypt. We may even say his indifference was an escape from the world outside the doors of his home — one aflame with injustice and oppression. As Moshe becomes aware of his true identity and stands up to the injustice of an oppressive taskmaster, his pampered and comfortable existence in Pharaoh’s palace is shattered.

We can all relate to moments like this in our own lives, moments when the thresholds of our understanding and expectations of the world around us are breached with new awareness, sometimes enabling us to discover new truths or bringing us back to our core identity; an act of remembering truths we once knew and have seemingly forgotten.

We are in slumber states for most of our week. To be awake is to cut through the pages of the newspaper, beyond the incessant attention of presidential debates, impending threats internationally and locally, to find the truths of our lives and keep us focused on our true purpose. It’s what should call us to greater action and response toward the threats of dignity for Jewish women in Israel, and the sobering reminder that there are more than 1 million people in our Los Angeles community who are undernourished and impoverished. 

This is the power of memory. Active memory is the capacity to awaken us from our existential slumber, to shatter our beliefs that the rhythms of daily responsibilities and our busyness make up our life’s purpose. Memory links us to greater truths — truths that make us uncomfortable and truths that soften us and bring us assurance that we matter in the lives of others. “Everybody needs his memories,” author Saul Bellow writes. “They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” 

In “Moonwalking With Einstein,” Joshua Foer chronicles his 2006 journey to the USA Memory Championship. The most interesting technique we learn from the book is constructing what is called a memory palace. The trick is to visualize a building, perhaps your childhood home or other home that is most familiar to you, and to imaginatively place facts, numbers and details around the house. Using your imagination and creating new associations with ones that are already deeply rooted in your memory, you simultaneously construct a method to remember significant amounts of information and nurture healthy brain development by creating new neural pathways. 

As I read the book, I could not help but relate this technique and its wisdom to our study of the Torah. Perhaps our Torah is one collective memory palace, a cultural and historical edifice of truths that we use to bring familiarity and new understanding to our lives. To read Torah this way is to see how the details, laden with thousands of years of history, is both an awakening to our core identity and an opportunity to build new information and new wisdom into our collective memory as a people, as Jews. The message of Moshe, if not the entire Jewish text tradition, is that we all have the capacity and responsibility to wake up and act in the world for goodness.

In this week’s parasha, we meet a Pharaoh who represents the antithesis to memory. His heart is hardened after each plague as if to say he forgets the awesome power the God of Israel displays time and again. Moshe stands as Pharaoh’s opposite here. He lives in Pharaoh’s palace until he wakes up. It is his determination and resilience to construct a new identity for himself and the Israelites that define redemption. It is through his memory that the bridge between slumber and wakefulness is secured.


Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

Rhyme and Reason: Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)


This week’s portion bears one of the Torah’s great enigmas. What exactly did Moshe Rabbeinu do that prompted God to bar him from crossing the Jordan into Israel?

What was the infraction?

Most students are taught that Moshe’s misfeasance was that he hit the boulder even though God told him only to speak to it. If Moshe and Aaron only had spoken to the boulder, the witnessing nation would have been overwhelmed by the miracle of an inanimate rock obeying, responding dutifully by providing ample water for 3 million people. Under that theory, proffered in the midrash Tanchuma and popularized for all by the premier Torah commentator, Rashi, Moshe diminished the awe by hitting the boulder. A thoroughbred runs faster at Churchill Downs when hit than when its jockey coos soft urging words. Presumably, a boulder responds to hitting, too. Thus, Moshe diminished the miracle.

Yet many of our greatest Torah commentators, including Rashi’s most prominent contemporaries, disagree with Rashi’s take — and with each other in deciphering this puzzle. First, they ask, is it less miraculous when hitting a boulder prompts it to give water? (Can you do that?) Indeed, in Exodus 17:5-6, the people also had complained of thirst, and God told Moshe to take his staff and strike a boulder. The water then miraculously flowed, quenching the nation copacetically. Besides, if God did not want the boulder hit, why did He tell Moshe to take his staff — a command virtually synonymous with Divine expectation that the staff actuate the miracle?

So what was Moshe’s bad?

Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra believes Moshe let the mass complaining get him flustered, breaking his prophetic concentration, resulting in a temporary failure when trying initially to implement the miracle by properly hitting. People saw nothing had happened. Having lost focus, Moshe needed to recapture his concentration, requiring his hitting the boulder a second time. That diminished the miracle.

Rambam (Maimonides), by contrast, discerns a rare temper outburst. Moshe, the most humble of people, seemingly lost his temper, according to Rambam, when he called the people “rebels.” Inasmuch as Moshe’s every action and word was that of teacher and role model, his anger — if Rambam perceives accurately here — would have taught that God does not want to be bothered when there is no water in the desert. But that was not God’s message. Rambam believes Moshe reversed a teachable moment into a wrong lesson.

Ramban (Nachmanides) disagrees. First, Aaron never lost his temper; yet God decreed against him, too. Besides, the people indeed were angering God; therefore, some tough talk from Moshe was appropriate. Accordingly, Ramban prefers Rabbeinu Chananel’s interpretation that Moshe erred in his wording of the rhetorical question he posed: “What? From this boulder shall we bring forth water for you?” It was not “we” who would be bringing forth water. It was God. Moreover, Ramban observes that, if Moshe and Aaron had proceeded with proper Divine focus and equanimity, only one tap of the boulder would have effectuated the miracle, but they instead needed to hit twice because a quietly controlled anger caused Moshe briefly to lose his Divine focus at the first strike.

So which is it? What, then, did Moshe and Aaron do that was wrong? Maybe God worded the Torah’s presentation cryptically to teach that, really, it is none of our business. These were our greatest leaders ever. The burden of leadership exposes individuals to public scrutiny. Fear of public scrutiny deters many great people from assuming leadership, often leaving mediocrities to take the reins. Maybe God wanted to assure us that there was rhyme and reason in His ending their lives on the Jordan’s eastern bank, on Holy Land that would be parceled to more than two tribes. Maybe He barred them in part so a new leader could lead a new generation into freedom in our own land. Maybe in part because, as leaders of the Exodus from Egypt, somehow it would not be fitting for these two leaders to enter.

God conceived the rhyme. They understood the reason. And perhaps it is none of our business other than to know that none of us is perfect, we all are held to individually tailored standards, and we should let our leaders live their lives without our holding them to subjective expectations that God would not countenance.


Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

Former IDF chief Ya’alon: West can hit all of Iran’s nukes


The West could carry out a military strike on any of Iran’s nuclear facilities, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon said.

Ya’alon, the country’s deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, told the 2012 Herzliya Conference Thursday that all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are within striking range.

“Any facility defended by a human being can be penetrated,” he said. “Any facility in Iran can be hit, and I speak from experience as the IDF chief of staff.”

Ya’alon added that “the West has the ability to strike, but as long as Iran isn’t convinced that there’s a determination to follow through with it, they’ll continue with their manipulations.”

The Wall Street Journal last week cited American military officials as saying that they did not have arms strong enough to penetrate all of Iran’s nuclear installations.

Ya’alon did not discount the idea that international sanctions could serve as a deterrent against an Iranian nuclear attack.

Earlier Thursday, Israel’s director of military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, told the conference that Iran has enough enriched uranium to produce four nuclear bombs and that Israel is threatened by some 200,000 missiles at any moment.

First Person: Rivky and Gabi were truly special people


Many of you first heard of the Holtzberg family four days ago when news of the Mumbai hostage situation emerged. I feel compelled to write this because I want the world to know who Rivky and Gabi Holtzberg were in life and to tell you what I witnessed of their accomplishments in their brief 28 years on earth.

While I am devastated by their death, I am thankful that my life and so many others were touched by their purity, friendship and spirit.

Before I entered the Chabad house in Mumbai, I thought, “What kind of people would leave a comfortable and secure life in a religious community to live in the middle of Mumbai; a dirty, difficult, crowded city?” As I got to know Rivky and Gabi over the course of this past summer, I understood that G-d creates some truly special people willing to devote their lives to bettering the world.

I was first welcomed by Rivky, who had a big smile on her face and her baby Moishie in her arms. She ushered me and my fellow travelers into the Chabad house and immediately offered us something to eat and a sofa to rest on. We quickly became good friends. We bonded with the Holtzberg family and the staff at Chabad, including Sandra, the heroine who saved baby Moishie’s life.

Like his parents, Moishe is a sweet, loving, happy baby. He was so attached to Rivky and Gabi. He got so excited to sing Shabbat Z’mirot (songs) every Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attackFriday night with his father, and I could tell by the light on Gabi’s face when they were singing together, that he looked forward to it too. It breaks my heart that I can still hear Moishie’s voice calling, “Ima, Ima, Ima”, and she will no longer be able to hold him or rock him in her arms.

On my second Shabbat at Chabad, Rivky told me there were two Israeli men staying at the house who were just released from an Indian prison. When I saw these men sitting at the dinner table, I was startled. One man had only a front tooth and a raggedy pony tail, and the other looked like an Israeli version of Rambo. I observed the way that Gabi interacted with them and how they were welcomed at the Shabbat table the same way everyone else was, and my fears melted away. Over the course of the night, I learned that these men were not the only prisoners or ex-convicts the Holtzberg’s helped. Gabi frequently brought Kosher meals to Israelis in prison, spent time with them, listened to their life stories, and took them in after their release.

I realized that Gabi and Rivky’s job was not only to run a Chabad house and provide warm meals and beds for weary Jewish travelers, it was much greater. The Holtzberg’s were running a remarkable operation. They took their jobs as shlichim (emissaries) very seriously. Their lives never stopped. There was no such thing as “personal space” or “downtime”. The phones rang constantly, people came in and out like a subway station, and all the while Rivky and Gabi were calm, smiling, warm, and welcomed everyone like family.

Rivky spent each day cooking dinner with the chefs for 20-40 people, while Gabi made sure to provide meat for everyone by going to the local markets and schechting (koshering) chickens himself. They also provided travelers with computers for internet access, so that they wouldn’t have to pay for internet cafes. They even took care of our laundry. Having spent much time abroad, it was clear to me that Rivky and Gabi were unusual tzadikim (righteous people).

On my last Shabbat in India, I slept in Rivky and Gabi’s home, the 5th floor of the Chabad house. I noticed that their apartment was dilapidated and bare. They had only a sofa, a bookshelf, a bedroom for Moishie, and a bedroom to sleep in. The paint peeled from the walls, and there were hardly any decorations. Yet, the guest quarters on the two floors below were decorated exquisitely, with American-style beds, expansive bathrooms, air conditioning (a luxury in India) and marble floors. We called these rooms our “healing rooms” because life was so difficult in Mumbai during the week. We knew that when we came to Chabad, Rivky and Gabi would take care of us just like our parents, and their openness and kindness would rejuvenate us for the week to come.

The juxtaposition of their home to the guest rooms was just another example of what selfless, humble people Rivky and Gabi were. They were more concerned about the comfort of their guests than their own.

The Holtzberg’s Shabbat table was a new experience each week. Backpackers, businessmen, diplomats and diamond dealers gathered together to connect with their heritage in an otherwise unfamiliar city. We always knew we were in for a surprise where an amazing story would be told, either by Gabi or a guest at the table. For each meal, Gabi prepared about seven different divrei torah (words of torah) to share. Though most of them were delivered in Hebrew (and I caught about 25%), his wisdom, knowledge and ability to inspire amazed me. Rivky and Gabi were accepting of everyone who walked through their doors, and they had no hidden agendas. Rivky once told me that there was one holiday where they had no guests. It was just herself, Gabi and Moishie. I expected her to say how relieved she was not to have guests, but she told me it was, in fact, the only lonely holiday they ever spent in India.

I remember asking Gabi if he was afraid of potential terror threats. Although his demeanor was so sweet and gentle, Gabi was also very strong-minded and determined. He told me simply and sharply that if the terrorists were to come, “be my guest, because I’m not leaving this place.” Both he and Rivky believed that their mission in Mumbai was far greater than any potential terror threats.

Everything Rivky and Gabi did came from their dedication, love and commitment to the Jewish people and to G-d. I cannot portray in words how remarkable this couple was. If there is anything practical that I can suggest in order to elevate their souls, please try to light candles this Friday night for Shabbat, improve relationships with family members and friends, try to connect to others the way that Rivky and Gabi did- with love, acceptance and open arms. There is so much to learn from them. May their names and influence live on, and inspire us in acts of kindness and love.

Hillary A. Lewin is aPh.D. Candidate in Clinical Psychology at theFerkauf Graduate School of Psychology ofYeshiva University

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The author (right) with Moshe and Rivka

Correct priorities


While I was in my synagogue’s office one morning, the phone rang, and I answered. The lady on the other end said, “Hello, may I please speak to the owner?”

I answered, “Certainly, it will be our pleasure to let you talk to him. You have reached The House of God, and the Owner is available at either 6:15 or 7:45 every morning, or during this coming week He can also be reached at 7:45 in the evening.”

“Well in that case I will call back at one of those times,” the lady said.

I responded, “Oh no, you can’t do that because the Owner doesn’t take any telephone calls. You must come in person to see Him if you wish to talk to Him.”

By now the lady was getting a bit frustrated and said, “Excuse me, but why can’t Mr. Gad come to the phone?”

I told her, “Because He only likes a face-to-face conversation.”

It was then she must have realized she hadn’t reached a typical business. “Sir, may I ask what kind of business have I reached?”

“Madam, you have reached a synagogue.”

Her response was most telling. “Oh, in that case I can’t sell you anything. Nothing that I am selling will impress your boss,” she said before hanging up.

This lady’s observation is the theme of a story recounted in this week’s Torah portion.

In Chapter 32, the Torah recounts how the tribes of Reuven and Gad negotiated with Moses to let them settle the Trans-Jordan. Reuven and Gad argued coherently and logically for the land. They noted that this land was originally owned by the defeated Kings of Bashan and the Emorites and was therefore not inhabited by anyone. What were they to do with it? Just let it go unused? It was fertile and well watered, more so than the territory on the other side of the Jordan.

With these facts, they came to Moses and offered what they thought was a reasonable proposition. They had a multitude of cattle, and the Trans-Jordan land was perfect for raising cattle. If they would take possession of it, everyone would benefit. It would enlarge the boundaries of the Jewish state, and it would give more room for the other 10 tribes to divide the land west of the Jordan, creating more prosperity for all involved.

Moses bitterly opposed this idea. He was so incensed with their proposal that he compared their idea to the sin of the scouts who caused the people to be punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert. He was concerned that their proposal would sabotage the entire enterprise of settling the Land of Israel, making the other tribes lose interest in fighting for the land. The argument between Moses and the two tribes only ended when they entered into an agreement that the two tribes would act as the vanguard in capturing the Land of Israel.

But the question remains, what justification did Moses have that allowed him to denounce them so fiercely? How could he compare them to the scouts? Our sages noted that the answer lay in the wording of their proposal. They told Moses, “We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones” (Numbers 32:16). Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, considered this wording and came to the conclusion: “They were concerned for their property more than they were for their sons and daughters, for they put the mention of their livestock ahead of their children.”

What came first in their request? It was the sheepfolds and not the children. It was making money and not building schools and synagogues that took priority. For that reason Moses was upset. He responded by changing the order when he told the two tribes, “Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your flock; and do that which has gone out of your mouth” (Numbers 32:24).

Rashi explains, “Moses said to them: This is not right. Make that which is essential essential and that which is secondary secondary. First build cities for your children and afterward enclosures for your penning.”

Moses challenged them to realize that their values needed adjusting.

It would be wrong for us to just interpret this story as a moment in biblical history without realizing it resonates with modern man just as it did some 3,500 years ago.

How many of us place our work before our families and all other concerns? One modern ethicist captured the entire issue when he said, “No tombstone ever read, ‘He spent extra hours in the office.'”

At the end of the day the Almighty is impressed with us only when we know how to organize our priorities correctly.


Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

VIDEO: Duke professor searches for ‘kohanim’ genetic marker


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

The voice of wisdom


Just like that, she was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Rare Quality


Being one of the top international best sellers of all time is not an easy spot to maintain, taking into account changing cultures, societies and times. But the Bible possesses this rare quality, which has enabled generation after generation of readers to identify with its heroes and messages and find in it answers, refuge and remedy.

There was, however, the issue of adaptation to different needs and literary tastes that affected the interpretation of the Bible throughout the ages. One of the most common and influential is the tendency of the late Second Temple period sages to unearth the mysteries of the anonymous characters of the Bible, which seems to have alienated some of that era’s synagogue-goers, who measured Torah reading or the sermon against the tragedies and comedies played in the adjacent Greek theater and demanded the same level of interest and entertainment. (High school students who had to read “Beowulf” were complaining about how they wish they could have watched the recent movie as an alternative to the archaic, boring text.)

One element that fascinated the ancient Jewish theater aficionados was the wealth of details and history attached to each character, which is so often missing in the laconic, terse language of the Torah. The rabbis responded to the trend by identifying the anonymous protagonists, usually tying them to other characters, who are mentioned by name. Such is the case of the leaders of the civil rebellion against Moses — Dathan and Abiram — whom the rabbis identified as the two Israelites confronted by Moses on the second day he ventured from the royal palace to see his brethren’s tribulations.

When Moses approached the attacker, asking him why he was beating his fellow Israelite, the man angrily responded: “Who appointed you a judge? Are you planning to kill me as you did the Egyptian?”

This identification of the quarreling Israelites with Dathan and Abiram undoubtedly adds an element of continuity and familiarity to the story. We almost expect to see those two at every hot spot, as the rabbis in the midrash most certainly did. But it is problematic for several reasons.

First, when God tells Moses to return to Egypt, He says that all those who sought to harm him are dead. If that includes Dathan and Abiram, how come they surface later during the Korach dispute? Moreover, in the quarrel story, only one is defined as a wicked person, while the other seems to be innocent, and if they are indeed Dathan and Abiram, both are wicked. Lastly, naming these two defies the intention of the Torah, which chose to leave them anonymous because their names are not essential to the narrative.

The answer to these questions is that the rabbis took the liberty, as playwrights, to introduce high drama and a sense of continuity and familiarity to the biblical text. Undoubtedly, they based their interpretation of the original text on the fact that in both cases, those who confronted Moses used words derived from the Hebrew root S.R.R., which means authority or rulership, and that they accused Moses of seeking to rule and dominate them, replacing one rogue regime with another.

Nothing could have offended Moses more, being sincere and genuinely concerned about his brethren’s suffering as he was. Moses could have stayed in the palace and enjoyed royal privileges, but he chose to commiserate with his brothers and, indeed, tried to save one of them by killing the Egyptian taskmaster.

When his altruism was faced with such doubt and accusation, he abandoned his plans altogether and fled to the desert, which was to become his fortress of solitude until God forced him to resume his mission and his role of a leader.

As the curtain draws, the audience of that ancient biblical play, in the new rabbinical rendition, can identify with the characters. Moses is the hero, the leader who once and again is being confronted with the machinations of those who seek power for themselves by casting doubt on the purity of his motives. The rabbinical narrator ties together loose ends and connects Moses’ response to the first confrontation (i.e., running away to the desert) with his response to the last one, in which he is in a position he cannot quit — leading the whole nation.

After attending services during the rabbinical times and hearing the rabbi dramatizing these fateful encounters, it’s not difficult to imagine congregants on their way home considering how this drama played out every so often in their lives and how they would rise to the occasion themselves if challenged by those who embodied Dathan and Abiram.

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

Meditating spies


Ah, so much chaos, so little time.

In this parsha we deal with the message of the spies; insecurity leading to depression and fear; rebellion and anger by the people, Moses and God; and several severe punishments, including the major one of wandering in the desert for an additional 40 years and the minor one (in size and scope, but not in significance) of killing the Shabbat wood collector. We end with a collective breath, and more importantly, a call for awareness and attention to the inner workings of our soul, with the final paragraph instructing us about tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our garments and tallitot (prayer shawls), which is said daily as the third paragraph of the Shema prayer.

Why is there so much disillusionment, fear and unsettling behavior in this parsha? And what can we learn from the chaos?

In practicing and teaching Jewish meditation — a central focus of my rabbinate work alongside my passion for social justice and peace — I have come to understand that an awareness of our inner spirit can greatly affect how we interpret events in the world around us, as well as how we perceive ourselves and how Judaism can help ground us in lives of meaning and fortitude. After 12 years of almost daily practice, I understand that each day brings new challenges and new barriers, along with old habits and lifelong obstacles, all of which are trying to thwart my progress.

As we say in the liturgy: Just as God renews each day, so, too, must we renew. And this is what I see happening in Shelach Lecha, albeit in reverse order.

The lack of confidence that the spies bring back — embodied in the famous line, “And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33) — is a classic case of not being fully aware and awake. The fear that the spies bring back, which may have been justified, overtakes them and causes the entire Israelite people to lose faith, lose hope and react with chaotic perplexity.

In meditation, one can begin to develop a sense of connection to God, one’s own heart and the notion that the more awareness we have in our life, the better decisions we are able to make. We don’t read of the spies taking any time to process their findings, meditate on their experience before sharing it; rather, they blow into the camp, rally the fears of the people and cause a scene that cannot be stopped, one that will climax next week with the rebellion of Korah.

I find it fascinating that this one line about the grasshoppers speaks volumes about the inner life of the spies. Their real mistake was not in sharing their fears, but rather in not being present in their sharing, such that they conveyed not only physical fears, but also their own unprocessed and undifferentiated emotional and spiritual fears.

Moses loses control of the people and almost loses control of the whole exodus enterprise. According to the Talmud, the spies, and thereby the entire people, actually think that not only can’t they overcome the inhabitants of the land, but that even God is outmatched.

In a challenging reading of the text, Sotah 35a says that Numbers 13:31, which reads, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than we,” should be read, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than Him [God].” They translate the word memenu, as “than him,” rather than the traditional reading “than us.” So, in their fear, the spies not only reject the notion of conquering the land, they reject the whole premise that God is with them at all. Without a sense of presence and consciousness, God is lost to them.

And, it is this mentality that causes the overreaction to the man collecting wood on Shabbat. There is so much fear, so much confusion and lack of confidence that the people, including Moses, don’t know how to respond.

I don’t see this story as one telling us that we should kill all those who break rules on Shabbat — we would all be dead! Rather, it’s a parable of what happens when we don’t bring ourselves fully present to any situation in our lives, including religious practice. When we act out of fear, we don’t make good decisions.

It is for this reason that I see the final portion about the tzitzit fitting in. When we stop to contemplate the higher meaning and value in life, a connection to God and our souls, we find ourselves making more healthy decisions. Reading back the idea of tzitzit into the rest of the parsha, I see it as coming as a corrective to the series of fear-induced decisions that plague the people, leading to chaos, 40 years of wandering in the desert and killing someone for a small violation of a newfound religious practice. By taking time to breathe and notice the tzitzit, we find a way to operate more calmly, with greater confidence coupled with greater humility. This combination is a hallmark of Jewish meditation, one that is signified by the gathering of the tzitzit. Certainly, if our ancestors had practiced a bit more awareness meditation, imagine how differently things might have turned out.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

Shavuot 5768: Multitude of views from majestic Mount Sinai


“Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law” by S.Y. Agnon, translated by Michael Swirsky (Jewish Publication Society, 1994). Originally published in Hebrew as “Atem Re’item” by Schocken Books in Hebrew in 1959.

What will you study the night of Shavuot? How about immersing yourself in a collection of classic texts of rabbinic literature, creatively compiled and presented in one convenient volume by an iconic Nobel Prize-winning author?

S.Y. Agnon’s “Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law” is a rich anthology of biblical, talmudic, midrashic and mystical texts — all on the subject of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This unique volume, you will find texts that speak of the Torah’s mystical origins in heaven prior to the creation of the world, the revelation of Torah from heaven by God at Mount Sinai, a section on the Ten Commandments and a post-Sinai reflection on the deeper meanings of Torah beyond Sinai.

In “Present at Sinai,” Agnon is at once editor and author. As editor, he consulted hundreds of books of rabbinic literature and selected from them the texts to include. His talent as an author is expressed in the creative way that he arranged the texts. Rather than present them by textual chronology (Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, etc.), Agnon presents the sources by theme, creating a chronology from “Before Creation” to “The Giving of the Torah” and beyond. Each section contains selections from the full gamut of the rabbinic corpus, and with his storytelling genius, Agnon arranged these texts in a flowing narrative, with the sources doing the talking in their original language. In this book, you are not reading stories written by the author; instead, you are reading one grand epic “Story of Torah,” as told in the language of the classical texts of Torah, woven together by Agnon.

What prompted Agnon, a master of original writing, to create an anthology of rabbinic texts relating to Shavuot? As an author with a deep connection to his religious roots, Agnon related to the experience of Shavuot, a celebration of the centrality of books in Judaism.

“In God’s love for His people, He still gives us some of that same power which He gave us as we stood before Sinai and received the Torah and commandments,” the narrator says in Agnon’s story “The Sign.”

Agnon was intrigued, I believe, by the divine origins of Judaism’s very first book. Both “Torah From Heaven” and “Torah From Sinai” ascribe authoritative status to Judaism’s “Original Book” and to the canon of sacred books that were written as commentaries on that “Original Book.” This spoke deeply to Agnon, and is reflected in many of his writings.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1966, Agnon said, “Who were my mentors in poetry and literature? First and foremost, there are the Sacred Scriptures, from which I learned how to combine letters. Then there are the Mishnah and the Talmud and the midrashim and Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. After these come the posukim — the later explicators of talmudic law — and our sacred poets and the medieval sages, led by our Master Rabbi Moses, son of Maimon, known as Maimonides, of blessed memory.”

Earlier in his life, in 1937, Agnon wrote the story “The Sense of Smell,” where the narrator (who, in typical Agnonic fashion is a vehicle for Agnon’s own voice) proclaims: “Since the Temple remains destroyed and we have no priests at service or Levites at song, instead I study Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, the Mishnah, the halachah and the haggadot, tosefta, dikdukei Torah, and dikdukei soferim.”

In both instances, Agnon connects himself to the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition, the very texts that helped him shape his unique style of writing in modern Hebrew literature. The language of Agnon’s novels and short stories is based on the Hebrew of rabbinic literature, whose many periods and genres Agnon brilliantly synthesized in a style all his own.

Agnon opens “Present at Sinai” with a midrash about the creation of the world, where the Torah declares, “I was the artistic tool [kli omanuto] of the Holy One, blessed be He.”

This midrash is as much about Agnon as it is about God. Much like the Torah served as God’s artistic tool in creating the world, so, too, did the library of Torah serve as Agnon’s artistic tool in creating his own world of literature. Agnon’s voice is deeply embedded in “Present at Sinai,” the voice of a modern author who is in love with the texts and language of his ancient tradition. Use “Present at Sinai” on Shavuot, and you will delight in the story of Torah, as told in its own language, by an author who, in the words of literary critic Gershon Shaked, “is one of the few Hebrew writers besides those of scripture to gain international recognition.” From “Torah at Sinai” to Stockholm, Agnon was in good company.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Shavuot 5768: Creative twists fill large field of holiday events


Three days before revelation, the ancient Jews prepared themselves to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Had they been around today, one might ask, would their ritual have taken place at a wine bar? Or by practicing yoga? Or staging a dramatic play?

Those are some of the more creative ways Los Angeles communities will be taking part this year in Tikkun Leil Shavuot — the tradition of staying up all night studying Torah on the first night of Shavuot, which this year takes place on Sunday, June 8.

Like many rituals and customs once celebrated only by the very observant, the practice of attending a tikkun has become increasingly popular among Jews of all denominations. And many have added their own creative twists.

“My sense is that people gathering in synagogue for all or part of the night is expanding,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “A lot of great learning takes place in the Los Angeles Jewish community on Shavuot.”

Some synagogues use the traditional chevruta method of partner learning, but many schedule speakers to give presentations throughout the night, especially to help congregants stay awake. Other communities will hold a shorter night of learning for family-friendly congregants.

B’nai David-Judea’s begins its study lineup at 11 p.m. with “The Case of Jacob the Wrestler: A Study in Biblical Ambiguity” and continues with sessions on “Sefirat Ha’Omer, Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Shavuot: A Continuum” and “The Lost World of the Mishnah.”


Internationally known teacher and lecturer Mrs. Shira Smiles offers this Shauvot lesson on ‘Redemption’ (Flash audio)



Nashuva has planned its fourth birthday celebration to combine a concert followed by Torah study.

“I think Shavuot is the time for making a renewed commitment and to receive inspiration,” said Rabbi Naomi Levy, the community’s spiritual leader. “Nashuva is a place that allows people to make connections to Judaism and to inspire people who haven’t had that connection before.”

Some communities will go beyond traditional topics to link the holiday to modern-day concerns. Temple Beth Am, IKAR, PicoEgal Minyan and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University will gather at Temple Beth Am for a communitywide Tikkun on the topic of “Can We Talk?”

“The basic theme is can we maintain civil public discourse?” said Rabbi Joel Rembaum, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am. “You have factions in the Jewish community that say unkind things about each other or unkind words about people who disagree on Israel.”

Rembaum said the idea behind the community gathering is to share Jewish traditions on the subject of how to talk in a public setting.

“Jewish tradition is very clear,” he said. “You cannot cause a person shame in public.”

Rembaum called the all-night study a preparation for Mount Sinai: “You are creating for yourself a virtual Sinai by engaging deeply in the study of Torah — you are creating a very powerful spiritual moment,” he said, the middle of the night being a more “pure” time.

“This is one of the legacies in kabbalah that has been generalized now into circles that are non-kabbalistic,” he said.

Indeed, the idea of a tikkun is a kabbalistic one. Some say the custom emerged in the 16th century, when two kabbalists stayed up all night studying the secrets of creation with a celestial being.

The idea of a tikkun is literally a repair or atonement for a past mistake, said Rabbi Moshe Bryski, executive director of Chabad of the Conejo in Agoura Hills. Quoting a midrash, or commentary, that says the people of Israel were sleeping when the Torah came, “We tikkun to fix the mistake” by staying up all night to study Torah, Bryski said: “The whole message of Sinai is to wake up and live like a Jew in this world.”

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe made a major campaign that everyone should relive the Ten Commandments,” Bryski said. “It’s not just reading something from history; it’s for every single person today.”

To make the experience relevant today, some synagogues are going beyond the traditional Torah study and lectures.

The Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center will hold a Torah and yoga session that ends with a midnight meditation, said Rabbi Joshua Grater. “We always try to do something interesting to entice people to come.”

This year resident musicians, Nimrod Nol and Duvid Swirsky (of the band Moshav) will also sing and tell stories of Shlomo Carlebach, as Swirsky grew up playing with Carlebach on his moshav.

“Things happen differently in the middle of the night, when you yourself pass a plane of rational understanding,” he said. “That helps us grasp the enormity of revelation when we read it in the morning.”

Some want to make the experience even more personal.

“I was thinking about what is Torah and what is our individual connection to Torah and to relate our relationship to Torah and to God,” said Jeff Bernhardt, a member of Beth Chayim Chadashim. Those thoughts led him to write “Standing at Sinai,” a play that will be performed at Beth Chayim Chadashim and other synagogues around the country on Shavuot.

The play is a collection of 10 monologues by fictional characters who find a meaningful or life-changing piece of Torah in modern-day life, such as a bar mitzvah boy whose Torah portion is about leprosy or a person who cannot speak after surgery. At the end of the play, each character remains on stage and recites the blessing, “This is the Torah God gave to me,” to symbolize the receiving of the Torah.

“It’s the idea that we were all there at Sinai,” Bernhardt said.

But were the people of Israel meant to prepare for revelation at a wine bar? Rabbi Lori Schneide is holding Temple Shalom of the South Bay’s first tikkun at Brix Wine Cellar on June 9, the second night of the holiday (so people away for the weekend can attend). She will re-examine Exodus and Ezekial’s prophesy using artworks, such as Ansel Adams on revelation and clips from the film “Field of Dreams.”

“My congregation is a new congregation, and a lot of people are intermarried, so a part of what I’m working with them is relevant Judaism for the 21st century,” Schneide said.

She is holding the tikkun at a wine bar, as might have been done in Roman and Greek times, when important discussions took place with wine.

“I’m presenting Torah to them at a place where they go to feel things with more levity and meaning in their lives through wine and good foods,” she said. “Where do we manifest revelation today” is part of the discussion. “After drinking, they’ll start talking.”

For more information, visit:
Temple Beth Am

Nashuva

Chabad of the Conejo

Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center
Temple shalom of the South Bay




Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halchmi of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem talks about three ways of receiving Torah and revelation at Sinai

Better safe than sorry


It is late in the game for Pharaoh. Mitzrayim has just endured the penultimate plague: Dark. Pharaoh now knows he has little time left: It is, for him, the bottom of the ninth.

He summons Moshe, as he has done so many times before, and for the first time conducts an earnest negotiation. The king of Egypt now concedes the demand Moshe had made earlier — everyone may go, even the women and children. Only, says the Pharaoh, you must leave your cattle behind. Moshe declines the offer, and ups the ante. Not only are we going to take our cattle with us, he insists, but you must supplement the herd with some of your own.

Now, the Torah does not record this, but I imagine that there was, at this point, another negotiation. Pharaoh probably said: “Why do you need so many animals, and so many different kinds? I understand you are going to worship your god, and he will demand sacrifice. But come on, now! If your god likes goats, take goats; if he prefers cows, take cows; if it’s sheep he demands, take all the sheep you want. But why do you need to take them all? This makes no sense at all, and, moreover, it’s wasteful! Take only what you need.”

Now we understand Moshe’s reply. We must take it all with us, he says, because “we will not know how to serve the Lord until we arrive there.”

At last we have arrived at the real dispute between Moshe and Pharaoh, between God and Mitzrayim. Pharaoh, an Egyptian, knew what every god wanted — the exact method of honoring each idol and deity in the pantheon. Egypt was all about certainty and permanence. There was one eternal way, and nothing left to chance.

Moshe knew that when we serve God, we always live with uncertainty. How do we know for sure what God will ask of us? We know what He asked of our ancestors, but He might have a different plan for us. The answers of the past are a useful place to begin — an absolute requirement, actually — but that will not ensure success. In the worship of God, as in mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Ibn Ezra offers this: We don’t know if we will need to serve God with this or with that, or with much or with little. Sometimes a small quantity of one service will be more pleasing to God than an overabundance of another service. We must be spiritually alert, flexible and well supplied.

In Mitzrayim, in the place of no options, there was no room for doubt. The world order, including the spiritual order, was not subject to speculation. The answers had all been given, and our assignments were not subject to change. Slaves were slaves; masters were masters. Some enjoyed a life of luxury, others toiled in the pit. And each god was well known and predictable.

For Israel, doubt is not an enemy of service. When we stand before God, we do not come with perfect clarity. We bring to God’s service all our confusions and disappointments as well as our faith and commitment. We don’t have all the answers — in fact, we don’t know all the right questions — but this does not prevent us from serving God with joy.

It is because of our uncertainty that we must bring to the task of serving God all our resources: our intellect, our experience, our imagination, and our learning. We cannot do it alone; we need to take with us all the wisdom we can find. Some resources will come from unexpected sources, like Pharaoh. Some will come from study of Torah and commentaries, of Talmud and codes, of Jewish history and literature. Some will come from our family, friends, teachers and community. Some will be a gift from heaven.

In our journeys out of Egypt toward Mount Sinai — the place of encounter between God and Israel, the place of Torah and covenant — we are always in between. We have left the verities of Egypt, and have not yet arrived at the world of truth, the place where ambiguities will be resolved. Until then, until we arrived there, we must be clever. If we bring all we have and all we can obtain to the tasks of serving God in this world, we might, when called, be ready.

Rabbi Dan Shevitz serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice and teaches rabbinical students at the American Jewish University.

Lessons of gratitude


In the course of a lifetime, we encounter any number of friends.

Some are friends by happenstance — friends who happen to attend school with us, happen to work where we do or reside near us. When we graduate from school, change careers or relocate, most such friends slowly disappear from our lives — and we from theirs.

But there are others, fewer, whose friendship lasts a lifetime. They are the friends we invite to our child’s bar mitzvah or wedding, even though we have not seen each other, or perhaps even spoken, for years.

In the soul of the permanent friendships that account for such deeper love, we very often find rooted some unspoken aspect of gratitude — a friendship built within the trenches and foxholes when we faced unremitting attack, the friend who opened a door and welcomed us when we were alone, the person who was “there” when others were not.

In this week’s Torah portion, we see glimpses of the phenomena that lie beneath the love and gratitude. As so often happens, gratitude is not always consciously expressed. But in deeds and life behavior, the importance of gratitude — hakarat hatov — is a Jewish value that is at the core of our societal being.

Moshe is born into a world that has condemned him to death. In desperation, his mother instructs Miriam, Moshe’s sister, to place him in the river and to stand watch. Miriam stands guard faithfully. When Moshe is received and effectively adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam rapidly reports to her mother, and Yocheved appears at the palace to nurse and rear Moshe in the ways and values of the Hebrews (Exodus 2:2-8).

In time, Moshe becomes a young man at the palace — some midrashic sources say he is 20, some say 40 — when he sees a horrible persecution. As discussed in Midrash Tanchuma, an Egyptian taskmaster has raped a Hebrew woman in her home and now is torturing the life out of her enslaved husband, who has learned the secret.

Moshe looks both ways — some say that he simply is assuring that there are no witnesses; some say he is desperately looking for someone else to stand up and do what must be done, but “he saw there is no man. And he smote the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). Soon after, at the first of many unpleasant encounters he will endure with Datan and Aviram, he is compelled to flee Egypt for his life.

He reaches the wilderness of Midian, where he will remain in relative solitude for the next 40 or 60 years. In that wilderness, as Rav Avigdor Miller has observed, he will have time to contemplate his life’s purpose and to weigh the meaning of his extended isolation from his persecuted people, continuing to withhold the unique life gifts and skills he gained while he was reared amid nobility and power.

At a well in that wilderness, he meets a shepherdess, Tzipporah, whom he first protects from attackers, then marries at the behest of a grateful father-in-law, Yitro, the high priest of Midian (Exodus 2:15-21). In so doing, he perhaps unknowingly continues the nascent Hebrew tradition that saw two of our patriarchs marry women found at the wells — Rivkah and Rachel. All’s well that ends well.

Soon, Hashem will reveal to his brother, Aharon, that Moshe will lead the nation to freedom, and Aharon — rejoicing in his heart (Exodus 4:14) — will come to draw Moshe back to Egypt.

And thus the background. Here is how the Torah value of gratitude will play out over the next 40 years. Moshe will never forget that Miriam stood by his basket floating in the water.

When she later will speak adversely about him and his relationship with his wife, eliciting on her Hashem’s punishment of biblical leprosy, Moshe patiently and lovingly will pray for her recovery and then will do as she did, waiting patiently with the nation he is leading until her status is restored (Numbers 12:11-16).

Aharon, who responded with joy to news of Moshe’s elevation over him, will be rewarded with the crown of the kehunah (priesthood) for all his generations. Unlike the contretemps that so gravely prevailed amid the jealousies of older Yishmael toward younger Yitzchak, older Esav toward younger Yaakov, and the older brothers toward Yosef, Aharon’s unilateral love and joy for Moshe’s elevation will seal the bond for a lifetime’s fraternity, transcending genetic brotherhood.

Hashem will repay Yitro for hosting and feeding Moshe, just as He did Lavan, who hosted and fed Yaakov — notwithstanding that each conferred hospitality for their own particular reasons — with sons who will continue their dynasties (Genesis 30:35, 31:1; Judges 1:16). Moshe will honor Yitro repeatedly, first demonstratively asking his permission to return to Egypt, even though Hashem has commanded Moshe to depart from Midian (Exodus 4:18). And later Moshe will welcome Yitro into the Hebrew nation’s midst, even adopting counsel Yitro offers.

Moshe, too, will demonstrate a fascinating gratitude toward the water that saved his life in infancy and the sand that hid the Egyptian tormentor whom he slew. Years later, when the first plagues hit Egypt in its water and earth, Moshe will not use his staff to strike those inanimate resources but instead will delegate that task to Aharon (Exodus 7:19, 8:2, 8:12).

These are the lessons of gratitude — and the wonderful impact with which this Torah value enriches the lives of those who perform great acts of friendship — and those who know how to carry hakarat hatov within their souls.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.

Mourning Miriam


Moshe was one of a kind. “None ever rose again like Moshe.”

At the same time, in very powerful ways, Moshe and Miriam were two of a kind.

Their personalities
and passions overlapped generously. And despite being separated over decades during Moshe’s extended sojourn in Midian, their destinies and their souls remained intertwined. When one of them left this world, the other descended into grief-stricken crisis.

It’s not just that Miriam — and Miriam alone — watched over 3-month-old Moshe as he lay among the bulrushes on the Nile. It’s that (as the text and the Midrash co-mingle) Miriam was the first of the two siblings to boldly confront authority, and to fight for the preservation of her people. When, under the boot of Egyptian oppression, her father Amram publicly declared his intention to desist from having any further children, it was Miriam who forcefully objected.

“Father, you are worse than Pharaoh,” she said. “For Pharaoh declared death only upon the Israelite boys who would be born. But you have pronounced sentence upon both the boys and the girls.”

Amram accepted his daughter’s critique, and Moshe was born shortly thereafter. She prophesied that this baby would be the redeemer of Israel. When the baby was left in the water, she stood guard both over him and over the dream of freedom.

The impression that Moshe and Miriam were mirrors of one another is conveyed unmistakably at the very moment that the dream of freedom is realized. With the Egyptian horsemen at the bottom of the sea, Moshe leads the men of Israel in song, as Miriam leads the women. “I will sing to God for He has acted mightily” is the refrain they each inspire.

Later, when Miriam is stricken with tzara’at (often translated as “leprosy”), Aaron pleads with Moshe that he pray for her. According to the standard translation, Aaron pleads, “Let her not be as one who is dead … with half her flesh eaten away.”

But the medieval sage Rashbam (a grandson of Rashi’s), realized that the pronouns in Aaron’s sentence are not necessarily female. In fact, he says, they are male. And Aaron is pleading with Moshe to pray for Miriam’s recovery so that he — Moshe — not be as one half of whose flesh is eaten away. For Aaron saw and understood that Moshe and Miriam were in many ways two halves of a whole, with lives and passions that were overlapping and interlocked. If Miriam dies, Moshe would be half-dead himself.

All of this helps explain the astonishing and tragic turn of events described in today’s parsha. When the well in the desert runs dry, and God instructs Moshe to speak to the rock and elicit its waters, Moshe furiously lashes out against the people for their rebelliousness, strikes the rock with his staff, and incurs the Divine punishment of being barred from the land. What accounts for Moshe’s fury?

Rashi, deeply rooted in the Midrash, points out that the event immediately prior to the water crisis is the death of Miriam. For 40 years a particular rock had traveled with the people and, in Miriam’s merit, miraculously gave forth water. With Miriam’s death, the rock dried up, rolled away and found its place within the anonymity of the thousands of rocks in the desert. God’s command to Moshe that he “speak to the rock” set Moshe off on the seemingly impossible mission to locate that old familiar rock. The people grew weary and said, “What difference does it make from which rock you bring forth water?” Are not all rocks the same for God?

The people were right. But Moshe lost his temper. Not because God couldn’t bring water out of any rock that He wished. Not because the people weren’t legitimately thirsty. But because Moshe was heartbroken over the loss of his sister. And he didn’t want to find just any rock. He wanted to find her rock. To feel her presence, to be comforted over her death. Moshe’s fury wasn’t born of anger. It was born of grief.

We all encounter people who are sometimes angry. Often these angry people are those whom we care about deeply, and we are hurt by their anger. The story of Moshe and Miriam reminds us that anger is often not really anger that we are witnessing, rather an expression of grief over the loss of something important — a relationship, a belief, a hope, a dream. Each of us experiences loss differently. But we all need the same kind of understanding and patience from our friends. Even Moshe needed some.


Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Israel and Syria secret talks reported; Abbas calls for ‘resistance’


Report: Israel, Syria Held Informal Talks

Israelis and Syrians reportedly held unofficial negotiations recently on a potential peace accord. Ha’aretz reported Tuesday that between 2004 and 2006 Alon Liel, former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, was in an Israeli delegation that met secretly with Ibrahim Suleiman, a Syrian American considered close to the Assad regime, as well as an unnamed European mediator. According to Ha’aretz, the sides settled on a blueprint for a gradual Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. The plan called for much of the strategic plateau to become a park for Israelis and Syrians to use, and Damascus would distance itself from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, the report said. Ha’aretz reported that the governments of Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert were aware of the talks, though Olmert denied it. The Syrian government also called the report “baseless.” Israel Radio quoted Liel as confirming he took part in the meetings but saying he “did not represent anyone.”

Abbas Calls for ‘Resistance’

Mahmoud Abbas praised Palestinians who fight Israeli “occupation.””We have raised our rifles against the occupation, and that is a legitimate right,” the Palestinian Authority president said last week at a rally of his Fatah faction in the West Bank. “It is forbidden to raise rifles against one another. Our rifles, all our rifles, are aimed at the occupation.”

Abbas, generally portrayed as a moderate, has been scrambling to head off civil war between the secular Fatah and the terrorist Hamas group, whose ascent to power drew a Western embargo on aid to the Palestinian Authority last year. Despite his apparent endorsement for Palestinian attacks on Israelis, Abbas also voiced hope for renewing peace talks with Jerusalem.

“Our hand is outstretched [in peace,”] he said. “We have rights and we want to live as others live.”

Rape Charges Expected Against Katsav

Israeli prosecutors reportedly are preparing to indict President Moshe Katsav on at least one count of rape. Yediot Achronot reported Monday that the State Attorney’s Office, which has been examining allegations of sexual molestation and rape lodged against Katsav last year by several former female employees, has decided to charge him on at least one count of the more serious felony. No date was given for theindictment.

Sources at the State Attorney’s Office said no final decision has been made on Katsav’s case, but confirmed that an indictment was considered imminent. The Israeli president, who is due to step down this summer, has denied any wrongdoing.

House Calls for Ahmadinejad Charges

A bipartisan slate of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a resolution calling on the Iranian president to face genocide incitement charges.

The nonbinding resolution brought last week to the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee and initiated by Reps. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the destruction of Israel amount to crimes according to the 1948 Convention on Genocide.

The convention not only provides for punishment for genocide, Rothman and Kirk wrote in a letter to their colleagues, but “also prohibits ‘direct and public incitement to commit genocide.’

It further provides that individuals committing genocidal crimes shall be punished ‘whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.’

Ahmadinejad’s hateful rhetoric calling for the elimination of Israel, a Member State of the United Nations, qualifies as inciting genocide.”

The resolution has garnered 22 sponsors.

Olmert Courts China on Iran

Ehud Olmert secured a Chinese pledge to use diplomatic pressure to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. The Israeli prime minister returned home last Friday after high-level talks in Beijing, where he argued that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten not only the Jewish state but also stability in a region that supplies China with much-needed oil. Olmert quoted both Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao as telling him that their country was opposed to the Iranians obtaining nuclear weapons, but also believed that diplomatic pressure could rein in Tehran.

The China trip culminated a tour that Olmert launched last year among countries with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, which on Dec. 23 passed a resolution imposing limited sanctions on Iran and giving it 60 days to halt uranium enrichment. Olmert aides said they were hopeful that should Iran flout the resolution, sanctions would be stepped up.

Irish Leader Presses Peace on Hamas

Ireland’s prime minister called on Hamas to renounce violence and accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Speaking to leading Saudi politicians and businessmen Monday in Riyadh, Bertie Ahern said it is “fantasy for Hamas to pretend that there is an alternative to a negotiated two-state solution.”

But he also cautioned the West not to ignore or set aside the views and interests of Hamas supporters. In a nod to his host, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Ahern also praised the Arab League’s 2002 Beirut declaration — promising a pan-Arab commitment to peace if Israel met certain conditions — as “historic.” Israel reacted cautiously to the plan when it was announced, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently signaled a willingness to revisit it. Ahern is heading an Irish trade delegation to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

SS Widow Settles With Irish Broadcaster

The widow of a Belgian SS volunteer reached a court settlement with the Irish national broadcaster granting her the right of reply to a documentary about Nazi fugitives and collaborators in Ireland. Juliet Folens, wife of the late Albert Folens, a former member of the SS-affiliated Flemish Legion and founder of Ireland’s largest publisher of schoolbooks, had sought an injunction preventing RTE television from broadcasting a portion of “Ireland’s Nazis” dealing with her husband’s wartime activities. The second half of the documentary was set to air Tuesday, but it was redacted to exclude an enactment of torture that Folens allegedly carried out during the war. The program also will include a reply by Folens stating that she and her family do not accept that Folens was a member of the Nazi party or employed by the Gestapo, as the film claims. Folens was sentenced to 10 years in prison by British authorities for his participation in the Flemish Legion, but escaped custody in 1946 to Ireland, where he lived until his death four years ago. The film documents several Nazis and collaborators who found safe haven in Ireland in the postwar years.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Jewish Woman Is European Beauty Queen; Katsav Urged to Temporarily Quit


Jewish Woman Is European Beauty Queen

Alexandra Rosenfeld, 19, won the Miss Europe 2006 title in Kiev last Friday. Rosenfeld, a student who is also Miss France, walked away with $130,000 in prize money and a diamond-studded crown. According to media reports, the Web sites covering the pageant were flooded with anti-Semitic messages after Rosenfeld’s win.

Katsav Urged to Temporarily Quit

Israel’s attorney general recommended that President Moshe Katsav temporarily resign. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz issued his advisory Sunday in response to a High Court petition lodged by a lawyer who wants Katsav to resign in light of the rape allegations against him. Mazuz noted that the High Court is not the forum for deciding Katsav’s fate, but said the president should consider having the Knesset declare him “temporarily incapacitated” until the investigation against him runs its course. Mazuz, who holds ultimate responsibility on deciding whether to prosecute Katsav, said that should there be a trial the president would have no choice but to step down. Katsav, who is suspected of raping more than one former female employee, has denied wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Elie Wiesel has said he is not interested in becoming Israel’s president in response to reports that he has been named as a possible successor to Katsav.

One-Third Favor Clemency for Rabin Assassin

Almost one in three Israelis would support seeing Yitzhak Rabin’s jailed assassin go free one day, a poll found. According to the survey published over the weekend by Yediot Achronot, 5 percent of Israelis would like Yigal Amir to be granted clemency now, while another 25 percent would favor him being freed in 25 years. Support for clemency was stronger among right-wingers and religious Jews. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they want Amir, who shot Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, at a 1995 peace rally, to stay behind bars for life. A 2001 bill passed by the Knesset ruled out clemency for anybody who assassinates an Israeli prime minister.

Foundation Funds Day School Scholarships

A U.S. foundation will offer scholarships worth $11 million for students to attend Jewish day schools in Baltimore. The multiyear grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation will be managed by the Associated, Baltimore’s Jewish federation. The Associated, which already provides more than $3 million a year to Jewish schools in the Baltimore area, committed an additional $1 million for each year of the partnership. Studies have shown that many Jewish parents say they are unable to send their children to Jewish schools because of the cost.”This fund will not only enable more children to attend Jewish day schools, it will centralize the scholarship process and ensure that the moneys are being disbursed as efficiently and effectively as possible,” said Shale Stiller, president of the Weinberg foundation.

Blair Attends Day School Launch

British Prime Minister Tony Blair attended the opening of an ultra-Orthodox day school. The Yesodai Hatorah Girls School was launched Oct. 26 at an event in London’s Stamford Hill. Blair called himself a proud friend of the Jewish people and praised the school for promoting the kind of “values that in the end must motivate and govern the whole of our country and society.”

Hours earlier, Education Secretary Alan Johnson reversed a government decision that would have required state-funded faith schools to reserve at least 25 percent of their spots for students of other faiths or no faith.

Auerbach, Legendary Celtics Coach, Dies

Legendary basketball coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach died over the weekend at age 89. Auerbach led the Boston Celtics to nine NBA titles between 1956 and 1966. Born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, Auerbach was an innovator on both offense and defense. In 1954, the NBA introduced the 24-second shot clock to counter Auerbach’s tactic of having point guard Bob Cousy dribble out the game clock if the Celtics had a lead with under three minutes left.

Berlin Community Returns to Historic Quarters

Berlin’s Jewish community moved back into its historical headquarters. The community on Saturday celebrated its full return to a synagogue in the city’s east where both communal administration and board will be under one roof. Previously, some communal offices were located in the former West Berlin. The synagogue, which once could hold some 3,000 worshippers, largely was destroyed by allied bombing raids in World War II, but a new chapel and offices were constructed after reunification. The city’s Jewish population has quadrupled to more than 12,000 in the years since unification, particularly due to the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

— Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

There’s no business like shul business


” target=”_blank”>”V’shamru,” which he composed in 1967 as part of a play he put on in rabbinical school, is sung around the world. For many, his version — “V’shamru, v’ne-ei Yisra-e-el, e-e-et ha-Sha-a-a-bbat” — is the version.

Despite his renown, Rothblum is humble.

“He practices the Jewish concept of tzim-tzum,” musician Craig Taubman said. “It’s the ability to make himself smaller. When you lead with that model, you create an opportunity for other people to shine.”

In 2001, Rothblum introduced an alternative monthly service featuring Taubman, a member of the congregation. Hundreds now flock to the service, called “One Shabbat Morning,” which involves nontraditional elements like acting out the Torah portion and a band jamming on drums and electric guitars.

Those who know Rothblum call him “Moshe” or “Rabbi.” Boni Gellis, Rothblum’s assistant of nearly 11 years, calls him “my rabbi.”

“I like to call him ‘Boss,'” said Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, who, after 10 years at Adat Ari El, will take Rothblum’s place as senior rabbi. Rothblum has taught Bernhard many lessons over the years, including how to interact with a congregation and preserve tradition.

Rothblum, married for 36 years, with two sons, has also shown his protégé how to balance synagogue and family life.

“He has a very gentle touch,” said Bernhard, 40. “It’s not like he tries to pound these lessons into me. It’s been more by offering up words of wisdom.”

People can relate to Rothblum, said Steve Getzug, 46, who has been a congregant at Adat Ari El for about 14 years and has served on the board.

“There’re the Rabbi Schulweises of the world who are sort of on a different plane. … They’re inspirational, but half of what they say may elude you,” Getzug said. “What I like about the rabbi is that he appeals to me in language that I can understand.”

Tisha B’Av Dilemma: Day of Solemnity or Celebration?


Traditional Jews mark Tisha B’Av by fasting, reading from the Book of Lamentations and observing rituals of mourning.

Not all congregations observe the solemn day, however. Tisha B’Av at The Valley Temple, a Reform synagogue in Cincinnati, took on a less somber demeanor last year. Temple Sisterhood members spent the holiday busily hosting their annual rummage sale, sorting through piles of household goods, toys and clothing and hawking them to prospective buyers.

In all fairness, the scheduling of the rummage sale on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which falls this year at sundown on Aug. 2, was not deliberate. But the fact that Sisterhood members were not aware of the holiday, according to one spokesperson who asked not to be identified, reveals that Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar for Jews, is also a nonevent in some, usually Reform, congregations.

It also reveals how the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred in both 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. and which Tisha B’Av commemorates, resonates differently among various denominations.

“There’s a challenge for Reform Jews around the observance of Tisha B’Av, and communities make all kinds of choices,” said Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of worship, music and religious living.

The Valley Temple was not the only Reform synagogue last year to host a rummage sale or new member brunch on Tisha B’Av. This is not surprising considering that references to the Temple’s rebuilding have been moved from the Reform movement’s liturgy. Granted, Reform Judaism does not deny the existence of the Temple or its historical role.

“But the difference theologically is that we’re not looking for restoration of the Temple and Temple sacrifices,” Wasserman said.

Some Reform Jews, as did 19th century Rabbi David Einhorn, actually see the holiday as celebratory, crediting the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jews with enabling the Jewish people to survive and become “a light unto the nations,” as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah (42:6 and 49:6).

Tisha B’Av is observed in most Conservative synagogues, according to Rabbi Ed Feinstein, spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

“The question for Jews like us is what does it mean to celebrate Tisha B’Av at a time when Israel is ours and Jerusalem is ours,” he said.

His congregation, in fact, tackled this question at a Tisha B’Av discussion several years ago, where, drawing on the Shavuot model of study, they spent two hours learning and debating. Afterward, they read the Book of Eicha, as Lamentations is called in Hebrew, and prayed.

Valley Beth Shalom traditionally partners with Adat Ari El in neighboring Valley Village for Tisha B’Av services. While both Conservative and only 10 minutes apart, the synagogues embody very different cultures, reflected in opposite approaches to the fast’s observance. Valley Beth Shalom engages in discussions; Adat Ari El, which is hosting this year’s service, favors a more emotional approach. This year, the service, in addition to reading the Book of Lamentations, will consist of some modern dramatic readings and the lighting of six candles, to commemorate the Holocaust and other tragedies that occurred on the ninth of Av, according to Rabbi Moshe Rothblum.

There doesn’t seem to be a basic theology or ideology concerning the role of the ancient Temple in Conservative Judaism, according to Feinstein. He believes that the age of animal sacrifices, appropriate at one time, has been superseded by an age of prayer, relegating the Temple to a symbol.

“When I read the prayers asking for the rebuilding of the Temple, I interpret that to mean the unification and redemption of the Jewish people,” he said.
At Reconstructionist Temple Beth Or in Miami, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian observes the eve of Tisha B’Av with her 125-family congregation. Usually the program includes a reading of excerpts from Eicha, followed by a contemporary take on Tisha B’Av, such as a discussion of Milton Steinberg’s “As a Driven Leaf,” a novel that unfolds during the time of the Temple’s destruction.

This year, Lillian is taking a slightly different approach. Tisha B’Av eve will include readings from Eicha, as usual. The following evening, congregants will focus on Darfur and modern genocides, a project of the temple’s social action committee.

“The destruction of the Temple was in many ways a genocide, killing Jews and kicking them out,” she said.

References to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem have been removed from Reconstructionist liturgy. But because the movement is decentralized, individual synagogues have ample leeway in terms of how they celebrate various holidays, Lillian said.

There’s no ambivalence in the Orthodox world, however, concerning the role of the Temple.

“We pray [for its rebuilding] three times a day,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, which represents the ultra-Orthodox community.

Orthodox congregations across the spectrum continue to commemorate Tisha B’Av in traditional ways, such as observing a 25-hour fast from sundown to the next night, not wearing leather shoes, sitting on low stools or on the floor during the evening service and reciting Eicha and other elegies.

It is a day of absolute mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem’s two Temples. For many Orthodox Jews, and increasingly across the denominational spectrum, the day also encompasses other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on the ninth of Av, including the fall of Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar-Kochba Revolt, in 135 C.E., the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the beginning of the Jews’ deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.

Additionally, many in the ultra-Orthodox community memorialize the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av rather than on Yom HaShoah, the traditional day of commemoration for most Modern Orthodox and other denominational congregations. This is due, in part, to a reluctance to add new holidays or days of mourning to the calendar. More importantly, according to Shafran, “The illustrious rabbinical leaders of a quarter-century ago felt that nothing short of Tisha B’Av could suffice for a tragedy as great as the Holocaust.”

But in the ultra-Orthodox, as well as Modern Orthodox, communities over the past few years, on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, a revolution of sorts has been taking place in many of the nation’s largest cities. Instead of what Shafran describes as “sleeping or sitting around and suffering,” groups of Jews are gathering by the thousands in large halls to hear dynamic speakers expound on relevant topics such as senseless hatred or hurtful speech.

“It’s become a mass movement of Jews from one hall to another, and it’s become a very dynamic day,” Shafran said.

When the Dust Settled


Last week’s portion ends with a ferocious battle; this week’s begins with the after action report and the distributing of medals. We learn the names of those killed
and those rewarded and then all the troops are mustered and counted, to see who remains alive from the fighting.

The counting tells us something else, as well. We are told that aside from Caleb and Joshua, no man remains alive of the generation of the desert, the generation that had rebelled against God and Moses some 40 years earlier.

The generation that knew Egyptian slavery, that had experienced redemption, that stood and witnessed at Mount Sinai, but who cavorted with Molten Calf anyway, was now dead. The generation that had been brought to the very borders of Canaan but refused to enter died in the wilderness.

Only one more of that generation was set to die: Moshe himself, and Moshe knew it. In Numbers 27:12, God tells Moshe that he is to ascend to the top of Mount Abarim and see the land that he will not enter, and that when he sees the land from that place, he will be gathered to his ancestors. We don’t know for sure what Moshe thought as he contemplated gazing at the land and then dying.

We don’t know what he thought about those ancestors to whom he would be gathered.

It is almost certain that as he prepared for his death, he gazed at the array of Israelites camped around him. Shaping their spirits around the call of Torah so that they would begin the transmission of that shaping of lives and spirits to subsequent generations — eventually down to us and the generations that follow us — had been his life’s work.

If his life’s work was to have any meaning, it had to be passed down to another. The Torah does not tell us what Moshe thought, but we are told what he said. As he thought about his death, Moshe asks God to appoint his successor.

God tells Moshe to take Joshua, “a man in whom there is spirit,” to ordain him with his own hand in the presence of the entire assembly. And then God utters a strange phrase: “And you shall take from your hod and place it upon him, so that the witnessing community of Israel shall hear and hearken” (Numbers 27:20).

This is the only occurrence of the word hod, normally translated as “majesty” or “splendor” in the entire Torah. Commentators on the Torah give us a range of thoughts on this word. One very terse but telling comment is given by the Ba’al Ha-Turim (Jacob ben Asher, 1270-1343, author of the Arba’a Turim – one of greatest legal minds after the Talmud).

The Ba’al HaTurim writes, “Me-hod’kha – b’gematria — ha-sod. Lomar lakh she-masar lo sod ha-merkavah u-ma’aseh breisheet.”

Free, explanatory translation: From your “Hod” (the term “your hod” in the gematria where each Hebrew letter has a numerical value — M.F.) adds up to 75, as does the Hebrew term “ha-sod.” Ha-sod means “the secret” — this means that Moshe taught to Joshua the secrets of Jewish mysticism — the mysteries of the realm of the Divine Throne and the mysteries of the Creation of the World.”

n this short space, we won’t go into the mysteries of the Divine Throne or Creation, but we say this: Those who do study that material feel that they have entered into the realm of ultimate reality. They find there the ultimate root and reason, ground and cause of all that happens — the truths that are the foundations of the world of righteousness.

Those wno descend into this world come to know how these truths are manifested in this world, and they even come understand the wars that have to be fought in this world for the realm of truth to hold firm.

Perhaps the Ba’al Ha-Turim was saying that as Moshe contemplated his own death, he asked himself: What can I say to my successor? Every true leader who leads not for the sake of power but rather for the sake of a vision knows of the world of truth in which that vision is rooted. Moshe had to pass on to Joshua not just the Torah itself, and not just the mantle of leadership, but some deep knowledge of what truly was at stake — the sense of Divine urgency for lives shaped around the truth of Torah.

And Moshe’s deepest prayer is that we should all blessed with a measure of Divine spirit — knowledge of the holy, and the will to bring that holiness into all parts of our lives. Torah is passed down through the generations not for sake of heritage – that would be a shallow tautology “we pass it down so that it may be passed down.” We pass it down because Torah links us to the Divine mysteries — of the self, the soul and the truths by which we ought to shape our lives.

PASSOVER: Songs for a Swinging Seder


Of all the Jewish holidays, none is so firmly rooted in the home and so joyously celebrated with song as Passover. This simple fact would lead you to expect an avalanche of Passover records, but this year the avalanche is more like a mild rain of pebbles, at least in the quantity department. The quality is pretty high, but don’t count on finding much for your own seder table. These records should come with the warning: “Trained singing professionals; do not try this at home.”

The two most unusual and interesting of the four new CDs both use hip-hop as a touchstone. Samples, cut-ups, rapping, multiple overdubbing with hard beats — the usual package — used artfully by Craig Taubman on “The Passover Lounge” (Craig + Co.) and Josh Dolgin, better known as SoCalled, on “The SoCalled Seder: A Hip-Hop Haggadah” (JDub).

Taubman’s outing is more musically conservative, generally staying close to the familiar holiday tunes and drawing on a trippy vibe that nicely complements his breezy tenor singing. Co-producer Luke Tozour provides some tasty beats and samples and a lot of friendly ambient sound. (Hey, guys, my seder never sounds this mellow — where is all the screaming and yelling?) It’s a nice little package that turns the Four Questions into juicy, dreamy funk and the recounting of the plagues into something like “old-skool horror” rap. If Taubman has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, the humor is affectionate and endearing.

SoCalled, unsurprisingly, is after something tougher, with more street cred and a straight-razor edge. Taking samples from old how-to-do-a-seder records and slicing and dicing them into a bubbling stew of breakbeat sounds, scratching from P.Love, klezmer instrumentals from Elaine and Susan Hoffman Watts, high-powered sax funk from Paul Shapiro, and a startling rap from Killah Priest on the plagues, he has created a Pesach for downtown hipsters. I love it but I’m pretty sure my zayde would not. As the old joke goes, if he were alive, this would kill him. Be forewarned.

If you are seeking a more traditional Passover recording, you might be more comfortable with “The Spirit of Passover: Voices of the Conservative Movement” (Cantors Assembly/United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), a sampler that was actually released last year but which didn’t turn up on my desk until a few weeks ago. The current issue of Judaism is devoted to a long discussion of the current state and possible future of the Conservative movement, but if you want a truly vivid portrait of the many directions in which its adherents are pulling, this CD is the thing.

The record opens with a burst of Hollywood Strings-style kitsch that suddenly turns into a veritable explosion of “Ki Lo Na’eh/Had Gadya” sung by the Three Jewish Tenors. Meir Finkelstein, Alberto Mizrahi and David Propis sound like the musical equivalent of human cannonballs on this gleeful tribute to Moyshe Oysher, but it’s not a great idea to open a record at this energy level, because anything that follows is bound to be a letdown.

And much of what follows is a new-agey, Celine Dionish ode to Rebbe Nachman written by Jeff Klepper and sung by Eva Robbins, although nothing is quite so dire as “The Empty Chair.” Things couldn’t get worse than that and, fortunately, they don’t. Indeed, there are some real high points: a lithe “Dayeinu” performed by the Syracuse Children’s Chorus, a supremely simple but powerful “Hodu Ladonai” from Sam Weiss, a haunting “Livbavtini” in which a multitracked Ramon Tasat duets with himself and an audacious “Prayer for Dew: Tal” in which Moshe Schulhof sings with a recording of the legendary Yossele Rosenblatt. If you look up “chutzpahdik” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a photo of Schulhof, but to his everlasting credit, he holds his own with the man most consider the single greatest hazzan of all time. (Available from www.TheSpiritSeries.com.)

The final entry in this year’s Pesach sweepstakes is a somber one, Max Helfman’s “Di Naye Hagode” (Milken Archive/Naxos). Helfman’s oratorio is not, strictly speaking, a Passover commemoration in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it is a 1948 piece he wrote in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on Passover in 1943. Using the seder as a structural armature on which to mount “di naye hagode,” that is, “the new telling,” Helfman wrote a frequently powerful, occasionally bombastic piece for choir, narrator and orchestra. This recording features particularly forceful contributions from the Choral Society of Southern California, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale and narrator Theodore Bikel, who never succumbs to the temptation to “emote,” wisely allowing Itzik Fefer’s stark, bleak text to do the hard work. The CD also features an effective rendition of Helfman’s “Hag Habikkurim” and a surprisingly mournful “The Holy Ark.” The result is one of the best releases in the Milken Archive series to date.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

 

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis


 

There’s a worn American flag hanging in the second-story window of Moshe Salem’s stately Valley Village home.

Which is strange if you think about it, since much of Salem’s existence is centered around Israel. He’s Israeli, his wife is Israeli, as are their four kids. Most of his friends in the Valley are Israeli, and for the last three years, he’s been volunteering as the president of the Council of Israeli Communities (CIC), a small organization that wants to serve as the central representation of Israelis in Los Angeles — an endeavor that has not quite come to fruition just yet.

There’s more of Israel inside these huge mahogany oak doors, which open onto a marble floor and thick, ivory columns: The walls flanking the entryway are decorated with dozens of colorful hamsas, hand-shaped amulets that ostensibly protect against evil; in the corner of the two story-high living room is a tarnished silver Middle Eastern tea set and several hookahs, and, of course, there’s Moshe himself, the 45-year-old advocate for Israel and for Israelis in America.

Although the organization originally began in 2001 as a pro-Israel advocacy group, when other organizations like StandWithUs began to effectively fill that role, the CIC changed direction to try to foster a relationship between Israelis and Israel, its culture and values.

After he became president of the CIC in 2002 — a term that ends in February — Salem began working three to four hours a day on CIC projects, such as hosting speakers, sing-alongs, holiday activities; working with The Federation and Jewish Agency; organizing events like the recent Rabin memorial at the University of Judaism; or inviting Israeli soldiers to talk about Israel’s care in the execution of missions.

“There is a great need for one central Israeli organization,” says Gal Shor, editor-in-chief of Shalom L.A., a Hebrew newspaper here. Shor does not believe the CIC has fulfilled that role yet, due to a membership of 5,000 out of the estimated 200,000 Israelis in Los Angeles and a lack of funding, but he says Salem has been tireless in his work.

“One good thing about him is that he’s trying. He does give his time and effort,” Shor says.

When he’s not at the CIC, Salem runs his diamond business, which he started a few years after he came to California in 1981. Like many Israelis here, Salem originally came to America to make some money, never intending to stay. But after a wife, four children and years of what he calls “living on the fence” — about whether to return to Israel or not — Salem has come to terms with the fact that they’re probably not going back to Bat Yam. Which makes it all the more important for him to try to forge a connection between Israelis and Israel.

“People ask me, ‘Why are you doing this, giving your time, your money?’ (Time away from work is money),” he said. “You have more substance in your life rather than just getting up in the morning, going to parties, going to the movies,” he said.

On a personal level, he said, he does it for his children, too: “I think my kids observe a lot. When they see an article in the Israeli papers, or when we have a gathering at the house, it enriches their life. I think, I hope, I pray that I’m embedding in them Jewish Israeli values that way.”

On a more global level, he said that somebody has to do the work that he is doing.

“If everybody says, ‘I can’t do it, I’m too busy,’ then who would do this? If nobody would do these things, then what you’re doing is emptying the community life from any cultural or spiritual values,” he said. “A community that does not have spiritual and cultural values is a doomed community.”

Moshe Salem

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Goggles of Faith


I first saw night-vision goggles when I watched Harrison Ford in Tom Clancy’s “Patriot Games.”

The bad guys were prowling in a dark bedroom. Suddenly, a good guy switched on the room lights, practically blinding them.

The technology was featured again in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and then came the War in Iraq, showing us green-tinted footage unfolding amid the dark of night. All thanks to those night-vision goggles.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Shelach Lecha, Moshe Rabbeinu designates an advance party of 12 scouts to survey the Promised Land. The Jews are approaching their destination and the fulfillment of their destiny, and Moshe opts to have a team of prominent Jewish leaders, comprised of one delegate from each of the 12 tribes, investigate and report back.

Moshe asks the team to develop answers to several basic military questions. Is the enemy fortified, or is he so brazen in his self-assuredness that he lives in open camps? Is the enemy strong or weak? Few or numerous? He also asks them to report on the quality of the land, its fertility, its vegetation.

After 40 days of spying, the scouts return with their report, a frightful account of mighty giants in the land. Yes, the land is beautiful, flowing with milk and honey, resplendent with grapes so huge that they may become a registered national trademark one day. But the bad news is that we are not going to conquer it. The opposition is overwhelming — there are Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Emorites and Canaanites all over the place. Some are teeming along the Mediterranean coast on the west; others line the eastern border at the Jordan. Just impossible. The land eats its inhabitants. And then there are those giants: “In our own self-estimation, [as compared to their size and awesomeness,] we were like mere grasshoppers. And we were equally tiny and minuscule in their estimation, too.”

The nation hears the report. Many weep with hopelessness and despair, wishing only to return to the security of Egyptian slavery. Chaos ensues. Two spies emerge — Caleb of the tribe of Judah, and Joshua of Ephraim — and desperately try to overcome the mood.

“It is a beautiful land, flowing with milk and honey,” they assure. So what if there are five nations encamped all over the place? God has promised us the land, and He certainly will give it to us. If these other nations try to stop us, we will have no problem defeating them — “They are our bread.”

In the starkly diverging views of the majority report and the minority, we see the role played by insight, understanding and faith in the God of our ancestors. One can infer why 10 prominent Jewish leaders were so despondent. They looked at objective facts on the ground. They counted. They measured. They were responsible. They were practical. And they figured it’s impossible. The whole world is against us. No way.

Caleb and Joshua reported differently because they donned the night-vision goggles of faith. Embedded among the scouts, Caleb and Joshua somehow peered through the muddled night of faithlessness, and they saw clear as day: the Lord is our God. Those who defy His plan for us are our bread.

Caleb and Joshua saw so clearly through the horizon’s murkiness. They did not see themselves as grasshoppers, and they, therefore, did not imagine that others saw them as puny either. Rather, they saw bread that, like any bread, easily could be made into crumbs. They saw that the God who had smitten Egypt with 10 plagues; who had targeted and pinpoint-excised first-born males among families and houses replete with females and later-born kids; who had split the Sea of Reeds and revealed Himself before the eyes and ears of the nation of several million at Sinai — could deliver. They saw it so clearly. There is no doubt in their voices. “If Hashem, our God, wants to do so, He will bring us into this land and give to us this land flowing with milk and honey. So don’t rebel against God, and don’t fear the local denizens, because they are our bread, and their protective cloaks already have departed. God is with us. Don’t fear them.”

There is such strong, overpowering fear from one quarter; such equal certainty of success from another.

Their story is ours. Some look at the Torah and see nice children’s Bible stories. But they are not nice stories, and are not primarily for children. The Torah recounts passionate dramas that recur throughout our nation’s march to ultimate redemption. The practical, objective Jewish leaders see Amalekites and Hittites on the border, barbarians at the gates, and freeze with fear. They back away from our destiny.

And those who don the night-vision goggles view the challenges with perspicacity and understand that Jewish leadership is about vision and destiny.

Crumbs of bread. Kernels of rice. We are protected by the Guardian of Abraham.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, rabbi of Young Israel of Calabasas since its inception, will become rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine in August. He also is an adjunct professor of law and a member of the Rabbinical Council of California.

 

The Fruit of Peace


What did Moshe want? When it all came down to it, after Moshe accepted that he wouldn’t be leading Israel into the land, what did he request of God? Not surprisingly, he asked nothing for himself, focusing instead on the people who would need to go on without him. As we read this week, "Lord of the spirit of all flesh, appoint, I pray thee, a man to lead the congregation who will go out before them and who will come in before them, who will lead them out and who will bring them in."

While Moshe’s concern for his people is not surprising, it is interesting to note that in his request he is also expressing concern for his successor. The sages of the Midrash recognized that there is something very deliberate in Moshe’s description of the successor he envisions. Moshe wanted his successor to be granted the ability both to "lead them out" and to "bring them in." Contrary to his own frustrating experience, in which he brought the people out of Egypt, but was not permitted by God to see them settle in the Promised Land, he desperately wanted his successor to be able to see the fruits of all his labors. Moshe was hoping to obtain a guarantee from God that the next leader of Israel would not suffer the pain of unfulfilled dreams, or the frustration of devoting a lifetime to the fulfillment of a vision, only to have to leave this earth with the goal still unrealized.

Moshe’s concern for his successor’s fate is well placed and noble. But in the grand scheme of life, it is one that is often unrealistic. The well-known rabbinic story that serves as the counterpoint to Moshe’s story, is that of Honi the Circlemaker. During one of his travels, Honi encounters an old man who is planting a carob tree. Amazed at what he saw, Honi called out to the man and inquired whether he was aware of the fact that carob trees don’t bear any fruit for 70 years. The planter replied with the familiar words, "when I arrived in this world, I found carob trees here. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I will plant for those who will come after me."

It is this realization that allows the world to move forward with hope. It is the willingness of people to invest themselves in projects whose fruit they will never see, that provides the only basis for the faith that tomorrow can be better than today. If we were to simply give up on the dreams whose fulfillment we wouldn’t ourselves see, we would condemn future generations to deprivation and suffering.

We struggle today against an enemy whose ultimate target is hope in the future. With every devastating homicide bombing in Israel, the vision of peaceful coexistence which we hoped our generation would bequeath to our children’s, seems increasingly remote, naïve and foolish. We will not see peace in our lifetimes; today’s children will not inherit an Israel at peace. This hope has been murdered. For our children’s sake though, we must distinguish between the hope for peace, and the hope for peace in our day. We must do all in our power to see to it that the hope for peace burns as an inextinguishable fire in their hearts. This is the reason that our sages insisted that every Jewish prayer — from the silent "Amidah" to the "Kaddish," to the blessing following the meal — conclude with the assertion that God will bless us with peace. It is our way of planting the carob tree. It is our way of ensuring that hope lives. We know that somewhere down the line, the sweet fruit of peace will materialize. But we also know that this depends on our planting and guarding over the tree of hope.

Of course it would be gratifying to see the fruition of every project that we began. But carob trees don’t grow that way. And neither does peace in Israel.

On the Outside, Looking In


A bush that is on fire but doesn’t burn is indeed a mysterious phenomenon. But arguably, there is a far more mysterious element in the story of God’s commanding Moshe to go down to Egypt to the palace of Pharaoh. And that mysterious element is the very selection of Moshe. On the face of it, Moshe would seem to be the least well suited person in the world to take on the epic challenge of confronting Pharaoh and liberating the Israelite slaves.

I don’t say this because of Moshe’s self-professed weakness in the area of public speaking. The rest of the Torah is a powerful testament to his ability to speak eloquently, passionately and powerfully. Moshe’s claim that “I am not a man of words,” was an expression of his legendary humility, not a reflection of the objective reality. I rather refer to the vast distance that existed between Moshe and the people whose liberator he would be — a distance that began with happenstance, but persisted by design.

Moshe, of course, was the only Jew in the world who did not grow up among his brethren. As soon as he was weaned, he was returned to the care of the daughter of Pharaoh who had drawn him up from the river. And when, years later, Moshe left the royal compound to see the state of his biological kin, the Jews did not perceive him as being one of their own. This was pointedly displayed when Moshe chided one of the Jewish slaves to not strike his own brother. The slave’s response exuded suspicion and fear of Moshe: “Are you threatening to kill me as you killed the Egyptian taskmaster?”

Moshe was an outsider looking in. The distance between himself and the people whom he called “brothers” appeared unbridgeable. The fact that he never experienced the suffering and degradation that was their daily routine, only made the gap more severe.

The argument can strongly be made that in the aftermath of the above incident, Moshe made a conscious decision to separate himself from these people. The words that Moshe spoke in his heart, “behold, the thing is known,” are taken by the Midrash to reflect Moshe’s sudden understanding as to why the Children of Israel, of all the nations, are deserving of such a terrible, unjust lot. Their seeming lack of regard for each other, and their suspicion of any one who would want to help alleviate their plight leave a very sour taste in Moshe’s mouth. Reinforcing this argument are Moshe’s subsequent decisions to become a son-in-law, employee and permanent fixture in the home of Yitro, the priest of Midian.

Moshe had initially fled there to escape prosecution for the killing of the Egyptian taskmaster, but he quickly decided to set down roots. Decades and decades pass before God appears to Moshe at the burning bush. Decades and decades pass, during which time he has no contact at all with his kin in Egypt.

So why indeed is Moshe, of all people, selected? Why does God charge him with the task of liberating the people from their bondage? The answer is that in the fulfillment of this particular task, distance was not disqualification. It was an absolute necessity.

If it persists long enough, evil comes to be accepted as the normal state of things. It was certainly the opinion of the Pharaohs, that Jewish bondage was as natural and immutable as the annual ebb and flow of the Nile. Pharaoh had no framework with which to understand the cry “let my people go.” The cry could just as well have been “let the sun not rise.”

Even more tragically, the Jews themselves had assimilated this way of thinking. Jews were slaves. Such was their fate. It was an issue with as much moral charge to it as the direction of the wind. The people’s resistance to Moshe’s first efforts to confront Pharaoh, and their periodic desire to return to bondage even after the Exodus are powerful testaments to this.

Who could see things otherwise? Who could stand up and rail against an obscene injustice that everyone else had long since accepted as normal? Only the outsider could. Only Moshe, who saw himself as an outsider in the palace, and whose sense of morality and justice had never been anesthetized by the institutionalization of evil, could see the outrage of bondage. Only Moshe could be so convinced of the righteousness of his cause, that he could stare defiantly into the eyes of the most powerful man on earth, and not blink. Only Moshe would have the stamina, resiliency and tenacity to see the mission through to its end. And this is why God did not allow Moshe to decline the mission. Moshe the outsider, Moshe who alone could see what others had become blind to, was the only one who could get the job done.

We are a people of Moshe. It is our task to see and point out the flaws and injustices that the general society has come to accept. This week’s parsha reminds us to never relinquish this demanding role — the one that underlies our claim to being a holy people.


Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.

One Man’s Journey to Judaism


 

There is nothing tentative or half-way about MarkC. “Moshe” Hardie.

For instance, when the 26-year-old African-American decided tobecome a Jew, he underwent three conversion processes, with aConservative/Reform rabbi in San Francisco, at Chabad House inBerkeley, and with the Orthodox Beit Din in Los Angeles.

When Hardie shows up for a newspaper interview, he comes prepared.He brings a biography, photos, copies of his conversion certificates,a long list of references with phone numbers, and a self-addressedenvelope for mailing the story-to-come.

He even furnishes his own headline, “From the Crack House to theStatehouse,” for the reporter’s consideration.

The crack house was part of the neighborhood scene in north LongBeach, “the most impoverished place in California,” as Hardiedescribes it, where drugs, gang shootouts and teen-age mothers werecommonplace, and where young Mark grew up in a single-parent home.

The statehouse stands in Sacramento, and its resident is Gov. PeteWilson, for whose policies and good name Hardie now works ceaselesslyas a special assistant to the California chief executive.

Between the crack house and the statehouse, Hardie has crammed inenough experiences to last most men a lifetime. He relates hisaccomplishments with the easy assurance of a man who characterizeshimself as “always completely confident.”

“I never question my own identity,” he says. “I feel settled andstable.”

Let’s take one example of his aplomb, perhaps seasoned with atouch of chutzpah.

In 1996, while taking a summer law course at the Hebrew Universityin Jerusalem, Hardie decided to intervene personally in the ragingconfrontations between haredim and secular groups over whetherBar-Ilan Street should be closed to traffic on the Sabbath.Sauntering in where angels might fear to tread, Hardie printed up10,000 leaflets, in English and Hebrew, which pointed out thatIsrael, as “the spiritual homeland of the Jewish religion…has theduty to protect the rights of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews.”

Left, Hardie traveled the lengthand breadth of Israel, along the way picking up — apparentlyeffortlessly — a colloquial Hebrew that he demonstrated during theinterview.

Therefore, he reasoned, Bar-Ilan Street should be closed, exceptfor emergency vehicles, during the Shabbat.

Every Shabbos, Hardie would go to Bar-Ilan Street and circulatebetween the barricades restraining the opposing sides, pass outleaflets, and earnestly lecture both sides that “we’re all K’lalYsrael, which must remain unified and be a light unto the nations,”he says.

This was Hardie’s second visit to Israel. The summer before, hehad studies at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, and he lived at the nearbyHeritage House.

“You could stay there for free if you were Jewish,” says Hardie.”Actually, this was before my conversion, but no one could tell methat I wasn’t Jewish.”

He also traveled the length and breadth of Israel, along the waypicking up — apparently effortlessly — a colloquial Hebrew that hedemonstrated during the interview. This new acquisition complementshalf a dozen other languages, from Afghan to Polish, which Hardielists on his curriculum vitae.

His path to Judaism began as a child, when his Southern Baptistgrandmother made him read a biblical chapter each day.

“I became fascinated with what she called the Old Testament,”Hardie says. “I immediately identified with the people of Israel; Ifelt that I had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai.

“Later, when I turned 18, I decided to give myself free rein forthe next eight years to explore different religions, cultures andlanguages. On the basis of my religious studies, I concluded that theTorah was the true original, and all the others were merely copies.”

Before his Israel excursions, Hardie had earned a bachelor’sdegree in political science at UC Riverside, and then entered UC’sHastings College of Law.

Most law students barely find the time and energy to cope with thecompetitive pressures of their classes, but Hardie concurrentlyembarked on his conversion to Judaism at Temple Beth Israel-Judea inSan Francisco. He also pulled off the noticeable feat of activemembership in the Black Law Students Association while serving at thesame time as president of the Hastings Jewish Law StudentsAssociation and as communications director for the nationwideassociation of Jewish law students.

During his conversion studies, furthermore, he was advised by hismentor, Rabbi Herbert Morris, to go out among the Jewish people. SoHardie became a volunteer at the Jewish Home for the Aged in SanFrancisco. Earlier this year, he interned at the Israeli Consulate inSan Francisco, programming a computer network for Israelis working inthe Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies. His supervisor was ShiraSkloot, director of public affairs at the consulate. She said thatHardie was actually overqualified for his assignment, but that “heworked hard and was a pleasure to work with.”

Hardie received his law degree, with a specialty in internationallaw, from Hastings, and then took the state bar examination. He won’tknow the results until December.

During the bar exam, he wore his Hebrew University sweat shirt,not so much as a good luck charm but because “I want Hashem with me,”he says.

The ink on his law degree and his final conversion certificate washardly dry when Hardie landed his present job as a special assistantto Gov. Wilson.

He works within the Office of Community Relations, and his job isto present the governor’s views and goals to African-American andother community groups. He plies his beat always wearing his kippahand tzitzit, and as both an African-American and a Jew, he representstwo ethnic blocs that have consistently opposed the Republicangovernor.

Hardie is unfazed. He passionately backed the governor’ssuccessful campaign to eliminate public affirmative action programsand praises his boss for leading the way to a “colorblind”California.

“I tell inner-city audiences that the governor is a deeplycompassionate man who wants to include everyone in the Americandream,” says Hardie. “I believe his is a tzaddik [most righteous man]and a mensch.”

Some of Hardie’s other icons are even less popular among theliberals in Tel Aviv and San Francisco.

“My role models are Ze’ev Jabotinsky [founder of the ZionistRevisionist movement], Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu,” saysHardie. His admiration of the prime minister and his knowledge ofIsrael’s security needs are such that “in Israel, I’m called ‘TheBlack Bibi.'”

Less controversial members of his pantheon are Dr. Martin LutherKing Jr., Gen. Colin Powell and Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson.

A large photograph of the Lubavitcher Rebbe will grace Hardie’splanned office in the governor’s Los Angeles headquarters, togetherwith a mezuzah and a small refrigerator for kosher food supplies.”Then I’ll feel really at home,” Hardie says.

He also looks forward to learning about state government fromRosalie Zalis, Wilson’s senior policy adviser and liaison to theJewish community, whom Hardie also designates as a role model.

There seems to be no limit on how far Hardie can go, but at themoment, all his energies are bent toward advancing Wilson’s agenda.Nevertheless, he finds time to support such organizations as Hadassah(as a male associate), American Friends of the Hebrew University,Jewish National Fund, Jews for Judaism, and the National Anne FrankCampaign. He is a member of the American Israel Public AffairsCommittee, and his car’s license plate bears the letters AIPAC.

But pressure of work has forced him to divert three writingprojects — a book titled “Zionists Come in All Colors,” a children’sbook on the life of Anne Frank, and a story about a ferventlyOrthodox couple who unexpectedly become the parents of a black baby.

Even a workaholic has a private life, and every Shabbat and manyevenings, Hardie walks through his Los Angeles neighborhood, theOrthodox enclave of Pico-Robertson, dropping in at his favoritefalafel and schwarma joint, chatting with Israelis, or just revelingin the ambiance of Yiddishkayt.

Any romantic interests? As a public figure, Hardie begs off, hemust be circumspect about his private life. But he admits tocurrently “laying the foundation” of a serious relationship. Is sheJewish, he is asked. “Of course,” he says. “I can only marry a Jewishgirl.”

What makes Hardie run, what propels his drive? Hardie creditsmainly his father, who, though divorced from his mother, suddenlyreappeared in his life when Mark was 8 years old.

The father, a certified public accountant and business executive,passed on to his son the motto, “If you believe it, you can achieveit.”

He instructed the boy to stand in front of the mirror everymorning and repeat 100 times, “I like myself.” And when the fathersaid goodbye, he invariably added, “See you at the top.”

When Mark Hardie says goodbye, he closes the interview with ajaunty, “Sei gesund.”

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