Is Judaism kids’ stuff?

I exited the library last week with a tall pile of books, many of them classics I had read as a child.

As my own children become seasoned readers I want to encourage them to read the writings that had touched me; that I read over and over again.

This led to me myself revisiting these beloved worlds.

And I marveled at all of the new dimensions that jumped out at me; perhaps because it's been so long…I think it might be more because we ourselves change over the years.

Chanting the repetitive words of Good Night Moon now with my three-year-old, I see the appeal of the repetition- pleasurable, predictable, comforting.

Looking at the familiar pictures in The King's Stilts now in my 30’s, I notice the skill in the nuanced drawings.

Reading about Fantine's plight in Les Miserables now as a mother makes me understand more the pain in the depths of her soul.

The nostalgia…and the newness of these old books got me thinking about all the different aspects of our childhoods- places, people, friends, foods, music, scents, anecdotes…spirituality…that we might experience years later in a whole different way.

For a lot of Jews, being Jewish growing up meant enjoying the rich cultural aspects of the holiday seasons- sizzling latkes and menorahs on Chanukah, family Seders with crispy matzah and horseradish on Passover, crunchy apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah, creamy cheesecake and synagogue on Shavuot.

If reading a children’s book as an adult can give an increased appreciation, let’s surely make a commitment to re-examine Judaism, a deep, spiritual way of life that has worked in sustaining our people for 2,000 years.

There is paramount importance of studying the know-how's of the traditions, because for any mitzvah/value to be sustained, it must be bound to an action:

How do we testify and stay present in G-d's protection of the Jewish people? We build a sukkah on Sukkot.

How do we bring spiritual and physical light to the world? We light Shabbat candles.

How do we remember what our mission is for ourselves, our family, and the wider world? We read the Ten Commandments, which encompasses all of the mitzvot, on Shavuot.

The actions feed the soul, and then the deeper dimensions satisfy the mind; we want and need to explore the why's, too:

Why is a sukkah relevant today?

Why was the mitzvah of lighting candles given to the women?

Why eat the Kabbalistic, mystical hand-made matzah and not the machine-made?

Are we capable of the fiery faith the women projected in Egypt 2,000 years ago?

What does freedom mean to a Jewish woman in today's world?

Is the traditional Torah still relevant in contemporary times?

For many of us, our Jewish education ended at bar/bat mitzvah and we were not exposed to these deeper messages and ideas behind the practices, behind the very holidays themselves.

Messages and ideas that are directly relevant to the way we think and feel and act…to day-to-day life.

Without the inner meanings as an adult, we might perceive much of Judaism as “kids' stuff” or solely as a way to stay connected to our families and our past.

Especially today- we know a sophisticated amount about nutrition, psychology and exercise- why should Judaism be any different?

In the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s words, “Being that we live in a more sophisticated world,” we need a more “sophisticated Judaism.”

A Judaism that draws on Chassidic and Kabbalistic, mystical traditional texts that are deeply satisfying and comforting and a powerful, unchanging prism through which to see our ever-changing world.

I invite you to revisit the holidays and traditions- with the wisdom of our sages, and the wisdom of our personal experiences and years behind us- and take a deeper look at the Judaism that has held billions of Jews in times of happiness and sorrow.

Perhaps through the wealth of learning sites online, or better yet a Torah class with a live teacher.

So we revisit and learn more…then comes the often challenging part: Acting more.

This is why when G-d offered His Torah to the Jewish people, the mystical commentaries tell us that each Jew was gifted with two crowns, for their proclamations in unison: One crown for “We will do,” and another for “We will hear [learn].”

“We will do,” they said first, to establish their commitment to do Judaism; keep its mitzvot even when it’s hard, even when it hurts; and on that firm foundation of action, then, “We will learn,” we will spend a lifetime learning, going deeper and deeper into the teachings and mitzvot, which ripen in the mind with age and further understanding.

(I remember learning this as a child, comprehending it on a purely factual level. As I get older, I increasingly see the importance of this idea of committing to doing before completely understanding. We accept that planes get us safely to our destination without knowing exactly how their huge engines work, and we eat blueberries without verifying under a microscope that they are laden with antioxidants.

Because if we did, we’d spend more time trying to understand than traveling or eating blueberries. And Judaism is no different- if we wait until all of Judaism makes perfect sense and all of our questions are answered, we will delay the urgency of action. Of making Judaism- a proven system- a reality in our lives and in the lives of our children).

So Judaism is ultimately adult stuff.

But it’s kids’ stuff too!

In fact, when G-d asked the Jewish people to find guarantors that the Torah will be kept, they immediately offered Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but G-d rejected this idea.

The Jews’ second choice was the prophets…G-d nixed that.

Finally they offered the children, and G-d was satisfied.

As with so many stories of the Torah, this one reflects the story of today.

Our children are still our guarantors.

Untainted and unjaded from decades of challenges and struggles, the sparkle in their eyes as they kiss a mezuzah, and the unbridled enthusiasm as they sing the Shema reflect their wide-open hearts and promise a vibrant future as they embrace the Judaism of their parents and grandparents, enhanced by their individual personality and flavor.

So if you have children, bring them with you to shul on Shavuot for the time-honored tradition of reading the story of how we gathered at Mt. Sinai to hear the Ten Commandments– so that they- and we- can affirm how we can have a relationship with our Creator through His Torah; how we can feel close to one another.

And who knows what new revelation and understanding might jump out at you?

In a favorite song from my childhood, “The Place Where I Belong,” by Abie Rotenberg, a Torah that was discovered in a Poland basement after the Holocaust “sings” of its haunting and beautiful memories, bearing witness to centuries of love and dedication. The Torah talks of its feelings on now being displayed in a sterile case of glass in a museum, and beseeches us to bring it back to its true home, to a shul, where it is actually cherished and read and lived by.

To never let it go.

In its final lyrics:

“No matter if you're very young or even very old
Live by the words you'll find inside my scroll.”

Torah Portion: Pagan inspiration

“Beware of being lured into their ways … Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow the same practices!’” (Deuteronomy 12:30).

I am struck by this verse from our parasha, because I have benefited greatly from other people’s religious practices. My ability to do teshuvah has been transformed by a style of meditation that I learned from Buddhists, and tai chi has taught me how to bring my body into davening.

My experience is far from unique. Judaism has a rich tradition of “borrowing” from non-Jews.

What is more quintessentially Jewish than the Pesach seder? Yet learning while drinking multiple cups of wine directly mimics of the Greek symposium, which predates the seder by several hundred years. The Hebrew word afikomen is based on epikomen, Greek for “that which comes after.”

Another example: The great Jewish philosophic work, Maimonides’ “The Guide for the Perplexed,” is an explicit attempt to integrate the neo-Greek philosophy and science of his time into Judaism. Living in Egypt, Maimonides wrote in Arabic, and he specifically refers to the Muslim philosophers he debated.

But even if tapping other traditions to inform one’s Jewish practice is legitimate, it’s not always advisable. Simply taking a Buddhist prayer and praying it in Hebrew, for instance, or adopting a Buddhist idea like “the interconnectedness of all life” without critically asking if it’s really compatible with Jewish monotheism, threatens the cultural and theological coherence of Judaism.

Since I study with non-Jewish teachers of spirituality, I face this problem often. I remember standing in a meadow with a Native American teacher as he demonstrated a Four Winds ceremony, urging us to throw tobacco and pray in the four directions. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “This is pagan.”

Adapting other people’s ways to Judaism is fairly easy when form trumps substance, such as the rabbis “Judaicizing” of the Greek symposium. Whereas the Greeks used the symposium to debate philosophy, Jews rehearsed their history. Whereas the afikomen signaled the beginning of an extended desert course for the Greeks, it means the “last bite of the meal” for Jews.

It is much harder when it comes to integrating spiritual truths and philosophical ideas into Judaism. Maimonides critically engaged Greek thought, and the result is a rich, philosophical work. He agrees and disagrees with Aristotle and creatively moves Judaism forward. Many of his innovative ideas, controversial at the time, were rejected by Ashkenazi rabbis. Yet, today he is venerated by all, and no one doubts the Jewish authenticity of his thought.

So, how does one decide when it’s “kosher” to learn from others?

I don’t have room here to make the full argument, but I will share my conclusion. Judaism is a comprehensive set of rituals, values and theological/cultural norms that developed in communal/covenantal context over time. All are essential components of a flourishing Jewish people and healthy Jewish identity. The test of importing a new idea or practice into Judaism is whether or not it integrates into the Jewish narrative as it unfolds over time.

To say shalom instead of om at the end of a yoga routine is nice. But when that’s the extent of your Jewish practice, it’s shallow. Authentic, spiritual practice is rooted, roots us, makes ethical demands, challenges us as well as makes us feel good, and pervades every aspect of our lives. That a non-Jewish practice avoids conflict with Jewish norms is not enough, even if one does it at the local Jewish community center.

But when yoga deepens one’s relationship with God and enriches one’s observance of mitzvot by creating experiences and teaching skills that enhance one’s Jewish practice, it is a welcome supplement.

As I stood in that meadow, feeling an instinctive “this isn’t Jewish” feeling, I suddenly remembered Sukkot. I’d been praying in the four directions — with formerly pagan fertility symbols in my hands, no less — all my life. Once I was open to it, I found the Native American ritual to be spiritually productive, connecting me to God’s creation in new and fruitful ways.

But could I pray like a Native American with Jewish integrity?

After study and thought, here is what I did. I “Judaicized” the prayers with language I learned from the Jewish mystical tradition, careful to avoid praying to anything other than the Holy One. Even though there is ample precedent in the ancient Temple rites for ritually offering tobacco, it conflicts with the Jewish norms and narrative of our time. So I dropped it. My offering is words of prayer.

Now the Sukkot ritual has deeper meaning for me. And by praying in the four directions, I engage God through connection with the Earth all year round, which, in this time of global warming, brings the ethical demands of protecting the planet higher into my consciousness.

Our parasha ends with the call to worship at the Temple. As long as we always come home to Jerusalem, with practical wisdom and critical thinking, the encounter with other spiritual paths will often prove fruitful.

Rabbi Mike Comins is the founder of the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality ( and the author of “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” (Jewish Lights Publishing, and “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism”(Jewish Lights Publishing).

Shavuot – Torah for everyone

My daughter, Dina, accepted a summer job here in Los Angeles last year. Before being hired, she explained that she was an observant Jew who would have to take off two days in early June to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. The manager, respecting Dina’s religious commitment, said it would be no problem.

A few days before the holiday, Dina sent an e-mail to the receptionist explaining that she would be absent for two days in honor of Shavuot. After receiving the e-mail, the receptionist asked, “So what’s this holiday, Shavuot, all about anyway? I Googled it, but it was complicated, so I decided to ask you.”

As Dina began explaining what Shavuot commemorates, another worker in the office overheard their conversation and asked what they were discussing.

“I’m Jewish and I never heard of such a holiday,” the worker said.

“That isn’t surprising,” the receptionist added. “According to Wikipedia, Shavuot is one of the lesser-known holidays among secular Jews outside of Israel.”

In response to their curiosity, Dina patiently explained that Shavuot commemorates the revelation and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Shocked that she had never heard of the holiday, her Jewish colleague said, “Now that’s a big deal! Funny thing I never knew about it before.”

Indeed Shavuot is the “big deal,” for there is nothing in Jewish life that defines us more than the Torah. This fact led the rabbis of the Talmud in the second century C.E. to make the following observation about Torah study. The Talmud, in Tractate Berakhot 63b, records that Rabbi Yossi bar Hanina explained a verse in Jeremiah 50:36 as the source for how we are to study Torah. The verse states, “A sword is upon the boasters and they shall become fools.” Noting the sound of the Hebrew word for “boasters” — bad — Rabbi Hanina suggests that this word is an allusion to the Hebrew word that means “alone.” Rabbi Hanina concludes that those who only study Torah for themselves but don’t share it with others are enemies of Torah. Torah must be learned in a community and not just by individuals.

This talmudic passage, however, bothered the late talmudist Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rabbi Soloveitchik could not understand how Rabbi Hanina would deduce such a lesson from this verse when Jeremiah wasn’t talking about Torah, but rather was prophesying about the downfall of Babylon. How could Rabbi Hanina suggest that this verse teaches us how we must study Torah?

Rabbi Soloveitchik answered that the Babylonian non-Jewish scholars were brilliant men who mastered great amounts of knowledge. However, most people are not even aware of these scholars’ total brilliance, mastery of natural law and knowledge because the Babylonians did not share their wisdom. They kept their knowledge to themselves. It was this experience in Babylon that motivated Rabbi Hanina to quote Jeremiah. He wanted Jews to avoid a similar path at all cost.

Torah is not a limited treasure for an elite group and off limits to the masses. Rather, Torah must be shared with all Jews. As Isadore Twersky, the late professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, once wrote, “Our goal should be to make it possible for every Jewish person, child or adult, to be exposed to the mystery and romance of Jewish history, to the enthralling insights and special sensitivities of Jewish thought, to the sanctity and symbolism of Jewish existence, and to the power and profundity of Jewish faith. … Education, in its broadest sense, will enable young people to confront the secret of Jewish tenacity and existence, the quality of Torah teaching which fascinates and attracts irresistibly. They will then be able, even eager, to find their place in a creative and constructive Jewish community.”

Indeed, we have our work cut out for us as long as there is a Jew who can say, “I’m Jewish and I never heard of Shavuot.”

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

Five steps to studying and learning from the Torah

Observing my kids playing, I notice how the same toy, no matter how many times they play with it, can reveal the most remarkable things. My daughter, with the vocabulary befitting a 1 1/2-year-old, will bring her ball over to me and point to a mark on it with a delighted grunt.

“How remarkable!” I will say with (feigned) enthusiasm. But to her it is remarkable; she had never noticed it before.

When I hear the phrase from Pirkei Avot (the Teachings of our Fathers), “Turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (5:21), the image of a toy jumps to my mind.

The rabbis of the Mishnah, however, were writing at the beginning of the Common Era in the Land of Israel and not in 21st century playrooms of North America, so I’m not sure they share the same association. Surely they were referring to the Torah and the revered text’s limitless insights and wisdom.

There is, however, something playful about the phrase. If we studied the Torah the way a child plays with a toy—repeatedly and open to the possibility of discovering something remarkable—then perhaps we would discover something remarkable.

Why should we make this ancient scroll our own? For starters, the Torah tells us we should.

In recounting the story when the Torah was revealed to Moses, the text begins by describing the journey of the Israelites to Mount Sinai.

“In the third month after the children of Israel went out of the land of Egypt, the same day [‘bayom hazeh’] they came into the wilderness of Sinai,” it says in Exodus 19:1. If the Torah were retelling something that already took place, it should say “on that day” not on “this day.” Rashi, the 12th century French commentator, says we should look to the Torah as if it is being given on this day. The Torah is being given, and revelation has the potential to happen anew each day.

Nice words, but how might we really experience this? While Shavuot offers us a moment to focus our attention on Torah study—all-night learning tikkun style awaits at many area synagogues and JCCs—the esoteric musings of a Talmud scholar at 3 a.m. may not be the kind of revelation we seek.

Try this activity (which I learned from dear friends Rabbi David Ingber and Ariel Rosen.) It’s called “Find your (Uni) Verse.” Here’s what you do:

Step 1: Open the Torah (the scroll, book or even an online version).

Step 2: Randomly point to a verse (this may be easier with a book version).

Step 3: Read the verse a couple of times. The first time is to understand the plain meaning. The second and third times are to play with different interpretations of what the verse might be saying. Consult commentary on the verse if you like.

Step 4: Consider the lesson that you might learn from this verse. What wisdom might it impart?

Step 5: Try to apply the lesson to your life in the coming weeks.

Some Torah verses may have immediate relevance to you than others. “Honor your father and mother” and “Love your Neighbor as Yourself” may be clear at face value and easy to apply. Other verses from Leviticus, like ones that speak about people stricken with tzara’at, may take a bit more parsing. (Luckily, commentators understood tzara’at as “motzi shem ra,” one who does not speak truthfully about another person, an aspect of gossip to which we may relate more readily.)

Even (or especially) if you don’t think the verse relates to you on face value, sit with it for a while. I promise, you will find some meaning.

My husband and I did this activity last year with our community. We just had a disagreement about some household matter and were a little tense going into the holiday. The verse he selected was “Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 12:7).

The lesson was clear: Don’t let the everyday stresses of your life cloud the experience of these precious holidays. Safeguard them, honor them. You can get back to your stress when the holiday is over, but for now, let it go and rejoice!

How a verse selected at random can be personally relevant speaks to the power of the Torah and the potential for its wisdom to be revealed to us.

“Your Testimonies are my delight/play thing, they are my counselors,” it says in Psalms 119:24. On Shavuot, turn your selected phrases of the Torah around and around in your mind. The words will become for you a beloved toy.

Holiness in Humility

Look up the term “unintended consequences” and you’ll find an entire school of thought on the subject. According to one source, consequences of this sort can be classified as positive, negative or, oddly denoted, perverse. How wonderful are those moments when a new discovery emerges from a serendipitous mistake, like the discovery of penicillin in healing the sick, or the discovery of aspirin to help prevent heart attacks. So many lives have been saved from blunders and mishaps; there is a holiness in this type of discovery.

And then there are those actions that are unintentional and innocent yet cause far greater harm than one could have possibly imagined — irrigating a land plot and causing irreparable erosion or the proliferation of cattle-raising for food and the impact it has on the depletion of the ozone layer. The perverse nature of such consequences is even seen in our social sphere where, for example, there was a dramatic rise in “hit-and-run” accidents as a direct result of tougher laws prohibiting drinking and driving. Can there be a dimension of holiness in these situations, too?

This possibility is the focus of the troubling episode in this week’s Torah portion on Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The entire affair is brief — a total of three verses (with a couple more explaining how the community deals with the bodies in the aftermath). Two of Aaron’s sons come forward before God in the mishkan and offer fire, “which He had not enjoined upon them.” Nadav and Avihu are consumed by fire themselves, and God then pronounces, “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy/ And gain glory before all the people” (Leviticus 10:1-3). Are we to find in the tragic demise of these two souls a sobering adjuration against improper offerings? Shall we read this as some sort of perversion of holy behavior?

We can’t assume that Nadav and Avihu anticipated or expected that God would engulf them in flames as a consequence for their negligence. Even if their motivations for bringing the offerings were suspicious, as many rabbinic commentaries suggest, there is no precedent or forewarning that their behavior was worthy of a death sentence, a gruesome and harrowing one at that. The mechanics of sacred offerings have been made clear and explicit. Nadav and Avihu must have known them. Yet, it appeared that their actions caused fatally unintended consequences.

Entering into God’s presence should never be unintentional. We may posit that Nadav and Avihu were lacking a certain humility by not adhering to God’s warnings for proper entrance into the tent. The rabbis of the Talmud go further, suggesting that Nadav and Avihu’s punishment was a spiritual death. The fire that was intended to consume their offerings consumed their souls instead, leaving their bodies intact (Sanhedrin 52a). They might have physically walked away from the experience but their souls were scorched in the process.

The path toward holy living is filled with twists and turns that we can never fully anticipate. Still, kedushah is the unmitigated, completely dedicated encounter with Divine Truth. To desire God’s presence is to recognize that our encounter must be completely deliberate. We can strive toward this complete presence in our relationships with loved ones, our professional associations and on our personal quests for meaning. God’s lesson is, “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy/And gain glory before all the people.” Only the God of Israel shows holiness and glory before all the people. If we are humble and dedicated servants of this holy truth, God’s presence will be revealed to us. And that relationship is absolutely intentional.

Rabbi Joshua Hoffman joined the Valley Beth Shalom ( rabbinic staff after his 2003 ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. He teaches in the greater Los Angeles Jewish community, including as a lecturer in courses on liturgy and essential Jewish texts at American Jewish University, as a teacher in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Conejo and West Valleys, and as a guest lecturer at Los Angeles Hebrew High School.

Blot out the memory

Purim is every child’s dream holiday; the story is like a fairy tale. Little girls dress up like Esther; little boys like Mordechai. In synagogues around the world we chant the story from the Scroll of Esther and boo every time the evil Haman’s name appears. It is a wonderful children’s holiday.

But it is so much more.

As adults, we appreciate the delicious ironies of the story. First, that a king who has to issue an edict that all husbands must be obeyed ends up taking orders from his wife. Second, that the plans of Haman have the opposite effect: He is destroyed and the Jews are saved. It is the story of reversals — the vulnerable becoming the strong.

As adults, we recognize that this is a story about power, and about how people without direct power learn to make the system work for them. We read between the lines and discover a story about living in the Diaspora and how we sometimes have to dance around those who might hurt us. We notice how much we long for a story where the powerless become powerful.

As adults, we cringe at the image of a young girl in the king’s harem. It reminds us that sexual slavery continues into this day, in all the countries where we live.

And as adults, we notice how bloody the story is. The Jews defend themselves against the people who tried to slaughter them, and they end up slaughtering their enemies. In the end, the Jews are saved. Purim has a happy ending, but as adults, we remember all the other times when there was a different ending.

The Sabbath before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembering. We read:  “Remember what Amalek did to you on the road as you came out of Egypt—how he attacked all the stragglers in the rear, those who were famished and weary. … Therefore when the Lord gives you security from your enemies in the land that God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.”

We read about Amalek on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman is a descendant of the tribe of Amalek. Jewish tradition suggests that Amalek will always have spiritual descendants:

“Remember … and blot out the memory. …  Do not forget.”

Remember and blot out—this is a strategy for healing from abuse. We learn from psychologists that victims of abuse need to first recover their memories of victimization, but at some point in the healing process, they need to blot out the power those memories have to control their lives. 

The command was never to blot out Amalek — just his memory. The command is to take rage and turn it to healing. The command is to blot out the memory of Amalek and, therefore, to blot out of ourselves the tendency to do to others what others have done to us.

Purim isn’t a children’s holiday. No, quite the contrary; it is the most grown-up of all of our holidays because it forces us to look at our dark side — the side that has been hurt, the side that is afraid, the side that wants to take revenge against those who have hurt us. Purim tells us that it is OK to have those feelings, to tell the story, even to celebrate the fantasy. But it reminds us not to act on the feelings of revenge.

Remember, and remember as well that the commandment is to blot out the memory of Amalek, not to blot out Amalek. There really are people in the world who will hurt other people. The mitzvah is to blot out the power they have to threaten the world. The mitzvah is not to take revenge, not to kill innocent people. The mitzvah is to do what we can to blot out the power of those who can do evil without letting the memory of our hurt lead us into easy answers.

At the end of the public reading of the story of Esther, we say a blessing: “Blessed are you, God, who takes up our grievance, judges our claim and avenges the wrongs against us. You bring retribution on our enemies and vengeance on our foes.”
This blessing reminds us, in very clear and direct terms, that vengeance should never be in our hands, but only in the hands of God.

Yes, we need to remember, but we also need to blot out the memory. We need to free ourselves from despair and darkness, and we need to find a way to bring light and joy and gladness and honor to everyone in the world.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (

Books: Wrap up new worlds for your young readers

Many inns throughout the Mid-Atlantic states claim that George Washington slept here or there, but a new book makes an altogether new claim about the first president: that he learned about Chanukah from a Polish-born soldier at Valley Forge in 1777, when he noticed the young man lighting a candle.

“Hanukkah at Valley Forge,” by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Greg Harlin (Dutton), is a retelling of the Chanukah story, framed by a story — based on factual research enhanced by a leap of faith — about George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The general is surveying his troops, concerned about the cold and their poor conditions. When he sees a soldier speaking softly and lighting a candle, he engages him in conversation about his home in Poland, where the young soldier’s family would have to light their candles in secret.

While the soldier explains the origins of the holiday, the commander-in-chief listens intently and then remarks about the brave tale he has heard, “Perhaps we are not as lost as our enemies would have us believe. I rejoice in the Macabees’ success, though it is long past.”

He adds, “And it pleases me to think that miracles may still be possible.”

The story, as the author notes, has its basis on a 1778 meeting Washington had at the home of Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant in Easton, Pa., during Chanukah. When Hart began to tell the story of Chanukah to his guest, Washington told about how he had heard the story of the holiday the year before from a soldier. Hart’s daughter recorded this story in her diary.
The dialogue is based in part on Washington’s own writings to give the text an authentic feel. Harlin’s dreamy paintings are full of light.

Another retelling of the traditional Chanukah story can be found in “The Ziz and the Hanukkah Miracle” by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn (Kar-Ben). In this case, the adventures of a large yellow bird with bright red wings are the vehicle for telling of the Macabees and the oil that lasted for eight days.

In “Bubbie and Zadie Come to My House” by Daniel Halevi Bloom, illustrations by Alex Meilichson (Square One), a magical older couple — a wise and warm set of grandparents — pay a visit on a family who are not their relatives on the first night of Chanukah. The Bubbie and Zadie float in, as though in a Chagall painting. They are people of great heart, and when they leave, they are missed. Readers are invited to write to Bubbie and Zadie and are given an address.

According to the publisher, every letter will be answered either by the author or by some actual bubbies and zadies who reside in a senior citizen residence in San Rafael, called “Bubbie and Zadies L’Chaim House.

This is a new edition of a book first published in 1985. When that book came out, thousands of children, and adults, too, wrote letters. Now, they can send the letters by e-mail.

Check for These Other Picture Books:

“Before You Were Born” retold by Howard Schwartz, illustrated by Kristina Swarner (Deborah Brodie/Roaring Book Press), is based on the Midrash, or rabbinic legend, about the guardian angel who teaches unborn children the secrets of the world; the child then forgets it all when born. Folklorist Schwartz first heard this story as a child from his mother. The book, a winner of the Koret International Jewish Book Award, features Swarner’s radiant artwork.
“The Jewish Alphabet” by Janet Clement, illustrated by Albert G. Rodriguez (Pelican) uses the ABCs to illustrate Jewish concepts and ideas. More sophisticated than usual alphabet books, this pairs the letter U with unmistakable candles every Friday night, and V with victory for religious freedom, linking the letter with the eight nights of Chanukah.

“Izzy Hagbah” by J.J. Gross, illustrated by Ari Binus (Pitspopany), is a lovely and uncommon story about a muscular guy with mighty forearms. Izzy attended shul regularly and insisted on doing the mitzvah of hagbah, lifting the Torah at the end of the reading. Dressed much more casually than the other shulgoers, he lifted the Torah as if it were made of feathers, spreading it so that nine or 10 columns were showing, rather than the usual three or four, or at most five. But no one else in this shul lifted the Torah but Izzy, even as he got older. The congregants, who were a tight-knit group, knew nothing about him, not even his last name. Finally, one Yom Kippur, Izzy himself is lifted by the words of the Torah.

In “Dreamer from the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall” by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Emily Lisker (Henry Holt), the author describes how the young Moshe (later Marc) Chagall knew early on that he didn’t want to spend his days hurling barrels of herring at a factory like his father. A poor student in both cheder and high school, he began to paint. His family didn’t like these early works and, in fact, his sisters would wipe their shoes on them. He was then sent to art school and while painting, he felt content. Later, he went to Paris, and his career flourished. Lisker paints in a folk art style, based on Chagall’s own paintings, where cows are green and people float.

“I am Marc Chagall” by Bimba Landmann (Eerdman’s) similarly tells the story of Chagall’s early life and career, in the voice of the artist himself. He explains that his childhood dreams of a bright future, of doing something different from those around him, made him happy, “like I was flying over Vitebsk, over all of Russia.” Landmann’s illustrations are bright collages in the style of the painter, using fabric, found objects, small constructions and sequin threads.

For Young Readers:

“The Dolls’ Journey to Eretz-Israel” by Abraham Regelson (Biblio Books) is a vintage book, now back in print. The author was a well-known and award-winning poet in Israel who made aliyah with his family from America. He wrote this story about his daughter’s dolls, at first left behind in America, but later sent across the ocean in 1933. The book was acclaimed by many Israelis, and the late songwriter Naomi Shemer described it as her favorite book. This edition was translated into English by the author’s daughter, Sharona, the actual “mother” of the dolls.

Exercise your right to read — without censorship

The last week of September is Banned Books Week.

Ever read a book from the “Harry Potter” series or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”? Then you’ve read a banned book — a book taken off of shelves in a classroom or library at one time because people complained about it.

Sometimes, people who want to ban a book get so mad they actually burn copies of it (like in “Pleasantville” and “Footloose”).

The American Library Association got more than 400 requests to ban books last year. But most of those requests were unsuccessful, because of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other people who make sure books stay on shelves.

Use this week to support your right to read. Here are some banned books to consider reading this week:

  • “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, which someone wanted to ban because it was “a real downer.”

  • “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume
  • “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier
  • The “Goosebumps” series by R.L. Stine
  • The “Captain Underpants” series by Dav Pilkey
  • “James and the Giant Peach” by Roald Dahl
  • “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss
  • “Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson
  • …. And don’t forget the Torah and the Talmud

For more information, visit ” target=”_blank”> with Kein v’Lo in the subject line.

Who Are You?

Even in the best of families, relationships are enormously complicated. Some of the stories rabbis hear, all too frequently, of families in crisis are excruciatingly painful: parents who disown their children because of radical disappointment with the life choices their children have made; siblings who refuse to be in the same room with each other because their anger is irreconcilable; courts clogged with family members fighting over contested wills, and so forth. The possibilities for family chaos are almost endless. When things go wrong, they often go very wrong.

That is just simply a given of social life and structure, and even our patriarchal ancestors were not immune from the challenges of keeping families together, as we have been reading in the Genesis narratives these past few weeks: Abraham sends away his concubine wife and his son with her, and the family separates after the episode of the Akedah. Isaac sees his twin sons in a homicidal fight over the birthright, and one of his sons has to leave home. Jacob loses his favorite son to a diabolical plot launched by his sons against their brother. These are hardly thes tale of a happy, well-adjusted family.

But in this week’s parsha, there is the beginning of a reconciliation among the sons of Jacob; a glimpse of hope for future family life. The brothers are to be reunited in Egypt. Ten sons of Jacob come to Egypt in search of food; they meet their younger brother Joseph, now the vizier of Egypt, and the second-most powerful man in the known world.

When the brothers are brought before Joseph, in what seems like a throwaway line, the Torah gives us a glimpse into what is arguably the most important verse in the entire Joseph narrative, in what is a key to understanding the source of the tension in this family dynamic — and the key to strengthening the dynamic in every family:

“For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). How is it possible they didn’t recognize their own flesh and blood, the object of their earlier jealousy and their resentment and their homicidal rage?

One answer, perhaps, is that Joseph recognized his brothers because they had not changed, but they did not recognize Joseph because he had. The 11th century commentator, Rashi, indicates as much, as he quotes the Midrash in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 69b) that states that when Joseph left home as a 17-year-old kid, he was clean-shaven. Now, more than 20 years later, Joseph was standing before them as a grown man with a full beard, and he was unrecognizable to his brothers. But more than just the beard, I suspect, had changed in Joseph; the brothers, on the other hand, had not changed at all from the time they were young men. None of the experiences of life had much of an effect on them. They talked about the same things they had always talked about. They dressed the same. They looked the same. It was easy to recognize them.

Joseph, on the other hand, had seized every opportunity he could to grow. He accepted every challenge put before him as a way to learn life’s lessons, as a way to develop skills and wisdom and to grow into a mature adult. The man standing in front of these shepherds from the hill country of Israel was not, by any definition, the same young man who was thrown into the snake pit so many years ago.

Some two centuries after Rashi, the 13th century commentator, Ramban, is skeptical of this answer. He notes that Issachar and Zevulun were not that much older than Joseph; if the difference in age between them was not that great, the difference in a beard would not have made that much of a difference. How could they not recognize him?

A second answer is suggested, one more troubling than the first, an answer that has to do with a basic character flaw we see in each of us: an innate inability to recognize our brothers, to see them separate from us, in their own autonomy, with their own matrix of needs, desires, hopes and motivations. That was the problem in Jacob’s family all along: the inability of brothers to recognize each other’s humanity.

When Joseph was 17, all he was to them was an exasperating nuisance. Their jealousy, anger and rage at his adolescent arrogance blinded them to who he really was, and allowed them to behave with violence. If they had been able to see Joseph for who he truly was, the way the Torah and God see him, it is highly unlikely they would have sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites.

And so it is with us. When we are able to see each other’s humanity and recognize the dignity in each other, holiness and kindness prevail. Families have the chance of staying together, where everyone nurtures each other, and love dominates. The inability to recognize our brothers (and sisters, of course) is the beginning of enmity and strife, often times leading to family divisions.

And if we can do this in our own families, can we not do this as well with our communal families? Have we not all one Father?

Hey Kids!

Bless the Children

Simchat Torah, the holiday called “Rejoicing in the Torah,” falls on Oct. 26. We finish the cycle of reading the Torah and begin again. In Orthodox synagogues, the whole Torah (that is, the Five Books of Moses) has been read — word for word. In many other synagogues, one section of the weekly portion has been read every week throughout the year.

Many people are called up to the Torah to bless it and be blessed. On this day, the children of the community are all called up. A tallit is spread over them like a Sukkah. When we, the grown-ups, bless our children, we understand the most important thing: that you, our children are the most amazing blessing of all!

Write On!

Jews for Judaism is hosting its third-annual Creative Writing Contest for kids. The theme his year is “My Greatest Jewish Hero.” They are looking for creative, uplifting and heartfelt work done by students in first-12th grades. Entries must be original short stories, poems or songs created specifically for this contest, about a Jewish person whom you consider to be a hero because he or she has inspired or influenced you in terms of Jewish life or commitment.

Entries may be no longer than 450 words in length, and must be typewritten and double-spaced. Each entry must be clearly marked with the submitter’s name, grade and phone number. One entry per person. No joint entries accepted. Entrants must be presently enrolled in school and may not be older than 19. The contest has three categories: first-fifth grade; sixth-eighth grade; and ninth-12th grade. Three prizes will be awarded for each category.

Each entry must be accompanied by a completed entry form and must be received by Dec. 31, 2005. Mail entrees to Jews for Judaism, 9911 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90035. For more information, visit


Go Ahead — Read That Book in Shul

The sounds of the Days of Awe in synagogue: the cry of the shofar, the cantor chanting age-old melodies that go right to the heart and congregants alternatively whispering and shushing each other. Then there’s the gentle click of pages turning to their own rhythm, not in unison with the congregation.

The latter refers to a not-so-secret habit that’s growing in popularity, as an increasing number of people bring outside reading material with them to services. Some do this openly, even encouraged by rabbis, and some tuck a volume into a tallit bag for transport and then slide it into an open machzor, much like the high school tradition of folding comic books into math texts.

These independent readers — who might pull out a book during a particular part of the service in which they lose interest — are likely to be reading serious books, trying to deepen their experience of the holidays. From my experience, it’s not as though congregants are thumbing through airport novels or diet books; these special days require special books.

I’ve spotted interesting titles, from pocket editions of the Talmud to novels by Philip Roth. The book I’ve seen most often (and bring to shul myself) is the classic “Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance and Renewal on the High Holy Days” by Israeli Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon (Schocken, 1995). First published in 1937 and in English in 1948, this is a companion to the prayer book, an anthology of texts, teachings, midrash and customs following the order of the service. Agnon, a modern writer who was well-versed in Jewish texts, writes with love of the tradition, seriousness, a sense of humor and joy, and engagement. In his section on tashlich, he tells of how the Jews of Kurdistan would go to a river and jump in, rather than simply shaking the crumbs off of their clothing, so that the water would wash away all of their sins.

Rabbi Arthur Green, in a foreword to the latest edition, suggests that readers open the book and “think of Agnon as an old Jew from a world now vanished who happens to sit down next to you.”

Most of the entries are less than a page long, some run onto a few pages, but the format makes for easy reading when there’s much else going on, like during services. Even returning to this book every year, readers will find something new.

Another anthology of note is “Days of Awe, Days of Joy: Chasidic Insights Into the Festivals of the Month of Tishrei,” compiled and adapted from the talks and writings of the rebbes of Chabad-Lubavitch (Kehot Publication Society, 1998).

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins has compiled a number of anthologies for the holidays, drawing on a wide range of classic and contemporary sources. His “Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information, Contemplation” (Jewish Lights, 2005) is published this season, featuring section introductions drawing on Arthur Green’s “These Are the Words.” Those readers who prefer meditation to prayer, or find that meditation enhances their prayer, will enjoy one of his earlier volumes, “Meditations for the Days of Awe” (Growth Associates, 1999).

Nashuva’s Rabbi Naomi Levy’s “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Ties of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration” (Knopf, 2002) isn’t directed toward the holidays, but readers will find comfort and inspiration in her original, personal prayers that touch on a wide range of human experience. Its compact size makes this an inconspicuous choice. She offers a prayer for daily insight:

“Open my eyes, God. Help me to perceive what I have ignored, to uncover what I have forsaken, to find what I have been searching for. Remind me that I don’t have to journey far to discover something new, for miracles surround me, blessings and holiness abound. And you are near.”

“Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World” (Behrman House, 2004) by Rabbi David Wolpe is a first collection of his brief essays that touch upon topics like God, spiritual growth, forming families and life and death. Wolpe proves himself a master of this format: His essays are tightly woven gems based in deep learning and drawing on a huge breadth of sources.

“Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days” edited by Gail Twersky Riemer and Judith A. Kates (Touchstone, 1997) anthologizes original essays by distinguished women scholars, authors and educators, interpreting the Torah readings of the holidays. Each contributor draws deep meaning from the text, and generously shares her wisdom.

For a more straightforward introduction to the themes of the holiday, “Entering the High Holy Days: A Complete Guide to the History, Prayers, and their Themes” by Rabbi Reuven Hammer (Jewish Publication Society, 2005) demonstrates how the themes of the holiday play out in the service.

Just as you don’t have to be a Conservative Jew to appreciate Hammer’s style — in fact, it’s intended for all Jews — you don’t have to be female to enjoy “Beginning Anew” nor Chasidic to find “Days of Awe, Days of Joy” of great interest.

Another category of shul books is spiritual self-help, books that help readers with their process of teshuvah. “Improve yourself, then improve others,” the sages say in the Talmud (Bava Metzia).

“60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays” by Rabbi Simon Jacobson (Kiyum Press, 2003) is a workbook and a reading book, with kabbalistic, biblical and psychological insights, covering the period from the beginning of the month of Elul to the end of the month of Tishrei. Jacobson urges sincere preparation for all of the holidays and his approach is hands-on, with articles of daily inspiration, meditative quotes and practical exercises.

Each year, tens of thousands make a pilgrimage to visit the grave of the Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in Uman, Ukraine, especially on Rosh Hashanah, and many study the teachings of this charismatic great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, born in 1772. “Crossing the Narrow Bridge: A Practical Guide to Rebbe Nachman’s Teachings” by Chaim Kramer (Breslov Research Institute, 1990) is an introduction to his life work and thought, organized thematically. The author emphasizes the rebbe’s teaching about seeing the good in others, judging all people favorably. Several editions of Nachman’s work are available for those who might prefer to directly encounter his words, in translation.

Not so much a self-help book but more of an analytic work, Aaron Lazare’s “On Apology” (Oxford, 2004) has much to offer related to teshuvah. For Lazare, professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, the process of apology is both simple and entangled, potentially powerful and transformative.

Lazare quotes the talmudic teaching that says that God created repentance even before creating humankind: “I take this statement to mean that the sages who authored this sentiment were acutely aware of the fallibility of humankind and the need for religion’s prescriptions to heal offenses. Repentance (or its secular approximation of apology), therefore, would be so important for sustaining a just and livable society that an infinite and all-powerful God would put it in place before creating mankind.”

“On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourse of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik” edited by Pinchas H. Peli (Jason Aronson, 1996) is a compilation of lectures given by the late preeminent Orthodox philosopher, laying out his philosophical and theological premises for teshuvah. For the Rav, as he is still known, teshuvah is not only repentance but purification

On a more mystical note, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s “The Thirteen-Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief” (Basic, 1985) is a remarkable synthesis of Jewish thought, and “Honey From the Rock” by Lawrence Kushner (Jewish Lights, 1999) is a first-rate introduction to the Jewish mystical tradition.

Those interested in adding a modern historical context to the holidays might particularly enjoy two fine new works of Jewish history, “American Judaism” by Jonathan Sarna (Yale, 2004) and “A History of the Jews in the Modern World” by Howard M. Sachar (Knopf, 2005).

And some people just prefer a good novel. Many works of fiction touch on the ideas of the holidays. Elie Wiesel’s latest work, “The Time of the Uprooted” (Knopf, 2005) is a beautifully written work that addresses, among other themes, survival, memory and new beginnings. This season, when so many people have lost their homes, the novel is particularly timely.

Hugh Nissenson’s latest novel, “Days of Awe” (Sourcebooks, 2005) is tied to these days not only by its title but by the author’s exploration, both sensitive and powerful, of God, mortality and love, set in the context of Sept. 11. At the novel’s center is a New York City family, unusually close and facing difficult times. The author creates an unconventional artful narrative, combining elements of mythology, poetry, e-mail, various points of view, descriptions of the mundane details of daily life and spiritual yearnings. This is a novel with great heart.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana likes to recommend “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman (Warner Books, 1994), an imaginative short novel about time and memory, unfolded in vignettes.

And then there’s the Book of Life. May we all be inscribed for a year of health and happiness, blessed with peace.

Listen Well


A number of years ago we spent a family weekend in Palm Springs. I asked my kids what they wanted to do. First mistake: Never ask your kids what they want to do on vacation. It’s guaranteed to be something you can’t do.

My daughters answered, “Let’s go ice skating.”

I looked at them and said, “I don’t know how to ice skate.”

They looked at me incredulously and said, “That isn’t a problem, just learn.”

With such an answer I couldn’t refuse their request.

As I was trying to keep my balance on the ice and not break any bones, an old lady screamed from the side of the ring: “Hey mister, you really don’t know how to skate.”

What a brilliant lady, I thought.

But then she screamed instructions: “Bend your knees more.”

She didn’t let up. Suddenly she screamed, “What is wrong with you, can’t you hear me?”

I suddenly stopped, ran into the wall and looked right into her eyes, begging for compassion, and said, “Lady, it’s hard trying to learn how to do this at my age.”

She looked at me without any compassion and said, “You should be ashamed giving such an answer. I was a teacher for 50 years. The one thing I know is that you can learn anything in life if you do two things: One, put your mind to it, and two, listen well.”

Those words of advice are essential as one learns this week’s Torah portion.

From the very opening word in this week’s parsha one realizes concentration is crucial if one is to achieve any understanding. The medieval commentator, Rashi, wondered why the Torah opened this portion with the words, “And these are the laws,” and not simply, “These are the laws.” He answers that whenever a portion of the Torah begins with the expression, “these,” it signals a discontinuity with whatever preceded it. But whenever the wording “And these” appears, it connects the present discussion with the previous one. The discussion of Revelation at Sinai from last week’s reading, notes Rashi, connects with this week’s Torah reading. Just like the Ten Commandments took place at Sinai, so, too, this portion devoted to civil laws was also taught at Sinai.

This, however, is most perplexing, for where else was Torah taught if not at Sinai? The late 20th century rabbinic thinker, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, in his masterful work, Pahad Yitzhak, suggests that the connection between the two Torah portions addresses popular confusion. If you ask people what comprises a religious duty, they answer: praying, fasting etc…. But if you would ask, if giving food to the poor or assisting one’s fellow man is a religious duty, they will say: “That is morality not religion.” They have a distorted view, argues Hutner, that religion contains only ritual laws, but laws that concern our interaction with others are not of religious consequence.

It was this very point that led the 19th century commentator on Rashi, the Be’er Yitzhak, to note that revelation at Sinai involved a tremendous miracle. Rashi had commented that when God revealed the Ten Commandments, it occurred in two stages. The first stage was something man can’t imitate. “The Holy One, blessed be He, said all of the Ten Commandments in one utterance.” God said each of the commandments at the very same moment. But then there was stage two: “He went back and repeated each and every commandment by itself.”

The Be’er Yitzhak wonders why God had to reveal the commandments in such a fashion. He answers that God said all of the commandments together so that no one should think that any one commandment is more important than any other. You might think that the ritual laws, which are Nos. 1-4, are more important since they are listed first. Of course custom requires that we list items and something has to be No. 1 followed by No. 2, etc…. The message, however, is that all commandments, whether they deal with God and man, or man and his interaction with his fellow man, are equal in God’s eyes.

Not long ago I met with a young man who is in the music business. In an almost confessional fashion he told me, “Rabbi, I am not that religious.”

I answered him, “I don’t know if you are religious or not, but please don’t get the word ‘religion’ and the word ‘observance’ confused.”

He was shocked, and asked what I meant.

I said that just because one is observant and keeps all of the ritual laws, that doesn’t make one a religious human being. A religious person is one who observes both the ritual and moral laws. Ritual observance alone doesn’t make one a religious individual.

When the woman at the ice rink said to me, “Remember, listen well for when you do you really can achieve anything,” she was, in effect, summarizing the message of Parshat Mishpatim: Listen to the words of Torah and you can achieve a just society.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.


Silence Is Golden

A saleswoman, driving home in northern Arizona, sees a Navajo woman hitchhiking, stops the car and invites the Navajo woman to join her.

As they drive, the Navajo woman glances repeatedly at a brown bag on the front seat between them.

“If you are wondering what’s in the bag,” the saleswoman offers, “it’s a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband.”

The Navajo woman is silent for a while, then nods several times and says, “good trade.”

Chauvinism, of one kind or another, probably has always been with us. This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayera, for example, appears to lend itself to the charge of male chauvinism. The Torah tells us that the three angels who came to visit Abraham brought news that Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s son. Sarah laughed when she heard this, whereupon God chastised her, saying to Abraham, “Why is it that Sarah laughed … is anything too hard for the Eternal?” (Genesis 18:13-14).

Our sages point out that this sharp response seems strange considering that in last week’s Torah reading, when God told Abraham that he would have a son from Sarah, he, too, laughed, yet in that instance God was not critical at all.

Why the different treatment? Could sexual discrimination be at the heart of the disparity or something else? Perhaps we can find our answer in a suggestion made by the late Hannah Levine, wife of the late saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levine, known as the Tzadik of Jerusalem.

Hannah Levine suggested that the story of the Shunamit woman and the prophet Elisha mentioned in the haftorah for this week’s Torah portion can help solve our question. The story relates that the woman’s young son came running in from the field in great pain screaming, “My head! My head!” and then died. The woman took the boy, placed him upon Elisha’s bed in the room that she had prepared for the prophet in her home, and set out to find the prophet.

The woman then asked her husband to provide a chariot and driver for her so that she could find Elisha. Puzzled, he wanted to know why, to which she replied with one word, shalom. When she finally reached the prophet, he saw her from afar and sent his assistant to find out if everything was well with her, to which she answered only one word: shalom. The story continues that Elisha knew something was wrong, went back with her and revived the child.

We, however, must wonder why the Shunamit woman responded to each query with the one word, shalom, when everything was the antithesis of peace. Hannah Levine suggests that this teaches us a lesson. For a miracle to work, one cannot drown it in everyday verbiage. Once it is subsumed by ordinary reality, the miracle will not occur.

Rashi, the classical medieval biblical commentator, offers a similar observation in regard to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s laugh reflected ordinary incredulity. She scoffed. She verbalized. As her words indicate, she did not believe such a promise could be fulfilled.

Abraham’s laugh, the Torah tells us, “was in his heart” (Genesis 17:17), but it expressed delight. Not a torrent of words but a simple, heartfelt laugh, reflected firm belief that the promise would be fulfilled.

What a powerful lesson for us who live in this information age, besieged by torrents of words. If we would realize that it is not so much what we say but what we do and what we feel in our hearts that can cause miracles to happen, then, like Abraham, we could influence a whole world for good.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Nov. 14, 2003.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Home for the Holidays

My son attends Hebrew day school. At least, I think he attends it. It’s October and he hasn’t been there for a full five-day week yet.

The school year begins, as it always does, the week of Labor Day — three or four days, depending on the school. I get that. A short week helps the potentially shocking transition from the carefree late-night/late-morning routine of summer to the foreign atmosphere of sitting still and concentrating on something other than PlayStation.

Monday morning of the second week of school, we hit the ground running. It’s time to get in the swing of things. It’s time to learn. It’s time for Rosh Hashanah. OK, nothing you can do about that. It’s not Columbus Day or Grandparents Day. It’s a biggie — after all, it’s in the Bible. This year, the holiday fell on a Thursday and Friday, so the kids had another three-day week.

Wednesday morning, I wake my son for school. He informs me that he has the day off. Apparently, the teachers need the day to prepare for the holiday. I’m not sure why it takes a whole day to buy a round challah, but I’m not sure about a lot of things — why people comb six strands of hair across their head and assume no one will realize they’re bald, to name one. It’s not a big deal. As they say in football, we’ll get ’em next week.

Now it’s the third week of school. You can’t fool me this time. I may not be a biblical scholar — in fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not a biblical scholar, and who would know better than me? — but, as I recall, where there’s Rosh Hashanah, there’s Yom Kippur. So I know it’s a short week — our third in three weeks — but after this, it’s smooth sailing until winter break (what was once called Christmas break before we smartly stepped in and protected our children from that word).

The fourth week of school begins on Monday and ends on Tuesday. To be completely accurate, it ends at noon on Wednesday, but that half day is really only long enough to drop my son off at school, get stuck in traffic trying to get out of the parking lot, circle the block, get stuck in traffic trying to get into the parking lot and pick him up. Why another short week? It’s Sukkot. And it’s eight days long.

I understand a harvest holiday. I understand that a harvest holiday, by necessity, has to take place around the harvest (i.e., the fall). I don’t understand why the holiday has to be eight days long. Other cultures have harvest holidays — Americans, to name one (in fact, the only one I can name without having to do research) and they get it over with in one night. I know our people like to eat, but eight nights?! I think it’s because we build a sukkah. If a Jew is going to build something — anything — it’s not going to be for one night. Once it’s up there, it’s staying for at least a week.

Sukkot is so long, in fact, that it’s got a holiday in it — Shemini Atzeret, followed by Simchat Torah. I realize that Jews have been around for more than 3,500 years. I know that, in all that time, you’re bound to accumulate a lot of holidays — some biblical, some celebratory, some of the “they-failed-to-kill-us-all, nyah-nyah” variety. But there are 12, and sometimes 13 months in the year. Spread these babies out a little. At least hold a few of them on the weekends. Hebrew day school isn’t free, but so far my son has been home more in September than he was in August.

Shemini Atzeret means “the assembly of the eighth day.” Biblical scholars speak of the perfection of the number eight. It is on the eighth day that a Jewish male is circumcised in order to instill the potential for perfection in the human being. I don’t remember my eighth day, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t perfect. I’m confident in saying that I enjoyed my seventh and ninth days a little more than that eighth one.

If we want to cut down on these days off, let’s start with Simchat Torah, a holiday that celebrates the completion of the reading of the Torah. That doesn’t have to be in September. We can read a little slower. We’ll finish it in November, right around Veterans Day. By then, my son could use a four-day weekend.

Howard Nemetz has had a moderately unsuccessful career as a television writer.

Age of Amusement

A gentleman died and his family asked me to officiate his funeral. So we agreed to meet, his children and I, to prepare. Sitting around the spacious dining room table I asked them, "Tell me about your father."

After a long silence one of the sons volunteered: "Dad loved golf."

"Golf is good," I responded, "what else did he love? What were his passions?"

"Golf," they all agreed, "just golf."

"Just golf? What did he dream of? What were his values, his causes?"

"Well, he always wanted to live on a golf course…."

So I prepared a eulogy all about golf. (It’s not so hard to do: Eighteen is chai. He’s played his 18 and finally got his hole-in-one.) All the while, I felt the tragic weight of this moment: How can a human life be made so small? Reduced to this, to golf?

That was long ago. I have since learned that many people live lives, not as Thoreau imagined — lives of quiet desperation — but lives of amused distraction. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard proposed that no one could live the aesthetic, pleasure-seeking life forever because it must eventually grow dull. The pleasure-seeker falls into a cycle of addiction. To hold our interest, each pleasure needs a bigger one to follow. This is the lament of Kohelet in Ecclesiastes: "I said to myself, ‘Come I will treat you to merriment. Taste mirth!’ That, too, I found was futile."

American culture has accomplished what neither Kierkegaard nor Kohelet could conceive. We have cultivated a culture of such powerful distraction, entertainments, diversions, that today one actually can fill a lifetime with amusement, with golf.

When I was a kid, there were seven channels on the TV. Once you surveyed those seven and found nothing interesting, you turned the set off. Today, there are enough TV channels that you can spend the entire evening not actually watching anything, but just flipping through the channels — surfing the dial. And if not TV, there’s the Internet, DVDs and pay-per-view. That’s at home. Outside, there’s a whole universe of possibilities. In 1955, Disney invented the theme park. Now there are at least six within a day’s drive.

One-thousand years ago, Western culture knew an age of faith so the church was the central architectural feature of a town. Five hundred years ago, we began an age of industry and the factory was the town’s notable structure. In today’s age of amusement, the mall and its cineplex is the town’s most important place.

Paul Tillich, the Protestant theologian, argued that every person has a God.

"God" he defined as each person’s "object of ultimate concern." But what if the object of ultimate concern is precisely not to have an object of ultimate concern? What kind of human being does that leave?

In the age of amusement, religion is dangerous. Religion asks annoying questions about life. Religion points out our shallowness, our life’s weightlessness. Religion demands our attachment to matters of eternal significance. This obsession with meaning and purpose undermines amusement — it embarrasses us — it gets in the way of golf.

But the culture’s will to amusement is stronger than its will to believe. In the end, religion is co-opted. Once, religion was accused of being so much empty ritual — form without content, rite without passion, authority without love. Now, we have a different problem: Religion is becoming another form of amusement. When its only goal is to pass a little time and make us feel good inside, when it ceases to challenge and to expect more of us, when it is afraid to point out the evil within us and to deal with the jagged edges of broken lives and a broken world, when it ceases to wrestle with God and with life, religion becomes a form of amusement.

Then comes a moment when this diet of amusement ceases to satisfy and to nourish. I worry about those who search for depth, but all they find is entertainment. They recognize that life is difficult, that the inner life is a place of struggle. They seek courage. They seek insight. They seek vision. But sadly much of what they find in contemporary religion is weightless amusement.

This week’s Torah reading was consciously timed by the ancient rabbis to fall in the week before the New Year. The reading calls us home: "You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God." (29:9)

The word, hayom (this day) noted the rabbis, jumps out of the text and into contemporaneity. "This day" is any day we turn from our distractions and amusements. "This day" is when we come forward to meet God and accept our role as God’s partners to heal the world. "This day" is when we bind ourselves to lives of higher purpose, and accept God’s blessings — blessings even greater than golf.

Shanah tovah.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Journey to Judaism

"I want to be the first Jewish country singer," Mare Winningham says. "Actually, Kinky Friedman was the first. But I want to be the next."

It’s the kind of easy banter the actress-singer proffers between nightclub sets of her country-tinged folk music. But the setting on this Thursday afternoon is the chapel at the University of Judaism (UJ), where Winningham sits at an upright piano after completing her three-hour Hebrew class. In her pure, open voice, she launches into her "Convert Jig," a country-ish ditty she wrote to honor her "Introduction to Judaism"teacher before her conversion last year.

"He has organized the notes for life and given me the tools to turn my tiny insignificance into something big," she croons, as her eyes crinkle into a smile. "I will be a Jew like all of you … and never eat a pig."

If the levity is unexpected, the actress thinks she is, too.

"Look, my last name is Winningham, and that in itself is funny," she says. "I joke sometimes that I’ll open ‘Winningham’s Kosher Bakery’ and throw everyone for a loop."

Indeed, the 45-year-old actress is better known for the decidedly American (read: non-Jewish) roles she’s portrayed in 70 films and TV movies than, say, for the challah she bakes on Friday afternoons.

She won a 1980 Emmy for playing a farmer’s daughter in "Amber Waves"; received a 1996 Oscar nomination for her role as a country music star in "Georgia"; and starred as Kevin Costner’s common-law wife in "Wyatt Earp." Winningham will also appear as a Catholic single mom in the upcoming CBS series, "Clubhouse," and a stalwart prairie resident in the Hallmark TV movie, "The Magic of Ordinary Days." (She’s perhaps best known as the virginal Wendy from the Brat Pack flick, "St. Elmo’s Fire.")

As she leaves the piano to munch some kosher almonds, she says she’s happy to be back at the UJ after the four-week "Magic" shoot near Calgary, Canada.

"We were in the middle of nowhere, so I knew I was going to miss Shavuot," she says, ruefully.

Shavuot, which celebrates converts, is Winningham’s favorite holiday, because it’s the first she observed after converting in March 2003. For that Shavuot, she stayed up all night studying at Temple Beth Am; in Calgary, she improvised by studying Jewish books such as "The Midrash Says," a five-volume set she’s vowed to complete this year. Also in her suitcase was her trusty Shabbat travel kit, which includes candlesticks, a prayer book, a Havdalah candle and spice box.

"I’ve been known to light Shabbat candles in a Honeywagon trailer," she says of her experience on various sets.

Her observance has been "a real conversation starter," especially among fellow Jews. Larry Miller, her co-star from CBS’ short-lived "Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.," recalls his surprise upon learning that Winningham rushed home to bake challah one Friday afternoon.

"It was like having Grace Kelly say, ‘By the way, what time is Mincha?’" he says, referring to afternoon prayers.

Winningham wouldn’t forget the time.

"She takes her Jewish studies very seriously," Beth Am’s Rabbi Perry Netter told The Journal. "It’s part of her incredible desire to be part of the Jewish world, not for any other motive than she feels so deeply and passionately Jewish."

The actress traces her spiritual journey to her Catholic childhood in Granada Hills. Her great-uncle, "Father Dave" Maloney, was bishop of Wichita, Kan.; her devout mother, Marilyn, sent Mare and her four siblings to catechism at the cathedral across the street.

"My mom influenced me greatly with her beautiful devotion to her faith," Winningham says. But that came later. By age 14, Mare says, she had developed problems with religion in general and "the idea of someone dying for your sins."

A 12th-grade comparative religion course fueled her budding agnosticism; after graduating from Chatsworth High — where an agent discovered her in a production of "The Sound of Music" — Winningham began "a resolutely secular existence."

In 1982, she married her now ex-husband in a non-denominational ceremony; she raised their five children (today ages 15-22) in a household where holidays were celebrated in an irreligious, if flamboyant fashion.

"I cooked for days," she says about Christmases past.

It wasn’t until her children were nearly grown that Winningham found herself reading works by Jung, Joseph Campbell and others in an attempt to sort out nagging religious and psychological questions. In summer 2001, she visited a "creation of the world" exhibit at a science museum and made an announcement to herself: "I don’t think I believe in God."

"But that night, I had the most remarkable dream, which told me, ‘If you’re going to reject something, at least find out what it is you are rejecting,’" she says. When a friend told her about the UJ’s Introduction to Judaism class, Winningham thought, "OK, I’ll begin by studying the Jews, since they started the one-God thing."

While she intended to approach the class from a historical, intellectual perspective, the epiphanies began the day she stepped into Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s UJ class in November 2001.

"There I was, struggling with God, and one of the first things he said was, ‘Israel means struggle with God,’" she says.

"When Mare started, she seemed to be checking Judaism out," Weinberg recalls. "But before long, she enthusiastically embraced the values of Judaism and Jewish family life."

The actress says she began celebrating Shabbat and fell in love with an observance that included "ritualizing, literally, the breaking of bread…. Shabbat fed me literally and figuratively, and I found myself finding my way to God through this very earthly endeavor of feeding my family."

Although her children are not Jewish, they helped her rate brisket recipes, participated in Torah discussions and invited their Jewish friends to her Shabbat table.

Winningham’s attraction to Judaism deepened as she read the Bible: "Everything one needs to know about behavior here on earth is manifest in these stories," she says. "Anything one could find confusing or morally challenging is answerable. When the most important thing about a religion is how you behave here, and not about what happens after you die — these are the things I believe my soul was longing for and rejecting in other religions."

By December 2001, she was regularly attending Netter’s Bait Tefillah minyan at Temple Beth Am.

"Mare drank everything in," Netter recalls. "There was a certain intensity in the way that she concentrated, both on the siddur and on the Torah discussion that would take place."

After Winningham observed her first Yom Kippur that year, she knew she had to convert.

"There was something about petitioning God, as a community, for forgiveness," she says. "I knew then that Judaism was something I couldn’t live without."

On March 3, 2003, an entourage of friends and relatives accompanied Winningham to the official ceremony at the UJ.

"Sitting in on her beit din [rabbinical court] was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had of conversion," Netter said. "It was apparent to me and to the other rabbis that this was a woman who was born a Jewish soul, in terms of the depth of her feelings and the rawness of her emotion."

Cori Drasin, a former Beth Am vice president, says she was especially touched by the ritual immersion part of the ceremony.

"I stood behind the curtain as Mare chanted the blessing in the mikvah, and the walls just resonated with her beautiful voice," Drasin says.

A friend placed a Star of David around Winningham’s neck (she’s still wearing it) and "I cried a lot," she says. She was moved not only to become Jewish, but because her family has been so supportive.

"When I told my mother I was going to become Jewish, she said, ‘You know Mary, they were the first,’" Winningham recalls.

The actress’ children have also been accepting, which, Winningham says, "is lucky, considering that it must be weird for your mom to embrace a new religion when you’re a young adult."

The performer also feels lucky to have been embraced by the Beth Am community, where she recently chanted from the Torah for the first time.

"Everyone in the minyan rejoiced," Netter says. "It was as if one of our children had become bat mitzvah."

Winningham isn’t content to stop there. A self-prescribed "cheerleader for the Torah," she intends to read the entire Bible in its original language, which is why she’s taking that Thursday Hebrew class at the UJ.

"I don’t care if it takes decades, I’ll finish it eventually, I really will," she says. "I may be 80 when I finish, but that would be a beautiful thing."

Winningham sounds more like a scholar than the world’s second Jewish country singer when she adds, "Judaism for me is like a mystery novel. I just can’t stop reading; that’s what it’s like for me."

Winningham will perform in concert July 24, 10:30 p.m. and Aug 21, 10:30 p.m. at Genghis Cohen restaurant, 740 N Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. For information, call (323) 653-0640.

"A Convert Jig"

(Mare Winningham wrote this to honor her "Introduction to Judaism" teacher, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, and she performed it during a tribute to him at the University of Judaism.)

Guard your tongue, love your neighbor

Help someone to help themselves

It’s required — it’s not a favor

That is what my teacher tells us

Don’t be late — you’ll miss the prayer aerobics

Ancient melodies you need to know

How to sing the holy songs — to add your voice where it belongs

And how and when to lift up on your toes

That is what my teacher tells us

That is what I’ve come to learn

He has organized the notes for life

And given me the tools to turn

My tiny insignificance into something big

I will be a Jew like all of you

and dance a convert jig

Take the time to learn the Hebrew

Memorize your holidays

Keep kashrut — and study on the Torah

You’ll reap rewards forever and always

Cut your flowers, set your table

Light your candles and say your prayer

Then you’ll know how you are able

To feel you’re Jewish, anywhere

That is what my teacher tells us

That is what I’ve come to learn

He has organized the notes for life

And given me the tools to turn

My tiny insignificance into something big

I will be a Jew like all of you — your tree has grown a twig

I will be a Jew like all of you — and never eat a pig

I will be a Jew like all of you — and dance a convert jig!

In Praise of Lambs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Doubt

Rabbi Elie Spitz wrote a wonderful book, titled "Does the Soul Survive?," dealing with life after death, but for me this title is the question that I continuously ask in regard to life after birth. Does our soul survive the journey that we lead it through in our lifetime? How do we know that what we are doing with our life and the way we are trying to sustain our soul is indeed life-affirming? In the instances of blurred vision, how do we embrace the not knowing — the doubt? And beyond all, is there room to serve God from a place of doubt and transform our doubt from a distancing agent into holy doubt that functions as an indicator of intimacy and faith in the One And Only?

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitza (1800-1853), in his unique Chasidic teachings, the Mei HaShiloach, portrays the three sons of Levi, as described in this week’s Torah portion, as three models of serving God. The first, Gershon, is the "Ba’al Yir’ah" — the master of awe and trepidation. The sons of Gershom carry the curtains of the Mishkan (tabernacle), which creates partitions and separates the realm of holy (the Mishkan) from all that is outside of it. Gershom represents our concern to never deviate from God’s will. The children of Gershom will shy away from the unknown, for maybe they will be transgressing God’s will in their actions.

His brother, Kehat, represents his counterpart — the "Ba’alei Torah" — the masters of the Torah. The sons of Kehat, the Levites that carry the Holy Ark on their own shoulders, represent those of us that have mastered their Torah study in such a way that we can bare the Torah on our bear shoulders. We are aligned with God’s will and hence always able to decipher through all that we’ve learned what it is that God wants of us at any given moment.

And the third son, Merari, carries the poles — the foundation — of the Mishkan. He is the spokesperson for those of us who choose the middle road — not overly cautious, not overly daring. The sons of Merari are the "Ba’alei Mitzvot u’Ma’asim Tovim" — the masters of the commandments and good deeds. You will never find yourself questioning their actions — they are exactly who they appear to be. No agony in their journey, yet no ecstasy as well. Masters of simplicity.

Close reading of the Ishbitzer Rebbe uncovers yet another trait other than their parents that they share in common — their doubt in regard to their choice of service. Gershom lives in doubt, for maybe he restricted himself from a realm that God actually desired him to embrace. Kehat questions, "maybe I will go to far, maybe I can’t really always master my Maker’s wisdom and know what is asked of me." And Merari understands all too well what is the meaning of "no pain, no gain" and questions if his service is real and if he lacks growing pains.

For the Ishbitzer Rebbe we embody indeed all three of these paradigms, actualizing them at different junctions of our lives. The one constant element that we take with us is our doubt — our holy doubt — regardless of the path we choose. Our holy doubt is our indication that our soul is still alive and indeed surviving the journey of life.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) used to say, "The world to come is a big movie theater! In one eye you see every moment of your life — your actions, thoughts, desires; your moments of fear and of joy. In your other eye you see every moment of what your life was to be (I hate the word should as in "should have been") — again, every detail of the totality of who you are. When you see two different movies simultaneously, these are moments of hell, and when you see the same movie with both eyes, these are moments of heaven."

I believe that one doesn’t have to die in order to inherit heaven or hell — there are moments in our life that we are in the right place in the right time doing the right thing. These are moments of heaven. There are moments that one of those components is not aligned with the others and those are moments of hell.

There is a part of me that believes that we know to distinguish between these moments. A voice that continuously asks, "Was this heaven, or rather, hell?" There are times the answer is clear. Yet there are also other moments, when my clarity is blurred: the not knowing, the holy doubt seeps in.

When this happens I take refuge in the last verse of our Torah portion (Bamidbar 7: 89): Moshe, in his moments of not knowing, enters into the Ohel Mo’ed — the tent of Meeting — to speak to God. And as Moshe would do, we too, can enter into our own Ohel Mo’ed — the place we encounter God. We, too, try to grasp the murmurs of the Divine as He speaks to Himself.

I have learned from this holy eavesdropping that what we share with God is our faith and our doubt. So many times our "What do I know?" and "Could this really be happening?" is but an echo of the Divine questioning and embracing the unknown in faith.

Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Lost in Translation

Imagine a foreigner hearing some American idioms for the first time, and the ensuing confusion. For example, when an English speaker wants to say that your point is irrelevant, he says, "What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?"

Most of us don’t even know where that phrase comes from (according to one dictionary, it is simply a variant of "What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?" and has been around since the 1940s — perhaps influenced by the expression, "I wouldn’t do that, not for all the tea in China."), but we use it all the time nonetheless. If you’re a Spanish speaker, you would say to the same irrelevant speaker, "Yo tengo una tía que toca la guitarra," which literally translates to, "I have an aunt that plays the guitar," the Spanish way of dismissing another’s comments as not being to the point (the Spanish are much more colorful and vivid in their nonsensical idioms than us Americans). We won’t even touch Yiddish idioms — we’d need a whole bookshelf to analyze those.

The beautiful thing about living in Israel is that even if you have no knowledge of Judaism whatsoever, you will invariably speak "Jewish," as the modern Hebrew language is generously peppered with idioms and clichés from biblical and talmudic sources. To the same irrelevant comment, an Israeli would say, "Mah inyan Shemittah etzel Har Sinai?" which literally translates to, "What does Shemittah [the biblical command of letting fields in Israel lay fallow every seven years] have to do with Mount Sinai?"

While the average Israeli may not even be aware of the origin of this question, it was posed by the Talmud about 2,000 years ago. It refers to, when introducing the laws of Shemittah in this week’s parshah, the Torah’s prefatory words are, "God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai." Why, out of all the topics discussed by the Torah, was Shemittah singled out as being taught specifically at Mount Sinai?

The Talmud’s answer is not so simple: Just as all the details of the sabbatical year were taught painstakingly to the Jews at Sinai, so were all the details of all the commandments taught at Sinai.

But this "answer" only strengthens the question. If the Torah wants to teach that all the biblical details for every commandment were taught at Sinai, why was Shemittah chosen as the paradigmatic example? Indeed, what does Shemittah have to do with Mount Sinai?

Quite a lot, actually. The reason why Shemittah is observed in Israel is the same reason why all Jews observe the Sabbath — we are meant to have meaningful reminders in our lives of how God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Just as we desist from labor on a weekly basis, so must the land itself testify that God is its Maker through its desisting from productivity.

But why is it necessary to commemorate creation through such drastic observance? After all, we already have the Sabbath. Plus, if we ever want to reaffirm where we come from, why can’t we just pick up the Torah and read the Book of Genesis? Rashi says that this is precisely why the Torah began its narrative at the very beginning — to act as testimony to the other nations of the world that God created everything; consequently, He has jurisdiction to do with the land of Israel whatever He pleases, including giving it for free to the Jewish nation. If it’s good enough of a reminder for the other nations, why isn’t it good enough for us?

This is why the Torah creates a link between Shemittah and Mount Sinai. Other nations can and should accept that God is the ultimate Creator; they can do so by simply reading Genesis and making intellectual affirmations. But at Mount Sinai we were taught a new way to relate to God. It is not sufficient to internalize theological concepts through reading and contemplation; we have to actually do something in order to show our religious commitment. If we really wish to have the higher, covenantal relationship, we must commit our bodies together with our minds to Divine service.

This, then, is the connection between Shemittah and Mount Sinai. The tremendous sacrifice involved in not working one’s field for an entire year is the appropriate example of what it means to serve God as a Jew: not by our intellects alone, but by using every physical faculty at our disposal to affirm our belief and commitment to our Creator.

If the Bible is the basis for the world accepting that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, then maybe more people need to read the Bible and learn the true meaning of the "Sinai" idiom. In the meantime, we can do our share in raising awareness of the Jewish people’s special connection to the land by returning to the lessons of Mount Sinai — our relationship to God is predicated on our behavior more than our beliefs. We are a people of deed first, of creed second. Hopefully, our efforts in behaving as Jews will make an impression on the rest of the world. At the very least, they will strengthen our connection to our God and our Land.

Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla at Kehillat Yavneh.

Can Purity Last?

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses elaborates the laws of impurity. Touching or holding something impure will render people, clothing, food, beverages, containers, wood, leather, earthenware and ovens impure. Shemini is concerned with the consequences of contact with living, ritually impure animals, as well as carcasses. Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that skin disease, menstrual or birthing blood, seminal emissions or corpses likewise cause impurity. It is remarkable how contagious impurity can be.

The prophet Haggai points out that purity is not transferred as quickly or thoroughly. It may not seem fair, but what is ritually (and perhaps morally) pure just doesn’t “rub off” as easily as what is impure.

“Ask the priests for Torah instruction, saying, ‘If one carries consecrated meat in the skirt of one’s garment, and with one’s skirt touches bread or pottage or wine or oil or any food, shall it become consecrated?’

“And the priests answered and said, ‘No.’

“Haggai said, ‘If one who is unclean by a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’

“The priests answered and they said, ‘It becomes unclean.’

“Haggai answered and said: ‘So it is with this people, and so it is with this nation before Me, says Adonai, and so it is with every work of their hands…'” (Haggai 2:11-14).

Even a small amount of ritual impurity carries consequences and can render large areas impure. To recover purity, people must wash, separate themselves from the community for varying lengths of time and even, under some circumstances, offer sacrifices or undergo inspection by a priest. Some affected objects can be purified; others must be destroyed.

While many of the laws of purity are no longer practiced, the laws of Passover offer a parallel example and experience for contemporary Jews. If you want to rid your house of chametz (leaven), doing 99 percemt of the job is not, halachically speaking, good enough. Even a tiny amount of residual chametz – even just seeing chametz – is not kosher for Passover. If we did not declare through the liturgy that any and all remaining chametz is “like the dust of the earth” to us, then virtually no home would or could be kosher for Passover. The theoretical capacity of one small biscuit to render an entire household unkosher for Passover is similar to the power of ritual impurity to overcome purity.

The idea that a breach in a pattern can be more decisive and influential than the pattern itself is not limited to the laws of purity and Passover. It applies to our physical world as well. If you exercise consistently for two months, your body will benefit, and you may well see signs of increased strength or endurance. Certainly, you cannot expect to gain stamina or muscle tone without exercise. But it is not guaranteed that you will even maintain your physical shape just because you exercise and eat right for two months; you may reach a plateau or lose ground. Yet, as those of us with sluggish Eastern European Jewish metabolisms can attest, it is virtually guaranteed that ceasing to exercise for a two-month period will diminish strength, endurance and fat-burning. Being in shape makes it easier to get back in shape after a lapse, but, whatever one’s fitness level, a lapse will surely be felt.

What is true for the laws of chametz and physics can be extrapolated to the realms of interpersonal relations and metaphysics. For example, while children benefit and are uplifted by hanging out with a good crowd, consorting with a bad crowd will bring them down with even greater speed and consistency.

Recently, I was short with two relatives whom I have generally treated with respect for the last 30-plus years. I am tempted to explain my behavior and motivations, but I won’t. The fact remains: I was rude, and the fallout from the incident was profound. Yes, the good will that I have accrued over the years has its own power and will, I hope, facilitate a complete reconciliation. However, the way of the world, as Haggai warns, is for my impure remarks to spread damage more predictably, reliably and decisively than any pure words or genuine apology can effect healing. That is why we must be so vigilant about each word, each interaction and each opportunity to hurt or heal.

If God is, as we say in our liturgy, “renewing in Divine goodness, daily, the work of Creation,” then we need to strive to do the same. Drawing on Divine goodness and power, we can create purity anew each day. And if we fail – when we inevitably fail, as fallible human beings – entropy takes over; impurity encroaches and “rubs off” readily. So we need to notice that and renew our commitment. Notice and renew. Notice and renew. The positive change that ensues in the external environment won’t hold, but we will be different – purer, more aware and better prepared for the next day’s challenge.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is the spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue, which now meets at Temple Ner Ma’arav in Encino. She is the co-editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life.”

Then and Now Pesach 5764

Most of us remember our parents telling us when we were
children that when they were our age they had to walk two miles, every
day, in the snow, uphill, both ways, to go to school. In
ancient times we can imagine our ancestors telling their children that when
they were their age they were slaves to Pharaoh. Our rabbis liked that line so
much that they forever imprinted it on our minds by including it in the
haggadah: “In each and every generation a person should see himself as if he
personally went forth from Egypt.” It is not sufficient for us to read or tell
the story — we are to feel as if we were experiencing the liberation from
slavery into freedom.

Those among our people who survived the Holocaust do not
need to be reminded of their liberation. Each and every day the Holocaust
survivor remembers the hunger, the humiliation and the degradation of his or
her experience. Recurring nightmares and certain experiences can trigger and
bring back in an instant the memories and horrors of the past. These people
appreciate more fully each and every blessing of food, health, warmth and

The difficulty is in transmitting that appreciation to the
next generation — and so we recite each year: “In each and every generation a
person should see himself as if he personally went forth from Egypt.”
Similarly, the most oft-repeated verse in the Torah, no fewer than 36 times,
tells us, “To treat the stranger with kindness, because you remember how your
were treated when you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Sociologists would
tell us that those who were abused as children will likely grow up to be
abusers. The Torah, however, does not cut us any slack. It is precisely because
we remember our persecution and oppression that Jewish people are to assist the
widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor and all the other vulnerable members
of society. Not only may we not abuse others, we are obligated to be most
helpful to those who are most likely to be mistreated by others.

Rather than using our ignoble historical past as an excuse
to receive sympathy we are held to a higher standard because of the oppression
we remember at the hands of Pharaoh and the taskmasters. Despite the fact that
most of us were born in America, this wonderful land of abundance, we are
bidden to annually remind ourselves of the gnut (our scornful past) and humble
beginnings as a people. Though we are physically in Los Angeles and in
comfortable homes, we identify as a member of an ancient people subjected to
countless persecutions. We have survived to relive the story and thereby make
sure it never happens again — to us or to anybody else. Our awareness of our
own material blessings is tempered by our acknowledgement that the world is
still unredeemed. We are not permitted to be too comfortable. The eastern
corner of our home is to be unfinished, reminiscent of the destruction of the
ancient temple. Our blessing after the meal during the weekdays begins with
Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept for Zion,” reminding
us of our exile from Jerusalem 2,500 years ago. At a wedding when we celebrate
a supremely joyful moment, we break a glass. Our material blessings are tithed
to tzedakah — to hasten the final redemption for all.

What a strange challenge. We are to live in two worlds. We
work hard to provide for our families all the blessings of this rich culture —
but we are to be reminded: “This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate
in the land of bondage. This year we are slaves … next year may we be free;
this year we are here, next year may we be in the land of Israel.”

Twice each year (the last moment of Yom Kippur and at the
end of our Pesach seder) we recite the words: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Even those in Jerusalem recite these words. We are never
quite in the Jerusalem that was intended by those words. Those words imply the
time of redemption for all mankind.

I spoke to my son today. He lives in Jerusalem. He tells me
of a bus that was bombed, the eight who were killed and the 60 who were
injured. This world is the earthly Jerusalem. He then went to the Wall to pray,
with those who long for the Yerushalayim Habanuyah — the rebuilt and redeemed
Jerusalem, the true City of Peace to which we all intend our prayers.

We are not permitted to lose hope or lose our sense of
balance. We do not dwell excessively on the bitter herbs or bitterness of life.
We combine the bitter herbs with the charoset — the bitter with the sweet.
Israel’s national anthem is “HaTikvah” (The Hope).

Our momentary abundance does not blind us to our collective
poverty. And our sadness at the realization of the hunger, illness and pain in
this world does not blind us to our mission. “Next year in Jerusalem” is a
prayer and a directive. We are to guide our actions and inspire our hearts and
minds to work toward a rebuilt Jerusalem. Our prayers are directed to our
inmost heart to move our hands to bring about the final redemption.

This year we work to bring about the Jerusalem that we will
enter next year.

May Elijah drink from his cup at our seder this year and
foretell the coming of that great and awesome time, the time of peace for all
humanity. Â

Gershon Johnson is rabbi at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills.

Ten Tips for a Great Speech

In two weeks Jonathan Shainberg is going to be standing in front of a large crowd at Young Israel of Century City to administer the spiritual content of his bar mitzvah. When he is done wowing the crowd with his chanting of the weekly Torah portion, he will attempt to nourish their souls with a speech that will hopefully stay in their heads longer than the cholent at the kiddush will stay in their stomachs.

"I’m more nervous about the speech than I am about reading the Torah," Jonathan Shainberg told The Journal. "When you are reading the Torah you aren’t looking at people, but when you give the speech you have to look out at the whole crowd and seeing the faces makes me nervous."

Jonathan Shainberg’s trepidation about his bar mitzvah speech is not an unusual emotion. Any bar or bat mitzvah speech is a tricky thing. The speech needs to encapsulate the speaker’s twilight of youth and herald the dawn of his or her maturity — in other words, it needs to be adult enough to be interesting and full of content, while not losing sight of the fact that the person delivering it isn’t even in high school yet.

To minimize public speaking anxiety, The Jewish Journal put together a list of handy tips that will help keep your bar or bat mitzvah speech scintillating.

1. Figure Out What You’re Doing There

While the parents take care of the nuts and bolts of the bar mitzvah — calling the caterer, booking the hall and sending out the invitations — it falls on you, the adult-to-be, to not only administer the spiritual content of the day but to figure out why everyone is making such a fuss over you. To do that, you need to do some religious homework about the meaning of a bar/bat mitzvah and coming into Jewish adulthood. While this might not be completely germane to the speech itself, it will help get you into the right frame of mind to give an appropriate speech.

"The speech has to honor the youngster’s perception and understanding of what is happening to his or her own life," said Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, Sinai Temple’s rabbi emeritus and resident bar/bat mitzvah speech assistant. "The first thing I do is identify that the concept of a bar mitzvah is not a one-day event — they are going to be a child of the commandments for the rest of their lives. I send the children home with texts to read and think about them, and then discuss their responses and give them other texts to enrich their thinking. I don’t even care if the speech isn’t very good, but I really care about the thought process that the youngster goes through."

2. Make It Your Own

There are two schools of thought when it comes to preparing bar/bat mitzvah speeches. Some people think speech writing and giving is beyond the purview of a 12- or 13-year-old — and therefore you need to have your speech written for you by someone with a little more experience, such as your rabbi, teacher or parents. Others think that for the sake of authenticity, you have to write your own speech.

Whether the child or an adult writes the speech, one thing is certain: If you have no input into it, the speech isn’t going to work.

You can have input in any number of ways. If someone else is writing the speech, then you can make sure that the person writing it discusses his or her ideas about content with you. You should tell him or her what you think of the ideas, and don’t be afraid of adding in your own stories or comments to the speech.

"The personalization of a speech is very important," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "It can’t be canned, otherwise everyone would say the same thing. It needs to come from a kid’s own experience."

3. Don’t Forget About God

A bar mitzvah is more than just a party — it’s an initiation into the 613 commandments of the Torah. Any good speech should reflect the spiritual significance of the day.

The general rule for speeches is that the religious content derives from the weekly Torah portion or Haftarah that you read, but Jewish spiritual inspiration can be found in any number of places.

"We have them choose a section from Ethics of our Fathers and speak about what it means to them," Schulweis said. "That way it adds a Torah from the rabbinic tradition to the Torah that he reads — the Bible, and the Haftarah which is from the prophetic tradition. The Ethics of our Fathers is written in easy language and gives the kids something to think about and do for the rest of their lives."

4. Say Thank You

It is incumbent on the bar or bat mitzvah to be publicly grateful to all those who helped him or her get to this point. That includes parents, siblings, grandparents, teachers, friends, guests who have come in from out of town and anyone else who merits gratitude.

"This is a chance for the bar mitzvah boy to really ingratiate himself with his parents and to acknowledge all they have done for him," said Aaron Breitbart, bar mitzvah teacher to the youth of Young Israel of Century City.

5. Keep It Short

Before you get carried away with thanking everyone you ever came into contact with (see Rule No. 4), remember the Oscars and the orchestra that starts to play every time someone speaks for longer than the allotted 90 seconds. The music is there to tell the speaker to shut up and, if you speak for too long, then people in the audience will want to tell you the same thing. Remember that brevity is the soul of wit, which means, essentially, that when speeches are shorter, they are more enjoyable.

"For 10 minutes you drill and afterward you bore," Breitbart said. "You don’t want the speech to be too long."

6. Keep It Simple and

Age Appropriate

A bar or bat mitzvah speech is not a State of the Union. If you keep both the language and the content of your speech simple, audiences will have an easier time following it.

"The speech shouldn’t be one that throws in the kitchen sink," said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. "People can’t listen to 15 different ideas. The speech should develop one idea, and have a good beginning, middle and end."

You also don’t need to look up scores of 10-syllable words in the dictionary so you can impress the audience with your vocabulary. If you don’t use those words normally, then don’t use them in your speech.

"The only reason to ever use a big word is where a simple word doesn’t convey the thought," Breitbart said. "People know what the vocabulary of a 13-year-old is, and the language that you use needs to be the language that a 13-year-old child uses."

7. Make Them Laugh

Never underestimate the power of a good joke or story. A joke is likely to linger with the audience longer than the rest of the speech does.

"It is very important that there is humor in the speech," Breitbart said. "That is what everyone is looking for. Nobody wants to hear a sour bar mitzvah kid."

8. Practice Makes Perfect

You have to practice your speech. The more you practice your speech, the more comfortable you will be with the language and ideas in it, and the better your delivery will be. Practice your speech in front of your parents, siblings or friends, and then ask them for feedback, and listen to what they have to say. If people tell you that the speech is boring, don’t get offended, just find a way to make it more interesting by adding in another joke, ditching that third paragraph that didn’t make sense in the first place or modulating your voice so your speech isn’t delivered in a monotone.

"I have practiced my speech about 15 or 20 times," Jonathan Shainberg said. "Every practice it improves."

9. Don’t Be Nervous

Easier said than done of course, but if you are nervous, you’re not alone. Many inexperienced orators get the willies before speaking in public. A famous cure for public-speaking phobia is to imagine the audience in their underwear and proceed from there. Yet the mental visual of a room full of shul-goers in their knickers might not be an appropriate image for you to have in your mind before you are about to give a bar/bat mitzvah speech. Instead, breathe slowly and deeply, think of your whole body relaxing and tell yourself that you’ll be fine.

If none of that works, you might want to try another tactic.

"If you feel nervous, don’t look at people’s faces," said Mark Shainberg, Jonathan’s father. "Pretend to look at the faces, but look at the walls behind them."

10. Stand and Deliver

When it comes to giving your speech, stand up straight and tall, speak clearly and proudly and, when in doubt, slowly. Measured clarity trumps a rapid mumble every time.

If you have practiced the speech enough then the words won’t sound foreign to you, the speech will come naturally and you will be able to look the audience in the eye and let them know that you are truly a worthy member of the Jewish nation.

Why Are We Jews?

“Biblical stories are in our present — in the cheder [Easter
European elementary school] we cried when we learned of the sale of
Joseph — and we rejoiced in his ascendancy to power. There
was a freshness, a vigor, a nearness, which we felt in that drama.” — Rabbi
Joseph B. Soloveichik

Oh to be a fly on the wall of that great and dramatic
confrontation between Judah and Joseph. The scene: Twenty-two years after being
sold, Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers, has ascended to become Egyptian
viceroy. Joseph frames his brothers by placing a royal goblet in Benjamin’s
sack. Joseph “graciously” offers to exonerate all the brothers — barring
Benjamin. Floating between feisty and fearful, Judah, the engineer of Joseph’s
sale, walks into the palace to confront a mercurial viceroy and delivers a
poignant message climaxing with a plea to free Benjamin:

“For how can I go up to my father if the youth [Benjamin] is
not with me lest I see the evil that will befall my father?” (44:34)

In the face of such courage, it is Joseph who crumbles —
breaking down into tears and ultimately divulging his identity. How deliciously
ironic that this man of control, a teenager in a foreign land who is able to
withstand Potiphar’s wife’s temptations and strong enough to remain hidden for more
than 22 years, capitulates to Judah.

Wherein lies the power of the Judah personality? Is this the
same Judah who initiates the sale of his brother and whose conduct in the Tamar
episode raises troubling questions? Equally remarkable is the haunting silence
of Judah’s siblings. Why is it Judah alone who stands tall in the face of the
hostile viceroy who wants to seize Benjamin? Are they not all certain of the
consequent early demise of their father Jacob?

Our Sages portray the development of the Judah personality.
A picture of transformation emerges. After initiating his brother’s sale, Judah
begins to contemplate the enormity of his actions and their effect on Jacob.
Shortly thereafter, he is thrust into crisis with his former daughter-in-law,
Tamar, who is pregnant with illegitimate twins.

Unlike his role in the Joseph saga, in this epic, Judah does
not hold all the cards. He is, after all, the unwitting father (if this story
seems puzzling — you might want to read it in its original). Tamar knows, but
refuses to vocally pinpoint Judah as the father of her children. Instead she
opts to merely present Judah with the evidence and ultimately forces him to
make a momentous decision. In the presence of his father and grandfather,
comments the Midrash, Judah is confronted with a massive internal crisis. Shall
he remain passive or admit that he sired the children? Will Judah choose
ephemeral ease over eternal excellence?Â

“Tzadka mimeni” (“She is more righteous than I”), Judah
declares. (38:26) Two words, no ambiguity and an uncompromising sense of truth.
Precisely here, our sages majestically declare, does Judah earn his Messianic
stripes. Judah has made mistakes in the past, but he is now willing to accept
responsibility. The metamorphosis is almost done. For if Judah is able to admit
responsibility it is only natural that when the crisis of Benjamin strikes that
Judah plays the lead role and proclaims: “Anochi e’ervenu” (“I will be his
guarantor.”) (43:9)

It is striking that Judah’s sense of responsibility now
transcends his own self and creates a sense of obligation to the other.
Ultimately, this proactive responsibility has a profound curative effect, as
the brothers are reunited and the family healed.

Often parents in their role as mediators in great sibling
struggles are privileged to hear various restatements of “it all started when
he hit me back” — an argument of impeccable logic. It is not all right for our
children to shirk blame. Sacred duty requires that we invest them with a sense
of accountability, however unpleasant or frightening that might be. In our
efforts to provide our children with everything, we may deprive them of the
great gift of responsibility, engendering in its stead a sense of entitlement.

For the past 2,000 years, our people have been called
Yehudim — or Jews — a derivative of the word Judah. We are not Yissachars,
Dans, nor are we even Josephs. Perhaps it is because God demands of us to take
responsibility for our flaws. Even as we do not control our circumstances, we
surely control the way we respond to them. This essential understanding forms
the basis of real spirituality. Once we acknowledge that we are accountable for
ourselves and indeed for our fellow human beings, we become emboldened to
unlock the grand potential stored within.

Good Shabbos. Â

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

In the Eyes of the Beholder

Part of my traditional upbringing as a yeshiva bocher was
the belief that anything that took my attention away from a page
of Talmud was bitul Torah — a waste of time. And while that
may have been a good lesson for an easily distracted teenager, I have since
discovered as an adult that there is so much Divine beauty in the world that we
forfeit if we keep our noses exclusively inside our books.

Esthetic beauty — be it found in a poem, a piece of music, a
sunset over the ocean — is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, something that
is esthetically pleasing can be an uplifting, spiritual experience, a means of
becoming closer to the Source, to God. Beauty can bring light into the world.
But so often, when physical beauty is an end unto itself, the opposite is true,
and the values of Dorian Gray — self-absorption and superficiality — prevail.

In Hebrew there are a number of words to describe beauty.
One is yofi, which describes an external, visible beauty. Another is chen,
which describes an internal special quality that radiates to the outside.
Someone need not be a supermodel to effuse chen, even if she or he lacks the
external yofi.

This week, both the Torah and holiday cycles focus on the
idea of beauty. Joseph had both yofi and chen; not only was he physically
stunning, he also radiated a nonphysical charm and charisma. But while it was
his yofi that made him an object of lust to Mrs. Potiphar, it was his chen that
allowed him to ascend to greatness in Egypt.

The excessive pursuit of yofi was the tragic flaw of ancient
Greek civilization. The Greeks’ emphasis on esthetic beauty — be it in the
human body, art or architecture — was evident in their pantheons and
gymnasiums. It is thus no coincidence that Greece was notorious for both beauty
and hubris.

What did our people accomplish during the days of the
Maccabees? It was far more than just a military victory. By living in a Greek
society, we adopted some of Greece within ourselves. We conquered ancient Greece,
which is not to say that we rejected it altogether, but rather that we were
able to control it. The yofi, which was so negative and destructive in the
hands of the Greeks, was now something that we could control. Greece taught us
that there is inherent value to esthetic beauty; that beauty does enhance a
person’s life.

Only when beauty is left unbridled is it problematic; when
it is controlled under the rubric of the Torah, then yofi becomes chen, the
deeper, more meaningful beauty. Using the power of Torah and spirituality, we
converted the Greek yofi into the Jewish chen.

Just as our ancestors conquered Greece, and converted yofi
to chen, so can we.

That’s what the lights of Chanukah teach us. Light
represents the radiation of physical beauty. Indeed, the talmudic sages often
describe something esthetically beautiful as “radiating a light.” But more: we
say in the “Hanerot Halalu” song, “V’ain lanu reshut lehishtamesh bahem” — “We
have no permission to utilize these lights.” This is a message that Judaism is
not just utilitarian; there is more to religious life than functionality.
Esthetics count for something, and we signify this by limiting ourselves to
looking at the beautiful Chanukah lights, and no more.

The Divine can be found not only in a verse of Bible or a
page of Talmud, but also in a beautiful sunset and a beautiful piece of music.
This is all part of the Almighty’s beautiful world, a beauty that is here to
elevate us spiritually. If we look for God, He is there.

May you have a beautiful, joyous Chanukah. Â

Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla at Kehillat Yavneh.

A Question of Perspective

We are all familiar with Jacob, the refugee who returns to his homeland to the dreaded encounter with his vengeful brother Esau. I believe most of us read the story through Jacob’s eyes, but is it the only way? What if it were possible to unearth these biblical heroes’ diaries? What would they say? Here are the events of our parsha as described by the two brothers:

Jacob’s Diary

Preparation: Tomorrow is the day. God knows how I fear that moment! What am I going to say to Esau? Should I apologize? Can there be an apology? My brother’s angry screams still haunt me. They come back to remind me that I have deceived my father…. But there is no point in wandering in the abandoned alleys of the past. I have to be realistic. Tomorrow I am going to meet Esau. According to my scouts, he is ready for war, coming with 400 men and probably armed to the teeth. I should send him a nice gift to appease him, hundreds of animals with their shepherds, showing my subjugation.

The Encounter: That hypocrite! He has no shame — kissing and hugging me as if I was his long-lost brother, as if he was not the one who threatened to kill me. Of course I did not return his hugs and kisses. I have some self-respect.

The Conversation: I knew it. I knew it. First, he starts with his innocent questions: "And who are these?" Well, this is my family, of course. It is all a gift from God, kain ein horeh, and not due to "your" blessing. He then toys with me, implying that he is rich enough and does not need the tribute I sent to him. Oh, he was transparent. He rejected it just to remind me that even though I have taken "his" blessing he has enough of his own. After all that, he comes with a preposterous suggestion — to escort me to my destination, or to at least send some of his men with me, as if I needed protection. Of course I needed protection — to be protected from him. Thank God I managed to outsmart him and go our separate ways. I hope I will not hear from him soon.

Esau’s Diary

Preparation: Tomorrow is the big day. After years of running away from me, my brother is finally coming back home. I look forward to meeting him. I hope he truly regrets his actions, however, for me it is part of the past. I could have followed him to Haran long ago, but I think the poor guy already paid for his iniquities, being on the run and cheated by his father-in-law. Just as a precaution, I am going to meet him with a small army, in case he becomes violent and tries to take what he thinks belongs to him.

The Encounter: My brother has such a nice family, but he is so touchy about them. When I ask who they are, to break the ice, he shoots back that they are a gift from God, lest I think he got them because of the stolen blessing.

The Conversation: I cannot believe it, not a word of apology. Only gifts. I don’t need his gifts, and I told him that. He insisted that I take them, fearing that I will try to take more by force. When I told him that I would like to accompany him to his destination, he nearly jumped out of his skin, looking at me as if I was a hired assassin, waiting for the right moment to kill him. No, he would not have me or any of my men accompany him. His fear definitely overcame his voice of reason. I guess he is not interested in family ties. Too bad. I suppose we’ll just keep it as it was for the last 20 years, live our lives separately, pretending we each have no brother.

What is the right version? Is it Jacob’s or maybe Esau’s? Perhaps it is a mixture of both? We will never know, because the words were never uttered. There wasn’t an official apology, nor was there an open channel of communication between the two brothers. After this fateful encounter they went their separate ways and became hostile nations. Was there something in this particular meeting that could have prevented such a development? Perhaps so. We need to be able to see things from the other person’s perspective. We should be willing to apologize, to communicate and to listen.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.

The Place of Dreams

It was somewhat overwhelming, though not totally surprising, that listening to Simon and Garfunkel in concert turned out to be a significant religious experience for me. I found that they have the ability to remind us what the seeking and dreaming “Ya’akov” that is inside us actually looks like.

The Chasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730-1797), teaches in Parshat Vayera, which we read three weeks ago, that the Torah is a blueprint for each and every one of us. There is an Avraham within us — the part of us that pleads in front of God, fighting the existence of evil. There is the Sarah within us — the part of us that has to make painful decisions on behalf of a greater good in the future. Our self-doubt is Amalek, our self-sacrificing voice is Rachel.

And Ya’akov: he has multiple faces that he carries. Ya’akov, upon receiving a new name, Yisrael, continues to use his old name — in Genesis 49:2, both names even appear in the same verse.

This Shabbat offers an invitation to look at Ya’akov the dreamer and to ask ourselves some important questions about dream life: What is it that we dream about? What is the content of our dreams? What do we remember of our dreams? And if we don’t remember our dreams, what does this tell us?

But there are also dreams that are not dreamt at night. There are those that we dream with our eyes, hearts, soul and spirit. What are the aspirations that we carry with us and that lead us through life? As Yonatan and David used the place of the arrows in the field (the zodiac sign for this month, Kislev, is Sagittarius) as a sign between them whether it was safe for David to return home or not, we can ask ourselves, how far and how high do we aim our arrows in life? What are the visions that we create in our mind?

In the opening of our Torah portion, Ya’akov leaves Be’er Sheva and the next thing we know is that he arrives in Charan. A verse later he encounters the makom (the place), which we are taught is Mount Moriah, the place of the binding of Yitzchak. Rashi points out that Ya’akov reached Charan and then realized, “Is it possible that I passed a place where my ancestors prayed, and I did not pray?” Immediately he experienced a “quantum leap” and found himself back at Mount Moriah. Upon waking from his dream, Ya’akov says, “Indeed God is here and I did not know” (Genesis 28:16). The Piasetzna Rebbe, Rav Klonimus Kalman Shapira (1888-1943) highlights a shocking contradiction: How could Ya’akov say, “Indeed God is here and I did not know” when the whole reason that he went there was because God was present there?

The Piasetzna Rebbe teaches us that there are different qualities of knowing, as there are multiple ways to listen/hear, as there are many possibilities for seeing/observing/noticing. There is the sensing we do with our physical mind, eyes, ears and hands. And then there is an internal form of knowing, hearing, seeing and touching, one that transforms our essence and being. One that demands of us to be other than who we appear to be in the world. This was Ya’akov’s exclamation — he approached Mount Moriah with “head knowledge” — that this was a sacred place, but questioned his “heart and soul knowledge.” He wondered, “Will I indeed encounter God in this place where I know that God was revealed to my ancestors?”

Listening to Simon and Garfunkel, alone while surrounded by thousands, I questioned the tears that started to flow by the third song. I knew, with my heart and soul, that even those that came with friends or family were, in some way, alone while listening. Alone because the people that were there had come not to necessarily hear the music with their ears, or see Simon and Garfunkel with their eyes, but rather, they/we came to find our makom (place) again. We came to reconnect with a vision that we had in our youth that the world is a good place and that we have the ability to make it a holy makom. We came to rebound ourselves with a makom that promises us love and relationship. We came to feel again what it means to trust and be trusted. We wanted to reclaim our dreams and our own voice. For each and every one of us was standing on the stage praying to be “Homeward Bound,” yearning to be nourished by the “Sound of Silence” and trying on what it means to cry out “I Am a Rock, I Am an Island.”

God is my rock and there is no unrighteousness in God. Tzuri ve-lo avlata bo (Tehillim 92:16).

Reb Mimi Fiegelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Silence Is Golden

A saleswoman, driving home in northern Arizona, sees a Navajo woman hitchhiking, stops the car and invites the Navajo woman to join her.

As they drive, the Navajo woman glances repeatedly at a brown bag on the front seat between them.

"If you are wondering what’s in the bag," the saleswoman offers, "it’s a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband."

The Navajo woman is silent for a while, then nods several times and says, "good trade."

Chauvinism, of one kind or another, probably has always been with us. This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayera, for example, appears to lend itself to the charge of male chauvinism. The Torah tells us that the three angels who came to visit Abraham brought news that Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s son. Sarah laughed when she heard this, whereupon God chastised her, saying to Abraham, "Why is it that Sarah laughed … is anything too hard for the Eternal?" (Genesis 18:13-14).

Our sages point out that this sharp response seems strange considering that in last week’s Torah reading, when God told Abraham that he would have a son from Sarah, he, too, laughed, yet in that instance God was not critical at all.

Why the different treatment? Could sexual discrimination be at the heart of the disparity or something else? Perhaps we can find our answer in a suggestion made by the late Hannah Levine, wife of the late, saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levine, known as the Tzadik of Jerusalem.

Hannah Levine suggested that the story of the Shunamit woman and the Prophet Elisha mentioned in the Haftorah for this week’s Torah portion can help solve our question. The story relates that the woman’s young son came running in from the field in great pain screaming, "My head! My head!" and then died. The woman took the boy, placed him upon Elisha’s bed in the room that she had prepared for the prophet in her home, and set out to find the prophet.

The woman then asked her husband to provide a chariot and driver for her so that she could find Elisha. Puzzled, he wanted to know why, to which she replied with one word, shalom (peace). When she finally reached the prophet, he saw her from afar and sent his assistant to find out if everything was well with her, to which she answered only one word: shalom. The story continues that Elisha knew something was wrong, went back with her and revived the child.

We, however, must wonder why the Shunamit woman responded to each query with the one word, shalom, when everything was the antithesis of peace. Hannah Levine suggests that this teaches us a lesson. For a miracle to work, one cannot drown it in everyday verbiage. Once it is subsumed by ordinary reality, the miracle will not occur.

Rashi, the classical medieval biblical commentator, offers a similar observation in regard to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s laugh reflected ordinary incredulity. She scoffed. She verbalized. As her words indicate, she did not believe such a promise could be fulfilled.

Abraham’s laugh, the Torah tells us, "was in his heart" (Genesis 17:17), but it expressed delight. Not a torrent of words but a simple, heartfelt laugh, reflected firm belief that the promise would be fulfilled.

What a powerful lesson for us who live in this information age, besieged by torrents of words. If we would realize that it is not so much what we say but what we do and what we feel in our hearts that can cause miracles to happen, then, like Abraham, we could influence a whole world for good.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Mothers, Daughters Bond Over Torah

Netivot, the women’s Torah study institute, will begin a program next month on a subject not often associated with Orthodoxy: bat mitzvah.

Beginning Nov. 16, Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills will host a “Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar,” in which girls ages 11-13 and their mothers are invited to explore aspects of being a Jewish woman through text study, creative expression and areas of social action.

Educator Marcie Meier will lead the six-week course, joined by specialists who will facilitate projects in music, drama, art and dance. In addition to female characters in the Bible, seminar participants will discuss historical and personal role models.

Although Meier recognizes that “there’s always been a more public role for young men … there’s no reason girls shouldn’t achieve as much as boys in Judaism.”

Attaining the age of bat mitzvah, Meier told The Journal, involves “growing into a more responsible role in Judaism” — not just fulfillment of commandments incumbent on women such as lighting Shabbat candles but also saying daily prayers and carrying out acts of chesed (lovingkindness), what Jews often refer to as tikkun olam (social action).

Text study, Meier said, allows girls to understand their responsibilities as adult Jews “on a deeper level.” Orthodox from birth, Meier embraced the importance of study for girls as a young adult after reading an essay in an Orthodox journal in which a woman wrote, “Women sometimes confuse motherhood with washing floors…. Anyone who can study should study.”

At Beth Jacob, girls celebrate their coming of age as Jewish adults by offering to the congregation a d’var Torah, or commentary, on the weekly Torah portion, though, consistent with traditional practice, they do not lead prayers or read from Scripture.

But Steven Weil, Beth Jacob’s rabbi, downplays the “public performance” component of bar mitzvah as a latter-day American phenomenon. For centuries, he said, bar mitzvah was nothing more than a boy being called to recite Torah blessings on a Thursday morning.

To Weil, the close study of text and Jewish values that leads to the d’var Torah is the core of the rite of passage for girls and boys.

“Our goal is that the focus is on a real, substantive intellectual growth experience,” he told The Journal, “learning for six to 12 months with a first-rate mentor.”

Weil cites Meier as such a mentor, someone knowledgeable in Bible, rabbinic texts and traditional practice. A product of Los Angeles Jewish day schools, Meier, 51, attended Stern College for Women in New York and UCLA. She has prepared girls to deliver divrei Torah at Orthodox congregations and at non-Orthodox synagogues such as Temple Beth Am.

Michelle Rothstein, a seventh-grader at Pressman Academy in Pico-Robertson, has been working with Meier since last year to prepare divrei Torah for her bat mitzvah celebrations this month at Beth Jacob and at Beth Am, where she will also lead a weekday service.

With Meier, Rothstein explored Torah in both Hebrew and English.

“She knows a lot, and she’s really nice,” Rothstein said of her teacher.

Meier is looking forward to working with mothers and daughters together.

“For some mothers, it will be a first opportunity to study things they didn’t have an opportunity to study as they grew up,” she said.

She also sees it as a chance for women to spend “quality time” with their middle-school daughters.

Netivot (Hebrew for “paths”), founded in 2000, opens its fall schedule on Nov. 2 with “Weaving Beauty Into Our Everyday Lives,” an afternoon-long program combining Torah study with interactive arts workshops. All of Netivot’s programs are open to women at all levels of knowledge and from all Jewish denominations.

The seminar is “really going to be able to reach all levels,” Meier said. “It’s such a positive thing to bring our girls into the next step of Judaism.”

To find out more about the “Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah
Seminar” or Netivot’s other fall offerings, call (310) 286-2346, visit or e-mail .

We Are Not Small

It is easy to feel small. As you fall asleep one night, try to watch yourself in your mind’s eye, your body growing quiet on your bed as your mind begins to wander. You are one person falling asleep in one room. Beyond you are two, five, 20 others in your home or apartment building or on your block. Imagine yourself rising, now hovering a thousand feet in the air and peering out across the lights of Los Angeles. There are almost 10 million people in Los Angeles County, each person unique. There are 260 million people in the United States, each with a story different than the other. Each soul has walked a journey unlike any other. Rising higher, you see the vastness of the United States below. As big as America is, did you know the entire continental United States can fit into the Sahara desert? Above the earth one looks to the stars and sees Mars and Venus and Jupiter. We sent a spacecraft to Jupiter in 1989. After traveling at a speed equivalent to flying from Los Angeles to New York in 82 seconds and using "planetary gravity assists," Galileo finally arrived — six years later! Our solar system is one of 100 billion star systems in the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is one of about 30 galaxies in what astronomers call our "local group." Now that’s some idea of "local!" It is easy to feel small.

And yet, the Torah tells us, at the edge of a vast universe is God. And most remarkably, is that in God’s eyes, we are not small. We are beloved by the Master of the Universe. "The greatest sin of man," wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "is to forget that he is a prince — that he has royal power."

As the director of Camp Ramah in California, I train a staff of young adults who are entrusted to care for and to teach over 1,300 children each summer. During staff week, we review health and safety. We teach how to develop educational and fun programs. But after a week of workshops and planning, on the night before the first kids arrive, we must return to the basics and remember what it is that is at the core of our endeavor: the uniqueness and greatness of each child in our care.

So I study with them the words of the Mishnah: "A person mints many coins with a single seal, and they are all alike one another. But the King of kings of kings, the Holy Blessing One, minted all human beings with the seal with which He made the first person, yet not one of them is like anyone else. Therefore each person must say, ‘For my sake the world was created’" (Sanhedrin 4:5). I tell our staff that if the kids in our care leave Camp Ramah in California with a sense that each of their lives is so important that the world was created for his or her sake, we have done our job.

We have done our job because, though belief is not everything, when you believe God is that close, you begin to see the world in a different way. You are more grateful for a simple glass of water, for it is a gift from God. When you are God’s child, you become more sensitive to the suffering of those who are in need, for the poor and the hungry are your sisters and brothers. When you believe your life matters to the King of the universe, you make different choices; you take your life more seriously. You waste less time watching TV and spend more time playing with and teaching your children. You pray. You practice acts of kindness. You sin less. "Your sins have separated between you and Your God," Isaiah said.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught that in the absence of sin, God’s presence would be evident in every natural encounter. The whisper of the Master of the Universe would be heard in the bubbling of every crystal spring.

Do you hear the whisper of the Holy One? Do you believe your life choices matter to the One who created it all? Do you believe the way we live out our short years on earth matters in some cosmic story?

I do. I believe in you.

"On this day all of us pass before You, one by one, like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd counts sheep, making each of them pass under the staff, so You review every living being, measuring the years and decreeing the destiny of every creature" (Unetaneh Tokef).

Even if it has been many years, even if you never have, this year I challenge you to believe in yourself, to believe in the whisper, to believe in God.

Blessings Over Curses

This week’s Torah portion presents the blessings and curses that follow from observance or defiance of the law. Some people understand this as a rigid system of reward and punishment. Keep the covenant, and all will be well; violate it, and you will suffer.

The blessings and curses can also be read as a loving explanation of consequences. When a doctor warns a diabetic that eating sugar will make him sick, she is trying to help him, not wishing him ill. Torah laws are instructions for how to live in the world from the One who created the world.

Curiously, in Ki Tavo, as in parallel ancient Near Eastern texts, curses far outnumber blessings. But maybe the weighting of blessings and curses is not as disproportionate as it seems.

The whole premise of the High Holidays is that forgiveness is more powerful than a grudge. Repentance conquers sin. Good is stronger than evil. "The wicked spring up like grass" — quick to grow and easy to trample. "The righteous grow like a cedar" — slow to mature, but substantial and enduring (Psalm 92:8,13).

So, too, blessings carry more weight, and last longer, than curses.

In the holiday liturgy, we recite from Exodus 34:6-7, "Adonai, Adonai, merciful and gracious God, patient and abounding in goodness and truth. Keeping lovingkindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity…." We emphasize God’s blessings using God’s own self-description.

But verse seven continues: "Yet by no means clearing the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the ancestors upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation." The prayer quotes only the blessing, but children inherit iniquity.

No less a figure than Jeremiah objected: "They shall say no more, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the sons’ teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity" (Jeremiah 31:28-29).

In truth, if not in justice, the curses of sin are commonly passed down for three and four generations. A man beats his daughter, and it affects her parenting. Her wounds wound her child. Then that child raises children, reacting to, and perhaps passing on, the consequences of a grandfather’s sin. Certainly, the cycle can be broken, but three and four generations live and make choices in the shadow of the sin. Our verse is not prescriptive: here is your punishment for an ancestor’s sin. Rather, it is descriptive: here is a lesson about how sin works in families.

It is harder to understand the blessing. Can we really fathom that God’s grace lasts 1,000 generations? Is lovingkindness that powerful?

When I study Torah, I feel my zeyde’s zeyde with me. Something ineffable — love, communal memory — is passed down with the text. The principle of zechut avot says that we inherit the merit of our ancestors for an unlimited number of generations. No explanation sounds complete or logical — the merit inspires us, it rubs off on us, it shapes our collective unconscious, it delights God. Yet, I have sensed, as I hope you have, that when a crowd gathers on the High Holidays, it is not just the people in the room who are present. Past generations assist us in the work of repentance and forgiveness. Their loving energy remains long after any sins and torment have dissipated.

Lovingkindness enjoys not just longevity, but immediate power. As a rabbi, I have witnessed devastating passages that most of us, thankfully, will never experience. Parents stand by their child’s hospital bed, praying for healing and, if not, at least for release from pain. An accident wipes out a young father’s memory, so that he cannot hold a job — or a coherent conversation.

In such terrible situations, people become exquisitely sensitive to blessings. Sometimes blessings can even eclipse the suffering. Every kindness by neighbors and nurses, every moment of peace and clarity, is felt keenly and deeply. Through the pain, love touches the heart and revives the soul.

High Holiday liturgy and theology acknowledge two types of blessings and curses. There are blessings we merit by practicing repentance, prayer and charity in the face of our own troubles. And there are blessings gifted to us by God’s grace. There are curses we bring on by our own poor choices. And there are "natural" curses — fallout from prior generations, random suffering we cannot explain or justify, and death itself. Life’s blessings make the curses bearable. Blessings have a unique power, regardless of whether they — or we — can fix everything.

This season, we seek to control what we can. We challenge ourselves: What harm am I committing or perpetuating — to others and to myself? How can I maximize blessings in the world?

The Talmud Megillah teaches: "[We read Ki Tavo] before the New Year … so that the year may end along with its curses."

By our actions and God’s mercy, may the coming year bring blessing, life and peace.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana.