Lessons of gratitude


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the ChildrenAll the ChildrenAll the ChildrenAll the Children


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certainly, these lessons are themes that the beautiful kol hanearim ceremony emphasizes.

First, each child has a right to Torah, an inheritance that comes with birth.

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

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

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 9, 1998.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.

All the Children


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certainly, these lessons are themes that the beautiful kol hanearim ceremony emphasizes.

First, each child has a right to Torah, an inheritance that comes with birth.

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

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

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 9, 1998.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.

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.

Trial of King David Sabotages Lessons


I chose not to attend Tarbut’s trial of King David. Billed as “the people against King David,” it promised to be a trial that was “3,000 years in the making.”

I considered going when I read of the legal minds involved in the trial. Justice Sheila Sonenshine is an outstanding jurist; professors Laurie Levenson and Erwin Cherminsky are two first rate lawyers who I would want in my side of the courtroom in a case.

I passed when I read that the organizer, Fountain Valley attorney Alan Thaler, told The Jewish Journal that “it was a remarkable historical parallel between Clinton and Lewinsky.”

There is no need for a trial. It might be good theater, but Jewish tradition has already rendered judgment.

There is no question that King David made a terrible blunder in his involvement with Batsheva thousands of years ago. Jewish tradition records David’s admission of sin, explores in detail if he was guilty of adultery or not.

The Talmud analyzes the case in depth, giving a clear disposition of the case. Technically, he was not legally culpable, since Batsheva received a get — a bill of divorce — before her husband left for war. Still, the Torah chastises King David for his action, which should have been beyond reproach.

We are told of David’s broken heart and profound remorse. His repentance is accepted by God. David asks God to make it known that his repentance is accepted.

The Talmud relates, “During your lifetime I will not make it known that your repentance is accepted, but I will do so in your son Solomon’s lifetime.”

The Divine sign came at the dedication of the Temple that Solomon built in the Jerusalem. All the Jewish people had gathered for this momentous occasion.

Solomon is unable to place the Ark into the Holy of Holies, whose gates remain shut. He prays to God, and there is no response. Finally, he beseeches God that the gates should open in the merit of his father, David.

The gates open, a sign that David is viewed with Divine favor. At that moment, the Talmud recalls “the faces of David’s enemies turn black with humiliation like the bottom of a pot.”

To come some three millennia later and second guess Jewish tradition throws the sanctity and validity of that tradition into doubt. This effort sabotages the important lessons of David: the message of repentance, his piety and scholarship, his gift of prophecy that radiates in the Psalms, a holy and noble Jewish king, whose descendant is promised to be Moshaich.

There is a second pitfall. The frame of reference being used to judge David. Jewish tradition is being replaced by contemporary values of Western culture. Instead of Torah teaching us direction and morality, we are using modern culture to judge Torah. In the process, we are telling the next generation, the ones that Tarbut is mandated to teach, that secular contemporary values trump ancient Jewish ones.

Finally, the Jewish courts are structured fundamentally different than modern American ones. Jewish courts are not adversarial in nature.

While both sides of a case are represented, the most crucial element is to discover the truth and render true justice. Juries are not part of the Jewish system. Cases are judged by qualified judges, as practiced in Israel today.

To be a member of the Sanhedrin, the ancient supreme Jewish court, you had to be immersed in Jewish scholarship, beyond reproach and have knowledge of languages. Judging by the vote of an audience is not Jewish tradition. The tradition is for qualified pious judges to deliberate, seek the truth and use as a guidepost the 3,000 years of Torah, the codes of Jewish law and the millennia of Jewish case law. OJ would never have bamboozled a Jewish court.

King David was one of the greatest Jewish leaders. He established the Jewish monarchy. He was a spiritual giant whose prophetic teachings, such as the Psalms, are a legacy of devoutness that has uplifted the hearts of minds of untold numbers.

Even thousands of years later, one of the most popular Jewish songs is “Dovid Melech Yisroel” (David, King of Israel). Still he was flawed; he sinned, suffered greatly and repented. It is not our task to put him on trial but to learn from his example of piety, repentance and scholarship.


Rabbi David Eliezrie is rabbi of Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen-Chabad and can be reached at rabbi@ncchabad.com.

Lessons of the Season


Imagine the Jewish calendar as three concentric circles: the Torah reading cycle, the holiday cycle and your personal life cycle.

The circles line up in various combinations, like one of those "work wheels" from camp. If your bat mitzvah falls on Shabbat Chanukah, you may always view the message of the festival and your own coming of age in light of the famous words from the Haftarah: "’Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit,’ says Adonai of Hosts" (Zechariah 4:6).

This time of year is rich with synchronicity and commentary among Torah, Haftarah and holiday. The Song of the Sea in the Torah reading is complemented by Deborah’s Song in the Haftarah. This Shabbat is therefore known as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. In honor of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for trees that falls at this time of year, we celebrate trees and nature, along with music and poetry.

Each Jew interprets the richness of this season through the prism of his or her own experience. The holiday of trees that augurs spring means one thing for a Jew emerging from shivah, and something equally but differently meaningful for a couple who just found out they are pregnant.

Still, many lessons are inherent, and shared, in the correspondence and mutual commentary between the holiday and Torah cycles. For example, both Tu B’Shevat and Beshalach offer lessons about governance, gratitude and faith.

In Genesis 2, God forms Adam out of the dust of the earth, and then plants a garden, "causing every tree to grow that is pleasant to see and good for food." If that is not enough to establish a special relationship between human beings and nature, especially trees, we learn that God put Adam in the garden to "cultivate it and to watch over it." Tu B’Sehvat reminds us of our role in governance. God provided trees for food, and granted humanity "dominion … over every living thing" (Genesis 1:28).

If the holiday promotes environmental governance, then the Torah reading urges responsible political governance. Pharaoh is the negative example; he uses people the way some individuals and corporations use and abuse environmental resources. Ultimately, Beshalach teaches us, human beings have governance, dominion and responsibility, but we do not really own or control anything — not the environment, and certainly not other human beings.

Tu B’Shevat also reminds us to be grateful, and not to take nature’s miracles for granted. The Talmud goes so far as to say that people will be judged in the next world for any permissible delight, including fine fruit, that they saw in this world, but did not consume. Similarly, Shabbat Shirah promotes celebration and praise. Moses and the Children of Israel sang. Miriam and the women danced. Later, they would complain and forget, but in the wake of the miracle, no one took God’s goodness for granted.

Tu B’Shevat is not just the rough equivalent of Arbor Day and Earth Day. It also functioned as tax day. One of several ways that Jews gave to the Temple was by offering their first fruits. The tithing of fruits was calculated on an annual calendar, beginning with the 15th day of the month of Shevat (i.e., Tu B’Shevat).

We designate the first fruits for God even before we know how the harvest will come out. In a remarkable show of faith and commitment, Jews pay God and community first. Thus, Tu B’Shevat is associated with giving — and with trust.

Beshalach reports God’s impatience with Moses’ prayer, as Pharoah’s army approached, seemingly trapping the Children of Israel at the shore of the Red Sea: "Why do you cry to me? Speak to the children of Israel, that they move" (Exodus 14:15). The rabbis imagine that none of the tribes was willing to move first (Sotah 37a). One man, Nahshon ben Aminadav, (literally) took the plunge. The waters parted only once he stepped out in faith and dared to go into the sea.

Thus, Tu B’Shevat and Shabbat Shira teach us to be daring in faith and to give of ourselves; to cultivate gratitude and to be effective stewards of nature and one another.

Along with these thematic links, the custom of feeding bread to the birds also connects Shabbat Shirah with nature and Tu B’Shevat. This custom has a place on my family’s life-cycle wheel, because it is based on my grandfather’s favorite midrash. My grandfather was no lover of animals. He never got over the "meshugas" that our family owned a dog. But once a year, he took joy in feeding the birds, and he never tired of telling us why:

David, who is said to have written the psalms, understood that the Temple would be destroyed, and feared that the psalms recited there would be forgotten. So he taught the psalms to the birds. (In Hebrew numerology, the word "nest" equals 150, the exact number of psalms.) On Shabbat Shirah, while it is still winter, Jews feed bread to the birds to hear them chirp and "sing" psalms. We sustain them with gratitude, knowing that nature also sustains us. No matter what, Jews, like birds, must continue to sing.


Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Tarzana and editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life.”

Final Lesson


In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we have the most intimate description of a deathbed scene and the most elaborate description of a le’vayah (funeral) contained in the Torah.

As I read through this portion in preparation for writing this column, I found myself struggling for a theme. I quieted my mind for a moment and found myself immersed in memories — memories of the dying, of funerals, of people working through grief. Like all congregational clergy, I have attended to the dying and their families. It is one of the holiest things I do, or, more precisely, one of things I do that makes me most conscious of the Holy.

It’s an aspect of a rabbi’s life that, I believe, is key to all of us, but one that we don’t talk about much, even to each other. I feel in some ways that a dying man helped make me a rabbi.

I was a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when I first reported to my second part-time student pulpit in Boise, Idaho, in September 1982. Linda, the synagogue president’s wife, picked me up from the airport and after a bit of chitchat asked me if I was willing to work hard. I said that I was and told her a bit about myself, to which she responded, "Well, maybe you’ll do." She told me that there was a dying man, and she felt he needed to talk to a rabbi.

I had no idea what rabbis or anyone said to someone who is dying. It was just before Rosh Hashanah and I thought maybe he would want to hear the shofar, so I brought it along with my prayer book.

When we got to the hospital, Linda took a seat in the waiting room and I walked into the dying man’s room. He was having trouble breathing and looked angry. He said, "What’s that in your hand?" I told him it was a shofar, and I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He told me that if I wanted to be helpful, I could throw my shofar and my prayer book out the window and bring him a gun so he could put himself out of his misery.

I could feel that I had been play-acting at being a rabbi, doing what I thought a rabbi should do. I wasn’t real. I caught my breath and my bearings returned.

I put the shofar and the siddur on an empty bed, pulled up a chair next to him and said, "I don’t have a gun, and I don’t know that I would give it to you if I had one, but tell me why you want one." He told me of his excruciating pain in taking each breath. He told me of a wasted life, of the bitterness in his family. He just wanted out.

I told him, "I want you to tell me what went wrong, what you would do differently." I did not ask that only as therapy, I am a bit ashamed to say; I asked for me. I suddenly knew that one of the ways I might die would be like this, in a hospital bed, in pain. Would I think of a life wasted? Would I be filled with bitterness? I wanted him to teach me.

Each word was spoken in pain, but he insisted on speaking. I filled in words for him, and eventually pulled out a notepad and started writing things down. He spoke in grief about his children and their discord. I asked him what he would want to tell them, what legacy he wanted to give them. I told him, "This is your final goal — help us live better lives."

He grew so tired that I knew it was time to leave the room. I told Linda how it went. I could see her eyes laugh when I told her about asking him about the shofar. When I finished, she said, "You’ve got some work cut out for you here."

I flew into Boise once a month for a few days each time. I visited with the man in the remaining few months of his life and I spoke to his family. I helped him compose what I later learned was called an ethical will, a way of passing his values on to his family.

Linda and her husband, Alan, guided me carefully through the entire process, up through his death, which occurred when I was in Los Angeles; a lay leader officiated at the funeral. I felt the dying man’s family was transformed by his work, a transformation I hope was lasting.

I took the lessons he taught both to me and his children to heart. I became a witness to a family story, a story of love and bitterness and folly, and a final redemption. I realized that every family, every person has such a story, a fully textured life of hopes and dreams, of joy and heroism and tragedy, and we hope, of redemption.

Every life is a like book of the Torah, filled with laws and lessons, wisdom, drama and destiny. I realized something of my role, as one who works with the dying and their families — if I can, to draw out a teaching, a legacy, for those left to grieve, and for me.

And as we attend to the dying, grieve with their families, draw out lessons and legacies, we strengthen them, and we are strengthened.


Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah and the provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

Permission to Grieve


Years ago, one of my colleagues had the awesome task of officiating at the funeral of a 9-year-old girl killed by a car while riding her bicycle. My friend gathered the children from that small Jewish community and gently invited them to speak their true feelings.

"I’m mad at my mom because she won’t let me ride my bike." "I’m mad at my friend for dying." "I’m scared that I’m going to get hit by a car." She turned to the youngest one: "I’m still sad," he said.

That 4-year-old’s earnest and innocent remark has stayed with me ever since. We live in a society not so tolerant of grief, and I sometimes worry that even those of us who allow ourselves to feel our sadness at the funerals, try too hard to dry the tears as soon as we leave the cemetery.

Jewish tradition certainly acknowledges the reality of grief, offering wise step-by-step instructions to help the mourners heal and the comforters give solace. Yet, even our tradition — sensitive though it is to the human need to grieve loss — expects us to stick to a grief schedule. Although our yearly Yizkor cycle encourages us to remember our lost loved ones, the grieving is supposed to stop and we are expected to get on with our lives.

This week’s Torah portion — Chaye Sarah ("the life of Sarah") ironically begins with Sarah’s death and ends with the deaths of Abraham and his son, Ishmael. From this portion come many of our burial and mourning traditions: that we mourn for a set time and then stop, as Abraham did for Sarah; that we have a community cemetery, something Abraham arranged for after Sarah died; that we offer a hesped (eulogy) over our dead, a tradition that grew out of one interpretation of Abraham’s response to Sarah’s death; that the immediate survivors bury their dead, as Abraham buries Sarah, and Isaac and Ishmael bury their father, Abraham.

But this story of the death of our first matriarch reveals yet more about grief and mourning.

After Sarah dies the Hebrew text gives two words to describe what Abraham does — "lispod … v’livkotah." Many English translations make the text sound quite matter-of-fact: "Sarah died … and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites." At this point Abraham begins to negotiate the purchase of a burial site for Sarah (Genesis 23:2-4). But a more literal translation of the third verse might be: "Abraham got up from above the face of his dead one." Picture Abraham, kneeling or sitting up against Sarah’s body, wailing and crying, his face right over her face, his tears falling on her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth. Abraham wails for Sarah and he weeps for her (lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah).

How often do we give ourselves permission to let out such true feelings? We tend to turn to the business matters quickly. We appreciate (or are relieved by) stoicism in ourselves and in others. We tend to forget, or fail to acknowledge, that we are "still sad." Abraham did not immediately begin his negotiations to buy a burial site for her body. When Sarah died, Abraham hung his face over her face and he wailed.

Nor is Abraham the only one to experience grief over Sarah’s death. Sarah’s son, Isaac, is 37 when his mother dies. We hear nothing of his immediate response to her death, but three years later, in the beautiful scene of Isaac and Rebekah’s first meeting, we glimpse Isaac’s grief over his mother: "Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother" (Genesis 24:63-67).

It’s the first time love between a man and a woman is mentioned in the Torah. It took three years after Sarah’s death for Isaac to find comfort, to find love, to feel love.

Life will go on, grief will lessen; joy, even love, will return to most of us at some point after we lose dear ones. Yet that abstract knowledge about some time in the future can be cold comfort to those of us in grief now. While we wait for joy to return, for pain to ease, we would do well to remember and to take some lessons from the ways Abraham mourned, and from the length of Isaac’s grief. And, when needed, we would do well to recite — and to be there for others when they recite — the words of our little friend:

"I’m still sad."


Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

Where You Stand


We are standing before God and God is standing before us — especially during this particular time, when certain fundamental liberties are being denied individuals and when justice is being withheld from specific groups — all in the name of "homeland security." This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, comes to teach us — all of us without exception — that we are obligated to build a just society not only for ourselves but for all people.

Thus, our reading, studying and thinking about the essential lessons found in Shoftim are of great importance right now.

Meanwhile, this parsha reminds me of a very strange personal experience that occurred many years ago. It’s one that I’ll never forget.

While I was away from University Synagogue one afternoon, visiting a hospitalized congregant, a very well-known Catholic priest called me. When he realized that I wasn’t there, he left a message on my voice mail asking that I contact him as soon as possible, because a situation required an immediate collaborative interfaith response.

For reasons that I can’t technologically explain — but it may have been God’s handiwork — something extraordinary happened: Although my caller terminated his call, my message device recorded what happened next.

Once he hung up, he telephoned a prominent rabbinic colleague of mine. During their ensuing conversation, the non-Jewish leader indicated that he had tried to reach me, found that I was away from my desk, left a message asking that I contact him without delay and he said that he was certain that he’d hear from me as soon as I learned that he had reached out to me.

In turn, the rabbi expressed his doubts about my dependability and without hesitation he conveyed his feelings of disdain toward me by using that occasion to utter some very derogatory comments.

These unflattering remarks were instantly rebuffed by the priest, but they lingered in the air nevertheless.

Naturally, when I listened to their recorded discussion, I was deeply hurt and terribly confused because I couldn’t recall any incident that would have inflamed the rabbi’s emotions and cemented his negative opinions about me. And throughout the years we have worked together in the community, he had never led me to believe that we were anything but the best of friends.

A few days later, he and I happened to see one another at a public gathering where he greeted me with a bright smile, open arms and some affectionate remark.

"Oh," I thought to myself, "if he only knew that I was aware of his genuine feelings about me, which make this display of supposed fondness reek of hypocrisy."

As a result of a mechanical error — or did God provide me with an opportunity to hear words that would never have been uttered in my presence by someone who posed as a friend? — I had a chance to encounter the authentic nature of a relationship instead depending on some false pretense.

Now, what has all of this to do with our reading five particular chapters found in the Book of Deuteronomy this Shabbat?

Within Shoftim, we are instructed: "Zedek, zedek tirdof" ("justice, justice shall you pursue").

When we dig deeply into the parsha, we come to realize that not only are sacred and secular laws to be faultlessly carried out by government officials and interpreted by appointed and elected judges — all of them are expected to be unrelentingly fair and impartial — but you and I are instructed to treat everyone we encounter in our own lives in a similar fashion.

You see, it is not only justice that keeps chaos away and society afloat, but it is steadfast righteousness that should be ever-present in every interpersonal relationship we have — be it a casual contact or one which is intimate and enduring .

This is why Rashi taught: "Consider what you do and conduct yourself in every judgment as if the Holy One, Blessed be He, were standing before you."

Had the rabbi known that I would hear his candid opinion of me, or had he imagined that God was standing in front of him when he spoke in such a hateful way about me in one instance, and then so lovingly in my presence very soon thereafter, to what extent would he had been anxious to render harsh judgment?

And, that prompts me to ask: Do any of us have the right to be judgmental? Maimonides didn’t think so, because he observed that all of us are obligated (actually, he wrote: "commanded") to give each person the benefit of the doubt.

So, as we demand that ours must always be a "just society," and when we attempt to individually "pursue justice," it is necessary that we also rely upon that same concept to temper our own words and actions.

Much will be accomplished individually and collectively when we remember this lesson at all times, because we do stand before God and God stands before us. Under these circumstances, there simply is no room for injustice in any of its many forms — be it in our society at large or in the way we relate to one another.


Allen I. Freehling served as University Synagogue’s senior rabbi for 30 years before becoming that congregation’s first rabbi emeritus a year ago. He is now serving as the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of the City of Los Angeles.

Rebels and Leaders


One of my favorite Torah portions is the one that we will read this Shabbat. It reveals to us myriad recognizable human traits while transmitting to us some vital lessons.

From this story, we see that some characteristics are bad while others are good; and, along the way, we observe the consequences of indifference.

Taking center stage — but for a brief while — is Korah, who along with his wrongheaded cohorts Dathan, Abiram and On, challenges God’s authority and attempts to remove Moses from his preeminent leadership role by means of a massive rebellion. In the process, they almost cause the Israelites to be totally destroyed.

Korah forces us to examine the motives of those who are either appointed or elected officials. Furthermore, we’re encouraged to probe the reasons why some people attempt to become self-appointed leaders.

With very clear-cut precision, the Torah posits Moses as the epitome of responsible leadership. He is — above all else — a visionary who is selfless, unconditionally dedicated to his task, and by now unquestionably accepting of the mandate thrust upon him by God.

Moses is even willing to tolerate the enduring foibles of those whom he is leading away from servitude and toward freedom, away from ignorance and toward knowledge and away from empty secularism and toward a fulfilling life rooted in sacredness.

In contrast, along comes Korah, who is full of self-importance and guile and who depends upon an alluring charisma to persuade his henchmen and every Israelite to follow his lead. Taking and then spinning the very words of God and Moses, who declare that the Israelites are a holy and priestly people, Korah proclaims that there is no reason why the Israelites ought to depend on Moses, who has established a theocratic rule over them.

Rather, he preaches that everyone should function within the context of a democracy in which he will voluntarily assume the mantle of leadership and take them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.

While Korah is quick to condemn Moses as someone who has lifted himself above the community — he makes no reference to God’s part in this epoch adventure — it is actually Korah who does the lifting so as to capture the people’s favor in order to satisfy his own ego-driven need for absolute power over them.

And he almost gets away with it, because the Israelites are too gullible and so quick to rebel against Moses, who has been — by necessity — very demanding in his messages and relentless in his actions.

Meanwhile, what does Moses do in the midst of this life-and-death struggle? Instead of drawing a line in the sand and fighting off Korah’s challenge, Moses removes himself from the scene and opts for an overnight respite. Sleeplessly meditating on what has occurred, and praying to God for strength and guidance, Moses emotionally girds himself so he may effectively deal with Korah and those who support his rebellious cause at the dawn of a new day.

Soon thereafter, Moses and the Israelites witness the obliteration of this misguided, defiant competitor of God’s will.

So, what are some of the lessons that emerge out of this text?

  • Reading about Korah’s attempt to shove Moses aside, we see how a demagogue attempts to grasp the truth and then to twist it in an effort to promote his own cause. Therefore, it’s essential that we always examine the motives of anyone who tells us that he possesses all of the answers to life’s riddles, who urges us to stop wrestling with life’s challenges and to put all of our trust in him and who suggests that it’s not necessary that we safeguard our own integrity, since absolute reliance on him will get us to where we want (or need) to be.

  • Every demagogue’s lust for power is so all-consuming that only bad things will occur if they have their own way. In contrast, Moses reveals to us the benefits that we may all derive when we place our confidence in authentic leaders who are dreamers and visionaries, and who are genuine public servants whose motives are ceaselessly selfless. It is these men and women who are constantly aware of God’s lofty but accessible ethical standards, who are imbued with values that have been etched upon their hearts and minds beginning early in childhood and are taught by loved ones and mentors the dimensions and demands of responsible leadership, to whom we ought to turn for direction — even when their demands on us seem to be so very burdensome.

  • This episode in the Torah is a dramatic reminder that we can ill afford to be indifferent. The Israelites stood idly by while Moses was forced to defend a harsh reality and Korah proffered a far more pleasing fantasy. The Israelites were willing to go along with Korah’s plot just because he seemed to know an easy way out of their ordeal no matter what disasters might occur in the long run.

  • Following Moses’ example, it’s important that — when facing hard choices — we gain some perspective by stepping back from a perplexing problem, acquire some objectivity and seek spiritual and intellectual guidance from someone whom we can trust. Also, like Moses, we ought to meditate and pray as we concentrate on finding solutions and use time itself to be a balancing element.


Allen I. Freehling, rabbi emeritus of University Synagogue, is the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of the city of Los Angeles.