Don’t Shoot the Malachi – A Poem for Haftarah Toledot by Rick Lupert


Don’t shoot the Malachi,
he’s just the messenger
and it may not have

been his name because
Malachi means my messenger.
In fact don’t shoot anyone.

It’s uncomfortable for them
and makes the news and
causes arguments about

whether instruments that
shoot should exist or not.
Just listen to the messages.

You don’t have to agree with
the messages, but hear them out.
They come from on high.

They are responses to
what you have given. So
not only should you

not shoot the Malachi, but
when it’s your turn to give
from what you have

give the best you’ve got.
Don’t give the blemished offerings
the sickly sacrifices, the calf

with the broken leg.
The One who sent the messenger
will know the difference.

Don’t shoot the messenger
for reminding you to do what
you promised you’d do.

We children of Jacob
We who came second
after a foot.

We who forever got to
go first just for a bowl of soup.
Don’t shoot the messenger.

That’s the kind of thing
that will come back to
bite you in your foot.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

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Why I’m Not a Rabbi


I never thought I’d find myself in the position of deciding whether or not to be a rabbi. After all, I came from a secular family and from a young age I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer.

But after four years of studying creative writing in college and one summer working at a literary nonprofit in Manhattan, I found myself in a crisis that would eventually lead to the rabbi question.

I was 21 years old and writing was the center of my life, to the exclusion of almost anything else. A good writing day made me feel like a good person. A bad writing day made me feel like a worthless excuse for a human being. This, I began to sense, was a form of idolatry; writing could not be the most important thing in the world. Life had value apart from words on a page!

Meanwhile, I had begun to grow interested in my Jewish heritage. And I’d also begun to fall in love, inconveniently, with God.

So, at 21, I decided to stop writing entirely. Instead, I would build my life around something eternal.

I quit my job, left everything I knew and traveled to Jerusalem for the first time, with nothing but a backpack and my violin. There, I enrolled in a progressive, coed yeshiva called Pardes.

I ended up staying at Pardes for two years, studying Torah during the day and playing music in clubs or on the street at night. By the time I left, there was no question about what was at the center of my life as I prayed, studied Talmud and led Friday-night services.

When I returned to the States, I continued to play fiddle; I began to teach Torah; and slowly, very slowly, I also began to write. Like an athlete learning to hold her body correctly after a bad injury, I had to craft my sentences carefully, watching for signs of too much ego or ambition. But I was able to build a serious writing practice back into my life.

I continued to write, play music and teach Torah through my 20s, without feeling a need to choose between these sometimes disparate ways of life. But as my 30th birthday approached, I realized I was going to have to make some decisions.

What was I? An artist who loved Jewish texts and traditions or a rabbi who loved music and writing? I knew titles like “rabbi,” “musician” and “writer” were never fully accurate, that every human transcended a simple title. But I also understood that they mattered. I sensed that the path I chose would define the way I spent my days, how I paid my rent, and what was appropriate to say in public.

I found that when I leaned toward one possibility, the other self would materialize strongly. When I placed art out front, the Hebrew letters shone through, seeming to be the inner essence of that practice. But when I foregrounded the sacred books, I would feel the gentle curves of my violin’s body, notes inside my fingertips, poems burning on my tongue.

I agonized over this decision for months.

In the end, as silly as it sounds, it was cursing that finally led me to decide not to be a rabbi. I am not particularly foul-mouthed, but I wanted to be able to drop F-bombs with impunity, in my writing and in my life.

Really, looking back, I see that this was symbolic. I wanted to be able to say anything, from the esoteric to the vulgar, without the pressure of representing my people and my tradition.

So I finally recycled the rabbinical school application.

Thankfully, Judaism is not terribly hierarchical, at least in the communities in which I live and work. As a layperson, I can lead services, teach the traditions, counsel seekers, and officiate my students’ bar and bat mitzvahs.

Thank goodness for all the rabbis who bear the honor and the burden of communal representation. As for me, I’m just a wandering melamed, grateful for the tools I have to find as much holiness as I can in the world: Torah, music and writing down the meditations of my heart — from the sacred to the profane. n


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

King David of Thrones – A Poem for Haftarah Chayei Sarah by Rick Lupert


As a fan of subscription television
I’m as concerned as the next person about
who is in line to sit on the throne.

And if this saves you the trouble
of reading it yourself, rest assured
King David’s top pick, Solomon

is guaranteed that spot
despite the chariot infested uppityness
of his brother Adonijah.

What concerns me more though
is how cold King David is and
extra blankets aren’t doing the job.

This is long before space heaters
and a local virgin is brought in to
provide the warmth.

This is all to tell us David is
getting old and the matter of
the ascension is at hand.

But in this post Biblical era
where our most beloved famous people
practically modern kings

are tumbling because they
attempted to get Biblical with
local virgins, I’m finding it difficult to

focus on the Royal election.
Keep driving, oh charioteers.
Warmth is earned by love

or at least warmth.
A king is not entitled to
grab what he pleases

especially not when
it is my subscription dollars
funding the operation.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Waiting for the Sky to Explode – A Poem for Haftarah Vayera by Rick Lupert


I remember the time I was at Disneyland with my beloved.
We were just a year into our love and everything was magic.

So when the voiceover came on in the park and said
anything’s possible, if you believe, I believed.

And then, as if to confirm my conviction, the sky exploded
as it does every night in that place, which is holy to anyone

who has fended off adult cynicism as long as I have.
So it’s not hard to believe the stories of the prophet

Elisha, holy man with a woman’s name, (we were the first
line crossers…) who gave a poor woman so much oil

she started a fossil fuel company and lived comfortably
on the profits all her days. Or the story of the woman

as old as our mother Sarah, who also had a child when
Elisha made a special arrangement with the original

Walt Disney on high. Or later how that child took to death
after a headache, but was immediately revived when

the prophet’s mouth was put on his. It may have been the first
mouth to mouth resuscitation but the implication is divine magic.

I don’t think I laughed like Sarah when I was told a child
was on the way. In fact it was one of the only speechless

moments of my life. But I see the miracles every day.
Something made from nothing, food purchased from

the sale of art, and the astonishment that breath continues
to come in and out of my lungs no matter what I do.

I believe in magic and I’m always ready for
the sky to explode.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

I Still Find Idols Enchanting – A Poem for Haftarah Lech Lecha by Rick Lupert


These are the idols I cling to
despite the ancient encouragement
not to

The large television
The multi-function toaster
the well assembled hand-held
communication device that feels
so significant in my fingers

These are the idols I cling to
despite the initial spark of Jewish –
one guy, breaking them all down

Feeding anything with fur
I think the ancient Egyptians were
really on to something when they
elevated the common house-cat

These are the idols I cling to
despite my admission that I am
but a worm of Jacob

Artistry over solvency
Lottery over hard work
The joke that destroys the
necessary silence

These are the idols I cling to
and the list is longer than the promises
made to me by the Ultimate Promise Maker

The One who told me I could crush the mountains
with Her at my back
The One who lets me say Her.
The one who told me the wind will
carry all this dust away.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Photo from Pixabay.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on a verse from the weekly parsha


Parsha Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:11-13:

“Now it came to pass when he drew near to come to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, ‘Behold now I know that you are a woman of fair appearance. And it will come to pass when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife,’ and they will slay me and let you live. Please say [that] you are my sister, in order that it go well with me because of you, and that my soul may live because of you.’”

Rabbi David Woznica, Stephen Wise Temple

Abram (whose name later became Abraham) understood that while Egyptians
respected the bond of marriage, they did not value human life. Therefore, he believed, if an Egyptian “wanted” a married woman, he would first murder her husband, thereby rendering her unmarried and available.

The Torah entered a world in which murders such as this were deemed acceptable and where widows were routinely abused. It sought to change both. The sixth of the Ten Commandments, “Do not murder,” prohibited all murder (although, of course, not morally justified killing). And there are countless Torah commandments to protect the widow, the woman left with no husband to protect her.

When Abram heard God tell him, Lech lecha (“Go forth”), those words meant far more than “Leave your father’s home.” They meant, “Leave the moral world in which you lived” — and become the father of a nation that will lead humanity to a new moral plane.

Those words changed history. And just as God promised, through Abram and his descendants, “all the families of the Earth will be blessed.”

Rabbi Arielle Hanien, Rabbinic adviser, International Trauma-Healing Institute

This script pokes out from the unfolding story of Avram and Sarai in uncomfortable ways. Was Avram, who inspires us with his faith, so unsure of God’s providence that he would flee to Egypt during a famine? Was our courageous ancestor so afraid of Egyptians even without encountering them? Was our righteous forefather willing to lie about his marriage — and was he callous to the implications this would have for his wife?

This year, in this story, the detail that cries out loudest to me is silence.

Sarai’s voice is absent. Her feelings — even her presumed consent to Avram’s plan — are masked from us.

“Please pretend we are not married,” says Avram, “to spare my life and make things go well for me.” Indeed, the Torah affirms, every word he says is fulfilled.

Meanwhile, we can only imagine Sarai’s wordless feelings, if not her protests.

This year, we read this story as #MeToo reveals to our society how often this script plays out even today. Your body is a problem. My needs come before yours.

It strikes me as fitting that the stories of our foremother, Sarai, are all read in the month of Cheshvan, the barren month. The one whose very name sits at a nexus of yearning and silence — the beginning of desire (cheshek) and the end of whisper (lachash). It is a month to dwell with Sarai in her silence until she dies of pain, say the rabbis, a month to hear what is suffered in silence — to pause to listen.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, Rav and Dean at Yeshivet Yavneh

The Torah is a perfect Divine document — no word is superfluous. Our verse could easily have said, “Behold, now I know you are beautiful.” Why is the word “woman” added? Each of the patriarchs and matriarchs goes through an evolution, from simplicity to sophistication.

Jacob, for example, initially is called “a simple man who dwelled in tents.” Yet, in a short matter of time, he becomes a cunning warrior. Joseph is an innocent child, oversharing his dreams. Kidnapping, accusations and dungeons quickly mold him into a far different individual.

The same is true of Abraham. Up until this point, he recognized Sarah’s beauty, but in his innocence, he didn’t understand the ramifications of her appearance in a world that can objectify a woman. At this particular moment, as he was traveling through unfriendly soil with his beautiful wife, he noticed the hooting, catcalling and gazes. For the first time, he understood the type of cruel world that women are often born into. With this in mind, he advises his wife, “Say you are my sister.” In the spirit of fraternity, perhaps they will see Sarah as somebody’s sister — not somebody’s object, waiting to be taken.

Salvador Litvak, Founder of the Accidental Talmudist

Our Sages generally extend themselves to justify the actions of our Patriarchs. Jacob lied to Isaac, for example, and David sent Uriah to the front lines. The commentator Ramban, however, calls Abraham’s ruse a “great sin” because it put Sarah in danger. I agreed, until I thought about Sarah’s role in the subterfuge. She never did anything she didn’t want to do.

Sarah joined the plan because she and Abraham were partners in a Divine awareness project. They weren’t going to halt that work for anything, including famine or forced relocation to the most depraved nation on Earth.

In fact, they viewed their descent into Egypt as a chance to reach those who were most in need of their message. Accordingly, they devised a structure that would enable them to interact with as many people as possible. Rather than hide Sarah in a box, as one midrash suggests, they shielded her with common parlance, calling her Abraham’s sister — a truth, since she was his niece as well as his wife, according to a midrash. They might even have called her Abraham’s “sister in faith.”

Their plan was wildly successful. Not only did they gain followers and financial support for their outreach organization, they also brought awareness of the One God to Pharaoh, who thought he was God until HaShem afflicted him and his household for encroaching on the Jewish priestess’ honor.

In a time when popular culture blazes with immodest and immoral behavior, people of faith would do well to emulate Sarah and Abraham’s commitment to spreading Divine awareness.

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, Professor of Literature Emerita at American Jewish University

With not us, but me. Not “our souls,” “my soul.”

How Abram’s words troubled our commentators. How incisively they noticed that Abram says “now I know” that Sarai is lovely. Had he not known before? Before leaving Haran; while, as midrash says, busy converting others, had either gazed upon the other in appreciation? Passion? Love? Before trudging from Haran to Canaan, through the searing/freezing desert to Egypt, had Abram ever pleasured in his wife’s beauty?

Had there been any intimacy between our ancestral parents?

Or is that very lack of intimacy, that failure to see one’s partner, the price one pays for focusing on one’s own life’s vision, one’s own mission? Does one have to choose, as the poet Yeats said, “perfection of the life or of the work”?

The cost of Abram’s choice is dear. “Sarai” disappears. Like the enslaved women of the American South, the Yazidi women under ISIS. Like any woman viewed as an object, Sarai is erased. The Egyptians saw the woman … the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house (Genesis 12: 14, 15). Only God’s intervention — afflicting Pharaoh — restores her identity, and then with bitter irony, she is again “Sarai, Abram’s wife.” (Genesis 12:17)

But just as Isaac will disappear after the Akedah, Sarai now disappears from the text. When she returns, it is to offer “Hagar her handmaid the Egyptian” to Abraham. I wonder, when she did so, whether she looked her husband straight in the eye.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on a verse from the weekly parsha


Parsha Noach, Genesis 8:20-22:

“And Noah built an altar to the Lord, and he took of all the clean animals and of all the clean fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself, “I will no longer curse the earth because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done. So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”

Rabbi Nicole Guzick, Sinai Temple

I can only begin to imagine the destruction Noah witnesses while living in the ark. The world weeps. Outside, humanity drowns in chaos, and inside the ark, Noah and his family have one choice to make: succumb to the fear of a now unknown world or re-enter the world and rebuild anew. And with the building of an altar, Noah’s choice is clear. Time and time again, in the face of desolation and despair, it is within the human spirit to rebuild and repair. As difficult as it sounds, even as death knocks on the door of the ark, Noah chooses to thank God for the gift of today. 

It is God’s reaction that is most astounding. It seems in response to Noah’s courage and resilience, God whispers, “If you’re not running away, I guess I won’t, either.”

Life continuously presents challenges and frustrations. Noah’s choice is the one we make daily: drown or rebuild. Look out at the world and determine that we are no match for the uncertainty and unpredictability of our life’s course, or wholeheartedly remember that our souls have the capacity for constant growth and resurgence. We are meant to get out of the ark and live.

Perhaps the most comforting message is that in life’s tumultuous journey, we are not alone. God is reassured by our willingness to survive. It is a partnership of faith — humanity’s faith that God will guide us through the murky waters and God’s faith that humanity will continue to swim.

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, Jewish Mindfulness Network

We are taught that God is all-knowing and constant. Yet, in our verse, we experience a God that changes. The reason God gives for sending the devastating flood in the first place, wiping out humans, is because humans “act in corrupt ways and incline toward evil.” Yet, after the flood, God’s response is different. God recognizes that humans still have evil tendencies but proclaims acceptance and vows to never wipe out humans again! The people are the same. God changes. God’s severe judgment gives way to compassion and commitment. Perhaps God accepts the reality of human nature and decides to love the people, anyway. To cement this new relationship, God confirms the stability of the seasons, and the sure cycle of day and night. Humans participate in this order by planting and harvesting. In these three verses, we can learn two profound lessons. First, if God’s heart can change from harsh damnation and give way to compassion, perhaps so can ours. Second, we can be conscious and grateful each day for the constancy of the natural order that we so often take for granted. In the midst of darkness, it is of great comfort that the sun comes up in the morning. In times of evil, the seasons continue to turn. Where (or against whom) in your life do you harbor judgment that your heart might turn toward compassion? Today, how might you appreciate being held by the rhythm of life itself?

David Brandes, film producer and screenwriter

On the sixth day of creation, God creates man and is pleased. But in the next few chapters of Genesis, it’s all downhill for man. Adam and Eve disobey God and are expelled from the “Garden.” Cain slays Abel.  The rebellious generation of the Tower of Babel descends into perversity and evil. God’s cataclysmic response: the flood, in which man, animals and nature are decimated. As the story progresses, Noah leaves the ark and offers sacrifices to God. God accepts the sacrifices but reveals a damning observation: “Man is possessed of an evil nature from youth.”

This bleak story raises troubling questions. If God knew that man was flawed, why save him? Why not destroy everyone and start again? And for us mortals: If we are evil by nature, doesn’t that leave us in a state of hopelessness and despair?

If we look at the Bible as drama, and man as the ultimate flawed hero, a resolve emerges. The first part of the story, man’s ugly history, is the setup presented to explain and justify the Torah given by God to Moses later in the narrative. At its core, the law is about dealing with our fellow man, to make life pleasant for all, to overcome the evil inclination within.  For it is in the laws of the Torah that the redemption of man rests. Elegantly put by Hillel, “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your friend. …  This is the whole Torah.”

Redemption is hope.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Director of the Sephardic Educational Center

Dear God,

In the beginning, you created heaven, earth and everything else, and you “saw that it was good.” You created me, and you “saw that it was very good.” But just a few chapters later, I went from being “very good” to becoming the source of your deepest regret. I was continuously thinking evil thoughts, so you decided to blot out my existence. Save for one “righteous” person, I wouldn’t be here.

After your destructive deluge, the sole survivor expressed his gratitude by offering a sacrifice. Your reaction was perplexing: You’ll never bring on another destructive flood, because “man’s imagination is evil from his youth.” But is it not you, dear God, who created me this way? Why the sudden epiphany? It took creating and nearly wiping me out to realize that I’m doomed to live with this built-in factory defect?

No wonder the “human condition” is so harsh. It’s not surprising that in the great 2 1/2- year talmudic debate on human existence, Shamai’s pessimistic conclusion — “It would have been better for man not to have been created” — ultimately won the day.

Be that as it may, I’m alive and here, leaving me no choice but to follow Hillel’s optimistic position: “Examine my deeds carefully.” In other words, I’ll try to make morals, ethics and love, as per your commandments, my sole mission on this earth. Despite the defect, dear God, I’ll try to be the best I could be.    

Respectfully,
Humankind

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, senior editor at Chabad.org

This is amazing. Everyone expects a miracle to be unexpected. It’s gotta break the patterns of nature. The stuff cinematic eye candy is made of.

But here is a divine promise for the greatest of miracles: The innumerable atoms, cells, organisms and celestial bodies that make up this world will harmonize into cyclical seasons so that we can plant and harvest, plan and build, raise our children and tell them to take care of this place.

That is wondrous. The more we understand, the more wondrous it becomes. Why should anything be constant in a world defined by change?

When the sun rises just a little south of where it rose yesterday, when the trees shed their suntime wear and squirrels obsess over hoarding seeds, nobody sees a miracle. Winter comes and goes, life erupts again in green, yellow, purple and red — still, nobody is surprised.

But a Jew makes a blessing in the morning to “He who spreads the earth over the waters.”

Get that? You went to sleep, there was a floor beneath your feet. You wake up, it’s still there. So you say, “Gevalt! What a miracle! God, I love how You do this!”

A Jew grabs a sandwich and makes a blessing for the miracle of “bringing bread out of the earth.” Amazing. Earth to bread! You’re eating a miracle!

So why aren’t we living in constant wonder?

That is the days of Moshiach — when we will be amazed each morning by the rising of the sun.

How Judaism Helps Us Regain Our Balance


Each period of history has a title bestowed by historians, one meant to reveal some key characteristic of that age. Thus, the medieval period is the Age of Faith; the Enlightenment is the Age of Reason; and the 19th century is the Age of Progress. The name for our age, I would venture to guess, is the Age of Busyness.

Everybody is busy. Americans routinely complain that they work too many hours — and they do. They complain that they have too little time to spend with their children — and they’re right. They complain that they have little time left for quiet reflection, for learning and for celebrating.

Well, actually, they don’t complain about that — because they don’t have enough time to notice its absence, or because they’re so busy that they no longer miss it.

But part of being human, part of living our lives fully, is the inner need to grow and to explore and to play. Contemporary psychology tells us that people continue to grow throughout every phase of their lives, and that the playfulness of children continues into adulthood, as well. To be human is to play, to change and to grow.

Where, in our serious culture of business, work and productivity — or in its flip side of infantile recreation and foolish escapism — do we make room for adult play, adult study and adult growth? America’s Achilles’ heel is its excessive busyness, which spawns equally excessive foolishness to blow off steam.

We’ve lost our balance.

The place to recapture what we have lost is to be found in Judaism’s unparalleled ability to sanctify time. Through the observance of Shabbat, of holy days and festivals, our tradition provides a timeout for adults — not to lose ourselves in fantasies or escape, but to rediscover ourselves and the depths of our own creativity and love. We immerse ourselves in sacred time in order to live better and more fully during the rest of our days.

Now that the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are behind us and we emerge out of our sukkah booths back into our busy, contemporary lives, our immersion in rest, renewal and community is our passport back into a better way of living our lives. Instead of “spending time,” Judaism gives us the gift of learning to savor it.

The Talmud teaches that “rejoicing on a festival is a religious duty.” What a remarkable idea! A day devoted to a special kind of joy. The rejoicing of the festival has little in common with sitting in a dark room staring passively at an on-screen fantasy, or risking life and limb to thrill ourselves into forgetting what drones we’ve become. The rejoicing of the festival is not one of escaping, but one of returning to our own centers — our own families, friends, community and God.

As it says in the Talmud: “Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘One has nothing else to do on a festival except to eat, drink, sit and study.’ Rabbi Joshua said, ‘Divide it — devote half the day to eating and drinking, and half of it to the house of prayer and study.’”

Our sense of self emerges in cultivating our character, our curiosity and our relationships.

What a fascinating way to rejoice. Recall that the word “recreation” involves creating something anew — in this case, our own souls. By spending part of the day together in prayer, song and Torah study, we rebuild our identities as messengers of God and as bearers of God’s covenant. We restore our sense of belonging in a specific synagogue community and in the Jewish people worldwide. Having restored that essential base, the rabbis of the Talmud then tell us to take the rest of the day for feasting and spending time with those we love.

What a marvelous blend of devotion and relaxation, of heightened identity and then simply being.

What this regimen of holy days and festivals makes clear is that mastery of our work — rather than allowing our work to master us — requires setting clear boundaries and limits to our chores and our work. Our sense of self emerges in cultivating our character, our curiosity and our relationships. By rejoicing with one another on these holy days, festivals and on Shabbat, we declare ourselves to be free in the service of holiness and goodness, of Torah and togetherness.

After the end of the fall holy days, take the lessons of the shofar, the fast and the sukkah with you into our busy world. Remember that we each are children of royalty, and we thrive best when we thrive together. 


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.

A Jewish cemetery in Svaliava, Ukraine. Photo from Wikipedia

We Are Dying of Overexposure to Death


Let me tell you what has scarred me for life. 

It wasn’t just the machete, or being beaten to a pulp, or the shock that I might soon be dead as my friend and I were attacked by Palestinian terrorists in 2010. It wasn’t even the humiliation that came from begging for my life from those who thought themselves strong. 

It was witnessing the death of another human being. 

It occurred to me that, should I ever again get into the dreadful situation of witnessing a person being hacked to death, somehow it would be easier — less shocking, less traumatic.

Not just watching, but listening, too. Kristine Luken’s prayers, her pleas with her executioners and her expiring breaths blended to form the last sounds of this innocent woman as she went to meet her Maker.

Invading my friend’s final moments with God was like bursting into the Holy of Holies. Violating her sanctity by unwillingly eavesdropping on her as she was about to die is what has scarred me for life.  

Months later, when I faced the murderers in an Israeli court, I realized just how deep the scars were. As I stared at those whom I had encountered in the Jerusalem forest, I watched them yawn and roll their eyes. Death had anesthetized their souls. They were soulless zombies, bored by death. 

Yet it wasn’t their indifference that horrified me the most. It was me. 

It occurred to me that, should I ever again get into the dreadful situation of witnessing a person being hacked to death, somehow it would be easier — less shocking, less traumatic. In a way, I realized I had the potential to become like them: dead inside.

There is a passage in the Torah (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) in which the children of Israel are commanded to take down before sunset the body of an executed person hanged from a tree. Rashi notes that for the body to be left up there too long would be a degradation of the Divine. It also was a violation of those made in the image of God.

Our forefathers knew that looking at death for too long had a price. We, too, are in danger of paying that price. Metaphorically speaking, we are looking too long at bodies hanging on a tree. 

At our own peril, we are becoming accustomed to death because watching murder is accessible today like never before. However far away we are from the carnage, news and social media see to it that we can satiate our macabre yet natural fascination with death. We observe slaughter in real time, eavesdrop on the pleas of the dying and listen to the desperation of loved-ones trying to help.

With deluded spiritual impunity, we put up our feet and watch footage of people as they breathe their last breaths. One moment we click on a red-faced emoticon after reading about the day’s latest atrocity, and seconds later scroll down to click on a heart, showing our friends how much we love hamsters eating broccoli. Ignorant of the fatal blow the death of others has on our souls, each time we become less moved and less shocked.

We are dying of overexposure to death.

Death has a task. It serves to remind us that life is not forever. The role of death is not to arouse in us fascination or voyeurism as it comes to claim others. The role of death is to instill in us appreciation for life so we can take on the yoke of responsibility that comes with the business of living.

Death reminds us that we are here for a limited and unknown amount of time during which we must act for the good of our families, our communities and the world. It is the certainty of our own death that should spur us to become kinder people.

If and when we do bear witness to the murder of others as they go to meet their Maker — online, on television or by other means — let us do it with appropriate trepidation and caution, because if we look for too long, we stand to invade the Holy of Holies, desecrate others and the Divine. 

In doing so, we deal an irreparable deathblow to ourselves. 


Kay Wilson is a British-born Israeli tour guide, cartoonist, musician and educator for StandWithUs.

7 haiku for Parsha Vezot Hab’rachah in which everything ends and begins again by Rick Lupert


I
The final blessings
Line up you tribes – these words come
from right hand of fire

II
God is not above
striking Levite foes in the loins
Loyalty’s treasure

III
Flashback to Joseph
the ending montage includes
the colors we’ve missed

IV
Descendants of Gad
and Zebulon be proud – For
your parents did good

V
What would you do with
the sky or the sea if they
were your divine gifts?

VI
Moses takes his last
steps – a one way trip up a
mountain – God is there

VII
In the beginning
No, the record didn’t skip
Let’s make a new world


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Rabbi Arie Folger

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Yom Kippur with Rabbi Arie Folger


Our special guest for this Yom Kippur talk is Rabbi Arie Folger, Chief Rabbi of Vienna. Rabbi Folger was ordained by Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, as well as by the Szmigrader Rebbe of Antwerp, Belgium, and he holds an MBA from NYU‘s Stern School of Business. Prior to his current position, he served as the senior rabbi of the Israelitische Gemeinde Basel and of the Israelitische Kulstusgemeinde of Munich and Upper Bavaria. Rabbi Folger is active in several organizations, such as the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany.

In this Yom Kippur discussion, we focus on Rav Kook’s understanding of repentance (Teshuva), an interpretation that is radically different from what most of us are used to.

 

Our past Yom Kippur talks:

Rabbi Walter Homolka on the relation between Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, on God as a source of forgiveness and on the different mindsets that lead us to atonement

Rabbi David Gelfand on the Kol Nidrei prayer and on the special power of the communal experience this prayer offers for members of Jewish congregations

Rabbi Meir Azari on the Book of Jonah and its relevance to Yom Kippur

Chatima Tova!

7 Haiku for Parsha Ha’azinu (in which arrows and swords drink like pirates) by Rick Lupert


I
The final concert
A solo performance – Words
of Moses like rain

II
We are protected
with clouds – like eagle babies
We are like God’s eye

III
When we drank the blood
of grapes – When we sucked honey
from rocks – Who did that?

IV
Poseurs – pretending
they could bring us down – God burns
up their vanities

V
You know you’ve lost God’s
favor if your wine tastes like
serpents’ bitterness

VI
Let your arrows and
swords drink ’til they’re drunk – Let them
vanquish enemies

VII
Did you hear the song
Moses sang? It is the last
one you’ll hear from him


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

7 haiku for Parsha Nitzavim (in which the Jewish people have a dance party with God) by Rick Lupert


I
A deal is brokered
between God and those standing
here – and those long gone

II
Choose wisely – this deal
applies not only to you
but to your children

III
God is a party
dancing above – a joy our
parents remember

IV
If we sin and have
to leave, don’t pack everything
God says, we’ll be back

V
The Torah refers
to itself, in itself – is
still being written

VI
Moses – last day on
Earth – takes to writing a song
puts it in our mouths

VII
On the day of his death
Moses predicts we’ll rebel
Reminds us – choose life!


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

This savory life: Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)


Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick

My name is Avivah and I am addicted to sugar.

When I am free to eat sweets, I do so with abandon. I may eat entire packages of cookies, one slice of every cake being served, whole pints of ice cream.

I don’t actually like these things. The sugar craving says sweets will make me happy, but eating them never does. Once I start, there’s no stopping me until I feel glutted and sick.

I didn’t realize this was an addiction until I attended a training program for rabbis at Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish residential treatment center. My sugar craving seemed silly compared with alcoholism, drugs, gambling and such. But it was no less real. I was following a voice that was not acting in my best interest. I was not being my best self.

I am able to speak of my sugar problem now because I made a break and stopped eating sweetened foods this summer. The only sweetness I eat now is fresh fruit. It’s incredibly difficult. I had to go through everything in my house, throw away sweetened foods, and buy new ones without sugar. “Unsweetened” isn’t a category that restaurants are set up to offer, unlike gluten-free or vegetarian, so I have to call ahead and walk through the ingredient list with the staff, or see if it’s posted online.

Otherwise, I have to eat at home, pack my own meals or just go hungry. Being without the convenience of America’s sticky-sweet food industry, I’m on my own.

I share this with you because in this week’s parsha, Nitzavim-Vayelech, we are reminded by Moses of the covenant that God struck with the Jewish people for all time, and how covenants give us fortitude.

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Eloheichem — All of you stand today before God … to enter into the covenant … that He may establish you this day as His people, and be your God (Deuteronomy 29:9-12).

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidism and author of “The Tanya,” taught that the covenant struck by the Jewish people with God was made in a time of great joy, when the miracles that brought freedom from slavery were still fresh in their minds. Like lovers who commit to marriage, we made this covenant with God when the passion for it was strong, and the reasons self-evident.

But that’s not when a covenant is needed. Lovers need their wedding contract later, when the love they felt becomes strained by the vicissitudes of daily life. Then, the mutual commitment they had made could give them strength in a way the memory of new love might not. It’s the same for us and God.

This is the mighty power that religion can have in life: to turn self-improvement efforts into something bigger than ourselves, a commitment not just to betterment, but to Hashem.

Deciding to make a major life change for the good is the easy part, but it’s only Step One. After that comes Step Two. For me, that meant rethinking everything I ate and everything I thought about eating, and sustaining it for 10 weeks, the length of time needed to establish a new pattern.

Now, my initial commitment has passed, I’ve lost some weight, I’m thinking more clearly, my palate has adjusted to find the subtle richness in savory foods, and I don’t want sweets. That leaves me with one thing to be done, and it’s the hardest part of all — Step Three: vigilance. I need to be proactive so I’m never in a position where I feel desperate — out on the road, extremely hungry, and without a plan for what or where to eat. I need to think ahead about my meals, or just plan to end up back home.

I’m reminded of the thinking behind tzit-zit, the fringes on our prayer shawls. As part of the Shema prayers, we take the tzitzit in hand, kiss them, and say that they are a helpful reminder not to allow our hearts to stray off the path that God sets for us.

This is the mighty power that religion can have in life: to turn self-improvement efforts into something bigger than ourselves, a commitment not just to betterment, but to Hashem.

So I may feel “on my own” on the American food landscape, but I’m not without support. I have my friends and family with me, encouraging me to be strong. My bulwark against that insidious, lying voice of sugar consumption is love. I love my life and my health, and I love the Holy One, blessed be God, who has brought me to this season.

L’Shanah tovah!


RABBI AVIVAH W. ERLICK is a board-certified health-care chaplain in private practice. She owns a referral agency for Jewish clergy (CommunityRabbis.com) and a private chevrah kaddishah (Sacred-Waters.com), is a spiritual counselor for hospice and serves as a chaplain in the Los Angeles County jails.

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

There are now Christian mezuzahs


It’s affixed upon the doorpost. It’s wooden, thin and rectangular, but with rounded corners. It’s meant to fulfill a biblical commandment.

And it bears a verse from the Gospel of John about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

That’s right: It’s a Christian mezuzah.

Karen Goode calls her creation the Doorpost Blessing, and it looks nearly identical to the small, oblong case that has adorned the doorways of Jewish homes for millennia. Both Goode’s creations and traditional Jewish mezuzahs are based on the same scriptural passage in Deuteronomy that commands Jews to inscribe the words of the Torah “on the doorposts of your house.” Observant Jews recite the passage twice a day with the Shema.

Except, instead of placing parchment bearing two paragraphs of Torah verses inside the mezuzah, as Jews do, Goode engraves a verse on the outside of the Doorpost Blessing, either from the Old or New Testament. She also offers Doorpost Blessings bearing lines from Christian hymns. Altogether, Goode sells 25 varieties, in English and Spanish.

“I’m following what the Bible says,” Goode told JTA. “I’m taking it to modern-day standards. I’m reminding us of our blessings. We all need something to hold onto. God is much bigger than any of us.”

Goode, who lives in the New York City borough of Staten Island and works at a hospital, launched Doorpost Blessings as part of her interest in carpentry. She came upon the concept in 2014, and began making and selling Doorpost Blessings in their current form this year. She would not disclose sales figures, but said the most popular ones bear Old Testament verses both from the books of Jeremiah and Joshua.

“The inspiration was from God, but I was looking for something that would speak of my faith and also carpentry,” she said. Goode is Christian but did not elaborate on which denomination.

Goode isn’t the first person to market mezuzahs to Christians. In 2014, a financial adviser in New York, Henry Zabarsky, created the Christoozah, a hollow red cross containing scripture on a parchment meant to be affixed to a doorpost. But Zabarsky, who is Jewish, told JTA that he is no longer involved with the Christoozah company, and though there remains a working website, it appears not to have been updated in nearly three years. A contact number with a Colorado area code was unresponsive.

Nor is Goode the only Christian to take on a Jewish practice in the name of fulfilling Old Testament dictates. Some evangelical Christians wear ritual fringes or kippahs, and some hold Passover seders — something Goode says she has done in the past. Several fringe evangelical denominations, including the Living Church of God, eschew mainstream Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter in favor of observing Old Testament festivals on the Jewish calendar.

But unlike Christoozah and the Living Church of God, Goode does not credit Jews — and specifically the practice of hanging mezuzahs — with inspiring the product she sells. There is no mention of Judaism or mezuzahs on the Doorpost Blessing website, though Goode told JTA she finds the Jewish mezuzah “a beautiful item.”

“I’m not referring to a mezuzah,” she said of her creations. “I’m doing what the commandment says. I’m doing it from a Christian perspective, not a Jewish perspective. I would see similarity in that there’s a blessing hung around the door frame, but other than that I credit the Bible.”

Mendel Kugel, a Manhattan rabbi who runs MezuzahMe, a service for selling and examining mezuzahs, says Goode’s project is a testament to the mezuzah’s resonance as a ritual item. But he worries that the presence of Christian mezuzahs will make it easier to mistakenly purchase a non-kosher mezuzah.

“It just shows that it’s such an important thing that Christians also want it,” Kugel said.

“Jews don’t try to convince non-Jews by copying their religious customs, to try to bring them into our religion. We have so much belief in our own religion, we have no reason to copy others.”

Goode, however, doesn’t see her Doorpost Blessings as copies. She prefers to see the commonalities between Christians and Jews — after all, both faiths revere the same holy book.

“We Christians celebrate quite a few holidays that the Jewish people celebrate,” she said. “We do have similar history in that we both acknowledge the Old Testament.”

7 Haiku for Parsha Ki Tavo (in which God and the Jewish people ‘make it official’) by Rick Lupert


I
Wheat, barley, dates, figs
grapes, pomegranates, olives –
The first ones are God’s

II
Tithes is a word that
makes me feel like I should go
and see a dentist

III
God and the Jewish
people make it official
like sweet Valentines

IV
All that we have done
and all we’ll do – carved on stones
pulled from a river

V
We shout blessings and
curses to two mountains – What
did they ever do?

VI
For the love of God
please don’t curse my kneading bowl
I’ll follow the rules

VII
Gifts – A heart to know,
eyes to see, and ears to hear
Creation goes on


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

The Inconsistency in the Torah exchange, part 2: Between biblical criticism and religious belief


Joshua A. Berman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

This exchange focuses on Professor Berman’s new book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford University Press). You can read part 1 here.

***

Dear Dr. Berman,

A big part of your research — as you mentioned in your first response — is searching for examples of inconsistent narratives and laws similar to those of the Torah in other ancient Near East texts. I would like to ask you how this could affect the attitude of practicing Jews toward the Torah.

Now, on the one hand, it seems that challenging the multiple texts and “the editor did so out of duress” explanation could result in a more unified, less chaotic Torah. This reading could present the Torah as a book with more internal coherence than most scholars assume, perhaps making it easier for some to treat it as divinely-inspired scripture.

On the other hand, examining the logic of the Torah in juxtaposition with sources like the Kadesh Inscription of Ramesses II or Babylonian law could be seen as stressing just how much the Torah is a work of a distinct time and place, one that shares a Mesopotamian way of thinking and writing that is very different from ours. This could make it harder for some believers to accept the uniqueness and singularity of the Jewish book of books.

My question: what kind of effect, if any, do you expect your book could have on its more religiously-inclined readers’ understanding of the Torah as a divine text?

Yours,

Shmuel

***

Dear Shmuel,

Indeed, many people ask: Is not the Torah eternally valid and above time? Don’t we slight the Torah when we propose that it expresses itself in a manner that is culture-dependent or more relevant for one generation than another? These questions are crucial not only when we consider Orthodoxy’s engagement with biblical criticism. They are critical whenever we wish to study the Torah on its surface, peshat level.

My approach to the issue derives from that of Maimonides. He maintained that reading the Torah in its ancient context is a sacred enterprise and does not denigrate the sanctity or “eternal” nature of our sacred Scriptures. Instead, he believed that many matters in the Torah can be understood only by gaining access to the cultures of the ancient world. In fact, such study for Maimonides has theological significance: it allows us to discern God’s caring and fostering nature.  Maimonides knew, as we all do, that healthy development of all kinds is always a process. When the Torah issued commandments that were cloaked in the language of the ancient world, and resembled the practices common in the ancient world, he saw this as evidence of the Almighty’s guiding path of slow, spiritual growth afforded Israel.

Maimonides bemoans the fact that he is so removed in place and time from the ancient world and cannot fully appreciate the reforms inherent in many of the mitzvot. He writes that he sought out every book in the world about ancient practices so as to understand as much as he could about ancient Near Eastern culture. Doing so enables him to discern the prudence and wisdom of the Divine hand and the Divine plan. Maimonides maintains that many of the Torah’s commandments are a broad mélange of continuities and discontinuities with ancient Near Eastern practice. A deep recognition of the interplay between the two enables us to apprehend how the Almighty nurtures Israel’s spiritual development in incremental steps. As I have argued elsewhere, seeing the Torah in this comparative light allows us to see it as a treatise of political thought that was light years ahead of its time, and at an astounding divide from anything that existed anywhere in the ancient world.

Even as I propose engaging ancient Near Eastern texts to help us understand the Torah, I realize that for many there is a certain hesitation to do so that stems from the realm of religious psychology. When you open up James Pritchard’s classic work, Ancient Near Eastern Texts it just doesn’t feel like a holy endeavor; it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re in any way engaging in the sacred command of Torah study– talmud Torah. In fact, there’s almost a feeling that such materials, even if not forbidden, somehow encroach upon the holiness of the endeavor of Talmud Torah. In our world, where an atmosphere of holiness—kedushah—is such a fragile thing, the feeling is understandable. However, figures like the Rambam—and I would add, other Torah luminaries such as R. Levi b. Gershom (Ralbag), and Abarbanel—freely and seamlessly integrated non-Torah materials into their study of the Torah.

Yet, if there are aspects of the Torah that are indeed best understood in ancient context, in what sense is the Torah “eternal”?

The supposition of the Torah’s “eternity,” while correct, needs to be defined. Do we mean that its meaning is fixed, singular and eternal? Such a position contravenes fundamental tenets of rabbinic Judaism. If this is the sense in which the Torah is eternal, then there is no room for any interpretation at all. All ages would need to understand the Torah in exactly the same manner. The “eternal” nature of the Written Torah, its multifaceted richness, is found only through the medium of the interpretative process of the Torah She-be’al Peh. The Sages teach that there are seventy “faces” to the Torah. The simplest meaning, the peshat, is sometimes time-dependent, addressed to the generation that received the Torah. But our tradition has never limited itself to understanding the Torah according to its peshat level alone. Rather, it has put a premium on rabbinic engagement with the text, enabling other meanings to radiate throughout the millennia, and allowing new perspectives and interpretations to thrive. This is not some apologetic innovation of the rabbinic period. Rather it is part of the warp and woof of the five books of the Torah themselves: for many great sages—R. Zadok of Lublin, the Zohar, the and R. Isaiah Ha-levi Horowitz (the Shel”a)—the commandments of the book of Deuteronomy are the interpretations and reapplication by Moses of God’s earlier laws, now calibrated for the new challenges of life in the land of Israel.

 

Video: Do You Think Science and Religion Can Coexist?


SoulPancake, a popular YouTube channel, recently asked me to participate in a discussion with other faith leaders about the environment. That was something I could not pass up.

The interviewer is Zach Anner, a self-proclaimed “climate change idiot” who is on a mission to, “find out what the hell climate change is and what people across America are doing (or not doing) about it!”

In this Earth Your While adventure, Zach talks with a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Reverend about their religion’s perspective on caring for the environment.

Seven haiku for Parsha Ki Teitzei (you’ll need an extra bag for all these laws) by Rick Lupert


I
I am not sure I
would leap right to stoning the
rebellious child

II
Don’t crossdress says the
Torah – lifetimes and lifetimes
before tolerance

III
Flat roofs require
rails. Israeli contractors
get your license here

IV
So many laws in
this Parsha – I should have brought
an extra suitcase

V
These laws of divorce
our love is so strong – I’m not
going to read them

VI
If you do not want
to go to war, your best bet
is to get married

VII
Don’t forget what
Amalek did to us, or
anyone like him


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

7 Haiku for Parsha Shoftim (in which we treat trees better than our enemies) by Rick Lupert


I
Worship an idol
be put to death. These are the
laws of our people.

II
A king shall write two
Torah scrolls in his life. No
mention of a queen.

III
Priests get no land, but
unlimited free meat and, God
their inheritance.

IV
No sorcerers or
mediums. in other words:
No Coney Islands.

V
Only the prophets
speak for God. The murderers
get their own cities.

VI
Let’s all build houses
and get married. Then no-one
has to go to war.

VII
May I suggest we
treat all people like we’re told
to treat their fruit trees.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Dr. Joshua Berman

The Inconsistency in the Torah exchange, part 1: How do we make sense of the Torah’s many contradictions?


Joshua A. Berman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

The following exchange will focus on Professor Berman’s new book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford University Press).

***

Dear Dr. Berman,

Your new book challenges a basic assumption that Bible scholars have accepted since the beginning of the field as an academic discipline. Rather than treat inconsistencies in the Torah’s narrative and laws as a sign that we are dealing with compiled texts written by multiple authors and editors, you try to show that they are in line with ancient writing practices of their times and place.

My introductory question: what was the motivation behind this project, and how does it change our attitude to the book of books?

Yours,

Shmuel

***

Dear Shmuel,

For all of its centrality in our tradition, the Torah is a very puzzling book: it retells stories in ways that contradict earlier tellings, and it issues the same laws often several times over, here, too, sometimes with conflicting details. How can we make sense of this?

For more than two centuries, modern scholars have held to a single explanation: the inconsistencies reflect the conflicting views of multiple authors. But when you scratch beneath the surface, you see that that approach has problems of its own. Consider the laws in the Torah that seem to contradict each other. Scholars generally claim that this is because the Torah contains several mutually exclusive law codes, written at different times by different communities, and that these communities were actually in competition with one another about the correct way to observe God’s law.

But then how did all of these conflicting laws arrive in a single text? The standard explanation is that the editor did so out of duress. With the pressures of the destruction and exile, there was a need for Israel’s disparate sub-communities and traditions to unite together around a compromise document, and that document is the Torah.

But this thesis is unsatisfying for several reasons. First, and foremost, it is difficult to see how the Torah in its present form could satisfactorily be termed a “compromise document.” A document reflecting compromise between competing agendas is one where each side gives ground on its original positions and a middle ground is found. Alternatively, one side will get its way on a given issue and the other side its way on another. Where draftsmen truly find no common ground, they may employ creative ambiguity, or skirt the issue altogether. The sine qua non of a compromise document, however, is that it will iron out conflict and contradiction so that the community can proceed following one, authoritative voice. If there really are conflicting traditions here, the Torah is not a document of compromise, but of anarchy.

Moreover, were these so-called legal schools truly inimical to each other, we would expect the warfare over the law to spread to many other books of the Bible. Indeed, scholarship routinely maintains that the various schools which composed these supposedly competing legal texts were largely responsible for the editing of many of the books of the Hebrew Bible. The other books of Scripture touch upon literally dozens of areas of law. Yet, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible do we find a prophet, priest, king, or narrator who argues in explicit fashion for the legitimacy of one version of a law over another. Nowhere in the Tanakh do we find a book or a prophet that can be classified as purely following the laws of Deuteronomy, or the laws found in Exodus. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Nearly all the books of the Hebrew Bible resonate with passages from all so-called sources of law. Often, biblical writers will weave together purportedly “competing” law sources. Put succinctly, while scholars have classically seen the different law collections as mutually exclusive, all sections of the Hebrew Bible, from the Torah and on into the other books, seems to put them together. In the Torah we find these laws all united under one cover as the Torah, and in the other books we see references to these law codes woven and cited with no sense that affinity to one comes at the expense of the standing of the other.

This puzzle is what drove me to write my new book. All of this leads me to conclude that we’re missing some big piece of the puzzle; that scholars—and we as well—are stuck in the fishbowl of our own cultural assumptions about how law works, about how legal texts should be written and read.  But, it turns out, the ancients thought about law very differently, and they composed their legal texts very differently than we compose ours today. And so, my book is an attempt to jump out of the fishbowl of our own assumptions and recapture how the ancients thought and wrote in a way that makes better sense of the material than is found in modern scholarship today. And I try to do the same thing with regard to conflicting versions of the same story that we find in the Torah.  I seek—and find—examples of this kind of writing in the ancient Near East, and determine why an author would write in this fashion.

 

7 Haiku for Parsha Re’eh (in which we’re reminded where our tushies need to go) by Rick Lupert


I
Blessings or curses –
Choose your mountain carefully
You only get one

II
Your intention when
slaughtering a cow matters
and the location

III
Your voodoo doesn’t
matter if you don’t come with
divine credentials

IV
Body ink may look
cool but it ain’t Kosher – And
don’t eat flying bugs

V
One tenth of your food
shall be eaten in the place
that God will show you

VI
What a world we could
have if we forgave our debts
every seven years

VII
Passover, Sukkot,
Shavuot – Get your male
Tushles to the Shul


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

7 Haiku for Parsha Eikev (in which our foot owns land just by stepping on it) by Rick Lupert


I
If I’m a good boy
You’ll bless my womb’s fruit – of course
I don’t have a womb

II
Who’s the Cat who took
care of everything? You! Yeah
You – Capital Y

III
Despite our foibles
we still get the land because
of an old promise

IV
Remember that time
Moses had to carve a whole
new set of tablets

V
Love AND fear God, we’re
told – I choose to focus on
love in my dealings

VI
Hear oh Israel
know, the One God controls
the faucet in the sky

VII
Imagine if just
setting a foot on a place
made it become yours


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Photo courtesy of USAF/ Museum of Aviation.

A solar eclipse deserves a blessing


We are on a fantastic journey, over which we have precious little control. As our universe expands, we are pushed deeper and deeper into space. We travel along, like some pebble carried with the tide. Our own galaxy, like hundreds of millions of others, rotates, and it does so at about 168 miles per second. On one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, our solar system has its own rhythms. Within the solar system, our home planet goes around our local star, the Sun, and our moon orbits around our home planet, even as the Earth and the Moon spin too.

Once in a while, in the midst of all this motion, the Moon travels between the Earth and the Sun in such a way as to block the light of the Sun from reaching us. It casts a shadow on our planet. The blockage may be partial or complete. We call this event a solar eclipse. In a total eclipse, when the Moon obscures the entire solar disk, the fullest form of the Moon’s shadow, the umbra, lasts no more than a few minutes in any one spot, but the effects are stark as darkness literally covers the Earth and the temperature drops.

We will ooh and ah as the eclipse begins, but we know that this too shall pass. All that was will be again and soon. Normalcy will return. One might think that it would be an occasion for a blessing, a b’rakha. After all, Jews seemingly have blessings, or b’rakhot, for every event and circumstance, from the sublime to the mundane, and from the time they arise to the time they go to sleep. And there are well recognized blessings for similar occurrences. For instance, when one sees a comet or lightening, there is Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reyshit (Blessed is the Eternal One, Sovereign of the universe, maker of the works of creation). When one sees something beautiful like a tree or an animal, one might say Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, she’kakha lo b’olamo (Blessed is the Source of wonder, Ruler of the cosmos, that such things are in the world). There are blessings on reaching the ocean, on smelling fragrant grasses and spices, even on witnessing an earthquake. But traditionally, there is no blessing for an eclipse. Why? To answer that question, we need to understand some science and some Judaism.

An eclipse is, of course, a phenomenon entirely the product of natural forces. It depends primarily on a few basic facts. First, at present and on average, the Sun is about 400 times farther from the Earth than is the Moon and, in a grand coincidence, the Sun’s diameter is about 400 times larger than that of the Moon. So, in general, the Moon now is just the right size at just the right distance to be able to block light from the disk of the Sun. Second, the orbit of the Moon is tilted slightly to that of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. For there to be an eclipse, the Moon’s path must intersect with the Earth’s orbital (ecliptic) plane. Third, neither the orbit of the Earth around the Sun nor that of the Moon around the Earth is circular. Rather, both are elliptical. This means that one satellite or the other is sometimes closer and sometimes farther from the object around which it rotates.

Knowing the orbits of the Earth and Moon, astronomers can calculate when solar eclipses have occurred in the past and can predict when they will occur in the future. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) has created a catalog of solar eclipses of all varieties reaching back four thousand years and looking ahead another millennia.

Though solar eclipses may be visible up to five times a year somewhere on Earth, they are still a relatively rare event at any particular place on the planet. The last total solar eclipse to be seen in the lower forty-eight states of the United States cast its shadow over several states in the northwest part of the country on February 26, 1979. The next one will be on August 21, 2017. It will be observable as a total eclipse in a path extending east and south from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. We won’t have to wait as long for the total solar eclipse that will follow. It will be visible from Texas to New England on April 8, 2024. The paths and dates for future total eclipses in the U.S. can be seen here.

Mentions of eclipses appear long ago in the early annals of human records. From Mesopotamia, for instance, we have references to the Ugarit Eclipse dated to 1375 BCE and the Assyrian Eclipse of 899 BCE.  In the East, in China, eclipses were described in writings from the Shang Dynasty and the Bamboo Annals regarding events in the fourteenth and ninth centuries BCE, respectively. Further west, in Greece, the epic poem Odyssey credited to Homer refers to the obliteration of the Sun and unlucky darkness, perhaps inspired by an actual eclipse in 1178 BCE. Later in the sixth and fifth centuries, BCE, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides and the poet Xenophon spoke of eclipses, generally in connection with military engagements. Indeed, the interval between lunar eclipses, known as the Saros cycle, was apparently recognized by astronomers in Chaldea (now southern Iraq) as far back as 800 BCE.

So, it is quite surprising that eclipses are not mentioned directly either in the Torah or the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, which were written, edited and canonized in the first millennia BCE. Are eclipses not mentioned because they were unknown to the authors and editors or were they simply understood to be natural and not supernatural phenomena and, therefore, not worthy of mention?

The curious absence of any mention is highlighted, perhaps paradoxically, by two passages, in the Tanakh, one in the book of Joshua and the other in the book of Amos. According to the book of Joshua, during a battle between the Israelites and five Amorite kings at Gibeon, the Sun stood still for twenty-four hours, presumably to allow the Israelites to win. (See Josh. 10:1-15.) Recently, some Israeli scientists have advanced the idea that the author of Joshua was really referencing an eclipse on October 30, 1207 BCE. This seems more than a plausible stretch, though. Putting aside whatever evidence may or may not exist concerning the historicity of the battle itself, to sustain their argument, the scientists must first translate the Hebrew word “dom” not as it has traditionally been understood as describing the Sun becoming  still or stopping, but as the Sun having been merely clouded over or darkened. True, translations are often, subjective, but then the scientists must also essentially disregard the biblical claim that the event lasted an entire day, not the very few minutes that would mark the duration of a total solar eclipse. (See Josh. 10:12-15.) If the author of Joshua was trying to describe a rare solar eclipse, the author could easily enough have noted the growing darkness and the re-emergent light and cast the scene as an omen for Israelite victory. But the author made no mention of an eclipse’s effects or progression, and claimed an entire day of shining sun to be unique – which indeed it would have been.

In the book of Amos, the prophet was railing against those who would defraud consumers. (See Amos 8:4-10.) He said that God would not forget the miscreants’ misdeeds and that punishment would come by making the Sun set at noon and darkening the Earth on a sunny day. Again, some might argue this is a reference to an eclipse, but, here, too, the description is wrong and the rhetorical point seems to echo an earlier message about the “day of the Lord,” a time when Israel would be saved. (See Amos 5:18-20.)

The earliest clear references to eclipses from Jewish sources appear to be the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus, both of whom lived in the first century of the Common Era. In one work, Philo recognized eclipses as the “natural consequence” of rules governing the Sun and Moon, but also stated that they were “indications” of doom, such as the death of a king or destruction of a city. (See here.) In his treatise on the history of the Jews, Josephus mentioned an eclipse and did so as part of a story about Herod’s treatment of the high priest Matthias and Herod’s death. A reader could infer that the eclipse was an omen of Herod’s demise, but it was clear from Josephus’s account that Herod was quite sick anyway and had prepared his will in anticipation of his death. (See Antiquities 17, Ch. 6, Sec. 4.)

By the time the main text of the Babylonian Talmud was completed around the end of the fifth century of the Common Era, a negative view of a solar eclipse had clearly crystalized. In connection with a discussion of the view that rain on the festival holiday of Sukkot suggests heavenly displeasure, the rabbis engage in a series of analogies, including a discussion of eclipses. That discussion begins with the following proposition attributed to the Sages:  “When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world.” (See BT Sukkah 29a.)

For those involved in this discussion, that idea only raises other questions.

  • Why is it a bad omen for the world? According to the Talmud, because the Jewish people calculate their calendar primarily based on lunar cycles and other nations base theirs on the solar cycle.
  • Can we be more specific about those at risk? The Talmud states that when the eclipse is in the eastern or the western sky, it is a bad omen for the residents of that area. When the Sun is eclipsed in the middle of the sky, the entire world is in danger.
  • And what is the signal that the eclipse is giving? The answer found in the Talmud is colorful, literally: “If during an eclipse, the visage of the Sun is red like blood, it is an omen that war is coming to the world. If the Sun is black like sackcloth made of dark goat hair, then arrows of hunger are coming, because hunger darkens peoples’ faces.”
  • But why would the Sun be eclipsed at any time? The Sages have answers here, too, in fact, multiple sets of them. In one view, the Sun is eclipsed on account of (1) a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized properly, (2) a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and no one was available to rescue her, (3) homosexuality, and (4) two brothers whose blood was spilled as one. Alternatively, the sun is eclipsed on account of (1) forgers of a fraudulent document intended to discredit others, (2) those who provide false testimony, (3) those who raise small domesticated animals in Eretz Yisrael in a settled area, and (4) those who chop down good fruit producing trees.

As the recognition grew that solar eclipses were predictable events, part of the natural order, traditionalists tried to square the philosophical circle and reconcile the regularity of such events with presumably irregular eruptions of bad times and occasions of sins requiring divine intervention and punishment. (See, e.g., here and here.) According to one of his followers, because he understood an eclipse as a warning, as a time to take care, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1904) explained that eclipses were “meant to be opportunities for increasing prayer and introspection – as opposed to prompting joyous blessings, [and so] we do not recite a blessing when witnessing one.”

This approach, however, is insufficient and unconvincing, regardless of the value of prayer and introspection. It fails to acknowledge the reality that science confirms about the regular order of local orbits. It fails to dispel expressly and strongly the general – but totally false -notion of a causal connection between natural events in the sky and human behavior on Earth. It fails to reject specifically the unsustainable rationales in the Talmudic passages cited above speculating why eclipses occur, and it fails to refute the false equivalencies among the various circumstances noted there.

This approach is also inconsistent with the traditional practice of offering blessings, as noted above, for more frequent, often more terrifying and clearly more dangerous events. After all, a total eclipse of the Sun is no less impressive than is lightening or an earthquake. And, further, this approach runs counter to the long standing tradition expressed in the Talmud (Menachot 43b) which calls on us to recite b’rakhot frequently during our waking hours, even to the extent of one-hundred a day. On the day of a solar eclipse, we should focus on ninety-nine other things and not note that the disk of the Sun is being obscured?

Even more importantly, the preclusion of a b’rakha regarding an eclipse undermines the emotional and intellectual benefit of a blessing, a principal purpose of which is to raise the level of consciousness of the person saying it. The words give literal expression to the remarkable thing or event which the individual’s senses have encountered or soon will. A blessing, then, is an empowering act, and to deny an individual, any individual, the opportunity to acknowledge, realize, concentrate, appreciate and grow can only limit a person’s mind and spirit, stunting his or her humanity.

With an orientation of modern, reality based Judaism, we can and should appreciate the order in the cosmos, especially the regularity of orbits. We can and should recognize the total dependence of all life as we know it on the energy that we receive from our local star. As the umbra approaches and recedes in a total solar eclipse, we can see the light change, sense the drop in temperature. Even as it compels us to look to the sky, that sight, that feeling should unite us, and draw our attention away, if just momentarily, from the troubles on Earth.

All of this elicits awe and gratitude, two primary bases for blessings. How appropriate then, as one looks (very carefully and with appropriate equipment) upward during a solar eclipse to acknowledge one’s awe and express one’s gratitude for having reached this season and being able to observe and to feel the works of creation. Here is one way:

     As the eclipse nears . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Source of Life that fashioned the stars, that sends forth heat from the Sun to warm us and light from the Sun to nourish the food we eat and provide the wonderful colors that so enrich our lives.

     When standing in the shadow . . . Modim Anakhnu Lakh – We are thankful for the opportunity to be reminded how fleeting and precious our time here is, how bound we are, one to the other, how much we should treasure the moments we have and the people with whom we share this most amazing planet.

      As light reemerges . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Sustainer of Life. May we be refreshed and renewed by the harmony of the spheres, and may our lives be worthy of the gift we have received and continue to receive through the arrangement of the cosmos.

     Your words may well be different. Write them. Share them. We do need blessings now.

  A version of this essay was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.

7 Haiku for Parsha Va’etchanan (in which Moses gets to look but no touch) by Rick Lupert


I
No, Moses, you can
not enter – But check out the
view from this mountain

II
Did I mention we
should follow God’s commandments?
On every page.

III
Setting up cities
of refuge – the non holy
side of the river

IV
A repeat of the
Ten Commandments – Typical
for summer viewing

V
What will the people
do without Moses acting
as emissary

VI
Start with these words – Put
them everywhere – Your doors – your
foreheads – everywhere

VII
Leave no trace of the
Canaanites when you cross the
river – not a speck


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

7 Haiku For Parsha Devarin (We men love our maps) by Rick Lupert


I
Holy Land across
the river – Thirty-seven
days left with Moses

II
Seeking smarty pants
Israelites to hire
in top positions

III
Reminded of the
extra forty years because
we were so evil

IV
I think we’re going
in circles – I think we are
going in circles

V
Fast forward thirty
eight years – All the evil ones
gone – gone means they died

VI
All these stories – the
recounting and recounting
Nothing but re-runs

VII
The Land divided
Canaanites not consulted
We men love our maps


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Hebron on July 7. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

5 Hebron facts the UN needs to know


On July 12, I joined hundreds of people from around the world at the Machpelah Cave in Hebron, the sacred resting place of our patriarchs and matriarchs. We came to pray and to strengthen one another, to honor and seek blessings from our ancestors, and to express love and appreciation for the brave Israel Defense Forces soldiers who protect the site.

Six days earlierUNESCO, the United Nations’ (U.N.) world heritage body, sought to erase 3,753 years of history. In a shameless attempt to minimize the Jewish connection to this most ancient and revered Jewish site, it voted (by secret ballot, no less) — as reported by The New York Times — to declare the Machpelah Cave a “Palestinian World Heritage Site.” Jews and non-Jews from around the world, and from across the religious and political spectrum, united in expressing outrage at this latest endeavor to rewrite history. Lately, we’ve come to expect such attempts, as vilifying Israel has become the new “normal” at the United Nations.

To dispel this latest obfuscation of truth, here are five historical points ignored by the U.N. that testify to the connection between the Jewish people and this holy site:

1. As documented in the Torah and classic Jewish texts, Hebron was Abraham’s home for 75 years. He purchased the Machpelah Cave in Hebron as a family burial plot (Genesis 23:1-20) after his wife Sarah died. Thus, Hebron is the first part of the Land of Israel that officially became “Jewish property.” Ultimately, Abraham was buried there himself (Genesis 25:9-10), as were his son Isaac, Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, (Genesis 35:29, 49:31), Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s wife Leah (Genesis 49:31, 50:13). Hebron was Isaac’s home for most of his life, and Jacob lived in Hebron and inherited the Machpelah Cave.

Later, the Bible recounts how after the Jewish people left Mount Sinai, in order to enter the Land of Israel, Moses sent scouts to investigate the land prior to their entry. According to the Talmud, Caleb, one of the scouts, sensed that the other scouts were planning to dissuade the people from entering the land, so he went to the Machpelah Cave to pray that he not succumb to their scheme. When the scouts returned, only he and Joshua encouraged the people to prepare to enter the land. Subsequently, the city of Hebron was awarded to Caleb.

2. Hebron was King David’s first capital city. Archaeological evidence points to the fact that David was first crowned king in Hebron (875 B.C.E., 2 Samuel 2:1-4) over his own tribe, Judah, and then, seven years later, he was accepted in Hebron as king by the other tribes, as well (in 868 B.C.E., 2 Samuel 5:1-5). After this, he moved his capital to Jerusalem.

Let us urge the United Nations to turn its attention to where its efforts can be truly fruitful to humanity … Delegitimizing Jewish history is not an endeavor worthy of the United Nations.

3.  The Temple’s continual connection to Hebron. In 831 B.C.E., David’s son and successor, King Solomon, built the First Temple in Jerusalem. Every morning, the Temple priests did not begin the daily service until the sun rose and Hebron became visible, in order to link the merit of the patriarchs and matriarchs to the Jewish people’s daily connection to God (Tamid 3:2; Yoma 3a).

4. For millennia, Hebron has been recognized as Judaism’s second-holiest city, after Jerusalem. According to the Zohar, the second-century classic of Jewish mysticism, the cave is called Machpelah (“double”) because it is the connecting point between our physical world and the upper, spiritual worlds, and that when a person dies, his soul enters the afterlife via the Machpelah Cave. For the same reason, the city is called “Hebron” (Chevron, related to chibur), which means “connection.”

5. Jewish settlement in Hebron has been documented and uninterrupted throughout the generations, save for 20 years between 1947 and 1967, when Hebron was under Jordanian rule and Jordan banned Jews from living within its borders. In 1967, when Israel was attacked by the surrounding Arab countries in an unprovoked war, Israel reclaimed its historic heartland, including Hebron.

This year marks 50 years since the city of Hebron and the Machpelah Cave once again became accessible to Jews and to people of all faiths. For the preceding 700 years, beginning with the rule of the Mamluks (1260 C.E.), access to the cave was granted solely to Muslims.

Let us urge the United Nations to turn its attention to where its efforts can be truly fruitful to humanity — by helping to stop the massacre of innocent civilians in Syria; combating ISIS and other terrorist groups; and ending world hunger, disease, war and discrimination. Delegitimizing Jewish history is not an endeavor worthy of the United Nations.


RABBI CHAIM N. CUNIN is director and general editor of Chabad House Publications and associate rabbi at the Beverly Hills Jewish Community, which meets weekly at the Beverly Hills Hotel. This article is adapted from the newly released Kehot Chumash (Chabad House Publications).

7 haiku for Torah Portion Pinchas by Rick Lupert (Is it Kosher if I tune my guitar?)


I
After the foibles
of the Midianites – time
to do some smitin’

II
Nothing stops us from
making babies – Over six
hundred thousand now

III
Plots are divided
We all get a piece of a
land we’ve never seen

IV
Moses, not long for
this world, endows Joshua
with a promotion

V
Summertime….and it’s
time to lean more about the
laws of sacrifice

VI
Don’t burn the fruit – Don’t
put the goat in the fruit bowl
So many details

VII
Is tuning guitars
considered mundane work ask
all the song leaders.


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

7 Haiku for Parsha Balak by Rick Lupert (Ohmygod a talking donkey!)


I
Meanwhile the king
of Moab tries to hire a
wizard to curse us

II
The wizard agrees
to go – but only nice words
will leap from his tongue

III
A talking donkey
scolds the wizard – You heard me
a talking donkey

IV
Balak thinks Balaam
doesn’t quite understand the
mission – Curse strike one

V
My family rises
like lions. Just try and curse
a lion – You can’t

VI
The curse turns into
words I say every morning –
or am supposed to

VII
Yeah but the world will
end says the failed curser who
wants to seem useful


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

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