September 22, 2018

Prevention Is Primary, Jewish Tradition Teaches

Photo from Freestockphotos.biz.

Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God — for one cannot understand the Creator if he is ill — therefore he must avoid that which harms the body. He must accustom himself to that which helps the body become stronger.

— from the teachings of Maimonides

Contemporary Western medicine has focused on the treatment of diseases rather than prevention.

Judaism’s historic approach is fundamentally different from that of modern medicine. Although treating sick people is certainly a Torah obligation, Judaism puts a priority on the prevention of disease.

The foundation for the Jewish stress on preventive medicine can be found by considering this verse in the Torah:

“And He said: ‘If you will diligently harken to the voice of the Lord, your God, and will do that which is right in His sight, and will give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon you which I put on the Egyptians.’ ”

Rashi explains: “It is like a physician who says to a man, ‘Do not eat this thing lest it will bring you into danger from this illness.’ ”

What are the implications for modern medicine? Just as God’s healing role in the above Torah verse is to prevent illness, so, too, a physician must emulate the Divine role by emphasizing the prevention of illness.

It should not be assumed that the Torah places the entire responsibility of maintaining good health on physicians.

The following anecdote about Maimonides is instructive:

During the period when Maimonides served as the royal physician of the sultan of Egypt, the sultan never became ill. One day, the sultan asked Maimonides, “How do I know that you are an expert physician, since during the period that you have been here I never have been ill, and you have not had the opportunity to test your skills?”

Maimonides concluded that “we learn that the ability of a physician to prevent illness is a greater proof of his skill than his ability to cure someone who is already ill.”

The Torah indicates another moral obligation that might demand physicians take a greater interest in preventive medicine: “Do not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”

The Sages indicate that if one sees a person drowning or being attacked by robbers, he or she should do everything possible to rescue the person.

It would seem, therefore, that physicians should put far greater emphasis on preventive medicine, advising their patients about dangers related to high-fat diets and other lifestyle choices.

It should not be assumed that the Torah places the entire responsibility of maintaining good health on physicians.

Our Sages said the major responsibility falls on the individual.

Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch explains the mitzvah of guarding our health: “Limiting our presumption against our own body, God’s word calls to us: ‘Do not commit suicide. Do not injure yourself. Do not ruin yourself. Do not weaken yourself. Preserve yourself.’

“You may not … in any way weaken your health or shorten your life. Only if the body is healthy is it an efficient instrument for the spirit’s activity. … Therefore, you should avoid everything which might possibly injure your health. … And the law asks you to be even more circumspect in avoiding danger to life and limb than in the avoidance of other transgressions.”

Judaism regards life as the highest good. We are obligated to protect it. An important Jewish principle is pikuach nefesh, the duty to preserve a human life.

Jews are to be more particular about matters concerning danger to health and life than about ritual matters. If it could help save a life, one must (not may) violate the Sabbath, eat forbidden foods and even eat on Yom Kippur. The only laws that cannot be violated to preserve a life are those prohibiting murder, idolatry and sexual immorality.


A longer version of this essay originally appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of Emunah Magazine. Author and activist Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen died in 2011. Richard H. Schwartz wrote “Judaism and Vegetarianism” (Micah Publications), the case for vegetarianism from a Jewish perspective.

The Lost Wallets of My Past – A Poem for Haftarah Tazria-Metzora by Rick Lupert

A camp empty of people
but full of silver and food

Oh the wallets I’ve left
in public places

how attractive they must
have been to the empty

pocket eyes. What lives
could have changed

save for the honesty
of finders?

Like the four men in
the north. The ones with

the heebie-jeebies on
their skin. They ate their

fill. They hid a portion
but the guilt of famine

led them home to
doubting ears, to acres

of empty stomachs.
A story vetted

The enemy had indeed
left their buildings.

I never considered my
empty wallet a prophecy.

I never considered
finders keepers

losers just accept you’ve
made a difference.

The sounds of
phantom chariots

make me give until
the hungry come home.

This is the trickle down
of my ancestors.


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.

This is Why We Took Archery at Camp – A Poem for Haftarah Shemini (Machar Chodesh) by Rick Lupert

You’d think, if you were the king, you
wouldn’t worry too much about your lineage
especially if you had a son who

as things went back in the days of kings
would automatically ascend to your throne.
Yet Saul, whose son’s best friend was David

who, if you know your history, is the most
sung about Jewish king of all time, was
deeply concerned the family line would

stop with him. Him meaning Saul, whose
son Jonathan warned his best friend, the future
King David, who hadn’t even heard the

name Goliath yet, through a secret code
of arrows, and, in particular, the way and
distance in which the arrows, would be shot

really wasn’t into the idea of David as the
future. I mean why spend so much time grooming
Jonathan for the Job if someday David was going

to get crafty with a slingshot and then be
given the keys to the kingdom? Not that
Saul had any idea about this yet. I’m just

writing this with the benefit of thousands
of years of knowledge – in particular the
knowledge that David was the future thing.

So arrows were shot, and instead of
coming ‘round the palace for the hope of
a feast, David takes the warning of his friend

(a real prince of a friend) and just gathers
up the arrows and probably dines alone
rather than face the death-wrath of

Jonathan’s dad. Good friends hug. Good friends
kiss. And the future king lives on forever
in the hearts of our people.


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.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

Prolific author Joseph Telushkin discusses some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, including a need for more curiosity.

“If people are only going to read things that reinforce what they believe… they’re going to end up demonizing the people that disagree with them.” -Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Check out this episode!

Telling Time in the Wilderness

Photo from PxHere.

We often have tunnel vision when we’re in a difficult place. “I just need to get through this,” we say. And it’s true — whether it’s biblical Egypt or a rough patch in our own lives, sometimes we need to focus our resources and attention on getting ourselves safely to the other side.

But once we get through, where are we?

Occasionally, we jump straight into a new chapter of life feeling fully resolved and at peace. But more often, when we exit crisis, we land squarely in transition. We find ourselves wandering in the wilderness, just like the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt.

My college professors in the ’90s were fond of the phrase “liminal space” — that threshold betwixt and between, neither this nor that. This term was so common that I began to suspect this love of liminality was an academic trend. Perhaps border spaces had been disregarded for years and only now were being rescued from obscurity?

But, of course, my postmodernist professors were not the first to pay attention to liminality. In fact, the fourth book of the Torah takes place almost entirely in liminal space. In English, the book is titled Numbers, but in Hebrew, the book is called Bamidbar, literally, “in the wilderness.”

I’ve long been captivated by this image of rotting manna. What can it teach us in our own times in the wilderness?

In Bamidbar, an entire generation finds itself newly freed from oppression, but also newly uncertain about its day-to-day life, not to mention its future. No longer fearing for their lives, the Israelites begin to discover things about themselves that could not emerge while they were still struggling just to survive.

For example, the Israelites discover that when faced with physical discomfort and uncertainty, their mood quickly can turn from joy to petulance. They also begin to feel out the heights and depths of their spiritual lives — from a new relationship with the Divine, who leads them in a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, to experimenting with idolatry in the Golden Calf episode.

Some of these lessons must have felt good in the moment; others were likely excruciating. All of them were crucial in the formation of a tribe.

In the same way, when we find ourselves in a liminal space after a crisis, we encounter parts of ourselves that surprise us. After a move; or in early parenthood; after initiating a necessary breakup; or having recovered from the initial stages after a loss — at these times we learn things about ourselves that can be discovered only in the wilderness.

During this time, we also are open to profound spiritual lessons because we’re liberated from our routines and with them, our complacency. The manna that fell from heaven during the Israelites’ journey is a perfect example of this. It is as if God is saying, yes, you need to eat, and I will help you with that, but you also need to learn to be less anxious, and I will help you with that, too.

And so, according to tradition, the manna appeared each morning like dew, it tasted like each person’s favorite food, and — my favorite part — if they gathered more than one day’s supply, it simply would rot. (Except for Fridays, when they could gather two days’ worth to avoid working on the Sabbath.)

I’ve long been captivated by this image of rotting manna. What can it teach us in our own times in the wilderness?

To me, the deepest teaching of the manna is a teaching about time.

We must be present in the moment, for time cannot be saved or stored. It can be experienced only as we live it, as it runs through our fingers.

When this mysterious, magical food appeared one morning, the Israelites asked, “Man hu?” (“What is this?”) This is where the name “manna” comes from — it essentially means, “What?”

The spirit of “what,” of open-minded inquiry, is the spirit of the wilderness. In walking out of our bondage, we also leave our preconceived notions about ourselves and the world. We are like children, looking around us, asking, “What is this?”

Perhaps that question itself is the secret heart of our being. Perhaps it is all we truly have.


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

Still in the Minor Leagues – A Poem for Haftarah Tzav by Rick Lupert

Passover is coming and
baseball season is nigh and
it is the Big Shabbat

and I’m not one to typically
reference baseball in anything
but the text tells me

Malakhi was a minor prophet
and for some reason I’m picturing
a group of them, who couldn’t

quite make it to the majors
but are still proud to put on
the uniform and shout the

words of the Lord, because
apparently, we haven’t been listening
to them, and the idea that

there’s anything divine is
starting to sound suspect, and
maybe if Malakhi does a

good job reminding us of
the consequences of our actions
or inactions, he’ll get to

play ball with the original
Brooklyn Dodgers (and how is it
that I know that the Dodgers

are originally from Brooklyn
when most of my knowledge of
baseball stops after the part

where I know how to spell the word)
or maybe Moses will sit him
down for a private luncheon

to feel him out and see if
he’s ready to join the big leagues
and put on the big prophet pants

or if he’s going to need to
keep hitting the streets, (or dirt
roads as it probably was back then,

reminding us that the time is now
and the oven is still burning like
an oven and pretty soon Elijah’s

going to walk in the open door
and drink from the cup set aside
just for him.

That’s all a minor prophet could want –
to be welcomed into a home where
a special beverage was

waiting for him this whole time.


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.

He-Goats and Ephas and Hins (Oh, My) – A Poem for Haftarah Vayikra by Rick Lupert

Oh, ancient text, a new month is coming
and you have special things to tell me.
Special things, with words so smart
I’ll have to look them up.

Words like ephah, which spell-check
doesn’t like, but which dictionary.com
assures me exists. Same with hin.
It seems spell-check is not ready for

ancient Hebrew units of measure
and honestly, I’m not sure I am either.
As a Jewish American, I still freeze
any time someone tells me a temperature

in celsius. Not literally freeze, as in
the water has solidified, but freeze, as in
my body has stopped moving while
my brain catches up.

Let us not even mention metric,
which I hear is better than whatever
it is we are using, but which the
Anglican kings never got on board with.

Oh, ancient text, I struggle every week
to find a common language to filter your
lessons into my twenty-first century sensibility.
I understand the words new month

but wonder why they come up in
the middle of March. There’s a different
Jewish way for everything. I want the
lunar calendar to kiss the sun on the lips.

Honestly, I’d prefer not to kill any
lambs, or he-goats, or bulls. You may
have a different word for bushel, but
I’ve got a different way to atone for my sins.

Nothing is set on fire and I may exit the
holy tent through the same door I entered.
Blasphemy! Oh holy text, I hope you
don’t mind that I address you directly.

I’m not giving up on you yet.


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.

The Garden is Coming – A Poem for Haftarah Vayakhel-Pekudei by Rick Lupert

Passover’s coming and we’re
going to need to take a shower.
You can’t show up to your in-laws

smelling like sheep. And this
is all coming directly from the One
in a rare direct address to the us.

The us who have been scattered
among the nations.
The us who
use profanity like it’s reverse food.

The us who are coming around to a
sanctification. The us who are going
to get to see the old neighborhood soon.

The us who are going to get a sprinkling
of clean water. The us who are going
to get hearts of flesh, which

begs the question, what are they
of now? Was it stone? How did our
blood get anywhere if it was stone?

The trees we’ll benefit from –
you’ve never seen so much fruit.
Our crumpled buildings, risen again.

We’ve talked about the desert blooming
but, really, you won’t be able to see the
sand amidst all the blooms.

The words desolate and famine will
become words we only remember
but never use. Even the corn

is getting a talking to by the only One
who speaks its language. It’s going to
be like Eden up in this.


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.

When Bulls Collide – A Poem for Haftarah Ki Tisa by Rick Lupert

Let barbecue decide your faith –
On one side, Baal, four hundred and
fifty men, the type who might melt
down jewelry and worship anything,
Their bull – cut into pieces and
laid on altar.

On the other, the Prophet Elijah,
famous from all the songs, repping
the Lord, a similar cut-up bull on display,
only wetted down to make it tougher,
his inevitable victory, all the more
impressive.

The challenger’s up first –
praying to Baal for smoked meat
They get nothing. They hop on
their altar in response to the nothing.
It’s uncomfortably close to Easter to
not mention the hopping.

Elijah, after a bit of unbecoming
tauntery – does his thing in the manner
which it should be done. God takes
notice and rains fire from the sky.
Who’s up for steak? I mean, not me.
I’m a vegetarian but

the victory is clear. The Kingdom
in the north has been worshipping
a bunch of Baal. Meanwhile in the south
Elijah hasn’t forgotten the lesson of
the Golden Calf. It’s his name we
call for when the sun sets

on Saturday nights, and the pain of
six days of temptation begins. It’s his name
we call for after the last taste of Matzah
closes our celebration of Freedom
It is the Lord who cooks my tofu.
I look for fire from the sky.


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.

I Forget What This Poem is About – A Poem for Haftarah Tetzaveh / Shabbat Zachor by Rick Lupert

Shabbat of Remembrance –
I’m having trouble remembering
all the things I’m told

my biological DVR should hold.
I have a vague memory of
standing at a mountain

but the details of what
I was supposed to do with
Amalek’s sheep are fuzzy.

Kill them all? Can that be right?
That doesn’t sound like me.
Is this why Saul almost lost

his anointed job? Because he
wouldn’t kill the sheep? I had to
look up the word prostrate

because I forgot what it meant
or maybe I never knew. I can’t
put my face on the floor for

every mistake. It’s so dirty like
the floor of the sea was, which I
remember every time I

put on my shoes. Or dirty
like the gallows after Haman and
his sons hung there for days.

I eat a three sided cookie
to remember this because
nothing paints a picture like food.

Haman and his great great
no-one really knows ancestor Agag
their names written on our shoes.

Our mandate – to wipe them
from our memories, as every year
we remember them.


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.

The First Construction Project – A Poem for Haftarah Terumah by Rick Lupert

It took four hundred and eighty years
after leaving Egypt until God gave us
the measurements we needed to
build the Holy Temple.

King Solomon got the Job.
He was only the third Jewish King.
We followed the charismatic until
the situation on the ground caused us

to formalize the situation with his
grandfather, Saul. Jerusalem was
barely the capital, and we’re still
having trouble setting that in stone.

His dad, David, was too busy
writing poetry under waterfalls near
the Dead Sea to take on a major
construction project and, I guess

the previous few hundred years
we were still glancing nervously
back across the Jordan River for
signs of chariots.

I wonder what happened with
the desert’s Tabernacle before
Solomon’s stones and planks
took to the mountain?

I wonder if they imagined that
thousands of years later, this
holiest of structures, and its sequel
number two, would only be

remembered by the words we
read on Saturday mornings?
Occasionally a shovel reveals
a clue. I walked up a staircase

made of stone once. I sang a song
of ascent
. I crawled through tunnels
and looked in every dark crevice.
One cedar plank was all I needed.

Even just a splinter.


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.

Keep Shekels In Your Pocket – A Poem for Haftarah Mishpatim by Rick Lupert

Jehoash was seven years old when he became king.

Can you imagine? I ask my wife
if our nine year old were suddenly
in charge of everything?

Like Johoash who was
only seven when he was given
all of Israel to rule.

I can’t imagine ours is up to
the job of keeping the sink clean
let alone the whole house

and certainly not the neighborhood
or the city at large, or any of the
other names we give to the

areas of land that are separate
from others because of borders
we created.

Every adult human who
has ever drawn a line on a map
used to be nine or seven.

I guess eventually we
all get there, especially if we’re
born into the job.

Poor Jehoash, who wasn’t poor at all,
but still managed to lose his childhood
to our kingdom

Who told everyone to
keep an extra half shekel on hand
because once a year

that half shekel was going to
leave your hand, to make room for
another and gather with

all the other half shekels
to fix the walls, and keep the
sinks clean.

I tell our nine year old to
keep change in his pockets
because you never know.


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.

The Man with the Coal-Covered Lips – A Poem for Haftarah Yitro by Rick Lupert

Isaiah, the self proclaimed one with the unclean lips
takes coal in his mouth (it’s not so easy to give up

coal when it goes so far back) given by angels
with six wings each (behold the angel hierarchy

we thought they only had two) and takes on
the work of passing on the Words. (Capitalized

on purpose…these words come from the
Holiest Mouth.)

Remember when the Israelites saw the Light?
There were commandments and a mountain involved.

It was too bright and they complained couldn’t
someone else put their eyes on that light?

Years later Isaiah volunteers for the job.
He will speak of the woes and inevitable failings.

He with his coal-covered lips and no-wings
whatsoever. He’s got a whole book out and

thanks to its inclusion in a larger volume,
he’s literally one of the best selling authors

in human history. We’re constantly quoting him
holy holy holy – Get up on your toes when

you say that. The person in front of you is
probably too tall anyway. You’ll want to see

the view of the desolate cities, the empty houses,
the old cousin of the cashew tree which no-one

has seen for a millennia. And that’s where we stop
unless your Ashkenazic. Then there’s extra reading

for you. A whole other section in which
everything turns out okay.


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.

Torah Heroes Had Special Needs

Before we begin to explore specific ways we can fully welcome people with disabilities into our Jewish communities, let us take a brief look at how our tradition has viewed people with disabilities in the Tanakh, in Jewish law and in Midrashic literature.

Many of our great leaders had various disabilities.

Isaac became blind in his later years — “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see ….” Jacob had difficulty walking and became blind. Our matriarchs also were not portrayed as perfect; Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel were barren, and Leah is described as having had weak eyes.

Even Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, is portrayed as having some type of speech disability: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that you have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In the next verse God answers him:

“Who gives man speech? Who makes him unable to speak or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, The Holy One? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and will instruct you what to say.”

In the Babylonian Talmud … [t]hese texts speak to the value of respecting, accepting and empowering people with disabilities.

God encourages Moses to be successful in leading the people of Israel, even with his disability, providing a powerful example of how individuals with disabilities can not only be included but can make significant contributions to our community.

A great leader does not need to be physically perfect.

There are also textual examples guiding the community of Israel to treat people with disabilities in a respectful way. “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am The Holy One.” This example provides textual support for the critical importance of making our schools, congregations and Jewish communal institutions physically accessible to those with disabilities.

Modifying our physical environments with ramps, and making accommodations for those with visual and hearing impairments are important paths to take when approaching the inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life. A further verse in Leviticus states, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis emphasize that all Jews are responsible for one another. These texts speak to the value of respecting, accepting and empowering people with disabilities.

Many of the examples about the status of people with disabilities in rabbinic legal literature portray the conflict that the rabbis might have had between strictly interpreting certain aspects of Jewish law and taking into consideration the possibility of being more lenient in other instances.

Finally, in Midrashic literature we find that, as today, the rabbis had differing opinions and attitudes about people with disabilities. Some offered interpretations pointing to the fact that disabilities were part of God’s overall plan, focusing on the ultimate justice of God. It was also believed that certain righteous individuals could intercede and change the plight of people with disabilities. We can see that the rabbis of the time struggled to understand the causes of various disabilities and to find meaning in what they interpreted as the suffering of people with disabilities.

Excerpted from a presentation by Lenore Layman, “Opening the Gates of Torah: Including People with Disabilities in the Jewish Community,” which originated at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Arise, Arise and Rock Out! – A Poem for Haftarah Beshalach by Rick Lupert

I was so pleased to come across
the story of Deborah and find out it
culminates as a musical.

Praise! Praise Deborah
Utter a song.

And she does. A lengthy one
of Don McLeanean proportions.
This is Israeli Pie or

Devorah’s Restaurant, if you prefer.
It goes on and every detail of
every victory is sung.

It’s epic.
It’s Biblical rock and roll.
It’s milk instead of water.
It’s stakes through temples.
It’s men who refuse to fight
     without women by their side.
It’s curses and blessings.
It’s chariots and swords.

It’s Deborah, our Deborah
staked out under her palm tree
on a mountain, doling out wisdom
and instruction and judgement.

It’s all of us taking the time
to sing a song, like Miriam did before
to recount our history
to take stock of what
we’ve got going on.

How much of history do
we know better thanks to
the rock operas of our day?
Give me a test on Joseph
or even the American Revolution –
I’ll rap my way to an A+.

We’ve been uttering songs since
Deborah sang of Harosheth-golim
Since Moses sang his way
to the edge of the Holy Land
Since Miriam put on the first Woodstock
on the far side of a closing sea.

Arise arise Devorah!
We’ve got the best seats
in the house.


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.

Moses, Miriam, Origami

Photo from Pixabay

One Shabbat morning, to help explain the Torah portion, I taught my congregation how to fold a simple origami model.

Let me explain.

Parashat B’shalach, which we read this week, recounts the most miraculous moment in the history of our people: the parting of the Red Sea. What’s remarkable is how we responded, both at that moment and throughout our history.

The passage after the crossing begins Az yashir Moshe, “Then Moses sang.” This is the first record of anyone singing in the Torah. In fact, the passage is so associated with music that it’s universally known as Shirat Hayam, Song of the Sea.

After the song, we are told that Miriam took up her timbrel and danced. This is the first record of anyone dancing in the Torah.

This playful spirit even inspired the scribes who wrote our Torah scrolls. In every Torah (or Bible or prayer book) the words of this passage are arranged in an unusual way: The text is broken up with two wide spaces per line, alternating with three wide spaces per line.

Some observers say it’s an ancient pictogram, conveying its meaning through its resemblance to a physical object. What object? A brick wall, symbolizing God’s holding back the waters as the Israelites passed through on dry land: “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (Exodus 14:29)

There’s another interesting dimension to this passage. When it’s chanted in Ashkenazi synagogues, we use a special melody for some of the verses. These verses are chanted antiphonally — that is, alternating between the reader and the congregation.

Imagine for a moment how the scribe who came up with this pictogram felt. “I could write these words in paragraph form, but instead I’m going to arrange them like bricks in a wall!” What about the person who first devised the unique tune for chanting the passage? “I’m going to use a different melody, and involve the congregation in the chanting!”

Thousands of years after the experience of that remarkable event, an inspired scribe responded to it with a wonderful pictogram. And a Torah chanter interpreted the song by composing a singular melody and an innovative way of involving the congregation.

Like Moses and Miriam, the scribe and the chanter responded in spontaneous and heartfelt ways. But now these innovative practices have become routine. Our scribes utilize this same pattern in every scroll, and publishers re-create it in every Bible and prayer book. Our Torah readers chant the same melody for this passage year after year: millions of recitations over hundreds of years, in the same melody.

If we perform actions only in the prescribed way, we are missing out.

Don’t get me wrong. Traditions can be wonderful. There’s great satisfaction in knowing that you have performed a ritual in the prescribed manner. There’s also great value in heritage, in absorbing and passing along received wisdom.

But if we perform the actions only in the prescribed way, we’re missing out. Like the ancient scribe and Torah chanter, each of us needs to find our own way to connect to the sacred, to respond creatively to the defining events of our history. When we do, something miraculous happens inside us, enabling us to experience the sacred as our ancestors did.

Here’s where the origami comes in.

As an origami artist, I was inspired to create a simple model of the Red Sea parting. After teaching my congregation to fold the model, I invited members to hold it close to their eyes, gaze through the passageway and imagine that they themselves were present at that sacred event, proceeding forward between walls of water.

How did they walk? What did they hear? What did they see? What could they smell? What were their thoughts and fears? Did they feel the presence of the Divine?

In that moment, the people in my shul experienced a kind of transformation. They were able to connect to our sacred history. Just as Moses and Miriam did, just the Torah scribe and the Torah chanter did.

While tradition has the power to connect us to countless generations past, our personal response to the sacred through the creative arts has the power to engage and transform us individually. Both are essential for a full spiritual life.


Joel Stern is the author of “Jewish Holiday Origami” and many other papercraft books

The Babylonia vs. Egypt Smackdown – A Poem for Haftarah Bo by Rick Lupert

Jeremiah (still not a bullfrog)
told by the Lord (maker of bullfrogs and
Jeremiah, and Egypt, and rivers, and
Babylonia, and Nebuchadnezzar, and
everything really)

that Egypt (former site of all
Israeli construction firms, still conducting
tests after the river turned red, still
working on a backup plan for when the
lights go out, still mourning the loss of
their first born)

is going down (down, as in the Babylonians
are coming down, and on the way they’ll
scoop up our folks for a little exile and
weeping, but when they get into the Sinai
they’re really going to make a nothing
out of everything you’ve got, Pharaoh.)

I don’t think the Babylonians had it
out for us (us, the bagel makers, the
land harvesters, the doers of what
we’re told by the Lord and the ones who
claim to be hearing from the Lord, lest
we get shipped off to Babylonia.)

It’s just that we were in the way (the way,
as in the big area of promised land between
where the Babylonians and Egyptians
separately hang out.) (Hang Out, as in
where they live their lives, conduct their
businesses, eat their food, and hosted their
former slaves or brand new exiles.)

Not to worry says the Lord to Jeremiah
(still, still not a bullfrog) and goes on to
confirm, oh yes, there will be weeping
by the rivers, but, pack light, we’ll be back
in a generation or so.


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.

The Day the Fish Left the River – A Poem for Haftarah Va’eira by Rick Lupert

The Day the Fish Left the River - A Poem for Haftarah Va'eira by Rick Lupert

I’m starting to feel bad for Egypt and
all the trouble they’re about to have with their fish.

I realize I was a captive there for hundreds of years
though I have no physical memory of this.

I think there’s a name for this kind of empathy –
a syndrome that didn’t exist back when we

were slinging stones to build pyramids.
But now as we remember getting out

Pharaoh is a crocodile and he’s got hooks
in his mouth, and all the Nile’s fish are

sticking to his scales, and all the fish are
leaving the river altogether, leaving Egypt

nothing to eat, and unbuilt buildings to build
all by themselves, all because Pharaoh,

the crocodile Pharaoh, claims to own the river
Claims to be responsible for the wealth of the river,

the now empty river – And now it’s his people’s turn
to vacate for forty years. (Nobody gets out of

the forty year punishment.) I have no idea where
they went – Just that they were unimportant

wherever that was. Until they got to go back
(did I mention it was forty years?) to their river

to their dust. Forever humbled, and doomed
to topple. I only believe so much in prophesy

but I turn on the news and there’s no-one
called Pharaoh anymore.


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.

Bless This in Moderation – A Poem for Haftarah Shemot by Rick Lupert

For a people whose rituals
invariably revolve around the
consumption of wine

Isaiah surely takes us to task
for drinking too much of it.
We end up in a

valley of fatness, crushed
by wine. We err because of wine.
We stray because of wine.

We become corrupt
because of wine. But look ahead
to Passover, or Purim

or any Shabbat and
we’re not doing it correct if
wine is not involved.

Our sweet and sickly wine
snubbed by anyone who knows
better about wine

our forever ritual punishment
for the too strong liquid which
sent our fore-tribes

before the quill of Isaiah,
the ultimate scolder. The
constant reminder of

who’s in charge.
The man who could use a
good cup of wine.

Use the nice glasses.
We’re taking the grapes back.
The fruit of the vine…


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.

Everybody Dies – A Poem for Haftarah Vayechi by Rick Lupert

Everybody dies and
here we are the poets
reminding you about

the finiteness of life.
(It’s in our job description.)
David, the King, was a poet

and he now only lives
in the hearts of our people.
Like his great to the power

of nine or ten grandfather
Jacob, who also died and
issued instructions and

blessings on the bed
of his death. This is how it is –
more rungs on the tree

All the people who
came before on the tree
linked to every leaf

yet to sprout.
And it turns out there
really is just one tree

although it feels like
everyone comes from
their own set of branches

just start climbing down
or up or over and you’ll find
you didn’t have to leave

the tree at all to
meet up with them.
Yes, everybody dies

and the twelve tribes
you’ve been watering
will take it from here

or maybe it’s just
the one Solomon.
In any case

keep the water flowing.
You may disappear but
this one tree won’t.


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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A Tale of Two Sticks – A Poem for Haftarah Vayigash by Rick Lupert

I’ll never look at two sticks the same
(come to think of it, I never spent a lot of time
looking at sticks so I’m not sure

how significant a statement that is)
after God told Ezekiel to pick up two of them
and then assigned them meanings.

One for the north and
one for the south. A divided kingdom
fused together into one

by an act of holy arts and crafts.
Makes me think of other divisions –
Other lefts and rights which

are still housed within lands
united by one name. Liberals and
conservatives. East coast

and west. Presidents and
those who just use the word “president.”
We need a divine influence to

graft us together, plant us in the ground
maybe add a little water so just
one tree grows.

We all get to be a leaf
nourished from the same place.
Let us be an evergreen

Let us breathe.


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.

Debbie Friedman’s Ancient Leanings – A Poem for Haftarah Miketz by Rick Lupert

I’ve been singing the song Not by Might
for as long as I have memory of Jewish songs.
I’ve learned enough about it to teach
the eager young voices of Southern California
that it’s a secret Hanukah song.
No lights, or oil, or latkes or donuts
just a declaration of spirt over strength –
One of my oldest Jewish memories.
So when the line showed up in the
Haftarah this week – Not by military force
and not by physical strength but by My spirit
I got nostalgic enough to keep
a flame lit for eight nights.
We modernize text with guitar and
the fancy slang of our day, but
we’re still singing text. Ancient text.
This is the chain of Hanukkah that
connects me to the proven exploits of
Kings David and Solomon, and even
to the unproven but even holier adventures
of Father Abraham, and our whole first family.
The children sing, the children dream…
matches up so nicely with the dreams of
Joseph and Pharaoh married in holy text
to the story of Hanukkah via the Rabbis of old
who connected everything so we have
nothing to prove. This one’s for your dream,
Debbie – May we all live in peace.


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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No Cookies For You! – A Poem for Haftarah Vayeishev by Rick Lupert

When I got to the Book of Amos, I was disappointed
he wasn’t the same guy who made the cookies.

In fact, he spent a lot of time admonishing people
for behavior which left them not deserving of cookies at all.

The ones who sold other ones for money,
the ones who took advantage of the poor,

the ones who refused to tell the future despite
the gift they’d been given to see it.

A slew of punishments are given to those who
chose not to behave in accordance with the

holy light they were bathed in. The stout hearted
were sent to flee naked on the day of admonishment.

Can you imagine, instead of prison, you’re stripped
of your clothes and sent on your way.

Hard not to pick out the improprieters in a crowd
with their impropriety on full display.

We who were taken out of the narrow place
given all the love. We who complained and

threw our brother into a pit. This love is
a two-way street. We’d better keep our clothes on

if we ever want a cookie.


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.

Does God Want Higher Taxes?

Photo from Flickr/401kcalculator.org

Last week, Republicans did what they always do when they have power: They passed an across-the-board tax cut.

Not a single Democrat voted for the tax reform bill in the Senate or House. That’s a major shift since the 2001 tax cuts under George W. Bush, when 12 Democrats voted for that bill in the Senate, and 28 voted for it in the House.

Last week, Democrats rightly complained about the process, which was perfunctory and messy, complete with handwritten notes in the final Senate version. They wrongly complained about the structure of the tax reform bill, which they said raised taxes on the poor (false) to decrease taxes on the rich. And they hypocritically complained about increases to the deficit — when’s the last time Democrats complained about too much spending?

But it was peculiarly perplexing to watch religious Democrats complain about the tax bill by citing biblical text. Conservatives were high-handedly informed that God mandates higher taxes — that to care for the poor and the orphan, governments were instituted among men.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg led the charge, stating on Twitter, “If the Bible is so against systemic solutions to poverty, why is a jubilee year declared that releases people from debt to alleviate intergenerational poverty? What is leket, shikhah, pe’ah, and maaser if not taxes meant to create a safety net for those in need?”

Let’s begin with the bizarre contention that the Bible requires higher taxes. That’s simply untrue. The Bible talks about “taxes” (Hebrew: mas) in the traditional sense in only a few places: Solomon raised taxes, as did his son Rehoboam, with the result that the kingdom of Israel was split in half; Ahasuerus raised taxes at the end of the Book of Esther, a move that isn’t exactly seen as an unmitigated positive in the Talmud. The Torah’s emphasis on tzedakah is about private giving, not about government-enforced giving.

The Torah isn’t a guidebook for government welfare programs. It’s a guidebook for personal goodness.

Now, let’s talk other forms of biblical “taxes.” First, there’s maaser, tithing; Ruttenberg here probably is referring to maaser sheni, which in Deuteronomy 14 is directed toward the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow (maaser is directed toward the priests alone). It applies only in the third and sixth years of the sabbatical cycle, and it’s 10 percent of the produce.

Then there’s shikhah, which occurs when you forget a sheaf in the field; you’re supposed to leave it for the widow and the orphan (Deuteronomy 24:19). That’s a rather de minimis contribution. Leket and pe’ah are referenced in Leviticus 19; leket refers to ears of corn forgotten on the ground, which are to be left there for the poor (again, this is de minimis); pe’ah refers to the corner of your field. The minimum amount for pe’ah is 1/60th of your field.

At best, then, we’re talking about a biblically mandated 11.7 percent of your produce every third and sixth year. Democrats want to maintain the highest tax rates at over 50 percent, if we include state and local taxes.

Finally, there’s shemitta and yovel. Shemitta mandates the waiver of all debts in the seventh year (Deuteronomy 15); yovel restores all land ownership to its original owner in the 50th year (Leviticus 25). Ruttenberg says that these mechanisms were designed to prevent accumulation of wealth. That’s untrue. Actually, they were designed to maintain tribal land ownership, since the Talmud says that yovel applies only when the tribes were living in their prescribed territories. And the rabbis designed an entire system, pruzbul, in order to avoid the impact of yovel and shmitta loans. It turns out that a system that routinely devaluates loans prevents their issuance, thereby harming the poor.

None of this is designed to undercut the notion that the Torah cares about the poor. It most certainly does. But our obligations are personal, not government-created; God wants us to act out of personal desire to help the poor. And not coincidentally, studies show that those who are most religious tend to give the most to charity, not those who point to the Bible in order to justify government cash-grabs.

The Torah isn’t a guidebook for government welfare programs. It’s a guidebook for personal goodness. To turn it into the former is to prevent the cultivation of the latter.


Ben Shapiro is a best-selling author, editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire and host of the conservative podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show.”

Orthodox Leaders Discuss Marijuana, Torah Values, Day School Tuition and More

Rabbi Dr. Zev Wiener discusses “Now That It’s Legal: Halachic and Medical Perspectives on the Use of Marijuana” at the Orthodox Union’s Learn L.A. event. Photos by Ryan Torok

Addressing a room of more than 70 men and women, Rabbi Dr. Zev Wiener found himself at the intersection of Jewish law and a contemporary sociopolitical issue on Dec. 3 as he discussed halachic views on marijuana.

The question at hand: What are the potential consequences when the drug becomes legal in California next year?

Appearing at Learn L.A, an Orthodox Union (OU) West Coast event, Wiener, a Los Angeles psychiatrist, presented Jewish wisdom on the subject, ultimately offering more arguments against marijuana than for it.

Jews should treat their bodies with respect, he said, rejecting the secular view that people are allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies.

Motivational speaker Charlie Harary

Since marijuana can impair memory, it can affect one’s Jewish learning, Wiener said —  a risk he said one should consider before using the drug.

There is no proven correlation between smoking marijuana and negative mental health outcomes, he said, but some data suggest that young people who smoke the drug while their brains still are developing might experience schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness.

While many people say marijuana relieves their anxiety, he said, much anecdotal evidence suggests that it can actually increase anxiety.

Learn L.A. drew more than 100 members of the Orthodox community and beyond to Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. The event concluded the Nov. 30-Dec. 1 OU convention, a weekend of teaching and discussion.

Simultaneous L.A. Learn discussions focused on “Current Controversies in Halacha,” “Strengthening Our Torah Values” and “New Insights in Tanach.”

Rav Herschel Schachter of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, discussed “Halachos of Tuition: Who Pays? How Much? And with Whose Money?”

He cited the challenges facing observant families who want to send their children to religious day schools but can’t afford the tuition. He said Jewish law forbids schools from turning away families that cannot pay tuition, lamenting how many borderline-observant families opt for secular schools because yeshiva tuition is so prohibitive. That said, the Shulchan Arukh — Jewish legal codes — says a yeshiva may refuse a child if the parents have the means but don’t want to pay tuition, Schachter said.

“Success is not being who you want to be. Success is being who you are meant to be.” — Charlie Harary

About 100 people listened as Schachter, a father of nine, said yeshivas should do whatever they can to accommodate families of all financial backgrounds. The alternative — public school — would be “a disaster,” he said, so if a family can’t foot tuition, others of greater means should help.

Motivational speaker Charlie Harary followed with a discussion called “Seeing the Invisible: The Power of Torah on Your Perspective.” Harary said the core of success is being connected to other people and that the majority of communication is the ability to listen. And if this applies man to man, he said, it also applies man to God.

A member of the OU leadership board, Harary invoked the story of Joseph, who, he said, would top a list of Forbes’ “most successful Jews.” Joseph experienced many ups and downs throughout his life, he said, eventually becoming one of the most powerful people in Egypt.

“Success is not being who you want to be — success is being who you are meant to be,” he said. “And only God can get you there.”

Harary’s discussion fused spirituality, psychology, science and Jewish wisdom. He told personal stories about his family and argued for the importance of training oneself to see how God communicates in invisible ways.

He discussed the “schema,” or one’s preconceived ideas, and said you can expand your schema by training yourself to see things invisible to everyone else.

“The whole purpose of learning is to train your brain to see the invisible,” he said.

Among the attendees was Elizabeth Thaler, a civil litigator and member of the Beverly Boulevard-La Brea Jewish community who was earning continuing education credits for attending. Speaking to the Journal after Wiener’s discussion on marijuana, she said was interested in the day’s variety of halachic teachings.

Michael Anton, a Pico-Robertson resident who works at a logistics company in El Segundo, said he thought Wiener had taken a position on the topic of marijuana despite stating that he wouldn’t speak for or against its use.

“I think it was slanted, but I don’t disagree with it,” he said.

Still, Wiener displayed deep knowledge on the topic of marijuana, making his talk relevant to contemporary ways of consuming it. During his 45-minute discussion, he discussed how eating edibles such as brownies made with marijuana is popular on Shabbat, since Jewish law prohibits smoking on the Sabbath.

But the potency of edibles, which often induce a stronger high than smoking cannabis, should give people pause before they decide to eat a brownie or any other food with marijuana in it on Shabbat, Wiener said.

While eating edibles may be permissible on Shabbat, he said, it is “playing with fire.”

Lay Down Your Spears and Tweets – A Poem for Haftarah Vayishlach by Rick Lupert

Apparently it’s common Jewish knowledge that
the Roman empire descends from Isaac’s son Esau.
I just learned it today from the prophet Obadiah.

Not him personally, we’ve never met, but in
the book he wrote. He was a minimalist whose
entire book was one chapter, twenty-one verses.

As a fan of all things very short, I like his style.
I’d like him to take a crack at rewording some of
the more wordy portions of the Bible.

Though he does get a bit warny in the process.
All great empires will fall in deference to the liberators.
I’m paraphrasing but you don’t see

too many Roman Centurions building aqueducts
these days so I guess he was on to something.
Rome who destroyed the second Temple

who was descended from Edom, also known
as Esau, brother to Jacob, grandchildren of Abraham
parents to us all.

Can we trace every living person back to
one family? Does this make all earthly conflicts
nothing but family squabbles?

I think it’s time we lay down our spears and tweets
and tricky bowls of soup. I think it’s time we
got the family back together for a festive meal.

Here’s to tents without walls.
Here’s to earth without borders.
Here’s to identifying people with only
the words fellow human.

Here’s to Obadaiah.
We won’t hear from him again.


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.

A Road Poem for Haftarah Vayetzei by Rick Lupert

The road is long
The road is long but
still leads to where you are going

The road may take fourteen years
Don’t let the u-turn at seven alarm you
Keep on the road

The u-turn is all
part of the plan
The road will not lie to you

You may not be prepared for
the weather along the road
the fork in the road

the spoon in the road
the Golden Calf in the road
Don’t jump off the road

Don’t wander into the woods
Don’t hire people to
build a different road

This is the road built
by the Great Road Builder
in the sky

The sky where there
are no roads but
we’re all on our way there

after this road
this road with the turns
and confusing signs

and uncomfortable surfaces
Despite all this
I would drive this road

any multiple of
fourteen years to end up
in her arms


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.

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.

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.