August 17, 2019

We Keep Getting the Stink-Eye – A poem for parsha Balak

Moab became disgusted because of the children of Israel.

We keep getting the stink-eye
from Moab and their ilk.

They’re looking for our horns
and checking their wallets

when we walk by.
They draw pictures where

our noses need their
own ZIP codes.

They say we’ve
occupied the eye of the land.

But we’re still wet from
the walls of water.

We’re still living
out of tents.

We’re still thinking
maybe Egypt wasn’t so bad.

As they send people
to curse us

As we wander and wander
in the desert.

Until the Voice says
You shall not curse the people

because they are blessed.
See Who’s got our back now?

We’re getting closer
to the river.

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 23 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 “Hunka Hunka Howdee!” (Poems written in Memphis, Nashville, and Louisville – Ain’t Got No Press, May 2019) 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.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parshat Naso with Rabbi Burt Siegel

Rabbi Burt Siegel was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
His first position was Rabbi Of Riverdale Temple in New York City. his lifelong passion for understanding the essence of spirituality grew during his years in Riverdale, and he decided to create a synagogue that was founded upon the teachings of classic and contemporary Jewish spiritual wisdom. The synagogue is The Shul of New York – A Synagogue for Jewish Spirituality. He was the Rabbi for 25 years. After leaving the Shul of New York, Rabbi Burt founded JEWISH LIFE EXPERIENCE, an organization for Jewish culture and arts. With the teachings of Chabad as his spiritual base, he continues his spiritual quest with an open and free mind.

Our parsha in Naso, and our conversation focuses on Birkat Kohanim, the blessings of the priests.



Previous Torah Talks on Naso

Rabbi Abraham Cooper

Rabbi Josh Feigelson

Rabbi Mark Borovitz

Rabbi Rona Shapiro

Rabbi Rona Shapiro



Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parshat Toldot with Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Jeremy Rosen, is an orthodox rabbi, born in Manchester. Studied philosophy at Cambridge University in England and Be’er Yaakov and Mir yeshivot in Israel where he received Semicha. He has served as a community rabbi of orthodox congregations in Scotland and England. He was Principal of Carmel College in Oxfordshire, Professor and Chairman of the Faculty for Comparative Religion Wilrijk Belgium and Rabbi and Director of the YAKAR Educational Foundation in London. He retired to New York where he is the rabbi of the Persian Jewish community in Manhattan and lectures at the JCC of Manhattan.

This week’s Torah portion — Parashat Toldot  (Genesis 25:19-28:9) — tells us the fascinating story of Jacob and Esau and of the selling of Esau’s birthright to Jacob. Our discussion focuses on good guys, bad guys and the many faces of the Torah.



Previous Torah Talks on Toldot

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

Rabbi Adina Lewittes

Rabbi Yael Saidoff

Rabbi Aderet Drucker

Maharat Ruth Balinsky





Thousands receive priestly blessing at Wall

Thousands of Jewish worshipers gathered at the Western Wall for the priestly blessing.

Hundreds of Kohanim, members of the priestly class, blessed some 10,000 worshipers in the morning prayer service Thursday, which is held each year during Passover and Sukkot.

A security force in the hundreds guarded the gathering, according to reports.

It marked the 40th year that such gatherings have been held at the Western Wall. Last October during Sukkot, Arab riots broke out on the Temple Mount and throughout Jerusalem following rumors that Jews intended to take over the Mount.

The chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Yona Metzger and Rabbi Shlomo Amar, and Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich held a reception at the Western Wall pavilion following the event.

Meanwhile, about 700 Jewish worshipers prayed at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus in a service secured by some 100 soldiers.

Blessing Management

This week’s Torah portion describes the bountiful blessings promised to our people by God, if (ekev) we obey the laws of Torah.

  • God will love you, multiply you, “bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil…” (Deuteronomy 7:13, 8:1).
  • God will bless you above all other peoples, protect your fertility and guard your health (7:14-15).
  • Divine power will secure your conquest of the land (7:18).
  • Adonai will lead the crossing (9:3).
  • The Promised Land is “a good land, flowing with streams and springs and fountains … a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing….” (8:7-9).
  • The land, like the people, is blessed with Divine protection (11:12).
  • God will cause rain in due season, resulting in abundant grass, cattle and produce (11:13-15).
  • Every spot on which your foot treads shall be yours (11:24).

Together with these blessings, of course, come the warnings. Failure to observe Torah laws doesn’t just mean a lack of reward. It means that the world becomes a more dangerous, chaotic place. We become more vulnerable to external forces — be they military enemies or nature itself — without the guidance and protection of Torah.

People often struggle with the Deuteronomic perspective on loyalty to mitzvot and its consequences. Obviously, subverters of Torah can and do prosper, at least temporarily. By the same token, the righteous suffer, and Ekev itself testifies that God tests, even afflicts, His beloveds (8:16). It’s a vast oversimplification to read the Torah text as a rigid statement of reward and punishment. Ekev is championing the rewards of Torah, but its theology is nuanced.

According to Ekev, even blessings present a certain danger. When “your silver and gold have increased and everything you own prospers” (8:13), you may forget God and disregard your Source. Don’t become haughty and say, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (8:17). Nor dare you say to yourself, “I am blessed because of my righteousness” (9:4). Instead, “remember that God is the One who gives you power to be prosperous and victorious, in fulfillment of the covenant made with your ancestors” (8:18).

People tend to believe that they have earned their own good fortune. Ekev insists that it is neither our prowess nor our goodness that prospers us. It is God’s power and grace. Prosperity is the major theme and blessing in this Torah portion. And that is precisely why this portion urges us to guard against both arrogance and self-righteousness in the face of abundance.

We who live in Los Angeles — the City of Angels and, too often, of excess — ought to know something about the dangers of prosperity. We can testify that radical blessings are more difficult to handle than one might expect. Abundance can — and does — inspire gratitude and tzedakah. The more people have, the more they can use their blessings for positive and spiritual ends. But it’s also true that abundance is used to justify self-importance, jadedness and materialism. The more people have, the more they can squander their blessings on negative and corrupting influences. This perspective is reflected in one reading of the priestly blessing: “May God bless you and protect you” (Numbers 6:24) has been interpreted to mean, “May God bless you — and also protect you from your blessings.”

When you talk to people who have achieved radical blessings, very often they speak warmly about the days when they struggled. There was a purity, a simplicity, a potential before the blessing that cannot be completely owned or recaptured once it arrives. This attitude may stem partly from misplaced nostalgia; the “good old days” weren’t always as good as we remember. But there is at least a germ of truth in the nostalgia.

The days when you are hungry (physically or spiritually) are often more rewarding, more full of life, somehow, than the days when you can “eat without stint.” The rabbis of the Talmud debate why “affliction of the soul” on Yom Kippur should necessarily mean fasting (Yoma 74b). Sometimes, eating is an affliction. Manna, a food, is called an affliction in Ekev (8:16).

The Torah portion and this section of Talmud hold similar views of human nature. Left to our own devices, we will take our blessings for granted. We may convince ourselves that we have earned them, and we will surely go looking for the proverbial “more” — which is never enough.

A key solution suggested in both Ekev and Yoma is what I would dub “blessing management.” We need to consciously notice and respond to our blessings. We may occasionally need to renounce or forgo them (as in fasting on Yom Kippur) to regain appreciation. We have to be vigilant against arrogance, self-righteousness, abuse of power and all the other potential pitfalls of prosperity. Above all, we must remember and connect with the Source from which all blessings come.

These strategies can sound like clichés, until you think of your own blessings and really wake up to how much you have. Then a deep gratitude comes … and then, with the realization of all the grace bestowed on you, humility. Then, perhaps, embarrassment arises over foolish pride of “ownership” in your blessings. And, sometimes, we are able to determine a best next step. What is each blessing calling us to do, to give, to share? Our blessings are talking to us. Ekev tishmeun, if only we would listen.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom ( and a frequent scholar-in-residence. Her new Web site ( offers teachings and daily meditations on preparing for the High Holy Days.

More Blessing, Less Bragging on Bimah

One mother thanked every one of her daughter’s teachers by name and grade, beginning with preschool. A father enumerated the scores of all his son’s soccer games. And another mother, with tear-filled eyes and a choked-up voice, used the occasion to present her daughter with her first diamond.

Ever since parents began speaking at their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs, they have raised the ante on length, competition and ostentation to the point where, according to University Synagogue’s senior rabbi, Morley Feinstein, we find that every child is more compassionate than Mother Teresa, a faster swimmer than Mark Spitz and a better mathematician than Albert Einstein.

But increasingly, rabbis have taken steps to reclaim the bimah. They have reined in parents’ freedom to present a laundry list of their child’s achievements, awards and, occasionally, shortcomings. Instead, they are requiring or strongly encouraging parents to reshape their speeches as blessings and keep their focus on the child and the sanctity of one of Judaism’s most significant rites of passage.

Donald Goor, senior rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, instituted the practice of parent blessings eight years ago “out of an attempt to ensure the holiness of the service.” He gives parents multiple examples and wording specific to blessings. He even provides a structured, fill-in-the-blank “create-a-blessing” guide that helps them express their love, pride and dreams for their child in the mandated 300 words.

For Kaye Bernstein, whose third child, Jeffrey, became a bar mitzvah at Temple Judea on Dec. 18, adhering to the guidelines was not a problem.

“I tended to focus on what’s distinguishing about his life, his personality and what he brings to the family mix,” she said.

For her husband, Fred, giving a blessing made him think about his words in a different way.

“It’s not a time to tell anecdotes or give a toast,” he said.

Goor does not vet parent blessings. Neither does University Synagogue’s Feinstein, who also provides parents with examples and who counsels them to keep their talks short and sweet and to recognize the holy nature of the day.

“I still have to trust parents. I don’t want to be a censor,” he said.

But at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, Rabbi Paul Kipnes insists that parents give him a copy of their remarks — limited to one double-spaced typed page — at least a week in advance. He is especially concerned that they not tease or embarrass the child, however subtly, humorously or unintentionally. He also wants parents to share words of praise with their child before coming on the bimah because he believes that it’s easy to compliment publicly, but the compliments that really matter are the private ones.

Most rabbis estimate that parents, primarily in non-Orthodox congregations, began giving speeches 10 to 20 years ago.

Many trace the custom to the traditional Baruch She-P’tarani blessing, dating back to the Middle Ages, that the father recited to mark his son’s bar mitzvah. This blessing — “Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this boy” — has been omitted, reframed or replaced by both parents reciting the Shehecheyanu in most Reform and Conservative services.

Some rabbis also believe speeches may be modeled on the blessings Jewish parents give their sons and daughters at the Shabbat table on Friday evenings.

Additionally, Jeffrey Salkin, senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta and author of “Putting God on the Guest List” (Jewish Lights, 2005) sees parent speeches as part of a trend in customs that used to occur at the celebration, such as a parent’s toast, being moved into the service.

“I’m tempted to say that it’s because people want to own the experience, to have more of a personal investment,” he said. For him, the practice isn’t problematic as long as parents don’t use the opportunity to competitively troop out their child’s talents.

In Orthodox shuls, parent speeches are generally not an issue as the predominant model, according to Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, since only the bar or bat mitzvah and the rabbi speak at the service. And at Muskin’s synagogue, that occurs after the service.

But it’s quite accepted that parents speak during the celebration, and, even there, Muskin believes it’s important that they incorporate some religious content, such as a d’var Torah or a spiritual charge to their child.

Sally Olins, rabbi of Temple B’nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, asks parents to speak on two occasions — on Friday night when they read the dedication that they have written in the siddur they give to their child and on Saturday mornings when they present the tallit.

Olins offers guidelines both individually and in classes she holds for pre-bar and bat mitzvah parents. She asks them to keep their words short and to focus on the child, not the congregation. For her, the worst — long-winded but not inappropriate — was a parent who began her remarks with a description of the child’s nine months in utero.

“I try to say, could you start a little later in life?” she said.

The process seemed overwhelming at first for Susan and Jeffrey Osser, whose daughter, Melissa, became a bat mitzvah at B’nai Hayim on Dec. 10. But it turned out to be very simple because they both, unintentionally and separately, wrote the siddur dedication and the tallit presentation and then melded them together.

“We both sat down at a time that was perfect for us individually when the creative juices were flowing and wrote from our hearts,” Susan Osser said. “It was so unplanned that it was authentic.”

In general, most rabbis believe that parents are becoming more aware of the significance and sanctity of bar and bat mitzvah. And while their words may not always be exactly in the language in blessing, parents are speaking less and less in the language of competition and aggrandizement and more and more in the language of love and support.

Said Salkin, “Every time I think of getting rid of this custom, I think of all the nice stuff I hear. I realize I would be punishing some very fine speeches if we decided not to allow this.”


The Blessing of Bibhilu


A book’s opening chapter is crucial to setting the mood and aura for the remainder of the book’s journey. Likewise, the opening scene of a film usually helps set the tone for what will ensue.

The Passover seder is both a reader’s experience and a moviegoer’s. We sit around the table and read the haggadah, and we also witness a host of rituals. But how does the seder leader creatively capture an audience and draw it into the experience from the beginning?

My father is neither novelist nor screenwriter, but from childhood he exposed me to a Moroccan seder ritual that immediately drew all those around the table into the full experience of a seder. This ritual is affectionately known amongst Moroccans as Bibhilu.

Following the kiddush, the karpas, and the yahatz (division of the matzah), the leader takes the brass seder plate, adorned with all of the ritual items, and he begins to walk around the table, waving the seder plate over each person’s head. As the plate is being waved, the entire gathering at the seder chants in unison: “Bibhilu yatsanu mimitsrayim” (“In a hurry we left Egypt”). When my father did this, each of us wondered whether he would simply wave the plate above our heads or knock us over the head with it. This ritual created lots of positive energy — between the anticipation of your turn under the plate and the chanting in unison of Bibhilu.

Yes, it’s a lot of fun. But is there a deeper spiritual meaning, or is this ritual simply some gimmick meant to create excitement among those who might be otherwise bored?

Throughout my life, I have always celebrated the seder in Moroccan fashion, Bibhilu and all. But only a few years ago did I first see a Moroccan haggadah.

At the beginning, there was, as in all haggadot, a drawing of the seder plate, illustrating the placement of each ritual item, which generally followed the Sephardic tradition. I had always known that Sephardic Jews arrange the seder plate differently than Ashkenazim, but again, I never knew why.

The Sephardic pattern, I knew, derives from tradition attributed to the great kabbalist from Safed known as the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria). In this haggadah, the drawing not only reflected the Ari’s Sephardic arrangement, but it added something that I had never seen, something which suddenly tied together for me the logic behind the Sephardic arrangement, and the reason behind the Moroccan Bibhilu ritual. Next to each ritual item on the plate was written one of the 10 kabbalistic sefirot, the mystical dimensions describing the sacred attributes of God. The three matzahs correspond to keter (crown), chochmah (wisdom) and binah (understanding); the shank bone corresponds to hesed (kindness); the egg corresponds to gevurah (strength); the bitter herbs correspond to tiferet (beauty); the charoset corresponds to netzach (victory), the karpas corresponds to hod (splendor), the hazeret corresponds to yesod (foundation); and the seder plate itself represents malchut (kingship).

It suddenly dawned upon me that, with this mystical arrangement, the seder plate is no longer just a platter carrying a selection of ritual items. The Ari’s Sephardic arrangement transformed the seder plate into a sacred representation of God, which means that when the seder plate is waved above your head during Bibhilu, you are being blessed by the spiritual strength of the Shekhina. The body of God, as represented by the sefirot, is now being waved above your head, and for the rest of the evening, the presence of the seder plate on the table represents the presence of the Shekhina in your midst.

From then on the Bibhilu ritual suddenly meant a lot more to me, because I now understood that, in addition to drawing in the audience, the Bibhilu ritual also represented a spiritual blessing for each participant as he or she prepares to set off on the haggadah’s storytelling journey from slavery to freedom.

As an American Jew raised in a Moroccan Jewish home, the Bibhilu ritual will always be part of my life. Having experienced it from childhood, and now coming full circle to understand its meaning, I will always look at the seder plate as a source of blessing and sanctity throughout the evening. Whether you are Moroccan or not, this ritual can become a powerful way to help infuse your seder with a newfound spiritual depth.

As it turns out, my father is now in a wheelchair, so he has transferred this privilege and responsibility to me. And yes, after all of those years under the seder plate, it’s lots of fun banging my father over the head while we all chant Bibhilu.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.


Letters to the Editor


Darfur Crisis

Thank you for your coverage of the peace deal between the Sudanese government and the people of southern Sudan (“The Graves of Sudan,” Nov. 26). It is a relief to finally see a possible end to Africa’s longest-running civil war.

While the signing of this peace agreement is worthy of increased attention, the ongoing crisis in Darfur still casts a long shadow. This peace deal does not cover the ongoing conflict in Darfur, where the Sudanese government continues to wage a campaign of genocide against its own citizens.

Over the past two years in Darfur, 400,000 people have died, and 2 million more have been made homeless. The realities in Darfur will not be changed in any way by this signing ceremony, and until the ongoing genocide in Darfur is fully addressed by pressure from the U.S. government and a United Nations intervention force, peace will continue to elude the people of Sudan.

We cannot allow the slaughter to continue. The United States must support a meaningful United Nations intervention now.

Barbara Goodhill

Undue Influence

I agree with David Myers that it is debatable whether the Jews were the most important influence in the 20th century (“Undue Influence?” Dec. 31). However, I do believe that the 20th century could be called the Jewish century in a certain sense. The 20th century saw a historic transformation in the Jewish condition reminiscent of the Exodus.

Yuri Slezkine’s use of Tevye’s daughters to illustrate this is inspired. The shtetl Jews had their covenant, but otherwise they were oppressed on every side with severely limited prospects of alleviating their status.

Those who came to America used the opportunities here in an exemplary fashion. Those who went to Palestine found their land and their spirit so that if tsuris were not eliminated, there was no longer the crushing despair of victimhood.

Only two of the Mercurial transformations were destined to strike gold, however. The exchange of one covenant for another as the path to power and influence brought some advantage, but was eventually disastrous in Russia, as it was in Germany. Perhaps this should be a source of reflection for non-Jewish Jews.

Nick Louie
Long Beach

Parking Problem

Julie Gruenbaum Fax’s benevolent account of Glatt Mart presents one side of the story. While the mart may have thrived despite inadequate parking, the surrounding neighborhood was not so fortunate (“Overnight Fire Destroys Glatt Mart,” Dec. 31).

Eilat Market and Glatt Mart shared the same block but did less than nothing in a cooperative manner to mitigate the traffic and parking problems this engendered. As a resident of Shenandoah Street, I can attest to the endless frustration created by the customers of Glatt Mart blocking access to private driveways and flagrantly disregarding clearly marked red zones and loading zones on our street.

Lisa L. Rubin

A Blessing

Thank you for the “Power of a Blessing” in your Dec. 24 issue. I still have excerpts of Naomi Levy’s previous column of Dec. 20, 2002, on my refrigerator door. I shall treasure this second article even more, since it contains a variety of blessings. Each one is like poetry, coming directly from the heart.

How blessed we all would be if we were willing to bestow these on all whom we know and love, as well as on all of mankind.

Edith Ehrenreich

Devoted to ‘Children’

Kudos to Marc Ballon for his fine article, “Friendships Add Life to Scholarships Role” (Dec. 31).

As the former Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) scholarship administrator, I can personally attest to Bernie Axelrad’s devoted work on behalf of his “children.”

I recall how he, his voice filled with pride, recounted stories of veteran Casper Mills-JVS scholarship recipients who had met with great success in their respective fields, and how after all these years, continue to correspond with him. I also recall how Bernie would agonize over those who were not quite as organized as he would have liked them to be. I could almost feel him pacing the floor in frustration and fatherly concern, even though we were both seated in our respective rooms conversing by phone.

At times, our conversation would drift to our shared birthplace – New York City – and together we would reminisce about long-ago landscapes and the ethos of those times. But Bernie’s fond memories of the past did not prevent him from looking toward the future and believing that it held good things in store for his “children” – if they were willing to work hard for success.

Thank you for showcasing someone who by nature does not seek honor or gratitude for all that he does.

Our ethical teachings state: “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.” Bernie has not been one to merely be content with his lot, he has made it his life’s work to improve the lot of others.

Arlene Hisiger
Via e-mail

Lighten Up on Christmas

The founding fathers of this great country had the wisdom and compassion to break with the long-standing tradition of religious oppression in Europe and create a nation with true religious freedom (“Lighten Up on Christmas and Christians,” Dec. 24). The result is an unprecedented acceptance and flourishing of a Jewish community outside of Israel.

How do we thank our Christian friends for this incredible gift? We thank them by demanding that their most important holiday, Christmas, be removed from the public eye.

The Jewish people were chosen to bring godliness into the everyday world, not remove it. It is clear from the writings of the founding fathers that they sought a society with freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Jews should turn their energies and focus toward celebrating their own holidays and improving their own lives, and stop badgering our Christian neighbors.

Dr. Michael Feinman
Agoura Hills

Israel Omitted

The world has come together to provide aid to the countless victims of the tsunami disaster. Yet, the United Nations cannot resist using this critical humanitarian relief effort as an opportunity to once again damage the State of Israel.

The United Nations list of 34 countries, including Nepal and Estonia, contributing aid to the tsunami victims, printed in the Los Angeles Times and in newspapers throughout the world, has omitted Israel.

Upon news of the disaster, the Israeli government immediately pledged $100,000 to each country affected and has already sent a team of doctors and more than 100 tons of medical and humanitarian aid. We probably can’t expect integrity or decency from the scandal-plagued United Nations, but readers deserve the full story.

Sandy Hack

YULA Girls’ School

We, as members of the YULA Girls’ School Torah Studies faculty, feel truly blessed and privileged to be a part of the YULA family and appreciate all of the efforts of the board. We both respect and admire Chana Zauderer for her professionalism and her friendship.

However, we were left shocked and hurt by Julie Gruenbaum Fax’s “Girls School Debuts New Campus” (Nov. 26). There were a number of factual errors that we would like to correct. We have been using rabbinic texts to aid the teaching of Dinim for many years. Zauderer is not following any new trends. Modern Israeli history and leadership seminar have been in the curriculum for a number of years. YULA has always directed girls to seminaries in Israel in which each student could experience optimal growth. Finally, we have always been a community school with a faculty that related well to the Modern Orthodox community. To insinuate that Zauderer and the lay board have brought these “improvements” to the school is outright slander against our former administrators and teachers, as well as those faculty members who have been with YULA for many years.

Members of the YULA Girls’ Torah Studies faculty School Option

In her article, “Where Will a Teen’s Schooling Continue” (Dec. 24), Nancy Sokoler Steiner highlights one of the great struggles for Jewish parents today: How can I ensure that my teens receive a meaningful, practical and high-quality Jewish education?

Steiner correctly points out that one path to achieve this is at a Jewish day high school. There is a second wonderful option here in Los Angeles. Students may attend public or private secular schools and continue their Jewish education at Los Angeles Hebrew High School.

Our program offers fantastic courses in modern Hebrew, Torah and text study, ethics, history and Israel. Our students are eligible to receive high school foreign language credit, and we are blessed with a special community of teens which is second to none in the nation.

We are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges

and the Bureau of Jewish Education.

By partnering with our program, parents are able to continue formal Jewish and Hebrew schooling without the limitations or costs of a Jewish day high school program.

Bill Cohen
Howard Lesner
Los Angeles Hebrew High School
Van Nuys

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail:; or fax: (213) 368-1684


Lessons From Life’s Second Chance

“I heard the rabbi is dying of brain cancer.”

That was the word flying around the shul. I should have expected it. Rumors were rife, and they were uncomfortably close to the truth.

Last Oct. 23, I was speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, to inaugurate the new Hillel building on campus. At dinner, I sat beside my parents.

As I spoke, I felt a little strange, nervous and hot. I had trouble keeping to my train of thought. It occurred to me that I was coming down with a cold.

As I sat down after my speech, my father asked, “Is there anything wrong?”

“No,” I said, and that is the last thing I remember.

Almost immediately, I had a violent seizure. The seizure would not stop until in the ambulance, I was administered large doses of drugs intravenously.

I was lucky. Not only were there several doctors present, but as one of them told me later, had I been swimming, driving or in the bath, I would likely not have survived.

I do not remember anything of the seizure. Mercifully, I was unconscious.

From the moment I woke up in the University of Pennsylvania hospital and for the next few days, I was confused. I asked the same questions over and over. I saw people and a day later forgot that I had seen them. Yet the CT scan showed nothing.

Upon returning from Philadelphia, my wife took me for an MRI. Now with the more precise images, the radiologist told us there was “an area of concern.”

For 12 hours, we ran that bland-sounding, terrifying phrase through our minds over and over. The following day, we were told I was to have surgery to remove a lesion in my brain.

Two weeks separated the seizure and the surgery. My wife has since told me that during that time, I was not entirely myself. I did not make jokes; I was automated.

I remember thinking that as I read, I was somehow separated from the me that was reading. I felt like a character in an Oliver Sacks book, a dulled spectator of my own life.

We sat in the surgeon’s small examining room at UCLA and learned that lesions or tumors in the brain are rarely treatable by surgery alone. While he believed the operation looked pretty straightforward, he also considered at least a short course of radiation nearly inevitable.

As Eliana and I spoke to him, he said I would be in a special operating theater, where they could do a continuous MRI to track exactly where to excise the lesion. He did not anticipate any problems.

Then with a professional sigh, he added, “Of course, in brain surgery anything can happen.”

My family flew in from the East Coast. I appeared briefly in the synagogue, arriving toward the end of the service and standing hand in hand with Eliana. My appearance had not been announced, and the congregation rose to its feet and applauded. I held my voice in check with difficulty as I told them what was happening and asked for their patience and their prayers.

Samuel Johnson famously remarked that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it clarifies his mind wonderfully.”

At crucial moments, our bedrock priorities shine bright. I realized with some surprise that I was not so afraid for myself. I did not want to die, but I had been very lucky in life and the outcome was not in my hands.

I was afraid for my wife and especially for my 7-year-old daughter. How would she cope with what could happen to me? What would my death or disability do to her life?

The morning of surgery, as my bed was wheeled out of the prep room, I said the “Shema” with the acute knowledge that it could be last time. I felt with powerful intensity the ephemerality of everything, how life, friends, family, love, this entire world is a wisp grasped between our fingers and how a moment can take it away.

We walk on a tightrope, and there are some who look down and tremble and others, like myself, who live looking straight ahead. I do not know which is wiser, although I have always known that only the former are fully awake. Suddenly forced to look down, the current below, the ones that swallow our lives, seemed swift and strong. As I fell to sleep, I knew it was only a step away from darkness.

My first memory after the operation is of the surgeon standing over me, telling me it went well, but that there was still an 85 percent chance I would need radiation — perhaps one treatment, perhaps several. Then the nurse offered me morphine. I told him no drugs until I saw my wife, because I did not want to be cloudy when I first saw her.

When Eliana walked in and I said hello, she told me later, she could tell instantly I was once again myself.

The nurse asked how bad the pain was — 1-10. I said about five or six. Did I want one morphine capsule or two? I had never had morphine, and this was my chance.

“Two,” I said.

My wife told him that I was slight and he should give me one.

“No, two,” I insisted.

“Give him one,” she said.

I turned to the nurse and said, “I made a mistake. I should have taken the morphine before I saw her.” All three of us laughed. That was when she knew for sure I was back.

A week later, they called with the final pathology. It was totally benign. I would need no further treatment.

I was joyous, but cautious. It is the same feeling that my wife, a cancer survivor of six years, always told me about when people insisted she was now “fine.”

I felt fine then, she told me, and I had cancer. I felt fine, too, and then I collapsed. There is no more fine. There is fine for the moment, fine for this MRI, but once one has been seriously ill, fine is a concept that always carries a footnote.

I was mindful of many whom I knew, congregants and friends, whose diagnosis was not so blessed. It was hard to tell them I had been lucky; my good fortune was as inexplicable as their suffering.

The weeks of recovery were a bit arduous, but I was blessed. The staff, laypeople and clergy in the synagogue handled everything. The community was wonderful.

To have others pray for you is a sensation that brings inexpressible relief and joy. I felt anew that we are bearers of God’s standard in this world.

The Talmud says, “achevruta o mituta,” friendship or death. That was a lesson I always thought drenched in exaggeration, but it is so. Community is life, and as one Chasidic master put it, “God speaks the language of human beings.”

I felt God reach to me through the hands of the doctors and the wonderful nurses in my unit at UCLA, and then powerfully from family and friends.

Under strict orders to rest, I asked people not to call. The phone was silent, word reached us of prayers sent through the Internet, offered in homes and in shuls.

My family ate meals that were brought by the congregation. People sent books, videotapes, beautiful cards. I felt wrapped in a remarkable covering of community chesed (lovingkindness).

In response, I am taking the beautiful suggestion of one congregant to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll). I have commissioned a sofer (a scribe), and the congregation will be joining my family in creating a new Sefer Torah for our synagogue.

“Brain surgery” sounds horrifying. As I recovered, many people wondered if I emerged intact. I was at the hospital and then at home, so very few people actually saw me. They devised ways of asking my wife without asking her:

“Is he getting around? Is he talking much?” A lot of people asked “Is he reading (watching TV, listening to music, etc)?”

One friend asked my wife anxiously: “Is he reading normally?”

“No,” she answered. And then when the shock settled, she added, “He is reading in the same constant, ridiculously compulsive way he always did.”

In the 1950s, when Whittaker Chambers wrote his autobiography, “Witness,” about breaking with the Communist Party, Andre Maulraux sent him a telegram: “You have not returned from hell with empty hands.”

For any powerful experience, the questions for one’s soul are what did it teach you; have you returned with empty hands?

For me, it is still too early to tell. I need time — time to see what, if anything, I have really learned.

But apart from a keener sense of the passing away of all things, I have a few observations. Judaism takes darkness seriously. Everything begins with the dark: “There was evening and there was morning” — light emerges from darkness.

Rebbe Aharon of Apt said that darkness was the chair on which light sits. That appreciation of darkness is a powerful theme in our tradition. We see it in the world.

The French poet Valery said that God created the world from nothing, but sometimes the nothing shows through. He might as aptly have said that God created the world from darkness, but often the darkness shows through.

Anyone who faces serious illness comes to believe in darkness. I believe not only in its existence — I always have — but its power. Darkness has a power to show things that light obscures.

Rabbi Hanina comments in the Talmud that the eye has a dark part and a light part, but one can only see through the dark part.

Through the darkness I came to see the contours of my life in a different way. The shadows became less frightening but also more central. When the psalmist declares that he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, that is the darkness we must walk through.

It is the sitra ahra, the second side, the shadow side, and without it there is no growth. We are afraid of the dark, and we shield ourselves from it, but it holds something essential for us. We are diminished without darkness.

As George Bernard Shaw wrote, the desert is a desert because the sun always shines there.

So I ask myself again and again, what grew in the shadows? It was not that I realized each moment of life is precious. I know that and cannot act that way.

I cannot cherish each moment of life and banish all annoyance, anger, pettiness and bitterness. At such moments, this experience helps me to keep perspective, but as I said half-jokingly to my congregation, when someone insists that each moment must be met with calm acceptance, puncture his tires. Will he call for the jack with a loving lilt in his voice?

We do not excise the range of human emotion because we have faced death. Still, for a moment, when the possibility whispered, it put an impress on my soul.

It taught me anew how powerful is human kindness. I realized, for those blessed enough to live through such an experience, that there are models: Almost every major character in the Bible builds his or her life on a second chance. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Leah, Moses, Ruth, and so many more stand in the circle of second chances.

We may not know what it means, but when God grants a second chance, we are not permitted to ignore the mystery. Perhaps the mystery itself is the meaning.

Almost two months after the surgery, we all flew to Philadelphia for my niece’s bat mitzvah. There over the Torah I benched “Gomel,” the prayer that thanks God for sparing one’s life. Completely unexpectedly, tears welled up in eyes.

I thought of God’s words through the prophet Isaiah (38:5): “I have heard your prayers, I have seen your tears.” Is there anything more to ask?

At times, I think the only message is to appreciate anew my favorite line in all of Jewish prayer. It is the final line of the service, from “Adon Olam,” and all too often ignored amidst folding tallises and people rushing to kiddush: “In Your hand I entrust my soul, both asleep and awake. And if my spirit should pass away, God is with me. I will not be afraid.”

David Wolpe is senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

A Jewish Diet

The Tu B’Shevat seder, with its many fruit and nuts, challenges us to reconsider our usual diets, and the recommended Jewish diet. While the FDA recommends a diet high in grains, rich in nutrients and low in saturated fats, Judaism recommends a diet high in holiness, rich in consciousness and connection, and low in selfishness. These four factors guide not only a Jewish diet, but also a Jewish life.

As Jews, we’re commanded to strive for holiness in every facet of our lives. One ritual and spiritual practice that helps us infuse holiness into our daily life, is offering blessings. Offering a bracha or a blessing with mindful consciousness — known in Hebrew as kavanah — helps us transform apparently mundane acts into moments rich with spiritual potential. Saying a blessing before and after each meal ensures that we stop to appreciate our food and its Ultimate Source. In our tradition, eating without blessings to thank God is like stealing from the Source of Life, while robbing ourselves of spiritual awareness. Judaism tells us a proper diet should include healthy portions of holiness — ideally beginning and ending each meal with blessings.

A second key ingredient in a Jewish diet is consciousness. Maintaining a traditional Jewish diet requires a high degree of consciousness in order to follow the ritual guidelines of kashrut commonly described as keeping kosher. The word kosher, which means ritually fit, can apply to a wide range of subjects from the food we eat to the wedding rings we may wear. In the dietary realm, the core ideas of kashrut are defined in the Bible. While the biblical Garden of Eden narrative clearly defines a vegetarian diet as ideal, our Noah narrative highlights the human lust for blood and meat. In Judaism meat eating can be seen as a concession to human blood lust, which was allowed, but highly regulated through ancient cultic ritual and the practice of kashrut.

As we know, the biblical traditions of kashrut include definitions, prohibitions and guidelines for treating animals. Kosher land animals have cloven hoofs and chew their cud (thus cows and most herbivores can be kosher, but pigs and all carnivores are treif, or un-kosher). Kosher fowl essentially include all birds except birds of prey. Kosher marine life must have fins and scales and may not be scavengers. According to kashrut, meat and dairy products may not be mixed, and traditional kosher homes have separate dishes, silverware, cookware and utensils for meat and dairy products.

While kashrut allows the slaughter and consumption of animals for food, it demands that the animals be treated with respect. Judaism requires the schochet (ritual slaughterer) to perform his duties consciously minimizing pain and maximizing reverence for life and the Life Source.

A third dish in the Jewish diet is connection. Our foods connect us symbolically to the teaching of our tradition, and sociologically to our heritage. This is best reflected in the Passover meal, or seder. Tradition teaches us that in this ritual meal, bitter horseradish represents the bitterness of slavery and saltwater reminds us of the tears of bondage, while fresh spring herbs symbolize the promise of hope. Through the Passover meal, food helps us symbolically reenact the journey from slavery to freedom. Similarly, the oily latkes and sufganiyot of Chanukah, remind us of the remarkable events surrounding the rededication of the oil lamps that burned in the ancient Temple.

A Jewish diet also connects people through a program of communal meals. One of the joys of the Sabbath is joining friends and family for a celebratory meal — by tradition this should be the best meal of the week. Every life-cycle event — bris, baby namings, b’nai mitvah, weddings and funerals — is accompanied by a communal meal. These meals and the food we often serve, connect us not only to our family, but to our particular familial heritage.

Our tradition demands that our diet be not only high in holiness and rich in consciousness and connection but also low in selfishness. We are commanded to share our bread with the hungry, even to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. At every Passover seder, we’re expected to call out to all who may pass, all who are hungry, let them come and eat. We strive to make providing food to the hungry a regular part of our Jewish practice, contributing to food pantries and volunteering at soup kitchens.

Mazon is a Hebrew word that means food. It is also an international Jewish organization that urges us to donate 3 percent of the cost of a celebration (such as a wedding or bar mitzvah party) to help feed the hungry the world over. Our blessing after meals includes the phrase "Chazan et hakol," praising God for providing food for all who live. We realize we must be partners with God to realize this promise.

As we know, there is enough food to sustain all who live on this planet if only we’ll be partners with God in the distribution of our resources — learning to share our abundant blessings with those in need. At times, in our world full of hunger, poverty and suffering, the blessings of holiness, compassion, connection and selflessness may seem distant ideals. The Source of Life and Sustenance, which we sometimes call God, may seem distant when we see the eyes of a hungry child.

Leo Baeck, a great rabbi who was sent to concentration camps by the Nazis, was once asked where God was during the Holocaust. His answer? Every time one prisoner helped another to drag a heavy wagon or shared one hard crust of bread with another starving inmate, God was there in the helping and sharing.

May we who are blessed with abundance, be blessed also with the strength, will and conviction to share what we have.

This is the foundation of a Jewish spiritual diet.

Sheryl Nosan-Blank is rabbi at Temple Beth Torah of the San Fernando Valley.

Dean’s Judaism Ties Span Decades

In the middle of a rowdy rendition of “I Have a Little
Dreidel” at the Sobelson family Chanukah party in Concord, N.H., Howard Dean
walked in and declared himself the cantor. 

The Democratic presidential candidate recited the blessings
over the candles in near-perfect Hebrew in a dining room crowded with campaign

“It’s another Jewish miracle,” Carol Sobelson exclaimed. 

After more songs and a reprise of the Chanukah blessings for
Israeli television, Dean passed out doughnuts and cake. It was just a regular
Chanukah for Dean, the former Vermont governor later said, “except there’s
usually only four of us, instead of 54 of us.” 

Dean’s most immediate connection to Judaism is his Jewish
wife and the couple’s two children, who identify themselves as Jews. But Dean
said he has been connected to the religion for decades. Dean never considered
converting to Judaism, but he said the family did ponder the prospect of
joining the Reform synagogue in Burlington, Vt., though they “never got around
to it.”  

The candidate’s ties span from a college friendship with a
Zionist activist and frequent political appearances at Vermont’s synagogues, to
lighting the menorah and participating in other Jewish rituals at home. 

“We light the menorah. We have about three of them; we sing
the prayers,” Dean revealed recently as he was being driven from the Chanukah
party back to his hotel. “We always like the first night the most, because we
like the third prayer.”

Dean asked the Sobelsons if he could chant the “Shehecheyanu,”
the blessing for a first-of-the-season event, even though it was the third
night of Chanukah. He got permission from Rachel Sobelson, 19, his New
Hampshire campaign office manager and daughter of the hosts, who said it was
OK, because “it’s the first night that Howard Dean is at the house.” 

Dean is spending a lot of time in New Hampshire, and it’s
paying off. He has a healthy lead in polls the state, and political pundits
have all but anointed him the favorite to win the Democratic primary campaign.

The candidate stopped by the Manchester, N.H., Jewish
Federation Dec. 21 to pass out Chanukah presents for children. He brought two
of his own childhood favorites — an air hockey game and the electronic board
game, Operation. 

Dean’s first spiritual home was the Episcopal Church, but he
became a Congregationalist after fighting with the Episcopal Church in Vermont
25 years ago over a bicycle path. Rivals say the switch signaled a cavalier
approach to worship, but Dean said his move was prompted by his former church’s

“We were trying to get the bike path built,” Dean told ABC’s
“This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “They had control of a mile and a half
of railroad bed, and they decided they would pursue a property-right suit to
refuse to allow the bike path to be developed.”

Born Nov. 17, 1948, in East Hampton, N.Y., Dean had a
prep-school education and grew up in New York City and at a country house on
Long Island. His first connection with the issues and concerns of the Jewish
community came when he enrolled at Yale in 1967 and became friends with David
Berg, a fellow student, who was a former president of Young Judaea.

“My memory is that Howard was unusually interested,
respectful and accepting of that whole part of who I was,” Berg, a psychologist
in New Haven, Conn., said from Burlington, where he was visiting his daughter,
a staffer in the campaign, and the Deans, with whom he spent Chanukah. 

In college, Dean was unafraid to discuss Middle Eastern
politics in the tumultuous period following the 1967 Six-Day War. 

“It was a prickly topic of conversation, and I confess to
being prickly in conversations in that regard,” Berg said. “Howard was not
afraid to have those conversations, not from a critical point of view, but from
a curious point of view.” 

Their friendship developed over the years, and Berg
counseled Dean on his interactions with the Jewish community — for instance,
when he attended the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and
married a Jewish woman. Dean chose Einstein, the medical school of Yeshiva
University, simply because it was the best school available to him, but the
selection clearly impacted his education on Jewish issues. 

“I used to commute with a woman who was Orthodox and kept
kosher, so I learned a lot about the dietary laws and more ritualistic parts of
Judaism,” Dean said. 

Berg said Dean felt very comfortable in the environment at

“I remember us sitting down and talking about kashrut at the
dining hall at Einstein,” he said. “He wasn’t afraid of making a mistake; he
wasn’t treating it like going to a foreign country.” 

These days, Dean slips into Jewish terminology like a set of
comfortable old clothes. Before a November debate in a Des Moines, Iowa,
synagogue, he circulated among congregants and chatted amiably about how hard
it was for Burlington’s Orthodox shul to get a minyan together until Chabad
Lubavitch came to town.

When Dean began to date his future wife, Judith Steinberg, a
fellow student at Einstein, Berg broached the issue of intermarriage. 

“I had slightly mixed feelings about it from the Jewish
side,” Berg said. “There was some of my mother in me saying, ‘This is a Jewish
person marrying a non-Jewish person.'” But, he said, “I got over that quickly.”

Dean’s family had little problem with the fact that he was
marrying a Jewish woman, the candidate said. 

“I think the reason it wasn’t an issue in my family was
because my father was a Protestant and my mother was a Catholic, and when they
got married, that was a very big deal,” Dean said. “My father, I think, was
determined not to put me through the experiences he went through when he
married outside his faith.” 

Dean’s mother bonded with his future wife over a shared love
of The New York Times Book Review, which no one else in the Dean family read.
However, while the Deans welcomed Steinberg, “there were a few
insensitivities,” the candidate said. The first time Dean brought his future
bride home for Christmas in East Hampton, Dean’s uncle served ham. Steinberg
doesn’t keep kosher, but Dean still found it inappropriate. 

And there was some frustration in the Steinberg household
that Judith was marrying a Christian.

“It was a little bit of an issue for Judy’s grandmother,
because she was of the old school,” Dean said. “But she loved me, and I loved

Steinberg’s grandmother would tell Dean stories about
escaping pogroms in Poland and coming to the United States by herself at age

“We were very close, even though she would have been happier
if I were Jewish,” Dean said. 

Steinberg’s parents were less concerned.  Steinberg, who
Dean said is “not political at all,” has given few interviews and does not
campaign with her husband. The campaign did not make her available for comment,
but her spokeswoman, Susan Allen, has said that Steinberg views time spent with
reporters as time taken away from her patients. 

The Deans soon settled in Vermont, where they began a medical
practice and a family. The couple has two children: Annie, who is studying at
Yale, and Paul, who is a senior in high school. 

“From early on, he was committed to them both to giving them
some Jewish education,” Berg said, noting that Dean would take the children to
synagogue. Neither child had a bar or bat mitzvah or much formal Jewish
education. Dean has said he allowed both children to choose their religion, and
both now identify as Jewish. 

The family celebrates Passover and the High Holidays at
home. Many in Vermont’s Jewish community tell of how Dean skipped an appearance
with Vice President Al Gore in the mid-1990s to travel to New York to be at a
Passover seder with his family. 

“It is a household in which their Jewish heritage was never
denied or soft-pedaled,” Berg said. But Berg also acknowledged that the Deans
don’t practice Judaism as he would define it. 

“Religion was never a central feature of their family life,”
he said. 

Rabbi David Glazier, who leads Burlington’s Reform synagogue,
Temple Sinai, said he is not really sure what the family’s religious practices
are. A Congregationalist in a family where everyone else sees themselves as
Jewish is hard to define, he said. 

“The paradox is between himself and what the Jewish
community is,” he said. 

Glazier first met Dean briefly when the rabbi was asked to
give an invocation in the state Senate, and Dean, then the lieutenant governor,
was presiding.  Dean was thrust into the governor’s office in 1991 with the
sudden death of Gov. Richard Snelling. Glazier’s synagogue invited Dean to
speak one Friday night to express its appreciation for the smooth transition. 

By that time, Dean had become a full-time politician, forced
to give up completely the family medical practice that he had scaled down after
being elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1982 and after
becoming lieutenant governor in 1986. 

When he attended political events at the synagogue, Dean
would remark that he felt very comfortable, Glazier said, and once said he
would like to join the temple. Dean said he left the decision about joining the
temple to his wife, and that the family did not get around to affiliating. Berg
suggested that as a mixed-faith family, the Deans were not made to feel
particularly welcome at the synagogue. 

Glazier said that about half the members of his congregation
were not born Jewish, and that his synagogue does extensive outreach to
interfaith couples.

“How much more welcoming can we be?” he asked, concerned
that Dean’s campaign was bad-mouthing his congregation to justify the
candidate’s lack of public displays of faith. Glazier said he tried not to ask
Dean about his family’s religious practices or encourage them to join the
synagogue.  Glazier said Steinberg occasionally comes to the synagogue to pick
up “ritual things she needs.”

Glazier also has tried to get Dean to participate more in
the Jewish world, offering him a Hebrew Bible to use at his gubernatorial
swearing-in. But Glazier, one of three religious leaders who gave prayers at
Dean’s gubernatorial inaugurations, said he hadn’t seen Dean use it. 

“I think he wants to do right,” Glazier said of Dean. “I
think he wants to find a spiritual home but not disturb the context of his

Dean said he doesn’t see much difference between his
family’s beliefs and his own. 

“I have a pretty ecumenical approach to religion,” Dean
said. “There is a Judeo-Christian tradition and there are different doctrinal
aspects and different beliefs, but the fundamental moral principles are very
similar between Judaism and Christianity.” 

He does, however, wish his children knew more about
Christianity, having experienced it little beyond Christmases at the home of
Dean’s parents in New York. Dean, himself, said he does not attend church often
but prays every day.  

The Mysticism of Fire

Smoke intoxicated the air and dark clouds cast an eerie glow over the Southern California sky as fire engulfed our Simi Valley neighborhood.

At last, when the freeways opened and we finally felt comfortable breathing outside air, we noticed the destruction left in the fire’s wake. It was like the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: blackened mountains, trees and shrubs reduced to rubble, melted guardrails, blackened signs; complete decimation of the life and vegetation that was once blooming in the area.

Even with the destruction, I couldn’t help but feel thankful to God that everyone’s life in the Simi Valley area was spared. And since most of the homes in our area were not damaged, people could resume their lives as before the fires.

But it is difficult to go back to life just as before. It is difficult to ignore the anguish and disappointment of the thousands who have lost all of their worldly possessions in the merciless fires. It is difficult to ignore the pain of the many lives lost to the devouring flames of this fiery beast that stretched across Southern California.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, taught that one can learn from all of life’s experiences in how to live a better life as a Jew. But what can we gain from the negative experiences in this horrific wildfire with all the damage that it caused? Surely, there must be a positive lesson here, something good to impact our lives.

Fire, in and of itself, can be a very useful tool. It may be used as a source of light, for warmth and for cooking. Yet, it can also be so destructive when it goes beyond its limit and is not rooted to anything concrete. On a mystical level, the soul is compared to fire — a powerful spiritual force with a constant yearning to reach greater heights.

When people were told to evacuate their homes, they had to pack up their most important possessions immediately. It was during those crucial moments that one came to realize their true priorities in life. Suddenly, all those worldly goods that one spent many devoted hours in acquiring lost their significance as the true value of life came into clear focus.

The story is told of a shtetl in Eastern Europe that was being ravaged by fire. As one family’s home burned to the ground, the mother cried uncontrollably. Upon investigation, it was discovered that this woman wasn’t concerned at all with the worldly possessions being destroyed. Her anguish was caused by the knowledge that the documents of her family’s esteemed lineage, which traced its roots to illustrious beginnings, was now gone forever. Hearing this, her young son comforted her by saying that he will devote his life to being the best he could be, thereby establishing the family roots once again with the illustrious and esteemed heritage it inherently had. Indeed, this young boy grew up to be one of the greatest rabbis of his time, documenting his family once again as being of honorable ancestry, just as he had promised.

After a fire’s destruction, one realizes that we are not defined by what we have, but by what we are.

There is a Yiddish saying that is rooted in holy sources, that "after a fire one becomes rich." According to mystical teachings, God rules the world with different attributes: kindness (chesed), strict judgment (din), etc. The kabbalah explains that after giving the world its share of strict judgment — such as a fire — God treats the world to the attribute of mercy; compassion (rachamim), which is boundless by nature; a limitless flow of kindness; and positive energy (nachala bli maitzarim).

Certainly, God — the source of all life — constantly gives life to every part of creation. Yet, as explained before, "after a fire one becomes rich." God grants us to live our lives on a much better level, through the Divine flow of compassion-boundless positive energy.

Today, after the wildfires have subsided, we, too, must gaze toward the heavens to the Giver of all life, and gratefully acknowledge His infinite goodness to us. May we all merit to receive His infinite blessings in a way we can truly appreciate, and may these blessings lead us to be better people and better Jews, who will do what it takes to make this world a much better place — the way it was always meant to be.

Bassie Gurary is associate director of Chabad of Simi Valley.

Communal Joy for Seven Days

May there soon be heard, Lord our G-d, in the cities of
Judea and in the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and the sound of
celebration, the voice of a bridegroom and the voice of a bride, the happy
shouting of bridegrooms from their weddings and of young men from their feasts
of song. — From the Sheva Brachot, the Jewish wedding blessings, “>   — notes that the first week of marriage is considered a “private Yom Tov” during which there is an obligation of simcha.

Couples who decide to observe the traditional week of
“Sheva Brachot” should expect to see plenty of family, friends, meals and public
celebrations. It also means postponing thoughts of escaping to a private
honeymoon on some isolated beach. And that’s a good thing, says author Michael
Medved in his article titled “Banish the Honeymoon,” “> . Wine is poured from two cups into a third and then back into the original cups. “The newlyweds sip from the wine and share the third cup with their guests. The “Sheva Brachot” ritual thus extends the sense of blessing expressed in the words just recited. Along with the wine, the couple’s joy reverberates through the community.”

Mark Mietkiewiczis is a
Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the
Jewish Internet. You can reach him via e-mail at

Blessings Over Curses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light and Thanks

I spent most of this past week at the United Jewish Communities (UJC) General Assembly (GA), the annual gathering which, this year, brought nearly 4,000 Jewish communal representatives (and journalists) from North America, Israel and elsewhere overseas.

The GA is part sales seminar, part pep rally, part continuing education, and major schmoozefest. This year, it was also something else: befuddling. Spend a half-hour in the hallways between sessions and you get a sense of the intensity and vigor of contemporary Jewish life. A charged-up communal leader from Knoxville, Tenn., told me the Jewish community there is strong and active. The rabbi from Austin, Texas boasted of a beautiful, multimillion dollar new Jewish Community Center campus. The lay leader from Tulsa, Okla., said Jews there were active and involved, and activists from Boston, Chicago and New York talked a mile a minute about new projects, new organizations, new ventures.

But then there are the actual, big lectures, the plenary sessions that are meant to rally and inspire the troops. They are lugubrious: anti-Semitism in Europe, on campus, in Canada. Terror here and abroad. Crisis in Israel, in Argentina, in the economy. Outside the meeting rooms, strength and vigor; inside, doom and gloom. Outside, Candide; inside, Cassandra.

As one speaker went on (and on) about the tragedies confronting the Jews, I ducked into the hallway, where I bumped into Mort Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America. "What is this guy talking about?" said Klein. "On and on and on, all these tales of woe." He wasn’t being callous — he’s as aware of the tragedies as we all are — he just wanted to hear a call to action. Ease up on the hysteria and give it a little inspiration — and a little reality check.

The very people listening to the tales of woe are the very same lay and staff leaders whose fundraising efforts place UJC as the highest-ranking Jewish philanthropic organization in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. They have access to the worlds of media, government and business unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people. They are, by almost any measure, stronger and more vibrant than at any other time in their history. As I write this it’s past midnight on the third day of the convention, the hotel lobby is still noisy with animated GA conversation, and a giant electronic scroll board over Center City reads, "WELCOME UNITED JEWISH COMMUNITIES!" Hardly the signposts of imminent doom.

Events are terrible, as the brutal Jerusalem bus bombing that Thursday morning showed. Israelis suffer daily under the fear and the reality of terror.

But even that reality doesn’t begin to describe the remarkable fact of Israel, its resilience and the daily achievements of its people. To cement Israelis in the American Jewish mind as nothing but victims-in-waiting is to demean the country and its people. To worry ourselves silly about media bias when the vast majority of news outlets editorialize in favor of Israel is almost indecently ignorant. To demand Jewry uncritically support Israel in these times, as some speakers did, negates Jewish and Zionist history. After all, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon couldn’t address the GA in person not because of pressing security concerns but because he is locked in a fierce election battle.

My sense is that most of the participants gathered information in the meeting rooms — and some of it was hopeful and upbeat — but a sense of perspective in the hallways.

The Thanksgiving/Chanukah doubleheader arrives then just in time. "Judaism is the religion of optimism," Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author and spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta, told our contributing writer Rahel Musleah. "It’s about increasing the light." He reminds us that we’ve fashioned a holiday in which each night, we bring more light into the world. "The light gets stronger and serves as a weapon against the darkness," he said.

It demeans no one’s suffering — and there has been too much this past year — to also count our blessings. Happy Thanksgiving, and Happy Chanukah.

Chanukah-Style Reality TV

If you were beginning to feel that too much time had passed since you last saw dancing bearded rabbis on television, then fear not, because West Coast Chabad, the organization that sponsors the “L’Chaim” telethon, is broadcasting a special Chanukah party on KCAL-TV Channel 9 each night of Chanukah.

“Chanukah, the Miniseries,” two-minute segments directed by Stephen Kessler, is aimed at inspiring viewers to participate in Chanukah by watching the menorah being lit.

The program has two parts. In the first part, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad, will say the blessings and light the menorah. Each night there will be a different celebrity with him, for example, Darryl Sabara of “Spy Kids,” who will also give a personal message about the Chanukah experience.

Then the Hollywood Klezmer Band will play, and a group of students, immigrants, community leaders, celebrities and, of course, bearded rabbis, will kick up their heels and dance the hora in celebration of the Festival of Lights.

“This is a project that takes the concept of pirsumei nissah, spreading the miracle of Chanukah to the next level,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, the group’s public relations director. “Years ago, people felt that Chanukah should be kept in the house, but thank God it has turned into this [public] beautiful thing.”

“This show is a good way to expose people to the menorah experience,” he said. “You have to imagine that if they had television 1,000 years ago, someone would have done it then.”

“Chanukah, the Miniseries” will be shown sometime between 4:15 p.m. and 4:25 p.m. nightly from Nov. 29-Dec. 6. The program will also be simulcast on

Sukkot and Our Duty to Alleviate Poverty

This Friday marks the end of the celebration of Sukkot. The word Sukkot, of course, means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that we spent the past week eating, singing and even sleeping in. We remember the wandering of the Jews in the desert and celebrate the fall harvest season. As we spent the past week in the sukkah — with its fragile walls and a ceiling made of leaves and branches — we reflected on the fragility of our lives and our possessions and, perhaps, we thought about those who are not as fortunate.

Although our harvest is bountiful indeed, not all Americans share in it: 5.4 million American families live in unsafe or unhealthy housing conditions. That number pales next to the 31 million Americans today who are hungry, or at immediate risk of hunger. Even those who receive government assistance remain in need: 58 percent of employed former welfare recipients have incomes below the poverty line.

Just as the rhythms of our Jewish calendar have us thinking about our many blessings and those who remain mired in poverty, the congressional calendar is now turning to consideration of the most important federal anti-poverty program. Last week, more than half of the members of the Senate signed a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to bring welfare reform reauthorization to the floor of the Senate chamber for a vote before the end of the 107th Congress. The bill, titled, the “Work, Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids Act of 2002” (WORK), has bipartisan support. The Senate bill is a strong improvement over the current welfare system and a strong improvement over the welfare reform bill passed by the House of Representatives in May. The House bill would increase the number of hours per week of work required of welfare recipients, while limiting the availability of education and training and other services required to make employment viable and attainable. At the same time, the meager increase in funding for childcare falls way below the $4.5 billion that is needed just to maintain current childcare services, which are provided to only one-seventh of families who are in need.

The WORK bill would maintain the current work week for welfare recipients, increase childcare funding by $5.5 billion, give states the option to restore welfare benefits to legal immigrants, encourage more education and training and make it easier for individuals to receive substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling. While significantly better than the House bill, this bill would leave many millions without child care. Currently, only about 2 million of the 15 million eligible for child-care services actually receive help. The Senate bill would provide child-care assistance for only an estimated 100,000 more low-income children than the current program. No parent should be forced to choose between losing benefits because they are not working and leaving their children alone because the parent has to work.

The Torah and the Jewish tradition teach us that providing for the poor is not a matter of charity but an obligation. “If … there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand…. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).

As Jews and Americans, we should require nothing less from our government today. In a land where one in three children will be poor at some point during their childhood, we can and must do better.

As Sukkot comes to an end, so too does the 107th Congress. The circumstances could not be more urgent. It is crucial that comprehensive welfare legislation pass this year, since budget constraints will make it even more difficult to pass legislation that would positively affect families next year. With the lessons and experience of Sukkot fresh in our minds, let us remember those who do not share in our prosperity. Let us help spread a sukat shalom, a shelter of peace and healing, over those who most need our help. And let us join with them to encourage the Senate to pass just and humane welfare reform during this session.

Rabbi David Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rachel Wainer is the legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism focusing on economic justice issues.

A Portion of Parshat Vayechi

Joseph has two children: Menasheh, the older, and Ephraim, the younger. Jacob blesses them both before he dies. He tells Joseph that, although the descendants of Menasheh will become a great people, the descendants of Ephraim will be even greater. In fact, King David was from the tribe of Ephraim.

Jacob says to Joseph: Israel will use your sons’ names to bless their own children. They will say: “God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” Do your parents place their hands on your head and bless you on Friday night? If they do, that is what they say. (If you are a girl, they say: “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.)

Why did Jacob instruct our parents to use Menasheh’s and Ephraim’s names? The answer is simple: Menasheh and Ephraim did not fight. Cain killed his younger brother Abel; Esau wanted to kill Jacob; Joseph’s 11 brothers wanted to kill him. But, even though Ephraim got the blessing Menasheh should have received, they remained peaceful and loving brothers. And that is what all parents wish for their children.

Counting Our Blessings

Jewish legal tradition teaches that we should recite 100 blessings every day. This presents an opportunity and a challenge. How might I fill up my quota today? The numbers start adding up if I pray in the morning, afternoon and evening. I can recite benedictions before eating anything, and then again, after finishing food. Then, depending on the day (Shabbat, for example) or the season (let’s say Chanukah, or Passover) I might wedge in a few extra blessings. But even with this lineup, it’s still tough to reach my 100. How can I get there?

And even more central is the question of motivation. Why should we recite so many blessings? And we have to ask an even more basic question: What is a blessing, really?

The traditional Jewish blessing starts with "Baruch Ata" ("Blessed are You"). In every single blessing we utter, we are talking to a "You." It’s a way of entering into a conversation. The topics vary: Sometimes it’s gratitude ("blessed are You, God … bringer of food from the earth"); other times acknowledgement ("blessed are You, God … creator of light and creator of darkness"); and in still other instances, a request ("blessed are You, God … healer of all flesh and maker of wonders.") Regardless of the topic though, a bracha is a way of making a connection with God.

In this week’s Torah portion, "Ki Tavo," the Israelite people are also presented with the challenge of blessings. As they stand upon the slopes of two opposing mountainsides, the people listen to Moses. He invites them, before they enter into the Land of Israel, to contemplate the ways they might bring about blessings — and avoid curses. At this moment, the people stand literally at a crossroads — between past and future, wandering and settlement, blessing and curse.

And so do we. We are now in the month of Elul. This month preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrives with an assignment: self-evaluation. Jewish tradition instructs us, throughout Elul, to take a cheshbon ha’nefesh — an accounting of the soul. To figure out who we are. What we’ve been. How we measure up to our hopes, our intentions, our facades.

The goal of Elul is twofold. Certainly, we should take a walk on the dark side. Acknowledge the sins; the wasted hours; the destructive behaviors; look honestly at what we really are and face up to our disappointments and failures with truth.

But there’s another goal of the soul-accounting: We’re also meant to embrace the light. Just as introspection opens our eyes to our daily problems, it must also reveal our blessings — the ones we enjoy every single day. Elul should be a time of — literally — counting our blessings.

The Hebrew word "Elul" is sometimes read instead as an acronym for a phrase from Song of Songs: "Ani l’dodi v’dodi li" — I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine." Elul’s subtext is about reciprocal love. It’s about figuring out whom we love so much that we can enter that discussion 100 times a day; and equally, who loves us enough to send the hundreds — and thousands — of blessings that enrich all of our days.