November 21, 2019

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Noach with Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein

Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein

Our guest this week is Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, Co-Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut. Rabbi Lichtenstein, son of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, made Aliyah with his family in 1971 from New York. From 1979-1985, he studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion while serving in the IDF Armoured Corps. He received Semicha from the Israeli Rabbinate and a degree in English Literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Rabbi Lichtenstein has been a Ram in Yeshivat Har Etzion since 1992. While on sabbatical in Cleveland during the 97 and 98 academic years, he served as Rosh Kollel of the Torat Tzion Kollel. He also taught at Bruria, an Advanced Program for Women in Jerusalem from 1992-1997. Rabbi Lichtenstein is the author of Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People and Netivei Nevua, an analysis of the haftarot.

This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32) – features the famous story of Noah’s ark and of the great flood, as well as the story of the Tower of Babel. Our talk focuses on Noah as the resolution of the basic problem of human existence in Nature, a theme that runs like a thread through Parshat Bereshit.


Our past discussions of Parashat Noach:

Rabbi Sarah Hronsky on the powerful notion of one language for all humanity

Rabbi Lucy Diner on Noah’s curious proclivity toward alcohol

Rabbi Mishael Zion on Noah as a precursor to Abraham




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

Rabbi Arie Folger

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

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


Our past Yom Kippur talks:

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

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

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

Chatima Tova!

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Rosh Hashanah with Rabbi Steven Wernick

Rabbi Steven Wernick

Our guest for Rosh Hashanah is Rabbi Steven Wernick, Chief Executive Officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). Rabbi Wernick was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. After ordination, he served as the Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and more recently as the senior rabbi at Adath Israel in suburban Philadelphia. He also served as the president of Mid Atlantic Regional Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Wernick has been named one of Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America and The Forward’s List of 50 Influential Jewish Leaders.

Our talk focuses on the powerful Unetanneh Tokef prayer and on the disturbing idea of our fates being out of our control.


Our past Rosh Hashanah talks:

Rabbi Michael Schudrich on the element of renewal and self-improvement in the holiday and in the story of the Jewish tradition

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein about the special role of humility in the core of the Amidah section of the Rosh Hashanah service

Shanah Tovah!

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech with Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky

Our guest this week is Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, leader of the Anshe Chessed congregation in Manhattan. Rabbi Kalmanofsky was ordained in 1997 by The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and joined Anshe Chessed in 2001. He regularly publishes essays on Jewish thought and practice, and he serves on the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) – begins with Moses gathering the people of Israel to enter them into a covenant with God. Moses then warns of the great desolation that will befall them if they stray from the covenant, but he assures them that if they repent God will bring them back together again from the ends of the world. Our discussion focuses on the idea of acknowledging our human imperfection and choosing life.


Our past discussions of Nitzavim Vayelech:

Rabbi Morley Feinstein on the difficulty of doing mitzvoth, repenting and making Jewish choices

Rabbi Marc Margolius on the evolution of Moses as a leader

Rabbi Richard Block on the nature and scope of Israel’s special covenant with God


Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Ki Tavo with Rabbi Michael Ragozin

Rabbi Michael Ragozin

Our guest this week is Rabbi Michael Ragozin, leader of the Shirat Hayam congregation in Swampscott, MA. Before coming to Shirat Hayam, Rabbi Ragozin led Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg, Virginia for six years. Outside of the congregation in VA, he was an active participant in Loudoun Interfaith BRIDGES, a board member of Hillel at George Mason University, and an On-Call Chaplain for Loudoun Hospital. Prior to becoming a rabbi, Rabbi Ragozin was a Teach for America corps member (teaching algebra in Baltimore, Maryland), worked as a technology consultant in Seattle, Washington, and was the Development Manager at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival.

This week’s Torah portion — Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) — begins with Moses instructing the people of Israel to bring the first fruit they reap in the holy land to the Holy Temple in gratitude to God. The portion continues to state the laws concerning tithes given to the Levites and to the poor. Moses then gives the children of Israel instructions on the blessings and curses they must say at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal (the “Mount of the Blessing” and the “Mount of the Curse”). At the end of the portion, Moses gives lists of good and bad things that will happen to the people of Israel if they follow or stray from the Torah. Our discussion focuses on meaning behind the ritual offerings given by the people of Israel to the community and on what we could learn from this today.


Our past discussions of Ki Tavo:

Rabbi Paul Lewin on the confession of the farmer when he presents the first fruit to the Holy Temple and on the message of historic memory.

Rabbi Serge Lippe on the immigrant experience and professing gratitude

Rabbi Hayim Herring on the order of the curses mentioned in the parasha


Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Ki Tetze

Photo by REUTERS/David W Cerny

While we don’t have a new Torah Talk for you today, we have collected all our past talks on Parashat Ki Tetze.

This Week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) – features a vast number of laws and commandments, including inheritance laws;  judicial procedures and penalties for adultery, rape and husbands who falsely accuse their wives of infidelity; laws concerning credit and debt; rules on the treatment of escaped slaves; and divorce laws. Overall, this week’s portion contains 74 of the Torah’s 613 commandments.

Here is Rabbi Michael Werbow on the command to remember Amalek and on the role of remembrance in the Torah in general:


Here is Rabbi Dovid Gutnick on the command to destroy Amalek and on the idea of vengeance as part of Jewish tradition:


Here is Rabbi Jennifer Krause on treating the mitzvot mentioned in the Parasha as a way of helping us uphold the dignity of all people:


And here is Rabbi Aaron Alexander on the eternal ban of the Ammonites and Moabites from the assembly of the Lord:

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Devarim with Rabbi Aaron Starr

Rabbi Aaron Starr

Our guest this week is Rabbi Aaron Starr, leader of the Shaarey Zedek community in Southfield, MI. Rabbi Starr is the author of the book Taste of Hebrew (URJ Press) and Tradition vs. Modernity: The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) and Conservative Halachah, published in the Journal of Conservative Judaism, as well as numerous other on-line publications. He sits on the Board of Directors for Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the Jewish Community Relations Council. He is also a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, and is a past-president of the Metropolitan Detroit Board of Jewish Educators. Certified in Clinical and Pastoral Education (CPE), Rabbi Starr also has received numerous awards for youth work and for adult education.

This week’s portion – Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) – is the first portion from the book of Deuteronomy. In this parasha, Moses begins his review of the story of the people of Israel in the 40 years following their exodus from Egypt. In his narrative, he recalls events such as his appointment of Judges and magistrates; the wandering through the desert; the sending of the spies; the people’s spurning of the Promised Land; the wars fought against the Emorite kings; and his own words of encouragement to his successor Joshua. Our discussion focuses on the role of water and words in the parasha, on their power to build and their power to destroy.

Small beginnings, big futures: The first ordination of the Zacharias Frankel College, Berlin, Germany

The Torah portion that we read last week portrays the Children of Israel standing on the border of our Promised Land and wondering whether they could dare take the risk of entering. In a combination of courage and timidity, they assemble a group of spies to enter the Land of Canaan to see what kind of a place it might be. Who dwells there? What are the produce of the land? What are the rivers, and the walls, and the towns, and the mountains? What place has God and Moses taken them to?

They scour the land and then carry back fruit that they find in this unknown place, fruit so heavy laden that they carry them on poles on their backs and when they return to the waiting tribes, in a moment of absolute terror, they blurt out “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and we must have looked that small even to them (Numbers 13:33).”

It is the very nature of beginnings to first appear small; we never know how our tentative launching will play out. So every new beginning represents an act of faith: faith in a future that is, at the moment, merely possible. Whether it will ever grow into actuality, one cannot know in advance. We simply launch and trust.

So, I want us to think about the ways in which something can appear very small from one perspective, yet entirely grand from a second perspective. What is at stake at this moment, from one perspective, is very little indeed. Will one woman become a rabbi or not? In a school that has enrolled only a handful of students and a small number of professors, that action remains relatively trivial. But from another perspective, what is at stake is nothing less than the redemption of Western civilization. Because it is the nature of history that all events have a prior cause. One action (or several coming together) causes a subsequent event, that subsequent event becomes a cause in turn for what transpires next. But the meaning of the series of events always emerges backwards. The meaning of the event is determined by what people do with it later.

Germany is not the only corner of the world that has had a bloody past. The entire planet is drenched in human blood and suffering. We, as a species, oppress each other, harm each other, and brutalize each other repeatedly. But what we are doing here today holds the promise of redeeming that past by giving it a particular context, meaning and direction. Today’s ordination asserts that the suffering that has happened in this place was not purposeless. That suffering has led to this moment, to these possibilities.

Throughout time and across the globe, civilizations have defined themselves against some “other” that is deliberately slandered, trivialized, and misunderstood. The Greeks and the Romans defined themselves against so-called “Barbarians” and their constructed their self-identity in stark contrast to the label “Barbarian” which they reserved for everyone else.

In my country, the United States, the founders and even many people today, define themselves first against the African slaves, and later against some stock notion of African Americans. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of what it means to be a free and democratic “man” was dependent on keeping an entire population enslaved, and understanding white and Black not just as racial shorthand but as moral types. Black people were not marginal to the white American vision at the any point in American history. Similarly, male self-definition problematizes and marginalizes women. Heterosexual culture marginalizes and oppresses LGBT people. The list goes on and on; it is the way we make people “others” and “objects”, and marginal for the sake of our own sense of dignity. And surely one of the people who are measured as “other” throughout European history is the Jew. If you look at the writings of Europeans throughout the millennia, their sense of themselves as free, male, Christian, white, and civilized, was at the earliest levels defined by their not being the Jew. That identity as superior and distinct was affirmed in their launching crusades that slaughtered Jews, in Inquisitions, in Pogroms, and in Holocaust.

What we have here in Berlin at this auspicious moment is the birthing of a new Europe, a Europe in which others are celebrated as ourselves. In which “other” is an invitation to explore and to get to know, not only Jews, but all of us who have a stake in this new Europe, in this new world: a world in which all of us are brothers and sisters, not because we eliminate our differences, but because we accentuate and we delight in each other’s differences. That’s really what this first Masorti Ordination is about. In our own eyes, we may be merely grasshoppers, insignificant insects in the stream of a vast history that is thousands of years old. But every one of us is here today because our vision of tomorrow’s Europe, our vision of tomorrow’s Earth, is a place in which all of us are citizens together. All of us participants of a grand commonwealth of diversity, of multiple languages, of civilizations that are no longer separate, but which flow into each other and inform each other.

We can redefine the meaning of what took place here. We can make choices in such a way that today’s ordination of Rabbi Nitzan Stein Kokin, is one more affirmation that the Barbarians who attempted to define European greatness in terms of blood, force, and hatred, no longer drive this continent, no longer drive our vision of what is civilized, or righteous, or just. We do.

On a personal note, I lost family in this land, not very long ago in the scheme of human history. I wish that they were alive today to see us ordaining a new Rabbi because the German people joined with the Jewish people to make this celebration possible. It would have felt messianic; it would have been unbelievable to see a room with brothers and sisters who are Christian, Muslim, secular, and Jewish, all coming together in common cause. To stand with people from Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, and North America, all together to make this new reality. We are tomorrow, shining a beacon of hope and joy today.

So I say to you, “Am Yisrael Chai.” The Jewish people lives!

I say to you, freedom and dignity beckon us yet.

I say to you that in each newly ordained Rabbi, humanity begins anew.

Let us aspire to, and grasp a rebirth of humanity now.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Germany.

To thine own selfie be true: Parashat Matot-Masei

Documenting our lives has never been easier. So many of us post on Facebook and Instagram, write personal blogs, send tweets and make a point to let the world know exactly what we are doing … each minute of the day.

How different this is from the ways we used to write about ourselves. I remember keeping several diaries with locks to ensure that no other person was privy to my personal thoughts and feelings when I was growing up. Public exchanges about our lives were limited to family members and friends exchanging letters, offering annual updates about who passed away, who got married, who was starting graduate school, who had given birth. Receiving one of those handwritten cards with a photo or two was a highlight during the holiday season.

There are those who still maintain some of these old school efforts, but in a world where we can publicize every meal we make or step our children take, how do we differentiate between the mundane and holy moments in our lives? What is really worthy of a status update? And do our tweets and Instagram photos reflect the true journey of our lives?

In this week’s Torah reading, Matot-Masei, God presents a unique blog. At first, we may read the verses of Torah as merely the list of rest stops that B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel, visit through their wandering. However, the rabbis give us a deeper understanding of their points of destination. The midrash says, “Write down all of the places through which Israel journeyed, that they might recall the miracles I wrought for them.” The Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary reminds us that the list of places includes crossing the Sea of Reeds; finding the first manna in the wilderness; the place where Moses strikes the rock; and the time when the people demanded meat from God.

Each place represents a major turning point for B’nai Yisrael. The list includes emotional crossroads, fights and tension between the people and God. The list also presents pictures of love, compassion, miracle and blessing. The highs and lows of life. All for the world to see; all for the world to learn from.

It is a list that helps humanity re-examine the ways we choose to document life’s moments.

Recently, I asked a colleague how he was doing, and he responded, “Getting by.” But he followed with, “Nicole, I don’t have to ask you how you are. I can just look at your pictures and read your posts on Facebook.”

Slightly embarrassed, I realized how right — and how wrong — he was. Yes, I post about life’s lessons and how they relate to our Jewish tradition. I enjoy sharing anecdotes about my family and pictures of my grinning children. But do my posts really reflect the complete journey of my life? Do they really reflect how I am feeling and experiencing the everyday? Do I include the moments when I feel ashamed by actions; the occasions when I am not proud of my words or deeds; the many, many times when dinnertime dissolves into screaming and children running around the kitchen table.

Confession time: Nope, I usually do not post about all that. My colleague opened my eyes to the ways I let the world into the public documentation of my life. Similar to the lists in the Torah, my posts are deliberate and selective. Dissimilar, my posts most frequently leave out the harder, sometimes most significant points in my life. The hurt, sadness, frustration and anger that we experience as human beings often leads to the most meaningful lessons in life.

Maybe, bit by bit, this revelation will allow us to reveal a little more of our true selves: the selfie that includes some frowns, the picture of the meal that nobody ate, or the major meltdowns of our little ones. Perhaps even our own major meltdown. Or maybe it will convince us to bring back the diary and remind ourselves that even if the world doesn’t know every aspect of our lives, the private pages of a journal are there to remind us how to be humble, how to be human.

In the morning service we recite, “Praised are You, Adonai, Our God, Ruler of the Universe, who establishes the footsteps of man.” We thank God, every day, for giving us the ability to journey this beautiful world. With its ups and downs and surprising twists, it would be a shame to not write down some of the most memorable moments and transformative lessons. It is a gift to recall the majesty of our lives — and an ongoing challenge in deciding how we share these personal adventures with others.

Rabbi Yochanan in Masechet Sukkah reminds us, “The feet of a person are responsible for him; to the place where he is in demand, there they lead him.” Just like B’nai Yisrael, may our feet lead us to places of miracle and meaning.

Will your steps be Facebook worthy? That part I leave up to you. 

Rabbi Nicole Guzik is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Pinchas with Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Alexander Davis is the senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN, where he previously served as the associate rabbi. Rabbi Davis received his B.A. in German Studies from Grinnell College and in 1999 graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary with rabbinic ordination and an M.A. in Jewish Education. Since moving to the Twin Cities, Rabbi Davis has served on a variety of local boards and has participated in national conferences on Judaism and spirituality and synagogue leadership.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) – begins with Pinchas being rewarded for his problematic act of killing the Israelite and his Midianite paramour in the previous portion. A census is then conducted and God tells Moses how to divide the land between the tribes and people of Israel. The five daughters of Tzelafchad ask Moses to grant them the land of their father, who died with no sons, and God accepts their claim and adds it to the Torah’s laws of inheritance. Moses names Joshua as his successor, and the Parasha ends with a detailed list of daily offerings and of offerings brought on different holidays. Our talk focuses on the leadership transition from Moses to Joshua.


Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Balak with Rabbi Brett Krichiver

Rabbi Brett Krichiver

Our guest this week is Rabbi Brett Krichiver, Senior Rabbi of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation in Indiana. Rabbi Krichiver, an alumnus of UCLA, is a Wexner Fellow and a Bronfman Alum. He is a founding clergy member of IndyCAN, a community organizing group partnering with religious institutions city-wide. He also serves as a Board Member at Second Helpings and Planned Parenthood. He participates in the Northside Clergy Group, creating interfaith programming throughout Indianapolis, and serves on the Advisory Committee for Goldman Union Camp Institute, his childhood camp. He is currently co-chair of the Indiana Board of Rabbis.

This Week’s Torah portion – Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) – features the famous story of the prophet Bilaam, who was sent by the Moabite king Balak to curse the people of Israel. On his way, Bilaam is berated by his Donkey who sees an angel of God blocking the road. Bilaam tries to curse the people of Israel three times (from three different vantage points) and each time ends up blessing them. He then continues to prophesize on the end of days and the coming of the Messiah. Our discussion tries to examine Bilaam’s odd story, its message, and its special status in Judaism.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Beha’alotcha with Rabbi Rick Winer

Rabbi Rick Winer

Our guest this week is Rabbi Rick Winer of Temple Beth Israel in Fresno, CA. Rabbi Winer was ordained from Hebrew Union College in 1995, and he has been serving congregations ever since. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and is married to Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, an expert consultant in Jewish youth engagement.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:15) – begins with the lighting of the menorah and then goes on to describe the cleansing of the Levites and the first celebration of Passover in the desert. The Torah subsequently describes a series of bitter complaints made by the people of Israel about life in the desert, and the portion concludes with Moses’ sister Miriam speaking slander about Moses to their brother Aaron and getting punished for it with a terrible skin disease. Our discussion focuses on the family of Moses and on Miriam’s curious punishment.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Nasso with Rabbi Thomas Gardner

Rabbi Thomas Gardner

Our guest this week is Rabbi Thomas Gardner, leader of the Riverdal Temple in NYC. Rabbi Gardner was ordained in 2008 by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. He’s the recipient of the Sarah and Samuel Chernick Memorial Prize in Halakhic Literature and the David G. Sacks Scholarship Prize. Rabbi Gardner also has a M.A.H.L. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, an M.A. from the University of Michigan and a B.A. from Oberlin College. Prior to the Riverdale Temple, Rabbi Gardner served as the senior rabbi at Beth Shalom Synagogue in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for 8 years.
This Week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Nasso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) – begins with the completion of the head count of the people of Israel. God then gives Moses instructions concerning the purification of the camp, ‘wayward wives’ (wives which are suspected of being unfaithful to her husband) Nezirim (Jewish ascetics who take a vow to devote themselves to God), and the priestly Blessings. Toward the end of the parasha the tabernacle is consecrated and the chieftains of the different tribes bring their offerings. Our discussion focuses on the perplexing Sotah (wayward wive) ritual in an attempt to examine how cultural context affects our reading of the Torah.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Bamidbar with Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Our guest this week is Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Senior Rabbi of the Kehillat Israel congregation in Pacific Palisades. An Atlanta native, Rabbi Bernstein has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Cultural Anthropology from Northwestern University, where she also earned a certificate in Women’s Studies. She is also an alumna of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Before coming to KI, Rabbi Bernstein was the rabbi of Temple Israel in Duluth, Minnesota for 14 years. She served two terms as president of the Arrowhead Interfaith Council and six years on the Board of Trustees of the College of St. Scholastica, where she was also on the founding board of the Oreck/Alpern Inter-religious Forum. She was a scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Chautauqua Society and lectured widely throughout the Northland. Outside of her rabbinical work, Rabbi Bernstein performs as a member of Three Altos, a vocal trio.

This Week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20) – is the first portion read from the book of Numbers. The Parasha tells us about an elaborate census of the tribes of Israel conducted by Moses in the desert and continues to discuss the priests’ ceremonial duties. Our discussion focuses on the meaning behind the counting of the people of Israel and on their long, gruelling transformation from slaves to a nation of priests.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Behar/Bechukotai with Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein

Our guest this week is Rabbi David Greenstein, leader of the Shomrei Emuna congregation in Montclair, NJ. Before coming to Shomrei Emunah in 2009, Rabbi Greenstein was president and rabbinic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinic seminary in Riverdale, N.Y. He was the spiritual leader of the New Hyde Park Jewish Community Center, on Long Island, from 1993 until its merger in August 2004 with Shelter Rock Jewish Center. At Shelter Rock, he founded and directed the Shiluv Project, an initiative devoted to developing programs and resources for integrated Jewish living. Together with his wife Zelda, Rabbi Greenstein helped start Project Ezra, a social-service program that serves poor Jewish elderly residents of the Lower East Side of New York. The two are also founding members of the Fort Greene Jewish Family Cooperative in Brooklyn, and of what is now the Hannah Senesh Community Day School, a non-denominational Jewish day school in downtown Brooklyn.

This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Behar/Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34) – features regulations concerning Sabbatical and Jubilee years, commerce, and the redemption of slaves. It also contains a description of the rewards for observing God’s commandments and the series of punishments that will face Israel if they choose to disregard them. The Torah then discusses different types of gifts given to the Temple, and the animal tithe. Our discussion focuses on the importance of and meaning behind the Shmita and the Yovel – the agricultural sabbatical and the Jubilee year.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Emor with Rabbi Kenneth Chasen

Our guest this week is Rabbi Ken Chasen, Senior Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles and an outspoken commentator and author on a wide variety of subjects pertaining to Jewish life, with a special emphasis on social justice in the U.S. and in Israel. His writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and international publications, including the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Reform Judaism and The Jewish Journal, among many others. Rabbi Chasen is also the co-author of two books which guide Jewish families in the creation of meaningful Jewish rituals in the home. In addition, he is a nationally recognized composer whose original liturgical and educational works are regularly heard in synagogues, religious schools, Jewish camps and sanctuaries across North America and in Israel.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23) – begins with a set of purity regulations for priests. It then continues to list the main high holidays and to tell the story of a blasphemer who is stoned to death by the community. Our discussion focuses on the festival calendar of the Jewish year and on the much misunderstood “an eye for an eye” teaching.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim with Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

Our guest this week is Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, leader of the B’nai David-Judea congregation in LA. Rabbi Kanefsky was ordained in 1989 at Yeshiva University, where he also received a master’s degree in Jewish History. He began his rabbinic career in 1990 as the associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York, where he worked under the tutelage of spiritual activist Rabbi Avi Weiss. He came to B’nai David-Judea Congregation in the summer of 1996. He is a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which he helped found. He is a teaching fellow for the Wexner Heritage Foundation.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27) – describes the Tabernacle ceremony of the Day of Atonement, establishes general rules for sacrifice and sanctuary, and lays down specific laws about sexual relationships. Our conversation focuses on the role of holiness, justice, and mutual trust in communal life.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Tazria-Metzora with Rabbi Jonathan Aaron

Rabbi Jonathan Aaron

Our guest this week is Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Rabbi Aaron received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater from Emerson College in 1983. He later attended Hebrew Union College, where he received a Master’s Degree in Jewish Education in 1993, and a Master’s Degree in Hebrew Letters in 1994, and was ordained as a Rabbi in 1996. Since ordination, Rabbi Aaron has served Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in several roles; first as an Assistant, then Associate Rabbi, and now as Co-Senior Rabbi. He has also been Director of Education, and served as the Head of Temple Emanuel Academy Day School for almost a decade. Rabbi Aaron serves as a sworn-in Police Chaplain in the Beverly Hills Police Department, and is on the Board of Directors at The Maple Counseling Center in Beverly Hills. He also has been a visiting professor at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, where he has taught speech to second-year rabbinical students for more than 10 years.

This week’s double parashah – Parashat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33) – features rules concerning the purity and impurity of women and the horrible disease of leprosy. Our discussion focuses on the priests’ curious attitude toward people inflicted with skin disease.

Accept the loving care of others

Reuters/David W Cerny


My mom died three years ago. To say her death has had a profound effect on my life would be an unspeakable understatement.

In a stunning moment four months ago, marking the passage of time and possibility, I gave birth to twin boys. Since their arrival, a curious thing has happened to me. I feel my mother’s gentle actions in my life. All the time. Acutely.

Mostly, I feel her acting through the caring, nurturing, loving presence of others. My sense is that she has sent these human angels to care for me, to care for our family. For the first time since her death, I have found myself feeling safe in a way that is hard to articulate.

For me, the curious part about feeling my mom this strongly is that I have never believed that the dead act in our lives in these ways. And so, while I might not believe it is happening, I feel it is.

A teacher of mine recently told me to stop overthinking this gift from the Universe. “Just receive it with gratitude,” he told me, gently. And so I am.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, Moses’ brother, the High Priest Aaron, witnesses an unfathomable tragedy — the death of his sons. After his boys, Nadav and Avihu, clutching their incense pans, bring alien fire to the altar, a divine fire consumes them as their father and uncle look on.

I lack the words to describe the stunned silence I always have felt reading the Torah’s matter-of-fact account of this sudden, violent and seemingly nonsensical death. I long to scoop up Aaron in my arms, to hold him, to be present with him. I can’t imagine reacting in any other way.

Oddly, Aaron’s brother Moses responds coldly, with words I always have read as either a theological chastisement or platitude (depending on how generous I’m feeling): “This is what the Eternal meant when saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people” (Leviticus 10:3). Aaron hears these words and is silent.

When I reread the parsha this week, what I expected was to feel frustration with Moses’ lack of empathy. And yet, distance and time are funny things. Two hands’ worth of 5777 Omer days counted, and Moses’ words seem less horrible and more poignant: “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.”

In this statement, I always have assumed Moses was trying to tell Aaron that God was somehow illustrating the sacred in his boys’ death. But maybe Moses wasn’t talking about God’s act of divine fire in his words, after all. Maybe Moses actually was foreshadowing the seconds and minutes and years to come for Aaron. Maybe Moses knew that I would not be alone in my impulse to rush to Aaron’s side. Maybe Moses knew the community would gather around this grieving family.

“Through those near to Me I show Myself holy.”

Maybe Moses knew, despite some strange commandments about not grieving publicly, that Aaron would be comforted in whispers and actions and the loving presence of others. Maybe, much as I have begun to feel my mother’s hand in my own life through the actions of others, Moses suspected that Aaron would feel generations acting upon him, as well. “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy.”

Maybe Moses was saying to Aaron: You will feel the love of your community envelope you. You will feel holiness, if not wholeness, again. You will feel a sacred presence in your life through the kind actions of others.

During a recent conversation I had with a confirmation student at my synagogue, as he described what it means to him to be an atheist, I couldn’t help but lean forward intently. “But what about the Mystery?” I asked him. “What about the Why of the universe? The Interconnectivity?”

“I don’t feel it,” he told me.

If I am being honest, there have been times in my life when I have not have felt the Mystery, either. There have been times when I have read words of truth as words of admonishment. There have been times when a divine gift has felt hard to receive.

This week, I’m not going to overthink it, though. This week, I will endeavor to hold onto the Aarons around me, trust the truth of Moses’ explanation, and express gratitude for what I have. This week, I will try just to accept. 

Rabbi Jocee Hudson is an associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Vayikra with Rabbi Shaanan Gelman

Rabbi Shaanan Gelman

Our guest this wek is Rabbi Shaanan Gelman, leader of Kehilat Chovevei Tzion in Skokie, Illinois. Rabbi Gelman was born in Buffalo, NY and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a B.S. in Computer Science at Yeshiva College and Semicha from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary. He spent three years studying in Israel, two at Yeshivat Hakotel and later on at the Gruss Institute in Bayit Vegan. He was a Kollel Fellow in the Boca Raton Community Kollel, where he served as spiritual leader of the Explanatory Service as well as held the Gimmelstob chair in Education at the local Jewish Federation.  Rabbi Gelman is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and serves on the executive board. He is an active member of the Chicago Rabbinical Council as well as serving on the board of the Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago. Rabbi Gelman is a fervent Zionist and is active in AIPAC.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26) – is the first portion of the book of Leviticus. The portion introduces the sacrificial service and describes five different kinds of sacrifice. Our discussion focuses on the Moses and Aaron relationship and on sibling relationships in the Bible.


Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Ki Tisa with Rabbi Charles Arian

Rabbi Charles Arian with the Kehilat Shalom Cantor Kimberley Komrad

Our guest this week is Rabbi Charles Arian, of the Kehilat Shalom congregation in Gaithersburg, MD. Rabbi Arian joined the Kehilat Shalom in the summer of 2012. Previously, he was the rabbi of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, CT. He was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and Hazlet, New Jersey, and received his undergraduate degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. He received his MAHL degree and his rabbinic ordination from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College, and his Doctorate of Divinity, honoris causa, from the New York campus of Hebrew Union College on May 5, 2011. Although originally ordained as a Reform rabbi, he became affiliated with the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly while working for the Hillel Foundations.

This Week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) – begins with the census of the people of Israel and with further instructions concerning the Tabernacle and the Shabbat. The portion then proceeds to tell the story of the Golden Calf, Moses’ plea to god, the splitting of the Tablets into two, and the giving of the second tablets. Our talk focuses on the idea of taking personal responsibility for our actions.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Tetzaveh with Rabbi Peter Stein

Rabbi Peter Stein

Our guest this week is Rabbi Peter Stein, leader of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY. Rabbi Stein was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, studying in New York City and Jerusalem. His undergraduate studies were at Cornell University, and he also completed the Jewish Leaders Program at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Prior to B’rith Kodesh, Rabbi Stein served as rabbi of Temple Sinai in Cranston, RI and as associate rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA. Rabbi Stein is an alumnus of the Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship of CLAL and the Brickner Fellowship of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10) – continues giving us the instructions concerning the tabernacle, focusing on the role of the priesthood. Our discussion focuses on the perpetual light as a symbol of hope and responsibility.



Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Mishpatim with Rabbi Daniel Greyber

Rabbi Daniel Greyber

Our guest this week is Rabbi Daniel Greyber, rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC and author of Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle With Grief and God. Formerly a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute, faculty member at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and the Executive Director of Camp Ramah in California, Rabbi Greyber currently serves on the editorial board of Conservative Judaism, and his articles have been featured in a wide range of Jewish publications. In the summer of 2017 he will serve as theTeam USA Rabbi at the 20th World Maccabiah Games in Israel.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) – contains a vast number of laws given to the people of Israel, including laws concerning slaves, murder and theft, restitution, and a myriad of other social and religious matters. Our discussion focuses on the ways in which revelation can affect our everyday lives and on a curious episode of post-revelatory eating and drinking described at the end of the parasha.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Yitro with Rabbi Ari Weiss

Rabbi Ari Weiss

Our guest this week is Rabbi Ari Weiss of Cornell Hillel at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Rabbi Weiss received his rabbinical ordination from YCT Rabbinical School. He has studied philosophy and Jewish studies at graduate schools in New York and Jerusalem and received his B.A. from Yeshiva College, where he studied Philosophy and Religion. Rabbi Weiss recently served as the Interim Managing Director and Senior Director of Jewish Education at NEXT: A Division of the Birthright Israel Foundation. Prior to joining NEXT, Ari was the Executive Director of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, and grew it to engage tens of thousands of people in 15 cities.

This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23) – begins with the advice given by Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, to the people of Israel, and continues to tell us about the gathering of the people of Israel at Mount Sinai and about the giving of the Ten Commandments. Our discussion tries to find out how many commandments there really are in the Ten Commandments.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Beshalach with Rabbi Rachel Timoner

Rabbi Rachel Timoner

Our guest this week is Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Senior Rabbi of the Beth Elohim congregation in Brooklyn. Rabbi Timoner grew up in Miami, Florida, received a B.A. from Yale University, and received s’micha from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2009, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. From 2009 to 2015, Rabbi Timoner served as Associate Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. During this period she also served as a leader of Reform CA, a state-wide movement of more than 120 rabbis and many lay leaders to serve as a powerful voice for social justice in California, winning protection for 1.5 million undocumented immigrants and more than a billion dollars in affordable housing. From 1998 to 2004, she was a facilitator and consultant in organizational development and strategic planning. Prior to that, Rabbi Timoner raised funds to rebuild the San Francisco Women’s Building, a community center for low-income women; worked to mitigate the impact of welfare reform in California; worked in San Francisco City Hall for Supervisor Harry Britt; and founded two leadership programs and a peer hotline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth.

This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16) – features the people of Israel being led out of Egypt by pillars of cloud and fire, the dramatic parting of the Red Sea, the song of Miriam, the bread from heaven, Moses hitting the rock, and Israel’s war with Amalek. Our discussion focuses on the fearful moment the people of Israel experience when the Egyptian army are closing in on them and on the deep effect this moment has on their liberation process.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Bo with Rabbi Adam Zeff

Rabbi Adam Zeff

Our guest this week is Rabbi Adam Zeff, leader of the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia. Rabbi Zeff has served the Germantown Jewish Centre community since 2002, as Student Rabbi, Assistant Rabbi, and now as Rabbi. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2007.  In addition to his other responsibilities, Rabbi Zeff enjoys bringing music and storytelling into his rabbinic work at GJC, where he also serves as the hazzan and choir director. He has trained as a singer and musician for many years, studying western classical music, South Indian classical music, and diverse Jewish musical traditions. Rabbi Zeff holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Yale University and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania.

This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16) – features the final three plagues of Egypt, the People of Israel’s departure from Egypt, and the first Passover celebration. Our discussion focuses on the idea of maintaining positivity and recognizing the point of view of the other in our struggle for Justice.

Lies, lies, lies: Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

My daughter, a soon-to-graduate high school senior, was chosen by a teacher to participate in an event to teach the school a lesson about drunk driving. Before school one day, organizers would set up a scene with a crashed car and police tape. My daughter and the other chosen participants would gather in a room instead of attending first period, making them appear to be missing. It would then be announced that they had been killed in the crash. 

In a letter sent home for me to sign, organizers wrote that this event had great potential to teach a strong, experiential lesson about the importance of not driving while drunk. They asked us to follow the rules of the plan, committing to maintain its secrecy — my daughter was forbidden to tell other students, even her own boyfriend. And I was asked to play along, too, appearing at a school assembly to speak about the tragedy of losing my child to drunk driving. 

The scenario came to mind while thinking about this week’s parasha, named for Korach, who led an insurrection against Moses and Aaron. Korach rounded up some 250 community leaders and they began to foment discontent among the masses. They underscored the people’s hunger, suggesting that things were better in Egypt, the “true land of milk and honey.” They undermined confidence in Moses and Aaron, saying they had only brought them all to the desert to die. And they asserted that everyone in the camp is holy, not just the leaders who claimed to be chosen by God. Thus, everyone should be empowered to lead. There is no need for hierarchy!

These arguments seemed to be based on the public’s best interest. The people did need to eat; maybe the fact that they felt their needs were going unmet was proof that Moses and Aaron could not be trusted. And the social anarchism Korach’s men seemed to be propounding — that the best ruler is the people themselves — is an attractive argument to any downtrodden lot.

What the mutineers failed to mention as they spread their discontent was that their motivation was far from pure. Korach was a Levite, a cousin of Moses; others were leaders in the Reubenite tribe. The midrash makes the connection: These were men who felt they and their families had been overlooked in the selection of Aaron and his sons to serve in the Temple as priests. 

They wanted what Moses and Aaron had: power. They did not plan to make things more comfortable, safe and fair; rather, they wanted to be in charge. Their words were propaganda, designed to manipulate the public to their own ends. But as it says in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), controversy that is not for the sake of heaven, such as the deceptive words of Korach and his band, will not prevail. In fact, Korach and all his followers were swallowed up by the earth later in the chapter. 

My daughter’s school was proposing to create a grand-scale lie and asked my family to be a part of perpetuating it. I thought of how I would feel if I thought my daughter was killed in a car crash, even for a second, and I pictured her friends beside themselves with distress. They might sneak their phones and text their parents, or post the “news” to social media, potentially spreading panic across the city. The police could be besieged with calls, wasting taxpayers’ money. Someone hearing the news could have a heart attack or sustain other injuries. 

I declined to permit my daughter to participate, calling the plan unacceptable. The trust that students and parents have in their school is a precious commodity that administrators should not bring into question. If they would lie about the safety of children, what else would they do that should not be believed?

Apparently, I was not the only parent who refused to play along. Organizers retooled the event, which was held last week, keeping the crashed-car display and the school assembly, but leaving out the mock loss of life. As it turned out, five Irvine teens were killed for real in a collision the day before, putting parents nationwide on edge. It’s a good thing cooler heads prevailed.

The problem with lies isn’t just that they are false and aggravating. They distort the reality of their recipients, creating a prison in which the teller is empowered toward his or her own ends, but everyone else is held captive. In the big picture, lies set in motion forces that, once loosed, cannot be contained; a force with the potential to destroy the foundation of trust, the very ground on which we stand as a society. 

No wonder the midrash says the sun and moon threatened to stop shining if God did not make sure Moses prevailed over Korach. 

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (, a referral agency for professional chaplains and rabbis.

Willing to sacrifice: Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

The mind of the midrashist drifts effortlessly over the face of the Tanakh as verses from the Torah conjure up similar verses and phrases from other sacred books. Thus, our parasha’s descriptions of the thanksgiving offerings and the free-will offerings call to mind a phrase found in Psalm 50: “The one who sacrifices a thanksgiving offering honors me.” And the midrash here in Parashat Tzav uses this phrase as a springboard for its exploration of the theme of gratitude to God. And then, having introduced this phrase, the midrash goes on to look at the somewhat enigmatic next phrase there in Psalm 50, a phrase which the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation literally labels “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.”

The one word that is readily identifiable in the phrase is “derech,” meaning path or way. And what’s also fairly clear is that verse’s closing words (“will be shown the salvation of God”) speak in praise of this person whose path or way is proper. The midrash, as is its way, offers its interpretation of the phrase by telling us a story.

Rabbi Yanai was known for the gracious hospitality he extended to scholars and learned men. Not a single one could pass through his town without breaking bread at Rav Yanai’s table. It once happened that a scholarly looking man appeared in town, and, as could be expected, Rav Yanai ushered him into his home on sight. As the midrash tells the story, “Rav Yanai fed the man and gave him drink. He examined him in Scripture, but found that the man knew nothing. In Mishna, but again found that the man knew nothing. In Aggadah, nothing. In Talmud, and again nothing.”

Rav Yanai was becoming agitated, as he had clearly overestimated his guest, and frankly, preferred to expend his resources on people of stature. In a last attempt to uncover at least some minimal literacy in his guest, Rav Yanai asked the man to lead the blessing after the meal. But confirming Rav Yanai’s worst fears, the man ducked and said, “Let Yanai lead the blessing in his own home!” Angry and frustrated, Rav Yanai then laid a trap for the man, proposing that he repeat after him. When the guest agreed to do so, Rav Yanai looked his guest in the eye and said, “A dog has eaten of Yanai’s bread.”

As shocked as we might be by this outburst, the guest was this and more. The man grabbed Rav Yanai by the shirt and said, “You are withholding my inheritance from me!” 

“What inheritance of yours could I possibly be withholding?” Rav Yanai retorted. 

“One time, long ago,” the guest replied, “I was walking near the entrance of a school, and I heard the children recite, ‘The Torah was commanded to us by Moshe, an inheritance of the people of Jacob.’ It is not written that the Torah is an inheritance of the people of Yanai, rather that it is an inheritance of the people of Jacob.” 

Chastised and recognizing his error (though still apparently proud of his table’s reputation), Rav Yanai inquired of the man by what merit he thinks God brought him to dine there that day. 

“I have never returned an insult in kind, and I have never encountered two people quarrelling with one another without endeavoring to make peace between them,” the man replied. 

“You possess so much derech ertez [the way of upright behavior], and I called you a dog!” Rav Yanai then ascribed to him those words whose meaning JPS was uncertain of, rendering them “the one who is thoughtful and deliberate in his way, will be shown the salvation of God.”  

What makes this story truly remarkable is that it is recorded in the midrash at all. And not just because it portrays one of the Sages in a negative light, but because there is only one way it could possibly have entered the stream of rabbinic lore. The unnamed guest couldn’t have achieved this, and there were no witnesses to the story. Indeed, the story is told by Rav Yanai himself. And this is remarkable. 

We often wonder what gifts we can leave for others, how we can best contribute to their welfare and well-being. Rav Yanai’s ultimate teaching here is that it is a great gift to share stories that are unflattering to us, when these stories will save others from our mistakes. It’s a hard gift to give, and I’d presume that Rav Yanai knew that there was a good chance that his story would be told for countless generations to come. Yet he gave the gift anyway.

Parshat Tzav speaks a lot about the willingness to sacrifice for God. In its characteristically circuitous way, the midrash on Tzav has illustrated what this willingness looks like.

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation.

A divine call to action: Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

Once, on a mission to Israel, we needed a minyan for a prayer service during the airplane flight. We were a total of six men in our group, so we began to scan the plane for the remaining four for the requisite 10 men.

As I went up and down the aisles, one fellow turned to me and said, “Rabbi, make sure you get Jews for the minyan.” I looked at him in astonishment and assured him that I didn’t have any other plans. But why was he worried?  He replied that many years ago on a flight to Israel, they also needed four men to complete a minyan. They went around calling out, “We need four for a minyan—four for a minyan.” Before they knew it, four guys got up and joined them. They handed the men kippot and started the service. Suddenly the newcomers stopped the proceedings and asked what was happening. The others explained that they needed four more men to make the minyan. The newcomers, astounded, said, “We thought you were asking for four Armenians, so we joined you. We are not even Jewish.”

These fellows responded to the call but misinterpreted the message. This week’s Torah portion teaches the same lesson about the importance of hearing the call correctly. The portion begins with the words, “And the Eternal called unto Moses,” (Leviticus 1:1). Our sages point out that this wording is unusual. Generally, in Scripture, we encounter the expression that “God said to Moses,” or “God spoke to Moses.” As one rabbi noted, you don’t have to be a Biblical scholar or even barely familiar with Hebrew grammar to appreciate that the phrase “and He called” suggests that the mind of the person addressed is not attuned to or in communion with the mind of the speaker. One doesn’t call a person with whom one is in intimate conversation or rapport. One calls a man to attract his attention.

The midrash in the Yalkut Shimoni uses this insight to provide a beautiful homily. The midrash points out that the one, who flees from positions of honor and authority, achieves honor and authority. The Yalkut provides many examples of great Jewish leaders who illustrate this principle and comments that Moses represented the best example of all.

The Yalkut tells us how Moses tried to reject the appointment to be the savior of the Jewish people and lead them out of Egypt. God, however, was adamant, and Moses performed admirably. At this point the midrash comments:

“In the end he brought them out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, brought down Manna from heaven, provided water from the well and quail from heaven, and caused them to be surrounded with the clouds of glory, and erected for them the sanctuary. Having reached this stage, Moses said, ‘What more is there for me to do?’ And he sat in retirement. Thereupon the Holy One, Blessed be He, reproved him saying, ‘By your life! There is still a task for you to perform that is even greater than that which you have done until now; to teach my children my laws and to instruct them how to worship Me.’ ”

If “Vayikra,” the call to continue his task, applied to the greatest leader we ever had, how much more does it apply today?

Why, for example, is philanthropy for Jewish causes suffering among the most affluent and generous of Jewish generations?

Why is higher education in Jewish studies absent among the most educated and cultured in Jewish history?

Why is commitment to a Jewish homeland missing after only one generation past the Holocaust?

At a similar juncture in Jewish history, the great sage Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That question challenges us today to go back to work, “Vayikra,” to achieve a positive response to God’s call.

This column originally appeared in 2004. 

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

Building Our Mishkan: Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

The ancient sages teach us that the Torah is exceedingly careful with language. No phrase is superfluous. Each word or letter is part of the intricate unfolding mysteries concentrated in the Torah.

In Parshat Terumah, a few chapters ago, we read about the entire construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which the Jewish people used as a sanctuary during their journey from Egypt. So it comes as a major surprise in this week’s double parasha of Vayakhel-Pekudei that the Torah repeats the elaborate construction of the Mishkan. If the Torah is so particular with words, how is it possible that we repeat everything again just a few chapters later? Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Hakohen Pam, the great 20th century sage, asked this question and offers a beautiful insight into human nature.

The first time that the God lays out the intricate plans for the Mishkan the Hebrew reads, “And you shall make.” In the second recounting of the construction of the Mishkan, in our parasha, the Torah says, “And he made.”

Each Rosh Hashanah, every New Year, during times of great inspiration and creativity, or periods of searching and isolation, we dream up plans. In our minds we can see how this will all work out. We are going to change our lives for the better in myriad ways. We are going to launch a new and prosperous venture. We are determined to learn, to do, or explore. But so often these dreams and grand plans never come to fruition.

What is one of the common reasons that these plans don’t come about? It is not that we are too unrealistic, or that our ideas lack merit. Rather, all too often it is because we were unable to follow through with these plans. Grand plans happen one step at a time, but it is often difficult — each step may be a hurdle to overcome.

The intricate vision of the Mishkan in Parasha Terumah inspired the Jewish people to build it. The solid metal footings of the beams formed the base of the exterior walls. Fine gold handiwork fashioned the menorah. The intricate woven patterns on the tapestries and the clothes worn by the High Priest during the service were made to exacting standards. The entire vision took many hands, many hours and likely many mishaps along the way.

The recounting of the Mishkan here in Parasha Vayakhel-Pekudei, reminds us that to get from point A to point Z there are many stops in between. It is important that we make great plans, and to follow through with these plans requires us to take small steps at times and involve many people.

When making plans that involve the future of Jewish community, we cannot hope for a quick fix, but rather addressing all needs of a disappearing generation of young people will require a concentrated effort of many hands, many hours and a vision of what can be achieved. It will require the construction of a contemporary Mishkan that binds young Jewish people together and to the Jewish future.

Yonah Bookstein is the executive rabbi of JConnect and founded Jewlicious Festivals ( in 2005 as a gathering place for young Jews of Southern California. Jewlicious Festival 9 takes place this weekend at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Rabbi Bookstein is also the author of “Prayers for Israel” and conducts seminars internationally about solving the problems affecting young Jewish adults.