March 20, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Shemot

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

“The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah.” Exodus 1:15

Michael Raileanu

Of the 83 people introduced by name in Genesis, only 24 are women. In Chapter One of Exodus, we are reintroduced to Jacob and his 12 sons and two new female characters: Shifrah and Puah.

When we first meet them (Exodus 1:15), we don’t know if they have husbands or children. As far as we know, they aren’t descended from someone of note, nor are they rich or famous. Rather, their claim to fame is their fear of God. They are told to do one thing: kill the Israelite baby boys. Their fear of God compels them to refuse this order; they save them instead.

Herodotus said, “Great deeds are usually wrought at great risk.” Shifrah and Puah were not superstars, not famous, not likely to stand up to Pharaoh. Rather, they were hard-working women who understood the will of God and did what they knew was right, regardless of cost. We don’t know if they were Israelites but that is immaterial (the midrash says they are Miriam and Yocheved, Moses’ sister and mom). They were brave, righteous, and gained fame once the Torah recorded their actions.

We learn later their deeds bring them blessings from God, but at the moment, we first meet them they are simple midwives. They stand up to Pharaoh, who by the way, is not named. By telling us Shifrah and Puah’s names, the Torah teaches they are symbols of strength and faith to be emulated.

Rabbi Ari Segal
Shalhevet Head of School

Rashi states that the name Puah derives from “the manner in which people speak to children.” But his reasoning is far deeper than the onomatopoeic soothing sounds spoken to fussy babies.

In discussing the sin of the meraglim (spies sent to report on the land of Israel), the Talmud’s tractate Sanhedrin notes the significance of the letters and their order in the alef-bet. The letter peh connotes the imagination; conjuring up flights of fancy, and creative ideas that are described with our mouths (peh). The letter ayin, however, refers to hard, factual reality that we can see with our eyes (ayin). Moreover, in the Hebrew alphabet, ayin comes before peh, signaling a generally preferable order. The spies made a mistake when they put their peh, their creative theories, before their ayin, the reality of what they saw in Israel.

In our verse, the name פועה is spelled with the peh before the ayin. According to R’ Moshe Shapiro, this teaches us that in the context of raising children, this out-of-order approach is actually preferable. Children need us to allow their imagination and make-believe (their peh) blossom before they are taught hard reality (the ayin.)

While adulthood (and Jewish law) leans toward the reality we see and only post-facto do we employ creative thinking (see “fixed functionality”), we must not restrict children to this order of logic and consequence. Puah’s name tells us that building fantasies for children and encouraging them to use their boundless imaginations come first.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am

Do you know anyone named Puah? I don’t. But we all should, even if we know at least the English-sounding reasons why we don’t. Shifrahs abound. But there is a paucity of Puahs! The verse does not distinguish between these heroic women who saved Hebrew babies from infanticide. But via midrash, Puah has her own story. Rashi relates her name to a Hebrew word meaning “to coo” or “to cry empathically.” Puah didn’t just birth these babies surreptitiously; she also soothed them. In his commentary on the Talmud (Sotah 11b), Rashi praises Puah for being playful. Just imagine the heroism of creating laughter amid crisis and devastation.

Building off that same root, but reading it from a different emotional angle, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh of Riminov (19th-century Poland) describes two types of tzadikim or righteous ones. Some, like Shifrah, live out their piety in humble silence, barely noticeable. That is an admirable model worth emulating. Others, like Puah, literally “split the heavens” with their fiery righteousness, and serve God with a great ruckus. While it hard to square the notion of creating loud noises alongside Puah’s secret and ostensibly quiet heroics, we can be moved by this Chasidic teaching, offering us (at least) two ways to serve God and do good.

Some moments call for muted rectitude, with Shifrah as an example. And some moments call for raucous, heavens-awakening virtue. All done without surrendering the instinct to whisper, to becalm, to pacify. Those are the moments we need Puah.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

When someone learns about my profession as a rabbi, I am often asked: As a woman, how is your experience in comparison with your male colleagues?

I graduated from rabbinical school in 2009. By then, already more than 30 years had transpired since the ordination of the first female rabbi in the Reform movement, almost 25 years in the Conservative movement. My answer about my experience as a female rabbi must not be answered with, “It was mostly smooth sailing.” My answer must include both the positive sentiments of my six years at the Jewish Theological Seminary and willfully acknowledge the blood, sweat and tears endured by the women before me, the turned backs, slammed doors and uphill battles fought so I could receive my ordination. Women yearning to speak so that my voice would be audible, accepted and heard.

Midrash reminds us that the midwives went far beyond their defiance of Pharaoh. The midwives went to the homes of the children they saved, brought food and water in order to keep the mothers and children alive. They risked their lives to ensure the voices of Jewish children would be heard for generations to come.

Our actions today don’t impact only our individual journeys. Our lives are products of those who came before us, a blended package of those willing to speak out and those who remained silent. Let us live with an eye toward the future, knowing that our purpose in this world may be actualized in generations to come.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea

What’s in a name? Our rabbis teach that Shifrah and Puah were nicknames for Yocheved (Moses’ mother) and Miriam (his sister), respectively. Which leads us to ask, why use these names here instead of their better-known names?

Our tradition answers through the reasons behind the names. “Shifrah” means both that she would prepare the newborn babies (meshapperet), and that the Jewish people increased (sheparu) and multiplied in her days. And “Puah” means that she would make comforting sounds (po’ah) as she would deliver the babies, and that she would speak (po’ah) through divine inspiration prophesying that Moses would save the Jewish people. In short, these names describe actions.

They are not their given names, but rather names that these women made for themselves through how they lived. It is fitting, then, in the moment when they are tested — when Pharaoh challenges them to abandon their values and kill Jewish baby boys — that the names used are the ones which reveal their true characters. With the names Shifrah and Puah, the Torah reveals that these women will not heed Pharaoh’s decree. To do so would go against their very beings. For the names we create for ourselves in this life most reflect who we are and what we do. As we learn about these two brave, empathetic and holy women, let’s also reflect on the names and nicknames we have created for ourselves. How are we known and how do we want to be known? What’s in our names?

In ‘Bride of Blood’ Play, Solomon Consults Otherworldly Forces

(L-R) Miles Taber as Jeremiah and Steven Schub as King Solomon. Photos by Thomas Hargis

A wise man once said, “To pray to a manifestation of God is to misdirect the source of its manifestation. It is to think a ship’s mast is the wind beneath a ship’s sail.”

Those words actually came from King Solomon of the 10th century B.C.E., a man generally thought to be the very personification of wisdom. We’re talking wise with a capital “W.”

And, in fact, the Solomon who uttered that phrase is a character in Amit Itelman’s play “Bride of Blood,” which had its world premiere at the Skylight Theatre on Oct. 25 and runs through Nov. 8. 

Despite a title that may suggest a B-movie splatter-fest and a performance run that overlaps Halloween, “Bride of Blood” is a religious parable. The evening has the hubristic Solomon seeking to become not just the wisest king in the world, but the wisest man, as well. As he tackles the perplexities of Exodus 4:24 (the passage that has God considering killing Moses, and has Moses’ wife, Zipporah, referring to a “Bridegroom of Blood”), Solomon consults otherworldly forces in an effort to learn some canonical truths. Monsters enter the picture, blood is shed and major mayhem ensues.

Coming as he does from the French theatrical tradition of Grand Guignol — a style of theater which frequently employs blood-soaked climaxes — writer-director Itelman said that the blending of theology and gore sits firmly in his wheelhouse. 

“Staging horror is one of my favorite things to do in life, and it comes naturally to me,” he said. “A lot of Judaica is phantasmagorical, and I’m gravitating toward what is interesting to me. There will be comedy. There will be puppets and monsters and hopefully it will be engaging and dramatic.” 

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Itelman is a writer, director, producer and musician who has worked in film and TV as well as live theater. During his tenure as the founding artistic director of the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood, Itelman oversaw an eclectic mix of programming from the Kids in the Hall reunion to “Re-Animator: The Musical” as well as performances by Emo Philips, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Max Maven and Ann Magnuson. Itelman eventually founded the theater-making nonprofit Trepany House, which is still operational despite the Steve Allen Theater’s shuttering in 2017. 

Larose Washington as Zipporah

The project that became “Bride of Blood” was a long-gestating idea that began with Itelman considering doing a Grand Guignol treatment of biblical stories and ended up leading him on a wisdom quest of his own. Itelman became fascinated with the Dead Sea Scrolls and studied with the Scrolls’ curator Adolfo Roitman at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

A lot of Judaica is phantasmagorical. There will be comedy. There will be puppets and monsters and hopefully it will be engaging and dramatic.”

— Amit Itelman

“The good thing about the Scrolls is that they are fragmented, sometimes just a sentence that’s part of a larger text,” Itelman said. “The good thing about that for me is that it made me want to gain even more biblical and canonical knowledge in order for me to understand the puzzle of the Dead Sea Scrolls. That led me to educate myself and that led me to the Apocrypha. 

“One of the things Adolfo told me as we were looking at different biblical passages that I found fascinating is that ‘Every passage is a symphony and every musician is a perspective of the passage and they all work together,’” Itelman continued. “And as he started leading me into thinking of interpretation as an act of humility, the more I accepted I don’t understand, the more insight I can gain.” 

And if that last sentence sounds positively Solomonic, well it should. According to Itelman, the Exodus passage is a good exemplar of the need for humility. He began thinking about some of the wisest Jews and then crafted a tale around what would happen if one of the wisest figures of Jewish lore tackled the problem in a Faustian way. 

Virginia Rand as Queen Amytis and Edward Buchanan as Nebuchadnezzar

“I’m not a rabbi. I’m not an academic,” said Itelman, who set up a Gofundme campaign for the project in 2016. “I’m a dramatist who wanted to tell a good story. So I gave myself permission to make the best story I could, using allegory as a tool.”

Aiding Itelman on this journey was FX artist Frederick Fraleigh, who has worked as a fabricator of specialized costumes and figures for movies such as “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Hellboy 2,” “Bicentennial Man” and the live touring show “Jurassic World.” A mutual friend suggested that Itelman could use some help bringing the creatures of “Bride of Blood” to life, and Fraleigh, although swamped with other projects, agreed to meet with Itelman. 

After seeing Itelman’s drawings of the creatures of “Bride of Blood,” Fraleigh knew he needed to join the project. He ended up designing the costume for the demon Asmodeus, the play’s central “badass.”  

“Amit was just so passionate and excited about everything, I just had to do it,” Fraleigh said. “I wish I could have done more.”

“Bride of Blood” is on at the Skylight Theatre, 1816 Vermont Ave., Hollywood. (800-504-4849).

Table for Five: Sukkot Shabbat

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen. 

— Exodus 33:23

Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles
Temple Isaiah 

Moses sees God’s back, rather than God’s face, because God is in motion, moving forward. We are designed to be in motion. 

Astrophysicist Karel Schrijver teaches: “We are quite literally not who we were years, weeks or even days ago. Our cells die and are replaced by new ones at an astonishing pace. What persists over time is not fixed, but merely a pattern in flux.” 

We are made in God’s image, which does not mean we look like God and God looks like us, rather, we are patterned after the moving pattern of God. At this season, we talk about return. But when we say return, we do not mean “go backward.” We mean returning to the path that will take us forward. 

The whole Torah is about a movement, from the exile from Eden to the exile from Egypt, and we never really arrive. Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” He also said, “No person ever steps in the same river twice.” So, when we roll Torah back to the beginning, it is not the same Torah, nor are we the same people. 

There is a reason the most meaningful part of the bar mitzvah ceremony is the passing of the Torah. There is a reason the prayer that brings the most people to tears is L’Dor va-Dor (from generation to generation). Because it touches on the essence of what we are. We are the river. 

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Job wasn’t the first biblical character to ask the question that more than any other challenges our faith. Philosophers call it theodicy. Simply put: Why do bad things happen to good people? 

How can we believe in a kind and compassionate God — his very name in English is a contraction for the word good — when we are so often witness to the unfairness of life and the injustices of the world around us? Doesn’t reality give the lie to religion? 

According to the Talmud, it was Moses who had the nerve to pose the question to the Almighty. Right after God forgave the Jews for the sin of the golden calf and defined his essence by way of the 13 attributes of mercy, Moses said, “Show me, I pray you, your glory.” And that is when God responded, “And you will see my back but my face you shall not see.” Surely Moses knew that God has no body. What Moses wanted was the ability to understand God’s glory in spite of his apparent indifference to human suffering. 

The answer has not only been key to my faith but has numerous times proven itself to be the explanation for some of the most trying moments in my life. “You will see my back!” 

Soren Kierkegaard put it beautifully when he said, “Life must be lived forward but can only be understood backward.” To see God’s back is to recognize that our lives make sense — but only in retrospect. 

Rabbi Mark Blazer
Temple Beth Ami

Moses, God’s strongest conduit to the people throughout much of the Torah, wants what nearly every human wants: To see more of God. 

Even Moses, who had a relationship with God unique in its closeness, can’t completely know God. Later prophets also strove to see more of God. The Bible and later Jewish tradition frequently teaches us that we are on a different wavelength than God, which makes a complete knowledge of the Divine impossible. As Isaiah is told: “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” 

We may view glimpses of God in this life through the natural world, in intellectual, spiritual and artistic expressions, and creations of those who try to make the Divine manifest in this world. Most importantly, we see God in the people around us. Humanity. Every one of us. 

The Torah teaches us in the very beginning, that we were created B’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, as reflections of God. Through our meaningful interactions with humanity, with each person on this planet, we gain a deeper understanding of God, each reflection giving us another glance at an aspect of the Divine. 

As we synthesize these visions in our desire for understanding of the One-Who-Is-Everything, we are confronted by how challenging this yearning is. Yet in our striving to know and experience the highest and deepest aspects of this existence, we are comforted to know that even Moses was frustrated by what he couldn’t see. 

Rabbi David Lapin
Rabbi and scholar

Bitachon (faith) and emunah (belief) are different. Bitachon gives meaning to the future; emunah gives meaning to the past. 

We try to predict the future, yet despite our sophistication, our ability to predict the future is limited. We try to predict markets, the weather, election results and the futures of our children but in the final analysis, we need faith to stride into the future with confidence. 

The past, however, is factual and doesn’t need faith. When viewing the past, whether our own pasts or history, we have a choice. We can interpret past events as random, we can understand them in terms of direct results of prior human choices, or we can discover a Divine latticework of interconnected events that gives our pasts meaning. This discovery of the Divine hand in the unfolding past is emunah. 

In our verse, HaShem blindfolds Moshe as He approaches. As HaShem passes, he removes the blindfold “and you will see My back, but My face shall not be seen,” forcing Moshe to turn back and look over his shoulder to encounter God. 

We too, need to pause and look over our shoulders at our own pasts to discover God and engage with Him. 

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Motivational speaker

Picture this scene: As you walk down a hall, you notice through a keyhole in the door of one of the rooms what appears to be a masked man, knife in hand, bearing down on what appears to an innocent, sleeping kid. Your jaw drops as you involuntary blurt out, “Murder!” 

What if I were to tell you that the hall was in a hospital and behind that closed door was a world-renowned surgeon about to remove a growth to save the child’s life? 

All of us experience pain in life. Our reflex human reaction is to scream bloody murder. If, however, we had a broader perspective than the limited view of trying to interpret life events through a “keyhole,” we would acknowledge that we do not see the full picture. More often than not, we understand some of our toughest setbacks only in hindsight, by looking back after the benefit of the passing of time and with a greater perspective. 

The notion of only fully appreciating life events in retrospect is one of the profound lessons the Almighty relayed to Moses, and, in turn, to all of us in the oft-cited Chapter 33 of Exodus, verse 23: “I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen.” We are finite beings locked in time … God is Infinite and outside of time and he alone knows what is good for us in the end. 

Excerpts: Prager on Exodus

Exodus 23.16: “[And you shall observe] the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field …”

This is the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday that takes place at the time of the first harvest. Often referred to as Pentecost, Shavuot is the Hebrew word for “weeks.” This holiday of “Weeks” was so named because the Torah commands it be celebrated exactly seven weeks after the first day of Passover. In addition to its agricultural significance, Shavuot marks the Jewish people’s receiving the Torah.

The Unique Moral Power of Empathy

The law against wronging the stranger ends with the words, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It is a fact of life we can only fully empathize with other people when we have experienced what they have experienced. That is why the Torah commands love of the stranger by reminding the Israelis about their own painful experience as strangers in Egypt.

I personally learned this truth about empathy after undergoing a period of serious, sometimes disabling, physical pain. I realized that when listening to, or reading about, people in pain, one can, and of course should, sympathize with them; but unless one has experienced similar pain, it is not possible to truly empathize with them.

Exodus 25.9: “Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.”

This is one of those verses in the Torah that does not seem particularly significant, but is actually one of the most significant.

Regarding religion, the Torah provides guidelines on how to lead a religious life. While there is room for spontaneity in religion — prayer being an obvious example — such spontaneity must be within the context of the Torah’s ethical monotheism. In our time, many people believe they need no guidance on how to express religiosity or, as many put it, “spirituality.” They attempt to be religious without adhering to any religious standards or even just to biblical ethical monotheism.

The great lesson of this verse is individuals and societies need ethical, moral, artistic, and religious standards that transcend them or there will be no more ethics, morality, art, or good religion.

Was Animal Sacrifice in the Torah Immoral?

People today eat beef and chicken without thinking twice about the life of the animal taken. In the world of the Torah, however, the killing and eating of animals was taken extremely seriously and imbued with sanctity. Moreover, the animals sacrificed were not subject to the cruelties of modern slaughter-houses or factory farming, the fate of the large majority of animals eaten in our time.

In light of that, only a vegetarian could morally object to the sacrificial system — and any such objection would have to be made against every secular or religious society that allowed meat eating.

Of course, religious sacrifice today does not involve giving up livestock. It involves giving up money and time. In terms of money, this is generally understood to mean financial contributions to religious institutions and other charities. In terms of time, it means engaging in Bible study.

Exodus 31.16: “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.”

By keeping the Sabbath, the Jewish people affirm they have a covenantal relationship with God. Prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments and its command of the Sabbath, circumcision served as the sign of the covenant. However, circumcision is not unique to Jews; it has been practiced all over the world. And though circumcision remains a cornerstone of Judaism, it is the Sabbath that serves as the chief sign of the unique relationship between God and Israel. Furthermore, while circumcision applies only to males, the Sabbath applies to both men and women. And, of course, in terms of influencing people’s behavior, circumcision is a one-time act, while the Sabbath is observed weekly. The late Pinchas Peli, a prominent Israeli theologian and dear friend, once noted a seventy-year-old Jew has spent ten years observing the Sabbath.

Exodus As Performance Art?

John Legend as Jesus.

Most of the stories in the Bible are written using a traditional storytelling narrative format. It reads like a book. There is one glaring exception to this structural conformity in the Exodus story.

Immediately following the 10 miraculous plagues and their dramatic escape from Egyptian servitude, the Israelites are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. On one side, the Egyptian legions are in hot pursuit of their coveted slaves, while on the other, the raging waters of the Sea of Reeds impede the path of the fleeing Israelites. On God’s command, Moses stretches his arm over the sea and with a Harry Potter-esque flick of his staff, the waters recede. The Israelites dash across the channel to their freedom and the waters crash down upon the Egyptian hordes.

Here the Bible inserts its first, and only, musical number into the narrative. Inspired and awakened by their newfound freedom, Moses and his sister, Miriam, lead the people in the Song at the Sea — a spontaneous ballad offering thanksgiving to God. “I sing a song to the LORD for the LORD is highly exalted … The LORD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him.”

To me, nothing in the Bible requires a greater suspension of disbelief than this moment. Seconds earlier, the Israelites were rescued from certain death by the slimmest of margins. Sure, they felt great relief, but real people in real life do not spontaneously burst into song. That happens only in musicals.

The Song at the Sea is built right into the original text of the Exodus story. It is ready for Broadway.

When I want to say thank you in real life, I make a phone call. I write an email or send a text. I definitely do not grab a microphone, strike up the band lying in wait just in case I need to serenade somebody and sing a song of gratitude. But that does describe the Song at the Sea. The Israelites are saved, Miriam picks up a tambourine and Moses starts singing. It is such a cliche. A classic trope of musical theater or film — singing a wordy song instead of speaking like people do in real life.

I had this epiphany while watching NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on NBC on Easter Sunday, along with 10 million other viewers. There are no songs in the original text of the Jesus story, so Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created a musical version. But the Exodus story actually includes a “musical episode.” The Song at the Sea is built right into the original text. It is ready for Broadway.

Music possesses an extraordinary power to convey emotion more efficiently and effectively than words. Art does not always attempt to impart facts or historical truth. Rather, it moves us, inspires us, nourishes our souls.

In many places, the Torah is more like art than like real life. Torah is a collection of stories, ideas, rules and wisdom for improving ourselves and the world. Torah should move us, inspire us and nourish our soul. Sometimes performance art — even Torah — needs a shortcut like music to get us there.

The emotional peak of the Exodus is the moment our forefathers set foot on the other side of the sea and turned their heads to witness the entire Egyptian fleet drowning. In order to feel that moment, we need a shortcut. We need a song. At this point, we might even need an entire musical.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Vayakhel-Pekudei

Screenshot from YouTube.

PARSHA: Vayakhel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1-3

“These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.”

Rabbi Susan Leider
Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon, Calif.

What kind of death does someone die if they don’t observe Shabbat? Isn’t this just the kind of verse that you don’t want to read in the Torah? You’re at a bar or bat mitzvah with a bunch of people who don’t usually find themselves in the synagogue and you shrink in embarrassment, saying, “What kind of a tradition would enshrine this harsh decree in its holy books?”

There are some who would read this literally: Break Shabbat and you die. But we know that we don’t live in that kind of world. God is not coming down from on high and smacking us when we pick up our iPhone on Shabbat or smiting us when we go to the mall on Saturday afternoon. So what is going on here?

God is a partner, Shabbat is date night. Like Moses at the burning bush, we get an invitation to dance with God. But we must turn aside from our work so that we don’t miss the holy invitation, for if we miss it, it doesn’t come our way again until next week. That moment dies — along with all that, it could have made possible. We move on and another week begins.

When we work without ceasing, a part of us dies. But when we wake up to the potential of Shabbat — the possibility of a loving partner, the opportunity to be swept off our feet by the grandeur of a beautiful world, the renewal of our breath, a sacred meal shared in the company of those we love — we choose life. Choose Shabbat. Choose life.

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
Academy for Jewish Religion, California

Shabbat, a gift from eternity, is the unending source of inspiration, creativity, ideas and meaningful visions bestowed upon us by the Eternal. Each soul is blessed with inner qualities intended to be woven into the world and added to the garment of creation.

Each living being brings a meaningful story to the world and participates in its cycle of collapse and renewal, ready to redeem the world, moment by moment. Behind all the roaring and confusion of this world, the living spirit of the Eternal waits to be found again and again. This is Shabbat.

The Talmud (Berachot 56) calls Shabbat a gift, “1/60th of the World to Come.” It is a day of rebalancing, of remembering that our true, holy purpose is to connect to the soulful reality of our existence. We get caught up in our daily duties and forget that these endeavors are a means to an end. To forget and neglect that we are working toward holiness is to risk the death of our soul. This day is given to us to remember why we are here.

Some attain rebalance through the Sabbath meal and song, through prayer and learning Torah. Others by walking along the ocean.

The Torah also teaches that when we sit around our Shabbat tables, “we should not light a fire in all our dwelling places” — that is, not lose our tempers, not spread words of hatred that light fires of strife, but keep our balance, which spreads peace and joy on this holy day.

Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot
Temple Judea

Shabbat is arguably one of the most precious and most protected aspects of being a Jew. It seems absurd that given the benefits, we’d have to persuade anyone to keep this unique and holy gift.

Shabbat is special and holy because in one fell swoop, it connects a Jew to God, Torah and Israel. At its core is humility, a midpoint between arrogance and humiliation, a deep understanding of one’s place in the world. We do not control the universe and we need to acknowledge that regularly. We also deserve time to contemplate and celebrate our existence.

Shabbat creates enforced moments to learn Torah, ethics, values — the things that make us better. It enables a real community to come together, not merely people who are friends, or who are like-minded. This is for everyone, whether you like them, whether you agree with them or not. Clearly this is good for society.

Why then, does it need to be framed in such caustic and horrible language?

Human nature is such that we will always find ways to do what is not good unless somehow we are held accountable. With accountability, human beings rise. And even if we can allow an individual to slip, we cannot let the needs of society slide. It is fundamental to the Jewish world that at least once each week, society is immersed in training our character and studying our ethics.

Shabbat needs to be not only observed, but protected, for the good of our world.

Daniel Stein Kokin
Visiting assistant professor of Jewish and Israel Studies, UCLA

Imitation of God’s rest, reminder of the Exodus, marker of God’s consecration of Israel — the Torah’s explanations for Shabbat vary widely. Here, by contrast, its seeming sole purpose is obedience to divine decree. And here — uniquely — a specific injunction against the kindling of fire supplements, the oft-repeated prohibition on work. What sparks this?

Fire is arguably the critical physical interface between God and the world. With fire, God commenced creation (is light not fire at its root?), first communicated with Moses, and guided the Israelites in the wilderness. Similarly, with fire, he blocked off Eden, destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and consumed Aaron’s sons (for offering, of all things, “foreign fire”). We, too, address God through fire, formerly via animal sacrifice, now through ritualized candlelighting (ironically, in light of this passage, to mark the onset of Shabbat). And thanks to fire, we re-create the world to serve our needs and desires. In short, fire is a divine substance we have somehow acquired (the ancient Greek explanation: Prometheus stole it from Olympus).

Fire can be physically deadly, but no less dangerous is its ability to seduce us into thinking away our limits. Might this be the key to this passage’s teaching?

Perhaps instead of allowing us to imitate God, or celebrate our relationship with God, Shabbat highlights the great chasm between us. Six days we “play” divinity in transforming creation; on the seventh, we acknowledge our folly in doing so.

Or perhaps this is but one further explanation, fated to converse and compete with all the rest. Fire away!

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center

Parashat Vayakhel opens with Moses gathering the entire community and instructing them to observe Shabbat. He immediately follows this with the full instructions for building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). From this juxtaposition of Shabbat to the Mishkan, talmudic tradition established a relationship between the two.

The rabbis read this Torah portion like architects and artists, breaking it apart into different categories and genres of labor. They derived a total of 39 forms of labor needed to build the Mishkan, and they ruled that these 39 forms of labor are, in fact, the prohibited labors on Shabbat. But is Shabbat observance exclusively defined by a list of prohibited labors?

The prophet Isaiah articulates God’s vision for what we call the “spirit of Shabbat”: “If you shall refrain from pursuing business on My holy day, and declare Shabbat a delight … and shall honor it, not doing your own ways, nor pursuing your own business, nor speaking of vain matters —  then shall you delight yourself in the Lord” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

Isaiah outlines an expanded vision for Shabbat: In addition to refraining from the 39 labors, we cease from pursuing our mundane business. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The essence of Shabbat is completely detached from the world of space. The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on Shabbat, we try to become attuned to holiness in time.” Shabbat remains our greatest gift from God.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Screenshot from YouTube.


“The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft; to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood — to work in every kind of craft.”

David Brandes
Screenwriter and Producer

Of all the artists available to God (including the disgraced sinner who built the golden calf), why do you suppose he chose Bezalel? The Master Creator understood that creativity has a life and energy of its own. It’s chaotic, often intuitive, even amoral. In addition — and you can ask any Hollywood writer to confirm this — you just never know how the work is going to actually turn out. Even God had to make some adjustments in his design. After creating his greatest achievement, Adam, God realized that “It is not good for man to be alone.” He summarily added Eve to the mix. And when mankind turned ugly several chapters later, God brought down the great flood so that he could start again.

Because God had a specific design in mind for the holy Tabernacle, He knew that he had to choose an artist who was brilliant but was on the Master’s wavelength. Someone who could make the artistic leap, yet follow the grand intention. This was not, after all, to be an eye-catching designer home. It was to be the exalted home of God — something magisterial, yet warm, familiar. I think it is fair to say that if the brilliant futuristic architect Frank Gehry had lived in that time, he would not have been on the short list.

The reason God specifically chose Bezalel is evident when we examine the two parts of his name in Hebrew: “B’tzel” and “Elohim” —  he who dwells in the shadow of God.

Rabbi Stan Levy
Congregation B’nai Horin and The Academy for Jewish Religion

When I was a boy in Hebrew school, my Chasidic teacher taught us to hear Torah as personally addressed to us. Every personal name is a dimension of our own personality and the name of every location is a place in our own life.

This translation renders the Hebrew phrase ruakh Elohim as “divine spirit.” I prefer to translate it differently, as “the spirit of the force of life.”

The ruakh Elohim in this passage echoes the the ruakh Elohim described in the opening verses of Genesis, the force of life that permeated the waters of the Earth. This week’s Torah portion teaches us that every person is encoded with ruakh Elohim, the spirit of the force of life. It is part of our DNA, the spiritual DNA of God. It is how each of us is created in the image and likeness of Elohim, the force of life. With every breath we take, we are infusing ourselves with divine spiritual energy. Each of us is a living embodiment and expression of the presence of the Divine in our world.

These verses teach us that to be a wise person, to know how precious, fragile and time-limited life is, we need a wise heart. And we need to integrate our knowledge and intuition into our hearts in order to attain hearts of wisdom.

Finally, regardless of what our work in the world is, we should, as Albert Einstein said, lead our lives as works of art.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David­-Judea Congregation

God gives Bezalel wisdom, understanding and knowledge. But these seem to just be synonyms. Why does the Torah use these three specific words?

In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe refers to these same three words as levels of connection in learning Torah. They are referred to as CHaBaD (cHochmah, Binah and Daat). Chochmah is a spark, an interest that pulls us to want to know more. Binah is the process of understanding the spark, going deeper to comprehend. And Daat is the point at which an idea becomes a part of us — integral to who we are. This learning process is a gift because it enables us to connect with God at our core.

With this in mind, we see that the words in our verse are not three random synonyms. God provided Bezalel with three life-altering tools and through them, he merited to be known as Bezalel, “in the shadow of God.” He entered God’s embrace through Chochmah, Binah and Daat — through exploring and mastering God’s Torah.

But Bezalel is not the only one to have access to these tools. We can all find our spark in Torah (Chochmah), choose to learn more in depth (Binah) and make it a part of our lives and selves (Daat). It’s the process we would go through with anything we are committed to — with anyone we love. Let’s choose to do the same in our Torah lives and in our relationship with God. This week, find your spark!

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh
Temple Israel of Hollywood

Just like Bezalel, who worked in “every kind of craft,” children in school are expected to be good at everything: math, science, physical education, English, a foreign language, history, reading, writing, art, interpersonal skills, organizational skills and more. They are graded and judged. It’s exhausting. We set up unreasonable expectations for our youth: to be super-accomplished, résumé-armed, college-bound teens who are also “do-gooders,” caring and ethical.

No wonder many teens suffer from chronic anxiety and depression. No wonder our kids feel like they’re cracking under pressure and sometimes self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, or even take their own life.

In this week’s portion, God senses that it’s the exceptional person, Bezalel, who could paint and sculpt, draw and weave, carve and build with wood, solder metals and dye wool — because he was singled out by God and endowed with the divine spirit. There are artists who can do this today, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Things used to be different. For centuries, children would find themselves a mentor and then learn a trade. Want to make shoes? Find a shoemaker and study his craft. Want to farm land? Find a farmer and shadow him in the field. Want to sell goods around the world? Attach yourself to a traveling salesman and dream big. As adults, we don’t require one another to be proficient in “every kind of craft”; instead we allow ourselves to zero in on our strengths and pursue the talents and skills that interest us. Why can’t we allow our teens that same flexible mindset? Expecting that any person excel in “every kind of craft” is burdensome and potentially destructive.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
American Jewish University

How powerful that “wisdom” is the attribute that God uses for an artist, for someone who has the talent, discipline and has put in the time to master a craft. Judaism has never been about disembodied thought, about platonic concepts or values distilled and separate from life. Instead, Torah recognizes that wisdom is about living in the world, with the world. And that we, like Bezalel, are invited to live so mindfully that we — like God — become capable of creating.

When we intuit life deeply, when we resonate with its possibilities and opportunities, then we can birth new realities. For Bezalel, that new reality was a beautiful, multicolored venue where the Children of Israel would be able to be aware of God’s presence. Using fabrics, pelts, metals and woods, in a raucous blend of texture and hues, Israel’s mindfulness of God erupts out of mixed colors, sensations of touch and sight and (later) smell. All our senses praise God, who dwells with us in our worldliness. Art is thus placed at the very center of Jewish spirit; creativity and craft open our senses to the ways that the entire world is filled with God’s glory.

There are so many ways to bring people to the portal of the Divine. Surely, when we bring life wisdom to bear — in how we treat one another, fight for dignity and all creation, when we make new and beautiful objects to heighten our awareness, lift each other’s spirits or to soothe broken hearts — then we take our place, like Israel’s ancient artists, as God’s skilled and wise creators.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pixel


“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.”

Rabbi Marc D. Angel
Director, Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

The Ner Tamid (eternal light) was a basic feature of the Mishkan as well as the first and second Temples. Symbolizing the Almighty’s constant presence, it has been a component of synagogues throughout the generations.

In many communities, the lighting of oil lamps is a sign of respect for the beauty and holiness of the synagogue. In Sephardic congregations, those who receive an aliyah to the Torah often make a memorial contribution toward shemen lamaor, oil for illuminating the synagogue.

Rabbi David Ibn Zimra, of 16th-century Egypt, known as Radbaz, handled the case of a man who had the longtime practice of donating a large quantity of oil to light the synagogue lamps. Unfortunately, his financial condition worsened, so he could send only a small amount of oil. The synagogue officers then transferred the honor to a rich person who could donate more. The question: Did the first man, now in poor straits, lose his ongoing privilege of providing lights for the synagogue? Or did this right belong to him, since he had performed the mitzvah for so many years?

Radbaz replied: “The offering of a poor person is as important to the Almighty as an offering of a wealthy person. … If the congregation saw that the oil [he provided] was insufficient, they should have used communal funds [to meet the need] and avoid embarrassing the donor.”

Radbaz underscored the importance of all heartfelt contributions, whether large or small. Concern for human feelings takes priority over financial considerations.

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer
American Jewish University

In a fracked world where nature is being pillaged for so-called human welfare, our Torah nevertheless insists on the profound interrelationship of our spiritual lives and the natural world.

In Parashat Terumah, the Torah describes the menorah in a manner precisely evoking the moriah, the fragrant Palestinian sage from which it may well be derived, a plant known to indigenous people around the world as a source of healing. Now, in Tetzaveh, the Torah relates that the source of the ner tamid, the light to burn before the ark, is the olive, “a light unto the world” (Yalkut Shimoni 1, 378).

Just as the olive’s oil gives light, so do its leaves: As they blow in the wind, their silvery underside creates “silver clouds of light,” as Dr. Ephraim HaReuveni teaches. No wonder our rabbis imagine the olive leaf in the mouth of Noah’s dove bringing “light to the world” and see Sarah’s face shining “like the olive tree” when she hears she will bear a child. Jeremiah calls Israel “an olive tree, leafy and fair.” The rabbis say, “They shed light on all.”

Most moving of all is the vision of Zechariah. He sees an olive tree on either side of the golden menorah. When he asks the angel what they mean, the angel explains, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord” (Zechariah 4:2-6). May we, too, be sources of spiritual light bringing healing and peace into the world.

Rabbi Tsafi Lev
de Toledo High School and Rabbis Without Borders

The advice one generation passes to the next is one part deep caring and an equal part naive hubris. We often ignore the constantly changing contexts of our lives. So, I wonder about a verse that says, “It shall be a hukat olam l’dorotam, a due for all time, throughout the ages.”

Today, there is no Tabernacle and there is no Temple, and yet, God has expectations, as do we, when we pass things down to the next generation: “Do it, because it’s good, because it’s right.” The ner tamid described is not the one we see in our sanctuaries today. In effect, we have not done as we were told or commanded, but live with what we can do, and what works for us.

Change necessitates choice. The 21st century is largely shaped by accelerated change and the power of individual choice as a driver of identity more than by the influence of community. So what are we are saying to our children when we say, “This is how to be. Pass it down forever”? We are saying, “This is meaningful to me, and I want you to have it because I love you.” Only that and little more, but it’s honest and important.

We should be honest with ourselves about the changes the next generation will certainly make and be explicit with them about our love for them when we express our hope for their tomorrow.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger
Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood

Aaron and his sons are given instructions for kindling the menorah in the ancient Tabernacle. Hidden in the details yet in plain view is an important concept: Bring your best for God. All the minutiae detailing the preparation of the priests for their eternal duties points to this idea. When they are told to bring clear, pressed olive oil to light the menorah, we understand that only the best and highest grade will do for lighting the Eternal’s light. Olive oil was a commodity in the ancient world. But we are taught here to bring the finest.

We, too, ought to ask ourselves, “Do we bring our best and finest to God and God’s house?” Or do we seek to cut corners? Do we see how little we can do or give and get away with it?

Today, the synagogue is the heir to the Tabernacle of old. It is the place where we Jews try to encounter God’s Divine light through prayer, study and community. Perhaps it is time to stop bemoaning what is wrong with our synagogues and invest once again in bringing the best to God’s house — the best offerings we have and the best of ourselves, to ensure that the light of God emanates eternally from the Tent of Meeting of our day and time. The golden menorah was carried off by the Romans, never to be seen again, but God’s light still shines through our acts of holiness and dedication to our people and our God.

David Sacks
Television writer who podcasts at

If you think about it, it’s kind of funny that God commands us to light the menorah in the Holy Temple. Why? Because God doesn’t need that light in order to see! So, then, why light it at all?

To answer that, we have to go back to before the world was created. Most people think the world started with darkness, and then God said, “Let there be light.” Nothing could be further from the truth. God existed before the world did, and one of the names of God in kabbalistic texts is Ohr Ayn Sof, or Light Without End.

In other words, the starting point of the world is tremendous light — not darkness at all.

The light of the menorah was so holy. The Kotzker Rebbe teaches that it channeled that original light of creation back into the world. Which brings us back to our question. Who was the light for? Us!

This explains the windows in the Holy Temple. Normally, windows are meant to bring in as much light as possible. And yet the windows in the Holy Temple were funnel-shaped — large on the outside but small on the inside. The rabbis teach that this was for the light of the menorah to shine out to the entire world.

As a Light unto the Nations, we have a responsibility to shine this teaching that the beginning of everything is not darkness, but light, hope and the goodness of God.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Wikimedia Commons


“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.”

Rabbi David Saiger
Milken Community Schools

Ron Swanson in TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” played by Nick Offerman, is a curmudgeonly parks director who is vehemently anti-government and anti-pretty much anything institutional, including religion. As a hobbyist carpenter and builder, he’s forced to admit, while attending a wedding in a church: “Say what you will about organized religion, but those [people] knew how to construct an edifice.”

Swanson and I may disagree on the value of organized religion, but we agree on the value of a well-designed edifice. However, there are edifices and then there are edifices. The Torah recognizes the allure of building something grand and beautiful. The Tower of Babel was grand and beautiful, presumably, but its purpose was to give others and/or ourselves the false impression that we are (like?) gods. It was the ultimate expression of hubris.

But some edifices, however grand and beautiful, truly allow God to dwell among us. Put differently, some edifices allow us to access the most spiritual, empathic and even humble parts of ourselves. To me, the operative words of our verse are “that [God] may dwell.” The Tabernacle isn’t the dwelling place of the human ego, it’s the dwelling place of spiritual values. The Tabernacle was the anti-Babel — an edifice constructed not to express the desires of powerful men, but an edifice that puts the ego in check and creates space for God, for the Godly parts of ourselves.

When I enter a space to pray or to reflect, be the space humble or grand, my question is: Is this a Tower of Babel, or is this a Tabernacle?

Rabbi Jocee Hudson
Temple Israel of Hollywood

One of the most profound shifts in my understanding of God has been inspired by feminist theologians, who have taught that God is not a hierarchical power judging from above, but rather an animating power radiating from within.

“Does God judge me?” I am asked versions of this question often in my work as a rabbi. And it’s a question I will admit to asking myself. “Is God angry with me? Is God punishing me?”

These are difficult questions because they unearth hard truths in our emotional landscapes: we are imperfect, life can be devastating and confusing and, in the face of uncertainty, we may find ourselves desperate for answers.

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

In response to these tough questions, I remind myself of this bit of Torah.

There is a divine spark in each of us, which links us one to the other and to our deepest selves. This divine spark, which dwells among us, within us, is not a source of judgment or punishment. This divine spark is a nurturing, connective force that has the power to bring us shalom and shleimut, peace and wholeness. When we pray or meditate or allow our minds to quiet, this is the light, the echo, that emerges.

There is much of God I cannot know. There is so much of God I can feel. The truest sanctuaries we build make space for both realities.

Salvador Litvak

Our friend Ziporah Bank likes to say, “If you’re walking through a desert and find 10 rocks lined up in a row, you know someone did that. Nature doesn’t randomly create such rows. Likewise, a universe filled with ordered beauty, from galaxies to gladioluses, doesn’t just happen. Someone did that.”

In our verse, God has already told Moses to open the first capital campaign by inviting “every person whose heart inspires him” to donate materials for a new synagogue. Its architect is the Holy One Himself, who now shows His design to Moses.

Our verse reads, “Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle…” but there are no dashes in the Torah. So read it, “I show you the pattern.” This pattern is the mark of God eternally dwelling in our midst. Most people would walk by Ziporah’s row of rocks without a second thought, particularly when troubled by a business problem or worrisome relative.

If we open ourselves to the possibility of Divine purpose, however, we can eventually become like Reb Zusha of Anipoli, who would regularly collapse to the ground, overwhelmed by the stars in the night sky, and the loving Hand that placed them there.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

We are the lens through which our children see the world.

At dinner, our three children were giggling and laughing. Assuming the kids weren’t paying attention, my husband and I discussed our health. The words “lose weight” entered the conversation. Our daughter’s head popped up and she said, “I want to lose weight, too.” She is 6 years old.

We included her in a discussion about healthy eating and living, but lingering was the shock of our 6-year-old mirroring our language and behavior. Although it was a positive talk about ways to be healthy, the lesson was clear: The younger generation forms opinions, attitudes and behaviors based on how the older generation models and performs.

If we want our daughter to love herself, then we must intentionally model ways to do just that.

The Italian commentator Umberto Cassuto elucidates, “…[W]e shall explain in detail how the very design of the Tabernacle was able to inspire the people with the confident feeling that the Lord was present in their midst.”

Meaning, the pattern of the Tabernacle was to deliberately remind the children of Israel that God was watching and God was present. The architectural design of the Tabernacle provided a model of life for the Israelites to mirror. In understanding that God was close, so came the ability to develop a core of strength and a heart of faith.

We serve as our children’s Tabernacle. Let our words and actions allow for their growth — spiritual, physical, emotional.

Our children are watching.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

Hypercreative, infinite and original designer of innumerable worlds seeks meaningful relationship with finite, corporeal being with intent to build a home together. Heaven is nice but it’s time to get down to earth.

Blueprints, materials, real estate … everything is prepared and ready for implementation. All that’s needed is your willingness to take this forward — with passion, with love, with wisdom, with wonder — and with total dedication to invest every talent you have into making something truly awesome happen.

Together, we can make the world beautiful again. Even more beautiful than when I first made it. Way more. We will fit infinite light into finite space. We’ll reveal transcendent oneness in fine, precise detail. We’ll unveil divine beauty in everyday human life.

I’ve got the resources. You provide the human life.

Just call, wherever you are, however you are. I’ve been waiting to meet you for way too long.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pixel


“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice

There is perhaps no teaching more essential to Judaism than the ethical imperative to protect the rights and secure the needs of the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Throughout history, societies that called themselves civilized would marginalize these people, often ensuring a systemic lack of access to legal, financial and social protections. The vitality and everlasting relevance of the Jewish moral paradigm is that we refuse to overlook these individuals. Rather, we embrace them, seek them out and hold them close.

God instructs us that to be religious people, we must make the marginalized — rather than the elite — our priority. To be faithful is to orient our lives around the needs of the most vulnerable. While the stranger, widow and orphan are specified throughout Jewish holy texts, we can understand them conceptually as well as literally: these mitzvot apply to all who are marginalized, alienated, oppressed and suffering.

We often think of “observant Jews” as those who adhere to the most rituals. We ought to stop assessing observance with such stringency. Instead, we should think of those who are kind, morally reflective and working to alleviate the plight of others as “observant Jews,” for they uphold and preserve the most crucial axioms of Torah. When we talk about the abused, the poor and the sick, these populations aren’t often part of the broader community conversation. This has to change.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches: “The great crimes of humanity have been committed against the stranger, the outsider, the one-not-like-us.”

As a Sephardic Jew who grew up in Ashkenazi day schools, I know what it’s like to be “the one-not-like-us.” My pronunciation of Hebrew was mocked, my parents’ customs were called “exotic” and I was continuously called a “Black Jew.” To this day, so-called “fellow Jews” comment on my “dark Sephardic look,” my “Arab” style of prayer, and my “colorful” customs. In certain segments of the Jewish community, I am often made to feel like “the Sephardic stranger,” that “different Jew.”

Wherever there is injustice or prejudice, Jews always take to the streets in protest. Whether it’s fair wages for employees, civil rights for minorities, immigration rights for newcomers or human rights for those seeking political asylum, Jews are always at the forefront of the struggle. I only wish we could apply that same passion for social justice, equality and inclusion toward those within our Jewish community who — because of ethnic background, skin color or sexual orientation — are often excluded and treated as “strangers and outsiders.” Justice, after all, begins at home.

In the words of Rabbi Sacks, “The best way of curing hostility to strangers is to remember that we, too — from someone else’s perspective — are strangers.” We’ve done a great job curing this hostility on a global level. It’s time we do so at home, in our own communities.

Rabbi Erez Sherman
Sinai Temple

As a recently bereaved brother, I learned quickly that even a rabbi needs a rabbi in times of need. Over the past four months of reciting the Kaddish daily, I discovered that my rabbis are my congregants in the daily minyan. People who sit shivah, are in shloshim, are in a year of mourning, or observing a yahrzeit. We each recite the same words but we each have different stories to tell.

While Torah explicitly prohibits causing distress to an orphan and widow, Rashi includes in this prohibition all downtrodden individuals. Sefer Hachinuch teaches that the widow and orphan are championed because they have no one else to cry out to but God. Yet, those who are not suffering put their trust in other human beings, often removing the Divine presence in their lives.

The prophet Zechariah calls the Jews assirei tikvah, prisoners of hope. The Torah understands that at our most vulnerable we must be coddled, embraced and loved. For it is then that we may live out the prophetic vision. I am witness to this act of kindness each day. While no human being is exempt from one day walking through the valley of the shadow, we thankfully are also witness to the light of our tradition, commanding us to pave a path of comfort actively for those in need.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards
Beth Chayim Chadashim

Among the most valuable lessons my beloved third-grade teacher taught me was not in the lesson plans. Whenever she saw any of her students tease or bully another, her nostrils would flare, and she would shout, “Stop and think! How would you feel?” She’d trained us well — the room would fall silent, the (mis)behavior would stop, we all thought about and felt what had happened, the “oppressor” would apologize to the “oppressed,” and we went back to work (or recess).

Despite Judaism’s insistence that we not anthropomorphize God, this passage from Exodus gives God a mouth, ears, a nose and the righteous indignation of my third-grade teacher.

The “I” in this passage is God; God is speaking and God hears: “I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me.” The nose of God is less apparent, but “My anger shall blaze forth” includes the Hebrew word api (aleph-pei-yod), which can also mean “my nostril” — God’s nostrils will flare in anger. Picture a fire-breathing dragon defending its treasure … or my third-grade teacher protecting her young charges.

God’s teaching starts tenderly, asking us to feel what another might feel, and thereby improve our behavior: “you were strangers/sojourners” (23:9 adds, “you know the soul of the sojourner …”). Yet within moments, even without witnessing an actual act of oppression, God’s fury is kindled, simply imagining what some men of privilege might be inclined to do to the vulnerable.

“Stop and think! How would you feel?”

Rabbi Sarah Barukh
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

These verses offer a straightforward theology in which God heeds the cry of the suffering and punishes those who cause pain.

In my work as a hospital chaplain, I encounter people who use this theology as a resource to make sense of their own suffering. They experience comfort in understanding God as an active player who responds to human actions and needs. The majority of my visits, however, are with patients or families who struggle with this idea, their faith fraying as they try to understand. Where is the God who hears the cry of the oppressed? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Our tradition has many answers to these eternal questions and Parashat Mishpatim presents one potential response. All wrestle with one of life’s most challenging spiritual tasks: the quest to find meaning in the shared human experience of pain and suffering.

I have found that jumping to provide a single answer to such big questions is rarely comforting — for me or others. In this case, the tradition certainly provides a variety of thoughts, but more importantly, it models a method of engagement. The multitude of voices highlights a willingness to explore, try on or even refute different responses to suffering and gives us room to do the same. Sharing in this process with someone can be healing in and of itself. For the one seeking to understand, it can offer opportunities for deeper understanding, spiritual growth and healing.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

PARSHA: YITRO, Exodus 19:4-6

“‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.’”

Rabbi Gail Labovitz
American Jewish University

There’s a saying about politics: “Campaign in poetry, govern in prose.” But before the Revelation at Sinai, God uses both prose and poetry to seek loyalty and commitment from the Israelites.

God begins with a statement of fact: “You saw what I did to the Egyptians.” As Rashi comments, this is not just a handed-down tradition, not just words, not just someone else’s testimony. For the Israelites, this should be as “objective” as it gets: You, yourselves, actually saw the Nile become blood, saw frogs and lice and locusts, saw Egyptians drowned at the sea.

But then God shifts into metaphor to describe what God has done for the Israelites: “I carried you on eagles’ wings.” Some commentators want to make this, too, somewhat more “literal,” attempting to determine exactly when, and to where, God carried the Israelites: from scattered across Egypt to a single location in the wilderness? Across the sea? To Sinai? But others embrace the metaphor, focusing on God’s protection and caring more generally, as also in Deuteronomy 32:11: “Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young, so did He (God) spread His wings and take him (Israel), bear him along on His pinions.”

What “actually” happened and what it means are separate things. Miracles and their implications would seem hard to ignore, but we know human beings are — we know our own ancestors were — fully capable of doing so. History can happen in prose. But God’s love for us can reveal its poetry.

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles
Temple Isaiah

This week’s Torah portion is named after Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro). It is curious that the Torah portion in which the Israelites are elected as God’s treasured people, are elevated to a kingdom of priests and receive the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, is named after Yitro, a Midianite priest.

In the Torah portion, Yitro counsels Moses on how to organize, delegate and empower this ragged group of fugitives. Dare we say that it was Yitro, a non-Jew, who enabled the Israelites to receive The Law? Do we attribute the Revelation of Torah to the loving intervention of a foreign priest? Yes! The name of the very portion that declares our chosenness is reminding us of the purpose of our sacred post. Just as a Midianite priest served to help our people, we must, as a nation of priests, serve to help the strangers of other nations. We are a “light unto the nations,” and in the same way a lighthouse is not there to serve itself, we are here to help the ships of other peoples to safe harbors. We are God’s partners in the world, apprentices to the Master Artisan, seeking to integrate every thread into one beautiful tapestry

Rabbi Arielle Hanien
International Trauma-Healing Institute

What technicolor depictions of our people and of God! God is depicted as a force that punishes oppressors; as a protective eagle, shielding its vulnerable young as it soars; as a voice of authority, prescribing roles and rules; and as a sovereign, to whom we are like a beloved jewel.

The rabbis say these descriptions — with their differing visual, emotional and didactic content — were intended for different ears: the House of Jacob and the Children of Israel, respectively, referred to in the preceding verse.

God, who knows the manifold nature of truth, models an understanding that people — mothers nursing their young, wise elders, youth reveling in newfound freedom, men and women who are willful, frightened or discerning in any given moment — will be receptive to different aspects of the fluid, infinitely complex truth.

Hearing (or listening) is a leitmotif of this Torah portion, which contains the identity-defining moment of the Jewish people at Sinai. Indeed, it opens with “Yitro heard,” words that moved the rabbis to name this Torah portion after the Midianite priest, Moses’ father-in-law.

Having heard of our travails and triumphs, Yitro responds with wonder and support. “Blessed be God,” Yitro says — of our God. “Thus we know,” teaches the Midrash, “that the ear connects directly to the heart.”

When Yitro later offers Moses advice, Moses heeds it. Perhaps people who are good at listening are better able to speak in ways that can be heard. Perhaps this is something God teaches us to do, as well — God who hears us and reminds us to listen.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, Washington, D.C.

When I think of wings of eagles, I think of the heroic manner in which Israel rescued Ethiopian Jews in Operations Moses and Solomon. In 1991, as part of Operation Solomon, Israel airlifted Ethiopian Jews and brought them to Israel. In doing so, Israel crammed so many people onto a 747 that they set the world record for the passenger load of a single flight. How beautiful were the wings on that plane!

Those operations represent Israel at its best — and the recognition that Israel has responsibility to represent the Jewish state to the world. Whereas other countries went to Africa to abduct humans and sell them as slaves, Israel went to Africa to rescue Jews and bring them home as citizens. In doing so, it demonstrated to the world that Judaism is colorblind.

And yet the work is far from over. The verses also urge us to remember how we were once carried and to use that memory to be a holy nation.

With that in mind, I pray for the nearly 38,000 Africa asylees from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan who currently are seeking refuge in Israel. Israel reportedly would like to deport them forcibly to African countries, where they have been greatly mistreated and exposed to existential dangers. I pray that the Israeli government reverses course on this policy matter. Indeed, to expel refugees from Israel would be an eternal blemish on our holy nation.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, Md.

In this most succinct summary of the Exodus, the Torah presents us not only with the past but with the desired future goal: You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a unique nation. The role of the priests in antiquity was to be teachers and spiritual leaders. In other nations, priests were the mediators with the gods, their spokespeople and keepers of the gates of the underworld. Israelite priests, in contrast, served in the Temple only a fraction of the year, and were not allowed to touch dead bodies. That allowed them to be accessible to the people whenever they were needed, as described by the prophet Malachi (2:7): “The priest’s lips will guard wisdom, and they will seek the knowledge of Torah of him, for he is a messenger of God.”

The Torah labels the Israelites a Nation of Priests, meaning that the Israelites should serve as a guiding light to humanity by spreading knowledge, in the vein of the fourth chapter of Micah, where the prophets describe the nations flocking to Jerusalem to study Torah.

I translate the second part of the future title of the Israelites as “unique nation” because the root Q-D-SH in Hebrew means set aside, distinct. In Leviticus (19:2), the Torah encourages us to be unique individuals, just as God is unique, and here the Torah suggests that each nation should have a unique characteristic, or diversity within unity.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pixel


“As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, ‘Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, “Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness”?’ ”

Rabbi Eve Posen
Congregation Neveh Shalom, Portland, Ore.

As a parent of young children, I live in a world of contradictions. I always have two simultaneous thoughts running through my head: wanting my children to remain forever in the stage they are currently in, and at the same time, wanting them to move out of this terrible phase and mature already. And it never fails: The minute they’ve reached a new milestone, I go through the same emotions again.

A popular way to examine the relationship between God and the Israelites is as that of parent and child, and the notion of stages of growth fits that comparison perfectly. When they found themselves in Egypt, naturally the Israelites were unhappy as slaves. The minute they were free, the harsh realities of that freedom made them yearn for the comfort of what was familiar.

This tendency is human at a basic level. No situation, no moment in time is going to be without its own harsh realities. In reading about this phase of the Israelites’ journey into freedom, we are reminded to take a step back and reflect as objectively as possible before proceeding. We can attempt to wish away the phase, or we can stand up and set about doing the work necessary to change the reality into something better.

Does that mean I won’t long for the days of easier airplane trips and reliable nap schedules? Of course not. But I will do so knowing I made the most of each phase to prepare myself for the next one.

David Sacks
TV writer who podcasts at

Because I make my living as a comedy writer, people sometimes ask me if God has a sense of humor. My answer is that God created humor. When you look at the Torah, the clearest example of an actual written joke is when the Jews ask Moshe if he brought them to die in the desert because … “there weren’t enough graves in Egypt.”

It’s total sarcasm and, in my opinion, hilarious. Which brings us to a deeper question: Why create humor? According to the Baal Shem Tov, humor brings a person’s mind from a place of constricted consciousness to a place of expanded consciousness.

When you’re in a place of expanded consciousness, you see the totality of creation before you. You see God’s presence and goodness acting upon everything. And you realize that anything and everything that happens is an expression of HaShem’s love for us — whether we can understand that in the moment or not.

Constricted consciousness is, of course, the opposite: the understandable impulse to take things too literally, believing that events are not a part of something greater. Humor and laughter, while great in themselves, are actually subsets of a larger topic: joy. One of the surprising things I learned when I started studying Torah was the importance Judaism puts on happiness. As Rebbe Nachman put it, people are sad because nothing is going right for them. But what they don’t realize is that nothing is going right for them because they’re sad.

Rabbi Ari Lucas
Temple Beth Am

In hindsight, the choice to move from slavery to freedom seems inevitable. But it rarely is. Patrick Henry famously proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death.” But the Israelites in this passage seem to be saying, “If liberty means death, then we’re OK with slavery.” Not exactly the romantic freedom cry one might hope for from our Israelite ancestors.

Yet their expressions of reluctance carry an important lesson — that freedom requires making an active choice to leave the comforts of the status quo. In Henry’s time, there were Tories who preferred loyalty to the British crown to revolution. Gallup polls from the early 1960s show that large portions of Americans disapproved of the actions of the Freedom Riders and others engaging in civil disobedience for racial justice.

History and Torah remind us that the path toward freedom is rarely, if ever, inevitable. We must leave behind the comforts of the status quo — the world as we knew it — for the unknown dangers of the wilderness. In fact, every one of the Israelites who left Egypt will “die in the wilderness.” But Moses had the faith and courage to recognize that even if they did not reach the Land of Israel, their children would. Progress is not inevitable. It requires leadership, faith and courage — for us, just as it did for our ancestors.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Ohr HaTorah Synagogue, Academy for Jewish Religion, California

First take-away: Be careful of sarcasm with God. The Israelites could have said it straight: “We are afraid we are going to die here.” Instead, they belittle God (sarcasm is always belittling) and say “ … you brought us to die in the desert.”  Perhaps it had not yet occurred to God that this generation should die in the desert. Through this bit of contemptuous irony, the Israelites put the idea in God’s mind. Perhaps God’s unspoken response was, “Now that you mention it … ” Nearly everyone of this generation actually does die in the desert. The Israelites put the thought in God’s mind — and divine thoughts have the tendency to become reality.

Second: What does sarcasm say about its speaker? As a form of irony, sarcasm is a version of saying something, but in a different way. Sarcasm is a punitive form of irony. The intention is to ridicule. It is a form of lashon harah, destructive use of speech, and ona’ah be’devarim, inflicting hurt through words. We know from the Talmud (Bava Metziah 59b) that God can tolerate nearly all sin — you do your time in gehinnom (purgatory) and then come up to eternal bliss. Only one category of person stays in hell — those who call people by derisive names in public. God can tolerate weakness, but not meanness through words. God does not want such folks in heaven, and apparently not in the Promised Land, either.

People think: I am angry and afraid, so I get to talk how I want. Not true.

Rabbi Sari Laufer
Stephen Wise Temple

After a friend recommended that I follow @bymariandrew on Instagram, it started to seem as if Mari’s life somehow paralleled mine. Knowing nothing about her other than her illustrations, it seems that, like me, she is going through some big transitions — among them, moving. Last summer she posted an illustration showing a bunch of squiggly lines tangled together, captioned: “City Map When You First Arrive.” Next to that was a map with places labeled: Your best friend’s house. The best night of your life. Your favorite coffee shop. The caption: “How A City Map Looks When You’ve Lived There a While.”

Looking behind them in this moment, the Israelites see the city map they’ve always known. Even with its pain and fear, even with its degradation and narrowness, it is comfortable because it is known. Looking forward, the Israelites can see only the squiggly lines — the wilderness, the uncertainty … the unknown.

Kol hatchalot kashot, our rabbis teach. All beginnings are difficult. It is a teaching I have repeated often this year as my family and I started anew (back) here in Los Angeles.

It is hard to start over. It is hard to leave behind what we know, even when what we know is Egypt. It is hard to see only the squiggly, to not be able to imagine the map of a place you will come to love, a community you will come to build.

To step forward into the unknown is difficult and it is necessary. Then. Now.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Pexels.

PARSHA: BO, Exodus 10:1-2

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons what I have wrought of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.’ ”

Rabbi David Woznica
Stephen Wise Temple

Why does God harden the heart of Pharaoh and his courtiers? The Torah gives two reasons: so that God can place “signs among them” and so that future generations will recount what God did.

What God did was take the Israelites out of Egypt, an act Jews recount every week. Two events in Jewish history are so central that they are included in the full version of the Friday night Kiddush blessing: the creation of the world and the Exodus from Egypt. Both events reflect God’s power. Each of them also reveals an additional important aspect of God — that God is above nature (as creator of the world) and that God cares about the world (as demonstrated by the Israelites’ liberation from slavery).

God is all-powerful, supernatural and cares.

These facets of God are particularly important when it comes to prayer. While prayer has many forms, we frequently appeal to God to use power to intervene. And we often ask God to intervene to stop nature’s course — to halt a life-threatening disease, for example, or avert a natural disaster. Knowing that God cares about the world is vital to meaningful prayer. After all, if we didn’t believe God cares and has a sense of justice, prayer would seem hollow.

God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to create a more just world. More than 3,000 years later, we continue to feel the impact.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

There’s only one way to understand anything in Torah. You have to read it as a teaching in your life. Because that’s what Torah is, first and foremost. And that’s what your life is — a commentary on that teaching.

It also helps to read the Hebrew. This translation renders the phrase bo el Paro as “go to Pharaoh,” but it can also be translated as “come to Pharaoh.”

God says to each one of us: Pharaoh is the big, mean world out there. Pharaoh is scary. Pharaoh is powerful. Pharaoh is obstinate. There’s just no way around Pharaoh. And Pharaoh holds you captive, as his slave.

God tells you, “Come with me. You’re not doing this alone. You just do your thing and I’ll take care of the rest. Then you’ll be free.”

There’s a reason He set it up that way.

Because you weren’t put in this world to do the possible, the predictable, the natural and the obvious. You were put here to transcend nature. To allow miracles to enter. To make sure the world will never be the same again. So that the whole wide world will recognize that it’s not just a world. It’s a divine masterpiece — one big, amazing miracle.

To do that, Pharaoh needs to be impossible. And you need a lot a faith and chutzpah. Like Moses.

May we all make our grand escape from Pharaoh’s slavery really soon — sooner than we can imagine.

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman
The Jewish Mindfulness Network

Every year when I come upon this verse, I wonder about the relationship between freedom and a hardened heart. Psychologist Erich Fromm argues that every evil act a person commits deadens the person’s own heart and when this is repeated, a person increasingly lessens her freedom to change. Fromm writes that there is “a point of no return, when man’s heart has become … so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom.”

Our path out of slavery requires a practice in which we examine the state of our hearts and take steps to keep it open, even in the face of conflict. For example, we can include a daily check-up of our heart in our personal practice: to whom and to what have we closed our hearts? Can we bring kindness to our own emotional bruises, gently encouraging ourselves to stay expansive?

Sometimes, just sitting with your hand gently on your heart, inhaling compassion, is powerful. In the presence of love, our hearts blossom. When we are hurt, we close down, often with the false belief that doing so will protect us from further pain. Our families, communities and the world itself need our tender hearts. Freedom itself depends on the openhearted — people who have the courage to feel the pain and to walk boldly, with trust and strength, into the wilderness ahead.

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
The Open Temple, Venice, Calif.

Two words in this verse are spark plugs that drive the engine of our story for generations: bo (come) and eleh (these). Bo is a command directing one toward a complex act of fecundity. For Noah, it was “Come into the ark,” the command to endure the destruction of the world for its renewal. For Moses, it is “Come to Pharaoh,” an imperative toward the completion of the anti-creation story of the Ten Plagues, which will birth the greatest experiment from the ancient world, one that continues to evolve through all of us today: the nation of Israel.

But why state, “I will show these my signs in the midst of them”? As Ramban reminds us, “these” refers not just to Pharaoh and the Israelites but to generations to come. God informs Moses that there is a reason behind all of this suffering — a master plan that will play out for generations.

When entering into Parashat Bo this week, what if we ask ourselves: What are the signs in our midst? Where are our hearts hardened? What destructive vermin eat at the fabric of our society? Where does darkness lurk and what ultimate loss must be endured for an era of transformation and rebirth to arise? How much more suffering must we witness until we all understand that there is something larger than just ourselves conducting the rhythms and music of this ceaseless song of creation, and that our modern-day Pharaoh is, indeed, our partner in redemption?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck
Clal — The National Jewish Center or Learning and Leadership

Few verses in Torah have inspired more spilled ink than this first one, which raises the question of free will. How can it be that Pharaoh is punished so brutally when it was God who hardened his heart in the first place? And what about us? If we’re hardwired a certain way, will we be afforded the opportunity to change — to immerse ourselves in the heart-softening work of teshuvah? Is teshuvah even possible?

As they did so many times in their relationship, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish disagree about this issue. Yochanan is concerned that heretics will forgo repentance because the nature of their hearts is in God’s hands, while Lakish argues that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened only after invitations to repent.

While the conversation between these two sages is relatively unremarkable, it is noteworthy that if they had listened to each other only a bit more carefully, they might not have suffered the tragic fate that took them both from this world. Deep in the throes of what would become their final learning session, they disagreed about an issue and both said things they would later regret. But despite their previous years of loving friendship, they remained hard-hearted and unrepentant until both eventually died of grief — of broken hearts, as it were.

Sometimes the insights we need most are right in front of us. If we are able to soften our hearts just enough to truly hear them, we will open ourselves not only to teshuvah but to more honest and compassionate relationships with those we love most in this precious world.

Rosner’s Torah-Talk: Parashat Va’era with Rabbi Craig Marantz

Rabbi Craig Marantz is the senior Rabbi at Emanuel Congregation in Chicago. Rabbi Marantz has over 17 years as a Jewish educator and congregational leader. A native of Los Angeles, CA Rabbi Marantz has Master’s degrees from Stanford and The Reform College.

The week’s Torah portion- Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35)- features Moses and Aaron’s appearance before Pharaoh, their showdown with Pharaoh’s sorcerers, and the first seven plagues of Egypt. Our discussion focuses, among other things, on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and on the enigmatic question regarding God’s role in it.



You can watch previous conversations on this parsha with:

Rabbi Daniel Brenner

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Rabbi William Cutter








TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pexel.

PARSHA: Va’era, EXODUS 6:10-13

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.’ But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying, ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!’ So the Lord spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt.”

Salvador Litvak

God is about to send 10 plagues into the world — 10 miracles that will prove His existence and His special regard for the Jews. Why, then, does God ask Moses to approach both Pharaoh and the elders of Israel without proof of his divine mandate?

In his 2010 viral video, “Leadership Lessons From Dancing Guy,” Derek Sivers says, “The first follower transforms the lone nut into a leader.”

When Moses announced that he would demand that the most powerful man in the world release his workforce, no one took him seriously. It required faith and vision to become Moses’ first follower.

Aaron did not grow up with his brother and hardly knew him. He recognized, however, that Moses was the right man at the right time. Aaron jumped aboard despite enormous risk of failure and ridicule, thus earning his special relationship with Moses and his eternal stature among the Jews.

Once the plagues arrived, not only were the Jews finally ready to follow Moses, so were many Egyptians. A mixed multitude left Egypt, and our sages teach that many of these opportunists became the complainers whose faithless whining brought on a string of calamities in the wilderness.

Complainers are inevitable in any mission-driven group and they are profoundly destructive. To combat such a negative force, a leader needs a great first follower — one who not only gets the movement going but keeps it on track in tough times. May we merit being that first follower when the moment calls.

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

Moses complains that the people did not listen when he addressed them. Why didn’t they listen? Because they were short of breath and working hard — a timely lesson for us moderns. Often we are so enslaved to our careers that we cannot possibly open up soulfully to what Elijah called “the still small voice” of God.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that Americans don’t think, because in America “one thinks with a watch in one’s hand.” Today we can add to Nietzsche’s observation that nobody can experience spiritual emancipation from the tyranny and shackles of the mundane because we are constantly glued to our smartphones.

In the book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” nurse Bronnie Ware shared the second most common regret of people in palliative care: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” So many potential, blissful hours with loved ones and with the Almighty are squandered because of our culture’s idolatrous obsession with the false idol of “productivity.”

Karl Marx wrongly defined humanity as “Homo Faber,” the producing animal. The Torah reminds us that we are the soulful animal, and meeting the world’s material and psychological demands should never come at the expense of developing what Michael Fishbane called a “sacred attunement” to the mesmerizing voices of our loved ones, and to what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the subliminal “echo of eternity.”

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

How do we get people to listen to us when we feel unheard? Moses almost gives up because he can’t answer this question, and he defines himself solely by this struggle: “I am a man of closed lips.”

The Midrash teaches that the phrase “God spoke to Moses and Aaron” indicates that God actually gave them advice about how to communicate. Namely, Gold told Moses and Aaron that the way to be heard is to speak gently, with patience and respect.

Whether we are like Moses — leading others, petitioning authority for justice — or feeling unheard in our relationships, workplace or even prayer life, each of us can apply this wisdom. None of us is a stranger to conflict or heated conversation, to feeling unheard or silenced. Perhaps we may have even been the cause of such feelings in others.

Proverbs tells us, “As in water face answers to face, so is the heart of a person to a person” (27:19). What we give to others is what we receive. If we communicate gently, with patience and respect, we will receive just that. This is God’s advice to Moses and Aaron — and to us. It applies when we are speaking or listening, and even if our audience (like Pharaoh) doesn’t end up heeding our words. May God help us connect with one another and with Him — not with “closed lips” but with open ears, open mouths and open hearts.

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat
Board of Rabbis of Southern California

“Is there an age limit for jury duty?” an elderly man asked at jury-duty orientation.

“No,” the woman replied. “We have had jurors of all ages, but if you are over 70 years old and have a medical condition that precludes you from serving, then you can fill out this form.”

The man thanked her and began filling out the form.

I sat down and read the verses I had brought with me to jury duty. In them, Moses asked God to be exempted from telling Pharaoh to let the people go. Moses, too, was elderly — 80 years old. Moses doesn’t ask God for exemption based on his age but rather based on his speech impediment.

God refused Moses’ request. Instead, God reiterated the summons to Moses and to his brother, Aaron. By including Aaron, God provided support to Moses. Aaron could serve as Moses’ spokesman if necessary. However, God didn’t believe that Moses’ speech impairment precluded him from leadership.

Moses thought he was “not a man of words,” but God knew better. God understood that, inside of him, Moses had a reservoir of wise words, which would become the book of Deuteronomy — in Hebrew, Devarim (literally, “words”). Moses was worried about his deficiencies but God recognized his strengths.

If only we could see ourselves — and one another   — as God sees us. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. … You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn
Yeshivat Yavneh

Moses’ fear is reasonable: “How will I approach Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world, the man who raised me, when my words flow with difficulty?” This insecurity probably stems from the fact that he knows that Pharaoh recognizes him at his most vulnerable. Pharaoh was responsible for teaching Moses most of his words and now Moses is going to use them against him.

The problem with this passage is not so much Moses’ fear, but rather the solution to the fear. God speaks to Moses and Aaron, instructing them to go together. How does this assuage Moses’ reservations? One possibility that has been suggested is that Moses doesn’t need to fear, because he will have a backup — Aaron will be with him. This approach’s flaw is that it ignores the fact that Moses has the ultimate backup: God.

Notice the wording of the verse is not that “you and Aaron will speak to Pharaoh.” That job still belongs to Moses alone. Perhaps this wasn’t about going in with a security blanket, but rather with an identity. If Moses stands and protests before Pharaoh, Pharaoh can turn and say, “How dare you? You are my son. I raised you. Traitor!” This is what Moses is afraid of. But with Aaron — his flesh and blood brother — by his side, he can turn and say to Pharaoh with confidence, “I may have been raised here, but these are my people and this is my family. You were merely a forced stopover.”

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Pixabay.

PARSHA: Shemot, EXODUS 2:11-12

“Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

Rabbi Marc Angel
Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

This passage usually is understood to mean that Moses wanted to be sure he would not be seen when he slew the Egyptian. But it might be understood differently.

Moses was outraged by the entire system of slavery. Confronted with an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he realized that “there was no man” — the oppressor had become a savage beast, the oppressed had become a work animal. The human element had vanished; there was no mercy, no mutual respect, no sympathy for each other. He could not deal with the injustices taking place in Egypt — a land where “there was no man,” where people had been reduced to animal status, to being objects rather than subjects.

The Torah’s story of the redemption of the Israelite slaves is ultimately a profound lesson teaching that each human being has a right to be free, to be a dignified human being, and to be treated as a fellow human being (as well as an obligation to treat others as such). Slavery is an evil both for the oppressor and the oppressed. It is a violation of the sanctity of human life.

When human beings treat each other as objects, humanity suffers. We can retain our own humanity only when we recognize the humanity of each of our fellow human beings.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald
American Jewish University

One of the great mysteries of Moses’ life is when he learns his own origin story. We, the readers, know well that the infant Moses was saved by a collection of rebellious women — the midwives who deliver him and do not turn him over to the authorities, the mother and sister who hatch a desperate plot to place him in a basket on the Nile, the princess who takes a foundling into the palace and raises the child there as a son.

However, the texts are silent on when and how the young Moses discovers his slave origins. All we learn is that at some point in his early adulthood he goes out and sees Hebrew slaves and identifies them as “brothers,” and then unleashes lethal violence against their taskmaster.

Had Moses known of his true origin for many years, holding his shame and anger at bay, until one day he snapped and couldn’t take it any longer? Or was it that Moses learned of his origin just in that moment and this fateful encounter happened as he fled the palace in disgust and despair? Or, perhaps most intriguingly of all, could it be that Moses never actually learns the true circumstances of his birth, but comes to identify with slaves as brothers, to see injustice done to one as injustice done to all?

Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny
Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles

What gave Moses the sense of urgency, the need to go out from his place of privilege and question what was happening out in the world beyond his? Verse 11 tells us that Moses went out toward his kinsmen — implying that it was a sense of kinship with the laborers that drew him to be a witness to their struggle. The commentator Sforno notes that it is that very same sense of kinship that led Moses to avenge the death of the Hebrew man.

What would our world look like if we were all compelled by a sense of kinship with those who occupy the circles that ripple out just beyond our doors? We might all become more powerful observers of the struggles of our fellow humans, and we might even be moved to act on behalf of those who are suffering. May our sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with our neighbors lead us into ever richer relationships within our communities.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger
Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood

This is the first of several passages in Moses’ story in which we see the unfortunate results of his rage, anger and lack of control. We see deep compassion in Moses, who is clearly upset and outraged at the cruel treatment of the Hebrews. These attributes will be necessary in the future leader. But he could have used the power of his position to end the beating. Instead, we see Moses’ dark side. His anger and rage cause him to strike and kill the Egyptian and hide him in the sand. Moses knows his actions are wrong.

We see other times when Moses’ anger controls him. When he comes down Mount Sinai with the tablets and smashes them, he also slaughters more than 3,000 as punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf. God did not demand their deaths, yet Moses’ anger was uncontrolled. We see his anger flare in the Book of Numbers, when Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it so the water will flow for all to drink.

Even the great Moses was human, bound by emotion. Maybe we are to question and wonder about controlling such outbursts. They did Moses no good in the end. Was he denied entrance to the Promised Land because his anger got the best of him? What might have happened if Moses had used his princely position to help stop the cruelty toward the Hebrew slave? We are left to wonder whether God might have written us a different story if humanity acted with forethought.

Rabbi Reuven Wolf
Maayon Yisroel Chasidic Center

Young Moshe enjoyed an idyllic life, being raised in the palace by the king’s daughter. Living in comfort and luxury, he was satiated, safe and secure. But Moshe was not content to remain in the protected bubble of royal life. Instead, he decided to venture out of his comfortable home to see how his Jewish brothers and sisters were faring, ready to do anything he could to help them. And indeed, when Moshe saw that “an Egyptian man was hitting a Jew,” he immediately jumped in to save his Jewish brother, though that came at the cost of risking his own life.

We all can learn an invaluable instruction from Moshe’s behavior. We may be content and satisfied, absorbed in the affairs of our own lives, reluctant to disturb the precious equilibrium we have finally found. We may even find ourselves in the “palace of God,” immersed in a spiritual life of connection to God and self-improvement. Yet, it is vital that we look beyond ourselves. It is vital that we care about how others are doing. It is vital that we inquire how our Jewish brothers and sisters are faring. And if, indeed, we find a Jew who needs help, it is incumbent upon us to do anything and everything we can — to the point of totally putting ourselves on the line — to help.

The myth and function of the Passover plagues

Passover is a wonderful holiday. It is a time to gather together with family and friends. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with the millennia old line of the Jewish People. On Passover, we reach back through the mists of time to the myths of our national origin. We seek to find lessons from the distant past which might guide us in our present.

The highlight of the festival is the reading of a story from the Haggadah, literally meaning “the story.” The story tells of the enslavement of ancient Israelites in the land of Egypt and their release from bondage following a series of ten calamities, commonly understood as plagues, which devastated Egypt. Those plagues, in the order of the story in the Book of Exodus are blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. (See Ex. 7:14-12:30.)

Today that core story, and its centuries of embellishments, is read, sung and discussed throughout the Passover seder (a ritual meal, literally “order”). All along the way we are requested to, challenged to, even required to ask questions, to probe into the meaning of the story. The whole exercise is quite dramatic, sometimes even including costumes and choreography. No wonder Passover is an incredibly popular Jewish holiday, with more Jews participating in a seder than fasting on the traditional holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur.

The Passover story is so powerful that its magic has not been dimmed by the increasing recognition that the premise of the story lacks a solid historical foundation. The Hebrew Bible states that six hundred thousand Israelites males, formerly slaves, along with woman, children and others left Egypt as part of a national exodus. (Ex. 12:37.) According to the traditional timetable, this mass migration occurred near the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, however, that idea has been largely rejected.

First, there is no evidence to date of any mass slavery of ancient Israelites during the relevant time period. Second, consider the nature of the reported biblical caravan. According to the late biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, a group of about 2,000,000 individuals would have come out of Egypt. (See Sarna, Exploring Exodus (Schoken Books 1986) at 95.) If a group of that size marched twenty abreast, there would have been 100,000 rows of participants, exclusive of animals, carts and other things. If those rows were separated by just ten feet, the entire entourage would have, by application of simple mathematics, extended for around 190 miles. Aside from the problems that result raises with the sea crossing tale, there is no evidence that any movement of a population of that magnitude ever occurred into the Sinai Peninsula and up to the east bank of the Jordan River. Third, there is no evidence of any new settlement patterns established west of the Jordan by a substantial influx of new immigrants in the 13th century BCE. If the narrative were intended to be history as we moderns understand it, that is, a reasonably accurate statement and chronology of actual events, the story fails.

Now, if there were no mass enslavement of Israelites and no mass exodus of them, then surely there would not have been any need for liberating plagues either. Some still maintain, though, that the there is significant evidence for the biblical plagues outside of the biblical text. One such advocate is Israeli Egyptologist Galit Dayan who cites as proof of the biblical plagues an ancient Egyptian document known formally as the Admonitions of Ipuwer. The Ipuwer papyrus describes a time of considerable social and political chaos in Egypt. Dayan translates the hieroglyphs as follows: “Plague is throughout the land. . . . the river is blood . . . and the hail smote every herd of the field . . . there is a thick darkness throughout the land . . . the Lord smote all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt (including) the first born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne . . . .”

There are, however, a number of serious problems with the claim that the Ipuwer papyrus is evidence of the biblical plagues. One is that the Ipuwer papyrus contains a longer and more complex story than Dr. Dayan implies, and her list of events similar to certain biblical plagues amounts to a cherry picking of like situations, while failing to explain the absence in the Ipuwer papyrus of other biblical plagues like lice, insects and locusts. Moreover, the ordeals Ipuwer describes are not seen as coming from a powerful god acting on behalf of his people, but as the result of the ineptitude of an unnamed king. The social dynamics of Ipuwer’s story are also directly contrary to those in the biblical tale. Ipuwer’s story concerned the immigration of foreigners into Egypt, not the emigration of slaves from it. Perhaps most importantly, while there is a debate among Egyptologists regarding the dating of the events related in the papyrus, with some setting the story in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2100 BCE) and others in the late Middle Kingdom (c. 2100-1700 BCE) (see Sarna, above, at 69), both of those dates are centuries before the 13th century date traditionally assigned to the Exodus.

The Ipuwer papyrus also has an extra-biblical competitor. Israeli born producer, director and writer Simcha Jacobovici argues that a 3,500-year-old Egyptian monument known as the Tempest or Storm Stela provides archeological evidence for the Exodus. He contends that a new translation of the stela proves that a massive eruption of a volcano on the Greek island of Santorini generated a storm which flooded Egyptian temples, and plunged Egypt into darkness for days. As in the biblical plague story, loud voices were heard and the Egyptians were seized with terror. (See Ex. 9:29, 15:14.) Jacobovici claims that the stela proves that the Pharaoh at the time, Ahmose (r. 1550-1525 BCE), the storm and the contemporaneous expulsion of certain Asiatics known as the Hyksos are the basis of the Exodus story.

Jacobovici’s argument displays the same defects as the claim based on the Ipuwer’s papyrus. While there clearly was a massive volcanic eruption on Santorni, which scientists date to between 1645 and 1600 BCE, and that event may even have had some impact more than 450 miles away in Egypt, it occurred at least half a century before Ahmose’s reign. Timing aside, there is no claim, much less any proof, that the volcanic eruption generated a series of plagues in Egypt as related in the Exodus story. Finally, no convincing explanation is offered to fill a long historical gap and connect the expulsion of some (but not all) Hyskos in the 16th century BCE with the emergence of a recognizable Israel community in the late 13th century BCE and a kingdom in the 10th century BCE.

Not only are the attempts to establish the historicity of the Egyptian plagues wanting for lack of hard proof, there is also no basis for the initial assumption that the Passover story generally and the plagues specifically were even intended to be taken literally, to be historical statements, as we moderns understand that concept. To the contrary, both the text of the Torah we have today and other references in the Hebrew Bible strongly suggest otherwise.

Exclusive of the recitation of ten plagues in the Book of Exodus, plagues in Egypt are discussed two separate times in the Hebrew Bible, both in Psalms. (See Psalm 78:42-51 and Psalm 105:28-36.) In both of the recitations in Psalms, there are only seven plagues, though, and the seven are neither the same in both lists nor is their order the same. What does this mean?

The presence in the Hebrew Bible of these different accounts is actually quite instructive. First, it indicates that when elements of the text were being collected and collated, the editors were familiar with more than one tradition respecting plagues. This is no different, and therefore no more surprising, than the retention in the Torah of alternative traditions concerning such matters as creation, the flood, the Ten Commandments and the spies, to name a few instances where different renditions of traditional stories have been maintained.

The larger story, as found in Exodus, itself appears to be an edited and conflated version of several traditions. Referencing classic biblical source criticism, Yale biblicist Christine Hayes teaches that each of the primary biblical sources known as J, E and P supply some, but not all of the ten plagues. Specifically, she says that J is the source of eight plagues, E provided three and P supplied five, but there are some overlaps. (See Transcript, 1/12.) Significantly, Hayes does not identify D as a source for any of the plagues. In discussing the exodus in Deuteronomy, Moses merely obliquely references “signs” and “wonders,” and fails to mention any specific plagues at all, save perhaps boils and locusts (or crickets). (See Deut. 4:34, 28:27, 38, 42.)

Literary analysis of the plagues lists is also instructive. Each list in Exodus and in Psalms was written as if complete, signaled by either seven or ten components. In the world of biblical symbolism, those numbers indicate wholeness and perfection. (See Sarna, above, at 74.) Further, the more extensive narrative in Exodus is structured carefully, not only as three series of three plagues each, with a stunning climax, but also including within each series repeated patterns of and phrasing for elements of the story.

In short, the theme of plagues seems to have been common during the extended time the Hebrew Bible was being formulated, but the details of the story were quite fluid. There can be little doubt, then, that the story of the plagues in the Torah we have received today is a product of craftsmanship rather than reporting.

But all this begs a critical question: why include a plague story at all in the larger Exodus drama? If the authors merely wanted to convey a spectacle of the majesty and triumph of the Israelite God, they could have invoked images of God splitting of the Nile, a feat more difficult than simply turning it red as even Egyptian magicians could do. (See Ex. 7:22.)They could have had God appear as alternate pillars of cloud and fire, as later claimed during the trek though the wilderness. (See Ex. 13:21.) Or God could have created an oasis, a tiny Eden, or rained down quail and manna instead of hail and locusts (see Ex. 16:13-15), not only to demonstrate creative and fulsome power, but to illustrate the rewards that Egypt could earn through conciliation with the Israelites. That is, the story could have offered divine carrots instead of sticks.

Clearly the purpose of this carefully designed and structured composition was not meant merely to demonstrate either awesome supernatural power generally or the control of nature specifically. It certainly was not meant to induce behavior with compassion and beneficence. Rather, the purpose of invoking plagues seems to have been an exceptionally clever use of a story that was itself dramatic and had some broad acceptability in the popular culture in order to advance a theology at least of monolatry, if not monotheism.

As the Torah text explicitly states, the plagues were selected to defeat and humiliate the gods and symbols of imperial Egypt. They were aimed “ubechol elohe Mitzrayim,” that is, at all the gods of Egypt. (Ex. 12:12.) This view is corroborated later in the Torah. Describing the day after the first Passover, the text claims success for the onslaught: “Yahweh made judgment on their gods.” (Num. 33:4.) The ancient Egyptians had many deities, and the names and roles changed over time. But it is possible to construct a list of the plausible targets of the biblical authors.

The attack begins with the lifeline of Egypt, the Nile River. (Ex. 7:19.)Turning the river to blood would cripple all agriculture and commerce which depended on the river, which is to say most of the Egyptian economy. For the biblical authors, it also represented a multi-pronged assault: the defeat of Hapi, the guardian the Nile, of Khnum, the god of the inundation of the Nile, and of Osiris, god of the underworld, for whom the Nile served as his bloodstream. The second plague was directed to a god symbolized by a frog, that is, Heqet, the goddess of fertility. The Egyptian god of the earth was Geb. Turning the dust of the earth into lice (or perhaps fleas) showed his impotence.

The war on the Egyptian pantheon continues in the second series of plagues. The definition of the fourth plague, arov, is uncertain. It suggests a swarm or horde of insects, often understood as flies. But the text also says that the swarm would fill not only the Egyptian houses, but the land under them. (Ex. 8:17.) Quite possibly the reference is to the scarab or dung beetle, as one of the most prominent Egyptian insect gods, Khepri, was depicted with the head of a scarab. Striking cattle with disease on cattle surely would have embarrassed any one of several Egyptian gods represented by animal heads, such as Apis, the bull, and Hathor, the goddess of the desert and symbolic mother of Pharaoh. Similarly, the spread of boils illustrated the impotence of Imhotep, the god of medicine and healing.

In the third series, the rain of very heavy hail would demonstrate the weakness of Nut, the sky goddess, and mother of other prominent deities. The swarm of locusts that ate everything apparently could not be stopped by any of the agricultural gods and goddesses like Renenutet, the goddess of the harvest, or her son Neper, the grain god, or by the god of wind and chaos, Seth. The final plague in the series, that of a thick multi-day darkness in all the land of Egypt, was surely an act of war, and a successful one at that, on the supreme sun god known as Ra (or Re) or Horus, and often depicted with a man’s body and the head of a falcon.

The import of the story so far, then, was that the gods of Egypt were incapable of protecting their respective domains, and that Pharaoh could not protect his subjects. With the final, and most devastating plague, that of the death of Egypt’s first born males at midnight, we learn that Pharaoh could not even protect his own household or the system of primogeniture on which Egyptian law was based. Neither Renenutet, the guardian of Pharaoh, nor Selket, the guardian of protection and healing, were of any use.

As Rutgers Jewish historian Gary Rendsburg teaches, modern readers of the Hebrew Bible, unfamiliar with the authors’ society and the cultural clues contained in the text will “miss many of nuances that make the stories so fresh and loaded with meaning.” (At 3/4.)That is true, of course, and important. Still, we are left with critical questions. Why was any account of plagues ultimately included in the Torah? What function did it serve? What did the final redactors want their immediate audience to learn?

Unfortunately, we cannot say with precision when particular stories were first written or when they were incorporated into the canon. Much work appears to have been done in the 8th through the 6th centuries BCE, with final revisions coming during and after the Babylonian Exile. Arguably, given the inconsistencies between Ezra and Nehemiah about something as seemingly basic as a fall holiday, one could argue, as does University of Michigan scholar Lisbeth Fried, that the canon was not even set by the end of the Persian Period. Obviously, this is quite an extended time.

Moreover, this was a time of considerable turmoil, politically and theologically. A member of the educated class, attuned to cultural cues, might well have recognized the Egyptian motifs referenced in the story of the plagues. If he did, then he would also know that the story was not an eye-witness account of events, but a symbolic war between the then dominant Israelite god, Yahweh, and the gods of Egypt, headed by the Sun-god Ra. At the same time, Egypt’s influence over the Children of Israel was not as strong during this period as it once was. The Assyrians crushed the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 BCE, and the Kingdom of Judah having barely survived a subsequent assault existed at the sufferance of the Assyrians. The Assyrians subsequently fell to King Nebuchadnezzer and the Babylonians. Then, following a series of invasions at the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the complete destruction of the Judahite capital, Jerusalem, and the transfer of Judahite royalty and leadership to Babylon, Judah became a vassal state of Babylon. Babylon, in turn, fell to Cyrus about sixty years later. While Cyrus allowed Judahites to return home, their province, now known as Yehud, was now a small province in the Persian Empire and ultimately subject to Persian control. Toward the end of the 4th century BCE, Persia, and with it Yehud, fell to Alexander and the Greeks.

In the midst of this extended geopolitical war, a multi-faceted religious battle continued as well. With the advent of the reform prophets in the 8th century BCE, polytheism came under increased attack from both those who favored either the supremacy of Yahweh over lesser gods and those who recognized Yahweh as the sole god. And those camps contended with each other. The latter monotheistic view seems to have gained ascendance in the 7th century with the rise of the Deuteronomistic school, but fate, in the form of the death of King Josiah of Judah and the ascendancy of King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon, intervened.

The destruction of Jerusalem could have ended this nascent monotheism. After all, if Yahweh were the sole true god, he certainly did not protect his treasured people, or his promised land, or even his house, his temple, from ruin. Ironically, though, far from ending monotheism because of the impotence of the deity, the exile from and return to Judah was understood by Judahite leadership differently. Influenced by the Deuteronomists, they argued that the people failed Yahweh, not the other way around. The solution of the surviving and returning leaders, like Ezra, was a stronger commitment to what they saw as the one true god. This was the broad context in which the contents of the Torah seem to have been finalized. And, if so, this context helps us understand how the plague story may have functioned at that time.

Rather than directed to a sophisticated reader in Judah or even in the established community of Judahite emigres in Egypt, who would understand the references to the Egyptian pantheon, the story of the plagues may well have been intended to underscore for post-exhilic Judahites who had returned, or were thinking of returning, that the worship of false gods of any kind, whether Canaanite or Babylonian or Persian or of any other origin, was improper and destructive. That is, beyond the explicit message, lay an implicit lesson: just as the gods of Egypt were no match for the Israelite God, neither are any of the current local gods. In a time that required nation building, the story served, then, to provide a unifying theological feature in the larger text which functioned as a unifying statement of a people’s creation and history and a unifying anthology of its traditions.

Myth based Judaism has generated compelling stories and, at its best, a compassionate culture. The story of the Israelites’ escape from bondage serves as a beacon to all who are oppressed and as a reminder to those of us fortunate enough to be free to remember what slavery might have been like, how it must have felt to have been a stranger in a strange land. During the seder, as the plagues are mentioned, we remove some wine from our cups to diminish the sweetness of the Israelite’s escape, to recognize the suffering of others and to temper our joy. These are worthy lessons.

But myth based Judaism has its limits, and pretending that myths are reality is not only intellectually indefensible, it can be counter-productive, even self-destructive, as well. If we take bible stories as statements of historical truth, when they are not, and if we purposefully avoid trying to understand what the authors intended their audience to learn, we act as nothing less than illiterate literalists.

Reality based Judaism acknowledges that neither the Exodus nor the plagues occurred as depicted, that the plagues are a myth within a larger myth, set in a time when humankind often identified each aspect of nature, of life itself, with a separate god. Some may conclude from that acknowledgement that the Jewish freedom narrative lacks not only foundation, but merit. But reality based Judaism also rejects the nihilism of superficial contemporary readers who fail to come to grips with both the original intent and redeeming transcendent value of the story. Rather, reality based Judaism accepts the challenge of Passover to dig deeply into the tale, to ask a question and then another and yet another. It seeks to wrestle with the text and extract both truth and wisdom from this powerful story. When we do, when we struggle with the broader myth, and the more troubling one contained in it, we recognize that the authors had matured enough to grasp the fallacy of false gods.

If we want to build a Judaism for tomorrow, we need to look back to the origins of our texts and traditions. We need to try to understand not just what our foundational texts say, but why they say it. We need to become familiar with the context of the content of those works to determine what end the founders sought to achieve. This is the challenge and this is the opportunity of reality based Judaism, as we, too, need to reject false gods and be guided by truth and wisdom.

A version of this essay was previously published at

The arithmetic of trust

Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law. Photo from Wikipedia.

Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

“[Moses] hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them … ”  — Exodus 32:19

The shattering of the Ten Commandments in this week’s parsha after Moses finds the Israelites with the golden calf is the shattering of trust. Think of a moment when your trust was broken. Do you remember the pain of betrayal, when the covenant carved into stone that you thought was solid and eternal was all at once demolished?

Of course you do. No one forgets.

I believe that trust is a delicate compound of truthfulness and tenderness. And today, we are sorely lacking in both elements.

Truth is delicate. It is a fabric easily stretched and torn. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify the true fabric of truth amid so many well-crafted synthetics. We are surrounded by what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” which he defines as something that a person making an argument claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts.

Photos are filtered. Bodies are nipped and tucked. Resumes are enhanced. Diplomas are doctored. Reality shows are staged. Facts are altered. We live in an era when more than speaking truth to power, we ache for power to speak truth.

And yet, the truth, too, can be brutal. In Paul Simon’s song “Tenderness,” he sings: “You say you care for me, but there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty/ You don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty.”

The rabbis say that in order to preserve shalom bayit, peace in the home, every now and then a small fib is OK. In fact, Talmud gives examples of when it is preferable to lie. What does one say to a bride? Even if she is lame and blind, one is to say how graceful and beautiful she is. I would argue that shalom bayit is not about dishonesty. It’s about delivering truthfulness on a cushion of tenderness. You might think the bride is unattractive, but her partner doesn’t, and when we learn to perceive through loving eyes, we are elevated.

Truthfulness plus tenderness equals trust.

In the Talmud, Rava, who lived around the year 300, said: At the hour you enter heaven for judgment, they will ask you, “Nasata v’natata b’emunah?” (“Did you deal honestly with people in your business?”)

There are systems in this world, many, where dealing honestly with one another is not a high priority. Where girls are offered jobs overseas and then are lost in the sex trade. Where bribes corrupt organizations and obstruct every avenue toward justice. Where everyone and everything is for sale, and no one is safe.

And yet, we are a network, a symbiotic relational push-and-pull, give-and-take system. We are all in the same boat, and if I drill a hole under my seat, it affects you. We are connected. Everything depends on trust.

Every time we drop off our kids at school, we trust that they are in caring hands. Every time the light turns yellow, we trust that cars are going to slow to a stop. Every time we make a deposit, we trust our money is safe.

Too much trust can be dangerous — we would be foolish to trust everyone. But trustworthiness is not dangerous. To be on time, respect boundaries, act with sincerity, deliver honesty with tenderness, create safe environments, keep confidentiality — these are what make you trustworthy, sought after, admired and adored.

So while Rava did not say to trust everyone, and he didn’t promise that everyone else will have honest weights and measures, he said you need to be trusted. You have to have honest weights and measures. Success depends on how much you’ve cultivated other people’s trust in you.

On our dollar bill it reads: “In God we trust.” The touchpoint of our entire network of exchange reminds us that we are bound to a trusteeship with God, that our life is our true asset, our breath is our capital, our soul is our fortune.

God leases everything to us. The Torah is the Deed, which we seal with our good deeds, and our good deeds inspire others and accumulate interest. For some God-knows-why reason, God sees trustworthiness in us, and God appoints us the trustees of this supreme gift.

This despite the fact that the shattered shards of trust are scattered all around us. And as we all well know, it takes a lot of time, patience and stamina to put trust back together. Even after new covenants are at last established, we still each carry those broken bits with us.

Moses says in our Torah portion, “Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!” (Exodus 34:9). The Israelites built the golden calf because they did not have enough trust in God, and afterward, they had to work hard to regain God’s trust. May truthfulness and tenderness inform our relationships with one another and with God.

Rabbi Zoe Klein is senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

Stepping back, stepping forward

King Ahasuerus & Queen Esther in Apocrypha. Photo from Wikipedia.

Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, taught that God’s most powerful influence comes not through acting in the world, but rather through conscious and deliberate refraining from acting. He beautifully illustrates this concept with reference to one of life’s quieter, but no less amazing, miracles: teaching a child to take his first steps.

About the time that a small child begins to stand on his own, a caring parent will lean down and beckon, “Come to me.” The child will take a tentative, wobbly step toward his smiling mother. And then, the mother will do something profoundly frustrating: She will back away, creating more distance for the child to traverse.

At first there is confusion, even anger, on the face of the toddler. But, eventually, the distance coaxes him to take one more step, and then another. As the mother makes space, the child learns to walk. It is by pulling back, not swooping in, the Baal Shem Tov taught, that God and we create new realities.

The confluence of this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, and the holiday of Purim, which begins at sunset after Shabbat, is a study in stepping back and leaving space for something new to emerge. Tetzaveh is the only parsha of the latter four books of the Torah that doesn’t mention Moses. Purim’s central text, the Book of Esther, is the only volume of the Bible that doesn’t mention God. Both the parsha and the Megillah defy expectations with the conspicuous absence of ubiquitous characters, inviting us to lean in and listen more closely, to step into the seemingly empty space to discover new and exciting possibilities.

Parashat Tetzaveh describes the ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, the process of bringing human beings into the direct service of God. There can only be one Moses, but, over the course of Jewish history, hundreds of priests would be ordained to carry out their sacred tasks, and after the destruction of the Temple, thousands more rabbis would carry on the chain of ordination.

During this brief moment in which Moses steps aside, we learn that there are other ways to enter into the service of the Holy One aside from being called as a prophet. In Moses’ absence, we are invited to re-imagine our own role in the Jewish story, to envision ourselves as potential leaders and vessels of holiness.

Purim similarly invites us to consider our own power. In previous stories of deliverance from mighty enemies, our triumph always came directly from the hand of God. It was God who split the sea for the escaping Israelite slaves, and stopped the sun in the sky over Joshua’s armies, and protected Daniel in the lion’s den. The story of Esther is the first time we come face to face with the potential of annihilation and don’t have God at hand to save the day.

The Purim story is the most relatable of biblical tales for a world in which God doesn’t appear to sort out all our problems, in which we are called to faith in ourselves and our own abilities to do extraordinary things.

Instead, our salvation comes through human courage, the willingness of Esther to put her life on the line to speak her truth. In that way, the Purim story is the most relatable of biblical tales for a world in which God doesn’t appear to sort out all our problems, in which we are called to faith in ourselves and our own abilities to do extraordinary things.

By taking a step back in the twin stories that define this liturgical week, Moses and God invite us to take a step forward and discover our own capacity to act. A parent who never learns to give their child space will never equip them with the ability to survive and to thrive on their own.

Moses is mortal, and he will not cross over into the Promised Land with us, so we’ll need to be able to appoint a chain of leaders who will guide us into our new chapter. And even God can’t be with us every step of the way either, booming instructions, blessings and warnings.

Today we walk on our own, a path laid out by Moses our teacher, on a path toward God our parent. Like children learning to walk, we still stumble and fall sometimes, but as we come to trust our own legs, what a joy it is to learn to carry ourselves forward, with confidence in ourselves to set forth into the world.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University ( and a lecturer at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

Taking comfort in the light

Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

My toddler children sleep with all of the lights on.

I do not remember how it started. It could have been loud noises, an odd shadow on the wall, a bad dream.

I do remember trying to trick them with a nightlight. The small flicker was almost offensive. Protests, crying, negotiating … and all that was by my husband and me. For weeks, my kids pushed, and for weeks, we pushed back. The closet lights, the bathroom light, the hallway light — all of them had to be on. The final straw was when my daughter explained, “But Mommy, it is so dark. The darkness gets darker. Please, just leave the lights on.”

And so the lights stay on. Because of that, we have three children who sleep through the night. Do not bother asking about our electric bill.

My daughter’s question remains. When we face dark times, what happens to our spirit when life seems to get darker? When we think we have hit rock bottom and, somehow, the bottom continues to give out beneath, is our soul damaged in the process?

I recently read an article about “cavers.” James M. Tabor, author of “Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth,” researches the men and women who descend on underground explorations for months at a time. Tabor questions the cavers’ mental and physical ability when experiencing extreme weather, isolation and absolute darkness.

A fascinating discovery is that each human being reacts differently to the dark. For some, all it takes is a day or two for anxiety to erupt. For others, it may take longer. The point being: Darkness affects all and, certainly, our minds become a casualty. It just depends on how much darkness someone can endure before reaching his or her breaking point. For those who think there is a point of no return, is salvation possible?

With the introduction of the plagues unleashed against Egypt in Va’era, we witness a darkening of darkness, a slow breakdown of the human spirit. During the Passover seder, we are accustomed to naming the plague of darkness. However, with a closer reading of the text, it is possible that several plagues of darkness befell Egypt, each plague darker than the former, slowly and intentionally weakening the hearts of the Egyptians.

“Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Each of you take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it toward the sky in the sight of Pharaoh’ ” (Exodus 9:8). A taste of night comes as Moses throws dirt before Pharaoh’s eyes, impairing his sight. Later in the Torah, locusts suffocate Egypt and “the land was darkened” (Exodus 10:15). And with the penultimate plague, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21). 

rabbi-nicole-guzikExodus Rabbah teaches that this last darkness is the most crippling. A darkness as thick as a coin, similar to the film that forms when one has a cataract. A darkness that enters your throat and nostrils; a darkness that makes it hard for one to breathe, move or stand. A darkness that paralyzes the body and constrains the soul.

Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg explores this tortuous, systematic darkening of darkness. She contends that, according to the medieval commentator Rashi, no repentance is possible in this kind of dark. In this kind of darkness, it really may be impossible to return. 

Is it true? Is there a kind of darkness in which, once experienced, it is impossible to gain sanity?

It occurs to me that we must never let those we love get to this point. Or at the very least, we should try to save them with every possible attempt. Who experiences absolute darkness? Those who never feel the warmth of another or see sparks of hope breaking the gloom of night.

In our liturgy, we read “Or chadash al Tzion ta’ir, v’nizkeh chulanu m’heirah l’oro. Baruch atah, Adonai, yotzeir ham’orot.” Translation: “Shine a new light upon Zion, that we all may swiftly merit its radiance. Praised are You, Adonai, Creator of all heavenly lights.”

Commentators explain that this light is what the righteous will experience in the world to come. I humbly posit that this light is what the righteous offer in this world so that those drowning in seas of darkness have something to hold onto.

Rays of light: squeezing someone’s hand when they would otherwise feel utterly alone; calling someone in mourning and offering an “I’m thinking about you”; a handwritten letter to someone who needs lifting, healing. Repeatedly turning on the light. Never shutting the door to the possibility of hope.

Even the smallest flicker of a flame holds the potential to pierce the solitude of night.

The lights remain on in our home. My children are comforted. And that is fine by me.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.

‘Exagoge’: A theatrical exegesis on the Exodus

At a playreading in a Tarzana temple midway through the Passover holiday, the star of the Exodus story encounters a conundrum. 

Facing Jethro, his future father-in-law, Moses delivers a monologue that is shrouded in ambiguity. “Oh yes, I will speak,” concludes the man who will become one of Judaism’s most celebrated prophets, “but say nothing of substance, for if I proclaimed my heritage, I would remain a stranger, never finding a place to belong. And then, you will know me.”

Actually, the speaker of these lines in Aaron Henne’s adaptation of the ancient play “Exagoge” is Moses No. 2, and there will be at least five more Moseses in this creative riff on the story of Exodus produced by Theatre Dybbuk. Seven Moseses trying to carve out the identity of a single entity — how’s that for an unknowable character?

This monologue, spoken at a late-April script development meeting of a Theatre Dybbuk production, may change by the time the world premiere of “Exagoge” takes place at Temple Israel of Hollywood on June 18. According to Henne — the company’s artistic director and director of the play — a Theatre Dybbuk production is in a constant state of revision. 

The company uses elements of Jewish folklore, ritual and history to inspire theatrical work with universal themes, and Henne’s is by no means the only voice. Joining the seven actors for the “Exagoge” reading at Temple Judea in Tarzana were scholars, designers, composers and choir leaders. Once the reading concluded, the floor was open for discussion. 

“We’re on our fourth or fifth draft, which has changed wildly over the last couple of months based on questions that have come up in the room,” said Henne, who will take home the feedback and produce another draft. “It really is a group effort to try to find out what the heart of this matter is.”

Choir director Kenneth Anderson said the play causes him to reflect on Moses’ position as a leader.

“There’s a theme that I feel is universal, and it’s something that I teach the kids,” said Anderson, whose Leimert Park Choir will provide 12 onstage singers. “Ultimately, there’s the idea that all old things melt away no matter what the struggle was, and new struggles are born. I feel that way every time I think about anything, even the story of Moses: the whole idea of what it means to be a leader who stays too long.”

The inspiration for this version of “Exagoge” is a series of fragmented verses of what is believed to be the first Jewish-themed play in existence. Likely written in Alexandria in the second century BCE by Ezekiel the Poet, “Exagoge” is an account of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt told in the form of a Greek tragedy. Henne had been interested in Hellenistic Judaism as the basis for a Theatre Dybbuk production, and conducted research in order to find a suitable dramatic work to adapt. 

After Henne discovered “Exagoge,” he commissioned a new translation of the existing fragments. Because barely one-fifth of the original play remains, Henne believes it is unlikely that the work has been performed on stage in thousands of years. “Exagoge” will have a total of four performances this summer: two at Temple Israel (June 18-19), one at Grand Park (July 23) and one at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (Aug. 6). 

As a Theatre Dybbuk production, however, the work won’t feel ancient. Henne’s adaptation builds on the 269 surviving lines, adding to and reconsidering the story in order to bring in contemporary issues. “Exagoge” will have references to present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, Syria, and to oppression and slave populations throughout world history. Masks will play a substantial part in the proceedings, and the play will feature the Harmony Project Leimert Park Choir singing original music composed by TV and film composer Michael Skloff, who has worked extensively with the choir. 

Although past Dybbuk productions such as “Tefillah” and “Kippur” have been staged exclusively in sacred spaces, half of the “Exagoge” performances will be at nonreligious venues. All of the performances will be outdoors, as would have been the case in ancient Greece. 

“It was decided fairly early on that this was not going to be running for four weeks in a single setting,” Henne said. “With the [play’s] cultural conversation … about integration, differentiation, assimilation and all those questions, we want this to be an outdoor event in different areas to try to engage the whole city in a kind of conversation.”

Theatre Dybbuk typically goes 16 months between productions, and Henne originally envisioned staging “Exagoge” to coincide with Passover. That timetable was delayed when the company received a commission to create “Assemble,” a theatrical dance piece for the Center for Jewish Culture and the Leichtag Foundation’s Sukkot Harvest Festival in Encinitas. When the company returned to “Exagoge,” some cast members were no longer available. 

Both veteran company members and first-timers say that working on a Theatre Dybbuk piece is a unique experience. 

“I haven’t been a part of a process this inclusive in terms of writing a very text-heavy play,” actor Jonathan CK Williams said. “Being in rehearsals, we get very much into the ‘How do we tell this physically in the space?’ ‘How do we communicate that?’ Aaron [Henne] is also very inclusive in asking for our opinions and also letting us fly and try weird things.”

“It’s actually very gracious of the playwright,” added Jenny Gillett, who plays Moses No. 1. “It’s his play, but I appreciate that we get to be a part of shaping it.”

“Exagoge” runs June 18-19 at Temple Israel of Hollywood, July 23 at Grand Park/The Music Center and Aug. 6 at the Fowler Museum on the UCLA campus. For more information, visit


Passover: Faith and freedom

My local Ralphs has begun stocking its shelves with Passover goodies. The resonant voice of Charlton Heston can be heard on t.v. This can only mean one thing: the Jewish holiday of Passover is coming. Again, as every year, Jews around the world are instructed to personalize the Exodus story, “as though we ourselves were slaves in Egypt.”    

Judging from the therapy clients coming through the doors of my office, there is plenty of resonance to be found. These days, few of us are actually physically enslaved.  Yet we are often trapped internally. We lives our lives in restricted, confined routines because we are afraid of making changes without any guarantee. 

Many people feel stuck internally, and don’t realize that they can empower themselves to change.  Although it is not a conscious choice, we often choose the safety and familiarity of routine.  But we  disengage from our daily lives in subtle ways.  We stay busy.  We lower our expectations.  We become slaves to our internal inertia.        

I never realized this, but the Hebrew word for Egypt, mizrayim,  can be translated as tight place. Place of constriction.  The Israelites were physically constricted.  Yet even when Moses offered them instant freedom, they hesitated. They weren’t sure that they wanted to exchange the familiar for danger and uncertainty. 

When the Israelites approached the Red Sea, G-d had not yet parted the waters.  According to the Rabbinic Midrash, a man named Nachson ben Aminadav responded by jumping into the sea without hesitation.  Only after he was up to his nose in the water, did the sea part so that the Israelites could cross in safety. He had to take a leap of faith in order to go forward. 

In a way, the therapeutic process requires that same leap of faith.  Many of us have difficulty imagining that lasting change can be possible. One of the best parts of being a therapist is that I am blessed with the chance to offer my clients the idea that change is possible. That often leads to a sense of hopefulness that can lead to significant shifts. 

Often, people engage in magical thinking. “I could leave my current circumstances and start all over again.”  Unfortunately, it is never that simple. The grass is rarely, if ever, greener on the other side.  It is not enough to move to a new physical destination–we need to work on our internal landscape.   Part of that process involves being able to be compassionate to ourselves.  To accept our imperfections and flawed selves. Only then can we become truly free.

Roni Blau is a licensed clinical therapist practicing in Santa Monica.  She can be reached at

Ilan Stavans’ ‘New World Haggadah’ for the modern world

Ilan Stavans feels the time has come for the diversity of the modern Jewish experience to be reflected in the Haggadah we read at our Passover seders. Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and author or editor of many books and poems dealing with Jewish and Latino history and culture. “The New World Haggadah” is his interpretation of the Passover story, and it includes many of the traditional elements but adds varied voices from the multicultural, global landscape.

Stavans will appear at the Skirball Cultural Center Sunday, March 20 as part of “Viva!”, an ongoing Skirball initiative exploring connections between Jewish and Latin American Cultures through lectures, conversations and performing, visual and media arts. We asked him a few questions in preparation for his visit to Southern California:

Jewish Journal: Why another Haggadah? What makes this one different from the others out there?

Ilan Stavans: The mandate we have as Jews is for the story of the Exodus from Egypt to be retold every generation. The real Haggadah, the one belonging to all of us, is always blank, its pages ready to be filled out. As a Mexican Jew who immigrated to the United States, for years I have felt a more diverse, more pluralistic, inclusive delivery was needed. When I turned 50, I told myself: this is your time. “The New World Haggadah” is meant for American Jews in the 21st century. It connects us with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, with Sephardic and Ashkenazic cultures, with the Holocaust and terrorism, with the Civil Rights era, with the Americas as a whole, with the endurance of the State of Israel, and with Yiddish, Ladino, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. This is a Haggadah about Jews as eternal immigrants.

JJ:  This Haggadah retains the construction of the traditional format, but between the explanations of various symbols or reciting of the 10 plagues, you have included some very powerful poetry. How did you decide what poems to include, and do you intend the poems to be read aloud at the seder?

IS: The beauty of the Passover seder is that it features elements from the past, the present, and the future. It has poetry, politics, folklore, Mishnaic commentary, and references to pop culture. My hope is that “The New World Haggadah” will open a new world for readers who will see our heritage through a multilingual prism. I wanted to feature medieval and renaissance authors, resistance in World War II, crypto-Jews and activists during the Dirty War in Latin America, songs of protest and songs of hope.

JJ: Your own ancestors were Polish immigrants to Mexico, the country where you grew up before coming to the United States when you were in your mid-twenties. It seems like you are embracing both sides of your heritage here, and also including references to other ethnic groups that are still seeking freedom in various ways. As American demographics change, are you hoping that this new Haggadah will be embraced by a more multicultural Jewish world?

IS: American Jews are no longer a homogenous minority; we come in all colors and from all corners of the world. “The New World Haggadah is inspired by the maxim e pluribus unum. Tell us a little bit about the artist, Gloria Abella Ballen and how she conceived the beautiful drawings and paintings that enliven the text.

IS: She has done a superb job marrying image and word. This is a Haggadah for all ages.

The New World Haggadah by Ilan Stavans.  Illustrated by Gloria Abella Ballen. Gaon, 2016. Paperback, 82 pages. $18.00

Ilan Stavans will appear at the Skirball Cultural Center March 20th at 2 pm.

Lisa Silverman is the Library Director of the Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

If God took the Jews out of Egypt…

If God took the Jews out of Egypt, why didn’t he take the Jews out of Europe during the Holocaust? Or out of Ukraine during the Khmelnitsky pogroms? Or out of Germany when Crusaders annihilated entire Jewish communities there?

What Jew hasn’t asked such questions?

There may be an answer in one of the best known and frequently cited statements in the Torah, one repeated throughout the year and, of course, at the Passover seder:

“Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for with a mighty hand, the Lord took you out of here, and [therefore] no leaven shall be eaten.’ ” (Exodus 13:3)

“And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)

“And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders.” (Deuteronomy 26:8)

And the Ten Commandments begin with:

“I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)

Why all these reminders that God took us out of Egypt — even a commandment to remember that he did?

I have come to believe that the reason it is so crucial that we remember is that God is not necessarily (or perhaps even likely) going to do it again.

Some Jews might find this idea heretical. Emotionally and religiously, they do not wish to confront the possibility, let alone the likelihood, that God won’t intervene to save us from oppressors the way he did for the Jews in Egypt.

But if God will rescue us over and over, why are we constantly reminded that he did it in Egypt and commanded to remember that he did so? After all, if God repeatedly saved the Jews from oppressors, it would be completely unnecessary to remember what God did for us over 3,000 years ago. Isn’t the only reason to remember what was done on our behalf a long time ago that it has not been done since?

That, then, may be the reason it is so important to constantly remind ourselves that God took the Jews out of Egypt.

Just as our parents intervened to save us from danger when we were children, but will not do so once we reach adulthood, so, too, in our infancy God intervened directly. But once we reach adulthood, we are, so to speak, on our own. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know us and our suffering. Nor does it mean that he won’t save us again. It means that he cannot be depended upon to save us. 

Of course, we — and all the non-Jews who suffer — wish that God would intervene when confronted with evil. But a moment’s reflection should make it pretty clear that this would end human free will. It would also render life as we know it morally pointless. If God stopped all injustice, we would be moral automatons. And if God stopped some injustices but not all, the question would not only remain, it would be even more acute. Why, God, did you help, let’s say, the Jews, but not the Chinese under Mao, the Ukrainians under Stalin or the Cambodians under Pol Pot? For that matter, why didn’t you save every individual from being murdered and every woman from being raped?

Finally, some Jews might respond that God has in fact saved the Jews from every tyrant just as he saved the Jews from Pharaoh. God, after all, didn’t save all the Jews in Egypt — he allowed hundreds of thousands (adding up perhaps to millions) of Jews to be enslaved over a 400-year period, and only he knows how many Jewish boys he allowed to be drowned at birth, before he intervened. So, then, one can argue today that God has always saved the Jews from oppressors. Not all of them, as we would have wished. But the Jews are still around, and in that sense they were saved from their oppressors.

I, too, believe that God has preserved the Jews since Egypt. It is difficult to offer any other explanation for the unique survival of a people repeatedly exiled, slaughtered and forced to live without a homeland for 2,000 years.

Nevertheless, this survival, as divinely enabled as it may have been, has never been accompanied by anything approaching the overt signs of divine intervention — Moses’ and Aaron’s miracles in Pharaoh’s court, the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna in the wilderness, the cloud by day and the fire by night to lead the Jews to Israel – that accompanied the Exodus.

And that is what we mortals have yearned for since Egypt — a miraculous destruction of the gas chambers, for example. 

So, never having had anything approaching that, it is imperative to recall what God did that one time, when he took us out of Egypt. 

Happy Passover.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of

Pharoah said ‘no.’ You won’t believe what God did next.

Once, at our seder, our friend Ira gave a running commentary on the haggadah, offering a scientific explanation for every miracle and wonder in the Exodus story.    

I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it may actually be better if the whole thing really were made up.

I can see why Wolpe got a big pushback. Ingenious alternatives were offered for the truth of the text. Richard Elliott Friedman, for example, a distinguished scholar, built an elegant case that the Exodus did indeed occur, but just for one fierce tribe, the Levites. When they joined the other tribes, the Levites became the Israelites’ priesthood. The task of teaching Torah fell to them, and their own experience became the official version.

“And that is how a historical event that happened to the Levite minority became everybody’s celebration — how we all came to say that we were slaves in Egypt, although that was not the experience even of most Israelites of the period. It’s not so different from practicing, say, the American cultural tradition of Thanksgiving, which most Americans do, even though most U.S. citizens are not descended from Pilgrims or Native Americans.” 

I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it actually may be better if the whole thing really were made up.

Wolpe is a bit elegiac when he tells us that the Exodus may not have happened, the way parents in another religious tradition admit there is no Santa Claus. He lets us down easy and guides us to the holiday’s enduring lesson. But I think there’s a huge upside to appreciating it as a fiction, a masterwork of the human imagination, a brilliant narrative, an origin myth whose aesthetic truth leaves me awestruck by its moral truth.

Yes, Passover is about the bitterness of bondage and the righteousness of freedom. But it’s also about — to me, even more about — our telling the story of bondage and freedom.  When we do that, we not only obey a biblical injunction to teach our children where we came from, we communally experience how literally spellbinding a story can be.  

We Jews didn’t just give monotheism to the world. We also gave the story of monotheism to the world. If monotheism had been merely a creed or ideology, the world might have paid attention for a bit and then moved on. But because it’s a story, a breathtaking drama, it has held the world in its grip ever since.

Let’s leave Obama out of our seders

Jews have big mouths. Put those big mouths in a society that reveres freedom of speech and it’s a sight to behold. On the whole, it’s a wonderful attribute. We analyze everything, we criticize endlessly, we kvetch, we yell, we do everything but shut up. It’s as if we’re taking revenge on all those centuries when we often had to watch what we said. Here, in the land of the First Amendment, keeping quiet is no longer a Jewish ailment.

I’m always amused when I hear an American Jew complain, “They’re trying to shut me up!” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to shut a Jew up.

But in this column, I will try.

You see, there is one time when our big mouths don’t serve us so well. It’s when we sit down for a holy meal. Take Shabbat, for example, a time for reflection and joy. You know how to spoil the joyfulness of a Shabbat meal? Just complain about Obama. Or Bibi, or Abbas, or Iran, or BDS or just about anything else we complain about during the week.

It’s not that these issues are not important. They are. The real question is: Do they belong at a Shabbat table? Do they uplift us?

With the Passover seders coming up, my own challenge will be to shut myself up. I’m so upset these days with the way President Obama has been treating Bibi and Israel that it will be hard for me to contain myself. I, too, have a big mouth, and I love living in a country where I’m free to criticize everything, including my president. 

But am I obligated to use that freedom at a seder table?

Let’s play things out. I’m sitting at a big and noisy seder with my family. Someone brings up the subject of a nuclear Iran. My brother, a renowned scientist who always has brilliant insights, is sitting next to me. I am tempted to get his take on the situation, especially on how Obama seems to be appeasing the Persian mullahs. But I know that if I do that, we’ll be in for a good 30 minutes of talking about politics.

Meanwhile, what would happen to the Exodus story? Where would the mood and the energy of the seder go?

It’s true that if you adhere closely to the haggadah — especially the haggadot that drive the conversation with questions and suggestions — you’re a lot less likely to go off on detours. But we’re human. We’re used to saying what’s on our minds.

If I have to choose between a metaphorical discussion of the Four Sons and a political discussion of the four terror states encroaching on Israel, the latter feels way more urgent.

So, we’re trapped between two time frames: the urgent versus the timeless. Passover clearly deals with the timeless. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, “The Jewish festival of freedom is the oldest continuously observed religious ritual in the world. Across the centuries, Passover has never lost its power to inspire the imagination of successive generations of Jews with its annually re-enacted drama of slavery and liberation.”

If we let our mouths wander into the urgent and the political, how will it inspire our imaginations? How will it help us re-enact the drama of our liberation? Should the starting point be what’s on our minds or what’s in our story?

No matter how urgent or important, politics and current events are simply not very inspiring.

Too often, we do mental gymnastics and convince ourselves that a discussion of politics is appropriate to a spiritual setting. I can imagine that many Jews this year will look at the passage that says, “In every generation, enemies rise up to destroy us,” and connect it to the Iranian nuclear threat. I will probably do the same. But how will that make the evening different from any other?

How will it uplift us?

It’s not just that politics can lead to unpleasant conversations. It’s more than that. No matter how urgent or important, politics and current events are simply not very inspiring. For inspiration, you can’t compete with the timeless lessons and stories of our tradition. And Passover is the mother lode of timeless lessons.

Now, if an ancient and epic story of liberation doesn’t speak to you, and you feel you must talk about something more current, here’s an alternative: Talk about your own stories of liberation. You can start with a discussion of what negative habits have enslaved you over the past year and how you plan to free yourself. Personally, I might talk about freeing myself from always complaining about the news, and especially about Obama.

After all, if Obama has been ruining my mood lately, why should he also ruin my seder?

Happy and meaningful Passover.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

God gave this land to them

Pat Boone wrote the words to “Exodus.”

If you’re below a certain age, Pat Boone is some random dude you need Google to ID, and “Exodus” is the new Ridley Scott 3D with Christian Bale as Moses and a wicked cool CGI Red Sea. 

To Boomers, Pat Boone was the un-Elvis in white bucks, Charlton Heston owns Moses and the real Moses movie is “The Ten Commandments.”  “Exodus” was Otto Preminger’s Zionist epic based on the 1958 Leon Uris novel, whose score won Ernest Gold an Academy Award.   It had a big theme — Buum BUUM. BUUM BUUM – but no words, because Preminger and Gold “>put it, “the second Jewish national anthem,” and recently Boone “>Nina Paley’s 2012 animation of Andy Williams’ pipes shows a succession of conquering Canaanites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Jews, Babylonians, Macedonians, Seleucids, Romans, Caliphs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, Palestinians and others who also said this land is theirs, and also in the name of God, gods, divine rulers, divine prophets and holy texts.   

Eleven years old is the same age as the British actor Isaac Andrew, whom Ridley Scott has “>contested by a generation and more of Israeli historians, journalists, military leaders, political figures and artists.  This openness to historical reality doesn’t diminish the idealism and right to self-determination of that nation’s founders, doesn’t mitigate the horror of the Holocaust that impelled its establishment, doesn’t accept the tragic spiral of terror and counterterror visited on its inhabitants.  But it does make it harder to hold fast to origin stories in which right always battles wrong and never battles right. 

“God gave this land to them” is a sentiment I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in history, let alone in song.  Historical revisionism doesn’t displace one god with another.  It replaces divine narratives with secular ones that are less flattering and less thrilling.  It’s uncomfortable to think about Thanksgiving’s origin in gratitude to a Christian God for enabling the “>manifest destiny allotted to white people by Providence.  It may be a heretical thought, but the founding of modern Israel had more to do with mortal men and women than with the coming of Moshiach or the second coming of Christ. 

Earlier this year, Pat Boone “>living in the End Times.  People believe stories, whether they’re true or not.  They have undeniable explanatory appeal. “The Exodus Song” tells one helluva powerful origin story.  That’s why the 11-year-old in me wants to keep singing it.  But a fable is not a fix. 

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at 

Letters to the editor: Exodus, spirituality and anti-Semitism

Barking Up the Wrong ‘Free’

I must admit that each time I read a good argument supporting each position (1) the Bible is to be taken literally and (2) the Bible is not to be taken literally, I find I am moved by both positions (“Did the Exodus Happen?” April 18). They are both intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. The question then becomes, for me, what are my motives in accepting one position as opposed to the other. Which position brings me closer to God, a being I cannot prove exists? And if I cannot prove God exists, though I can experience his existence as I experience love, why am I required to prove these events occurred to a standard of scientific certainty? The desire for proof and certainty becomes the new prison, the new idol, the new Pharaoh, which prevents our heart from completely opening up to freedom so that we can then walk with God, as Moses did, and we can truly live the life of a free Jew.

Ilbert Philips via

To add another well-known name to the discourse, Freud described the story of the Exodus as a pious myth. And yet, in one of his controversial books he wrote profoundly and with reverence about Moses the remarkable national leader of the people of the Exodus. He followed his life from the time he was plucked out of the river until his death at the edge of the Promised Land. 

The story of Exodus, regardless how it happened, is a recurring event in Jewish history. It is the eternal struggle of monotheism in a polytheistic world with tragic results. The Exodus from Egypt probably was no different from the exodus of Jews from Muslim Iran, Czarist and Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, or Catholic Spain. The Exile to Babylon and Rome would also classify as a reverse exodus. Whether Rabbi Wolpe or Dennis Prager is right is not the question. The issue is whether the unleavened bread displayed on a silver platter in a festive setting is the proper and worthy symbol of the struggle for freedom by a people willing to suffer and pay the price for it. So we ask: “Manishtana?”

Ken Lautman Los Angeles

To Thine Own Selfie Be True

Kudos to Danielle Berrin for her informative article on Alan Morinis and the Mussar Institute (“Selfie Spirituality,” April 18). I was privileged to learn about how effective this ethical system is when I visited the California Institute for Women where my friend, the Rev. Gabbai Shayna Lester, was honored on Pesach by inmates and her peers alike. The inmates — both Jews and gentiles — who took part in the Mussar classes, learned among other principles the importance of avoiding lashon harah — gossip and negative comments about others. And it was reported on several occasions that the parole board looked favorably on this program in their consideration of an inmate being found suitable for parole.

This was the most moving seder I have ever attended, written by the inmates themselves as part of a creative writing project. The inmates were also able to have a rare “real food” meal, and to socialize with outsiders like me who take our freedom for granted. I urge my fellow Jews to familiarize themselves with this program’s leader, Rabbi Moshe Raphael Halfon, and Am Or Olam. 

Gene Rothman, Culver City

Overseeing From Overseas

Adelson’s acquisitions simply because they are an interference in Israeli internal affairs from an outside entity would be just as wrong if they were from the left (“Why Adelson Newspaper War Matters,” April 18). We have the same problem in the UK with a Russian oligarch, Alexander Lebedev, buying up our press and now even owning a TV station, to say nothing of Rupert Murdoch and his all-pervasive influence in every corner of the media. It would be a simple matter for the state to pass a law preventing foreign influence in the media. Of course, the State of Israel will not do so until Netanyahu goes, but it is something for the opposition parties to think about before the next election.

Josephine Bacon via

Praying for the Enemy

I read with great sadness about the increased anti-Semitic violence in Los Angeles and the haunting viral hatred on the Internet (“Anti-Semitism sees decreased incidents, increased violence,” April 4). 

Those who hate to such extreme do so to mask an inner weakness that they will not admit to. They rise above their own shame through violence to prove themselves as brave. 

We saw it in the Nazi’s and we see it in people who use Nazi hatred for their self worth. 

The Jewish people have seen it all before. 

I pray not for the victims, but for those who use violence as a means of righteousness. 

For if we can turn hate into something better and useful, then society benefits in every way.

George V. Hill via e-mail

Did the Exodus happen?

With Passover here, it is a propitious time to address the central issue of the holiday: the Exodus. Specifically, did the Exodus happen?

My friend Rabbi David Wolpe announced some years ago that it didn’t matter whether the Exodus occurred. In his words, writing three years later: “Three years ago on Passover, I explained to my congregation that according to archeologists, there was no reliable evidence that the Exodus took place — and that it almost certainly did not take place the way the Bible recounts it. Finally, I emphasized: It didn’t matter.”

“The Torah,” he continued, “is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us.”

I cite Rabbi Wolpe because of my respect for his intellectual honesty, for his Jewish seriousness, and because what he says represents the thinking of many modern Jews.

I do, however, differ. I think it does matter if the Jews were slaves in Egypt and whether the Exodus took place.

First, the Jewish people would not have survived, let alone died for their faith, if they had not believed that the Exodus really happened. It takes much more than metaphors for a small, dispersed and horribly persecuted people to survive for thousands of years. And this will be equally true in the future. If Jews come to believe that one of the Torah’s two most important stories (the other, as I will explain, is the Creation) never happened, it is hard to imagine that they will devote their lives to Judaism — no matter how much “truth” a myth may contain. The ancient Greek stories, as, for example, those of Homer, also contained “truth.” But they didn’t perpetuate Greek culture, which was wholly taken over by Christianity. And few, if any, Greeks outside of Greece have ever retained a strong Greek identity thanks to Homer’s stories.

Second, as noted, the Exodus is one of the two essential stories not only of the Torah, but of Judaism and Jewish history. Our prayer book regularly contains the phrases zecher l’ma’asei bereshit and zecher litziyat mitzrayim — “to commemorate the acts of Creation” and “to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt.” Just as Christianity is founded on two events — the atoning death and the Resurrection of Jesus, so Judaism is predicated on two events: Creation and Exodus. The Shabbat Kiddush consists of two paragraphs. The first recounts Creation; the second, the Exodus.

Apparently God (or, if you prefer, whoever gave the Ten Commandments) thought the Exodus significant enough to open the Ten Commandments with reference to one event — the Exodus: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.” Even one who doesn’t believe that God gave the Ten Commandments would have to explain why reference to something that never happened would so move the ancient Israelites. In addition, the two versions of the Ten Commandments — the one from God in Exodus and the one from Moses in Deuteronomy — differ with regard to the reason for Shabbat. The first version’s reason is the Creation (by keeping the Shabbat, we reaffirm weekly that God created the world); the second version’s reason is the Exodus (“You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt” — and only free people can have a day of rest each week).

Third, if the Exodus never happened, what biblical story did? Did Abraham live? Did Moses? Was there a revelation at Mount Sinai? Did the Jews enter the Promised Land? Did King David live? According to scholars such as Niels Peter Lemche, an internationally recognized biblical scholar at the University of Copenhagen, “The David of the Bible, David the king, is not a historical figure.”

Are they all fables? If so, it’s really hard to make the case for taking the Bible particularly seriously, let alone base one’s identity and values on it.

Fourth, that we cannot prove that the Jews were in Egypt means little to me. Many biblical stories that were once dismissed as fables were later shown to have a historical basis. Therefore, my belief in the Exodus story does not depend on archaeologists telling me whether they have concluded that Jews were enslaved in and later left Egypt. In any event, what archaeological evidence can one expect to find? The Egyptians didn’t record defeats. And the Jews were in the desert/wilderness with temporary dwellings that would hardly leave traces after 3,000 years.

Logic, however, does strongly argue for the historicity of the Exodus story. What people ever made up as ignoble a past as the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible relate about the Jews? Every other people in the world made up a grand and powerful history for themselves. They were all mighty and courageous. We Jews, on the other hand, were slaves, idol worshippers, rebels and ingrates. Why make that up? And why make up that so many non-Jews were heroes — such as the daughter of Pharaoh, the Egyptian midwives and the pagan priest Jethro? Why make up that Moses was raised an Egyptian? Why credit God for the Exodus rather than bold Israelites?

At the Passover seder, you have good reason to believe avadim hayeenu b’eretz mitzrayim, “we were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Recite it with conviction.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Hollywood and the Nazis: Two historians, two opinions

The study of history never lends itself to a single unambiguous view of the past.  For history is, as the British scholar E.H. Carr observed in his famous 1961 book “What is History?” “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present.”

One of the most important consequences of this dialogue is that historians often advance widely divergent interpretations of significant events, whether it be the question of whether the Exodus occurred, what caused the French Revolution or which factors led to the flight of Palestinian Arabs in 1948. At times, scholars use the same body of historical sources and still arrive at different conclusions. A good case in point was a pair of books published by Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen in 1992 and 1996, respectively.  Relying not only on the same historical subject — the brutally murderous German Reserve Police Battalion that killed scores of thousands of Jews during World War II — but also the same archival files, the two researchers drew very different conclusions. Browning titled his book “Ordinary Men” to indicate that the behavior of the police battalion was not the function of a particular German way of being, but a reflection of the capacity for evil deeds inhering in the human condition at large. Goldhagen, for his part, subtitled his book “Ordinary Germansto convey his view that a uniquely German “eliminationist” anti-Semitism motivated the police battalion.

We are reminded of the manifold possibilities of historical interpretation — and of the question of how we ourselves might act in trying circumstances — in the current controversy surrounding an historical topic with particular resonance here in Los Angeles: the relationship between Hollywood movie studios and the Nazis. In his new book “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler,” Ben Urwand, a junior faculty at Harvard’s prestigious Society of Fellows, issues a stinging bill of indictment against the largely Jewish studio heads in Hollywood for placing economic gain above morality or a sense of compassion for their co-religionists in Germany during the increasingly dire 1930s. Danielle Berrin’s report on the book in the Jewish Journal from more than a month ago captures the sensational claim of the book: “Hollywood’s Deal With the Devil (Hitler).”

In making his case, Urwand relies on a wide trove of published and unpublished sources, especially German government files, to maintain that the studio heads capitulated to Nazi censorship of one movie script after another in order to preserve a foothold in the lucrative German market. There was at work, Urwand suggests, an unsettling alliance of interests among the studio heads, the movie industry’s own guardian of propriety, the Hays Office, and the German Propaganda Ministry, not to mention subservient American Jewish organizations. The overall thrust of the book’s argument follows a wider narrative arc about American Jewish passivity during the second world war that was forcefully promoted in the 1940s by the Jewish activist Peter Bergson (né Hillel Kook). This is not surprising, as Bergson emerges as a heroic foil to the studio heads late in Urwand book, alongside the writer Ben Hecht.   

One cannot dismiss Urwand’s evidence about the opportunism of studio heads vis-à-vis the German film market, especially in the mid-930s. But neither must one buy into the image of them as greed-filled collaborators blithely indifferent to the fate of fellow Jews. Nor should one assume that all American-Jewish organizations and leaders spoke in the same, muted voice about Nazism.  Urwand’s perspective in covering this terrain is tendentious, at times coarsely drawn and, above all, partial.  

The partial nature of his account becomes clear when encountering a very different perspective on the same period and some of the same actors.  Professor Steven Ross, the USC historian perhaps best known for his “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics(2011), is at work on a book that moves the current of historical action in the opposite direction. Rather than focusing on the efforts of Hollywood moguls to preserve market share in Germany, he has uncovered, through a rich body of archival sources at California State University, Northridge, a terrifying scheme by Nazi officials and local sympathizers to engage in mass terror here in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Chief among their goals was a plan to assassinate 20 leading Hollywood Jews, including Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner — who are cast in Urwand’s book as enthusiastic supporters of “the collaboration” from which his book gets its title.  

Ross and Urwand do have some overlapping themes and figures in their accounts, but the emphases differ greatly.  Take, for example, Germany’s Consul General in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling. For Urwand, Gyssling is the key figure in the Nazi propaganda effort in Hollywood, threatening and cajoling studio heads to remove any references to Germany or Jews, avoid any condemnation of fascism, and even eliminate Jewish actors and directors from films — lest they be subjected to Article 15 of the German film code that would entail their companies’ removal from the German market.  

For Ross, Gyssling is the more public yet benign face of Joseph Goebbels’ efforts to conquer Hollywood. Far more dangerous was Gyssling’s rival, Hermann Schwinn, the leader of Los Angeles’ growing Nazi party in the 1930s.  It was Schwinn who presided over a loose group of Nazis and fascists that gathered at the Deutsches Haus in downtown Los Angeles. Out of this local group emerged the plan to murder 20 leading Jewish figures from Hollywood. And out of this group emanated a scheme to hang 20 leading Jewish and civic figures in Los Angeles before driving to Boyle Heights to gun down Jews at random.

As shocking as this series of plots may seem, Ross has uncovered an even more remarkable twist. The Nazis’ plans in Los Angeles were foiled by a group of undercover spies led by one Leon Lewis, a Jewish communal activist and founder of the Community Committee, later known as the Community Relations Committee (CRC). Lewis makes a fleeting appearance in Urwand’s book, but he is a main protagonist in Ross’ forthcoming work. Beginning in 1933, Lewis assembled and ran a team of undercover agents, Jews and non-Jews, who infiltrated and then disabled the L.A.-based Nazi cell.  It was he whom Gyssling accused of spreading the most pernicious anti-German propaganda. And it was he who came to be regarded by the Nazis as “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles.”  

By excavating Lewis’ story, Ross is revealing a previously unknown facet of the complex triangle of Hollywood, Jews and Nazism. He is also offering a very different narrative lens through which to observe this triangle than the one used by Urwand in “The Collaboration.” Ross’ story is not a tale of Jewish indifference or betrayal, but of courage and daring, at least in the case of Lewis.   

And yet, it would be a mistake to depict all as black or white in Ross’ history.  With respect to the Jewish studio heads, themselves targets of the ill-fated assassination plot, he acknowledges that they continued to do business and curry favor with the Germans as late as 1939. At the same time, they provided critical financial support for Lewis’ anti-Nazi spy ring. Their legacy, in this regard, is mixed, neither heroic nor demonic.

And so we are left with two strands of the history of Hollywood and Nazi Germany, each based on extensive archival research, as well as the distinctive interpretive proclivities of two historians. While the great French scholar Lucien Febvre believed it possible to attain l’histoire totale, a total history, a complete understanding of any given historical moment, in all its fullness, forever evades us. Ross’ account of the anti-Nazi spy ring rounds out and balances the harsh judgment of the Jewish movie moguls in Urwand’s book, presenting an important and fascinating corrective, though not — indeed, never — the final word.

David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history and chair of the UCLA History Department.