August 18, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Balak

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

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! –

Kylie Ora Lobell
Contributing Writer, Jewish Journal 

Balak is a doozy of a parsha. There are curses and blessings, yet another anti-Semitic ruler and … a talking donkey (not voiced by Eddie Murphy, but by God). This parsha is the perfect example of what the Jewish people have been experiencing since we were born. Other nations try to eliminate us, but we always survive. In the Torah, it was apparent that we survived because of God’s intervention. When revelation stopped occurring, we had to believe that we still had miracles without seeing God’s work with our own eyes. 

In this verse, the non-Israelite Bilaam is blessing the Jewish people, despite King Balak’s fervent desire that he curse them instead. Bilaam believes in HaShem and fears the wrath of Him more than his king. He sees the magnificent splendor and holiness of the Jewish people. I can only hope that there are more Bilaams instead of Balaks around us. 

Lately, it seems like the latter, with growing anti-Semitism around the world. Thankfully, we have many non-Jewish allies like Bilaam, but that alone won’t help us. We also need to uphold our end of the bargain with God and be a light unto this world. We must be the best versions of ourselves while following the principles of the Torah and fulfilling God’s will. This is what is going to strengthen the Jewish people. We’ve survived much worse and we will continue to thrive, but only if we do our part, staying strong in our beliefs and putting total faith in HaShem. 

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Names are extremely important in the Torah. They are the key to our identity. The Hebrew for name is shem — the very two letters central to the Hebrew word for soul, neshamah. 

The first of our patriarchs was Abram. Once he discovered God, his name was forevermore changed to Abraham, a shortened form of his mission to be “father of many nations.” Never again would he be referred to as Abram. 

Jacob also had his name changed. After his fight with the angel of Esau, he became Israel. Yet strangely enough, the change of name does not remain exclusive. It is almost as if the Bible cannot make up its mind whether he is one or the other. And remarkably enough in this blessing from the prophet Bilaam — a verse so important that it is commonly recited as the first prayer upon entering the synagogue — both names are used in the very same sentence! 

Even as the verse starkly presents us with the problem, it also offers the solution. 

Jacob is the man of peace; Israel is the warrior. Jacob chooses flight, Israel prefers fight. Which is the correct path? Ecclesiastes pithily told us: “There is a time for peace and there’s a time for war.” The wise person understands life demands both approaches. 

When to be Jacob and when to be Israel? “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob.” Our homes must be guided by compromise. “Your holy places, Israel.” For the sacred, we must be willing to sacrifice and even to fight in defense of the holy. 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff
Professor of Philosophy, American Jewish University

What did Bilaam see that made him praise the tents of Jacob? The Rabbis say it was that the opening of the tent of one family faced the wall of the tent of their neighbor so that each family enjoyed privacy (B. Bava Batra 60a).

This is one of several verses in the Torah (another, for example, is Deuteronomy 24:11) that produced a robust set of Jewish laws to guard our own privacy and that of others. This includes both concerns of intrusion and disclosure. Privacy is important because it is the core of our sense of individual identity and dignity, as well as the foundation for relationships of trust and friendship. 

American law seeks to protect privacy as a matter of individual liberty, while Jewish law views privacy as central to being created in the image of God (as God is partly revealed and partly hidden, so should we be). Judaism also values privacy as part of our communal identity: We are a holy people that respects boundaries. 

As I describe in some detail in Chapter Two of my book “Love Your Neighbor and Yourself,” these differing approaches to privacy produce different applications of the concern for privacy in the two legal systems, including varying approaches to such issues as abortion, spying on employees, videotaping and photographing, and internet usage. The concern for privacy, though, must be squared against our equally important need for safety, and modern sophisticated technology has made balancing these two concerns much harder than it used to be. 

Rabbi Ari Segal
Shalhevet Head of School

There’s a quote that has become overused. No one is quite sure who said it first, but I love it, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” 

That’s a lot to unpack, but I think the quote is essentially a plea for developing interiority. It is easy to spend your life talking about other people, gossiping about celebrities, talking about the countertops in your neighbor’s kitchen — but such a life leads to shallowness and an emphasis on externality. Great minds leap to focus on the compelling ideas that emerge from the tapestry of our thoughts. How does one develop such a perspective? It may depend on the direction of your sight. 

Bilaam remarks about the Jewish people, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” Rashi explains that this comment referred to the fact that the tents of the Jewish people did not align with one another so they couldn’t peek into one another’s homes. Great nations, like great minds, emerge from a concern not for your neighbor’s life but rather your own inner world. 

Maybe that is why we begin morning prayers with this verse. It is a reminder that focused prayer can only emerge from a focused inner world. If our tents are facing our neighbors, the depth of our inner ideas will be left wanting. To develop a great mind, make sure your tent is facing in the right direction.

Shaindy Jacobson
Director, Rosh Chodesh Society (Jewish Learning Institute)

Entry level. We’ve all been there. Maybe we still are. Perhaps we’ve just begun scaling that never-ending mountain, or blessedly made it to the top! Regardless, it all begins with that opening — that initial portal we each must enter in order to move forward. 

Herein lies the quintessential message of Bilaam’s curse-turned-blessing to the Jewish people. Rashi comments that Bilaam uttered these words in amazement when “he saw that the openings [of their tents] were not lined up one with the other.” Why the focus on their openings? 

Reb Boruch of Mezhbizh quotes the Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs (5:2) when God urges the Jewish people, “Pitchu li petach kechudo shel machat ve’Ani potei’ach lachem petachim shetiheyu agalot nichnasot bo” — “Make a small opening like that of the head of a needle and I will open for you an opening through which caravans can enter.” 

All a Jew needs to do is begin the teshuvah process and God will help lead him or her to greater goals. The opening that a Jew has to make is incomparable to the opening God makes in return. Hence, Bilaam, both in praise and envy, could not refrain from uttering, “You Jews are blessed! Your opening and God’s opening are not ‘aligned’ — equivalent — to each other. All God asks of you is to make a minuscule effort and He responds by opening the vast gates of teshuvah.” 

It all begins at entry level. As Mark Twain famously said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” 

Table for Five: Purim

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

The king said to Haman, “Hurry! Take the garment and the horse just as you have said, and do just so for Mordechai the Jew who sits at the king’s gate. Do not leave out a thing from all that you suggested.” –Esther 6:10

Kylie Ora Lobell
Jewish Journal contributing writer 

In this scene from Megillat Esther, King Ahasuerus has just discovered that Mordechai foiled an assassination plot, and the king wishes to honor him. He asks Haman what that honor should look like, and Haman thinks, mistakenly, that the honor is for himself. He ends up having to lead Mordechai through the city and telling everyone how wonderful Mordechai is. 

Ever since the Jewish people have come into existence, hateful people like Haman have attempted to wipe us out. Sadly, anti-Semitism is on the rise again, even in the United States — just look at the recent comments from two U.S. congresswomen on the left, and the scary websites run by far-right trolls on the dark corners of the internet. 

Until redemption comes, anti-Semitism will sadly never go away. There will always be jealous, spiteful, God-hating individuals in the world who want to destroy us. But I’m confident that we will survive every attack, just like we did over and over in years past, including in the story of Purim. 

Haman was a very powerful man, and yet in the end, he failed and the Jews won. We turned what was to be a tragic day into the most joyous one on the Jewish calendar. I’m hopeful that when Moshiach comes soon, anti-Semitism will finally be wiped away, and the Jews will prevail like they did in Shushan. We will truly shine, showing the world our status as a light unto the nations. May you have a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Purim!

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Motivational speaker

The instructions relayed by King Ahaseurus to Haman to assist Mordechai the Jew by preparing his apparel and horse without delay, goes to the core of the poetic justice that personifies the story of Purim. 

The sudden turn of fate whereby Haman, who had planned Mordechai’s demise in detail, was about to meet the exact fate he planned for Mordechai, highlights two of the most important themes of Purim:

Firstly, the emotion of laughter. There is no greater reversal than the prospect of immediate death replaced with life. The first time the concept of laughter appears in the Torah is in the context of Yitzchak. In addition to the allusion to laughter in Yitzchak’s name, our Sages teach that Yitzchak’s return from imminent death reflects the ultimate sudden reversal which is the greatest possible trigger of laughter. Similarly, the sudden twist of fate in the story of Purim is the source of the laughter synonymous with Purim. 

Secondly, just like HaShem’s name does not appear anywhere in the Megillah, similarly, HaShem himself appears to be hidden in our lives. The life lesson we need to take to heart is that just as the sudden turn of fate and happy ending in the story of the Megillah could not have been predicted, often in our lives, while we may understandably feel anxious at times, a Jew dare not despair because while seemingly hidden, HaShem is the ultimate director and each of our screenplays is customized for our good with altruistic love.

Rivkah Slonim
Education director, Rohr Chabad Center at Binghamton University, New York

Jewish Mysticism has an uncanny way of illuminating the least expected connections.

The Arizal taught that the roshei tevet an acrostic of the words “et hasoos v’et halevush,” the horse and the clothing, is the same as for the words “et hashamayim v’et ha-aretz,” the heavens and the earth in the first verse of the Torah. Those letters comprise one of the holy names for HaShem. The Chabad rebbes expounded that the secret of creation — heaven and earth — is God’s desire that we transform this lowly temporal existence into a majestic dwelling place for the divine. Not just in the obvious way of embracing that which is overtly holy. Nor even by transforming the otherwise neutral by using it for sacred purpose. But even by extricating the sparks of divinity that have fallen to the other side. The unholy. 

Hurry, says King Ahaseurus to Haman: dress Mordechai, parade him through the streets of the capital city seated on the king’s horse, and proclaim his greatness. Do this with alacrity!

If Haman would not have done so, he would have remained forever beyond the pale, with no tie to holiness. After this deed, there was room for reprisal; some of his descendants became involved in holiness.

What better holiday for highlighting this lesson than Purim, which is all about v’nehafach hu, inverting all paradigms? And what better time than now? Quickly, let’s bring the redemption; let’s expose the source of all earthiness that is in heaven. Even the Hamans.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

The rabbis understood the name of the biblical book describing the events of the Purim story in a profound way. Esther, the heroine, shares the Hebrew root of the word for hidden; megillah is connected to the idea of uncovering, revealing. Megillat Esther is nothing less than the one book of the Torah that helps us to recognize the hidden ways in which our lives follow the path of divine destiny.

One verse is the key to understanding the concept. It is perhaps the greatest biblical illustration of a fundamental theological principle of our faith. Haman has just described the glorious honor he believes is intended for himself — only to be told by the king in Chapter 6, Verse 10 that the recipient is to be Haman’s archenemy, Mordechai. More, according to the remarkable interpretation of the midrash, whenever the word “king” is used in the Megillah, it refers both to the king below and the king above. It is God himself who has spoken. It is God who decreed that the very same plan devised by the wicked for their personal grandeur will be granted to the righteous. Similarly, Haman will be hanged on the very tree he prepared as gallows for Mordechai.

It is the concept of karma. But it is far more than fate. It is the universe’s divine secret. What goes around comes back around. The hidden message this verse reveals is the remarkable truth that human beings are not punished for their sins — but by them.

David Sacks

Everything can change in an instant. King David writes in the Psalms, “I look up to the mountains, from where my help will come?” The Vilna Gaon notes that if you take the Hebrew literally, the verse actually says, “I look up to the mountains, from out of nowhere my help will come. 

In other words, salvation can come in the blink of an eye. The phone can ring with good news, you can suddenly meet your soulmate, healing can arrive because nothing is difficult for God. Think about it. God created the entire universe out of nothingness. Certainly, he can bring about whatever he wants, whenever he wants. 

Purim teaches us that these miraculous salvations, which come seemingly out of nowhere, are being prepared for us right in front of our eyes. God does this by guiding the world with his hidden hand. 

When I was a new father, I got a glimpse of how this process works. My newborn was hungry and crying. I started making a bottle for him — the very thing he wanted most — but still he kept crying. I didn’t understand why. Later I learned that newborns can see only a few inches in front of their faces. 

And then I realized that’s all of us!

Purim is the capital of when secrets become revealed. May HaShem open our eyes, and speedily reveal all the blessings he’s been preparing for us since the world was created so that we can serve him with absolute joy.

Weekly Parsha: Miketz

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

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have dreamed a dream,
and there is no interpreter for it.” –
Genesis 41:15

Nili Isenberg
Pressman Academy

Sometimes, like Pharaoh, we feel so alone in our lives. We are beset by challenges that no one can understand, not even ourselves. In our dreams, we replay what has happened during the day, turning events into a jumbled nightmare of concerns and anxieties. They eat us up inside, ravaging our physical and mental states as we become like ugly, emaciated cows. And there is no interpreter for it.

There is no one to explain why these are the circumstances of our lives. Just this past month, we have all asked: Why Pittsburgh? Why Thousand Oaks? Why is our world figuratively and literally on fire?

Mei HaShiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, 1801-1854) took a mystical approach to our verse. He argued that “everything in this life is like a dream that needs interpreting,” in an active, engaged process.

When my son was diagnosed with Angelman Syndrome five years ago, we learned that he might never achieve the most basic functions in life, such as walking and talking. At the time, my husband and I felt like we had accidentally crossed into a delusional alternate reality, an inexplicable dream. We continue to struggle with this reality every day, looking for an explanation, while still holding in our hearts the faith that God’s world has a design and meaning. But faith is not an explanation.

For Pharaoh, his dream was finally explained by Joseph. How much longer will the rest of us have to continue our search for an explanation?

Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz
Adat Shalom, “My Daily Offering” podcast, “Roadmap Jerusalem” filmmaker

The Hebrew Bible loves the motif of foreshadowing dreams as a method of communication from the divine. Saying there is “no interpreter” for his dream is a reflection of Pharaoh’s negative outlook. Unlike this part of Pharaoh’s statement, the Jewish tradition believes in the power of possibility. There are always answers for those prepared to question, always new rewards for those willing to take risks, always interpreters for difficult dreams, even for Pharaoh. Pharaoh continues this same verse by saying, “but I have heard it said of you [Joseph] that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” 

In response, Joseph gives Pharaoh the key to all of our struggles: humility. Joseph attributes to God his amazing ability to interpret dreams. For when we maintain belief in God, answers seem more attainable, rewards seem more reachable, and dreams seem more interpretable.

With God’s help, there is nothing we can’t achieve. That is why President John F. Kennedy concluded his famous “moon speech” on Sept. 12, 1962, at Rice University by saying, “Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” 

May we all chase our dreams … with God’s help.

Peter Himmelman
Musician, author, CEO and Chief Dream Enabler of Big Muse

Pharaoh’s name translates as “Explosion.” He had an explosive personality with an explosive, childish temper. Pharaoh also possessed a spirituality so explosive that even Moses had been afraid to approach him. Spirituality, however, does not equate to holiness. 

Pharaoh’s worldview was one of extreme egoism and, as such, lacked all sensitivity toward God. Pharaoh famously said, “The Nile is mine and I created it.” And in the verse that immediately follows ours, Joseph states that, “Only God can interpret dreams.” Without a connection to God, Pharaoh and his advisers were powerless to correctly interpret his dreams. 

When we place ourselves at the center of the universe (and face it, at times we all do) we become locked in a kind of myopic mental cage. Our opinions, our beliefs, and our prejudices then start to comprise our micro-reality. When we cut ourselves off from the larger world and the larger community, not only are we diminished, we diminish those around us as well. 

It sounds paradoxical, but when you reflect on the times you were most joyful —perhaps it was when you held your child for the first time — it’s likely you felt very small. I don’t mean less important; I mean you became cognizant that you were merely an infinitesimal part of an infinite universe. 

Interpreting dreams is an expression of creativity at the highest level. Like Joseph, we, too, are at our most creative when we are most alive to our awareness of God — the constant Creator of everything. 

Rabbi Chaim Tureff
Temple Beth Am and director of STARS Addiction Recovery 

Pharaoh is confused and needs guidance. The sheer terror of not knowing what is going on next paralyzes him. He is confounded by his dreams. 

Pharaoh looks around and is told by his chamberlain of the cupbearers about a young Jew who can guide him. Pharaoh has hit bottom and has nowhere to turn except to Yosef. This is very similar to a sponsor/sponsee relationship in 12-step programs. 

The “dreams” are symbolic of the continual spiraling out that one experiences when they are in their active addiction. They look left, right, forward and behind but are unable to find solace. Nothing helps ease the addict’s “dream.” 

When they allow themselves to find their Yosef, and turn over their will to the guidance of someone more experienced in these issues, they find their interpreter. Instead of the responses to their “dreams” that many other people try to interpret, they find a true interpreter, a sponsor, someone who understands their “dream” and can interpret them and help them move forward in their life. 

Kylie Ora Lobell
Jewish Journal Contributing Writer

In this verse, the frightened Pharaoh is turning to Joseph to interpret his disturbing dreams about meager cows. Immediately, Joseph replies, “Not I; God will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh.” Joseph is owning up to the fact that he cannot provide comfort — only God can. 

Any answers he gives are actually from God, since God created him. Too often, like Pharaoh, we seek answers to our problems from other human beings. We worship celebrities who supposedly show us how we should live. We follow leaders blindly. We poll our family members and friends for help. We rely on our therapists to solve our issues. But before long, we realize that we can find comfort and peace only by turning to HaShem. 

If Pharaoh had learned to pray, look inward and rely on God, perhaps he would have discovered his interpretations on his own. But because he wasn’t a believer, he had to rely on Joseph, who was. In our daily lives, we need to be like Joseph. We have to recognize that HaShem is in control, and that in the end, only he can help us solve our problems, show us the right path and enable us to lead productive, fulfilling lives, with many prosperous years ahead. 

Weekly Parsha: Vayera

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

And [Isaac] said, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the
burnt offering?” – 
Genesis 22:7

Kylie Ora Lobell

This Torah portion used to disturb me. Avraham and Sarah waited years to have a child, and when they are blessed with Isaac, HaShem commands Avraham to sacrifice his son. Avraham agrees without hesitation. 

Over the years, I’ve read this parsha again and again. And I finally understand why Avraham agreed. 

I converted to Judaism and willingly took on the mitzvot, no matter how nonsensical they were. Give up bacon, my favorite food, because the Torah says to? Yup. Carry during Shabbat only in a place where there are strings surrounding me? Sure. Shake a branch and spend $50 on a fruit for Sukkot? OK! 

I do these seemingly absurd things with enthusiasm because I believe that HaShem wrote the Torah, and I want to follow his word. I am a normal(ish) Jewess, while Avraham was one of the holiest Jews. He had an incredibly close relationship with God. If I am willing to take on laws I don’t understand at my level, you can bet that I would do whatever God said if I had that kind of relationship with him. 

Avraham knew that God does good and only wanted the best for him. I’ve realized how all these mitzvot I took on have improved my life. I feel the holiness when I practice them, even if they don’t logically make sense at the time. Avraham has taught me to have emunah, faith, and follow HaShem, even if I don’t yet know the beautiful journey he’s taking me on. 

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am

Some verses are so raw, so stark, that applying layers of commentary is nearly a disservice. Isaac’s plaintive, almost outrageously innocent question to his father seems to be in that category. We view Isaac as passive and naïve. Not yet picking up on what even we, the reader, know is transpiring. “Dad, I am confused! What do you have in mind for a sacrifice today?” The utter pitifulness of Isaac in the scene perhaps ought to be preserved as is. 

But our tradition never stands still on meaning. The 18th- to 19th-century Apter Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Yeshoshua Heschel, reads Isaac not as dull or dimwitted, but sharper even than the knife itself. Imagining Avraham anachronistically concerned about halachic, legal details, Isaac reminds his father that if he were to sacrifice him, he would be an onen, mourner, instantly invalidated from continuing to serve God via sacrificial offering. And, Avraham apparently has no other animal to sacrifice. “Have you thought this through, Father? This apparent act of piety will ineluctably distance you from the God you are intending to obey. You will have neither me, nor a substitute offering. Then what?” 

The stakes are rarely as high. But we need to listen to the voices of others, and within our conscience, warning us of the hidden dangers of complete obeisance. And of piety devoid of ethics. Isaac’s brutal and brutally honest cry reverberates before every one of our utterances and acts of devotion. “Then what?” 

Rabbi Reuven Wolf
Director of Maayon Yisroel Chassidic Center

As Abraham and Isaac are en route to Mount Moriah, Isaac is under the assumption that they will be slaughtering an animal as a sacrifice. But then Isaac notices that his father has not brought a sheep to slaughter and realizes that he is actually the intended object of his father’s sacrifice. 

When Isaac realizes this fact, he calls to his father, “avi,” “my father.” Avi is a reference to Abraham’s natural proclivity toward chesed, kindness. Isaac questions his father, saying, “How can you possibly be ready to act in a manner that is so contrary to your nature? As a naturally benevolent person, how can you be prepared to sacrifice your son?”

Abraham responds, “Hineni beni,” “Here I am, my son.” What Abraham means to say is that in order to fulfill God’s will, he has temporarily discarded his own nature and donned a new nature, that of his son, Isaac, who is characterized by an inner strictness, strength and intensity, quite the opposite of Abraham’s natural gentleness.

We all have our natures. We all have boundaries and parameters that make up our unique personality. Most of the time, we can live within those definitions. But sometimes it is necessary to adopt a nature that is foreign to us, to act in ways inconsistent with our personality, to bend and stretch our own self-definition, for the sake of something larger than ourselves.

Cantor Michelle Bider Stone
Director, Los Angeles Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

In the Akedah, the binding of Isaac story, Abraham is celebrated as the man of faith, but who is Abraham the father? 

Abraham makes his way through the narrative almost completely in silence; only Isaac shatters the quiet with this question. Abraham responds that God will provide “the burnt offering, my son.” It is in this moment, Rashi explains, that Isaac realizes that he would be the sacrifice. And then, silence again as they continue on to what appears to be a horrendous, yet inevitable, fate. 

Kierkegaard comments on the Akedah, “Silence is the snare of the demon and the more one keeps silent, the more terrifying the demon becomes.” After the Akedah, Isaac never speaks to Abraham again. Silence begot more silence. 

To me, Abraham’s silence is heartbreaking. How could he not question God when he commands Abraham to kill his son, his only son, the one whom he loves? Is this not the same Abraham who fought for 10 righteous strangers in Sodom? How could he ignore his helpless son in this moment, instead of making him feel loved and cared for? 

Everyone handles emotional pain differently. Abraham’s defense mechanism is detachment. But his pain doesn’t absolve him of his responsibility to his son. In the end, Abraham doesn’t sacrifice Isaac, but, by his silence, he sacrifices their relationship. It is a lesson in the limits of blind faith, how silence exacerbates trauma, and how giving voice to the silenced can repair a rupture.

David Sacks
Happy Minyan of Los Angeles

The first thing we need to know is that Issac was 37 years old at the time of this event. The next thing we need to know is that he already knew the answer to his question. He knew that he was the burnt offering. 

We know this because a little bit later in the Torah, it says that Abraham and Isaac “went together.” This means, that Abraham and Isaac were united in their awesome desire to do the will of God no matter what it took. 

Our rabbis teach that every person must ask themselves the question, “When will my deeds reach the level of my forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu) Or put another way, how can I offer myself up to God today? 

The Jewish people are living, thank God, during wonderful times. We aren’t hunted, and we don’t confront death on a daily basis. So how do we offer ourselves up to God during our present good times? The answer is not by dying to sanctify God’s name. But by living to sanctify his name. To do that, we must first understand what life is. 

Simply put, life is the canvas we’ve been given to turn our deeds into art. And the greatest art is made when we unify our hearts and minds in the quest of finding God in everything. This is what it means to choose life. And when we do that we sanctify God’s name with every breath. 

My Magical Jewish Morocco Mystery Tour

With a camel on the Casablanca beach. Photos by Kylie Ora Lobell and Daniel Lobell

My husband, God bless him, has many crazy ideas. But unlike most people with lofty dreams, he actually follows through with them.

Own a rooster? Check. Have a comedy festival in our backyard? Yup. Reside off a dirt road in Florida for three weeks and live like old people who dine exclusively on buffets and watch “Everybody Loves Raymond” before falling asleep at 9 p.m.? That was us.

So earlier this year, Daniel and I decided we’d go to Morocco after his monthlong stint performing stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. 

To prepare for our trip, we watched “Casablanca,” (which was filmed in Burbank), and connected with our Moroccan-Jewish friends to learn about life there, including Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa.

After arriving in Casablanca, we headed to our hotel by the beach, passing Moroccan McDonald’s, Muslim women in head coverings and huge white mansions owned by kings. We went to the beach, where a camel growled at Daniel. We hung out in a hammam — a Turkish bath and steam room. I lasted about five minutes, because being hot and claustrophobic is not my thing. 

We visited Rick’s Café, a tourist spot made to look like Rick’s Café Américain from the film “Casablanca,” went to Hassan II Mosque — the second largest mosque in Africa that can hold up to 25,000 worshippers, and hired a tour guide to take us around Jewish Casablanca. 

With the Argan tree goats

Although our guide was Muslim, he worked with other Jewish tour guides and knew where to take us. Our first visit was to a small Jewish museum, which contains a shul no longer in use. Then it was on to a kosher bakery in a hidden alleyway to buy treats for Shabbat. We then made our way to Temple Beth-El synagogue, which today is used for special occasions including weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. 

We learned that before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Morocco had an estimated 350,000 Jews. Today, there are only a thousand or so who remain in Casablanca. Nonetheless, the city still boasts 22 synagogues, at least four kosher restaurants, 10 kosher butchers and a few bakeries. We went to one of those 22 synagogues at 5 a.m. to say Selichot, and the men (and one woman) there offered us coffee and tea. 

Shabbat dinner was spent with a family friend’s cousin, Armand, where we ate his mother-in-law’s tuna casserole and talked with his son about why he didn’t like visiting Los Angeles. “Hollywood Boulevard sucks,” he said. “I agree,” I said. 

From Casablanca, we flew to Marrakech, where there are about 500 or so Jews. When we arrived, I immediately noticed three things: How beautiful and colorful it is; how entire families whiz through town on motorbikes; and how old the city felt. When we arrived at our riad (hostel), we realized we were in the old part of town full of tiny, historic alleyways and scores of cats. 

“Returning home, I felt incredibly sad. No more culture shock. No more donkeys. No more beautiful lamps and colorful doors and kind, French-speaking cabdrivers.”

Our first stop in Marrakech was the vast, historic souk, Djemaa el-Fna. The indoor section is a huge maze and it’s easy to get lost. We certainly did. Many times. Wares are cheap by American standards and haggling is de rigueur. We quickly purchased a variety of trinkets including a Moroccan tea set, lamps, tagines, pashminas and jewelry. Over the course of the next four days, we returned to the market because it’s impossible to see everything in one day. 

We were, however, two of the very few white people in the market, and every few minutes, someone would try to get us to sign up for a tour, buy a souvenir or ask us for money. 

We saw the famous performing monkeys on chains, the snake charmers, who apparently sew their snakes’ mouths shut, and a sad owl chained to a cage filled with small squirrels. There were hundreds of chickens in cages, waiting to be slaughtered, and sheep’s heads being roasted on the street. As an animal lover, it was certainly painful to see, but there was nothing I could do except remind myself that I treat my own dogs, chickens and tortoise like family. The sad owl, though, still haunts me.

We took a dirt bike tour of the Marrakech desert. It was bumpy, dusty and magnificent. Our ride took us to a Berber hut, where the family there made us Moroccan tea, and as is custom, tried to pour the tea from the highest height possible. 

In the Marrakech synagogue

We also visited Essaouira, a port town about three hours from Marrakech. 

I Googled “Jewish Essaouria,” and there was an article about the only Jew  — a man named Joseph Sebag, who owned a store called Galérie Aida. It took several attempts with different guides to finally find Sebag and his antiques store. We said, “Shalom” and bought a wood piece from Senegal from him. Sebag ordered us orange juice and offered for us to stay in his flat the next time we were in town. 

Other highlights in Marrakech included a meal at the city’s only kosher restaurant, which had a picture of the Rebbe — the late Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson — on the wall; visiting the graves of tzadikim and meeting the Muslim man whose family has guarded the cemetery for three generations; and purchasing our first shofar, which we blew on Rosh Hashanah.  

Returning home, I felt incredibly sad. I was back to reality. No more culture shock. No more donkeys. No more beautiful lamps and colorful doors and kind, French-speaking cabdrivers. Besides Israel, Morocco is the most enchanted place I’ve ever visited. I miss it every day. I understand now why Jews were there for so long, and why there are a few who choose to stay to this day. 

We may miss that beautiful magical country, but by golly, we’ll always have Morocco.

My Husband, the Shabbat King

Screenshot from Facebook.

I’ve never fancied myself a balabusta. For the past eight years, I’ve assumed this role, however, in my relationship with my husband, Danny Lobell.

Because I was a freelance writer for most of our relationship, I would dutifully care for our two dogs, six chickens and tortoise, clean the house religiously and cook every meal. I’d make elaborate Shabbat dinners, invite over tons of people, and make the house look perfect, all the while writing for many clients and building my portfolio. On the side, I was also managing Danny’s comedy career.

Some Thursday nights, I would have two pots full of rice going on the stove and be panfrying 14 pieces of schnitzel while baking six loaves of challah and washing and drying loads upon loads of laundry. Often, I was up until 3 a.m. setting the table, then getting up around 10 a.m. and working all day on the finishing touches. I usually never left the kitchen on Fridays. Our home doesn’t have central air conditioning, so there were some fun (read: terrible) summer days I spent indoors preparing for Friday night dinner.

Danny played his own part by grocery shopping, entertaining the guests, cleaning up after dinner, and serving tea and whiskey. He did his part to help.

I decided I’d had enough of this working woman/housewife role. I applied for a full-time job, and a month later, I got it. Immediately, I felt that huge housewife burden vanish.

And although it wasn’t all bad on my end — I love cooking for Danny and Shabbat guests, caring for our adorable pets and having a clean home — I knew I was stretching myself too thin. I was getting crabby with Danny. I was anxious, tired and overweight. I didn’t have enough time for self-care. My brain was constantly in “go, go, go” mode.

Then, one day last year, I decided I’d had enough of this working woman/housewife role. I applied for a full-time job, and a month later, I got it. Immediately, I felt that huge housewife burden vanish.

As soon as I started going to work, I felt better. I knew it was the healthiest move I could have made.

Immediately, I felt closer to Danny, because I was able to focus on my work work, which I had always enjoyed much more than housework. I had money to hire a housekeeper, who made our home look sparkling clean before Shabbat. The only thing I worried about was if Danny would be able to put Shabbat together for us.

I should have learned after all these years that worrying is counterproductive. There was no need to be apprehensive.

At the end of the first exhausting week of work, I came home on Friday afternoon to a clean house, a delicious-smelling stew in the slow cooker, all the appropriate lights duct-taped for Shabbat and a table set for the two of us. A beautiful bouquet of flowers sat in the middle. As soon as I saw Danny, who was adjusting his tie in the mirror, getting ready to watch me light the candles, I hugged him and nearly cried. “You did it,” I whispered.

The next week, Danny made an even more elaborate meal, invited some of our wonderful friends, got another bouquet, and bought me a cute top from my favorite shop, Karen Michelle.

The following week, Danny’s parents came to visit, and he went all out, running to Got Kosher to buy the best challah and baba ghanoush in town, to Bibi’s to get some amazing rugelach and Yankee’s dips, to Glatt Mart to procure the juiciest brisket it had and smoked it for 12 straight hours.

One day, I hope that I have more time to cook again (cleaning, eh, not so much) and to get back to a few of the housewife duties I actually enjoyed. But right now, I know I’m in good hands with my husband, Danny, the Shabbat King, who continues to impress me.

L.A. Eruv down while group seeks donations

The Los Angeles Community Eruv — the largest in the country — is expected to be down this Shabbat because of significant financial challenges that could put its future in peril, according to officials.

The team behind maintaining the eruv, a halachic perimeter that transforms a public area into a private domain for Shabbat, must raise $120,000 — the cost of what it takes to operate for one year — before it can resume, said Elliot Katzovitz, chairman of the board for the L.A. Community Eruv. It also needs an additional $100,000 for emergency funds and a vehicle. 

An eruv defines a specific area by use of a fence, string or wire and allows observant Jews to carry items within its boundaries on Shabbat, in accordance with Jewish law. This includes synagogue-goers carrying books and prayer shawls, as well as parents wheeling strollers. 

The current predicament came about after the eruv committee lost a sponsor that had been providing half its budget and exhausted emergency funds, Katzovitz  said. Now, the group is appealing to the community for help. 

“We’re bringing in donations and checking the mailbox and P.O. box daily to figure out how much we have,” Katzovitz said. “As of right now, for this Shabbos, it’ll be down. That’s what we’re planning for. Hopefully by next Shabbos, it’ll be up again. People are stepping up to the plate.”

The group first put a notice of the situation on its Facebook page on Sept. 9. As of Sept. 20, the group had reached about half of its fundraising goal, Katzovitz said.

The eruv’s boundaries go from the 405 Freeway in the west, to the 10 in the south and the 101 in the north, eastward to Western Avenue. It has been down only three times in 14 years, and never for financial reasons, Katzovitz said. Its closure will affect Jews in neighborhoods such as Pico-Robertson, Hancock Park, La Brea, Westwood and Sherman Oaks.

The committee is proposing that each synagogue take on the responsibility of collecting dues for the eruv, with families paying a certain amount each year — such as $250, $500, $1,000 or $2,000 — and that a handful of families
step forward to help build a capital and reserve fund. 

“Our previous model of collecting shul dues did not work,” Katzovitz said. “Too many shuls do not charge dues and of those that do, not enough participated on a mandatory basis.”

The eruv is made up of chain-link fence along the highway walls and wire that runs alongside the on- and offramps. There is also string that’s run on city streets. On a few occasions in the past, construction, fallen trees, weather conditions, and homeless people who have cut into the chain link fences have rendered the eruv halachically invalid.

Four local rabbis and three repairmen check the eruv on a weekly basis to ensure that every side is still intact. They own a lift truck so they can make fixes, and need special insurance for CalTrans, liability insurance and auto insurance. This year, according to the website, they had to use $30,000 from emergency funds, and they need to raise that back, along with $70,000 for a 15-year-old lift truck. The one that’s currently in use is 45 years old. 

According to Kehillah Kosher’s Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, who helped certify the eruv, there are multiple factors that play into the financial necessities of building and maintaining it. 

“There was the construction of many poles for the wires and the stringing for the walls of the eruv,” he said. “You also need to be granted permission from many state-run agencies. The process takes years.” 

In a web appeal to the Jewish community from the Los Angeles Community Eruv committee, the financial needs and possible solutions are stated, alongside the names of rabbis who approve of the plan. One of them is Rabbi Elchanan Shoff of Beis Knesses at Faircrest Heights, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson.

“The eruv is something that brings people together in possibly the most literal sense of any community institution,” he said. “It allows us to share Shabbos meals, and to bring small children to shul and to friends’ homes, when otherwise we could not do so. Thus, many adults would have to remain home. It helps everyone who needs it, and hurts nobody. And the L.A. eruv maintenance costs are reasonable and even on the very low side, from what I can glean. So I think that supporting the eruv is a great mitzvah.”

Miriam Bracha Pesso, who lives in the La Brea neighborhood, said that if there wasn’t an eruv, she might be stuck at her house on the day of rest. 

“Since I don’t live in the center of the community, the eruv allows us to walk with our almost-2-year-old to shul, family and friends,” she said. “Without it, I wouldn’t be able to be more than a block or two away from my home all of Shabbat.”

Pico-Robertson resident Shlomo Walt posts the L.A. eruv status to his Facebook timeline every week for the community. 

“I was shocked [to find out it was down] but I was able to encourage some neighbors and friends to donate to it,” he said. “I usually walk and carry around half a mile. The eruv’s crucial for me to bring my tallis and siddur [to synagogue]. Less often, [I need it for] wine, challah and etcetera as gifts.”

Shoff believes everyone needs to contribute, because the eruv has the power to unite the Jews of L.A. 

“Whenever we see something of any kind in our community that has the result of truly bringing people together, we need to support it,” he said. “After all, what could be more important?”


To donate to the Los Angeles Community Eruv, visit or send a check to
8950 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 179, Beverly Hills, CA 90211.