January 24, 2019

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

Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein

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

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


Our past discussions of Parashat Noach:

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

Rabbi Lucy Diner on Noah’s curious proclivity toward alcohol

Rabbi Mishael Zion on Noah as a precursor to Abraham




To thine own selfie be true: Parashat Matot-Masei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Nicole Guzik is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Korach with Rabbi Raysh Weiss

Rabbi Raysh Weiss

Our guest this week is Rabbi Raysh Weiss, spiritual leader of the Shaar Shalom congregation in Halifax, Canada. Rabbi Weiss was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and served as a rabbinic intern in Brooklyn, Long Island, and Tel Aviv. Rabbi Weiss also founded and helped lead a Jewish spiritual community in Minneapolis during her years as a doctoral student in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Minnesota. In 2001, Rabbi Weiss was a Bronfman Youth Fellow in Israel; in 2006-2007, she was a J. William Fulbright research fellow in Ethnomusicology in Berlin; and, throughout her years in rabbinical school, Rabbi Weiss was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and served on the board of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Rabbi Weiss has contributed numerous essays and articles pertaining to Jewish culture, values, and history, including pieces for www.myjewishlearning.com, www.jewschool.com, Tablet Magazine, and Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews (PBS).

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) – tells the dramatic story of a mutiny incited by Korach against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach is joined by Datan and Aviram as well as by 250 distinguished members of the community who offer incense to prove they are worthy of the priesthood. The earth opens up and swallows the mutineers, and a fire kills the incense offerers. Aaron subsequently stops a plague by offering incense of his own and his staff then brings forth almonds, proving that his designation as high priest is divinely ordained. Our discussion focuses on the purge of Korach’s followers and on Moses and Aaron’s reaction to the episode.



Parashat Beha’alotecha: Taking the next step Into a new light

Reuters/David W Cerny

Parashat Beha’alotecha provides a nice break following Naso, which has 176 verses, making it the longest parsha in the Torah. But its importance is more than in providing a biblical breather — there is something unique about Beha’alotecha.

While it is shorter in content than its predecessor — only 136 verses — the number of topics in the Oral Law that are connected to this parsha, including Chanukah, is disproportionate. What can we make of this?

Rav Moshe Wolfson underscores Beha’alotecha’s arrival after Naso, which concerns the completion of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the duties of the different clans. Beha’alotecha picks up here, telling of the menorah in the Tabernacle, the consecration of the Levites, as well as how the Israelites complained and how Miriam and Aaron questioned Moses.

According to Rav Saadya Gaon, the Mishkan is a re-creation of the Sinai experience, an awesome and intense encounter with God. If that is the case, then the progression is perfect: If Naso is the Mishkan and the Mishkan is Sinai and Sinai is the giving of the Written Law (hence the great number of Torah verses in the parsha), then Beha’alotecha is the next step, literally, for sure, but also figuratively — Beha’alotecha is the presentation of the Oral Tradition.

This interpretation serves us well in explaining the opening, where Rashi notes Aaron’s pain in not taking part in the inauguration of the Mishkan. Beha’alotecha presents us immediately with the role that Aaron’s children will play — the lighting of the candles of the menorah. Rashi, using the Midrash, fills in the conversation and tells us that God says to Aaron with this lighting “your lot is greater.”

How is lighting the candles greater than any other role in the Mishkan? Perhaps the candles symbolize the continuous light of Torah, the continuous light of the tradition reaching beyond that which is written, and sharing a new message. The Oral Tradition still sheds new light.

Everything in the Torah must relate to us in some way. No matter how extreme or distant an episode may seem, there is a message that bears eternal truth for all generations.

Consider the episode in Beha’alotecha when the Israelites complain about the manna, the miracle bread that God delivered to the Jewish people while in the Wilderness. What can be learned from this?

How is lighting the candles greater than any other role in the Mishkan? Perhaps the candles symbolize the continuous light of Torah, the continuous light of the tradition reaching beyond that which is written, and sharing a new message.

According to our tradition, the manna mimicked the taste of whatever food the eater could imagine. If this is the case, why did the Israelites complain about having the manna day after day? Why not simply imagine a different food on each day of the week?

Let us present two unique approaches: First, the Kli Yakar, in his commentary on the Torah, says that in order for a food to taste like the food imagined, the imagination must be somewhere in one’s memory banks. So if the Israelites did not recall the taste of the other food, then no new imagination could be projected onto the manna.

Rav Shlomo Aviner takes a different approach and says that the Israelites were, in fact, able to taste any flavor in the world, but because all these tastes were so readily available, they became inured to the thrill of a new flavor. In a sense, the Jews missed the feeling of want.

These two different interpretations present us with a pair of take-home messages:

Kli Yakar reminds us that life is filled with the constant infusion of old memories. If we don’t fill our days with positive, memorable moments, then what stories shall fill the storybook of our lives when we are well on in our years?

And Rav Shlomo Aviner’s thoughts show us that even if one happens to live in a time of recession, when things certainly are not easy, one of the opportunities of such a situation is that once again one can feel what it means not to have everything at one’s fingertips.  

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of
“Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015).

Parashat Bamidbar: the wilderness speaks

Reuters/David W Cerny

At 4:30 this morning, my alarm went off. The Jerusalem streets below my hotel window were still dark and quiet. I dressed quickly in lightweight clothes and hiking boots, along with a big, floppy hat to protect my tragically pale Ashkenazi complexion from the 95-degree Middle Eastern sun.

Half an hour later, I joined my bus of 40 Angelenos for one of the quintessential Israel experiences — an early morning trek to Masada.

Masada stands more than 1,300 feet above the Judean desert, looking out over the Dead Sea and beyond to the mountains of Jordan — once the land of Moab, our ancestors’ last stop before crossing into the Promised Land. Standing at the top, as my participants snapped endless selfies and our excellent tour guide spoke about Second Temple-period history, my attention wandered to the vista and the thought that it was in landscapes exactly like this one that our People got their start.

From our earliest origins, 3,000 years ago, the Jews were a desert people. Abraham and Sarah left their home in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and headed out across the wilderness to a new land that God would show them. Later on, their descendants would go into Egyptian slavery and then escape from there into the Sinai Desert — entering into a covenant with God at a desolate, rocky mountain and wandering for 40 years through shifting sands before arriving at almost exactly the spot that I spent the morning looking out upon.

This week begins the reading of Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah, whose name means “in the wilderness.” Over its 36 chapters tracing the Israelite journey from Mount Sinai to the edge of Canaan, it retells with poignant honesty the realities of the lives of ordinary people making their way through this harsh and beautiful landscape — their constant anxieties about food and water, their skirmishes with other desert tribes, their exhaustion and frequent discontent, and also their powerful faith that somehow propels them through the 40 years. As the book’s title suggests, the wilderness is not only a backdrop to these accounts, but a main character in them.

The Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, also can be read with different vowels as the word for speech, m’daber. The wilderness spoke to our ancient ancestors, teaching them many of the core spiritual principles of Jewish faith.

Inside our comfortable homes it is easy to take many things for granted. But bamidbar, in the wilderness, we learn to notice and count our blessings.

The wilderness teaches humility. In the desert, it is hard to maintain the illusion that we are the center of the universe. Vast expanses of open land, exquisitely carved by millennia of wind and weather, stretch out in all directions. Gigantic night skies fill with uncountable stars. Wild places give us a sense of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” an awe at the grandeur of creation and an intuition of the transcendent dimension of life. As anyone who has stood atop a mountain and watched the rising sun can attest, certain landscapes simply make it easier to believe in God.

The wilderness also teaches gratitude. Inside our comfortable homes it is easy to take many things for granted. But bamidbar, in the wilderness, we learn to notice and count our blessings. We take pleasure in every patch of shade, every drink of cool water, every unexpected moment of rest. My teacher, Rabbi Mervin Tomsky, says that gratitude is the engine of all true spirituality. It is a small wonder that a desert people, practiced in the art of gratitude, would bring so many spiritual gifts to the world.

Finally, the wilderness teaches courage. Setting out into the desert is an act of bravery. Our tradition teaches that the majority of the Israelites elected to stay in Egyptian slavery, rather than face the uncertainty of the journey. We, though, are the daughters and sons of those who were prepared to lay it all on the line, who had the faith in God and themselves that it took to go in search of a Promised Land.

This morning, as I looked out at the desert that gave birth to my ancestors, I could almost hear the midbar speaking to me. I wondered at its austere beauty and felt thankful to be surrounded by good friends, for my full canteen, and even for that silly hat. Most of all, I felt a surge of pride to count among my ancestors those who had the chutzpah to walk through this wild place, who taught me through their example that the world expands in proportion to our own courage.

Ha’midbar m’daber — the wilderness still speaks to us, whispering its timeless wisdom, as it taught our ancestors long ago. 

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: The ark that wasn’t there

Reuters/David W Cerny

Vayakel Moshe — and Moses gathered the whole community of Israelites and said unto them, these are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.

— Exodus 35:1

For centuries, Jews have gathered to hear and embellish the stories of Torah in accordance with the perspectives of the time. I would like to add a “Malibu midrash” to our portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, a true story titled “The Ark That Wasn’t There.”

In this week’s parsha, Moses again recounts the directions for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. “Let them make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them,” God instructs Moses (Exodus 25:8). The directions for the menorah, the ark, the furnishings and even the priestly garb are described to Moses in minute detail. All of the senses are combined to echo the beauty of God’s creation as heaven is to be grounded on earth in this mikdash, holy space. 

Before the sanctuary in space is to be completed, however, God reminds the Israelites to remember to observe Shabbat, our sanctuary in time that always is accessible, every seventh day. No assembly required. We have always had a “date night” with God, if only we will observe the Sabbath.

The instructions for intimacy with God in time and space are interrupted by the story of the golden calf. It appears that the Israelites are not yet ready to engrave God upon their hearts in faithfulness and love. The gold of the ark is traded for the gold of an idol.

In our subsequent portions of Vayakhel-Pekudei, it becomes evident that the repentant Israelites clearly need a building project. Again, they are reminded to first observe Shabbat: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest” (Exodus 35:2).

Bezalel, a man endowed by the Creator with “a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft,” is chosen as master craftsman (Exodus 35:31). At the center of the Holy of Holies was an ark of acacia wood, with a cover of pure gold. Two cherubs were of one piece with the cover, their wings spread out above and their faces  turned toward each other, and it is there that God “will meet with you … from between the two cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Pact” (Exodus 25:22).

Here, in the space enclosed by the wings of the cherubs, heaven and earth are to intersect. In this void, this emptiness, the voice of God, the bat kol, will be heard.

It was no small matter, then, to finally dedicate the ark that was to crown our new sanctuary here in Malibu 11 years ago. Our Bezalel, chosen after an arduous committee process, was an artist who, in fact, was a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He was a superb craftsman, with an exacting eye for detail.

A year after the building was completed, we finally scheduled an inauguration of our precious ark with a gathering of the entire community on Shabbat. As the day grew near, I visited the artist’s studio and saw the ark doors, lying on the table. “Just a balancing problem,” I was told. “Don’t worry, it’s a few small details.” The next morning, an hour before the ceremony was to begin, I received an ominous phone call. There still were details to be worked out. The ark was not going to appear.

I ran into the sanctuary and set up a small screen, draped with cloth.

“Where’s the ark?” Cantor Marcelo Gindlin whispered as we took our places on the bimah.

“Don’t worry,” I said, pointing to the panels behind me. “Let’s get started.”

Vayakhel. A large crowd gathered, with all of our board of directors and major donors sitting in the front rows. We made our way through the service, and at last it was time to “install” our ark.

“Please rise if you were among the donors to this project,” I said. “You are the doors to our ark, providing both opening and protection.” About 50 people stood.

I then asked all those who had read Torah that year to rise. “You really hold the Torah within you. Please remain standing.”

I then asked our board to rise, our Eternal Light, as our choir sang words of Torah.

Soon everyone was on their feet, singing and clapping. I then asked people to give one another a blessing. The room grew quiet and a holy silence descended. Here and there, a heavenly voice could be heard.

“But what about the ark?” someone shouted.

“Oh, that ark,” I responded. “Ah, it’s not quite ready yet. But each one of you is really a holy ark, making a space for God to dwell. The real ark is in the human heart.”

No assembly required.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy is the rabbi of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. For more of her Torah commentaries, visit mjcs.org.