June 26, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Beha’alotecha

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

And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp.-Numbers 9:17

Nina Litvak

Every time the Children of Israel stopped and made camp in the desert, it was a massive undertaking. Thousands of Levites built the Sanctuary by assembling an array of planks, walls, pillars, carpets and furniture. In every location, they worked hard to create a holy meeting place for God — even if the Divine cloud only settled there for one day before it was time to move on. They had to be ready to pack up at a moment’s notice. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that like the places in which the Israelites made camp in the desert, every one of our stations in life is significant. No place is simply “on the way” to someplace else. We have the ability to create something holy wherever we go, and at every stage of life. Driving on the freeway to an important event, training for the job we want, shopping for groceries to cook dinner — what if we can sanctify these moments, the journey as well as the destination? 

Creating beauty in a desert can be difficult, but the practice of looking for beauty everywhere we go builds a place to connect with God: a Tent of Meeting between heaven and earth. We sanctify life by treating its different stages and locations with attention and respect. It means putting away our phone and looking for sanctity in our surroundings, wherever they may be and however long we may be there. It means working to manifest the presence of the Holy One in our world.

Rabbi Aaron Lerner
Executive Director, UCLA Hillel

This verse violates the norm. Manifest instruction from the Divine via the physical world is rare. And the rabbis reject it entirely (see Tanur Shel Achnai, in which God’s manipulation of the natural world is disallowed). Rather, we’re taught that God can be found in a “still, small voice” that can be found through quiet focus. So why is God so involved in this instance? Two possibilities arise. 

One reflects the Rambam’s belief that we are growing in our relationship with God over time. Former Egyptian slaves and ancient Israelites may have needed animal sacrifices and a “taskmaster” version of God to move Jewish history forward. We do not. We have achieved a mature partnership with God beyond what previous generations had. 

We rely on science and doctors to heal us. We suffer the consequences of human inaction and neglect. Whether God remains involved in human history can no longer be proven with pillars of fire. That has become a matter of faith. But we can see the consequences of our individual and collective choices. This can feel defeating because God won’t fix it for us. But it’s also empowering. 

We have been entrusted with the power to move ourselves. All of this informs how I pray. The weekday sections of the Amidah contain many requests of God. I say them as written but embrace personal responsibility: “God, please show me how I can make peace, heal others, earn a living, etc.”

Rabbi Chaim Meyer Tureff
Pressman Academy and director of STARS

What is the connection between settle and encampment? The Hebrew word shochain means to dwell or settle. It is only when we are truly settled that we can encamp. One name of God, Shekhinah, is thus directly connected to the word for settle in Hebrew. This sense of permanence can only happen when we are connected to the true source of life, God. 

As our tradition teaches us, we are in a temporary setting in this world. When we connect to our higher power and allow God into our lives, then we can truly settle down because in reality there is no such thing as permanency without God. As recovering addicts know, allowing that settling of God into one’s life can help bring context, relevance and meaning where there was once darkness, confusion and hopelessness. 

One does not need to be in recovery to apply the principles of 12 steps into their everyday life. The idea that there is a higher power who actually plays an important role in one’s life, steps 2 and 3, is relevant to every human being. When we allow the cloud of God to dwell or settle on us, we are finally allowed to encamp. It is only then that we understand we don’t have to go about it alone, but rather with a Partner that truly loves each and every one of us.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center, Westwood Village Synagogue

For most people, the sight of clouds in the morning marks the beginning of a dark and gloomy day. Cloudy days tend to adversely affect our moods, triggering negative thoughts and even a depressed state of mind. When the weather forecast says “cloudy,” it conjures up dark images in our minds. We even feel threatened by clouds, knowing that they potentially bring about frightening sounds, images and inclement weather. It’s therefore fascinating that throughout the Israelites’ 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, the guiding light that illuminated their travels and protected their encampment came in the form of a cloud. 

The Midrash HaGadol refers to this cloud as the Shekhinah, which in its plain, non-kabbalistic definition means “the presence of God.” This cloud that led them through the day and protected their camp at night was a manifestation of God’s divine presence among the Israelites. Why would an otherwise invisible God choose to appear in the form of a cloud? 

I believe that through the metaphor of a cloud that once represented guidance and protection, God is teaching a powerful lesson that extends far beyond those classic “40 years in the wilderness.” When we wake up in the morning to a cloudy day, rather than allow gloom, darkness and fear to overtake us, we should gaze upon the seemingly dark clouds and see God’s light and presence within them, offering to continue to guide, protect and illuminate our own journeys and encampments through the challenging wilderness of life. 

Nili Isenberg
Pressman Academy, Judaic Studies Faculty

God described this period of the relationship with the people of Israel as one of youthful love: “I remember the lovingkindness of your youth, the love of the bride, when you followed me into the desert in a land that was not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). What a beautiful image of loyalty and faith! 

After our verse Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, continues on to explain that whether the people of Israel remained encamped for days, months or even a year, they always took their cue to rest or move on from God. 

How can our disillusioned generation ever understand this spirit of devotion? 

In my own life, I look to my grandparents (z”l) and their Greatest Generation. As a young man, with great loyalty to the freedom the United States promised, my grandfather enlisted in the U.S. Navy and risked his life in the Pacific theater to save the world from fascism. Years after the war, my grandparents continued to live their lives in service of yet another ideal: In their 60s, they realized their long-time dream of making aliyah to the miraculous State of Israel. For the next 30 years, my grandparents were known as the adorably loving, joyous and outspoken elderly couple who professed their Zionism at every opportunity. 

To bring that kind of meaning and joy to our lives, we each must find a value to which we can say wholeheartedly, like the Israelites in the desert and like the biblical Ruth, “Where you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16).

Weekly Parsha: Nasso

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

The Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: this is how you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them, ‘May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. May the Lord bestow his favor upon you and grant you peace.’” –Numbers 6:22-26

Miriam Mill
Chassidishe wife, mother and president of Tzaddik Foundation

The Priestly Blessing starts with the phrase “Yevarechecha HaShem veyishmerecha” — “May God bless you and protect you.” Since God told the Kohanim, “So shall you bless the children of Israel,” the blessing should be in the plural, “yevarechechem” but it’s not. “Yevarechecha” is in the singular. Why? The Taamei HaMinhagim gives a beautiful answer. 

Before the Priestly Blessing, the Kohen recites the blessing, “Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to bless His nation of Israel be’ahavah, with love.” (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 128:11). Although the Kohanim are indeed blessing the entire congregation, they do so in the singular in order to indicate that God desires to bless the Jews with the unity that results when love prevails. The Kohanim, who serve in the Temple, bring God’s blessings to the people but only when love exists among the Jewish people. It is as if love fuels and directs the power of the Shekhinah, divine presence, which resides on the Kohen’s fingers during the Priestly Blessing toward each Jew, thus blessing Am Yisrael with so much good. 

We are told that the Second Beit HaMikdash, Holy Temple, was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and that unconditional love will rebuild the final Holy Temple. May we learn to love one another if only because we are part of God’s chosen nation and see the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash immediately, bringing peace, prosperity and wisdom to the world.

Rabbi Mendel Schwartz
The Chai Center

I was fortunate to receive a scholarship so I could study for my master’s degree in rabbinics in Melbourne, Australia. One evening, we played hooky and went downtown to watch “Fiddler on the Roof.” As a rabbinic student, I was amazed to hear the actors sing verses from this week’s Torah portion in two separate songs. “May the Lord protect and defend you …”

And the 3,000 gentiles in the exquisite theater cheered wildly. That made me proud. More than 50 years after its original opening, the show is stronger than ever, playing recently at the Pantages on Hollywood Boulevard. This makes me even more proud.

But why the craze? Why the fascination?

Now we have a new show taking the world by storm: “Shtisel,” a series available on Netflix. And everyone who sees it looks at Charedim, the very Orthodox, in a more empathetic and positive light.

When you learn about a group by having dialogue with one person at a time rather than hearing stats or generalizations, you come to fathom them at a much deeper level. You learn the character of individuals by breaking bread in their house, speaking with their siblings and having tea with their parents, which is what “Shtisel” did for us.

The more we thus encounter Jews we haven’t previously met, the more our Jewish community as a whole will flourish. And to that, let us all say, “Amen!”

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
B’nai David-Judea

The second sentence of the blessing, here translated as “May the Lord deal kindly with you,” is rendered more literally, “May the Lord shine His face toward you.” While the image is arresting, the precise meaning is enigmatic. 

Rabbi Jacob Sforno suggested that the blessing here is that God illuminate our eyes so that we can see the wonder that God created in the world, and the beauty that God placed in the Torah. God’s “shining His face toward us” is God helping us to behold things that are in plain view, but which in the bustle of daily life, we fail to perceive. The beauty of the people around us, the affection of the people who love us, the magnificence of the hills and birds and trees. The profundity of a mitzvah to always judge others favorably, the thrilling craziness of loving others as we love ourselves, the revolutionary and life-altering command to take every seventh day for God, for family, for community. 

There are gifts hidden in plain sight. Until God blesses us with the light that shines from His face. 

While the biblical command to convey this blessing is directed at the Kohanim alone, it has been the tradition since at least talmudic times that — without the formal Temple trappings — all of us routinely share this blessing with others, in particular with our children on Friday night. When we do so, we should stop and ask ourselves, “How can I help realize this blessing? How can I help others see the beauty and the wonder?” 

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Vice president of community engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

May God bless you with all the good things in life and keep you from the bad.

May God smile on you and give you beyond what you deserve. 

May God face you and grant you peace.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff recited this blessing before an open ark, ordaining the new Ziegler School rabbis. 

Since receiving that blessing 18 years ago, I’ve attended many inspiring Ziegler School ordinations. This year’s ceremony was more euphoric than ever. With 700 people gathered in a tent, the evening began with upbeat music, and during the ceremony, two ordinees, Rabbis Joshua Warshawsky and Ariel Wolpe, performed on guitar a song they composed for ordination. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson called them “rabbis and rock stars.” 

At the ceremony, Rabbi Jonathan Hodson taught a talmudic passage wherein two rabbis discussed the fear that “the Torah would be forgotten from the Jewish People.” (Ketubot 103b). This age-old worry is one we share today. How do we keep the Torah alive and relevant for the next generation? 

The ceremony itself offered an antidote to that angst. If our Judaism is only serious and somber, the next generation might run for the hills. Yet, if our Judaism is passionate, joyful, musical and moving, there’s no reason to worry. 

Since Jewish history has included manifold tragedies, there are times when we need to mourn. Yet, whenever possible, the default setting of our faith should overflow with joy and gratitude for the miracle of life. 

May God bless us all with jubilance.

Rabbi Gail Labovitz
American Jewish University

Often, when the rabbis sought to understand a word or passage in the Torah, they turned to other instances of those words or ones like them in Scripture for clues to their meaning and implications. Thus, in Sifre Bamidbar, the earliest midrashic work on the Book of Numbers, this short blessing is linguistically and conceptually connected to other places in the Bible where mentions of blessing, protection, grace, divine light, peace, etc., appear. 

As just one example, to be “protected” can mean divine protection from malevolent or dangerous outside forces, both human and of the natural world: “See, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. … By day the sun will not strike you, nor the moon by night. The Lord will guard you from all harm …” (Psalm 121:5-7). We also need protection from our own base impulses, our sinful appetites: “For the Lord will be your trust, and will guard your foot from the snare” (Proverbs 3:26). Additionally, we pray that both parties to the covenant between the Jewish people and God will maintain — protect — that fundamental relationship, “If you heed these rules and maintain and do them, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant …” (Deuteronomy 7:12). And so too for each key word in the blessing. 

When the priests bless the people or we bless our children with the words of this blessing, all of these associations are invoked. In rabbinic exegesis and in our hearts, may this already rich blessing continue to grow and overflow in meaning!

Weekly Parsha: Bamidbar

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

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine.” –Numbers 3:11-12

Miriam Yerushalmi
CEO of SANE, counselor, author

At the close of Sefer Bereishis (Genesis), Yaakov blesses all his sons. He specifically calls Shimon and Levi “brothers,” criticizing the seemingly negative character trait those two sons shared. “Cursed be their anger … and their fury,” their father pronounces, promising to “disperse them throughout Yaakov and scatter them throughout Israel.” Yet later on, in the wilderness, HaShem takes Levi’s descendants as His own, “in place of all the firstborn.” Why was Shimon not similarly honored? 

When Yaakov’s sons were in Mitzrayim, the tribe of Levi didn’t join the others in working for Pharaoh. They stayed home and learned Torah. After the sin of the golden calf, the Levites, who had not participated in this idolatrous ceremony, acted together to uphold God’s honor and prevent the people from further transgressions. They utilized their trait of fiery passion properly as the nation’s spiritual guardians. 

Yaakov’s words manifested in a most positive way: Levi was dispersed throughout the tribes — as representatives of HaShem. Shimon’s passion, however, led him into sin and scattered his tribe. Shimon and Levi came from “the womb” sharing a characteristic that caused them to err; yet with Torah, Levi learned from his mistakes and directed his passionate nature to serve HaShem. Shimon allowed that fiery trait to direct him. 

Whatever our innate traits, whatever our missteps, through Torah and mitzvos we can develop ourselves to become true servants of HaShem. Every apparent negative can become positive. When we make an effort toward teshuvah (atonement), HaShem helps us to succeed.

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

Why does God specifically choose the Leviim in place of the firstborns? Our Midrash explains that God intended for the firstborns to perform the Mishkan (Tabernacle) service. But when they participated in building the golden calf — a sin from which the Leviim refrained — God replaced the firstborns with the Leviim. 

In choosing the Leviim, God makes a remarkable statement about leadership: It’s not inherited, but earned. Since Bereshit, God has rejected the primacy of the firstborns — a primacy that every society was built on. This is a countercultural value that the Torah brings to the moral stage of history. By shifting leadership from the firstborns because of their involvement in the sin of the golden calf, God communicates that leadership must be merited and cherished as a privilege — one that also can be lost. 

Today, this focus holds our leaders accountable for their actions. Rabbis and teachers are not kings but servants of God who must continually merit the opportunity to serve His people. And when leadership is abused, there are consequences. It’s worth noting, of course, that the Leviim still have their own lineage, which includes their service. But nevertheless, I would argue that the thinking behind their chosen-ness is revolutionary. In the Midrash, God created a precedent that our choices and actions — not birth order — define us. This value system extends far beyond the Mishkan and into ouar personal lives today. How do our own actions in leadership — as parents, teachers, professionals — define us?

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Temple Beth Am, Senior Rabbi

To be claimed. A treasure? Or a prison? According to psychotherapist Esther Perel, it is both. In “Mating in Captivity,” she describes marriage as a constraint, a rejection of all others, chosen captivity … from which joy and ecstasy can emerge. But when you are another’s “only,” limitations come with the singularity. 

Did the tribe of Levi feel this paradox? They will be priests, royalty of the sacred, God’s chosen among the chosen. The Levites will lead the people in worship and service, but might they be mating in captivity? 

Their treasure comes in exchange for the firstborns, who “earned” their chosen-ness by being saved, and therefore owing God in perpetuity. It is a chosen-ness that is born from obligation. The Levites will never suffer from hunger, as their provisions are guaranteed. But they have no land. Nothing to inherit or bequeath, aside service itself. 

According to Bereishit Rabba, originally it was Reuven, the true firstborn, who would replace “the firstborns” as living a life of service to God. Reuven’s impetuosity ruined his chances for priestly greatness. But as Yaacov blesses Levi at the end of his life, and transfers Reuven’s primacy to him, it comes with earned critique about Levi’s hostility and volatility. He may be a priest, but he is no angel. So this “gift” of belonging to God is part liberation from mundane duties, and also part of the rope that keeps Levi contained. 

Make your anchors and your tethers as holy and liberating as they can be. And remember that any fantasized liberation comes with its own fetters.

Tzvi Freeman
Chabad.org, teaches at Happy Minyan

The Levites got a bum deal. Put up the Tabernacle. Sing sweet songs in the Tabernacle. Take down the Tabernacle. Carry the load of the Tabernacle. But when you get to the Promised Land, you don’t even get a little plot to grow tomatoes. Nothing. Just some dividends off the granary — if you come, maybe we’ll give you some. 

But that’s OK, right? You’ll keep singing those sweet songs. Because you’re a Levite. 

So Maimonides has something really neat to say about the Levites. He writes that anybody — literally anybody who enters this world — can be a Levite, in a spiritual sense. The formula is simple: You just forgo the pursuit of material acquisition and dedicate your life to serving your Maker. 

Which implies that being a Levite is a really good thing. 

Maybe we have to redefine what is a good thing. If life is about dying with more toys and Facebook likes than anyone else, then toys and Facebook are a good thing. But if you consider life an opportunity for closeness with the Source of Life, then, mazel tov! You’re a (virtual) Levite and God says, “You are mine!” 

How do you come close to the Source of Life? You treasure life, you give life, you nurture life. Instead of chasing what feels good for you, you ask what you’re good for. Instead of “What do I need?” you ask, “What am I needed for?” Love and you will be loved. 

Then you will sing about life, because you’ve made life worthwhile.

Havah E. Jaffe
Children’s Shabbat Program Director, Hebrew Discovery Center

Among all peoples of the world, there are traditions to determine who is chosen for the ranks of priesthood. During the generation of the Exodus, the Israelites traveled through the land of idol worshippers for 40 years on the way to the Promised Land. As a safeguard to adopting the ways of the surrounding nations, God taught Moses that all firstborn sons who “open the womb” belonged to God as payback for sparing their lives during the Plague of the Firstborn in Egypt. 

This mitzvah was in stark contrast to the ways of the neighboring Midianites and Moabites, who worshipped a god called molech. This disgusting “deity” was gratified by the fiery sacrifice of firstborn children. Conversely, God wanted the Israelites to internalize how fortunate we were to know that the Creator of the Universe would never ask new mothers to offer their babies as human sacrifice; in fact, firstborn sons were to be the priests! 

God further instructed Moses that rather than those firstborn sons becoming priests as previously taught, the males of the tribe of Levi would replace them as God’s servants. With the mitzvah updated to the Levites as priests, the Israelites could also internalize how fortunate we are to know that the Sustainer of the Universe cares about the pain a new mother would feel if separated from her baby. Instead, priestly service would remain within one tribe, thus keeping families together. As Moses was taught, the family unit is sacred in and of itself. 

Weekly Parsha: Tazria – Maftir Reading for Shabbat HaChodesh

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

“This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” –Exodus 12:2

Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins

On this special Shabbat, Shabbat HaChodesh, the new month, we read from two Torahs. The additional special reading reminds us that we are entering the “first of months” and is apropos because it is the month of Nisan, which heralds one of the three special chagim (festivals), Pesach (Passover). 

We read these sentences once before on Jan. 12 in Parashat Bo, when our forebears confronted the horrific darkness, chaos and “killing” of the Egyptian first-born sons. As the terrifying night approached and pervaded the entire country, a new time was “birthed”; a measure of a month entered the newly created calendar. As death approaches and the Egyptian gods are extinguished, symbolized by the slaughtering of the paschal lamb, a new people emerges, with the light of a uniquely formed cycle, a year. 

This parallels the beginning of Torah, when darkness and chaos, “tohu vavohu v’choshech,” pervaded the universe and God said, “Let there be light … and God separated between the light and the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness Night…on the seventh day God rested from His work.” Creation introduces the measure of a day and a week; Pesach introduces the measure of a month. As the world comes into being, order and light guides the newly created human being; as Pesach comes into being, a calendar of structured times, both holy and ordinary, will bless a new nation. 

Let us hold in our consciousness, to celebrate and honor what Torah teaches, that this moment is truly the beginning of the year.

Rabbi Michael Barclay
Temple Ner Simcha

The issue of months, the calendar and astrology have always been significant in Judaism. Our sages and texts going back to Talmudic times discuss the influence of each month on the individual’s entire life (as well as the location and even hour and minute of birth being influencers). Sefer Yetzirah (second-century text) delves deeply into the correlation between months, astrological signs, parts of the body, and letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Authentic “Jewish astrology” understandings are powerful and worth studying in depth with a knowledgeable guide; and have been practiced and understood throughout our history all the way back to Father Avraham (B. Talmud, Bava Batra 16b). 

But although the new moon, month or constellations are accepted to have influence, as Jews, we are not ultimately controlled by them. Ours is a higher destiny. Through practice of the mitzvot and study of Torah, we have the ability to transcend the astrological destiny and the inherent power of each new month. “From the time that the Torah was given to Israel, the Israelites were withdrawn from the rule of the stars and constellations; however, if one does not follow the ways of the Torah, he returns to be under the domain of these natural influences.” (Zohar, Vol 3, 216)

As we enter this new month of Nisan, may we all be blessed to experience the qualities of the month, and the special relationship every Jew has with God that allows each of us to go beyond the power of the stars.

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
Professor of Hebrew, Academy for Jewish Religion

This verse contains the commandment for the nation of Israel to keep track of time, to mark the beginning of the year and the beginning of each month. The commentaries note that it is the first commandment that the people of Israel were commanded as a nascent nation, and Seforno sees in this particular significance: Israel’s new autonomy as a nation is most noticeable in that they are now masters of their own time. As slaves, their time belonged to Egypt. As a free people, their time is now their own. They can now determine their identity as a nation by what they do with their time. 

This theme of being a master of your own time is central to Jewish tradition, and it lies at the center of the notion of free choice and personal agency within Judaism. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a series of fundamental statements about Jewish values, attitudes and practice, contains numerous exhortations for us to be conscious of what we do with our time. We are reminded to make full use of the time we have for Torah study (Avot 1:13, 2:5, 3:3, et passim), and to make full use of our days (2:2, 2:15, 4:16-17, et passim). 

Since time is in limited supply, it is not enough for us to passively mark the passage of time. Rather, Jewish tradition demands that we actively fill our time with meaningful activity, generosity, and growth. In doing so, we define ourselves as a people and justify our freedom from Egypt.

Salvador Litvak

On the Shabbat before the first day of Nisan, the Hebrew month in which we left Egypt, we add a special passage to the weekly Torah reading. We call it Shabbat HaChodesh, the Sabbath of the New Moon, and we read this law, the first commandment given to the Jewish people as a nation. Some debate exists as to whether the passage comes to teach the moon phase in which all Hebrew months begin, or that Nisan is the first month. In fact, the name Nisan doesn’t appear in the Torah, nor do any other names of months. They are called only first, second, third month, etc.

Ramban said the months are numbered not just for the sake of scheduling but rather to keep us mindful of the exodus from Egypt. He notes that the days of the week, which also lack proper names in Hebrew, are called the first day from Shabbat, second day from Shabbat, etc. The days of the week thus remind us constantly that God created the world.

The months remind us that God interceded in history. One might have thought that God set the universe in motion and then let it proceed according to natural laws. The months spring from the Jewish redemption from Egypt to teach that God remains involved. This is why we sing Hallel, songs of thanksgiving and praise, at the beginning of every month. When Passover approaches, we face a massive to-do list. These items are not chores but rather opportunities to thank and connect with our Eternal Redeemer.

Miriam Yerushalmi

Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) is the book of laws. Why remind us that this mitzvah about the moon is “the first … the beginning”?

The moon, in its waxing and waning, embodies growth. Every month, it begins as a thin sliver; after slowly achieving wholesome perfection, it gradually diminishes to near-nothingness, then re-emerges and regrowth begins. The cycle of “humility” to “greatness” repeats.

The Talmud states: “In every place you find God’s greatness, there you will find His humility.” Tanya teaches that “God abides only where there is no sense of self or separation from Him.” Any arrogance or self-conceit is a barrier to spiritual growth and closeness to HaShem. A verse early in the Rosh Chodesh haftarah reminds us of this, while the above verse underscores the moon’s centrality to Judaism: “The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool, (so) what house can you build (worth) for Me?” 

God is not talking arrogantly here. He is teaching a profound lesson.

HaShem doesn’t need our Torah learning, represented by the heavens; He doesn’t need our mitzvots, represented by the Earth; HaShem doesn’t need a house, represented by the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple) for his Shechinah (divine presence) — just as the highest essence of our soul doesn’t even enter the house of our bodies. 

This teaches us that on one level, this service is not essential for Him, but for us. To enable us to reach the greatness of humility, like the moon. As the moon becomes small, it becomes great. This is our goal.

Weekly Parsha: Tzav

One verse, five voicesEdited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

It shall be made with oil on a shallow pan, after bringing it scalded and repeatedly baked; you shall offer a meal offering of broken pieces, [with] a pleasing aroma to the Lord. –Leviticus 6:14

Miriam Yerushalmi

Why offer broken pieces? Wouldn’t a whole offering be more honorable? 

There’s a Chasidic saying: “Nothing is more whole than a broken heart.” This verse seems to hint at a step-by-step process to achieve that state of a perfect offering to HaShem. 

First, “it shall be made with oil”: Oil represents the wisdom of HaShem, of Torah, the essential ingredient in our offerings and our lives. 

“In a pan,” a vessel: In Chassidus, prayer is the vessel which prepares our body to contain the holiness of our soul, Torah and mitzvot. 

“Shallow”: a minimal level of prayer is enough to start the purification process. 

Then “scald” with boiling water: Water is Torah; by learning and fulfilling the Torah until its waters boil within us, we wash away our negative traits. 

After that, bake repeatedly: Our learning has to “bake” long enough to become ingrained — we have to learn Torah thoroughly, again and again, so that we don’t come away with a half-baked understanding. 

“Repeatedly baked”: There are three progressively more complete ways of bringing an offering. First, folded — the ingredients are combined, but not intrinsically, i.e., awareness of the mitzvoth. Second, baked — the surface is golden but the inside remains soft, we do the mitzvot without complete commitment. Third, fried —the oil permeates everything, the Torah’s wisdom reaches our inner soul. 

Finally, “offer it as broken pieces”: With our feelings of negativity broken away, detached and powerless, we are made wholesome. Now, humble and refined, we give off “a pleasing aroma” to HaShem.

Shaindy Jacobson
Director, Rosh Chodesh Society (JLI)

It is dawn on Friday. I am in my kitchen preparing to host a large number of guests for Shabbat dinner. The shallow pan glistening with oil, the pretzel challah dough scalded in a salty baking-soda solution, the twice-baked biscotti cooling in the corner, the broken pieces of chocolate almond bark artistically arranged on a platter. The incredibly pleasing aroma fills my kitchen, wafting toward every nook and cranny within the walls of my home, and beyond … to the garden, the backyard, the courtyard … to the courtyard of God’s home, the holy Temple.

This is my meal offering. This is the meal offering of every Jewish woman tasked with the duty of building a mini sanctuary within her very heart — birthed in the privacy of her family’s home and blessed to extend across continents.

As I contemplate the timeless meal offerings of our collective generations of upright, remarkable women, I am reminded of what we are taught in Deuteronomy (8:3), “Not by bread alone does man live, rather from that which emanates from the mouth of God …” 

While in the Diaspora, the pan may be shallow, the dough scalded, repeatedly baked, the pieces broken — yet, we are forever uplifted by the glistening oil and the knowledge that the aroma we produce is pleasing to our creator.

For every meal we offer is but a reflection of acknowledgment that our relationship with God embraces each and every physical and spiritual offering that He extends to us in his supreme kindness.

Salvador Litvak

How can scalding and repeatedly baking flour create an aroma that pleases the source of all being? Apparently, humans also are capable of causing pain to the Almighty: “And the Lord regretted that he had made man upon the earth, and he became grieved in his heart.” (Genesis 6:6)

This is the ultimate act of humility. God is infinitely greater than any mortal, yet a) God feels pleasure/pain from our actions, and b) God wants us to know we have this power. 


Every parent grants power to children. When they hurt, we hurt. When they cause pain, we hurt even worse. When they do the right thing, we feel pleasure. When they do the right thing because we ask, we kvell even more. Indeed, Rashi explains the pleasing aroma of a sacrifice in just this way. See Leviticus 1:9. 

The only way to avoid these emotions is not to have kids. God took on this burden when God created us, and in fact, it’s a much greater burden than we can imagine. We see the pain our children feel and hurt because of it. God experiences our pain. Every single pain felt by every single person. 

And that is why we must take God’s emotions seriously. We need to have compassion for the eternal. The commandment to love God isn’t just about reciting the Shema twice a day. It’s about shouldering some of God’s pain, and giving God any pleasure we can by doing the right thing, just because God asked.

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick
Mishkon Tephilo, Venice

Two grain offerings unique to the Kohanim are discussed in this chapter: a standard grain offering, which is baked as matzah and then eaten; and this special offering for when a Kohen is anointed. This offering is not only baked, but also fried in small pieces — and then burned instead of consumed.

These two offerings speak to the nature of the priesthood and what it means to be a spiritual leader. The plain matzo represents the humility required. Refraining from eating the baked and fried pieces alludes to the necessity of self-restraint. The brokenness of the offering not only warns the priests to be sensitive to the broken spirits of the people Israel, but also serves as a reminder of their own brokenness — for indeed, no leader should consider themselves entirely without flaw. 

Any leader who fails to embrace these traits not only fails to serve his or her people, but also fails to serve God. And even though we may not all be spiritual leaders, each of us is expected to strive for such spiritual excellence. Surely we will stumble in our endeavors, and few of us will ever achieve our goals, but remaining committed to the task is precisely the service that God desires — despite our failures, we are not free to desist from the struggle. 

The aroma of these grain offerings may indeed be pleasing to God, but certainly not as pleasing as the air of humility we can attain by internalizing the lessons they teach.

Rabbi Miriam Hamrell
Ahavat Torah Congregation

Why is the Torah so meticulous about this meal offering? This verse not only tells us what type of baking pan we should use, but also how to cook it. Rashi writes that it has to be boiled, baked, and finally broken into pieces and fried in a special pan. At the end, this priestly offering should be presented not “well done” or “raw,” but rather “medium.” Amazing balance!

Raphael Hayyim Basila, in 1560 in Italy wrote in Minhat Shai 78, that this is the only place in the Torah we read about such a practice. This is a Korban Toda-Mandatory Thanksgiving Offering, and it is done only by Aaron, the high priest, and his sons during the consecration rites of the Tabernacle. Keli Yakar, in 1580, adds that this is similar to Hametz, which has to be burned before Pesach. Hametz is equivalent to our Yetzer H’rah, evil inclination, our pride. He writes that, “from all the Midot, our character dimensions, this is the most important.” Why? Too much or too little is not good. We must find the balance. Hazal agrees and adds that this is similar to the thread of a spider. First, we barely see or feel it, but then it creates an impenetrable web. 

Just like Aaron, when we come to consecrate our Tabernacle, our Mishkan with God, we find the balance and we leave our egos out. This should be followed not only with God but also with every person in our life. Amen.

Weekly Parsha: Pekudei

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

For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire within it at night, before the eyes of the entire house of Israel in all their journeys.
Exodus 40:38

Dini Coopersmith
Women’s Reconnection Trips

There was a palpable presence of God surrounding the Tabernacle, during the days and nights of the travels and encampments of the Israelites. The cloud of glory by day and the pillar of fire by night would clear the way of scorpions and snakes, protecting the Israelites from their enemies’ arrows and stones. 

The Slonimer Rebbe explains in his commentary on the Torah, “Netivot Shalom,” “every Jew is a microcosm of the Tabernacle, and is expected to become a dwelling place for God’s presence.”

Similar to the Jewish nation in the desert, every individual goes through 42 journeys throughout one’s life. During these travels, he or she comes across difficult challenges, trials and tribulations, like the “snakes and scorpions” in the desert. 

There are the struggles of day: things are calm, but we don’t experience God readily. There is fog and lack of clarity. During that time, we must realize that “in the cloud is God.” HaShem is there, hidden but present, if we only realize he is watching over us. 

And the night struggles: our material and base urges get the best of us, like an all-consuming fire. We need to respond with a corresponding passion to connect to God, to study Torah, to use our talents to influence our society in an active, fiery and exciting way. 

If we sincerely yearn to connect with God, we will enjoy the protection of “the cloud of God” and the “pillar of fire” during the days and nights.

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

Why is God’s presence associated with a cloud? Keli Yakar explains that the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, while God’s glory filled the tent itself. God’s glory wasn’t the cloud, but it was God’s light and fire that appeared from within the cloud. Just as we cannot look directly at the sun — otherwise we will not be able to see the light, but instead be harmed by it — so, too, a person cannot look directly at God’s presence and glory. And so the cloud is a protective shield that enables us to safely witness God’s light and warmth. 

Rebbe Nachman offers a very different interpretation of “the cloud of the Lord.” He explains that God hides himself in the obstacles in life — in the clouds. A wise person will look at the clouds and find God in them, while others will turn away. As we read this final verse of the Book of Shemot, I encourage us to reflect on how we relate to “the cloud of the Lord” in our own lives. 

Do we feel the aspect of protection — a distance that somehow enables us to draw closer? Or is the cloud our current obstacle, something that is foggy and hard to navigate, something we want — but can’t always find divinity in? 

Let’s each ask: “What does the cloud of the Lord mean to me? Do I need to feel embraced by the fog right now or strive to see through it?”

Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Ohr HaTorah Synagogue

There are heavens and stars, and there is a forest of humanity in which the waters of the fountains of the abyss flow up. Poised between the heavens and the abyss is the Teaching, first revealed in thunder, lightning and the blasting of horns, but now safely ensconced in the Ark of God, as it journeys from the abyss of the wilderness to the grandeur of Zion. Along this long, long journey, the primordial tensions between light and darkness, day and night, fire and cloud are played out over and over again. 

Perhaps the Teaching must undergo an annealing process — the primordial fire heating the primordial waters into vaporous clouds of unknowing where the Unknowable can become present. Perhaps the clouds become the unique vessel for the Kavod — Majestic Grandeur — of the divine, a cloud that, like the Sabbath, creates a place of rest for the restless creative energy that generates the universe.

We who bear a vaporous impression of the Teaching in lost chambers of aching souls must suffer an echo of the annealing of creation and chaos, waters above and waters below, wilderness and Zion, fire and cloud, for the Teaching to arrive back to its source. 

This is why we suffer — a mystery is being worked out within and through us, a mystery only known accurately through metaphors, myths, symbols, poems, art and music — the languages of the soul. Language of the mystery cannot name, it can only connote — fire and cloud. 

Sara Brudoley
Torah teacher and lecturer

In the last verse of the book of Exodus, the book of Exile and Redemption, HaShem promises his eternal protection to the nation of Israel.

“Before the eyes of the entire house of Israel,” young and old, everyone saw the cloud of the Lord. Whereas at first, the cloud and fire were in front of the people and not everyone merited to see them, once Moshe asked that “HaShem shall go in the midst of us,” HaShem promised “before all your people I will perform miracles,” and then the entire nation saw the cloud and fire. 

For the providence of HaShem and the blessing of the Torah are not a matter of “faith” that was invented in order to mercifully console earth dwellers. Rather, it is “knowledge,” a steadfast recognition that was formed by real experience into certain fact. 

In all their journeys and wandering, the nation of Israel will remember that HaShem will not abandon them. “By day,” during better times, the cloud of the Lord will go before them and guide them in the desert of their exile. As well as “at night,” during dark and hard times of torture and persecution, the cloud will be “fire” that will consume the devils who plot and scheme to destroy Israel.

The Torah teaches the individual as well, how to survive all the harsh journeys of his or her life. By sanctifying himself like the Mishkan, which is the life purpose of the Jew, he is granted constant higher protection. 

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his seminal work, “Heavenly Torah,” intimates to us that there are basically two ways of understanding this verse. One way would be the way of the mystic — to literally profess that a tangible divine cloud, and a tangible pillar of fire, actually escorted our people. 

The alternative interpretation would be the rationalist paradigm, professing that that the cloud and the fire are mere allegories, symbolizing two profound theological truths. I will stick to this rationalist perspective. As you may recall, in Parashat Yitro, during the giving of the Torah, it is stated that God’s cloud descended on the mountain. And last week, in Parashat Ki Tisa, HaShem explained to Moses that no mortal can have a direct encounter with the almighty — and remain alive. Hence, the imagery of the cloud can symbolize the theological principle that we can never fully see or apprehend God’s very essence, even when it seems to us as lucid and pervasive as daylight. 

To borrow from Kant, God is the noumenal, the “thing-in-itself,” the essence of things which lies well beyond the constraints of the human cognitive horizon. The pillar of fire represents the talmudic notion that the divine presence also traveled with us during the fiery and calamitous centuries of exile, persecution and even genocide. Thus, here’s one meaning of this verse: You will never fully know God (cloud), and yet — God’s presence will never abandon you, as long as you remain connected to it here below (the pillar of fire).

Weekly Parsha: Vayakhel

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

And he made the washstand of copper and its base of copper from the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions, who congregated at the entrance of the tent of meeting. –Exodus 38:8

Nili Isenberg
Pressman Academy

The priests of the Torah aimed to achieve the heights of holiness, lighting fires with their passion for God. Then, as now, our offerings have the potential to climb, extend and expand. But this elevation is possible only after deep and grounded preparation. 

Before performing their holy duties, the priests would use water from the washstand, set upon its base, to cleanse their hands and feet. Though they are not as well known as the menorah or the Ark of the Covenant, the washstand and its base have a deep significance. The Torah mentions the washstand and its base together repeatedly. Why is the base so important, deserving of separate mention? Why can’t the washstand stand on its own? 

A base is a foundation. As Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) pointed out, “these vessels were not carried on poles” like some of the other implements of the Tabernacle. No, these vessels should not even give the impression of being mobile. They must serve to prepare us for our holy work with connection to our stable base. 

That base is our people and our history. Today, in the infinite reflections of our selfie culture, this message carries particular urgency. The Hebrew used in this verse for “its base” (“kano”) is related to the Hebrew “to prepare oneself” (“lehitkonen”) and “to have intention (“lehitkaven”). Understanding that our foundation is our connection to the past readies us to use our hands and feet with purpose and impact for the future.

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

Midrash tells us that Moses didn’t want to accept the women’s contribution of mirrors — “B’Mar’ot” in Hebrew — because he associated the visual reflection provided by the mirrors with vanity. Like so many other elements in our narrative, however, the contribution of women points us directly toward greater freedom and closer relationship with the divine. 

The last time we saw the same conjugation of this word “B’Mar’ot” was in Genesis 46, “And God called to Israel through a vision (B’Mar’ot) by night …” There is great intimacy through the visual medium. We know how powerful the camera has become today. We feel like we know the facts of a story better when we see a photo or a video. The power of a mirror, in seeing oneself, does not only serve the purpose of vanity, but also presents the ability to reflect. 

The mirrors in the altar would be used to draw ourselves closer to God, to make the act of the sacrifice more personal. In our most intimate moments, who among us doesn’t want our creator, our spouse, our parents or our friends to see deep inside us and recognize the best version of ourselves? In the midrash, God tells Moses to accept the mirrors. I pray that in that moment God also accepted each and every one of us for who we truly are as well. 

Pinchas Winston
President, Thirtysix.org

Rashi explains that the women had copper mirrors that they used for adorning themselves for their husbands who, each day, after intense work as a slave, came home physically broken and spiritually hopeless. They certainly could not think about increasing their families, so their wives made sure of the opposite. And, even though this was all done for the right reasons, and with the best of intentions, Moshe still wanted to reject the mirrors. He felt that their association with the evil inclination made them unfit for the construction of something as holy as the Tabernacle. Therefore, God stepped in and told him, “Accept them, for they are dearer to me than anything else! Through these mirrors the women increased the population of Israel.” 

Who could blame Moshe? After all, it says: Difficult is the evil inclination that even its creator calls it “evil.” Yet, the midrash says, were it not for the evil inclination, a man would not build a house, marry a woman, do business, etc. Clearly the evil inclination can be either friend or foe. What determines which? Torah. 

As the Talmud says, “God told the Jewish people, ‘I created the evil inclination, and I created Torah as its spice.’ ” God didn’t call Torah an “antidote” for the evil inclination, because Torah doesn’t come to eliminate the evil inclination, but to channel it. The evil inclination is a powerful source of energy and creativity. It is not be destroyed, but harnessed for good, and living by Torah makes this possible.

Tova Hartman
Professor, Ono Academic College, Israel

Doing the holy work for the Jewish people is not a casual action. The priests must prepare for this in a variety of ways, including ritually washing themselves from this special washstand. But why make it from women’s brass mirrors? What might this symbolize? 

According to rabbinic tradition, cited in Rashi, the women shared these mirrors with their husbands, who were too tired from manual labor, enticing them to have sex so that they would procreate. The priests had to acknowledge this every time they washed their hands and feet in preparation for entering the holy area. 

In most genocides, men are separated from women. We must imagine that in Egypt, the men were encamped near their work sites, separately from the women. One of the effects of such trauma and humiliation is the loss of desire — reflecting a loss of a sense of worth. It is thus no surprise that the women needed to use mirrors to allure their husbands. These mirrors mirrored back to their men a sense of worthiness, so the men would see themselves as their wives saw them. The masters of slaves mirror back a sense of worthlessness, and that is what the Hebrew women of Egypt refused to accept. 

To build the Tabernacle, silver and gold were necessary, but it is forbidden to enter the holy area unless there is an acknowledgment of the loss and the regaining of the human spirit, symbolized through these copper mirrors. How might this translate into the responsibilities of our contemporary Jewish leaders, as they prepare to do their holy work?

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Aish L.A.

Slavery doesn’t simply break the body, it breaks the soul. It exhausts the person and suffocates any hope for a quality of life and a life of quality. So let me ask you, would you bring children into such a life? Would it not be cruel and selfish to condemn children to a life of misery by birthing them into a culture that would ravage and oppress them? 

For us, this is a hypothetical question, although one very worthwhile debating. For our ancestors in Egypt, it was a real and genuine moral dilemma. I have legitimately wondered whether the hopelessness of that situation would have gotten the best of me. 

Enter the Jewish woman. The copper mirrors that she exuberantly dedicated to the Temple were the mirrors she used to prepare herself for an intimacy that would ensure the survival of the Jewish people. She understood that the best way to defeat despair is to add life, and the only way to respond to a soulless world is to add souls. It was the holiest of missions! 

Those mirrors represent the Jewish woman’s unflinching commitment to the perpetuation of Jewish destiny. They were in fact, the greatest “reflection” of the inextinguishable faith that has traveled with us through the horrors and triumphs of Jewish history. Our sages recognized this when they emphatically taught “that in the merit of Jewish women, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.”

Weekly Parsha: Tetzaveh

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

“When Aaron kindles the lights in the afternoon, he shall make it go up in smoke, continual incense before the Lord for your generations.” –Exodus 25:2

Nina Litvak

When Aaron lights incense on the golden altar, it creates a fragrant aroma and a cloud of smoke that resembles the clouds of the divine presence. This suggests that a pleasing smell is part of the experience of being near to God. Smell has a unique holiness because it’s the only sense that did not participate in the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge.

Despite its connection to holiness, smell is the sense we humans value least. If you had to sacrifice one sense, it probably would be smell. Yet our sages teach that smell is the most heavenly sense, because it reaches us through the nose, the organ through which the soul enters and leaves the body. The Talmud calls the pleasure of smell one that benefits the soul, not the body.

When Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelite caravan, it didn’t have the usual foul smell but instead contained sweet-smelling spices. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz said that the spices in the caravan were a message to Joseph that God was with him. The fragrant odor was a sign of God’s presence, and Joseph understood the message and was strengthened.

Just as God chose the most humble man to lead us, and the most humble mountain on which to reveal himself to us, he chose the most humble sense to connect himself to us. Every time we smell a fragrant aroma, we can understand it, as Joseph did, as an assurance from God that he is near.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Ziegler School AJU

Companies invest millions of dollars to create the best-smelling scents. Here, however, the Torah intimates that it is not the invention of modern perfume companies; rather, even God has a preferred scent. A blend of secret substances that exhale perfume during combustion, the k’toret, an incense offering, became an important act of sacred worship.

I cannot recall ever smelling incense burning in synagogue. In fact, as a child, while such practice seemed more common in other religions’ houses of worship, it was alien to Jewish religious experience. Yet, the Torah describes the burning of aromatic spices as important and normative daily — morning and evening — activities within the Temple ritual. So important was this sacrifice that altering them in any way would result in estrangement. In fact, it was this type of departure from sacrificial norms that apparently caused the death of Aaron’s own sons, Nadav and Avihu (see Leviticus 10).

Touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell — our senses work together to help us understand the world and react to changes in the environment. Moreover, each of our senses is connected to and heightens the experience of the others. 

Likewise, true prayer (which was instituted to replace Temple sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple) invites a whole body, total sensory encounter. As the Psalmist says, “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2) That’s a scent that is priceless!

Ilan Reiner
Author of “Israel History Maps”

Our parsha discusses three acts, as part of the routine work in the Mishkan (the Tabernacles), that need to be done twice a day, every day, with no exceptions, for generations to come. They are the burning of the offering, the incense of spices and the lighting of the menorah. All three are to be done once in the morning and once in the evening, every day (tamid), for every generation from now and forever (le’doroteikheim). All are related to fire and burning — the offering is burned on the altar, the incense goes up in smoke, and the candles are lit with fire.

Although all three seem to be linked, the words “tamid” (daily) and “le’ doroteikheim” (for generations to come) are mentioned only in regard to the offering and the incense. However, it’s the menorah that survived the turmoils of time and is with us to this day.

Even before the final destruction of the Temple, the priests ran out of lambs for offerings and incense for burning, because of the siege. But the menorah continued to be lit. The menorah stayed with us for generations upon generations. After the Babylonian exile, during the Maccabean uprising, carried by Jewish prisoners in Rome, engraved on coins, carved in synagogues and on tombs, and drawn in books. Always symbolizing light, knowledge and hope for a better tomorrow. Upon its foundation, the State of Israel chose the menorah as its emblem, to reflect the continuity and eternity of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

“Wake up and smell the coffee.” “Stop and smell the roses.” “Something smells fishy.” “The deal stinks.” 

There is something profound in the emphasis a great many of our expressions place on the olfactory experience. 

Nineteenth-century physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. recognized a great truth: “Memories, imagination, old sentiments and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.” Of all the five senses, the aroma surrounding an experience creates the most powerful, albeit very often subconscious, lasting impression. 

Famed author Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.” The midrash and Jewish mystics find a biblical rationale: The first sin of humankind corrupted four of our senses. We heard God’s warning not to eat of the tree. We saw the tree and we were tempted. We touched its fruit and we tasted it. Our sense of smell however did not sin. 

The tabernacle in the desert and subsequently the Temple in Jerusalem taught us through its rituals how to introduce spirituality into our lives. Significantly, morning and evening, the high priest was to burn incense of sweet spices — “a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” It is a reminder to us to emphasize the sweet aromas of the Shabbat table, the odors of a Jewish home on all its holidays, the distinctive fragrances of Jewish life, which fill us with constant awareness of God’s closeness and presence. How can we find God, people ask? Maybe, like for all lost objects which seek that seem to be hidden, He is here — right under our nose.

Jackie Redner
Rabbi in Residence, Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

For those who work with individuals with special needs, there is something that needs to be offered up. It involves smoke and light. The smoke holds our confusion. With light, we see our confusion and we offer it up. We accept that we are limited when it comes to the mystery of one who is unable to give voice to thought. 

I have worked closely with individuals on the autism spectrum who have been unspeaking for many years. For much of their early life, they were rarely truly seen. Only their confusing symptoms were seen … by our own confused eyes. For years, they received the world around them, unable to show that they understood, not only 1, 2, 3 or where their nose is, but also the wonder of light, water, earth, sound and emotion. All with a clarity of thought and awareness that we could never fathom with our own confused notions of what autism is and what it is not. 

They have taught me this. Behind the confusion — mine and theirs — the light is ever-present. I have had the great privilege of working closely with those who, through an arduous struggle, learned how to type, one letter at a time, in order to share their world with us. Their words are pulled from a deep well, bursting through ongoing internal noise and a body hard to control. The effort, if you ponder it for a moment, can bring you to your knees. Offer up the smoke of confusion and always assume intelligence. 

During Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, Table for Five includes young voices from Vista Del Mar’s Moses-Aaron Cooperative Program. 

Weekly Parsha: Yitro

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

It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered. –Exodus 19:16

Judy Gruen
Author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith”

A few years ago, I heard about a renowned Torah scholar who suffered from chronic pain. Before taking his pain pills, he would pause, look at them in his hand, sometimes even trembling, lest he begin to credit the pill alone, and not God, for any potential relief. This made a powerful impression on me: This man felt enough awe for God’s presence in his life to literally tremble at the idea of losing that connection. 

Ever since hearing that story, I also stop for a moment before I pop one of my migraine pills, and tell God — out loud — that I know he is the only true healer, and the pill merely a conduit. 

At the revelation at Mount Sinai, we were overwhelmed — quite literally — by God’s spectacular special effects, as we were lifted from rootlessness and slavery into a nation, his chosen people. There was no mistaking God’s omnipresence in our lives during the times of open and frequent miracles. At Mount Sinai, the cloud overhead contained God’s palpable essence. 

Today, we often have a metaphorical cloud that obscures his presence. Our lives are so distracted and frazzled, we need more focused intention to connect to God’s presence, love and care. But it’s still with us, as much as we allow it to be. We need to find our own ways to break through that obscuring cloud and see him in the smaller, everyday miracles he provides — including pain relief in a miniscule pill.  

Salvador Litvak

This was the greatest moment in human history. More than 2 million people personally heard God’s words at Mount Sinai, and the event has been recounted countless times by Jews, Christians and Muslims around the world.

Rav Huna said that everyone present heard five voices. The first two are derived from the plural voices, “kolot,” used for the thunderclaps. Another kol is the continual shofar blast. Three verses later, yet another kol refers to a second shofar, and the final kol is God’s direct voice. (Berachot 6b, B. Talmud)

We thus have two kinds of natural phenomena (the thunder), two kinds of spiritual phenomena (the shofars), and God’s overpowering voice. I say overpowering because after a few words, the people begged Moses to take dictation for them, fearing their souls would fly from their bodies if they heard another word from the Almighty. And that is why so few humans have ever attained prophecy. It is possible, however, for any of us to hear the other four voices if we learn how to listen. 

I believe the two voices of thunder correspond to the revealed and hidden aspects of our physical universe. The incomparable beauties of the mountains, seas, stars and life itself are the Creator’s love songs to his creatures. As we learn more of nature’s secrets via biology, physics and other sciences, we discover even greater love.

The two voices of the shofars correspond to the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah. If we approach these ever-unfolding teachings as God speaking to us now, then we, too, stand at Mount Sinai and witness an ongoing revelation that is 3,300 years young.

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
Professor of Hebrew, Academy for Jewish Religion

This verse describes the scene of the giving of the Torah, and it is an aurally and visually busy scene. The increasingly loud sound of the shofar is punctuated by thunder, and an obscuring cloud is lit by intermittent lightning. Clearly, it was an awe-inspiring scene, as the nation of Israel trembled in response. 

Rabbi Nathan’s midrashic commentary on Avot asserts that this description is intended to teach us how to approach the study of Torah: Just as the Torah was first received in awe, so it should be studied with awe. Rabbi Matya ben Harash echoes this in Yoma 4b, adding that this is what the Psalmic words “and you shall rejoice in trembling” (2:11) are referring to. Our delight in studying the Torah is heightened through the recognition that the Torah and its giver are awesome and essentially beyond our ken. We should feel an awed sense of privilege in studying Torah. 

The Malbim comments on the two types of sound that could be heard. He asserts that the shofar blast, which was constant and ever-growing, corresponds to the teachings of Torah that proceed from awe and that are taught for the sake of heaven. These teachings have lasting power and influence, whereas the teachings that proceed from self-aggrandizement or from an exploitation of the Torah have only temporary influence, even if they are momentarily impressive like thunder. Our goal in studying Torah should be to find the light rather than to obscure it.

Meira Welt-Maarek
Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash, Sephardic Educational Center

As a new teacher, I relied heavily on visual aids and props to hold students’  attention. Over time, I realized these were distracting, taking the focus off the learning material at hand. Similarly, during the giving of the Torah, the people were engaged with the sounds and sights of the event instead of listening and internalizing what was being said. 

In this verse, the Israelites were startled by loud thunder and flashes of lightning at Mount Sinai, with the whole mountain smoking and shaking violently. This scene actually reflects the people’s inner state, trembling with fear while the noise of the blaring horn grows louder and louder. Despite preparing for this moment of revelation, the experience was so overwhelming the people appealed to Moses to intercede “lest they die.” 

The Kotzker Rebbe implies this focus on externals is what enabled the sin of the golden calf to take place so soon after receiving the Torah. One can see, one can even tremble (or properly shuckle, ritually swaying during prayer) yet still remain disconnected and afar. In a similar manner, the Israelites remained standing distantly while revelation passed them by. 

In the Talmud, Rav Sheshet, who was blind, could tell when the king was approaching by the sound or lack thereof of the rooting crowd. As we learn from God’s revelation to Elijah on Mount Horeb, the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake and or even fire, but rather in the still small voice. 

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Motivational Speaker

Ask any American Jew, “Who did God did give the Torah to at Mount Sinai?” and almost all will respond that God gave the Torah to Moses. This response may be because of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic film “The Ten Commandments” and its depiction of Moses receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai. The image ingrained in American-Jewish consciousness by DeMille is beautiful, but DeMille should have read the original script!

The Torah’s version is quite different. The operative words in our verse state that it was “the entire nation that was in the camp.” Some 2 to 3 million people experienced a national revelation when HaShem gave us his Torah.

The Jewish people are the only nation in the history of mankind to experience such a communal revelation. Other major religions of the world accept this event as true, and hold it as a key component of their traditions.

The fact that most American Jews are not aware of these facts is proof that the reason we lose thousands of Jews every year to assimilation isn’t because they suddenly have a profound appreciation of another religion, but rather that they sadly lack an appreciation of their own religion!

Weekly Parsha: Beshalach

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

Then the children of Israel came into the midst of the sea on dry land, and the waters were to them as a wall from their right and from their left. –Exodus 14:22

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Vice President of Community Engagement for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California

As the rain poured, our kids ran outside, playing and dancing. Changes in nature captivate us. I can only imagine how mesmerizing the splitting sea was.

This verse describing this magnificent event seems like a contradiction in terms. How could the Israelites be simultaneously “in the midst of the sea” and “on dry land”?

The rabbis offer multiple resolutions to this contradiction. In Bereshit Rabbah, one rabbi explained that the Israelites were in the midst of the sea – until the water reached their noses – and only then did it become dry land. Rabbi Nehorai understood the verse to mean that they went into the midst of the sea as though they were on dry land — meaning that they had available in the sea what they had on land. He explained that when the daughters of Israel were carrying their children through the sea, if the kids cried, the moms would pick an apple or a pomegranate from the sea to feed them.

How wonderful of Rabbi Nehorai to be concerned that the kids had snacks along the way!

Yet perhaps, the contradiction in the verse is precisely the point. At the moment of the splitting of the sea, the separate categories of “on dry land” and “in the midst of the sea” converged.

Likewise, the real miracles in our lives change the way we view the world —  obliterating pre-established categories. Complex realities often don’t fit into simple binaries. Sometimes, what we consider impossible can become possible.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Fanaticism, philosopher George Santayana famously said, consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.

Fanaticism and extremism are twins. Both camouflage themselves in the cloak of idealism. Both claim that they and they alone possess the key to truth. Both do not seek knowledge but only care to impose their own extreme views on others. For them, moderation is a vice, not a virtue. For the most part, they do not speak, they shout; they are motivated not by love but by hate; they do not discuss, they primarily denigrate those who disagree with them.

Tragically, their presence in contemporary society — politically, culturally and theologically — seems to be ever more noticeable. The right and the left move further and further apart and the moderate center appears to be disappearing. It is the sickness of our age, a sickness which ignores the warning of King Solomon, wisest of all men: “Do not be righteous overmuch, neither be over wise; why should you destroy yourself?” [Ecclesiastes 7:16]

Judaism, as Maimonides pointed out, is based on the principle of “the Golden mean.” It is the key to all mitzvot. It is the essence of wisdom. How remarkable that when the children of Israel miraculously walked through the Red Sea on dry land on the way to Sinai, they witnessed the wonder of the waters turned into a wall on either side of them. The path to freedom and greatness was in the middle, between the extremes of right and left.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

As our ancestors left Egypt, the Torah describes the greatest miracle ever. God parts the sea waters, paving the way to freedom and liberation. Defying nature and reason, the wet sea becomes dry ground. In “The Book of Miracles,” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shares the rabbinic story of two children, Reuven and Shimon, whose experiences were of anything but a miracle. As they cross through the great walls of the sea, all they saw was the mud on their feet. They never looked up to see the water miraculously divide as it is held on either side by the power of God. Consequently, they failed to see why everyone else stood on a distant shore singing and dancing. God had provided for their escape and they were freed from the oppression of their slavery. But, for Reuven and Shimon, the miracle never happened. 

“Their eyes were closed — they may as well have been asleep,” says the midrash (Exodus Rabbah 24:1). 

People see only what they understand, says Kushner, not what lies in front of them. We doubt, we question, we rationalize — closing our eyes and hearts to the unknown and the Unknowable. But, to be a Jew, Kushner teaches, is “to wake up and to keep your eyes open to the many beautiful, mysterious and holy things that happen all round us every day.” Imagine what might be our own experience — of meaning, connection, of transcendence — if only we open our eyes to our right and our left. 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff
American Jewish University

Walls play very different roles in our lives. Sometimes they are used to keep people in a defined perimeter, as in the walls surrounding a prison. Other walls are used to define that perimeter, as the walls of a building determine its square footage. Yet other walls are used to keep people or other threats out. 

The walls in this passage are of this last, protective sort, keeping out the water that would otherwise engulf the Israelites passing from one shore to the other. Those walls, like many others, are beneficial, even life-saving. 

Others, though, are more controversial, keeping out people or goods that should be let in. Physical walls, though, are not the only kinds. Legal walls for generations kept out African-Americans, Jews and Catholics from some neighborhoods, and they separated blacks from whites in schools, restaurants and even bathrooms. Today, we are embarrassed by those legal walls of the past. Like physical walls, though, legal walls often serve important and good purposes, defining, for example, what is acceptable behavior and what is not. 

Similarly, economic walls, as in tariffs, may or may not benefit a nation’s best interests. Emotional walls, too, sometimes protect us from assaults to our welfare, as when we close off relationships with degrading or abusive people. Sometimes, though, we create emotional walls that keep us from healthy and nurturing relationships and experiences, stunting our growth and fulfillment. 

What are the walls in your life? Do they help you or harm you? 

Rabbi Yehuda Mintz
Recovery Through Torah

Was God inflicting the Ten Plagues upon the Egyptians in retribution for their 210-year enslavement of the Israelites or was God attempting to convince his children of his power and love? Perhaps it was both.

The vast majority of Jewish commentaries suggest that 80 percent of the Hebrew slave population said, “Thanks but no thanks” to God with regard to the Exodus; they preferred to stay with what they had and knew. The 20 percent who followed Moses were the reluctant believers. 

Our Heavenly Father had to have patience in transforming us from an enslaved, skeptical people to a free, believing nation. 

As we left Egypt and reached the sea, we panicked, looking back and seeing the mighty Egyptian army in pursuit of us. It was Moses who stretched his arms toward the raging water, but it was Nachshon ben Aminadav who took God at his word and leaped into the sea. Only when the water reached his nose did the sea part; and only then were the Israelites motivated to come into the sea on dry land. Only then did the waters form a protective wall for them on their right and on their left. Our covenant with God is not that we are his observers, but that we are his participants in the care of his creation. 

So I keep a saying on my desk that reads “Leap and the net will appear.”

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?

Weekly Parsha: Vayigash

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

“I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up, and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes.”  –Genesis 46:4

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat
Vice President of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Have you ever gone spelunking?

Last summer, my family and I went spelunking in an enormous cave in the Dominican Republic — which was one of the most extraordinary days of my life. When rappelling into the cave, having an experienced leader is critical. Without our guide, we never would have made it through or out of the dark, winding, watery cave. 

I remembered this experience when I read Ramah’s commentary on this verse. He explained that when two people are about to descend into a deep pit, the one who is confident and accustomed to climbing will always go down first, and afterward, the second person, who is afraid. When coming up from the pit, the skilled one will gladly allow the nervous person to go up first, and only then will the guide ascend. Ramah noted this order is reflected in the Hebrew verse: God “will go down,” and be “with you” in Egypt and then God “will bring you up” and “also go up” after you. 

After the events of the past few weeks — the shooting at the Tree of Life — Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, the shooting at the bar in Thousand Oaks, and the Camp and Woolsey fires, it’s hard not to feel like descending into a cavernous pit of despair. Perhaps, in this time, we can hold onto this image of God, who will be with us and lead us out of the cave. Holding on to our community, may we climb on out together. 

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
Professor of Hebrew, Academy for Jewish Religion, CA

In this verse, God is speaking to calm Jacob’s fears about leaving the Promised Land and descending into Egypt. The phrase at the end of the verse, “and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes,” is a cryptic one. Many of the commentaries explain it as being a promise to Jacob that Joseph will outlive him, i.e. that Joseph will be around to close Jacob’s eyes when he passes. Sforno explains it as meaning that Joseph will care for his father’s needs so that he need not pay attention or worry. 

Another meaning similar to Sforno’s explanation presents itself when comparing this phrase with the term k’sut einayim, a covering of eyes, found in Genesis 20:16. This term refers to anything that proves a compensation for, or felicitous distraction from, some perceived wrong or indignity. In this instance, God is telling Jacob that being reunited with his long-lost son Joseph, who is now in a position to care for his father, will prove enough of a comfort and recompense to Jacob to distract him from the fact he is descending into exile. This sentiment is echoed in Midrash Tanhuma, which allegorizes Jacob to a mother cow who is lured into plowing by following her baby calf. Jacob and his family are being lured into a harsh, yet ultimately productive, exile, in order to fulfill the promise, made to Abraham, but God does this with a gentleness and encouragement that are worth noting and learning from.

Craig Taubman
Founder, Pico Union Project

If I read this verse as Kohelet, I learn, “To everything there is a season.” Seen through the eyes of my walking buddy, an investment guy, I understand it in stock market terms: “There are good days and bad days. Don’t get too excited, and don’t look too often.”

My father-in-law would often ask me, “What’s it all mean, Craigo?” We always concluded that “it” means whatever we make of it. What I make of life’s ups and downs is found in verse 2 of the same chapter: And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!” He replied, “Here I am.” The key to this verse is the Hebrew word Hineni, Here I am, and it’s my life mantra. In order to interpret, learn or live a life of Torah, I must be present to my truth. I must “put my whole self in, my whole self out, and shake it all about.”

The verse ends with “And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.” Joseph is the great seer who interpreted Pharaoh’s dream when no one else could. Yet even he was blind to how much his actions offended his brothers. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men,” sometimes “we can’t handle the truth.”

My truth? We’re never in just one place. We are at once: up, down, free and enslaved in Mitzrayim. To find our truth in Torah, business, love or life … we must first jump in!

Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Ohr HaTorah Synagogue

Question: Why were Jacob’s eyes open, that they had to be closed?

The Zohar teaches (I:226a) that a vision of the world can be seen in the eye of the human being, in all its dazzling colors. In the dark center of the eye, a glorious vision of Shekhinah (the indwelling of God) appears. The eye has the capacity to see wonders beyond what is apparent in this world. When a person dies, as the soul surfaces from its deep, concealed place; the eyes see even more — magnificent wonders appear. The startled eyes of a person who has passed away remain open; those standing nearby should close the eyes, as the soul has left the body. 

We are taught that one cannot see the face, panim, of God and live. Perhaps it is better to pronounce that word p’nim, which means interior. Fueled by the passing soul, the eyes of the dying can see the interior of the divine. 

It seems that the mystics who populate the Zohar have seen those visions of which they speak. In mystical practice, it is a momentary death of the ego that enables the mystic to see into a stunning reality beyond what the eye of the ego can see. 

I don’t think you need to be a mystic to efface the ego for a moment and see through the power of the soul. The soul can see that we are surrounded by images of the divine everywhere we go.

Erica Rothblum
Head of School, Pressman Academy

This pasuk embodies words of comfort for Jacob, who is about to embark on a long journey to his son in Egypt. The rabbis who comment on this pasuk discuss the assurance that God grants Jacob, ensuring the Jacob begins his journey with no fear. But this, of course, raises the question of why Jacob would fear the journey — he is leaving a famine-ravaged land to join his favorite son who is in a position of power in Egypt! 

Some suggest that God is not assuring Jacob about his own well-being, but rather that of the entire nation. The commentary Ha’amek Davar notes, “Jacob was afraid that his seed would be absorbed by the Egyptian nation.” Jacob fears that his descendants will assimilate if born into a culture and land far from their ancestral home. 

In this pasuk, then, is the lesson that the model Jew worries not about his own destiny, but rather focuses on the future of the Jewish people. As a community, we need to rededicate ourselves to the future of the Jewish people. Jewish day school education, a key factor in growing and promoting knowledgeable future generations of Jews, is too expensive for many Jewish families. Tuition assistance requests increase every year, and Jewish professionals, the very people who run our Jewish community, are many of the people pushed out. We must unite as a community to address the cost and dedicate ourselves to funding a Jewish day school education for all who want one.

Weekly Parsha: Vayeishev

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

He has not withheld anything from me except you, because you are his wife. Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God? – Genesis 39:9

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Joseph’s rise as a trusted associate of Pharoah is among one of the most curious stories of the Bible. From the adversity of his own childish brotherly taunting to being sold into slavery to the accusation of infidelity that follow this verse, Joseph certainly faces his own share of adversity.

Recognizing that God is present with him and that he has Potiphar’s vote of confidence, Joseph is made personal attendant and later, minster over the entire house. Seen for his talent, Joseph gains prominence and power. By all Biblical accounts, he is quite successful.

A true test of his character, Joseph is tempted with sex. Knowing how fragile is his success, to whom he owes loyalty, and that he always stands in front of God, Joseph affirms that to pretend he can do anything he might want to do just because he wields power would be corrupt and morally bankrupt.  

Much in life is absolute wrong or absolute right. Still, there are those who justify small steps even when they know they are wrong, beginning a slippery slope of rationalization and moral equivalency that leads to greater out-of-character acts.

In contrast, in this moment, Joseph knows that he may be in charge of the house, but it is not his home. To assume otherwise would be a violation of all that is sacred and a perversion of his own character.

Rabbi Matt Shapiro
Temple Beth Am

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler emphasized the importance of moments when an individual could go one way or another on his path in life, when the outcome is uncertain. We all experience them; if we’re lucky enough, we notice them, and make a mindful decision toward goodness and growth. This verse encapsulates one such moment for Joseph.

This narrative’s watchword of ra’ah, evil, doesn’t first appear in this verse. Earlier, it describes the report Joseph gives to his father, Jacob, about his brothers; it also characterizes the animal Joseph’s brothers later claim mauled him when they lie to Jacob. It then lingers further on in the narrative, when the brothers are fearful that Joseph will revisit ra’ah upon them after Jacob’s death. But here, Joseph wrestles with the possible ra’ah in front of him, and emerges unwilling to sin before God, to cause damage to a relationship, or to act counter to his values. We don’t know what leads to his new perspective. Up until now, Joseph has seemed primarily focused on his own well-being and gratification. What prompts this awakening? More importantly, we know he remains on this path, rebuffing Potiphar’s wife’s advances repeatedly in the days to come.

Through his decision, Joseph brings himself closer to the moniker of tzadik, righteous one, assigned him by the rabbis. May we each choose wisely when these moments emerge in our lives, and then continue to “turn away from evil, and do good,” living in integrity with our choices.

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Aish Hatorah JMI, COO Harkham-GAON Academy

Faith is tested by both pain and power. In fact, it is only in the company of those two realities that anyone can know with certainty just how real their faith is. I often wonder if my “unconditional faith” is in fact, conditional. Would it survive the traumas that so many Jews have experienced throughout history? And conversely, would it be compromised by my ascension to a position of power? 

Joseph experienced peaks and valleys in his life and yet neither state estranged him from the well of his faith. 

In the beginning, his life seemed charmed, with a father who showered him with love and divine dreams that seem to crown him as a future leader. Then the bottom fell out! His own brothers sold him into dehumanizing slavery. His own brothers! I can only imagine the voices in his head as he was taken to Egypt. Betrayed by his own family and seemingly abandoned by God, those voices could have easily commandeered his faith.

Yet, the Torah tells us that he entered the house of his Egyptian master with a faith that was unshaken. Impressive, but would his faith also survive power?

Enter Potiphar. Despite being given unparalleled power in his master’s household and also being subjected to daily seductions from his master’s wife, Joseph remained faithful to God and uncompromising in his morality and humility. Joseph’s faith, like his coat, was multicolored and brilliant.

May Joseph’s life-energizing faith reassure us and inspire us! 

Rabbi Jackie Redner
Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

With his refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, we understand that Joseph has changed, and he has changed profoundly. He is no longer the child who doesn’t understand the implications of his behavior. The mortal desires of flesh and blood do not define him, nor do the mortal fears of punishment drive him. 

We understand now that Joseph has become a man of conscience — a person who navigates the tensions of human life through an abiding awareness and connection to the presence of God, and through a loyalty to that presence. 

The children of Israel are not yet in Egypt, nor have we crossed the sea. Yet, our ancestor Joseph already is teaching us what it means to be a Jew at its essence. It is conscience that eventually humbles the big and little barbarian in each of us, and allows a true human being to emerge. 

Salvador Litvak

Joseph tells Potiphar’s wife he will not have sex with her because it is a great evil and a sin against God. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to say, “How can I commit this great evil against Potiphar?” After all, he arrived in Egypt as a slave and now he’s chief of staff to one of the most powerful men in the land. Sleeping with his wife would certainly be ungrateful, but why is it a sin against God?

Rashi points out that adultery was prohibited by God after the flood — one of the Noahide laws given to all humans. But this raises the same question: Why does God care with whom we engage in sex?

Perhaps because we are entrusted with the incredible responsibility to protect God’s honor in our little corner of the world. When the Soul of the Universe places a bit of God’s infinite energy into one of us, God hopes it will be for the good. Yes, hopes. God places good and evil before us and hopes we will do the right thing because he will be diminished if we don’t.

How could an infinitely perfect being be diminished by our lowly actions? Because God grants us this power. God even tells us we can give him pleasure or anger, the ultimate humility for one so far beyond us. And because God is personally invested in us, he will strengthen us in fighting our temptations if we just remember to ask.

Weekly Parsha: Chayei Sarah

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

She finished giving him to drink, and she said, “I will also draw for your camels.”  Gen. 24:19

Yehudis Fishman
Jewish Community Educator
Many sages address how elaborate and even repetitious is the first recorded match made in Torah. In our verse, the matchmaker Eliezer witnesses the gesture that clinches the couplehood of Isaac and Rebecca. She agrees to provide water not just for Eliezer and company, but also for his camels. This action demonstrates more than simple compassion. 

The Kabbalists say Isaac represents the quality of intense gevurah, variously translated as strength, upward propulsion or contraction. To balance such a force, his soul mate needs to be his polar opposite. Therefore, just being kind is insufficient. To bring harmony to the universe, and to manifest the presence of HaShem who “rules heaven and earth,” there needs to be a unification of the strongest upward flight, represented by Isaac, with the most grounded act of relating to and caring for all creatures, no matter how lowly. 

It is interesting that what first catches Eliezer’s attention at the well is the water rising up to meet Rebecca. When she draws water for him and the animals, however, she receives no miraculous assistance and has to use her own strength. These two phenomena, the heavenly gift and the physical effort, both express the principle that uniting heaven and earth requires masculine and feminine energies working together.

Ilana Wilner
Judaic Studies Teacher and Director of Student Activities at Shalhevet High School
Why does Rivka wait until after Eliezer is done drinking to offer water for the camels? The sages offer varying explanations. I believe that Rivka waited because she knew there was not enough water in the jug for Eliezer to drink and also to give to the camels. This simple explanation has a deeper meaning that reveals Rivka’s character. From a place of humility and commitment, she wanted only to promise what she knew she could deliver. 

There is a bigger life lesson here. Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in his book “The Thinking Jewish Teenagers’ Guide to Life,” discusses how to find your role in life. He tells us to draw three circles; in the first list the things you are good at, in the second the things you are passionate about, and in the last what the world needs. He says your role in life should encompass those things at the intersection of these circles. Rather than trying to do everything, he stresses, find the one thing you are truly capable of delivering and focus on that.

Rivka had the ability to know herself, to see the need of the people around her, and then to act accordingly. Having completed the task, she immediately moved on to the next, offering water for the camels. In a world where we try to have it all and do it all, Rivka teaches us the value of emptying your jug first before filling it up again.

Shaindy Jacobson
Director of the Rosh Chodesh Society of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute
The camel, gamal in Hebrew, and gemilut chassadim, helping others and perpetuating kindness, are etymologically related. 

With these words of great kindness, our matriarch Rebecca gifts us the ultimate safety instruction card for the itinerary of life:

Stay well hydrated. Camels can drink 20 gallons of water in one shot. They are notorious not only for their drinking abilities, but also for their incredible stamina in trekking through arid deserts with waterlogged bellies. We too must drink — the living waters of our holy Torah. The Torah is our hydration. It is what allows us to traverse the terrain of a life well-watered, always drinking, copiously filling our minds, hearts and souls with its elixir of life. 

Join the caravan. The safest, most efficient way to travel through the desert is to travel together. While one camel may successfully cross the desert sands, a caravan of camels exponentially increases the odds of reaching its destination safely. Gemilut chassadim is the essence of building caravans: shouldering the load together, strengthening the less fortunate, helping one another on the journey of life. 

Transform the desert. Camels travel through deserts, the quintessential no man’s land and antithesis to civilization. The Jewish nation sojourned in the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land. In life, we often find ourselves traveling through wasteland before finding civilization and creating a home for God. The redeeming factor in this desert trek is the gamal: through gemilut chassadim — goodness, kindness, helping others — we transform the desert itself into the Promised Land.

Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
Interfaith Hospice Chaplain
We might dismiss water as an incidental feature in this story, but the Torah doesn’t squander words. We must understand water as a vital ingredient wherever it flows in Torah, even swelling to become a character in its own right! 

Whereas in Parashat Noah, water is God’s element of annihilation, in Vayeira it is Ishmael’s elixir of life. In the Book of Exodus, walls of water will frame a sort of holy womb, from which the nascent people of Israel are born. Is it then any surprise that water frequently accompanies a critically important woman in the narrative? Indeed, water arises in the Torah as a dominant and elastic instrument: easing alliances, sealing pledges, signifying partnerships, and often heralding God’s involvement on a sacred stage.

Whether or not she knows it, Rivka’s appearance at the well of Nahor is a test of her character. It may be her physical beauty that grabs the attention of Avraham’s appointed matchmaker, but he asks her to sate his thirst. Then it is Rivka’s thoughtful patience and uncommon generosity, administering water both for him and for Avraham’s camels (dear ships of the desert), that presages her sacred future as a matriarch. 

Moreover, Rivka’s big-heartedness stands in contrast to the occasional hard-heartedness we see in the tents of Avraham and Sarah. Rivka is a standout personality in the Book of Genesis — provoking trust, sustaining man and beast, and in the fullness of time, altering the flow of our Israelite fate.

Rabbi Michael Berenbaum
Writer, Lecturer, Professor, American Jewish University
Character counts. Eliezer is a stranger in a strange land, sent by his aging master to find a wife for his beloved son. How is Eliezer to know who is right? 

He comes up with a test. The maiden who offers both him and his camel a drink of water will be the one. Rebecca’s response exceeds his expectation. She not only waters his camels, she draws until they have finished drinking. 

Such sensitivity and generosity: Eliezer is smitten not by her beauty but her values.

Rebecca is the most impressive of our biblical matriarchs. We see Sarah’s anguish at being childless, her willingness to accommodate Abraham’s hospitality, her laughter at the prophecy, her anger at Hagar and her fierce, sometimes cruel, determination to ensure that Isaac is his father’s sole heir.

 We learn of Leah’s poor eyesight, suffering as the fertile yet unloved wife; and we witness Rachel’s beauty, childlessness and unwillingness to enter the Promised Land without her father’s idols.

But it is young Rebecca who duplicates Abraham’s going forth to an unknown land. She is the Torah heroine who encounters God regarding her turbulent pregnancy. She urges her reluctant son to deceive her husband. She creates the space within which Isaac can make the right choice between his sons, thus transmitting the family legacy to the chosen one. She sends her beloved Jacob into exile to protect him from Esau’s ire. Wise and daring, cunning and unrelenting, she is the one. 

And Eliezer grasps all of this in one gesture.

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. 

Weekly Parsha: Noach

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

“The dove returned to him in the evening, and behold it had plucked an olive leaf in its mouth.” –Genesis 8:11

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Vice president of community engagement for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California

When the dove returns with the olive leaf, Noah stays in the ark. Seven days later, when the dove flies away forever, Noah still remains in the ark — until God tells him to leave. Then Noah plants a vineyard, drinks the wine and dances naked in his tent. Traumatized by the destruction he witnessed, Noah turns to alcohol for comfort. 

As I write these words, many people whose homes were devastated by Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas are awaiting word whether it is safe for them to return home. The hard work of rebuilding their lives has not yet begun. A year after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, there are still families without homes or a roof over their heads, and the lightless streets are impassable at night. Noah’s story reminds us that the work of reconstruction after a flood or other calamity can extend long after the stories leave the headlines. 

Likewise, healing from other traumas often begins significantly after the event itself — after we feel physically safe enough to grapple with the emotional pain. Grief can strike long after a death, and we may not even recognize initially that the sadness we’re feeling is a response to that loss, rather than to current events in our lives. Community members typically help at the time of a death but may forget that the hardest time for mourners often comes months or years later. 

After the waters recede, the slow, painstaking work of healing begins. 

Marcus Freed
Author of “The Kosher Sutras,” a yoga-based Torah commentary

Light follows darkness. Rebirth follows tragedy. The old makes way for the new. The empires of Egypt, Rome, Persia and Greece fell and the British empire, unfortunately, took a few hits. We live in times of revolution: #metoo, #timesup, American politics, Brexit and rapid technological progress.

When part of our life collapses — losing a job, a relationship or being diagnosed with a debilitating illness — we can discover new possibilities and become stronger.

An olive leaf symbolizes new personal strength, light and better health. Rabbi Nachman taught that the song of birds, chazzan, represents prophecy, chazon.

There is a commandment to “crush olives for the light” (Exodus 27:20) and one idea is that we are like the olive. Sometimes we need to be crushed to unlock our potential. A miracle vial of olive oil created the lights of Hanukkah. Today our menorahs light up winter, the darkest point in our year. Our skin also can become more radiant by eating olive oil.

After mass destruction, the dove plucked and delivered an olive leaf. Perhaps the bird brought a message that your personal pain can lead to a powerful new chapter.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff
American Jewish University

What a relief it must have been to the people on the ark to see this first sign of land after spending 10 months afloat on a complete water world! During that time, they had no assurance that they would ever again see dry land, so the dove holding the olive leaf symbolized the proximity not only of land, but also of food. This clearly meant nothing less than that they would soon be able to resume life on land under conditions that would be safe, familiar and sustaining for them.  

Think about times of great anxiety in your own life or that of your loved ones: if relief came, in what form did it come? What was the harbinger of that relief? A job offer after a long search while unemployed? The doctor telling you that your cancer is in remission? A “Eureka!” experience when you finally figured out the solution to a difficult problem? A shared hug of reconciliation among family members or friends who had seemed forever at odds and angry with each other?  

As Jews, we bless God “for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this occasion” (shehecheyanu vekiymanu, vehigi’anu lazman hazeh) at the beginning of each of the biblical holy days. In happy, dramatic turns in our lives like the ones mentioned above, that blessing also seems appropriate. It did not exist at the time of Noah, but had the people on board Noah’s ark known it, they surely would have uttered it. 

Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

Many of my conversations with people in abusive or volatile relationships begin with the following mental negotiation: “Rabbi, I understand that my current situation is unhealthy and unstable, but it is all I know. To leave this life is entering a new world I can’t begin to understand.” The negotiation is often the nurturing of an inner dialogue, a back and forth between an existence that while detrimental, is predictable and another that pulsates with the unknown and endless possibility. Some choose light; but so many return to the dark.

The Radak, the Medieval commentator of the Torah, asks, “Why did the dove choose a leaf from an olive tree?” He explains with an answer found in the Talmud: that even a bitter tasting leaf eaten in freedom was preferable to being cooped up in luxurious surroundings. In other words, the dove put her trust in God, understanding that while new beginnings may be bitter, the hope that freedom brings is worth the initial struggle. 

It is a real gamble: To change direction and embark on uncharted territory. To leave what is comfortable and swim away, praying that you’ll end up on dry land. The dove reminds us that first steps into new worlds are often muddy, dirty and difficult. But first steps lead to trailblazing efforts, and roads that can carry us to lives of purpose and meaning. 

Take a leap of faith. A world of light and wonder awaits.

Daniel Lobell
Comedian, host of “Modern Day Philosophers” podcast

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of blessed memory), explained that even if something seems bitter like an olive leaf, we need to trust that God is on our side and everything will turn out fine. Ultimately, his covenant with us will prevail, just as it did with Noah after the flood. 

When I think about doves, though, I get a little bitter. I had a great plan to release two doves at my brother’s wedding — the perfect surprise. 

I bought the birds from a live poultry shop on Queens Boulevard en route to the ceremony. We hid one in my wife Kylie’s dress and another up my jacket sleeve. When we were halfway down the aisle, we released the birds, but instead of gracefully soaring away, they awkwardly flapped around, and one landed on some woman’s head. She let out a loud shrill, which luckily was met with laughter from the rest of the crowd. Fortunately, no one ever found out they weren’t even doves. Just white pigeons, a much cheaper option. 

I guess I should have accounted for the fact that birds from live poultry shops never learn to fly because they’re kept in cages their entire lives. My brother was a little upset, but not for long. He loved his wedding gift: wooden kitchen utensils made from, you guessed it, olive wood. I literally extended the olive branch and made things OK. I guess it really is a peacemaker. So the moral is, if you can’t get the bird to do it … you gotta do it yourself. Peace and love.

Table for Five: Sukkot

One question, five answers. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

If you could invite anyone to your sukkah, who would it be?

Rivkah Slonim
Education Director, the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University, State University of New York

Hands down, Devorah Hashofetet, Deborah the Judge, woman of fire. 

Finally, I could have a heart-to-heart talk with the woman who has always intrigued me. We have matriarchs, prophetesses, queens, female scholars, but Deborah is singular in Jewish history, serving as the leader of the Jewish people in her time. 

Deborah, I have questions for you. Forgive me, but just how was it that you alighted to your position? Were you simply the “best man” for the job? What was it like to operate within — nay, to run — the boys club? 

Believe it or not, all these years later, it’s still not a walk in the park. How did it affect your marriage to Barak? I am guessing your relationship was rock solid, as when he balked at your idea of his leading the Jewish people to war against Jabin of Canaan and asked for you to join him, and you replied confidently in the affirmative. But you prophesied that it would be a woman who would win the war. Delicious irony in that subtle insult, no? 

I admire the way you showcase Yael in your song of victory and give her the credit that is due. That doesn’t always happen in a man’s world. Fearless Yael effectively won the war by driving a tent peg through the temple of Sisera, general of the Canaanites. Go, girl! Move over, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I want to watch a full-length feature film on Deborah. For now, though, I will savor our conversation. 

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman

To our sukkah, I would invite Rev. Dr. William Barber, a Protestant minister and social justice activist from North Carolina. 

Rev. Barber has an uncanny ability to weave texts from all over the Bible, especially the words of the prophets, into a rhythmic, almost hypnotic cadence that is profoundly inspiring. He preaches and organizes actions on justice, dignity and equality. He has been a voice I can rest in during these divisive times, because he not only speaks truth, he also uses the Bible’s most lofty aspirations to create a vision that compels me to act. 

When I hear him speak, my heart is all on fire. I want to stand up and move toward the world he paints, where each human is treated as the divine creature God made us to be. He is fearless in addressing the immoral climate of today, and like the prophets comes to tell us to turn around. He reminds us that the God of Compassion needs our partnership. 

In our sukkah, I’d ask him about his greatest sources of inspiration and how he manages to keep moving forward with constant pain from his spinal cord injury. I’d want to discuss how to heal the Black-Jewish divisions that unfortunately are not yet whole. I’d want to talk to him about the source of his inner strength, because Sukkot calls us to examine what is enduring and dependable beyond the concrete. 

Ilana Wilner
Director of Student Activities, Shalhevet High School

Before moving to Los Angeles, I roughed it in New York City with three roommates. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom that we somehow converted into a four-bedroom. To say the least, the space was tight, and yet our door was always open to anyone. Friends started referring to our apartment as the orphanage because constantly there were girls sleeping in any available spot. 

During these years, I decided to write my own set of Pirkei Avot titled, “If There Is Room In Your Heart.” If we were maxed out of room at the table and someone wanted to come over, my roommates would look at me and wait for my line, “If there is room in your heart, there is room at the table.”

This soon became my mantra of how I lived my life and have brought it with me to L.A. — everyone is welcome, no exclusions. For a girl who had only been in Orthodox settings, I have expanded my network and experienced the world through different perspectives. 

So if I had to invite anyone to my sukkah, I don’t think I’d be able to answer because I would want that one extra person who shows up when you think all the seats are full, the person your sukkah has no room for but your heart has plenty of space for. Because life happens when people stumble into your home. If there is room in my heart, there is room in my sukkah.

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Aish Hatorah JMI, COO Harkham-GAON Academy

I would invite a Holocaust survivor, any survivor. Let me explain. 

The holiday of Sukkot celebrates the unbreakable faith that is the hallmark of the Jew. Who in their right mind walks into a desert, the most inhospitable environment on the planet? Well, that’s exactly what over 2 million Jews did after they left Egypt! 

Every sukkah testifies to the unconditional faith that Jews display even when their very survival is at stake. The air of the sukkah evokes the undying life force that has traveled with the Jew since he stepped into that desert and its shade reassures those who “dwell” in it that with faith, one can rise above any threat and any challenge. 

A Holocaust survivor is a human sukkah, a walking testament to the power of faith. Anyone who put on a tallit after Auschwitz, celebrated Shabbat after Treblinka or started a family after Bergen-Belsen is living proof that the Jewish spirit is indestructible and that our “Jewmanity” can withstand the most withering assaults. 

Sitting in a sukkah with a survivor is probably the most oxygenated faith infusion you can experience! The convergence is powerful and palpable. So, if you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself in the company of our living Sukkot, breathe deeply. The air is rarified and is the best prescription for the perspective and faith that we all seek. Chag sameach! 

Salvador Litvak

I’m going to assume there are some ground rules to this fantasy. No human being has ever known God as intimately as Moses did, yet he won’t answer our biggest questions. Our teacher Moses hasn’t joined our Sukkot dinner to tell us why good people suffer or where we go when we die, and in truth, perhaps any former human could do that.

So I would ask Moses what it felt like to hold a complaining people together in the midst of a miracle? What is it about us that resists peace and gratitude? We’ve been told over and over again that kindness and service are the keys to contentment, and still we resist. Is it our animal nature that makes us stubborn? Or is stiff-neckedness the most human of all traits?

And what was your best day, Moses? Was it atop Sinai, alone with God, taking dictation? Or was it making the bitter waters sweet and saving a whole population from dying of thirst by tossing in the right stick?

How did you handle the challenge of serving both your nation and your family? Was that an area of regret? Were there others? What did you feel as you stood on the brink of a land promised to everyone but you? Was it enough to be the greatest shepherd in history?

Did you feel that moment had been written long before and you were playing your part? Or did you write your own role?

And do we face the same question?

Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes On a Passage from the Haggadah

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

PASSOVER 5778, Haggadah:

“In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. Just as it says, ‘You shall tell your child on that very day: “It is because of this that God did for me when I went out from Egypt.” ’ (Exodus 13:8) Not only were our ancestors redeemed by the Holy One, but even we were redeemed with them. Just as it says: ‘God took us out from there in order to bring us and to give us the land God swore to our ancestors.’ ” (Deuteronomy 6:23)

Rabbi Sari Laufer
Stephen Wise Temple

With these words, we place ourselves directly in the story — in the experience — of Passover. As we read the words of the haggadah, as we enact the seder rituals, we are living our own stories, our own journeys from the narrow places to expansiveness, from degradation to praise, from darkness to light.

But here’s a remarkable thing about Passover: Like the Torah itself, and perhaps like our lives, it is an unfinished story. While we move from slavery to freedom, the haggadah, like the Torah, ends in the wilderness, not the Promised Land. It teaches us that while we may have come out of Egypt — our own narrow places — we may still have miles to go, with twists and turns along the way. We may never get there.

In our haggadah, as in our lives, perhaps the lessons are in the journey and not in the destination. Torah itself is given in the wilderness. What can we learn in our wanderings, in the meandering and sometimes unwelcome turns of our lives?

I am told that in some Sephardic traditions we add additional questions to the seder: From where are we coming? To where are we going? What are we bringing with us? This is to remind us that the story is our story, the experience our experience, the journey our journey.

Will you get there this year? And more importantly, from what narrowness will you come forth? Who will you bring with you? What story will you tell?

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Valley Beit Midrash, Phoenix

There is no phrase more powerful in the haggadah: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” This moves the seder from a display of nostalgia to a recognition of the need for urgent action, from memory to mandate, from being passive to being active. It is a reminder that the current moment is as imperative as the biblical moment — that at every moment we stand between oppression and freedom, narrowness and expansiveness, hiddenness and revelation.

Such spiritual work is never simple. The esteemed 20th-century Musar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explains: “We see ourselves in the other, as if every person we encounter is simply a mirror in which we see ourselves! … [W]e have not yet freed ourselves from the self-centered perspective to see that the other is not identified with us…. [I]t is incumbent upon us to focus on the way the other differs from us and see that which the other needs, not that which we need.” (Alei Shur 2:6)

Rav Wolbe teaches powerfully here that to understand the other, we must transcend the self. While it is difficult to understand another’s trauma and impossible to grasp the extent of another’s suffering, we can create the spaces to listen, to cultivate empathy and respond to others’ needs. We must go beyond the notion that we tend only to our own needs — that is not ethical Judaism. Rather, it is essential that we tend to the needs of the other in our midst.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, American Jewish University

We are all familiar with stories that begin, “Once upon a time.” These are tales of events that happened at a discrete moment in the long-ago past. They can move us and delight us and even teach us something important about ourselves, but they are accounts of something that is over before the storyteller begins to speak.

Then there are stories like the story of the Exodus. According to our tradition, the Exodus didn’t take place “once upon a time.” It takes place over and over and over again in each new generation. We are always on our way out of Egypt, always taking our first fearful and hopeful steps toward the Promised Land. Pharaoh’s army is always at our heels and God’s promise always lies stretched out in front of us — if we have the courage to take it. The cycle of enslavement and liberation is a continuous one. At any point along the timeline we can recognize the same eternal dynamic playing out, on a personal level and on a societal one. In short, this story is our story.

This is the haggadah’s most essential teaching. It has given countless readers of the Bible solace in hard times and inspiration to struggle for freedom. A story that happened once upon a time may be sweet in our ears, but a story that happens each and every day can shape lives and set the destiny of civilizations.

Salvador Litvak

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body, and it’s a very limiting vehicle for an eternal soul like you. Even if you live to 120, it’ll be a flash compared to the eons you spend in the World of Souls. The light of that flash, however, is intense. Opportunities abound in this world for lessons and deeds you can take with you.

While you’re here, God and your true identity are hidden. This masking enables you to make free choices. But there was one moment in history when the Eternal One broke through the veil. You and I were there together. We walked out of bondage in Egypt and experienced our authentic selves at Sinai.

When we fulfill the obligation to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt, it’s not a metaphor. We don’t imagine the Exodus, we remember it. And this should not be a once-a-year event. The Alter Rebbe reminds us that we’re commanded to remember the Exodus every day, and that we do so in the Shema prayer, when we recite: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Egypt.” This is called “accepting the yoke of Heaven.”

The great paradox of Passover is that service to God liberates us from both Pharaoh and our own human limitations. As souls, we are sparks of the Eternal. When we remember our true nature, we become free. We also tap into the soul’s unlimited capacity for kindness, wisdom and strength. Shine on!

Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

Last year, Sinai Temple members went on a mission to Poland. On a trip organized by our sisterhood, we traveled with March of the Living. We marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau, among more than 10,000 people standing side-by-side to signify the 10,000 people that were sent to the gas chambers every single day. We recited the Kaddish over mass graves of children, listened to the stories of Holocaust survivors, thanked non-Jews who jeopardized their own lives to save others, and mourned the millions who perished in Eastern Europe.

Our synagogue’s group was quite diverse, with roots in Poland, Russia, Iran and Israel, among other places. Very few in our group had personal connections to those Jews in the concentration camps. One congregant told me that when he had been a young adult in Iran, the stories of the Holocaust felt very far away. “What about now?” I asked. “Is it difficult to connect to these Jewish stories?” His response will remain with me for the rest of my life: “We are all Jews. It doesn’t matter the country in which we are born. All of this,” he said, pointing to the barracks of the concentration camp standing before us, “this is my story too.”

My teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman (z”l) explains, “I must learn to see myself ‘as though’ I was there by virtue of my communal memory. Memory is what knits together the generations; memory creates the possibility of continuity and history. Memory creates community.”

Passover reminds us that we continue to survive as a Jewish people when we see each other’s stories as our very own.

Ethan and Me

Nothing makes me feel better than seeing Ethan smile. He glows when he sees me and I glow too. As I greet him, I can’t help but erupt into an enormous grin.

Ethan has Downs syndrome, and we met at Friendship Circle of Los Angeles.

Like any friends, first we catch up. I ask him what he learned in Hebrew school, we discuss sports — typically basketball or football — and we sing his favorite song of the moment. Last time it was “Despacito,” but it can range anywhere from a new Taylor Swift hit to Nick Jonas.

Ethan is incredibly entertaining and likes being the center of attention. People gather around because Ethan, with the help of music from my phone, is singing. No, not singing — entertaining. He makes hand gestures, facial expressions and somehow knows every word to every song he requests. He never fails to make everyone at Friendship Circle laugh.

He also loves telling jokes. One of his favorites is: “Yesterday, a clown opened the door for me. I thought it was a very nice jester.”

He also loves telling jokes. One of his favorites is: “Yesterday, a clown opened the door for me. I thought it was a very nice jester.”

Ethan attends public school, where there are resources and individualized attention to help him learn. Ethan’s family wants him to get a Jewish education, as well. This poses a dilemma for many Jewish parents of special needs children. Religious schools don’t generally have the ability to educate students with significant cognitive differences. Enter Friendship Circle.

I have been volunteering there for 2½ years. It started as my bat mitzvah project. I picked Friendship Circle because I had previous experience with special needs children at Camp Ramah, a Jewish sleepaway camp that I attended. There, a unique program exists called Amitzim for people ranging from children to young adults with various forms of special needs, similar to Friendship Circle. I had always enjoyed being with the Amitzim campers, especially when my bunk/tent got to participate in tefilah (prayer) with them.

When I decided to volunteer at Friendship Circle, I imagined I would make some friends and maybe learn a little. What I didn’t know is the depth of the friendship I would develop with Ethan.

My first day volunteering, I knew from the start that it was a perfect match. Ethan is friendly and enthusiastic, as am I. Further, we both love telling jokes, making people laugh and entertaining those around us.

Everyone at Friendship Circle knows Ethan. It always makes my day when an administrator asks me, before the program starts, who my buddy is. Usually, they will stop themselves mid-sentence and say, “Oh, right, you’re with Ethan!”

In the months before my bat mitzvah, my mom and I were sending out invitations. One day, we were in the car, and I asked her if she had invited Ethan yet. We hadn’t previously discussed it, but it was obvious to me that he had to be there.

Typically, once you have your bar or bat mitzvah, your mitzvah project ends. I didn’t exactly think about whether I wanted to continue with it before my celebration, but once I saw Ethan arrive at my party with his family, I realized, for both of our sakes, that I must continue volunteering.

The faculty and teachers at Friendship Circle are incredible, and with their help, Ethan was able to read Torah at his bar mitzvah this past November. He even delivered a drash, a short ethical teaching, that moved all of us to tears.

There are multiple programs at Friendship Circle that enable children with all sorts of cognitive differences to form close relationships with young volunteers. And when I say relationship, I don’t mean a friendship where it is a one-way street. Ethan recently got a smartphone, and when he calls to FaceTime, it’s a treat for me and my entire family, because he insists on talking to everyone!

If you are nearing your bar or bat mitzvah and need a mitzvah project, or you are simply looking for somewhere to volunteer, I suggest checking out Friendship Circle. I don’t consider what I do volunteering anymore. I consider it hanging out with a friend and helping him learn and grow while watching myself do the same.

Molly Litvak is a student at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. Her father, Sal, is the Accidental Talmudist.

The Men’s Trip

Author (far right) and friends on the 2018 AishLA/JMI Men’s Retreat in Running Springs, CA. Photo by Jonah Light Photography

I try to call my dad every day after I drop off the kids at school, a good way to fulfill the Fifth Commandment. I mention I’m going on a men’s trip for the weekend.

“No wives?”
“No, it’s a men’s trip with the same guys I went to Israel with in 2014. Plus fellas from the 2015, ’16, and ’17 trips.”
“And it’s Orthodox, so women aren’t allowed to participate.”
“Orthodox Judaism has women in it, Dad. This is a men’s trip for the same reason our wives take women’s trips. Some things serve the family best by happening separately.”

My father’s skepticism is not surprising. Modern secular culture promotes segregated “safe spaces” only for women and certain minorities. Not straight, white guys. Like many liberal Jews, my father believes that Orthodox Judaism is a sexist patriarchy.

Yet this trip for men was created by women. It began as a subsidized women’s trip to Israel organized by Lori Palatnik and her colleagues at the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, and Aish HaTorah, a Jewish outreach organization. Featuring immersion in Jewish practice, sisterhood and reconnection with one’s Source while visiting the Holy Land, the trip came to be nicknamed Birthright for Mommies.

We connected with ourselves as children of God, as Jews, spouses, friends and citizens.

Participants were re-energized as Jewish women, wives and mothers. Observance increased, but few became Orthodox. Rather, they brought key mitzvahs into the home, such as candlelighting and Shabbos dinner, and transformed the lives of their families by elevating the role of gratitude in the home.

Because they wanted the same experience for their husbands, the men’s trip was born.

My wife, Nina, and I participated in the trips in 2014 with Aish LA. Although we were already more observant than most of our travel companions, the experience was transformative. We connected with ourselves as children of God, as Jews, spouses, friends and citizens.

And I made lifelong friendships with guys I’d never met before. These things happened because we found ourselves in an unfamiliar space: the company of guys at the same stage of life, facing similar challenges in our families, in our careers and in our bodies.

It felt safe to open up to one another, sharing the failures of our pasts and profound fears about our futures. We learned we’re not alone in these journeys, and we shared the wisdom of hard-won experience. We were also blessed with great teachers and leaders. My trip was led by Charlie Harary, others by Saul Blinkoff. Both men were coming on the reunion trip to the mountains.

Nina said, “I would never begrudge you a men’s trip because I love the sisterhood of women-only events. I also like who you are when you return.”

Less than two hours from L.A., we found ourselves in the snow. Charlie opened by explaining a property of the human brain, neuroplasticity. This means that consistent repetition of thought patterns creates new neural pathways. When we learn a new language, for example, we actually alter the structure of our brains.

Thus, to become that better man we all want to be, we need to start thinking, speaking and acting like him. And in order to figure out who that guy is, we need to understand that life must be about service. The great paradox of the world is that one who negates himself for the sake of others will be empowered. One who strives for himself, however, will never become a great man.

Saul followed by sharing what the Torah says about males and females. Eve was created as an azer kenegdo to Adam, an “opposing helpmate.” When our wives oppose us, it can be irritating, even infuriating. But what if they’re actually doing their job? What if their opposition is crucial to us becoming that better man? Women know all too well the value of peace, yet they speak up for our own good. Think how much more peace there would be in the home if we just listened to the rebuke and then reflected on it. We might even figure out how to act on it.

I was invited to share my Accidental Talmudist story because it touches on the life of the soul, Torah learning, and the generational connection between our parents and our children.

Then we sang together like warriors, holding nothing back, and we charged each other to bring this fire back from the mountain.

Learn more about Sal Litvak’s Accidental Talmudist story, and join his followers at accidentaltalmudist.org.

#MeToo and Mashiach

Women’s Bureau 1920, Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

I did not expect to hear a Torah teaching about the #MeToo movement in a Chasidic synagogue. Rabbi Reuven Wolf, however, is not your typical Chasidic rabbi.

On a recent Shabbat, he expounded some verses from one of the lesser-known books of the Bible, Habakkuk:

He shall speak of the end, and it shall not fail; though it tarry, wait for it, for it shall surely come, it shall not delay.

The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the water fills the sea … and

… a stone shall cry out from the wall.

In this prophetic description, the Age of Mashiach, i.e., the messianic age, will not be accompanied only by peace and goodness — the lion lying down with the lamb, etc. —  but also with knowledge of God, God’s plan and the true meaning of the elements in that plan. We will thus finally understand the spiritual purpose of everything, and everyone, in our physical environment.

At that time, even the rocks will testify whether we walked over them for a wholesome purpose or a selfish purpose. In other words, did we employ our resources to make God’s creation a place of greater holiness or less? A place of greater justice or less? A place of greater kindness or less?

If so for the rocks, Rabbi Wolf said, how much for the people in our lives? We will be called to account for the ways we treated everyone we met, and particularly those closest to us. Did we help them realize their true purpose in the creation, or did we exploit them for our own selfish ends?

It is a fact of biology that the human male gives the seed of life and the female receives it. Each provides half the DNA, but the female egg is vast compared with the tiny sperm, and it is the woman alone who nurtures the new embryo for the next nine months. So you would think that the male would be a humble, nurturing partner in the relationship.

Sadly, this has not been the case. Throughout the history of humanity, many men have exploited their size, strength and patriarchal role as giver of the seed to get what they want from women. The sexual relationship should be the holiest interaction on earth, one that enables both partners to join with God in the creation of new life, but men have often hijacked it to give themselves pleasure at the expense of women’s dignity. This is a grave sin — one that harms the woman, the man and the whole of creation.

The fact that we have now crossed a line, that people will no longer tolerate such an established pattern of behavior, is beyond momentous. In the annals of humankind, it is a change akin to the advents of consciousness, fire, language, agriculture, cities and democracy.

According to Rabbi Wolf, the #MeToo movement is not only a world changer, but evidence that the Shabbat of history is at our doorstep.

In the Hebrew calendar, the year is 5778. We are 222 years from Y6K, the dawn of the seventh millennium — a time that will be holy like the seventh day. Our Sages often liken the Age of Mashiach to Shabbat. And just as Shabbat begins before night actually falls, the messianic age is now settling in around us like dusk.

Jewish tradition, like Habakkuk, holds that the end “shall surely come,” and it will not come later than its appointed time. It may, however, come earlier.

We can hasten the redemption by earning it. If the human world grows in kindness and righteousness, Mashiach will come sooner and without pain. If we cannot achieve such growth, Mashiach will come with a sharp birth pang, more commonly known as the apocalyptic battle of Gog and Magog.

Such a battle is not hard to imagine on the current world stage, and its consequences would be horrific.

Let’s avoid that fate. Let’s buy in to Rabbi Wolf’s vision of an Age of Mashiach that we usher in by increasing peace, justice, lovingkindness and dignity in the world.

Let’s make sure the #MeToo movement succeeds in protecting women from exploitation and enables them to realize their true purpose as equal partners in the creation.

It’s a good bet. Even if Rabbi Wolf is mistaken, what have we lost? And if he’s right …

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at accidentaltalmudist.org.

Letters to the Editor: Demographics, Israeli Supreme Court, Salvador Litvak and Marcus Freed

Demographic Study Would Aid Stories on L.A. Jews

As a former Angeleno and current doctoral candidate studying the American Jewish community, I read with disappointment the framing for the story “Building Boom: Is Jewish L.A. Defying National Demographic Trends?” (Nov. 17). I celebrate that a number of schools and synagogues, including my family’s, are growing, but the article does not tell the full story — the fact of the matter is, it can’t, as no one knows the full story of L.A. Jewry. It has been two decades since the last demographic study, the only way to systematically understand what is happening within the Jewish community of greater Los Angeles. A lot has changed since 1997 — for starters, I’m no longer in fifth grade at the VBS Day School.

In the absence of recent data, it may seem all well and good to focus on national Jewish trends as identified by the Pew Survey in 2013, but I’m sure every Angeleno will agree: L.A. is not like the rest of the country. In the absence of up-to-date estimates of the population, geographic distribution, migration habits, ritual practice, organizational involvement and more, communal institutions are left reacting to perceived trends, rather than planning ahead for growth, stabilization or even decline. Would it not be to the community’s benefit to know the relative proportion of 20-something Jews on the Westside who are Orthodox; young families in the Valley interested in Jewish summer camp; or senior citizens in Santa Monica who need social support? It’s only with a local demographic study that questions like these can be answered, so the truly important one can be asked: How can local Jewish organizations help community members lead meaningful Jewish lives?

Matt Brookner, Brandeis University, Somerville, MA (formerly from Tarzana)

Debating the Israeli Supreme Court

I enjoyed the dueling stories by Shmuel Rosner and Caroline Glick on the Israeli Supreme Court. While posed as a debate, the two authors agree that the court suffers from ideological activism and has outsized power in the absence of a written constitution.

But what both miss is the underlying reason for the court’s current misalignment with Israeli society: the judicial nomination process. Whereas in the United States, the executive branch nominates a candidate and the legislature confirms — ensuring democratic input — in Israel, an independent “judicial selections committee” is responsible for nomination and confirmation. The nine-member committee operates in secret, and while composed of members from all three branches, a majority is unelected and therefore unaccountable to the Israeli public. In fact, the largest bloc on the committee is the Supreme Court justices themselves, allowing the court to essentially self-select its composition, refining its ideological uniformity with each successive iteration.

While we in the U.S. view checks and balances among the branches as a vital democratic feature, Israel has chosen a “hermetic seal” between the branches to ensure a judiciary independent of politics. While a noble sentiment, it essentially cuts off the court from its contemporary society, rendering it less and less relevant — and more and more controversial — to the citizenry. Indeed, in order to be saved, the system must be changed.

Jordan Reimer, Los Angeles

Israel and Ancient Claims to Its Land

Professor Judea Pearl conceded too much to the neo-Philistines, who suddenly discovered in 1967 that they, not we, are “Palestinian” (“The Balfour Declaration at 100 and How It Redefined Indigenous People,” Nov. 10.)

First the disclaimer: I hold that those Arabs who stayed in Israel in 1948 earned their Israeli citizenship. They and their descendants richly deserve it.

That said, they are not “equally indigenous.” We have been present in the land of Israel since before recorded history, millennia ago. That is why the Arabs were calling it the “Abode of the Jew” when they first invaded it in 632 C.E. True, most of us were exiled for many centuries, but there was always some Jewish presence. The Arab population, too, dwindled as they destroyed the very soil until it would no longer support them. Most current Arab settlers descended from infiltrators attracted by the new prosperity created by the Zionists.

Louis Richter, Reseda

Torah Portion About Sarah and the Handmaid

Well, that parsha was fun (“Vayera,” Nov. 3).

To David Sacks and Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits: A Jewish child would say “Enough with the tests. I get too many of them in school.”

To Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat: Older son, upon viewing his brother when the latter was brought home from the hospital, with the source explained as “Mommy’s belly:” “Put it back.” So sometimes there’s no “anymore” about it.

To Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky: The concentric circle model also applies to how one reveals himself to others. There is a core revealed to no one. The innermost circle can be, but need not be, one or more family members. It can be one or more friends. And so forth.

Finally, to Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh: My late father-in-law’s approach to life was very simple: “Whatever I have is the best.” No matter the example, “mine is the best.” Thus, he didn’t worry about competition, and the women you speak of might do well to consider something similar. I might add that it took a while for him to apply his philosophy to his two sons-in-law.

Steve Meyers via email

From Facebook …

Salvador Litvak Column

There is clearly a distinction between young people who make immature decisions whose ramifications are beyond their scope of experience and serial pedophiles/sexual deviants (“I Shot a Sex Offender,” Nov. 17). The stigma of being convicted of a sexual offense seems to have no pyramid of seriousness, and often the term becomes dissolved into an ambiguous term that simply translates to “sicko” or “pervert.” There are literally ex-prostitutes who are registered sex offenders for prostitution too close to a school or playground (even when no children are present). Studies have shown that the wide-stroke brush of “sex offender” for minor offenses is detrimental to the public at large, places tremendous strain on law enforcement, and has not proven to reduce recidivism. Hearing the words “sex offender” places a stereotypical image in the listener’s mind of a sex predator, when the vast majority of those who commit sexual offenses are not registered offenders. I think the videographer’s open-mindedness is in good faith, and that there is much to learn from his efforts.

Brandon Moore

This is why there needs to be clearly defined parameters as to who is and who isn’t a pedophile. Those who engage in pedophilia are highly recidivist in nature. Extensive studies have shown they cannot be weaned out of it. So, this article would suggest that while he might have engaged in what is considered a sexual offense, it wasn’t pedophilia. The idea that G-d forgives the truly penitent, so we should as well … runs against what we believe — that G-d only forgives, once those we’ve transgressed against, forgive.

Batsheva Gladstone

Back and Forth Column

I actually agree with both of them (“Reform. Orthodox. Let’s Talk.” Reform Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Orthodox Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, Nov. 10) — but the Orthodox rabbi was correct when he said “Many would applaud others’ activism and philanthropic work while claiming that our resources must be allocated to the sustainability and future of our own community.” In our own synagogue, we have seen the numbers of millennials dwindling and are not seeing the growth necessary to exist in the near future.

Sherri Chapman

Help for Marcus Freed

Thank you Jewish Journal for covering this story and helping to support Marcus J. Freed! (“A Community Rallies to Help Beloved Teacher,” Nov. 17.)

Audrey Jacobs

I Shot a Sex Offender

I frequently write about the importance of listening to the other side on tough issues, but are some positions so odious that they never deserve a hearing?

A couple of years ago, an Australian friend was directing a documentary about a difficult subject: child sex-abuse in his Jewish community. One of the interviewees was a former abuser who had gone on to live a normal family life for decades.

My friend had filmed a conversation between this man and a well-known sex-abuse survivor who had become a whistleblower. He needed someone to film the former abuser — now living in Los Angeles — reading a statement in his home. I’m a film director too, so my pal reached out to me. I figured that if a victims’ rights advocate was OK with interviewing this man, I was OK with filming him.

As I entered his house, I couldn’t help noticing that it was nicer than mine. Evidently, paying for his crime had not impeded his business. We were about the same age, and from the pictures on the fridge, his kids looked about the same age as mine.

His movements were a bit jittery, but he came across as intelligent and upbeat. It felt weird to be in a room with a man who had been convicted of child sex abuse. As a father, it occurred to me that it might be my obligation to clobber him with my tripod rather than film him.

As his story came out, there were some surprises. He had been relatively young when he committed the crime, about 10 years older than his teenage victim. Both had grown up in an ultra-Orthodox environment where people never expressed sexuality publicly and rarely discussed it privately. Masturbation was strictly prohibited. His ideas about sexuality were juvenile even after he became a legal adult.

The man in my viewfinder could have lain low. Instead, he chose to speak up because he felt a responsibility before God and his community.

He made it sound as if the episode that changed his victim’s life and his own was a bit of experimentation that occurred because he was such an immature adult.

In any case, he did what he did, got caught and paid a price. He then moved to a new country, rebuilt his life, started a family, and never again engaged in criminal conduct, according to his telling of the story. He could have sealed his past in a never-to-be-reopened box, he said, except that he now felt a responsibility to help other boys and young men who engaged in similar “experimentation” and then felt so much remorse that suicide seemed like their only option.

Apparently, this happened pretty often.

He noted that God forgives the truly penitent, and so should we.

As I filmed, my mind was racing. Suppose a kid does a dumb thing that doesn’t even rise to the level of criminal conduct, but he feels so bad about it that he becomes suicidal. He can’t discuss it with anyone in his ultra-Orthodox world, but hearing this guy’s statement might help him realize he’s got options.

The man in my viewfinder could have lain low. Instead, he chose to speak up because he felt a responsibility before God and his community. I wouldn’t call him a hero, but his teshuvah — his atonement and turning — appeared genuine.

If the harm he had caused years earlier was a one-time mistake, then this shoot would serve a valuable purpose.

But what if the film’s director and I were being manipulated to cover for a predator? My gut told me the guy’s statement was genuine, but, as my wife often reminded me, I was not always the best judge of character.

Maybe this guy was and continued to be a pedophile, I thought. Maybe I should just run out of there and trash the footage.

Then I learned that people in his current community knew about his past and accepted him anyway. His wife was supportive. He seemed to be the poster boy for rehabilitation.

Isn’t that a value to be promoted? Sure, but do I want him around my kids? There are limits to positive ideology. A halfway house sounds like a great idea — until the parole board puts it next to your home.

In the end, I completed the shoot and sent the footage to Australia. I pray I participated in a worthy project, and that the man I filmed will live out his life on the right path. Perhaps someone else’s life will even be saved. Please God, let it be so.

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist.

A fascination with Abraham Lincoln

Filmmaker Salvador Litvak has been trying to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln for 12 years, a dream that was finally realized with the completion of his independent film “Saving Lincoln.” But Litvak is hardly alone in his fascination: This year, we saw the 19th century president catapulted into the 21st century zeitgeist with the release of Steven Spielberg’s big-budget “Lincoln” biopic, as well as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a fantasy horror film with Lincoln as a vampire hunter; and multiple museum exhibits on the 16th president. So why, 147 years after his death, at this time of ferocious political discourse, has Lincoln become such a high-profile figure?  Litvak believes it may lie in people’s thirst for lost civility. “Not since Moses has there been a man who models so beautifully how to live and how to treat others as Abraham Lincoln,” Litvak said.  

The writer-director of this very American story was born in Chile and came to the United States as an immigrant with his family at the age of 5. His father’s family, from Russia, and his mother’s, from Hungary, each migrated to Chile. His maternal grandmother survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Terezin along with her infant daughter. “My family was extremely conscious of the Holocaust. My grandmother was living with us, and any time there was a Holocaust-related program on TV, she and my mother would watch it with tears in their eyes,” Litvak said. “My family was Conservative, but not Orthodox. Growing up, I didn’t think that Judaism was very spiritual, but that was a big awakening for me as an adult. Now I’m very into it.”

Litvak’s obsession with making a Lincoln film originated with his wife and co-writer, Nina, who as a child discovered Lincoln through a book of his favorite jokes, which she found on her parents’ shelf.  “People don’t know that Lincoln was very funny and was constantly telling jokes and funny stories, so that amazed her when she was 6,” Litvak said. When his wife proposed the idea of a movie, Litvak found he had his own connections to the man. “I had always been fascinated with Shakespeare,” he said. “He wrote about kings and queens, and those stories are very intimate and personal, but they take place on this big stage where the things that happen within those families affect nations. If Shakespeare were writing today, I think he would pick a subject like Abraham Lincoln, because his story is so full of contradictions, so personal and human, yet it played out on this grand stage of history and war.” Litvak said he felt a personal connection as well. “As a kid, I was a tall bean pole with bright red hair … an immigrant. I felt like such an outsider,” he said. “And Lincoln, with respect to the political establishment of the U.S. during the time that he lived, was the ultimate outsider. So I had a similar fascination with him growing up, because I think he’s a hero to everyone who sees themself as an outsider. I think that’s why he’s so loved.”

Litvak and his wife spent two years researching and writing their Lincoln script and were very proud of their completed work but found their timing could not have been worse. “The week that we finished, Steven Spielberg announced that he was making a Lincoln movie based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book. So, at that moment, all the work that we’d done had become useless in the studio world,” Litvak said. “No one would even read it, let alone make it, because of Spielberg’s film.” 

The couple licked their wounds and moved on to make the Passover seder comedy “When Do We Eat?” (2005), which became a cult hit. But their desire to make a Lincoln movie persisted, and with Spielberg’s movie still unrealized, Litvak and his wife decided to move ahead. They tossed out their old script and started from scratch, this time finding a unique point of view from which to tell their story, through the character of Ward Hill Lamon.

“Lamon is a fascinating character, a Southerner who was guarding Lincoln during the war and had saved him from repeated assassination attempts that began in 1861,” Litvak explained. “He came to Washington from Illinois as part of his entourage, because Lincoln liked having him around. He appointed himself Lincoln’s bodyguard, because there was no Secret Service. No one had heard of a presidential assassination at that time, but Lamon recognized the danger and stepped into that role.” (Lamon, however, was not at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.)

The obstacle now was how to tell this grand story on a small budget. “In our research we found these wonderful photographs from the Library of Congress, and I’d seen movies like ‘300’ and ‘Sin City’ and thought, ‘We can do this!’ ” Litvak said. “I bet we can shoot this as a green-screen movie and fill in the background with the photographs. At this point, it was just a theory, and we weren’t sure it was really possible, but we committed to it and assembled a small but incredibly talented and dedicated team to make it happen. It ended up being much more involved and difficult than we ever expected, but we did it.”

While it may be difficult to compete with a big-budget, major studio film on the same subject, Litvak believes his film offers a perspective on Lincoln that has not been seen in any of the previous films on his life. “Perhaps, most important, how dark and difficult his presidency was,” Litvak said. “The gentlest of men, who said he could never break the neck of a chicken for his dinner, charged with armies spilling rivers of blood. He found himself in that position, and we’re showing the unique point of view of this from his close friend Lamon. He saw a Lincoln that no one else saw during Lincoln’s darkest hours.”

“Saving Lincoln” will be released in theaters on the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Feb. 12, 2013.

To see a teaser trailer of Saving Lincoln and learn more about the film, visit www.SavingLincoln.com