December 14, 2018

The Siblings We’ll Risk for Food – A poem for Parsha Vayigash (Aliyah 1) by Rick Lupert

let not your wrath be kindled against your servant,
for you are like Pharaoh.

Joseph has come so far since Egypt jail
since his arrogance with the coat
since the pit.

His brothers see him as Pharaoh.
They bow down before him.
His dreams have come true.

Joseph’s brothers want food like
it’s food. They’re almost willing to
trade their little brother for it.

The boy cannot leave his father, for if he
leaves his father, he will die.

It sounds like a codependent nightmare.
But you have to remember where Jacob
is coming from.

The other brother from the same mother,
as far as he knows, is decades ago
in pieces.

Only threads of a fine woolen coat
live in the house where he once
dreamed the future.

our father said, ‘Go back,
buy us a little food.’

In the end the stomach wins.
They say, even our kittens would eat us
if they had no kibble.

It doesn’t matter, your giant pyramids
your divine promise, your fantastical
number of camels.

It doesn’t matter, how many colors
you can afford to sew in your coat.
If your plate is empty

if your stomach rumbles
if sustenance is only a dream
you won’t make it out the front door.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

No Shave, No Shoes, No Pharaoh – A poem for Parsha Miketz

 

And the cows of ugly appearance and lean of flesh devoured
the seven cows that were of handsome appearance and healthy

It’s desperate times when you
start to eat your own kind.

Even if it’s just a future glimpse
in a Pharaoh’s dream.

You can understand why he
wanted the meaning.

No-one wants to preside over
the end of days.


And the thin ears of grain swallowed up

the seven healthy and full ears of grain

Just a quick note to observe that when
food starts to eat other food

It’s either a magical dinner show or
another sign that the end of days

has arrived.


a Hebrew lad, a slave of the chief slaughterer

…and he interpreted our dreams for us

Just another quick note to mention
you should treat everyone as if

they were the one, or at least one of
the thirty six righteous ones.

Even a slave of a slaughterer
may have divine wisdom.


and [Joseph] shaved and changed his clothes,

and he [then] came to Pharaoh.

Just another ‘nother quick note to tell you
you should always dress appropriately

for the situation. No-one needs your
sweater to make a statement

when the cows are about to eat each other.
Even I wore a tie to the Oscars.

You may not know me, but that is
saying so much.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Sometimes Dreams are the Pits – A poem for Parsha Vayeshev (Aliyah 1) by Rick Lupert

 

And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons

Whenever my son, who is ten as of this writing,
asks me if he is my favorite, we both know that
he is my only child, and any answer other then
of course you are, would be a lie.

In this way I have it much easier than Jacob
who didn’t find it difficult at all, to give Joseph,
his favorite, a fine woolen coat, sometimes referred
to as one of many colors, much to the dismay

of his twelve other children. Or at least to the
eleven boys. Dinah, their sister, isn’t allowed to
speak up in this text. I thank my lucky stars
in the sky, one of which is assigned to my child,

that I didn’t have another. It’s not that I couldn’t
afford two coats – I’d assign them both their
own colors. I just couldn’t handle questions about
favorites. They’d see it in my wrestling eyes.

Listen now to this dream, which I have dreamed

Dreams are better to share than home movies
or vacation photos, unless you are a Fellini or
a Liebovitz. You might be flying, or without pants
in a place that requires pants, and that makes

a compelling story. But even your family will tire
of another shot of your thumb covering the lens
or the thirty minutes of waves coming in and out
that you thought was so compelling, or in this case

images of all those you are obligated to love
kneeling before you, begging for sustenance –
knowing you are forever in charge of every
breath they take. This is the kind of dream

that makes the colors run out of your coat.
That gets you dis-invited to the family reunion.
That has the people you’ve known since you
came out of your mother, digging a pit

and looking at you.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Beyond the Maccabees: Saving Your Family Stories

The author’s son, Ben Evans, in 1997, with the menorah designed by artist Bonnie Roth (aka Branah Layah)

Most families celebrate Hanukkah with familiar rituals. Candles are lit, prayers recited, gifts exchanged, dreidels spun, gelt counted and the Maccabee family history is recalled. 

This year, what if during Hanukkah we celebrated our own family’s history? 

As an oral historian, I too often hear this lament: “We kept meaning to record my grandparents’ stories, but we were too busy. Now it’s too late.” Sadly, most people don’t get around to preserving the memories of their older relatives, and these precious stories are lost, which is a tragedy.

Not only is it a loss for future generations that miss knowing about their heritage, it’s also a loss for the storyteller who doesn’t have the opportunity to leave this most important legacy behind.

“We don’t come from thin air. We come from somewhere,” said Danny Maseng, spiritual leader and founder of Makom LA. “If you don’t know where you come from, you are, in a sense, missing a whole element of yourself. That can come into true relief if you know the stories of those who came before you.”

This Hanukkah, I invite you to interview your older relatives, and record their life stories and memories.  

“I love this idea,” said Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “Unless people intentionally take the time to ask questions, we often don’t get to hear the stories. Hanukkah is a unique time when you have your elders gathered with the younger people in the family. Choose a certain night of Hanukkah that’s ‘story night.’ If the fifth night is for gathering stories, then that’s the gift.”

“Unless people intentionally take the time to ask questions, we often don’t get to hear the stories of our elders. Hanukkah is a unique time when you have your elders gathered with the younger people in the family. — Rabbi Susan Goldberg

When we ask an older relative to share life experiences, we honor them for who they are and the life they have lived. Some might object, saying they have nothing of interest to tell, but we can assure them that their personal stories and memories, whether they are joyous or painful, have tremendous value to us. 

“The story of Hanukkah is about conflict and tensions,” Goldberg said. “And that’s also a part of our family stories, because a lot of people’s lives are hard. So it’s not like, ‘Tell me just the good stuff.’ It’s, ‘I want to hear everything about your life.’ 

In ancient tribes, passing down family stories and values to the next generation was a natural part of life. Taking the time to record our relatives’ oral histories is a way to renew this tradition. 

“The connection to storytelling in Judaism is inextricable,” Maseng said. “So that you know where this happened, where you came from, why this happened. When you are aware of such histories, you are better prepared for life.”

When I became an oral historian, I interviewed my parents. My father was a wonderful storyteller. One of his memories has inspired me since childhood. Dad recalled, “During the Depression, I’d occasionally come home from school to find a strange, unshaven man, dressed in rags, sitting at our kitchen table. My grandmother was serving him an entire meal – from soup to dessert. This ritual greatly concerned my mother, since Bubbe was a tiny, frail woman. When Mom asked my grandmother why she did this, Bubbe simply said, ‘How could I not do this? He was hungry.’”

Everyone has a story. And they are worth saving.

Here are some specific suggestions for creating your own Hanukkah Story Night.

Before Hanukkah: 

1. Designate the night for the interviews and invite your family’s participation. Plan to have the storytelling before or after the meal, when there will not be the noise of silverware or dishes.

2. Ask relatives to come with 10 or more questions to ask older family members. Open-ended questions typically work best. For example, rather than asking, “Was your mother a good cook?” you might ask, “What sorts of things did your mother cook?” Examples could include: “What can you tell me about your own grandparents and their lives?” “How would you describe them?” “What do you know about your parents’ childhoods?” “How did they meet?” “What do you think drew them together? “What are your earliest memories? Frightening memories? Favorite family times?” “Memories of deliveries, radio, TV, movies?” “What was the importance of being Jewish and family traditions?” “What did you learn from your parents?” “What were the most impactful world events during your lifetime?” “Describe meeting your spouse. What made them the perfect mate? What have you appreciated about them over the years?” “What have been your biggest life challenges, and how did you get through those?” “What are favorite memories of your children? How was each one unique?” “What are your hopes for your grandchildren?” 

3. Encourage children to ask their grandparents questions. Examples could include: “What were your favorite toys? What did you like best or least in school? Did you ever get into trouble?” “What did you want to be when you grew up?” 

Questions from teenagers could include: “Favorite movies or music?” “First love?” “Challenges for teens in your day?” 

4. Ask the older relatives to list any stories and experiences they might want to share. This could include meaningful or amusing experiences growing up, life lessons or words of wisdom. If they express anxiety, reassure them that this isn’t a performance; it’s just a conversation, and a precious gift to the family. If they say they recall little of their past, tell them not to worry about making the list.

5. If you are the oldest relative in the family, invite your children and grandchildren to do the above. Make a list yourself of what you want to make sure your descendants know about those who came before them: their experiences, their values, their challenges and successes. What do you want to share about your own life and what has been most important and meaningful to you? This is your chance to give a priceless gift to your family.

6. Choose the audio and/or video recorder you’ll use. A teenager might be the perfect person to handle the equipment. Plan for enough storage (memory cards or flash drive) and power (batteries or electrical). Important! Practice first, to see how and if the equipment works. It’s also a good idea to record on two devices.

Story Night: 

1. If possible, seat the older relatives in one area, so that the microphones will capture all of their voices. Someone should make sure that the recorder is near the person speaking, especially for relatives who speak softly. When someone asks a question, don’t hesitate to ask follow up questions to get more details.

2. Many families have one or two more talkative people, so some other relatives might sit and listen during family gatherings. They might need encouragement to join in. Most older people love the chance to reminisce and be heard, and frequently family members are surprised at how much the “quiet ones” have to say.

 3. If you have relatives who grew up together (i.e., siblings or cousins) it’s fun to have them respond to questions together about shared childhood and family experiences, descriptions of family “characters,” memories of growing up together and values learned within the family. Amusing disagreements can also result (e.g. the name of the dog, or which uncle always told the same joke).

4. If a relative is unable to answer a question or has memory problems, please be patient. Don’t correct them. If it will help to jog their memory, gently remind them. Otherwise, just move on. Whatever they can remember is perfect. This should be a positive experience for everyone.

5. If family members experienced painful or challenging events in the past, you might consider asking them before the gathering if they are willing to talk about these memories. Often, parents and grandparents protect their family from hearing about their difficult times, but if they know you want to hear about their experiences, they are frequently relieved to share. If someone gets emotional, that’s OK.

6. Whether stories are “happy” or not, entertaining or not, let your relatives know how grateful you are for the chance to hear and save their recollections. Finally, ask, “Is there anything else we didn’t talk about that you’d like to say?” Most of all savor this time with your older relatives. We never know how long we’ll have them.

7. Make copies of the recordings for family members. Someone in the family might edit the recordings into a book or video — a great gift for next Hanukkah. Because, as Goldberg noted, “As a Jewish tradition, we really believe in the power of narrative. Story is what connects us as a people. We have come to form who we are based on the stories of Torah, based on our passing down the traditions from great-grandparents to children. It’s the core of who we are.” 

Happy Hanukkah!


Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and oral historian, and owner of LivingLegaciesFamilyHistories.com. 

Angels and Kittens – A poem for Parsha Vayishlach (Aliyah 1) by Rick Lupert

Jacob sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esau

Can you imagine having angels at your disposal?
Holy Roombas with wings available for all your tasks.
What would you do with them?

Would they sweep up your wilderness?
Guard every corner? Help with the meals?
What would they wear and

are you responsible to provide it?
Are their posters in their tents detailing
the benefits you provide?

Or are you the one getting all the benefits?
These angels who you send to do
the things that need to be done.

Remember, they are a gift
and it is not really you who
they are working for.


Jacob became very frightened and was distressed;
so he divided the people who were with him…into two camps.

It’s a smart plan, Jacob.
They always tell you to diversify your portfolio
in case one investment doesn’t work out

in case the basket holding your eggs
tips over and you find yourself bemoaning
useless sidewalk omelets.

In case of war with your brother
who you haven’t seen in twenty years
who may have an itch to get his birthright back

who loved the soup you made him
but can still fill your fingers
on the back of his foot.


I have become small from all the kindnesses
and from all the truth that You have rendered

I always thought it was Steve Martin
who first said “let’s get small”, but he
was channeling Jacob this whole time.

Jacob, small from kindness – The way praise
should be received, keeping your head
the same size it was before

you knew you did anything good.
The truth shall make you small –
a manageable bite-size so

everyone you encounter will want to
put you in their pockets, take care of you
like kittens, giving you the humility you need

to found a whole new nation.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Stones for Pillows – A poem for Parsha Vayetzei (Aliyah 1) by Rick Lupert


and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them]
at his head, and he lay down in that place.

This could be where Jewish mothers got the idea.
It’s okay, I’ll sit in the dark. It’s okay, you take the pillow
and I’ll just lay down on these stones.

It’s okay you dream of ladders and how your
seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and how your
strength will spread in every direction.

I’ll be here when you need me, with the lights out
knitting you and all your descendants
the sweaters they’re entitled to.


And he dreamed, and behold! angels of God were
ascending and descending upon [the ladder].

I used to dream of knowing what to do
with a ladder. I used to dream of being in
same space as angels.

I think this is what Led Zeppelin was
talking about. I think this ladder to heaven
requires no contracting skill to use

just belief. I used to believe or maybe
I never believed in anything but words.
I used to believe in stepping up.


And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said,
“Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know.”

This is what it must be like when
children lose their teeth and discover
money under their stone pillows.

This is what it must be like when
the stuff of your dreams stays with you
after you open your eyes.

This is what it must be like when
you’ve taken a mundane, stone filled place
and made it holy.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parshat Vayeitzei With Rabbi David Lazar

Rabbi David Lazar has been a spiritual leader and activist in Israel Sweden and the United States for 30 years. He has led the way as an active rabbinic supporter of LGBTQ causes as well as interfaith study and prayer. In Israel, he founded and directed RIKMA, and organization devoted to Spiritual Community Leadership Training, served congregations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and was rabbinic chaplain for the Israel AIDS Task Force. His interest in Jewish Folk Art is documented on-line at www.rabbidavidlazar.com. He currently serves as rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs.

This week’s Torah portion- Parashat Vayeitze (Genesis 28:10-32:2)- features the story of Jacob’s dream and Jacob’s ladder, Jacob’s first encounter with Rachel at the well, and his marriage with her and with her sister Leah after being cheated by their father Laban. Our discussion focuses, among other things, on the objectification of women – and men – in this parsha.

 

 

Previous Torah Talks on Vayetze

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch

Rabbi Moshe Davis

Rabbi Jay Kornsgold

Rabbi Mark Elber

 

 

 

 

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parshat Toldot with Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Jeremy Rosen, is an orthodox rabbi, born in Manchester. Studied philosophy at Cambridge University in England and Be’er Yaakov and Mir yeshivot in Israel where he received Semicha. He has served as a community rabbi of orthodox congregations in Scotland and England. He was Principal of Carmel College in Oxfordshire, Professor and Chairman of the Faculty for Comparative Religion Wilrijk Belgium and Rabbi and Director of the YAKAR Educational Foundation in London. He retired to New York where he is the rabbi of the Persian Jewish community in Manhattan and lectures at the JCC of Manhattan.

This week’s Torah portion — Parashat Toldot  (Genesis 25:19-28:9) — tells us the fascinating story of Jacob and Esau and of the selling of Esau’s birthright to Jacob. Our discussion focuses on good guys, bad guys and the many faces of the Torah.

 

 

Previous Torah Talks on Toldot

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

Rabbi Adina Lewittes

Rabbi Yael Saidoff

Rabbi Aderet Drucker

Maharat Ruth Balinsky

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Beards and Stars – A poem for Parsha Toldot (Aliyah 1) by Rick Lupert

Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards,
and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom

This is the kind of information parents shouldn’t be given.
You want the best for all your children and try not to

play favorites, but you’ve been given an inside track here
and when you utter phrases like I love you both just the same

it falls flat in your own ears. How do you explain the
different sized college funds when you know one will

end up owning the college, and the other will just
grow a beard? This is the knowledge that let’s you

go back in time and change everything. This is
not the way it’s supposed to be.

And the first one emerged ruddy;
he was completely like a coat of hair

Such a bold color for a child
Esau, the human fashion statement
a face like blood, a body like winter –

A pinch in his foot as he burst into the world.
Dumb like a beard. Already hungry.
Already glad not to have to

share air with his brother.
Esau, red as the day he was born.
Already ready to give it all up.

Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents

Jacob, quiet – a tent dweller, soup cooker
inheritance trickster, birthright stealer –
Destined to own the farm.

Jacob, the thinker, momma’s little boy
You thought two kids was a lot –
wait ’til you see what he can do.

Jacob makes the lentils. Jacob of the
kempt beard. Jacob, never quite let go
of his brother’s foot.

And I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens

There’s that promise again
The prenatal care of our dreams

A forever glance up to see
the impossibility of keeping up

with holiday cards.
It’s okay. You can always

see the stars, but
it’s not your responsibility

to reach them. You couldn’t
if you tried.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

The Old New Math – A poem for Parsha Chayei Sarah

And the life of Sarah was one hundred years
and twenty years and seven years;

The Torah is no place for a new math joke
but I understand this almost as well as I do
my ten year old’s homework.

I’m sometimes asked to check it and
the best I can do is verify that it does indeed exist
and that things are written where

there were formerly blank spaces.
But ask me if it is correct and I’ll refer
you to his teacher.

The new math is like the ancient math.
Somehow my generation got away with
just saying one hundred and twenty seven.

I see the holiness in the work my
son brings home from school
and I understand it just as well.

Give me burial property with you, so that
I may bury my dead from before me.

There’s no Jewish publication that doesn’t
include advertisements for the final plot of earth –
Often highlighting lovely hills, and

spots beneath trees, and views of the city –
None of which (I think) I’ll need when I eventually
find my home in the dirt.

I get suspicious about the idea of paying for this
in advance. What would they do with me if I simply
refused to make an arrangement while still taking breaths?

Probably stick me in the back with the other death-beats.
It’s hard enough to save for retirement without adding in
a cost for the hereafter.

I guess I need a place to hang my bald spot.
Something nice that people can visit when they
miss everything silly I had to say.

Yes, underneath a tree, and on a hill and
with a view. You can only stare at a headstone
for so long.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Why Judaism Matters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, is interviewed onstage by Jewish Federations of North America Chairman Richard Sandler at the General Assembly in Tel Aviv, Oct. 24, 2018. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Israeli Government Press Office

The following is excerpted text of the speech delivered by Richard Sandler, outgoing chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, at the Knesset on Oct. 23 during the JFNA’s General Assembly in Tel Aviv. 

During these past three years, I have had the opportunity to study our community and the important issues that inspire us, concern us and often divide us, and I keep coming back to the same three questions: Why does Judaism matter? Why does how we treat one another matter? Why does Israel matter? And tonight I will ask you to please consider three imperatives that relate to these questions, for it is important to talk but it is also important to then take positive action.

Why does Judaism matter? We all know that we are a small people, less than 0.2 percent of the world’s population with many adversaries and enemies throughout our history; and yet, we have survived against incredible odds, while making a positive difference in the world exponentially disproportionate to our numbers. How could this be? It is because of a tradition rooted in the values in our Torah, which is over 3,000 years old. Times may change, but these values do not. 

The Torah is about who we are, where we come from and what is expected of each of us. It is so much more than a slogan or a verse that may support a point of view. 

We can only understand our tradition and its importance to our lives by going back to the basics, by learning the depth, richness and complexity of that tradition. We cannot live Jewish values if we do not understand what they are. 

So the first imperative is a collective communal commitment to studying Torah and the writings of our tradition. This commitment must not be driven by politics or religious philosophy, but by the earnest search for true meaning. I commit to you that I will study Torah this year, and I ask you, the leaders of our community, to do the same.

We need to take advantage of this remarkable time in our history, by learning our history and our tradition so that we can determine a future course in which we strengthen ourselves and our people according to Torah values. It is time we learn what made the Jewish people the Jewish people. 

Which leads me to the second imperative: No matter where we live; no matter whether we are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular Jews; no matter what political or philosophical position we hold; all of us must end the divisiveness that exists between us. We are a small people who have enough enemies outside of our community. We do not need to do their work for them by being so divisive.

“We can only understand our tradition and its importance to our lives … by learning the depth, richness and complexity of that tradition.”

We will agree. We will disagree. Our tradition is about debate and disagreement, but where people listen to each other, learn from each other and respect each other.

The most repeated prayer in our tradition, one of the only two prayers that the Torah commands us to say each day is the Shema. Shema means “hear” or “to listen.” We need to study together as we debate important issues and listen to different points of view. We do matter to one another. We’re too small a people to be like the rest of society where people of different points of view refuse to listen to one another and instead engage in Lashon Hora — negative or derogatory speech, or even worse, engage in sinat chinam, senseless hatred. And let us not forget that it was sinat chinam among the Jewish people that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple.

Let’s leave this GA committed to being better informed to lead our communities from Lashon Hora to Shema — not as Israelis or Diaspora Jews, not as secular or religious Jews, and not as Jews from the left or from the right but as Jews who share a remarkable tradition and a common destiny. Our children are waiting for spiritual wisdom, for heroic ideals and for heroic vision. They want to stand for something and something important. Let’s dedicate ourselves to learning, to respecting each other and to protecting what is sacred so we ensure a Jewish future for our children in this remarkable time when we again have a Jewish homeland for the first time in 2,000 years and feel so comfortable and at home here in the United States.

And that leads to our third imperative. Being at home gives us new security and new responsibilities. Let’s never forget that the reason we feel at home in America is because there is this remarkable country called Israel. 

Our homeland is a small country the size of New Jersey. It has been in constant conflict for all of its 70 years. Today, there are countless thousands of missiles on Israel’s border aimed at Israeli citizens, in the hands of terrorists who call for the total destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. Those of us in the Diaspora can’t even begin to understand or appreciate the challenges and pressures the Israeli people endure daily. 

This does not mean that as committed and caring Jews we do not have the right to expect more from Israel. Israel is far from perfect. And Israel also has a right to expect more from us. But first, all of us must listen to one another to truly appreciate and understand our different concerns and the different lives we lead, yet never forgetting Kol Y’Israel Arevim Zeh La Zeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. We have many differences, but so much more in common.

To my fellow Jews in Israel, I say we are all better off with thriving Jewish communities well beyond your borders. No people on this planet will ever care as much about a strong Jewish state as we do. 

And to those in the Diaspora, I say never take the miracle of Israel for granted. Israel gives us a seat at the world table — a seat we did not have in the 1930s and 1940s. It provides a shield for all of us we never had before. 

Let not any of us ever forget that because there is an Israel, and a strong Israel, there is an army that protects each and every one of us each and every day. Every young man and woman who serves in the IDF risks his and her life to protect us — all of us.

So as I close, I repeat the three imperatives:

Learn and encourage those in your community to learn Torah, learn the beauty and depth of our tradition; 

Listen to each other with respect and understanding. None of us has all the answers, but by listening we will gain a new knowledge of how to answer the important questions;

Never forget the blessing that Israel is to us — she protects us and connects us to the Torah.

Maimonides refers to Moses as the most perfect human being. At the end of his life, near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses set out a choice for the Jewish people which the Torah certainly sets out for us today: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life so that you and your children may live.”

Let’s Welcome the Stranger and Have Children – A Poem for Parsha Vayeira (Aliyah 1)


Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet,
and recline under the tree.

This is how everyone should greet the stranger –
With offers of water and comfort.

With fingers pointing to a place to rest.
Not with suspicion or deceit.

Not with a fear of the other.
Take my hand, whoever you are.

What can I fill you up with?
My pillows are your pillows.

This tent yours to come and go
as you please.

And Abraham said [to Sarah] “Hasten three seah of meal
[and] fine flour; knead and make cakes.”

In these days where the idea of patriarchy
stings like an ancient wasp

I can’t imagine telling my wife to
get to the baking after strangers

showed up at the door. Strangers
who I begged to come in

Strangers who I knew needed
fresh cake.

I like the old ways, the weight of tradition
is like a magnet to the past.

But I’ll make my own cake…as soon as I
figure out what a seah is.

And to the cattle did Abraham run, and he took a calf,
tender and good, and he gave it to the youth,

Finally! The youth are getting
the cattle they deserve!

And it happened so quick, I mean
Abraham ran to the cattle
like it was Pamplona and he

wanted to get them going.
Cows…running to the youth

hoping to get milked, hoping
they can stop all this running.

I will surely return to you at this time next year, and behold,
your wife Sarah will have a son…And Sarah laughed

That wasn’t the reaction I had when
Addie told me she was pregnant.

(That’s not an announcement,
I’m referring to ten years ago.)

I stared at the note. The only
thing that was in the empty box –

I had taken off the bow.
I’d removed the tissue paper.

It was confusingly not gift season.
You’ll get your present in nine months

it said. I didn’t laugh. I was speechless
for nine months. Eventually,

I built a crib, I sold off the futon,
I cancelled the trip to Japan.

I didn’t laugh or say anything.
No reaction, or any of my

famous words, could have changed
this eventuality.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

He’s Leaving Home, Bye Bye – A poem for Parsha Lech Lecha by Rick Lupert

Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and
from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.

My main question is, if I leave,
will my father repurpose my room?
I’ve given him no indication I’ll be back
and he’s still bitter about all the dust
in his workshop.

Though it was in the making of this dust
that this deal came along. I should
pack all my things as a courtesy.
He’ll need the space when
all the false gods
come to visit.

They grow up so quick I imagine him saying
as I look to see what’s behind the curtain.
I’d wonder if my mother will miss me too
but no-one ever mentions her name –
Like she doesn’t even exist.


And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you,

and I will aggrandize your name

I’d like to see my name in lights.
I’m not sure I deserve it, but
just once let the stars spell out my name.


And Abram took Sarai his wife…and all their possessions that

they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired…

How does one acquire a soul
beyond the one we’re lucky enough
to have returned every morning?

Do we even have space for
a second or third? How do we
carry them? What do they eat?

Do souls make small talk?
Do they even talk? Do they
have possessions of their own?

Abram, the soul shepherd,
traveling to a promised land –
His name not holy yet.


[Abram] said to Sarai his wife, “Behold now I know that

you are a woman of fair appearance.

You’d think this would be
the first thing he’d notice
or maybe he did and waited

until this road trip to say anything.
It’s superficial but nice to hear
anyway, sometimes. Even as a

precursor to a warning.
As a safety measure to save
his own life –

To make sure everyone
gets where they’re going.
Sarai, you are of fair appearance.

See how they’ve been
dealing with this since people
started writing things down?


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Weekly Parsha: Lech Lecha

One verse, Five Voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

Your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. – Genesis 8:11


Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinics Studies, AJU

Jewish tradition places great significance on names. With the addition of just one letter, at the age of 99, Abram becomes Abraham and his transformation to the father of many nations is confirmed. 

At the same time, Abraham is not the only biblical figure whose name is changed. Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel. Joseph, Joshua and Esther all experience name changes. With these models, a long-standing custom emerged to introduce a name change after a grave illness or other life-changing moments. 

So important is naming that rabbinic Midrash teaches: a prophecy. From one’s name comes his/her destiny. As one is named, so too is his/her reputation. In the Book of Samuel we read, “K’shem ken hu — like his name so is he.” 

Ashkenazic Jews name children after those no longer living, while Sephardic Jews name children after the living — both hoping and praying that the child will be endowed with the positive traits and strong image of the one for whom she/he is named.

In the end, it is up to each one of us to be worthy of the name we have been given — to create a good reputation, to live in kindness, compassion and commitment, and to remember the lesson of Ecclesiastes: “A good name is better than fragrant oil.” Ken yehi ratzon — so may it be.


Rabbi Michael Barclay
Spiritual leader, Temple Ner Simcha

The addition of the letter Hei into Avraham’s name occurs at the end of this week’s Torah portion, but to understand it, we need to look at how the portion begins. God tells Avram lech lecha, “Go to/into/for yourself away from your land, your family and your father’s house, to a place that I will show you.” These first words to Avram define their relationship and are the essence of the entire portion. We are commanded to go into ourselves, away from what we know, to a place of God’s choosing. Be still. Meditate. Listen. Receive.

Sefer Bahir teaches that God added the Hei so that “all parts of Man’s body should be worthy of life in the World to Come” (Bahir 8). This is based on the Talmudic teaching that Avram was first given mastery over 243 limbs (the numerical value of Avram), but with the Hei, he mastered all 248, the additional ones being two eyes, two ears, and his sexuality (Nedarim 32b). These five are the ones which most easily distract us, and make it difficult to focus on spirituality. 

With God’s covenant of placing the Hei in Avraham’s name and Avraham’s commitment of circumcision, Avraham removes himself from the distractions of what he sees, hears and is attracted to. Instead he deepens his spirituality, masters his appetites and becomes worthy of a true life. Like Abraham, may we all be blessed to have God’s name present in every word, action and experience of our lives.


Miriam Yerushalmi
Author, president of SANE

Each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet possesses a particular life force and power. Kabbalistically, the three lines of the letter Hei represent thought, speech and action — the totality of human functioning. 

One meaning of the root word Hei (spelled Hei-Yud), is “to break” (free). Significantly, God implanted the Hei into Abram’s name after commanding him to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, to set out for an unknown destination. By breaking away from his past and hearkening to God’s command, Abram would fulfill his potential and become Abraham the Patriarch, father of multitudes.

The Hebrew word eretz (land) comes from the root ratz (to run), which is also the basis of ratzon (desire). Running indicates a desire to go somewhere. If this desire is not directed toward a spiritual goal, it may deteriorate into escapism, distracting you from reaching your true potential.

Your “birthplace” represents your genetic predisposition to a particular temperament. Your “father’s house” is your family background. Abram was raised by idol worshippers in an environment alien to and devoid of the spirituality his soul sought.

By adding the Hei, HaShem empowered Abraham to shed his past and to lech lecha, to go to his true self, to become the progenitor of a great nation.

This is a lesson for all humanity: God, with his unlimited powers, grants us unlimited ability to conquer our past, change our inborn temperament, and discard limiting beliefs and distracting habits, in order to reach our true selves.


Rabbi Ari Segal
Head of School, Shalhevet High School

This pasuk suggests a shift in Abram’s very nature. Something changes when Abram becomes Abraham, when he adds the “ha” to the name of his youth. The shift is toward fatherhood, not just of a single child or family, but “of a multitude of nations.” (Using the English, we might call this Abram’s “aha!” moment.) But what does this “ha” mean, that such a small sound established Abraham as one of the greatest patriarchs in history?

Well, “ha” is not a random syllable. It is a word, which, when used in Bereishis 47:23, means “to give to someone else.” “Ha” is a word of inherent generosity, a word that implies selflessly and ceaselessly providing for the needs of others.

“Ha” is what it means to be a parent. In adding that word of giving to his name, Abraham came to embody the care and sacrifice that defines the experience of parenting. And the implications go further. Parents are invested with considerable power as leaders of their families. As Abraham becomes the father to the people who will be a leader among nations, the truest characteristic of parental leadership is embedded in his identity. 

A leader is not the person who wields the most power, but rather the one who exhibits the most graciousness. The person who gives the most of his or her time, energy, resources and spirit — he or she embodies the generosity inherent to leadership, be it of a family, a community or a nation.


Sara Brudoley
Torah teacher and lecturer

Our sages taught us that before the creation of the world, HaShem created the Hebrew letters and concealed in each one unique spiritual powers. When HaShem wants to show Avram a practical path to transformation, so that he may fulfill his destiny and disconnect from his past, he adds the letter Hei to his name.

He is part of HaShem’s name, and so HaShem imparts a piece of himself unto Avraham, instilling in him great new powers. 

The name Avram means “father of Aram” — the country he came from. Now, as Avraham, he is to be the spiritual father of a multitude of nations, and in fact, the whole world. The power of the Hei is the ability to manifest things from the theoretical into the actual.

It’s the power of giving birth, and indeed Yitzchak is born after Avraham and Sarah receive their new names. Hei also signifies prosperity, healthy ego, steadfastness of principles, strong leadership and gentle sensitivity.

Avram is further commanded to circumcise himself in order to be whole. Rashi explains that Avram is not in control of five parts of his body: two eyes, two ears, and the head of his male organ. HaShem adds the letter Hei (which has a numerical value of five) to his name, bringing the total numerical value of his name Avraham to 248, equivalent to the 248 parts of the body, and the 248 positive commandments. HaShem thus makes Avraham whole, and ready to fulfill his mission.

You Otter Build an Ark – A poem for Parsha Noach by Rick Lupert

You Otter Build an Ark - A poem for Parsha Noach by Rick Lupert

Now the earth was corrupt before God,
and the earth became full of robbery.

I’m not sure if I’m reading the Torah
or the news. Or if all of this robbery

I see on the news is just the criminals’
attempt to reenact the beginning of times.

Just the other day I saw the water driving
up the road typically reserved for not water.

It took houses and confidently parked cars
with it. It took the eyes of the believers

by surprise. It took the word tsunami and
threw it up against the memory of

an ancient promise.

 

Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood

I appreciate the confidence but does it
come with instructions? I can barely build

something from Ikea without subsequent
days of blisters, what with my lack of the

right tools and my general preference to
hire people who know what they’re doing

to do the things I don’t know how to do.
And who am I to take the Earth’s resources?

What will the gophers do once I’ve
taken all their wood? And, as an aside

isn’t it amazing that, back at the beginning
of history, there were already gophers?

 

And I, behold I am bring the flood, water upon the earth
to destroy all flesh in which there is the spirit of life

This isn’t the direction I would go in
but I barely deserve a capital I when I say that.

I never liked that so close to the beginning,
they just finished setting the scene, the whole thing

gets destroyed. And all the people on it.
Talk about awkward conversations at the

neighborhood party – Oh, you weren’t told to
build an ark. Oh, can I borrow all your gopher wood?

 

and of all living things of all flesh, two of each you shall
bring into the ark to preserve alive with you

I can relate to this more than you know.
Every time an animal of any kind comes onto T.V.

a lion, an elephant, a friendly chicken, a family of otters,
I turn to Addie and say We need one of those for our house.

No is usually the answer that comes before I
even finish the declaration. I relate to God, the

lover of animals. The One who couldn’t go into the
pet store on kitten adoption day, without coming out

with a box full of them. In a way this is how I am
preparing for the flood. Otter chow in stock

ready for the waters to rise.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Like, is this really all happening again? – A poem for Parsha Breisheit by Rick Lupert

The Earth was astonishingly empty

Like a blank canvas
Like no-one had thought darkness and light
needed to be different
Like a flyover state
Like someone bumped into something
and said I should
really do something with this.

Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water,
and let it be a separation between water and water.

Like the water was too close to the water
Like the invention of the reverse canal industry
Like this should be the base ingredient
for everything
let’s stir this up

And God called the dry land earth, and the gathering
of the waters He called seas

Like you get to be the Guy who names everything
Like everyone will need either shoes or a boat
Like when I say everyone, you should know
at this point, there was no-one.
Like a population explosion is going to need
a place to hang its hat

Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens,
to separate between the day and between the night

Like the separation between night and day
was the original dimmer switch
Like the biggest things in the sky are
not always the closest
Like I can stare directly at one, but not the other
Like the gravity of this situation is
just coming together

And God created the great sea monsters,
and every living creature that crawls

Like the word monsters wasn’t inserted into
the beginning of the oldest text
just to keep our attention
Like anyone can tell you this wasn’t
the very first genre fiction
Like our fear of monsters was seeded
at the very beginning

Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness

Like He’s either talking in the royal We or
there are some characters we
have yet to be introduced to
Like this isn’t the very first evidence
of Vanity
Like you could make a self portrait
that could take on a billion
lives of its own

And [God] abstained on the seventh day from all His work

Like the two day weekend doesn’t
extend Shabbat beyond
its natural boundaries
Like a forever pillow that stops in
every week
Like the vacation they told you to take
before you were born
but never do
It’s time


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

What’s Happening: Skirball Harvest Festival, Anat Hoffman Speaks and more

FRI SEPT 28

UK Underdog

“UK Underdog”
A young Jewish boy in London transforms himself from bullied underdog to martial artist, boxer and community leader in Steve Spiro’s autobiographical solo show, “UK Underdog.” The playwright is the president and co-founder of the nonprofit Shelter Transport Animal Rescue Team (START Rescue), which focuses on relocating dogs and cats from high-kill shelters in California. All profits from the world premiere engagement will be donated to anti-bullying and animal rescue organizations. See ticket website to choose a charity. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 28. $25. Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 960-7788.

SAT SEPT 29

“A Night in the Catskills”
Whether you’re an alter-kacker who remembers when Jerry Lewis was a tummler at Brown’s or were too young to experience it and want to see what all the tumult was about, “A Night in the Catskills: A Borscht Belt Variety Show” promises a fun-filled evening of music and comedy. Not a re-creation of the shows that  brought Jewish families up and down the East Coast to Grossinger’s, Brown’s and Kutsher’s, “A Night in the Catskills” features new music and variety performers that nod to the classic Borscht Belt traditions. All that’s missing is heartburn from the dinner buffet. For those who want a real up-close-and-personal experience, onstage seating is available, which gets you right in the thick of things, with a table for two and a bucket with Champagne, wine or soda. 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $40-$50, Onstage seating, $55. El Portal Theater, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-4200.

SUN SEPT 30

Family Yoga with Doda
If you’ve ever taken a Yoga class, you’re familiar with the “child pose.” With this program at American Jewish University, parents and children can become trees, mountains, cobras and downward dogs. Led by Mollie Wine, a certified Yoga Yeladim instructor who leads AJU’s “Grandma and Me” program, this beginner’s class mixes stretching and meditation techniques — which Doda Mollie says helps calm the “meshugge monkeys” in your brain — with Jewish traditions and stories. Open to parents, grandparents and children ages 7-12. 11 a.m. $20. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Dr., Bel Air. (310) 440-1572.

Skirball Harvest Festival
The Skirball Center invites you and your family to celebrate Sukkot at its daylong event. The museum’s hillside campus becomes a socially conscious market where you can wander and taste the harvest from Southern California’s artisans, farmers and craft beer brewers. While the food is locally sourced, the music spans the world, from the bluegrass band Big Bad Rooster and Indian bhangra ensemble Blue13 Dance Company to Afro-Cuban folkloric dancer Kati Hernández with the KimBámbula Cuban Ensemble. You also can learn Israeli folk dance from David Dassa and take part in interactive community art activities. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. $5 (includes museum admission); members and children under 2, free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Fran Lebowitz

Fran Lebowitz
A humorist and social chronicler who has been called (more than once) a modern-day Dorothy Parker, Lebowitz’s work has been must-read since the 1970s, when she wrote a monthly column for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and published the books of essays “Social Studies” and “Metropolitan Life.” Part kvetch, part Cassandra, Lebowitz — a regular guest on Conan O’Brien’s and Bill Maher’s talk shows — is a keen observer of politics and mores with a unique and trenchant voice. She’ll be in conversation with KCRW’s Matt Holzman, followed by an audience Q&A, kicking off the “Words and Ideas” series for CAP UCLA. 7 p.m. $29-$59. Theatre at the Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway, Downtown Los Angeles. (213) 623-3233.

“So Healthy Together”
Suicide is becoming an epidemic in the United States, as the suicide rate has risen nearly 30 percent over the last decade. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans are struggling with some form of mental illness or depression. In response to this crisis, Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom has organized “So Healthy Together: A Community Response to Mental Health Issues and Suicide Prevention.” The yearlong program launches with a panel discussion led by Farkas with Dr. Steven Siegel, chair of USC’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; Dr. Brigid Mariko Conn of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; and Susan Auerbach, Cal State Northridge professor of education and author of “I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage and Clarity After Suicide Loss.” After the discussion, representatives from mental health organizations, including Didi Hirsch, Teen Line and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, will be available to answer questions and provide more information. Farkas hopes the program will lead to “a positive, healthy and resilient” com-munity. 1-3 p.m. Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000.

MON OCT 1

Fischmann Family Lecture
Decades after the Holocaust, Loyola Law School professor Stanley Goldman learned his mother may have been rescued from the Ravensbrück concentration camp. This discovery led to years of research and a book, “Left to the Mercy of a Rude Stream: The Bargain That Broke Adolf Hitler and Saved My Mother.” It is the story of how Norbert Masur, a German Jew, returned from the safety of Sweden to barter for the release of the Jewish women imprisoned at Ravensbrück. Goldman discusses the book with Michael Bazyler, professor of law at Chapman University. A kosher dessert reception follows. 7 p.m. Free. Roski Dining Room, University Hall, Loyola Marymount University, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 338-2700.

WED OCT 3

Fighting for Her Rights
Israeli activist Anat Hoffman speaks at Reconstructionist congregation Kehillat Israel. She has been arrested multiple times for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall and is an opponent of forcing women to change seats on airplanes to accommodate Orthodox men. Born on a kibbutz and a graduate of UCLA, Hoffman has spent much of her professional life campaigning for religious pluralism in Israel. Thirty years ago, she founded Women of the Wall. She is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center. 7:30-9 p.m. Free. Kehillat Israel, 16019 W. Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. (310) 459-2328.

THU OCT 4

“The Silence of Others”
The documentary “The Silence of Others” highlights the 40 years of suffering endured by Spaniards during the dictatorial reign of Gen. Francisco Franco. The film, which screens at the Museum of Tolerance, was six years in the making. Executive produced by Pedro Almodovar, it follows compensation-seeking survivors as they battle the contemporary Spanish government. 7 p.m. $10 members, $12 general. Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2505.

Miri Mesika

Miri Mesika
Israeli pop singer Miri Mesika performs at American Jewish University. Born 40 years ago in Herzliya to a Tunisian-Jewish father and an Iraqi-Jewish mother, Mesika, known for her romantic and emotional music, gained public attention following the 2005 release of her debut album, “Miri Mesika,” produced and mixed by her husband, Ori Zakh. 8:30-10 p.m. $70-100. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-9777.


SIMCHAT TORAH EVENTS

SUN SEPT 30

Leo Baeck Temple
Visit Leo Baeck Temple for one of the most joyous nights of the year. Celebrate the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle. The entire Torah will be unrolled into a great circle, and visitors will dance with the sacred text. The celebration concludes with ice cream and Israeli dancing. 6-8 p.m. Free. Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-2861.

MON OCT 1t

IKAR
How’s your endurance? The IKAR congregation holds six hours of Simchat Torah programming for all ages — “a night of few words, big hearts and lots of fancy footwork.” To mark the end of the annual Torah reading cycle, many synagogue attendees will receive aliyahs and be invited to dance around the sanctuary with the rare honor of holding the Torah. For the first 90 minutes of the evening, children age 5 and under can engage in diverse activities. 5:30-5:45 p.m. arts and crafts; 5:45-6:15 p.m. Simchat Torah service; 6:15-7 p.m. dinner; 7-11:30 p.m. dancing with the Torah. Free. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870.

Adat Ari El
Bring a vegetarian or dairy picnic to Adat Ari El and participate in an energetic Simchat Torah musical service with the N’ranena Band. Party with the Torah and enjoy ice cream and Israeli dancing. 6 p.m. dinner; 7 p.m. tefilah celebration. Free. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426. RSVP to the link above.

Roseanne: Between the ‘Sacred and the Profane’

From left: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Roseanne Barr and David Suissa discuss “Is America a Forgiving Nation?” (Photo courtesy of World Values Network)

On Sept. 17, the night before Erev Yom Kippur, at the same time as the 70th Primetime Emmys Awards ceremony, comedian and actress Roseanne Barr was participating in a discussion titled, “Is America a Forgiving Nation?” 

Appearing at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, Barr addressed the event that torpedoed her career: In May, Barr wrote a racist tweet about former President Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett. 

During the onstage discussion at the Saban with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, which was moderated by Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa, Barr said the fallout from the tweet, including ABC’s cancellation of its hit reboot of her show “Roseanne,” was devastating.

“It was so hard I thought I was going to die,” the 66-year-old said. “And it physically defeated me, and I was just leveled. And still it has been two months … but I still can’t. I feel like I have been psychically attacked and I have trouble staying awake. I went into a really bad place.”

Barr said her tweet arose from frustration with former President Barack Obama’s administration’s handling of the Iran deal, among other things. 

The sympathetic audience of close to 200 people applauded when Barr said, “I apologized for the hurt it caused people, but also I tried to clarify it and this has been quite a battle in which the right to clarify what I meant has been denied to me.”  

“That’s what I regret,” she added, “that I was not absolutely clear in what I meant.”

Boteach, who has been a friend of Barr’s for 20 years, and regularly studies Torah with her, said he reached out to her in the wake of the fallout, because of the strength of her Jewish character. 

“I wish people could be exposed to the depth of the conversations that Roseanne and I have had over the past few months,” he said, “because America knows Roseanne as an extremely funny woman, who created one of television’s most successful sitcoms and last season dominated the ratings, but what they don’t know is what a profound student of Torah she is. I mean, profound.” 

Boteach added, “She is a phenomenal, ferocious lioness for the Jewish people, and she deserved our steadfast support while making it clear she should make this right, because we Jews have values.”

Much of the evening centered on Barr’s commitment to Judaism. Raised in a Jewish home in Salt Lake City, Barr said Judaism plays a central role in her life. “My main passion and joy and compulsion is the study of Torah,” she said.

When Suissa asked how Barr reconciles her love of Torah with her irreverent comedy, Barr said her life is a balancing act between “the sacred and the profane.”

Dancing with the scroll

To turn the page in a book
All you need is one hand,
A motion like a tiny rainbow.

On a screen, kal v’chomer,
A single finger-swipe
Will suffice.

But a Torah scroll
Is heavy, its
Wooden handles
Remember the tree they
Came from, its parchment
Still marked with the patches
Of a once-living animal. 

And when you stand
To chant from the scroll,
Your body curved at the top
Like the letter vav,
You feel the tree, the animal;
You feel the hours of love
Some forgotten scribe poured
Into this small patch of the world,
Marking it with letters
To make it infinite, from the
Simple meanings to the
Secret ones, from the first
Stirrings of creation to the mountain
Where Moses saw, but did not enter,
The Holy Land. 

In fall, the time comes
To rewind back to the first bet
Of beginning, that letter open
Only to the future. We open
The ark, we gather;
You cannot turn a scroll alone.

Each year we perform this dance,
Holding the stories God gave us
With the bodies God gave us.

We wrap the scrolls like babies
And carry them into the streets.

Then our feet begin to move, too.
With a story this heavy, this beloved, 

Who can read without dancing?


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher. Her most recent book of poetry is “Fruit Geode” (Augury Books). 

The Final Singalong — A Poem for Haftarah Haazinu by Rick Lupert

Since I spend so much time singing ancient Jewish words
with the children of the San Fernando Valley, I was so pleased

to see King David wrote a song…like Moses before him
wrote a song. A song I thought you’d never hear on the radio

because of it’s staggering 945 word count with no refrain at all,
until I realized they’ve been playing the 2633 words of

Alice’s Restaurant for decades, not to mention the encyclopedic-
lengthed 5083 words of R. Kelley’s Trapped in the closet.

Why can’t we set the whole thing to music and demand
heavy rotation? Is that what David had in mind? Is that why

he included the word nostrils twice, so it would have
more of a quirky pop-appeal?

This is the last song of the year. A duet with Moses who
sings posthumously. They were the first two to do this.

To sing of strength. To sing of the source of our comfort.
Their songs are our songs and we are still collecting

the royalties. This music, our inheritance. I say always
end with song. Ideally one everyone can sing.

We’ve got one more chapter before we start this
whole thing over, and sometimes because of the

peculiar ways in which the days of the week land
on the calendar, we don’t even read it. We find ourselves

at the beginning again, wondering how we got here.
So sing this song. Repeat parts of it to extend this cycle

beyond its natural boundaries. And ha-azinu…listen.
Let all the voices go into your ears. They’ve been

echoing from generation to generation, ever since
they first left Moses and David’s lips.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Using the Bully Pulpit on High Holy Days

Editor’s note: Over Rosh Hashanah, local rabbis spoke on a variety of topics, but three in particular took aim at the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica made national and international headlines when he excoriated his former congregant, Stephen Miller, now Trump’s senior adviser. IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous received a thunderous standing ovation after her 30-minute sermon pointing out how unwell our country is but that it’s not too late to build a new America. And Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple spoke about the “daily cocktail of anxiety” we see in the news and how the Unetane Tokef prayer can help guide us in these troubled times. Below are edited excerpts from their Rosh Hashanah sermons.   

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels: An Open Letter to Stephen Miller
I was once your rabbi. When you were about 9 or 10 years old, your family belonged to Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. You attended our religious school.

The actions that you now encourage President Trump to take make it obvious to me that you didn’t get my/our Jewish message. I understand that you were a major contributor to the zero-tolerance policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions initiated to punish and deter desperate families from coming to the United States by separating children from their parents at the border. That notion is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.

Mr. Miller, the policy that you helped to conceive and put into practice is cruel. What you would have learned from me is that ours is a spiritual path that is focused on one task: bringing the shattered pieces of the vessel in which the universe was born back together in both a literal and spiritual repair — a healing of transcendent influence and impact. Mr. Miller, Judaism is a way of responding to the mundane and the unexpected, always seeking the response that is at once the most just and the most merciful. We Jews have chosen our history to be our mandate. We choose to recall and emphasize our most ancient ancestor, Abraham, as a “wandering Aramean,” i.e., a refugee, an immigrant. We choose to remember and underscore that the quintessential experience of the Jewish people is both the slavery in and the exodus from ancient Egypt. We are all refugees, Mr. Miller.  

Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate families at our southern border. It’s not that we can’t reverse what you’ve done. We can, we are, and we will. 

We’re not going away, Mr. Miller, and whether you identify now as Jew is not really my concern. What is troublesome is that some of my colleagues and others are concerned about what I might have taught you when you were a member of our community. I can assure you, as I can assure them, that what I taught is a Judaism that cherishes wisdom, values honed over four millennia, wide horizons and an even wider embrace. 

Is there still time, is there still a chance that you might change your attitude? That’s up to you, Mr. Miller. I will never give up hope that you can open your heart.

In the meantime, I will act in accordance with the values that our tradition conveys, values that go beyond the superficial and time-limited expediencies of your allegiance to party and a temporal leader, and I will engage against you in a machloket l’shem shamayim, a struggle for the sake of all that is righteous, not merely what you may deem as right.

Know this: Regardless of whether the Trump administration decides to be accountable, we are choosing to be accountable. We believe, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us so precisely, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Because we want this society to remain free, we will continue to act. Someone needs to clean up this mess and, in concert with many others, it will be your long-suffering, uncomfortable Jewish people.

Do you know the Yiddish word mensch, Mr. Miller? In Yiddish, a mensch is a fully-constituted, human and humane being. In Hebrew it parallels to the word ish. Hillel the Elder taught us: “B’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadeil l’hiyot ish”. (Avot 2:5) In other words, “In a place where no one is acting like a mensch, be one!” That’s what we will be doing, Mr. Miller, because that’s who we are. We can only hope you will decide to join us.

Read more of his sermon’s here. 


Rabbi Sharon Brous: Building A New America
We are not well when racist dog whistles today sound more like bullhorns, when Black athletes are scorned and penalized for engaging in nonviolent protests against police violence. When the Justice Department actively works to roll back civil rights achievements of previous administrations

Yes, it’s a victory that only a dozen pathetic Nazis showed up to march in [Washington,] D.C. on the anniversary of Charlottesville, but friends — they’ve moved from the streets to the ballots! There are now several avowed white nationalists, Holocaust deniers and Nazis on the ballot in state and federal races this fall. Organizations that monitor hate groups say it’s clear that white nationalists feel emboldened when the president himself advances their agenda every time he discharges an insult about Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans. No, we are not well.

We are not well when there are one or two shooting incidents in American schools every single week. When middle schoolers report being afraid to return to the classroom because they’re scared they might get shot. And when the Secretary of Education toys with the idea of allowing states to siphon federal funding intended for the arts and music, mental health and technology programs instead to the purchase of guns for teachers. We are not well.

“Oh, keep your politics off the pulpit!” they say. 

As if our Torah is not an inherently political document. As if the story of slaves rising up before the most powerful ruler of the ancient world to demand freedom and dignity is not a political message. 

This I know: Our Torah did not survive thousands of years only to be muted precisely the moment its eternal message matters most. We make a mockery of our tradition when we suggest that the way we live in human society, the way we treat one another, the way we care for — or neglect to care for — the least among us is outside the scope of religion.

What we need is not to return to a time of mythical greatness. We need to build America anew, equipped to hold us in all our diversity and complexity. 

Yes, we are unwell, but we can — and we must — build a new America.

And it’s already happening. This year, we witnessed the beginning of a nonviolent revolution, as a million students walked out of their classrooms and took to the streets. This army is led by 16-year-olds who, while hiding under desks and behind file cabinets, saw their friends shot. Who saw the sickening inaction, the hypocrisy and complacency of our elected officials, and stood up to insist that if the grown-ups wouldn’t do it, they would bend the arc of history themselves.

Our children are in the streets shouting, Pasul! Pasul! It’s not kosher! This is old America, the America of greed, corruption and hatred, of systems built to protect and sustain white supremacy, to entrench power in the hands of the few and keep guns in the hands of the many. It is foul and corrupted. And unlike us, the grown-ups, these kids won’t even consider that change is impossible.

It is their passion that will lead the way to a new America. It’s their moral clarity. Their fidelity to the truth. Their chemical allergy to hypocrisy. They are leading, and we need to stand behind them now, with the full force of our political, spiritual, intellectual and material resources. To do anything less would be a gross abdication of moral responsibility.

There may be a time when it really is too late to redeem America. Thank God, we are not there yet. 

The new America won’t come easily; we’re going to have to fight for it. 

We will rebuild this nation with love. There is a new America being born, and it is fierce, gorgeous and fair. It is built on justice and mercy, and it makes room for everyone. 

To usher this new America into the world, we — every one of us — will need to be brave, brave, brave. 

Read, listen or watch the full sermon here.


Rabbi Steven Z. Leder: Double Down on Your Relationships
I suffer from anxiety. It is very real and sometimes very frightening. It can ruin parts of days, weeks, months and years. As a rabbi, I see so much dysfunction, so much hurtful gossip, so much cancer and death that it is hard not to feel like I’m next.

And, of course, there is the news. That daily toxic cocktail of mind-boggling instability, criminality and drama in Washington, tweeting and testing the very fabric of democracy itself — wildfires, Putin, Assad, Iran, North Korea, global warming, Mueller, racism, corruption, sex scandals, immigration cruelty, floods, homelessness — over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And tonight we’re supposed to wish each other a shanah tovah? Really? Yes. Really.  

Our ancestors put celebrating on Rosh Hashanah ahead of the past remorse we face on Yom Kippur. First comes hope in the future, then the muck of our past. And believe me, the sages knew a lot more about anxiety than we do. Consider the Unetane Tokef prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah. The one that asks, “Who by water? Who by fire? Who will be troubled? Who will be needy? Who shall live and who shall die?” That prayer was written at least 13 centuries ago.  

Life 13 centuries ago was nothing but anxiety. Rape, murder, muggings, death by fire or flood or plague or starvation or war were regular, daily occurrences. But our ancestors had a different, more powerful prescription for managing their anxiety and fear. I try to use it every day. Remember how that prayer ends; what comes after that long list of terrible things to worry about in the coming year? It ends with three simple things that can get us all through. “But teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (generosity),” says that wise prayer, “Ma-a-virin et roah ha-gezarah (will make whatever comes next year easier to live with and through).” 

This was the ancient rabbis’ simple, three-part formula for surviving in their time, and it can be ours, too. First, teshuvah — repentance. And what is repentance really, other than trying to make things right with others? Our ancestors lived in small villages, where the key to survival was the quality of relationships with a handful of people who really mattered. Are we any different? Do any of us have more than a small handful of people in our lives who really matter?    

So double down, says the Unetane Tokef. When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid — double down on your relationships. Cherish them. Nurture them. Whoever you came here with tonight or called to wish a shanah tovah, that person by your side right now, he loves you, she loves you, he will shelter you when the rain falls, she will hold you when the darkness is too dark to see. No one endures suffering better alone. Tend to your relationships with teshuvah. Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart.

Double down. Make things right with the people you love. For only love can lift us from our suffering and our fear. Click here to read the entire sermon. 

When Life Hands You Etrogs

Photo by Deborah Danan

It wasn’t exactly the pampering honeymoon I’d had in mind. With no electricity, no running water and no bathroom to speak of, this was about as rough as it gets. The view, however, more than made up for the lack of luxury. Our accommodations, a two-room mud hut, were nestled in the Dumdir wadi between two mountains in the Anti-Atlas range in southern Morocco. 

There is plenty of greenery in the valley, where the land is more fertile and an aqueduct cuts a path between the mountain on one side and a 700-foot drop on the other. The Anti-Atlas mountain range is a sprawling terrain stretching some 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sahara Desert. 

Two very valuable trees are indigenous to this area. One is the argan tree, whose seeds are the source of argan oil used for cooking and, increasingly in the West, for cosmetics. The second is the citrus medica, or as it is more commonly known by Jews around the world, the etrog. My husband, Tsvi Dahan, deals in the latter. It has been his passion — and in good years, a source of livelihood — for the past two decades.

The story of the etrog is thousands of years old and almost as fascinating as the Bible itself. It is a tale replete with rabbinical disputes, historical debates and no small measure of scandal. Capturing the passions of many men throughout the ages, it is small wonder that the Talmud likens the etrog to the human heart. Many Jews hold the belief that the etrog was also the forbidden fruit that led to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. 

The story of the Moroccan etrog harks back to the first century C.E., when Jews first settled among the Berbers in North Africa after being exiled from the Holy Land following the destruction of the Second Temple, right through to present-day Brooklyn, N.Y., amongst Satmar Chasidim, who continue to wear the modest clothing and black garb of their 18th-century Eastern European ancestors. 

It is the day before Yom Kippur, 2017. Tsvi occupies a tiny storefront on Lee Avenue in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. With jeans and a knitted kippah, he is clearly an outsider and will not make many sales. Still, quality trumps quantity in the Moroccan etrog industry, and Tsvi’s merchandise is nonpareil, allowing him to demand upward of $50 per fruit. A man enters. He examines the wares, gingerly picking them up one by one. He selects a yellowish, slightly corrugated etrog for closer scrutiny, using a magnifying glass and a lamp. 

“It is totally clean,” Tsvi tells him proudly. 

The man’s sidelocks sway as he nods his head in agreement.

“And look at the shape. Completely symmetrical and with a gartl,” Tsvi says, referencing the belt worn by Chasidic men. 

Tsvi Danan inspecting Etrogs.

Satmars covet an etrog with a slim waist that dips inward, resembling a Coca-Cola bottle. They also insist on it having as few marks as possible. 

Blemish-free is the holy grail of etrogs, but achieving it is more the realm of a horticulturist than an etrog farmer. For Tsvi, it’s mostly a matter of trial and error.  One year he’ll spray his trees with extra pesticide to deter insects, while another year he might try growing the etrogs in gauze bags to prevent dents from rogue branches. 

Apart from ritual use by Jews as part of the four species on Sukkot, the etrog’s other main use is in perfumes, and for that they don’t need to look pretty. 

Tsvi’s grandfather from Marrakesh learned the etrog trade from his mother and uncle. He then bequeathed his knowledge to his six sons. In 1998, Tsvi and his twin brother, Gadi, were employed by their uncles to help with the harvest in Morocco during Elul. That was also the year I met Tsvi. I was 16 and Tsvi was the soldier and medic accompanying my summer camp in Israel. It would be another 14 years before fate would cross our paths again and we would fall in love and marry. 

The following Elul, the twins decided to go it alone. In the years that followed, they would fail, many times, and lose a lot of money in the process. 

In 2007, Tsvi wrapped up a master’s degree and quit his job at a bank to go and spend time in Dumdir. For two months, he lived on the mountain with minimal contact with the outside world, learning the etrog trade from the ground up. He kept scrupulous notes in a journal. 

“I immediately felt connected to a past that is very rich,” he said. “When I was in yeshiva, I studied the Talmud tractate Sukkah and [in Morocco], in this place that is so far from everything, I got to encounter what I’d learned firsthand. It was amazing.”

During his time on the mountain, Tsvi met Bila’id, a local Arab from whom he leases a field. For 10 years, Bila’id has been Tsvi’s full-time employee for the year-round cultivation of the etrogs.  

Bila’id is a Shleuh, part of the Berber subgroup that dwells on the mountain and has been growing etrogs for Jews for centuries. In 1995, the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, considered a Torah giant of the last generation, sent a delegation of rabbis and experts to the Anti-Atlas canyon to verify the kashrut levels of the etrogs. The findings, which included a total absence of grafted trees, led Rabbi Eliashiv to conclude that the lineage of the Moroccan etrog had remained unbroken for close to 2,000 years, making it unique in the world. 

“Capturing the passions of many men throughout the ages, it is small wonder that the Talmud likens the etrog to the human heart.”

During our honeymoon, in April, 2016,  we spent a great deal of time with Bila’id and his sons. Our voyage to the mountain took us by car through Assads, the main village in the area, and then up serpentine mountain roads to Tamgersift. From there, we were forced to park and ascend the mountain by foot. The path was treacherous, only a foot wide at parts, with a steep precipice to the left. We trekked for an hour before reaching Tsvi’s field, but thankfully it was mostly in the shade — no small mercy since temperatures can reach as high as 127 degrees. 

My backpack grew heavier with every step but I refrained from complaining. The people I was with are tasked with carrying a few thousand etrogs down the same way to be inspected and sorted by Tsvi into categories ranging from 6 to 1 — with 1 being the most exquisite  etrogs — before being shipped to New York, Los Angeles and Israel. In the hut, Bila’id served me Moroccan tea with generous helpings of sugar. 

At the top of the mountain, there is a plateau with five hamlets. Once upon a time, two of the hamlets were exclusively Jewish while two others were Muslim. The fifth, Tignidin, is where Bila’id grew up, and it once had a mixed Jewish and Muslim population. Some of the Jews converted to Islam, but most left for larger cities like Casablanca in the 1930s and ’40s. 

The Jews of Tignidin owned the land in the Dumdir wadi and when they left, they gave the fields to the Arabs, Bila’id said. In return for looking after them year-round, the Jews promised the Arabs a permanent livelihood by coming back every year before Sukkot to purchase etrogs.   

Photo by Deborah Danan.

Bila’id has been growing etrogs for the past 30 years. “When I see a beautiful etrog, it makes me happy,” he said. Asked what he thought of the Jews and their strange commandments, he said, “The etrog is a symbol of goodness. This is how you serve God. You believe that if you have a beautiful etrog, your whole year will be beautiful. We try to stop the etrog from getting diseases, or becoming damaged by a thorn or a flying creature.”

Such notions, while sweet, are largely fanciful and have no real source, Tsvi said, adding that during the times of the Temple, the lulav, palm branch and etrog were used to pray for that year’s rainfall, which in turn represents livelihood. On a personal level, he continued harvesting and selling etrogs, despite its many pitfalls, as his way of  serving his Maker.

“In [a] regular job, [you] have a salary and that’s it,” Tsvi said. “But when it comes to growing [the etrogs], I am reminded constantly that everything is from Him. I can invest hundreds of thousands of shekels and have it all disappear in a flash when a drought causes the fruit to drop from the trees prematurely. I am completely at God’s mercy.”

When I Grow Up – A Poem for Haftarah Vayeilech by Rick Lupert

When I grow up I want to be a rose
I want them to compare my roots to trees.
My branches too. I’ll be on the cover
of all the magazines. Pages with
just the word blossom.

When I grow up, I want the shade
I provide to shield everyone from
the harshness of mid-day light.
I want nostrils to open wide in
anticipation of my arrival.

When I grow up, I’ll never
run out of fruit. The hungry and
the righteous will walk in my circles.
The rebellious too. Though their actions
will make them stumble.

When I grow up, anger will be
only temporary. Love, forever.
My foibles will be considered texture.
My sins, tossed into the ocean.
When I grow up, if I grow up

It’ll be like Woodstock again.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Turn my Oy to Joy – A Poem for Haftarah Nitzavim by Rick Lupert

Oh, consolation
I’ve got seven weeks of you.
Oh, holy hug

Oh speak up those
watching over me
Oh Right Hand

You so strong
You smite the enemy
You clear the stones

You un-desolate
the Holy home
Oh, Jerusalem

We’re coming for you
Oh, Jerusalem
I can hear your watchmen

Look how our enemies hunger
Look how our red clothes turn white
Look how our children’s children

til the soil, bloom the desert
sing when they land
kiss the ground.

Oh, consolation, Oh, holy hug
You turn our oy to joy
You make me want

to read this text again.
I am standing.
I am ready.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

I Need a Camel Like I Need an Umbrella – A Poem for Haftarah Ki Tavo by Rick Lupert

These are the benefits entitled to us, according to
the prophet who speaks on behalf of the Benefit Giver

A gross darkness [shall cover] the kingdoms

Eww. The implication here is we are not part of the kingdoms
and a whole special light will, hopefully, light that grossness
right out of the realm of our perceptibility.

your heart shall be startled and become enlarged

I’m no heart-ologist, but is this medically sound?
I realize You’re the One who invented all this biology
but I had a cat die once and the veterinarian told me
his heart was too big. So as long as you know
what you’re doing.

A multitude of camels shall cover you.

A couple things here: Would it be alright if I
stick with an umbrella, or a blanket, or even just
the clothes I’ve got on. Living in the shadows of
camels feels weird to me. Also, if you have to go
in that direction, I’m not that big and think only
one camel will suffice.

All the sheep of Kedar shall be gathered to you.

Okay. You make it sound like that’s going to be
a lot of sheep. I’m not allowed to feed the outside cats
anymore as that’s how it started with the five we have
inside now. Can I just pay a fee to make sure the
sheep are taken care of, or go to someone who
has unlimited room for sheep?

to bring to you the wealth of the nations

This sounds great! I’ve got a lot of funds I’ve been
meaning to get going. There’s already the meager
college fund for our nine year old. But then there’s the
move to a nicer neighborhood fund, and the buy a
hybrid car fund (I’m only thinking of the planet).
All the wealth of the nations could really help out here.

And you shall suck the milk of the nations.

OK, is this mandatory to get the wealth? I feel most
humans are lactose intolerant after we’re weaned
from our mothers. The whole Got Milk campaign feels
like a bit of a sham. Oh Creator of biology, is this
the phlegm you had in mind?

I shall make your rulers righteousness

This sounds great right about now. The news keeps
reminding me, our rulers don’t even know how to
spell the word righteous, let alone act in a manner
that lives up to that word.

Your sun shall no longer set, neither shall your moon
God will be an everlasting light.

Is this what it’s like in Alaska? I hear black-out curtains
is doing a killer business up there. I’m going to visit
just to get a taste of what You’re offering. I’ll think of you
when I see the Aurora Borealis.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

They’ve Got Pants Just for Floods – A Poem for Haftarah Ki Teitzei by Rick Lupert

Promises are easy to forget when the Promiser
has hidden Their face. This is why sometimes

we wear pants that are too short, in case Noah’s flood
comes again, despite the occasional rainbow reminder.

It’s a fear we’ve taken so seriously you’ll find hundreds
of results on Amazon if you search for “flood pants.”

I’m glad someone’s making money off our lack of faith.
We’re told God’s wrath was only there for a moment

as we wept on the wrong side of the Babylonian border.
But a Biblical moment is long enough for an entire generation

to die out in the desert; for riverside city after riverside city
to have to appeal to FEMA for post-rain relief;

for millions to die at the hands of people with radical ideas.
It’s easy to see why we sometimes feel forgotten.

We’ve got two more weeks of divine consolation
before the cycle begins again.

Don’t hide Your face from us. Just a glimpse
will keep us in line.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Direct Contact – A Poem for Haftarah Shoftim by Rick Lupert

Oh, how we’ve changed.
An Exodus ago we saw a light so bright
and asked Moses to be the one to
do the looking.

Now, an Exodus later,
we’re inconsolable by human voices,
even those who wrote the famous books.
We need personal contact with that Light.

We need a hug from the Almighty.
We need to know it’s going to be okay.
We need to know the cup of weakness will
be put in the hands of those who made us wander.

Our sons and daughters are fainting in the streets
we need a Divine rain to wake them up.
Nothing Noah-like…rainbows not required.
Just a splash on the face in this corner

we’ve found ourselves in.
Wake us up in Babylonia with news that
the freeway to the promised land has been paved.
We’re ready to shake off our dust and roll.

If it’s not too much trouble, we’d like the drive
to be casual. None of this flat bread on our back
kind of situation. No time to pack the collectibles.
Give us a moment to say our farewells

to put in the forwarding address
to update the paint so we don’t lose our deposit
to tell the unclean, we’re so sorry, this wasn’t
going to workout anyway.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Everything’s Alright, Yes, Everything’s Fine – A Poem for Haftarah Re’eh by Rick Lupert

the earth is My footstool

This explains the smell in my neighborhood.
I don’t mind doing double duty as comfort
for the Almighty, but, please, Isaiah,
what’s the holy sock situation?

he who slaughters a lamb is
as though he beheads a dog

I couldn’t agree more. Enough slaughtering
of anyone with any amount of legs. That’s
personification, if you know what I mean.

Will I bring to the birth stool and
not cause to give birth?

I don’t want to put actions into Your mouth.
The truth is, You might do anything other
than what I’d like You to do. This is Your show.
We’re merely the ones You, sometimes,
see fit to console.

and your bones shall bloom like grass

This feels like something I’ll need to involve
my doctor and landscape maintainer in.
Those two have never collaborated,
to my knowledge, but I expect they’ll
blend it together like music and poetry.
I sense an elevation coming on.

For behold, the Lord shall come with fire

This explains what’s happening in California.
I’m not sure this is the kind of consoling we’ve
been looking for. When you look at our map,
it’s all orange and then the ocean. You’re
going to have to do more to convince me
this is a sign of the impending okay-ness
of everything.

…for their worm shall not die…

Finally! Something
for the worms!


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

COVER STORY: Forging Happiness

What is the Jewish Take on Happiness?

In trying to divine an answer to that question, I decided to examine what the Bible says on the subject. But first, I asked around to get a sense of what my fellow Jews thought.

“Who was the happiest character in the Bible?” I asked.
“Somebody was happy?” went a common reply.
“Define happy,” went another.

Here the problems start.

The Jewish tradition as presented in our founding texts, the Bible and the Talmud, is not a philosophic, reflective tradition. Generally speaking, Jewish scholars began to theorize on such subjects when confronted with the Greek philosophic tradition. Our greatest philosopher, Maimonides (1135-1204), openly admitted his debt to Aristotle and the Greek tradition. The Jewish tradition has a lot to say about “happiness,” but for definitions, we should start with the Greeks and their interpreters. 

The Greek word most often used for what we would call happiness is eudaimonia, which literally translates as “good spiritedness” but is often interpreted as “human flourishing” or “spiritual well-being.”

There is an ongoing study of “happiness as spiritual well-being” today that one could say is flourishing. The “Pursuit of Happiness” course at Yale University, developed in response to the perceived unhappiness of the student body, contains an excellent history of how happiness has been understood across cultures and throughout history. The course, a version of which is available online, reaches back to the thoughts of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; contemplates the philosophy of Buddhism; analyzes the views of American psychologist Abraham Maslow and Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl; and probes recent research rooted in neuropsychology, among other things. It then recommends practices that will lead to happiness.  

The consensus gathered by the course is that happiness as well-being is not found in a passing moment of pleasure or gratification, but rather is derived from a sustained sense of living a life of meaning and purpose through some activity “generated from the soul.” In other words, those who profess deep well-being don’t arrive there only from good fortune or anything generated from the outside world. A person can be wealthy, loved and admired, but despite it all, be miserable. Good fortune might set the stage for deep well-being, but does not guarantee it. 

The biblical adjective ashrei and hence the noun osher line up very well with the greatest teachings on authentic happiness, how authentic happiness has been understood through the ages and to the “positive psychology” movement today.

One of the most important contemporary thinkers on happiness, psychologist and educator Martin Seligman (whose teaching is rooted in Aristotle), says happiness consists of finding your “signature strengths,” honing them and using them effectively in the service of some higher purpose. For example, a person might discover that they find their greatest meaning in life through parenting. Being a good parent is not easy; great wisdom and virtue are required. There are pleasurable and even blissful moments, but a person’s signature strength as a parent might be manifested in how they handle moments of upset, disappointment or crisis. Having a sense of purpose and knowing that you are channeling that purpose into your life and the lives of others with wisdom (knowing what to do) and virtue (being able to do it) can create a life of extraordinary well-being.  

The Hebrew term for what Seligman calls “Authentic Happiness” (one of his book titles) — is osher (rhymes with kosher). In fact, the Hebrew translation of his book is titled “Osher Amiti” — “True Osher.”

However, the word osher is rare in the Bible; much more common is the adjective ashrei. 

From the Bible’s perspective, who has achieved the attribute ashrei? Anyone familiar with Jewish liturgy knows the answer: “Ashrei yoshvei veitekha” — “Ashrei are those who dwell in Your abode.” (Psalms 84:5)

Ashrei is usually and inadequately translated as “happy,” “fortunate” or “praiseworthy.” Let’s dig into the use of the word a bit, and then venture a translation.

Let’s start with who “dwells in God’s abode.” 

“Oh God, who shall dwell in Your tents; who shall inhabit your Holy Mountain? One who walks unblemished, doing justice, speaking truth in his heart . . .”  (Psalms 15:1-2)

Who else bears the attribute?

Ashrei is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is absolved. Ashrei is the one to whom God does not ascribe iniquity, and in whose spirit is no deception.” (Psalms 32:1-2)

Ashrei is the one whose strength is in You, (Your) set paths are in his heart. For those who pass through the Valley of Thorns, He has placed a wellspring; enveloping it with the blessed pools of the first rain.” (Psalms 84:6-7)

Ashrei are those on a wholehearted path, who walk in the teachings of God. Ashrei are those who guard God’s testimonies, who seek him with all their heart.” (Psalms 119:1-2)

A couple dozen more sources could be adduced, but the constellation of biblical verses containing the word ashrei suggests that dwelling in the abode of God refers not, of course, to actually living in the courtyards of the Holy Temple but to a type of spiritual consciousness. In that state of consciousness and generated from that state of consciousness, one lives a wholehearted, righteous and moral life. In that “abode,” one seeks and lives by the moral teachings of God. In that state of consciousness, one’s inner state is not defined by the outside world. The world out there might be dark and scabrous, but deep within, one lives wholeheartedly with the Divine. 

It should be clear: Ashrei does not (except in two cases) refer to the ritual law. As we know from Isaiah Chapter 1, God is disgusted with a person who observes the Sabbath and new moons, but who tramples on the poor. Ritual observance might be true, but it might only be superficial. Ashrei refers to a person who seeks God in the heart and whose inner life is connected with the moral law. God sees through superficial lip service. Whatever one’s level of observance, the appellation ashrei refers to moral character. 

“The path [to happiness] I teach involves four elements: vision, focused intentionality or will, skill and enlightened reflection.”

The biblical adjective ashrei and hence the noun osher line up very well with the greatest teachings on authentic happiness, how authentic happiness has been understood through the ages and to the “positive psychology” movement today. Moments of gratification and joy in life are good, but authentic happiness is defined by living in a sustained way with a sense of meaning and purpose, and living out God’s moral law. Ashrei, then, refers to something like this: living consciously and actively aligned to God’s teaching. 

The biblical notion of ashrei does seem to go against the grain of some of the more exalted religious ideas of happiness, reserved for the elite. Buddhism and the religious teachings of Al-Ghazali, Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas refer to a transcendent experience of ultimate reality. The adjective ashrei seems to eschew that notion. Ashrei refers to something that is not mystical and is not reserved for the elite. Ashrei means speaking truth in the heart, being moral and being conscious of the Divine, even in moments when life is especially hard.

Ashrei is about you.

 * * * * *

With all this in mind, let’s return to my opening question: Who was the happiest character in the Bible?

The answer seems clear: Job.

Let me explain.  

First, please understand that I see the Book of Job, and the Bible in general, as literature, not a chronicle. Even the historical sections are written with the pen of literary genius. The Book of Job is such a literary gem, and was written with a purpose. The characters — God, Satan, Job and Job’s erstwhile friends — are literary creations, created to reflect something profound about the human condition. Job, in his suffering, represents every person who has suffered terribly and been told that God (or the Universe) is just, and that therefore they must have done something wrong. 

Job is introduced to us as being from the land of Utz (Advice). He is blameless and upright, reveres God and turns aside from evil — in short, ashrei. 

From reading Chapters 1 and 2, we know that Job has not sinned. The profound sorrows inflicted upon him are the result of a wager between Satan and God. Satan bets that Job is moral and reverential only to derive God’s blessings (Satan seems to have read the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs). To prove that Job will remain moral and reverential, God permits Satan to afflict Job by taking away all of God’s blessings. After suffering unspeakable catastrophes, Job endures the eloquent if misguided arguments of his friends that he must have sinned. Job argues back over some 30 chapters (see Chapter 13 for the summary). Job insists: Yes, God is just, but I have not sinned. Job finally demands that God must answer (Job 31:35). 

Job did not fold — he insisted on the truth that he spoke from his heart.

God finally does speak, out of a whirlwind. However, God sidesteps the question as to whether Job deserves his misfortune, and instead questions Job, saying, “Who is this who gives darkened counsel (machshikh eitzah), words without understanding?” (Job 38:2) God then fulminates about God’s own power and wisdom. After this magnificent oratory, God asks, “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty give instruction? The one who reproves God must answer!” (Job 40:2)

Job admits he is deficient in knowledge (that’s his whole point): “What can I answer God? I’ll put my hand over my mouth and say no more.” Job said it once and he won’t say it again. It might have ended there, but God, is not done with Job and goes back to the awesome-power theme. God wants Job to admit that God has fearsome power — which Job does not deny. And God seems to want Job to infer from that power that he, Job, must have sinned. Job makes no inferences; he wants the truth and holds the line. 

Job finally takes his hand down from his mouth and issues his challenge. Now, what follows here are some of the most misinterpreted lines of the Bible. I want to thank Jack Miles, in his masterful book “God: A Biography,” for helping me to see these verses clearly, thereby changing the way I read the book of Job.

In Job 42:1-6, Job begins: “You know that you can do anything, and no purpose of yours can be withheld.” (The original Hebrew text says “You know,” not “I know.”) 

Job then paraphrases God’s ridicule of Job back in Chapter 38:2: “(You, God, ask:) Who is this who gives darkened counsel without understanding?” I, indeed, said things I did not understand, mysteries of which I had no knowledge.”

Job says, “Listen, and I will speak! (Job is paraphrasing himself from Chapter 13:6-7.) Job, now mimicking God from 38:3, says, “I’ll ask the questions, and you answer!” 

So Job now answers, in perhaps one of the most breathtaking verses in the Bible: “I heard about you, but now my eye has seen you. And I am disgusted, and I pity humanity.”

The Hebrew: Al ken em’as (“Therefore I am disgusted”), ve-nichamti (“and I pity”) al afar ve’efer (“upon dust and ashes,” a biblical metonym for mortal human beings).

Job has seen God, and seen through God. Job realizes that God cannot provide an answer as to the reasons for his suffering. Job realizes that, at least in this case, God is not just. Job is disgusted, perhaps for defending God so passionately. And Job pities the humanity subject to this God. 

How does God respond to this stunning and stinging rebuke? God says his wrath now burns against those who argued with Job! God tells Job’s interlocutors that they now must offer sacrifices and that Job will now pray for them, “for I will favor him because he did not join in your perversity, for you did not speak to me correctly, as did my servant Job.”

In essence, God finally admits that all those who said God was just and Job must have sinned were wrong, even perverse. The truth is extracted from God because Job, despite horrible calamity and suffering, does not “curse God and die” (as Job’s wife had recommended). Job holds the line. Job has honed resilience in the service of truth. 

There is another chapter in the Bible where God submits to a challenge — in the story of the daughters of Tzelofachad in Numbers Chapter 27. The daughters argue that the Torah’s inheritance laws are unfair. God accepts their claim and changes the law. As is written in the Sifrei (a midrash on the book of Numbers and Deuteronomy):

God says, “The Daughters of Tzelophachad did well in bringing their claim, for this is how the text is written on high. Ashrei is the one whose words are admitted by God.” (Sifrei on Numbers 27:7)

We can add to our definition of who merits the term Ashrei: one who demands of God an answer, and God answers.

Job was fearless and relentless. Job walked through the valley of death and darkness. Job traversed the Valley of Thorns. Job was indeed blameless and upright. He revered God enough to demand an answer. Job turned away from evil, but evil pursued him from an utterly random encounter between God and Satan. Job did not fold — he insisted on the truth that he spoke from his heart.

By any definition, ancient or modern, Job is the happiest character in the Bible. 

In sum, what is authentic happiness from a Jewish perspective? Living by your values, no matter what.

* * * * *

Yale’s Pursuit of Happiness course provides great wisdom on the nature of happiness and the practices instituted to achieve it. The Jewish tradition provides profound guidance on cultivating authentic happiness, as do other spiritual and religious traditions. So why are so many people so unhappy?

We know that internal happiness ultimately does not come from anything outside of us. Knowledge about authentic happiness won’t make you happy. Even the practices themselves won’t produce happiness, in my opinion. For example, one can act kindly but unconsciously expect gratitude. One might be committed to a full night’s rest but be deprived of it by night terrors. You may be committed to mindfulness and transcendence but have your thoughts interrupted by constant and painful distractions.

During my life, I have seen many wisdom and happiness programs come and go. I sadly predict that, five years from now, Yale’s approach will produce barely a yawn and most people will be working on the next new thing.

What is missing from all the wisdom and happiness programs that I have seen, ancient to modern, is this: attentiveness to the problems of psychological resistance and inner destructiveness, and to the deficiency of the will to fight them. 

If we look at the Book of Job as an allegory of the inner life, we all have a God and a Satan — divine and destructive elements — within us.  Sometimes our inner lives resemble the specter of Job. We aim to be upright and blameless, yet carry within us forces that can destroy us and hurt others. 

In sum, what is authentic happiness from a Jewish perspective? Living by your values,
no matter what.

As Genesis 6:5 tells us, our inner lives are continually influenced by thoughts shaped by evil. I list 10 such forces in my basic teachings in spiritual psychology: anger, resentment, unresolved grief, despair, guilt (including irrational obligation), shame, fear, anxiety, envy and destructive desire. I can list 10 more, but you get the idea.

What is it that banishes us from the house of God, makes us unable to transform the Valley of Thorns into a wellspring, makes us afraid and alone in the valley of darkness and death, stops us from living moral and upright lives, and prevents us from speaking the truth and standing up for it at all costs?

Human nature.

Solve that, and you can write a manual for happiness. 

We, the non-elites who are unable to detach from all into a life of compassion, or achieve bliss by pure knowledge of the Divine, will have to muddle through. You might aspire to the middle path between the extremes, as Aristotle and Maimonides suggest, but those extremes don’t let go so easily. 

I’ll share with you my approach to authentic happiness, to osher, eudaimonia.

The main practice — one not covered in the happiness course — is struggle, spiritual warriorship. If you don’t face and fight the destructive forces within, and if you don’t fund your decisions with prodigious amounts of will, all this work will get archived to some neglected corner of consciousness. 

The path I teach involves four elements: vision (chazon), focused intentionality or will (kavanah), specific skills (m’yumanut) and enlightened reflection (haskel).

Vision: First, one must have a clear, detailed vision of the person one wants to become. We ought to be able to list the virtues we want to acquire or strengthen, and the flaws we hope to diminish. “Wanting to be a better person” is not enough. We can yearn for authentic happiness, but we have to acknowledge in a detailed way the flaws we want to diminish. We should also have a clear and honest understanding of what our envelope for transformation is, and what that transformation would look like in relevant situations. In our tradition, the literature of Mussar (roughly, Jewish moral psychology) is a treasure house of wisdom regarding virtues to hold and flaws to release.

Intention or will: One must have a clear, strong intention or will to acquire those virtues and to struggle against forces within us that want to keep us trapped in our patterns of destructiveness. As in most difficult work, the will evaporates when we encounter resistance. We have tremendous will for so many things that might come easy to us — our work, our leisure, our political passions, controlling (or hiding from) others. The will to be a better spouse or parent, for example, often dissipates in the face of hurt, difficulty or the complexity of being morally present, in a sustained way, to another human being — or to God. Mastery of the will is required. 

Specific skills: One must acquire the specific skills for acquiring or strengthening virtues, weakening flaws and facing down the shape of destructiveness within. There are specific interventions for each of the 10 flaws listed above, but these interventions and rewiring of consciousness require daily, sedulous work. I have notified many counseling clients that if they don’t engage in a daily practice, I can’t work with them anymore. They can’t just stand there peering through the window of the house of God. They must batter down the wall impeding their entry. 

Enlightened reflection: And last, for now, we need a certain enlightened, evaluative reflection, the practical knowledge to set markers of behavioral change, inner and outer. We must be able to measure and reflect on our work, to protect us from yet another act of self-delusion. 

There is a Jewish idea of authentic happiness, and there is a path — often rocky and dark and inhabited by demons that will our demise. Find your inner Job and suffer through the pain of resistance to live a life of truth. That is the Jewish path to happiness.


Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California.

The Divine Ink of Forever – A Poem for Haftarah Eikev by Rick Lupert

You have to take the good with the bad.
The ups with the downs. The sickness with the health
The exile with the occupation.

You have to understand sometimes
you’ll spend time apart, sometimes you’ll
spend time together when you’d rather be apart.

Sometimes, the two of you in the same room
is better than a free chocolate fountain. Better than
a perpetual pool-side vacation.

You have to know sometimes you’ll feel abandoned
when it’s really just a matter of scheduling. Sometimes
you’ll want more of the air to breathe yourself

and there’s the other party taking up their
share of oxygen in the very same room. Sometimes
you’ll have to change the diaper when you were

the last one to change the diaper and you were
sure it couldn’t possibly have been your turn.
This is a partnership. This is ongoing.

It couldn’t be any more forever than this.
That ring on your finger, that pillar of smoke
you followed in the desert. That Ketubah

you signed is still hanging and you can see it
on the wall, all the way back home, all the way
from this exile, all the way reminding you

that ink you used – It’s divine.
It never erases.
It never will.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.