Torah Study Notes 9-26-15


September 26, 2015

RB: A letter received from Mazon – the Jewish response to hunger – in response to her inquiry. No reason for the suggested three  percent – just used the “Goldilocks” approach.

See Page 1389 From last week’s Torah portion. We will read the entire portion – a poem – and then discuss it in its entirety. “You are soon to lie with your ancestors…” A prediction as to the problems that will afflict the people because of their turning to other gods. Write down this poem and teach it to the people. The natural reaction to bad things happening is to think that God has abandoned them or  that they may reject God altogether. Note that the word “Ashtier” is the basis for Esther – which means hidden.  It also relates to Ishtar – the Babylonian God. This reinforces the Deuteronomy philosophy that God will punish you and hide his face from you. Countenance here does not literally mean God’s face – it refers to His presence or teachings. The entire community will be blessed or punished. This is communal.

  1. 1400 A witness against Israel – a testimony or record of what is going to happen. This is really a retrospection of a later generation trying to explain why they are in exile. See Essays at page 1409. Read continuously through parsha 51. A very sophisticated poem written by someone very well educated. Words are used with multiple meanings – as in Shakespeare. The various meanings of “rock” for example. There is much parental imagery here with warnings. There Is also maternal imagery in line 13 “nursing them with honey…” Also “ …the God who brought you forth…” Note that there are groups today that believe that the Holocaust was divine retribution for assimilation or equate terrorist attacks the same way.  Ancient Israel was likely no more monolithic as a society that is Israel today. Obviously, there were individuals or even groups doing some of the things that are here proscribed or criticized. SF: This poem comes from a place of compassion and offers free will or choice to the reader.  Here are set forth the angels and demons within us.  RB: Rock is used eight times in this portion – as a stone – as the God of Israel – the pagan god – as a nurturer – as a source of stability.

Note that Moses makes this speech and then blesses the tribes. This is the last Torah portion that is read on Shabbat.  Richard Elliot Friedman identifies this poem with one of the  Deuteronomic authors – promoting coming to the Temple and not worshiping other gods. The next poem is from  attributed to another Deuteronomist author by him.  It is likely that each author had his own agenda and the Redactor tried to make these various works into a coherent whole. See: How the Bible Became a Book by William M. Schneidewind. Review: For the past two hundred years Biblical scholars have usually assumed that the Hebrew Bible was essentially written and edited in the Persian and Hellenistic periods (the fifth-through-second centuries BCE) Recent archaeological evidence and insights from linguistic anthropology, however, point to the earlier era of the late-Iron Age (eighth-through-sixth centuries BCE) as the formative period for the writing of biblical literature. How the Bible Became a Book combines recent archaeological discoveries in the Middle East with insights culled from the history of writing to address how the Bible was written and evolved into sacred Scripture. Written for general readers as well as scholars, the book provides rich insight into how these texts came to possess the authority of Scripture and explores why Ancient Israel, an oral culture, began to write literature. It describes an emerging literate society in ancient Israel that challenges the assertion that literacy first arose in Greece during the fifth century BCE. William M. Schneidewind is Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA. He is the author of The Word of God in Transition (Sheffield Academic Press, 1995) and Society and the Promise to David.

These are documentary hypothesis. The Rabbi’s have done considerable work trying to fill in the gaps.  SF: Is this conflict still going on? RB: Yes as to the origins of the texts. There are also arguments as to what is central to Judaism. The Reform movement believes that social justice is central. Chabad wants to get as many people as possible to perform ritual mitzvoth so as to encourage the coming of the Messiah. Prayer was originally intended to be a conversation with God. It has become for some a conversation with one’s community or even an internalized conversation with one’s self. We do not take away from this text – we comment or even retranslate. It is the translations that cause wide differences and often are actually interpretations.

A URJ Camp Experience will Change a Jewish Child’s Life for the Better!

URJ Camps are delighted to have the opportunity to present at Vassar Temple about how Crane Lake, Eisner Camps and 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy are priceless unique experience for Jewish children. The presentation is scheduled for Vassar Temple:

Date: 11/13/2015
Time: 7:30 PM

URJ camps offer a unique Jewish experience for children that is complimentary to their religious school education. We blend informal education with sports, arts, and cultural events to create an all-encompassing Jewish experience.

Programs for children currently in grades 2-10 are offered. Because Vassar Temple is a URJ congregation, the URJ can offer our members scholarship opportunities if they are in need.

The URJ is are also offering a “taste of camp” opportunity at our New and Prospective Camper Weekend from October 2–4, 2015 for children currently in grades 2-5. The cost of the weekend is $200, inclusive of linen, meals and all supplies. A wonderful value, on top of a fantastic experience!!

If prospective families register for camp prior to January 1, 2016, we will credit $100 towards their child’s camp fees. Please share this information with your eligible congregants. Registration for the New and Prospective Camper Weekend can be found online here.

If you have any questions don’t hesitate to call our office.

Brett Hausler
Assistant Director, Crane Lake Camp

URJ Eisner & Crane Lake Camps
Ph: 201-722-0400 Fax: 201-722-0444

URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy
Ph: 857-246-8677 Fax: 857-241-3180


Vassar Temple President’s High Holy Day Speech 2015 (5775-5776)

Bob Ritter Photo

Delivered on Rosh Hashanah 9/14/15
By Bob Ritter

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, Sh’hecheyanu, V’Kiyemanu, V’Higianu LaZman HaZeh. Praised are You, the Eternal One our God, Ruler of the Cosmos, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.

And thank you, our members and supporters for helping Vassar Temple to reach now. One might say, to keep the Ner Tamid light on. I remember Seth Erlebacher saying when he became President how impressed he was by all the people who run things at Vassar Temple. Committee chairs, event planners, and volunteers, religious school teachers, officers and Trustees, staff and contractors. Their names appear in our bulletin, our reminders, on our website, Facebook and blog pages. And some are anonymous, doing mitzahs quietly for the pure satisfaction of righteous acts. Thank you all!

And now, I appreciate the privilege to share my thoughts about VT’s transition from the year 5775 to 5776. I’ve titled my thoughts,

Riding the Light – A Balancing Act

I quote, “In a small patch of sky researchers say they have glimpsed the beginning of time. They have found the faint microwave glow of when the universe was one trillionth of one trillionth of one trillionth seconds old. Or maybe, they found something scientists cannot explain.”

In his poem, “Evidence of Holiness” Alden Solovy says,

Suppose G-d
Plays hide and seek
Among the stars

Could it be,
Could it be,

That the Painter,
The Composer,
The Sculptor,
The Author of all Being,

Left us a trace of glory
For us to find –
Using ripples in the
Fabric of the cosmos?

“In Jewish mysticism, this primordial light—what cosmologists might call the Big Bang—is synonymous with God, or ein sof, “a boundless, endless light,” says Rabbi Daniel Matt, a renowned Kabbalah scholar.

A familiar Jewish mystical image involves the overwhelming energy of God’s light shattering the vessel that held it and scattering into countless “holy sparks” that spread throughout the universe. The mystical tradition of “raising the holy sparks” refers to the Jewish mandate of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

Light seems to infuse everything Jewish, both physically and metaphorically. Each expression of light in Judaism is a manifestation of the primordial light, the light of God. The righteous people (tzadikim) in the Garden of Eden are said to “bask in the light of Shekhinah [the Divine presence],” and in Psalms (27:1) G-d is described as “my light and my salvation”.

Einstein imagined riding on a light beam. And in doing so “The dividing line between past, present, and future became an illusion”. Light is a time traveler. So when we ride light we ride time. When we ride the light, we balance ourselves between the past and the future.

Where we came from is not necessary where we are going to. But where we come from will always be with us. Moses was speaking to US TOO on the plains of Moab before the Israelites entered the promised land. The light and our covenant is timeless.

Yet no matter how far back you look, or ahead you try to see, life is lived in the middle, better know as – NOW. The only sure thing about the future is, it isn’t here yet! Which is why we have the opportunity to make some choices about it NOW!

NOW, for the last few years, has been a balancing act. When one is balancing themselves in a physical sense, we hold out our arms. A tight rope walker carries a long pole. But when we’re riding the light, trying to find a balance, we need to reach out to the past on one side and to the future on the other. In the context of Vassar Temple, we have to reach back to the reasons VT survived 167 years, and forward to a vision of what will make us a meaningful congregation for a couple in their late twenties or early thirties starting a family and looking to their future. To members like Lila Matlin and Elaine Lipschutz and to members like Dan & Shira Teich, the Sinns, and the Rolands.

NOW, this place in the the middle of time, is a time of transition for Vassar Temple. A transition filled with many choices. A time for decisions. A time to confront the obsolescence that time causes, as we seize the opportunities it offers.

Your Temple Officers and Board understand this. Time took its toll. We have done a lot these last few years to make up for that. A new boiler, mitigated flooding with a drainage system and additional sump pumps, new AC components, we refurbished classrooms, our East Chapel and Balcony, renovated our kitchen, abated mold and asbestos. Led lighting is being planned to reduce our electric bill and our carbon footprint. We’ll install heating elements to deal with ice build up which damaged our roof and caused leaks. We hope to give our social hall a face lift this year and offer it to you as an extremely affordable venue for special family occasions such as major anniversaries and milestone birthday’s, bar & bat mitzvah celebrations, and more. Please plan ahead and, won’t it be nice to combine Rabbi’s blessing with your life’s blessings.

I dream of a patio garden connected to our front portico where there are two huge bushes today. A patio where we can gather and schmooze, for example when we pour out of HHD services, or wait for our children or grandchildren in school. And where a Sunday school teacher can take their students on a nice day to sing songs.

Time has led to other changes and opportunities. We’ve seen the retirement of Rabbi Golomb and welcomed Rabbi Berkowitz. We are strengthening ourselves through inclusivity as interfaith families and the LGBT community enjoy full rights and acceptance here. We redid our website and expanded our use of social media. We hired a new office manager, organized our office, and better leverage software. We’re updating our bylaws. We will enjoy new musical sounds aided by our new electric piano thanks to a gift provided by the Lipschutz fund.

And sometimes we need to make time. We are committed to attracting new members and new leadership. (I can think of 4 new families this past couple weeks.) We just need more people to say Heneni, here I am! Here I am, to chair a committee or help with its mission. Here I am to sing, learn, or pray. Here I am to provide my children a Jewish identity. Here I am to help Vassar Temple in other ways.

We also need to be out in the community saying here we are! Here we are to help you discover or rediscover the beauty and greatness of Judaism, and in the process find a new family ready to greet you with loving acceptance.

We also have heard you! We are refocusing on our religious school. We are seeking ways to make the spiritual life at Vassar Temple even more meaningful. Again, we have heard you, and we are determined to make the temple as affordable as possible.

Perhaps the most profound and proud achievement during my time as one of your Temple’s leadership is something you have been looking at. Our Stained Glass Windows. Which we restored this summer. And will be dedicated this coming Hanukkah.

To do so, we reached back to the past, to the families for whom the windows were dedicated, the Matlin’s and the Gross’s, and to my VT religious school classmates, the Effron children, in order fund the restoration that would allow light to stream through these magnificent works of art again.

These Stained Glass Windows (in our sanctuary) are a time portal. To me they symbolize the light that the Devine gave the world, the light that is the Jewish people, the light of the love that was the inspiration for the windows, Dr. Melvin Matlin, and the love that funded the windows in the first place, and that built and sustains this temple. As one looks out through those windows they are a prism through which we should see the world. We can imagine the future as a better place by virtue of the Jewish values they stand for when we step outside this temple to be as it says in the Book of Isaiah, “A light unto the nations,” (l’goyim). And, when one is outside, coming down our walk, and one day through the patio garden, trying to look in through these windows, if you really look, you can see the soul (neshama) of Vassar Temple.

Now, please, look up over our ark. See the Ner Tamid, (which is a gift of the Matlin family). It is a symbol of Israel’s ancient temple, and God’s eternal and imminent presence. Who keeps that symbolic and real light of Judaism lit? Does God keep that light lit, or do we? We do!! Through our deeds of loving kindness – chesed. As well as from a practical, yet still religious standpoint, through our contributions and gifts, as God commanded us to in Deuteronomy.

Last year, at this very time from this very spot, I finished my president’s speech by saying, all that matters, all that matters, is that being a Jew matters to you. In my final Rosh Hashanah speech as your temple president, I want to append to that. If being a Jew matters to you, then this temple does too. Because this temple is those windows. It is the Ner Tamid. It is the light. It is the past, and it is the future. It is the NOW!

Finally, someone I was communicating with recently was trying to make a distinction between prayer, blessing and the mystic’s attempt to commune with God. He told me “To pray, is to summon Divine light. To bless, is to attempt to bend that light toward holy purpose, including consolation, healing, joy and peace. Communion is the attempt to enter that light.”

And with that concept on our mind I’d like to conclude with (excerpts from) a poem by Alden Solovy he calls: Inside the Light

A rainbow shines
Inside the light.
If you could be the dew drop
You would always see it.

Stillness waits
Inside the light.
If you could be the sky
You would always feel it.

The sunrise dawns
Inside the light.
If you could be the horizon
You would always find it.

Freedom flows
Inside the light.
If you could be the wind
You would always ride it.

Your soul glows
Inside the light.
If you could be yourself
You would never leave it.

Shana TOVA!

Bob Ritter

Torah Study Notes 9-12-15

September 12, 201

Page 1372

This portion is typically read the weekend before Yom Kippur. It is Moses last speech emphasizing the importance of the covenant. The middle of the portion has been omitted by the Reform movement – for reasons which we will explore today.

29:9 You stand this day before the Eternal your God…  Note the stranger who dwells among you… at the time one could not convert to Judaism. This is a merismus ( a biblical poetry form that describes a range of persons – usually from the highest to the lowest. LL “…from wood chopper to water drawer…” does not seem to be much of a range. RB:  It is not clear if conversions could occur at the time of Babylonian exile or if this prohibition against intermarriage was an interpretation of the rabbi’s after the fact. The Hebrew “Hayom” here has a dual meaning as to “this day” – it can refer to the time of exile as well as the time of those standing on the banks of the Jordon. See handout sheet “Who is God Talking To”  – as to who is in and who is out of the covenant. The rabbi’s felt that there needed to be a verse to support any rule. They looked for a verse that says that a convert must obey the same rules as one who is born a Jew. “..and those who are not here with us today.” Finding no such specific language they came to their own conclusions.

(See Shmot Rabbah 28:2 on the handout.  Thus shall thou say to the House of Jacob. There is a stated difference between what can be apprehended between men and woman. Here we are looking at the second generation myth from Genesis. The Rabbi is hence giving primacy to men on the basis of Adam’s first creation. The woman carry the sin of Eve – according to the Rabbis. Woman broke the world. However, the tools that these early rabbi’s  used to interpret Torah are different than the tools we use in the modern world. )

29:15 The Eternal blots out their name… for those who turn away from the Eternal our God. When the Reform movement omits this it has to do both with length as well as ideology. Here “I never will forgive such individual…” suggests that there cannot ever be effective repentance. This would not be acceptable in the Reform movement. Is this central to Reform theology? We cannot have a theology that just tells each individual to follow their hearts. Note that there is no one who is practicing Judaism as it is written in either the Torah or the Talmud. All Judaism is to some degree adaptive.

29:20 As for such clan or tribe… devastation for those who turn to the service of other gods. The phrase “As is still the case…” is a clue to the fact that this is exilic. A time later than the events described. The Prophets felt that those who had been exiled could come back to Jerusalem – the exile was sufficient punishment.

29:28 Concealed acts concern the Eternal… but the community has responsibility for punishing the wrongdoer.  This works best in the context of criminal activity. See footnote on page 1375 as to the potential later insertion of this parsha.

30:1 is not included in the usual reading on the High Holidays. SamF: It should be included. It shows God’s compassion – not just his wrath. It helps cultivate humility and the notion that actions have consequences. LL: Compare this to the Book of Job – where misfortune is external to the individual whereas here it arises from sin – rejection of God’s law. Our behavior will ultimately reap reward or punishment but is still subject to the vagaries of chance. See: Why Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner.

30:11 Keep God’s rules that you may thrive – but if your heart turns away you shall perish. Choose life. Here is a general statement of action and consequences without the specifics.  The message of the High Holy Days is that you are essentially good but you can be better – you can change. “I am dust and ashes” or “the whole world was created for my sake.”

Rabbi Berkowitz’s Overview: The primary difference between Jewish denominations today has to to with their relationship to Halakah – Jewish Law. Ancient Judaism is not practiced today. Halakah has and continues to evolve. There is constant reinterpretation. The more orthodox are closer to 18th C. but they use modern technology. The Modern Orthodox try to adhere to Halakah; live in the modern world but adapt modernity so as to live a Jewish life. Hasidim follow a Rebbe and his interpretations and the customs that he ordains.  The Conservative movement is more adaptable to modernity – and is beginning to accept the ordination of woman or gay and lesbian rabbi’s with the caveat that they will perform their roles like the men.  The Reconstructionist say that the past has a vote but not a veto in modern Jewish life. Reform is choice with knowledge. We don’t need the approval of the Halakah to change with modernity. This also applies to the treatment and acceptance of the gay and lesbian community. Note that in Reform each rabbi makes their own decisions as to who they will marry. RB  will not co-officiate at a wedding. However, she welcomes interfaith families.

RB will be offering a class on Mishnah every Tuesday night at 7PM.

Torah Study Notes 9-5-15


September 5, 2015

Page 1351

Moses is still in the same pace on the banks of the Jordan. But now we have his recital of blessings and curses – more of the latter. They are characterized by “ If –than” statements leading to punishment. We like to think of God loving us unconditionally but these parshas emphasize that there are rules. Christians sometimes refer to the Old Testament God and the New Testament God as pertaining to the rules that must be obeyed. The prayers of the High Holy days originated in times of drought and the advent of rain – or no rain – as a blessing or punishment. In many parts of the country Israel does not have rain until Succoth.

26:12 When you have set aside the tenth part of your yield… A blessing in return for adherence to the rules governing sharing with the Levites and the burial rituals. Some of the rules were designed to distinguish these people from the societies surrounding them. Unlike the Egyptians nothing is to be buried with the dead. In most western societies, up until about 200 years ago, weddings and other celebrations were open to everyone. That is still true in some easter countries such as India where weddings can be very large. There were no place cards at each table. See Deuteronomy 13:28 which suggests a different tithe earmarked for a different  group. There are other portions that address caring for the poor. Today one response is Mazon – A Jewish response to hunger.

26:16 The Eternal your God commands you this day to observe these laws… MS: Why is it important to observe with one’s heart and soul?  RB: In the ancient times it was thought that the heart was the seat of the intellect – not the brain. Soul is also one’s breath. As to fame etc. note that sin and glory are shared by the community.  Note also that forgiveness must come from the injured party as well.

27:1 Moses charged the people…as soon as you have crossed the Jordan…. Set up large stones on Mt. Ebal and build an altar… inscribe the words of this teaching. SF: It is remarkable how much action is to be taken as a community. That is one of the central lessons for us as Jews today.  What are they inscribing? RB: Probably only the Book of Deuteronomy. Buber talks about the unhewn stones that  are the prayers of our hearts. Temples constructed in modern times frequently have a wall of Jerusalem Stone. Note that hewn stone may have previously been used for other inappropriate purposes – such as a pagan temple.

27: 11 Thereupon Moses charged the people… Cursed be anyone who makes a molten image accursed by the Eternal. Many curses after which we say “amen.” This is an affirmance of what is said. What is common here is maintaining the sacred nature of the family and maintaining the family unit. This is not an exhaustive list. Much of this list are activities likely done in secret. There is also the element of taking advantage of someone who cannot speak out publically about what has happened to them. The role of woman at the time was such as to make it very difficult to report a rape by a son or a brother. There are other things forbidden elsewhere in the Torah. These are twelve things that are specifically prohibited.  LL: Consider the legal distinction of  malum en se and malum prohibitum in the law. One is essentially wrong and the other is made wrong by the law – such as smoking marijuana.  HF: How is the decision made as to which tribes will be on the mountain to receive the blessing? See footnote 12 on p. 1353. Note as well that much of this retrospective and is being edited from a place of exile. Accordingly, it is a “look back” with knowledge of outcomes as to the success of each tribe.

28: 1-6  The blessings for adherence to the Law. This is a communal.

RB read  a poem by  Aldan Solovy about blessings. See:

See also essay on Blessings and Curses on p. 1363 “Blessings and Curses were closely bound to a belief in the power of speech, and both were frequently amplified by precisely circumscribed acts.”

Where has the Summer gone?

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob,
your encampments, O Israel!

Numbers 24

Hello Everyone!

The summer offers a special opportunity for our temple. When school is out, things are quiet and there is less going on at the temple. It is a perfect time for “sharpening the saw.” And, so many of us did!

Rabbi used what summer she had since July very productively! With the help of “Transition,” many connections were made. The reception Rabbi is getting with Torah study is fantastic. Ritual was very busy, rethinking ways to make the spiritual life at Vassar Temple more meaningful. The music committee was also very active – and our new “sound” and melodies are going to be a delight! Sherrie and the office did a lot of things with data, budget entry, and more. Together with the Finance Committee, the serious business of the temple is being thoughtfully attended too at the start of the new fiscal year. Sherrie also took it upon herself to put an amazing amount of extra effort into organizing our classrooms. (Above & beyond the call of duty.) Shaari Roland jumped right into her new role as chair of the RS committee – helping to make decisions with the lower level classrooms and organizing a special “first day of school” program, to which the Men’s Club traditional Sukkah raising and Sisterhood activities on the same day are a perfect compliment! The House Committee finished important large projects and researched and obtained bids for other needed work to make our “tent” more beautiful and functional. Lay leaders and volunteers produced wonderful services throughout the summer. Publicity/Marketing was effective at promoting greater awareness in social media and creating a new email distribution system. They even redid the Service handout. Improvements to our hallway bulletin boards, another communication medium, are coming right up! We organized a presence at Jewish Heritage Day at Dutchess Stadium thanks to our Youth Group advisory team, the Teich’s. Need I say that Marian Schwartz and Social Action have been hard at work too? (I think you know that!) Michele Sinn, our new Library Chair (I like to say Librarian) has been formulating her plans for making the Reifler Libary a more integrated part of temple life as she has her work cut out for her in just straightening it out. (I have faith in Michele!) We have a new Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guide thanks in large part to Michele which is going to be a great resource for Rabbi Berkowitz to use with this year’s large group of b’nai mitzvah! There is more I could list, so please don’t anyone feel overlooked!!!

Yes, a lot has been accomplished. The Summer WAS a great opportunity – but now we are “back-to-school.” Time for the children to learn and see the ways our religious education programs have improved.

The start of the school year, and the start of the Jewish New Year, is not a time to let up! There is much we can do to make the coming year a sweeter and better year. Just keep saying HENENI and let’s show the community that Vassar Temple is where they belong!!

Shana Tova!

Bob Ritter
Vassar Temple