Torah Study 9-22-18

Page 1400

Biblical poetry.

Jerry Slate joins the group.

Moses is about to die. The Hebrew here is very challenging. This is one of the two major poems in the Torah. Dating is also challenging. See commentary of Jeffery Tigay. Sometimes called the Torah’s lawsuit. There is a treaty and witnesses. This doesn’t mention many of the items covered in Deuteronomy. The focus here is not on exile – which is the focus of Deuteronomy. D was likely written considerably after the Babylonian exile and after the annihilation of the Northern Kingdom. This more likely 12th to 11th C, B.C.E.  . A copy of this poem was found at Kumaran and is mentioned by Josephus as part of ancient Jewish life.  Note the presence of merism – describing two extremes – and parallelism. LL Was this chanted? Consider the Rabbinic Voice. See NYT article.

“…The voice is the intricate product of a multi-pronged historical process.

According to this explanation, the voice is a side effect of a life of intense religious study. Because neither the Torah nor the Talmud is punctuated, students learn to add intonation with vocal emphasis. Which is why so many rabbis end sentences on a rise.

“Long ago, that phrasing was translated into everyday language by Ashkenazi Jews, then brought into English,” Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College, told me. “It’s so common that even newcomers to the community pick it up,” she added, presumably meaning mothers-in-law, converts, Hollywood agents, “sometimes intentionally, sometimes unknowingly.”

32:4 The imagery here is of parent and guardian. This describes the relationship between G and Israel.  See the Woman’s Commentary here. There is nurturing here. Possible woman author?

See line 8 which is “divisions of humanity” in a later edition of Plaut. This seems to be more reflective of modern Reform ideas – rather than divisions into race as in this translation. See Dr. Weiss commentary on this section – G allocates lesser deities to other peoples.  See “…no alien god alongside.” In the service there appears the phrase “there is no other god like you…” Monalatry is not pure monotheism as we think of it today.

32:15 We have just heard about the blessing of the land; the people grew fat and course – bloated and engorged. “You neglected the Rock who begot you.”  “I will hide my countenance from them.”

32:19  Gods reaction is punishment. Here are warrior images. Verse 20 – hiding God’s face. Because they have pushed God away. “Let God shine his countenance upon you..” is a phrase at the end of the service. The same word in Hebrew for “face” and “countenance” suggest and intense presence. The word is used by God when Moses ascends Mt. Sinai.

32:26 The other nations gain confidence by virtue of the peoples misconduct. There will be a terrible punishment but the people are not entirely wiped out. The punishment is not forever – it is a cleansing process. There will be redemption. Chastising with love is the traditional explanation.   LL This sounds retrospective. It is a description of what happened to the people and their survival. PC: How does this help us ethically? Rabbi – Not the intended lesson here by the writer at the time. If we were writing this today it would be different. PC: Can we come away that punishment in anger is morally wrong? Rabbi – that is not what it is saying. Anger can be a positive force. AS: There is a common notion that ours is a vengeful God. Christians argue that theirs is a loving God. CL later: Read Bart Ehrman’s  book The Triumph of Christianity – How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World; and  Ehrman points out that Christianity aggressively destroyed the other religions of Rome and there was considerable struggle, as well as anger and violence, within the faith itself as is evidenced by the letters of Paul.

LL: It is also worthwhile to note that a Freudian interpretation may be that the Torah is to some extent a discussion with ourselves and others. See:

“…in his last completed book, “Moses and Monotheism,” something new emerges. There Freud, without abandoning his atheism, begins to see the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud starts to recognize the poetry and promise in religion.”

“He argues that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. He also suggests that faith in God facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection possible.”



Torah Study 9-15-18

September 15, 2018

Page 1436

Haftarah readings. See references to Assyria – this has to do, in part, with the Northern Kingdom. It has been conquered but there is still hope of return.

14:02 Attributed to Hosea.

Very poetic. Images for an agrarian people. A promise to take the people back after they have turned away. This was delivered orally. LL: There is an unfortunate tendency to think that we are smarter than people in ancient times. Not so. This biblical poetry suggests a more erudite group who could use and understand metaphor. It is not entirely clear exactly what ‘iniquity” refers to here. Is it apostasy? Or is their an assumption of iniquity arising from the loss to the Assyraians?

7:18 Attributed to Micah. You will subdue our sins and cast them into the depths of the sea. Hence, the modern ceremony of casting away one’s sins.  This is a loving and forgiving G.   Is the sin cast out or subdued? The former is more of a Christian notion and the latter Jewish. Our tendency to sin is inherent – part of being a human being – and must be controlled. Note that the theology here is of omniscience. God is all powerful and is equally responsible for good and evil. Compare the Book of Job which is chronologically later. Some early rabbis say Job was among those who returned from the Babylonian exile in 538 BCE, which was about seven centuries after Moses supposed death. Others note that the book is written in a strange form of Hebrew, in archaic language, In any event it is a theological treatise or discussion. See:

21:15 Sound the shofar of Zion. Sanctify a fast day….I will remove the northerner far from you, and drive it to a land parched and desolate…never again to be put to shame. LL The word “shame” is problematic in its implication. Why should we care what other nations think? To be shamed suggests blaming the victim. Job is not shamed – he is steadfast. See Milton Steinberg and Harold Kushner on a more limited theism. God “withdrew” to create the universe. See: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

AF: What was the role of the prophets? Rabbi: They were often outsiders who challenged authority. Note that the rabbi’s developed the notion of an afterlife in response to the diaspora and martyrdom of leaders like Akiba. Remember that Judaism is more than monotheism – it is ethical monotheism. The rabbinic model is that love can make us better as a people.


“Saying Hineini Across the Divide”, Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon, Rabbi Renni Altman

(Posted for Rabbi Renni Altman)

“Saying Hineini Across the Divide”
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779
Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Jack was an atheist, but he went to synagogue religiously, every Saturday morning.  His grandson watched this and knowing his grandfather’s strong feelings, was very confused.  Finally, one day he asked him, “Grandpa, I don’t understand it.  You say you are an atheist, but you go to synagogue every week.  How can you pray if you don’t believe in God?  Jack answered, “My boy, I don’t go to synagogue to talk to God; I go to synagogue to talk to Goldberg.”

Religion is really about relationships.  That is especially true in Judaism.  If one Hebrew word could capture the essence – and sometimes challenges – of being in real relationship, it is the word Hineini – one word that means “Here I am.”

Some of you may remember this word from Hebrew school as the answer when the teacher took attendance – Hineini – meaning simply, I’m here, I’m present. In the Bible, the term Hineini takes on much greater significance.  Altogether, Hineini appears fouorteen times in the Hebrew Bible.  Three of those instances are in the powerful Torah reading we read this morning, the

Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, including the very first time that this phrase is uttered.  Though Abraham appears on the scene much earlier, it is only here, when he is called to his last and most challenging of ten trials that his relationship with God is put to its greatest test.

With the first Hineini, Abraham responds to God’s call, without even knowing what he would be asked to do.  It is a statement of absolute readiness to act on behalf of another.

With the second Hineini, Abraham responds to the call of his son, “Avi – My father” as they walk up the mountain together.  It is the response of one who is present for another, even in times of great stress and difficulty.  Abraham does not reveal the potential horrors of what lies ahead, concerned here only for his son.

With the third Hineini, Abraham responds to the call of the angel stopping him from committing the unthinkable. So intent is Abraham on fulfilling his understanding of God’s word that the angel must call out to him twice, “Avraham, Avraham!” Here, Hineini is the response of one awakening to the reality of what he is about to do.  It is the response of one who is trying to be fully present in two roles:  Abraham, the believer, present to God, while at the same time to be Abraham, the father, present to his son, Isaac.

In his study of the meaning of Hineini, Dr. Norman Cohen, professor of midrash at HUC-JIR, concludes: “Hineini, in part, has to do with sacrificing for the other, and every time it appears it forces us to consider the nature of our relationships.”[1]  He posits three primary meanings to the response Hineini:  one; it indicates an ability to be present for and receptive to others; two, it indicates a readiness to act on behalf of others; and, three, it indicates a willingness to sacrifice for someone or something higher.

During these Yamim Noraim, as we reflect on our lives and consider where we have missed the mark, most of us, I’m sure, think first and foremost about the various relationships in our lives and where, too often, we feel that we may have fallen short of our best.  We strive to say Hineini, “I’m here for you” with full integrity in all of our relationships but we know how challenging that can be, even in the best of circumstances.  Life’s demands pull us in so many directions. What family with working parents doesn’t struggle to achieve that ever-elusive work life balance?  The normal ups and down of family dynamics test us at different points in our lives, in some painful cases to an extreme.  We want to be present but the other person isn’t ready or able to let us in; or, we don’t yet know how to be present in a way that they need.  We try to be there for our friends, but we can get so caught up in our lives, that we sometimes lose track of what is going on with others.

As a community, this congregation tries very hard to say Hineini to its members.  Through organized efforts such as the Reyut and Nachamu committees, we have set up structures to support one another through times of illness and loss.  Each Shabbat we share birthdays, anniversaries, and other personal simchas, creating an opportunity to connect and share in one another’s joys as well.  In the small gatherings that were held this summer and through numerous conversations I’ve had with people, I’ve heard very powerful stories from those for whom this community has truly become their “family” and about how this congregation has supported them through the most painful of times.  Of course, no one and no institution is perfect; surely, we have missed the mark at times and for this I would apologize to those who may have been hurt as we try to learn from past mistakes.  I would encourage those who remain on the periphery to become more engaged in the life of the congregation that you might benefit from the full sense of community that this congregation that strives to say Hineini to its members can offer to you.

This morning I want to focus on a particular challenge that we are facing in saying Hineini to one another that is impacting the nation as a whole, religious communities, our relationships at work and even our families.  I’m speaking of the ever-widening political divide in this country where people are less and less able to respond “hineini” – I can listen and be here for you – to those across the divide; in a growing number of cases, it seems, people cannot respond to one another at all.  This gap is eroding our society as a whole, leading to escalating negative attacks on one another, to dysfunctional government, and to divided communities, destroyed friendships and broken families.

An article in the New York Times from just a few weeks ago described some of these situations: “A couple in Georgia, married two decades, won’t speak when the husband leaves his unwashed mug supporting President Trump in the sink; his wife refuses to touch it. A teenager eating at a Texas fast food restaurant had his “Make America Great Again” hat ripped off his head and a drink thrown in his face. A mother in New England sought the help of professional conflict mediators during the holidays because her two daughters — one who was pro-Trump, the other anti-Trump — had stopped speaking to each other.”

We know that concerns about “the great American divide” are not new to this unique time period in American history.  Nonetheless, it feels as though we are at one of our lower points in national discourse and there doesn’t seem to be a way forward.

Studies by the Pew Research Center and others show a widening and toxic political gap.  A Pew Study from last summer noted that since the Trump presidency, the partisan gap has surpassed earlier record levels reached during the Obama presidency.  Partyism is now a bigger wedge between Americans than race, gender, religion or level of education. Today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party evokes feelings of not just frustration, but of fear and anger. Most politically engaged on either side see those in the other party as not just wrong, but “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” [2]

The pollster Frank Luntz recently commissioned a survey on the topic of political dialogue and division. In 1,000 interviews, he said, he found one result especially troubling: nearly a third of respondents said that they had stopped talking to a friend or a family member because of disagreements over politics and the 2016 election.

One organization on the front lines of trying to counter these trends is The National Institute for

Civil Discourse, a non-partisan center based at the University of Arizona’s School of Social and

Behavioral Sciences, founded in the aftermath of the 2011 assassination attempt on the former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  The Institute provides lawmakers, businesses and communities with strategies to solve disagreements with civility and respect.    Reflecting on the 2012 presidential election, Executive Director Carolyn Lukensmeyer noted “We got not a single message from anybody in the country about incivility in the campaign process… [t]hen 2016 rolls around … This is now deep in our homes, deep in our neighborhoods, deep in our places of worship and deep in our workplaces… It really is a virus.”[3]

Religious communities are not immune to this divide and these feelings.  Rare is the synagogue whose very identity is defined by being either left or right, blue or red.  Most of us are various shades of purple.  Certainly, Reform congregations such as ours have become more diverse politically over the years and while we accept diversity in religious practices, it is much more challenging when it comes to political points of view.

For some the answer is to avoid the challenging issues altogether, to keep the synagogue as a sanctuary, a safe space away from anything that might hint of controversy.  I agree that the synagogue should be a sanctuary and a safe space, but not as an escape from the outside world.  Judaism has taught us the opposite, as we learn in the Talmud: “A person may only pray in a house with windows…”[4] We pray with windows so that our gaze can be towards the heavens, but so, too, do windows bring the outside world in; we cannot avoid it.  In Judaism, we find the sacred not by escaping to some monastic life meditating in the mountains; rather, we find the sacred by dealing with the challenges of daily existence and bringing the obligation to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” to those challenges.  The Torah passage we will read on Yom Kippur known as the Holiness Code, Leviticus 19, reminds us that we strive for holiness in our relationships with one another by being fair in our business practices, through our obligation to care for the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan, by not dealing deceitfully with one another, by being responsible for one another, and by loving our neighbor as ourselves.  If we do not address how we can bring our values to bear on the challenges of our lives and in our world, in a way that invites everyone into the conversation, then the Torah, our ancient teachings and Judaism as a whole will become irrelevant.  Our faith provides our moorings, our moral grounding in a world that is more and more unmoored.  Judaism can help us to navigate these very rough waters.

We, too, have a long history of communal divisions.  You see, even as Judaism and Jewish law developed, it was never monolithic as we might imagine it to have been.  There were always multiple houses of study led by different rabbinic scholars who reached different conclusions regarding questions of Jewish practice.  Throughout the Mishnah and Talmud, we find records of debates between rabbis followed by the statement:  and the halakhah (the law) is according to Rabbi Ploni.  If the law is according to one interpretation, why record the minority opinions at all?  Because they still had a place within the Jewish community and, therefore, within the records.

Among the most famous pairs of rabbis in the time of the Mishnah was Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, each the head of a different school.  They disagreed about practically everything and rare was the time that a ruling was according to Shammai.  Still, they had respect for one another as is recorded in the Talmud:

…for three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, the former asserting, “the halachah is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “the halachah is in agreement with our views.” Then a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed,“both are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.”  Since, however, both are the words of the living God, what was it that entitled the School of Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings?  Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of the School of Shammai before theirs.[5]

Elsewhere in the Talmud we learn that even though they disagreed with each other’s rulings and had different interpretations for some Jewish practices:

The School of Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of the School of Hillel, nor did the School of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the School of Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “you must love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19)[6]

Sadly, too many within the Jewish world today are not following these ancient practices!

The following teaching from Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, one of the most beloved and influential of the 18th century Chassidic masters, can be a guide for us today:

The essence of shalom is to unite two opposites. Therefore, do not be alarmed when you meet someone whose opinions are diametrically opposed to yours, causing you to believe that it is absolutely impossible to live with him in peace. Similarly, when you see two people of extremely contrasting natures, do not say that it is impossible to make peace between them. On the contrary, the very essence of peace is to strive for harmony between opposites, just as God makes peace in the heavens between the contrasting elements of fire and water.[7]

It is my fervent prayer that as a nation we can find ways to achieve some harmony, to bridge the divide that is tearing us apart, so that we can bring out the best in one another as opposed to the worst.  So, too, do I pray that if you find yourself in a similar situation to the respondents in the survey who have lost friendships or who aren’t speaking to relatives because of this political divide, that you can find a way to reach out and rebuild those fractured relationships for the greater whole that is shalom.

My concern this morning is about us, Vassar Temple.  How do we as a congregation build upon the strong foundation of community that exists here to bridge some of that divide, lest we will either move closer to irrelevance, unable to discuss or act on many issues of concern, or we will create an atmosphere where some people may no longer feel welcome in their own spiritual home.   I know that these are stark choices and I’m not saying that this is where we are, but I fear that this is where we will be heading if we do not find a way to become a true sanctuary, a sacred space where we can say Hineini to one another, that we can talk about difficult issues even when we disagree, and that we can find common ground upon which we can act to live out the values and teachings of our faith.

First, we need to try to be able to talk to one another and to understand one another.  I have found the work of a social psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Haight, and a sociologist, Dr. Arlie Hochschield, most enlightening in trying to understand some of what is behind the current political divide.

In his groundbreaking research, Haight explores the processes by which we make moral judgments, fundamental decisions that shape our view of the world.   We actually use two different processes of cognition:  intuition and reasoning; and, while we might like to think that we use our powers of reason and intellect to make such decisions, Haight discovered that, in fact, it is our emotions that guide us in making quick, instinctive moral judgments.  Our powers of reason only come into play once we have already made our decision to justify them afterwards.  He uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to describe how the mind functions here.  The rider represents the controlled process, such as reasoning and intellect; the elephant represents

the automatic processes, such as emotion and intuition.  (Yes, I said an elephant.  Haight explains that he chose the elephant over the horse because elephants are bigger and smarter, a better representation of the strength of the automatic processes that run human minds.)  Though the name, rider, might imply other, the rider does not control the elephant; rather, it is the elephant who controls the rider.   The rider is really just the spokesperson for the elephant, finding justifications for what the elephant has done or will do next.  Haight gives an example from his own life of a time when his wife complained that he had left dirty dishes on the counter that morning, something she has asked him not to do numerous times before.   Haight, who believes that lying is wrong and often chastises his wife for exaggerating in her stories, finds himself coming up with a very reasonable explanation for having done so, except that it is all a lie.  He later realizes that because he doesn’t like to be criticized as soon as he heard the criticism coming, his inner elephant started to react by claiming innocence and then the rider jumped in with all kinds of justifications that sounded reasonable, though not true.

In his book, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haight applies this process of reasoning to the divisions we see in our society today.  If we are going to understand people across the political divide or have any hopes of changing someone’s mind on an issue, we need to better understand the forces behind their intuitive responses to reaching their decisions or in Haight’s terminology, “[we]’ve got to talk to their elephants.”[8]

Haight references Henry Ford who taught, “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.”[9]  So, too, does this apply to conversations on moral or political issues. We need to be able to see things from the other person’s angle as well as our own.  Haight concludes, “And if you do truly see it the other person’s way – deeply and intuitively – you might even find your own mind opening in response.  Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”[10]  Difficult, but not impossible.  “When does the elephant list to reason?” asks Haight, “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people.  We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs.  When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight…The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objection from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants… or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants…”[11]

In other words, we need to get out of our echo chambers, not only by reading other opinion pieces or seeking out news from other sources, but most productively by trying to get to know people who are across the divide – and not on the other side of an argument, but by getting to know them as people first, getting to know their elephants.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschield does just this in her book, Stranger in Their Own Land.

Hochschield, an admittedly political liberal from the very blue city of Berkeley, CA, had been watching the growing political divide for some years when she concluded that she could not understand those on the other side of the divide from a distance; she needed to get to know the people who were completely dumbfounding her.  She decided to focus on one issue, the environment, and in one area, in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana.  In the course of five years of research and ten trips to the area, Hochshield spent time in deep conversation in people’s homes and work places where they spoke openly and shared their stories.  “As a sociologist I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right –that is, in the emotion that underlies politics.  To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their “deep story,” a narrative as felt.”[12]

Referring to one of the first women in Louisiana who opened her home and her life story to her, Hochshield wrote “…it occurred to me that the kind of connection she offered me was more precious than I’d first imagined.  It built the scaffolding of an empathy bridge.  We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the “other” side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”[13]

Hochshield’s book is a powerful one and one I highly recommend.  It certainly opened my mind to understanding some people who are across the political divide from me and how neglected and lost they had felt from the political leadership of our country for so many years.

If we can create opportunities for real dialogue here, not with the goal of changing people’s minds, but simply to begin to understand why they think the way they do, we, too, can build empathy bridges, as we may then open our minds to some of the concerns of the “other” in a new way.  We can say Hineini.  We can say I disagree with you, but I now understand you.  Such conversations will strengthen us as a community and may lead us to find Bratslav’s harmony between opposites.  In doing so, perhaps we will also discover more ways to join hands and take action on issues of common concern to better our community, our country and our world.  I invite you to join with me in envisioning what might be small group conversations where we really listen to one another in a safe environment where we can speak freely and openly, without critique.  If you would like to partner with me in this venture or participate in such conversations, please let me know.

Just over a week ago our nation paid homage to Sen. John McCain, an elder statesman who spoke the language of Hineini (even if he didn’t actually know the word!)    First and foremost, he lived Hineini through his life of sacrifice for this nation, through both his military service and his political leadership.  He lived Hineini by doing what he believed was right, even going against his own political party to do so.  He lived Hineini when he defended his political opponent against racist charges because it was the right thing to do, even if it wasn’t the most expedient for his campaign.   He lived Hineini when he admitted his mistakes.  Personally, I disagreed with John McCain on many issues, but I have the greatest respect for him as a man of integrity and decency who was willing to put aside differences and reach across the aisle for the sake of what he believed was better for our nation.  His choreography of his own funeral was his final testament that a different form of political discourse is possible and preferable for the wellbeing of our country.  May he inspire other leaders to pursue that better path.  May he inspire us to respond to opportunities for service, to be willing to sacrifice – – even on a much lesser scale – for the good of others, to act on behalf of causes we believe are important, to reach across the divide and say Hineini.

The final three Hineini’s in the Bible are not uttered by any person; they are words of promise from God spoken through the prophet Isaiah.  Hineini is God’s promise to the Israelites of the ultimate redemption that will come when they change their selfish and hypocritical ways.  We will read one such passage on Yom Kippur morning, where Isaiah reminds us of the nature of the fast that God desires  – that when we fast we will also share our bread with the hungry, that we will reach out to those in need, that we will be willing to sacrifice for others, that we will no longer act in ways that exile us from one another.  When we can truly say Hineini, I am here for you, then our redemption will be at hand and then the promise of Isaiah will be fulfilled and God will respond to us, Hineini, Here I am.

Rabbi Renni Altman


Cohen, Dr. Norman J., Hineini in Our Lives:  Learning how to respond to others through 14 Biblical texts and personal stories (Jewish Lights,2003),

Haight, Jonathan The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage Books, 2017)

Hochshield, Arlie Russell Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016)

Peters, In a Divided Era, One Thing Seems to Unite:  Political Anger (New York Times, August 17, 2018)

Pew Research Center: Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 (6/22/16)

[1] Dr. Norman. J. Cohen, HIneini in Our Lives:  Learning how to respond to others through 14 Biblical texts and personal stories (Jewish Lights,2003), p. 4

[2] Pew Research Center: Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 (6/22/16)

[3] Ibid

[4] BT Berakhot 34b

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14b

[7] Likkutei Etzot, Shalom, #10

[8] Jonathan Haight, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, p. 57

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 58

[11] Ibid., p. 80-81

[12] Arlie Russell Hochshield, Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right, p. ix

[13] Ibid., p. xi

“A Time for Turning”, Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018 sermon, Rabbi Renni Altman

(Posted for Rabbi Renni Altman)

“A Time for Turning”
Rosh Hashanah Eve 5779
Rabbi Renni S. Altman

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to turn… It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy… It means starting all over again, and this is always painful. It means saying, “I am sorry.” It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped for ever in yesterday’s ways. Adonai, help us to turn – from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around, Adonai our God, and bring us back to You. Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us toward each other, Adonai our God, for in isolation there is no life.”

This prayer written by Rabbi Jack Reimer captures so beautifully the essence of these Days of Awe.  Indeed, this is the season of turning.  Each year at this time, Jews all over the world pause for ten days of self-examination, of Heshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of our souls to determine what it is that we need to change as part of our process of Teshuvah — return.  We seek to return towards our highest selves, to return towards one another and, in doing so, we return to God.   Turning implies making a change, moving away from a direction in which we were heading towards a more positive behavior and, with that, we hope, to fulfilling a better vision of ourselves and our world.

There is a Hassidic story about a rabbi who asked his teacher, Rabbi Mendel of Kossov, why the Messiah had not come and why the promises of redemption remained unfulfilled.   Rabbi Mendel answered: “It is written: “Why has the Messiah not come either today or yesterday?”  The answer lies in the question itself: “Why has he not come?”  Because we are today just as we were yesterday.  As Howard Polsky and Yaella Wozner note in their commentary on this story “the hidden implication in Rabbi Mendel’s remarks [is] that change is vital, even though you may be uncertain as to where you are going.  Change shakes up old habits and routines and opens up new vistas… As long as there is change there is hope for transformation, and as long as there is transformation there is a possibility for the greatest transformation of all”[1] – through our actions we can transform the world and bring about the coming of the Messiah (or a Messianic age).

With all of the potential that lies within change why is it so difficult for us?   The idea of change is often so overwhelming that we remain paralyzed in unhealthy patterns, rather than take the steps necessary to improve our lives and our relationships.  Here we are again, back at Rosh Hashanah, talking, praying and thinking about teshvuah, promising ourselves that we will really, really try to change this year.   Perhaps we have tried before, but maybe we didn’t do it quite right and things backfired and now we feel like more of a failure than before.  Perhaps we tried, but others wouldn’t really let us change; or, perhaps, it was just too hard and it was taking too long to see a difference, so we gave up.  Now we can’t bear trying to climb that mountain again.

Dr. William Bridges, author and lecturer in the field of transitional management and change, offers an approach to change that might help us move forward and achieve greater success.    He draws a distinction between change and transition.  Change is the desired outcome; but it cannot happen without transition as the process we undergo to get us there.

“Change is situational,” he teaches. “Transition, on the other hand, is the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become. In between the letting go and the taking hold again, there is a chaotic but potentially creative ‘neutral zone’ when things aren’t the old way, but aren’t really a new way either.  This three-phase process – ending, neutral zone, beginning again – is transition.”[2]

Successful changes emerge out of an intentional process of transition.  The first step is recognizing, in Bridge’s words, that “every transition begins with an ending.”   That ending, even when desired and ultimately for the good, inevitably involves some sense of loss.

We can see this most clearly in changes that occur when we move from one stage of life to another:

A couple is about to become parents; it is the fulfillment of their dreams.  As excited as they are, they are surprised by feelings of sadness, as they will miss the freedoms and spontaneity that they have enjoyed until now.

At a dinner honoring him upon his retirement after 30 years of devoted and exemplary service and leadership as a teacher and later principal, instead of the joy he had anticipated when thinking about this next chapter in his life, a man feels an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss as he looks out at his teachers and former students.  What will his purpose be now, he wonders?

Proud to launch their youngest child off to college, a couple re-enters their home, now an empty nest.  They have successfully reached a major milestone in their role as parents; they had looked forward with great anticipation to this time of renewal in their marriage.  Still they will miss the regular presence of their children in their lives and the feeling of being needed on a daily basis.

We can also experience a sense of loss when we consciously choose to make a change in our lives that will ultimately be an improvement for ourselves and our loved ones:

A woman leaves a job she has outgrown for a position in a different company that offers greater leadership and responsibility.  She looks forward to the new challenges; it’s the next step in a professional path she had envisioned for herself.   Still, she will miss her former colleagues and the stability and safety of that routine.

A nicotine patch helps a young man move beyond the physical addiction of smoking and enables him to move forward in the healthy choice he has made of quitting, but it doesn’t address his longing for the way smoking cigarettes helped him relax during his hectic days.

A brother reaches out to his sister after not speaking for many years.  Their lives have taken different paths; they hardly know one another or their families.  A disagreement over inheritance separated them; now their parents have been gone for more than a decade.  He finally decides that too much time has passed and too much has already been lost; he looks forward to this opportunity to rebuild their broken relationship.  Still, he has to let go of his need to be right at all costs; not an easy thing for him to do.

Changing – whether it means moving from one stage of life to another, kicking a bad habit or just admitting that you were wrong, means letting go of some part of our past.

Too often we deny the reality of that loss and any emotional toll it may take upon us.  Without recognizing the sense of loss we may be experiencing, however, we will end up carrying that unfinished business with us, a burden that will hamper our ability to achieve the change we seek, perhaps fulfilling our deepest fears that we couldn’t really change anyway.

If, on the other hand, we allow ourselves the time and space to accept and grieve for those losses, we can see beyond those painful moments with hope towards the future, buoyed by the knowledge that “every transition is an ending that prepares the ground for new growth and new activities.”[3]  We can now enter what Bridges calls the most important element in the process of transition, the “neutral zone” -– the in between space between endings and new beginnings.  It’s the space where we still feel the loss of the old, but we haven’t yet experienced the benefits of the new; we’ve broken away from the past but haven’t quite settled into the new present.  All that we imagined with this great opportunity seems so far off.  We may even begin to question:  was this the right move?

“The neutral zone is… both a dangerous and an opportune place..,” teaches Bridges. “It is the time when repatterning takes place:  old and maladaptive habits are replaced with new ones … It is the winter in which the roots begin to prepare themselves for spring’s renewal.  It is the night during which we are disengaged from yesterday’s concerns and preparing for tomorrow’s.  It is the chaos into which the old form dissolves and from which the new form emerges.  It is the seedbed of the new beginnings that you seek.[4]

The neutral zone – it is both dark and frightening and bright with potential at the same time.  Our society, by and large, does not allow for time in the neutral zone.  Where time is money, there is little value placed on stopping to reflect, to consider, to dwell in one’s thoughts.

Our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, learned the hard way about the need for a neutral zone when making a significant change.  While the plagues and the parting of the Sea of Reeds provided a dramatic end to slavery in Egypt, those miracles could not transform the Israelites into a free people.  Moses learned this lesson all too quickly from the moment the Israelites crossed the sea and began complaining about the bitterness of the water, when they then lost faith in God and in Moses and turned to a Golden Calf right after the experience of Sinai, and, ultimately, when they preferred returning to Egypt rather than seize the opportunity and challenge of entering the Promised Land.  They needed the 40 years in the midbar, in the barren wilderness, to successfully transition from a generation of slaves to a generation ready to embrace freedom.

Wilderness is an apt metaphor for being in the midst of change.  Times of transition can be frightening, filled with uncertainty; but at the same time, if we choose to take advantage of the opportunities that this open space can provide, they have the potential for creativity, growth, and redefinition of self.    When we allow ourselves the time and space for real transformation to take place, we can then reach a new beginning and experience real change.

These Yamim Noraim are an annual taste of being in the neutral zone, entering the midbar, as we pause to reflect, take stock of our lives, and repurpose ourselves for the year ahead.   I encourage you to find ways to return to the midbar in the course of this year.  Seek out opportunities to reflect upon the transitions that you are in – some may find that space in prayer, others in long morning walks, or therapy, or taking a weekend away — by yourself.  Seek out any opportunity that will enable you to better recognize the losses you may have experienced with an ending, to reflect deeply about what you need to do to heal, and to find ways to move forward by setting goals for yourself and adjusting to the new ways of an anticipated change.

Endings, neutral zone, new beginnings — this understanding of transition that has the potential to be so helpful in addressing the changes we want to make in our lives, can also guide us through the most painful changes we encounter, those changes that happen to us that are out of our control.  We are reminded of such changes during these Days of the Awe through the haunting and powerful Unetonatokef prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be.

Who shall live and who shall die.

Who shall see ripe age and who shall not.

Who shall perish by fire and who by water.

Who by sword and who by beast.

 Why by hunger and who by thirst…  Who shall be secure and who shall be driven.

Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.

Who shall be poor and who shall be rich.

Who shall be humbled and who exalted.

So many changes in our lives – for the good and the bad – can happen to us out of nowhere. An investment long ago forgotten suddenly brings in huge dividends and you find yourself with an unanticipated nest egg.  You take a trip on a whim and fall in love with the stranger you meet across the dinner table. A doctor’s visit leads to a diagnosis of cancer and your world is upended.  A loved one is in the wrong place at the wrong time and your life is changed forever.

While we do all that we can to make the best choices and plan our lives, the

Unetantokef reminds us that all is not in our control.  The actions of others, random acts of nature and chance, can bring upheaval and tremendous loss.  Change, welcome or not, does sometime happen to us.  We cannot prevent or control those changes; we can only mold their effect on our lives by how we respond to them.

U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagezera
But repentance, prayer and acts of justice, temper the severity of the decree.

Repentance, prayer and tzedakah – while these actions cannot change the course of events, past or future, they can be the tools by which we alter our experience of those events and help us move through the transition process to find a new beginning.

A colleague of mine shared with me the following parable about twins in the womb.  The whole world, to these two siblings is the interior of the womb.  They can conceive of nothing else.  Somehow, they realize that life, as they know it, is coming to an end.  What will happen to them?  One of the twins is a true optimist, embracing change and seeing it as an exciting opportunity for growth and development.  “Just think of the new opportunities that will present themselves,” says the optimistic twin. “We will have the opportunity to try new things, to do things another way.  Sure, it may not always work out perfectly, and some things will certainly be different, but what a great time it can be!”

The second twin is far more skeptical.  He fears change; change upsets the apple cart, turning the world, as we know it, upside down, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction.  “How can you talk about opportunities?” says the skeptic.  “There is no future, and even if there is to be a new future, it will be so different that we won’t be able to survive.  Our world, as we know it, is finished.  The future is grim.”

Suddenly, the water inside the womb bursts, and the ever-optimistic sibling tears

himself away.  Startled, the skeptic shrieks, bemoaning the tragedy.  Sitting in his morose state, he hears cries from the other side of the black abyss.  “Just as I thought, all is lost.  There is no future.  What was, is no more.  It is time to just call it quits, rather than face the other side.”

But what the skeptic doesn’t realize is that as he is bemoaning the loss of the world as he knows it, his brother sits on the other side, taking a breath of fresh air, hearing sounds that he has never heard before, already feeling his limbs stretching out beyond their previous boundaries.5

Just as individuals go through periods of change and upheaval, and can respond in different ways, so, too, do institutions and organizations.  Vassar Temple is no exception.   I am so proud and excited to be the newest rabbi in Vassar Temple’s very proud 170 year old history.  The fact that I am the 30th rabbi in 170 years means that this congregation has been through rabbinic transition before.  Certainly in more recent history this congregation has been blessed by the stability of strong rabbinic leadership with your wonderful rabbis emeritus, Stephen Arnold and Paul Golomb.  One can hardly go through a day without a mention of their names and their presence being felt (and I say that in the most positive way).  What a blessing for this community!  I’m sure that for many of you, starting again with a new rabbi is a challenge, especially in what feels like a relatively short amount of time since your last rabbinic transition.  Yes, relationships take time to cultivate and nurture and I look forward to building them here with you.

I understand well the angst of transition for this time is one of great transition for my family and me as well.  I am transitioning back into the congregational rabbinate after a decade in organizational life.  I took Bridge’s teachings to heart and spent significant time and energy this past year addressing many of the issues around endings as I prepared to leave HUC-JIR.  My husband and I will be uprooting ourselves from the community in which we have lived for 25 years.  First, we will literally dwell in the neutral zone, between an apt in Poughkeepsie and our home in Great Neck as we settle in and get to know the area.

Arriving in Poughkeepsie just under two months ago, I am now fully in Bridge’s neutral zone at Vassar Temple as well, taking this time to learn about this congregation and you, its members.  My friends, I invite you to join me in this midbar; let us maximize our time in this transitional stage as we get to know one another this year; let us explore together just who Vassar Temple is today and formulate our vision for tomorrow.  Let us take this time to plant seeds of growth and creativity for the future.


5 Rabbi Jan Offel, “Changes,” Erev Rosh Hashanah 5767/2006,Temple Kol Tikvah, Tarzana, CA


We began one aspect of this transition process this summer in small group meetings, called “At home with Rabbi Altman” (my sincere thanks to the gracious hosts who have literally opened their homes for these gatherings).  There will be more such gatherings in the coming months and I urge everyone to attend one.  I also invite you to contact me for individual meetings whether to talk about more private things or just to get to know one another better.  I invite you to share your needs, your ideas, your dreams for this congregation and what you would hope for in this new chapter of rabbinic leadership.

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter…” So, too, may we come to see change as a positive part of the natural order of the universe.  May we learn to embrace the changes in our lives as opportunities for growth and renewal.  In that process may we experience teshvuah.   Help us, O God, as we strive to return to You.  Strengthen us, Adonai, as individuals and as part of this sacred congregation for a year of transformation that leads to change; a year of wholeness and peace.

Rabbi Renni Altman

[1] Howard Polsky and Yaella Wozner, Everyday Miracles: The Healing Wisdom of Hasidic Stories, pg. 366

[2] The Way of Transition, p. 2

[3] Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, p. 42

[4] Managing Transitions, p.9

Torah Study Notes 9-8-18

September 8, 2018

See Plaut page 1373

This is the last reading of the year. Rabbi’s frequently select a parsha that relates to the New Year. This week and next week are two of shortest parsha. See Nitzvaim page 1372.

29:9  A commitment to enter into the covenant for future generations. See Commentary at Deuteronomy 5:3.  “…even the stranger within your camp…”  Refers to the stranger who has chosen to dwell with them. Note: That there is no provision for conversion in the Torah. Note “…with its sanctions…” This focuses on Sinai as the source of the covenant rather than the Abrahamic covenant.  The former is people focused with laws. The later is tribal. Consider the story of Ruth – amid “ alien corn.” The Orthodox approach to conversion is very different than the Reform.

29:15 This is again a restatement of the previous recitals. “… a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood…” The Eternal will never forgive them

29:20 The devastation attendant to tribal apostasy. “The Eternal uprooted them from their soil in anger…”

29:28 Note the distinction between concealed and overt acts. What does this mean? The footnote re a later insertion is not really an explanation. “Concealed acts” are actions that no one sees but G. Will you be punished by G? See Rashi on this point. We are responsible for enforcing adherence by those who publicly flout the law. We are responsible for one another. Generally, the Torah does not dwell on internal thoughts, with some exceptions “You shall not covet” “You shall honor your father and mother…” This section does not address evil thoughts. Consider Woody Allans “Crimes and Misdemeanors”  where he addresses the angst of conscience. God will exact the punishment. Noel: My thinking drives my behavior. How are we to separate our thoughts and our behavior. Consider when the thoughts are expressed and are covered by modern law as “free speech.”  See also 17…whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our God. Rabbi: A thought must be associated with an overt act in order to be punishable by the community. We have previously discussed the distinction between intentional and unintentionally acts.

We start the new year with a sense of reflection as to our sins. The Hebrew for sin is “arrow” and refers to missing the mark.