Torah Study Notes 3-11-17

March 11, 2017

NOTICE TO READERS: These notes are best understood when read in conjunction with The Torah a Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, edited by W. Gunther Plaut.

Joined today by Rabbi’s mother Amy! See Rabbi Berkowitz’s sermon on the subject of clothes – also posted here.

Page 563

Here we are looking at the clothing of the priests. See for an image. See also PBS documentary on the Met collection – fashion as art.! Now available on Netflix.

The intentionality of the messages conveyed by clothing. Note that the previous generation of rabbis wore robes. When woman first became rabbis, and hoped that the robes would avoid any comments about their clothing, there were still comments about shoes and hair. Richard – how ancient is the tradition of white associated with purity? Does white denote virginity or austerity? RB It can be both and may also be a symbol of equality if worn commonly by a group. LL White denotes mourning in some cultures in the east – China, India and Japan.

27:20  Olive oil for lighting. The Hebrew word “Tamid” is eternal or perpetual. But here, and as a practical matter, the light is from evening to morning. Archeologist have not found textiles from this period.  Any kind of textile work would likely not be accomplished by a purely nomadic people. Most of this section is likely therefore back-dated from the Temple period – a retrojection.

28:1 The sacred vestments and what they were intended to communicate. “sacral vestments” for priestly service.  Dignity and adornment are stated messages. These items are heavy so as to convey a sense of gravitas. Did they wear this all of the time? Surely while in the tabernacle. There is a suggestion of elitism here in that special fabrics and symbols of wealth that is dynastic to Aaron and his progeny. There was a hereditary priestly class. PC “Thank God I am not a Alpha, they have to think deep thoughts. I am only an Epsilon” from Brave New World (LL I could not find this exact quote and this is also a ZBT fraternity chant.) There is some comfort to having prescribed ritual or order of things.  There is an advantage in having clothing that tells who you are. CL The structure of society in the ancient near east was God/King personified in one person. This is somewhat different in that God here is separated and not personified. The priest seems to be separate and apart but he is one of the people. God is on a mountain top and becomes progressively more removed as we approach modern western religions.   RL What is the listing of tribes and sons on the stones about? LL Possibly remembering? This is resonant of “You shall set them as frontlets before your eyes.” The stones are symbols but also burdens. The notion of weight as seriousness of purpose.  CL The use of the written word as part of the art/decoration is unusual in this period.  RB The script would likely have been a precursor to Hebrew.  See footnote 10 re 25 characters on each shoulder stone.

28:15  Details of the construction and identification of the stones that would represent each tribe. They are framed in gold. Note the phrase “…inside the breastplate of decision…” SF: What is the decision or decisions that they would have to make? RB A variety of decisions. In many cases the priest would also act as a judge – probably in matters both theological and civil. But the priest would here be called upon to make predictions as to future events. This indicates that any decision must be predicated on the common good. They are also a reminder to God that the priest is speaking for the people of the covenant. LL Interesting that God again “remembers” or is “reminded.”

28:22 More details of construction of the vestments.

See note on page 573. Re Urim and Thummim. These objects are unknown but are believed to be in the nature of oracle bones. Joshua approached Eleazar to  decide if the people should or should not go to war. PC Is there regret that we have lost this ancient direct contact with God? RB Yes but there has been an evolution in the relationship. The notion is that modern practices of prayer are in fact a lesser substitute for the that direct contact. Our modern way is more democratic arguably. Shira – the previous generation must on occasion feel uncomfortable with change so that the next can more easily accept it. Structure and tradition are themselves evolutionary.

Dress for Success: What Biblical Clothes Can Tell Us About Modern Leadership

This week’s sermon on Purim and Parashat Tetzaveh. Cross posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Every year, when I sit down to do my taxes, I scroll through my Amazon history to determine what I spent on books, office supplies, and other work-related items. When I get to February and March, I am filled with gratitude that I am in a profession where a Marilyn Monroe wig is a business expense.

Purim is upon us, and that means we are paying special attention to our clothing. We dress in costume, of course (a reminder that this year we will have prizes for doing so!). But the theme of clothing is also woven through the Purim story: who is wearing it, and who isn’t wearing it. The King asks Vashti to appear before his friends wearing her royal crown—perhaps, the rabbis suggest, only her royal crown—and she refuses. After banishing Vashti, the King places that same crown on Esther’s head. Mordechai wears sackcloth and ashes when he hears of the edict to execute the Jews of Shushan, and the king’s own royal robes, when a jealous Haman is forced to honor his rival. Esther employs perfumes and cosmetics to win the king’s heart, and puts on royal robes to change the king’s mind. And while Haman’s famous hat doesn’t appear anywhere in the biblical story, we all know to associate its triangular shape with evil, or possibly, with prune filling.

Clothing is more than what covers our bodies. It is part of what defines us as human beings. As Nechama Leibowitz points out: “Humans are the only creatures in the universe who do not rest content with their natural skin” (Etz Chayim, p. 504). Clothing sends a message both to the wearer and to the outside world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, where we learn the design of the clothing of the priesthood, particularly the elaborate garments of the high priest.

In a society where most clothing would have been overwhelmingly beige, the colorful design of the high priest’s outfit indicates his elevated status. The embroidery alone requires the work of many dedicated Israelites. Gold, blue, purple, and red dyes—all expensive to produce—figure prominently in the high priests’ outfit. Precious stones and metals decorate his forehead, shoulders, chest, and ankles.

These fancy pieces did not just serve to show the Israelites who is boss. In fact, it is likely that they did exactly the opposite.

high priest outfitWhile the other priests wore simple, modest linen garments—tunics, sashes, turbans, and pants—the high priest’s outfit included a more decorative item called an ephod, which resembles a heavily embroidered apron. The centerpiece of this ephod was the choshen mishpat, the “breastpiece of decision,” containing the Urim and Thummim, a pair of stones used to divine God’s will. The choshen is embellished with 12 precious stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. Furthermore, on each of his shoulders, the high priest wears one of two onyx stones, each engraved with the names of six of the 12 tribes. “Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision over his heart before the Eternal at all times” (Exodus 28: 30).

Why would God insist that the high priest be so…bedazzled? Wouldn’t all that bling be heavy to carry around?

While the use of precious stones was an indicator of the high priest’s status, the engraving on the stones serves a dual purpose. The first is so that, when the high priest appeared before God, God would remember the covenant God had made with all the Israelites. The second is so that neither the high priest nor the Israelites would ever forget that the high priest was their representative. Biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers writes that the breastplate, “symbolizes the presence of all Israel in the decisions made with the ephod and gives authority to those rulings; it also carries the implicit hope for divine awareness of the people and their needs” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 478). One rabbi adds that the gemstones “serve as a perpetual and humbling reminder to him that he is the representative of the entire community of Israel before God” (Etz Chayim, p. 506).

This means that, every day, when the High Priest puts on the ephod and the choshen, the gemstones force him to literally feel the weight of his responsibilities bearing down on his shoulders. He may be, as the gold piece on his forehead states, “Holy to the Eternal,” but he is also, in essence, a servant of the people.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something like that for our leaders today?

When I was training to be a camp counselor at URJ Camp Eisner, the director read us a letter from a first-time camper’s parent. I don’t remember exactly what it said, only that the parent was grateful, and that the child’s name was Emma. I remember this because, after reading about the great summer the camp had provided for her, someone printed up stickers saying, “I do it for Emma.” I still have the sticker on my now rarely-used camp counselor clipboard. While I’ve long since forgotten who Emma was (I don’t even know if I ever met her, though she’s probably 25 by now) the sticker still serves as a reminder that a great deal of what we do as leaders needs to be remembering whom we work so hard for.

No matter what our profession or calling, it helps to keep a reminder of why we do what we do, and whom we do it for, close to our hearts. And no one needs this reminder more than our elected officials.

As I was reading this Torah portion, I couldn’t help but imagine what a choshen mishpat might look like for our government leaders. Would the president wear a stone for each of the 50 states? Would a senator’s breastpiece feature the names of all of their districts? Would a representative engrave their constituents’ zip codes on their shoulder stones? What would it feel like if a local, state, or national leader had to carry the weight of their constituents with them wherever they went?

We don’t have ephods or breastpieces today: not for our Jewish leaders, and not for our political ones. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to remind our leaders whom they serve. Rabbis get these reminders when we meet with our lay leadership, and when people come to us directly to tell us what they need or want. Although we cannot possibly please everyone, even in a small community, knowing what our community is thinking and feeling helps us to be better rabbis. It helps us to point ourselves in the right direction, not necessarily where we want the congregation to go, but where we believe the congregation itself wants to be.

Politicians get these reminders when we visit, call, or write to them. In the wake of recent events, some organizations are suggesting we do this every day. This is relatively new territory for me, as I previously only spoke to my representatives on a handful of designated advocacy days. Now I receive daily reminders to call, write, or visit our local, state, and national leaders, to remind them who I am, what my values are, and that I will support any effort the government makes to take better care of the people.

On the flip side of this, as a leader myself, I am feeling the weight of our community’s needs. Many people we serve here at Vassar Temple have expressed a desire to advocate publicly for Jewish values in partnership with our synagogue community. Just as many of our people have expressed a desire for the synagogue to be a refuge from political activity, and we respect that desire as well. With six on one shoulder and a half dozen on the other, we aim to strike a reasonable balance.

This Sunday, at 7 p.m., the Vassar Temple Advocacy Group will be meeting to set its course for the coming year. While this group does not represent Vassar Temple as an institution, it provides an opportunity for our members to engage in advocacy that is in line with our Jewish values, in partnership with our sacred community. We work in conjunction with Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, which is a non-partisan group that advocates on issues including hunger, reproductive rights, and equality for women and the LGBTQ community. While we do not expect the entire Reform Jewish community, or even all of Vassar Temple itself, to be aligned on how we approach these issues, we cannot deny that these are concerns we all share, and that part of being Jewish is standing up for what we believe in, whether we do this individual, or together.

Like the stones on the choshen mishpat, we are called to remind our leaders who it is they serve, to be the weight on their shoulders, and the precious stones that they display proudly to the world.

Tomorrow, we celebrate Purim, which, if we look beyond the elaborate costumes, celebrates the different ways we stand up against injustice. May we be like Vashti, who stamps her feet in protest. May we be like Mordechai, who supports and guides a new leader as she finds her voice. May we be like Esther, who uses her position of power to protect the vulnerable. And let us even give a little credit to King Ahasheurus who, when challenged by those he respects and admires, manages to do the right thing.

Torah Study Notes 3-4-17

March 4, 2017

Page 545

T’rumah means “gift” This is from a Priestly author so is very detailed. How a holy place is created with the described objects. See Essay at Plaut page 543. Here Moses has ascended Sinai alone where he remains in communication with God.

25:1 The Eternal one spoke to Moses…let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them… note that the translation “dolphin skin” is uncertain. “The Torah is our ancestors telescope searching for God.” (LL: I like this quote but could not find the source.) How they understood Gods relationship to space. SF: What are the gifts that we can give to God now. Current thinking is that we make a sanctuary in her hearts. Love is an emotion that cannot be commanded.  These gifts need to be gifts of the heart. Joan B. – I don’t think of God living in a specific place. RB: Again, these accounts are being codified after the destruction of the First Temple. This was a way of creating a focal point and keeping everyone busy. RB:  If you don’t give the people a tabernacle to build they will build and idol. The Reform movement is bringing back the physicality of prayer. There was a considerable period when that was not the case. LL: My earliest memories at VT are from 1952 when I was studying for my Bar Mitzvah with Rabbi Alton Winters. The service was much more restrained at that time. Men never wore a prayer shawl during services and the Torah was definitely not marched around the sanctuary.

25:10: They shall make an ark…RB: The description here looks like the one from Raider of the Lost Ark.

The rings and poles made it transportable. The tablets of the Covenant are placed within. The poles are intended to create distance – no one can touch the ark.  Gloria: In Europe I saw an exhibition of merry go round figures that were made by the same carvers who build the Arks for temples.

When did synagogue design as we know it today start?  Remember that what is described here is not Judaism – it is a priestly religion with the same or similar laws.

17: Cubits and Cherubim. Note reference to “the pact.” Why does it not say “covenant?” This was likely a parchment written in Hebrew. The “cherubim” is sometime thought of as a childs face but we don’t know if these are winged persons or some other figure – such as a lion – or even multi-faced. There were similar figures in other near eastern religions. Some think of them as angels.*

SF They represent certain kinds of energy – God will meet us between them. Or the attributes of justice and mercy. LL Cannot mercy be part of justice? SB It is interesting that we are asked to build a place for God. LL The process of building or creating is part of the training or even transformation of the individual – be it in a place or via internalization.

23: You shall make a table of acacia wood…overlaid with gold. The bread of display? Almond blossoms and calyx with petals. Follow the patterns that are shown to you on the mountain. See note on page 555. God needed food? The loaves we have Friday are salted and recalls the sacrifices. Salt is also a sign of wealth. There is clearly a reference to pagan practices here. They are taking steps away from the notion of food for gods. Creation must be consistent with our values.

Torah Study Notes 2-25-17

February 25, 2017

Page 513

21:1 These are the rules that you should set before them… starts with the management of slaves. There seems to be no clear segue from the Ten Commandments here. We have moved from general precepts to very detailed rules of conduct in specific situations. This is a self contained legal code. They are setting limits on what was the common practice of slavery at that time. A question of moral relativism here which is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances. This seems to be debt slavery which was probably their situation in Egypt. Note that these restrictions only apply to other Hebrews. This has been identified as the Elohim text. Daughters may be sold as a slave but with certain restrictions. Compare Ken Burn’s film on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In 1840 America woman had virtually no rights.

Who is enforcing these rules at this time? Recall that there are provisions for protection of worker’s rights in Leviticus. See:

21:12 One who fatally strikes another person…there is reference here to sanctuary cities which are described later. Note the phrase “act of God.” We assume it means “by accident.” It is unclear here why the translation assumes only a male killer. Again, this is likely a humanization of existing practices. See Mishpatin at Plaut page 511.

21:22  When individuals fight… tooth for tooth etc. The rabbis argue that this is not literal but rather monetary – a value is assigned to each part; a question as to how much the victim will settle for. Here a fetus is not classified as a living person but rather as the property of the husband. RB has this memorized because of her work with Planned Parenthood. In the traditional Jewish community one does not say Kadesh for a child who dies in miscarriage. See Essays at page 526. “Assessment of the age and origin of this law code…depends on how one views its relationship to the laws of the ancient Near East, of which we now have extensive knowledge. There can be no question  that a number of these laws were familiar to Israelite society, either by way of patriarchal traditions formed in the Mesopotamian past, or indirectly through the practices of the nations with which the Israelites came into contact – especially the Canaanites after the conquest of the land.”

21:24  What happens when your ox gores someone. Note that an ox is a very valuable animal. Note also the concept of “muad” meaning “in the habit of.”  One can put themselves in a situation where harm can be expected to ensue but even a trespasser is subject to some protection. These laws are clearly designed for a settled farming community – rather than a nomadic society. That is why it is generally agreed that  they were likely written much later than the time of the events described. There is a close relationship between this text and the laws of Hammurabi.

21:33 When a person opens a pit… very detailed rules on dealing with livestock. Monetary compensation by a thief for theft of a sheep. Note the reference to tunneling at night or in the day. The rabbi’s argue that there is an expectation of an armed confrontation at night. During the day it is more likely that no one will be at home. Or is this reference to “tunneling” a fair translation?

The companion Haftarah here is Jeremiah 34:8-22. In that prophet’s time, the ruling classes of Judah, who had released their slaves as a tribute to God, reversed their previous release once the threat of the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar had passed. They reneged on the promise they had made. This tells how Jeremiah dealt with that reversal.

1st night Seder on April 10.

Whose stories are we not hearing?

Rabbi Berkowitz’s Shabbat sermon on parashat Yitro. Crossposted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

My brother and I were at Sinai

He kept a journal
of what he saw,
of what he heard,
of what it all meant to him.

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t—
I’m always holding a baby,
one of my own,
or one for a friend,
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down.

And then
as time passes,
the particulars,
the hard data,
the who what when where why,
slip away from me,
and all I’m left with is
the feeling.

But feelings are just sounds
the vowel barking of a mute.

My brother is so sure of what he heard—
after all he’s got a record of it—
consonant after consonant after consonant.

If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying.

This poem by Merle Feld gives us a personal perspective of one of the most important collective experiences of the Jewish people: Receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Because this moment, captured in this week’s Torah portion, was such an important part of the Jewish story, rabbis have spent centuries arguing about exactly who was there, who heard what, and who said what in response.

For instance, some rabbis argued that this historic gathering was not limited by the bounds of the space-time continuum. Therefore, it included the future prophets of Israel, the souls of those yet unborn, and the souls of future converts to Judaism (Exodus Rabbah 28:6). One rabbi imagined that the bellies of pregnant women became like glass, so that the fetuses in their wombs could affirm their commitment to the covenant (Midrash Aseret Ha-Dibrot).

But oddly enough, some rabbis argue over whether or not women were included, and whether they received all commandments, or just the most basic ones. One progressive amongst these rabbis concluded that the women must have been addressed first because they were “prompt in fulfilling the commandments” and would “lead their children to the study of Torah” (Exodus Rabbah 28:2).

Modern feminist scholars point out that Moses’ instructions to the people seem to imply that women were not to be included at all. This exclusion, they argue, did not come from God, but rather from Moses’ own biases. While God instructs Moses to make sure the people “stay pure,” Moses tells the people—or at least, the men—“Do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19: 10-15). In doing so, Moses has implied that “people” means “men,” and that “pure” and “woman” cannot exist in the same space.

Tikvah Frymer-Kensky wrote that “At this defining moment of revelation, Moses has introduced into Israel both gender exclusion and the separation between sexuality and spirituality. Two major concepts—and they are not divine” (Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism, pp. 70-72). Judith Plaskow puts it more simply, “At this central moment of Jewish history, women are invisible” (Contemporary Jewish Theology, pp. 255). Given that, last week, the Torah amplified the voices of women–singing, dancing, and drumming on the shores of the sea– their silence here is almost audible.

And while these contemporary voices point out the exclusion of women from the Sinai narrative, these aren’t the only voices that we aren’t hearing. The Torah would have us believe that close to a million people were standing at Sinai. Surely they did not all have the same experience! But we only really hear about Moses, and God, and the Israelites as a collective entity. The experience of the individual is lost.

For instance, my friend Matan Koch once gave a brilliant sermon about the phrase “standing at Sinai.” Matan uses a power chair, and while he can make it go up and down when asked to “rise for the Barchu,” he cannot physically stand. He asked us to consider what his fate might have been at Sinai. Would God have miraculously enabled him to stand for the giving of the Torah? Would his fellow Israelites have propped him up to a standing position? Or would God have accepted him as he was, a person who cannot stand and therefore enters the covenant in a seated position?

All of this got me thinking about whose stories we might not be hearing, at Sinai, and now.

In a recent interview, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich discussed her now-famous quote, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” This quote is beloved by activists and feminists everywhere. Some of us even have it printed on tote bags. But Ulrich had not meant for her words to serve as encouragement for revolutionary behavior. She had had actually been talking about the difficulty of her own research into the lives of ordinary women in the 19th century. All she had to work with were the journals of a handful of “well-behaved” women, because the patterns of their everyday lives were not considered newsworthy. Nor did the men around them take note of their behavior, unless it was erratic.

I have long been obsessed with stories, both real and imaginary, about people ordinary and extraordinary. In addition to my love of biblical stories and midrash on their characters, I enjoy storytelling podcasts and memoirs. Personal stories give me perspectives that differ from my own: such as what it was like to grow up poor in Appalachia and then go to Yale, or how it would feel to travel to Korea to impress one’s future husband’s grandparents.

One of my favorite parts of the rabbinate are the stories I hear when guiding people through the life-cycle. B’nai mitzvah parents tell me what their children were like as babies, trying to escape from their cribs, or tasting solid food for the first time. Wedding couples tell me why they love each other and how they knew it, or how many times their partner asked them out before they said yes. Families preparing for a funeral have the impossible task of telling me their loved one’s entire life story in about an hour, but they do it with tenderness and humor. These are the stories of ordinary people, everyday stories that rarely get told outside the inner circle of a family. There are many commonalities, but each one is different, and learning each other’s stories is vital to building meaningful relationships and sacred communities.

In the world we currently inhabit, our struggle to build these relationships is twofold. First of all, we might be too plugged in, too busy, or too uncomfortable to sit down with people in our circle to ask questions about their lives.

Our second challenge is that, even if we were to uncover the life stories of everyone we knew, we might still not hear the stories of those beyond our circle. We are a nation made up of diverse opinions and life experiences. This can cause a lot of tension between those who hold different viewpoints. What would it be like if everyone in our nation took the time to hear the stories of individual immigrants, refugees, people in poverty, people in business, people in law enforcement, those who live in East Coast cities and those who live in the rural Midwest, people of color and people of privilege, people from different religions, and, most of all, people from opposing political parties?

So while I try not to make a habit of telling you what to do, I’d like to suggest three action items to consider over this long weekend:

First of all, we can ask a loved one to tell us their story. The StoryCorps website and app have great lists of questions to ask.

Second, we can find someone in the synagogue that we don’t know very well, and make time to meet with them and learn their story. We’ve been talking a lot about how we might navigate these tumultuous times as a community. Sometimes we will be called upon to act together, sometimes to support one another. But what if the synagogue was a place where we could experience the stories of those who are not like us? Because even if we are all part of the Jewish community, we are not all the same.

Finally, we can seek out opportunities to hear the stories of those whose experiences and opinions might be different from our own. You might find them online through StoryCorps or The Moth, but also in our community. For instance, we are working with our Jewish, Muslim, and Christian neighbors to create joint programming where we can get to know each other better.

We also have an opportunity to hear stories on Saturday, March 25th, when the TMI Project will be hosting an evening called “Black Stories Matter” in Kingston. This is an opportunity to hear about experiences different—or perhaps not so different—from our own in an apolitical setting: just real snapshots of pivotal moments in other people’s ordinary lives.

There are those who believe that the Torah was given in 70 languages, so that everyone in the world could understand (Shabbbat 88a). One rabbi suggests that, just as manna tasted different to every Israelite, so the commandments sounded different to each individual: “Come and see how the voice went forth to all of Israel, to each and every one in keeping with their particular strength [koach]—to the elderly in keeping with their strength, to young men in keeping with their strength, to the little ones in keeping with their strength, and to the women in keeping with their strength” (Exodus Rabbah 5:9).

The better we know each other’s strengths and stories, the better we can speak to one another in the right language. Because even though the Israelites might each have heard or experienced something different at that Sinai moment, they all stood at the same mountain, they all had to adhere to the same covenant, and they all had to walk through the same wilderness, together. The same is true of us: our experiences may be different, but it is still incumbent upon us to move forward together. Then we might, as Merle Feld suggests, “recreate holy time, sparks flying.”






Torah Study Notes 2-4-17

February 4, 2017

With Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz

Exodus – The plagues continue. Query: The captivity of the Israelites’ in Babylonia is well documented. They were in fact released and allowed to return to Israel. Is not Egypt merely a surrogate for Babylonia in this account? It is believed to have been written shortly after the return. See:

Page 407

10:1  “I have hardened his heart…”  – in the first five plagues P hardened his own heart. Maimonides  opined that P eventually lost his ability to repent. See Rick Jacobs recent article in the Huffington Post. He appears to be attacking Trump but it is soon apparent that he is talking about this episode from the Torah. It sounds like he is calling out Trump but is actually calling out P. (I could not find this.) Compare Lincoln’s Team of Rivals.  RB: One argubly becomes stronger and sharper by debating with those of different views. Also, policy can be adapted to different views.  The same dynamic applies in personal relationships such as marriage. G is humiliating P and P’s gods. Each plague addresses a different one  of those gods.

10:7  The courtiers now suggest that the Hebrew’s should leave. A question is presented as to what constitutes slavery at that time. How did it compare to slavery in America? From a literary perspective, this is somewhat like a super-hero narrative with a good guy and bad guy. It is usually  more interesting when the characters are complex. This speaks to a time when people wanted a hero and a villain. Read Victor Frankl’s Mans Search for Meaning. chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.

LL This reads like a play with dialog. The writer likely has a variety of intentions: to entertain and to teach via that entertainment. See the The Philosophy of the Torah.

What is “essentialism” – the tendency to say that people are of a certain nature and are therefore designed for specific roles. There is a good deal of this in Exodus and elsewhere in the Torah.

10:12  Hold out your arm over the land of Egypt for the locusts… The Eternal drove an east wind over the land. Why do the locusts come from the east? The other empires were to the east and they periodically invaded Egypt.  “I stand guilty before the Eternal your God.”  The west wind hurled the locusts into the sea of reeds. Compare the Santa Ana winds that impact southern California.  Hold out your arm so that darkness will descend on the land. This could have been a sandstorm. Note that some of the plagues are Egyptian specific whereas others are of general impact. The hail did not strike the Israelites. They had light. Arguably the darkness is of ignorance and depression.

10:24 P said “Go worship the Eternal. Only your flocks and your goods shall be left behind… E shall bring one more plague upon P. The E again stiffens the heart of P. There are clearly issues of free will and predestination here. E apparently knows the outcome and is orchestrating it. “Why?” is a very difficult question.

LL: If this is read as a work of art one would not question the plot line of the author. (RB says she would and does.) If the artist is successful one accepts the artist’s vision and is immersed in the artistic experience and intent. Such an approach does not make the work any less sanctified. It may be more so as we react with astonishment, anger, delight and sadness. A search for historical foundation, for verisimilitude and logic, in my opinion, actually does a disservice to the author and strips away the divinity. The “play” has several messages – philosophical and theological – that touch upon inter alia, morality, ethics, and politics.   The Torah is a work of divine inspiration that has kept its readers transfixed and fascinated for thousands of years.

Fighting the Plague of Darkness

Rabbi Berkowitz’s remarks at the Mid-Hudson Solidarity March. You can watch a video of the speech here. Mid-Hudson welcomed its first refugee family, from Congo, this past Tuesday. The family our community has volunteered to welcome is delayed indefinitely.

For the sin of silence,
For the sin of indifference,
For the secret complicity of the neutral, 
For the closing of borders,
For the washing of hands,
For the crime of indifference,
For the sin of silence,
For the closing of borders.
For all that was done,
For all that was not done,
Let there be no forgetfulness before the Throne of
Let there be remembrance within the human heart;
And let there at last be forgiveness
When your children, O God,
Are free and at peace.

From Chaim Stern, editor, Gates of Repentance (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978).

This week, the Jewish scriptural readings find us enslaved in Egypt, inching ever closer to that moment of liberation, but with many roadblocks along the way. With Pharaoh’s heart so hardened that even his most trusted advisors cannot sway him, God brings about the ninth plague: “a darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21).

Unlike many of the other plagues, this one fell only on the houses of the Egyptians. What was the nature of this strange and selective darkness? The rabbis tell us that this is not a physical darkness, but a spiritual one, “the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors” (Etz Chayim 377).

This is a story that has recurred too many times in our history. Too many times, we have drawn the curtains and shut off the streetlights, turned off the television and silenced the radio, so that we did not have to bear witness to our neighbors’ suffering, so that we would not be held responsible for our inaction.

But we are here this evening to say: we will not give in to the darkness of ignorance and indifference. We will shine the light of solidarity, even in these dark times. Because, as the ancient rabbis tell us, the break of dawn is the moment we can first recognize the face of our friend (Berachot 9b).

We are here tonight, to say to our neighbors, to our faith communities, and to our public officials: We will not let the actions of our national leadership prevent us from seeing the humanity of our neighbors, whether they are our Muslim brothers and sisters living among us now, or our refugee cousins who are, in spite of everything, still hoping to make a home in our community. We will not allow our nation to fall victim to the plague of darkness.

We are here tonight to say to our neighbors.

Our lights have not been extinguished.

Our curtains are not drawn.

Our doors are not closed.

Our ears and eyes and hearts are open:

We see you.

We hear you.

We are you.

We are standing beside you.

We will welcome you.

And we will fight for you!

 Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu lirdof tzedek ule’ehov et ha-ger.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy through sacred obligations, and commands us to pursue justice, and to love the stranger.

Torah Study Notes 12-3-16

December 3, 2016

Discussion led by Rabbi Leah Berkowitz

Page 173

25:19 This is the line of Isaac son of Abraham… The subsequent statement “…and Isaac loved Rebecca…” is one of the few mentions of love between husband and wife in the Torah. Note that we don’t have “Jewish” yet and in fact not even “Israelite” This is the first family. “Abiru” is likely the word for foreigner, alien, immigrant. There is a negative connotation to it. There is some controversy about the age of Rebecca at the time of marriage – probably somewhere in her teenage years.

25:22 “If this is so why do I exist?” is the question posed by Rebecca in response to the struggle going on in her belly. One might be tempted to give this question a philosophical or existential import but the question might more realistically be re-phrased to “…why am I in this pain?” or even a question by her as to the role of motherhood.

25:24: “Two people are in your belly…” She gives birth to Esau and Jacob. Jacob is holding Esau’s heel which is clearly a precursor of his efforts to supplant his brother. There are Cabalistic interpretations of the numbers of ages for both Isaac and Rebecca at the time of this birth.

25:27:  The story of Jacob’s effort to obtain his brother’s birthright. Note the use of the word “red” to describe Esau, his hunter’s soup and the kingdom of Edom. See page 997 for the location of Edom. LL Who is the author here? This section about the soup seems to be an insert to justify what happens subsequently. Most of this is J. The justification here seems also to be the prophecy itself. In the last sentence of that passage about Esau eating his food “and he ate” is one word in Hebrew indicating haste and speed. SN This could be a joke between brothers. But note that Jacob makes him swear. Note also that the first born gets a double portion of the land – so this is no small thing.

26:1 There was famine in the land… Here we see Isaac and Rebecca interacting. Abimelech gives them land. Isaac settles in Garar where he passes his wife off as his sister – just as his father did in Egypt. This passage appears to be out of sequential order. Abimelech sees Isaac “fondling” R and challenges Isaacs behavior – which would have been inappropriate if she was in fact his sister.

26:12: In that area Isaac sowed seed…but Abimelech asks them to leave considering Isaac’s deceptive conduct. They return to the lands of Abraham but they then quarrel over the wells with the inhabitants there until they get to Rehoboth. Note the words “became too numerous… which is resonant of the complaint of Pharaoh in Egypt. See map on page 15. How is Isaac feeling about this comparison to his father? To some extent Isaac is overshadowed and never comes into his own. But he successfully establishes coexistence with the Philistines. And had a loving relationship with his wife. He appears to be a man of moderation. Jacob and Esau are so polarized that they are almost two sides of the same person. Some consider the wells to be symbols of Abrahams monotheism –  that the Philistine’s were rejecting.

The analogous Haftarah portion here is Malachi – who lived in the middle of the 5th C. BCE. This was a time of corruption and instability assessed to the Edomite’s who were descendants of Esau. Malachi’s critique helped bring about reform.

The Feast Of Lights – A Poem by Emma Lazarus

In the spirit of Chanukah I offer this beautiful poem Emma Lazarus
R.Jonah Ritter

One of the lauded poets in her time, Emma Lazarus (1849 – 1887) is most famous for her poem the New Colosus. A verse from that poem is famously engrazed on the Statue of Liberty.


Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening’s forehead o’er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,
The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
From one heroic stock, one seed divine.

Five branches grown from Mattathias’ stem,
The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
Eleazar, Help of-God; o’er all his clan
Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
Whose praise is: ‘He received the perishing.’

They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah’s heights the tangled grass
Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie
Disfigured and polluted-who had flung
Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,

Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o’ercame,
Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.
Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
Music and revelry wed day with night.

Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas? Where our five-branched palm?
Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!

Emma Lazarus

Torah Study Notes 11-19-16

November 19, 2016

Class led by Senior Rabbi – Paul Golomb.

Page 123

Note the interaction of personalities – Abraham, Sarah, the strangers and God. God is a personality here as well. The portion opens right after all the males in the household have been circumcised.

18:1 Abraham sees three men and offers them hospitality. LL There is an implicit assumption that the strangers will move on. They are likely armed. A has already shown he can defend himself – is a pretty effective military leader. Hospitality is offered with limitations. The text is signaling something to the reader about the divinity of the strangers that A himself does not know. Note that he rushes but does not appear to invite them into his tent. He hurries to do a good deed. At age 99 he has circumcision without anesthesia. He must be uncomfortable but he still runs to greet them. In the Torah the stranger is generally a manifestation of the Eternal. A technique in epic literature is not to build to an event. You are told the subject matter right from the start and then are engaged in the journey. This is true in Gilgamesh and others. There is no sense of mystery in the sense of  not knowing what is happening.  Abraham purposely understates his hospitality as “a little bit of water and bread” whereas he then puts out a feast

18:6  He prepares a feast but note that it is not kashrut –there is a mixing of meat and milk. A matter of Jewish apologia with respect to Christianity was to insist that Abraham Isaac and Jacob knew Torah – although they are part of it and it was not yet written. This worked against the Christian notion that religion is based on faith rather than revelation. If these men are “angels” why do they eat? PG In Torah as in much of the bible there are a group of super-luminary beings – they are avatars of God – they are God appearing in human form.  See The Great Chain of Being which makes Plato’s argument that there are no gaps in the hierarchy of things – ranging from rock at the bottom to God at the top. See:

The theological challenge in Christianity was the meaning of the Trinity – which led to the council of Nicaea – the reformation etc. Diarmaid MacCulloch in writing about Christianity suggests that the Muslim conquest of Europe was because the Christians were fighting one another over these theological issues. See:

18:9 Sara laughs. Will she bear a child when she has grown so old? Think of this as a stage production – where the characters are and who is being addressed. God has appeared in the first verse and now reappears. Sarah is behind the curtain but can hear the conversation. There is a conflation here of the strangers and God. That is an elusive issue. But there is an awareness nevertheless. It appears that God knew what she was thinking. We, as readers, have to figure out the inflections because that is not indicated in the Hebrew. The innovation of Hebrew was vowels – which provided a sense of pronunciation. Catholic doctrine emphasizes God’s grace here – that these three individuals were selected at random whereas in Judaism it has to do with being worthy – taking responsibility. This notion is closer to the Protestant view. But the worthiness of A can only be understood with the presence of Sarah – she represents the reality check.  See Mary Poppiin song “I love to Laugh” which state the different forms of laughter. Isaac means “to laugh.”  This is not the only instance where God speaks directly to a woman. Cf Hagar at the spring.  But there is an ambiguity here – is the speaker Abraham and not God? This appears to be their reward for hospitality to strangers. When she says she did not laugh – she meant not aloud.  Consider Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God.”

There is a difference between immanence and transcendence. God is saying that laughter is a good thing. Previously God has used the expression “where is” when asking Abel about Cain.

8: 16  The Eternal thought – Should I hide from Abraham what I am intending? The story of Sodom. Now we have a direct colloquy with God. God appears to be talking out load so that A can overhear. His words are not directly addressed to A.  This parsha presents the question of what is meant by justice. It brings up the notion of collateral damage. WWI was the beginning of total war – wherein civilians were also targets. Recall that during the Civil War people would go out in carriages to watch. They did not feel threatened. Where are the limits of justice? Should the innocent be destroyed together with the guilty? That is the risk whenever there is bombing or a drone strike.