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.



Torah Study Notes 11-12-16

November 12, 2016

Discussion led by Rabbi Leah Berkowitz

Page 91 Abraham’s election as the founder of what would become Judaism – the first person to believe in one God. Called to an arduous journey late in his life. He will be the ancestor of all three monotheistic religions.

12:1 I will make your name great… This was originally written in verse; parallelisms – a chiasmus. But why him? What is God asking him to do and why would he do that? LL Most faiths begin with the inspiration of a single person. Others are worshiping another God. There are other faiths nearby that are dualist – a benevolent god and a malevolent one. A light side and a dark side – like Star Wars. Sometimes a masculine and feminine. The later tends to be pushed aside until the growth of adoration of Mary in Catholicism. There is midrash about Abraham smashing idols – which is not in the Torah. But it is interesting that he was chosen despite his flaws. One of the midrash is that his father was an idol maker and A was a rebel. The idols were destroyed by A except for one who he gave a stick. When his father returned, he asked what happened and A told him the gods had fought and only one survived. “But they are just statutes that I have made” his father said. “Then why do you worship them?” asked A.

12:4 So he set forth with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot. He leaves without argument. They set forth to the land of Canaan. “I am giving this land to your descendants…” There is a psychological element here – it required a mental and physical commitment to strike off on one’s own. There are consequences to this “gift” of land that reverberate even today – as to who can occupy this land.  PC: It is comforting to replace “nation” with “a great ethical structure.” RB “Nation” just means a populous place here. It is not our modern notion of nationhood. There is an analogy here to political movements that get people fired up. Abraham may have had a message that people were waiting to hear.

12:6 He eventually travels to Egypt and prevails upon Sarai to pretend she was his sister. This worked well for Abraham initially. Pharaoh summoned A and said why did you do this? Take her and be gone! This happens twice to Sarah and once to Rebecca. SF: Why is this here? It certainly shows how flawed A was. He is tested again later. There may be similar myths in surrounding cultures. This kind of stories keep the attention of the audience. This is J and E authorship – two different stories with different kings.

12:13 He travels to Bethel and he and Lot argue. He builds an alter in Hebron. Lot picks what appears to be the most fertile land near Sodom – where wicked people lived. This is more of A separating himself from his past. In the previous parsha we see the death of his father. This separation from Lot is the last connection to his father s house.


Feeding Body, Mind, and Soul

Vassar Temple Sisterhood brings good cheer and good nourishment to people who need it greatly when they serve our community’s hungry at the “Lunchbox.” As you can see from the photos of this past Sunday, they also have a great time doing it.
Click here to learn more about Vassar Temple Sisterhood.
Visit Sisterhood’s Blog too.

Adult Ed Lecture and Discussion – Led by Martin Charwat on 11/10/16

Israel/Egypt- History of Relations
Outline notes by Martin Charwat

Circles of Influence/circles of concern:

Egypt in 1948 had not yet completely shorn off its control by Great Britain. Although nominally independent, Britain still had troops stationed in the Suez Canal Zone and exerted considerable influence over Egypt’s ruler, King Farouk. Egypt, nonetheless, was the most influential state in the Arab world, with powerful influence over its immediate neighbors, Libya to its west and Sudan to its south. Over the following years, Egypt’s power and reach grew, as it became one of the founding members of the group of nonaligned stated, including Indonesia and Yugoslavia. Courted by the Soviet Union, it managed to end British control of the Canal by 1954 and extend its influence to Syria, with which it briefly merged to form the United Arab Republic. Both Egypt and Israel were enmeshed in the Cold War, with Egypt seeking and accepting financial and military aid from the Soviet Union and its allies in the 1950’s. In the 1960’s Egypt fought a bloody, inconclusive war in Yemen. It was a major foe of Israel, losing to it in wars in 1948, 1956, and 1967 and then finally fighting pretty much to a draw in 1973.

It was a supporter of the Palestinian cause – until it reached a peace deal with Israel in 1979, after which its support for the Palestinians waned, and Egypt was expelled from the Arab League. It gained support from the United States, however, including annual receipt of money for its armed forces and for development aid as a result of its signing the Camp David accords in 1979. Egypt’s links to the U.S. were further strengthened as a result of its help in expelling Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991. Because of its ties to the never regained its central role in Arab affairs, as its ties to the U.S. made it unpopular in the wider Arab world.

Over the next decades, it largely stagnated, even as its population soared. Tourism and revenues from the Suez Canal kept it afloat, but barely. Growing Islamic militancy and terrorism took their toll on tourism, and a decline in oil shipments through the Canal as a result of a worldwide economic slowdown hurt revenues further, forcing Egypt to rely on contributions from the Gulf Arab states and Saudi Arabia. This dependence is resented by both the Egyptians and their benefactors, as well, and has reduced Egypt’s clout in the Arab world.
Israel went through a series of challenges from its inception. At its birth in 1948, it had to defend itself against an uncoordinated gaggle of Arab armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, which it defeated. In the aftermath of its independence, Israel was weak and isolated, surrounded by enemy states and Palestinians who were furious that they and their Arab allies were unable to defeat the Israelis and secure a state of their own. Israel had to take in a massive influx of Jews who were expelled from Arab lands, – not only those of its neighbors, but also Yemen, Morocco, and Tunisia, to name but a few.

It had few supporters or allies among the nations of Europe, though West Germany was a notable exception, providing substantial money transfers in the form of wartime reparations. France was a more reluctant ally, but it helped Israel to develop its atomic energy, including, presumably atomic weapons. The United States, while the first to recognize Israel’s existence, was largely cool to it at first and highly critical of its 1956 attack on Egypt along with France and Great Britain, which the U.S. saw as an attempt to reimpose colonialism and as being inimical to its own Cold War interests.
As many nations in Africa and Asia obtained their independence in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Israel made a major push to develop close relations with them, in order to foster trade and obtain their votes in the United Nations. Israel helped many of them with agricultural development knowhow and supplies, gaining their support. Egypt sought to counter this influence by painting itself as a supporter of African liberation and as a leader of the non-aligned nations in contrast to Israel, which it sought to paint as a tool of the west. Following the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the Arab oil boycott, much of Israel’s support among the newly independent nations weakened, as the quintupling of the price of fuel hit these developing countries hard, for which they blamed Israel. After 1994, Israel’s failure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians rankled the developing world, where support for the Palestinians is strong. Its settlement policies are strongly criticized by most Europeans. As a result, by 2016, Israel’s relations with the rest of the world have come full circle: it finds itself again largely isolated, with unremitting hostility from most of the Arab world and Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, and strong but fraying support in the U.S., with peaceful but cool relations between itself and Egypt and Jordan.
Overarching observations:

In the beginning of Israel’s existence, Egypt was the greatest menace to Israel, as it had the largest army, posed a danger to the heartland of Israel, and supported the Fedayeen Palestinian Arab fighters in Gaza in their raids and attacks in Israel. Under Nasser, Egypt continued to be the main enemy of Israel among all of the Arab states through the 1956 War in which Israel combined with France and Great Britain in attacking Sinai and the Suez Canal, and in the 1967 Yom Kippur War, likewise precipitated by Nasser. Finally, in the apocalyptic 1973 Yom Kippur war, with Sadat at the helm, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and clobbered the Israelis, at least at first. But since 1979, Egypt and Israel have been at peace, and although relations have not been warm, they have not been warlike, either.

Since the early 1950’s and with but a brief period of civilian rule by an Islamist government, Egypt’s political life has been dominated by a single party headed by a military man. This has meant that its leaders have been able to rule with minimal parliamentary opposition, although unpopular measures, such as the removal of food and fuel subsidies, have often been met by massive street protests. With this exception, Egypt’s leaders have been able to push through their programs without having to compromise with minority parties or worry excessively about being voted out of office.

Since its inception as a state in 1948, Israel has had mostly civilians as Prime Ministers who have headed coalition governments and therefore have had to contend with a fractious political environment. Unlike Egypt, three of whose rulers – Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, experienced long terms of office, Israel’s rulers, of whom there have been 12, rarely held office for more than a few years, except for the first, David Ben Gurion, and the current incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu. All of these Israeli leaders have had to thread a delicate path through the political minefield in order to avoid losing support and losing office. This has often meant giving in to small, ideological factions, whose demands may have offended Israel’s broad center as well as overseas supporters.

Both Egypt and Israel lost leaders to assassins: Anwar Sadat was shot and killed by Islamists in the military who viewed him as a traitor for making a separate peace with the hated enemy, Israel, and for betraying the Palestinians; Yitzhak Rabin was shot by a right-wing religious zealot who, like many in Israel, believed that he was not committed to keeping Judea and Samaria on the West Bank as permanently part of Israel, that he did not support Jewish settlers there, and was weak in dealing with the Palestinians and their Arab supporters. Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years from 1981 until 2011, was not assassinated, but he was the victim of 6 attempts.

Neither Israel nor Egypt wanted a Palestinian state and both have worked against its creation. The massive exodus of Palestinians from Israel proper which occurred during and immediately following the creation of the State of Israel was the product both of a call from invading Arab armies to clear the way so that there would not be civilian Arab casualties caused by the invaders, AND of Israeli military action and terrorist acts committed by Israeli forces to spread fear and force them to flee. Many of these Palestinians took refuge in Gaza, which was administered by Egypt. Egypt didn’t know what to do with them. Most were housed in U.N.-run refugee camps. Egypt didn’t want to resettle them in Egypt proper and at first encouraged them to attack Israel, prompting Israeli counterattacks. When, finally, in the 1970’s and 1980’s the Palestinians developed a national organization, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, known as the PLO, the Egyptians did little to help it and the Israelis refused to negotiate with it or with its leader, Yasser Arafat. Indeed, the 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt marked in effect the abandonment of the Palestinians by Egypt, which opted for its own self-interest over its pan-Arab commitment to the Palestinian cause. As a result, Egypt was expelled for 10 years from the Arab League. Israel appreciated Egypt’s go-it-alone approach and has acted on it ever since.

The Camp David accords of 1979, marked a major shift in political orientation of both Egypt and Israel. Until at least until the mid-1970’s, Egypt had been a client of the Soviet Union, and Israel, although closer to the U.S. than to the Soviet Union, was somewhat held at arm’s length by the United States. Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, which Israel survived thanks to a massive arms lift from the U.S., Egypt was resupplied by the Soviet Union, and Israel worried that it would again face an Egyptian onslaught. But Sadat’s recognition that Egypt could not develop without reducing the crushing burden of arms expenditures led him to seek peace with Israel. The 1979 Camp David accords made both Egypt and Israel recipients of large annual cash and arms transfers from the U.S. in exchange for their willingness to make peace with each other. Over time, Egypt’s army came to rely on U.S. arms and, to an extent on U.S. military training. Israel, too relied on U.S. arms and developed its own arms industry, at times in partnership with the U.S. The U.S. may have believed that its money and arms gave it leverage over both of its client states, but it has not always worked out this way.

One instance in which it did was the 1990 Gulf War to drive Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army out of Kuwait. In that war, U.S. President Bush sought to assemble a coalition of states, including Arab states, to drive out the Iraqis. Egypt signed on and provided a sizeable contingent. Israel was scheduled to be on the receiving end of Scud missiles that Saddam threatened to rain down on Israeli cities. The U.S. desperately wanted to prevent the Israelis from retaliating, as this would have driven away the support of the Arab armies allying with the U.S. effort. So the U.S. promised to give priority to attacking the Iraqi missile sites targeting Israel and to provide Israel with U.S. Patriot missiles to shoot down incoming Scuds. While there was little damage done to Israel, following the war Israel felt that the U.S. “owed it” and asked for ever larger shipments of weapons, which was forthcoming. Egypt too, as a result of its participation, earned the good graces of the U.S. Was the commitment to “buy peace” open ended, and how much influence did the money buy?

The answer is that nations pursue what they perceive as their own national interests. When this means biting the hand that feeds them, well – so be it.
Even before 1994 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat signed the so-called Oslo Agreement to end hostilities, the government of Israel has pursued a policy of supporting Israeli settlers to create new settlements and expand existing ones in what it calls Judea and Samaria and the Palestinians call the territory that they hope will be their future state. While the U.S. has criticized this policy, Israel has continued it almost unabated, repeatedly thumbing its nose at the U.S. Moreover, when the U.S. was preparing to sign a deal with Iran to reduce its ability to produce and deploy a nuclear weapon, a proposal the U.S viewed as enhancing Israel’s security but with which Netanyahu disagreed, Netanyahu came to the U.S. in 2015 and vehemently criticized the deal before the U.S. Congress. Egypt has protested Israel’s policies in the West Bank, albeit without threatening to break diplomatic relations with Israel or taking any steps to put military or economic pressure on Israel, not that it has much ability to do so any longer.

The Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising in 2011, which saw the overthrow of Egyptian President Mubarak by a combination of liberals, modernizers, and Islamists, ushered in a period of turmoil in Egypt and watchful waiting in Israel. The fact that the United States did not support its old ally, Mubarak, was viewed with loathing in Saudi Arabia, an ally of both. It may have shaken Israel, too – especially with the subsequent election of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist and supporter of Hamas. Relations between Israel and Egypt worsened, as Egyptians began to question whether to break off diplomatic relations and reduce economic ties. Open anti-semitism began to rear its head in Egypt, and Hamas, which had been shunned by Mubarak, began to hope that a Morsi government would help it economically and even, perhaps militarily.
But Morsi did not have the support of the Egyptian army or the bureaucracy, which had been appointed by Mubarak, and stymied him at every opportunity. Before long, the army overthrew Morsi and began a crackdown on his supporters, jailing thousands. Meanwhile Israel watched and cheered from the sidelines.

With a new government in power, cooperation blossomed once again, with Egypt and Israel sharing intelligence on ISIS and other radical groups operating in Sinai and sealing tunnels from Egypt into Gaza. Hamas was once again in a vise, with Egypt pressing from one side, Israel from the others.

Egypt’s economy, meanwhile, tanked. Its dependence on revenues from tourism and the Suez Canal both took a hit, as terrorist incidents and reduced oil shipments combined in a perfect storm to force it to go begging to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which propped it up with over $40B. Because the value of U.S. development aid and arms shipments amount to only about $2B per year, Egypt could afford to not pay nearly so much attention to the wishes of the U.S. as it had in the past. Ironically, Saudi Arabia’s generosity to Egypt has not won it much leverage in Egypt either, as Egypt’s President Sisi has taken the aid and in remarks released over WikiLeaks was heard to say that the Saudis were suckers and should be hit up for even more. As for Israel, in September it secured a 10-year $38B commitment from the U.S. to supply it with military hardware to preserve its military edge over presumed enemies. Since the conclusion of the agreement, Israel has announced plans for further settlement construction and has already broken ground.

Finally, currently, Egypt and Israel are both becoming less tolerant societies, with increasing restrictions on the press and civic society groups in both countries. Both Netanyahu and el-Sisi, the President of Egypt, have resisted calls to rein in their more hard line supporters. Egypt has required a wide array of civil society groups to forswear foreign funding and has curtailed their activities. Activists have been jailed, tortured, and silenced. Israel is making it more difficult for its domestic critics to monitor government actions in the occupied territories and to publicize such things as housing demolitions and water seizures. A prominent Israeli newspaper owned by U.S. casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson, is virtually a mouthpiece for the Netanyahu government and not only promotes its policies but editorializes against its critics.

In conclusion, Egypt and Israel are both states whose image and reality have changed greatly over 68 years. Egypt is not the colossus of the Arab world, dominating its discourse. It is an ailing, dependent. Israel is no longer David, but rather a powerful embattled Sparta, in a hostile environment which is viewed as lording it over Palestinians. Egypt has gone from being the chief threat to Israel’s existence to becoming its ally against Radical Islamists in the Sinai and Hamas in Gaza.

While Egypt’s political landscape was dominated by a single party with a few rulers, Israel had to deal with a multi-party system with many heads of state who have had to form fragile coalitions and effectuate compromises in order to govern. Both countries lost leaders who were advocates for peace to assassins who viewed these leaders as traitors willing to threaten ideological purity: a Palestine without an Israel or an Israel without a Palestine. Over the years, it became clear that neither Egypt nor Israel wanted a Palestinian state or was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to bring one into existence. While the 1979 Camp David accords effectively made Israel and Egypt client states of the United States, with the passage of time, the leverage that the U.S. had over each has declined, so that today neither one dances to the U.S. tune. The 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Egypt and the 2013 overthrow of the Islamist Government of Mohammed Morsi has led to enhanced security cooperation between Israel and Egypt against Islamists in Sinai and against Hamas in Gaza. Finally, Both Israel and Egypt are becoming less tolerant societies in terms of their willingness to brook opposition and dissent.

Martin Charwat
Nov. 10, 2016
Vassar Temple

Torah Study Notes 11-5-16

November 5, 2016
Page 59- The story of Noah. In terms of authorship it appears to be a splicing together of J and P. You could lift the P part out and the remainder would make sense. There are two merged stories. The flood narrative is first which is common in early cultures – either there was an early flood or a prevalent notion that God saw man as evil and wanted to start over. In this the people were bad but in Gilgamesh the people were too loud and getting on the nerves of the gods. See A Wrinkle in Time – Many Waters where the brothers go back in time to the flood. LL In ancient Greek culture there was no sharp division between good and evil – which may account for the absence of a flood myth in that culture. The multiple Greek gods had human characteristics and human weaknesses such as lust and envy.
6:9 Noah was a righteous man… what does this mean in the sense that there is no Torah yet? RB: There is a suggestion of a preexisting set of laws or moral codes that formed a baseline for human behavior. See: 9:1 on page 63 which recites basic laws sometimes known as The “Noahide Laws”
See also Ch 2:16.
The seven Noahide laws as traditionally enumerated are:[7]
1. Do not deny God.
2. Do not blaspheme God.
3. Do not murder.
4. Do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
5. Do not steal.
6. Do not eat from a live animal.
7. Establish courts/legal system to ensure obedience to the law.
According to the Talmud,[7] the rabbis agree that the seven laws were given to the sons of Noah. However, they disagree on precisely which laws were given to Adam and Eve. Six of the seven laws are exegetically derived from passages in Genesis,[8] with the seventh being the establishing of courts.

The orthodox argue that these seven laws apply even if you are not part of the covenant. Question as to where the comma is in the first sentence. Was he singularly a righteous man or a righteous man only in his generation. See handout – What does it mean to be “blameless in his age.” Is he righteous only in comparison to the wicked people around him? “In a more respectable age perhaps he would have been no better than average.” What makes him righteous? He listens to God and thereafter he saves the animals. The concept of not bending to peer pressure is important for children and in a sense, the history of the Jews, is one of knowing the right path. See Subversive Sequels in the bible by Judy Kushner. LL Consider The Sixth Extinction. See rabbinical commentary distributed by RB:

Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 108a: These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man, and perfect in his generations (Bereshit 6:9, JPS translates as “blameless in his age”). R. Johanan said: In his generations, but not in other generations. Resh Lakish maintained: [Even] in his generations…how much more so in other generations. R. Hanina said: As an illustration of R. Johanan’s view, to what may this be compared? To a barrel of wine lying in a vault of acid: in its place, its odor is fragrant [by comparison with the acid]; elsewhere, its odor will not be fragrant. R. Oshaia said: As an illustration of Resh Lakish’s view, to what may this be compared? To a vial of spikenard oil lying amidst refuse: [if] it is fragrant where it is, how much more so amidst spices!

Etz Chayim p. 41: “Yohanan sees Noah as righteous only relatively, in contrast to the wicked people around him. In a more respectable age, he would have been no better than average. Resh Lakish, on the other hand, says that anyone who had the moral backbone to be a good person in an immoral society would have been an even better person in a generation that encouraged goodness. One emphasizes the power of society to shape the behavior of its members; the other champions the power of the individual to withstand the pressures of society…. In the face of universal corruption, he maintained civilized standards of behavior.”

6:11 An ark of gopher wood… construction is described in detail. Take seven pairs of every pure beast but only one pair of the impure.
7:6 Noah was six hundred years old…after seven days the flood waters covered the earth and after forty days… the water subsided. Note the poetic parallelism here. The floodgates opening is a symbol of chaos and is sometime considered a feminine opposite to God. Is this a continuation of creation? “And God remembered Noah” – also God remembered Rachel or God remembered the Israelites when they were in Egypt. “Remember” here could mean to focus or acting so as to interfere in human affairs. Also, God did not forget Noah. See Noah movie: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an orthodox Jewish rabbi leader, hailed Noah as “a valuable film, especially for our times.”[79] In order to create “a story that tries to explicate Noah’s relationship with God and God’s relationship with the world as it has become”, director of the film Darren Aronofsky himself stated that he was working in “the tradition of Jewish Midrash”.[80]

A Referendum on the American Dream: Rabbi Berkowitz’s Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5777

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This poem, written by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. These were the first words that many of our ancestors saw upon arriving in New York Harbor. They might not have been able to read them, but the message came across loud and clear in the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched arm. Its torch lit the way to what, for many of them, was considered a “Goldene Medene,” a new Promised Land.

Fleeing persecution and poverty, our ancestors set their sights on a land that promised freedom and opportunity. Once the harrowing journey was over, they would have the chance to build better lives for themselves and their children.

My grandmother didn’t come through Ellis Island. Seeking to enter the United States in the early 1920s, my great-grandparents entered New York by way of Canada, to establish British citizenship and circumvent quotas on immigrants from Eastern Europe. My great-grandmother, previously one of Warsaw’s elite, scrubbed floors, while my great-grandfather candled eggs, until they had enough money to open a grocery store in Harlem. They enrolled their three children in the New York public schools and cheder, and saw to it that all of them went to college. Their hard work ensured that their children and grandchildren would have access to a good education, gainful and meaningful employment, and a level of material comfort that they could not even imagine for themselves.

Many of us have stories like these, great “American Dream” narratives of coming here with nothing, working hard to make something of ourselves, and giving a better life to the next generation. These would be great “lift ourselves up by our bootstraps” narratives, except for one thing. We did not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. In some shape or form, every one of us had help getting to where we are today.

There was private assistance: the relatives who sent money and set us up with our first jobs. There was also a vast network of Jewish and secular benevolent societies that provided education, medical care, free loans, and legal aid to people who were new to this country. State and local governments stepped in to assist and protect new Americans: providing funding for benevolent societies, free public education for the children of immigrants, and regulation of threats to public health and safety posed by tenements and sweatshops.

Public and private assistance to new Americans wasn’t perfect, but it was widespread, in both the Jewish and public spheres. This is because welcoming the stranger is deeply rooted in both the Jewish narrative and the American narrative. We, the Jewish people, are a nation of exiles. And we, the American people, are a nation of immigrants.

Jews have been immigrating to, and settling in, America since a group of Sephardic Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. While there were not yet quotas keeping us from entering the Americas, Jews and other religious minorities faced discrimination and intolerance in early American settlements, and even after the founders declared that, “all men were created equal.”

The question of what role Jews would play in this nascent country came to the foreground in 1790, when George Washington himself visited the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island. In a letter to the congregation, Washington stated that tolerance of diversity was not an indulgence, but a basic human right, and that the country he served as president would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

For a people who had been repeatedly pushed down into the status of second-class citizen—or denied citizenship altogether—America felt akin to Canaan, the biblical Promised Land. For the first time in millennia, it felt like we might be able to stop our perpetual wandering.

But even the Promised Land isn’t promised unconditionally, as we read in this morning’s portion, Nitzavim:

“And later generations will ask—the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the Eternal has inflicted upon that land…just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorroh… all nations will ask, ‘Why did the Eternal do thus to the land?’ … They will be told, ‘Because they forsook the covenant that the Eternal … made with them when God freed them from the land of Egypt….So the Eternal … uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land” (Deut. 29:21-27).

This passage was likely written by a people already in exile, trying to understand their displacement from the land given by God to their ancestors. The Promised Land wasn’t something we thought we could lose. Suddenly, we found ourselves strangers in a strange land, wondering how we got there.

It shouldn’t have been such a mystery to us. The narratives of the Torah are rife with stories of punishment, destruction and exile. Adam and Eve lost their place in the Garden of Eden for disobeying God’s command. Noah and his family watched as the rest of the world’s corrupt inhabitants drowned in a flood. The architects of Babel were scattered into 70 nations for attempting to storm the gates of heaven. And the people of Sodom and Gomorroh disappeared beneath a maelstrom of fire and brimstone.

Why is it that the people of Sodom were targeted for destruction? The plain text attributes Sodom’s fate to the perversion of its inhabitants, who attempt an assault on two strangers staying in the home of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. But the rabbis suggest that the people of Sodom didn’t come after the strangers because of their depravity, but because of their unwillingness to share what they had.

One might think this kind of miserliness comes from a place of scarcity. But the rabbis tell us that Sodom was a place of great wealth. Neither human beings walking below, nor birds flying above, could see through the dense foliage of the fruit-bearing trees. Gold flakes clung to the roots of their vegetables. The people of Sodom didn’t become stingy because they had too little, but because they had too much!

Rather than feel blessed by their abundance, the people of Sodom began to fear that foreigners would take what was rightfully theirs, saying: “We live in peace and plenty…What need have we to look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us? Come, let us see to it that the duty of entertaining foot travelers be forgotten in our land!”

So the people of Sodom developed an elaborate anti-wayfarer campaign. They charged people four zuzim to cross the bridge into their town, and eight zuzim if they tried to evade the toll by wading through a river. If a wayfarer was too tall or too short for his bed, they would cut him or stretch him to fit. If he begged in the street, people would give him coins, but instruct the local shopkeepers not to sell him food. When the stranger inevitably died, the people would retrieve their money from his pockets.

The animosity of the people of Sodom was not reserved for the stranger. They also stole from each other, were violent towards one another, and refused to feed the hungry amongst themselves, even to the point of torturing those who took pity on the stranger.

The rabbis explain that God’s punishment of Sodom is a response to the outcry of Lot’s daughter, who had been secretly sustaining an impoverished person. When the townspeople discover her transgression, they burn her alive, and she cries out: “God of the universe … exact justice and judgment in my behalf from the Sodomites” (Book of Legends 36:30-32).

The price of their selfishness and greed was exile and destruction. Not because of the isolated actions of its individuals, but because, according to Rabbi Eliezar, “wickedness became public policy endorsed and approved by the authorities” (Pirke De Rabbi Eliezar 25).

We might hear this and think, “What does it have to do with us? We would never do anything like that in our country!” But only two years ago, a 90-year-old WWII veteran named Arnold Abbot was arrested multiple times for violating a local ordinance against feeding the homeless in public spaces in Florida. This may sound like just another irregular news item. But policy-making and political rhetoric against those in need is not. Those seeking public assistance are treated as a nuisance and a drain on our society, rather than the responsibility of a nation built by the tired, poor, and the tempest-tost.

It is not a coincidence that our country’s entrance bears the verse, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” In Emma Lazarus’s day, welcoming the stranger to this land of opportunity was a major point of American pride. But just over a century later, when the plenty in our land has only increased, we speak of replacing our golden doors with high walls, in the interest of preventing, and forcibly removing, those who seek to make a home here.

While it is impossible to speak of the American Dream without mentioning our immigrant past, it is not only immigrants and refugees who suffer from our scarcity mentality. Citizens of this nation also fall victim to the rhetoric of “us versus them.” Those of us in positions of privilege and power have become so concerned with protecting what we have, that we allow others to be oppressed in the name of our own security and comfort.

We support policies that deny workers fair wages and the most basic assistance in caring for themselves and their families, so that we can have cheap labor, cheap goods, and a lower bottom line. This doesn’t just impact the people at the bottom. Skilled workers and educated professionals too find themselves struggling to make ends meet, in a society that provides little help in the way of childcare, loan forgiveness, and pay equity.

We support a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes poor people and people of color, so that we can feel safe, or even, in our worst moments, so that corporations might profit from the business of incarceration.

We balance our budgets on the backs of our public education and health care systems, as well as by cutting funds to other agencies that assist those living in poverty. Then we blame the poor for somehow not being gritty enough to pull themselves up, like we did.

We are so concerned with voter fraud, something that only happens only a few hundred times per election, that we would allow laws to pass that deny voting rights to tens of millions of American citizens, mostly the poor, the elderly, and people of color.

Many of us are so disgusted by our political system right now that we are tempted to throw up our hands and not participate at all. But it is not enough for us to hope that the rest of the country makes a good decision, or to resign ourselves to whatever the outcome of this election may be. Apathy is not an option for us, as Jews or as Americans, because every election is a referendum on the American Dream.

This sermon as a word cloud.
Every election is an opportunity for us to decide who we want to be as a nation. Do we want to perpetuate the “bootstraps” myth of rugged individualism, or do we want to acknowledge that even the most tenacious and persistent of us would not be where we are today had we not received help from our community and our country? We have survived centuries of discrimination and persecution in this country and all over the world. Will we stand idly by as our country continues to push down its weaker citizens: its immigrants, its people of color, and even its women? Do we want to be a nation that tightens its borders and starves out the wayfarer, or do we want to be a nation that cares deeply for its own citizens, and welcomes the stranger, as we have been welcomed and cared for?

This election comes down to this: do we want to be Canaan, a land of promise and plenty, or do we want to be Sodom, a land of fear and self-preservation?

This question is very real to us as we begin this new year. We have just learned that Church World Service has been approved to open a Voluntary Agency for the resettlement of refugees in Dutchess County. Vassar Temple is working with local religious institutions, universities, and non-profits to support individual refugee families who will be resettled in our area.

Our community will be called upon to provide assistance in many different ways. I know that we will welcome these families to our community with open arms, and with generous support, because that is who we are as a community.

But what will we do for the 65 million others who are persecuted in, and displaced from, their home countries, as we once were? The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the very agency that helped many of us settle in this country, has shifted its focus to helping immigrants from outside of the Jewish community. They are calling upon us to support their work of helping refugees settle here and abroad. They are also asking us to urge our government leaders to increase the number of refugees we are accepting into this country. That number is now only 10,000, a small fraction, even of the 1% of refugees who are eligible for resettlement in the first place, and who have passed through our rigorous screening process.

This is what we can do for those who are strangers in a strange land. But what will we do for those citizens of our country who do not yet know the freedom and equality upon which the United States was founded? Our first step is to ensure that all of us can participate in the election this November. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has launched a campaign to increase voter participation and voter protection in this election, because ensuring that all people have the right to vote is the first step in ensuring that so many of our other rights will be protected.

I encourage you visit their websites, to learn what you can do to increase access to the American Dream, by welcoming more people into this great country, and by empowering those who are already here to make decisions about our nation’s future.

The RAC has named their campaign after this morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, which means, “you stand together.” At the start of this Torah portion, we hear who is standing on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the Promised Land: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deut. 29:9-11).

Even in the patriarchal, particularistic religion of ancient Israel, Moses goes out of his way to mention groups that we might expect to be left on the margins. The speech is addressed, not only to the elders, the officials, and the men, but also to the women and the children, the day laborers, and the strangers in our midst.

God reminds us: “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day…and those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29: 14). “Those who are not with us today,” includes those of us who are sitting here this morning.

Every year at Passover, we remind ourselves that, in every generation, we are obligated to regard ourselves as if we, personally, went forth from Egypt. Even as we sit reclining at our dining room tables, we are commanded to remember the pain of slavery as a personal trauma, so that we will never lose our empathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed. The same can be said of our much more recent experience as new immigrants in this country.

We as Jews aren’t a people who believe that one can start from birth at zero. Even as we enjoy our comfortable lives, we carry with us the history—no, the memory—of previous generations: who wandered, who struggled, who knew persecution and discrimination, and who relied on public and private assistance to survive and to flourish in this country.

When we stood on the banks of the Jordan, we entered into a covenant that demanded that we help the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger. Centuries later, when we passed through the “Golden Door” into this great country, we also entered into a sacred covenant, to take every opportunity that was granted to us, and to make sure that others would have the same opportunities that we once did.

As we open the door to a new year, may we honor these covenants. May we be ever-vigilant to protect the rights of the homeless, the poor, the stranger and the tempest-tost. May we remember that we are a nation whose founders swore to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And may we work diligently to fulfill that vision of a Promised Land inscribed on our nation’s entrance, “I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”  And let us say, Amen.

Torah Study Notes 10-1-16

October 1, 2016

Some advice to readers: These notes are generally most intelligible when read in conjunction with the passages as they appear in Gunther Plaut’s The Torah – A Modern Commentary. We work from the revised edition published by the Union For Reform Judaism. I find it useful to have my own copy at home together with Plaut’s Haftarah Commentary. Also, a long overdue apology to my Torah Study classmates. There are typically twelve or more people present and they are a continuing source of interesting commentary and questions. I try to capture the essence of some of their remarks in these notes but rarely do them justice.

Page 1373

Rabbi B – These passages we are about to read are essentially a summary repetition from the last cycle. They are easy to memorize.

29:9 You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God… This establishes the covenant with everyone – those present and not present. All… of Israel. The people who came before you and those who come after you. Some would say that it includes even those who convert to Judaism.

29:13 Well you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt…This section implies strict accountability. There is no room for interpretation. The people are standing on the opposite side of the Jordan and Moses is speaking. This is his final oration to the next generation “who knew not Pharaoh.” Nine times every seventeen years.  The Jewish calendar has to be adjusted because of the use of the lunar cycle.

29:20: A tribe may be singled out for misfortune. Because they forsook the covenant and turned to the service of other gods. They will suffer all of the curses recorded here. Communal punishment may be limited to the tribe of the transgressor. Note that there are occasions when a word is written one way but read a different way – such as where something refers to a disease or body part. JB What if you don’t believe in any God? That doesn’t seem to be covered. RB: Basically, we are more concerned with actions and behavior than belief. You may act a certain way because you fear god or for what you view as moral or ethical reasons. Fringe groups of Judaism have been formed such as Humanistic Judaism (see:   )

and Jews for Jesus. See:  The latter is also now known as Messianic Judaism. They wanted to be included under the umbrella of the Reform movement. The Messianic group masks their Christianity and funding from evangelical conservative groups. They are trying to convert Jews to what is essentially Christianity. The Humanist are more problematic in that they have a nature worship element. AF You can be a percentage believer. Marsha: I disagree. Beleif cannot be quantified numerically. RB You might believe in God but don’t believe in all of his powers to intervene in our lives. RB The ethical commandments are just as important as the dietary. LL It is not a percentage of belief but rather a percentage of participation. You either believe or not. Yet you may be Jewish by participating in different ways. It is the essence of the Reform movement that you be allowed to accommodate your level of participation according to your individual preferences. SF Judaism is multifaceted. Some participate with fervor and some less. This has nothing to do with being a member of the Jewish community. Someone is not a better Jew just because they keep kosher.  RB: Being part of a community essentially defines the level of ritual obligations. LL Note that there were different shuls here in Poughkeepsie based on national origin. Vassar was essentially German Jews and there was a separate temple occupied by the Hungarians and other eastern Europeans. Beth El was formed by dissident members of this congregation.

29:28: Concealed acts concern the Eternal your God… What you do in secret is still known to God and of concern to God.

30:1 When all of these things befall you… What is the book of teachings referred to here? RB: Some think it is Deuteronomy. There are a number of places where the word Torah is used in the sense of “instruction.” There may have been earlier compilations of the laws. Deuteronomy itself may have been an after acquired book. Here it is what Moses has been writing down. The special haftarah next week is Hosea.

30:11: From 29:15 to 30:10 the detail has been removed. It is not read on Yom Kippur in Reform because it takes too long.  Here we are given choices and there are rewards and punishment for each choice. Note the beauty and poetry of this section. It is personal. This is where personal interpretation is permitted. It becomes a central text for the discussions of rabbinic Judaism. RB tells the story of the argument of the two rabbis: One contended that these teachings are not in the heavens. The other insisted that we must have an agreed upon way of functioning and that is strict adherence to the law. They asked God.  God laughed and said “my children have defeated me.” The presence of different opinions – that are recorded – gives us the option of adopting another view as circumstances change.

30:15: The words I set before you this day… The final statement. Don’t worship other gods etc. but Reform cuts the details. You make choices that result in prosperity and blessing – or not. We see how our actions have consequence in our lives and in the world. Technology can create community as we have seen on the internet – such as Facebook. But this will never completely replace the personal contact found in shul.

Rosh Hashana’s Messages Aren’t “Mixed,” Life Is. #BlogElul #HHDs

Cross-posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like. Rabbi Berkowitz’s sermon from Friday, September 30th.

News flash! Extra, extra, read all about it! High Holy Day services are boring!

That’s what my social media feeds start to look like every year around this time. I find this especially amusing, since about 60% of my network of friends are some kind of Jewish professional or a lay leader in a synagogue. There’s always an article about the pitfalls of our holiest days of the year, how we can change them, why we should put up with them, or why we should ignore them altogether.

This year, the headline was particularly dramatic. Jay Michaelson, who spoke at our Shabbaton last year, published an article in the Forward under the title, “Why You Shouldn’t Go to Synagogue on Rosh Hashana This Year.”

But honestly, for all of its click-bait sensationalism, there isn’t much new or controversial about what Michaelson is saying. Here are his arguments:

  • The High Holy Days have become a performance, both by the spiritual leaders of congregations, and by participants who have made these services into “the Fashion Week of Jewish life.”
  • The complicated theology and the guilt-inducing messages of the High Holy Days can be off-putting when taken out of the context of the rest of the Jewish calendar.
  • Rosh Hashana in particular sends a “mixed message,” in that is presented both as the joyous Birthday of the World and the terror-inducing Day of Judgment.

I don’t disagree with Michaelson’s arguments. I’m grateful we have Shabbat every week and High Holy Days only twice a year! Expectations and anxieties run high on these High Holy Days, and sometimes it does feel like we are putting on a show. The preparation can be very stressful for our staff, our volunteers, and our members. I never see people fighting over seats or parking spaces on Shavuot. If I could get rid of all that stress for our community (and, to be perfectly honest, for myself), I would.

As far as context is concerned, I’ve often wished that as many people would join us for Purim as do for Yom Kippur. The message of Rosh Hashana’s grim language is an important one: that our lives are finite, and that we must consider each action as if these were our last days on earth. But taken by themselves, the ideas of the Book of Life, the Day of Judgment, and the Throne of Glory can be harsh and unsettling.

The High Holy Days are supposed to be a part of a “balanced breakfast,” as the cereal commercials used to say. We can no more live on celebration alone than we could live only on a diet Fruity Pebbles. Conversely, we can no more live on repentance alone than we could live only on Bran Flakes. Our cycle of Jewish holidays is supposed to mirror the ups and downs of any given year, and of any given life. That’s one reason why, just four days after the solemn Day of Atonement, we have an eight-day celebration of the harvest. So while I agree with Michaelson that one shouldn’t only come to synagogue on the High Holy Days, we’d be missing out on some pretty important spiritual nutrients if we skipped them altogether.

Which leads me to the argument I found most troubling: that Rosh Hashana contradicts itself by being both the solemn beginning of the Days of Awe and the joyous Birthday of the World. “The day itself is confused,” Michaelson writes, “an amalgam of celebration and repentance, conviviality and sobriety. Are we supposed to celebrate the Birthday of the World or get busy with apologizing to God? Do we wish each other a happy new year or a serious, pious new year? …which is it, a funeral or a quincanera?”

The answer is, it’s both. And I don’t think that’s contradictory at all.

I don’t have to tell you that life is complicated. How many of us have had a birthday where we didn’t experience both the joy of celebrating with friends and family, and the anxiety standing alone in front of the bathroom mirror, counting wrinkles, hunting for gray hairs, wondering if we can accept, and embrace, who we are becoming? How many of us have celebrated a holiday or a simcha without shedding a tear over the people who are not celebrating with us anymore, or without wondering who might not be in the family photograph next year? And how many of us have been to a funeral where nobody laughed telling a story about the very person they were mourning?

Tomorrow night, I’ll officiate at the last wedding of 5776. Weddings always seem beautiful and romantic from a distance, but from where I’m standing, there is none without complications. Weddings are not unlike the High Holy Days, with their high production value, and the heightened stress levels that comes with that. The couple, their family and friends, bring all of their drama and baggage to this major turning point in their lives. There are people missing and people not speaking, people who wish they could be there and people who wish they could be anywhere else.

Even at the most joyous, uncomplicated union of two people in love from two families that get along great, we don’t let ourselves slip into pure happiness. We shatter a glass, some say to remind ourselves of the destruction of the Temple, others suggest that it wards off evil spirits, demonstrates the groom’s virility, or keeps the guests from getting too rowdy. But the shattered glass also reminds us that, even in one of life’s peak moments, we never leave behind our brokenness. But it also reminds us that our brokenness doesn’t prevent us from experiencing joy.

One of my favorite poems, by one of Israel’s greatest poets, Yehudah Amichai, tells us that:

“A man doesn’t have time in his life

to have time for everything.

He doesn’t have seasons enough to have

a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes

Was wrong about that.


A man needs to love and hate at the same moment,

to laugh and cry with the same eyes,

with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,

to make love in war and war in love.”


Life is a mixed bag.

This is true of being Jewish, but also of being human. We often need, as the poem suggests, “to laugh and cry with the same eyes.” There is no holiday, no life-cycle, not even any ordinary day, that contains only frivolity or only solemnity. We must have faith that we as human beings have the capacity to hold both joy and sadness in our hearts, because we continue to do so, every single day.

The Torah portion this Shabbat, Nitzavim, which we will also read on Yom Kippur, warns, “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity…blessing and curse” (Deut. 30:15, 19). This is presented to us as a choice, a reward or punishment for adhering, or not adhering, to the commandments. But in many ways the dichotomy is false: in any full life, we will have both life and death, both prosperity and adversity, both blessings and curses. They don’t fit into neat little compartments, and often, we experience them simultaneously. The blessing is that these experiences and emotions can balance, and even enhance one another. Our sadness is what makes it possible for us to recognize joy. And our joy is what sustains us through times of despair. This complexity what makes our lives rich and full and meaningful.

What better way to usher in a new year than by acknowledging that?

On our last Shabbat of 5776, I wish all of us a rich, full, and meaningful New Year. May our joy be enough to counterbalance our sadness, and may our sadness carve out space for us to fill with joy.

Here’s another response to Michaelson’s article, and a reflection on how we can make High Holy Day services better.

Linda Cantor Honored with 2016 Arnold Award

Linda Cantor, 2016 Arnold Award Recipient

Linda Cantor’s Words:
Thank you for selecting me as the recipient of the 2016 Rabbi Stephen Arnold award. I am both honored and humbled to be following in the steps of the previous recipients of this service award. Receiving the Rabbi Arnold award is particularly meaningful to me because, although our roles were different, we arrived at Vassar Temple at the same time .

Our family has been members of Vassar Temple for the past forty years. From the beginning Vassar temple has been and continues to be a very welcoming place, a place where my young diverse family was accepted and encouraged to participate fully. One’s skin color, religion of birth, income , gender or sexual orientation or political views do not matter. Anyone who wants to be involved in Temple Life is encouraged to take an active role.

We continue to be encouraged to explore and deepen our spiritual life, look at our connections to G-d and the universe and find ways to make prayer meaningful. Some of us find those connections just sitting quietly, others by raising their voices in song together, others by chanting one line of a prayer over and over, and others by going out in nature as Rabbi Nachman and talking directly to G-d. We use masculine, feminine and gender neutral language. We are encouraged to speak from our hearts using the words of the prayer book or the words that come through our souls or no words and simply be present. Each individual’s has been nurtured at Vassar Temple.

I am particularly struck during this season of Tshuvah, of Return at how Vassar Temple has provided a container for us to be part of and contribute to our community in ways that are meaningful, that reflect who we are. May each of us ,in our own way do the work of Elul , the work of return that will enable us to be open hearted, life affirming loving members of our family, our circle of friends, our Temple Community and the wider world.

Ken yhe ratzon
Thank you again for this honor.

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz’s Opening Remarks:

Every congregation is composed of Litvaks and Hasids. This is the Jewish equivalent of left-brain and right-brain. A Litvak is most interested in learning the facts and adhering to the letter of the law. Hasids are the ones who pay attention to the life of the spirit, and make it their life’s work to infuse joy and meaning into Jewish practice. In the 19th century this was illustrated by the Litvak studying Talmud and the Hasid going outside to hug trees. The Litvak clung to tradition and the Hasid advocated change. The Litvak nurtured a healthy skepticism while the Hasid was wildly optimistic. Each brings their own gifts to the modern synagogue, where we need both continuity and change, both joy and solemnity. In the organized Jewish world, we tend towards the Litvaks side.

In Linda Cantor, our community has the blessing of a Hasid, with just a dash of Litvak in her. Linda brings a deep, spiritual dimension to everything she encounters: teaching the rest of us Litvaks meditation and bringing her energy and joy to our prayer and our learning. But Linda also brings a sense of commitment and determination to everything she does, making sure things get done, and get done right, as only a Litvak can do.

Linda has brought her dual personalities to our Adult Education Program, our Ritual Committee and our Nachamu committee. She has been instrumental in planning our Shabbatonim and the annual Fannie Berlin lecture, finding inspiring speakers and often teaching sessions herself when she was able. Linda was a founding davenner in our New Paths service. Perhaps the greatest contribution that Linda is currently making to our synagogue is the groundbreaking Wise Aging Program. Together with Debbie Golomb, Linda has been helping people to navigate the third chapter of their lives from both a practical and a spiritual standpoint. Linda is able to have conversations with people that others might find uncomfortable to start, about how we live our lives spiritually and what we are doing to grow.

Linda has been particularly supportive and nurturing to me during my first year at Vassar Temple, helping me with various projects, and encouraging me to nurture my inner Hasid as well with classes at Omega and workshops with the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. I’m grateful to her for helping me to take a step back, take a deep breath, and remember why we do what we do.

Hasid comes from the same root as the word hesed which means loving-kindness. This word, too, is embodied in Linda Cantor. She always has a kind smile and a gentle word for everyone, which is a rare thing in this day and age. I am delighted that she is being honored tonight, and I wish her yishar kochech, continued strength, as she goes forward. It is appropriate that we honor Linda with this blessing on the night of Selichot. As the Book of Life opens, we pray that you will be written and sealed for an incredible year of spiritual growth and development, enjoying your children and grandchildren, and sharing your beautiful gifts with all of us Litvaks.

And now I’d like to share a few words from Rabbi Arnold himself.

Rabbi Stephen Arnold’s Letter to Linda and the Vassar Temple Congregation
To Honor Our Friend and Teacher, Linda Cantor

Shabbat shalom, dear friends. Cecile and I wish you all a Shana Tova uM’tuka — a Good and a Sweet New Year.

And while we’re talking about goodness and sweetness, how about our well deserved honoree, Linda Cantor? Could we want to know anyone more gooder, more sweeter? Look at her. Such a warm smile — a shayneh punim (kinehora). Such an inquiring mind. Such a freshly scrubbed soul.

In days of yore, even while devoting great energy to the care and feeding of Daniel, Laura, Andrew and Richard, and to the students in her classroom, Linda was exploring the life of the spirit. In the early 90’s, I discovered Elat Chayyim Retreat Center and began finding new paths to my own spirituality. Linda was already involved there; and she’s still discovering new paths to explore.

Some folks find a life of inner contemplation so satisfying that they become quite self-involved. They detach themselves from the rest of us, preferring a private love affair with God. Not so with Linda. The deeper she searches within, the more broadly she looks around her for causes or individuals who need her commitment and energy. Our Vassar Temple community is greatly blessed to be so high on Linda’s priority list.

So, as we say up here in Red Sox Nation, I think it’s “wicked cool” that you’ve honored me by presenting the Arnold Award to my friend and teacher, Linda Cantor. I hope you folks will join her in spreading around more goodness and sweetness in our New Year.

Stephen Arnold, Rabbi Emeritus