Gems of Torah

Days of Awe-5774

The High Holydays are known in Hebrew as the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe. It is an apt description. Because this is a season that has the power to move us to the point of Awe, and beyond.

The High Holydays address core issues of humanity and spirituality. They ask existential questions. What are we doing with our lives? How can we bring greater honor to our selves, our families, our people and our God? How are we measuring up to our ideals – and, for that matter, how clear are we on what those ideals are? These are nothing if not awe-some and awe-full questions.

We may be tempted to push such questions aside. After all, it is far less disturbing to avoid them than to engage them. But the synagogue does not give us that option. If we are going to be present, we are going to be challenged. And our response to the challenge determines in no small measure the kind of people we will become in the year ahead.

As we know, our culture has been changing dramatically and rapidly, primarily through technology. This has made the challenge of the High Holydays even greater. We have immediate access to an unlimited feast of people, places and ideas. We can communicate instantly across the globe. We can hold the equivalent of the Library of Alexandria and more – great art, literature and music – in the palm of our hand. All of this may persuade us that we have achieved fulfillment. At the same time, it may distract us enough to ignore greater issues altogether. After all, why should we do the hard work of refining our characters and improving the world when so much that amuses us is right at hand?

The answer, of course, is that such a life is not a complete one. The Greek philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. For Jews, the unconsecrated life is not worth living, either. During the Days of Awe we ask questions such as, “Have I been dedicated to any higher purpose, one beyond my self?” “How can my interpersonal relationships be more holy and less transactional?” “Has the world has been made better, even infinitesimally, by my being in it–this year or over the years?” And no matter what the answers to those questions are, the next one is always, “Can I be something more than I have been in the new year now beginning?”

We know that for all of our advances, we are not necessarily better human beings than we were a decade, a generation, a century, or even a millennium ago. Our world is still darkened by violence and corruption, oppression and injustice, preventable disease and starvation. At the same time, we have the power to overcome these ills, individually and collectively. The High Holydays place the challenge squarely before us.

As the Jewish calendar starts anew, each of us is a year older and a year closer to our own life’s completion and conclusion. The Yamim Noraim confront us with this truth and help us realize that among the most fitting responses is a life of greater kindness, service and growth.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most inward of our holy days, spiritual “me” time if you will. They have an awesome power to transform us, redirect us and elevate us. I pray we – all of us – make the most of them.

Mindy and our children join me in wishing all of our dear ones family a year of greater goodness – a true shana tovah.

As we return to the beginning of our annual Torah reading cycle, we see how many universal truths, as opposed to particular ones, are communicated in the Book of Genesis. Leaving aside issues such as evolution vs. creation (in a nutshell, we would do well to accept the modern understanding that the Bible should be treated as a book of life lessons, not as one of science or history), its abiding genius speaks to us.

The morality we gain by linking creation and goodness, the portrayal of the human passions that can motivate us but also bring us down and the call to be true to the best within us in all circumstances are just a few of the ways that Biblical teachings uplift us.

I hope your Torah/Bible study is a gift for you in the new year. Enjoy!


September 2010

This is the time of year when we conclude the reading of  the Book of Deuteronomy. In one of its concluding sections, it lists blessings and curses for those who follow and ignore the law respectively.  After Deuteronomy’s example, here are some modern curses for some modern sins.

“Cursed are the ones who wage expensive and fruitless wars while social services collapse and unemployment remains high.”

“Cursed are those who make billions while manipulating markets and hiding the truth from  ordinary investors.”

“Cursed are those who take bribes (these can also be in the form of campaign contributions) and repay the givers by betraying the public trust.”

“Cursed are those who elevate themselves by creating and exploiting hostilities and divisions in society.”

If you’d like to suggest some others, send them along to me at Thank you and shana tovah.

Read more


April 2010

During this month we mark two major events in Jewish history.  Unlike most of the other historic days of which we take official note, each of these took place within living memory.  I refer of course to Yom Ha-Shoah and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut–Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day. They are observed on 27 Nisan and 5 Iyar–this year on April 11 and April 20, respectively.

It is hard to even imagine Jewish life during the last 60 years without these events as context.  Where would we be had there been no Shoah?  Where would we be were there no State of Israel? We cannot hope to even begin to answer those questions adequately.

The Shoah attuned us to anti-Semitism’s many forms and expressions. It also made the world undeniably aware of man’s enormous capacity for cruelty and horror. The State of Israel is history of another kind: miraculous rebirth, resurrection, renewal and now prosperity against seemingly insurmountable odds.  No, we are not the same people we were just a couple of generations ago.

The Holocaust and the modern State of Israel are inextricable from our modern Jewish identities. Let’s mark this season of memory and celebration with due regard for their momentous importance.


April 1, 2010

At Passover we focus on the story of the Exodus. There is a great deal of scholarly debate over its historicity.  But be that as it may, its humanitarian messages of justice and liberation, as well the effect that those messages have had on history, cannot be disputed.

Exodus is the first classic source to teach that G-d is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressor.  It holds that the human rights of the people take precedence over the ruling privileges of the king. It has inspired the belief that every human being, no matter how low his or her social status, is entitled to be free to serve the Highest–as a matter of Divine Right.

At the same time Exodus points out the shortcomings inherent in all earthly kings.  The Pharaoh possesses a vastly over-inflated sense of self, not to mention a serious case of arrogance and paranoia.  Not coincidentally, he was also guilty of genocide—the mass slaughter of the Hebrew male children.  We have seen such qualities in other rulers throughout the ages, most of them meeting an inglorious end. We can readily see why Exodus has been held as a banner by oppressed people throughout the ages.  And why at the same time, it has been considered subversive by many rulers.

Exodus also introduces the name of G-d, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,”  usually translated as “I will be what I will be” or “I am what I am.”  It is a challenging concept because it posits that G-d is best understood as a verb, continually ongoing, rather than the more familiar idea of G-d as a simpler noun.

We meet the Prophet Moses near the beginning of Exodus, and he is central to most of the rest of the Torah. Rarely is he more praiseworthy than he is here however, intervening on the side of peace when there are struggles between an Egyptian and a Hebrew, two Hebrews, and later on, two Midianites.  To Moses, justice was justice and peace was peace, regardless of the nationality of the people in question.

Finally, Exodus lays down an immutable Biblical principle:  come what may, G-d gets the final word. Ultimately, all of our lives are accountable before the Highest.

Any one of these principles can redirect a life.  Taken together, they have guided history–for good–for millennia.  I invite you to reacquaint yourself with the Book of Exodus this season.

Best wishes and shalom to all.


December 27

In this week’s Torah portion Vayechi, towards the end of his life, Jacob blesses his twelve sons.  In the midst of it, seemingly out of context, he addresses his Creator and says, “L’yeshuatcha kiviti H’–I hope for Your deliverance, O G-d.” (Gen. 49: 18)

In later years the Rabbis designated “hope for deliverance” to be a key component of Jewish faith.  In fact, it is almost a definition of faith. We all know that the world around us conspires to harden us, making us cynical, selfish and even bitter. Likewise, we all know people who have succumbed to these spiritual afflictions. If we are honest, we likely recognize a measure of them in ourselves as well.  Again, this is an understandable, even a rational response to our difficult and tumultuous world. But it is not the only response.

To be able to say, that in spite of everything, we live with faith and hope for deliverance, may not be a default reaction but it is a legitimate one. Yes, it requires a certain inner strength and vision. But to be able to uphold eternal values in the face of temporal pressures is what faith is all about.

Our Patriarch Jacob possessed such faith. It blessed his life and sustained him through hardships that most of us could scarcely imagine let alone endure. The hope for deliverance, the trust and belief that right will triumph in the end–and the commitment to work to make it so–are at the heart of Judaism.

When we live with such faith, keeping ourselves from becoming cynical and despondent is only the first benefit. A life of grounded blessing can follow in its wake. Faith is not only a gift we give to God–it is a gift we give to ourselves and everyone around us. And oh by the way, it is also free.

A good week to all.

December 17

During Chanukah the Torah readings center around Joseph–and it is fitting that they do. After being sold by his brothers and ultimately landing in an Egyptian prison, Joseph becomes the prototypical “successful Diaspora Jew.”  He is bright and industrious. He rises up from slavery and the dungeon to sit at the right hand of Pharaoh. He is, as Genesis tells us, much favored by God.

But like many Diaspora Jews, Joseph has an awkward relationship with his heritage. He swears by the name of Pharaoh and dresses like an Egyptian. He marries the daughter of the Egyptian high priest and gives his children names, Ephraim and Menashe, that distance him—and them–from his ancestry. In short, he does everything he can to leave the memory of his family and its traditions behind.

Given the way they treated him this is understandable. Especially when the benefits of adopting the ways and culture of his adopted land were so great. But ultimately, this is a fool’s errand. When Joseph’s brothers show up on his doorstep, he understands that it is his greater destiny to be one with his people.

We know the part of the Chanukah story that tells how the Maccabees fought the Syrian-Greeks who were intent on eliminating Judaism.  It is less well known that they also had to fight against assimilationist or “Hellenizing” Jews who were, like Joseph, ready to abandon their heritage in exchange for the promise of total acceptance by the larger culture. As it was in Joseph’s day, as it was during the Maccabees’ day, as it is in our day, it was a false promise.  Maybe for a little while it can work. But eventually, always, our brothers will be at our door.  And we cannot, we may not, close it in their face.

Chanukah reminds us that our status as a minority is something to be celebrated–kept always, hidden never. We light the menorah and “publicize the miracle” for all to see.  It reminds us, as well as our neighbors, of the heritage we embrace with pride–in every year, in every land and in every age.

Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom.

December 17

This week we are observing the Festival of Chanukah. Though technically a “minor” festival, and often perceived as child-centered, there is nothing juvenile about its message.

Chanukah is the victory, as the prayerbook reminds us, of the few over the many, the weak over the strong, and the believers in freedom and the one G-d over the tyrant and idolatry. It’s also about the miracle of our survival. That’s all pretty grown up stuff. “Stuff” that has been the hallmark of the Jewish people all through history.

And it doesn’t stop there. In not always happy ways, Chanukah is also about assimilation, of power corrupting, even of Jew vs. Jew.

These themes too, are with us to this very day. It’s way more than kid stuff. For all of us.

There’s much more to Chanukah than we can go into in a short post. So let’s narrow our focus and take away some essentials.

Chanukah is our winter festival. We love it and when we learn about it, we realize that it holds its own and then some against any holiday of any people you might care to name.

Chanukah is about pride, Jewish pride. The pride that says even though everyone else is doing their thing, we are proud and happy to be doing ours.

Chanukah is about Justice and Freedom. About the menorah reminding us to be a Light unto the Nations. And it’s our job, as the song has it, to not let the light go out.

A joyous Chanukah to one and all.

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