Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Message from Rabbi Vernon and Bryna Kurtz

Posted on July 7, 2022

by Rabbi Vernon Kurtz

Bryna and I were shocked to hear the news last night Israel time of the terrible shooting and loss of life at the Highland Park Fourth of July Parade. We were shaken to our very core as we saw pictures of the streets we walked for 31 years in downtown Highland Park and witnessed the aftermaths of the tragic shooting.

We heard from friends and colleagues eye witness reports of what occurred and how they were able to save themselves and their families and we watched local Chicago news stations as they reported on the event. Here in Israel, the story led off the hourly news. It was simply hard for us to imagine that this could occur in a peaceful community like Highland Park.

We want to express our condolences to all who lost loved ones and whose families are shattered by this horrible event. We pray for the well-being of those who have been injured in body and in spirit. May all return to good bodily and emotional health.

This morning at my daily minyan I recited a Psalm in memory of those who were killed and a MiSheberach for those who were injured. The community responded with appropriate concern.

I recited Psalm 121 which includes these words:

“The Lord is your guardian, the Lord is your protection at your right hand.

By day the sun will not strike you, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will guard you from all harm; He will guard your life.

The Lord will guard your going and coming now and forever.”

 

May these words accompany all of you and give you strength.

We offer our warm hugs from Jerusalem and pray for the welfare of all.

May we share only good news with one another in the future.

 

How Long do Services Really Have to Be?

Posted on June 15, 2022

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

A few weeks ago, a group of us were learning about Jewish prayer and music with Hazzan Barnett, me and Rabbi Josh Warshawsky and Rabbi Josh taught an amazing story from the Talmud (Berakhot 34a). The story goes:

Once, a student led the prayers in Rabbi Eliezer’s house of study, and his prayers were unusually lengthy. The other students complained, “Master, how slow this fellow is!”

Rabbi Eliezer responded to them, “He is no slower than Moses, who pleaded on behalf of the Jewish people [after the sin of the golden calf] for forty days and forty nights.”

On another occasion, a different student led the prayers. This student recited the prayers quickly. The other students complained, “How hasty this fellow is!”

This time Rabbi Eliezer replied, “He is no hastier than Moses, who pleaded for his sister’s recovery with a few short words.”

In particular, we Hazzanim get accused all the time of drawing prayers out for too long. This dreidlech and that vocal flourish or repeating a word three or four times for emphasis will leave some folks in the congregation antsy about ending in time to get to Kiddush. I happen not to be like that stereotype, boasting as I do: “Tuna by Twelve or your money back — that’s the Hazzan Sandler guarantee.” But Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that even a Shabbat service that goes until 1pm is considerably shorter than Moses’s prayer following the Golden Calf incident.

On the other hand, I recall in my days at JTS and Ramah that there was sometimes a competitive energy around being the speediest davener. I remember friends trying to see who could recite the second paragraph of Aleinu (the “Al Kein”) the fastest. In those moments my friends and I would bemoan the speed, realizing we couldn’t keep up with that pace and losing our spiritual moment in the process. But surely those services were still much longer than Moses’s prayer for Miriam, which comes in this week’s parasha Beha’alot’cha. In Numbers 12:13 Moses calls out to God:  “אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ׃ El na, refah na lah– Please God, please heal her.” Only five words that couldn’t have taken more than 15 seconds to utter. Rabbi Eliezer, his students, and all of us even today struggle with determining the best speed and length of prayer services.

What’s the conclusion? Is it better to be longer? Shorter? Somewhere in the middle? The answer is simple: Yes. Each style of prayer has its advantages and disadvantages. A more appropriate question we might ask ourselves is: How can I inspire my fellow daveners to connect with HaShem? What is my kavanah or intention in my prayer? If the Shaliach Tzibur is davening at a different speed than I prefer, how can I make sure my prayer experience is still meaningful?

Bring Your Own Gift

Posted on June 8, 2022

by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

As we make our way through the amazing drama that is our people’s history as described in the Torah, we experience every year the incredible stories of our ancestors in the book of Genesis, the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, and some compelling stories about spies, adventure, and intrigue in the desert. But sometimes we reach a Torah portion where we have just repetitions of words and phrases over and over again. The 5th, 6th, and 7th Aliyot of Parashat Naso this week detail the sacrifices brought by the chieftains on behalf of the people of Israel. And its homogeneity and repetitiveness is the epitome of the mundane!  

Every day with every chieftain the Torah returns and details the whole order of the sacrifices, even though there isn’t a single change or addition. But as I’ve shared before, our teachers throughout the generations believe that in the Torah there isn’t even a single extra letter – nothing extraneous. Every word has to mean something. And it would have made more sense for the text to read: “on the second day Netanel ben Tzu’ar, chieftain of the tribe of Issachar, sacrificed the same measure of sacrifices as did Nachson ben Aminadav.” And so on the third and fourth days etc.  

However, the Torah comes to teach us that no chieftain imitated the actions of his fellow who came the day before. Rather, even though outwardly it looks like the same exact sacrifice, each and every chieftain came with his own awakened intention and inner drive. And that is why the Torah specifies and details each individual sacrifice, each one unique from its fellow. 

Even if we feel that what we don’t have anything to offer to our community, or that what we have to offer is just the same as the next person, the fact is that your individual presence matters. Your individual gift matters. Your individual soul and spirit is what is important. This Shabbat will be my last of a really wonderful year of monthly residencies at Beth El. So as we join together on the lake and at Beth El, I hope to share your presence, to sing out and pray together and bring our individual gifts to this community together.  

Thanks for a wonderful year and hope to see you soon

Shabbat Shalom

The People of Judah

Posted on May 31, 2022

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion, B’midbar (in the wilderness), begins with a census of all the Israelite tribes. Of all the tribes, we are known by the tribe of Judah (Yehuda). We are, all of us collectively, Yehudim.

The foundation of Hebrew learning is to find the “shoresh” or root of the word, which will then provide insight into meaning. So. Where does Yehudah and Yehudim lead us as we follow it into its shoresh?

The word is derived from the Hebrew shoresh י.ד.ה.  , which builds out into a whole dictionary of words having much to do with thanksgiving—gratitude. Words we find all through our liturgy: L’hodot (to thank), Modeh (as in Modeh ani—I give thanks), Modim anachnu lach (We thank You, in the Amidah), and a lexicon of gratitude all through Hallel, Aleinu, etc.

Yehudim, Jews–those who live in gratitude to G-d, to each other. We wake up in the morning and the first thing we do is to offer thanks for being alive in Modeh Ani, and then for all the less obvious blessings we might not always consider as we do Birchot haShachar.

So that brings me my own opportunity to offer a word of gratitude, of thanksgiving for the opportunities; the friendships, the partnerships of so many; and the blessings of having been part of NSS Beth El’s clergy team for the past three years.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude from the outpouring of good wishes and kind words you have bestowed on me these past few weeks as we make our move to Pittsburgh to be closer to family. The hugs (virtual and in person), elbow and fist bumps, the hundreds of notes will stay with me (and Phil) long after we are settled in our new home. NSS Beth El is the most welcoming of communities: warm, embracing, caring, compassionate.

So many of you have told me I will be missed, but I assure you, the feeling is mutual, and should you pass through or have the opportunity to visit Pittsburgh, please stop by and visit.

Feel free to friend me on Facebook or reach out to me via email (the office has my current email and contact information!).

In the meantime, I’ll say L’hitra’ot and not “goodbye.”

Chodesh Tov and (an early) Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Israel: A Touchstone of Meaning for the Jewish People

Posted on May 26, 2022

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

I just returned from the State and Land of Israel this past Thursday after a wonderful trip with a fabulous group of Beth El congregants.  Though I have been to Israel many times before, and even lived there for three different years of my life, this trip provided me with experiences I have never had before.  On the archaeological side, we were given access to an excavation under the Western Wall plaza not yet open to the public.  We walked the paths tread by our ancestors coming to the Temple that, other than archeologists and their teams, have not been tread in thousands of years.  We marveled at the continuing excavations of the City of David, which predated the Temple, and walked down steps just unearthed, which follow the ancient pilgrim’s path.  On the peoplehood side, we met with brave soldiers in the field giving years of their young life to defend our land, Palestinians and Jewish settlers working together for peace in the West Bank, young yeshivah students in a program that combines Diaspora Jews and Israelis to create stronger bonds, Druze citizens of Israel who are a loyal and fascinating minority group and we met with inspiring educators and social workers that have created a youth village to help immigrant teens succeed against many odds in Israeli society.  On the spiritual side, we experienced a magnificent Shabbat in Jerusalem, meaningful time at the Kotel, prayer in a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue and ad hoc minyanim all over the beautiful country.

Each experience we had reinforced for me what a touchstone Israel is to Jewish life.  In Israel there is a tangible connection to Jewish history, Jewish peoplehood and Jewish spirituality at every turn.  Therefore a visit to Israel is a unique opportunity for growth, exploration, learning and rejuvenation, even around the tough issues that Israel and the people who live in that region face.  So make a plan to visit the State of Israel soon!  Beth El is going again on a Multi-Generation Family Mission to Israel over winter break.  If that is not for you, go with a Jewish organization that you care about.  Or go privately if you wish.  I can help.  Whatever way you go, I promise you won’t regret it!  L’shanah Habah B’Yerushalayim!  

 

Plan Your Vacation’s Shabbat to Feel at Home on the Road

Posted on May 18, 2022

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

Who’s ready for summer? Who’s not ready for summer?

So many of us are ready for the weather to stay warm, for school to end, for work to
slow down, and for a well-earned vacation.

As you make your plans, make a plan to visit a synagogue wherever you go.
Many years ago my family visited Venice, Italy, over Winter Break. I have fond
memories of that trip’s delicious food, gondolas, more food, spectacular glass artwork,
and going to shul. And no, I wasn’t a rabbi yet.

That Friday my family toured the Venice ghetto, the first in Europe, and we walked
through a 500-year-old synagogue whose architecture was something I had never seen.
It looked like an antique – beautiful, fragile, and impractical for use today. At the end, the
tour guide mentioned this shul was in use on Shabbat morning, and my family decided
to return the next day.

As we entered the towering sanctuary on Shabbat morning, the dusty old place came
alive. It was like a movie switched from black and white to color. The room was full of
people, full of singing, and full of energy. I didn’t know a word of Italian, they didn’t
speak English, yet I felt at home. I sang along because I knew the tunes from the
Siddur. I followed along with the Torah reading because I could read Hebrew (I learned
a few Italian names of Patriarchs that day: Abramo, Isacco, Giacobbi, Giuseppe). I had
never experienced this before. I was in a new place and knew nobody, but I felt at
home. The universality of the Siddur made this possible, making me feel that the people
around me were not total strangers but just cousins I hadn’t yet met.
The home is obviously where one’s Jewish foundation is set. But there are some things
one can understand only by leaving home.

I know I’m not the only one to experience this. If you are traveling abroad, going to
synagogue on Shabbat will be something unforgettable the family can do together. No
tickets, lines, or gift shops necessary. And if you’re stateside, you can probably find a
service nearby too. If not, write to me and I’ll help with this.
In one sense, the place makes the people. Our sanctuary – specifically the Bimah, Ark,
and windows – make people feel inspired, connected, spiritual. But the place also brings
the people. The Hebrew for synagogue is Beit Knesset, which means “house of
gathering.” It’s a place to meet others with the same traditions and values. Mostly,
though, the people make the place.

The Shma prayer instructs us to speak of Torah and Jewish traditions “BShivt’ha
Bveitecha Uvlecht’ha Vaderech – at home and on the road.” I usually think of this as
pushing us to be proud Jews both in private (at home) and in public (on the road). But I
also read this verse as instructing us to be active Jews when we’re going about our
routine (around home) and when we travel (on the road).

An empty synagogue, like the gorgeous one in Venice, is a deserted museum. But when
people fill it up, it becomes a vibrant hub for Jewish life. Anywhere, as you’ll see for
yourself next vacation.

An Eye for an Eye? Eye don’t know about that…

Posted on May 11, 2022

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

At the very end of our Parasha in Leviticus 25:19-20 states,

“וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּֽי־יִתֵּ֥ן מ֖וּם בַּעֲמִית֑וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה כֵּ֖ן יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לּֽוֹ׃ שֶׁ֚בֶר תַּ֣חַת שֶׁ֔בֶר עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֥ן מוּם֙ בָּֽאָדָ֔ם כֵּ֖ן יִנָּ֥תֶן בּֽוֹ׃”

“If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done, so shall it be done to him: Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.” Our Torah sounds an awful lot like the lex talionis – laws of retribution found in Hammurabi’s Code. An old teacher of mine said if we all lived according to “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth” we’d all have a hard time seeing and chewing. Of course, this passage seems to contradict another ancient teaching I learned from my mother: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” So, what do we make of this verse in our tradition?

 

 “הַחוֹבֵל בַּחֲבֵרוֹ חַיָּב עָלָיו מִשּׁוּם חֲמִשָּׁה דְבָרִים, בְּנֶזֶק, בְּצַעַר, בְּרִפּוּי, בְּשֶׁבֶת, וּבְבֹשֶׁת.”

 

The sages of the Talmud in Mishnah Bava Kama (8:1) discuss what retribution for injury really entails. They illuminate 5 categories: Damage, Pain, Medical costs, loss of livelihood and humiliation. They understood that “eye for an eye” was idiomatic and could be accomplished with monetary restitution.

Damage would be assessed by determining how the injured party’s value would be affected on the slave market. Of course nowadays, it’s hard to know what the standard slave market price would be before or after damages, but I imagine this would be determined similarly to disability insurance claim.

The Rabbis in the Talmud often amuse me with their imagination. How they assess pain is one such instance. Essentially it boils down to: “how much could you pay someone with a similar threshold for pain to endure that pain voluntarily?” Whatever amount that person would accept as a fair price for being burned, for example, is how much the liable party would owe the injured party for pain.

Medical expenses are fairly straightforward. The sages even factored in a clause to protect the liable party, stating, “if marks are due to the incident, liable; if not due to the incident, exempt.” If the wounds heal and return, the liable party is responsible for ongoing care costs. However if the wound is entirely healed, the liable party has paid their retribution for medical expenses.

Loss of livelihood is surprisingly not based on the standard wages for the injured party’s particular profession. This is because they were already compensated for their “eye or tooth or arm or leg” as part of ‘damages’ and that took into account their professional skill. So, in this case all are treated by the court as watchmen over cucumbers and compensated on that payscale. (Tell me that’s not fascinating! The Rabbis really thought this stuff through!)

Humiliation is a little more of a gray area. The costs factor in the power dynamics and difference in status between the parties, as well as the intention of the fellow who caused the injury. A person is not considered liable for humiliation unless he intended to humiliate the other person.

 

So yes, when someone injures a fellow human being, they will have to make things right. This will be done financially, and God-willing with graciousness and remorse for the unfortunate debacle. The Torah goes on in Lev.24:22, “you shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: For I the Lord am your God.” All of us are responsible for making things right when we cause injury regardless of our background.

The Torah’s Heart

Posted on May 4, 2022

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה׳ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה׳ אֱלֹ-הֵיכֶֽם׃

“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your G-d am holy.”

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, begins with this commandment. If I were an Israelite, just weeks out of slavery, and was told to “be holy because G-d is holy,” I would be completely confused. In fact, as a 21st Century adult, the commandment is vague at the very least. What does it mean to “be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy?”

Fortunately, the following verses sketch out the ways (and some means) to “be holy.” Here are a few:

  • Don’t pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. (Be kind to those who have less)
  • You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.
  • You shall not defraud your fellow. (Tell that to the legions of phone, text and email scammers!).
  • The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. (Be a fair and honest employer)
  • You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. (Two of the best metaphors in the Torah.)
  • You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kin fairly.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself

Many of these admonitions are punctuated by “I am the Lord your G-d.” This is G-d telling us, “this is how to act. And if you do so, you’ll be walking the path I’m trying to show you. This is what it means to be holy.” This is what it means to be in the image of God (b’tzelem elokim)

Of course the list is punctuated by the most famous of these ethical constructs, “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” (Love your neighbor as yourself.) Called the “Golden Rule” by many traditions, a version of this was (“what is hateful to you don’t do to anyone else”—or words to the that effect) attributed to Rabbi Hillel when he was asked to explain the Torah while standing on one foot. “All the rest (meaning the rest of the Torah) is commentary. Go study.”

The Torah (translated, “teaching”) is our guide. Our ultimate textbook for being holy, for being in G-d’s image, walking in G-d’s ways. For “being” Torah. And Kedoshim, a few chapters to the left of the Torah’s exact center (where the human heart lies in our anatomy), is, quite literally, it’s at its heart.

Watering Truth

Posted on April 26, 2022

by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

“To be honest…” I’ve got a problem this phrase. I’ve noticed people say these three words a lot. Have you said them recently? Every time I hear them, I think to myself, “why do these words need to be said”? Shouldn’t I assume that the words coming out of your mouth are honest? Why would I assume otherwise? These words lead us to believe that any other words that have been said or will be said may actually not be truthful. What kind of society does that mean that we live in? In a time where it is becoming increasingly more difficult to discern fact from fiction, when one of the richest people in the world can just buy an entire social media enterprise on a whim, honesty feels more important than ever. 

There is a beautiful midrashic teaching going back to the third day of creation, the day that the grasses and vegetation were created. The verse says, “And The Holy One said, let the Earth sprout vegetation” (Breishit 1:11). The word for vegetation (grass) in Hebrew is Deshe. Rav Mordecai Yaffe (1500’s Prague) teaches that it shouldn’t only be read on face value as “vegetation.” Rather, “DeShE” is an acronym for: Din (justice), Shalom (peace), and Emet (Truth). These three things are the roots of the earth, the foundations of human existence and the conditions by which humanity can exist. Without them, there is war amongst humanity, and desolation.  

You may be familiar with the teaching from Pirkei Avot that the world stands on three things, Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim (Torah, worship, and lovingkindness). Here is another three-legged support system for the world: Justice, Peace, and Truth. Without any of these three, the world devolves back into chaos. And although these three were planted like grass before human beings were even created, they can’t last on their own! They need to be cared for, sustained, watered, and lifted up.  

We learn in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot,

 “וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם        

You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which you human beings shall live (Lev. 18:5) 

Reb Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim, lived in Ukraine in the 1800s. He notices the letters in Atem (you) are more than just letters. They are the letters of Emet, truth. That’s what it really means to v’chai bahem, to live by the commandments. To lift up truth, to lift up those who cannot lift themselves up, and to make sure that all human beings are free to live in peace. 

We just celebrated Earth Day last week. So this Shabbat, may we take this message to heart and strive to care for justice, peace, and truth the same way we care for the vegetation on the earth. 

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

 

 

 

Count the Omer With Me

Posted on April 20, 2022

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

“THREE, TWO, ONE . . . !”  In most situations, when we are excited about something, we count down.  However, as we began to do on Saturday night, when it comes to the Omer, we count up.  As the Torah tells us, “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God” (Leviticus 23:15-16).   

After being freed from Egyptian slavery, during Passover we move with great anticipation towards our next pivotal experience as a people, Revelation on Mt. Sinai.  This is literally meant to be an uplifting experience as Moses climbs the mountain and elevates the status of the people to be a sacred people, a nation of priests.  We count up as a spiritual metaphor for climbing in holiness as we create our sacred covenant with G-d.  

This idea, of “rising in holiness” (Ma’alin B’kosesh), does not just apply to the Omer and the Sinai moment.  Rather, it was adopted as a rabbinic principle that we should strive to embrace at all times in our lives.  Jews should always seek those activities that help us to rise in holiness.  We should strive to constantly count up!  In ritual life that could mean attending more services, observing one more law, or increasing one’s Jewish learning.  In ethical life this could mean increasing tzedakah, attempting to improve one’s virtues, or adding more volunteer hours.  Regardless, it is during this period of the Omer that we make a concerted effort to rise in holiness as we count up from Exodus to Sinai.  Therefore, for each week of the Omer, our Siddur Lev Shalem frames our effort to better ourselves using a theme from the Kabbalistic sefirot.  This serves to aid us in our personal journey to rise in holiness.  Please join along with us each evening at minyan as we count the Omer, or please use your siddur to do so privately at home, starting this week using this link:  https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/firstweekoftheomer.pdf  

May we all rise in holiness together as we count up during the period of the Omer!  Hag Sameah!