Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

The Pause Between the Notes

Posted on October 21, 2020

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

I love the Jewish calendar. I really do. Holidays and other observances and rituals that mark time one month after the other. Elul with its reflectiveness, preparing us for the High Holidays, the daily blast of the shofar, reminding us to center down, to look inward at how we might be better versions of ourselves in the new year to come. 

Then, more suddenly than it probably should have been, Tishrei (and what it Tishrei it was—a year like none other that I can recall, can you?). The swirl of holidays: the introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur followed by the beauty, fragrance and ritual of Sukkot and the celebration at Simchat Torah as we complete the Torah and start it once again.

Days later, we settle into a new month entirely, both in name and attitude: Heshvan—or as it is often called, Marcheshvan. Throughout the Mishna and Talmud, the month is called Marcheshvan, but other classical texts refer to the month as Cheshvan. Why the discrepancy? What could it mean? Why the “mar?”

One explanation (though not the only one, by far) is that “mar” in Hebrew translates to “bitterness,” and of all the months in the Jewish calendar, Cheshvan is the one devoid of holidays, and hence, “bitter.” Especially when you compare it to Tishrei and the coming month of Kislev (with Chanukah), Cheshvan seems curiously quiet and even empty. But maybe that’s by design.

A pause between the notes, a pause in time, a moment to absorb Tishrei, to take a moment, to appreciate the quiet, and in our part of the world, the spectacular autumn beauty that surrounds us as G-d’s creation.

Bitter Cheshvan? Not to me? For it is between the pauses in the notes where the beauty, the art, resides.


Parashat Breishit: The Light We Cannot See

Posted on October 14, 2020

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

The Torah opens with a paradox: on the first day, G-d creates light. But the sun is not formed until the fourth day! The light of the first day, therefore, was not our light.

So what was this special illumination that existed before the sun? This primordial light is called “Or HaGanuz, the Hidden Light” (“Ganuz” is connected to “Geniza,” the box where we place pages with G-d’s name to be hidden away in the ground).

I want to share two interpretations before my own.   

  1. The Talmud says this unique light was of an intense spiritual nature and the wicked were not deserving of enjoying it. So G-d separated it and set it aside for the righteous in the World to Come.
  1. Our Etz Hayim Humash says “Light, G-d’s first creation, becomes a symbol of G-d’s presence, in the fire of the burning bush and the revelation at Sinai, in the perpetual light (Ner Tamid), and the Menorah of the Tabernacle. For some theologians, light functions as a symbol for G-d because light itself is not visible but makes everything else visible. ‘By Your light do we see light’” (Ps. 36:10). 

I understand this original light to be order that turns back chaos. In the verse immediately preceding G-d’s declaration, “let there be light,” we read, “the earth was filled with chaos, with darkness over the surface of the deep.” In response to that void and tumult, G-d created light. For me, this light must be a response to that chaos, its opposite. And what is the inverse of chaos? Order. In fact, the rest of creation involves a progression of G-d creating order in the universe on increasingly higher levels. So light – which represents G-d’s presence – moves things from disorder and disarray to order and harmony.

G-d set in motion the sequence of creation but left people to finish it. Not just Adam and Eve but their children too – us.  I believe that when we see chaos, disarray, and spiritual darkness in our world, we are called upon to be G-dly and move things to a place of order. Sadly, there remains much darkness and chaos in our world today. As we begin the year of 5781, let us not be daunted by the challenge. Instead, let us be inspired by the Torah’s vision of order and light winning the day.

May We Be Our Prayer

Posted on June 4, 2020

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

There is a beautiful phrase at the end of the Ma Tovu prayer we recite each morning when we enter the Sanctuary (which we will hopefully be able to recite again, soon!) — “Va’ani Tefilati – Let me be my prayer…” In difficult times such as these, there aren’t words to express the deep emotions we are all experiencing. There is anger, sadness, confusion, fear…and yet we still march, gather, and pray, so there also exists hope.

Hope is core to the Jewish experience. No matter what our people have lived and died through, we have always carried hope. It is the very name of the national anthem of our homeland. Prayer, then, is a gateway to experiencing hope. It allows us to draw strength from the words of those who came before us, and to make those words our own. It opens and minds and hearts to the possibility that we can affect change, and that we have a responsibility to do so. L’taken Olam B’malchut Shadai, the prayer teaches us – “To repair the world in the Kingdom of God.”

This week, in Parashat Naso, God gives humankind a new charge and a new possibility: to bless each other. Until now, it was God who did the blessing and the cursing. This is infinitely powerful. We have the ability to bless each other in a very real way, using God’s words.

May Adonai bless you and keep you.

May Adonai show you favor and be gracious to you.

May Adonai show you kindness and grant you peace.

What if we read this differently. What if we read these words as our charge? What if we allow them to guide the way we treat one another, the way we interact with one another?

Tonight we will gather with the clergy and communities of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook and Pastor Mark Smith of Spates Temple in Elgin. Join us. Show your friends and your children that you care. Make a statement with us. Pray with us. Let us each be our own prayer, and with these prayers, may we bless and strengthen each other.

See you in shul.

Jerusalem – A Dream Come True

Posted on May 21, 2020

by Hazzan Ben Tisser

When we’re children, we’re taught to follow our dreams. We think of all the wonderful things that we wish to accomplish, to do, to taste, to experience…some of these things are realistic, while others are fantastical concoctions of a youthful imagination. While some of our childhood dreams come true, we learn as we grow up that much of the time it simply isn’t the case.

When I was young, I learned the famous quote from the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl: “If you will it, it is not a dream.” We learned it as a song (you can learn it, too, by clicking here). It became something of a lesson for us – if such a big dream as having a Jewish homeland could come true, than anything is possible.

Another dream realized almost 20 years after the founding of the State was that of a unified Jerusalem; one in which Jews could freely access their most sacred sites. In June 1967, the old city was captured by brave paratroopers during the Six Day War, and for the first time in 2,000 years a city was reunited and ruled by her beloved people. THAT was a dream come true (or, to quote Fiddler on the Roof, “That was a miracle, too!”). If this isn’t something to celebrate, I’m not sure what is!

Tonight begins a holiday on the modern Jewish/Israeli calendar known as Yom Yerushalayim – the anniversary of the day the city was reunited in 1967. There are so many ways to celebrate, but perhaps none better than with a plate of Jerusalem Mixed Grill (get yours from Mizrahi!), and singing songs of Jerusalem.

I am honored to have produced a concert in partnership with the Cantors Assembly and American Friends of Magen David Adom, to both celebrate the holiday and raise funds to support the vital work of MDA on the front lines in Israel. The concert will stream at 7pm Central this evening, both on Beth El’s Facebook Page, and at www.afmda.org.

Let this Yom Yerushalayim be a reminder to us. Let us understand the great privilege it is to have a thriving and growing Jerusalem as the Jewish capital; and at the same time let us never stop dreaming of what can be, for there is so much farther we can go.

We dream of being together again, and I pray we will, soon, in good health. Today let’s re-commit to the ideal, “L’shanah Haba’ah Birushalayim” –  next year, in health and in safety, in our spiritual center and the capital of our homeland, Jerusalem!

Yom Yerushalayim Sameach!

The Earth’s Shabbat

Posted on May 13, 2020

by Hazzan Barnett

As you read this on Thursday, we are concluding the fifth week of the Omer. (It hardly seems possible that Pesach, is far back in the rear view mirror. That the beginning of the virtual lockdown and beginnings of virtual—everything even further back then that…to just after Purim.)

The mitzvah of counting the 49 days (seven weeks), known as Sefirat Ha’Omer, can be viewed as an invitation from the Torah, inviting us, as Jewish mystical practice suggests, on a journey into our relationship with God, each other, and the world around us.

Each new week bids us to explore one of seven themes, from the basic decency of lovingkindness (Chesed) framing week one, to the final week (seven), with its theme of Malchut—nobility and leadership. Our Shabbat Siddur Lev Shalem (p. 63) offers a beautiful explanation to help you count the seven weeks of the omer within this framework.

This week’s framing concept is Hod—glory, splendor.  

At first blush, there is little glorious about the world these days: we’re stuck at home, the weather has been mostly awful, so even a walk outside is less than inviting. Yet… Here we are mid-May. In my garden, the flowers are beginning to come up, the trees are beginning to blossom, the world is greening. A step outside my house on a blustery day brings the awesome power of wind (ruach) and water to my ears as the waves crash onto the rocks just to the east. I can’t help but stop and simply listen (even at the risk of getting drenched by the rain!). A deer makes its way to my yard, and the (okay, they can be annoying) woodpeckers clack away just beyond the garden. The earth goes on, as it always has and always will, independent of our intervention, perhaps better for the lack of traffic and pollution in our current environment. Its own beauty and splendor on display—on its own clock, counting the days and season.

Thinking for a moment, “How glorious is this day!” is not such a hard thing to say.

In this context, I am drawn to a short section in the first part of this week’s double Torah portion Behar-Behukotai, which has always reached deep into my environmental soul. 

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the

field. But in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:3-4

The earth (and all it contains) is there for us to use—to a point. Not to exploit or despoil, but (as we are told in one of the very early verses of Genesis) “to till and to tend.” Yes, by all means, use the land for what it provides, but we must be mindful that the earth, too, needs its rest—it’s Shabbat—for it to continue, and in this effort, we are God’s partners.

There is a Chassidic tale of two men were fighting over a piece of land, each claiming ownership and offered proof, to boot. They asked their rabbi, who wisely said, “Since I cannot

decide to whom this land belongs, let us ask the land.” After putting his ear to the ground for a moment, he said, “I am sorry to say that the land insists it belongs to neither of you – but that you belong to it!”

As it says, going back to the text of this week’s Torah portion, “The land is Mine: for you are strangers and residents with Me.”

Viewing our relationship to earth in this way, that the earth is God’s—not ours—teaches us humility and grants us a new appreciation of the earth’s glory—hod—and God’s.

We Are All Leaders

Posted on May 7, 2020

by Hazzan Ben Tisser

Parashat Emor deals with many issues related specifically to the Kohanim, the subset of the Levites charged with running the ritual affairs of the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle), and ultimately the Beit HaMikdash(Holy Temple). Included in the opening are some well-known edicts, such as Kohanim not being allowed to come into close contact with a corpse except those of close relatives (hence why oftentimes a Kohen will stand just outside the cemetery or in the road at a funeral), and that Kohanim should marry a Bat Kohen (the daughter of another Kohen; and as well they may only marry a woman who has never been married).

But in the opening of our parashah there is a short section that is troubling in today’s understanding of the world. Leviticus 21:16-21 reads as follows:

16 The Lord spoke further to Moses: 17 Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. 18 No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; 19 no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; 20 or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. 21 No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God.

In short, just as no animal with a blemish may be offered as a sacrifice, God specifically disqualifies any man of the Kohanic line with any sort of disfiguration or other physical blemish from serving God in the highest capacity. While it’s clear that at that time and in that place there were reasons for this, it is hard for us to come to terms with this.

Thankfully, we live in a country, at a time, and in a society when physical differences do not automatically disqualify one from serving in a leadership capacity. We strive for the ideal of appreciating leaders for their values, their ideals and their ideas, and their actions. But this is just an ideal, and we certainly have a ways to go. We have not yet seen enough leaders in the highest positions representing the breadth and beauty of American society.

On a smaller level, we at Beth El must celebrate the work we do towards inclusion. Rabbi Schwab has, for several years, worked at the forefront of inclusion among the Jewish community in Chicago and in our beloved Congregation. He has worked with a talented and dedicated group of lay leaders to make sure that our physical spaces are accessible to all, that our educational programs are able to meet the needs of as many types of learners as possible, that children with different needs are able to celebrate becoming B’nai Mitzvah on our bimah, and that members of the LGBTQIA+ community feel embraced in the sacred halls of our synagogue.

As difficult as the Torah passage is, it doesn’t point out any one person. It speaks about a particular role at a particular time, and with a particular understanding of the world and of connection to God. And while this may guide a particular set of responsibilities, I would suggest that in broader terms we are all leaders. We allhave the capacity and the obligation to lead. And we all have the ability to do this at the highest levels of our own community. I marvel as I watch the work of friends, congregants, and colleagues during this period of lockdown. The creativity, innovation, artistry, and leadership displayed is just incredible!

There are always boundaries and barriers present – sometimes self-imposed, and sometimes external. But once we work through them–or, one the blemish heals–there is nothing stopping each and every one of us from being leaders. I am very proud to be a leader in a community of leaders, and I look forward to the work we will continue to do together, through this period and beyond.

The Mensch Commandments

Posted on April 29, 2020

by Hazzan Barnett

Among all the obscurities of ritual and Jewish law in the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), there can be found within it an amazingly robust enumeration of laws for living a just life—a life of menschlikite. But these are not “niceties.” They are commandments from G-d, admonitions about our behavior towards each other.

The Torah portion in which this list appears is Kedoshim, the second half of this week’s double parasha, which begins with the portion Acharei-Mot.

I have always been struck by this series of commandments, aimed not (only) at the priests (to whom much of the Book of Vayikra is aimed), but the whole of the people Israel. Among the commandments:

  • Don’t pick your vineyard bare, or gather the its fallen fruit; you must leave them for the poor and the stranger
  • Do not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.
  • You shall not defraud people.
  • You shall not commit robbery.
  • Do not withhold the wages of your workers.
  • Do not shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.
  • You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.
  • Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.
  • You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.

Although most of these are straightforward, two of them: do not insult the deaf/put a stumbling block are less on the nose. Why single out the deaf, the blind specifically?

Blindness and deafness are not only physical conditions. Insulting someone metaphorically deaf—speaking ill of those unable to defend themselves can create unspeakable horror for the victim.

As for blindness, one who lacks complete information, being unaware, unsuspecting, ignorant of the facts—these are types of metaphorical blindness. The commandment prohibits us from taking advantage of them or tempting them to do wrong.

This one in particular resonates with me in these days of pandemic. I am struck by how many “snake oil” salesmen advertise, make calls to unsuspecting people hoping to defraud people—often the most vulnerable amongst us as they are at their most vulnerable and afraid. Cures that are nothing but a way to make a fast buck. Others willing for their own purposes to help you “invest” your stimulus check. Or pretend to be officials of the government to steal your personal information.

The Talmud speaks of the principle of lifnei iver (putting a stumbling block “before the blind”) as prohibiting us from giving bad advice to another person.

One should not advise another party that it is in his interest to sell (for example) his field in order to buy a donkey, when his true intention is to buy the field for himself. Advice given for an ulterior motive. (Midrash Sifra, Leviticus 19:14).

But there’s also the “bad advice” much more dangerous being pedaled these days for who knows what reason—miracle cures that may or may not have merit in the long run, but it’s much too soon to know—and to understand potential life-threatening dangers they may pose.

The entire list concludes with one of the most well-known quotes in the Bible: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha.”

It is the perfect summary not only for this part of Leviticus, but the entire Torah. As Hillel famously said while explaining the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

Gratitude in Our Difficult Times

Posted on April 1, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav includes the rules and regulations for making several sorts of offerings. Although we sometimes translate these “korbanot” as “sacrifices,” the word korban is really about drawing closer to G-d, rather than giving something up as the word “sacrifice” implies.

Among these is the zevach shelamim (offering of well-being), which might be offered in an act of thanksgiving (zevach todah) or as a free-will donation. These days, it may be difficult to find a reason (or the time) to express gratitude. Looking ahead to a Passover without being surrounded by family and friends, grappling with work while juggling children and everyone’s new reality of work and school “at home,” worry about COVID-19 as case numbers explode while trying not to worry our children. Who has the time for gratitude, much less drawing closer to G-d?

But then I think about the doctors, first responders, the people who direct traffic at the drive-through COVID-19 test center, heroes imbued with courage, compassion, kindness, each of whom act B’tzelem Elokim (in G-d’s image). The researchers, inspired with the spark of genius, the gift of curiosity, the miracle of potential discovery of a better test, an effective treatment, a vaccine to protect. The miracle of technology that allows us to order Pesach supplies online, to connect with each other at synagogue via Zoom for daily services, for programs, for study, for Shabbat and Pesach. And for blessing of opportunity to “be” with family far and wide via virtual seder.

I think about the bracha (blessing) in the Amidah that begins with “Modim anachnu Lach” (we than You, Adonai) for “…Your miracles that are with us every day and for Your wondrous deeds and favors at all times: evening, morning and noon.” This morning as I read the Amidah during Shacharit, I paused a moment at “Modim anachnu Lach” adding my own thoughts of gratitude during this stressful time, drawing me closer to G-d, praying for the well-being of those who take care of us all—and for the well-being of our community.

The “March” from Purim to Passover

Posted on March 18, 2020

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

What if Purim and Passover weren’t two separate holidays? What if they were bookends for a single month-long process?

Rabbi David Hoffman of JTS taught me such. Notice that exactly one month separates the two – Purim is on the 14th of Adar (15th in Jerusalem) while Passover is celebrated on the 15th of Nisan.

The one-word summary of Purim is chaos. Life nearly ended for all the Jews, and then suddenly they were on top. Today Purim is marked by riotous, chaotic fun, costume, and shtick.

When we turn to Pesach, though, we encounter the opposite. In just one word, Passover is about order. The holiday is dominated by the Seder, the step-by-step dinner script whose Hebrew word means “order.” We follow time-tested processes and rules on Seder night to move us to a place where we taste slavery and freedom, literally and metaphorically.

These days drifting from Purim to Passover are themselves a step-by-step personal journey from chaos to order. How appropriate that this march happens during March? People can’t turn from one strong emotion to another on a dime. We need time and progression. And as the days of Passover draw nearer, we have the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the next stage of the year.

Because these holidays are not the only bookends between which we travel. These very days we emerge from winter to the faint glow of spring. Like us, the natural world doesn’t go from 30 degrees one day to 60 the next (unless you’re in Chicago, where that can happen occasionally!). The weather incrementally moves in one direction.

These days spent inside our homes reading the tumultuous news of the effects of the Coronavirus are indeed chaotic. How fortunate are we to have Jewish rituals, routines, and traditions – like Shabbat – that provide some order in this chaos.


An Unexpected Lesson from This Week’s Torah Portion

Posted on March 11, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion Ki Tisa is rich in mitzvot, lessons, and famous for the episode with the Golden Calf—and Moses’s (and G-d’s) reaction to it. I’ve read and taught this portion dozens of times over the years, but this week, as I was reviewing the portion to read it from the Torah, my eyes lit upon two verse that I confess I hadn’t really thought a lot about in the grand scheme of Golden Calf idols, smashed tablets and the vivid image of Moses appearance returning from his encounter with G-d, his countenance glowing:

“When they enter the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water, that they may not die; or when they approach the altar to serve, to turn into smoke an offering by fire to the LORD, they shall wash their hands and feet, that they may not die. It shall be a law for all time for them—for him and his offspring—throughout the ages.” (Ex. 30: 20-21)

Instructions to the priests before entering the place where they offer sacrifices and approaching the altar to make sacrifice to G-d. An arcane directive about a practice we no longer…practice. But this week in the context of twenty-second handwashing (“Happy Birthday to You, two times through!), hand sanitizers and masks (Okay, that’s more of a Purim reference), the verses seem like good common sense instructions, obvious to our ears and very good advice. And coming from the Torah, handed down for thousands of years to our very contemporary situation this very week when we read these words in synagogue. (Who knew!?)

The verses remind me of the notice hanging in most restaurant and shop restrooms: “Employees, wash your hand before returning to work!” Basic hygiene 101, right (well, except for the feet part!). Except it’s not only employees and the Kohanim, it’s everyone. Let’s all be like Aharon and his sons as we protect ourselves against COVID-19. Practice good hygiene and stay safe, everyone.