By Rabbi Alex Freedman
Be kind to the stranger: they may grow up to change the world, or at least yours.
If courage had a hall of fame, Shifra and Pua would stand at its entrance. These two women star in Parashat Shmot, this week’s Parsha that begins the saga of the Exodus. These two women are largely unknown, which is a shame. For their example continues to lead us.
Shifra and Pua are the Hebrew midwives charged with delivering the Israelite babies. Pharaoh commands them to kill the baby boys but let the girls live. The Torah continues, “The midwives feared G-d and did not do as the King of Egypt instructed. They let the boys live” (Ex. 1:17).
When Pharoah saw Jewish babies being born, he confronted Shifra and Pua. “How could you let them live?” he cried out. They replied, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are vigorous. Before the midwife can reach them, they’ve given birth.”
Their act of bravery is the first recorded act of civil disobedience, so timely in the days leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Are these remarkable women Jewish? I don’t believe so. “Hebrew midwives” can mean midwives for the Hebrews. Why would Pharaoh ever expect a Jewish woman to murder Jewish babies? Instead they are two Egyptian women who fear G-d more than Pharaoh, who refuse to take part in a crime against humanity. Shifra and Pua see the stranger as themselves and are thus worth saving. Who knows who these innocent babies might grow up to be?
We do. Moses was one of them. Moses, whose people would one day create in the state of Israel a Tel Aviv maternity hospital at the intersection of Shifra and Pua Streets.
There’s an inspiring story in my favorite Haggadah, called A Different Night. It goes like this:
“One Sunday morning in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, a mysterious character rode up on his bicycle and entered the Calvinist Church. He ascended the podium and read aloud the story of the midwives who saved the Hebrew babies and defied Pharaoh’s policy of genocide. “Who is today’s Pharaoh?” he asked.
“Hitler,” the congregation replied.
“Who are today’s Hebrew babies?”
“Who will be today’s midwives?”
He left the church, leaving his question hanging in the air.
During the war seven families from this little church hid Jews and other resisters of the Nazis.”
Shifra and Pua inspired these families to see the stranger as an insider, not an outsider. They changed the world for these families.
This time we read the Exodus story, let us not only condemn Pharaoh but also praise his midwives for their unmatched bravery. The Exodus experience reveals humanity at its lowest point and at its highest.
by Rabbi Michael Schwab
In life, consciously or unconsciously, we often search for how to bring good into the world and positivity into our lives. This can seem to be a challenge because we sometimes perceive that there is so much that is not in our control and that evil forces abound. Yet, we do indeed possess a significant power (amongst others) to bring goodness into our lives and into the lives of others. And what is more, we can use this power as often as we wish — the power of blessing. In this week’s Torah portion when Jacob knows he will die, he calls his family together and blesses his children and grandchildren. When the Jewish people are assembled together in front of the mishkan, their portable sanctuary, God blesses them through the priests. We use these words in the name of Jacob’s blessing to his grandsons on Friday nights to bless our children, at weddings to bless newly married couples and at various other moments to bring hope and positivity into the lives of those present. Yet we need not wait for such special occasions and we need not use only these traditional words. We each have the power to bless others at any moment, sharing our love, positive reflections on the character of others and the hopes and dreams we have for them. Giving blessings is a powerful way to roll back darkness and to create space for the goodness we all want in our lives and in the world. May we all realize the potential for blessing in each other and in ourselves as well. Amen!
By Hazzan Ben Tisser
These last weeks have been difficult for our country, particularly for the Jewish community. From a ransacked synagogue in Beverly Hills (where, incidentally, I have taught and sung) to a kosher market shooting in New Jersey to a stabbing in a Rabbi’s home in Monsey, this has been a painful time for us. I will share that my morning ritual is to have a cup of Elite instant coffee while watching the last 15 minutes of the 6 AM news before heading to Minyan, and that for the past while I have actually debated in my head whether or not I wish to turn on the TV for fear of more devastating news.
I am not going to use this space to speak against these most recent anti-Semitic acts. The media, our institutions and other organizations are doing plenty of that. I am not going to speak of politics, for that is not my place. What I will write about are two words that, at their core, are very Jewish: faith and hope.
Our entire history as a people has been based on faith and hope. Without faith and hope, we would never have endured centuries of slavery in Egypt, all the while retaining our identity while living and slaving in a land not our own. Without faith and hope we would not have survived the destruction of our Temples or the expulsion from Spain. Without faith and hope, those brave souls who survived the Shoah and those who did not would not have tried with their whole beings to make it through. And without faith and hope we would not have a Jewish homeland in the State of Israel today.
At first glance these words are very similar, but there is an important distinction between them. Faith is the firm belief in what is, and hope is the desire for and commitment to ensuring a better future. Faith grounds us and hope drives us. Faith is what allows us to go to sleep at night peacefully, and hope is what encourages us to set our alarms and make plans for tomorrow.
This week we end a decade. I see lots of Facebook posts and receive greetings from friends of “Happy Secular New Year.” I must tell you that I am bothered by the addition of the word “secular” to the greeting. My grandparents and my father came to this country with hope for a better life for our family—a life in which we could retain our rich and special Jewish identities and at the same time be part of the fabric that is America. When we add “secular” to the greeting, we create a separation between “us” and “them,” and I think that particularly given recent events, we would do well to reconsider that. When we separate ourselves out, even internally, we give permission for “them” to do the same. By virtue of living in this country at this time, we share in the joy of a new year. It is a time for families and friends to be together, for us to watch whomever the new host of the Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve is, and to count backwards from ten as we watch an enormous crystal ball descend where a large Minolta sign was once hung on a New York City skyscraper as millions of people crowd the street below. Yes, it is a time for celebration. It is a time to dream and to resolve. And, it is a time for hope.
I hope that next year will be better—for us, and for the world. And what drives my hope is faith. I have faith in our values, I have faith in our ability to catalyze change, and I have faith in each one of us as a leader in our own circles. If we each take charge of a small, broken corner of the world, as a community we may be able to repair one pane in the large window of the universe…and that will make a difference.
We pray that the memories of those lost to acts of senseless violence and hatred be a blessing, and serve as an inspiration for us to continue the sacred work of tikkun olam, repairing or improving the world. We pray for their families. We pray that those injured will heal, in body and in spirit. We pray that communities directly affected will again find a sense of calm and security.
May the third decade of the 21st century be one of greater peace and stability, of understanding and appreciation of the other. May we know good health, deep love, and only good things. I look forward to seeing you in shul and being able to personally wish each of you a Happy New Year.
By Hazzan Barbara Barnett
We are in the midst of Hanukkah, the Festival of Light. Exactly why we celebrate it has been a matter of debate for generations. Yes, we celebrate a miracle, for as it is written upon the letters of the dreidel (Nun, Gimel, Hey, Shin—or if you are in Israel, Peh) in acronym: “a great miracle happened there” (or in Israel, “here.”)
But which miracle are we celebrating? The miracle of a small band of zealous Jews who refused to give into the oppressive demands of the Syrian-Greeks, led by the tyrant Antiochous? Or the later traditional explanation: that a small cruse of pure oil, needed to relight the menorah in the Temple lasted for eight days? Or is the real miracle that the people, despite knowing the oil would last only one day, lit it anyway, and in so doing demonstrated that while much had been destroyed, their hope and courage could not be quashed? In the end, does it matter?
Perhaps, the miracle of the tiny vessel that prevailed against all odds to last far longer than anyone might have anticipated is a metaphor for the rebellion. The defeat of the mighty by the small and inspired—it is a proud tradition for us to remember. A miracle in the midst of certain defeat—the spirit of the few prevailing over the physical might of the powerful.
We recall the miracle in ritual, song, and even (of course) in our gastronomic choices. We light the chanukiah, beginning with a single candle for the first night, and each night increasing the light by one candle, until all eight (plus the shamash) are ablaze. The second blessing we recite: “she-asah nisim l’avoteinu, ba-yamim ha-heim, baz’man hazeh” thanks God for the “miracles that God made for our ancestors in their days at this season.” We eat latkes and jelly donuts (sufganiot) fried in olive oil to recall the miracle (metaphorical or not) of the oil.
Hanukkah, which, in Hebrew, means “dedication,” is also the Festival of Light, and many other religious traditions celebrate winter festivals of light, at this, the darkest time of the calendar year. But I think, the connection between Hanukkah, the light of the candles, the spirit of a small band of people (the Maccabbees) to defeat a much bigger foe, the miracle of a small vessel of oil lasting a week has another dimension.
The Baal Shem Tov, 18th Century founder of Chassidism, said, “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven.” Each of us has within us the light, the spark of the Divine, to prevail against the odds and do amazing things.
The prophet Zechariah says in the haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah, “Not by might, and not by power, but by my spirit…” Perhaps we are meant, at this time of the year (“ba’zeman hazeh”) to rededicate ourselves in the darkest, coldest time of the year to renewing that spark of light that resides in all of us.
Each of us has that light, no matter how dimmed it might have grown over a difficult year or other adversity, or how brightly it still shines in your life. In this joyous season of Hanukkah, surrounded by the light of the chanukia, by celebration, by song, and community can be rededicated, relit, renewed for another year.
by Rabbi Michael Schwab
Watching this video made me so proud to be a rabbi at NSS Beth El. It brings to life our commitment to disability inclusion, which I see as fundamental to being a synagogue.
Every person wants to feel a sense of connection. And every Jew should be able to feel that they have a synagogue that feels like home. We are a Beit Knesset (Hebrew for synagogue) and therefore we are literally a “house for all people to enter.” We are an address for any Jew in our community to engage in our beautiful heritage, to connect with God and to draw close to fellow Jews.
Therefore it is our sacred task to make sure our synagogue community is accessible and inclusive. And inclusion isn’t simply a program or an initiative, but a deep, abiding framework and viewpoint through which we see the world. Just as we all stand together before God with all of our quirks, faults, strengths and blessings, hoping and knowing that God sees the infinite value in each of us, so too we should be able to all stand before each other with our abilities and disabilities and know that the other sees in us that same infinite value. We should feel secure in the fact that our synagogue affords us the opportunity to share in the blessings of our wonderful community.
I am so proud that our congregation has taken this value so seriously. I invite you to view this new video of the Ruderman Family Foundation and USCJ which features NSS Beth El. It was featured at the recent United Synagogue convention. If you would like to become more involved with disability inclusion, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah in advance!
by Rabbi Alex Freedman
I bet you too have recently received lots of phone calls, emails, and letters recently from charities asking for your money. Fine charities. Worthy charities. But so many charities. The flood began recently with Giving Tuesday and will continue through the end of the year. This raises an important question: to whom should we give?
I explored the question with my seventh graders in my New Jersey religious school by conducting an experiment. I identified a few charities that focused on different needs, each with a Jewish and non-Jewish counterpart. For example, I would introduce the International Red Cross and Magen David Adom (The “Red Cross” in Israel). Then I asked the students to write “checks” totaling $100. If a student felt each charity is equally important, then they would all get $16. But if a student felt one is superior, that charity alone might receive almost $100. It was up to the kids.
The following week I shared the totals with them to see how they allocated their dollars, and we discussed. I asked them if they think it’s more important to share with Jewish causes or general causes, and most said general causes. They said we Jews are citizens of the world and have a responsibility to care for the world at large. And they were not wrong, I said (and believe). I reminded them that the Torah says that all people are created in G-d’s image. This is said about Adam and Eve, who were not Jewish but simply human beings.
There’s also the line from the Talmud, Gittin 61A: “We sustain non-Jewish poor with Jewish poor … for the sake of peace.” Giving to local and global causes is itself a Jewish value.
The students sometimes hesitated to make a case to give to Jewish causes. Perhaps because it feels tribal, which has a negative connotation. But the funny thing is how they voted with their “dollars”: about 45% of their “charity” went to Jewish causes. After realizing this they might have said that if we Jews don’t care for our own, who will? They were not wrong, I said again. And believe.
The Talmud in Bava Metzia 71A says,
“If you lend money to a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich, the poor takes precedence; your poor and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another city, the poor of your city have priority.”
The Talmud teaches that we have to first care for our own. There’s nothing at all provincial about caring for family first; the Jewish world is our extended family.
In the end, I think we have a Jewish responsibility to give to both Jewish and general causes in about a 50/50 distribution. Fortunately, we can split up our dollars. It’s not all or nothing.
Giving to both Jewish and general causes is how I put these teachings together. We should always be aware of our Jewish backgrounds and responsibilities toward our own community while not being so narrow-minded that we neglect the world around us. That sounds simple to do, but it’s not at all.
Best of luck navigating that path in your own giving this year and beyond. The exciting thing is that you get to choose what percentage of your dollars to allocate to the causes that matter to you.
For a practical guide to giving to charity, consider this article from Money Magazine I found helpful:
On a related charity topic, check out my sermon about how to best assist beggars on the street:
by Hazzan Ben Tisser
The Bible is full of stories of our ancestors encountering God – sometimes in conversation, and sometimes “face to face”; sometimes through grand acts such as revelation or pillars of fire, and sometimes in dreams; and sometimes in prophecy. We learn these stories as children in school and quickly come to accept the magic of them. After all, how are we to understand the nature of the Divine if we cannot understand God in human terms, particularly from a young age? So we have in our tradition a God who speaks, and through that speech the world is created. Through that speech, waters pour from the heavens, flooding and destroying that very creation. Through that speech people are put to the ultimate tests. Through that speech we receive rules, laws, and guidelines to help us live holy lives.
This week in Parashat Vayeitzei we read of a very famous encounter with God. It is so incredible, in fact, that artists from William Blake to Marc Chagall, and songwriters from Huey Lewis and Pete Seeger to Chumbawumba and Rush, have created art and music related to this story, which is comprised of all of ten verses (Gen. 28:10-19). There are so many midrashim and commentaries on this story, but I’d like to highlight something which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings to our attention in his volume entitled Covenant and Conversation. It is also something which my childhood rabbi, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spoke about often as he taught us about the importance of interaction with God and with each other.
Rabbi Sacks writes the following:
This week’s parsha relates a powerful, primal vision of prayer: Jacob, alone and far from home, lies down for the night, with only stones for a pillow, and dreams of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending. This is the initial encounter with the “house of God” that would one day become the synagogue, the first dream of a “gate of heaven” that would allow access to a God that stands above, letting us know finally that “God is truly in this place.”
There is, though, one nuance in the text that is lost in translation, and it took the Hassidic masters to remind us of it. Hebrew verbs carry with them, in their declensions, an indication of their subject. Thus the word yadati means “I knew,” and lo yadati, “I did not know.” When Jacob wakes from his sleep, however, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place ve’anokhi lo yadati.” Anokhi means “I,” which in this sentence is superfluous. To translate it literally we would have to say, “And I, I knew it not.” Why the double “I”?
To this, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (Panim Yafot) gave a magnificent answer. How, he asks, do we come to know that “God is in this place”? “By ve’anokhi lo yadati – not knowing the I.” We know God when we forget the self. We sense the “Thou” of the Divine Presence when we move beyond the “I” of egocentricity. Only when we stop thinking about ourselves do we become truly open to the world and the Creator.
So the question for us is, how does this apply to our lives today? God no longer makes grand appearances, nor does God show God’s self, speaking directly with us. We no longer live in a nascent Israelite society which required divine intervention in order to function, nor do we live in a world of prophecy. This reality poses a great challenge, but also offers us a fantastic opportunity.
The challenge is in trying to make sense of the world. How could the same God who split the sea and destroyed creation for its evil allow such atrocities to happen in the world as the Shoah, the genocide in Darfur, or even simply allow innocent children to starve to death around the world? How can that be?! How can God who was willing to save Sodom and Gomorrah for but ten righteous people, and who challenged Jonah to help the Ninevites to repent so God wouldn’t have to ultimately destroy that city, allow regimes of terror and dictatorship thrive in the world? It doesn’t make sense. But then, putting it all on God in Heaven isn’t terribly fair, is it? The Torah teaches us that “…it is not in Heaven…” (Deut. 30:12). The very same verse which the Rabbis of the Talmud used to take ownership of interpreting the Torah is one of the keys to help us understand our opportunity and obligation in facing this great challenge.
The opportunity is a fantastic one. It takes work to really take advantage of it, some of which goes against the grain of our modern society, but then again that is the beauty of a religion which challenges us to think beyond the confines of societal norms. As Rabbi Sacks notes above from Rabbi Horowitz’s commentary on the Jacob’s ladder story, Jacob was able to encounter God because he was able to stop thinking about just himself, thus being fully open to the world around him in its entirety. We live in a society that teaches us to fend for ourselves. We live in a time in which virtually anything can be had instantly—with the tap of a finger we can order any product on Amazon and have it delivered the very same day, or find a variety of answers to any question in the universe without having to open books or speak with other people to research. It’s incredible! And yet at the same time, these most wondrous conveniences which allow us to get so much done in smaller amounts of time, also train us to be more self-centered than perhaps any generation before us. We walk around looking at our screens, or drive through town engrossed in a conversation over Bluetooth, and thus miss out on what is truly beautiful and important in this world. We literally miss out on the opportunity to interact with the divine.
In the first creation narrative, we are taught that God created people in the Divine image. God gave each living creature a soul. That is a radical concept, particularly today. The great philosopher Martin Buber gives us an idea of how to live with this concept in what is perhaps his most famous work, I and Thou. He teaches that there are two main types of relationship: “I-It” and “I-Thou”. An “I-It” relationship is when we interact with a person or object which is separate from ourselves…we merely experience it, and then we move on to the next interaction. I would venture to guess that this is the experience many of us have most often as we go through our day – ordering food at a restaurant, speaking with the bank teller, or even with our neighbors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of relationship, but it doesn’t do anything to truly enrich our lives.
“I-Thou” is Buber’s ideal, and this is, I believe, how we come closer to encountering God. “I-Thou” is an interaction or relationship in which the other (or the “Thou”) is not separated by discrete bounds from the “I”. In other words, we allow ourselves to get deep into the interaction. There is nothing utilitarian about the relationship. We recognize the unique value in the other. If we are to define this in Jewish religious terms, we recognize the nitzotz—the sacred Divine spark which resides in every living thing since the time of creation—in the other. In other words, if I know that I am created in the Divine image and I recognize that the salesperson in Nordstrom is also created in that very image, my interaction with that person changes greatly. If I know that is the case, I will stop thinking just about me and recognize that the interaction goes two ways. It is not merely about the salesperson finding the pair of shoes I want in my size in the stockroom; rather it is an opportunity to connect with another person created in the Godly image. And in that interaction, I just might get a little closer to experiencing God.
God doesn’t appear in clouds or in pillars of fire anymore. God doesn’t split seas or stop wars. “It’s not in heaven” anymore. It is here, it is real, and it is ours. When we see the humanity in the other, we encounter God. When we recognize our sacred and moral obligation to stand up in the face of atrocity because another person is suffering, and we step back from our particular needs in order to address that, we encounter God. When we are children and learn the stories of the Torah, it may seem to us that God only appears to specific people at specific moments. But the truth is, we all have the opportunity to encounter the Divine on a very regular basis, just as Jacob did that fateful night in his dream…we just have to seize the opportunity.
by Rabbi Alex Freedman
One thing that unites our Beth El community is our affiliation with the Conservative Movement. For the sake of our Jewish values and our movement, we should all vote for MERCAZ USA in the upcoming elections for the World Zionist Congress.
Yes, this is the same body that Theodor Herzl convened in 1897. Since Israel was established, this Congress holds elections about every five years. This organization plays a real role in Israeli life and Diaspora Jews have a real say in who gets elected. In short, the more votes we bring, the more funding in Israel will align with our values and causes.
MERCAZ USA is the official slate of the Conservative Movement in the US. Our own Rabbi Kurtz served as past president of MERCAZ USA, and our own congregants Alan Silberman and Sandy Starkman are running for election. Let’s help them win seats!
The group’s mission is to support religious pluralism in Israel and solidify the connection between the Diaspora and Israel. They seek to bolster Conservative/Masorti life in Israel, which needs our support.
Elections will run from January 21 – March 11 2020. I share this with you now in order to put it on your radar. Please check out the site below to pledge to vote, which means MERCAZ USA will send you a reminder when voting begins. It also contains more detailed information about all the above.
Jewish life is so robust at Beth El. Let’s do our part by ensuring that all Israelis have similar opportunities to practice Judaism in a way that is egalitarian, open, and inclusive. MERCAZ USA advocates for exactly that.
By Hazzan Barbara Barnett
It’s hard to believe Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Although most of us think of Thanksgiving as the day for watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (a family tradition since I was little girl), football on TV, and a big family feast of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, the very name suggests that the holiday is so much more than a day off (and day before the shopping spree also known as “Black Friday”).
This very American holiday, in many ways, emulates the fall festival of Sukkot, celebrated last month. Some scholars have attributed the beginnings of Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims’ understanding of the Jewish autumn festival of Sukkot: a time for giving thanks to God for the bounty of the harvest.
As Jews, we observe Thanksgiving every day during our daily worship services: Ma’ariv, Shacharit and Mincha. Our liturgy articulates directs us toward gratitude in every service, in numerous prayers.
We give thanks for the extraordinary—the big miracles—in the “Al Hanissim” (for the miracles of Chanukah, Purim, and the State of Israel) section of the Amidah called the “Hoda’ah” (literally, thanksgiving). We start the Hoda’ah with the words “Modim anachnu Lach” (We give thanks to you) and go on to thank God for not only the big miracles, but the daily “small” miracles that surround our lives.
The Birchot Hashachar (morning blessings)—the series of blessings traditionally recited upon waking each morning, and which begin our daily Shacharit service express gratitude to God for the often easily overlooked things: clothing, food, eyesight, freedom, the basic act of awakening less weary than we were when we fell to sleep, and even the simple functioning of our internal organs. These are only a few of the opportunities we have in our worship to offer thanksgiving and make thanks-giving a daily, as well as, a once-a-year event.
There is so much for which I am grateful as we come to our national day of thanks, not the least of which is becoming a full-time part of the North Suburban Beth El family. There are so many in the congregation (staff and congregants) I would like to thank, it would be impossible to name them all. Just know you have my endless gratitude for making this time of transition as easy as possible and welcoming Phil and I into the NSS Beth El community.
In advance, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving!
By Rabbi Michael Schwab
“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account” (Leviticus 19:17).
Very few of us like being criticized. It often hurts to know that we didn’t do everything 100% correctly and that we were not always at our best.
However, without critical feedback, how can we improve? Without someone pointing out our mistakes or sharing why our perspective is flawed, how will we make better choices in the future?
Generally, in our society today we have become incredibly sensitive to criticism and most people like to avoid giving it or getting it. According to Judaism, this mindset is short-sighted. As the Sages lamented way back at the beginning of the millennium, “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, ‘I swear that there is none in our generation who is able to accept rebuke! If one says, “Take the splinter out of your teeth,” the other retorts, “Take the beam out of your eyes!”’” In other words, even then the Sages were discouraged that when one gave critical feedback to another, instead of taking it in and using it constructively, the other became defensive and counter-attacked the one who delivered the criticism.
The truth is that we need to be able to hear criticism about our actions and choices in order to keep away from mistakes as well as to heal relationships we might not have realized we tarnished by our behavior. As the midrash says, “Rabbi Jose said, ‘A love without reproof is no love.’ Resh Lakish said, ‘Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.’”
Yet, how we deliver critical feedback is just as important. There is way to rebuke and a way not to rebuke. As the Rambam codified in his Mishneh Torah law code, “He who rebukes another . . . should administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly, and point out that he is only speaking for the wrongdoer’s own good.”
In other words, criticism should be leveled only when it is constructive, done for the benefit of the person or the people for whom they are responsible and should not embarrass the person.
According to Judaism, being a fellow community member means that we need to be able to deliver criticism and receive it. And when doing so, we need to uphold the highest level of menschlekite possible. Otherwise the act of criticizing might do even more harm than good.