Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Pride in Israel on Yom Haatzmaut

Posted on May 16, 2024

By Rabbi Michael Schwab.

As you likely recognize, this year has been the toughest year in Israel’s history since 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur War.  And thus it has been one of the toughest years for the Jewish people as a whole.  In fact, Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day), commemorated on Sunday night and Mondaywas the most sad and poignant Israeli Memorial Day that I can remember experiencing.  At Beth El, we were privileged to have the young Israeli volunteers in the Shinshin program organize a powerful service that honored the thousands who died this year from terror or in battle.  Often during that service, tears fell from my eyes as I contemplated the devastating loss to so many Israeli families.  

And then, as Israeli tradition dictates each year, we began the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Haatzmaut.  From the depths of sadness and contemplation of loss, we attempted to fill ourselves with gratitude and celebrate the amazing state which those for whom we just mourned, fought to create and preserve.  We celebrated Israeli culture through food, song and dance.  Together we brought joyous awareness to what a blessing the State of Israel is for us as a people and as individual Jews.  

And in the midst of all of the hatred and anger directed at Israel, Israelis and sometimes Jews in general, on Tuesday many of us in the Jewish community gathered together at Daley Plaza to participate in a public celebration of Israel highlighted by raising the Israeli flag alongside the flag of the United States and the City of Chicago in the middle of downtown.  The mood was both upbeat and serious as we celebrated Israel and Jewish life while denouncing Anti-Semitism, irresponsible, inaccurate and hateful criticism of Israel, as well as demanded that the world do everything it can to bring the hostages home.  Beth El brought two full buses of congregants to the rally and many more of our community members met us there.  It was a proud and wonderful moment.  

I am so blessed to be the Rabbi of this special and outstanding congregation.  I pray that Israel celebrates 76 more years and beyond.  Am Yisrael Chai!

“Do we believe in Ghosts?”

Posted on May 9, 2024

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.

In this week’s parasha, Kedoshim, there are quite a few eye-catching moments but none quite so jarring as the last verse (Lev 20:27):

“A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones–their bloodguilt shall be upon them.”

We can discuss offline whether we feel capital punishment is ever appropriate, but I’m more intrigued by the Torah’s mention of those people who interact with ghosts and spirits. Surprisingly this is not the only mention of “Ovot” (ghosts) and “Yidoni-im” (familiar spirits) and the Torah is never particularly fond of those people who seek them out. It makes sense, on the surface, as God doesn’t want us consorting with other spiritual powers and forces which might lead us astray or else tempt us to idolatry. And perhaps in biblical times, it shouldn’t be so shocking that this was part of the wider cultural context. Soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers and necromancers were simply part of their lived reality. 

I’m reminded of an anecdote from my high school days. A kid in my class liked to go to abandoned buildings and hunt ghosts in his free time. I had the same reaction — “is this kid nuts? Ghosts aren’t real! Paranormal activity is just entertainment.” But I was fascinated by this particular classmate because his imagination rivaled mine and perhaps surpassed it. I wanted to see what was really going on, so when he invited me to tag along on a ghost hunting excursion in our hometown, I asked my mom if I could go. She said no (‘cause she’s a good mom) but not for the reasons I would’ve thought.

I assumed that skulking around abandoned buildings with a classmate who believed in ghosts was dangerous, or at least, irresponsible. However, my mother instead insisted, “you don’t want to get involved with spirits — they’re often more dangerous than friendly, and once you get one attached to you, it could be really difficult to get rid of it. Don’t go looking for trouble.” I was shocked. I took a beat and asked hesitantly, “Do we believe in ghosts in this family?” and she said, “oh yeah, totally! Spirits are no different than souls except that they got stuck here.” (Note: I’m paraphrasing from my memory – these are not direct quotes).

Putting aside the various reactions one might have to that discovery, my mom was intuitively in line with our parashah. Even today, I would suggest steering clear of psychics, astrologers and other magical people when seeking help or comfort — not only because their power is limited at best, but because part of what it means to be holy is that God is our go-to spiritual power. And how lucky are we?! We’re on a first-name basis with the Creator of the universe! This is what the Torah states just prior in Leviticus 20:26: “You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.” Our relationship with God, as Jews, is unique and special. The Torah doesn’t deny that other means of spirituality exist, it acknowledges that they are out there, and may even seem compelling. To be a holy people means that we seek to emulate God’s own holiness, walking, as best we can, the path God set before us. It means accepting our heritage with pride and dedication — its lessons and values and the commandments of the Torah.

Letter to the Editor

Posted on May 1, 2024

By Rabbi Alex Freedman.

Over Passover, the Chicago Tribune published an opinion essay by Jill Gurvey with the title: “I am finally questioning the narrative about Jewish inheritance.” This writer describes how, although she was raised in the Jewish community to be a Zionist, the war in Gaza has caused her to see things in the complete opposite light now. She says: “And yet, many in the Jewish community are supportive of Israel’s assault on Gaza and have rationalized it as legitimate self-defense. How?” 

I actually think that’s an important question for Zionists to answer, because the answer is compelling and important to keep at the forefront. In response, I wrote a letter to the editor today, which may or may not be published. But I wish to share with you because I think the message is crucial for all of us. (And I encourage you to also submit your own letters to the editor whenever an essay shakes you).

I intentionally kept my response brief, as I believe shorter letters have a higher likelihood of being published and then being read. 

I noticed that Gurvey’s essay was published during Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom. And that informs my direct answer to her direct question.

1. Israel must fight to liberate the 133 hostages who are still being held captive in Gaza after 200+ days. 

2. Israel must defeat the Hamas terrorists in order to ensure that Israelis live freely and safely as Jews (and other faiths) in their ancestral homeland. 

3. Israel must be victorious against Hamas to liberate Palestinians from their tyrannical government that repeatedly puts their own citizens in harm’s way. Palestinians too deserve leaders who seek to build a state alongside Israel instead of trying to destroying it.

After writing this note, I was intrigued by how Passover’s theme of freedom was at the core of my response. Indeed, the Passover story is far too foundational to be discussed for only one week in the spring. Its lessons are true and enduring all year long for every generation. Without question, that too is a gift of our wonderful Jewish inheritance.

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood…

Posted on April 25, 2024

On the Shabbat of Pesach, we read from Megillat Shir haShirim, Song of Songs. From the collection of Ketuvim in our final section of the TaNaKh, this megillah is a romantic biblical poem that compares young love to gazelles frolicking in the field. So why is it read on the holiday of liberation? What is the connection between Pesach and Shir haShirim?

The other Megillot that we read on their various holidays have a very clear connection to the theme of those festivals. When it comes to Song of Songs, the connection is not quite as obvious. This megillah is traditionally understood to symbolize the love between God and the Jewish people. Passover is a celebration of the freeing of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.

As with so much of Jewish tradition, there are several explanations to connect these two things:

  1. Spring is the season in which both Pesach and Shir haShirim fall. The text of this megillah paints that seasonal connection very clearly, with animals prancing across a pastoral landscape, flowers and fruits blossoming, and so many more vernal scenes.
  2. Song of Songs is a metaphor for divine love. As Rachel Scheinerman writes: “The saga of the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent revelation at Mount Sinai is reminiscent of a larger-than-life love affair, complete with forced separation at the hands of a villain (Pharaoh), gallant rescue (the Exodus) and eventual marriage (entering into the covenant at Sinai).”
  3. Shir haShirim is seen as a midrash on the Exodus story, and even perhaps on the entire book of Exodus. With many references to apple trees in Song of Songs, there are some beautiful midrashim on this theme. Specifically, one that drew my attention is the following from Shir haShirim Rabbah: Rabbi Azaria points out that an apple tree takes 50 days to ripen — just as the Israelites received the Torah 50 days after they left Egypt.

May this spring festival, Chag haAviv, help to ripen our souls throughout these next seven weeks. And let us remember the words of Shir haShirim as a metaphor for our individual and communal relationship with the divine.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!


Reflecting on the Total Solar Eclipse

Posted on April 18, 2024

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.

10 days ago, I had the pleasure of taking an early bus to Indianapolis to experience the Total Solar Eclipse in its full grandeur. I’ve always enjoyed stargazing, taking in the awesomeness of the universe and allowing the vastness of space to remind me of my relative smallness. It’s so fun to have those deep meaningful conversations (DMCs) at camp, where the starry sky is so unpolluted by city lights. But beyond that, I’m not usually a big astronomy nerd. I don’t go out with a telescope to see nearby planets and have no aspirations of being in astronaut. But on a whim, I decided to go check out the eclipse anyway.

I’m a pretty spiritual guy, and I had been speculating about what Jewish thought might say about the Eclipse. I had used my own mystical imagination and crafted a beautiful image of the moon passing in front of the sun, but if I didn’t know that I might see the 2-dimensional version as a unification of sorts. The moon represents the divine feminine – the Shechinah, receiving and reflecting the light of God, guiding the Jewish people and our calendar. The sun represents the divine masculine – Tiferet or the name YHVH – an aspect of God which is brilliant and gives light to the world. By bringing these two bodies in the sky together, we’d see a divine union of Tiferet and Shechina – similar to the metaphor of Lecha Dodi on Friday night which serves to bring together the Divine masculine and feminine in a marital unity. I had imagined that the sun rays peaking out from behind the moon’s shadow would appear to the ancient mystic as a crown of glory on the head of the Divine presence. I was so excited.

Then, on the bus, I did some digging. What blessing should I say? What do the sages have to say on this matter? 

It turns out most of the ancient world agreed that a night sky in the middle of the day was a bad omen. The Rabbis of the Talmud in Sukkah 29a discuss them.

Some say if the sun is eclipsed it’s a bad omen for non-Jews who use a solar calendar. If the moon is eclipsed it’s a bad omen for Jews who use the lunar calendar. Some say depending on the color it could mean war is coming or famine or both. An eerie thought given that we are already experiencing a war, but more eerie given Iran’s latest attack. But do I really believe that a predictable eclipse could be a sign of something I presume to be controllable by humankind? A thursday thought is no place to be untangling the issue of free-will or determinism, but it’s just a thought. 

The rabbis taught that the eclipse of the sun occurs on account of four things, On account of an Av Bet Din who died and was not eulogized properly [and the eclipse is a eulogy from Heaven]; on account of a betrothed young girl who cried out in the city [that she was being raped] and there was none to save her; on account of sodomy, and on account of two brothers whose blood was shed at the same time. 

Again, it’s a predictable scientific phenomenon, and therefore, the eclipse of the sun occurs on account of one thing — timing. But the image of the young girl screaming with no one to save her, is echoed in the screams of the hostages and those fighting to save them. And the image of two brothers whose blood was shed as one is reflection of the deep intimate connection that Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians, descendants of Issac and Jacob, or Ishmael or Esau… we’re all brothers. And if that’s not enough, we’re taught that Adam was the single ancestor to humanity so that no one can claim, “my ancestor was greater than your ancestor” which is to say, that the eclipse could be a reminder of God’s sullenness that we humans continue to spill the blood of our brothers.

Whether or not we modern scientifically educated Jews can ascribe such superstitious meaning to the Eclipse is debatable, but I do believe that as Jews, we can elevate even the most mundane activities to the realm of the holy through mindful awareness, gratitude and intention. So, we can see the eclipse as a celestial representation of what’s possible in God’s awesome natural world. Or, we can see the eclipse as an unsettling reminder that there’s work to do to make the world one of light – uninterrupted by momentary darkness. Because those 4 minutes in the sky were really cool, but these dark times in our world are indeed as frightening as an eclipse might have been in the ancient world. 

Blessed is the one whose strength and power fill the world, who made the works of creation.
Baruch SheCocho UGevurato Maaleh Olam v’Oseh Maaseh Beresheet.

After October 7th, Passover Should be Different This Year

Posted on April 11, 2024

By Rabbi Alex Freedman.

We all know from life experience that every big event requires preparation. Tests require study beforehand; interviews required practice in advance; and everyone who had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah knows that they can’t just wing it.

We all know this, and though it is tempting to procrastinate, we all accept this.

I want to suggest that the Passover Seder is truly an important event, and it too necessitates preparation. The Passover meal on the first and second nights is enjoyable because of who is around the table. But its purpose is essential: to have us imagine ourselves as slaves and then free people in the same night; and to identify who is not free in our own day, and what steps we must take to liberate them fully. This conversation does not merely happen on its own, but it must be prepared in advance. The Seder leader has a big responsibility in planning what parts of the Haggadah to lead, what pieces should be shared that are not part of the Haggadah script, and how to encourage others to participate in a meaningful way. This is not easy, and like other challenging tasks, advanced preparation raises the likelihood of success in the moment. 

“In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they personally left Egypt.” So we sing in the Haggadah. Almost always, we enter the Seder night from a place of freedom. We American Jews are fully free in our homeland, so the challenge is to imagine what it means to be not free. But this year is different because of October 7th. This year all Jews feel less secure than a year ago. This year there are over 100 Israelis who are being held hostage for the past 6 months and on Seder night. For the first time, it is frighteningly easy to feel we are not fully free. So long as the captives are being held in Gaza, none of us is fully free. 

In planning the Seder this year, please raise the topic of October 7th and the hostages. This year around the world, Jews are not slaves to Pharaoh, but we are not completely free, and we must talk about that. This year the place of the Jews in the world is different from every other year, and the Seder should reflect this: in conversation, in ritual (perhaps an empty chair for the hostages), and in tone. 

The Seder concludes “Next year in Jerusalem.” May all the hostages be returned home soon so Jerusalem and Jews worldwide can be whole once again.

Kosher Kindness

Posted on April 4, 2024

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.

In Parashat Shemini, God lists the kosher and non-kosher animals very specifically, including the credentials for what makes each creature of the water, land and sky fit or unfit for eating: fish must have fins and scales; land mammals must have split hooves and chew their cud; predatory birds are prohibited.

Since these rules are seemingly arbitrary, we might ask why do we have these rules? Why do we keep kosher?

There are many answers to this question, but let’s take a look at a short passage a little bit deeper into this third book of the Torah, Vayikra 20:25-26: 

You shall separate animals that are pure from those that are impure, and between pure and impure birds. Don’t make your souls detestable through animals or birds or anything alive on the ground which I have separated as impure. You shall be holy to Me, for I am your holy God, and I have separated you from others nations to be Mine.

According to these verses, kashrut keeps Jews distinct. The dietary laws are designed as a call to holiness.

A second reason that Rambam gives is that non-kosher food is dirty and that the rules of kashrut keep us from getting sick. It is a mitzvah that protects our physical well-being, just as many other mitzvot protect our well-being, both physically and also socially and emotionally. Think of that golden rule coming up in just a few parshiyot: V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha/ Love your neighbor as yourself. Treating others well helps us feel good about ourselves and, hopefully, the same treatment gets reciprocated back to us as well.

A third reason for keeping kosher that Ramban taught is that certain animals are cruel so we shouldn’t eat them. In other words, you are what you eat.

It is problematic to eat a predator because it could make us predatorial. 

So how can we make ourselves kinder people as we eat? Kindness is at the root of kashrut. While Shemini gets specific in which animals are kosher, it makes me think about a famous verse about kashrut and kindness that is repeated three times throughout the Torah: Lo t’vashel g’di b’chalev imo/Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Several sages explain that such a practice was especially heartless – to take the mother’s milk, intended to nurture the child, and to use that very milk to cook the child, and then to eat them together. Ibn Ezra and Rashbam compare it to the likewise forbidden practices of slaughtering a mother animal together with its child on the same day (Lev. 22:28), and taking a mother bird together with its eggs (Deut. 22:6).

Lo t’vashel g’di b’chalev imo. This verse is ultimately rooted in kindness, and I think is a bigger picture answer to how kashrut makes us kinder.

Connected to the golden rule that we say at the beginning of every morning service: V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, Love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, be kind to others. The mystic Isaac Luria brings this message back to God, in that loving others is a necessary condition of our experiencing divine love.

Everything else is commentary.

For God’s Sake, If Not For Ours

Posted on March 27, 2024

By Hazzan Sandler.

This week we read a special Maftir and Haftarah for what’s known as Shabbat Parah. The special Haftarah is from Ezekiel. I often like to highlight the Haftarot because, in my experience, the prophets are widely under-studied among normal people. Clergy, academics, maybe day-school alumni may know more but the average person couldn’t tell you much about Isaiah, or Jeremiah or any of those poetic, angsty, hopeful, mystical weirdos we call the Prophets.

I also find the prophets particularly interesting in these times because they prophesied in ancient Israel and Judah before, during and after the exile to Babylon. In a way, these prophets have the most insight (within the Bible) about Jews like us who exist alongside a sovereign Jewish nation in the land of Israel. Mind you, much has changed, but the same calls for justice, righteousness, kindness, and ritual that make up the pages of Prophetic writing are deeply resonant with the challenges of a people that has power, success, influence and comfort. The prophets challenge us not to get too comfortable or corrupted by our own success, and beg us not to go astray from God’s will. The consequences of doing so are linked to our exile and diaspora, and while that theology may or may not suit you, it is, in my mind, a worthwhile perspective to consider. 

So what sticks out to me in this week’s special Haftarah? 

Ezekiel gives this prophecy in Babylon, so the people are already exiled from Israel. It begins with God bemoaning the behavior of the people, and states (Ez. 36:19), “I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries: I punished them in accordance with their ways and their deeds.” 

And I don’t like to psycho-analyze God too much, (for what I hope are obvious reasons), but listen to this fascinating next verse (Ez. 36:20-21): “But when they came to those nations, they caused My holy name to be profaned, in that it was said of them, ‘These are the people of Hashem, yet they had to leave His land.’ Therefore I am concerned for My holy name, which the House of Israel have caused to be profaned among the nations to which they come.”

I want to paraphrase those three verses: “I punished Israel because they messed up bad, and now they’re making Me look bad. My reputation is on the line and I’m now doubly annoyed.” 

Does God sound a little petty and self-righteous? Yeah, but in God’s defense, there do need to be consequences when the people do wrong. 

The real irony is that God then promises to redeem the people, bring us back to our land, and make the land flourish like the Garden of Eden. He promises to renew us with a new heart and a new spirit. The nations of the world are going to be so inspired and blown away by our comeback that God’s name will be sanctified. God even says this: “Not for your sake will I act, O House of Israel, but for My Holy name” and this is echoed in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer on High Holidays, “Avinu Malkeinu, aseh lema’ancha im lo lema’aneinu — do this for Your sake, if not for ours.” It’s an idea repeated in the first paragraph of every amidah, “umeivi goel livnei v’neihem lema’an shemo beAhava – and [God] sends a redeemer to their children’s children for His name’s sake with love.” 

I always found a certain humor in the idea that we pray for God’s help for God’s own sake. My conception of God is usually more transcendent than a being that cares about Its own reputation. That feels too human to me. And yet, we appeal to God’s ego? I find that hard to believe, and it makes me laugh.

On the other hand, there’s a deep wisdom to be found in recognizing the following: To the extent that we were created “betzelem Elohim – In God’s image” we also are the image of God. We can’t always perceive God, and if we do it’s indirectly. However, human beings have the capacity to learn, grow, make choices, explore morality and do amazing good or evil in the world. And the choices we make–the good we put in the world (or don’t)– are a reflection of God. What we do individually, communally, nationally, or globally all add some good or some bad (or some of both) to the scales of the world. I imagine it is like a computer program. Our actions, large and small, are the input. God set it up to process the input and give an output. God as the Programmer can step in, employ a miracle or two, send a prophecy, give us a Torah etc. But mostly, the way things are is directly related to how we are. We learn this from the Megillah where everything that happens is about humans making choices – not to bow, to cast a lot, to build gallows, to approach the king, to raise the scepter, to fight back. God isn’t mentioned once, yet there is a miraculousness to human beings making difficult, life-saving choices at the right time in the right place.

And so God’s reputation is deeply linked to how we behave. And as the world becomes less and less magical, and perhaps at times really dark and difficult, it’s no surprise atheism is on the rise. But I believe in God. And I believe in my duty to act in ways that will make the world a better place. A place where people say “Thank God” more often than, “Oh God…” As we make our way closer to Passover, celebrating a time when God really showed up for us and took us out of Egypt, I hope we all feel inspired by the words of Ezekiel, and show up for God, by showing up for our world to make it the best it can be, one good choice at a time.

Purim 5784 – Why is the Purim Scroll Named for Esther?

Posted on March 20, 2024

By Rabbi Freedman.

We all know the Purim story – which we will hear Saturday night and Sunday morning  – is named for Queen Esther, but why? That was a curious choice by the ancient rabbis living in a man’s world. 

For the sake of argument, why not call it Megillat Mordecai? After all, he was the one who overheard the guards plotting to kill the king. His passing along the message – and his subsequent reward of being paraded around in public – were integral to the story. Most important of all, he was the brains behind the mission to save the Jewish people. He devised the plan for Esther to approach the king to save their people. And he inspired her when she initially refused. Those are significant contributions, and the Jews may not have survived otherwise.

So why not name the scroll after him? To borrow a baseball analogy: even the best managers remain on the sidelines. It really comes down to the player in the batter’s box to win the game. In other words, it’s important to have a great idea, but more credit goes to the one who executes it. And here is where Esther shines.

It is Esther whose life is on the line in the near term when she approaches the king unsolicited, not Mordecai. It is Esther who displays unsurpassed courage and bravery when she reveals herself to him as a Jew amidst the genocidal decree, not Mordecai. It is Esther who sticks out her neck, not Mordecai. The rabbis were wise enough to recognize the distinction, and they gave her the ultimate, enduring credit – naming the story after her.

Queen Esther is primarily known for her beauty, but let us not forget her unrivaled bravery and courage as well.

Parashat Pekudei 5784 “Building Ourselves”

Posted on March 14, 2024

By Rabbi ALex Freedman.


“If you build it, he will come.”  The famous line from the movie Field of Dreams means that if Ray builds a baseball field, his father will return.

“If you build it, He will come.”  Rabbi Moshe Grussgott of Manhattan points out that this paraphrases an important verse from the Torah reading in Parashat Terumah, which kicks off the construction of the Mishkan, the desert portable sanctuary.  If you (the Jews) build it (the Mishkan – portable sanctuary), He (G-d) will come (and dwell among you).  This is a pretty accurate summary of Exodus 25:8: “Let them make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.”

Nearly the entire duration of the book of Exodus (Ch. 25-40) is devoted to the Mishkan’s construction, which concludes this week with Pekudei. Why the extensive coverage about the same topic?   

– First, details matter.  Everyone wants an HD television, the more pixels the better.  That picture is more highly detailed than standard definition, and the results speak for themselves.  If we want our TV’s in HD, shouldn’t we insist that important projects and relationships be lived in HD too?

– Second, G-d is most present when people give or build.  Avot DRabbi Natan makes this conclusion based upon a close reading of our verse: When they make me a sanctuary, I will dwell among them.  When people involve themselves in a cause or project, they gain a sense of meaning and purpose, a feeling of being part of something larger than themselves.  Some people call this feeling “G-d.”

-Third, building something refines us.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the only time in the Torah when the Jews did not complain about something was during the construction of the Mishkan.  For the first time, they had to provide for themselves, not rely on G-d.  And they emerged stronger for it.  He writes: “It is not what God does for us that transforms us. It is what we do for God.”

What are you building?