By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
When I dabbled in improv comedy, there was a game we played called “Sing About It!” where a scene would unfold based on audience suggestions, and some omnipotent other player would have the power of saying, “Sing About It!” and the actors would have to break out into song spontaneously about whatever it is that was happening. What made that game so silly is that a character might start singing about something entirely mundane, like grocery shopping or sitting in traffic or having nothing to watch on TV. And the audience knows that people don’t just break out into song for no reason.
When I first started learning how to write original song lyrics, I literally googled how to do it. Humble beginnings, I suppose. But the article I read was specifically about musicals, and it taught me that the music and lyrics allow the characters to express what ordinary speech cannot. The music comes only when the emotional state of the character is elevated beyond spoken word. It could be anything from jubilation, to devastation, to rage or panic or love, but unlike the improv scenes, a song in a musical reflects an emotional peak – not just groceries.
“אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽיהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה”
“Az Yashir Moshe uv’nei Yisrael et-haShira hazot L’Hashem, vayomru lemor: ‘Ashira L’Hashem ki ga-oh, ga’ah”
So Moses and b’nai Yisrael sang this song to God, and they said, “I will sing to God for He has triumphed gloriously.”
For the first time in the entire Torah, the entire Bible, we see the word “song.” Of course Andrew Lloyd Weber and Stephen Schwartz would surely acknowledge that earlier parts of Genesis and Exodus were dramatic and worthy of songs like “Spark of Creation” or “Any Dream Will Do” the Torah itself doesn’t show the characters breaking out into song until this moment. All it took was 200+ years of slavery, 10 terrifying plagues, and an unbelievable miracle at the splitting of the sea. The emotional height of our redemption and our freedom moved us to the state where speaking simply doesn’t cut it. So we call this Shabbat Shira – the Shabbat of Song. This Shabbat we will be joined by my friends from New York called “The Choral Torah Collective” who add beautiful harmony to many verses, one piece for every parsha in the Torah. They will add harmony to our participatory davening, they will perform for us, they will teach us and they will sing with us. I hope you’ll join the song and dance Friday Night and Saturday Morning and Afternoon. It’s sure to be a Shabbat worth singing about!
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
The moon gets a bad rap in our society. Nobody says “the moon, sun, and stars” because the sun is always named first. We also know that moonlight is merely the light reflected from the sun, not generated on its own. The moon is like the little sibling, able to tag along but not do everything like the big kids.
All of which makes it interesting that the moon is the key to the Jewish calendar, not the sun (though the sun plays a role too). It’s our Parsha this week, Bo, that gives us the Mitzvah of Rosh Hodesh, when G-d told Moses and Aaron in Egypt: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Ex. 12:1, 2). Even before they left Egypt, G-d gives them the Jewish calendar to free them psychologically. Thus the process of freedom begins before they are physically liberated.
Here’s what the Etz Hayim Humash adds: “Why does Israel count by the moon, with each month starting when the new moon emerges? Because the moon, unlike the sun, waxes and wanes, nearly disappears and then grows bright again. So the Jewish people go through cycles of prosperity and suffering, knowing that even in darkness there are brighter days ahead (Sefat Emet).”
Nothing is too small to make a contribution, not the moon and not the Jewish people.
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
This week, we read in Parshat Va’era about the first seven makkot (plagues) that God sent to Mitzrayim (Egypt), with 3 more to come in next week’s Torah portion, Bo. On the most basic level, these plagues seem to be sent as a lesson for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Many p’sukim (verses) highlight that the makkot were supposed to educate Pharaoh and the Egyptians about God. For example, the first plague is delineated in Ex. 7:17: “God says: ‘Here’s how you will know that I am God.’ I shall use my rod to strike the water in the Nile, and the water will turn to blood.”
The Eitz Chayim Chumash comments on this pasuk: “It is only by experiencing God’s might that Pharaoh will be persuaded to let Israel go.”
By the time that we reach the 10th makka in next week’s parasha, the death of the firstborn Egyptian males, Pharaoh gives in and lets B’nai Israel leave. The lesson of the plagues is clear and God’s true might is visible to Pharaoh, as the final plague affected him more personally than any other plague.
Perhaps in that moment, Pharaoh recognized God’s true power.
We have a phrase in our liturgical tradition, Yirat Shamayim, literally, the fear of heaven. Yira comes from the Hebrew root, Yud-Resh-Alef, that can mean both awe and fear.
We can speculate that Pharaoh may have finally felt that fearful emotion of Yirat Shamayim in the moment of that final plague.
We recall this Yira emotion liturgically every month on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh, Shabbat Mevarkhim, where we announce the new month beginning that next week. This is one of those weeks, when on Shabbat morning during our Torah service, we will announce the new month of Shevat which will begin this coming Monday.
Within this blessing, we recite this phrase twice within Birkat haChodesh, the blessing of the new month: “May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, grant that this coming month bring us goodness and blessing, and bestow on us a long life, a life that is peaceful, a life … conscious of heaven’s demands and wary of sin…a life of love of Torah, conscious of heaven’s demands….”
The poetic translation of Yirat Shamayim in our Siddur Lev Shalem, ‘conscious of heaven’s demands,’ reminds us of the divine awe we should experience, not only with the passing of each month, but on a daily basis. In our siddur’s commentary on this monthly blessing, we understand that Yirat Shamayim “implies a consciousness of God’s presence in one’s life, so that one does that which is right in the eyes of God.”
While the plagues begin with Pharaoh’s stubbornness to let the Israelites go in this week’s parasha, they conclude next week with Pharaoh’s Yirat Shamayim, fear of God with the final of the ten plagues.
May we each strive to strike the right balance between the dual emotions of both awe and fear of God, Yirat Shamayim, reminding us to recognize God’s might and presence in our lives, inspiring us to find blessing within our lives each day of every month.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
When it comes to God, there is infinity – limitless and impossible to describe fully. Any positive description is inherently limited, and therefore incomplete at best and nearly blasphemous at worst. Maimonides recognized this, and insisted that people should speak of God only in negative language – not negative like ‘bad’ but negative like ‘not’. As it is written, ‘vehaChochmah meAyin timatzeh” (Job 28:12)’ Literally translated: “where is wisdom found?” but ‘meAyin’ could be translated as ‘from nothingness’ as in, “Wisdom from nothingness is found.” So in the negative, God is unending, incomparable, beyond all praise etc. Another solution is to describe God’s attributes or actions, as opposed to God Himself. For example, God’s love is great or God heals the broken hearted.
The infinite God is so unknowable that all names are just refractions of the ultimate truth. And the 4-letter name that is the most holy of all, Y-H-V-H, we don’t even pronounce aloud. From this we learn that a name, like any word or label, makes something finite. Somewhere between nothing and everything is many. This is the core of the promise God makes to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, to make their offspring numerous as the stars in Heaven.
Often, we look at the stars and think they are infinite, but they are one step below infinite – they are beyond our ability to count. We simply cannot count every star in the sky, nor every grain of sand on the beach. God can count the stars. And God gives each one a name (Psalm 147:4)
And as the Book of Genesis, the stories of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs ends, we begin our journey from family, to tribes to a nation beginning with the words, “these are the names.” (Ex. 1:1) In context, these are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt. Zooming out, these are the names of the children of Israel whose descendants would be remembered and redeemed from slavery. These are the names of the tribes that would settle in the promised land. These are the names of the family that would grow to fulfill God’s promise, through us, the generations destined to be numerous as the stars in the sky. And God counts us, and we each are called by name. The infinite unknowable God, knows each and every one of us by name.
As we begin this second book of the Torah, the Book of Shemot (Names), I remember this passage from Isaiah (56:5) “I will give them [who hold fast to My Covenant], in My House and within My walls, A monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.”
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
Sometimes the last step is also a first step.
The Book of Genesis concludes this week describing Joseph’s passing and being placed “in a coffin in Egypt” (Gn. 50:26). How appropriate, because it sets the stage for what follows.
Here is the Etz Hayim Humash commentary: “The last words of the Book of Genesis, ‘a coffin in Egypt,’ foreshadow the events of the opening chapter of Exodus, the enslavement of the Hebrews, the killing of the Hebrew babies, and the birth of Moses who will be placed in a coffin-like basket on the Nile.”
Indeed, we turn the column in the Torah and suddenly the Israelites are slaves. We learn here that the “last word” is never truly the last word. Sometimes it can be the first word of a new conversation. Inertia can’t simply be stopped.
Just a few days ago, we concluded the year 2022. We take down last year’s calendar and put up an entirely new one – 2023. But how different are the final days of December from the first days in January?
Let’s each identify some momentum from the end of 2022 – maybe it was vacation with your family, lighting Hanukkah candles with family and friends, or something else that ended the year on a positive note. Let’s keep that positive vibe rolling in these first days of January, much like the sweetness of Shabbat ends one week and kickstarts another.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
What’s the greatest love story ever told? I imagine most people would think first about romantic love, the passionate feelings that bring two people from different families into one relationship. Maybe they think of a movie or a book.
It might then surprise people to learn that the Torah’s greatest expression of love is not between “lovers” at all. Rather it describes the connection among family.
At the beginning of our Torah reading, Vayigash, Judah passionately appeals to (his brother) Joseph to release their brother Benjamin from captivity. Part of Judah’s desperate plea invokes what Joseph’s action would do to their father Jacob. Quite simply, it would kill him because of Jacob’s limitless attachment to his youngest son Benjamin. The Torah says “Vnafsho Keshura Vnafsho – (Jacob’s) soul is bound up with (Benjamin’s) soul” (Gn. 44:30). This love transcends the body, transcends the physical. It speaks of the soul, the deepest part of oneself. Ever since Benjamin was born, Jacob loved him endlessly and unconditionally. All parents can identify with this unparalleled unconditional love, loving a child not because of what they do but simply because they are.
In this passage we see another ultimate “love story.” Judah steps up and takes responsibility for his younger brother in the ultimate way. Judah tells Joseph to lock him up instead of his younger brother. The mouth is capable of uttering beautiful expressions of love, but only actions can verify their truth. Here Judah does not merely say he will be responsible for his younger sibling, but he takes the hit when his brother is in trouble. It is this act of brotherly love that unlocks Joseph’s heart, that convinces him to reveal to the others that he is Joseph, their brother.
Stories of romantic love feed the Hollywood movie cycle. But the Torah reminds us that the deepest love within us may be for our family.
By Rabbi Michael Schwab.
As we celebrate Hanukkah this week and speak about the miraculous victory of the few Maccabees over the powerful Assyrian Greeks. Or when we recount the miracle of the single cruse of oil that lasted for 8 days, we are confronted with the question, do we believe in miracles? And if so, in what way?
Jewish texts and sources are filled with narratives describing miracles and wonders, from the story of Hanukkah to the most famous miracles: the plagues and the splitting of the sea in the Passover story. Further, the Torah tells us of manna from heaven and a shofar blast that brought down the walls of Jericho. Each miracle announces the presence and power of Gd. In fact the word, miracle, comes from the root word of “a sign” – a sign of Gd’s existence and providence.
For a Biblical Jew (and probably any ancient person), it would be inconceivable that Gd could not act outside of nature to perform such acts, but over time this concept has been more challenging to certain Jews, especially in the modern era. During the Talmudic era, miracles were reported less frequently but stories were still passed down of certain Sages who were able to call upon Gd to do extraordinary things, usually to help the community during a challenging time.
During the Middle Ages Jewish attitudes towards miracles became more diverse. While many continued to believe in miracles as supernatural acts performed by an immanent Gd, others began to describe miracles as the purposeful extensions of natural events. Rambam, or Maimonides, represented this line of thinking best. As he wrote, “ . . . all miracles which deviate from the natural course of events, whether they have already occurred or, according to promise, are to take place in the future, were foreordained by the Divine Will during the six days of creation . . .”. In other words, anything that seems supernatural was, if fact, already pre-set in the natural world at the time of creation. This definition of miracles holds on to the notion that miracles are a sign of Gd’s providence but that the miracle itself is carried out within the laws of nature.
During the times of the Hasidic masters the idea that humans could initiate miracles, as a direct result of prayer to Gd, became popular. Many accounts exist of the great Hasidic masters who were reported to have raised people from the dead, or to have made themselves invisible, in order to do a mitzvah or to help a fellow Jew. As one of the most famous Hasidic masters, Rav Nachman of Bratslav wrote, “There are people who obscure all miracles by explaining them in terms of the laws of nature. When these heretics who do not believe in miracles disappear and faith increases in the world, then the Messiah will come. For the essence of the redemption primarily depends on this — that is, on faith.” (Likutei Moharan)
Clearly in our own contemporary world there is no one way to think about miracles. As was written by the editor of Myjewishlearning.com, “There are those whose faith rests on secure belief that God performed these wonders as they are described — and that more are possible. Equally, some Jews believe that God is actively engaged in the world through what might be called Divine Providence and who call on the help of heaven. Others understand miracle accounts as fantastic stories or allegories that enhance their spirituality in other ways. Still others have sought rational explanations for the miracles recorded in Scripture. . . The tradition holds room for more than one view.” So, however you view the nature of a miracle, let them inspire each of us to bring a little more light into the world as we strive to accomplish what sometimes seems impossible. Hag Urim Sameah!
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
In the classic 18th century Chassidic text, Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev makes an interesting observation about the name of our upcoming festival of lights. The Berditchever Rebbe points out that the name Chanukkah (meaning dedication) comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for education: Chinukh. Both words share the 3 letter shoresh of Chet-Nun-Khaf.
In the Sefat Emet, the 19th century Chassidic Torah commentary by R’ Yehuda Leib Alter of Gur, he shares the following similar observation:
Chanukkah is an expression of education [Chinukh] in the way one educates a child to walk on their own, just as it said: “Educate a youth according to their own way” (Proverbs 22:6).
Chanukkah gives each and every Jew the opportunity to increase our knowledge, to enlighten ourselves, young and old alike, each and every day.
Now, we know that our people are known for having multiple opinions on all sorts of topics regarding our traditions, hence the frequently used expression, “two Jews, three opinions.”
For our sake, I will focus on two rabbis with two very different opinions. We recall the great 1st century debate, for the sake of heaven, between Hillel and Shammai regarding how one should light Chanukiot (menorahs) throughout the week of Chanukkah:
Beit Shammai held that on the first night eight lights should be lit, and then they should decrease on each successive night, ending with one on the last night; while Beit Hillel held that one should start with one light and increase the number on each night, ending with eight.
Beit Hillel’s rationale is that as a general rule in halakha (Jewish law), one increases holiness, rather than decreasing it. Beit Hillel has on its side the general rule followed in many areas of the Torah, that “Ma’alin Ba’Kodesh ve’ayn Moridin,” One increases in matters of holiness, and does not diminish.
Beit Shammai’s opinion was based on the halachic principle that allows one to derive law using similarities. Beit Shammai has the model of the offering of bulls during the Festival of Sukkot, which begins with thirteen on the first day and, decreasing by one each day, finishes with seven on the seventh day (for a total of seventy, corresponding to the “seventy nations of the world,” for whose benefit the offering is made.). And decrements yet again to just one bull, on the “eighth day” of Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, which corresponds to the singular People of Israel.
As is often the case with this rabbinic duo, Hillel’s opinion is the predominantly observed one throughout the wider Jewish community.
In the case of the common root of the words Chanukkah and Chinukh, this further deepens my understanding of Hillel’s opinion. With each consecutive day, our opportunity to increase in holiness and knowledge grows with each additional candle. Our potential for enlightenment is reinforced as our lights increase, especially in this darkest season of the winter months.
As we prepare to kindle our first candle of Chanukkah this coming Sunday night, I share the following wish for all of us: While our natural lights decrease outside during this season, may the divine spark within each of us grow with every opportunity we find for educating ourselves, for learning from one another, increasing our holiness both as individuals and as part of the wider Jewish community.
Chag Urim Sameach!!
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
In search of inspiration for this week’s Thursday Thought I turned to our very own Rabbi Emeritus Vernon Kurtz’s book Encountering Torah. One of the reflections in this collection is entitled “Deborah’s Legacy” that brought to my attention an obscure line toward the end of our parsha I hadn’t noticed before.
“Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Allon-bacuth. [‘the oak of weeping’]” (Gen 35:8).
How did Deborah end up with Jacob and the rest? Rashi notes that Rebecca promised Jacob “I will fetch you from there [Laban’s house]” (Gen. 27:45). Still is this the same nurse that went with Rebecca and Abraham’s servant Eliezer all those years ago? Maybe, maybe not. Rabbi Kurtz shared an opinion from Genesis Rabbah 81:5 that “while Jacob was mourning Deborah, he received the news that Rebecca had also passed away.” Rebecca’s death is never explicitly mentioned in the Torah. This may be why the site of Deborah’s burial is called Allon-bacuth — plural of weeping because of the two losses in the family. If you’re interested in what else Rabbi Kurtz wrote, you should check out the book.
What happens next I find especially moving. “God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram. And God blessed him.” (Gen 35:9) According to Rav Acha in the name of Rabbi Yonatan, God blessed Jacob with the blessing of consolation addressed to mourners. (Genesis Rabbah 81:5). Just as God comforts mourners, so too should we comfort mourners. This is one of the examples of how we ‘walk in God’s ways.’
By Rabbi Michael Schwab.
Experiencing hardship is a challenging and unavoidable feature of life. And these obstacles placed in our path often force us to make difficult life choices. Do they stop us from moving forward and force us to abandon our dreams? Or will they prompt us to find or create new paths, or even new destinations?
At the end of last week’s parshah, Jacob reaches a difficult moment in his life. We learn in the Torah that Jacob was given the first born blessing by his father Isaac. This is a positive development that indicates Isaac’s wishes that Jacob become the next patriarch. However, Esau felt this blessing should have been given to him and became enraged when he found out that it was given to Jacob, instead. Thus, Jacob was forced to flee his home for fear that his brother, Esau, might kill him. From this moment forward his life was drastically altered: instead of the comfortable and happy life in his family home, which he had anticipated, he was now on a journey, all alone, to a foreign land to live with a relative he had never met. His path into the future that had once been so secure was now blocked and obscured.
How would he handle his misfortune? What choices would he make? What path would he choose? While Jacob was not perfect by any stretch, and made poor choices as well as wise ones, one critical decision that he made from which we can learn is that he chose to maintain hope and faith in the face of this life challenge. Eschewing an attitude of despair, or a complete rejection of his previous life (two possible alternatives), he remained committed to Gd and was determined to be successful. Shortly after running from his home, he had a miraculous dream, after which he made a covenant with Gd, reaffirming this commitment to his family values and the core vision of the blessing bestowed upon him. Once he arrived at Rebecca’s; brother’s home he worked diligently for his Uncle Laban, got married (twice), had lots of children and became a successful businessman. All through this time he maintained his relationship with Gd and was therefore blessed by Gd. Further, despite his life being very different than he ever imagined, he never lost sight of his ultimate goal — to return to his homeland and fulfill his birthright as the next patriarch. While his misfortune prevented him from doing so in the straight-forward way he had always imagined, due to his ability to maintain faith, embrace hope and stay committed to his ultimate goals, he got there by a different path. As the life of our patriarch Jacob demonstrates, hardship is inevitable. But with determination, resilience, hope and faith, we can often find a way to continue to flourish and a different path to fulfill our dreams.