Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

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.


Unity in Diversity

Posted on March 5, 2020

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

My sermon this week was about the Mishkan’s (portable Sanctuary) construction as a model for the concept of unity in diversity.  And that’s exactly what I saw this week at AIPAC’s Policy Conference.

The Torah describes at great length every detail of this sacred project and the myriad of different contributions that were needed to finish what would be nothing less than the home for God in their midst.  What is more, this project was explicitly powered by the individual’s generosity of heart, and it was so successful that Moses had to ask the people to stop giving. 

The success of this holy endeavor teaches us a crucial lesson, especially for our times: every person matters, and every person has something unique to give.  For example, the Mishkan would not have been built if every person gave the same gift or knew the very same craft.  So our differences can actually be our strength.  

I saw this principle in action at the AIPAC Policy Conference this week in Washington DC.  Democrats and Republicans; conservatives and liberals; religious Jews, non-religious Jews, and non-Jews all came together in the tens of thousands as one, bringing their various perspectives and different strengths to the singular issue of support for Israel.  Our strength was in our multiplicity. Our capacity to advocate for Israel came from our diversity, which allowed us to reach different segments of American society.  Unity in diversity may be difficult, but when it succeeds there is nothing holier or more powerful.      

Let’s Build This Together

Posted on February 27, 2020

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

Given the opening of this week’s Parashah, it would seem that this is the week best suited for reminding us to contribute to the shul – to complete our Kol Nidre pledges, to pay our voluntary dues to the auxiliaries, to consider a B’yachad gift, or perhaps an ad in the journal for Rabbi Schwab’s installation, but that’s not what I want to focus on.

Terumah is about much more than the first capital campaign in Jewish history. It is about creating a home for God amongst the people. God charges Moshe to go and collect precious gifts from the community—hopefully the entire community—and specifically from “anyone whose heart moves them…” God then proceeds with the architectural plans and tasks associated with the building of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle. It is to be a place not only where God’s presence may dwell among the people, but a focal point of the community where gatherings will take place and where ultimately God can be accessed.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings to our attention that the other major act of creation detailed in the Torah is that of the Genesis story. He points out eight phrases which show how the creation of the Tabernacle mirrors the narrative of the creation of the world. The building of the Mishkan becomes a significant marker in the development of the People of Israel, as it is “their first great constructive and collaborative act after crossing the [Red] Sea, leaving the domain of Egypt and entering their new domain as the people of God.”

If we think about it, God created a world which God believed would be the perfect place for humankind to dwell. God created Eden, the ultimate paradise and charged the first people with only two guiding principles: to care for it, and not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. As long as they were in Eden, Adam and Eve lacked for nothing, but as soon as they ate of the Tree of Knowledge they were cast out of Eden and had to work hard for that which they had.

There is a story I have told under the chuppah when officiating weddings about Adam and Eve. It is about how after a lifetime of hard work, the loss of their son, Abel, and struggle in many ways, God has mercy on them and gives Adam the open invitation to bring his family back to Eden. For a moment, Adam is thrilled! He would never again have to till the soil, nor would Eve again have to work hard. And as he approached his wife to speak with her, he looked deeply at her. He saw the lines on her face, earned by hard work, and in her eyes he saw the memories of a lifetime spent in happiness and in sorrow. And he realized that as appealing as it would be to go back to Eden—as sweet as it would be to live out the rest of his life in total comfort and in ease—it would not be as meaningful.

It would have been easy for God to build the Mishkan, just as God engraved the tablets and split the sea. But there is a greater value. Just as God created the world as a sanctuary for humankind to dwell, it was the task of the People of Israel to similarly create a sanctuary for God. It’s one thing to have a place to go to access God, to build community, to study, and to celebrate, but is another thing completely to have a hand in the conception, building, and maintenance of such a place. Had the people not participated, by gifts or by labor, in the building of the Tabernacle, it wouldn’t have been the place in which God wanted to dwell.

We can parallel this idea in contemporary life in several ways. Clearly, the Synagogue is our modern-day tabernacle, and we each must do our part to build, re-build, and sustain it. Whether it be volunteering time or contributing our resources, our connection deepens to this place when we know we have a stake in its existence. But there’s something more. As builders of Jewish homes, where Jewish history, dreams, and ideals live, we each have the opportunity to create a mikdash me’at—a “small sanctuary”—a place where God and the best of what Judaism has to offer can dwell.

As we approach Shabbat Terumah, I invite you to discuss together—as friends, families, and as members of this sacred community—how we can help each other build and maintain our own sacred spaces, whether at work or at home, so that God has an even greater presence in each of our lives.

In our Parashah is the well-known verse “V’-asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham”—“let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell amongst them.” In other words, if we build it, care for it, maintain it, then God will come.

Doing and Hearing

Posted on February 19, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett 

In this week’s Torah portion Mishpatim (Exodus 24:7), Moses took up “the book of the covenant and read in the hearing of the people; and they said:  ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, we will hear.’” Not “we will hear and we will do” but “na’aseh v’nishma” –doing first –then hearing.  A paradox, perhaps?

I am writing this just having arrived home from Song Leader Boot Camp, an annual gathering in St. Louis of about 400 cantors, rabbis, songleaders and educators (and a ton of Ramah and day school kids) to meet, to study, to sing, to share at whatever skill and knowledge level they possess—learned or seeking; fluent in the tefilot, or song leaders reading transliteration or singing wordless prayer (niggunim).

One of my favorite sessions plunged into the Sh’ma—a simple, single line, often the first words of prayer we teach our children as we tuck them into bed each night). The Sh’ma is a daily reminder of our one-ness with G-d and that G-d is One. “Listen (up), Israel! Hashem is our G-d; Hashem is One.”

But listening and hearing (and they are different concepts) are not easy endeavors. It takes work to hear above the cacophony of everyday life. It’s easier to “do” and think about it later. To unpack what you’ve just done and hear…understand (or however you want to put it) the action. It’s in the “hearing” that actions are elevated, internalized and able to be passed on as more than rote rituals, meaningless tasks that we do…because we’re supposed to. And often the real “hearing” can only come after the “doing.”

Actions often come first. Yes, sometimes we act based on study, understanding, etc. But I can’t help but feel after this lovely conference with many, many scholars, teachers, rabbis as well as learners and explorers of Judaism that all of us will have a moment of doing first (sometimes something that feels a wee bit uncomfortable perhaps), understanding the “why” and having that “aha!” moment later (maybe much later).

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one is asked to “do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.”

So, I want to offer an invitation in the realm of tefilah…prayer. Pick a prayer. Maybe it’s the Sh’ma or the V’ahavta or a single blessing in the Amidah. Read it (English is fine). Aloud. Listen to yourself read it.  But really hear it. What does it say about you and G-d or you as Jewish person…or “just” a person. Sh’ma. Listen. Hear. Understand.


The Middle Commandment

Posted on February 13, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett 

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, Moses is given the tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is the third month after the exodus from Egypt and the Children of Israel are in the Sinai wilderness, encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and there, they await Moses’s return.

Moses goes up the mountain to receive G-d’s words—the Aseret Hadibrot—literally, the ten words or things (most popularly translated as the Ten Commandments). The commandments are usually depicted as two stone tablets with five on each side. 

The first four include an acknowledgment G-d and G-d’s oneness, as well as directives not worship false idols or to take G-d’s name in vain. Commandment #4 instructs to observe Shabbat—a day set aside for G-d. Together, they form a set of rules to address and guide our relationship with G-d.

Commandments six through ten include prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness and coveting—all guiding our relationship with each other (Ben adam l’chaveiro—between a person and his or her neighbor)

So…what about Commandment #5? (“Honor your father and your mother”)? Since it falls in the first set of five, its placement would suggest that honoring your parents is part of our relationship with G-d. But clearly, the commandment directly addresses one of our most profound interpersonal relationships. 

Maybe that’s why it’s in the middle, straddling our relationship with G-d and our fellow humans—a bridge between the two sets. Parents are seen as G-d’s partners in passing on the ethics and values of our tradition as well as the mitzvot. 

But there is a bit more to it, I think. When we are respectful to our parents, our grandparents, all of our elders, hopefully that translates to our relationships with our fellow humans, which leads directly to the commandments on the other side, something especially relevant in these days when civility toward each other seems to be eroding daily.



Tell Me Who Needs a Visit

Posted on February 5, 2020

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

Do you know someone who could really use some company or a visit from the clergy or friendly congregants? Please let me know.  

We at Beth El need your help with the crucial Mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick).  

When someone is in the hospital, the family often tells the clergy, and we do our very best to call and visit. Now we have a fantastic “Thinking of you” card that we bring or send to have a familiar picture of Beth El in the room. This is one of many terrific ideas by the Bikkur Cholim Caring Community, a committee led by Jan Channon, Barbara Hochwert, Jackie Melinger, Basia Retsky, and Pam Schlosberg. As its name implies, we have a whole group of friendly Beth El members trained in the Mitzvah and ready to assist. While we can always improve, I think Beth El succeeds when it comes to meeting the needs of congregants who are in hospitals.  

Yet there are many people who could use a visit and conversation who are out of the hospital. Maybe they’re in a rehab facility like Whitehall. Or maybe they’re at Gidwitz or at home but unable to go out during the day. They should enjoy company as well – if they would like – from the clergy and maybe members of the Bikkur Cholim Caring Community.  

But I don’t know who is homebound because they often don’t tell me. So if you know somebody like this who could use some company or a visit, please tell me (with their permission).  

Please let me know if you have a family member who might benefit from this Mitzvah. My email is afreedman@nssbethel.org. This will be confidential.  

Beth El does its best to be a caring community. We feel we’re ready to take the next step, which will really benefit all of us.   

Bikkur Cholim is a Mitzvah because when we keep company with someone who is challenged in these ways, we are emulating G-d Who visited the sick, in the case of Abraham (Talmud: Sotah 14a). Through this Mitzvah we make G-d more present in the world.   

Rosh Chodesh and the Women of the Exodus

Posted on January 27, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

I am writing my Thursday Thought on Monday, Rosh Chodesh Shevat. As some of you may know, Rosh Chodesh is considered a holiday specifically for women. (The “why” will be the topic for another Thursday thought.) So, why do I mention it now? We are, in the annual Torah reading cycle, in the midst of retelling the story of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt and our eventual exodus, and I’m reminded of the amazing women in the story, and want to share them with you, and their goals and actions that made them both partners with G-d and heroes of our freedom from slavery.

The story begins with the midwives Puah and Shifra. For without them and those like them, the story never happens at all. We don’t know for certain whether the two women were Israelites or Egyptians. We only know they were midwives who refused Pharaoh’s order to kill each male baby born to an Israelite family. We know they assisted with the births of both Egyptian and Hebrew babies, but not whether they, themselves, were Israelites. They, and any others like them, made a dangerous decision to refuse to “follow orders,” doing the right and just thing, rather than the expedient, safe, thing.

The preeminent Torah commentator Rashi 1040-1105 explained that the name Shifra originates in the Hebrew root m’shaperet, “to beautify” or “to swaddle or cleanse, perhaps to “make things better.” Puah’s name may signify a gentle, soothing way of speech. Both were courageous and, perhaps, saved an entire people.

Then Moses is born, and his mother Yocheved, defying Pharoah’s orders to hand him over and be murdered, instead hides him, until she can no longer can. Miriam, then, as you all know, places Moses in a basket and sends him down the River Nile, where he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, known as Batya. Batya knew that Moses was likely an Israelite baby, yet she took him in and raised him as her own. But her action, quietly defiant, saved Moses for his yet-to-come (co-) starring role in saving the Israelites from slavery. Her name can be translated as “bat yah,” no less than a Daughter of G-d, and in a profound way G-d’s partner in the redemption of the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery. 

Last, but certainly not least, is Tziporah, Moses’s wife, who saved Moses from G-d’s wrath while they were encamped on the route to Egypt before the Exodus. 

Miriam, Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Batya, Tziporah: five women who embody the idea of smart, courageous women, who knew their value and acted upon it when called to do so! As we begin this new month of Shevat and continue to read about these brave women, I wish you a (slightly belated) Chodesh Tov.



Tu B’Shevat: A Season of Renewal

Posted on January 23, 2020

by Hazzan Ben Tisser 

Next Monday we will celebrate Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the beginning of the new month of Shevat. Of course this month is best known for being the host to the Tu B’Shevat holiday, which we celebrate as the “birthday of the trees.” I have many fond memories of being a student in day school in Los Angeles, attending assemblies where we sang Israeli songs about trees and nature, and then went up into the Santa Monica Mountains to plant evergreen trees. We were taught that children in Israel were doing that very same activity that very same day in the hills around Jerusalem.

As a child in LA, it was perhaps more challenging to understand the nature (pun intended) of Tu B’Shevat than it is here in Chicago. Winter brought cool mornings, yet the sun still shined brightly most days, and the majority of trees and flowers remained in bloom throughout the year…so there wasn’t this sense of transition out of winter in the same way. In Israel, it is around this time that the shkediyah, the almond tree, begins to bloom, signifying that although we are still in the throes of winter, spring isn’t far off, and that the promise of nature renewing itself is very real.

Last year, Shevat took on a new meaning for me and my fiancée, Robyn. On 5 Shevat, Robyn lost her teenage son; and on Tu B’shevat, we brought him to his final rest. There are certain details I don’t wish to discuss here. What I do want to share, however, is that there is something painfully beautiful about recalling Isaac’s memory each year at this time.

When we experience a loss of any kind, there is a period of sadness. Obviously it’s on a completely different scale, but even when we get to the end of autumn and the trees are bare, our mood changes. We know that for the next few months we will have lost something significant in the beauty of nature. And then comes the end of winter with the promise of renewal. Life moves forward. Trees grow new leaves; flowers bud and blossom anew…none exactly as the year before, and none with any hint of how things will develop in the year ahead…but there is this sense of renewal nonetheless. And so on Tu B’Shevat we have a seder. We celebrate the promise of nature by tasting sweet fruits and nuts, saying blessings over the beauty and wonder of nature.

In our home, Tu B’Shevat will be different. This year it marks one year since we buried a beautiful young man. It has been a difficult year. And yet, as our family has taken new shape, it has been a very wonderful year. This year we will be sad as we remember Isaac, but we will be filled with hope and wonder at the power of the universe to propel us forward, as we look ahead to days of celebration, of love, and of new stages in life. And that is the very miracle that makes life so wondrous.

I would suggest to us all that this year we make something special of Tu B’Shevat. Let us find that for which to be grateful in our lives. Let us look ahead with hope to the warm, beautiful days of spring. Let us remember that which has transpired since the last New Year of the Trees, and let us be filled with wonder and excitement for that which is yet to come. 

Shifra and Pua: Heroines of the Exodus

Posted on January 14, 2020

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?” 

“The Jews.” 

“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.