Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Confronting the Past to Shape the Future

Posted on December 23, 2020

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

Confrontation is, perhaps, one of the most difficult things that we, as humans, have to do. I, for one, avoid confrontation unless absolutely necessary. It makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps even more challenging than confronting another person is confronting ourselves and our pasts. 

Over the past several weeks Robyn and I have enjoyed watching The Crown on Netflix in the evenings. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a fascinating show, loosely based on historical events, about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II – her personal story, family drama, and national politics. One of the most interesting parts of the show thus far has been learning about Prince Philip. He had such a unique and sad childhood – a mother taken to an asylum, fleeing his home country of Greece, much of his family dying in a plane crash – and until a good number of episodes into this show, one might never know. The creators of the show, however, attempt to show us the human side of this monarchical family. There are flashbacks, moments of pause and reflection. But it isn’t until the Queen brings the Prince’s mother to live in Buckingham Palace during a period of unrest in Greece in the 1960s that Philip is truly forced to confront his past. It is challenging for him, but ultimately very healing. He is able to repair his strained relationship with his mother, finally realizing just who she is. After these events, and after the eventual passing of his mother, we begin to see a change in him. 

This week, in Parashat Vayiggash, we read of a similar confrontation. We have just read about Jacob’s sons descending to Egypt during a very difficult famine in Canaan, seeking food and sustenance. Joseph recognizes them but does not reveal himself, sending them home with supplies and telling them not to return without their youngest brother, Benjamin. They did so, and then as Joseph sent them home, his goblet was placed in Benjamin’s sack so that, when found, Benjamin would stay with him in Egypt. In this week’s episode, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in a rather dramatic scene. Judah makes a plea to Joseph that Benjamin should only return home to their father, after which Joseph cries out to all present (with exception of his brothers) to leave the room, so that he may ultimately tell them who he is. 

Joseph was, by this time, among the highest people in all of Egypt. He could have done anything he wanted at this point. But rather than choose the path of anger and reproach, he chooses the path of direct confrontation and ultimately of peace. He tells his brothers that what they did so many years earlier, selling him into slavery and faking his death to their father, was all part of God’s plan so that he may ultimately save them. In confronting the past directly with those who hurt him, he was able to create a great future for his family. This takes great strength of character, and immense faith in God. 

Each of us has a past. Each of us carries with us uncomfortable moments and experiences. The challenge lies in how we deal with them. Do we simply accept that they are part of our stories and schlep them along with us? Or, do we confront these issues or people directly, hopefully creating deeper connections and freeing ourselves from the bondage of hard feelings and discontentment? I think there is a great lesson to be learned from the Torah. As Jews, we are taught that carrying our past with us is vital. We cannot simply live in the present; we are a people of memory. We should learn from our ancestor Joseph, however, that the key to holding on to our past is having the strength to use those experiences, coupled with deep and abiding faith, to shape a meaningful and bright future. 

Revisiting a Classic Talmudic Debate

Posted on December 16, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

One of my favorite discussions to have with students at this time of year is the rehashing of the Hillel-Shammai debate on how to light the Chanukiah (or as you might call it, Chanukah menorah). If you are unfamiliar with this grand argument between these two sages of the Talmud, a quick summary: 

First, Rabbis Hillel and Shammai argued about a great many things (Hillel won most of the time!). When debating the proper way to light the Chanukiah, Shammai believed you begin with a full set of eight candles, removing a candle each night until there is only one remaining, which more accurately simulates the diminishing light of the miraculous cruse of oil in the Temple. Hillel believed that one should never diminish the light, and so we start with a single candle and build up to the eighth night with a full, glowing, brilliant chanukiah. (Like I said, Hillel usually won these Talmudic arguments, and so we follow Beit Hillel to this very day). 

But I often wonder whether Shammai might have actually had the correct idea, but not necessarily for the reasons we think. Indeed, the cruse of oil lasted for eight days, when there was only enough for one day (or so goes the story), and the flame would have dimmed over the miraculous, but lengthy, time. So, the Shammai method seems to work for historical authenticity. But there’s more. 

As we approach the eighth night of Chanukah this evening, our Chanukiot are blazing, spreading light and warmth throughout the family, throughout the home. But then tomorrow comes. Nothing. Gone like a flash are the brilliant, dancing candle flames atop colorful candles or tiny bowls of oil and gleaming, festive chanukiot. The brilliance of light one night, brighter than on all the other nights, and then suddenly, we are plunged into darkness. And this, during the moonless, dark night of the darkest time of the year. 

So, back to Shammai. In his method, as the eight candles become seven, the six, then five, etc. we adjust to the dark a little at a time, slowly by the day, until there is only the light of the last candle, dimmed like the fading cruse of oil in the Temple, and by now we are accustomed to the dark; it’s neither scary nor strange. Instead it’s natural. A progression. 

Additionally, and perhaps more interesting, what if as the light diminishes flame by flame, it really doesn’t disappear at all, but becomes internalized within us. We take in the brightness of eight candles on the first night, and then the seven in the chanukiah with the eighth not really gone, but taken in, creating a spark of joy, of light, from within. By the end of Chanukah, the light isn’t gone at all, but reflected in the warmth of memory, the glow of a smile, the flame of Chanukah “ruach” (spirit) and the lingering aroma of simmering, shimmering latkes. 

Where did the light go? It’s not gone, but in us all, our children, grandchildren, where it remains to brighten these darkest days and into the year ahead. 

Wishing you a Chag Urim Sameach (A joyous festival of lights) from our family to yours.

Parashat Vayeshev: Joseph and Judah Grow Up

Posted on December 9, 2020

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

“You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.” So said the author Germaine Greer. The Torah’s response might be: grown-ups are never finished growing up.

Parashat Vayeshev kicks off the famous story of Joseph and his brothers. It begins with their father Jacob letting everyone know Joseph is his favorite; a multicolored coat rubs in this fact. Joseph does not help his own case, tattling on his brothers and sharing dreams that speak of his superiority. All these enrage his brothers, who dispose of him by selling him off to an Egypt-bound caravan. 

One lens through which to read the story is that of personal growth and maturity. First, let’s give credit to Joseph for growing up into a respectable man. Remember that the opening scenes speak of him at age 17. Are we ourselves proud of everything we were at 17, still in high school? After he is sent down to Egypt, he grows up. He shows the wisdom of running Potifar’s house and operations. He has the discipline to not give in to Potifar’s wife. He has the kindness to help out two fellow prisoners. He gives credit to G-d rather than himself. He begins speaking of G-d for the first time. People respond to upheaval in very different ways, and to his credit Joseph matures almost overnight. This should have been a song in the musical! 

Second, let’s applaud his brother Judah. Immature adult Judah is the one who suggests selling Joseph down to Egypt in the first place. He does not permit his third son to marry Tamar, effectively prohibiting her from marrying anyone else in the process. But something important occurs when he admits to his later actions with Tamar –  he grows up. In the story’s decisive moment, it looks like younger brother Benjamin will remain in jail in Egypt while everyone else returns to Canaan. But one brother refuses to turn his back, insists that he remain in Benjamin’s place, challenges the second-most important authority in Egypt by basically bellowing “Let my brother go!” It’s Judah. The story of Joseph is the story of Judah too, whom Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls Judaism’s first true repentant. 

In this story are a few lessons for us: maturity can happen all at once; emotional growth continues as adults; personal crises can lead to personal growth. As we read the Joseph story again this year, let’s look carefully at character development –  and be inspired to spur our own.




Sacred Darkness

Posted on December 2, 2020

It is hard not to notice that the days are getting shorter and that the balance is shifting toward darkness in its tug of war with light each passing week.  For some of us, this can be a challenging phenomenon – we much prefer the light to the darkness.  

In fact, in the history of world literature and culture, light is often the symbol of positivity, goodness and holiness, while darkness represents negativity, evil and desecration.  What is more, perhaps for some, the encroaching darkness mirrors our own inner feelings of the challenge of the pandemic, or personal crisis we are experiencing in our lives.  These feelings have the potential to be overwhelming and leave us with a feeling of hopelessness.

Judaism, though, has a different view and can offer us a context of meaning and hope for both the actual darkness of the season and the metaphoric darkness of personal challenge.   Beginning with none other than creation itself, the Torah indicates that darkness too is sacred.  In fact, it is out of darkness that the world is born.  “There was evening and there was morning – the first day” (Gen 1:5).  The darkness of the evening precedes the light of the morning and both constitute the elemental foundations of creation.  Light only has meaning due to the existence of darkness and both come from God.  

As writer Barbara Mahany points out in poetic fashion, “Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.”  In other words, from darkness can come growth, unseen blessing or unrealized potential.  Darkness is the prelude to light.  And without it, we can’t appreciate the light. As the Kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah says, “the existence of darkness underscores light, emphasizes the yearning for it.”

Our tradition honors this notion with the holiday of Hanukkah, which is called the festival of lights, because we kindle lights each night. However, powerfully, we celebrate it at the very darkest time of the year.  The darkness forces us to appreciate the beauty of light and inspires us to find a deeper light within ourselves that we are charged with creating – the natural cycle of the world will not simply provide it like in the summer.  As the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote,  [During this season] Make the light be from you. Deep within you.”  

Therefore, the challenge of this season is to seize the opportunity in the darkness of winter to reclaim the days and bring a deeper light of blessing, appreciation and compassion into the world and into our lives.  We are guided to let the darkness inspire us to resilience, optimism and anticipation.  Abraham Joshua Heschel talks about Shabbat as erecting a cathedral of time.  As he wrote,  “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.”   Through the Jewish tradition, darkness can indeed inspire us to erect a cathedral of light just when we need it most.  As well as to set us up to enter the season of external light with our internal flame fully stoked.  In this way, we honor the sacredness of darkness and its holy relationship to the light we all seek.   


Giving Thanks in the time of Pandemic

Posted on November 26, 2020

I have a confession to make. It might surprise many of you, but I take a calculated risk in sharing: I love the winter holiday season. Everything about it. The decorations, the music, the magic that seems to be in the air for the six weeks or so which begin just prior to Thanksgiving and end just after New Years Day. I’ve always loved it. As a child in Los Angeles, my dad would drive us down Wilshire Boulevard to see downtown Beverly Hills all decked out, the sleds and snowflakes ironically hanging above the street, suspended on either side from the lamp posts, all while it might still be 80 degrees outside…window displays revealed along Rodeo Drive…beautiful holiday music playing from the shops and from speakers set up along the roads. At night after leaving my grandmother’s home from a weekend visit, we would often take the long way home, winding through the canyon roads of the Santa Monica Mountains, enjoying the elaborate light displays of the homes we passed.

As an adult, I am no less enamored with it all. When I was in Seminary, I used to love walking down 5th Avenue and around Herald Square in Manhattan, enjoying the window displays, music, and the smell of roasting nuts. It seemed like the entire world was doing the same thing, and that everything was well with the world, if only for a brief moment, because everyone enjoying the beauty of the season was in harmony, enjoying something beautiful together, yet distinctly separate from each other.

This year is very different. There will be no parade route passing by Central Park; instead, a pared-down show in front of Macy’s. There won’t be the same lights and music on main boulevards around the world, and there certainly won’t be the throngs of people enjoying them. Holiday tables will be smaller, traditions will be missed. But as Jews, we know how to accept this and how to make do.

We have been reminded these past months of our obligation to press on even in the most challenging of times. We have been reminded that just as the Rabbis of old found new ways to sustain community after the loss of the Temple, so too do we need to reimagine our own communities. We have done that. Now, we have to reimagine family connections and traditions. As insurmountable as it seemed to reimagine a Synagogue community, I think it’s even harder to do this on a family level.

Some of us will be alone tonight — perhaps because we live far from family, or perhaps because it’s too unsafe to be with our loved ones who live in the area. Some of us will be with a spouse or partner, perhaps with our children. Very few, if any, of us will be with our entire close circles as we are so accustomed. Some of us have sustained loss this year, and that means that this Thanksgiving dinner, which is already challenging, will have another layer of sadness…another “first” without our loved one.

I want to call our attention to a mandate from the Babylonian Talmud (Brachot 31a, 34b) which talks about prayer spaces. We are taught that “A person should always pray in a [space] which has windows…” This is why virtually every Sanctuary in the world has a window, a skylight, or some other way of bringing in outside light. This concept of the window in the sanctuary is so important. It reminds us that even while we are in our space, praying and studying, we are still connected to the outside world. We must work and pray and study for its welfare. We must realize that although we are a Holy or Chosen People, we are still so much a part of the larger tapestry of humanity…that no matter how particular our prayers might be, they have a universal impact.

This idea stretches beyond the Synagogue. It also belongs in our homes. We are taught that every Jewish home is a Mikdash Me’at, a small Temple, and that each of our tables is the Mizbe’ach, the altar. Connecting this with the idea above gives us important perspective. The idea of giving thanks is core to Judaism. Gratitude is one of our values which truly does connect us to everyone and everything around us. We have blessings of gratitude for everything – our bodies, seeing beauty in nature, surviving crisis, and celebrating life’s important moments – and thus there really is no more Jewish a holiday than Thanksgiving.

As we sit for dinner tonight, wherever we are and whoever we are with, I suggest that we take a few extra moments for gratitude. Look out the window. See our neighbors sitting just as we. Remember that we are part of something greater. Perhaps commit to a gift of tzedakah to make someone else’s life just a little bit better during this difficult time. We are part of something much larger than our family and our Synagogue community. Tonight, we are truly all in this together. It will not be the same, but it will be beautiful, and we can surely look forward to next Thanksgiving with great hope.

Robyn, Talia, and Ethan join me in wishing each of you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. Even during these trying times, there is truly so much for which to be thankful.

Thanksgiving 2020: In Gratitude for Knowledge and Understanding

Posted on November 18, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

We Jews, are, by tradition, a thankful group. It doesn’t take a specially planned day to offer thanks for the blessings in our lives. Thanksgiving is part of the Jewish infrastructure.

When we sit down to a meal, we thank G-d who “brings forth the bread from the earth.” Eat a peach or an orange, we than G-d for the fruit of the trees. After we dine, we offer Birkat Hamazon, based on the commandment to eat, be satisfied and bless G-d for the food we are given. (Or as my kids used to put it, “rubba-dub-dub, thanks for the grub!”)

Thanksgiving? We’re pros.

But our upcoming American holiday of Thanksgiving gives us a special opportunity to offer thanks for what we have. Especially when, like it has been for much of 2020, difficult to count our blessings as we look forward to Zoom gatherings rather than dining room tables brimming with Turkey and “the trimmins’” and full houses of family and friends.

Lately, especially during morning services, I’ve been finding myself drawn deeply into the Amidah, stopping to immerse myself in one or another in its nineteen brachot, each of them acknowledging the role of G-d in our daily lives, our hopes and aspirations. Sometimes it’s the blessing that asks for healing as I think of those affected by COVID or the deep divisions that mark our country these days. Sometimes it’s the brachah that thanks G-d for the small, sometimes barely perceptible miracles that mark our days and begins with “Modim anachnu Lach,” literally, “Thank You.”

During the last two weeks, we’ve learned that not one, but at least two, COVID vaccines are in the final stages of development, and their availability is, if not “right around the corner” at least now visible in the not-too-distant future. My thoughts dwelled this morning upon the Amidah blessing that thanks G-d for the gifts of intelligence, innovation, creativity—and pray for the wisdom and understanding with which to employ them:

“You graciously endow mortals with intelligence, teaching us wisdom and understanding. Grant us knowledge discernment and wisdom. Praised are You Hashem, who graciously grants us intelligence.” 

This Thanksgiving, during these times, these Divine gifts deserve special acknowledgement: gratitude for the scientists inspired by the spark of genius, driven by curiosity and the pursuit of innovation and understanding of this novel virus to bring us a light at the end of this long tunnel so that once again we might gather together as extended families and community safely and in health.

With gratitude for the Beth El Community,

Happy Thanksgiving!

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Z’L – A Tribute

Posted on November 11, 2020

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

Very sadly, this week Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks passed away. However, his voice will never be muted, not with his copious writings and global audience.

I read his weekly Parsha essays for years, the contents of which now form several of his 25 books. So many times I finished reading them with the word “Wow” on my lips. How could he read the same words of Torah I had – words I had read many times –  and discover such greater depths? Week after week I felt this way. One of his greatest strengths as a teacher was to educate every audience without watering anything down. He really expected the reader to follow complex ideas, but he used the right language so everyone could follow along. Fortunately, his books are widely available, and his essays can be found at rabbisacks.org. 

I was lucky to hear him speak in person three times in New York City. These Torah lectures were tremendously exciting, and he had the whole room of one thousand people listening on every word for the whole hour. As skilled a writer as he was, he might have been an even better public speaker. Many interviews and lectures are still available at rabbisacks.org.

Seven years ago, Rabbi Sacks wrote about Parashat Tetzaveh, and he described the unique nature of Judaism’s dual modes of religious leadership: the priest and the prophet. I quote his words that I have kept in mind ever since, which guide me in how I approach writing sermons: “The priest speaks the word of G-d for all time, the prophet, the word of G-d for this time.” I believe that sermons – and really Jewish education – should be both timeless and timely. Rabbi Sacks was both for me. 

Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory be a blessing.

The Blessing of Democracy

Posted on November 5, 2020

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

As Jews we should be especially grateful to live in the United States of America, a country that is built on principles like democratic elections and religious freedom. On Tuesday we were all given the great privilege to vote in our election process, making our voice heard in deciding who will represent us in our government.  It gave me great pride to participate this year, as it has for every election since I was 18. 

The voting process resonates with us as Jews since it reinforces the notion that all of us are made in the image of God, and therefore each person is sacred, each person’s opinion matters.  As you know, due to the closeness of the vote and the preponderance of early and absentee ballots as a result of the pandemic, the ability to declare the winner in a number of elections has taken longer than usual. While frustrating and worrying to many, when election officials take the time to verify and count every ballot, as they have a responsibility to do, that’s a sign that our democracy is working. So this delay should actually reassure us that the process is being taken seriously. 

As the Talmud tells us about the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah, “The candles should burn until the feet of all those who attend the market leave” (Shabbat 21b).  Just as everyone should be given an opportunity to participate in lighting the candles, so too should everyone who cast a valid ballot be given the opportunity to have that vote count.  Legal disputes are normal in every election, and we must have faith in the strong processes in place to work all of these issues out fairly. Democracies are built on laws and procedures that both ensure our rights and that elections are handled fairly.  We should maintain our confidence that this will be the case in this election as well.  Whoever wins a given election, we should stand by one of the hallmarks of our great democracy: that there be a peaceful transfer of power, if that is what the voting calls for, and a reaffirmation of the legitimate right to govern, if an incumbent prevails.  

Through it all we should pray as we do each Shabbat: “Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country – for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst, Amen.”      

Come Together Right Now…

Posted on October 29, 2020

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

Last week we read perhaps one of the most widely recognized stories in the Torah – the story of Noah’s Ark. Once again (for the third recorded time) humanity goes awry. This time things got so bad that rather than punishing individuals, God decides to eradicate the whole of humanity, save one man, his family, and a pair of each type of creature on earth. Following the flood, humanity gets to start over. Immediately following this narrative, we read the story of Migdal Bavel–the Tower of Babel. As children we are all taught the story of people coming together to build a tower so tall it would reach Heaven. In these nine verses of Torah, we learn an invaluable lesson. When we come together for the wrong purposes, nothing good is served. From this we can understand that when humanity comes together for a positive purpose, great things are possible. The idea of Kavannah–intention–comes into play, and adds a new dimension to human possibility. 

Following the Babel story we immediately read through a list of generations from Noah to Avram with no narrative of note. We are introduced to Avram, the son of Terach, and then God speaks to Avram saying, “Go forth [for you]…” It might seem strange, then, that the Babel narrative is inserted in this place, almost interrupting the narrative flow of the Torah from generation to generation, from one lead character to the next. But it has a very important place. Before Babel, humanity was one. And with that unity came great power, which ultimately was used for less than ideal purposes. The punishment for building the Tower was not ultimate destruction of humanity, for God promised never to do that again; the punishment was ultimately the separation of humankind into nations – each with its distinct language, culture, etc. This needed to happen before the generation of Avram, so that by the time Avram came to be there was a long history of nationality. Indeed there were 10 generations from Noah to Avram. Only once this transition to a world of nations occurred could God single out Avram for greatness.

I think there’s a powerful lesson here. We need to combine the power of coming together in numbers, which offers us endless potential as a world of people created in God’s image, with the humility and leadership shown by Avram. We need to define our individual Kavannah in order to create the most positive group outcome possible. Particularly in these unusual times it has often been very heartening to see people coming together to support one another in so many ways. I pray that, for however long this pandemic may last, and well beyond the end of it, we as individuals and as society are able to remember these lessons; to be mindful of our intentions; and to continue to come together (even if physically distanced) for the highest of purposes.

The Pause Between the Notes

Posted on October 21, 2020

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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