Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

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.


Parashat Breishit: The Light We Cannot See

Posted on October 14, 2020

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

The Torah opens with a paradox: on the first day, G-d creates light. But the sun is not formed until the fourth day! The light of the first day, therefore, was not our light.

So what was this special illumination that existed before the sun? This primordial light is called “Or HaGanuz, the Hidden Light” (“Ganuz” is connected to “Geniza,” the box where we place pages with G-d’s name to be hidden away in the ground).

I want to share two interpretations before my own.   

  1. The Talmud says this unique light was of an intense spiritual nature and the wicked were not deserving of enjoying it. So G-d separated it and set it aside for the righteous in the World to Come.
  1. Our Etz Hayim Humash says “Light, G-d’s first creation, becomes a symbol of G-d’s presence, in the fire of the burning bush and the revelation at Sinai, in the perpetual light (Ner Tamid), and the Menorah of the Tabernacle. For some theologians, light functions as a symbol for G-d because light itself is not visible but makes everything else visible. ‘By Your light do we see light’” (Ps. 36:10). 

I understand this original light to be order that turns back chaos. In the verse immediately preceding G-d’s declaration, “let there be light,” we read, “the earth was filled with chaos, with darkness over the surface of the deep.” In response to that void and tumult, G-d created light. For me, this light must be a response to that chaos, its opposite. And what is the inverse of chaos? Order. In fact, the rest of creation involves a progression of G-d creating order in the universe on increasingly higher levels. So light – which represents G-d’s presence – moves things from disorder and disarray to order and harmony.

G-d set in motion the sequence of creation but left people to finish it. Not just Adam and Eve but their children too – us.  I believe that when we see chaos, disarray, and spiritual darkness in our world, we are called upon to be G-dly and move things to a place of order. Sadly, there remains much darkness and chaos in our world today. As we begin the year of 5781, let us not be daunted by the challenge. Instead, let us be inspired by the Torah’s vision of order and light winning the day.

May We Be Our Prayer

Posted on June 4, 2020

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

There is a beautiful phrase at the end of the Ma Tovu prayer we recite each morning when we enter the Sanctuary (which we will hopefully be able to recite again, soon!) — “Va’ani Tefilati – Let me be my prayer…” In difficult times such as these, there aren’t words to express the deep emotions we are all experiencing. There is anger, sadness, confusion, fear…and yet we still march, gather, and pray, so there also exists hope.

Hope is core to the Jewish experience. No matter what our people have lived and died through, we have always carried hope. It is the very name of the national anthem of our homeland. Prayer, then, is a gateway to experiencing hope. It allows us to draw strength from the words of those who came before us, and to make those words our own. It opens and minds and hearts to the possibility that we can affect change, and that we have a responsibility to do so. L’taken Olam B’malchut Shadai, the prayer teaches us – “To repair the world in the Kingdom of God.”

This week, in Parashat Naso, God gives humankind a new charge and a new possibility: to bless each other. Until now, it was God who did the blessing and the cursing. This is infinitely powerful. We have the ability to bless each other in a very real way, using God’s words.

May Adonai bless you and keep you.

May Adonai show you favor and be gracious to you.

May Adonai show you kindness and grant you peace.

What if we read this differently. What if we read these words as our charge? What if we allow them to guide the way we treat one another, the way we interact with one another?

Tonight we will gather with the clergy and communities of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook and Pastor Mark Smith of Spates Temple in Elgin. Join us. Show your friends and your children that you care. Make a statement with us. Pray with us. Let us each be our own prayer, and with these prayers, may we bless and strengthen each other.

See you in shul.

Jerusalem – A Dream Come True

Posted on May 21, 2020

by Hazzan Ben Tisser

When we’re children, we’re taught to follow our dreams. We think of all the wonderful things that we wish to accomplish, to do, to taste, to experience…some of these things are realistic, while others are fantastical concoctions of a youthful imagination. While some of our childhood dreams come true, we learn as we grow up that much of the time it simply isn’t the case.

When I was young, I learned the famous quote from the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl: “If you will it, it is not a dream.” We learned it as a song (you can learn it, too, by clicking here). It became something of a lesson for us – if such a big dream as having a Jewish homeland could come true, than anything is possible.

Another dream realized almost 20 years after the founding of the State was that of a unified Jerusalem; one in which Jews could freely access their most sacred sites. In June 1967, the old city was captured by brave paratroopers during the Six Day War, and for the first time in 2,000 years a city was reunited and ruled by her beloved people. THAT was a dream come true (or, to quote Fiddler on the Roof, “That was a miracle, too!”). If this isn’t something to celebrate, I’m not sure what is!

Tonight begins a holiday on the modern Jewish/Israeli calendar known as Yom Yerushalayim – the anniversary of the day the city was reunited in 1967. There are so many ways to celebrate, but perhaps none better than with a plate of Jerusalem Mixed Grill (get yours from Mizrahi!), and singing songs of Jerusalem.

I am honored to have produced a concert in partnership with the Cantors Assembly and American Friends of Magen David Adom, to both celebrate the holiday and raise funds to support the vital work of MDA on the front lines in Israel. The concert will stream at 7pm Central this evening, both on Beth El’s Facebook Page, and at www.afmda.org.

Let this Yom Yerushalayim be a reminder to us. Let us understand the great privilege it is to have a thriving and growing Jerusalem as the Jewish capital; and at the same time let us never stop dreaming of what can be, for there is so much farther we can go.

We dream of being together again, and I pray we will, soon, in good health. Today let’s re-commit to the ideal, “L’shanah Haba’ah Birushalayim” –  next year, in health and in safety, in our spiritual center and the capital of our homeland, Jerusalem!

Yom Yerushalayim Sameach!

The Earth’s Shabbat

Posted on May 13, 2020

by Hazzan Barnett

As you read this on Thursday, we are concluding the fifth week of the Omer. (It hardly seems possible that Pesach, is far back in the rear view mirror. That the beginning of the virtual lockdown and beginnings of virtual—everything even further back then that…to just after Purim.)

The mitzvah of counting the 49 days (seven weeks), known as Sefirat Ha’Omer, can be viewed as an invitation from the Torah, inviting us, as Jewish mystical practice suggests, on a journey into our relationship with God, each other, and the world around us.

Each new week bids us to explore one of seven themes, from the basic decency of lovingkindness (Chesed) framing week one, to the final week (seven), with its theme of Malchut—nobility and leadership. Our Shabbat Siddur Lev Shalem (p. 63) offers a beautiful explanation to help you count the seven weeks of the omer within this framework.

This week’s framing concept is Hod—glory, splendor.  

At first blush, there is little glorious about the world these days: we’re stuck at home, the weather has been mostly awful, so even a walk outside is less than inviting. Yet… Here we are mid-May. In my garden, the flowers are beginning to come up, the trees are beginning to blossom, the world is greening. A step outside my house on a blustery day brings the awesome power of wind (ruach) and water to my ears as the waves crash onto the rocks just to the east. I can’t help but stop and simply listen (even at the risk of getting drenched by the rain!). A deer makes its way to my yard, and the (okay, they can be annoying) woodpeckers clack away just beyond the garden. The earth goes on, as it always has and always will, independent of our intervention, perhaps better for the lack of traffic and pollution in our current environment. Its own beauty and splendor on display—on its own clock, counting the days and season.

Thinking for a moment, “How glorious is this day!” is not such a hard thing to say.

In this context, I am drawn to a short section in the first part of this week’s double Torah portion Behar-Behukotai, which has always reached deep into my environmental soul. 

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the

field. But in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:3-4

The earth (and all it contains) is there for us to use—to a point. Not to exploit or despoil, but (as we are told in one of the very early verses of Genesis) “to till and to tend.” Yes, by all means, use the land for what it provides, but we must be mindful that the earth, too, needs its rest—it’s Shabbat—for it to continue, and in this effort, we are God’s partners.

There is a Chassidic tale of two men were fighting over a piece of land, each claiming ownership and offered proof, to boot. They asked their rabbi, who wisely said, “Since I cannot

decide to whom this land belongs, let us ask the land.” After putting his ear to the ground for a moment, he said, “I am sorry to say that the land insists it belongs to neither of you – but that you belong to it!”

As it says, going back to the text of this week’s Torah portion, “The land is Mine: for you are strangers and residents with Me.”

Viewing our relationship to earth in this way, that the earth is God’s—not ours—teaches us humility and grants us a new appreciation of the earth’s glory—hod—and God’s.

We Are All Leaders

Posted on May 7, 2020

by Hazzan Ben Tisser

Parashat Emor deals with many issues related specifically to the Kohanim, the subset of the Levites charged with running the ritual affairs of the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle), and ultimately the Beit HaMikdash(Holy Temple). Included in the opening are some well-known edicts, such as Kohanim not being allowed to come into close contact with a corpse except those of close relatives (hence why oftentimes a Kohen will stand just outside the cemetery or in the road at a funeral), and that Kohanim should marry a Bat Kohen (the daughter of another Kohen; and as well they may only marry a woman who has never been married).

But in the opening of our parashah there is a short section that is troubling in today’s understanding of the world. Leviticus 21:16-21 reads as follows:

16 The Lord spoke further to Moses: 17 Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. 18 No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; 19 no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; 20 or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. 21 No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God.

In short, just as no animal with a blemish may be offered as a sacrifice, God specifically disqualifies any man of the Kohanic line with any sort of disfiguration or other physical blemish from serving God in the highest capacity. While it’s clear that at that time and in that place there were reasons for this, it is hard for us to come to terms with this.

Thankfully, we live in a country, at a time, and in a society when physical differences do not automatically disqualify one from serving in a leadership capacity. We strive for the ideal of appreciating leaders for their values, their ideals and their ideas, and their actions. But this is just an ideal, and we certainly have a ways to go. We have not yet seen enough leaders in the highest positions representing the breadth and beauty of American society.

On a smaller level, we at Beth El must celebrate the work we do towards inclusion. Rabbi Schwab has, for several years, worked at the forefront of inclusion among the Jewish community in Chicago and in our beloved Congregation. He has worked with a talented and dedicated group of lay leaders to make sure that our physical spaces are accessible to all, that our educational programs are able to meet the needs of as many types of learners as possible, that children with different needs are able to celebrate becoming B’nai Mitzvah on our bimah, and that members of the LGBTQIA+ community feel embraced in the sacred halls of our synagogue.

As difficult as the Torah passage is, it doesn’t point out any one person. It speaks about a particular role at a particular time, and with a particular understanding of the world and of connection to God. And while this may guide a particular set of responsibilities, I would suggest that in broader terms we are all leaders. We allhave the capacity and the obligation to lead. And we all have the ability to do this at the highest levels of our own community. I marvel as I watch the work of friends, congregants, and colleagues during this period of lockdown. The creativity, innovation, artistry, and leadership displayed is just incredible!

There are always boundaries and barriers present – sometimes self-imposed, and sometimes external. But once we work through them–or, one the blemish heals–there is nothing stopping each and every one of us from being leaders. I am very proud to be a leader in a community of leaders, and I look forward to the work we will continue to do together, through this period and beyond.

The Mensch Commandments

Posted on April 29, 2020

by Hazzan Barnett

Among all the obscurities of ritual and Jewish law in the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), there can be found within it an amazingly robust enumeration of laws for living a just life—a life of menschlikite. But these are not “niceties.” They are commandments from G-d, admonitions about our behavior towards each other.

The Torah portion in which this list appears is Kedoshim, the second half of this week’s double parasha, which begins with the portion Acharei-Mot.

I have always been struck by this series of commandments, aimed not (only) at the priests (to whom much of the Book of Vayikra is aimed), but the whole of the people Israel. Among the commandments:

  • Don’t pick your vineyard bare, or gather the its fallen fruit; you must leave them for the poor and the stranger
  • Do not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.
  • You shall not defraud people.
  • You shall not commit robbery.
  • Do not withhold the wages of your workers.
  • Do not shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.
  • You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.
  • Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.
  • You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.

Although most of these are straightforward, two of them: do not insult the deaf/put a stumbling block are less on the nose. Why single out the deaf, the blind specifically?

Blindness and deafness are not only physical conditions. Insulting someone metaphorically deaf—speaking ill of those unable to defend themselves can create unspeakable horror for the victim.

As for blindness, one who lacks complete information, being unaware, unsuspecting, ignorant of the facts—these are types of metaphorical blindness. The commandment prohibits us from taking advantage of them or tempting them to do wrong.

This one in particular resonates with me in these days of pandemic. I am struck by how many “snake oil” salesmen advertise, make calls to unsuspecting people hoping to defraud people—often the most vulnerable amongst us as they are at their most vulnerable and afraid. Cures that are nothing but a way to make a fast buck. Others willing for their own purposes to help you “invest” your stimulus check. Or pretend to be officials of the government to steal your personal information.

The Talmud speaks of the principle of lifnei iver (putting a stumbling block “before the blind”) as prohibiting us from giving bad advice to another person.

One should not advise another party that it is in his interest to sell (for example) his field in order to buy a donkey, when his true intention is to buy the field for himself. Advice given for an ulterior motive. (Midrash Sifra, Leviticus 19:14).

But there’s also the “bad advice” much more dangerous being pedaled these days for who knows what reason—miracle cures that may or may not have merit in the long run, but it’s much too soon to know—and to understand potential life-threatening dangers they may pose.

The entire list concludes with one of the most well-known quotes in the Bible: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha.”

It is the perfect summary not only for this part of Leviticus, but the entire Torah. As Hillel famously said while explaining the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”