Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Acharei Mot: What Comes Next? 

Posted on April 30, 2019

Acharei Mot: What Comes Next? 

This week in the Torah we continue reading Acharei Mot, which is the partner parasha with Kedoshim. On its own, the title means “After the Death” and its partner “Holies” or perhaps “Holy Things/People”.  But when combined we may consider translating the combined parshiyot as “After the Death of the Holy People.”

The parasha begins with the events following the death of the sons of Aaron, the Kohen Gadol. Aaron is instructed with the rites and rituals necessary to maintain a pure sanctuary for God, which becomes particularly important after his sons, Nadav and Avihu, die by fire after offering a “strange fire”, or an unauthorized sacrifice, before God. These rituals provide opportunity for the High Priest to make expiation – first on behalf of himself and his family, then on behalf of the Kohanim (Priests), and ultimately on behalf of the whole House of Israel. 

The Torah then continues to teach about the rules of appropriate sexual relations and the definition of family, and ultimately we land at chapter 19 of Leviticus – the Holiness Code, which is the beginning of parashat Kedoshim. In this section we are instructed to be holy, for God is holy, and are given the ways in which we are to fulfill this great task. Pieces of the Code refer back to the 10 commandments, and others include new important dimensions to living a sanctified life: not placing a stumbling block before the blind; judging fairly without deference to the rich or poor; and perhaps most importantly, not standing idly by the blood of our neighbors. 

This past weekend we saw yet another example of the lowest levels we as humans can reach when a gunman entered a Synagogue outside of San Diego, opening fire in a packed sanctuary as a community gathered to celebrate the Festival of Freedom. This is not the first, second, or even third time such a tragedy has occurred in a house of worship in the last six months. You have received the messages from our synagogue community and, I am sure, many local and national Jewish organizations, that we stand by Chabad of Poway, and that we are offering assistance to them even as we work diligently to maintain our own level of security. 

So the question becomes what are we to do now? What do we do Acharei Mot Kedoshim, after the death of sacred souls? What do we do after someone brought “strange fire” into a sanctuary? It seems to me that this is one of those times when the Torah becomes so relevant to our lives…so let me suggest that we look to it for the answer. 

In the immediate, we must first support a community struck by shock and fear. After all, kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another. But what do we do beyond the letters of support and the financial assistance to the community, the victims and their families? We must speak up. We must not stand idly by. We must write our politicians and representatives, giving the strong message that guns in the wrong hands are deadly and that this must stop. We must demand that perpetrators of such heinous crimes are held responsible to the full extent of the law. We must demand that our elected leaders act and legislate to the highest moral standard. And, perhaps we should refer them to Leviticus 16 where they will learn about how to make good and maintain a safe, sacred space where we can thrive and where God’s rule may exist, as well as Leviticus 19 where they may be reminded of the human obligation to act in a Godly manner, without exception. 

Aleinul’takein olam b’malchut Shadai – “It’s up to us…to repair the world in the Kingdom of God.” Let us resolve to do our part to ensure that the day will soon come when our children and our grandchildren can go to shul and not worry…when they can go to school and know that they will come home to their parents at the end of the day…and when we can turn on the morning news and not hear about such tragedies. Let us not stand idly by, and lead the world by example. 

Oseh shalom bim’romav, Hu ya’aseh shalom, aleinu v’al kol Yisrael v’al kol yosh’vei teivel…May the One who creates peace in the heavens bring peace to us, to all of Israel, and to all of humanity. Amen.

The Omer: Counting Down by Counting Up

Posted on April 23, 2019

The Omer: Counting Down by Counting Up
Rabbi Alex Freedman

Typically, when we’re really excited for a moment to arrive, we count down. Like on New Years Eve: “10, 9, 8…” Because we can’t wait for the new year. Or the days before a vacation: “ 10, 9, 8…” Equally as typical, when we want a moment to last, we count up. On vacation, we’ll think of it as “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, etc.” 

So why does it seem like we have the Omer count backward? 

The seven weeks between the second night of Passover and Shavuot are counted night by night. The end point is the anniversary of receiving the Torah, surely an exciting moment. Intuitively we should count down the days, but instead the Omer counts up: “Today is the first day, second day, etc.” Why? 

When we count down to something, we communicate that the time in between doesn’t matter. All that’s important is getting to the finish line. The last few minutes of a given year are like that. For kids (and teachers!) the last few days of school are like that too. Counting down implies, “let’s just fast forward.” 

But life is too precious to let any moment simply pass by. As a friend told me, “Killing time is suicide.” 

The days between Passover and Shavuot matter a great deal and should not be “just gotten over with.” This is because we must prepare ourselves emotionally each year to receive the Torah anew. We care about reaching the finish line, but we also care about finishing strong. We seek to grow through the entire process. Counting up marks growth. 

In the case of counting the Omer, we also “ascend” Mt. Sinai for a period of seven weeks. Every day we aim to take one step higher to the apex. Counting up conveys progress. 

This year, I’m excited to launch a series of Facebook posts that weaves two threads together. The first strand is this 50 day Omer count. The second strand is the late-in-the-Seder classic song Echad Mi Yodea, Who Knows One? We learn how every number from 1-13 is significant. But why stop at 13? What if we keep counting? 

I want to combine these ideas. For each day of the Omer, I’ll post where that number appears in the Jewish tradition. As Rabbi Marc Angel teaches, “We count the days so that we will learn to make our days count!” 

Check out daily updates on my new Rabbi Alex Freedman Facebook page.

Chag Sameach.

Introducing the Seder Supplement

Posted on April 17, 2019

Shabbat Pesach I – 5779
Introducing the Seder Supplement

Here are four new Passover questions I have for you:

1. Has your Seder discussion gotten stuck?
2. How do you take this ancient story and refresh it for 2019?
3. How do you engage both kids and adults?
4. How do you interest both Seder rookies and veterans? 

Leading the Seder conversation is a challenge. Let the Seder Supplement help you.

I prepared this new handout to spark a table discussion. (A big thank you to Abby Lasky for the graphic design).

The Seder Supplement has two front-and-back pages. The first contains a classic Torah text study with two guiding questions. The beginning of Exodus speaks of defining moments in the life of young Moses. These few verses reveal an impressive character, one whom G-d soon appoints to liberate the Jews. What leadership traits do we see in young Moses? Are they still relevant today?

The handout also includes a collection of different quotes about freedom. Selected from a range of personalities and historical figures – Jewish and global – these quotes nudge us to think about freedom in a more sophisticated way. While the themes of freedom and slavery remain timeless, our understanding of them matures as we do. Our conversations should reflect this growth. This conversation is accessible to kids and adults, Seder novices and veterans, Jews and non-Jews. Exactly what does freedom look like in 2019?

This first handout is for all the guests; print out a bunch for the table to start a conversation. Also print out one copy of the second handout for the Seder leader. This contains my insights on the Moses Torah study, in order to dive a little deeper. It also includes a series of Seder trivia questions to keep things interesting.

The Haggadah text itself is a conversation starter, but sometimes it needs to be unlocked. That’s what the Seder Supplement is intended to be. The word “Haggadah” itself means “Telling the story.” So does the Hebrew word “Maggid,” the longest section of the Seder. The Torah tells us “You shall tell your child on that day [of a future Passover holiday], ‘It is because of what G-d did for me when I left Egypt’” (Ex. 13:8). The challenge – and ultimate satisfaction – is to create an experience and conversation that makes it feel as if we ourselves taste both slavery and freedom. So we’ve got to talk about it. The conversation itself is the experience of renewed liberation. After all, only free people can speak freely. 

If you’re hosting, feel free to make copies for your guests and adapt to your needs. If you’re a guest at someone else’s table, consider bringing it to your hosts. The hardest part is starting a meaningful conversation. Once it begins, however, it’s as sweet as Haroset. 

No Seder leader can control what the guests will say and who will participate. But every Seder leader can prepare for success by organizing in advance questions, stories, songs, games, and topics for discussion. 

This Passover, let’s liberate the conversation too. 

Rabbi Alex Freedman

You Are What You Speak

Posted on April 10, 2019

In 1839, English novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword”, in his play “Cardinal Richelieu”. There is so much truth to this. While our bodies miraculously allow us to recover from physical wounds, the aftermath of words, if used improperly, is often more difficult to recover from. 

We are currently reading a very interesting section of the Torah, one dealing with properties of purity and impurity; and, one which centers around our mouths – the central entry point of nourishment, and the central point of communication. A couple of weeks ago in parashat Shemini, we dealt with the ideas of kashrut (dietary laws), and now we find ourselves looking at the metzora—the person afflicted with tzara’at (often incorrectly translated as leprosy, this word represents a variety of physical blemishes resulting from negative actions). 

The idea of the metzora (the one afflicted with tzara’at) is that they have misused speech. The rabbis connect this word with speech by splitting metzora into two words: motzi ra (one who speaks evil). In other words, one who engages in idle speech or gossip, becomes afflicted with this physical blemish…it’s as if they walk around with the thing they said painted on their forehead. They must leave the camp for a period of minimally one week, and then undergo a series of rituals to eventually be able to rejoin and engage with the community. By being removed from the community, a few things are accomplished. Of course, if the physical ailment is communicable, this prevents contagion. As well, if the root cause of this condition is idle speech, by removing oneself from the community, one has nobody to speak with. This removal, then, ensures that the idle speech will stop. By perpetuating idle speech, one has the power to cause the foundation of community to crumble. When we learn that the Temple was destroyed because of idle speech and senseless hatred, I look at it not as a punishment but as a result. If community were strong, and if members of the community used speech purposefully and thoughtfully to strengthen and build, rather than to destroy (either intentionally or unintentionally), it is likely that perhaps we could have been stronger than the swords which sought to destroy the physical center of our universe. 

We are approaching the holiday of Pesach. The seder, the major ritual observance of this holiday, is centered on words. It is centered on asking questions, giving answers, having deep and thoughtful conversation, and of course passing on the tradition to younger generations. In our family, we are challenged to take the ancient story of the Exodus and make it relevant by discussing issues present in our world and how we may participate in working toward a world in which all may enjoy the same sense of freedom as we. One of the founding principles of our great country is the freedom of speech. We can use our speech, individually and certainly collectively, to effect change—for good and for bad. I would then challenge us at our sedarim this year to teach the lesson of the metzora. If we use our speech idly, the negative consequences can be potentially devastating. But if we use our speech for praise, for love, and for speaking out against injustice, we may have immeasurable impact on society. 

May we all responsibly enjoy the freedoms provided by our country. May we treasure the freedom which is part of our Jewish narrative. And may we be vigilant to teach our children to use their freedom responsibly, and for perpetuating goodness.

See you in shul,

Hazzan Tisser


Posted on April 4, 2019

The Rabbis link the skin disease, tzara’at, mentioned in this week’s Torah portion Tazria, to the evil of speaking negatively about another.  In their teachings they highlight the immense harm done to both the subject of the slander, as well as to the entire community, through the destruction of another’s reputation.  Last week I traveled to Washington DC for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference.  There, policy maker after policy maker from each party emphasized the need for the pro-Israel movement in America to educate lawmakers and decision makers on the true nature of Israel and the dangers it faces.  They told us that our efforts make a significant difference in combating the bad name that others falsely, but unfortunately effectively, spread about Israel throughout our society on social media, on college campuses and even in Washington DC.  The harm created through the disseminating of negative stereotypes and fallacious accusations about Israel is real and has manifested itself in particular in politics as a threat to bi-partisan support for Israel.  We are fortunate that this crucial support for Israel from both parties is still very strong, but we cannot afford to let such support erode in any way.  The financial, diplomatic and military assistance Israel receives from the United States is critical.  It is therefore the job of the pro-Israel community, the foundation of which is the Jewish community, to educate and advocate for Israel and spread instead the good name of our incredible Jewish state, which shares so many core values with the United States of America.  I want to thank all those who came to DC with me to AIPAC and, as well, thank anyone who does advocacy work for Israel in the many other wonderful ways that this can be accomplished.

 It is also noteworthy that almost every politician at AIPAC spoke about the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, which expresses itself through the dissemination of negative stereotypes about Jews that give the Jewish people, writ large,  a bad name.  This Shabbat we have the opportunity to hear from our own congressman and member, Brad Schneider, as well as an expert on Jewish relations in America and abroad from AJC, Dan Elbaum.  I encourage you each to come and to join in our discussion about how we can best respond to anti-Semitism here in America.  As our Sages wrote, the crown of a good name is precious and we must all do what we can to champion the truth about who we are as a people and what the State of Israel stands for as loudly and effectively as possible.  Shabbat Shalom!