Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Israel: A Touchstone of Meaning for the Jewish People

Posted on May 26, 2022

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

I just returned from the State and Land of Israel this past Thursday after a wonderful trip with a fabulous group of Beth El congregants.  Though I have been to Israel many times before, and even lived there for three different years of my life, this trip provided me with experiences I have never had before.  On the archaeological side, we were given access to an excavation under the Western Wall plaza not yet open to the public.  We walked the paths tread by our ancestors coming to the Temple that, other than archeologists and their teams, have not been tread in thousands of years.  We marveled at the continuing excavations of the City of David, which predated the Temple, and walked down steps just unearthed, which follow the ancient pilgrim’s path.  On the peoplehood side, we met with brave soldiers in the field giving years of their young life to defend our land, Palestinians and Jewish settlers working together for peace in the West Bank, young yeshivah students in a program that combines Diaspora Jews and Israelis to create stronger bonds, Druze citizens of Israel who are a loyal and fascinating minority group and we met with inspiring educators and social workers that have created a youth village to help immigrant teens succeed against many odds in Israeli society.  On the spiritual side, we experienced a magnificent Shabbat in Jerusalem, meaningful time at the Kotel, prayer in a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue and ad hoc minyanim all over the beautiful country.

Each experience we had reinforced for me what a touchstone Israel is to Jewish life.  In Israel there is a tangible connection to Jewish history, Jewish peoplehood and Jewish spirituality at every turn.  Therefore a visit to Israel is a unique opportunity for growth, exploration, learning and rejuvenation, even around the tough issues that Israel and the people who live in that region face.  So make a plan to visit the State of Israel soon!  Beth El is going again on a Multi-Generation Family Mission to Israel over winter break.  If that is not for you, go with a Jewish organization that you care about.  Or go privately if you wish.  I can help.  Whatever way you go, I promise you won’t regret it!  L’shanah Habah B’Yerushalayim!  


Plan Your Vacation’s Shabbat to Feel at Home on the Road

Posted on May 18, 2022

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

Who’s ready for summer? Who’s not ready for summer?

So many of us are ready for the weather to stay warm, for school to end, for work to
slow down, and for a well-earned vacation.

As you make your plans, make a plan to visit a synagogue wherever you go.
Many years ago my family visited Venice, Italy, over Winter Break. I have fond
memories of that trip’s delicious food, gondolas, more food, spectacular glass artwork,
and going to shul. And no, I wasn’t a rabbi yet.

That Friday my family toured the Venice ghetto, the first in Europe, and we walked
through a 500-year-old synagogue whose architecture was something I had never seen.
It looked like an antique – beautiful, fragile, and impractical for use today. At the end, the
tour guide mentioned this shul was in use on Shabbat morning, and my family decided
to return the next day.

As we entered the towering sanctuary on Shabbat morning, the dusty old place came
alive. It was like a movie switched from black and white to color. The room was full of
people, full of singing, and full of energy. I didn’t know a word of Italian, they didn’t
speak English, yet I felt at home. I sang along because I knew the tunes from the
Siddur. I followed along with the Torah reading because I could read Hebrew (I learned
a few Italian names of Patriarchs that day: Abramo, Isacco, Giacobbi, Giuseppe). I had
never experienced this before. I was in a new place and knew nobody, but I felt at
home. The universality of the Siddur made this possible, making me feel that the people
around me were not total strangers but just cousins I hadn’t yet met.
The home is obviously where one’s Jewish foundation is set. But there are some things
one can understand only by leaving home.

I know I’m not the only one to experience this. If you are traveling abroad, going to
synagogue on Shabbat will be something unforgettable the family can do together. No
tickets, lines, or gift shops necessary. And if you’re stateside, you can probably find a
service nearby too. If not, write to me and I’ll help with this.
In one sense, the place makes the people. Our sanctuary – specifically the Bimah, Ark,
and windows – make people feel inspired, connected, spiritual. But the place also brings
the people. The Hebrew for synagogue is Beit Knesset, which means “house of
gathering.” It’s a place to meet others with the same traditions and values. Mostly,
though, the people make the place.

The Shma prayer instructs us to speak of Torah and Jewish traditions “BShivt’ha
Bveitecha Uvlecht’ha Vaderech – at home and on the road.” I usually think of this as
pushing us to be proud Jews both in private (at home) and in public (on the road). But I
also read this verse as instructing us to be active Jews when we’re going about our
routine (around home) and when we travel (on the road).

An empty synagogue, like the gorgeous one in Venice, is a deserted museum. But when
people fill it up, it becomes a vibrant hub for Jewish life. Anywhere, as you’ll see for
yourself next vacation.

An Eye for an Eye? Eye don’t know about that…

Posted on May 11, 2022

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

At the very end of our Parasha in Leviticus 25:19-20 states,

“וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּֽי־יִתֵּ֥ן מ֖וּם בַּעֲמִית֑וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה כֵּ֖ן יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לּֽוֹ׃ שֶׁ֚בֶר תַּ֣חַת שֶׁ֔בֶר עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֥ן מוּם֙ בָּֽאָדָ֔ם כֵּ֖ן יִנָּ֥תֶן בּֽוֹ׃”

“If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done, so shall it be done to him: Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.” Our Torah sounds an awful lot like the lex talionis – laws of retribution found in Hammurabi’s Code. An old teacher of mine said if we all lived according to “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth” we’d all have a hard time seeing and chewing. Of course, this passage seems to contradict another ancient teaching I learned from my mother: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” So, what do we make of this verse in our tradition?


 “הַחוֹבֵל בַּחֲבֵרוֹ חַיָּב עָלָיו מִשּׁוּם חֲמִשָּׁה דְבָרִים, בְּנֶזֶק, בְּצַעַר, בְּרִפּוּי, בְּשֶׁבֶת, וּבְבֹשֶׁת.”


The sages of the Talmud in Mishnah Bava Kama (8:1) discuss what retribution for injury really entails. They illuminate 5 categories: Damage, Pain, Medical costs, loss of livelihood and humiliation. They understood that “eye for an eye” was idiomatic and could be accomplished with monetary restitution.

Damage would be assessed by determining how the injured party’s value would be affected on the slave market. Of course nowadays, it’s hard to know what the standard slave market price would be before or after damages, but I imagine this would be determined similarly to disability insurance claim.

The Rabbis in the Talmud often amuse me with their imagination. How they assess pain is one such instance. Essentially it boils down to: “how much could you pay someone with a similar threshold for pain to endure that pain voluntarily?” Whatever amount that person would accept as a fair price for being burned, for example, is how much the liable party would owe the injured party for pain.

Medical expenses are fairly straightforward. The sages even factored in a clause to protect the liable party, stating, “if marks are due to the incident, liable; if not due to the incident, exempt.” If the wounds heal and return, the liable party is responsible for ongoing care costs. However if the wound is entirely healed, the liable party has paid their retribution for medical expenses.

Loss of livelihood is surprisingly not based on the standard wages for the injured party’s particular profession. This is because they were already compensated for their “eye or tooth or arm or leg” as part of ‘damages’ and that took into account their professional skill. So, in this case all are treated by the court as watchmen over cucumbers and compensated on that payscale. (Tell me that’s not fascinating! The Rabbis really thought this stuff through!)

Humiliation is a little more of a gray area. The costs factor in the power dynamics and difference in status between the parties, as well as the intention of the fellow who caused the injury. A person is not considered liable for humiliation unless he intended to humiliate the other person.


So yes, when someone injures a fellow human being, they will have to make things right. This will be done financially, and God-willing with graciousness and remorse for the unfortunate debacle. The Torah goes on in Lev.24:22, “you shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: For I the Lord am your God.” All of us are responsible for making things right when we cause injury regardless of our background.

The Torah’s Heart

Posted on May 4, 2022

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה׳ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה׳ אֱלֹ-הֵיכֶֽם׃

“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your G-d am holy.”

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, begins with this commandment. If I were an Israelite, just weeks out of slavery, and was told to “be holy because G-d is holy,” I would be completely confused. In fact, as a 21st Century adult, the commandment is vague at the very least. What does it mean to “be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy?”

Fortunately, the following verses sketch out the ways (and some means) to “be holy.” Here are a few:

  • Don’t pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. (Be kind to those who have less)
  • You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.
  • You shall not defraud your fellow. (Tell that to the legions of phone, text and email scammers!).
  • The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. (Be a fair and honest employer)
  • You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. (Two of the best metaphors in the Torah.)
  • You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kin fairly.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself

Many of these admonitions are punctuated by “I am the Lord your G-d.” This is G-d telling us, “this is how to act. And if you do so, you’ll be walking the path I’m trying to show you. This is what it means to be holy.” This is what it means to be in the image of God (b’tzelem elokim)

Of course the list is punctuated by the most famous of these ethical constructs, “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” (Love your neighbor as yourself.) Called the “Golden Rule” by many traditions, a version of this was (“what is hateful to you don’t do to anyone else”—or words to the that effect) attributed to Rabbi Hillel when he was asked to explain the Torah while standing on one foot. “All the rest (meaning the rest of the Torah) is commentary. Go study.”

The Torah (translated, “teaching”) is our guide. Our ultimate textbook for being holy, for being in G-d’s image, walking in G-d’s ways. For “being” Torah. And Kedoshim, a few chapters to the left of the Torah’s exact center (where the human heart lies in our anatomy), is, quite literally, it’s at its heart.

Watering Truth

Posted on April 26, 2022

by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

“To be honest…” I’ve got a problem this phrase. I’ve noticed people say these three words a lot. Have you said them recently? Every time I hear them, I think to myself, “why do these words need to be said”? Shouldn’t I assume that the words coming out of your mouth are honest? Why would I assume otherwise? These words lead us to believe that any other words that have been said or will be said may actually not be truthful. What kind of society does that mean that we live in? In a time where it is becoming increasingly more difficult to discern fact from fiction, when one of the richest people in the world can just buy an entire social media enterprise on a whim, honesty feels more important than ever. 

There is a beautiful midrashic teaching going back to the third day of creation, the day that the grasses and vegetation were created. The verse says, “And The Holy One said, let the Earth sprout vegetation” (Breishit 1:11). The word for vegetation (grass) in Hebrew is Deshe. Rav Mordecai Yaffe (1500’s Prague) teaches that it shouldn’t only be read on face value as “vegetation.” Rather, “DeShE” is an acronym for: Din (justice), Shalom (peace), and Emet (Truth). These three things are the roots of the earth, the foundations of human existence and the conditions by which humanity can exist. Without them, there is war amongst humanity, and desolation.  

You may be familiar with the teaching from Pirkei Avot that the world stands on three things, Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim (Torah, worship, and lovingkindness). Here is another three-legged support system for the world: Justice, Peace, and Truth. Without any of these three, the world devolves back into chaos. And although these three were planted like grass before human beings were even created, they can’t last on their own! They need to be cared for, sustained, watered, and lifted up.  

We learn in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot,

 “וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם        

You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which you human beings shall live (Lev. 18:5) 

Reb Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim, lived in Ukraine in the 1800s. He notices the letters in Atem (you) are more than just letters. They are the letters of Emet, truth. That’s what it really means to v’chai bahem, to live by the commandments. To lift up truth, to lift up those who cannot lift themselves up, and to make sure that all human beings are free to live in peace. 

We just celebrated Earth Day last week. So this Shabbat, may we take this message to heart and strive to care for justice, peace, and truth the same way we care for the vegetation on the earth. 

Shabbat Shalom






Count the Omer With Me

Posted on April 20, 2022

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

“THREE, TWO, ONE . . . !”  In most situations, when we are excited about something, we count down.  However, as we began to do on Saturday night, when it comes to the Omer, we count up.  As the Torah tells us, “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God” (Leviticus 23:15-16).   

After being freed from Egyptian slavery, during Passover we move with great anticipation towards our next pivotal experience as a people, Revelation on Mt. Sinai.  This is literally meant to be an uplifting experience as Moses climbs the mountain and elevates the status of the people to be a sacred people, a nation of priests.  We count up as a spiritual metaphor for climbing in holiness as we create our sacred covenant with G-d.  

This idea, of “rising in holiness” (Ma’alin B’kosesh), does not just apply to the Omer and the Sinai moment.  Rather, it was adopted as a rabbinic principle that we should strive to embrace at all times in our lives.  Jews should always seek those activities that help us to rise in holiness.  We should strive to constantly count up!  In ritual life that could mean attending more services, observing one more law, or increasing one’s Jewish learning.  In ethical life this could mean increasing tzedakah, attempting to improve one’s virtues, or adding more volunteer hours.  Regardless, it is during this period of the Omer that we make a concerted effort to rise in holiness as we count up from Exodus to Sinai.  Therefore, for each week of the Omer, our Siddur Lev Shalem frames our effort to better ourselves using a theme from the Kabbalistic sefirot.  This serves to aid us in our personal journey to rise in holiness.  Please join along with us each evening at minyan as we count the Omer, or please use your siddur to do so privately at home, starting this week using this link:  https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/firstweekoftheomer.pdf  

May we all rise in holiness together as we count up during the period of the Omer!  Hag Sameah!





Print This Seder Supplement – Your Seder Conversation Starter

Posted on April 14, 2022

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

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Pesach Supplement 2022

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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 2022?
  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 updated 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. A few verses from the Torah tell the story of Moses calling for all the Israelites to be freed, not just some. Other verses use the pain of Israelite slavery as an engine to protect the strangers in their communities for all time. Both texts speak of equality.

The second page includes different quotes about equality, inspired by the Torah. Selected from a range of personalities and historical figures, these quotes spur us to think about equality in a more sophisticated way.

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

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 (in-person and virtual) and adapt to your needs. 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.

Not Just Skin Deep

Posted on April 6, 2022

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

Parshat Metzora, like its sister parasha Tazria, further discusses the Tzara’at, and the process for regaining ritual purity once affected by it. We learn from the Rabbis that Tzara’at is a spiritual ailment manifesting on the skin of a person. Connecting to the case of Miriam who experienced this disease after speaking ill of Moses’ wife, the Rabbis asserted that it was lashon haRa that caused the Tzara’at. So, it isn’t just skin deep. But Metzora informs us that Tzara’at can also infect our houses. Not only does it go further inward, but tzara’at can spread further outwardly as well.

Leviticus 14:34-35 reads, “When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place* a lesion of tzara’at upon a house in the land of your possession, and the one to whom the house belongs comes and tells the kohen, saying, ‘Something like a lesion has appeared to me in the house’…”

Rashi notes that the Hebrew in verse 34 ‘venatati’ literally means “and I give [a lesion, etc.]” He explains that this is good news! The Canaanites hid treasures in the walls of their homes, so when a lesion of Tzara’at appeared, it would cause the Israelites to remove those stones and find it. While I’m sure not every case of tzara’at came with hidden treasure, there’s an opportunity to imagine that when inconveniences or great challenges come into our lives, we should keep our eyes open to the gift God is giving us just behind affected stones.

Life is not always easy. There are global challenges like war, illness, and poverty, and there are more local challenges like managing interpersonal relationships, home repairs, or even just preparing for Pesah — c’mon, we’re all thinking about it. We can choose to see these challenges as they are at the surface, or we can dig deeper. We can look inward to see how we might live better lives to overcome the tzara’at, or we can look outward to see what silver linings and hidden treasures might be waiting for us when we meet the challenge head on and overcome them.

Nisan or Tishrei: Will the Real New Year Please Stand Up

Posted on March 30, 2022

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

My son Adam was born on the first day of spring, that year, the fifth of Nisan. Just before Pesach. Thirteen years later, he celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah, his 13th secular birthday on Shabbat HaChodesh. This Shabbat is the 18th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Shabbat HaChodesh (Shabbat of the Month, literally), but really “the” should really be capitalized and italicized so it is Shabbat of The month—the first month—according to the Torah.

It is the Shabbat that heralds in the month of Nisan—the month in which we celebrate Passover. This year, it falls on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of Nisan.

Nisan is the first month of the year. As the text (Exodus 12:2) of the HaChodesh maftir reads:

הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחׇדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

If you are scratching your head at this point, thinking at Tishrei (the beginning of which is Rosh Hashanah) is the first month, I don’t blame you. We send out New Year cards, offer “Shanah Tova” (A good year) greetings—not to mention changing the calendar from one year’s to the next. (At next Rosh Hashanah it will turn from 5782 to 5783!).

In fact, the Torah states that Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are all in “Hachodesh hashevi’i”—the seventh month.

So, will the “real” New Year please stand up! Is it the first of Nisan or the first of Tishrei? No wonder you’re confused! (I won’t even go into the other “new” years in our tradition! If you want to know, feel free to give me a call or send an email.)

The answer was certainly the subject of debate among the rabbis of the Talmud, particularly Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua who argued about it in the Babylonian Talmud. Although there was agreement that the calendar has within it more than one new year.

Weighing the significance of events that took place in Nisan vs Tishrei, including the biggies: the creation of the world (Tishrei) and the redemption from exile marked by Nisan, the two Talmudic rabbis had differing perspectives: R. Yehoshua took a more nationalistic/particularlistic stance, viewing the redemption as the pivot point of our existence as a people (not to mention that Nisan is stated as the first month in the Torah.) R. Eliezer took a more universalistic approach, noting the anniversary of the creation of humanity. He believed that issues related to sin and renewal of the spirit relating to everyone pointed to Tishrei as truly the “new year.”

Certainly, both can be true. Although we mark the start of Nisan only as Shabbat Hachodesh (and with little other fanfare than most Rosh Chodesh observances), some Egyptian-Jewish communities around the world that mark the first of Nisan’s as a New Year with much more fanfare with Al-Tawhid (Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew).

And, with that, I wish you a happy season of renewal and redemption as we prepare to welcome chag ha-aviv (the festival of spring), one of the names for Pesach.




The “March” from Purim to Passover

Posted on March 23, 2022

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 is it that this march happens during March? People can’t turn from one strong emotion to another on a dime. We need time and slow-and-steady 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!). The weather incrementally moves in one direction. Fortunately we are also moving away from the chaos of Omicron’s peak as well. How lucky we are to have Jewish rituals, routines, and traditions – like Shabbat – that provide some order out of life’s chaos.