By Rabbi Alex Freedman
The secular scientist says to G-d, “Listen, G-d, we’ve decided we don’t need You
anymore. These days we can clone people and do all sorts of things that used to be
G-d replied, “Don’t need Me, huh? Let’s see if You can make a human.”
“Fine,” says the scientist. He bends down to scoop up a handful of dirt.
“Stop!” says G-d. “Not so fast. Get your own dirt.”
The Book of Genesis is all about beginnings. Let’s take a closer look at G-d’s two
ingredients, as it were, for making humankind: “The L-rd G-d formed man from dust of
the earth – Afar Min HaAdamah – and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life –
Nishmat Hayim. So the human became a living being” (Gn. 2:7).
We see that humanity is formed from both lower matter – dirt – and upper matter – G-d’s
breath of life. As it turns out, this dual-origin of humanity is unique among creatures.
And this duality preserves a delicate balance in the universe.
Here is Rashi’s insight on our verse: “G-d made Adam from the lower world and the
upper world – a body from the lower with a soul from the upper.” In fact, this duality
exists in every day’s act of creation, highlighting the uniqueness of human beings.
Day 1. Shamayim Va’Aretz, Heaven and earth. Both upper and lower.
Day 2. The Rakia firmament in the skies. Upper.
Day 3. The dry land and the seas. Lower.
Day 4. The sun, moon, and stars. Upper.
Day 5. The sea animals. Lower.
How can one more product – humanity – be created while preserving this equilibrium
between upper and lower?
Day 6. Adam is created from dust of the earth – lower – and G-d’s breath of life – upper.
This unique fusion maintains the pristine balance, even as it highlights the uniqueness
of human beings.
What does it mean for humankind – then and now – to possess these two origins?
Let’s consider three ideas. The first is from Rashi himself. The lower part of the human
is the body. We are indeed composed of organic matter. While the upper part of the
human is the soul. Each of us is more than a body. We all have a Guf and Neshama, a
temporary body and an eternal soul. As the Etz Hayim Humash notes, “After death, the
body returns to the earth, its source, and the soul to G-d, its source.”
Second: People must take care of lower needs and higher needs. “Lower” needs
include the things we must do every day to survive: to eat and drink, to find clothing and
shelter, to sleep, to create families, to socialize, to do the things many other animals do.
But life is about more than surviving. We must also attend to “higher” needs every day,
things unique to people: education, spirituality, community, ethics.
Third: Each of us has the capacity to be an animal or an angel. The range of human
potential spans from earth to heaven. Our individual actions can lower us to the level of
animals – dust of the earth – or elevate us to the level of angels – G-d’s breath of life.
Every day we are faced with choices, small or challenging. How do we respond?
When we make decisions – specifically challenging decisions – we place ourselves on
the ladder of humanity which ranges from contemptible to commendable. From low
character to high.
Are we humans born to be more like animals or angels? Both. To follow instinct or
ideals? Both. So let’s aim high.
by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky
In 2013, I spent Sukkot in Los Angeles for the first time. I had moved to LA a month earlier to start a job as the artist-in-residence of a large Conservative synagogue and was living in a house directly behind the shul. Unlike Chicago, Los Angeles actually has the right temperature for a Fall, outdoor holiday with celebratory evening dinners. It’s just like the ancient Israelites would have celebrated it!
I had grown up building a sukkah every year with my family, but this was the first year I would have a sukkah of my own. I was so excited, and decided I was going to design it myself and build it out of PVC pipes and tarps. I took measurements, mapped it all out, and went to Home Depot to pick up all of the supplies. A friend came over and we spent the whole day putting it all together. We were so proud of our creativity, independence, and handiwork, and I was especially proud of my design.
The next morning, I woke up and went to take a look at my beautiful sukkah, and it was in shambles on the ground. It had been a very windy night and the sukkah had blown over! The PVC pipes I had purchased were too narrow, and weren’t able to hold up the wooden beams and bamboo mats we were using for the roof. I was disappointed but undeterred. I went back to Home Depot and reinforced the side poles and put down sandbags to anchor the structure.
And it held! Seven nights and days of celebration ensued, with sukkah hops, teen programming, 20s and 30s meals, study sessions, and more. I loved getting to welcome people into my sukkah. In the Torah we read about Sukkot, “Kol Ha’ezrach b’yisrael yeishvu b’sukkot (Leviticus 23:42), Every citizen of Israel should dwell in sukkot.” The Ba’al HaTanye, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, taught that the word “ezrach,” citizen, really comes from the language of “zericha,” shining. Every person shines and sparkles and lights up with all the goodness and the beauty. And every spark of holiness and the radiance of the mitzvot – that’s what we should bring into the sukkah.
One of the other names for Sukkot is “Z’man simchateinu, The time of our joy.” Our sages teach that “Z’man,” time, really comes from the language of “zimun v’hazmana – summons and invitation.” In this holiday we invite in joy to last us the whole year.
This Shabbat will be my first monthly visit to Beth El. I am so excited to begin this journey together this year – a journey of music, prayer, Torah, learning, and growth. I invite you to join me this Shabbat at Beth El as we celebrate the double joy of Shabbat and Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot together. Bring your individual holy spark, bring your singing voice, and we’ll create the joy of z’man simchateinu together.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler
What makes you happy? Is it a place? Is it people you love? Maybe it’s watching a favorite TV show or movie, or listening to a favorite song. Is it watching the Cubs win? Or maybe it’s the White Sox — I won’t judge. Whether it’s going outside, or seeing beautiful art, there’s one thing I’m pretty sure won’t make you happy: being told to be happy. And yet that’s exactly what we’re commanded to be during Sukkot. VeSamachta b’chagecha…vehayita ach sameach – rejoice in your holiday and you will be only happy! (Deut. 16:14,15)
How can anyone, even God, tell us how we ought to feel? If you’ve seen the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out, then you know that it’s vital and healthy to feel the full range of human emotions. It’s okay to feel sad or angry too. To understand this chutzpadik demand to be joyful, we have to zoom out and see the arc of Tishrei as a whole month.
We began with Rosh Hashanah, hearing the call of the Shofar, awakening our souls to do teshuvah. And while I’m glad to hear so many people enjoyed Rosh HaShanah, as they should, we then jumped into 10 days of intense introspection. We, as individuals and as a people, reflected on all the times we missed the mark, hurt someone intentionally or unintentionally. We spent hours on Yom Kippur – just yesterday – focusing on how we hope to be better in the coming year, and that means sitting with a lot of those difficult emotions of guilt, shame, regret and even fear. We were so wrapped up in the intensity and severity of Yom Kippur, that we neglected to eat for 25 hours! (Okay, so maybe that was planned, but still!)
All of this deep internal work is crucial, but for many of us the inner voice of criticism is audible throughout the year. For many of us, taking all this time to sit with our mistakes is emotionally draining. Sukkot comes around and reminds us of a truth that I hope sparks joy in each of us:
We’re human.To be human is to exist as half-angel and half-animal, to be spiritual and physical, to be made in God’s divine image and also flawed. We’re fragile, flesh and blood people and that’s not only okay, but expected. From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur we focus on our souls. On Sukkot we’re commanded to go outside, get back into our bodies, nourish them with fresh air, a new harvest, good food and drink! We shake the lulav which reminds us of our spines, our eyes, our mouths and our hearts. We make physical circuits around the synagogue for Hoshanah Rabah and dance on Simchat Torah! On Sukkot we take a step back from the lofty spiritual heights of the Yamim Nora’im and rejoice in our physical nature. When we remember that we live by the grace of God, we are also reminded to be thankful for each precious moment we are given. So, being happy during Sukkot is not a demand, but a natural outgrowth of living as our full embodied selves and accepting our imperfections. As we recite during Hallel each day of Sukkot, “Zeh Hayom Asah Hashem, nagilah venism’cha vo!” Today, and every day, is the day that God made, let us be glad and rejoice in it!
By Hazzan Barbara Barnett
Each morning for the past month, during Elul, the morning service was punctuated by the blasts of the shofar. Tekia: “Heads up!” Shevarim: “Get Ready!” Teruah: “It’s coming!” “Look inward,” the calls implored, inching me toward this week and the start of the High Holy Days, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe).
By the time you read this Rosh Hashanah will have concluded, and we will be in the “Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah,” the ten days of teshuva, the time during which we search even further inside our souls and take account, make amends, to return to who we really are deep inside, and get us back on the path to our best selves. And as Yom Kippur approaches, we begin to make a pact within our hearts, with each other, and with G-d, to be better this year.
We will not hear the long, harsh blast of the shofar sound again until the gates metaphorically close on these days of Awe, bringing to an end the Yom Kippur Neilah service.
As it says in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer of High Holiday Musaf, “U’va Shofar Gadol Yitakah” – the great Shofar sounds, but as we move further and further from its blasts, it’s easy to get distracted, pulled away from our paths, forget, even with the best of intention, our promises made to ourselves and G-d during this season. But the text continues: “v’kol d’mamadaka yishamah” –the still, small voice is heard. It is that still, small voice resonating on and on—I like to think of this sustained echo of the shofar as our own personal Jiminy Cricket to help carry us through the challenges of the year to come.
Phillip and I wish for you a 5782 of health, safety, sweetness and shalom—peace and wholeness.
by Rabbi Alex Freedman
Ah, it’s that time of year again. The kids have new notebooks and new shoes. You successfully unearthed that backpack that was buried somewhere last June.
In equal measure for kids and parents, the beginning of the school year is an annual rite of passage. Yet there’s at least one crucial difference between them.
For the students, each year brings a tangible sense of advancement. “No longer am I in Grade X,” they tell themselves with good reason. “I’ve moved up to Grade Y.”
Not so for the parents. It’s possible – even easy – for these school years to feel the same to parents. One year may feel identical to the next. Or if not exactly so, the transition might be gradual instead of as sudden as a first day of school in a new grade.
As a parent, I envy the ease with which students feel themselves advancing and growing in knowledge. I wish each year brought me a similar emotion.
Having no appetite for late-night homework, final exams, or loads of student debt, I will not be returning to the classroom as a student. Neither will most parents. But you and I can return to shul next week for Rosh Hashanah with renewed focus and purpose. And a sense of growth.
I want to share an insight I hope will elevate our understanding of Shabbat. I think many of us intuitively understand Shabbat to be the week’s finish line. A day of rest, good food, and time with people we love recharges us for the next week. We believe this because Saturday falls on the “weekend.”
But there’s another way to see it. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed in his book Laws of Shabbat shares an amazing Gemara: from the viewpoint of the world, the creation of the six weekdays came before Shabbat. But from the perspective of humankind, who was created on the sixth day, Shabbat came before the six weekdays (B. Talmud Shabbat 69b).
This means that the world knew the six days of the week before Shabbat. But for Adam, who was created on Day Six, the first day was Shabbat. The weekdays followed.
Rabbi Melamed writes, “Shabbat is also the anchor and beginning of the next week. From Shabbat we draw spiritual strength for the upcoming week so that we are able to realize, through our activities, the spiritual values that we absorb on Shabbat (7).”
Rabbi Melamed means that Shabbat is also the first day of the week. The day should set the tone for the next six. The values that animate Shabbat – quality time with loved ones, community, prayer, an emphasis on the spiritual – should be activated all week long in some ways.
I love that he teaches me something new about something that I’ve been doing for so long in the same way.
As we have only a few days to go before Rosh HaShanah, I hope we can begin to discover a new area of growth so that when the Shofar rings, we feel we are further along than we were before.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman
I don’t have to sell anyone in our community on the power of summer camps. When I ask Beth El parents what their kids are doing over the summer, it seems nearly everyone is going to different day/overnight camps. I smile because I too spent my childhood summers at camp, which became the highlight of the year; the school year was merely the long shlep back to camp. Any overnight camp is beneficial socially and emotionally, especially this pandemic year. Camp friends often become friends for life. And living independently of parents is valuable for self-growth.
Jewish summer camps offer all the pluses of overnight camp plus an amazingly positive religious education. I spent my summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and the wonderful experiences I had there are shared by many Ramahniks. I also know that other camps offer robust Jewish experiences too, which is fantastic.
The morning prayer Ahavah Rabbah asks G-d to allow us “to understand, to learn, to teach, to perform and uphold all the words of Your Torah with love.” Camp Ramah excels at this because camp is an immersive experience (I speak primarily of Ramah since I know it personally and it is part of the Conservative Movement). Kids learn how to pray because their counselors model it for them and it’s a daily experience. Kids learn Hebrew because the buildings are referred to by Hebrew names. Kids learn to love Shabbat as a day of rest because all of camp slows down. Kids form a personal connection with Israel because they have personal relationships with some Israeli counselors. There’s a palpable Avirah, atmosphere, that can’t be found in any other place because everyone is together for the summer.
Of course NSSBE shares these values, and we do our best to teach them. But, from an educational, structural perspective, camp can do so much more because kids learn better by doing than by sitting in a classroom. Or on Zoom.
Although this summer I cannot visit Beth El kids at camp, I look forward to doing so in the future.
If you are considering a Jewish summer camp for your child next summer, I welcome the conversation. I’m happy to find a Jewish camp that is a best fit for him or her.
We can say about Jewish summer camps what the Torah famously says about the Israelite desert camp: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”
by Rabbi Michael Schwab
I feel honored and privileged to live in a time when there is a thriving State of Israel. Israel is a blessing to Jews and the world for so many reasons. It is the country that contains our historic homeland and the religious and ancestral sites of our people. Israel is a place in which the national culture can flow by the Jewish calendar and naturally celebrates Judaism’s incredible heritage. Israel is a center for the proliferation of Jewish scholarship, art, literature and religious innovation. Israel is a safe haven and protector for Jews spread all over the Diaspora. Israel is a place we can visit to reconnect with our own personal Jewish identities and to deepen our Jewish journeys. Israel is a place where millions of our brothers and sisters call home. Israel is a country that supports the same liberal freedoms that the United States was founded upon: democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Israel is proudly an incubator for so many scientific and medical advances, punching far above its weight class, which they share with the rest of the world. Israel is a beloved place that our Jewish community should treasure.
I know that right now, in particular, and throughout its entire history, some actions of the governments of Israel have been the subject of heated debate. This piece is not intended to weigh in on the merits of any particular arguments about any of Israel’s government’s choices. I also firmly believe that it is absolutely clear that the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is very real and that impactful solutions regarding the issue of Palestinian sovereignty urgently need to be reached. Further, it is also a fact that we all have different perspectives on what solutions are best, and we each have rationales for why we believe what we believe.
Therefore, my ask today is threefold:
1) Let us all acknowledge that the situation is complicated. Slogans, tweets and Instagram posts are not going to help us communicate or progress. They make those who agree with us feel good but do not meaningfully engage anyone who may differ in opinion. In fact, they may have the opposite effect. As every diplomat I have ever spoken to has told me, real dialogue and a willingness to listen to the other’s narrative is the only way progress will be made. Violence will beget violence and hatred will lead to further hatred. We may not like what we hear, but we need to speak to each other in civil language and truly listen to one another’s perspective. Agreeing to listen is not agreement to concur. We should respectfully challenge when we disagree, but we should listen and do our best to understand. Being able to hold such dialogue that does not lead to hatred is a value in and of itself.
2) Whatever you think about the current situation in Israel, do not let yourself fall into the trap of questioning Israel’s legitimacy or Israel’s incredible value to the world. There is much work to be done inside of Israel, inside of the Palestinian territories and inside the region as a whole. However, our people have an ethical, legal and historical right to a homeland in Israel and Israel has a legitimate place amongst the world of nations, like any other country, that was granted to her in 1947 by the UN.
3) Let us do whatever we can to not let our feelings about Israel’s policies divide us at our core. We need to continue to be one people and to be ohavei yisrael – lovers of our fellow Jews. Extremists aside, we need to be able to advocate for what we think is right and foundational to our values without consigning those who disagree to the status of “other”. There are those out there claiming that our people are destined to be divided into Zionists and Anti-Zionists. I cannot accept this prognostication and will continue to work towards a more sophisticated understanding of Jewish community that allows us to oppose one another around significant issues while still understanding one another as Jews and part of the same family.
I am a Zionist. I love Israel and will work to support her continued vitality and safety. I stand with her during challenging times and celebrate her many successes. I pray for wisdom for all of the leaders in the region, I pray for the safety of all the inhabitants in the region, and I pray that a lasting peace can be created between Israel, the Palestinians and all of their neighbors. I also pray that we continue to work towards our vision of being Am Echad, one people, who can continue to stand together as we, and the rest of the world, face so many difficult challenges. Am Yisrael Chai!
By Hazzan Ben Tisser
As I reflect on my six years at NSS Beth El, a passage from the Torah comes to mind: “For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you may prune your vineyard…and I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year…” (Leviticus 25:3, 11). For the last six years I have felt blessed to come to work every day at Beth El. Truly, being a Cantor is the most wonderful job in the world. I have the opportunity to share in the lives of thousands of people, to teach, to learn, to share holy moments, and of course to make music.
As I walk the halls, I am reminded of all that has been accomplished here these years. I can see the Sanctuary packed to the brim as we delayed the first a cappella concert’s start while adding more chairs; I hear the voices of our children singing with the choir on the High Holy Days; I see the transformation of our sacred spaces as we made them accessible to those with a variety of needs; I remember conversations at Kiddush and in the parking lot, meetings at which big plans were made and big changes were catalyzed. In these six years, so much has changed at Beth El, and it has been an honor to have played some part in that change.
I remember my first visit to Beth El – months before my interview. I was in town to study with Hazzan Mizrahi at Anshe Emet, and knowing that I would be applying for this position, I made an appointment to meet with Rabbi Kurtz. He showed me around the facility, telling me the history of the shul, and inquiring about my own background. We bonded over common experiences as children singing in the choirs of our own Cantors, and said that we both looked forward to meeting again. (For those who don’t know the story, ask me about how he tried to “stump” me at my audition!). I recall the weekend of my interview, riding with Larry Weiner to morning minyan, being shown around by Jackie Melinger, spending Shabbat with the Starkman-Pachters and their Havurah, and getting to know many of our core group of leaders who have remained so involved for all these years. I will never forget the many wonderful experiences I have had here—they have shaped me in so many ways.
I have been blessed to work with incredible clergy and staff colleagues. Rabbi Kurtz was an incredible mentor and friend. Rabbi Schwab has not only been an excellent partner, but a friend and confidant as well. Together we worked hard to create programming and rituals reflective of our community’s values, and at the same time recognizing that we have the opportunity and ability to grow. I am so proud of the work we have done, and am ever grateful for his constant support in my own work. Although we have only worked together for a couple of years, Rabbi Freedman is an incredible asset to this community and to the team. His creativity is endless, his sensitivity to people knows no bounds. He is a great Rabbi and it’s been my privilege to work with him. I must finally acknowledge our Ritual Directors, with whom I have worked so closely on a daily basis, ensuring that our B’nai Mitzvah program continues as strong as ever. Mark Stadler remains a great friend, and I am so glad I got to know him here. Hazzan Barnett is an incredibly passionate and compassionate educator – I am grateful to her for her collegiality and dedicated work.
On the lay side, there are far too many people to name, and I fear I’ll leave some out. There are, however, a few people I must acknowledge specifically. Mark Mosk was tasked with helping me acclimate to the community in my first year. We began speaking on the phone regularly from the start, and then would meet for breakfast after minyan once in a while. He has been a constant source of support, of good feedback, and a good friend above all. Steve Abrams and Brian Jacobson, in succession, have chaired our Music Committee for the past four years. It is because of their leadership that we have a clear mission and vision, as well as a dedicated group of volunteers who will work hard to ensure an excellent future for music at Beth El. Finally, I offer unending gratitude to JoAnne Blumberg. For my first four years she chaired our B’nai Mitzvah Liaison committee, then became VP Ritual, and all the while ran the High Holy Day committee for our Sanctuary services. JoAnne, I could not have done my job without you. We have spoken or emailed at literally every hour of the day. We have been with each other in moments of sadness and celebration, and our friendship is truly special. I will miss working with you each day.
Robyn shares her thanks for having welcomed her so warmly and lovingly into the community. The experiences she had at Beth El have had deep influence on her own Yiddishkeit, and we have loved reminiscing about so much of our time here. My children have grown so much here. Ethan was three months old when we moved to Highland Park, and soon he will begin second grade! Thank you for nurturing them, for playing with them, and for loving them while I was on the bimah. You made shul a place they looked forward to coming.
“Six years you shall sow your field…” We have done so much together these six years, and now as I look back, as I read the emails and Facebook notes that have come in recent days, I realize that God has surely ordained God’s blessing in this, the sixth year, and that the yield is great. One cannot often realize the impact their work has on the lives of others. As grateful as many of you have expressed you are for my service, I am doubly grateful for having had this incredible opportunity. I have been touched deeply by each of you. Through good and through bad, you have been my community and my extended family. God bless you all with good health and length of days, and may you always be with a song in your heart and in your mouths.
Now we say l’hitra’ot—we’ll see you soon—for we know we will be back to visit. As I begin my tenure at Beth El Synagogue this summer, I will take all of the memories, the lessons, and the encouragement you have offered with me. I have been changed so much by my time here. We hope you will visit us if you are in the Twin Cities. You will be able to reach me after July 1 at firstname.lastname@example.org – stay in touch!
Stay healthy and safe, and have a great summer. I know that great things will continue to happen at NSS Beth El!
Hazzan Ben Tisser
By Hazzan Barbara Barnett
This week’s Torah portion contains three of the most famous lines in Torah. It is called the Birkat Kohanim, but also the “three-fold blessing” or the “priestly blessing” (the English translation of Birkat Kohanim).
May Adonai bless you and guard you!
May Adonai’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you
May Adonai bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!
It’s a powerful three, very short lines.
It is the final line that draws my eye this morning in a world filled with conflicts big and small, local and global. “Grant you shalom.” I use the Hebrew because although I could translate it as “peace,” I think the word “wholeness” is more precise here. Peace is amorphous, slippery and elusive. Wholeness is another thing, an attainable thing—something that can emerge from within and not from without. The blessing is written in second person singular, to each individual who receives it—not to a family, not to a community.
Perhaps personal “wholeness” can emanate both from the spiritual connection to G-d as implied by the second blessing and by the more material blessings suggested by the first (as interpreted by Rashi). If we cannot have “peace” in our world, in our lives at this time, perhaps we might find a way to toward a sense of being whole—whether that is to enjoy the warmth of a spring day, to look up at the stars or to simply breathe deeply.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman
The number ten is having its moment. In a few days, synagogues around the world will chant the Ten Commandments in honor of Shavuot.
What follows are ten reasons why Jews go for cheesecake and other dairy goodies on Shavuot, the holiday when we received the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
2. Mt. Sinai is also called Har Gavnunim הר גבנונים, “the mountain of majestic peaks” in Psalms 68:16. The similar Hebrew word Gevinahגבינה means “cheese.”
One thing that impresses me about the Jewish tradition is the range of possible answers to any given question, like this one. Just as cheesecake is enhanced by its broad range of flavors, the Torah is richer when it yields multiple interpretations. It’s a prism that refracts a rainbow of light onto our world.