Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Liberty and Equality Throughout the Land

Posted on May 6, 2021

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

As a native Philadelphian, this week’s Torah portion of Behar holds a special place in my heart.  Here is found the source of the inspiring words inscribed on the Liberty Bell, “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10).  While in the American context this referred to the freedom of those living in the colonies who wished independence from British rule, in the Biblical context these words literally referred to freeing slaves every 50th year.  In the ancient world if one was indebted to a particular creditor and could not pay him back because he had become destitute, the solution that served both parties was that the debtor would become an indentured slave to the creditor.  This way the creditor received value for his lost money and the debtor was provided with food and shelter for he and his family.  However, in instituting the Jubilee year during which all slaves became free again, the Torah provided a mechanism by which slavery and inequality could not be inherited and passed down from generation to generation, creating a permanent class of the “haves” and a permanent class of the “have nots”.  As such, during the Jubilee year all debts were forgiven and any ancestral lands were returned back to the original family owners.

These values of equality and freedom, expressed in Jewish law that was applied to societal living, reminds us today of the importance of maintaining laws and behaviors that support the success of all community members.  As many will recall, Maimonides stated that the highest form of tzedakah was not evaluated by how much charity was given, though that too is a virtue, but rather by giving a person an occupation — “to teach a man to fish”.  Donating money to provide basic needs is a huge mitzvah, without doing many would suffer and even die.  That is why we, at Beth El, make sure to fulfill this important commandment. However, that type of tzedakah will not change the ultimate situation of the person in need.  Providing access to education, job training programs, and career opportunities is perhaps the modern day equivalent of the Jubilee year.  It allows for someone to rebuild and to provide for themselves a path to a better life.

Therefore, I was so proud of our Social Action and Love Your Neighbor committees as they facilitated a presentation to our community of different organizations that are doing this wonderful type of work. Right in our backyard, the Highwood Public Library, which has become a community center as well, is providing tutoring and career training.  And Waukegan to College is helping to ensure student success and is providing resources to help Waukegan students who might not have otherwise been able to enroll in universities and be successful in the college setting.  If you would like to help, please be in touch with Abby Lasky at alasky@nssbethel.org or click on https://www.nssbethel.org/community/social-action/season-of-mitzvot/  In doing so we fulfill the spirit of our Torah, and the proclamation of the Liberty Bell, in bringing true freedom to all the inhabitants of our land.


Holiness is Hard

Posted on April 29, 2021

by Hazzan Ben Tisser

The word kadosh, or Holy, is an interesting word. According to the dictionary, it can mean several things:

  1. Dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred.
  2. (of a person) devoted to the service of God
  3. Morally and spiritually excellent

It is also related to the word “whole”, and so there is a dimension of completeness or fullness – in Hebrew, shalom or sh’leimut.

Last week in Kedoshim, we read the Holiness Code – our charge to be holy because God is holy, and the list of some of the key ways in which we are to live our lives to that best end. For those who remember studying this with me several years ago, the Holiness Code mirrors the Ten Commandments, using other words. In Emor we learn more about the ways in which we are to live a holy life, a life of spiritual and ritual purity, and how we offer our deepest gratitude to God for all that God has given us.

We learn about appropriate marriages for the Kohanim, that they may maintain spiritual purity in their families and households; that they may serve as exemplars of the highest standard of sacred living. And then there is a verse which challenges our contemporary understanding–really all the work we have done as a holy community towards inclusion–when the Torah states that a Kohen with a physical deformity may not serve in the Temple. There are many commentaries about this verse, and I suppose the idea of wholeness comes into play here, but it is a very challenging verse to read.

After describing some aspects of the Mishkan,  the Torah goes on to list the Holy Observances–the Festivals, the Counting of the Omer, and Shabbat. These are opportunities for us to approach God fully, offering the best of what we received from the earth or through hard work and good fortune, showing pure joy and gratitude for all that is ours.

As I reflect on the past year, I think about how my own sense of gratitude and completeness has shifted. It has become so much easier to be grateful for everything, especially the little things, since life changed last Spring. It has become easier to feel more complete, more at peace, since then. As a result, my spiritual life has changed as well. I feel closer to God, I have a renewed sense of appreciation for community, and I can pray more honestly. This has all been so freeing. The moment gratitude and spirituality took a greater role in my life, I suddenly became so much more at peace with life and with the world around me. 

Holiness is hard. It takes work to live a holy life. But that is our challenge as Jews. We are to be the standard bearers of living lives bound by ethics, mitzvot, and laws, all of which ultimately bring a dimension of holiness to our lives. As we read the book of Vayikra, I invite you to join me in this quest for holiness. Pray more. Practice gratitude. Meditate. Come to shul. Light Shabbat candles and have dinner with people you love. Each of these things, when compounded, takes us one step closer to a life of holiness.

The Stumbling Block of Misinformation

Posted on April 22, 2021

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion is the double header of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Deep within the portion, in Chapter 19 of Vayikra (Leviticus), is a listing of ethical admonitions punctuated by the words “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (“Va’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha”).

Within this list we find “Do not place a stumbling block in front of the blind” (Leviticus 19: 14) On the surface, it’s a simple commandment. My mom was legally blind most of my life; we took care to make sure there was nothing ever hazardous in her way so she wouldn’t trip. But like many things in Torah, you have to look beneath the surface and into the subtext and metaphors to understand what G-d is trying to say to us in our time.

How many of us get multiple phone calls and emails every day from scam artists promising pots of gold or, conversely, threatening to send the IRS or the FBI knocking at the front door unless we pay up?

Misinformation. Disinformation. Stumbling blocks for the Social Media Age. Rumors morph into “facts” and even conspiracy theories twisted into ill-informed realities and urban myth—spread like wildfire on Facebook, Twitter, texts, and beyond—stumbling blocks, believed as truth by enough people to cause genuine harm. Whether it’s COVID-19 vaccines and restrictions, Jewish space lasers, or vast QAnon-style pedophile conspiracies, they prey upon the uniformed—the metaphorically blind, and to corrosive effect.

“Do not place a stumbling block in front of the blind”—a commandment from G-d as relevant today as the latest social media post.


Yom Haatzmaut: 7.3 reasons to love Israel at 73

Posted on April 14, 2021

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

In honor of Israel’s 73rd birthday today, here are 7.3 reasons to feel renewed pride in our Jewish home. (I could do 73, but that would be a Thursday Thesis instead of a Thursday Thought!)

  1. Israel’s ahead-of-the-world vaccination rollout – Israel has successfully vaccinated over half its residents for Covid 19 – 5.3 million people. Nations all over the world look to Israel for insights in returning society to pre-pandemic life.
  1. The Abraham Accords– 2020 saw these agreements signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Soon other Muslim and Arab countries began to normalize relations with Israel too: Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. We hope more will follow soon.
  1. Nonstop flights– This year United Airlines began flying nonstop flights from O’Hare Airport to Tel Aviv. And vaccinated international tourists can visit again starting May 23rd. Celebrate by joining Beth El’s winter break trip to Israel.
  1. Astounding inventions – Last year Time Magazine included 6 Israeli innovations in its list of 100 best inventions. This includes the City Transformer, a foldable electric vehicle.
  1. Commitment to global natural disaster relief– Israel continues to assist internationally when natural disaster strikes. The Jerusalem Post reports that Israeli drones (Airobotics) will now assist in emergencies in the US by helping to locate survivors during natural disasters.
  1. Dead Sea Scrolls 2.0 – Israeli archaeologists announced last month the discovery of dozens of Dead Sea Scroll fragments, dated around 2000 years ago. The new fragments are thought to be part of a scroll hidden away during the Bar Kochba Revolt in the 2nd century.
  1. Kidney donations to strangers– According to Israel 21c, Israel leads the world in its rate of kidney donations to strangers. Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber’s (Z”L) organization Matnat Chaim has prompted a 400% increase of living kidney transplants there.

And .3 – Shtisel Season 3 – The third season of the hit TV show Shtisel was just released on Netflix! (This is a third of the series, which conveniently rounds to .3).

Israel is not perfect and has room to improve – much like Chicago and the US are imperfect too but we love them nonetheless. But on this day of Israel’s birthday, let’s make sure to celebrate all the blessings of our home in Eretz Yisrael.

The Power of Reflection

Posted on April 7, 2021

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

Even before I understood why, I have always appreciated the quiet reflective moments that life sometimes offers me.  For example, I look back with fondness on moments of waking up early while on vacation in the wilderness and sitting quietly watching the morning unfold with only the sounds of nature as my companions.  I recall with great fulfillment the nighttime strolls with Erica on the deck of the cruise ship we took during our honeymoon, quietly experiencing the wonderful new reality of our marriage.  I recollect many Shabbat afternoons sitting out on a lawn, or on a porch, thinking or just being, happy to experience simply being alive.  Upon reflection I see that these moments represent opportunities to slow down, to raise our awareness, to increase our appreciation and to simply experience the joys of living.  

Later in life I made the connection between the magic of moments such as these and the great spiritual offerings of our amazing Jewish tradition.  To illustrate, our parsha this week gets its name from the word Shimini, or eighth. It is on the eighth day that the mishkan (holy tabernacle) is dedicated.  It is also on the 8th day that we celebrate a bris.  Why eight?  The week is a seven day cycle and the holiest day is the 7th, Shabbat! However, the 8th is the day after the complete cycle.  It is the day that represents the importance of how we reflect on, celebrate, and appreciate the fullness of what came before. 

Symbolically it reminds us to take advantage of a number of powerful aspects of religious life.  First there is prayer, a daily invitation to create an oasis in our day for reflection and contemplation.  Second, holiday celebrations, which create a break in the regular cycle of the calendar and give us a chance to focus on aspects of life that we often fail to think about enough.  And, third, there is the great gift of Shabbat, which, as Heschel taught, is the ultimate “palace in time” dedicated to appreciation, spirituality and raising awareness.    

My prayer this week is that we all explore the power of Shmini and consider the many ways in which Judaism helps us to reflect on life and soak in the significance of life’s most important blessings.

Counting the Days

Posted on March 31, 2021

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

One my mentors had a favorite expression about counting that he would mention in celebration of birthdays. He liked to say, “spend less time counting the days and more time making each day count.”

Yet here we are counting. Yes, COVID cases—just as we have for the past many months.

But Sunday evening, the second night of Pesach, we began our annual count of 49 days, called Sefirat Ha’Omer, and ending with onset of Shavuot—from redemption from slavery to the gift of Torah. It’s not so much a countdown as a count-up, as we travel further and further from Mitzrayim and closer to Sinai, from slavery (and a slavery mentality) to freedom (with its joys and obligations).

Commanded to us in the Torah (in the Book of Leviticus—Vayikra), the omer count also can be viewed as an invitation beckoning us to embark on a seven-week journey into the human psyche, into the soul.

Jewish mystical practice encourages us to embark on this journey within the framework of human experience. Paralleing Jewish journey from the depths and despair of enslavement in Egypt when emotion is a luxury to Shavuot, when we experience God’s presence at Mount Sinai at the revelation of Torah.

This first week is focused on basic decency—loving kindess, in Hebrew, “Chesed.” I invite you to peek in our Shabbat Siddur Lev Shalem (page 63), to read a nice explanation of all the days  and weeks of the omer.

For now, think about this week’s focus on lovingkindness and beautifully it’s expressed in words of Torah, “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” – Love your neighbor as yourself, NSS Beth El’s theme of the year!

I will leave you with this evocative poem about this special season of making each day count:

The Season of Counting
This is the season of counting:
Of counting days and nights,
Of counting the space between slavery of the body
And freedom of the soul.

This is a season of seeing:
Of seeing earth and sky,
Of seeing renewal in the land
And renewal in our hearts.

This is a season of journey:
Of inner journeys and outer journeys
Taking us places that need us,
Places that we need.

This is the season of counting,
The season of joyous anticipation,
Of wondrous waiting, in devotion and awe,
For our most precious gift,
The gift that binds our hearts to each other across the millennia,
The gift that binds our souls to G-d’s Holy Word.

© 2017 CCAR Press from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day


Green Onions and Lamb: Bringing New Traditions into the Seder

Posted on March 25, 2021

by Hazzan Ben Tisser 

The liturgy of the Pesach seder includes the verse “V’nomar l’fanav shirah chadashah — we will sing before God a new song.” In translation, we should be very familiar with this phrase. It is presented in the command form “You shall sing…” twice in the Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, recited each Friday night. In the case of Pesach, however, we offer the verse as not a command from above, but as a promise of humanity.

So how do we do this? How do we take the Seder–a ritual prescribed as early as Mishnaic times, 2,000 years ago–and make it relevant? We have learned to include contemporary songs and readings, relating the ancient story of the Exodus to our times. This year will be no different, except that in many ways we will feel the impact of the story much more personally than perhaps ever in our lifetimes (for many of us). We can finally begin to see the end of the chaos this pandemic has created. We are experiencing the beginnings of freedom that the miracle of science has gifted us. In that way, dayeinu–it’s enough if we stop there! By relating our present situation to the Exodus from Egypt, we have more than fulfilled the commandment that each of us is to see ourselves as if we had actually left Egypt.

But there’s another dimension of the Seder which is so vitally important. That is the element of tradition. This is as much prescriptive as it is personal. There are those elements of ritual which have been part of the Pesach experience for thousands of years, and then there are those traditions which have developed over centuries and across different communities across the world. As a child, I recall adding several new elements to our Seder: a fourth matzah in solidarity with the Jews of the former Soviet Union; Miriam’s Cup filled with water, recalling how, by Miriam’s merit, God provided B’nei Yisrael with water in the desert; different types of Haroset as our family grew (but never without my Grandma Diana’s prune-based Haroset, strong and pasty enough to hold together the largest of pyramids!).

With just days to go until the Seder, and with this year still being very different for so many of us than we are accustomed to, why not add something new, meaningful, or even fun to the seder?! Here are some interesting and fun customs you might consider to enhance and add meaning to your own Seder:

  • Using masks or other fun homemade props for the reading of the Ten Plagues
  • Dressing up nicely (yes, even that which can’t be seen on Zoom!) – we’re free!
  • Do as Jews from Iran and Afghanistan: during the singing of Dayeinu, whip those around you with green onions
  • Do as Syrian Jews: during Yachatz, break the middle matzah into the shape of a Hebrew letter
  • Consider the tradition of Jews from Gibraltar (if you can stomach it): add dust from actual bricks into your Haroset for an authentic, historical experience
  • If you are ready for warmer weather, pretend you’re in South Africa where it’s autumn and include lots of apples in your meal
  • Do like Moroccan Jews: just after reciting Ha Lachma Anya, the leader of the Seder carries the Seder plate around, tapping each participant and guest on the head with it while chanting, “Bib’hilu yatzanu mi-Mitzrayim — ha lachma anya” — “We left Egypt in great haste — this is the Bread of Poverty”
  • If it is your custom to sing Chag Gadya at the end of the Seder, assign a “part” to each person present (in person or on Zoom) and as you go through the song have each person make a silly noise or act appropriately (or, inappropriately!) to bring the song to life!

Whatever you do, however or wherever you celebrate, I pray for all of us that next year we will reach “the promised land” and be able to celebrate the Festival as we truly desire! Robyn and the kids join me in wishing each of you and those you love a Zisn and Kosher Pesach — a sweet and Kosher Pesach!

Vayikra: Is It a Coincidence?

Posted on March 17, 2021

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah potion is called Vayikra, and it begins the third book of the Torah The first word of Vayikra contains a scriptural anomaly. (Can you spot it?)

Something here a bit strange and unexpected and might make you think the scribe who created the Torah scroll erred with his quill pen. —an aleph. It is superscripted and quite tiny. The question is “why?” Speculating about the “why” has puzzled Biblical scholars for centuries.

The word “Vayikra” means “He called,” referring to G-d calling out to Moses. Often in the Torah, G-d “speaks” to Moses, He “says” to Moses. But here he “calls out.” But the aleph in Vayikra seems ambiguous. Is it meant to be there or is it an error of some sort? It may to some seem a trivial matter, but the presence or absence of that one letter vastly changes the meaning of the text.

Without the aleph, the word becomes vayikar—by chance—a chance encounter and not the definite “call” out to Moses from G-d. It’s tiny thing, but significant. Numerous scholars over the generations have commented and interpreted the meaning of this seeming scribal anomaly.

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks suggested that the “aleph” is written so small to emphasize that G-d calling out to us is not always done in the grand gestures and miracles like the splitting of Reed Sea or the sending the signs and wonders in the lead up to the Exodus, which we commemorate on Passover. Sometimes G-d’s presence nearby, calling out to us, abides in the quiet gestures of the day-to-day of our lives. That the small coincidences, the happenstances, so easy to dismiss, may indeed by G-d calling—not vayikar, but vayikra. Easy to miss, unless you attune yourself to the everyday miracles, signs and wonders, which help us draw near to G-d. As the korbanot, the offerings described in such detail in Vayikra are meant to accomplish, and the Hebrew word “korban” implies.

This sense of G-d’s presence signified by the difference between “vayikar” and “vayikra” calls to mind my favorite quotation from Albert Einstein, “Coincidence is G-d’s way of remaining anonymous.”

From our home to yours, Phil and I wish you a wonderful Pesach.

Your Seder Conversation-Starter

Posted on March 9, 2021

Print This Seder Supplement – Your Seder Conversation-Starter

Rabbi Alex Freedman

Seder Participant Supplement – click on link to open and print Seder Leader Supplement – click on link to open and print

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 2021?
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. (No, it’s not too early to think about as we are only about two weeks away!)

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 Shifra and Pua, two Egyptian heroines who defied Pharaoh’s orders and saved the Jewish baby boys from death in the Nile. Many of us didn’t learn about them when we heard the Passover story taught in Religious School. That’s a shame, for they were courageous role models. Who today models these values of courage and solidarity with all of humanity? 

The second page includes different quotes about courage, inspired by Shifra and Pua. Selected from a range of personalities and historical figures, these quotes spur us to think about courage in a more sophisticated way. The Passover story highlights courageous acts by women and men, and our understanding of this inner strength should mature as we do. Our conversations should reflect this growth.  

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.

Inspiring Stories of Heroic Compassion

Posted on March 4, 2021

Inspiring Stories of Heroic Compassion
by Rabbi Michael Schwab

“Each person shall give . . . .” (Exodus 30:12)

Two weeks ago Texas was hit with a major winter storm that brought with it uncharacteristic freezing temperatures.  As a result, much of Texas was thrust into an emergency situation: thousands without power or water, plus many families who were initially stranded on roads or isolated in homes.  The damage was so widespread that local authorities and services were simply overwhelmed and were not capable of helping all who needed assistance.  

However, help arrived anyway, due to the kindness and generosity of private citizens and NGOs that took to heart the obligation of giving of themselves to others.  Following the opening command in our Torah portion this week that each person, each soul, needs to give something of themselves to the community, individuals stepped up to rescue stranded citizens, fix broken water pipes to restore water and help save the lives of those who were in distress.

For example, as People Magazine reported, when plumber Andrew Mitchell heard of all that was needed, he and his wife, Kisha Pinnock, packed $2,000 worth of materials and drove nearly two days from their home in New Jersey to Texas, to help in the efforts.  For the trip, the two also brought along their 2-year-old son, Blake, and Mitchell’s apprentice and brother-in-law, Isaiah Pinnock. They are still there helping Texans who were told by local plumbers that they would need to wait three weeks for an appointment and it could cost thousands of dollars.  Because of this family, dozens of homes now have running water again.

And there is Ryan Silvey, who left his Austin, Texas, home on Feb. 15 in his truck to get a Mountain Dew and a pack of cigarettes, as snow began to blanket his city.  But, as USA Today reported, quickly the weather worsened and the routine errand turned into a grueling four days spent hooking straps and chains to hundreds of stranded vehicles, pulling their passengers to safety.   As he said, “If it was me and my kids in a car, or if someone was in pain, I’d hope they’d help me.”  One woman, who had her dogs in her car, had to be pulled miles to her family’s home, in reverse. Another family was pulled from a ditch around midnight after their car had lost power and the dad had a head wound that was bleeding.  After his story was shared by other news outlets, he was contacted by other truck and Jeep owners, offering to help. While pulling cars himself, Sivley fielded calls and text messages from other stuck drivers and delegated the jobs out to the rest of the makeshift team.  He and his colleagues helped hundreds of people in danger, simply out of the goodness of their heart.

And there was Enriqueta Maldonado, who USA Today reported cooked hundreds of meals for those who were vulnerable and had no electricity and water, or a way to get food for themselves.  “When we first kind of determined that we had the resources to cook food, it was honestly like a no-brainer,” she said.  Monica Maldonado, her mother, called on the pastor at Teri Road Baptist Church, who donated its entire pantry full of food. Nonprofit Do Good ATX set up an online portal to sign up for meals, provided the supplies and enlisted the help of volunteer delivery drivers. So Enriqueta and Monica got cooking.  Over the next week, they fed hundreds of people helping to stave off hunger for those in need.

Life is unpredictable and disaster often comes unexpectedly.  We never know whether we will be the victim or the person in a position to help.  However, as Jews and as human beings, one value remains constant: that we all need to find a way to give when there is someone in need.  As the real life heroes mentioned above demonstrated, all we need is an open heart, a compassionate soul and a commitment to do what is right in order to make a difference.