Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Moments of Inspiration – My Reflections of the Rally for Israel in DC

Posted on November 16, 2023

By Rabbi Michael Schwab.

On Tuesday, I, along with at least 150 people from NSS Beth El, who came by car, bus, and plane, joined nearly 300,000 people at the rally for Israel in Washington, DC. Nearly 300,000! This broke the record for the largest gathering of the Jewish people in the United States, which was set when American Jews marched for Soviet Jewry in 1987.  There were Jews from all over the United States, from Canada, from Israel and likely for several other countries.  There were multiple groups of non-Jews of various backgrounds.  I heard Hebrew, English, Yiddish, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese and more.  There were people putting on tefillin, davening and reading Torah, and secular Jews who joined in for the singing along with them. I saw joy and sadness. I saw gratitude and love. Perhaps mostly, I saw determination and conviction.  We chanted “Never again!” and we chanted “Bring them home!”, many of us crying as we chanted. 

The speakers were outstanding ranging from campus advocates, supporters from around the world, families of hostages, Israeli representatives and the top leadership from both the Republican and Democratic parties in Congress from both houses.  One of the most meaningful moments of the rally was when these important political leaders, who are often vociferous opponents of each other, stood arm in arm, hand in hand, on the dais in front of the entire crowd.  Their message was clear: Hamas is a terrorist organization that unleashed horror upon Israel and the threat of Islamic Jihad is real and must be stopped to safeguard Israeli citizens. The resulting rise of antisemitism in America is unacceptable and should be fought with all of our collective strength.  And Israel has every right to defend its citizens.  

I think, though, that what I was most proud of at the rally was the atmosphere. There was no graffiti or vandalism. There were no calls for violence against the Palestinian people or maligning anyone except Hamas and their supporters.  There was no physical violence at all. People were waving American flags and Israeli flags.  People were holding posters of those held hostage and of other messages of support. Banners spoke of Jewish pride, Jewish unity and Jewish aspirations. The rally was full of students from schools all over the country.  No one climbed on top of statues or buildings or disrespected the host city of Washington DC.  No one took down U.S. flags to raise Israeli flags.  In fact, there was great pride in being American and great gratitude for American institutions and leaders.  And I witnessed many people thanking law enforcement and emergency medical professionals for being there as we walked out.  And when the rally was over, people walked peacefully to their cars, buses and trains.      

I agree with a colleague who wrote after the event that after forty days of tension, worry, anger, sadness and stress, on Tuesday I smiled and felt happy for a few hours because the rally reminded me of who we are as a Jewish people and how incredible it is that I live in a country where we could assemble like that in safety and whose leaders seem to understand the gravity of the situation.  I felt like we were not alone and that with continued effort, determination, perseverance, and hard work we will indeed overcome not only the threat to Israel but the threat to Jews worldwide.  It will not be easy at all, but we will persevere!  Am Yisrael Chai — B’yachad N’natzeiach, the people of Israel will thrive and together we will succeed!


“You should love your fellow as yourself”

Posted on November 9, 2023

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.

 וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ
You should love your fellow as yourself
Lev. 19:18


A few years back, PJ Library put out a wonderful children’s book, Do Unto Otters, based on this famous verse.

Talmud Shabbat 31a:6 helps us understand this pasuk for Jews (and really all humans) of all ages:

“There was another incident involving one non-Jew who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand. This was a common measuring stick and Shammai was a builder by trade. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: ‘That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.’”

Practicing kindness to ourselves and to others is first and foremost, the holiest mitzvah, found at the heart of the Torah, both literally and figuratively. And it is central to Hillel’s summary of the Torah to the convert in this well-known talmudic story.

The word rei’ah can be translated as neighbor, fellow or friend, and is even a Hebrew name (my niece’s name in fact!). While the verse that makes this word so famous comes from Parashat Kedoshim in the middle of the Torah, we also learn a great deal about what it means to be kind to others, to be a good neighbor, from this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah.

Shortly after Sarah’s death at the beginning of Chayei Sarah, Avraham needed to
make burial arrangements for his beloved wife: Then Avraham rose from beside
his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying: “I am a ger v’toshav (resident alien) among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.” (Gen. 23:4)
Avraham mentioned his status as ger v’toshav, because a resident alien was unable
to purchase real estate. 

Midrashic commentary continues: Avraham is uncertain whether his neighbors accept him as a fellow resident or tolerate him as an alien in their midst. The Hittite’s answer surprises him: “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.” (Gen. 23:5-6) Avraham is surprised because the Hittites have gone beyond acceptance and toleration. They truly admire him for the quality of his faith: “you are the elect of God among us.”

This opening section of Chayei Sarah is a paragon for how to respect our
neighbors, regardless of our differences. 

Sarah’s burial plot was the first parcel of real estate acquired by Avraham in the promised land, Cana’an, Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael. And we sadly know that the kindness of the Hittites to Avraham is only a dream right now; to live in peace with our neighbors has been our never ending challenge and goal. To be able to respect one another’s differences is to value all of humanity, to love our fellows as ourselves.

We, Jews, are living in surreal times, where our home is being threatened. We should not live in horror. We should not live in fear. 

I pray for an end to this war, for a time when we can live in peace with our neighbors, for a time when the Hittite’s attitude toward Avraham prevails, for a time when the Prophet Isaiah’s vision will be fulfilled: “A nation shall not raise a sword against a nation, and they shall not learn any more war.”

Shalom l’Yisrael



“It’s Simple… it’s complicated”

Posted on November 2, 2023

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.

The war in Israel continues to fill my heart with grief. I find myself torn seeing those who have always espoused peace and justice fail to lend their compassion toward Jews worldwide. At best I hear silence, failure to condemn the atrocities of October 7th even now, when it feels too little too late anyhow. Despite this, I still welcome the gesture, and I do appreciate the three individuals who could only privately share their support. At worst I see folks who believe and perpetuate lies on social media, emboldening those who would prefer me and us dead. Where do they expect us to go? We already tried going back to where we came from, and are accused of being colonizers for it. It breaks my heart. And I hold hope that those who spread these narratives really aren’t antisemitic on purpose. Perhaps they are ignorant to the ways that rhetoric affects my own sense of safety. But I told them. I spoke up and I shared how we’ve bolstered security like crazy. How I’ve worn hats in the city at night just in case. Of all the things I said, I didn’t even see a half-baked apology for how it feels to be a Jew in America right now. The Psalm for Wednesday, Psalm 94, writes, “How long will the wicked, Hashem, how long will the wicked rejoice?” I wonder.

I wonder what our ancestors would think about what’s going on. In this week’s parasha, Vayera, God’s messengers set out to destroy Sodom and Gommorah. Abraham speaks out to God, saying:

חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵעֲשֹׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כׇּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט׃

“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
And God listens to Abraham bargain for the lives of 50…40…30…20…and finally says:

לֹ֣א אַשְׁחִ֔ית בַּעֲב֖וּר הָעֲשָׂרָֽה׃

“I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.”

So while it feels like so few are mourning the Jews, and not nearly enough are screaming for the return of hostages, I also spill drop after drop of wine from the Passover cup. No one I know is rejoicing or celebrating the loss of life going on in this war. Perhaps we should spare Gaza if only for the sake of 10. But that’s not how the story goes in our parasha. There weren’t 10… Lot begged his sons-in-law to leave and they didn’t. The IDF continues to warn the innocent, begging them to stay out of harm’s way. What more can we really do? And it’s tragic. All of it. I’m left only with the words of Kohelet, who shares my growing cynicism:

אֶת־הַכֹּ֥ל רָאִ֖יתִי בִּימֵ֣י הֶבְלִ֑י יֵ֤שׁ צַדִּיק֙ אֹבֵ֣ד בְּצִדְק֔וֹ וְיֵ֣שׁ רָשָׁ֔ע מַאֲרִ֖יךְ בְּרָעָתֽוֹ׃

“In my own brief span of life, I have seen both these things: sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness.” This directly contradicts Abraham’s message to God, but all of us have seen this play out in one way or another.

I don’t have the answers, or even a particularly hopeful message. All I know is that we are to blot out the memory of Amalek – and today, that means Hamas. Let us not be consumed by rage, and thereby turn into the ‘genocidal regime’ they claim we are. Let us muster our strength and resolve to do what is necessary, and when the dust settles work for real and lasting peace in security in Israel. I will continue to pray for the hostages immediate return, the safety of our soldiers, and our fellow Jews worldwide in the face of growing antisemitism. I will continue to mourn the innocent lives in Israel and in Gaza. And I will cry out for a lasting peace to come speedily, and in our lifetime.


“Israel: Strength and Peace”

Posted on October 25, 2023

By Rabbi Alex Freedman.

One week ago, I was profoundly sad about what happened in Israel on October 7th. The Hamas murderous attack on Israeli civilians and soldiers left a devastating death toll and frightening number of Israeli captives. That sadness has not left me.

But today, I’m also consumed by a storm of other emotions when I follow the news from our Jewish homeland. I’m angry, I’m disappointed, I’m devastated, I feel betrayed, and I’m enraged. I could detail them all, but our hearts have throbbed with enough pain these two weeks. And yet at other moments I am inspired. Three things have given me energy during these trying days.

First is being together with you all. Your physical presence at the Beth El Solidarity Gathering 9 days ago was deeply uplifting. Seeing 300 of you rise out of these very seats and proudly wave the blue and white flag took my breath away. If you were here that night – and many of you were – you know exactly what I mean.

Second is singing and hearing Israeli songs and Hatikvah. Those words just mean more now. There was a moment last Tuesday afternoon when I was walking from one part of this building to another, and I passed the Sager Beit Midrash. Inside Hazzan Greenberg was leading the afternoon Hebrew school kids in Al Kol Eileh, and the song just got me. It made me stop. That day the melody soothed my anxious soul. 

And the third thing that has given me strength is guidance from the Jewish tradition. I think of a verse from Scripture that I heard taught by Alan Dershowitz, the well-known lawyer and staunch defender of Israel, who is not uncontroversial. I heard him speak in a synagogue years ago during another difficult moment in Israel’s history. 

He quoted the last verse from Psalm 29, which we sing in full every Friday night as part of Kabbalat Shabbat services. It reads, Adonai Oz L’Amo Yiten, Adonai Yevarech Et Amo Vashalom. “G-d will give strength to His people; G-d will bless His people with peace.” We sing these words frequently, and they are in fact the last words of the full Birkat Hamazon, Grace After Meals.

Dershowitz taught that there is indeed a deep connection between G-d’s blessings of strength and peace: Sometimes peace comes only as a result of strength. But the purpose of strength and power must always be peace.

Indeed, sometimes only strength can bring about peace. Peace does not come about passively, not by waiting nor wishing. Peace is a verb, and it must be actively achieved. Sometimes peace comes from extending an olive branch, and this approach is optimal, teaches the Torah. Do not forget that Israel has pursued this direction many times in its history.

In 1937 and 1947, the Jews and Arabs were offered the chance to split Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Both times the Jews said Yes while the Arabs said No. 

In the year 2000 and again in 2008, Israeli prime ministers offered the Palestinians a very generous package of land for a Palestinian state and more in exchange for peace. But the Palestinians said No both times.

Israel has made peace with two former enemies, Egypt and Jordan. From 80 years ago through today, Israel’s reflex has been to seek peace with its neighbors.

However, now is not the moment to achieve peace through an olive branch. It gives me no pleasure to say that, but I can’t forget October 7th. Now is the moment peace must be achieved through strength, through eliminating the terrorist group Hamas. 

At the same time, the end goal of possessing strength and power must always, always be peace. Israel is doing its very best to avoid civilian casualties, as it should, but it’s an impossible task when Hamas intentionally uses Palestinian civilians as human shields. It saddens me deeply when innocent Palestinians are killed or wounded too. To quote a post from Jack Levy, “Not a single person who has been killed or injured since Saturday would have been, were it not for Hamas.” Israel’s long-term goal must remain to achieve calm and quiet for both Israelis and for Palestinians who are not Hamas.

Today’s reading of Parashat Noach speaks of how violence – in Hebrew “Hamas” – led to the destruction of all creatures on earth, save for Noah and those on the ark. But the portion concludes with the picture of restoration and peace. First, we see the olive branch in the dove’s mouth, and later we read about the rainbow G-d places in the sky. Why a rainbow, of all signs? Ramban suggests that the rainbow looks like the bow and arrow, and when it arcs upward, it appears as if heaven is no longer aiming arrows toward humanity, as it were. The inverted bow signals G-d’s peaceful intentions. And on this special bow in the sky, there is no string on which to place arrows, another sign of laying down the weapon.

Adonai Oz l’Amo Yiten, Adonai Yevarech Et Amo Vashalom. “G-d will give strength to His people; G-d will bless His people with peace.”

These words guide me during this scary moment. The words speak to my head, but the melody speaks to my heart. I invite Hazzan Sandler to sing this now.

Shabbat Shalom. Am Yisrael Chai.

“Noah’s Ark…a story for kids??”

Posted on October 19, 2023

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.

Despite many creative animal depictions and fun songs, like “Rise and Shine,” based on this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach is not for kids! 

Violence, wrong, injury, lawlessness, oppression, robbery, evil-doing. All of these words have been used to translate the Hebrew word hamas into English, a word as old as Parashat Noah, where it makes its first biblical appearance: ‘The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness (hamas). When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness (hamas) because of them; I am about to destroy them with the earth.’ (Gen. 6:11-13)

Sadly, this scriptural introduction of hamas coincides with the surreal reality of how the terrorist organization of the same name is currently murdering an unbelievable number of lives of our Israel, the land of our people, of all of us, of Am Yisrael.

Turning back to our parasha, God commands Noah to build an ark (teivah), where he, his family, two of every non-kosher animal, and fourteen of every kosher animal board the teivah. It rains for 40 days and 40 nights, creating a 150 day flood that destroys everything. After those 5 months, Noah sends out a raven-and then a dove-to see if the water has gone away. The dove returns with an olive branch, a symbol that we know well as one of the most iconic visual representations of peace.

Peace, Shalom. We pray for the same transition from our parasha, from hamas to shalom, from lawlessness to peace. We are broken, but we are strong. “Israel will prevail,” a statement I have been hearing from many IDF soldiers since the war broke out. 

Wholeness, fullness, completeness. The opposite of brokenness is wholeness, shleimut, a word who shares its Hebrew root with shalom. We daven with a whole heart, a Lev Shalem, from our siddur of the same name. We pray with all our heart for an end to the war, for peace in Israel, for a time when we can fulfill the vision of our prophets: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3)

Until then, we pray for the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel, for those taking shelter in their “teivah” until this storm passes, and for those fighting to defend our holy land.

From the prayer for the IDF written by the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel:

“May God defeat our enemies and crown our forces with salvation and victory. Through them may this verse be fulfilled: ‘For it is Adonai, your God, Who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.’” (Deut. 20:4)

May we only know from shalom and shleimut, peace and wholeness, for each of us, for all of us, for Medinat Yisrael.


Am Yisrael Chai!!

Praying for Israel

Posted on October 12, 2023

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.

Like many of us, all I can think about is what’s going on in our beloved Israel. I’ve never watched so much news in my life. All of it brings to mind Psalm 27 which we finished reciting only just a week ago. For nearly 2 months, we said these words, twice daily: 

אִם־תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי  מַחֲנֶה לֹא־יִירָא לִבִּי אִם־תָּקוּם עָלַי מִלְחָמָה בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ׃

“Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear; 

Though war should rise up against me, Even then will I be confident.”

On the one hand, from half a planet away, I do have fear. I think many of us do, as do our loved ones in Israel. Fear for our family, our friends. Fear for how long this may last. Fear for the lives it will cost us. Fear over the world’s response to our response. And yet, I’ve heard from many Israelis, through personal texts, social media posts, and on the news, that unlike the Yom Kippur war 50 years ago, there is a strong confidence that Israel will prevail. The IDF is strong, and more than double its regular size in terms of active soldiers. And Am Yisrael is stepping up in all the ways we can to support Israel at this time. 

In the very same psalm, the psalmist prays, 

אַל־תִּתְּנֵנִי בְּנֶפֶשׁ צָרָי כִּי קָמוּ־בִי עֵדֵי־שֶׁקֶר וִיפֵחַ חָמָס׃

“Deliver me not to the desire of my foes; for false witnesses have risen against me, and spouters of violence (heb. ‘Hamas’).”

This is my payer too. That God will save us, our people, from Hamas – the terrorist organization, and all violence for which it was named. On the High Holidays, we stood in anxiety, asking “who shall live and who shall die – and how?” Left with three paths to a better fate: Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedakah. It seems so obvious now. We must strive to be the very best people we can be, living our ethical and spiritual values every day. We can pray together, as we will tonight and in the days and weeks ahead. As our ancestors did and as the psalmist did. And we can give tzedakah – acts of charity, donations to organizations that can help support Israel in all its efforts. Tzedakah being derived from the root Tzedek meaning justice. Our thoughts, our words and our deeds define who we are, and collectively we can impact our world through these channels. 

So I will continue to pray:

May the lives of the innocent be spared as much as possible.
May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease and a great peace will embrace the whole world.
May we recall the words spoken to Joshua when our people first returned to the land after sojourning in Egypt, and the wilderness. Those same words echoed at the end of Psalm 27.

חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ
Be strong and resolute.

לוּלֵא הֶאֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב־יְהֹוָה בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים׃
קַוֵּה אֶל־יְהֹוָה חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל־יְהֹוָה׃

“If only I could trust that I would see the good of HaShem in the land of the living.
Place your hope in HaShem, may your heart be strong and resolute, and hope in HaShem.”

Simchat Torah: New Year, New You, New Torah

Posted on October 4, 2023

ByRabbi Alex Freedman.

“What is old, make new.  What is new, make holy.”  –  Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook 

On Saturday night we commence Simchat Torah, the joyous celebration of completing the Torah once again. Not content to rest, we jump back to the beginning and immediately renew our study once again.

As parents, we expect our children to learn important subjects several times. For example, we learned about the American Revolution in grade school, middle school, and high school. At Religious School, our kids explore Passover every single year because it’s fundamental to who we are as Jews. But in both schools we expect that our children learn something new and different even when they return to the same subject.

As for our children, ourselves. We, too, should make our Torah study different this year. The words are the same, but we are not. The insights of others, too, have much to offer. 

I propose here five different ways to make Torah study new in the year ahead.

1.    Read it with a commentary.

The Etz Hayim Humash, the red book we use to follow Torah readings, is a fantastic achievement of the Conservative Movement. Don’t just follow the translations on the top of the page. Explore the commentaries in the middle and bottom of the pages on Shabbat or at home (all of our B’nai Mitzvah receive one). I highly recommend the thoughts at the bottom: they answer the question, “Why do these words matter today?”

2.    Subscribe to a Dvar Torah.

There is so much quality Torah online. Educate yourself by subscribing to one or more thoughts on the weekly Parsha. I recommend the ones from JTS and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, but there are many more out there.(http://www.jtsa.edu/jts-torah-online?search=&genre=2046&parashah=&holiday=&theme=&series=&author=)

3.    Study with somebody, anybody.

Set a regular time to open up the book with your child or a friend and read aloud.  Share your thoughts and questions with your partner (called a “Hevruta”). You can read as quickly or slowly as you like. Having a partner makes workouts better, and the same is true for study.

4.    Ask questions when you have.

We all have questions, and questions lead to both answers and interesting conversations. Google will take you far, but asking real people will go further.  Answering congregants’ questions about Jewish life and Torah study is really one of my favorite parts of the job. Please email me with questions or ask me in shul. That’s a big reason why I’m here!

5.     Give your own Dvar Torah.

Sometimes a question will lead you to insights that you want to share with others in the form of a Dvar Torah (short sermon).  This could be at a Minyan, a Bar Mitzvah party, a wedding, or even a Shabbat or holiday dinner table. To share some Torah in memory of a loved one is always a moving experience for the one delivering the talk as well as those in attendance. Of course I’m happy to help with this. 

As always, Rabbi Schwab and I will be teaching adult ed. classes, which will begin very soon. Don’t worry, we’ve got new material this year!

As we begin the Torah anew as a community this weekend, let’s do the same as individuals too.

Please join us for dancing with the Torahs on Saturday night at 7:00 PM.

Chag Sameach!

“Let There Be Love”

Posted on September 27, 2023

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.

Every night in the
Ma’ariv service, we recite the words of Hashkiveinu, our daily evening prayer in which we reference Sukkat Shlomekha, the peaceful shelter that God provides us every night.

This prayer’s central image of the “Sukkah of Peace” holds even greater significance during the festival of Sukkot, during which we spend time dwelling, eating, learning, and just being in our personal and communal sukkot.
With every translation from one language to another comes an interpretation. The following text is found within Siddur Mishkan Tefila as the interpretative translation of Hashkiveinu:

“Let there be love
And understanding among us. 
Let peace and friendship
Be our shelter from life’s storms.”

Not only does this verbiage speak of the values of this particular tefillah, but the concepts of love, understanding, peace, friendship and shelter are ideas that can be nurtured by our experiences dwelling in sukkot.
But I will focus on the first of these, love, because if there is love, the rest of those values will follow. 

“Let there be love.” 

According to Likkutei Torah, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi suggests that the sukkah represents a divine hug. A hug represents love in its physical form for any loving relationship, whether it be romantic, familial or platonic. 

…or divine…

Liadi suggests that the sukkah is a manifestation of Song of Songs 2:6, “God’s right hand hugs me.” And this connects with Shir haShirim Rabbah, a commentary on this verse, stating that “God’s left arm cradles my head.” And together, this hug of God’s left and right arms are represented by the sukkah.

When we immerse our entire bodies into the sukkot we visit and dwell in during this upcoming harvest festival, may we each feel that metaphorical embrace of God’s love surrounding us from every direction.

Chag Sukkot Sameach!

May Their Memory Be For A Blessing

Posted on September 21, 2023

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.

Between Rosh HaShanah, known in the Torah as Yom HaZikaron (the Day of Remembrance), and Yom Kippur, I’m thinking about memory and the Yizkor service. It is common when Jews interact with mourners to say, “May their memory be for a blessing.” I like this phrase more than “They’re in a better place” or “may they rest in peace” because these phrases focus on the deceased. But what we say is focused on the mourner – the one who remembers, and thereby grieves. But what does it mean for a memory to be for a blessing? And is this even how people talk? 

In the Yizkor service, the liturgy still implores us to pledge an act of Tzedakah (usually monetary) in memory of our loved one(s). So their memory is indeed an opportunity for us to contribute to another living person’s experience of a blessing – like money for food, clothing, shelter, or any other number of blessings provided by a charitable organization. Perhaps, the phrase means something more like, “may the memories we hold on to and share be comforting.” Our hope is that our memories elicit a feeling of being blessed to have known our loved one, rather than feeling exclusively sad and grief-stricken by the loss.

Since my parents are still alive, I wouldn’t ordinarily be in the Yizkor service if not for being a Hazzan. That’s only a custom, so if you choose to stay regardless, you’re welcome and may get a lot out of it. Still, I’m remembering grandparents, friends who left this world too soon, and some distant relatives I didn’t know that well. 

So, what constitutes a memory? Is it a name? A birthdate or yahrzeit date? A picture from generations past? What about those who died long before us? Are their memories still a blessing? First hand memories are wonderful, but so are stories we hear and can imagine. Quotes or aphorisms attributed to those long gone help us glimpse the values of our ancestors. A personal journal or piece of writing could be invaluable. 

A year or so ago, I started reading my Great-grandfather Phil’s journal, z”l*. He only started keeping one for the last few years of his life to recount stories about his family – his grandparents, and parents and siblings. He hadn’t yet written about my grandfather, his son, before he passed away. Reading his words, getting a sense of how he thought, how he might’ve spoken, and what he deemed important to pass on helped me feel close to him, like I got to know him even though my mom was only a year or so old when he died. The journal, found and published by my first cousin once removed, also had lots of pictures in it. And after a few weeks of reading through this journal, I had a dream and he was in it. He didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know what his voice sounded like. But I could see him sitting there, and I knew that it was him. 

After my Bubbe z”l passed away, I had several dreams she was in, that I called visits. I believe that dreams have a deep spiritual nature to them. And when I was able to construct through pictures and writings a memory of who my great-grandfather was, that memory became a blessing to me as I, in a limited sense, got to meet him. 

When I think about those I knew and loved and mourn during Yizkor, I believe in all three of the blessings their memories can be. A blessing to those who benefit from the Yizkor pledge to give Tzedakah, a blessing of comfort to those who live and remember, and a blessing to the soul of our loved ones who are able to live on in those memories, and stay intimately connected with us here in this world until it is our time to join them in the world to come.

*z”l = Zichrono/zichronah Livracha (His/her memory for a blessing)

Rosh HaShanah: Tashlich-Throwing Our Sins Away

Posted on September 13, 2023

By Rabbi Alex Freedman.

This year’s Beth El Tashlich will enable us to go down to the beach and actually throw our breadcrumbs into the water. (The last few years, our neighbor’s stairs were covered by high water levels, so we were limited to our backyard, but no longer.) Please join us at shul on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Sunday, September 17th at 6:00 pm. Those who are up for lots of stairs can go down to the beach, while those who prefer not to can throw from our backyard.

That was the Tachlis, and here’s the Torah. Actually, this ritual is not from the Torah per se, and not even mentioned in the Talmud. But it does quote a verse from the prophet Micah: “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (7:19).

The key idea is that we are casting our sins away, so we throw bread crumbs to be carried away by the waters. But Tashlich is not a “magical trick” by any means. There’s no “hocus pocus” involved, and not even a blessing recited. Instead, it’s a physical actualization of a theoretical concept.

The theme of the holiday is Teshuvah, repentance. And all this occurs in our heads. The thoughts of renewal we have, the words of apology we say, the songs we sing – they are all in our minds. But the rabbis were brilliant educators, and they wanted to engage all our senses. So they created a tactile element to this intellectual process. When we throw the bread into the water on Rosh HaShanah, it’s a physical release, which caps off the conceptual release made earlier in the holiday. Tashlich is the finishing touch.

Shanah Tovah!