Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

The 613th Mitzvah

Posted on September 7, 2023

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.

The 613th mitzvah in the Torah falls within this week’s double Torah portion, Nitzavim and Vayelech. We read in Devarim 31:19, “Now, write down this shira (song/poem) and teach it to B’nei Yisrael–put it in their mouths.”

This is a verse with which so many of us are already familiar. We contributed to writing a Sefer Torah this past year during Beth El’s Mitzvah 613 Torah writing project. This very verse is quoted on every certificate given to anyone who participated in this mitzvah.

Rav, the great Babylonian commentator, said that writing a Sefer Torah is so important that if you do it, it’s as if you received the Torah on Har Sinai. We, at Beth El, revealed our newly completed Torah scroll for the first time this past Shavuot, when we celebrated the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai and read from it for the very first time.

Rav Sheshet, yet another of our great Babylonian commentators, said that even if you write a single letter in a Torah scroll, it’s considered as if you wrote the entire thing. What an amazing feat, to think that it truly “took a village,” and without everyone’s participation, we could not have fulfilled this mitzvah.

It takes many individuals within a wider community to write a Sefer Torah. And we did it!

According to the Rosh, the German-born medieval Talmudist, the purpose of this 613th mitzvah is to be sure that everyone can study Torah.

That being said, I’d like to agree with the Rosh by suggesting that in this upcoming new year of 5784, we can all take an opportunity to grow as Jews, to learn something new, to take on new rituals. I would love to challenge all of us to cling to our Torah,  “l’mahazikim ba,” as we say everytime we return the Torah to the ark. By remaining close to our Torah, may we all find opportunities to draw close to our new Torah, be it by learning to read Torah, taking an aliya to the Torah, or any variety of bima honors when we can experience what it feels like to be in proximity of our new scroll. 

“It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and all who hold onto it are blessed.”

Let us each find the opportunity to continue to fulfill the mitzvah of creating our new Sefer Torah by drawing close to it, learning from it, and finding blessing in every Torah encounter we have.

Shana Tova!


The King Is In The Field

Posted on August 31, 2023

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler

This Thursday we’re in the thick of it preparing for the High Holidays, and halfway through the month of Elul. Elul has always been my favorite month of the Jewish calendar – well, ever since I learned the following teaching: “The King is in the field.” This became a mantra in some ways, and a call to action in other ways. Of course God is always near to us, but it doesn’t always feel that way. In Elul, The King is in the field — not in the palace in the heart of a capital city. To visit a king in the palace requires great effort. One should dress their best, and behave extra carefully. They have to jump through the hoops of bureaucracy to even get an audience, and travel however far, use however many vacation days to make the journey to the King. In Elul, this is not so. In Elul the King, that is HaShem, comes down to the field – to the place where we are toiling through our work as usual. We can show up as we are, flawed and busy and flustered in the throes of earning our daily bread. Yet the King greets us all with a smile. There is no expectation to run home and change, or straighten up or even cease our work. Just like in Elul, it’s not a holy day, it’s business as usual — but it’s still a holy time, doing holy work in lockstep with our mundane tasks.

We have to hold the physical and spiritual, each in one hand simultaneously. And as I understand it, anything that can go right, will go right if we are working ot be our best selves. HaShem will bless our efforts, and support us in our teshuva. We should make great use of the time when the Shofar is blown, and reflect, repent, reconnect and renew. When it comes to making a change in the world, we can only really control ourselves. In this time, we can tap into a deep spiritual energy and make the change, begin the process. And take this headstart into the coming year. I encourage you to be on the lookout for the littlest miracles, the tiniest blessings. When something works out in your favor — short term or perhaps in the long term, remember: “The King is In The Field.” An early Shanah Tovah, and may we continue to see blessings abound through the year ahead. 

Parashat Ki Tetzei – Remember Amalek

Posted on August 23, 2023

By Rabbi Alex Freedman.

I’m afraid we may be remembering the wrong thing.
This week we read a passage connected to Purim, though it’s months away. We recall how the Israelites’ enemy Amalek nearly wiped them out shortly upon leaving Egypt. The connection to Purim is that Megillat Esther (3:1) tells us that Haman was himself an Amalekite.

The Jewish tradition has generally understood Amalek to be the external enemy that must constantly be destroyed. In other words, we are called upon to take up arms against someone in every generation. This position is highly dangerous.

I want to offer an interpretation from my teacher at JTS, Professor Alan Cooper, citing Rabbi Samuel ben Moses de Medina (16th century Greece).

He challenges the standard reading on two points:

1. The verse in this week’s Parsha (Dt. 25:18) reads: -וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹקים
“[Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, as you were leaving Egypt, that it happened upon you on the way and struck those of you in the back, all the weaklings behind you] when you were tired and exhausted and did not fear G-d.”

Carefully identify who the subject of the verse is. Almost all translations (including JPS) claim the ones who did not fear G-d were the callous Amalekites. But a Peshat (contextual) reading posits that the subject should be “You,” the Israelites. The Israelites were tired and exhausted, and they did not fear G-d either.

If so, why? 

2. Deuteronomy 25, our Parsha, is one of two descriptions of Amalek. The other appears in the Exodus narrative in real time, in Exodus Chapter 17. Exactly what precedes the battle with Amalek? The Israelites had just finished challenging Moses and G-d at Massah U’Merivah for not providing water. The very last line (17:7) before Amalek arrives describes the people wondering? הֲיֵשׁ ה’  בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן

“Is G-d among us or not?”

Rabbi Samuel claims that it was precisely the Israelites’ lack of faith in G-d and Moses that made them vulnerable to external attack. Amalek was nothing compared to the mighty Egyptian army just defeated, but it stood a chance because it attacked when the Israelites were spiritually weak. “Remember Amalek” is an eternal rallying call for the Jews to never forget how we were nearly destroyed when we lacked faith in G-d.

I hope that when challenges face our community – as they always have and always will – that we remember to look inwards before looking outwards.



Posted on June 28, 2023

Parasha Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Top 10 Reasons to Eat Cheesecake on Shavuot

Posted on May 24, 2023

By Rabbi Alex Freedman.


Chag Sameach!

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.   

10. Torah is compared to milk in Song of Songs 4:11. Just like milk sustains the body, Torah nourishes the soul.

9. The Torah recounts Israel’s journey from the bitterness of Egypt to the sweetness of Israel, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” On Shavuot we recall not just the pause at Sinai but the final destination of Israel.

8. The numerical value of “milk – Halav – חלב” is 40. This is an allusion to the 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai downloading the Torah.

7. The numerical value of “cheese – Gevinah – גבינה” is 70, which corresponds to the “70 faces of Torah,” the multitude of possible interpretations.

6. The four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26, which describe the Shavuot offering, are “Mincha Hadashah La’Doshem B’Shavuoteichem – an offering of new grain to Hashem on your Festival of Weeks.” The initials of these four words are מחלב. This means “from milk.”

5. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were considered to be as innocent as newborns, whose food is milk.

4. Scholars note that ethnic spring harvest festivals – not just Jewish – often feature dairy dishes, perhaps because this was the season for producing cheese.

3. When the Jews received the laws of Kosher slaughter and cooking on Mt. Sinai, they didn’t have the tools to immediately prepare for a meat meal. So they went dairy.

2. Mt. Sinai is also called Har Gavnunim הר גבנונים“the mountain of majestic peaks” in Psalms 68:16. The similar Hebrew word Gevinah גבינה means “cheese.”

1. This is not necessarily the best, but it is original, though it builds on #10. Milk symbolizes life. It’s a product that flows from a living animal and sustains another living animal. By contrast, meat is a product that comes from a dead animal. Torah, like milk, emerges from life, and our experiences and Torah nourish the living. Like milk, Torah symbolizes life. L’Chaim.

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.

Chag Sameach!

“Recall, Remember, Celebrate”

Posted on May 17, 2023

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.


Ki mitzion tetze Torah udvar Hashem mirushalayim.
Torah shall come from Zion, the word of Adonai from Jerusalem.

This final half of Isaiah 2:3 is a familiar one, as we recite this passage every time we take the Torah out of the ark. But it bears a particular weight this week, and for 3 different reasons:

  1. This biblical quote is significant to all Jews around the world as this Shabbat, we begin reading from the 4th book of the Torah, known to us in English as Numbers. But its Hebrew name, Bamidbar, in the wilderness, is particularly meaningful to us. As Rabbi Reuven Hammer z”l describes in his Or Chadash commentary: “We…recall the days of the wilderness when the Ark, the archetype of the Ark in which we keep the Torah, led the people on their journey. So too does the Torah lead us on our journey of life.” Every time we remove the scroll to be publicly read throughout the week (Shabbat Mincha, Monday and Thursday mornings, Shabbat morning), we recall this age-old practice whose origins are referenced throughout the Torah and codified into practice during the Second Temple period. And we connect our modern day practice to its ancestral origins.
  2. This Friday, we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, which the Knesset established as an annual celebration every year on the 28th of Iyyar. We celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War in 1967 by adding celebratory prayers to our daily services. “…The word of Adonai from Jerusalem.” This phrase, recited whenever we take out the Torah, has even greater meaning this week. In the context of Yom Yerushalayim, we recognize the significance of this holy city throughout Jewish  history. Bringing it back to its author, Hammer shares the following: “Isaiah, in his great vision of the end of days, Isaiah saw the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship our God and learn God’s teaching: Torah.”
  3. Which leads me to the third reason for the significance of Ki Mitzion to us this week. It should come as no surprise that we at Beth El have been working together as a kehila kedosha, a holy community, to create our very own Torah scroll. So many of us have participated in fulfilling the 613th Mitzvah, to write a Torah, as it states towards the end of the Torah in Devarim 31:19, “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel.” We will complete this new scroll on Sunday morning, May 21st, gathered together in the Field Family Sanctuary, reminiscent of the gathering of B’nei Israel at Har Sinai, as our ancestors prepared to receive the Torah on the festival of Shavuot, which we will celebrate next week.

We will recall our time Bamidbar, in the wilderness, for all Jews, as “the Torah leads us on our journey of life.”

We will remember Yerushalayim, when we place our new Torah in our Aron haKodesh for the very first time.

We will celebrate the awesomeness of having created an entire Torah, together, as a kehila kedosha, a holy community.

As we recited at the end of Vayikra last Shabbat: Hazak, Hazak, v’nitchazek! May we all be strengthened through this holy communal experience.

Mazal Tov to all of us!



The Spiritual Journey of Counting the Omer: Reflections Of The Road So Far, and Musings On The Weeks Ahead

Posted on May 10, 2023

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.


Lag BaOmer was Monday night/Tuesday this week. The 33rd day of our 7-week journey to Shavuot. The Torah teaches that while we left Egypt and were free on Passover, our freedom wasn’t fully realized until we received the Torah 7 weeks later. As we count those same 7 weeks, we have an opportunity to refine our souls and become even more ready to take hold of our freedom and be our best selves.

I like to ask a lot of questions during the Omer about the sefira (attribute/trait) of the week, and the sefira of the day – how they relate and inform each other. If you’ve been coming to evening minyan regularly, you’ve heard me do this. If not, come check it out.

During the first week, in focusing on Chesed (lovingkindness), I wondered how can I be sure that my love or kindness is still respectful of others’ boundaries (Day 2: Gevurah in Chesed). You wouldn’t want to go in for the hug without knowing if that person is a hugger, or at least it never hurts to ask. Later that week (Day 6: Yesod in Chesed), I thought about how the bonds and relationships in my life support my kindness. Do I surround myself with people who encourage, value and inspire me to be kinder? 

During the second week, the week of Gevurah (strength/discipline/restraint/judgment), I thought about how my judgment should come from a place of love and rooted in kindness. (Day 8: Chesed in Gevurah). Sometimes we need tough love. On Day 12 (Hod in Gevurah), it was Yom HaShoah uGevurah, I thought about how judgment without humility can be incredibly dangerous. We must know that our strength comes from HaShem, and never forget what can happen if we become arrogant and judgmental or worse.

The third week is about Tiferet, which is associated with beauty and balance, but also truth and the integration of extremes. I thought about (Day 18: Netzach in Tiferet), how finding balance is never a done deal. That we need to find enduring balance, which requires constantly balancing. It’s an exercise that is ongoing. 

In the fourth week, the theme was Netach (endurance, eternity – netzach netzachim, but also ambition and success – nitzachon). I thought about (Day 23: Gevurah in Netzach) how to make good decisions into lasting good habits. I also meditated on (Day 26: Hod in Netzach), sometimes in order to reach our ambitious goals, we need to let go and be grateful for what we’ve already achieved. It’s also important to be humble in our pursuits and asking for help and receiving feedback in order to continue succeeding in the long term.

And in this fifth week of Hod (humility, gratitude, surrender), I always remind myself (Day 29: Chesed in Hod) that humility is not thinking less of myself, but thinking of myself less. Humility is not self-deprecation, but a loving recognition of the greatness of others. I’ve also been thinking about (Day 34: Netzach in Hod) how important it is to make gratitude a practice. Not only to be thankful, but to make a habit of being thankful.

The days and weeks ahead we will look at Yesod and Malchut. Yesod is our foundation, our connections, and our relationships. We can think of our partners, teams, colleagues, families, friends, communities and how they serve as our foundation, our support and our source of intimacy. We might ask ourselves how can I be more kind in my relationships, more discerning, more honest, more consistent or more grateful? 

And the final week of Malchut is the most challenging. Malchut is the great receiver. She is the manifestation of all we learn each week, and how we receive the blessings of those meditations. How do we increase our dignity and our ability to lead with these traits? How can we move from freedom to true autonomy, allowing our soul to guide our bodies to do great things? Have we reflected and received the gifts of kindness, strength, balance, success, gratitude, and connection? And are we ready come day 50 to receive the Torah all over again?


Emor – Thinking of Rabbi Harold Kushner Z’L

Posted on May 3, 2023

By Rabbi Alex Freedman.


When people think of Rabbi Harold Kushner – the Conservative rabbi who passed away Friday at age 88 – they often associate him with the best-selling 1981 book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” And correctly so. That was a wonderful example of sharing Jewish wisdom with the larger world. If that had been his only teaching, Dayeinu – that would have been enough of a career accomplishment.

While I did read that book years ago, it’s not how I think of him as a teacher. That’s because I am grateful to learn from him in a very real way every single week – and you might too without even realizing it.

He was the editor of the Etz Hayim Humash commentary below the line (Drash). So if you are ever in shul following the Torah reading with the Humash, and your eyes wander to the bottom of the page, you are reading Kushner. These comments and insights share timeless treasures from the Torah verses. These short sentences instantly help us understand sometimes cryptic passages and stories. And they add holiness to those precious words.

Here is but one example from this week’s reading, Emor. The topic is the role of priests and how to maintain their ritual purity. The Torah says “and you must treat [the Priests] as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord who sanctify you am holy” (Lv. 21:8).

Let me quote Kushner’s comment on that idea: 
“Rabbis and cantors are no different from other Jews. They have no special powers; no obligations devolve on them that do not apply to all Jews. ‘Ten shoemakers can make a Minyan but nine rabbis can’t.’ Nonetheless, they are considered Klei Kodesh – instruments of holiness – because, through their knowledge and teaching and by life, character, and commitments, they show the way to a life of holiness.”

Rabbi Kushner was a mensch and certainly did not intend to glorify himself with those words. But those same words certainly apply to him. Many of us – plenty of rabbis included – have followed his lead to a life of holiness.

While he has sadly passed away, his words endure forever for they are printed for all of us to read. I and many other Jews who read the Humash every week will continue to learn from his wisdom without end.

May his memory be a blessing.

“At the Heart of Holiness”

Posted on April 26, 2023

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.


From Parashat Kedoshim, the second of our two parshiyot we read this Shabbat, we learn this golden rule from Vayikra 19:18: V’ahavta l’reiakha kamokha, Love your neighbor as yourself.

In the midst of the Holiness Code that spans Chapters 17-26, this biblical quote potentially sums up the entirety of the Torah, as it is written: “One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!’”

When we look at verse 18 in its entirety, this Talmudic story brings out the meaning of  this verse that much more: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” At the heart of the Holiness Code in the central book of the Torah, we are reminded by this verse that we have the potential to understand the holiness of God through our personal experiences and our interpersonal relationships. 

In certain traditional Jewish circles, children start their Torah learning not with the book of Genesis, but with the book of Leviticus. But by truly understanding Vayikra 19:18, we are also reminded of the beginning of the Torah, when God created us B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, we were each given holiness, that spark of the divine that dwells within every human being.

In the middle of this biblical book detailing the various sacrifices offered by our Israelite ancestors, we find this golden rule nestled among these details. We are reminded that while our prayers have now replaced these korbanot, these offerings, that at the heart of it all, we can find holiness: holiness within ourselves and empathy towards others. Loving ourselves and thinking of how our thoughts, words and actions can affect others can help each of us to make choices that will help us increase in holiness, ultimately emulating the divine holiness given to each of us back at the beginning of the Torah.

Throwback Thursday: D’var Torah for Tazria Metzora (pre-Hazzan) Jacob Sandler

Posted on April 26, 2023

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.


This past week we observed Yom HaShoah and this Shabbat, we will read from parshat Tazria-Metzora. The latter was my Bar Mitzvah portion 16 years ago. Back then, I wrote my first D’var Torah which connected the double parasha to the Holocaust, and what follows are those words I wrote in 2007, which continue to be relevant even today. I hope this #ThrowbackThursday is enjoyable to you, and you should feel free to share it with a B’nai Mitzvah student you know, who might especially get a kick out of seeing what their Hazzan was thinking about at their age. May this also serve as a reminder that deep insights can be learned from those who study Torah at any age, and those insights can remain inspiring even as they continue to grow.

“Shabbat Shalom!

Today’s Torah portion is Parashat Tazria Metzora which comes to us from the Book of Vayikra. Tazria Metzora is a double portion that focuses on the ritual purity and impurity of the Israelites’ bodies, clothing and homes. 

Parashat Tazria  begins by talking about the laws of human contamination. It talks about how a woman is impure at the time of childbirth and teaches us the specific rituals needed in order to become ritually pure again. The parasha continues with specific information on inflammations, burns on the skin, and an affliction similar to leprosy, called Tzara’at, which would appear on the head or face. 

Parashat Metzora continues by talking about the stages of purification and discusses the Tzara’at of the house [as well as] the measures needed to purify or destroy a contaminated house. Finally, parashat Metzora ends with what to do about normal and abnormal human discharges. 

The Torah states (Lev. 14:34-45),  כְּנֶגַע נִרְאָה לִי בַּבָּיִת׃.  “when you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an irruptive plague upon a house… The owner of the house shall come and tell the priest [something like a plague has appeared in my house]… The priest shall order the house cleared… And the priest shall enter to examine the house. the house becomes quarantined, and when the priest returns if the affliction has spread to the walls of the house, the contaminated portions and stones are removed. If the plague again breaks out… The house shall be torn down and taken to an impure place outside the city.“ “וְנָתַץ אֶת־הַבַּיִת…אֶל־מִחוּץ לָעִיר אֶל־מָקוֹם טָמֵא׃”

In other words, the house is examined, then the house is examined again, then the priest will decide whether or not the house will be torn down.

This is so interesting and this is so challenging. Who ever heard of walls, breaking out with an affliction, and then asking the Cohannet to come and look at the house? It’s so bizarre! So, I turned to the Talmud to help me understand it.

The Rabbis in the Talmud (Mishnah Eruvin 8:2:21) said, ‘bayit ham’nuga lo haya’ בית המנוגע לא היה – a house that carries the affliction of Tzara’at does not exist, ’v’lo atid lihyot’ ולא עתיד להיות – and will not exist in the future! When I first heard this, I said to myself, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me. The case of an infected house never existed, and will never exist? then why did I, and why should we, spend so much time studying about it?!?’ And the Talmud asks the same question, “lama nichtav – למה נכתב?” Why is it written in the Torah? דרוש וקבל שכר (d’rosh v’kibel s’char) – it is written in the Torah, so that we can study and expound upon it, and receive divine reward for our efforts. So I will do just that.

As our sages studied this Parsha, they concluded that Tzara’at  in the house was caused by Lashon HaRa – the evil tongue – or gossip. But I would like to take this one step further. The outbreak of Tzara’at could be used as a metaphor for what could happen to a society when they don’t take notice of any kind of misconduct, even something very small.

For example, this past Sunday, we observed Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. I feel that Tzara’at could be a metaphor for what happened in Nazi Germany. The Nazis spread negative propaganda against the Jews. They used blame and lies to make it seem like the Jews were responsible for all the bad things happening in Germany and the world. Using this metaphor, the Nazis’ use of Lashon HaRa would cause the affliction of [metaphorical] tzara’at within Germany and all Nazi occupied territory.

We can draw a parallel to today’s Parsha. Nazi Germany became an infected house. Those who resisted and the Allies would be like the Kohanim. The Kohanim determined the house was impure and had to be destroyed. And as we know the Allies realized that in order to save the Jews, and all the victims of the Shoah, Hitler and the Nazis had to be destroyed.

We can all learn from this Parsha. We can learn the rituals involved in purifying a house. We can also look for ways to purify ourselves. As a people, let us all act as the Kohanim, refraining from misconduct in order to avoid the spread of tzara’at in our lives.”