Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Isaac’s Unique Meditative Practice

Posted on October 27, 2021


by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

Once, when I was in high school, I missed the bus home. My sister had after school activities, and my parents were working late so nobody could pick me up to drive me. This perfect storm inspired me to make the ten minute drive home on foot. It took me an hour and half, and there weren’t enough sidewalks, but I really enjoyed the experience. I ended up choosing to walk home about once a week just for fun.

What I loved about walking home was that it provided the time to talk to myself, think aloud and reflect on any number of things going on in my life at that point. I would think about anything and everything, and this proved to be one of my earliest spiritual experiences. I’d often direct my monologuing toward God, who I believe was a deep and thoughtful listener. When a particularly novel idea came to me, I attributed that inspiration to God and my walks home proved to be a deeply meditative exercise.

In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, we have an instance of a word, which is used only once in the entire Tanakh, “לָשׂוּחַ” (la-suach). It appears in Genesis 24:62, the verse reads,  “וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃” — “vayeitzei Yitzchak la-suach basadeh lifnot arev, vayisa einav vayar v’hinei g’malim ba’im.” — “And Isaac went out walking* in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching.” In our Eitz Chayim chumash la-suach is translated as walking. However, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan asserts that this is actually “the very first reference to meditation in the Bible.” He relates the root of שׂוּחַ (suach) to שׂיחַ (siyach) and its derivative שׂיחה (sichah) meaning conversation. We can therefore interpret the Hebrew to mean, “And Isaac went out, to meditate in the field…” Naturally the Hebrew holds both meanings at once, whereas the english translation is forced to choose. I don’t imagine Isaac sitting pretzel-style in the fields, breathing deeply as one might imagine someone meditating today — that is just one form of meditation. I picture Isaac’s experience as looking and sounding more like my meditative walks home from school, conversing alone and with God. This is a great model for individual prayer as well. I encourage you to give it a try! Go out, like Isaac, take a walk and “suach” meditate and see what meaning and inspiration it yields for you.

The Righteous in the City

Posted on October 19, 2021

by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

We’re exactly halfway through the month of Cheshvan, the second month on the Jewish calendar and one with no holidays in it. From the end of Simchat Torah to Hannukah (9 weeks!) we have no holidays to celebrate. Perhaps that’s why the Torah portions that we read during this time are some of the most iconic, with the most incredible stories and lessons to be learned. The creation story, Noah’s ark, Abraham and Sarah and the adventures of our ancestors all the way through the story of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. 

We listen to and learn the incredible stories of these characters and how they navigated walking through the world in their time. They had so many flaws! Each of them made mistakes along their journeys, but they continued to strive throughout their lives to make themselves and the world better. 

Amidst all of these stories, there are little gems and pearls of wisdom hidden on the pages that our chassidic masters pull out to teach us life lessons. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we see Abraham arguing with God, asking God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if God can find just 50 righteous people in the city. And God responds, “Im emtza Chamishim tzadikim b’toch ha’ir… (Bresishit 18:26)” “If I find just 50 righteous people in the city…”

Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, a famous chassidic rebbe, zooms in on those words “b’toch ha’ir,” “In the city” and discovers something incredibly powerful. He says, “It’s not enough to find 50 righteous people who are ‘benchwarmers’ in the study hall (i.e. studious rabbis and text learners who study in the ivory tower), rather find people who are within the city, mixed in with all the rest of the people, dealing with the world as it is and even so still remain righteous! Only on the merit of those people will God save the city.” 

It’s easy to be a tzadik, a righteous person, when you don’t engage with the world. It’s much harder to be out in the city, out on the streets, out engaging and interacting with human beings all the time, and still remain a tzaddik. To be righteous is to be able to interact with human beings at our worst and still find love and compassion and warmth in your heart for our fellow humans. As we enter into Shabbat this week, let’s strive to be righteous in the eyes of Rebbe Simcha Bunim and find a little more love in our hearts to spread over the world.

Shabbat Shalom


The Spirituality of Routine

Posted on October 13, 2021

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

For many of us, the word spiritual conjures up images of exceptional moments or singular events.  Perhaps we feel that to “be spiritual,” or to “feel spiritual” we need to do something outside the box – something unique and thrilling.  

In fact, sometimes this is absolutely true, like when we experience the birth of a child, witness the sunrise over the grand canyon or touch the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the first time.  Yet, often we pay too little attention to the spirituality of routine – the critical importance that repeated daily actions play in our spiritual lives and which, in turn, shape who we are.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that Immanuel Kant, arguably the most brilliant philosopher of modern times, was famous for his routine. As Heinrich Heine wrote “Getting up, drinking coffee, writing, giving lectures, eating, taking a walk, everything had its set time, and the neighbours knew precisely that the time was 3:30 pm when Kant stepped outside his door with his grey coat and the Spanish stick in his hand.”  Sacks notes that these details, together with more than 150 other examples drawn from the great philosophers, artists, composers and writers, come from a book by Mason Currey entitled Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work.  As Sacks wrote, “Note the paradox. These were all innovators, pioneers, ground-breakers, trail-blazers, who formulated new ideas, originated new forms of expression, did things no one had done before in quite that way. They broke the mould. They changed the landscape. They ventured into the unknown.”  The same people who created moments of singular greatness lived a life dedicated to a sacred routine.

A great way to understand the connection between these two concepts is to look at the Hebrew word for daily work, avodah. Perhaps not coincidentally this is also the word for “serving God”.  It seems that the Hebrew language is teaching us that spirituality has its roots in meaningful routine and hard work.  

As Sacks points out, the people who change the world “are those who turn peak experiences into daily routines”. That is why Judaism focuses so much on taking our lofty ideals and turning them into a way of life lived in the everyday.  In fact, Jewish law itself consists of a set of routines that shapes the way we view the world and how we act toward each other on a daily basis.

Yes, sometimes living a life of what I like to call, “sacred routine” could seem boring compared to the extraordinary experience of a singular thrill.  But, as Sacks writes, “that is all they are: experiences. They linger in the memory, but they are not part of everyday life. They are not woven into the texture of our character. They do not affect what we do or achieve or become. Judaism is about changing us so that we become creative artists whose greatest creation is our own life and that needs daily rituals: Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv, the food we eat, the way we behave at work or in the home, the choreography of holiness  . . .” Routine and spirituality are not categorically separate terms.  Rather, sacred routine lays the groundwork for spirituality, prepares us to see the sacred dimension of daily life and gives us context to enhance those unique moments we do experience and incorporate them more meaningfully into the rest of our lives. 

Cheshvan: The Pause Between the Notes

Posted on October 6, 2021

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

Chodesh Tov, everyone. Today is the second day of a two-day Rosh Chodesh—the beginning of the Hebrew month Cheshvan. Sandwiched between the marathon-like hustle and bustle of Tishrei with a full month of holidays and festivals and Kislev during which we celebrate Chanukah, Cheshvan provides a pause of sorts in the year. A transition point, a liminal space in time. It is neither fall nor winter; many of the leaves are still green, the weather is still mostly warm enough for shirt sleeves (particularly this year). We are still in Daylight Savings Time, about to thrust into the darkest part of the seasonal calendar in a few short weeks.

Although in a more micro-sense, this pause in time reminds me of a calendrical occurrence set by the Torah, the shmitta year. We only just entered a shmitta year on Rosh Hashana. The shmitta year is (among other things) essentially a Shabbat for the land—a year in which we are commanded to let the land lie fallow, not to harvest and to leave the land to rest, recover, recuperate.

It’s a lesson in environmental protection thousands of years old, still relevant today in ways way beyond harvests and crops and field.

But it’s also a lesson much more personal to our own lives in the 21st Century with its non-stop news cycles, social media gone insane, too much to fill each and every hour we’re not sleeping (and in those when we should be but cannot.)

Shmitta is breathing space writ large. A pause for the entire nation: a year of peace and quiet for all. The way it is written in the Torah, there is no private property, no oppression, no privilege, no entitlement. A reset and reboot.

We get a more intimate, smaller version of this each week as we hit pause—get off the treadmill—for Shabbat, however we observe it. A time to shake off ordinary weekday life and witness the extraordinary.

Which brings me back to Cheshvan. Cheshvan, with its absence of holidays and observances, is, in my opinion, intentional. A month of intense introspection, self-examination, atonement and then the energetic burst of celebration—it’s a lot to absorb, and to me, Cheshvan is the perfect time—the perfect pause—to absorb all of that. It’s a stop, a pause between the notes. As Jazz legend Miles Davis put it, “In music, silence is more important than sound.”

Bitter Cheshvan? Not to me? For it is between the pauses in the notes where the beauty, the art, the real music resides.

Chodesh Tov!

Are People More Like Animals or Angels?

Posted on September 27, 2021

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
considered miraculous.”

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.

Bring Your Own Spark

Posted on September 23, 2021

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






Be Happy, Be Human: Reflections on Z’man Simchateinu (Season of Our Joy)

Posted on September 15, 2021

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!

Shofarot and Jiminy Cricket

Posted on September 8, 2021

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.

Back to School, Back to Shul

Posted on September 1, 2021


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.


The Power of Jewish Camping

Posted on June 8, 2021

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.”