Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Parshat Mishpatim: Actualizing our Jewish Ideals

Posted on February 11, 2021

By Rabbi Michael Schwab

“How can we ensure that Jewish ideals—such as protecting the downtrodden and most vulnerable people in our society—emerge from the abstract and find expression in our daily lives?”  In a wonderful dvar Torah on Parshat Mishpatim, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin poses this critical question. Our weekly portion, Mishpatim, gives us a powerful answer: through sincere commitment to following Jewish law.  Law, which guides actual daily behavior, is the key vehicle for the tangible expression of the ideals and ethics we hold dear as Jews.  For example, the Torah states in our Parsha, “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person with you, you shall not behave toward him as a lender; you shall not impose interest upon him.” (Ex. 22:24).  This Torah verse takes the oft repeated values of having compassion for the downtrodden and for treating all people as fellow creations of Gd made in the Divine image, and gives them meaningful pragmatic expression.  Here the poor are referred to as “My people” — under the personal protection of Gd.  This is a clear statement that those who are poor are not to be treated as lesser, but as equally important and deserving of proper treatment.  Therefore, giving money to the poor is not a hand-out, a favor, or even a loan, but a required righteous act that fulfills the Divine principles of justice and compassion.      

Riskin points out that Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, in his famous work, Or Hahayim, expands on this idea in a radical way.  He writes that it is likely that everyone would agree that ideally all people would have an equal share in the resources of the world and that such a share would be more than sufficient for each person’s needs.  Alas, that is not how human history has played out.  But, the principle still directs our attitude towards our money, and therefore our treatment of it.  Based on this verse and others, he claims that those who have more resources are merely holding those resources on behalf of Gd for those who have less.  So, when we “lend” a poor person money it is not a true loan, as that money is actually part of their fair share. The affluent, therefore act as Gd’s sacred agents in the just allocation of Gd’s resources. As Riskin states, “This is the message of the exodus from Egypt, the seminal historic event that formed and hopefully still informs us as a people: no individual ought ever be owned by, or even be indebted to, another individual. We are all “‘owned by’ and must be indebted only to Gd.”

This is a foundational truth of our traditional legal system, which, therefore, gives us specific laws and actions that provide for the needs of the downtrodden and enslaved, the poor and the infirm, the orphan and the widow, the stranger and the convert. From this perspective, not only must we value Jewish law in order to preserve our ethical principles, but it is crucial that we ensure that Jewish law remains true to its ethical foundations in the way it is practiced each and every day.


The Gift of Torah

Posted on February 3, 2021

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week in Torah, the journey of our ancestors continues, leading them to the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses disappears for forty days to talk with God and return with the Ten Commandments. It’s a pivotal moment coming early in the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land and the “aseret hadibrot” (the ten words, as one might translate the Hebrew)  frame the entirety of the 613 commandments (mitzvot) contained in the Torah. Mitzvot that to this day provide structure and scaffolding to live a good Jewish life.

The Torah was given to the Israelites, a precious gift, and even the angels, says our tradition, were astounded that such a thing should be put into the keeping of mere mortals. But the Torah is ours, not just an artifact of an ancient time, but living, breathing document to be turned and studied and interpreted and re-interpreted to guide us.

Over the generations, the words of the Torah were inscribed onto parchment scrolls, from which each week we can study its words and explore its depths and meaning for us in our time.

North Suburban Synagogue Beth El is blessed to have numerous Torah scrolls. Most weekdays when we read Torah publicly and on Shabbat, we only need a single Torah; there are some Shabbatot where we need up to three! (February 13 is one of those rare three-Torah days).

But Torah scrolls are handwritten in quill and ink on heavy parchment, and over time and with use (and sometimes with lack of use), the letters fade, flake off or something else goes wrong with the physical scroll and the writing. And the Torah scroll in order to be considered “Kosher” and appropriate to read publicly must be in perfect condition.

When we identify a problem, it needs to be repaired. Perhaps a letter needs to be re-inked meticulously and as an exact match to the hand that is in the original scroll. Perhaps an entire section needs re-inking or replacing.

So every once in a while, it’s a good idea to have all the Torahs checked to make sure they are in perfect condition for use. And to identify issues—and fix them.

Next week we will be hosting a visit from Sofer on Site, a company specializing in Torah repair and restoration. Rabbi Moshe Druin, one of their master sofrim (scribes) will visit Tuesday and Wednesday first to evaluate all our Torahs and initiate repairs. Wednesday, February 10, everyone will have an opportunity view him at work via the “Torah Cam,” which will be placed in the Zell to allow us a bird’s eye view of Rabbi Druin as he repairs our Torahs. He is happy to answer questions and explain what he is doing if you stop by any time between 10 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday. Questions before Rabbi Druin’s visit? Feel free to email me at bbarnett@nssbethel.org.

Tu B’Shvat -Wisdom From Trees

Posted on January 27, 2021

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

Trees provide us with so much: oxygen, shade, fruit, and metaphors.

One of my all-time favorite teachings centers around trees:

The Talmud (Taanit 23a) shares a short story:

One day [Honi the circle maker] was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Honi said to him: “How many years does it take for this tree to bear fruit?” 

The man said to him: “70 years.” 

Honi said to him: “Is it clear to you that you will live 70 years [and benefit from this tree? Why are you planting this if you will not be around to see it in full bloom?]”

He said to [Honi]: “I found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.

Honi sat and ate bread. Sleep overcame him and he slept. A cliff formed around him, and he disappeared from sight and slept for 70 years. When he awoke, he saw a certain man gathering carobs from that tree. Honi said to him: “Are you the one who planted this tree?” 

The man said to him: “I am his grandson.” 

I am captivated by the image of planting: One seed – when planted – can yield an entire tree, which can grow and produce more seeds to become an entire grove. Just like one person can become the top of a family tree with countless branches.

I love that the anonymous man appreciated that the resources around him were provided by others. He woke up on third base and did not think he hit a triple.

I am moved by the man’s reflex of responsibility. Though nobody tells him to, he intuits that he has an obligation to others he cannot even see.

I am touched that the man’s grandson finds himself in the very same place where his grandfather once planted. The very one to benefit from the grandfather’s tree is not a stranger but family.

May we – grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren all – enjoy the fruit of previous generations, and may we plant more for those who follow us.

Lessons from the Olive Tree

Posted on January 21, 2021

By Hazzan Tisser

In 2016 I had the privilege to participate in the Cantors Assembly’s historic mission to Spain. Dozens of cantors and hundreds of our congregants joined us as we traveled the country for two weeks, learning about the history of Spain and of our people in it, performing in concerts, and meeting the local Jewish communities. It is an experience I will never forget.

Surprisingly, one of the most memorable parts of our trip was a bus ride to Toledo. We drove for several hours through the countryside, eventually ascending the hills to the ancient city. As we drove, passing the occasional village, what stood out were the groves of olive trees spread around us. They stretched for miles, seemingly unending, against the brown landscape. As the tour guide spoke about the trees, he mentioned that these trees no longer bear fruit. Naturally, someone asked why. The tour guide shared with us that these trees were many centuries old, some more than 1,000 years old, and that at a certain point olive trees stop bearing fruit. At the same time, the Spanish people would never think of taking down the ancient trees in order to make room for new, fruitful ones.

Earlier this week our family observed the second yahrzeit of my wife’s son, Isaac. We gathered with friends and family on Zoom to remember him, celebrate his life, and pray. As I thought about it, the olive trees can teach us much about our time in this world and what happens when our time comes, hopefully after many good years. We are given the gift of life. We are each given a unique set of skills, talents, and aspirations. We have everything we need to succeed, just as the tree does. If trees are cared for, receive proper rain and sunshine, they bear much fruit. At some point, our time in the world is up and we will be held to account for all we did in life.

This is a challenging subject to think about or to discuss, but I think our task is clear: to live lives that leave a lasting impact on the world; to live lives which will stand firm in the memories of those who come after us. We can do this by living lives inspired by Torah, filled with the beauty of our tradition. We can do this by caring for the other as much as we care about ourselves. We can do this by passing on family traditions to our family and friends, by teaching them to our children.

The olive trees along that highway in Spain stand firm because the people who live there understand the value of the fruit they once gave, and see it as their duty to maintain the memory of that in a very real way. Next week is Tu Bish’vat – one of the four Jewish new years, when we celebrate trees and the natural world around us. With each new year comes the opportunity to recommit to our resolutions, our values, and to ourselves. Let us use this holiday, then, as an opportunity to reflect on our lives so that me may, as the Psalms teach, flourish like the palm tree, still bearing fruit in old age.

Finally, I hope you will join me for our Tu Bish’vat seder, next Wednesday, January 28, at 6:45 pm, on the Daily Minyan/Shabbat Schmooze Zoom link. We will sing, share readings, eat, and of course thank God for all that is good and beautiful in the world.

“See” you in shul,


A Time to Heal

Posted on January 13, 2021

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

“R’fa’einu Adonai v’nei’rafei
Hoshieinu v’ni’va’sheiah”

We recite these words in every weekday Amidah—a prayer for healing: “Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed. Save us and we shall be saved.” We then we ask God to grant “refuah shleima,” perfect healing, for all our afflictions.

Over the course of the pandemic, I have paused a moment at this blessing each morning and evening, thinking about those I know personally who are afflicted with COVID (that list seems to be growing by the day). Since election day (and even more so this past week in light of the events at the Capitol last Wednesday), I’ve been thinking about this Amidah blessing in a more societal sense.

We say (both in this blessing and in the Misheberach prayer we recite at the Torah) “Refuat hanefesh u’refuat haguf” (heal the spirit and the body—the seen and the unseen wounds and illnesses).

How do you go about healing a wounded country? Heal we must, but it’s not as easy as saying a prayer and hoping for the best. The healing process will be messy and rocky, difficult and very challenging. But, the process begins within each of us, a commitment to V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as the Torah says. Or in the words of Rabbi Hillel “What is hateful to you, don’t do to anyone else.” These are the essence of Torah, the essence of the moral wisdom embodied in the commandments. It’s easier said than done and ultimately cannot be accomplished without being intertwined with justice.

It starts with us as individuals (hey, God can’t do it alone) and, like ripples in a pond, resonates to family, to community and beyond. Rabbi Menachem Creditor wrote a simple, but evocative song—a prayer, really, for his infant child in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. (You can see him sing it here) It is equally meaningful and profound in the aftermath of last week, as we pray for a peaceful transfer of power and for the new administration:

Olam Chesed Yibane

I will build this world with love
And you must build this world with love
And if we build this world with love
Then God will build this world with love.

Shifrah and Puah: Courage And Righteousness Defined

Posted on January 6, 2021

By Rabbi Schwab

The future of the Jewish people was hanging in the balance.  The Pharaoh had just decreed his intent to kill all of the first born Hebrew males.  Thus, he called the two most popular midwives who served the Hebrews, Shifrah and Puah, and commanded them to immediately kill all male Hebrew babies they delivered.  In an act of courageous and righteous defiance, puting their own lives at risk by directly defying the King of Egypt, they did not follow his orders.  Countless babies lived because of their bravery and due to their willingness to stand up for what they knew was right.  In fact, because of their righteous compassion, the Jewish people were able to continue to multiply and survive in order to later be redeemed and freed from Egypt.  Without their bravery Moses and Aaron themselves would have been killed at birth.  Our people survived because of the heroism of these two midwives.

While the story of Shifrah and Puah is brief, their heroism does not go unnoticed by the Torah and certainly not by the rabbis.  In a dramatic scene, Pharaoh realized that his orders were not being carried out and personally summoned Shifrah and Puah.  He challenged them, “How is it that you are not doing what I told you to do?” They replied, “The Hebrew women are unlike the Egyptian women, for they are experts; before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth” (Shemot 1:19).  This answer seems to confound Pharoah and allows Shifrah and Puah not only to live but to continue to be the appointed midwives so that they can save more lives.  It is after this exchange that the Torah tells us, “God benefitted the midwives” and gave them “houses”, that our tradition defines as dynasties connecting them to the future lineage of King David.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that their story is “the first recorded instance of civil disobedience…(setting a precedent) that would eventually become the basis for the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.” In other words,history’s proud line of  social activists and conscientious objectors can trace their source back to these righteous midwives stand against pharoah.  Their heroic bravery not only enabled the redemption of an entire people but served as an inspiration for generations to come of the importance of doing one’s part in righting whatever wrongs exist  even ones perpetrated by another.

This year we embarked on a synagogue theme dedicated to “Loving Our Neighbor as Ourself.”  There are many wrongs in society, most not of our own personal doing.  Yet, Shifrah and Puah teach us that we must do our part.  As Proverbs 31:8-9 commands us, “Open your mouth for the speechless, in the cause of all who are appointed to die. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.”  Please join our initiatives, or those of others in the community, that allow us to follow in the footsteps of these women, whom Gd, Gd’s self, described as righteous and worthy of great praise.  Let us be brave and courageous in the pursuit of justice, righteousness, and our sacred values.

The Jewish Tradition is Clear: Get a Vaccine

Posted on December 30, 2020

Rabbi Alex Freedman

The Jewish tradition overflows with important and worthwhile debates. But when our turn arrives in 2021 to get the Covid vaccine, the tradition is clear: it’s a Mitzvah to get vaccinated to protect the lives of ourselves and others. Hillel and Shammai would agree to that. 

Two Shabbat mornings ago, Rabbi Schwab and I had a conversation on the Bimah in lieu of one of us delivering the sermon. “Vaccination in Jewish Law” was not a debate because the Jewish sources support only one side. We shared the key points from a Teshuva (legal responsum) about this exact question written this year by Rabbi David Golinkin, the renowned Conservative scholar in Jerusalem. (You can read it here: https://schechter.edu/does-halakhah-require-vaccination). 

Rabbi Golinkin rules: “In conclusion, since the discovery of the smallpox vaccine by Dr. Edward Jenner in 1796 it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that vaccines against infectious diseases save the lives of millions of people every year, with almost zero percent harmed by the vaccines. Therefore, there is a halakhic [legal] obligation for Jews to vaccinate themselves and their children, unless their doctors determine that it’s dangerous for that specific person to be vaccinated due to a pre-existing condition.”

Rabbi Golinkin lists the copious sources that prioritize taking care of our health. For example, the Talmud famously says, “Whoever saves one life is considered to have saved the whole world” (Sanhedrin 37a). Remember that receiving the vaccine protects not only us but many others around us.

Next, the Teshuva raises possible Jewish objections to vaccines, and then convincingly rejects them. For instance, an idea exists that “G-d will protect me.” This conviction is not a statement of faith, but rather the opposite of what the Talmud teaches. As Rabbi Yannai ruled: “A person should never stand in a place of danger saying that they will perform a miracle for him, lest they do not perform a miracle for him” (Shabbat 32a). Although we Jews celebrate miracles when they do happen (think of Hanukkah), we should not expect them to happen. Rather, we are to do everything we can to minimize dangers to ourselves. The medical experts say vaccines are a simple way – and the best way – to do exactly that. (Unless an individual has certain pre-existing conditions). 

Rabbi Schwab and I then discussed the question: Why do you think it’s important for rabbis to talk about this, when it’s a medical issue and we are not doctors? Here is my answer: I do speak with some medical expertise because my mother wanted me to be a doctor! 

In all seriousness, our health is a Jewish issue too because the Jewish legal sources prioritize it extensively. Getting this vaccine is so important that Rabbi Schwab and I want our congregation to know that our tradition and rabbis unwaveringly support it. 

We Jews love to say “L’Chayim! To life!” Getting the vaccine is how we actualize this in 2021.

(Vaccine registration is now open for Lake County residents – https://allvax.lakecohealth.org/s/?language=en_US)

Happy new year! May 2021 be a year of health for us and the whole world.

Confronting the Past to Shape the Future

Posted on December 23, 2020

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

Confrontation is, perhaps, one of the most difficult things that we, as humans, have to do. I, for one, avoid confrontation unless absolutely necessary. It makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps even more challenging than confronting another person is confronting ourselves and our pasts. 

Over the past several weeks Robyn and I have enjoyed watching The Crown on Netflix in the evenings. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a fascinating show, loosely based on historical events, about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II – her personal story, family drama, and national politics. One of the most interesting parts of the show thus far has been learning about Prince Philip. He had such a unique and sad childhood – a mother taken to an asylum, fleeing his home country of Greece, much of his family dying in a plane crash – and until a good number of episodes into this show, one might never know. The creators of the show, however, attempt to show us the human side of this monarchical family. There are flashbacks, moments of pause and reflection. But it isn’t until the Queen brings the Prince’s mother to live in Buckingham Palace during a period of unrest in Greece in the 1960s that Philip is truly forced to confront his past. It is challenging for him, but ultimately very healing. He is able to repair his strained relationship with his mother, finally realizing just who she is. After these events, and after the eventual passing of his mother, we begin to see a change in him. 

This week, in Parashat Vayiggash, we read of a similar confrontation. We have just read about Jacob’s sons descending to Egypt during a very difficult famine in Canaan, seeking food and sustenance. Joseph recognizes them but does not reveal himself, sending them home with supplies and telling them not to return without their youngest brother, Benjamin. They did so, and then as Joseph sent them home, his goblet was placed in Benjamin’s sack so that, when found, Benjamin would stay with him in Egypt. In this week’s episode, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in a rather dramatic scene. Judah makes a plea to Joseph that Benjamin should only return home to their father, after which Joseph cries out to all present (with exception of his brothers) to leave the room, so that he may ultimately tell them who he is. 

Joseph was, by this time, among the highest people in all of Egypt. He could have done anything he wanted at this point. But rather than choose the path of anger and reproach, he chooses the path of direct confrontation and ultimately of peace. He tells his brothers that what they did so many years earlier, selling him into slavery and faking his death to their father, was all part of God’s plan so that he may ultimately save them. In confronting the past directly with those who hurt him, he was able to create a great future for his family. This takes great strength of character, and immense faith in God. 

Each of us has a past. Each of us carries with us uncomfortable moments and experiences. The challenge lies in how we deal with them. Do we simply accept that they are part of our stories and schlep them along with us? Or, do we confront these issues or people directly, hopefully creating deeper connections and freeing ourselves from the bondage of hard feelings and discontentment? I think there is a great lesson to be learned from the Torah. As Jews, we are taught that carrying our past with us is vital. We cannot simply live in the present; we are a people of memory. We should learn from our ancestor Joseph, however, that the key to holding on to our past is having the strength to use those experiences, coupled with deep and abiding faith, to shape a meaningful and bright future. 

Revisiting a Classic Talmudic Debate

Posted on December 16, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

One of my favorite discussions to have with students at this time of year is the rehashing of the Hillel-Shammai debate on how to light the Chanukiah (or as you might call it, Chanukah menorah). If you are unfamiliar with this grand argument between these two sages of the Talmud, a quick summary: 

First, Rabbis Hillel and Shammai argued about a great many things (Hillel won most of the time!). When debating the proper way to light the Chanukiah, Shammai believed you begin with a full set of eight candles, removing a candle each night until there is only one remaining, which more accurately simulates the diminishing light of the miraculous cruse of oil in the Temple. Hillel believed that one should never diminish the light, and so we start with a single candle and build up to the eighth night with a full, glowing, brilliant chanukiah. (Like I said, Hillel usually won these Talmudic arguments, and so we follow Beit Hillel to this very day). 

But I often wonder whether Shammai might have actually had the correct idea, but not necessarily for the reasons we think. Indeed, the cruse of oil lasted for eight days, when there was only enough for one day (or so goes the story), and the flame would have dimmed over the miraculous, but lengthy, time. So, the Shammai method seems to work for historical authenticity. But there’s more. 

As we approach the eighth night of Chanukah this evening, our Chanukiot are blazing, spreading light and warmth throughout the family, throughout the home. But then tomorrow comes. Nothing. Gone like a flash are the brilliant, dancing candle flames atop colorful candles or tiny bowls of oil and gleaming, festive chanukiot. The brilliance of light one night, brighter than on all the other nights, and then suddenly, we are plunged into darkness. And this, during the moonless, dark night of the darkest time of the year. 

So, back to Shammai. In his method, as the eight candles become seven, the six, then five, etc. we adjust to the dark a little at a time, slowly by the day, until there is only the light of the last candle, dimmed like the fading cruse of oil in the Temple, and by now we are accustomed to the dark; it’s neither scary nor strange. Instead it’s natural. A progression. 

Additionally, and perhaps more interesting, what if as the light diminishes flame by flame, it really doesn’t disappear at all, but becomes internalized within us. We take in the brightness of eight candles on the first night, and then the seven in the chanukiah with the eighth not really gone, but taken in, creating a spark of joy, of light, from within. By the end of Chanukah, the light isn’t gone at all, but reflected in the warmth of memory, the glow of a smile, the flame of Chanukah “ruach” (spirit) and the lingering aroma of simmering, shimmering latkes. 

Where did the light go? It’s not gone, but in us all, our children, grandchildren, where it remains to brighten these darkest days and into the year ahead. 

Wishing you a Chag Urim Sameach (A joyous festival of lights) from our family to yours.

Parashat Vayeshev: Joseph and Judah Grow Up

Posted on December 9, 2020

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

“You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.” So said the author Germaine Greer. The Torah’s response might be: grown-ups are never finished growing up.

Parashat Vayeshev kicks off the famous story of Joseph and his brothers. It begins with their father Jacob letting everyone know Joseph is his favorite; a multicolored coat rubs in this fact. Joseph does not help his own case, tattling on his brothers and sharing dreams that speak of his superiority. All these enrage his brothers, who dispose of him by selling him off to an Egypt-bound caravan. 

One lens through which to read the story is that of personal growth and maturity. First, let’s give credit to Joseph for growing up into a respectable man. Remember that the opening scenes speak of him at age 17. Are we ourselves proud of everything we were at 17, still in high school? After he is sent down to Egypt, he grows up. He shows the wisdom of running Potifar’s house and operations. He has the discipline to not give in to Potifar’s wife. He has the kindness to help out two fellow prisoners. He gives credit to G-d rather than himself. He begins speaking of G-d for the first time. People respond to upheaval in very different ways, and to his credit Joseph matures almost overnight. This should have been a song in the musical! 

Second, let’s applaud his brother Judah. Immature adult Judah is the one who suggests selling Joseph down to Egypt in the first place. He does not permit his third son to marry Tamar, effectively prohibiting her from marrying anyone else in the process. But something important occurs when he admits to his later actions with Tamar –  he grows up. In the story’s decisive moment, it looks like younger brother Benjamin will remain in jail in Egypt while everyone else returns to Canaan. But one brother refuses to turn his back, insists that he remain in Benjamin’s place, challenges the second-most important authority in Egypt by basically bellowing “Let my brother go!” It’s Judah. The story of Joseph is the story of Judah too, whom Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls Judaism’s first true repentant. 

In this story are a few lessons for us: maturity can happen all at once; emotional growth continues as adults; personal crises can lead to personal growth. As we read the Joseph story again this year, let’s look carefully at character development –  and be inspired to spur our own.