Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

We Are All Leaders

Posted on May 7, 2020

by Hazzan Ben Tisser

Parashat Emor deals with many issues related specifically to the Kohanim, the subset of the Levites charged with running the ritual affairs of the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle), and ultimately the Beit HaMikdash(Holy Temple). Included in the opening are some well-known edicts, such as Kohanim not being allowed to come into close contact with a corpse except those of close relatives (hence why oftentimes a Kohen will stand just outside the cemetery or in the road at a funeral), and that Kohanim should marry a Bat Kohen (the daughter of another Kohen; and as well they may only marry a woman who has never been married).

But in the opening of our parashah there is a short section that is troubling in today’s understanding of the world. Leviticus 21:16-21 reads as follows:

16 The Lord spoke further to Moses: 17 Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. 18 No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; 19 no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; 20 or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. 21 No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God.

In short, just as no animal with a blemish may be offered as a sacrifice, God specifically disqualifies any man of the Kohanic line with any sort of disfiguration or other physical blemish from serving God in the highest capacity. While it’s clear that at that time and in that place there were reasons for this, it is hard for us to come to terms with this.

Thankfully, we live in a country, at a time, and in a society when physical differences do not automatically disqualify one from serving in a leadership capacity. We strive for the ideal of appreciating leaders for their values, their ideals and their ideas, and their actions. But this is just an ideal, and we certainly have a ways to go. We have not yet seen enough leaders in the highest positions representing the breadth and beauty of American society.

On a smaller level, we at Beth El must celebrate the work we do towards inclusion. Rabbi Schwab has, for several years, worked at the forefront of inclusion among the Jewish community in Chicago and in our beloved Congregation. He has worked with a talented and dedicated group of lay leaders to make sure that our physical spaces are accessible to all, that our educational programs are able to meet the needs of as many types of learners as possible, that children with different needs are able to celebrate becoming B’nai Mitzvah on our bimah, and that members of the LGBTQIA+ community feel embraced in the sacred halls of our synagogue.

As difficult as the Torah passage is, it doesn’t point out any one person. It speaks about a particular role at a particular time, and with a particular understanding of the world and of connection to God. And while this may guide a particular set of responsibilities, I would suggest that in broader terms we are all leaders. We allhave the capacity and the obligation to lead. And we all have the ability to do this at the highest levels of our own community. I marvel as I watch the work of friends, congregants, and colleagues during this period of lockdown. The creativity, innovation, artistry, and leadership displayed is just incredible!

There are always boundaries and barriers present – sometimes self-imposed, and sometimes external. But once we work through them–or, one the blemish heals–there is nothing stopping each and every one of us from being leaders. I am very proud to be a leader in a community of leaders, and I look forward to the work we will continue to do together, through this period and beyond.

The Mensch Commandments

Posted on April 29, 2020

by Hazzan Barnett

Among all the obscurities of ritual and Jewish law in the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), there can be found within it an amazingly robust enumeration of laws for living a just life—a life of menschlikite. But these are not “niceties.” They are commandments from G-d, admonitions about our behavior towards each other.

The Torah portion in which this list appears is Kedoshim, the second half of this week’s double parasha, which begins with the portion Acharei-Mot.

I have always been struck by this series of commandments, aimed not (only) at the priests (to whom much of the Book of Vayikra is aimed), but the whole of the people Israel. Among the commandments:

  • Don’t pick your vineyard bare, or gather the its fallen fruit; you must leave them for the poor and the stranger
  • Do not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.
  • You shall not defraud people.
  • You shall not commit robbery.
  • Do not withhold the wages of your workers.
  • Do not shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.
  • You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.
  • Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.
  • You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.

Although most of these are straightforward, two of them: do not insult the deaf/put a stumbling block are less on the nose. Why single out the deaf, the blind specifically?

Blindness and deafness are not only physical conditions. Insulting someone metaphorically deaf—speaking ill of those unable to defend themselves can create unspeakable horror for the victim.

As for blindness, one who lacks complete information, being unaware, unsuspecting, ignorant of the facts—these are types of metaphorical blindness. The commandment prohibits us from taking advantage of them or tempting them to do wrong.

This one in particular resonates with me in these days of pandemic. I am struck by how many “snake oil” salesmen advertise, make calls to unsuspecting people hoping to defraud people—often the most vulnerable amongst us as they are at their most vulnerable and afraid. Cures that are nothing but a way to make a fast buck. Others willing for their own purposes to help you “invest” your stimulus check. Or pretend to be officials of the government to steal your personal information.

The Talmud speaks of the principle of lifnei iver (putting a stumbling block “before the blind”) as prohibiting us from giving bad advice to another person.

One should not advise another party that it is in his interest to sell (for example) his field in order to buy a donkey, when his true intention is to buy the field for himself. Advice given for an ulterior motive. (Midrash Sifra, Leviticus 19:14).

But there’s also the “bad advice” much more dangerous being pedaled these days for who knows what reason—miracle cures that may or may not have merit in the long run, but it’s much too soon to know—and to understand potential life-threatening dangers they may pose.

The entire list concludes with one of the most well-known quotes in the Bible: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha.”

It is the perfect summary not only for this part of Leviticus, but the entire Torah. As Hillel famously said while explaining the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot, “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!”

Gratitude in Our Difficult Times

Posted on April 1, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav includes the rules and regulations for making several sorts of offerings. Although we sometimes translate these “korbanot” as “sacrifices,” the word korban is really about drawing closer to G-d, rather than giving something up as the word “sacrifice” implies.

Among these is the zevach shelamim (offering of well-being), which might be offered in an act of thanksgiving (zevach todah) or as a free-will donation. These days, it may be difficult to find a reason (or the time) to express gratitude. Looking ahead to a Passover without being surrounded by family and friends, grappling with work while juggling children and everyone’s new reality of work and school “at home,” worry about COVID-19 as case numbers explode while trying not to worry our children. Who has the time for gratitude, much less drawing closer to G-d?

But then I think about the doctors, first responders, the people who direct traffic at the drive-through COVID-19 test center, heroes imbued with courage, compassion, kindness, each of whom act B’tzelem Elokim (in G-d’s image). The researchers, inspired with the spark of genius, the gift of curiosity, the miracle of potential discovery of a better test, an effective treatment, a vaccine to protect. The miracle of technology that allows us to order Pesach supplies online, to connect with each other at synagogue via Zoom for daily services, for programs, for study, for Shabbat and Pesach. And for blessing of opportunity to “be” with family far and wide via virtual seder.

I think about the bracha (blessing) in the Amidah that begins with “Modim anachnu Lach” (we than You, Adonai) for “…Your miracles that are with us every day and for Your wondrous deeds and favors at all times: evening, morning and noon.” This morning as I read the Amidah during Shacharit, I paused a moment at “Modim anachnu Lach” adding my own thoughts of gratitude during this stressful time, drawing me closer to G-d, praying for the well-being of those who take care of us all—and for the well-being of our community.

The “March” from Purim to Passover

Posted on March 18, 2020

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

What if Purim and Passover weren’t two separate holidays? What if they were bookends for a single month-long process?

Rabbi David Hoffman of JTS taught me such. Notice that exactly one month separates the two – Purim is on the 14th of Adar (15th in Jerusalem) while Passover is celebrated on the 15th of Nisan.

The one-word summary of Purim is chaos. Life nearly ended for all the Jews, and then suddenly they were on top. Today Purim is marked by riotous, chaotic fun, costume, and shtick.

When we turn to Pesach, though, we encounter the opposite. In just one word, Passover is about order. The holiday is dominated by the Seder, the step-by-step dinner script whose Hebrew word means “order.” We follow time-tested processes and rules on Seder night to move us to a place where we taste slavery and freedom, literally and metaphorically.

These days drifting from Purim to Passover are themselves a step-by-step personal journey from chaos to order. How appropriate that this march happens during March? People can’t turn from one strong emotion to another on a dime. We need time and progression. And as the days of Passover draw nearer, we have the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the next stage of the year.

Because these holidays are not the only bookends between which we travel. These very days we emerge from winter to the faint glow of spring. Like us, the natural world doesn’t go from 30 degrees one day to 60 the next (unless you’re in Chicago, where that can happen occasionally!). The weather incrementally moves in one direction.

These days spent inside our homes reading the tumultuous news of the effects of the Coronavirus are indeed chaotic. How fortunate are we to have Jewish rituals, routines, and traditions – like Shabbat – that provide some order in this chaos.


An Unexpected Lesson from This Week’s Torah Portion

Posted on March 11, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion Ki Tisa is rich in mitzvot, lessons, and famous for the episode with the Golden Calf—and Moses’s (and G-d’s) reaction to it. I’ve read and taught this portion dozens of times over the years, but this week, as I was reviewing the portion to read it from the Torah, my eyes lit upon two verse that I confess I hadn’t really thought a lot about in the grand scheme of Golden Calf idols, smashed tablets and the vivid image of Moses appearance returning from his encounter with G-d, his countenance glowing:

“When they enter the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water, that they may not die; or when they approach the altar to serve, to turn into smoke an offering by fire to the LORD, they shall wash their hands and feet, that they may not die. It shall be a law for all time for them—for him and his offspring—throughout the ages.” (Ex. 30: 20-21)

Instructions to the priests before entering the place where they offer sacrifices and approaching the altar to make sacrifice to G-d. An arcane directive about a practice we no longer…practice. But this week in the context of twenty-second handwashing (“Happy Birthday to You, two times through!), hand sanitizers and masks (Okay, that’s more of a Purim reference), the verses seem like good common sense instructions, obvious to our ears and very good advice. And coming from the Torah, handed down for thousands of years to our very contemporary situation this very week when we read these words in synagogue. (Who knew!?)

The verses remind me of the notice hanging in most restaurant and shop restrooms: “Employees, wash your hand before returning to work!” Basic hygiene 101, right (well, except for the feet part!). Except it’s not only employees and the Kohanim, it’s everyone. Let’s all be like Aharon and his sons as we protect ourselves against COVID-19. Practice good hygiene and stay safe, everyone.


Unity in Diversity

Posted on March 5, 2020

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

My sermon this week was about the Mishkan’s (portable Sanctuary) construction as a model for the concept of unity in diversity.  And that’s exactly what I saw this week at AIPAC’s Policy Conference.

The Torah describes at great length every detail of this sacred project and the myriad of different contributions that were needed to finish what would be nothing less than the home for God in their midst.  What is more, this project was explicitly powered by the individual’s generosity of heart, and it was so successful that Moses had to ask the people to stop giving. 

The success of this holy endeavor teaches us a crucial lesson, especially for our times: every person matters, and every person has something unique to give.  For example, the Mishkan would not have been built if every person gave the same gift or knew the very same craft.  So our differences can actually be our strength.  

I saw this principle in action at the AIPAC Policy Conference this week in Washington DC.  Democrats and Republicans; conservatives and liberals; religious Jews, non-religious Jews, and non-Jews all came together in the tens of thousands as one, bringing their various perspectives and different strengths to the singular issue of support for Israel.  Our strength was in our multiplicity. Our capacity to advocate for Israel came from our diversity, which allowed us to reach different segments of American society.  Unity in diversity may be difficult, but when it succeeds there is nothing holier or more powerful.      

Let’s Build This Together

Posted on February 27, 2020

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

Given the opening of this week’s Parashah, it would seem that this is the week best suited for reminding us to contribute to the shul – to complete our Kol Nidre pledges, to pay our voluntary dues to the auxiliaries, to consider a B’yachad gift, or perhaps an ad in the journal for Rabbi Schwab’s installation, but that’s not what I want to focus on.

Terumah is about much more than the first capital campaign in Jewish history. It is about creating a home for God amongst the people. God charges Moshe to go and collect precious gifts from the community—hopefully the entire community—and specifically from “anyone whose heart moves them…” God then proceeds with the architectural plans and tasks associated with the building of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle. It is to be a place not only where God’s presence may dwell among the people, but a focal point of the community where gatherings will take place and where ultimately God can be accessed.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings to our attention that the other major act of creation detailed in the Torah is that of the Genesis story. He points out eight phrases which show how the creation of the Tabernacle mirrors the narrative of the creation of the world. The building of the Mishkan becomes a significant marker in the development of the People of Israel, as it is “their first great constructive and collaborative act after crossing the [Red] Sea, leaving the domain of Egypt and entering their new domain as the people of God.”

If we think about it, God created a world which God believed would be the perfect place for humankind to dwell. God created Eden, the ultimate paradise and charged the first people with only two guiding principles: to care for it, and not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. As long as they were in Eden, Adam and Eve lacked for nothing, but as soon as they ate of the Tree of Knowledge they were cast out of Eden and had to work hard for that which they had.

There is a story I have told under the chuppah when officiating weddings about Adam and Eve. It is about how after a lifetime of hard work, the loss of their son, Abel, and struggle in many ways, God has mercy on them and gives Adam the open invitation to bring his family back to Eden. For a moment, Adam is thrilled! He would never again have to till the soil, nor would Eve again have to work hard. And as he approached his wife to speak with her, he looked deeply at her. He saw the lines on her face, earned by hard work, and in her eyes he saw the memories of a lifetime spent in happiness and in sorrow. And he realized that as appealing as it would be to go back to Eden—as sweet as it would be to live out the rest of his life in total comfort and in ease—it would not be as meaningful.

It would have been easy for God to build the Mishkan, just as God engraved the tablets and split the sea. But there is a greater value. Just as God created the world as a sanctuary for humankind to dwell, it was the task of the People of Israel to similarly create a sanctuary for God. It’s one thing to have a place to go to access God, to build community, to study, and to celebrate, but is another thing completely to have a hand in the conception, building, and maintenance of such a place. Had the people not participated, by gifts or by labor, in the building of the Tabernacle, it wouldn’t have been the place in which God wanted to dwell.

We can parallel this idea in contemporary life in several ways. Clearly, the Synagogue is our modern-day tabernacle, and we each must do our part to build, re-build, and sustain it. Whether it be volunteering time or contributing our resources, our connection deepens to this place when we know we have a stake in its existence. But there’s something more. As builders of Jewish homes, where Jewish history, dreams, and ideals live, we each have the opportunity to create a mikdash me’at—a “small sanctuary”—a place where God and the best of what Judaism has to offer can dwell.

As we approach Shabbat Terumah, I invite you to discuss together—as friends, families, and as members of this sacred community—how we can help each other build and maintain our own sacred spaces, whether at work or at home, so that God has an even greater presence in each of our lives.

In our Parashah is the well-known verse “V’-asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham”—“let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell amongst them.” In other words, if we build it, care for it, maintain it, then God will come.

Doing and Hearing

Posted on February 19, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett 

In this week’s Torah portion Mishpatim (Exodus 24:7), Moses took up “the book of the covenant and read in the hearing of the people; and they said:  ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, we will hear.’” Not “we will hear and we will do” but “na’aseh v’nishma” –doing first –then hearing.  A paradox, perhaps?

I am writing this just having arrived home from Song Leader Boot Camp, an annual gathering in St. Louis of about 400 cantors, rabbis, songleaders and educators (and a ton of Ramah and day school kids) to meet, to study, to sing, to share at whatever skill and knowledge level they possess—learned or seeking; fluent in the tefilot, or song leaders reading transliteration or singing wordless prayer (niggunim).

One of my favorite sessions plunged into the Sh’ma—a simple, single line, often the first words of prayer we teach our children as we tuck them into bed each night). The Sh’ma is a daily reminder of our one-ness with G-d and that G-d is One. “Listen (up), Israel! Hashem is our G-d; Hashem is One.”

But listening and hearing (and they are different concepts) are not easy endeavors. It takes work to hear above the cacophony of everyday life. It’s easier to “do” and think about it later. To unpack what you’ve just done and hear…understand (or however you want to put it) the action. It’s in the “hearing” that actions are elevated, internalized and able to be passed on as more than rote rituals, meaningless tasks that we do…because we’re supposed to. And often the real “hearing” can only come after the “doing.”

Actions often come first. Yes, sometimes we act based on study, understanding, etc. But I can’t help but feel after this lovely conference with many, many scholars, teachers, rabbis as well as learners and explorers of Judaism that all of us will have a moment of doing first (sometimes something that feels a wee bit uncomfortable perhaps), understanding the “why” and having that “aha!” moment later (maybe much later).

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one is asked to “do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.”

So, I want to offer an invitation in the realm of tefilah…prayer. Pick a prayer. Maybe it’s the Sh’ma or the V’ahavta or a single blessing in the Amidah. Read it (English is fine). Aloud. Listen to yourself read it.  But really hear it. What does it say about you and G-d or you as Jewish person…or “just” a person. Sh’ma. Listen. Hear. Understand.


The Middle Commandment

Posted on February 13, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett 

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, Moses is given the tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is the third month after the exodus from Egypt and the Children of Israel are in the Sinai wilderness, encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and there, they await Moses’s return.

Moses goes up the mountain to receive G-d’s words—the Aseret Hadibrot—literally, the ten words or things (most popularly translated as the Ten Commandments). The commandments are usually depicted as two stone tablets with five on each side. 

The first four include an acknowledgment G-d and G-d’s oneness, as well as directives not worship false idols or to take G-d’s name in vain. Commandment #4 instructs to observe Shabbat—a day set aside for G-d. Together, they form a set of rules to address and guide our relationship with G-d.

Commandments six through ten include prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness and coveting—all guiding our relationship with each other (Ben adam l’chaveiro—between a person and his or her neighbor)

So…what about Commandment #5? (“Honor your father and your mother”)? Since it falls in the first set of five, its placement would suggest that honoring your parents is part of our relationship with G-d. But clearly, the commandment directly addresses one of our most profound interpersonal relationships. 

Maybe that’s why it’s in the middle, straddling our relationship with G-d and our fellow humans—a bridge between the two sets. Parents are seen as G-d’s partners in passing on the ethics and values of our tradition as well as the mitzvot. 

But there is a bit more to it, I think. When we are respectful to our parents, our grandparents, all of our elders, hopefully that translates to our relationships with our fellow humans, which leads directly to the commandments on the other side, something especially relevant in these days when civility toward each other seems to be eroding daily.



Tell Me Who Needs a Visit

Posted on February 5, 2020

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

Do you know someone who could really use some company or a visit from the clergy or friendly congregants? Please let me know.  

We at Beth El need your help with the crucial Mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick).  

When someone is in the hospital, the family often tells the clergy, and we do our very best to call and visit. Now we have a fantastic “Thinking of you” card that we bring or send to have a familiar picture of Beth El in the room. This is one of many terrific ideas by the Bikkur Cholim Caring Community, a committee led by Jan Channon, Barbara Hochwert, Jackie Melinger, Basia Retsky, and Pam Schlosberg. As its name implies, we have a whole group of friendly Beth El members trained in the Mitzvah and ready to assist. While we can always improve, I think Beth El succeeds when it comes to meeting the needs of congregants who are in hospitals.  

Yet there are many people who could use a visit and conversation who are out of the hospital. Maybe they’re in a rehab facility like Whitehall. Or maybe they’re at Gidwitz or at home but unable to go out during the day. They should enjoy company as well – if they would like – from the clergy and maybe members of the Bikkur Cholim Caring Community.  

But I don’t know who is homebound because they often don’t tell me. So if you know somebody like this who could use some company or a visit, please tell me (with their permission).  

Please let me know if you have a family member who might benefit from this Mitzvah. My email is afreedman@nssbethel.org. This will be confidential.  

Beth El does its best to be a caring community. We feel we’re ready to take the next step, which will really benefit all of us.   

Bikkur Cholim is a Mitzvah because when we keep company with someone who is challenged in these ways, we are emulating G-d Who visited the sick, in the case of Abraham (Talmud: Sotah 14a). Through this Mitzvah we make G-d more present in the world.