Friday, February 21, 2020

Parshat Mishpatim: How do bias and judgement impact our lives?

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim Exodus 21:1-24:18. In it we receive 53 of the 613 commandments. Mishpatim begins: And these are the laws which you shall set before them (Exodus 21:1).  We look at this sentence and we wonder why it begins with “and these are the laws” and not just “these are the laws.” Generally the word “and” is not considered a critical word, it’s a conjunctive, a linkage word. Here it serves that precise purpose but in a very important way. Rashi teaches that “and these laws” implies that the laws to presented here (all 53 of them) are in fact a continuation of what is written before, what we had just received last week – the 10 Commandments. All the laws, not just the 10 Commandments are then understood to be from Sinai.

I want to highlight just one law for you. In Exodus 23:8 we find the injunction against taking a bribe, which is part of a section of laws dedicated to justice. Remember the expression, “a man’s word was his bond?” It presumes that worth of a person is based on their word, on their integrity, on their reputation. If this is true, then how much more so must a judge be a person of impeccable reputation and strength of character.  Strong enough to recognize and withstand bribery.

There is a story told in the Maayanah Shel Torah,  a work from mid-twentieth century in Eastern Europe that is the largest compendium of Dvrei Torah:
            An impoverished widow once came to the beit din (courthouse) of the great sage Rabbi Yehoshua Kutner. Weeping bitter tears, she begged him to summon to the court a man   she accused of having wronged her.
            Rabbi Yehoshua summoned the man to appear before the court, but referred the case to  another rabbi, refusing to preside over it himself. “The Torah forbids the taking of bribes,” he explained. “Do you think that a bribe is only a gift of money? Tears can also be a bribe that ‘blinds the clear-sighted’—especially the tears of a poor widow.”

This story reminds us that one can be bribed by more than just money. We are led to understand that a bribe is exactly that which blinds us – by greed, by desire, by any kind of emotion. As in this case, it doesn’t matter if our sympathies lie toward one party or the other, as a judge, the mere fact of having an emotional bias investment in a case is considered as if it were a bribe.

Although the majority of us are not working judges, we often encounter situations in our daily lives where we have to form a judgement, make a decision. While these are usually not decisions that can send someone to prison, they can be decisions that can change a person’s life for the good or for the bad. We can grant or deny someone a job, with just a few well-placed words we can influence on a person is perceived by others, we choose whether or not to believe someone.

In today's world, both explicit and implicit bias and judgement are apparent in ways that we may not have noticed at other times in our lives. This Shabbat and in the week ahead, pay particular attention to moments and causes of bias in your life. How do they impact you? Do they influence your decision making, your actions? Are there things that you never noticed before that perhaps you are now noticing for the first time?

Judaism is a tradition that is grounded in mindfulness. May we all live full and fulfilled lives of mindfulness.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Yitro - A Journey to our Sinai Experience

This is the Dvar Torah that I gave this Friday night. I think of it as our journey toward Sinai - through the calendar, through our holidays, through the years. I ended the Dvar with instructions for a "Sinai Experience" that would we would share during out Torah reading. (We read Torah on Friday nights.) At the end is the sheet that I used for our Torah reading.  
We are on a journey – the journey of the spring holidays – Tu Bishvat, Purim, Passover and finally Shavuot.

We begin with a story from the Babylonian Talmud (Ta'anit 23a) about Honi the Circle Maker who learned the importance of planting and planning for the future. It’s a Tu Bishvat story, you may have heard it but bear with me.

Rabbi Yohanan said: "This righteous man [Honi] was troubled throughout the whole of his life concerning the meaning of the verse, 'A Song of Ascents: When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers' (Psalms 126:1). [Honi asked] Is it possible for seventy years to be like a dream? How could anyone sleep for seventy years?"

One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, "How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?" The man replied: "Seventy years." Honi then further asked him: "Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?" The man replied: "I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children."

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and Honi asked him, "Are you the man who planted the tree?" The man replied: "I am his grand-son." Thereupon Honi exclaimed: "It is clear that I have slept for seventy years." He then caught sight of his ass which had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. There he inquired, "Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?" The people answered him, "His son is no more, but his grandson is still living." Thereupon he said to them: "I am Honi the Circle-Drawer," but no one would believe him.

Two take-aways from this story –
1) is that if you give something you will not be alive to see, you are still giving. No matter what.
2) The story ends with a vision of the future – albeit one filled with carob treesJ. Our people has always dreamed of a day when hatred and war will be forgotten; a day when no one will go hungry and no one will suffer homelessness; a day when we will all care for one another and live together in peace. Our sages called it the Messianic Age. (Chabad)

Tu Bishvat with its vision of people taking care of each other and most especially, taking care of the earth, planting trees, providing for the future.

Purim arrives in exactly one month. This is a story that takes place in the Diaspora, outside of the Land of Israel, in the Persian Empire. Here our people might be able to look to the future but they also have to expend a lot of energy to take care of the here and now, in a land that is not their own. One take away from Purim is the question of “What is our role, as Jews, in the place that we live?”

Exactly one month after Purim we celebrate Passover  - a story that begins with a people enslaved and ends with a free people, receiving the Torah, developing a relationship with God.  The practice of Passover began in the land of Israel with sacrifices offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. It continues with the Rabbis in Exile in Babylonia realizing that with the loss of the Temple and our exile, they need to do something in order to keep us connected to Eretz Israel and our religious way of life. So they developed a ritual that would go on to keep us connected to Holy Land, 
to Torah and to our people and history regardless of where we live.  The Passover Seder in some ways is the answer to the question that is raised through Purim,  “how do we live at Jews no matter where we are?”

But let’s take a step back and a step forward – first answering who are these people called the Jews? The Jews are the ones who accepted the Torah at Sinai. They experienced something that no one before or after ever would – standing in the presence of God, hearing God’s voice, and experiencing what was probably the most amazing pyrotechnic show in all of history.

The rabbi’s say that all Jewish souls – those born Jewish, those who ultimately convert – were at Sinai. The Torah was not given to just those who were standing at Sinai, at the base of that mountain, but to all Jews who would ever live. So We Were There. Though we might not remember it!

This is one reason that Shavuot, our final spring/summer holiday is called Zman Matan Torateinu – the time of the GIVING of the Torah. Present tense  - or present continuous – something like that. Not the Time the Torah was given or received in the past. But now, always, every year we receive the torah – because we were there as souls, and now each year we reaffirm our receipt of and commitment to the Torah anew.

So today is not Shavuot- that’s true. But liturgically we sort of receive the Torah 3 times. The first is here in the Exodus, Parshat Yitro, where the first telling of the story of revelation falls on our yearly cycle of torah readings. Second on Shavuot when we ritually receive the Torah. Lastly in the book of Deutoronomy, Parshat Eikev – this year on August 1st -the final telling of the story of revelation falls on our yearly cycle of torah readings.


So together let us have the Sinai Experience.

Here’s how it will work:

We will imagine we are standing at the base of Mount Sinai – weary from running away from slavery in Egypt, a bit (or very) anxious about whatever is going to happen. We are told by Moses to prepare ourselves for three days – bathing, washing our clothes, not engaging in intimate relations – and not eating meat.

After 3 days we gather at the base of mount sinai and see and hear an incredible pyrotechnic display. Thunder, lightening, God’s voice. We are afraid – the Sages say that when the people heard God’s voice they fell over in fear and begged Moses to intervene for them. God should tell Moses the Commandments and Moses would relay to us. That way at least we could stay conscious and actually experience what was going on.

We have taken our Torah our of the ark. 
Handouts are being passed out with today’s Torah reading. There will only be one Aliya today and we will all have it. I will chant at first from the Torah, you will have the translation in front of you as I chant.
When I finish we will all rise and read out together a slightly abridged version of the 10 Commandments
You are welcome to read in Hebrew or English – Read loudly, with power. Let us feel the cacophony of the voices, the people, all around us. 
I will then conclude the reading from the Torah.

Allow yourselves to feel the moment, to experience it, to Stand at Sinai.

(**If you would like a copy of the script that I used, please leave a comment or email me at   For some reason the format is not transferring to my blog at present.) 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Vayechi: Blessings, Identity, Personal Responsibility and Social Justice

Blessings, Identity, Personal Responsibility and Social Justice


This week’s Torah portion/ parasha – Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26) – is the last in the book of Genesis/Beresheit. It seems almost fitting that it’s the final portion as it is about the deaths of two of our main historical and religious figures – Jacob and Joseph. What I want to discuss tonight is the actions of just one of those men – Jacob.

Jacob was blessed – or gifted- with knowing that his death was imminent thereby giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. In this case, with blessings. He is the first person in the Torah to have warning of his impending death. Joseph does as well at the very end of this portion – but he uses his time a bit differently than Jacob.

What spoke to me in this parasha was the concept of blessings. Jacob blesses not only his 12 children but also Joseph’s children in the very last chapters of Genesis. The blessings to his sons are in fact a mix of blessing and prediction. The blessings to Efraim and Menashe, Joseph’s sons, where Jacob claims these 2 grandchildren as HIS OWN sons, is something quite different.

First Jacob then called over his two grandchildren, and in what I just read in the Torah, places his hands on their heads, and starts blessing JOSEPH -- giving him the famous "Hamalach" blessing (48:16), that the angel that protected Jacob from evil should also protect Joseph's sons, and that Jacob's name should be associated with them, along with Avraham and Yitzchak, and they should multiply in the land. 

All these events seem inconsistent, unless we understand what they all mean...
This is why, when Jacob claimed the sons as his own, he made sure to stress that it was those two sons that were born in EGYPT (48:5). Their greatness and Joseph's greatness was that they were Jews DESPITE living in Egypt. And finally, although his hands were on the two sons, Jacob's blessing was that Joseph's children, and anyone who has to live in a non-Jewish world, should be protected throughout history so that we can all be proudly called the children of Avraham and Yitzchak.  The blessing that is given is: Y’simcha Elohim k’Efraim v’Menashe,
 “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasheh."

This is the same blessing that parents all over the Jewish world give their children on Friday nights. What is special about Efraim and Menashe? Firstly, we are taugt that they are the first pair of siblings in the Torah who do not see each other as competitors. They actually get along! So we bestow upon our children the legacy of peace and harmony between brothers.

Also, they didn’t lose their identity. They were the sons of an important man in Egypt, living for much of their lives apart from any kind Jewish community, yet they kept to their heritage. This is a blessing to forestall complete assimilation. To learn how to live completely and fully in multiple civilizations. This is a blessing that says you can be successful and fulfilled regardless of where you live and what’s going on around you – and still remain Jewish.

Girls, by the way, are also blessed every Shabbat but with a different blessing – Yisemech Elohim k’Sarah, Rivka, Rachel v’Leah
May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah

Each of these women possessed unique qualities that played essential roles in the strength and future of our people. The Torah is filled with accounts of these women, recording their insight, their strong and giving nature, and their sensitivity, leadership, and special ability to inspire others. Beyond this, all of the matriarchs were great, righteous women, who hailed from the homes of wicked people – what we call today " a bad environment." These women are all examples of people who recognize what needs to be done in order for good to prevail and they DO what needs doing, regardless of the personal price.

So where are we today?
Today we, as our ancestors, live in a world that presents us with many challenges – some personal, some tribal, some global.

It is hard to have a discussion with anyone in a minority group these days without the subjects of anti-Semitism, racism, gender harassment and too many other types of discrimination being raised.

Dr Jonathan Sarna, one of the most prominent historians of American Judaism, wrote that “Historically, hate-mongers and conspiracy theorists have repeatedly targeted out-groups during times of intense social and cultural stress in the United States.”  I’m sure this statement doesn’t surprise anyone. He cites examples in his writings of acts of hatred, public suspicion and outright acts of prejudice and violence throughout the centuries here in the United States against not only Jews but African Americans, Mormons, Catholics, the Irish… I could go on. Against those who act different, look different, pray differently, speak differently.

He concludes an article titled: Anti-Semitism is a Symptom ( … as follows:
“… with anti-Semitism back on the front page, [these] many historical examples of Americans targeting Jews and other out-groups during eras of intense social and cultural strain demonstrate the importance of distinguishing symptoms from diseases. America has experienced eras of crisis before, and Jews in America have been victimized before. In each case, anti-Semitism has been the symptom of larger social maladies, revealing more about the parlous [precarious] state of American society than about Jews.
“There are ways of mitigating symptoms of social stress: policing, education, vigilance, and the like. To repair the fabric of American society for the long-term, however, will require fresh leadership and a renewed commitment to shared values.”
So what can we do as individuals? We can act – participate in social discourse and social change. We can recognize that prejudice stems from – among other things – fear and ignorance. We can be, as all of my late grandmothers would say – Civil, polite, friendly. We can remember to smile. We can and must teach and share ideas freely and generously and listen to othersi, particularly those we disagree with, with respect and openness.
I know I am asking us to do what sometimes feels like an impossibility.  But that is one of the reasons I’m asking us to do this on the Shabbat of the Torah portion Vayechi. Where we, today, received a blessing thousands of years ago in the name of two brothers who were said to love each other, to get along, to treat each other with respect, kindness and love. After all, are not we all created B’Tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. Are we not all family – for all that means?
I will end tonight by doing something I rarely do. I would like to bless you all. I bless my children every Shabbat – in fact I did so just a few hours ago by phone. But I rarely bless large groups. But tonight it feels right.
Please rise.
Y’simcha Elohim k’Efraim v’Menashe
May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe

Yisemech Elohim k’Sarah, Rivka, Rachel v’Leah
May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah

Y’varech’cha Adonai V’yismeracha
May Adonai bless you, and guard you

Ya’ehr Adonai panav elecha v’chunecha
 May the Eternal’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you

Yissa Adonai panav elecha, v’yasem l’cha Shalom
May the Awesome One’s face be lifted up unto you, and give to you peace

Shabbat Shalom