Friday, February 5, 2021

Parshat Yitro: From Pharaoh to Yitro to Kindergarteners – What does it take to Believe?

 I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “seeing is believing” and wondering if it’s actually true. (See my Dvar on Parshat Bo)

          For while there is great truth to the phrase “seeing is believing,” we know that it is not always the case. Although it often takes witnessing something with one’s own eyes to fully integrate it into our psyche to allow us to  believe in its authenticity - we still don’t always believe.   

We see things and we don’t believe them.

          On the one hand, skepticism is a healthy and necessary tool in life. If the past months, indeed the past several years, have taught us anything, it is that. On the other hand, however, we too often see things that are truth and our brains refuse to accept what our eyes are witnessing. 

          We saw evidence of this type of skepticism when we read of how Pharaoh deals with the plagues. Pharaoh witnesses the awesome and terrible plagues and their impact on himself and his people with his own eyes -even with his own body! Yet it takes 10, each worse than the one before it, until he is convinced of the existence and might of the God of the Israelites and agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt. And as we know… Pharaoh believes for a moment and then denies reality once again. 

          So Pharaoh saw and even experienced and after a few twists and turns, ultimately did not believe.

          In this week’s Torah Portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23) we are given evidence of exactly the opposite – where one does NOT need to see or to experience in order to believe. We are taught this in just the first verse of the chapter, Exodus 18:

וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֵת֩ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

Yitro, priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.

This one verse says it all! One doesn’t need to see to believe, one can believe through hearing and using one’s prior knowledge and intellect in order to believe.

Exactly how does this verse teach us this lesson? We are introduced to Yitro, a priest of Midian who also happens to be Moses’ father-in-law. The sages tell us that Yitro was not merely a priest but the High Priest of his people, someone who knew all about gods (small “g” gods) and in fact had worshipped all the other known gods of that era. Yitro  was also considered one of the greatest leaders of that time.

What exactly did Yitro hear that made him believe despite all his experience with other gods? 

According to Rashi, a 12th century commentator from France, the key to what Yitro heard are indeed the words “all that God had done” - the word “All” refers to the sending down of the manna; giving the people water in the desert; saving them from and defeating Amalek (which happened immediately prior to this at the end of last week’s Torah portion); and he also heard about the splitting of the Red Sea. Others say that Yitro also heard about the giving of the Torah

But the what I think was the most significant is the phrase at the very end of the verse:  כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃  - how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt. 

Remember that first verse of Dayenu from Passover with the word Hotzi/to bring? – Ilu Hotzi Hotzianu, Hotzianu mi m’Mitzrayim, Dayenu. If only God had Hotzi – had taken us out from Egypt – That would have been enough! Dayenu!    

         Yitro heard that God had not only brought the Israelite out of Egypt but also out of bondage According to Or HaChaim, an early 18th century commentator God brought the Israelites out of Egypt while the definition "slaves" still applied to them. In order to change their status, God pressured Pharaoh into releasing them and also created a situation whereby Pharaoh and his army all drowned in the sea so there were no longer any masters who could have disputed the Israelites' claim to being free people. In those times, if they had just escaped on their own from Egypt, legally they would have continued to be considered slaves. 

Pharaoh saw and even experienced, but did not believe. Yitro neither saw nor experienced, but he did hear – and he did believe. 

Earlier this week I had the privilege and the joy of being a guest storyteller in a Kindergarten class of a local Jewish Day School. Full disclosure – my daughter is the Hebrew and Judaics teacher of this class. I get to do this a few times a year and always have so much fun – the children are not only hysterical in the way only kindergarteners can be, but they are also very wise and are constantly teaching me something new.

I read them one of my favorite stories called “Does God have a Big Toe,” by Marc Gellman. In the story this little girl goes around asking everyone in her family if God has a big toe. As they are all busy with whatever they are doing, they all shoo her off to someone else – you know “go ask your father” type of thing. Ultimately a family friend asks the king if God has a big toe. The king orders everyone in the kingdom to stop what they are doing and build a tower that would reach God so the king could check if God does indeed have a big toe. I won’t tell you the rest of the story but the story is based on the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis.

After I read the story I had a discussion with the students about what they learned. Some of it was very straightforward – everyone wanted to know if God did indeed have a big toe and then began wondering about different body parts as well. But then the discussion changed and one child asked – wait a minute, does God even have a body? Another child said – God is invisible, we all know that. And another asked:  why were they even looking for parts of God’s body? Didn’t they know that God doesn’t have a body?

         So these children already know that being created in God’s image doesn't mean that God looks like us or we look like God.

Pharaoh saw God’s power and even experienced it, but did not believe. Yitro neither saw nor experienced it, but he did hear about it– and he did believe.

         These 5 and 6 year olds have not seen, and I don’t know what they have experienced. But they have heard the stories of our heritage, of our Torah, and that is enough for many of them to believe.

         So I leave you with this question: with all that is going on in our world right now, what is the relationship in your life among seeing, hearing, experiencing and believing? Do our traditions help you in any way when you are unsure?

         We live in a complicated world, my wish for all of us is the ability to hear distinctly, to see clearly and to be open to possibilities that life presents.



Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Va'era: Four Verbs that Change History

We are living in extraordinary times that impact each and every one of us emotionally, psychologically and even physically. It doesn’t matter where we stand on any of the issues of our day, the result is the same – it’s just too much.

So how do we get through a virulent pandemic that has taken so many lives, a vaccine that brings hope but needs to be properly distributed and a political situation that is unlike anything most of us have ever seen in our lifetimes. How are we not only supposed to cope but also to figure out specifically what each of us is supposed to do? One traditional method for Jews is to look to the Torah and our heritage.


This week’s parsha, Va’era, begins as God speaks to Moses and explains what is to come. We learn what God intends to do as well as what is expected of Moses and the rest of the Israelites (those alive then and all of us now).  During God’s speech we encounter two verses that will sound familiar to anyone who has attended a Passover Seder:


“Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians (v’hotzeiti) and deliver you from their bondage (v’hitzalti). I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements (v’ga’alti). And I will take you to be My people (v’lakachti), and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.” (Exodus 6:6-7)


These verses contain four verbs that change the course of history. God has heard our cries and, with an outstretched arm and miraculous events, will free us from our burdens. Why? So that we will receive the Torah at Sinai and cement our partnership with God.  The result of these promises is fairly radical – God will be in an acknowledged relationship with all of us.  We will all witness God’s wonders and we will all know Adonai, the God who freed us from slavery.


When I read the Torah each week, I always manage to find something that relates to me in the moment. I never know what it will be, in fact this week I thought the parsha was telling me one thing until I read it for a second time and “heard” something else! The four verbs from the aforementioned verses jumped out at me. I will free you, deliver you, redeem you and take you to be My people. God stepped in and stepped up. We were in a situation that appeared to have no end and God provided our deliverance.


What does this tell us? That God will always step in and be our liberator? It is possible that that is what the Israelites of the time thought, after all they had been slaves and were used to having someone or something larger than life determine their destiny.


As 21st century humans we see that God does not act in the world as the God of the Torah did. We are expected to step up, to learn from our past experiences and apply that knowledge to our current situation. As humans created in the Divine image, we are not expected to agree with each other all the time or even to get along. We are expected, however, to emulate the divine attributes of love, grace, caring and justice. We can recall our relationship with a God who helped us out in the past in the most astonishing of ways and remember that that relationship still exists, it just has changed form. However, we are no longer the slaves who were brought out of Egypt and had yet to learn how to do for themselves. 


In the book of Genesis we learn that the universe was created with words. In our morning prayers we say “Baruch She’amar,” Blessed is the One Who spoke and the world was. We see that words have both creative and destructive power.


We as embodied beings do not live only through words but also through action. As such, it is up to each of us to discern how, through our actions and words, to manifest godliness in the world.


God, with those remarkable four verbs, took us out of bondage and set us up to live amazing lives in a world full of possibility.

A version of this post was published in the Washington Jewish Week 1/12/21

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Fall in New England

While I currently live in MD and will likely do so for the foreseeable future, I am a New Englander at heart. There is something about living in a location with a defined year of 4 discrete seasons that feeds my soul. Especially a place with a proper fall, as I'm an October baby. 

This past weekend I had the good fortune to officiate at a wedding in Connecticut (socially distanced etc etc). Not only was the wedding beautiful, all of nature seemed to be wearing its finest for the event. Here are some pictures of the local color. 

My soul is full! 

Can you provide a caption for this rock? 

Noach: The words we hear, the words we use

 Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

They say that every rabbi really only has three sermons. Mine are: we are created B’Tzelem Elohim/in God’s image; as humans we are fallible; and words have power. This week’s parsha, Noach, illustrates all of these. We see how the fallibility of humanity causes the flood and the building of the Tower of Babel. The idea that we are created in God’s image was on the minds of the people who decided to build the tower in the first place, although they were not trying to emulate God so much as trying to BE God – never a good idea. 

Every time I read a parsha a different lesson is revealed to me. This year the Tower of Babel story with its focus on the power of words and language seems more relevant than ever. Who hasn’t been in a situation where everyone is speaking the same language but somehow no one seems to understand what anyone else is saying. 

A classic example is the Abbott and Costello skit “Who’s on first?” Abbott begins by naming the players on the bases. Costello hears something entirely different and responds accordingly. Abbott in turn does not understand Costello’s responses and proceeds to answer in a way that just compounds the misunderstanding – and so it continues. Even two people, friends, speaking the same language, do not understand what the other is saying --  and the result is a conversation at cross purposes. In this case it is very funny but we all know that is not always the case.  

In Parshat Noach (Genesis 11:1-7) we are told that people from chol ha’aretz/all the earth speak the same language and together decide to make a name for themselves by building a tower up to the sky. Commentators say that this chol ha’aretz means that it was literally all of humankind who were involved in this endeavor. If that was the case, who were they trying to impress by making a name for themselves? The commentaries’ answer is that they wanted to challenge God. As we all know from countless episodes in Torah, God doesn’t particularly like to be challenged and when God is challenged it must be done in just the right way (think Abraham and Sodom). The people building this tower were afraid that if they did not build it, they would be “scattered all over the world.” (11:4) The consequence of this challenge turned out to be exactly what they had named as a reason for their actions, but much worse. They were not only scattered but also lost the gift of ease of communications.

I once attended a workshop that demonstrated how easy it is to misunderstand the meaning of a spoken word. One activity involved the presenter saying a sentence, highlighting a particular word and then asking each person to write down what they heard when this word was spoken. The word was “Israel.” The responses contained the entire spectrum (positive and negative) of the biblical, political, religious and spiritual meanings. It was fascinating. It reminded us that we cannot take for granted that what we say will be received and perceived in the ways we intend. 

The verse in which God states the intention to confound humanity’s speech concludes “…asher lo yishma’u/so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (11:7) The root of the word used for understand is shin-mem-ayin, shema. Rashi writes that this root word is used here as “hearing” with one’s heart, as distinct from hearing with one’s ears. Isn’t that what the communication is all about? What we say and what we hear is determined not only by our ears and our intellect. It is also determined by our hearts, by our experiences, by our world view. 

As we move through not only this health crisis but also this challenging political season, my blessing for all of us is to hear with open ears, mind and heart. May we recognize that there is meaning under the surface of words and strive to shema/understand what is being heard and what we say in return. 

Note: a version of this Dvar Torah can be found in the 10/22/20 issue of the Washington Jewish Week. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

Shoftim: Even the Powerful do not Need to Have all the Answers

 Parshat Shoftim  (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)


Like many people, I’ve been on the lookout for different forms of escapism during this pandemic. My go to is watching legal and police procedurals, primarily fiction with a bonus if they contain elements of humor (Midsomer Murders, for example). In some ways my favorite pastime might seem counter intuitive with all that’s going on regarding social justice and division of resources in today’s world. However, I find it comforting when in the end the troublemakers are caught and punished and justice prevails. I acknowledge that it’s not real, but it does give me hope.


Our Torah portion provides us with rules for judiciary behavior:  “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” (16:19) Not the first time we’ve heard this, but it does seem to resonate right now. For a society to work properly those that uphold the law, while being human, must be beyond reproach. Not only must they be fair and impartial but most importantly they must recognize when they are being influenced, be it by the tears of a widow (one of my favorite Hassidic teachings) or by their own implicit biases.

Our judges (and by extension our leaders), both ancient and modern, are made aware that community doesn’t work unless the laws apply to everyone. We know that the equalization of justice relies on impartiality regarding social and economic status, gender, race and ethnicity. We also know that too often both implicit and explicit biases creep into our justice system and deny the very justice to which people are entitled.

A bit later in the parsha we encounter a concept that is both modern and incredibly empowering, the existence of the High Court of Referral (17:8-13). It is where judges turn if they are unable to reach a decision. The very existence of such an option gives us, and particularly those in power, permission to not have all the answers. We are given permission to doubt, question and most importantly, to admit that we do not have all the answers. What a radical concept!

Our world is undergoing great transition and correction. Injustices are being called out at a rate that feels unprecedented and by a wide and varied mix of individuals and groups. Torah commentators note that while the first two verses in the Parsha are addressed specifically to the judges and magistrates, verse 19 is addressed to all the people. The Torah is reminding us that while justice is key to a functioning society, proper justice can’t exist unless we all uphold it. We know, both from history and the present day, that upholding justice can be dangerous, full of risks that run the gamut from social ostracism to loss of employment to physical harm and even death. Yet this cannot deter us.

We pursue justice at all costs so that we may live and thrive. We pursue justice so that future generations can live in a world where today’s disparities are eradicated or at least minimized. This book of Deuteronomy provides a blueprint for how to form a just, functioning society. All we have to do now is follow it. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof –Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live/thrive. (16:20)

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation in Warrenton, VA.










Monday, June 8, 2020

Annual Meeting remarks 6/7/20 - Pikuah Nefesh

            This morning I talked to our religious school students - on Zoom of course.  The topic this morning was masks- how do we feel when we wear them, how do we feel when we take them off, why are we wearing them in the first place. It was a privilege to have this conversation – the honesty of the conversation, the vulnerability the students showed by sharing their feelings – was really a joy thing to be part of.  
            My session ended with a brief discussion of the concepts of Pikuach Nefesh and Safek Pikuach Nefesh. These may be familiar to you – in fact they are potentially the most important of all the Jewish values that we have.
            Pikuach Nefesh describes a situation in which there is a danger – potential or actual - to human life, which necessitates taking immediate action. Safek Pikuach Nefesh occurs when there is possible danger or threat to human life; it might not require immediate action but we know that action is clearly necessary. The rule stands that we take no chances and do what is needed to save a life, no matter what halachic rule or Jewish precept we might be braking.
            Where do these concepts come from? The rabbis derived them from the laws concerning Shabbat – the very specific rules of what we are NOT allowed to do because in doing so we would be breaking the Sabbath – something that holds the highest levels of punishment in the Torah. And yet… the rabbis decided that the value of saving a human life, whether it be immediately at risk or will possibly be in the future – was so important that it overrode even the Torah laws of Shabbat activities – also laws and requirements that are held to the highest standard.
            Human life is sacred and no matter how we live, no matter how we practice our faith and beliefs, saving a life in a dangerous situation comes before everything else.  So we wear masks, and we monitor our own health and that of our loved ones, and we maintain physical distancing and we are not meeting in person as a community. We obey the laws and recommendations that have been put in place around this pandemic to protect us now and in the future.
            During this time, especially this past week or so, a destructive situation imploded – one that has been festering for such a long time that it is hard to count. Racism, prejudice, bigotry, the erroneous idea that some people’s lives are more important than others based on superficial characteristics such as skin color, economic status, personal orientations to name but a few. This is unacceptable and we as individuals, we as Jews, and we as members of the FJC cannot allow this to stand.  The question is what to do. And, as I admitted in my Shabbat Greeting email the other day, I do not have the answers, but as a community I am sure we will find our path and our purpose in this area.
            I would like to end with a story. It is a Hasidic story retold by the Nobel prize winning Israeli writer Shai Agnon in his anthology ‘Days of Awe’ - a parable attributed to the 19th century master, Rabbi Hayyim of Zans:
            A man had been wandering about in a forest for days and days, going in circles, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a person approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way, “ he thought to himself. When they drew nearer to one another, he asked the man: “Tell me which is the right way out. I have been wandering about in this forest for days and days.” 
            The other to him, “I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And I know that we should not take the way you have taken, for that too will lead us astray and keep us trapped here. Let us look for a new way out together.”
            Agnon concludes the tale with the following comment from Reb Hayyim: “So it is with us. One thing I can tell you: the way we have been following thus far we ought follow no further, for that way leads you astray. But now let us look for a new way.”
            If this past week has shown us anything it is that the path we have currently been taking is not the way “out” – it is not the way to our future. It is only through working together that we can find our path – a new path – one to take us into a future that not only we want to live in, but that all people can live in… together.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Parashat Naso - Human actions impact God

 “Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.” (Numbers 5:6-7, Parshat Naso)

Look at the words I underlined, “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the LORD…” This statement highlights something very interesting. We are taught that there are two discrete categories of interaction – Bein Adam L’Makom, actions between Human and God and Bein Adam l’Chavero, actions between people.

We see this in the 10 Commandments. The first tablet concerns actions between Humans and God and the second tablet concerns actions between people. [Commandment #5, honoring one’s parents, is a bridge commandment and fits into both categories. We’ll talk about that one another time.] Interactions between humans and God do exist in the realm of both intention and action but intention often takes precedence. One even gets credit for intending to do a mitzvah even if something occurs that prevents one from doing it!  Interactions between people usually include intentions (good or bad) but ultimately, it is the effect or impact of one’s actions that take precedence.

So, if these two sets of actions are understood to be discrete, then how do we explain this teaching: “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the LORD…”?

The Sages teach that these categories are not quite as discrete as we might think, there is an important way in which they overlap. As we are all created in God’s image, when we do a wrong action against a fellow human (murder, theft, fraud, etc), we are not just committing a sin against humanity. We are in fact committing a sin against God. We are not only making God’s presence in this world smaller; we are also harming God in the world.  Racism is one such act.

As my teacher Rabbi Shai Held wrote,
“Racism is a crime against humanity. It denies the dignity and infinite worth we all share.
Racism is also a crime against God.
It denies that God is creator of us all (theologically, it's a heresy).
Stand up and decide. You can be a believer or a racist but you cannot be both.
You can *claim* to be both. Heck, you can even serve as clergy in many churches, synagogues, or mosques. But make no mistake: racism and bigotry are the enemies of authentic religion.
Time to stand up and be counted.”

Soon we will be entering the period of soulful preparation in advance of the High Holidays. It is a time to re-evaluate who we are and what impact we have on this world.   I know that there is always more for us to do, to learn, to understand – about how to be better allies, how to be good listeners, and generally how to make our world a better and fairer place. I readily admit that I’m not certain what this will look like – which is all the more reason that no one person can do "it" alone. To that end,  I ask you to be my partner as we all learn to stand up and is counted.  

Wishing everyone health, happiness, peace and love as we head into Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbah Arlene