Thursday, December 29, 2016

Miketz/Chanukah - A Single Person Can Make a World of Difference

Torah Portion Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)

A common greeting for Chanukah is “Chag Urim Sameach,” meaning happy holiday of lights. The Haftarah that we read on the first Shabbat of Chanukah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7. It contains mention of Zechariah’s vision of the menorah and its lamps or branches that stood and will stand again in the rebuilt Temple.  As we are all well aware, light is a pervasive theme of Chanukah, in fact of most traditions that occur around the time of the winter solstice.  Light banishes the long night’s darkness during the winter months. Light spreads hope and openness and transparency. One looks into a flame and becomes mesmerized by the beauty and paradox of a constant light that is ever changing.

I experience a sense of awe, possibility and hope every time I kindle the Chanukah candles and gaze at their flames. There is something about fire. It is powerful and dangerous, yet also cleansing and mesmerizing. The light of the smallest candle can fill a space so much larger than itself. It tells us to take courage, to peer into the darkness, into the cracks and corners of our world and our lives. It illuminates the possibilities of our lives. It reminds me that if the flame of one little candle can breathe such potential, imagine the impact that each of us can make.

One person can make a difference. Witness the legacy of Joseph in the four Torah portions, including this week’s Miketz , that tell his story.  He goes from being  a bratty younger brother who is sold to slavers, is imprisoned in Egypt, becoming its second highest leader, saving the country from famine and finally, forgives his brothers for trying to kill him. If one person can do all of that, just imagine the difference that many people standing as one can make!

The Haftarah, meanwhilie, contains a prophecy about rebuilding the Temple. The prophecy that will be fulfilled in large part due to the pragmatic pluralism practiced by Cyrus the Great over the areas that he governed. Cyrus’ position was to respect and allow the traditions of the people of his empire. It helped keep the peace and ensured that taxes would be received. In many ways this attitude is model of governing for our world today.

Zechariah contains the famous words Lo b’Chayil v’lo b’koach, ki im b’ruchi amar Adonai Tzva’ot “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit – said the Lord of Hosts.” (4:6)

This verse contains a powerful message both for Chanukah and for our world today. We recognize this timelessness and timeliness nightly in the second blessing over the Chanukah candles: bayamim ha-hem -- in those days, bazman hazeh – in this time. It takes more than armies and war and physical strength to make change and to live a good life. It requires faith – in God, in a higher power, in the goodness and possibility of mankind.  When I see the words “but by My Spirit” it tells me that I must nourish a personal godliness while recognizing that the godliness I see in others may be very different from my own.  It requires the moral strength of having one’s own belief while at the same time holding space and respect for others without feeling threatened.

That is what Chanukah represents to me, that Judaism is a constant light that is ever-changing. The faith we hold, the traditions that imbue our lives with meaning, those same traditions that we often fight against, the sense that being a Jew means something – to me this is the answer to the Sages question in the Talmud, MaiHanukkah? What is Hanukkah?

Food for Thought: 
1. What does the concept of “light” mean to you?
2. Chanukah was a time of conflict not only against an oppressive ruler but it also was a civil war dealing with religious practices and ideas and the reality of assimilation. Who were the real winners of the Chanukah story?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Vayetze - A seasonal hint: Jacob didn’t ask for so much stuff

Parshat Vayetze  (Genesis 28:10 - 32:3)

I always think of this time of year as a time of transition. The trees are almost finished shedding their leaves and the air is charged with the smell of winter. We ourselves are transitioning from the vestiges of the High Holiday season of teshuva and gratitude to the modern world’s all too long season of consumption.  

In Vayetze, we read of the famous Jacob’s Ladder and his receiving of God’s blessing. He vows his loyalty and faith to God, “.... If God will be with me ...and gives me bread to eat, and clothing to put on ... then shall the Lord be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)

While Jacob could have asked for anything, he asks only for bread and clothing. Radak, a 12th century commentator, wrote that Jacob asked only for the bare necessities of life. He didn’t even ask for water because one can find water to drink, on (and in), the earth.  The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator, puts it even more starkly, saying that Jacob asked for the essentials, no more and no less. 

As often happens, the Parsha’s message is remarkably relevant for this time of year. We have entered into the season of consumption. Do we really need all that we buy, all that we own? 

I look around my house and I can see so much that I do not need. The mass of possessions in my home make me feel spiritually and creatively stifled as well as embarrassed. Who am I to require so much “stuff?” I know that I am not the only one to be in this situation nor am I the first. Proverbs 30:8  states “... give me neither poverty nor wealth, provide me my allotted bread...”  This implies that all we need are the basic necessities lest we are so deprived that we need to resort to theft and so sated that we forsake God.  

For some, Jacob’s request of bread and clothing may seem like too little in a world filled with so much and with people who have so much ambition. The Sages also recognized the simplicity of this request and instructs us to translate the word bread to mean Torah (Breisheit Rabbah). There is no stinginess in considering the Torah as a bare necessity of life; in fact it signifies depth and largess for our souls.   

Each morning in Shacharit we recite the following prayer, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all the worlds, who acts for all my needs.” The Sages would recite this prayer as they were putting on their shoes. Why? Because shoes were made of leather and therefore a luxury. If one could afford shoes then one’s other basic needs were being met. Today one could argue that in our world of plenty shoes are a necessity and if a luxury, then a low-level one at that. But we must remember that while we are in a time of perceived plenty and invented want, there are many who do not have enough bread to eat nor the money for sufficient clothing. 

Let us take Jacob’s example and realign our lives.  Let us be content with the material basics and aspire to spiritual riches. Let us share what we have with those who are in need. Let us turn this season of consumption into what our lives and time are meant to represent – generosity and caring. 

A version of this dvar has been published in the Washington Jewish Week, December 8, 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Multitasking in the Torah: to study and to observe - Bechukotai

Parashat Bechukotai  Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34

     The first verse of Bechukotai (Lev 26:3) reads: “Im Bechukotai teilchu v’et mitzvotai tishmoru v’asitem otam” which is translated as “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe my commandments...” There is so much here in this one brief and unfinished sentence!
     It contains two different sets of words, bechukotai (statutes) and mitzvotai (commandments) and then teilchu (follow), tishmoru (observe), and v’asitem (do).
     First we have two types of laws. A chok is a statute for which we do not know the reason. A mitzvah is a commandment or code of law, and is the general category under which all laws fall. 
     Then we have a set of action words: teilchu, tishmoru and v’asitem.  Rashi (11th century) comments that “Follow my laws” would seem to mean “Observe my commandments.” Seems redundant, doesn’t it? We are taught, however, that the Torah doesn’t waste words. So what is the reason in this verse? Rashi explains that “follow my laws” means that one should labor in the study of Torah and “keep my commandments” means that one should actually perform the commandments. His proof text for this distinction is from Deut 5:1 “Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully.”  
     So what is this verse telling us? The most obvious explanation is that it is a set up for the rest of the parsha – the over 40 verses that lay out the rewards for following God’s commandments and the negative consequences if we do not.  We are given another explanation in verse 13, a frequent Torah explanation found in the Torah: ... because “I am the Lord your God.” Therefore we must follow, observe and do all that we are told to do. One practical explanation and one theological explanation; neither however satisfy the reason for the specific words found in this verse. 
     My understanding of the verse is as follows: We are not automatons. God created us with free will, intellect and curiosity. It is quite difficult for us to simply “do” anything. Rashi’s explanation begins to make even more sense.  The verse is telling us that the proper way to keep the commandments and to observe God’s laws is to study them and to understand them as best as we can.  Simultaneously, we must also do them. This isn’t an and/or situation. We follow, study, observe, and do the commandments all at the same time. 
     We observe God’s laws even if they don’t make sense to us while at the same time learning as much as we possibly can about them to satiate that intense craving for knowledge that God instilled in us as humans. What a wonderful life lesson this is. Sometimes we just have to do what we are told, even or especially if we don’t understand the why of the request. But knowledge, and particularly the ability to acquire knowledge, is a powerful thing.  So we learn as much as possible to teach us the following lesson: sometimes we can understand what is being asked of us and sometimes we can’t, despite our best efforts. But if we believe and know that we’ve done the best learning and exploring that we can, then we will be able to accept this obligation as well as the attendant consequences. It’s what it means to live a life as a Jew. 

Food for Thought:
~Are there times in your life when you’ve been told to do something that you thought made no sense? 
~Did you do it anyway? How did you feel about it? 
~Did you try to ultimately learn the reason for the request? 
~I discovered a wonderful website called The Famous Abba.  Tin a post titled “Chukim, mishpatim and ice cream” it lays out the differences between these Torah laws in a way that is funny and for children. Check it out -

First printed in

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Omer- Our chance to change the World

Shabbat Pesach Day 8
Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, Numbers 28:25 

This Shabbat is the last day of Passover. We can put aside (or throw out) any remaining matzah and return to our everyday lives. But can we really? Is holiday truly finished? Yes and no. Yes, Passover is finished here in the diaspora after 8 days. But no, it actually isn’t finished because Passover is inextricably linked to our next big holiday, Shavuot, through the counting of the Omer.  We begin counting the Omer (originally sheaves of wheat from the beginning of the harvest, see Lev. 23:15) on the second night of Passover. We continue counting for a total of 49 days, until we reach Shavuot, the 50th day. The Omer is a period of semi-mourning but it is also a period where we celebrate wonderful things such as the founding of the State of Israel. 

A pilgrimage to offer the first fruits to God in the Temple in Jerusalem distinguishes all three of the Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot). These holidays highlight Judaism’s big 3– Torah, God and Israel.  We remember that if were not for God we would still be slaves in Egypt, if it were not for God we would not have the holy words of Torah as an exemplar of life, and if it were not for God we would not have the land of Israel as our spiritual and physical homeland.  

Passover is unique of the three because we can all get behind it no matter where we land on the Jewish spectrum.  We are all enjoined to relive the story of our slavery as if we ourselves had been slaves and are now free. We can reenact the story for our children and/or we can dig deep inside and consider what it really means to be free and how we act out this message in our daily lives. Passover is a uniquely Jewish holiday. We Jews were enslaved and now we are free to live lives as part of a Jewish nation.  

Then comes the Omer on the second night of Passover. What are we counting? We are counting up to the intellectual, spiritual and ultimately action oriented places within ourselves to be the people who are continually receiving the Torah and then take its teachings to better ourselves and the world through our actions.  Fifty days to count, fifty days to contemplate, fifty days to formulate how we will actualize the godliness within ourselves to repair the world.

As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan noted, we live in multiple civilizations. This teaches me that we cannot afford to stop at the pshat, the surface level of our holidays, observances and teaching.  We must take our particularist perspective and broaden it to the universal. We were strangers, we were slaves and now others are strangers, others are slaves. It’s our responsibility as both Jews and citizens of the World to make sure that no one must live in slavery, that everyone is free.  

When my children were young I used to sing them lullabies, usually old Hebrew songs and protest songs from the 60s. One of my favorites was Medgar Evers Lullaby by Judy Collins. It is about injustice and formatted as a message from the murdered Medgar Evers to his son. The final verse always hits home to me: 
“What will you do, son, when you are a man? Will you learn to live lonely and hate all you can? Will you try to be happy and try not to see, That all men are slaves 'til their brothers are free.”

May we see the day, speedily and in our time, that slavery is banished and that all people are free. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Parshat Tzav: The Eternal Flame Within Us All

Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

      A Jew walks into a synagogue and looks around. What can s/he expect to see? An area for prayer that includes an ark that contains at least one Torah; perhaps a table, a bima, in front of the ark as a focus area for the prayer service and the Torah reading; and finally, a light, either attached to the top of the ark in some way or hanging from the ceiling.
      The first two items are self-explanatory. We keep our holy Torahs in a tabernacle, an ark, just as was done in biblical times. The bima, a raised platform with a reading desk, provides a place on which to rest the Torah and from which to conduct the service. Lastly we come to the hanging light, called the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Flame. What is its purpose? It clearly does not give off enough light to be useful in any practical way, for example, it is not strong enough to read by.
      The rationale for the Ner Tamid is found in this week’s parsha, Tzav (Lev 6:6). “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” It is mentioned 3 times in this parsha that the fire is not to go out, a repetition that emphasizes the perpetual nature of this particular flame. Imagine the work that it took in biblical times to keep a fire burning 24 hours a day – making an altar, gathering wood, cleaning the ashes, the manpower to tend to it. It took effort to maintain this – a communal effort. This flame transitions into our ner tamid, eternal flame, that is a physical manifestation of what we should already know, that God’s presence is always among and within us, and we just have to be able to “see” it.
      We no longer have a Temple with its menorah and altars and ritual sacrifices. What we do have is community and prayer and places of worship that contain this eternal flame. And for those of us who do not belong to a synagogue or who belong to one that does not have the physical infrastructure to house an eternal flame? We find in Ezekiel (11:16), “I have become to them as a little sanctuary.” One meaning of this verse is that these little sanctuaries are physical structures such as the synagogues that were built in exile to represent the lost Temple.
      I choose to focus on a different meaning, one that is not a physical structure but a spiritual state. We as individuals become the little sanctuaries that carry God’s presence around. There is godliness within all of us, a fact that many of forget on a regular basis. Being human, we need reminders of things spiritual, physical reminders. We circle back to the ner tamid, the eternal flame. Just as our ancestors were able to see the flames and smoke coming from the Temple at all hours, so to can we see the eternal flame when we walk into a synagogue, no matter the day or time. Even today it takes a community willing to raise money and tend to its infrastructure in order to keep that flame burning. Outside the synagogue it takes other types of communities, like minyanim and kehilot, to provide nurturing environments to tend to the flame, the spirituality, the little sanctuaries that burn within each of us. Once our lives revolved around the Temple. 
     Today our spirituality, our souls, live and die together based on the communities that we form and on the caring that we give to one another.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A Shabbat Message - Parashat Vayakhel and the message of Community

This week's Torah portion, Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20). As all Torah portions it contains several different plot lines. This one talks about the many aspects of building the mishkan (portable tabernacle that housed the 10 Commandment and was carried around in the desert with them), particularly that all the people donated materials to be used in the building itself. It's primary message, and the message of all the portions surrounding this one, is about community. 

To be a community means we do things together, we take care of each other, we contribute. To emulate this, I will soon be sending out an email regarding the start of a new volunteer committee at OK, a Chesed Committee whose goal will be helping out members when they are in need - during an illness, birth of a child, death of a family member etc. 

But, as we know, our obligations towards helping others does not stop at the "borders" of our OK community. We are part of a larger community of Jews, of non-Jews, of those who live in our neighborhoods and in our country. We are reminded quite poignantly of this in this time of presidential politics. Quite a few people are vying to become the president of this great nation. Two things really stick out to me (among many). First, the people running are male and female, Caucasian and Hispanic, Christian and Jewish. This is the most diverse national race that I can recall. Second, no matter how diverse the playing field is, race and ethnicity have become a part of patter. This is unacceptable for a nation founded by immigrants and given the make up and sophistication of people today. 

You will find that I rarely use my rabbinic platform to discuss politics. But the racism that has seeped in to this election cycle is not just a political issue; it is a human rights issue. So please be aware, listen and learn and pay attention to what is being said during this political cycle. And, if you can, try to counteract the hateful words. No effort will be too small. 

Here is a link to a short, pithy article from Jewniverse called "Albert Einstein's Little-Known Civil Rights Activism." As we know, racism has been around for a long time. It's time to eradicate it.

Shabbat Shalom and blessings of peace and love to all, 
Rabbah Arlene

Friday, January 22, 2016

A white Shabbos, Blessings and our Obligation to Share - Parshot Vaera through Beshallach

I’m dreaming of a white Shabbos......

I have to admit, I love snowstorms and especially love blizzards – but only when everyone I know is safe and warm at home and the electricity doesn’t go out! It’s a time to catch up on some sleep, play board games with family, watch movies, and for me – continue in the ongoing process of organizing my house. Said project began at Sinai, the same time we received the Torah, so I figure it’s okay for it to be never ending:)

At January’s Shabbat services at the Olney Kehila I gave everyone there a charge, which was to read [skim] that week’s parsha Vaera (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35) and envision themselves as Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, the Egyptians, the Israelites and even God, as Moses asked Pharaoh to let our people go.  How did each character feel during this challenging and frightening time.  I likened the time to Halloween – where children go around shouting  “Trick or Treat!” The children expect candy and  don't really have the intention to pull a trick on anyone – at least not these days. I see Moses going to Pharaoh and saying “Trick or Treat!” – the treat being the exodus, the trick being the 10 plagues. Huge consequences. How much did Moses even know of the plagues were coming and the extent of the devastation?

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16) we read the conclusion to the Trick or Treat tale started in Vaera. Pharaoh has finally had enough and the Israelites leave Egypt. Almost immediately, Pharaoh changes his mind and the Israelites find themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Sea of Reeds. We know how it ends – the sea splits, the Israelites get through safely, and the Egyptians are vanquished as the sea closes in on them.  How did each of the characters feel at this moment – Moses as a new leader wondering how to save his people (before the sea opens), the Israelites feeling like they went from the frying pan into the fire, the sea anticipating God’s miracle, Pharaoh’s soldiers flying toward them on their horses,  Pharaoh himself in a rage after having lost his son in the 10th plague and now his slaves.... So much going on.

When the Israelites get to the other side of the Sea of Reeds they sing and rejoice in their safety and freedom.  They sang words familiar to us today – the prayer Mi Chamocha:

Who is like You among the powerful, O Lord? Who is like You, powerful in the holy place? Too awesome for praises, performing wonders!”

Outside our windows we see the snow coming down, quite steadily, eventually it will come down relentlessly. It reminds us of the hazards of nature (God’s creation) but also of how much we have to be thankful for (God’s gifts) – shelter, food, heat, family.

We must also, always, remember that there are those among us who do not share in our blessings. Those who are homeless or who live in substandard environments. If you are so moved, donate to Stepping Stones Shelter, the Red Cross and other organizations that help those less fortunate. And if you see anyone out in the cold with no place to go, call 240-777-4448 (Montgomery County).

If the Torah teaches us anything, it’s to be aware of our blessings and to share them when we can.

Stay safe and warm,
Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbah Arlene

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Remembering and knowing

This week’s Torah portion is Sh’mot, Exodus 1:1 – 6:1.

How do we grant eternal life to people in Judaism?

We do it by keeping our loved ones alive through memory, stories, actions and saying Kaddish.
In my family, we tell stories of those who have passed away so often it’s as if they are still alive.
My children have never met their great-great-grandparents on my side, but Bubbe and Zeyde are alive to them because of all the stories I tell. It’s important because these stories are their spiritual and ethical inheritance. We remember them.

So what happened with Joseph? We read in Exodus 1:8: “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Why didn’t this new ruler remember him? Didn’t Joseph do enough for Egypt during his 80 years in government to deserve to be remembered? He saved the Egyptians from the famine and acted as a negotiator between Pharaoh and farmer/tenants.

The scholar Rashi, interprets this verse to mean that that Pharaoh acted as if he did not know about Joseph. Pharaoh conveniently pretended that he didn’t know or remember Joseph and therefore would not have to be beholden to his descendants, to his people.

The commentator Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno presents a different interpretation. He felt that Pharaoh really did remember a Joseph from the history books. However, he said that “… it did not occur to anyone to associate the Hebrews of his time with the family of Joseph who had been so highly esteemed.” So Joseph was remembered but his family affiliations were not. And even if they had been remembered, Sforno continues that “… the idea that the present day Hebrews deserved special consideration on account of their illustrious forbearers did not occur to anyone observing the way these Hebrews behaved at that time.” This last statement posits that even if Joseph had been remembered, no one would connect him with current day Hebrews because his people were not living up to his legacy.

What follows, then, is that Joseph may indeed have been remembered but he was not known.
What is the difference? To remember someone means to “to have or keep an image or idea in your mind of (something or someone from the past).” (Miriam-Webster). The Hebrew word for this type of remembering is zachor. The Hebrew word used in this verse is yada, to know. In certain situations, we can interpret yada to mean remember, as some will do in this verse.

But yada means so much more. It means to know someone intimately, as in a lover, or to know all the intimate relevant details about someone. Pharaoh and his court may have known of Joseph, may even have remembered him — but either as Rashi claimed, pretended that they didn’t know him, or as in the Sforno interpretation, didn’t know the intimate details of Joseph’s life. They didn’t know that he had been a Hebrew.

Joseph may not have been properly known to Pharaoh all those years later, but he was known to his people. He is still known to us today.

Perhaps one message from this verse is that not only must we continue to remember those who have gone before, but also we must do them the honor of continuing to live up to the standards that were set by them and by living a life worth being remembered and known for eternity.

Questions for discussion:
Can you think of anyone else in the Tanach who we learn just enough about to remember him or her, but whom we do not feel that we have enough information to truly know who he or she was?

What do you want people to remember and know you for after you are gone?

This appeared in Washington Jewish Week.