Saturday, July 10, 2021

Parashat Matot-Masei: The Power of Words

Parashat Matot-Masei, Numbers 30:2 - 36:13

When a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; all that crosses his lips he must do” (K’chol ha’yotzei mepeev ya’aseh). (Numbers 30:3)

A man is bound by his words. Words exist in our minds as well as on our lips but they must cross our lips in order to become real. There are very few cases in the rabbinic tradition or the Tanach where thoughts are punishable or even taken very seriously. However, as soon as words have “crossed lips” and become real things they must be taken seriously. Indeed, the hebrew “davar” can mean either “word” or “thing”. We atone for actions and words; not for mere thoughts.

The Torah present us with a discussion of the power of words and vows here at the very end of the book of Numbers, right before the Israelites are about to enter the land. Perhaps its location here serves to remind us of where we came from and where we are going. As slaves leaving Egypt we had no responsibility; our words meant nothing. We were as children. We then wandered through the desert for a generation undergoing physical and spiritual challenges and learning what it means to become a people as opposed to an oppressed group. In essence, we went through adolescence and were now ready to become adults. 

Moshe and Aaron taught us God’s expectations - to keep the mitzvot, to conquer the land, to engage in community through imparted values. Our words now had significance. We were no longer a people alone but a people standing with God. Therefore what we say, whenever and wherever we say it, matters. 

From this point onwards vows and oaths taken in God’s name would be taken very seriously. A free man was expected to carry out whatever “crossed their lips” and, for a free man, there was no option of nullification. However, people who lived under the authority of others, such as a girl in her father's home or a wife in her husband’s could have their vows nullified by their father or husband. To have your vows fully and irredeemably binding is a sign of full unmediated citizenship and relationship with God. In the world of the Bible women were yet to stand in that unmediated relationship.

It is extremely difficult to live in a world where you are accountable for every utterance. The Biblical story of Jephthah/Yiftach in the book of Judges (Chapter 11) is a cautionary tale about what happens when all your utterances before God must be honoured. The rabbis came to recognize that people often speak without thought and need some leeway when it comes to vows. They demanded a highly refined and specific formula for making vows that would limit unintentional vowing and they also created a radically new structure for the annulment of vows. The rabbis themselves stood in the breach to save people from their own foolish words. 

In today’s modern world speech is not legally regulated in the way that it was in biblical or rabbinic times. In the US we pride ourselves on the First Amendment, a law that protects our right to free speech. The legal protection of speech liberates us to be personally responsible for the way we use language. No people has ever been free like the Americans; free to stand in a fully unmediated way before God.  Here we must be fully cognizant of the words, and promises, that issue from our mouths. No one will save us from our oaths here except ourselves.

Co-written with Rabbi Joel Levy,  Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, for the Washington Jewish Week, Summer 2016. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Parashat Balak - What is Home?: Ma Tovu and our many Sacred Spaces

Parshat Balak  (Numbers 22:2-25.9)

In Parshat Balak we receive words of blessing from the non-Israelite prophet Balaam. The Torah, and subsequently the sages, see Balaam as a true prophet, one who has true communication with God.  Balaam is not a prophet on the same level or of the same stature as Moshe – no one is – but he’s up there. Not only that, but the words of this nonIsraelite prophet make their way into our morning liturgy. 

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃   

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!

Ma Tovu (Numbers 24:5) is but a simple blessing on the goodliness of Israel’s homes. But if COVID has shown us anything, it is that we can no longer take anything for granted. This includes the the meaning of אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ/ Ohalecha – your tents or מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ/Mishkenatecha your dwellings or sanctuaries. 

So let’s parse this out – what is a home? 

As Ma Tovu is a 6 word blessing, here are 6 synonyms for the word home. The number 6 isn’t truly meaningful here, it just felt right. Though, when one thinks about it – God did create the world in 6 days. So perhaps in those 6 days we were given a variety of meanings and understandings of the word “home.”

  1. Ohel – (tent) – ohel mohed, Tent of Meeting that housed the ark in the desert
  2. Mishkan (dwelling place) term used for the portable Tabernacle
  3. Bayit –(house) an intimate domestic space sheltering families from the element 
  4. Heichal (palace) the abode of a king
  5. M’on (refuge) where wild beasts seek safety from predators
  6. Makom (place) my favorite meaning of all. It is one of the many names of the Omnipresent God in our lives and experiences BUT it also means just a space – of ANY kind that we decide we want to designate as “home.”

What did Balaam see when he went to curse the Israelites for Balak, King of the Moabites? 

According to Rashi, when Balaam looked out from Mt Peor over the Israelite camp, he saw the Israelites encamped in such a way as to  guarantees the privacy for each home. The tents/dwelling were placed such that they did not directly face one another, thereby ensuring that  one could not look into another’s private spaces or eavesdrop on each other’s  conversations.  To Rashi, this shows a people with great modesty and respect for each other; concepts that are foreign for Balaam who was raised in an idolatrous and immoral culture. 

Rabbi J.H. Hertz, who edited the Hertz Chumash, says Balaam was swept away in rapt admiration of the Israelite encampments and homes that were arranged so harmoniously and peacefully.  He goes on to define the word tents as the tents of Torah and dwellings as synagogues. He wrote, “There loomed up before Balaam’s mental vision the schoolhouses and synagogues that ever been the source and secret of Israel’s spiritual strength. “ (p678 Hertz Chumash)

Much later than the Torah, the Talmud in Bava Batra 60a uses Ma Tovu as the source of a ruling that one cannot build a door directly opposite the door of a neighbor or make a window in line with a neighbor’s window. This ensures privacy and respect of personal dignity and is in keeping with the value of modesty in behavior. The Talmud writes that when Balaam saw the tents aligned (or one could say "mis"aligned) in such a way  he said, "If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them."

There are so many cliches about homes:  Home is where the heart is. A man’s home is his castle. There's no place like home. ....  

I want to look a bit more closely at Ma Tovu and discerning a new meaning of home and the prayer based on my experiences during COVID. 

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃  

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!

Where ever, how ever, we gather in community to pray, learn, rejoice, mourn, comfort, kick back, relax, sing, talk, even argue – it becomes our home. This space of gathering becomes our tents and it becomes our sanctuaries.  

Where ever, and how ever, we gather becomes our sacred space. Of course we want to gather physically if we can. But have learned that even if we can’t, our virtual space can become our sacred space. 

There is an expression:  "When two or three people study Torah, God is present."  Studying Torah is not just about the words and concepts, it is about being together in such a way that godliness is present and the sacred nature of being in relationship shines.

We are blessedly – I hope- at the tail end of the tsunami that is COVID. I don’t know what will come next or when it will come. But one thing that I hope we have learned from all this is that our synagogues, our holy communities, and even our homes,  are more than just physical spaces. We can survive and actually thrive as a community in whatever way we are able to be together – simply because our being together highlights sacred community and creates sacred space. 

An end note: I’m not saying that we should get rid of our buildings and do everything on-line. Besides making us continually run around in halachic-circles, this would, in time impact the fabric of our communal life. Being a Jew in community is not an either-or prposition; it is not either meeting in-person or meeting virtually. Nor is it that meeting in person is superior and meeting virtually is a poor relation. (mixed metaphors here, sorry). 

What I’m saying is that God is in the space in-between. Sacredness exists where we recognize it - be it in synagogue or at home or in a myriad of other dimensions. We are very blessed to recognize that that is the case. 

Thus my new understanding of Ma Tovu is as follows:  

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃  

 How goodly are your homes O Israel that their sacredness can exist wherever it is intentionally invoked. 

Shabbat Shalom

Originally given at Tikvat Israel Congregation,  6/26/21

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.