Sukkot – סוכתי הסוכה

My Sukkot starts on the last chapter of the book of Jonah, the unnecessary chapter of the book, after Jonah “did his job”, the people did “their repentance”, and everybody lives happily ever after. Why doesn’t G-d just leave the poor guy alone? what else can G-d possibly want from him?

Jonah, disappointed with his success (yes! that happens to us too !) goes out to sit under a… sukkah; in its shade he finds refuge. And indeed, in Hebrew, tzel (shade) and hatzala (salvation, rescue) share the same letters and are very close words.

How strange for Jonah to find refuge in a sukkah. Shouldn’t he have found it maybe in a fortress? And yet, our whole holiday is about just that: reminding us that things that appear “solid”, might be not so, and things that appear transient – can be lasting.

Last week, I had the great honor to spend two days in Houston, Texas on an all too brief mission sponsored by Yeshivat Maharat. And there we were, trying to salvage items with long lasting “guarantees” from brick and mortar houses, designed “forever”, but flooded and damaged, while outside, in the yard, quietly and peacefully, stood – ready for a chag – a sukkah.

Sukkot is also a holiday which introduces the hardest mitzvah of all: being happy. How can we possibly be commanded to be happy??

May we find joy in this holiday, and from it, to the rest of the year. Chag Sameach!



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This Yom Kippur, what for ? היום כיפ’ר הזה, על שום מה

Much (and more) has been writing about Yom Kippur, this “day of Attornment” in an effort to figure out, explain, interpret, rationalize… words and words (and more… beautiful commentary and many wise insights, some of which I plan to use too, and yet, many are left without an answer: What are we doing? How does it make sense? What is this day all about?
We know it as a day to fast – from food and drink, but also bathing, anointing and marital relations. Mostly – it’s intended to be a day to pause from worldly “stuff”, which the sages, sadly, for us, had to put in concrete terms and practical restrictions. I pull out my machzor to prepare. It’s really beautiful and I love much of what’s in it. And yet, if I read through all of this, will that tell me what’s Yom Kippur? Is a day to approach through these words with one’s intellect, or maybe…

And then, a moment:

As background to my unpacking (great activity for erev YK morning 😊), I’m listening to Galgalatz, the Israeli “music and traffic” radio station. On this day, at 4:55pm Israel time, they play a new’ish version of Kol Nidrei. At 5:00pm – they broadcast the “News”, and then, they say, quite nonchalantly: כאן תמו שידורינו – this completes our broadcasting (until after chag).
And then, there is Silence.
Silence with capital S. Silence which rings in my ears as loud as the shofar; as loud the siren on Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for IDF and Terror Victims; Silence which is piercing and all present, filling the air with great joy and great awe. Silence which calls out, “Shabbat-Shabaton”, this is a Mega-Pause from Everything to recalibrate back to zero, like a spiritual bathtub to dunk in. There are no words for that feeling when we get out a good bath. I listen to that Silence and think to myself, that’s it. This is Yom Kippur.






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Balance anyone? Shana Tova!!

I’m sitting on the edge of the last chair in my apartment, waiting for the movers to come… what a grand way to accentuate this being the eve of the New Year 5778!
The past few days have been busy spent sorting through my life – again: “what will be thrown away, what will be given to a clothing drive, and what will go on with me to my next stop”… I find it all crazy-making, sad, cleansing, heavy, wonderful, exciting, fun…
This year, I think, again, of those tensions in our life, saying yes between two opposing ideas without giving up on either side. We’ve talked about it earlier, when we encountered Ki Tetze & Ki Tavo (the Torah portions of Living and Coming); Nitzavim & Vayelech (standing & walking) and now we come to Rosh Hashana.
We always say “Rosh” is head and “Shana” is year. Easy. But – I’d like to suggest that shana – connected to 2nd – sheni and “leshanen”, as in the Ve’ahavta, which indicated repeated learning, and Mishna, which is a deeper rerun of the Torah.
Rosh is also strange, if you think about it. It’s the “head”, thus the “beginning”, but who’s to say my body doesn’t start form my feet or arms or heart? “Rosh” is more of a leader, 1st.
A leader is nothing without those 2nd and 3rd. For something to be a beginning, it must have a following, a continuity.
So already from day one we’re given an oxymoron: A 1st and a 2nd. It’s the “beginning” of “repetition”, if you will. And we’re supposed to find the balance between the two.
This year, Rosh Hashana falls on the equinox. That was the “start” point for the rabbis’ calendar calculations, the zero. We walk into our “Yom HaDin” – day of judgment when everything is on the scale, as the world of astrology introduces Libra, the scales. Every little act can tilt the scales one way or another. It’s heavenly and divine; we’re constantly dealing with balls tossed at us over which we have no control; and yet, simultaneously, in our hands. What will we do with these balls? How will this year look? How will we conduct the partnership with the one on High, who also, struggles with his opposite midot (qualities) between judgment and mercy (see below)? Asking and seeking for that point is what drives us constantly forward.

May it be a sweet, good year! L’shana Tova U’Metuka!


Bereishit Rabba 12:15 בראשית רבה (וילנא) יב/טו

ה’ א-להים, (משל) למלך שהיו לו כוסות ריקים אמר המלך אם אני נותן לתוכן חמין הם מתבקעין, צונן הם מקריסין, ומה עשה המלך ערב חמין בצונן ונתן בהם ועמדו, כך אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא אם בורא אני את העולם במדת הרחמים הוי חטייה סגיאין, במדת הדין היאך העולם יכול לעמוד, אלא הרי אני בורא אותו במדת הדין ובמדת הרחמים, והלואי יעמוד

The Lord God [made earth and heaven]. This may be compared to a king who had empty glasses. Said the king: ‘If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if cold, they will contract [and snap].’ What then did the king do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them, and so they remained [unbroken]. Even so, said the Blessed Holy One: ‘If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of judgment alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of judgment and of mercy, and may it then stand!’.






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People of the Journey


It’s the last Shabbat of this Jewish year, 5777, and — my fist Shabbat at my new position at the Prospect Heights Shul, in Brooklyn. “Wow”, is all I’ll say for now… and if you’re in the area, please stop by, visit, come for Shabbat, holiday, coffee, walk in the nearby Propsect Park etc. There is a busy schedule for this Shabbat starting with beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat, Saturday morning coffee before tefila, mini-drash, a lunch & learn, party in the park in the afternoon, and – slichot at night, along with “Slichot Across Brooklyn”, till midnight. Along with that, it’s probably no wonder that the following is what I read in this week’s Torah reading.


The third Torah portion from the very beginning of Bereishit, and the third Torah portion from the end of Devarim, share the same root.
Moshe and Avraham, both are characterized by walking. About Avraham we read:

א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.
And about Moshe:
וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.
1 And Moses went and spoke these words unto all Israel.
Where are they going?

We are taught that Abraham was journeying to the Land of Israel, and yet, from the verse itself, that is not obvious. God simply instructs him to go from everything he has and knows to a land he will be shown. Rashi adds that Avraham simply had to go: and “there” (wherever that is), I – God – will make you a great nation; here you will not merit sons, and further, (by going “there”), I will make you known in the world.

And Moshe? Where is he going?

The Toldot Yitzchak (1458-1535, uncle of Yosef Karo, the editor of the Shulchan Aruch) writes:
“וילך משה”… ולא כתוב לאן הלך – כי לכל מקום שהלך דיבר את הדברים האלה: ברחוב, במשא ובמתן, בעבודה, בעסקי הפרט ובציבור, בכל מקום החדיר את דבר ה‘ה”
And Moshe went… and (the text) doesn’t say where he went to, for everywhere he went he spoke these words: in the street, when bargaining, at work, when dealing with individuals in privacy and public matters; everywhere he injected the words of Hashem.

Our tradition teaches that the last four Torah portions of Devarim were written by Moshe during the last day of his life. On that day Moshe was 120 years old, and yet, he is not sitting in his tent, fanned by servants, as befitting a great leader; nor awaiting the people to come and greet him. But rather, he gets up and goes. In fact, The Noam Megadim (born in 1805,  of the third generation Chasidut sages) says that even after Moshe has “walked” in the sense of leaving the world, he still keeps speaking all these words to the Children of Israel, to all of us. Further, he adds: halicha – הליכה walking-  indicates rising higher and higher.

Lots of other people in the Torah walk: Noah, Rebecka and more. But not only do our leaders walk; we do too. About eighty percent of the Torah deals with our own journey, and during the remaining twenty percent we move around as well, from Charan to the Land of Israel; back to Charan, back to the Land of Israel and then to Egypt.

And someone else walks as well. In this Torah portion of Vayelech we read:
חִזְקוּ וְאִמְצוּ, אַל-תִּירְאוּ וְאַל-תַּעַרְצוּ מִפְּנֵיהֶם: כִּי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ, הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּךְ–לֹא יַרְפְּךָ, וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ
Be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be frightened by them; for the Hashem your G-d, He is the One who goes with you; He will not fail you, nor forsake you.’

Hashem’s journey with us is reiterated in the partner Torah portion of this week, Nitzavim, when the Torah says (30:3):
וְשָׁב יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה
that then Hashem your G-d will turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples, wherever Hashem your G-d has scattered you.

The translation avoids the complexity in Hebrew, which does not say “God will turn” (or as it appears elsewhere – “God will restore”…). Instead, it says: God will return… as in, come back. Rashi says: Our sages learn from this that the Sh’china, God presence, is with Israel in their exile, and when they’re redeemed, God will redeem Himself and come back with us.

We’ve been called the People of the Book, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that we are likewise a People of the Journey. We journey physically – and spiritually. So much so, that as soon as we complete telling about the journey and are just about to set foot in the Promised Land, we roll our scroll back to the beginning and start all over. Jewish Law is also known as “halacha”, which comes from the same root indicating a lively path to walk on, not a stationary, frozen object. Like in the famous poem, Ithaca by the Egyptian Greek poet, journalist and civil servant Constantine Peter Cavafy, (1863-1933), the arrival is secondary to the journey and the movement, onward and upward.

Shabbat Shalom!

Shvil Yisrael

* published by Yeshivat Maharat


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On Coming and Going, Joyfully


School started again, and as is appropriate after the long summer of being away, on the first day, we talk about our journeys; journey with a small j and a capital J. We share experiences, as we look backwards and forward on, and add meaningful quotes. I especially like Peter J. Palmer’s from his book “The Courage to Teach” who says: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you”. I often think of my life as a giant puzzle I put together without having the cover picture; sometime a piece I thought was the middle of the sky, turns out to be a deep, beautiful lake on the other side. I try to listen for the hints and keep watching with amazement as the picture unfolds.

Some Torah:
It’s slightly past the full moon of Elul which means less than two weeks until Rosh Hashana, and ushering the New Year! The last Shabbatot of the year are dedicated to balancing contradictions: Ki Tetze – last week, and Ki Tavo, this week; and then, next week, Nitzavim – Vayelech on the same Shabbat. The first set can be loosely translated as “going out” and “coming in”; the second set means “standing” and ”walking”.
As so often, we’re asked to simultaneously hold two contradicting positions. We’d like it to be all one way. Or another. But that’s not what it’s about. Balance is a powerful theme all year and especially at this season with the images of the heavenly scales weighing our actions, and even the upcoming (astrological sign of) Libra. How to maintain? Just when we think we “got it”, that sense of equanimity, it rocks a bit, and one side goes up, Or down. It takes sooo much patience to fine tune it; so easy to lose.
One of the strange “curses” / “consequences” in this week’s reading is this (28:29):
כט וְהָיִיתָ מְמַשֵּׁשׁ בַּצָּהֳרַיִם, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְמַשֵּׁשׁ הַעִוֵּר בָּאֲפֵלָה… 29 And thou shalt grope at noonday, as the blind person gropes in darkness…
What is the added value of the words “in darkness”? what does it matter to a blind person if it’s noon or night, if anyway s/he can’t see? The commentators answer: at noon, others, who can see, can help, but at night, no one notices the blind person because no one can see. The curse doubles: Being in darkness – physically, emotionally, spiritually – gets many times worse when, on top of our own inability to “see”, we’re alone, and there is no one there to lend us a hand.
There are a few surprising instructions in this last book that’s almost coming to its end. If we didn’t know it to be serious Deuteronomy, we might think it’s from some New Age guide book. The first was when we were “commanded to love”, a seemingly oxymoron; and now – a commandment to be joyful.
Be happy, says the Torah. Be happy, says the book that has no problem – in the very same parasha! – to spell out awful consequences in case we misbehave – many of which came true.
Be happy.
And if not, you’ll be punished.
What? Why?? Isn’t being happy just an “extra” bonus, after doing all the other “chores”? isn’t keeping mitzvot just really hard work? Who cares about “happy”! just do the right thing; “it’s the Law”!
But the Torah thinks otherwise.
Here’s the text (Deuteronomy 28:47) right from the heart of this week’s “curses” section:
תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּשִׂמְחָה, וּבְטוּב לֵבָב–מֵרֹב, כֹּל
The easy translation is “because you did not serve Hashem your God with joyfulness, and with goodness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things“;

There are two ways to read this verse. One, as translated here (above), but I’d like to parse the verse differently, and separate only the first 4 words out:
תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ
This can simply mean:
Because you did not serve (Hashem… etc as above).
Or (and I admit that some will consider it a “creative” reading), it could mean:
Because you served “No”.
That is, the “sin” here is that we’ve “worshiped” – stayed focused on – negativity. We gave precedence to the “don’t” part of the commandments. We were big on the “no’s”. We fixated on the “chumrot” – strictures – and what we – but mostly others… – are doing wrong. Someone was always not quite perfect enough. No matter what, the cup remained half empty. Yes, true, we got so much of what we wanted; things are pretty good, in fact, not too bad, but, ah, well, not quite “perfect”. If only…
That’s when the second half of the verse comes in. Not only should we not “worship the no’s” – it’s not enough to “avoid” the negative and remain “parve”. But rather “with Hashem your G-d, (you should be) in joy and goodness of the heart for the (amazing) everything you have”.
In Hebrew, there are two words for joy – simcha & sason. The latter, sason, is unexpected joy (‘hey, look, I found a treasure!) while simcha is a joy one must work hard for (“ve’samachta bechagecha” – be joyful in your holiday, as we’re instructed in Deuteronomy 16:14). We are not commanded to be in sason (although G-d can be yasis – causing joy); but, we are commanded to be “same’ach”, which means the Torah thinks that is something we can work at, and that is within our power.

Shabbat Shalom.


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Go out, enjoy the rooftops!

The Torah portion of “Ki Tetze” has the most commandments any parasha in the Torah has: 74 in total: 27 “positive” (do this and that) and 47 “negative” (don’t do this and that). On the surface, all these commandments are dealing with our immediate physical existence, starting with “if you go out to war” and on. But already Rashi (1040-1105) comments of the opening verse (Deuteronomy 21:10) that the real war, the toughest war of all this section is talking about, is the internal war, one wages against one’s own self, one’s own evil inclination.

This continues throughout the rest of the reading. The commandments can be understood on a “pshat”, simple level, as directive for a safer, more wholesome living, and, at the same time, as holding deep spiritual messages.
For example,
During my studies at the Haifa University, I wrote a paper about “the roof in the Arabic houses”. I postulated that by analyzing the roof, I can learn a lot about how the people underneath that roof live their lives and maybe even, see the world. The Torah looks at roofs too. Deuteronomy 22:8 states: “When you build a new house, then you shall make a railing for your roof”… which totally makes sense. In the ancient world, and still in some parts of the world today, the roof is a usable place where one can dry fruits and seeds, hang laundry, sleep in the summer or sunbathe in winter, play, sit and chat and more. Such a roof, should have a railing so no one falls. But, this is so obvious! Does the Torah really need to tell us that?
The Kabbalists add a less obvious layer. They play with the fact that in gymatria “gag-cha” – your roof – is numerically equal to G-d’s four letter name (26), and tell us that we should have a railing – or what today we would call “boundaries” – around ourselves to protect ourselves and disallow disruptive things from coming in. Our human “gag” – roof, the highest point in our being is our mind, our thoughts, and much of our connection with the Divine. That part need to be secure and safely guarded.
The next verse (22:9) states: “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seeds; lest the fullness of the seed which you have sown be forfeited together with the increase of the vineyard”. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “two kinds of seeds” is “kil’ayim”, which literally means – two prisons. Rav Hirsch (1808-1888) explains in his commentary that “two prisons” implies that we are not to mix two different kinds – of seeds or anything that grows, people too. Things that inhibit and limit each other’s growth, that “imprison” each other, and don’t allow mutual growth, have no room in the same “mix”. Our goal should be to strive to develop to our fullest potential; boundaries and a good environment – are key necessities, but something – or someone – who holds us back and restrains us, is a no-no. Elsewhere in the parasha, we’re told that it is a man’s duty to “gladden his wife” (24:5), and yet, what if that’s not possible? In the very same parasha, we’re also given provisions for separation, and even – divorce, for the very same reason of “not mixing things” that imprison each other.
And one last for this Shabbat: In the beginning of that chapter (22:1-4) is a famous favorite mitzvah, that of returning lost objects. The mitzvah of hashavat aveda – returning lost objects – is what’s called “a double mitzvah” because the Torah says “hashev teshivenu” – “indeed you shall return”, using the same root-verb twice. There is also an added negative one: “lo tuchal lehit’alem” – “you will not be able to ignore / avoid”. The sages teach us that if you find your neighbor’s lost object you must return it. This too seems to make sense; why state the obvious? Then the sages add: you must return it, meaning even 100 times! That’s when it becomes less obvious and one wonders: really?? 100 times? What can we possibly return 100 times??
So maybe the construct hashev teshivenu does not only refer to returning a lost object but also to another word that shares the same root: teshuva. Tshuva, which we quickly translate to mean “repentance” shares its root with “answer” as well as “return”. If so, this is also about us noticing within us – or others – things that are lost; different qualities that have gone astray, that we forgot somewhere and no longer use to our betterment, like the ox within us symbolizing our insistence and stubbornness who maybe now no longer works for us; or our lamb – symbolizing our meekness and more. In that sense, these are the things we must notice and can’t ignore; the things we must return back to ourselves. Even more than lost objects – a garment, a donkey – and especially in the month of Elul before the High Holidays, this is a reminder for making teshuva with each and every one of our separate, lost pieces – our outer covering, our physical, hard working drive – and even if it takes us 100 times, still, never-ever give up on bringing those back home.

Shabbat Shalom!



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One more (daf) and a bit about Talmud in general

As we say in Hebrew, עד עכשיו צחקנו אתכם… “until now, we were joking”, implying that now, we’re serious. That is, my first two “dapim” (Talmud pages I got to teach) included a lot of lore, beautiful stories, parables and fun (yes) discussions between our sages and those around them. This morning’s daf – was largely law and I mean – details and in depth discussion.

The 6th chapter in the Tractate of Sanhedrin opens with what happens after the sentence was pronounced and the guilty person had to be executed. Where would that execution take place? “outside the camp”, says the Torah. Or so it implies. Where is “outside the camp”? Is it outside the Temple area? Or maybe the whole city? Do we answer intuitively or do we have supporting text? What if there is conflicting texts? How do we know which one to go by?

For me, learning Talmud is maybe best described as a form of Jewish Sodoku. It’s a series of – if this, then this, then that… wait, or maybe that?? Do we have sources to base this on? Are we correct in our logic? What about semantics, i.e. if s/he used this word here and that word there, and those letters and this root… can we understand something additional from it?

The Talmud gives me great comfort. It resonates with the way I think about things in life. It’s a flow that questions, explorations and meanings. Further, it resonates with the way I wish we would teach in our schools. Many studies speak to learning in small groups, allowing each student an opportunity to actively participate, think for her/himself, struggle with complex questions and ideas, delve into resources that need dissecting rather than passive listening, having a teacher who guides rather than preaches, and much more. A few years ago, an article was published about Talmud studies for students in South Korea because they figured hundreds of years of learning in this way might have something to do with Jews later winning Nobel Prizes in a disproportionate numbers. While they are not studying the exact same Talmud, which needs Hebrew, Aramaic and Judaic background, they do learn mostly stories with good morals. And some, suggest it should be translated to more and more languages, like Hindi and Chinese so more people can be exposed to its wisdom.

Lucky for us we don’t have to wait for the Chinese translation. We can start right here and now. There are countless resources, on and off-line, in Hebrew, English, Spanish and more. Don’t worry about previous knowledge; don’t worry about the other 2710 pages we haven’t studied yet. Our people are anyway more about the journey than arrival. Just sit back and enjoy the view.

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