Abraham in Canaan and Jews in Pittsburgh

November 2nd: Hayeh Sarah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In two instances in this week’s Torah portion, we see a tension between Abraham belonging to his society and Abraham being an outsider. In the first case, Abraham is preparing to bury his wife, Sarah, and he wants to buy a piece of property from one of the local landowners. The Torah goes into a great amount detail in re the negotiating and the price he paid (400 shekels of silver), more than seems necessary for a simple real estate transaction. The Commentators explain this in terms of Abraham’s temporary status in the area: though he is well respected, in the words of the Hittites, “the elect of God among us,” he is, in his own words, “a resident alien among you.” (Genesis 23.4-6) He does not feel secure in the Hittite society, and he does not own any land. So, the Commentators observe, in lieu of permanent property records, he chooses to pay an exorbitant price for the property, creating a local story for everyone to tell and remember, and making his ownership a matter of public and popular knowledge.

 The second case is when it comes time to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham is concerned that the wife not be local, and he sends his servant back to Mesopotamia to go procure a wife for Isaac. He has the servant swear “by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24.3-4) Though Abraham lives in the Land—and though God has decreed that Abraham and his descendants will live there forever, Abraham wants a wife from the “Old Country,” guaranteeing that Isaac and his family will be part of but not totally part of Canaanite society.

 This dynamic tension in Abraham’s situation has been the Jewish destiny throughout the generations. We always work to be a part of our communities—and, in many places and times, we have been extraordinarily successful. We have both benefited from welcoming societies and made great contributions to them. And yet, in order to maintain our Jewish identities and communities, we have limited our total assimilation—focusing also on intra-group activities and relationships. It is and has been an interesting position for a people to maintain—resulting in a continuing discussion in our texts and in our strategies for successful lives.


And so we get to Pittsburgh this last Shabbat. In an act unspeakable on so many levels, a hateful person lashed out at innocent worshippers—identifying them and us as outsiders and enemies. That his logic is stupid is beside the point. Acts like this never make sense and never help any positive agenda. However, the fact that such hatefulness exists is terribly troubling, and we find ourselves asking why.

 Many point to the rhetoric of our President, the rallies he organizes, and the exuberantly angry crowds he whips up and eggs on. When Mr. Trump instigates outbursts of anger and violence, how surprised can we be when someone acts out the emotional message with guns? Paraphrasing the old adage: When you lead a horse to water, you shouldn’t be surprised when it takes a drink.

 The President and his defenders insist that he never advocates actual violence—that the violence he espouses is psychic and is a response to the psychic violence that his followers feel has been directed at them. There may be some logic in this reasoning, but it puts Mr. Trump in a reactionary position that is ill-posed to help anyone. He makes himself into a caricature—an emotional outburst rather than a positive actor.

 Though Mr. Trump and his phenomenon seem particularly dramatic, it is not as unique as we might think. We can see populist anger and political expression throughout the five centuries of American history, and the improvements of modern life have not remedied this social tendency. Writing in the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Murray Bowen, the noted psychiatrist and developer of Family Systems Theory, often discussed an overly-reactive and emotional, circling-the-wagons type mentality that was taking over the country.

 If we believe we have gone too far, how do we repent as a nation and return to civil discourse and communication?

 A simple answer is that we can follow the teaching of Hillel:  “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. (That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary; now go and study!)” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a) We can also take it one step further, following the teaching of Reb Shmelke: “What is hateful in your neighbor, do not do yourself.” Should we model the same behavior we hate, or should we look at bad behavior as a lesson in what we do not want to be?

 Here is a question for supporters of President Trump: Is heaping abuse on Democrats—speaking of them as traitors, murderers, and enemies—the best way to convince them of your political vision? Here is a question for opponents of President Trump: Is the best way to dial down the anger and vitriol of political discourse to heap abuse on the people who cheer on the President and who resonate with something in his message?

 There are, I suspect, fanatics and nuts all over the political spectrum—and, please God, protect us from them, but I do not believe that the majority of people in either party are crazies or wicked or stupid—and I do not think calling them such names is very persuasive in making progress. The vast majority of people on both sides of the political divide are people of principle and intelligence who have real hopes and real fears. I believe that their actions both practical and emotional are born of the reality of their lives, and dismissing them or disrespecting them does not make their thinking evaporate; it just drives them deeper into their anger and fear. It is not nice. It is also counterproductive.

The basis of our democratic republic is that people are intelligent and possessed of decency and moral fiber. The goal of a democratic society is not for the proponents of one point of view to destroy their opponents but rather to convince them and find solutions together. Let us beware any rhetoric on any side that does not respect these core principles.




Natural Law and God

October 26th: Va’yera
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Back in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings (1991), before the whole Anita Hill and Sexual Harassment controversy, the big issue challenging then-Judge Thomas was his belief in Natural Law. Trained in the Catholic faith and legal tradition, Judge Thomas learned about, believed in, and taught this approach to law. The concern by those opposed to his confirmation was that he would be judging based not on the Constitution and Laws of the United States, but on this other legal tradition, Natural Law. It seemed like a real challenge, but then people discovered what Natural Law is: the notion that some qualities of right or wrong spring from the very nature of existence—and not because a deity or ruler decrees them. Originally discussed by ancient Greek philosophers, it became a rather extensive conversation in both Rabbinic Judaism and in the developing Canonical Law tradition of Christianity. At the end of the day, it is not a rival legal tradition but an expansive discussion of what many would call common sense: you don’t need a decree or sacred text to know that stealing and murder are wrong, and that justice and compassion are right.

 The Greek philosophers and the Christian Fathers were concerned with morality and the legitimacy of authority. What would happen if someone legally or religiously in-command gave an unjust order or judgment? Does the legality of the authority make the unjust just, or is there a sense of justice or morality above and beyond the authority of a human ruler or bishop?

The Rabbis also addressed this Natural Law, and their concern was in regard to the categories of universal morality and Jewish morality. Given that God has special rules for Jews—human beings who, by virtue of a covenant, are obligated for special behavior, what about the non-Jews? Are there any non-covenantal expectations for them? The Rabbis resolve this question by inventing/concocting a covenant with all humanity—one established between God and Noah after the Flood. Though not phrased in the Natural Law terminology of a non-authority-based sense of right and wrong, the Noachide Covenant was a Rabbinic invention to establish a basic set of principles and behaviors applicable to all human beings—everyone descended from those who survived the Flood.

As for the questions of the Greek philosophers and the Christian Fathers, the Rabbis had excellent guidance from the Torah—specifically the encounter this week between Abraham and God in re the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Genesis 18, God decides to discuss the Sodom and Gomorrah situation with Abraham. God’s reasoning is that: “Abraham is destined to be a great and populous nation and to bless all the nations of the earth” with his moral and religious message. God “singled him out so that he could instruct his descendants to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”

Genesis 18.17-19)  It is not so much that God wants to check with Abraham to see if the Divine Plan is okay. Rather, God wants the moral instructor of the world to understand the Divine way and the Divine actions so that he can explain them to everyone else.

 However, when God does run the plan by Abraham, Abraham voices a challenge: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?!” (Genesis 18.23-25) Despite this challenge, which some could consider impudent, God goes along with Abraham’s logic.

 At this point, there are two ways to look at the story. If the Torah is written by (or dictated by) God, then we have God going along with this expectation—that God, being God, will not and cannot do something unjust. God is agreeing with the sense of right and wrong that is above even the Divine. One could even say that God is constituted so that God’s Will would never, ever want to do something unjust.  If, on the other hand, the Torah is written by humans, then we have them writing that God goes along with this expectation of fairness and justice. Either way you approach the story, we have the Torah setting up the expectation that a sense of morality exists above any Divine capriciousness or whimsy. God only does justice! This is a way of stating what others call Natural Law.

 While the Torah states this directly, the Rabbis enhance the lesson with an interesting Midrash on the previous passage—the one where Abraham is visited by God and two angels. As you may remember, Abraham invites the Divine visitors into his tent and offers them lunch. “He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set them before the visitors, and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.”  (Genesis 18.8) The koshi (difficulty) is that Abraham appears to be serving a non-kosher meal, mixing dairy and meat products. The historical answer is that the laws of Kashrut were not yet given—Sinai being some 700 years in the future—AND that the particular institution of not mixing dairy and meat might have been a much later development. In other words, Abraham did not keep Kosher because Kashrut had not yet been invented. However, the Sages could not imagine the founder of Judaism not keeping Kosher. And, they found a needle to thread to support their intuition: notice the order of Abraham’s menu. The dairy is served first, and the calf is served second. If it takes a long time to prepare (slaughter, butcher, roast, etc.) the calf, it would mean a suitable interval between the two types of food. Of course, they reasoned, Abraham kept Kosher, and the Torah proves it. This is cute, but the profundity follows. Halachah, the Rabbis teach, is not just an arbitrary set of rules imposed by God on us. No, Halachah is naturally the way life should be lived; its principles and details emerge from the design of the natural world—making it a kind of Natural Law. Yes, God revealed and commanded it later, but a perceptive and spiritual person like Abraham should be able to derive every bit of Halachah from a careful observation of the created world. Abraham does not need the Revelation on Mount Sinai to know about Kashrut or any other part of Halachah; he knows it already because he is a keen and reverent observer of the created world.


Is there a morality that emanates from the Creation? Are there truths that are self-evident? According to the ancient Rabbis, and many Greek philosophers, and the Church Fathers, the answer is Yes. So, whether from revelation or tradition or a deep reading of reality, we should know how to behave justly and compassionately. We were created that way.

Living Among Others in the Ancient Land

October 19th: Lech Lecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

We usually dwell on the call of Abram, where God comes to him and says, “Lech lecha, Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great…” (Genesis 12.1-2) This is the origin of what we now know as Judaism.

However, once Abram and Sarai get to the Land of Canaan, life is very interesting and sometimes dangerous, and the narrative gives us some interesting looks into the social milieu. First, Abram’s nephew, Lot, who had come with them from the Old Country (Haran in Syria), decides to go off on his own—so his flocks and Abram’s will not be competing for pasture land. Then, in Genesis 14, an ancient war erupts. The kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam, and Goiim waged war on the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (also known as Zoar). The four ruled over the five for a dozen years, at which point they rebelled. Two years later, the four attacked and pillaged a number of other kingdoms and, among other things, took Lot as a hostage. This got Abram involved. “A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre…When Abram heard…he mustered his allies and retainers—those born into his household, a total of 318 fighters, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them (the four kings) and defeated them; and he pursued them…beyond Damascus. He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people.” (Genesis 14.13-16)

 When he returned from defeating the four kings—returning from Syria to the Jerusalem area, “the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King. And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High (El Elyon). He blessed him, saying, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.” (Genesis 14.17-20)

 From this, we learn that Abram was part of the ancient society of The Land—that he had allies and enemies, and that he was active in the affairs of the area. We also learn that he had assisted the kings of Sodom (where Lot lived) and Gomorrah. And, we learn that Abram was not the only person focused on the One God. Apparently, others worshipped God as well, and there was even a priest who lived in a place called Salem, a place where Abram prayed. Could that have been what was later called Jerusalem? 

 In any event, we also learn about a kind of moral difference between Abram and some of his neighbors—particularly the King of Sodom. “Then, the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.’ But, Abram said to the kind of Sodom, ‘I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread of a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say “It is I who made Abram rich.” For me, nothing but what my servants have used up; as for the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre—let them take their share.’” (Genesis 15.21-24)

 Abram’s participation in the campaign was not for the booty—though that was, apparently, the practice of those who lived around him.

 Sometimes, our reading of the ancient stories reveals a very narrow look at ancient life. One could get the idea that our only interactions with other tribes or nations involved problems: slavery, attacks, and moral temptations. However, there are also portions which show how our ancient ancestors were parts of their societies—being Jewish in a non-Jewish world. There were neighbors and allies, and some of the allies were not as admirable as the others. Nonetheless, we were part of that world, and our navigating through its various situations required intelligence, flexibility, and a firm moral core.


One final note: this background of neighborly relations with Sodom and Gomorrah gives us a clue as to why God consults Abraham about their fates. We shall study that story next week.



The Tower of Babel/Babble

October 12th: No’ach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The story of the Tower of Babel is simple yet potentially profound. On one level, it seeks to “explain” why there are many different languages. Perhaps this is necessary because of the Biblical simplicity that all humans come from the same family. While this origin of humanity is not what the archeological and anthropological records show, it is an important Biblical principle and one that leads to a certain morality: if we all come from the same ancestors, then no one should ever say that his/her ancestors are greater—or have bluer blood—than others.

 On another level, it is a kind of nationalistic slur, suggesting that the great tower of Babylon, the ziggurat that was called Esagilah: The House that Lifts Its Head to Heaven, was an act of hubris and insolence—and not the great architectural wonder the city claimed.

The Midrash enhances the story and slur and moves them to a third level. The Rabbis explained that the Babylonians were immoral: When a worker would fall from the tower and die, the people of Babel (Babylon) would pay no mind. However, if a brick fell, they would all lament the delay in their glorious project. This kind of materialism is not what God has in mind for us.

On a fourth level, the story reminds us of our own insignificance and transient nature. As the great Biblical commentator Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) and others explain, a first step in living in God’s world is realizing our own relative insignificance: humility is an important first step both mentally and spiritually. There is also the fact that our time here on earth is limited. We achieve greatness not by building towers but by participating in God’s project, tikkun olam.

 On a fifth level, this story brings up the curious phenomenon of human cultural variety. There are many different human cultures—with different ways of expressing common human experiences and different cultural values. Sometimes, getting along with each other can prove challenging. Are there universal values that should be common to all good cultures and religions? Or, are some things right and moral for some cultures and not so for others? Is it cultural colonialism or conquest to insist on universal standards of morality, or should each individual culture be considered moral when it determines its own standards?

 The Bible sort of addresses this in tracing our ancestry back to Noah and his sons—and the covenant God makes in Genesis 9. While the Torah’s 613 mitzvot apply to the Jews, the Noachide covenant is established with all humanity—all those who are descended from Noah’s family. Based on this simple narrative, the Rabbis cobble together—from several verses in Genesis 2 and Genesis 9—the notion of seven laws incumbent on all humans. Just as God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood, we people are enjoined to:
(1)   Set up courts that justly enforce social laws
(2)   Not to blaspheme—disrespect God or God’s worshippers
(3)   Not to worship idols
(4)   Not to practice sexual immorality
(5)   Not to murder
(6)   Not to steal
(7)   Not to eat the limbs/parts of live animals.

This was the Rabbinic approach to what Greek philosophers (and later Roman Catholic philosophers) called Natural Law, laws that are right and true based only on the nature of existence—and not necessarily on the basis of a Commander’s authority.

 We shall approach this subject again in a few weeks, in Parshat Va’yera, when we consider the parameters of God’s morality and the possibility of ascertaining natural law on our own.

 For now, let us just meditate on the balance of greatness and insignificance that is ours as humans. Our days are as a fleeting shadow, and yet God has made us little less than divine. What can we, in this curious intermediary position, do with our lives? How can we endow our fleeting days with abiding value?



Israel: The Issues and Not the Conflict

October 5th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
This week, our Torah Commentary consists of my Yom Kippur morning sermon, Israel: The Issues and Not the Conflict.

 Israel: The Issues and Not the Conflict

There is a lot of conversation about the conflict in the Middle East. On television, in newspapers and magazines, on the internet, and in conversations, the subject of Israel’s policies and predicaments occupies a tremendous amount of our attention. And yet, I find that the story is too often told in simplistic terms—terms that obscure rather than clarify the issues that Israel, its neighbors, and the world are facing.

 The actual situation is quite complex, and, in some ways, it is similar to our predicament on Yom Kippur. Plagued by the guilt that appropriately rumbles around in our souls, and inspired by the passages in our prayer books, we realize that our actual lives—our foibles and missteps, the reasons why our basically good selves have made such mess of things, and the ways that we must behave if repentance is actually to happen—are complex and are not reducible to quick and obvious answers. The reasons why we sin, the effects of our sins, and the ways for us to navigate off the sinful path require serious thought and extended work. If it is true for each of us, would it not also be true for nations?

 And so, I would like to look at Israel, considering some of the complexities of the situation. I do not have solutions, but whatever those solutions will be require due diligence in understanding a number of truths. In general, I believe that the narrative of conflict—between Israel and the world, between American Jews and Israeli Jews, between the Jews and the Palestinians—obscures the actual issues and works against clarity in understanding some very serious situations. I would like to look beyond this narrative of conflict. Please consider the following:

 (1)   The Conflict Between American Jews and Israeli Jews: All of the varying opinions held by American Jews are also held by Israeli Jews. In Israel, there is a vigorous discussion about every issue and every decision. Whatever the views—pro or con—of Jews in America are mirrored by Israelis and Israeli organizations, and they are subject to constant debate, rebuttal, discussion and rehashing. Yes, the Israelis may live closer to the difficulties, but that does not prevent them from holding the full panoply of opinions on every decision and policy. Rather than focusing on “the divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews,” the real question is that of how to solve each particular problem.

 (2)   The Conflict Between Israelis and Palestinians: This question of Palestinian rights or national aspirations is remarkably complex and multifaceted. There are lots of different groups within the polity identified as Palestinians, and they have as many different opinions as do Jews. Moreover, the question of the freedom and legitimacy of Palestinian elections needs to be asked and answered before anyone can legitimately speak of what the Palestinians want—as opposed to what will be forced upon them by terrorists like Hamas. I have heard regular Palestinians refer to Hamas and even Fatah as thugs. There are also real doubts as to whether national sovereignty will actually improve the lives of individual Palestinians. The famous statement of Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” looks a lot different from a country that basically pulled off democracy. Consider on the other hand the sovereignty experiences in Syria or so many African countries. The massacres and genocides which have happened over and over again in developing countries cannot be discounted if we are really concerned about people and their rights. And, then there are those values which are so vital in our liberal enclaves of the First World, values such as Feminism and LGBTQA rights. Will women, in the anticipated Palestinian state, be accorded the rights and autonomy and equal pay and protections that Feminism holds dear? Will LGBTQA individuals be respected and affirmed and welcomed to pursue their lives freely? Looking at current Arab and Palestinian society, both in Judea and Gaza, I wonder. No. I doubt it seriously. As nice as the principle of national sovereignty or autonomy sounds in theory, the current and probable social oppression of millions should not be dismissed. What will life be like for the individuals who will actually live under the hoped-for regimes?

 (3)   The “Conflict between Israel and the World:”  There is no doubt that Israel is often involved in controversies in a number of areas, but the notion of a universal conflict between Israel and the world is a constructed narrative that ignores a lot of actual facts. Israel participates actively and positively in many international efforts. The EuroVision Song Contest is just one example. Israelis are also involved in humanitarian and rescue efforts, in scientific research and conferences, in technology development, in musical and cultural endeavors, in competitive athletics, in police and military training, and in international trade. Why just this past year, one of my Israeli nieces was part of a sizable delegation representing Israel at a conference in Turkey. Turkey! Under Erdogan! She is in the food import and export business, and lots of Europeans and Asians eat Israeli fruit and vegetables every day. Later that year, that same niece and her husband went on vacation in Montenegro, and they found kosher food! So often the attention is focused on a group objecting to Israel, but the objection is only possible because Israel is out there, participating actively in the world.

 (4)   Israel’s Enemies: Israel has real enemies—existential enemies who are not just competitors. Many are working against Israel’s very existence. Let us not forget that, for some opponents, the issue is not just the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and much of the PLO want Israel gone. They don’t want just Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem; they want Tel Aviv and Beersheva and Haifa and Tiberias. Next time you listen to a public discussion, pay attention to the subtleties and what exactly is being sought.

 (5)   The Distinction Between Critics and Enemies: Some of these enemies may be hiding. Take, for instance, groups such as BDS, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions effort. There are BDS people who are supportive of Israel but who object to some of the policies of the Netanyahu regime—particularly the occupation of the territories captured in the 1967 war. They think that boycotting Israeli companies will pressure the government into changes and improvements. There are also those, however, who are against Israel’s very existence, and they see boycotts, divestment, and sanctions as a way to weaken and eventually destroy Israel. When we have discussions with BDS, Jewish Voice for Peace, and similar organizations, understanding the motivations and goals of the individuals is vital.                                                                                    

 (6)   The Value of Relationships: Conversation and camaraderie are not only nice; they can help move toward improvement. There are dozens and dozens of groups on both sides working for cooperation, mutual respect, and peace. There are groups working for community improvement, regardless of the generally told story of conflict. Let us not forget that the peace being built brick by brick is of great importance and has great potential for influencing the larger situation. Let us therefore beware of communication strategies that are impatient or castigating. Are leaders and speakers trying to communicate or to cut off relationships? Are they trying to find solutions or vilify their opponents? Let us also beware observations that overly simplify the approaches and concerns of interested parties. Whenever I hear someone say, “Well, there are just two kinds of Arabs, or two kinds of Jews,” or, “Well, our choices are simple: either we do this, or we do that,” I know that the analysis is born either of the speaker’s fatigue or of the assumption that the listeners are too tired to think clearly.


When examining any human imperfection, a good analysis looks at as many factors as possible, extending to the imperfect individual both firm judgment and compassionate kindness. As Reb Nachman of Breslov explains, even the worst human actions have at their core level some spark of goodness. That the goodness has gone terribly astray is the tragedy. That it can be fanned and redirected toward repentance is God’s gift. Improvement requires real understanding of both the past and of the possible future.

 In regard to Israel, there are certainly lots of “shoulda’s and coulda’s” on both sides. Mistakes were made. Responses were controversial. Facts were reinterpreted or misinterpreted. New facts arose. Though the Palestinians have only been a “people” since 1964, the fact is that now there is a large group of Arabs called Palestinians, and they deserve respect and human rights. Similarly, we can argue about the settler movement in Judea and Samaria, but the fact is that some 400,000 Israelis now live there, and they deserve respect, as well. And, of course, there is also the fact that most of those “settlers” are living in metropolitan Jerusalem—in the natural growth of an urban area like every other city in the world. Solutions need to address reality and the human dimension inevitably involved in every real estate or security issue.

 Against the narrative of conflict, I am happy to report to you that there are thousands of Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Muslims and Christians, working toward peace in both small and large increments. Look for these stories and support these efforts. Beware the narratives that obscure. Look for the narratives that lead to solutions.


Remembering the Exodus as a "First Step"

September 28th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
This week, our Torah Commentary consists of my Kol Nidre sermon, Remembering the Exodus as a First Step. Next week, we shall send out my Yom Kippur Morning sermon, Israel: The Issues and Not the Conflict.

I never knew if the comment was serious or tongue-in-cheek, but one of my friends in Florida once complained, “Every time I come to services, we’re always fighting the Egyptians.” At first I thought of the old joke where the fellow complains to the priest, “Every time I come to church, all you talk about is Christmas!” But then I realized that we do reference the Exodus from Egypt a whole lot.

 In both morning and evening services, the third paragraph of the Shema mentions it, as does the blessing which follows and has as its climax Mi Chamocha, a song taken from the Shirat Hayam that our ancestors sang after crossing the Red Sea. In the traditional morning service, they sing this entire Biblical poem every day. The Friday evening Kiddush tells us of the Sabbath’s three main themes: the Creation of the World, our relationship with God, and the Exodus from Egypt.

 And, of course, there is whole festival of Passover—with the Seders and many of the special prayers in its worship services: they are all dedicated to remembering and ritually reliving the Exodus. In Psalm 114— which is part of the Hallel psalms we recite at the Seder and throughout Passover and Sukkot and Shavuot and Chanukah, and at every Rosh Chodesh, we recount the miracle of the Exodus. Yetzi’at Mitzrayim is also a frequent theme in our weekly Torah portions. It occupies the first twenty chapters of Exodus, and it is frequently mentioned by God and Moses throughout the Torah. So, I guess my friend was right: we are constantly talking about the Egyptians and how God helped us in our miraculous escape from their oppression.

 Why? I am sure that there are many answers historical, liturgical, and theological, but try this one on for size. Our continual remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt is similar to the way people in Twelve Step programs are supposed to continually remember that they are addicts. Alcoholism and other addictions are not diseases which can be healed. Once an addict, always an addict, and the Twelve Step theory teaches that continually remembering one’s addiction is literally the first step in not drinking or indulging.

 Could there be a Jewish psychic disease against which we need to be constantly on guard? The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, also means narrowness. This probably has an ancient geographical origin: habitable Egypt is an extremely narrow country—basically the Nile River and the irrigatable section on either side where people can live. However, the spiritual interpretation is that Mitzrayim speaks of narrowness in general. God helped us escape from Egyptian slavery or narrowness, and our spiritual disease is that we might just revert back into narrowness: narrowness of thinking and of spirit.  Consider the following three ways that we need to beware.

 First, we need to be on guard against the narrowness of despair. The world is full of problems, and our lives can be beset with difficulties. However, possibilities for meaningfulness and joy are present regardless of the finitude we face every day. I am not suggesting that we ignore our problems. Problems are real, and suffering is real. Nonetheless, there are possibilities of goodness that await. Think of the strength of the human spirit that can cope with great struggles. Think of the examples of appreciation or grace or kindness that can persist even in the darkest of nights. And, think of the eternality—the infinity—of God, who is the source of our healing, our strength, and our everlasting life. God can protect us, help us find meaning in the face of our finitude, and embrace us forever when we are gathered to our ancestors. The world can be Mitzrayim, narrowness, but there are also the expansiveness of hope that surrounds us and the meaningfulness that can transcend the limits of our lives.

 Second, we need to beware the narrowness of exclusivity. We all strive for excellence, and we all feel special loyalty to our families or our congregations or our nation. Loyalty is good. Excellence is good. However, we need to keep these good things in check lest our exuberance becomes snobbishness or xenophobia. A core teaching of our faith is that all human beings are created in the image of God; we all come from the same ancestors. Respect for all beings—within and without our tribal groups—is a mitzvah of the highest order. Our appreciation and respect for all others should be expansive and aware of the presence of God in every person and the delight that God finds in human variety.

 Third, we need to beware the narrowness of our theological thinking. The lessons we learned when we were young are valuable, but also limited. They reflect the kind of things we could understand at those younger developmental stages. Growing up affords us more knowledge and more perception, and it is important that our theological thinking be conducted on an adult level. Moreover, the texts of our Tradition are often written in poetic language or in non-sophisticated language—the language that ancient desert-dwelling nomads could understand. As a result, our sacred texts often reflect a mythic conception of reality. They contain truth, but they can also fool us into thinking in anthropomorphic and limited terms of a reality that is by definition infinite. The totality of God is beyond our ability to understand or comprehend or even define. So, if we ever think that we know exactly what God is, then we are inevitably incorrect. Limiting God deprives us of the wonder of an apperception of the infinite—of a relationship with the expansiveness that is the very essence of existence. As much as we love the words of Scripture and prayer that our Tradition uses, let us realize that they are tools to expand our awareness and appreciation—and not to narrow them. They can help us open our hearts to the wonder of the Eternal and to fill our spirits with awe.


 When I first studied Twelve Step Programs and began to work with alcoholics and chemically dependent individuals, there was a harshness to the approach that I found unsettling. In one case, a sponsor kept referring to the patient as a drunk. After several discussions with him, I questioned this derogatory term. Isn’t there a nicer, more polite way to refer to him? Alcoholic? Chemically dependent person? Person with a chemical dependence? “No,” explained the very experienced sponsor. “I, too, am a drunk, and I am telling you that nice words obscure the real damage that a drinking alcoholic can do, both to him/herself and to others. Nice words make the horror of chemical dependence nicer and somehow less ominous, and that is not a helpful or a kind thing to do.” The foremost thought in the drunk’s mind has got to be his/her identification as a drunk—a drunk who leaves destruction in his/her wake when drinking. Self-identification is critical to the improvement that hopefully will come.

 Likewise, the fact that we, as Jews, always carry Mitzrayim/narrowness with us is an important realization. We have been in the narrow places. We have suffered there. The fact that we are not there anymore is a miracle, a miracle based on the presence of God and of God’s morality and wisdom in our lives. Parroting Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, we should say, “Hi, I’m David, and I’m susceptible to narrowness.” Perhaps this is a way to understand our continuing focus on Egypt and the Exodus: we need to remind ourselves of a place we do not want to go.


If we follow the AA paradigm, there is, of course, also the reliance on a higher power. The AA phrasing is deliberately ambiguous for two purposes. First, they do not want religious differences to prevent alcoholics from gathering together and fighting the addiction that is an equal-opportunity oppressor. Second, they do not want the vagaries and variations of theological discourse to get in the way. Much the same can be said for the approach that modern Liberal Judaism takes when it comes to God. As I said before, there is an expansiveness to the possibilities of understanding the Infinite. Some may read our liturgy and sacred texts literally, while others may see them as poetic or metaphorical literature. The point is that our various thoughts on the nature of God should not be an impediment to the spiritual work we gather to do. We come here to encounter the Divine—singly in our own theological considerations and communally for the energy and camaraderie of our heritage.

 I believe that a basic element of the human condition is the way we go back and forth between faith and doubt, between a sense of community and alienation, between optimism and despair, and between narrowness and an expansive view of the world. Equanimity and purpose require that we learn to balance ourselves.

 We are finite, but we can also touch eternity. Our faith and the story of the Exodus come to remind us that, even in the face of our limitations, there is goodness at the heart of life. Let me close with this thought from the late Rabbi Chaim Stern (Gates of Prayer, page 210):
“We worship the power that unites all the universe    into one great harmony. That oneness, however, is not yet. We see imperfection, disorder, and evil all about us. But before our eyes is a vision of perfection, order, and goodness: these too we have known in some measure. There is evil enough to break the heart, good enough to exalt the soul. Our people has experienced untold suffering and wondrous redemptions; we await a redemption more lasting, and more splendid, than any of the past.” 

Approaching the Torah

September 17th-21st: Yom Kippur
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week, our Torah Commentary consists of my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, Approaching the Torah. My Yom Kippur sermons, Remembering the Exodus as a First Step and Israel: The Issues and Not the Conflict, will be posted in subsequent weeks.

 Approaching the Torah

 When I was a teenager, one of the popular Jewish Identity programs was to ask us how we saw ourselves as Jews. Is our Jewishness a religion, or a race, or a culture, or a nationality? They would put up each of those categories on a different wall in a large room and ask each member of the youth group or class to choose a sign and go to it. Each self-chosen group would then draft a statement about why Judaism is to us a religion, or race, or culture, or nationality, and then we would present our position to the larger group.

 The problem with the program is that it is often quite difficult to choose only one of the categories. For many of us, our Jewish Identity is a combination of two or more. For me, personally, it is a religion and a culture—and there is also the biological dimension. When we would complain, the leaders would say that we should not get too specific and just play along—that there was something to be learned from the conversation, and that we were not declaring a permanent interpretation. The point was not the label but the discussion and its insights: what we would learn about the nature of Jewish Identity.

Many of us have a similar quandary when asked about which denomination or stream of Judaism best describes us. For many of us, the standard labels of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist can be too constricting for something as personal and complex as our religious identity, and so we chaff at the attempt to put us into a box.

 Our Congregation is a case in point because our members—you, who are now gathered for communal worship—are from many different kinds of Jewish backgrounds, and you describe yourselves with a real variety of Jewish labels. Realizing this and respecting our multivalent sensibilities of Jewishness, I have recently been referring to something called Liberal Judaism, a term covering the three of Judaism’s streams: Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist.

 My question for today is about the appropriateness or validity of this grouping. Should Conservative Judaism be included in this expansive category of Liberal Judaism, or should it be included in a category along with Orthodox Judaism which we could call Traditional Judaism? The point of the question is like that of all categorization exercises. I am much less interested in  pigeon-holing Jews than in what we may learn about ourselves and others in terms of self-definition and Jewish Identity.

So, vos is dos? What is this thing called Conservative Judaism? Let me start with an anecdote about our red Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, published by the Conservative Movement in 2001. Since its inception in 1902, the Conservative Movement has taught the Documentary Hypothesis approach to the Torah: that the Torah is not a single document dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai some 3200 years ago (the Orthodox position), but is rather a composite document, combining several independent literary traditions from different authors and finally being compiled around 500 BCE. This has been the official teaching of Conservative Judaism for a century, but, when Etz Hayim was published in 2001, many members of Conservative synagogues were surprised or even shocked at this break from the traditional Torah miSinai teaching of Orthodox Judaism they thought their movement shared.

 At its heart, the Conservative movement does not see the Torah and the mitzvot as authoritative instructions (commandments!) from the Lord God, but as something else. The Torah is important, compelling, the center of Judaism, but it is not the literal word of God. Consider these defining descriptions of Conservative Judaism by some of its leading thinkers and note how different the language is from that of Orthodox Judaism.

From Emet Ve’Emunah, The Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism (1988): “Conservative Judaism affirms its belief in revelation, the uncovering of an external source of truth emanating from God. This affirmation emphasizes that although truths are transmitted by humans, they are not a human invention...The Torah’s truth is both theoretical and practical, that is, it teaches us about God and about our role in His world. As such, we reject relativism, which denies any objective source of authoritative truth. We also reject fundamentalism and literalism, which do not admit a human component in revelation, thus excluding an independent role for human experience and reason in the process.”

 From Dr. Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary (1995): “If dogmas or doctrines are the propositional language of a theological system, core values are the felt commitment of lived religion, the refraction of what people practice and profess... Conservative Judaism is best understood as a sacred cluster of core values...that imprint Conservative Judaism with a principled receptivity to modernity balanced by a deep reverence for tradition: the Centrality of Modern Israel, Hebrew as the Irreplaceable Language of Jewish Expression, Devotion to the Ideal of Klal Yisrael (Jewish unity), the Defining Role of Torah in the Reshaping of Judaism, the Study of Torah, the Governance of Jewish Life by Halakha, and Belief in God.”

 Conservative Judaism sees Judaism as an encounter between humans and God, and sees the process taking place both in the Biblical experience and in the Talmudic experience. In fact, it sees the Rabbinic/Talmudic Period as an adaptation of Biblical religion that became the definition of the Judaism that our leaders have been following and tweaking and developing ever since. As Dr. Schorsch expresses it so poignantly, there are both a “principled receptivity to modernity” and a “deep reverence for tradition” that have been combined by the Rabbis to create a traditional and modern way of being Jewish, a living halachah.

 How, then, does Conservative Judaism hear the term Torah mi’Sinai? Does it mean that God literally gave the whole Torah—both Written and Oral—to Moses on Mount Sinai, and that its instructions are literal commandments that we are all commanded to follow? Or does it mean that the Revelation at Sinai represents the beginning of a relationship that we Jews have with God, a relationship that has developed over the centuries and which holds the possibility of a genuine and soulful encounter with the Divine?

 I understand the sentiment that Conservative Judaism belongs on the Orthodox side because of its bias toward and adherence to traditional forms, but, to me, it belongs on the Liberal side because of its belief in the role humans play in defining and redefining our faith and practice.

 I also understand the reluctance of Conservative Jews to being grouped with Reconstructionist or Reform Jews. Their “deep reverence for tradition” warns them that too much individual autonomy and redefinition can move us too far from the cluster of Jewish essential values. Their desire for traditionalism runs very deep in their sense of personal and communal Jewish identity. And, yet, given their belief in the human role in the developing Divine-human relationship, I think we need another way of framing their position.

 When I read through the definitional statements or platforms of the Reform, Conservative, and  Reconstructionist movements, I see a real convergence of opinions. None approach Torah mi-Sinai in terms of absolute obedience. All hear the term Torah mi-Sinai figuratively, spiritually.

 How can we explain the different sensibilities among these Liberal denominations? How can we understand how some Jews find some observances or traditional elements meaningful and other Jews who also have a strong Jewish identity do not find them meaningful? Sometimes, I find the word dosage to be helpful—that different people prefer differ amounts of ritual and traditional observances. Or, perhaps the metaphor of a recipe might be more apt. Each denomination speaks in very similar language about the spiritual call of Sinai and about the developing relationship with God that is called Judaism. Each denomination believes that the secret to our continuing success—in addition to God’s involvement—is our adaptability. But, each denomination puts the pieces of Jewish thought and practice and community together in different ways, the ways that recipes for the same kind of food—for a chocolate cake, for beef stew, or for gefilte fish—can be slightly different, adjusted for particular tastes.

 In many ways, all of our modern denominations were influenced by Mordecai Kaplan who spoke of the definitional quality of Jewish texts and Jewish practices. His word sancta, communal and personal sanctifying practices, can be felt in the approaches of not only Reconstructionist Judaism—a movement founded upon his teachings—but also in Conservative Judaism, the movement to which he devoted decades of his life. And, it can be felt in Reform Judaism, a movement with which he struggled but which ultimately absorbed the influence of his insights and suggestions. Though different, each is striving for a Jewish approach to life—to a way to be both traditional and modern.

 As we, individual Jews from a variety of religious backgrounds, pray together during these High Holy Days, I believe that a good foundation for our spiritual community lies in realizing the similarities and common aspirations of our various approaches. Thus can we individually and congregationally approach the Divine.



Entering the Gates

September 14th: Shabbat Shuvah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week, our Torah Commentary consists of my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, Entering the Gates. Next week, we’ll post my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, Approaching the Torah.

I begin with a prayer by Rabbi Sydney Greenberg:
May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love,
all who are lonely for fellowship.
May it welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture.
May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride,
envy and enmity.
May its threshold be no stumbling block to young or straying feet.
May it be too high to admit complacency, selfishness, and harshness.
May this synagogue be, for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.

 There is a particular awareness in our Jewish spiritual sensibility of the significance of entering or leaving. We mark our doors with a sacred symbol, the mezzuzah, to imbue our transition from one domain to the other with holiness. In Psalm 121, we pray:  “May the Lord guard us, both coming and going, from this time forth and forever.” We feel the special quality of entering this place on these High Holy Days, and, in ten days’ time, we shall conclude our worship with prayers about the Gates of Repentance, the Gates of Prayer, and the Gates of Righteousness. With the Psalmist in Number 118, we pray: “Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and thank God. This is the gateway to the Lord; the righteous shall enter it.”

 My thought, as we begin these ten days of holiness and repentance, is to consider this metaphor of entrances and exits in our Tradition and to see what we can learn.

 Let us begin with what you have just done: walked through the synagogue’s door. What do you expect to find? Whom do you hope to see? Of course, many of us look forward to seeing friends. Sharing the Holy Days with family or friends can be part of the charm. But, on a deeper level, who else can we possibly find in here?

 Some of us come to find God. We are taught that God is everywhere, but there is often a sense that God is somehow more present in the synagogue—and even more present on certain holy occasions.

 Some of us come here and encounter their ancestors, those who came before and brought Judaism to these shores, who raised us to be just and righteous, kind and compassionate, and who taught us to be Jewish. When we recite the same words they recited, it is as though they are still here—that the generations are praying together.

 Some of us come for an answer to our questions—questions about the meaning of life or Judaism or the values that we hold dear. That is one of the goals of every rabbi, by the way: to somehow anticipate the questions of each worshipper and to try to address them in prayer and d’var Torah.

A final possibility is this one: some of us come here to find our own better selves. Improvement and repentance are always possibilities, and this place holds those possibilities aloft.

When I walk in and meet God, and my ancestors, and, hopefully, my better self, I also see all of you. It is a wonderful sight to see the assembled congregation and to feel the aspirational energy and the holiness. I think I can speak for God in this case, for the Lord is also happy to see you—happy to have this time to reason together. God wants and needs our attention, and our Tradition teaches us that we need some time with God. Where else can you go and God is glad to see you? This is a good place to be.


Back when I was in Rabbinical School, one of my friends came in on Monday in a very angry mood. He had been at his student pulpit in Columbus, Mississippi, and he believed that he had been treated badly—disrespectfully. He visited some congregants and went to the front door. As he was leaving, they instructed him to come to the back door next time. “The back door?!” he complained to me. “What am I, a servant or tradesman? How can they treat the rabbi like this?” My response was a combination of humor and horror. “No, no,” I said. “When they say, ‘Come to the back door,’ that is Southern for, ‘You’re now part of the family. Formality is not required. We want you to feel at home in our home.’” That’s not the way it was in Upstate New York where he was raised, but, after a little cultural interpretation, he realized that they had actually given him a compliment.

 This image can reflect both our feelings in synagogue and also our feelings in the greater synagogue, God’s world. What would be the difference—out in the world—between “front door formality” and “back door ease?” What would it take for us to feel at home in the world? And, what must we do so that others are at home in the world? We are taught to extend a welcoming glance and hand to others. As Hillel used to say: “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures, and bringing Torah close to them.” (Avot 1.12) Shammai agreed. He used to say:  “Greet all people with a cheerful smile.” (Avot 1.15)

While there are certain proprieties for behavior in this holy place and in every place, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could never make anyone feel uncomfortable? Extending the love of God to every individual is an important component of our faith, and we are thus are bidden to welcome both stranger and friend. We are also bidden to see in each individual the image of God. Whether they come into the front door or the back door, let us endeavor to make everyone feel at home.

One of the traditions of the High Holy Days is to visit the cemetery and to reflect upon the blessings brought to us by our departed loved ones. Then, of course, we have Yizkor on Yom Kippur morning where we sanctify our lives and theirs with our memories. How many doors in our lives were opened by those who came before us? Our parents and grandparents? Our beloved family members and friends? Our teachers? Let us remember how our journey through life has been blessed by those who opened doors for us and who ushered us through them and who showed us blessings and skills and opportunities. These gates were opened for us in love.

A final thought about doors and gates and entrances and exits, this one asked by my friend and teacher, Rabbi Steven Sager. What are the Gates of Righteousness? Are they when we walk into the synagogue, or when we walk out into the world? In a sense, we enter this holy place to find righteousness or to be reminded of righteousness or to find the strength and the wisdom to pursue it. But, the fact is that righteousness and holiness are not reserved for the synagogue alone. The fulfillment of all that we hold sacred is the daily righteousness we bring to the world.

 Another one of my friends, Rabbi Denise Eger, makes this point about Sukkot. Why, she asks, do we have another holiday so soon after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—after we’ve spent more time praying that in the rest of the year? You’d think that we’d be tired of religion, but, no, Sukkot comes just four days after Yom Kippur. Perhaps, she suggests, it is to remind us that the holiness we find in the synagogue is intended for the world outside of the synagogue walls. In fact, she continues, the holiday stipulates that we dwell in a little booth that is more outside than inside and that, by design, has holes in it so we can see the world—the place where God’s holiness is so urgently needed.


You may remember this meditation from our prayer book.
The Aramaic term Sh’may D’kud’sha (which we read in the Kaddish) means “God’s Holy Name,” but it can also mean “God’s Reputation,” and thus does it reflect a particular Divine vulnerability. God’s power and reputation are dependent on the behavior of God’s people. It is good to declare our faith in God or to have a religious experience, but neither is complete unless we actually behave in godly ways. Praising God is beautiful, but praise from the righteous is what really counts. Sanctifying God is lovely, but only one who is behaving in a holy manner can show the world that God’s ways are worth adopting as our own.

 So, when we pray, “Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and thank God,”
let us realize that the Gates of Righteousness lead us both into the synagogue and into the world. They are both gateways to the Lord; let us be righteous and enter them.


If Not in the Heavens, Where?

September 7th: Nitzavim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Last week, we looked at the expansiveness of God—how the infinity of God means that God can be imagined in many different ways. We considered the view that God is a heavenly majesty Who Dwells on High and to Whom we appeal, as well as the view that God is omnipresent—existing everywhere at the same time. We also noted the development some 400 years ago of panentheism in Judaism, the notion that God is the fabric of existence—that everything in the universe is part of God.

Jewish mysticism balances these views with the teaching that God has two aspects: the transcendent ruling aspect of God Who dwells far above and the Shechinah, the indwelling presence of God Which is immanent—around us and enveloping us all the time. Part of the Kabbalistic symbolism of Shabbat is that for one day each week, the two aspects of God come together in a glorious union. This Shechinah is the “bride” that God and we welcome in the poem Lecha Dodi.

We also explored, in the prayer for healing, an angle of panentheism that speaks of God acting through us: “At some moments, God exists in the touch and gaze of those around us, human vessels of love who spread the godliness they hold within.”

 Scriptural verification for these expansive ideas—or a Midrashically enhanced Scriptural verification—can be found in our Torah portion this week. In Deuteronomy 30.11-14, we have a passage which ostensibly speaks of God’s mitzvot as being very doable:
“Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that it may be observed.”

 The Rabbis, however, take the simple statement, “It is not in the heavens,” and use it to craft a very curious and important doctrine. The setting is an argument about koshering a particular kind of oven. The majority of the Sages say one thing, and one Sage (Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus) holds the opposite opinion. Usually, in such Rabbinic matters, the majority ruled, but Rabbi Eliezer would not relent and proceeded to bring forth a variety of miracles to prove his correctness: a tree jumps from one place to another; the walls of the school house start to fall down; a stream changes direction and flows backwards. To each of these, the majority counters with, “These miracles do not have legal standing.” Finally, totally exasperated, Rabbi Eliezer invokes a bat kol, a voice from heaven, and the bat kol says, “Don’t you see? Rabbi Eliezer is correct!” At this point, Rabbi Joshua counters with the passage from Deuteronomy 30, “But does not Scripture say, ‘It is not in the heavens?’ Even a bat kol has no standing in a Rabbinical court.”

This seems pretty outlandish, but the Midrash continues. One day, Elijah was wandering the world and encountered one of the Sages. When asked about God’s reaction at Rabbi Joshua’s “It is not in the heavens” argument, Elijah reported that God laughed and said, “My children have bested Me! My children have bested Me!” In other words, God accepts the Rabbinic logic and approves the standard: the Law is not in the heavens; it is now on earth in the Torah—which, of course, is the province of the Rabbis.

All we have to do is take this teaching another step. Indeed, if God’s word is “not in the heavens,” but within the province of human wisdom, could we not say that God is, in a sense, within humanity? This was certainly the teaching of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. He approached the transcendence/immanence aspects of God in the following way. God is the power or process in which the universe functions and in which humans attain self-fulfillment or improvement: “God is the life of the universe—immanent as the parts act upon each other, transcendent as the whole acts upon each part.”

As we approach our High Holy Days—our annual time for meeting God and each other in synagogue, let us consider the Indwelling Presence of God in ourselves and in our possibilities. Let us pray to be our best selves—and to bring forth the spark of Divinity present within.



Look Down From Your Holy Abode, From Heaven, and Bless Your People

August 31st: Ki Tavo
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our Torah portion begins with an ancient ritual and an ancient prayer. As much as the Torah is “full of religion,” there are very few actual prayer texts, and we have an excellent example here. It is the passage that begins, “My father was a wandering Aramean,” and it continues with a mini-history of the Hebrew/Israelite people: the slavery in Egypt, our redemption by God, and the awarding to us of the Promised Land. The sense of the prayer is the long history between the worshipper and God and the appropriateness of sharing the gifts that God has given us.

 The prayer concludes with this plaintive hope: “Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 26.15)

This idea of God dwelling above is found throughout the Tradition. In Psalm 150, we sing, “Halleluhu b’kosh’sho! Halleluhu bir’ki’a uzo!
Praise God in the sanctuary! Praise God in the heavenly stronghold.”

In Genesis 28, Jacob dreams a curious dream: “A ladder was set on the ground and its top reached all the way to the heaven, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing on it…” Where is God? At the top, in heaven.

And, in the Mourner’s Kaddish and the Full Kaddish, we conclude with “Oseh shalom bim’romav hu ya’aseh shalom alaynu… May the One Who makes peace in the highest of heavens make peace (down here) for us…”

 The ancient understanding was that God dwells up in the heavens and then occasionally looks down on the earth, or visits it, or sends messengers (angels) to attend to various matters. Thus does God exercise power over everything—while residing in the heavens.

During the days of Greek Philosophy and the Talmud, some thinkers began teaching a more expansive understanding of God. In addition to being omnipotent, they determined that is also omnipresent—present everywhere at the same time. Though such a belief seemed to obviate the role for angels (m’lachim), many people felt a continuing affection for the image of angelic messengers. Perhaps this was (and is) a way of personifying particular manifestations of the omnipresent Divine.

More new ideas emerged in the 16th and 17th Centuries when some mystics began thinking in terms of panentheism, the notion that everything is part of God—that there is no separation between God and the universe. Some would trace this sensibility back to the Kabbalists, but it came to full form in the works of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lliadi, the founder of Chabad Hassidism. Interestingly enough, panentheism in Judaism has come to a greater popularity in the developing feminist movement of the last fifty year. Feminist thinkers rejected the hierarchical notion that God is above humanity and embraced the notion of an immanent God—a God Who dwells within.

In the following prayer—found in both our prayer book, Siddur B’rit Shalom, and our High Holy Day prayer book, Machzor Ki Anitani, we approach the Divine in a multi-valent fashion, seeking healing from the Divine in a variety of the ways that God can be present in our lives:
“Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed. Save us, and we shall be saved.” (Jeremiah 17.14)
The power of God—the healing and saving power of God—can be present for us in many ways. At some moments, God is a heavenly majesty to Which we pray for blessing and from Which we receive a healing touch. At some moments, God is an enlivening presence, emanating from within and filling us with health and new possibilities. At some moments, God exists in the touch and gaze of those around us, human vessels of love who spread the godliness they hold within. For each of us who suffers—whether in body or in soul—we pray that the healing, strengthening, enlivening power of God be present in our lives. May it surge both toward us and within us, filling us with the spirit, holiness, and continuing possibilities of life. We praise You, O Lord, Who heals the sick.

Though my human mind tries to think about God in concrete terms and philosophical consistency, I try to remember that God is infinite—beyond our categories and logic. So, when approaching and invoking the Infinite, I look up to heaven and down to earth and to my fellow creatures and within myself. Blessings flow in many streams

Desperate Situtions and Morality

August 24th: Ki Tetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Given our modern sensibilities, reading some ancient documents can be quite disturbing. Or, given an unfamiliarity with certain environments, some in situ documents can be very disturbing. I am thinking about the opening passage in our Torah portion, found in Deuteronomy 21.10-14:
“When you take the field against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your power, and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife. Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money: since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her.”

Never having been to war, I do not understand the rapacious frenzy that often accompanies killing others. And yet, from reports both ancient and modern, battle-field abuse is not uncommon. I would think that the closer the combat—hand-to-hand as opposed to shooting from a distance, the greater the tendency to suspend our normal respect for life. I remember counseling a young pilot who was very disturbed when his missions involved flying close to the ground and killing people he could see. He described in great detail the mental re-adjustment required to see a human being as someone he needed to kill.

To those who are pacifists, the lesson is clear. We should not be fighting any battles. However, for those who perceive that there are real enemies in the world—and who believe that the only recourse with some enemies is to kill them, the question becomes one of how can a warrior keep his/her human decency in the midst of a savage situation.

One can see a glimmer of this attempt in our text: if you are frenzied and attracted to a female captive, control your baser urges and give her time so you can see her as a human being. And, if—after some de-objectifying time and processes—you still desire her, then approach her as a wife and a human being—and not as a spoil of war.

Of course, there is in this terrifying mitzvah a lot to be desired in terms of true human respect and autonomy. This scenario is not what we moderns think of as Torat Hayyim, the Torah of Life. And yet, in that ancient context and in the midst of the brutality of war, this passage tries to push warriors toward more humane behavior in life or death situations. We are taught to be kind and fair, but, in the desperation and barbarity of battle, kindness and compassion and even honor can get one killed. Hillel might have said, “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human (Avot 2.6),” but Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rabbi Samuel: “The commandments were given that we should live by them, and not die by them.”

To guide warriors in this most delicate balance, military organizations develop codes of ethics and behavior, presenting principles and instructions—and rules of engagement. I would suspect that most or all nations have these kinds of guides, and I would suspect that something of the nation’s moral character and perspective is reflected in the way it presents and enforces its standards.

To wit, I would like to share with you some excerpts from the Israel Defense Forces (Tzahal) Code of Ethics.

The IDF Spirit
The Israel Defense Forces are the State of Israel’s military force. The IDF is subordinate to the directions of the democratic civilian authorities and the laws of the state. The goal of the IDF is to protect the existence of the State of Israel and her independence, and to thwart all enemy efforts to disrupt the normal way of life in Israel. IDF soldiers are obligated to fight, to dedicate all their strength and even sacrifice their lives in order to protect the State of Israel, her citizens and residents. IDF soldiers will operate according to the IDF values and orders, while adhering to the laws of the state and norms of human dignity, and honoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Human Dignity
The IDF and its soldiers are obligated to protect human dignity. Every human being is of value regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status, or position.

Purity of Arms
The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity event during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.

 The term Purity of Arms may sound like an oxymoron, but, given the reality of enemies and war, a soldier’s way is fraught with moral and existential difficulties. The Torah gives us a glimpse into how our ancient leaders attempted to negotiate this treacherous path. This text from the State of Israel shows us something of the modern struggle.


Knowing What God Wants

August 17th: Shof’tim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week's portion begins with the appointment of judges and officials who will, hopefully, "govern the people with righteous judgment." (Deuteronomy 16.18). A few chapters later, we get to a different kind of job assignment, the appointment of prophets. In Deuteronomy 18.15, we read,
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself (Moses); him you shall heed. This is just what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the Assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear the voice of the Lord God any longer or see this wondrous fire any more, lest I die.’ Whereupon the Lord said to me, ‘They have done well in speaking thus. I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him; and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I Myself will call  him to account. But any prophet who presumes to speak in My name an oracle that I did not command him to utter, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet shall die.”

Back at Mount Sinai (here called Horeb), the people found the direct voice of God too much to handle, so they ask for Moses to be an intermediary between God and them (Exodus 20.15-16). God agrees with this arrangement and speaks through Moses for many years. Now, in preparing to enter the Promised Land, God and Moses want to make sure that the people will listen to any future prophets.

God also warns any potential charlatans that the penalty for impersonating a prophet is death. The problem is that, short of some kind of miraculous striking down of a false prophet, the people need a way to know whether someone walking in from the desert and declaring “Thus saith the Lord” is really sent by God. One condition is in the above passage: the prophet should never say that we should follow other gods. A second condition follows:
“And should you ask yourselves, ‘How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Lord?’—if the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously; do not stand in dread of him.”  (Deuteronomy 18.21-22)

This seems simple enough, but what if the oracle does come true? Does it mean that everything the prophet says is the will of God? In last week's portion, an additional condition is added:
“If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives a sign or a portent, saying, ‘Let us follow and worship another god’—whom you have not experienced—even if the sign or portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For the Lord you God is testing you to see whether you really love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. Follow none but the Lord your God, and revere none but Him, and host fast to Him; observe His commandments alone, and heed only His orders; worship none but Him, and hold fast to Him. As for that prophet or dream-diviner, he shall be put to death…” (Deuteronomy 13.2-6)

It is not just a matter of oracles or portents coming true, nor just of not pursuing other gods. This passage introduces the theme of observing God’s commandments alone—alone, without any changes. In other words, this passage was understood as saying that any change from the instructions in the Written Torah is ipso facto a false prophecy—and that false prophet is to be put to death. In other words, the real condition for a prophet’s authenticity is that he adheres to God’s written instructions (the Torah) and does not change them at all.  

Let us switch gears for a minute. In the Documentary Hypothesis approach to Biblical Studies, the Torah is not seen as a unified text but rather the compiled/edited combination of several pre-existing documents from different tribes, traditions, and times. Most scholars think that Deuteronomy dates from around 620 BCE (some 600 years after Moses) and reflects an attempt to fix some problems the religion had been experiencing—one of which was a plethora of different prophets, each declaring a different "word of the Lord." The fix took a while—and, of course, it was interrupted by the Destruction of Jerusalem in 586 and the Babylonian Exile, but around 500 BCE, we see pretty much the end of prophecy.

Why did prophecy stop? The traditional understanding (Orthodox Judaism) is that God just stopped sending prophets because God had already said everything that needed to be said, and it was written in the Torah and the books of the Prophets. Historical scholarship (for example, from Ellis Rivkin) suggests that the prophetic process became too uncontrolled, too variable, and too dangerous as the newly returned exiles were trying to put Judaism and Judah back together again while remaining loyal to the Persian Empire (under which the exiles were allowed to return). 

If someone had aspirations for leadership, couching them in the traditional words “Thus saith the Lord” was dangerous. If the ideas were new, the speaker could be labeled a false prophet. If the ideas were not new, then there was no reason to claim them as a revelation from God; the speaker could just interpret the already written words—in the Torah and Books of the Prophets. In other words, after 500 BCE, there was no reason for prophets to proclaim God's wishes for us, and the institution just faded away.


A modern question to consider: how do we know what God wants us to do?



A Reason for Our Blessings

August 10th: Re’eh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week, the Torah teaches us about the Sabbatical Year and the generosity God commands. In particular, there is a passage about the nature of charity and various human emotions surrounding it. In Deuteronomy 15.7-11, we read:
“If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord you God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut you hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend sufficient for whatever is needed. Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give nothing. Your kinsman will then cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to your needy kinsman readily and have no regrets when you do so, for this is why the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. There will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

The latter part of the passage has what is called Deuteronomic Theology, the belief that, in exchange for following God’s mitzvot, God will reward us in this life with plenty and good health. Would that this be the case—that the good would prosper and the wicked suffer, but, even in Biblical times, the difficulties of this theology challenged our ancestors. Some scholars even say that the Book of Job was created and dramatized to address this problem: all too often, the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.

Some scholars also suggest that this conundrum of injustice is the prompt that led to the Rabbinic teaching about the World to Come. Knowing that God is righteous and will reward the righteous and punish the wicked, and knowing that this is not the case in this world, the Rabbis (200 BCE – 200 CE) intuited or deducted that there must be a world after we die where the scales are balanced. Thus we have the Rabbinic belief in Olam Haba / The World to Come which has been so important in the lives of Jews, Christians and Muslims from those ancient days and into our own.

In the Midrash, the Rabbis sometimes alter words in the text—not really to change the text, but to add another lesson to the growing Torah. They may change a vowel or letter or the tense and then proceed to see where that change could lead. I would like to do the same thing to the verse before us: “Give to your needy kinsman readily and have no regrets when you do so, for this is why the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.” If we were to change y’varech’cha/will bless you from future tense to the past or present perfect tense, we would have v’rach’cha/has blessed you: “Give to your needy kinsman readily and have no regrets when you do so, for THIS IS WHY GOD HAS BLESSED YOU…”  Rather than promising good things if/after we are generous, this Midrashic adjustment suggests that generosity is one of the reasons God has already blessed us. We are given plenty so that we can be generous. Oh yes, we are supposed to enjoy the plenty, as we read last week in Deuteronomy 8.10, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which has been given to you.” But we are also supposed to share this bounty and satisfaction with those who are in need.

Sometimes, as we go through life, we find our progress interrupted or stymied. We cannot get on with our plans because something gets in the way. Whether it is illness, a troublesome situation, a natural disaster, or a needless distraction, we experience frustration as we are forced to take a detour. A more expansive look at life may reveal a different dynamic. Could it be that the interruption is our purpose, that these challenges may be put before us as opportunities for us to do God’s work in the world?

When my children were in middle school, the band teacher had an interesting approach. Rather than calling tests tests, he called them opportunities—opportunities to show one’s skills. At one level, it is just a semantic switch, but it can also teach us another way to look at life’s challenges. Tests or problems or roadblocks are not just problems, they are opportunities for us to develop and express skills, compassion, righteousness, and flexibility. They may be surprising, but we are blessed with potential to meet and deal with the challenges in our paths.

May we find strength and resourcefulness for the opportunities that present themselves to us, searching for the work God is hoping we shall do.


Modern Day Korach's?

June 15th: Korach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Remember that old expression, “I’d love to be a fly on their wall”—to know what people say when no outsiders are around? Well, I sort of got to live the experience a few years ago. I was visiting my sister in Israel and went to one of the many Orthodox shuls in her neighborhood. In her extremely Orthodox town, there are no non-Orthodox alternatives, and rather than make for potential problems for her, I go incognito in re my religious Liberality. In fact, having my adjunct role at Penn State gives me a technically honest answer when they ask me what I do: I teach Jewish studies at Penn State.

So I’m at the Orthodox synagogue, and there is a guest speaker. He is a retired Orthodox Rabbi from America who has been asked to speak about Korach. He is an older man, one who has fought the religious battles of his life, and, for him, the story of Korach is about those battles. Korach is a kind of victory lap for religious leaders because this is one time when God comes down decisively on the rabbi’s (Moses’) side.
“Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi (cousin of Moses!), betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’” (Numbers 16.1-3)  The relevant question, here, is whether Moses and Aaron have raised themselves above their fellow Israelites, or whether God has appointed them into their leadership roles. The answer, in case you have not guessed it, is that God has appointed them, a fact that is made clear by the climax of the story.
“And Moses said, ‘By this you shall know that it was the Lord who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising; if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was NOT the Lord who sent me. But, if the Lord brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that that belongs to them, and they go down alive in Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the Lord.’ Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them (Korach and his followers) opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.” (Numbers 16.28-33)

So, as I’m sitting in the back of the synagogue, a proverbial fly on an Orthodox wall, I hear the Rabbi pick up on the phrase, “these men have spurned the Lord,” and begin to explain how the modern day Korach’s are in the Reform Movement. The Reformers’ goal, he explained, is to destroy Judaism and its relationship with God. He went on quite a while, but you get the gist.

It was curious to sit in the room and to hear this uninhibited attack on my religion and me, but, since he did not know who I was, I was less personally drawn into the drama and able to be more reflective about his perception. Did the Reform Movement spurn the Lord? Is it trying to destroy Judaism and it relationship with God? Is it really a Korach?

Traditional commentators look at the dramatic end of Korach and take it as a clue from God that Korach’s intentions and motivations are less-than-good. The traditional understanding is that he is jealous and greedy and wants to take over what he perceives as a cushy, lucrative, and powerful position. In fact, though he claims democratization as a rationale, a big part of his claim to leadership is his membership in the tribe of Levi and in his close family ties to the Moses-Aaron-Miriam leadership team. In other words, the Tradition see his efforts as a power grab intended for illicit gains and in direct disobedience to God’s stated wishes. Thus could he be characterized as one “who spurned the Lord.”

I can understand the Orthodox anger at Reform Judaism: we do reject their understanding of God’s wishes. However, our rejection or rereading is based on high-level academic and spiritual study of the traditional texts. We do not disagree with the special relationship we Jews have with God. We do not spurn God.  Indeed, all of our efforts were and are intended to enhance our relationship with God and to heighten the quality of our devotion. Our disagreement with the Orthodox is with their claim that Orthodox Judaism is exactly what God commanded us back some 3000 years ago at Mount Sinai. We believe that Judaism is a progressive and continually developing religion that fell into a stultifying rut in the second half of the last Millennium—that Judaism once again needed the kind of reforming that it has undergone several times in our distant past.

Our Reforms were not to “spurn the Lord,” but rather to make our relationship with the Lord more healthy, more honest, and more spiritual. Our Reforms were a kind of liberation struggle, working to throw off the chains of religious teachings and customs that are, according to the Pittsburgh Platform (the founding document of American Reform Judaism), “entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state,” and favoring instead Judaism’s “moral laws, and…only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.” It was a matter of purging our precious religion from observances that were “apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation,” and choose those parts of the Tradition that can help us be closer to God.

Was/is Reform Judaism a greedy, self-aggrandizing power-ploy—a Korach, or is it a sincere and more accurate reading of Jewish Tradition that seeks to improve Judaism and our relationship with God? I understand the Orthodox position, but I disagree with it. We are not Korachs. We have given Judaism new life and an expansiveness that enhances God’s position in the world. Our motivations are not only pure, but also they are well-informed, spiritually motivated, and continually reconsidered. Reform Judaism and its sisters in Jewish Modernity, Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, and Jewish Renewal, have breathed new life in our ancient and continuing Jewish Tradition.


A Tradition of Grumbling?

June 8th: Shelach Lecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the persistent themes of the Book of Numbers is the complaining of the Israelites. Last week, we read (in Numbers 11.1), “The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord.” Though the manna is easy to get and totally dependable, they are tired of eating the same thing, day after day. They want meat and fish and cucumbers and onions and garlic like they used to enjoy in Egypt. Their longing for Egypt really hurts God’s feelings, and it seems as though they are not appreciating all the blessings that have been showered on them.

This week, they complain about the Land that God has promised them. Moses sends scouts to tour the Land and report on it, and everyone agrees that the Land is wonderful—that it “is flowing with milk and honey!”  However, ten of the twelve scouts say that the inhabitants of the Land are large, fierce, and undefeatable—describing God’s plan as a suicide mission. Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, try to downplay the difficulties, and they talk about how God is giving them the Land, how God will help them conquer it—how God has the whole process planned. But, the people are inconsolable, and despite the importuning of Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb, the people do not want to proceed into the Promised Land. So, God agrees with them and decrees that they can wander in the wilderness until a generation arises with more gumption and more faith.

The Tradition sees all the complaining as indications of small-mindedness, lack of faith, and a lack of courage. The Tradition encourages us to have faith and to bravely go on the various errands God’s sends our people—and not to complain.

Sometimes, however, I wonder about the different kinds of complaining and whether all complaining is bad. While presumably God knew what was in the hearts of the complaining Israelites, the complaining that we hear may not all be bad. In fact, one can even see a tradition of complaining or grumbling in our sacred history. While some voices speak with great enthusiasm, others speak with an acute awareness of the difficult things God asks us to do.

This divergence can be seen in a Midrash that has two different endings. The initial message of the Midrash is that Israel is God’s last choice as the chosen people. God wants one of the ancient seventy nations to accept the Ten Commandments and Torah, and God shops around to see if anyone will agree. God asks one group, but they ask for an example of a commandment. When God says, “Thou shalt not murder,” they reject the proposal because they like to murder. Another group refuses God because they like adultery; another group says No because they like stealing. After asking sixty-nine of the world’s nations, God finally comes to Israel, the very last choice.

Here the Midrashim diverge. In one ending, Israel declares, “na’aseh v’nish’ma/we will do and then we will hear,” accepting immediately—without even asking for an example. Thus do our ancestors show their intense devotion to God and duty.  The effects of this Midrash are twofold. We praise the holiness of our sainted ancestors, and we hold them up as examples for future generations (us!) to follow.

The other Midrashic ending was created when an ancient Sage picked up on a grammatical curiosity and described a totally different dynamic. He noted the text in Exodus 19, that, when the people received the Ten Commandments, they stood “tachtit hahar, under the mountain.” This obviously means at the foot of the mountain, but the Sage created the image of God holding Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites, forcing us to accept the Ten Commandments. Thus is the story not one of enthusiasm, but rather one of onerousness and ambivalence.

Another indication of Jewish ambivalence about our sacred calling can be found in the Talmudic discussion about gerut (conversion). The big question is when the ger (convert) is asked whether he will accept ol malchut hashamayim/the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Yoke? Yokes are heavy cumbersome things, and one figures an ox’s first choice would not to wear his yoke or to use it to pull a heavy load.

We also use this term in the second paragraph of the Alaynu, at the end of the service and right before the Kaddish. The passage reads: “We therefore hope, O Lord our God…that every one will accept the yoke of Your kingdom and You will rule over everyone, soon and forever.”  We hope everyone will join us in serving God, but we realize that serving God is like bearing a yoke. (Of course, if one is an ox and will inevitably bear a yoke, then wearing God’s yoke and pulling God’s load are high honors.)

While some Jewish complaining may be seen as disloyalty—and as a precursor to departing Judaism, other Jewish complaining may be more constructive. First, there is the complaining that hopes for improvement. As long as there have been Jews, there have been suggestions about how we can improve our Jewish endeavor. Listening to these aspirational voices is important.

Second, there is the kind of complaining that expresses our dedication. For people involved in difficult work—people like construction workers or soldiers, grumbling is part of the ambience. It is a way of letting everyone know that their challenges are formidable, but, more importantly, it speaks to the fact that they are willing to meet them or weather them in order to accomplish the mission. Thus does complaining become a kind of swagger of devotion.

In the ancient story, the people’s complaining goes too far, impeding the progress and success of the mission. In our modern Jewish story, it is important for us to consider the nature of our complaints. Do we grumble because we do not want to be part of the Jewish mission? Or, are we complaining in an attempt to improve our Jewish work? Or, are we complaining as part of the team, as a kind of affirmative statement about the difficulty and importance of our Jewish work?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once commented, “How strange to be a Jew and go astray on God’s perilous errands!” These errands may be challenging. They may even be perilous. But, the work we are assigned as Jews is God’s work. Though we may grumble, we know that God needs our devotion.

The Light of the Menorah

June 1st: Beha’alotecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our Torah portion this week begins with an instruction: assemble the menorah.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand (menorah).’ Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses. Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so was the lampstand made.”
(Numbers 8.1-4)

This ancient object—one among many in the Tent of Meeting—has become one of the most important and enduring symbols of our faith. As our Chumash, Etz Hayim, explains:
“More than 1000 years after the time of Aaron, the m’norah became the symbol of Aaron’s descendants, the Hasmoneans, who reclaimed the temple of Jerusalem after the Maccabees’ victory. The m’norah, carried off by Roman soldiers in a victory parade, is featured in a carving on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which celebrates the defeat of the Jews in 70 C.E.; nineteen centuries later, the seven-branched m’norah became the seal of the State of Israel. Recalling the bush that burned but was not consumed, the light of the m’norah would never be permanently extinguished.

 “Isaac Luria taught that the six branches of the m’norah represent the several scientific and academic disciplines, whereas the center stalk represents the light of the Torah. Secular learning and faith are not rivals; each has its own concerns and addresses its own set of questions. They shed light on each other and together they illumine our world.” (Etz Hayim, page 816)

Most of us are more familiar with the special Chanukah menorah—also called a chanukiah, with its nine candle holders for the eight candles and Shamash. The chanukiah is a special menorah, redesigned to celebrate the miracles of the victory and the oil. However, it is the original seven-branched menorah which stands in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem and is found on Israeli currency and stamps.

This ancient menorah is also the origin of our ner tamid, the eternal light that stays on in the front of Jewish sanctuaries. Another origin of the ner tamid is the continually burning incense altar that was kept burning continuously in the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. All three—the menorah, the incense altar, and the later ner tamid—represent God’s eternal presence.

Of course, back in the wilderness, this might have been unnecessary. We are told that God’s Presence was not only with the Israelites, but also that it was quite visible—God being manifest in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Why, then, did God instruct the Israelites to light a fire to burn eternally?

This question reminds me of another question, one in regard to the basic illogic in our blessing over food, Hamotzi. When we pray, We praise You, O Lord, our God, Ruler of All, Who brings forth bread from the earth, are we really saying that God brings forth bread from the earth? One could say that God brings forth the wheat from the earth, but we do not get actual bread until various people reap, thresh, mill, sift, mix, knead, and bake. I have heard two answers to this question, both of which are spiritually helpful.

(1) When we say that God brings forth the bread from the earth, we are acknowledging God provenance over the whole process. Yes, people are involved, but all of the physics and chemistry and artistry of baking bread were all invented/created by God and are only pursued by the grace of God.

(2) God could have had loaves of bread sprout up from the earth, but God wanted to give us a role in the ongoing creation of the world. Thus, many things are not wholly created; they require humans to participate in their preparation. This gives us the joy of creating, and it reminds us that the perfection of the world—tikkun olam—is both a human obligation and a human possibility.

It is the same with the menorah. God certainly did not need the extra light. And, with that pillar of fire by night, the Israelites did not need the extra light. God’s instructions to fashion the menorah and to keep it lit continually reminds us of the continuing Divine presence in both created things and in the things that we get to help create. Moreover, the menorah humans assemble and keep kindled reminds us that God gives us a role to play in the world, lighting the way physically, ethically, socially, and spiritually. We have it in us to be light-bearers of the Divine. Let there be light!


The Priestly Benediction and Us

May 25th: Naso
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Nestled in our Torah portion this week is the ancient Priestly Benediction:
“May the Lord bless you and protect you.
May the Lord look upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord smile upon you and give you peace.”
(Numbers 6.24-26)
It is one of the most well-known passages from the Torah, and it has an active place in our services. In the traditional service, it is placed between the sixth and seventh blessings in the Sabbath Amidah—after Modim Anachnu Lach (We Acknowledge You) and before Sim Shalom (Grant Us Peace). Since peace is a theme of both the Priestly Benediction and the seventh blessing, the benediction could be seen as an introduction to Sim Shalom. But, since this is something the ancient priests actually said to the worshippers, we could also see the pairing as a kind of call and response. The priests ask God’s blessing upon the people, and then the people pray our prayer, adding our hopes for God’s blessings.

In traditional synagogues, the moment is enhanced by a ceremony called duchenen, where the kohanim are called to the front of the synagogue. They step out of their shoes, put their tallesim (tallitot) over their heads, faces and hands, and make the priestly sign (a shin). Then, the service leader intones each word of the Numbers 6 passage, and the priests chant it word by word. In most traditional synagogues, this ritual is done on Sabbaths and Holy Days, but the Jerusalem custom is to do it every day.

In the Reform Movement, the maintenance of the priestly line—with its various restrictions and honors—has been discontinued, so many rabbis ask the blessing themselves. Many even make the priestly sign with their hands, lifting them high in a gesture of blessing upon the congregation, whether they are kohanim or not. I remember these moments of blessing from my childhood. Even though we were already in the presence of God, the rabbi lifting his hands and intoning the blessing increased the spiritual intensity in the Temple and made us feel even more filled with holiness.

When I grew up and learned to lead services, taking on this particular role proved to be quite daunting for me. My ancestors were not kohanim, and so it seemed rather audacious to lift my hands and speak the blessing. But, we no longer have the priestly cult, and we do not do duchenen, and our Sages taught that our post-priestly Judaism can get us just as close to God as the Judaism we practiced in the days of the Temple. In my mind, our people today deserve to have this spiritual moment. Moreover, the person who asks the blessing is not doing the blessing him/herself, but rather serving as a vessel for God’s blessings. As the Rabbis in the Talmud make clear, this was true even for the ancient kohanim: the priests did not bless the people; they merely asked God to bless the people. And so, I learned to lift my arms and try to draw God’s energy into the room.

Our power exists in our yearning to reach out for God, and, as the prophet assures us, God will return this energy to us. “They that wait for the Lord shall exchange their strength.” (Isaiah 40.31)

The larger lesson is about more than my decision. The larger lesson is about all of us taking on the role of priesthood—an aspiration set before us by Rabbinic Judaism’s reading of the Torah. Judaism offers both a ritual and a moral priesthood to anyone who wants to be a vessel of God. Yes, in the Bible, the priests were the ones who officiated at the rituals, but God’s goal was for the entire people to attain a kind of priesthood. Remember God’s charge to us just before we were given the Torah at Mount Sinai: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19.4-6)

And, if we jump forward some 3000 years, from Mount Sinai to our modern world, we can see this aspiration of priesthood in universal terms. Not only Jews, but all people are called by the Eternal to bring godliness into the world. Though our traditional texts speak in terms of our special relationship with God and our special role in the world, the Kabbalah and our modern universalistic insights expand the call to everyone. Humans were created as entry-ways for God into the world, providing points of Divine access when we open ourselves to the influence of heaven. We do this ritually when we work to ascertain our relationship with the Infinite and express it in ritual language. We do this ethically when we determine what is righteous and endeavor to make good behavior the way of the world. In other words, we can become the blessings for which we pray.

We can connect with God by being holy vessels. We can bring God into the world and connect the shefa, the flow of blessing. When God turns toward us, as the Priestly Benediction prays, we have the opportunity to meet God’s gaze with our own and to join in the work of holiness.

Community and Individuality

May 18th: Bemidbar
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This book we call Numbers in English is title Bemidbar (In the Wilderness) in Hebrew. The Hebrew names for the Torah’s books are not thematic—based instead on the first important word in the book, but it turns out that Bemidbar/In the Wilderness describes pretty well the book’s subject: our forty years of wandering in the desert. The book opens “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt” (Numbers 1.1) and concludes right as the Hebrews are “on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho,” (Numbers 36.13). This is just before they enter the Land—which means that there is very little narrative in Deuteronomy: the book is mostly Moses’ historical lectures on our sacred history.

The Greek—and later Latin and English—titles of the books are thematic, dealing with the major events in the book. Genesis tells of the world’s and our people’s origins. Exodus tells of the slavery in Egypt and our deliverance from there. Leviticus details the many rules and procedures of the Levitical priesthood. Deuteronomy (“second telling”) is a set of Moses’ summary of the important themes in our relationship with God. And, Numbers, the book we begin this week, begins with the instructions for a census. Though the census is not a continuing theme of the book, this title seems to have been the best the ancient Alexandrian editors decided when they translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

In the story of the census, we learn the names of some Israelite leaders—“from the tribe of Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur; from Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai; from Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab; from Issachar, Nethaneel the son of Zuar; from Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon; from Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud; from Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur; from Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni; from Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai; from Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran; from Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel; and from Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan” (Numbers 1.5-15), and we learn the population of each tribe—at least of the males above age twenty.

In other words, while some names are recorded, most are not. And yet, even the ones that are recorded are pretty much forgettable. With the exception of Nahshon the son of Amminadab—about whom there is a delightful Midrash, we have a list of people who were very important back then but whose accomplishments are lost in the larger communal history of our people.

We can figure that the named people were important. As the Torah explains, these were the heads of their ancestral houses, “the elected of the assembly, the chieftains of their ancestral tribes…the heads of the contingents of Israel.” (Numbers 1.4 and 16). But, what about everyone else? There were the 59,299 unnamed men of the Tribe of Reuben, the 45,649 unnamed men of the Tribe of Gad, and the 74,599 unnamed men of the Tribe of Judah, etc. Though the census totals 603,550 men in all the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all but a dozen or so are unnamed. Were they not important, too? Yes is the Jewish answer for we are taught that every human being is important.  The Midrash teaches us that God created humanity in a single human being (Adam Kadmon, the first Adam) to make the point that each individual life is worth the life of the entire world. And, as Martin Buber explains, “Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world. Every single man is a new thing in the world and is called upon to fulfill his particularity in the world.” (The Way of Man)

 Though there is a tendency, in our corporate focus on the peoplehood of Israel, to pay more attention to the forest rather than to the individual trees, we need to remember that each and every individual in important in his or her own way. Without all those individual trees, each doing whatever trees do to survive and prosper, there would be no forest. Likewise, without each individual Hebrew/Israelite/Jew living his/her life individually, the story of our tribes would be quite different.

One of my teachers, the late Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, used to say that each of us lives our lives alone. Though I heard this bit of advice as stark and perhaps a little jaded, I have since learned that it is actually self-reliant and self-aware. Though we may have many people in our lives—people with whom we share affection and responsibility, each of us must ultimately negotiate the paths of existence individually. Even if we are part of a group, we experience the group individually—with individual attitudes, decisions, reactions, and perseverance. Ultimately, we live alone and must learn to be responsible for ourselves.

And so, as is usual, wisdom lies in living in a dynamic tension. On the one hand we have our various tribal groups living the perspective of John Donne:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

But, on the other hand, we join and participate in our associations individually, deciding how we can and shall be a part of the group.

In something as simple as an ancient census lies a lesson for us all. Our significance is found both in our individual lives and in the associations we choose.




How do You Understand God and God's Presence in the World?

May 11th: Behar/Bechukotai
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though the word atheist is used for someone who does not believe in God, the technical meaning is one who does not believe in the Theistic Definition of God. This Theistic Definition is that God is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and conscious Entity which takes an interest in human and earthly affairs, occasionally breaking into the natural order to perform miracles—the purpose of which is to reward the good/obedient or to punish the evil/disobedient. Thus can many atheists describe in great detail the God in which/whom they do not believe. They know the definition of the word God, and they do not believe that such an entity exists. On the other hand, there are some a-theists who believe in God—but not the God described in the Theistic Definition. They believe that the Theistic Definition is an inaccurate description of the Divine Force; for them, God is best described in other terms.

Among the famous thinkers in this second category of a-theistic God believers are Aristotle, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Rabbi Isaac Luria, Baruch Spinoza, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and Rabbi Harold Kushner. Some see God as conscious but uninvolved in the world—the Unmoved Mover. Others see God as a Force that contains and binds existence but that is not what we would call conscious. Others see God as extremely powerful but not all powerful—a conscious deity who is limited and thus in need of human assistance.

Each of these alternative understandings is in part a response to the biggest challenge to the Theistic Definition of God, the problem of Theodicy. If God is all-powerful and all-good, how can God cause/allow evil and imperfection to exist? Some may point to a cataclysmic event like the Holocaust to prove their point, but, philosophically, much smaller cases of unfairness or imperfection are challenging enough. While theists have answers to the question of Theodicy, some people find the answers satisfying, and other people do not.

This week’s Torah portion contains passages that support one of the Theistic answers to Theodicy. In Leviticus 26.3-5, we read: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules….I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you; you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues.” (Leviticus 26.14-17) In other words, the problems in the world are not cases of unfairness or imperfection. Rather, the things that happen to us are consequences of our obedience or disobedience to God’s instructions.

This is one of the perspectives in the Book of Job when Job’s friends keep insisting, “You must have committed some sins.” It is a concern of the Psalmist who prays: “Who can 2 know all of one’s errors? Forgive me, O Lord, from accidental sins.” (Psalm 19.13) There is also the possibility that the sins might have committed by an ancestor, and we are the ones paying the price. Notice the way the second of the Ten Commandments introduces this notion of trans-generational reward/punishment: “I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20.5-6) For many pious people, these verses and this thinking adequately explain the comings and goings of good and bad events.

However, for many other pious people, this kind of reward/punishment scheme just does not ring true, and these are the thinkers who have rejected the Theistic Definition of God and sought other descriptions of the Divine Presence they sense. William James, the 19th Century philosopher and psychologist, described this spiritual search when he defined religion. To James, religion is the human response to an undifferentiated sense of reality—to the “more” (an undefinable, non-empirical feeling of a Presence). I believe that all religious thinking is an attempt to understand this undifferentiated sense of reality and to live in conscious relationship with it.

The Theistic Definition of God is the Torah’s writers’ thinking on the subject, and many people over the centuries have agreed. To them, good fortune is a reward for obedience to God’s instructions, bad fortune is a punishment for disobedience, and both reward and punishment come in this world to either us or our descendants.

Do you agree with this scenario, or do we think that there are other more accurate ways to understand what happens in our lives? The history of philosophy is in many ways the history of people working on these issues. Why do things happen to us—bad or good, and what can we do to about our fortune? The Theistic Definition of God is one answer, but, for those who find it unhelpful or inaccurate, there are alternative definitions that can help express the Infinite that many find both attractive and compelling. 

Concentric Circles of Duty (and Anxiety)

May 5th: Emor
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Kohanim, the descendants of the ancient priests, do not have many priestly duties these days, but there are still some rules that apply to them. In many synagogues, they conduct the duchenen, the ritual of the priestly blessing. In many synagogues, they are given the first Aliyah to the Torah. They are not allowed to marry divorcees. And, they are not supposed to go into cemeteries or funeral homes—except for the funerals of immediate family members.

This last custom is derived from the opening passage in this week’s Torah portion:
“The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she is not married, for her he may defile himself. But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself.”

Though the words defile and profane sound harsh, what the Torah is addressing here is the ritual status of someone who officiates at the altar. It is not a sin or disgusting or inappropriate to be a mourner in the proximity of a corpse, but it does render a priest temporarily unfit for priestly duties.

(There are many theories as to why the ancients believed that touching a corpse or having various bodily discharges—semen, menstrual fluid, pus, and various childbirth-related liquids—render one ritually unfit. The best I have heard is from Rabbi Chanan (Herbert) Brichto. He believed that it had to do with dosing of the life force. Officiating at the sacrifices means coming very close to God, and, if someone has recently had a dose of the life force via various bodily emissions or contact with the dead, that person is at risk of an overdose. That is why the Torah requires a waiting period and a ritual bath before re-entry to the worship space.)

One could look at this ritual “fitness” or “unfitness” passage as a delineation of the conditions under which a priest is allowed to be “off-duty.”  As with any job, there are some times when it is okay to miss work and some times when it is not. You may remember from a few weeks ago (in Parshat Shemini in Leviticus 10) when Aaron and his two younger sons were not allowed to be off-duty despite the fact that Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two older sons, were killed. Formal mourning would render Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar ritually unfit to officiate at the altar, and so the rest of the community performed the mourning rituals. “Your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought.”(Leviticus 10.6) In God’s instructions not to formally mourn—though clearly they grieved, we have an interesting notion. “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community.”

The anger would not be because they were mourning. Rather, should anyone sin and draw Divine anger, a mourning Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar would mean that no priests would be available to officiate at the altar and stave off God’s anger. In other words, the spiritual welfare of the whole Israelite nation could not be deferred for their mourning, so they had to remain on-duty despite the great tragedy that had befallen their family.

At this early point in our religion, there were no other priests to take their place. However, as the priesthood developed, there were enough trained priests so that replacements could be found. What we have in this passage is an explanation of which emergencies allow a priest to be off-duty and which ones do not.

This principle of concentric circles of connection to a tragedy may be helpful in other areas of life. Sometimes, we are personally involved or in immediate proximity to a crisis, and sometimes we are a degree or two or three removed. If we are in the immediate circle—as the patient or victim or an immediate family member, it may be a time to be “off duty” from life and fully immerse ourselves in the crisis. However, if we are in a relatively outer circle, then our best role may be to stay “on duty” so that those immediately affected can be temporarily relieved of their responsibilities.

We can also use this principle as we consider the outrages or tragedies of the world—much of which we discover via newspapers or television. Most of the time, we are mere observers to things that are happening far away from us. We can be concerned or saddened, but do we need to let that anxiety or grief take over our lives? Every single day, news reports can provide us dozens of opportunities to experience anxiety or panic or grief, and yet falling apart or being exercised to the point of distraction depletes our strength and our patience—making us less able to deal with the issues that are close to us.

I am not suggesting that we ignore the issues or crises of the outside world, but the lesson of the ancient priests can remind us of the circles of proximity and how close or far we are from the center.

One final thought: Though there is much to admire in the thinking and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of his most famous statements has some troublesome implications. In his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Sometimes quoted as “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere,” this sentiment is very inspiring, but it is an exhortative/rhetorical statement and not a philosophical truth. It is very possible to have justice well-established and secure in one place, while other places are mired in terrible injustice. The one does not necessarily have anything to do with the other. Of course, injustice is always a possibility. Thus does the Holy Yehudi explain the repetitiveness of the phrase from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” as a reminder that one instance of justice must be followed by another instance of justice, and another and another. However, Dr. King’s exhortation can make us forget that justice does reign in some places, and that we needn’t live in a state of perpetual panic and anxiety and grief.

Every crisis or tragedy does not have to be our crisis or our tragedy. God may have infinite attention and love, but we humans do not. We need to consider our relative distance from a problem and utilize our emotional and intellectual energies appropriately. Thus can we marshal our resources, think clearly, and figure out what we can do.