Rabbi’s Message

You Don’t Need a DNA Test to Know Your Ancestors

October 19, 2018

When I was a little girl, my teacher asked us to talk about our ancestors.  We were supposed to ask our parents where our grandparents, or great-grandparents – as far back as we could go – where they come from.  I didn’t have to ask my parents, I already knew. When the teacher called on me, I proudly answered, I knew my ancestors all the way back to Abraham.  I am a direct relative of Abraham, you know, the Abraham of the Bible.  The teacher was astounded at my audacity (I can still see her face) and asked me how I could be so sure.  “Well, you know that Abraham’s grandson Jacob changed his name to Israel, don’t you? Jacob was the father of the children of Israel. That’s me, Debbie Israel!  That’s how our family started.”

Daring as it sounds, I was telling the truth as I knew it. I not only inherited the name. I also had been told all of my young life that Abraham was Avinu, our Father, and Sarah was Immanu, our Mother. To me, that connection is foundational to a lifelong association with Judaism.  Abraham is our Father, Sarah is our Mother, we are the Children of Israel.

This week, we read the Torah portion entitled Lech Lecha, meaning “Go, you go!”  Abraham is commanded by God to go to the “land I will show you” and make a great nation.  We are the great nation that began with this chapter.  We don’t need a DNA test to know that we are now reading the foundational story of our people.


A Warning Label for Noah and the Ark

October 12, 2018

This week’s Torah reading is a perennial favorite, Noah.  It is a rare children’s library that doesn’t include several versions of the story, usually beginning with picture books.  My personal favorite is Peter Spier’s version, which has no words, only water color interpretations.  (You may know that in my previous career I was co-publisher and managing editor of NOAH’S ARK, A NEWSPAPER FOR JEWISH CHILDREN.)

In the Bible version of the story, at least two of every animal boarded the ark to be rescued from the Flood.  If that story would be written today, the story would have to describe those many already extinct animals who didn’t make it on the ark because of human greed and exploitation.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that there are now 41,415 species that are endangered, including both animals and plants.  Of those, 16,306 are threatened with extinction! High on the list of endangered animals are gorillas, tigers, elephants, and sea turtles.

At the end of the biblical story, God puts a rainbow in the sky with the promise that the Holy One would never again destroy the earth.  Unfortunately, that agreement was one sided, but it is not too late for a reciprocal covenant.  God destroyed the world because of corruption, which is Bible-speak for illicit sex and immorality. Now, humanity is destroying the world because of greed and a lack of appreciation for the tremendous gift we have been given.

Is it too late?  In 2004 the giant panda was nearly extinct.  But in 2014, the species was downgraded from endangered to vulnerable. “The recovery of the panda shows that when science, political will and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and also improve biodiversity,” said Marcus Lambertini, executive director of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.

“The heavens belong to God, but the earth God gave to humans.” (Psalm 115:16)  Let us treat this responsibility as the precious gift it is.


Darkness Before the Light

October 5 2018

During Simchat Torah, we read the last words of Torah, describing the death of Moses, called Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Rabbi.  If we are able to restrain our rational selves and delve into this emotional scene, we will recognize and acknowledge the great sadness with which Torah ends.  After all, the death of Moses is so climactic, so dramatic, and so very sad that after his death the Torah ends.  What else could be said?  God’s very messenger, the one God entrusted with the responsibility to speak to Pharaoh on God’s behalf; the one who led the slaves out of Egypt and heard their complaints for 40 years in the wilderness; the one who took groups of tribes and forged them into a nation; that very one, Moses, was dead.  We must pause to remember his death, to recite kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer.

But immediately after, both during Simchat Torah services and the Shabbat following, this Shabbat, we begin reading the Torah over again.  We begin at the beginning, in darkness.  Is this the darkness we are holding in our hearts over the death of Moshe Rabbeinu, the darkness of despair? Who will lead us now that Moses is gone?  Who can we turn to?

We are reminded immediately that God is still with us.  God turns on the light, so to speak.  This week’s Torah reading begins, “When God began to create heaven and earth, the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface…and God said, “Let there be light.”  That’s all it took. Light breaking up the darkness.  We go from mourning to lightness.  God, our Creator, has restored our faith in the future. As my colleague, Rabbi Sara Davidson Berman, wrote, “Darkness comes first, but darkness is always followed by light. By believing that the light will ultimately come, (hope in the future is restored).”


Celebrate With Great Joy

September 28, 2018

We are nearing the end of our Holy Days and holiday season! We have had a full celebration including:

  • the prayers for a blessed New Year
  • to the joyous experience of having been forgiven on Yom Kippur
  • to Sukkot, the biblical, agricultural and historical festival, which is also called Chag HaSimcha, the joyous or happy holiday
  • to Simchat Torah, the celebration of ending and then beginning again the reading of the Torah, which we will observe this Friday night.

Some people are “synagogued-out” by this point, meaning they have had “enough” of synagogue services.  To me, that’s like saying, “I’ve had the entrée, who needs dessert?” Simchat Torah is the culmination of this great joyous season.  We end the cycle of Torah readings by chanting the last words in our holy text.  Then, just like we start over again with a clean slate after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we start reading Torah over again, from the beginning, as if we never read it before.  This is not hard to imagine because scholars, Rabbis, and sages study Torah their entire lives and always discover new insights and understandings.

Let’s keep celebrating with great joy!  Cantorial student Elizabeth Baseman will be providing our music, and we will be dancing around the Torahs!  This is the holiday for adults and children to come together to celebrate!  We’ll have dinner in our beautiful sukkah followed by our abbreviated service, then dancing, and an oneg!  What a wonderful way to end the holiday season!

Moadim l’simcha – Happy and joyous holidays!


Soul Searching and Soul Healing

September 7, 2018

One week remains until the start of Rosh Hashanah.  The clock is ticking as we confront our strengths and weaknesses, our interpersonal successes and failures, and our relationship with the Holy One of Blessings.  To take those crucial first steps  toward change, we will need courage and the will to change, to seek forgiveness, and to be forgiving.

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, the President of my rabbinical school (AJRCA) who continues to be my beloved teacher, wrote this message to students and alumni, which I am sharing in part with you, with Rabbi Mel’s permission:

Let me suggest a short exercise that may assist us on this journey during this High Holiday period. Choose an evening, take a pen and a piece of paper, go into a quiet place in your home where you won’t be disturbed and I’d like you to take ten minutes to write a letter to G-d. In this letter, honestly open up your heart to where you are now in your life, what positives and negatives you find in your soul, what struggles you are honestly engage in or are avoiding, what you aspire to, what help you need…tell G-d about it. I believe it will give you a moment of radical honesty with yourself, where you will have the opportunity to actually hear yourself. If this exercise is difficult for you, then simply write about that difficulty.  The next thing I would like you to do is to write a second letter, this time from G-d to you, responding to your letter. I think this response will also help you, and hopefully strengthen you. 

This exercise will only take fifteen to twenty minutes, and open you up to some potentially real issues within your soul. At the very least it will make you better prepared for the endeavor of the High Holidays…May our work be successful this year and may our joyful aspirations become a reality through our work.

Driving to temple, through the beautiful forest of Hecker Pass, I spoke aloud my letter and God’s response to me.  It was a powerful exercise. I spoke my truth and then God actually chastised me for those times I let myself, and the Holy One, down during this past year. God told me to get over myself and recognize I was doing the best I can. God assured me that I could count on God to be with me as I struggled to repair my soul and do better this year. And more. My insights were so powerful, as a result of my willingness to be truly honest with myself and God, I feel inspired to make the changes I need to make.  I know I am not alone.  And neither are you.

May you realize your own truths and start on the path to soul-searching and soul-healing, blessed by God.  Shana tova!


The Power of Forgiveness

August 31, 2018

We are in the last days before the High Holy Days begin.  The dominant themes of this holy period are teshuva, literally “return”, achieved through asking for and granting forgiveness; tzedakah, literally “righteousness” but during this holy period it is used as the righteous act of making charitable donations; and t’filah, prayer.  During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our focus will turn to prayer and in these pre-holiday weeks, our attention is on forgiveness and tzedakah.

Forgiveness is the most difficult, both to ask for it and to grant it.  As I wrote last week, it must be accompanied by genuine remorse and a commitment to never repeat the act for which one is asking for forgiveness.

In recent days, we have learned many lessons about forgiveness as we heard stories about the life of Senator John McCain, may his soul rest in peace.  Like Ted Kennedy, Senator McCain was that rare politician who could argue by day with his adversaries in the Senate and socialize with the same opponents when not in session.  As Senator Jeff Flake, his fellow Arizona Republican, commented on the Sunday morning news shows, said, “Senator John McCain’s greatest lesson was to forgive and to see the good in his opponents.”  We know this is true because of the wide range of comments of praise, many beginning with, “I didn’t agree with his politics but…”

Further evidence of his ability to forgive is that he asked two of those opponents to deliver his eulogies, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama.

Over the years I have often taught you about the relationship between Talmudic sages Hillel and Shammai.  They were opponents in their interpretations of Jewish law.  Yet they serve for the ages as the models for machloket l’shem shamayim, disagreements for the sake of heaven (though a time did come when their disagreements escalated into a conflict).   Nonetheless, we use them to teach us to question our motivations and to argue not for personal gain but for the greater good and wellbeing of one another, and to admit when we are wrong.

These models should inspire us during these days as we struggle with our own interpersonal relationships and what we can do to improve them.

May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace


Preparing for the Season of Change

August 23, 2018

Look in the sky each night; the moon serves as our High Holiday ticking clock.  As we watch the moon grow in size, and then decrease, we have our countdown until the start of Rosh Hashanah.

One of the central themes of the holy season is t’shuvah, repentance.  The partner of repentance is forgiveness.  Jewish tradition tells us to reach out to people we might have harmed, through speech or deed, during the past year and ask for forgiveness.  And to be forgiving to those who reach out to us.

But there are behaviors that shouldn’t be forgiven. Rabbi Bradley Artson describes them this way: “…our tradition teaches that God does not respect every action. And God’s love does not cover for acts of disrespect, for acts of brutality, for acts of exclusion. Our tradition teaches us…those who love the Lord must hate evil. It is sometimes a mitzvah to hate. There are behaviors done, so atrocious, that the only way to not hate them is to kill your moral sensibility, to make yourself ethically dead. And to do that is, to the contrary, not an act of religious piety; it is an abandonment of religion. If God commands justice, if God liberates slaves from Pharaoh, then our job is to love those who deserve to be loved: the weak, the powerless, those who are outcasts. But those who behave in ways that are cruel and crushing, they do not deserve our love; they deserve our resistance…(But) If you are presented with someone who shows sincere remorse, is committed to never repeating the behavior again, demonstrates that by making good as good as possible, then by all means you have an obligation from the Torah to forgive…” (Times of Israel blog, October 2016)

These are our guidelines for receiving forgiveness and for forgiving others – the order is important – the first two must come before the third: the abandonment of sin; the feeling of remorse; asking for forgiveness; and providing the assurance never to repeat the sin.” (Rabbi Yohanan Yahon, 9th Century)

May your preparations for the season of change go well and may you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.


Pursue Justice

August 17, 2018

The word Shoftim means “judges”, the first word in this week’s parasha (selected reading) and its underlying theme. We are told at the beginning of the parasha to create a just judicial system and a righteous society.

This week, we learned that the next Supreme Court candidate would come before Senate hearings on September 4th.  During the selection hearings, the candidate will be grilled about his ability to weigh judgments without prejudice and to not allow his personal biases to influence his decisions.  These are the same questions put before any Supreme Court nominee.  It is the same criteria emphasized in this week’s Torah reading, stressing that judges must possess the ability to “govern with due justice.”  The Torah is specific:  do not judge unfairly, show no partiality, take no bribes.  The instructions end with one of Torah’s most famous quotations: Justice, justice shall you pursue! (Deut. 16:20)

Notice the word Torah uses in this instruction, pursue.  This is the second time in Torah we are told “to pursue”; the other time it is used is “to pursue peace.”  Pursuit conveys a sense of urgency and eagerness.  Don’t just wait for the opportunity to behave justly – pursue justice!

The command doesn’t just refer to those who are employed in the legal system. It refers to all of us, to society at large.  Each of us must judge one another fairly, and we must be sure that the most vulnerable, the neediest, among us are cared for.  It is a responsibility that rests on all of us. Justice is one of the primary religious categories of Judaism, the very foundation of what it means to be a Jew.

On another note, the Hebrew month of Elul began Sunday.  The countdown to Rosh Hashanah has begun.  I hope during this time you will warm up your prayer muscles by attending services.  You are also welcome to drop into the sanctuary for some private meditative time.  Please check with me (rabbi@emeth.net) to make sure the holy space is not being used.

May you have a week of blessings and a month of spiritual repair.


Look and Listen

August 10, 2018

“Re’eh – see – I am placing before you this day a blessing and a curse….” (Deuteronomy 11:26)

While studying this week’s parasha (chapter), I couldn’t move beyond the first word, “re’eh”.  Last week’s Torah parasha focused on the word shema, listen.  This week the dominate theme is look, see.

Why did Moses begin with the imperative, see? What is it that they should see?

Moses is speaking to the second generation of Israelites just before they enter the Promise Land. The first generation wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. This generation did not have the first-hand experience of slavery.  But they also missed the experience of seeing God’s miracles in Egypt, of seeing the sea split so they could pass, of witnessing the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai.

We have all been told that “seeing is believing.”  Moses is speaking to the next generation who didn’t see the plagues or the splitting of the Red Sea but they heard about it from their parents or from Moses’ discourse in Deuteronomy.  Moses is telling them now: don’t just listen to the stories.  Soon you have the opportunity to see God’s miracles for yourself!  You will enter the land and you will see what happens when you follow God’s commandments!  You will be blessed.

May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.


Express Gratitude

August 3, 2018

I have returned from my vacation. During the month, you were never far from my thoughts, and I return to you with gratitude for our relationship, for your trust in me to be your spiritual leader, for the opportunity to continue to serve you and the Holy One of blessings.

How appropriate that this Shabbat of my return is the Shabbat of gratitude. In this week’s Torah reading, Moses is offering his final speech before his death (it’s a long speech and will continue for the next 7 weeks of Torah readings). He cautions the Israelites that they will have prosperity and good health if they follow the commandments. He reminds them that just as God provided for them in the wilderness, God will provide for them when they reach the Promised Land.

And Moses reminds them to be grateful for these gifts from the Holy One. When they are farming the land, would they give themselves all the credit or would they remember to thank the ultimate Source of their blessing? In this chapter, we read the words that became the Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal: When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you (Deuteronomy 8:10). We say a blessing at the beginning of the meal, ha-motzi, thanking God for “the bread of the earth.” Then, we express our gratefulness when we complete our meal, when we have “eaten our fill,” with the Birkat Ha-Mazon.

It only takes a moment to chant Birkat HaMazon, but expressing one’s gratitude will elevate your mealtimes and bring a sense of sanctity to your kitchen table. Here is a very abbreviated version in English that I encourage you to use if you are not comfortable reciting the Hebrew or the entire text:

Blessed is our God, Sovereign of the universe, who provides food for all. We thank our God with praise, as it is written: When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God for the good land which God has given you. Blessed is God for the land and its produce.

May God who continually shows us kindness continue offering goodness to us and continue to bless us with grace, loving kindness, compassion, deliverance, prosperity, redemption, consolation, sustenance, and mercy; a life of peace and all goodness. May God never withhold goodness from us. Amen.