Rabbi’s Message

Why is This Passover Different From All Other Passovers?

April 1, 2020

I can’t find horseradish in my local store and I don’t want to run from store to store looking for it. Same with kosher wine; I have one bottle of Manischewitz. Whatever is leftover in my Passover cupboard from last year’s Passover will have to do. I bought a package of 5 matzot (plural of matzah) two weeks ago; glad I did even though I couldn’t find my favorite brand. Normally this week I would be beginning to go through my pantries and refrigerator in preparation for Passover week. But I haven’t begun. In fact, surprising myself, when I went to the grocery store at 6:00 am on Sunday to avoid the crowds, I loaded up on pasta so I wouldn’t have to come back anytime soon. I’ll put them in a separate cabinet for Passover but I normally wouldn’t have purchased them this close to the holiday. I’m usually using up all of our chametz (the five prohibited grains: wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oat).

Nothing is normal. This Passover is different from all other Passovers for sure. I suspect you are experiencing your own versions of different. People you would usually join or who would join you will be on Zoom instead or missing altogether. You’d be attending Congregation Emeth’s second night seder. Some of you would normally be busy baking and cooking and putting food in the freezer. Nothing is normal.

Our Torah, when giving us instructions for observing the Passover, understood that there would be times like this. In Numbers 9, some people came to Moses and said that they were impure (they had been with a corpse) and could not offer the Passover sacrifice. Moses asks God what to tell them, and God offers an alternative, a second Passover, called Pesach Sheini, Pesach Sheini in this narrative is to be offered a month later.

Because of these extraordinary times, all of us are impure, at risk of becoming impure, or harming others. If you cannot participate in a seder this year or experience Passover according to your usual customs, as your Rabbi I am suggesting that you dismiss any feelings of guilt and try not to feel socially deprived. Do the best you can and refrain from eating chametz. Plan on participating in a Pesach Sheini when it is safe to do so! Whenever current restrictions are lifted I plan to lead a Pesach Sheini Community Seder (before July 31, my last day as Emeth’s Rabbi). If you have leftover matzah, hold onto it – we will need it for our seder!

This year, do the best you can and remember why we are commanded to observe this holiday: it is because of what God did for our ancestors when we were slaves in the land of Egypt. God kept God’s promises to us: “I will take you out; I will deliver you from bondage; I will redeem you; I will take you to be My people.”

May you experience good health and safety and may our memories of Passover past give us comfort as we dream of Passovers in the future.

We Are a Community

March 25, 2020

This week we enter the Book of Leviticus. The focus of the Book is ensuring a path to holiness for the Israelites. The commandment to “be holy for I Adonai your God am holy” is reinforced through the sacrificial work of the Temple priests. It’s a difficult book to read because we don’t relate with the idea of sacrifices. So how do we get value from these pages?

First of all, almost half of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) are found in the Book of Leviticus. The famous commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is found in Leviticus 19. Leviticus 11 teaches us the laws governing the foods we eat. Leviticus instructs the Israelites how to live as a holy nation.

This then is the primary message of Leviticus. We are a community. We share a common destiny. Even when we are physically separated, as we are now during “shelter in place”, we remain connected. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is “korban”, meaning to come close. This is the purpose of the mitzvot – to bring us close to the Holy One and to bring us close to each other through our deeds of lovingkindness, emotionally if not physically.

Vaykira means “And God called.” Leviticus and its first chapter begins with the words, “And God called to Moses and spoke to him…” instead of the usual phrase, “And God spoke to Moses…” Why is it different this time? Why is God “calling” first and then speaking? Consider the language to be a euphemism for a “wake up call”. It is a forewarning – God will be speaking, get ready and pay attention.

As we go through the Book of Leviticus, let us get ready and pay attention. Hidden between the lists of sacrifices are important messages that will teach us how to live a life of holiness in community.

Facts, Dreams, and Faith

March 23, 2020

Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg wrote, “There are three things in life: facts, dreams, and faith.”

In these days of sheltering in place, I fear we spend too much time gathering facts and too few moments dreaming about the future. But in order to dream, we must have faith. Faith that we will overcome these challenging days and return whole. Faith that our love for one another will enable us to find ways to help those in need or who are suffering, now and later. Faith that in spite of all the facts, we – and our children and children’s children – will see good days return.

In times of trouble, my father Julius Israel, of blessed memory, used to say, “This too shall pass.” It’s an ancient saying, repeated in different forms by poets and politicians. Let us all remember that “This too shall pass” and while we wait, let us keeping dreaming and have faith.

The Ritual of Hand Washing

March 23, 2020

Dear Ones,
My hands are rough and no moisturizers are helping. Too much hand washing or allergy to the soaps I’m using? But as I touch their rough surfaces, I am reminded that it is a small price to pay to keep myself and my near ones safe.

We have a prayer for hand washing (yes, you are right; we have a prayer for everything!):
Blessed are You, God our God, who has made us holy with with mitzvot (commandments) and instructed us concerning the washing of hands.

The actual language is “who commanded us to raise the hands.” This prayer is for ritual use, before eating a meal with bread, in normal times. But these are not normal times, are they? Quoting Rabbi Kerry Olitzsky: The ritual itself assumes that one’s hands are ritually impure and must be cleansed prior to completing a ritual act.

Rather than being impure already, we engage in this ritual of strict hand washing to prevent ourselves from becoming “impure”. It is the right prayer for our times. When we say the blessing and raise our hands, let us imagine our hands outstretched to the Holy One of Blessings to protect us and our loved ones, even as we protect ourselves by frequent and thorough handwashing.

May all of us feel the embrace of the Holy One, protecting us as we take the right steps to protect ourselves.

Shabbat: God’s Sanctuary in Time

March 18, 2020

There is a midrash, a from the Talmud, that says: It is told that God said to the people Israel, “If you accept My Torah and observe my laws, I will give you for all eternity the most precious thing in My possession.”

Israel asked, “What is the most precious thing that You will give us if we obey Your Torah?” God said, “The future world.” Israel asked, “But even in this world is it possible to taste the other? God said, the Shabbat will give you the taste.”

The first word in this week’s Torah reading is vayakhel which means “to assemble.” The chapter begins with Moses assembling the people and telling them the commandment to observe the Shabbat.

When God created the world, it was done in six days. God blessed the seventh day, called it holy, and God rested on that day. From the very beginning, God took a piece of time and said, “This is holy, this is Mine, this is My sanctuary in time.”

The philosopher Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan said, “The Sabbath is the day for rehearsing Olam HaBa, the world to come, the ideal world.” How do we rehearse? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Sanctify the Sabbath by choice meals, by beautiful garments, and delight your soul with pleasure and God will reward you this very pleasure.”

During these days of “sheltering in place” how do we still experience community and Shabbat? One way: I have created a playlist of Shabbat prayers, sung by a variety of cantors and musicians (and Peter Mandel collapsed them into youtube links to simplify the experience). I then put together a companion siddur (prayerbook) pdf. Simply open the siddur, begin the youtube service, and enjoy Shabbat, knowing other Emeth friends are virtually in the service with you. We also are offering the Ethics Series on Zoom. Thank you Arthur Reidel!

If you want to experience a taste of the world to come, it’s found in the peace and joy of experiencing Shabbat. Even in difficult times, Shabbat remains a time to refresh and renew our souls. Turn off those news channels for 24 hours! There’s plenty to watch that is entertaining. Call friends; we all want to hear human voices. Play games if you are sheltered with others. Rest and refresh.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

March 12, 2020

“All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to be afraid” (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

This week’s Torah reading, Ki Tisa, is among the most well-known. The centerpiece of the story is the episode of the Golden Calf. Because the people were too frightened to hear God’s Voice at Mt. Sinai, they asked Moses to ascend the mountaintop alone to receive the Torah. In our chapter, 40 days had passed and Moses did not return to them. These former slaves, only recently escaped – narrowly, with Pharaoh’s army pursuing them – are bereft, frightened, and in despair. They felt the need to take action, any action. Coming from Egypt, the land of multiple gods and idols and the only culture they had known, the Israelites built a Golden Calf. In their despair and fear, they panicked.

The days we are living in are nothing like anything any of us have experienced before. This coronavirus is different from the others; experts were more certain in their advice to us and we were taught how to confidently protect ourselves. Now we are hearing multiple voices telling us best practices for safety. Some are not true and some are not. How do we know the difference? How do we know what to do?

I  will tell you what we should not do. We should not panic. The stress this virus is producing is not good for our souls or our ability to make sound decisions. Here is what I am doing: I am following the practices recommended such as frequent hand washing and consciousness about not touching my face; I’m avoiding hugs and handshakes; I’ve purchased a supply of food that is part of my normal kitchen stock; I’ve cancelled travel plans; and I’m turning to God.

Do I think God will make the virus go away or give me special protection? I do not. Do I think God will calm my soul and allow me to experience inner peace? I do. Anything we can do to reduce the barrage of voices and allow us to have moments of peace is good for us, which is why I value prayer and Shabbat so much.

I am attaching two youtube musical versions of the words above, “All the world is a narrow bridge…” The first, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHs2DOmY_pw, sings the words in English, almost like a mantra. I suggest you listen, try to learn it, and sing or hum it when you are feeling out of control or too stressed. The other, my preferred choice, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WnEAxa1tFc, is in Hebrew with English words across the screen. It’s more upbeat and has the potential to lift your spirits.

I also recommend you open your Bible (or computer) and read the words of Psalms. Psalms are poems, meant to be interpreted. When the text speaks of being protected from “armies, surrounding us like bees”, you can imagine the “armies” as droplets of this virus. My “go-to” psalm is Psalm 27, which you may recall from the High Holidays. I think Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rogers’ song from the musical Carousel is a reinterpretation of this psalm:

When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of a lark.
Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your hearts
And you’ll never walk alone.
You’ll never walk alone.

If you need to talk or need someone to listen, please make an appointment with me, or take a chance and drop in. We don’t have to go through this alone.

Why Do We Wear Costumes for Purim?

March 4, 2020

This weekend we will celebrate Purim at Emeth! This is always a fun time at our temple, all the more so because we not only celebrate with children on Friday evening but also with adults and teens on Saturday evening! Our Emet Dor Kef teens will be presenting their annual Purim shpiel (Purim play). I hope you are planning to attend, and will be wearing a costume!

I always stress about finding just the “right” costume and was delighted to have figured it out last July! Afterall, I have a reputation to maintain. For my first Purim with Emeth, I dressed as King Ahashverus; the second time I was Sheriff Mordecai (cowboy hat, etc). Over the years my costumes included dressing as a clown, Lady Liberty, a dreidel, a religious Jewish man, Cat in the Hat, the Monopoly money bags, baby girl, and more. While dressing in costume is fun, why do we do it on Purim? The answer is hidden in the Book of Esther.

The Book of Esther (the Megillah), dated in the 4th Century BCE, is the basis of Purim. Here’s a plot summary: As described in the Bible, a Jewish girl named Esther became queen of Persia. Evil Haman chose lots (the meaning of the word purim to decide the day on which the Jews would be massacred. Esther thwarted his plan to commit genocide against her people. In the end, the day proved to be a great Jewish victory.

There was a rabbinic controversy about admitting the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible. The major objection seems to have been the lack of clear references to God, God’s providence, or God’s intervention in the events of our story. Ultimately of course the book was admitted. The people were going to celebrate it anyway so it was best to make it a holy book! (To learn more, attend our Purim study Shabbat morning, 10:00 AM.)

The Rabbis agreed that while God is not included in the story, it doesn’t mean that God wasn’t present. Surely it was God who saved the Jews from annihilation. That is one reason we dress in costumes – just as God was hidden in the story, we wear costumes to “hide”. Just as God’s actions proved God was there all along, under our costumes we are present to celebrate God’s salvation.

God’s Commandments for the Tabernacle

February 27, 2020

This week’s Torah reading, T’rumah, begins the process of building the Tabernacle in the desert. The Tabernacle will be the home of the Ten Commandments and the Ark. This sacred space will serve as a reminder of God’s presence among the Israelites. Very precise instructions begin to be offered in this chapter and continue throughout the Book of Shemot, Exodus. The details will be interrupted by the sin of the Golden Calf.

Reading this chapter and the meticulousness required to fulfill God’s many commandments in constructing the Tabernacle moved me to tears. It reminded me of our own beloved Sanctuary and this temple that has been my second home since we dedicated it in 2009. At the time, we carefully selected the colors that are designated for the Tabernacle in this very chapter. For that reason, I replicated those colors in the tallit I commissioned for my rabbinic ordination, to remind me always of Emeth’s sanctuary. As we transformed this former restaurant into our sacred temple, the membership and I understood that we were transforming ourselves in the process.

As I regularly walk through the temple in general and the sanctuary in particular, picking up trash, straightening siddurim (prayer books) or moving chairs, I re-experience the holy work I am privileged to perform. Reading this chapter filled me once again with the awe and love I hold for it and for you.

Is Abortion Murder?

February 19, 2020

This question underlies the ongoing debate about women’s right to choose to keep or terminate a pregnancy. Generally, and simply put, the determining factor seems to be when does life begins.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“rules”), is the prooftext for when life begins according to Jewish law. It states: “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning.” (Exodus 21:22) While capital punishment is imposed throughout the Torah, Mishpatim does not mandate the death penalty against the person who causes the miscarriage (abortion) of a fetus. Instead, in the lines that follow, Torah prescribes monetary damages when a person injures a pregnant woman, causing a miscarriage.

From this, the Rabbis determined that a fetus, while potential life, is not yet human life in the same sense as one who is already born. Therefore, while a fetus must be treated with respect, harming or killing it is not murder.

This does not mean that all abortions are permitted according to Jewish law. However, the health, well-being and welfare of the mother is the primary consideration.

The Talmud expounds that the rights of the fetus are secondary to the rights of the mother until the moment of birth. Rabbinic law has determined that human life begins with birth.

This does not mean that Judaism has an offhand attitude about abortion. While scholars in the various denominations may have different considerations, the mother’s need for an abortion is generally respected.

In summary, Jewish authorities consider abortion a serious matter not to be entered into lightly, however Jewish law considers the fetus part of the mother’s body and not an independent being until birth. We celebrate the fetus as potential life, however the mother’s health and welfare has primacy over that of the fetus until birth, when it takes its first breath and is considered a human being.

I encourage you to read this chapter, which has many interesting and challenging laws, including “eye for an eye”. Our new Etz Hayyim Chumash (Torah and commentaries) has many insightful commentaries for you to consider!

In Recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Shabbat

February 5, 2020

This week’s parasha (Torah reading), B’shalach, is the story of liberation –the escape from slavery, the exodus from Egypt and the celebration of liberation.

Within this story are lessons that can help us address a modern-day form of slavery, which often is part of the cycle of domestic violence. Someone of any gender can be a victim of domestic violence, however the vast majority of those affected are women. Every fifteen seconds a woman is battered in this country. One in 4 Jewish women, gay men, and trans people experience domestic violence in their lifetime, meaning they live in fear and at the mercy of a person who is supposed to love them. The penalty for escaping an abusive relationship can be severe punishment or death but the penalty of staying is not only living with inflicted pain but also a loss of self-esteem and self-value.

The lesson of our enslavement in Egypt teaches that power and control over someone else is wrong. Escaping injustice is difficult and sometime seems impossible. Those seeking to escape from domestic violence often do not know where to go or how to get there. They face many unknowns and threats. It is not easy for a woman in an abusive relationship to leave when she has nowhere to go.

Prior to becoming a Rabbi, I was privileged to work for Jewish Women International, and our mission focused on ending domestic violence in the Jewish community. We supported Shalom Bayit (literally Peace in the Home), a Bay Area organization which has the same mission. Since becoming your Rabbi, I became part of an inter-denominational Rabbinic Advisory Council for Shalom Bayit. This Shabbat, Rabbis like me from all over the Bay Area are speaking or writing about domestic violence to raise awareness about this issue.

Shalom Bayit receives calls from about 100 women each year who are in abusive relationships. These women are from every city of the Bay Area, including right here. They are professional women, poor women, highly educated women, young women, older women; moms and those without kids, well-known donors in the community. They come from every congregation, every denomination, all sexual orientations, all walks of Jewish life. Shalom Bayit offers free confidential phone and in-person support, as well as safety planning and support groups.

If you or someone you know is not safe at home, please seek the support you need. You are not alone. And you are not to blame for harm that has been done to you. You can speak with me (408-348-5339; rabbi@emeth.net) or you can call Shalom Bayit’s free confidential Helpline (510-845-7233). The Helpline is also available to concerned friends and family who are trying to support someone in their life.

Each of us can lend a hand in helping women find empowerment and freedom. We can be there to dance and sing like Miriam to honor the moments when one person feels less alone, one person finds happiness, and when one life is saved. From that we draw strength and renewal for the work that is still to be done.

Teach Your Children

January 30, 2020

One of the most well known parts of our liturgy is the V’Ahavta, the verse that immediately follows the Shema. V’Ahavta means “and you shall love.” This paragraph is not only recited in every service, but is almost part of the liturgy we say upon wakening and going to sleep. It is on the parchment that goes inside the mezuzah that we place on our doorposts, For those who pray wearing tefillin, it is also in the black boxes worn in daily prayer on the forehead and upper arm. The text, in Deuteronomy 6:7, reminds usto remember all of the commandments and “to teach them diligently to your children…”

This admonishment to teach our children comes near the end of Torah.
But in our text this week, just before the Israelites are leaving Egypt, we are
also commanded to teach our children. In Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s weekly
message, he emphasizes three distinct passages:

– When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you? then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to Adonai, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when God struck down the Egyptians.’ (Shemot/Exodus 12:26-27)

– On that day tell your child, ‘I do this because of what Adonai did for me
when I came out of Egypt.’ (Shemot/Exodus 13:8)

– “In days to come, when your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say,
‘With a mighty hand Adonai brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of
slavery. (Shemot/Exodus 13:14)

These verses and the V’Ahavta that comes later in Torah tells us that our responsibility is speak of our miracles as witnesses and to be certain that we pass this knowledge on to our children. It is why Judaism has endured – one generation tells the next diligently so that the lessons are learned and not forgotten. It speaks to the importance of Jewish education and for modeling Judaism for our children. When we do so, we are not only teaching our children, but their children and their children who will follow.

Trust in Others to Take Up the Task

January 22, 2020

In this week’s Torah reading God repeats the promise made to our Patriarchs. God tells Moses, “…I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession.” (Exodus 6:8)

God is not only promising to free the Israelite slaves from the bondage invoked by Pharaoh. God promises to take them to their own land, the Promised Land.

The remainder of Torah will continue the narrative of going to the Promised Land. We will leave Egypt and wander through the desert. In fact Torah will end before we reach the land’s borders. The Bible will continue the story, but not Torah. Instead Torah ends with the death of Moses, who sees the Promised Land from the mountaintop. For Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, the Torah ends focused but not reaching the land of promise.

This is an experience many of us encounter in our lifetimes. One works on a particular project for many years, but sometimes must leave before the job is complete. Perhaps the successor reaches the goal for which the foundation has been laid.

We would be wise to remember these words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Sages): “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” As I prepare myself to leave tasks unfinished and dreams unfulfilled, I remember this further teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: Do not be arrogant; do not think that you alone can finish the job. Trust in your children and generations yet unborn to take up the task. Know that you are part of the living chain of people who have dreamed, worked for a better world and carried on this mission for four thousand years in an unbroken covenant.”

Let us all keep marching toward our own land of promise.

The Importance of a Good Name

January 15, 2020

This week’s Torah portion begins the Book of Exodus. In Hebrew, Exodus is called Shemot, which means “names,” because the Book begins with the statement, “These are the names…” The Torah then lists the names of the children of Jacob (B’nai Yisrael) who came to Egypt with the Patriarch Jacob and his family.

Because the chapter begins with the listing of names, we are inspired to appreciate the importance of our names. In tractate 4:17 from Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Sages), Rabbi Simeon says, “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name excels them all.” Rabbi Simeon is teaching us that our reputation becomes linked to our name. This is an important lesson for all of us. Once our name is tarnished, it is difficult, but not impossible, to correct our reputation.

But there is another name included in this parasha (weekly reading) – the Name of God. In the middle of the chapter, Moses sees the burning bush in the desert and soon learns that he is actually encountering the God of his ancestors. God assigns Moses the task of representing the Holy One before Pharaoh, instructing the Egyptian ruler to “Let My people go!” After assuring Moses that God will be with him, Moses asks, “When I come to the Israelites…and they ask me, ‘What is Your name?’, how will I answer them?” And God tells Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh…that will be My name forever.”

The Name can be translated “I Will Be What I Will Be,” becoming not a noun but a verb, coming from the infinitive “to be”. According to Chumash Etz Hayyim, “The essence of Jewish theology is not the nature of God (what God is) but the actions of God (what God does).” This name models Jewish theology for us – it is not who we are but what we do.

In our world today we have names which we equate with righteousness and sadly there are far too many we equate with evil-doing. This lesson from Pirkei Avot teaches us that even if we have fame, wealth, or authority, it is all for naught if it is not accompanied by a good name.

The Bible as Historical Narrative

January 8, 2020

A popular form of fiction is the historical novel, spanning multi-generations. Usually there is some connection between one generation to the others and often the book ends with a resolution or completion of this repetitive theme.

We find this to be true in this week’s Torah reading, Vayechi, “and he lived…”, which ends the first Book of the Five Books of Moses, Genesis/Bereshit. The story ends with the death of Jacob followed by the death of Joseph.

After Jacob dies, his sons are in fear of their lives. Will the Egyptian leader, their brother Joseph, punish them for selling him into slavery? Was he only waiting for their father to die to seek his revenge?
Reading this as a historical narrative, we must go back to the beginning of the Book of Genesis. After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, they have two sons who are rivals for God’s affection. Cain kills his brother Abel, asking God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

As we continue reading Genesis the theme of brother against brother reemerges and repeats, first Ishmael and Isaac (which was really a conflict of the parents rather than the sons); then Jacob and Esau; and finally Joseph and his brothers. None of these stories end satisfactorily. We are left believing that siblings will always compete, especially for the affection and blessings of their parents.

But then we come to the end of the Book, where at last we learn the answer to Cain’s question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Joseph answered the question, “And so, fear not, I will sustain you and your children. Thus he, Joseph, reassured them, his brothers.” (Genesis 50:21)

Next week we will begin a new story, the story of the generation of Israelites who follow Joseph’s narrative. Remarkably different, now we will read about siblings who love and support one another. Aaron, Miriam, and Moses form a team against a Pharaoh who made the lives of the Israelites unbearable. It is a remarkable shift. And beginning of a new Book.