Archive | D’var Torah

Today’s sanctuary is wherever we receive the holy

Posted on 08 March 2018 by admin

The main focal point of the book of Shemot (Exodus), which we conclude this week, is the Mishkan — the traveling sanctuary for the Jewish people (later replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem). Hearing the word “sanctuary” may bring associations with peacefulness, such as finding a place of quiet refuge, listening to the soothing sounds or admiring the beauty and harmony in nature. A holy sanctuary, however, suggests something more precise, with guidelines and requirements to create the ideal channel.
The Hebrew word for “holy” connotes “separate, designated and distinct.” In order for holiness to enter our physical arena, it has to descend or be “drawn down” through selfless human action. The famous instruction came in the second year (of wandering in the wilderness): “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in your midst.” This construction entailed specific materials (multicolored curtains, loops of blue wool, acacia planks covered in gold, red ram’s skins, silver sockets, etc.), measurements and ornaments (the Ark, the menorah, the table); only then did the Jewish people merit an exceptional elevation.
In later years, a magnificent edifice stood upon a Jerusalem hilltop, the point of contact between heaven and earth. So important was this house of worship to Jewish life that nearly two-thirds of the mitzvot (commandments of the Torah) are contingent upon its existence. Its destruction is regarded as the greatest tragedy of our history. The remaining stone wall has become as sacred site for millions of visitors. The anticipated rebuilding, throughout our daily prayers, marks the ultimate redemption — the renewal of complete unity within creation. What did this physical structure accomplish?
From Sinai to sanctuary
The main purpose of the Mishkan (dwelling) and Temple, according to Nachmanides, was to serve as a resting place for the Shechinah (the Divine presence). And the secret trigger, among the vessels, was the mysterious Ark of the Covenant, sheltered within the innermost chamber. “As it states (Exodus 24; 22), ‘I will arrange my meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the Ark cover’ … From here, the same presence which originally rested among the children of Israel at Mount Sinai would remain with them inside the sanctuary.”
The commentaries explain that in the original natural order, before the Torah, the luminous heavenly realm was disconnected from the earthly life. There was no possibility of bridging the two worlds, like a travel restriction between countries. With the grand event on Mount Sinai, the barrier was broken. The influx of holiness — where a higher reality entered our material realm — is regarded as a novelty within the system of creation. Unlike prophecy or divine insight, usually restricted to an individual’s superior capabilities, this divine manifestation was an inclusive occurrence.
Highlighting the Hebrew symbolic images of “cloud” and “glory,” Nachmanides points to the precise phraseology (and meaningful repetitions) at the end of this week’s Torah reading, illustrating the parallels between the rare revelation on Mount Sinai and the mystical level within the sanctuary: “And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.” Likewise, “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.” The only difference, he explains, was that on Mount Sinai the divine presence was open and temporary, while in the holiness pervading the sanctuary stayed and resided more covertly.
Then and now
While the temple stood, divinity was revealed. Love for mitzvot came easily. A heavy dose of holiness drifted through Jerusalem. But after the dreaded destruction, during an extensive bitter exile forcing Jewish communities to be scattered across the world, often among hostile neighbors, this spiritual ambiance has become more like a detached tale. But our current deficit, where enjoyment and passion in mitzvot has largely diminished, carries with it the opportunity for the virtue of effort, the exercise of independent will, to unveil itself.
While we no longer see a grand sanctuary, the central station of Jewish life, we still have the ability to establish our own special place, a stopping point during our daily travels, a platform to rise above the daily grind and plug into a higher perspective. Each synagogue, for instance, is termed a “miniature temple.” Then there’s our personal sanctuary. Here too, we must actively construct it. The solid foundation — the trigger for holiness to rest — is the mitzvah; “Blessed are you…who has sanctified us with His mitzvot…” That’s why, before praying, there’s a custom to drop a coin in a tzedakah box, a small gesture to set the tone for both reflection and connection. Being surrounded by a selection of holy books calms the mind.
These simple acts create the setting. The absorption and integration of holiness comes from mindfulness during that designated space and window of time, like Torah study, approached with humility and a desire to connect to sacred wisdom. Constructing our own personal sanctuary — in our house, office or wherever we designate — sanctifies a corner of our individual world. It’s an easy yet vital substitute for the sanctuary we read about and remember.


In today’s world, Purim-like chaos displaces order

Posted on 01 March 2018 by admin

Depending on when you are looking at your TJP, this is either right before or right after Purim. Depending on your idea of a fun time, you either rushed to your nearest congregation or JCC for a night of loud, crazy dress-up fun, or you stayed far away.
Every year, communities prepare for the retelling of the tale of Haman, Esther, King Ahasuerus and Mordechai. This story of almost certain Jewish annihilation transformed at the last minute into a miraculous victory is accompanied by screaming children, loud noisemakers, goofy plays, bad puns and, in some communities, much drinking.
Purim turns our world upside down. We act out at temple. We run through the sanctuary, we make as much noise as possible and barely hear what others around us are trying to say. Purim has been called many things, but never a quiet holiday.
One of the commands of the day is to make so much noise that when the name of the villain, Haman, is called out, we cannot hear it above the clamor. In some Jewish communities, his name is written in chalk on the ground to stomp out or erase his memory.
It is an understatement to say that thoughtful communication is not the goal of the day. And yet, I confess that Purim was always one of my favorite Jewish holidays. Something about having permission to turn the temple into the set of an old Marx Brothers movie always excited me. Purim suggests that creating chaos can be a sacred act.
But, of course, Purim ends, and we begin to count the days until Passover. Passover tells a different tale of deliverance. Instead of the defeat of wicked Haman, we read of God’s deliverance of our people from Egyptian bondage to freedom. We tell the tale around a dinner table at a service called a Seder. Seder means order. Every sip of wine, every bite of food and every moment of the storytelling follows an intentional plan.
Our tradition teaches us that chaos is fun for a time, but our mission is to return to order. Perhaps that is why I am a little less excited about Purim this year.
Our society seems to be living in a nonstop state of Purim. Just turn to any news station, Twitter account or Facebook page that delves into the problems of the world and you will be confronted by the deafening sound of escalation. Problems of the day are presented not with the goal of beginning a dialogue, but with the intent to drown out the other side. Dialogue has been replaced by screaming and invective. The goal is chaos 24/7. It’s all very entertaining until we realize that nothing is getting solved and no one is listening.
Purim only works as a reaction to order. In an environment of constant turmoil, it loses its power. And so this year, I seek the order of Passover, the quiet of thoughtful communication and the embrace of family around a dinner table surrounded by conversations.
My hope is that we find ways to speak to each other once again, that these never-ending diatribes will finally exhaust us and give way to a year of true and thoughtful dialogue. I wish this because there are pressing and complex problems that we need to join together and solve, because our communities are in desperate need of healing, and because someone needs to demonstrate the art of listening to our children. But mostly, I wish it because I miss Purim. It’s just no fun celebrating chaos when every day feels like another Purim shpiel.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth.


The month of Adar is the time for us to learn how to increase happiness

Posted on 15 February 2018 by admin

Each new month in the Jewish yearly cycle brings a unique energy, opportunity for growth and responsibility. This week we entered a new month called Adar.
Aside from the obvious association with the holiday of Purim and all the festive vigor that surrounds it, there is a flavor that immediately strikes at the onset, as expressed in the Talmud (Taanit 29a): “When Adar arrives, we increase in simcha (happiness).” We find similar biblical commands saying, e.g., “you shall rejoice in your festival (Deuteronomy 16:14)” — there are joyous dates on the calendar, but none of them affect the entire month.
When looking at the Torah, a clear, action-related directive makes sense. Instructions to experience specific emotions are more puzzling. In the famous daily declaration of the Shema, for example, we encounter the verse “You should love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” Telling someone what to experience seems like a vain instruction — either you feel it or you don’t.
Dealing with this famous dilemma regarding love, the commentaries explain that properly fulfilling the first verse — “Hear, O Israel” (mindful meditation on the pervading oneness of the Creator, within all details of the universe and beyond) — will automatically lead to the following verses, arousing a sense of closeness. But what about telling someone to be happy (and, furthermore, increasing that feeling)?
Simcha versus ‘being happy’
The ongoing quest for happiness in our lives has never been so widely discussed. During more difficult periods in history, people just plowed forward; minds were more occupied with simply surviving. Today, in the age of the millennials, with all freedoms, privileges, efficiency, spare time and luxuries, there seems to be more awareness of this inner void, which can create an obsession with finding purpose and how to achieve happiness in our life. Speakers and books on the topic are in high demand.
Before getting into how to increase in happiness, let’s first examine this discrete emotion — simcha. The intent here, in a short piece, is not to offer a superficial definition or recipe, but to explore the emotion as it appears in Jewish literature.
While pop culture offers step-by step recipes, “The Five Stages of Happiness,” the actual emotion of simcha may be less contrived, more natural and simple. Culturally, it’s often expressed in spontaneous dancing, singing, drinking, eating and the continuum of celebrations in Jewish life.
From Jewish perspective, happiness is a necessity, but not a mitzvah per se. To be sure, there are famous statements and songs like “serve Hashem with simcha,” but Jewish joy, positivity and gratitude are set components of daily life, a must-have if you want to have a successful spiritual life.
There is a simple gratitude that begins immediately upon awakening — “Modeh ani lefanecha” — the short phrase uttered immediately as we open our eyes each morning. As we shift from dream state into consciousness, sensing our soul re-invigorating the body. It’s a humble gratefulness for receiving life — experiencing the start of the day like a newborn baby entering the world. Then, as we move through the day, our mental faculties more alive, we can experience a gratitude born of reflection — e.g., the wonderment of the underlying intricacy and harmony in the human body, realizing how every organ must function perfectly, just for us to breathe, walk around and digest.
But the feeling of gratitude is not simcha, though it can definitely open the door for that emotion to evolve. Put differently, gratitude and peacefulness are more like calm water; they are reflective sensations. Eastern philosophies and popular guides preach techniques that create this inner calmness. The person seems to be wise, controlled and at ease in a turbulent world. But is that happiness? True happiness is more like igniting a fire inside, an electric energy, aliveness as the soul springs up and expands inside us. It doesn’t give clever answers to hypnotized listeners — but it heals them.
Happiness can be hard work
That definition of joy may not be as easy to picture, or as appealing. People often only want a warm bath to stop the soul from shivering. This superficial notion of “happiness” or tranquility is more like an attempt to soothe the chaotic self, covering struggle with a soft, smooth energy, like a spiritual sedative marketed with a nice smile. Simcha is something else entirely. It often requires focused strength and toil, effort that other paths may not require.
There seems to be an inherent clawing and agitation in Judaism, that actualization of self and world which is inherent in our mission statement. Hasidic sources view happiness more like a prerequisite for divine connection, a battle tool against the inner opponent that seeks to weaken and distract us from our purpose, rather than a pleasurable drug, or an end in itself. It’s not enough just to “be,” or to make a list of what you’re grateful for. Simcha is of a different anatomy — our war on complacency — where happiness and status quo are mortal enemies.
There is a certain fight of the spirit than comes after battling darkness, bursting through concealments to connect with God regardless of surrounding circumstances. (This form of joy, a light shining from darkness, is connected to Purim.) The culmination of joy in this month is a perfect dialogue between soul and body. Usually, the emphasis on eating is a most base instinctive desire, a lack of refinement that pulls one away from spiritual sensitivity. But on Purim, the two opposites merge: The body celebrates the soul’s victory.
The feeling of simcha that permeates this entire month may be general and undefined — unlike the day of Sukkot, or celebration of freedom during Passover. The upshot is that everyone must ask themselves, since now is the season of happiness, how do I increase it?
For some, it may be studying extra subjects in Torah that are particularly uplifting. For others, this may mean treating themselves to a certain pleasure that they don’t normally have an opportunity to embrace. Or, they give extra effort to be in a better mood for the sake of the environment, such as making others smile. But the simple awareness of this time period means that we have to position ourselves to dig within to find that increase in joy.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is the director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. He hosts the Sinai Cafe, a series of weekly Torah study at the Aaron Family JCC and in the community. For more information visit


True meaning of Shechinah

Posted on 25 January 2018 by admin

One of the popular mystical and intriguing buzzwords these days is Shechinah, simply defined as the indwelling of divine presence, as seen in the biblical verse: “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them (Exodus 25:8).” The term Shechinah is used to describe a hovering holiness that enters into a lower reality.
It begins with a famous verse in Song of Songs: “I came into my garden, my sister my bride…”
In this metaphorical allegory by King Solomon, depicting the love between God and Israel, the possessive form — “my garden” — is used, implying an intimate setting, similar to the chamber where the union of groom and bride is consummated. The commentaries explain the context of the verse, whereby the voice of the Creator reminisces about the Shechinah, distant for ages, finally returning to this world with the construction of the Mishkan, Sanctuary.
Jungle or garden?
“This world is a jungle,” people often declare. To succeed, especially in the marketplace, you need thick skin and resiliency. Wherever you turn, there are challenges. While destructive pleasures and decisions come naturally and easily, most meaningful and fulfilling accomplishments are the result of a steady grind.
Nevertheless, the verse relates a simple message — life on earth must be viewed as a potential garden. By sifting and sorting through moral muddiness (spiritual growth), planting seeds (career), and bearing fruit (raising children), one can leave an enchanted legacy for generations.
From a mystical viewpoint, this physical world in which we live — “the world of action” — is at the bottom of a vast system, a chain of endless and intertwining universes. This world is, however, unique in its physical composition, a mixture of goodness and immorality, providing concealment of divinity altogether.
The natural order of the world, although blinking from being to non-being, appears solid and self-sufficient.
The reason for creation
What was the reason for creating such a world? It seems a profound yet basic inquiry for any believer who ponders our existence. Yet when asked this question, many religious figures flounder for answers, or draw a blank. Test it out. To be sure, you could find explanations speaking of companionship between Maker and children, or fashioning our world out of compassion. But a truly infinite being is not lonely, and certainly doesn’t need anything.
Jewish philosophical texts provide various reasons for our world — in order “to become known,” or as a kind gesture “for our benefit,” or to “display the range of His boundless abilities.” But those accomplishments can easily be fulfilled, even more so, by upper worlds filled with celestial beings with heightened perception. Creating a coarse concealed physical existence isn’t necessary.
Yet, “the Holy One had an essential desire for a home in the lowest realm,” to dwell with complete comfort here below (Midrash Tanchuma, Bamidbar Rabah, Tanya). Furthermore, God has a longing that we, the prime features of this lowest dimension, should be the facilitators for creating that home, bringing in a further influx of light, the Shechinah. The main method to accomplish this — our spiritual craftsmanship — involves effort and free choice in “subduing” and “transforming” our nature. The Zohar explains that when we toil to change our character, a transcendent light — beyond the peak of all creation — floods the entire spectrum of worlds. The real accomplishment takes place in our world.
Highest within lowest
Paradoxically, at the onset of time, this lowest of all worlds was a fit place to contain the most intense revelation of the Shechinah. The deepest and most precious within the Creator penetrated into the lowest dimension of creation, analogous to deep pleasure pervading one’s entire body.
Then sin came onto the scene. Being the opposite of divine desire, this act inherently repels the presence of holiness and the primordial fall (of the tree of knowledge) pushed away the Shechinah. Successive iniquities drove it further upward, into the heavens, until seven righteous warriors, tzaddikim — beginning with Abraham and culminating with Moses — brought it back. Thus, despite the original human fall, each generation, with its individual inhabitants, has the potential to bring down the Shechinah further.
“Every fall is for the purpose of reaching a higher level at a later stage.”
This principle applies on a grand scale, from the unraveling of worlds until our physical existence, to the fall of the soul into this world in order to accomplish something greater. The same rule applies to each person’s story within this world, wherein even sins, the opposite of divine desire, are intended to eventually lead us to a higher accomplishment.
The broader personal takeaway is that what may appear as a dark stage in a life process, even a result of our own mistakes, is for the purpose of ultimately seeing a stronger light. The fall will lead to a higher rise. Or from another angle, there is a secret benefit within the delayed path — a maturing process, a lesson learned, wisdom gained during that time — that we can extract for constructive use.


Confusing passages in Torah: Interpret —and remember

Posted on 18 January 2018 by admin

Parashat Bo contains several strange and confusing passages that require interpretation in order to make sense.
Among them is Exodus 12:11. It explains that the Israelites, who are about to leave Egypt, should eat the Passover offering with their loins girded, their sandals on their feet, their staff in hand, and they should eat it quickly. One might say, well, of course — they were about to leave Egypt and they had to be ready. That’s very reasonable — except for the fact that other passages seem to indicate that the Israelites didn’t leave right away or they didn’t know they would be leaving. For example, they are instructed to burn any leftovers of the Passover offering in the morning (Exodus 12:10).
We’re also told later that they didn’t prepare any provisions so they had only unleavened bread (Exodus 12:39).
So if they didn’t have to dress up and eat it quickly because they were about to leave, why does the Torah create a ritual around eating the Passover offering? And why are they already practicing the ritual even before they have left Egypt? It’s actually amazing to think about — even before the Israelites are free, we are told that we’re going to celebrate the moment that’s about to happen by eating special foods and dressing up a certain way. It not only describes the early ritual of Pesach; the Torah also explains what to say when our children ask why we are doing these strange things (Exodus 12:26-27). That’s a lot of chutzpah!
I don’t know why the Torah was written this way, although I think it speaks quite clearly to the importance of remembrance. It hits us over the head with the message that we are supposed to remember the Exodus from Egypt. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because the Torah reminds us about lots of things. We remember the Exodus on Passover. We remember the Exodus on Shabbat. We remember Shabbat. We are constantly asked to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. We see the fringes on the tallit and we’re supposed to remember the mitzvot/commandments. We joke about how Jewish mothers offer constant reminders of things we’re supposed to do or things that we should have done, but they’re only following after the Torah.
What I love about Judaism is that as important as remembrance is, we don’t just stop and remember. We are instructed to allow that remembrance to guide our actions. From the celebration of Passover to actually stopping and living by a different set of rules on Shabbat — it matters what we do. We’re supposed to remember the mitzvot so we can do them.
We’re supposed to remember that we were slaves in Egypt because that reminder is supposed to have an impact on how we act. Don’t oppress the stranger — care for people as people. Remember that each individual, no matter their background, deserves to be treated with dignity and beauty. Remembering our struggles is supposed to inspire us to extend our hand in compassion, understanding and friendship.
We know what it’s like to be feared and hated. Unfortunately, there’s far too much of that still going around. It’s not like we have to remember back to the Torah to think about how poorly we’ve been treated as a people. All the more reason to live our Judaism. This means that we study and remember and we allow those teachings to guide our actions and better our world.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville.


Importance of individual relationship with God

Posted on 11 January 2018 by admin

In last week’s Torah portion, when Moses first encounters God, Moses learns God’s enigmatic name: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, there is an interesting contradiction regarding God’s name: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Eternal (yud hay vav hay). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai (God Almighty), but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Eternal.’” Actually God, yeah, You did. In Genesis 15:7 You appeared to Abraham: “I am the Eternal who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession.” And again in Genesis 28:13 You appeared to Jacob: “I am the Eternal, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”
Fortunately, Rashi explains the contradiction for us. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God as El Shaddai, the God who makes promises. God is saying to Moses that Moses will know God as The Eternal, the God who keeps promises. That is, Abraham was promised the Land of Israel as a possession, but he had to buy the Cave of Machpelah to bury his wife Sarah. Isaac should have been able to dig and get water from the wells that Abraham had established, yet he kept getting driven away. Jacob finally came back to the Land of Israel and wanted to set up his tent near Shechem, but he first had to buy the land from the locals. Yes, God Almighty, El Shaddai, had promised the Land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they never actually lived to see the fulfillment of God’s promise. Now, God is saying to Moses, God, the Eternal One, is here to fulfill God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Personally, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. So God was known by different names to different people — what’s the big deal? My mother calls me Ben. Unless I’m in trouble and then she calls me Benjamin. Unless I’m really in trouble and then she calls me Benjamin David Sternman. My father called me Benjie. To this day, my sister calls me Boo, shortened from Benjie-boo. My nieces and nephews call me Uncle Ben, as do a number of my friends’ kids. In my synagogue I’m called Rabbi Ben. What’s the big deal?
The names we give to people, or God, depend on the relationship we have with them. At Yom Kippur we might know God as “Avinu, Malkeinu; Our Father, Our King.” Or we might be put off by such gendered language and know God alternately as “Our Parent, Our Ruler.” When we stand guilty and wish to receive forgiveness for our sins, we know God as “The True Judge.” In troubled times, we pray to know God as “Maker of Peace.” Yet too often we know God as “The Distant One” or “The Silent One,” when we feel alienated from God’s presence.
The name by which we know God is in the relationship we have to God. At any one time, in our relationship at that moment, we know aspects of God: Healer, Maker of Peace, My Rock, My Redeemer. Yet we don’t know the totality of God. How appropriate and true, then, God’s initial answer to Moses who asked, “What’s Your name, God?” And God answered: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I will be what I will be. God will be what we let God be in relationship to us individually. I pray that each of us throughout the world will one day recognize God as “The Known One.”
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.


Warm, encouraging atmosphere signs of creating successful Jewish home

Posted on 04 January 2018 by admin

In a flash, we’ve concluded the first of the five books of the Torah. It’s always hard each year to say goodbye to Sefer Bereisheet (the Book of Genesis), whose passages are so rich and vibrant. It’s been a journey from the mystery and beauty of creation, into human portraits of our patriarchs and matriarchs, discovering their brave and lonely journeys, loyal sacrifices to stay the course toward fulfilling their mission, emerging as moral leaders and spiritual lamplighters — and imparting their virtues to the souls of their descendants.
As we conclude the story of Joseph’s majestic triumph and a torn family reunited — it all seems to end well. But the transition into the next book of Shemot, commonly referred to as Exodus, is harsh and abrupt. We quickly shift from a mood of fruitful accomplishments into scary scenes of suffering, cruel slavery and all the sweat, blood and tears along the way — as the children of Israel yearn for redemption.
But the Book of Shemot, as does every piece of Torah, has its unique significance. Shemot captures crucial events (and themes) in Jewish history: the bitter galut (exile) of Egypt which served as a crucible, the spectacular departure marking the birth of the Jewish nation, receiving the Torah, lending purpose to the Jewish people’s existence, and finally the construction of the sanctuary which caused the hashra’at haShechinah (indwelling of holiness), fulfilling the original intention for the most potent divine presence to reside within the nethermost realm.
The focal figure in all these events is Moses — the greatest of all prophets, the “faithful shepherd,” chosen to be the first redeemer of Israel and guide God’s select people.

One verse, two decrees

The backdrop of Moses’ birth involves a dreadful declaration (Exodus 1:22): “Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river; and every daughter techayun (you shall sustain, keep them alive).” The well-known edict, also quoted in the Passover Haggadah, appears to be straightforward. The precise wording, however, offers an interesting inquiry: If Pharaoh’s sole concern was for all Jewish boys to be drowned in the river, why bother adding the obvious and seemingly extraneous ending — “and every daughter you shall sustain”?
The superficial understanding of this phrase is that the fate of the girls did not interest him — “just leave them alone.” Yet the juxtaposition — two instructions within the same verse — suggests the concluding phrase, too, involved some kind of decree. Picking up this subtlety, the commentaries point to the meaning of the word “techayun” — “you shall sustain them, keep them alive.” They explain that the additional wording — “to sustain” — connotes a more active expression, an instruction to raise every daughter in the ways and practices of Egyptian culture.
This idea is also reflected by the linguistic difference in the instructions to the Jewish midwives and the directive to the Egyptians. The Jewish midwives were simply told to (passively) leave the girls alone: “If it be a girl, vechyah (let her live)” — as opposed to “techayun” (actively sustain). Thus, Pharaoh ordered his people to throw the Jewish children into the river in order to bring about physical death. Those same Egyptians were also commanded to “sustain” those remaining children, i.e., the girls, by immersing them in the Egyptian ways.
The decree relating to every daughter is also alluded to in the original instruction to “cast children into the river.” The Nile was the nature-idol of the land. Ancient Egyptians worshipped the Nile because, with little rainfall in Egypt, the Nile provided central irrigation for their fields; it was the source for their livelihood.

In the merit of righteous women

Regarding the redemption, the Talmud relates: “By virtue of the righteous women of that generation our ancestors were freed from Egypt.” One key characteristic is reflected in how they responded to Pharaoh’s order to throw every newborn son into the river:
Tradition recounts that when Amram, Moses’ father, first learned of Pharaoh’s decree, he reasoned (and likewise persuaded others) that any procreation would be in vain — their children would be killed anyway. His daughter Miriam disagreed. She argued that the fundamental mitzvah “to be fruitful and multiply” is a definite reality that must be heeded without calculating any eventualities, which are merely possibilities. As a result, Amram and other men reunited with their wives, giving birth to a generation that included Moses, who eventually delivered Israel from Egypt.
The cosmic effect of such decisions is unfathomable. But one simple message is clear: Each child is an entire universe, bringing new mazal — unlocking channels of blessing — for its family and for the world at large. It takes powerful belief and vision to acknowledge this in the midst of immediate dark and intimidating circumstances, yet to remain unmoved, bound to higher principles.

Egyptian traps

The exile of Egypt is mentioned as the root of all subsequent exiles; its harsh decrees — as well as its recipes for persevering — are prevalent (in some form) in subsequent periods, including our own.
In this regard, we may encounter a spirit and pressure to immerse children in the crazes of society, and often times these pursuits run contrary to essential Jewish values. When educating a Jewish child, parents and educators are charged with the opposite of the above directive, to ensure that these children do not “drown in the Nile.” The underlying task of building a successful Jewish home (or school) is to create a warm and encouraging atmosphere where the enduring fulfillment of “the Torah of life” can be felt.


In spite of life’s troubles, allow legacy to live on

Posted on 27 December 2017 by admin

In this week’s parashah, Vayechi, we read the very first ethical will on record. It begins with an old, ill Jacob asking Joseph to take an oath that when he dies, Joseph will take him out of Egypt and bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, the burial site he purchased long ago in Canaan.
Jacob then gathers his other sons and proceeds to bless them, although these blessings can be better described as an overall assessment of their character.
But before he begins his individual addresses, he demands: (Genesis 49:2): “Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; hearken to Israel your father — Hik’v-tzu v’shim-u bnai Yaacov, v’shimu el Yisrael avichem.” According to the Midrash, Jacob is concerned that after his death, his sons will forget where they came from and revert to idol worship. The sons respond to their father, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our G-d, Adonai alone.” In other words, the Shema, far from being the public declaration of faith that we know today, was a personal, private assurance from Jacob’s sons to their father on his deathbed, confirming, “Listen, Israel/Dad, Adonai is our one and only God, so no worries!”
Imagining this scene, I am filled with unexpected emotion tinged with perhaps a bit of jealousy. Thinking about it, despite the trials and suffering that Jacob encountered in his life, he experienced what I would call a “good death.” There he is, in his final moments, with his whole immediate family gathered around him. He’s blessed with the lucidity to be able to tell his family, individually, what he thinks of and imagines for them, both good and bad. He is assured that they will be faithful to their G-d and keep their Jewish identity intact. And he is promised that he will be brought to and buried at the Cave of Machpelah, the burial grounds of his ancestors. Our parashah ends with a similar scenario: Joseph, at the end of his life, prophesying that God would bring his family out of Egypt someday, and asking that, when that day came, his body would go out with them, back to his homeland. Both Jacob and Joseph can truly die, and rest, in peace. I wonder how many of us will get that opportunity.
Our parashah teaches us that we can make that happen by communicating our wishes, desires and hopes to those whom we love.
Though contemplating one’s own death is difficult, it is vitally important that we all do some pre-planning, or else we leave our loved ones in a difficult position. Most of you may already have written a will, but how many of you have a living will, or advanced directive? An advanced directive is a legal document that states your wishes for your health care in case you become unable to communicate those decisions later. It’s also vitally important to discuss organ donation, which our tradition supports on the grounds that it results in pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life. And it’s crucial that each of us designate, in writing, a medical power of attorney, someone who is charged with the responsibility of seeing that our wishes and needs are respected and followed.
And as our ancestors did before us, I would urge each of us to take the time to write an ethical will, defined by Rabbi Edith Mencher as, “A letter to loved ones conveying our hopes for their future and explaining our moral and spiritual values.” Rabbi Jack Riemer, co-editor of So that Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and how to Prepare Them, states, “An ethical will is not an easy thing to write. In doing so, one confronts oneself. One must look inward to see what are the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, face up to one’s failures, and consider what are the things that really count.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I will say to my children when I sit down to write my ethical will. And I feel that so much of what I’d tell them they already know: Life is so short — don’t worry so much. Try, as best you can, to live in the present moment. Stop and say thank you every day. Don’t be afraid to be happy. Be kind, compassionate and continue to live by a strong moral and ethical code. Rejoice in who you are. Own your mistakes. Listen more than you speak. Establish a Jewish home, and a meaningful Jewish life, whatever you decide that means to you. Always be each other’s best friends. And, no matter what life throws at you, never lose your sense of humor.
Jacob faced his share of challenges in life, but after much moral (and physical) wrestling, in the end he had what mattered most: his family at his bedside, his blessings and desires expressed and the assurance of his children that his legacy would go on. May we all be so blessed.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington.


Don’t let Joseph’s mistakes blind you to God’s message

Posted on 21 December 2017 by admin

By Rabbi Ben Sternman

We are almost at the end of Bereisheet, the Book of Genesis, in Parashat Vayigash, and in this week’s Torah portion we witness the climactic reunion between Joseph and his entire family. This should be a heartwarming section, but somehow I’m always disturbed by parts of it, so much so that on balance I’m left uneasy.
Toward the beginning, Joseph is unrecognizable to his brothers as Pharaoh’s highest official and it seems as if he’s almost taunting them with the way that he treats them. Finally, he loses control and reveals his identity to his brothers, who stand dumbstruck and in fear before him. Joseph comforts them and reassures them that their selling him into slavery was all part of God’s plan. Genesis 45:7-8 states in part: “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God…” It was God’s plan and not their fault.
I have a hard time accepting this explanation because it ignores human free will. Joseph’s brothers throw him into a pit, sell him into slavery, and fake his death to the deep distress of their father, but they’re not to blame because it was all part of God’s plan? Are we to accept all the bad choices that human beings make, dismissing them as “all part of God’s plan”? Perhaps what happened to Joseph was not God’s plan, but God salvaging the best outcome possible after the hash his brothers made of the situation. I have difficulty dismissing the evil that we humans do, the poor choices that we make, as necessary to bring about God’s plan.
I am also disturbed at the end of the Torah portion by how Joseph treats the Egyptians. Joseph, on behalf of Pharaoh, has cornered the market on grain over the previous seven years of plenty and is now selling that grain during the terrible famine Egypt and the world was experiencing. In order to survive, the Egyptian people use all their money to buy food from Joseph and then sell all their livestock to Joseph too. Finally they declare to Joseph (Genesis 47:19 in part), “Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh…” Joseph is using a natural disaster to gouge the Egyptians and turn them into slaves.
I remember hearing news reports in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, that some people decided to price-gouge bottled water, food, and gasoline to profit from the storm. The Texas Attorney General’s office investigated those reports and took appropriate actions to prevent this type of profiteering. Isn’t what Joseph did just as bad if not worse, forcing free people into slavery just to survive?
The real question is what do we do with sacred texts that leave us disturbed. One might be tempted to just throw it out and ignore it, dismissing the text as corrupted over time by fallible human beings. But I resist that temptation because I believe that God is speaking to us through the text. Rather, I prefer to reinterpret the text, seeking God’s message within it, as Ben Bag Bag urges us in Pirkei Avot 5:22, “turn it and turn it, since everything is in it.”
No matter how I turn it, though, I can’t seem to reinterpret Joseph’s price-gouging in a positive way. In those cases I must satisfy myself with learning what not to do from Joseph’s poor choices. But whether I reinterpret the text or learn what not to do, I can never bring myself to dismiss the text and close myself off from listening for God’s message.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Adat Chaverim in Plano.


Activating free power of choice enables growth, renewal

Posted on 14 December 2017 by admin

We all have regrets — past actions that we wish we could undo. Some relate to small decisions; others concern monumental mistakes. But we naturally move on and attempt to bury bitter memories. Then, in a moment of crisis, we can suddenly be reminded of a past shortcoming.
More than any biblical account, the story of Yosef and his brothers speaks to feelings of needing to repair past wrongdoings. In this week’s portion, Yosef’s 10 brothers travel to Egypt to purchase grain during the years of famine. The youngest, Binyamin, stays home, because his father fears for his safety. Yosef recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. To test them, he accuses them of being spies and insists that they bring Binyamin to prove that they are who they say. He then imprisons Shimon as a hostage.
In the midst of this pending crisis, the brothers flash back to their past sin, remarking to each other, “Indeed, we are guilty (for how we treated our brother Yosef, years ago), that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, yet we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.”
(Their statement expresses a common thought. Some spiritual systems may refer to it as “bad karma” — like energy from negative actions returning in retribution — or as natural consequences. From a Jewish perspective, these dire situations are not simply pay-back or punishment, but a heavenly communication, an aid or a trigger to promote introspection and repair.)
Seeing his brother’s distress, Reuven, the oldest, answers: “Didn’t I warn you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen…”
The commentaries ask: What’s the intention and benefit behind his reprimand? Seeing someone in distress, broken because of past mistakes, the appropriate response is surely to comfort — not to add pain and increase their burden. This advice especially applies to Reuven, the firstborn and leader. (Furthermore, his language — “Didn’t I warn you…” — appears as if Reuven stresses his own merit.) Why, when the brothers already feel guilt and admit their mistake, would he contrast his virtue with their sin?
Choice and change
In order to answer this, let’s depart from this scene to examine an intriguing (and instructive) path taken by Maimonides when organizing his famous Mishneh Torah, a masterpiece of a thousand chapters which categorize and outline the entire body of mitzvahs: His opening volume — the Book of Knowledge — discusses those fundamental principles of our tradition, such the first of the Ten Commandments, understanding the unity of God, etc.
At the conclusion of this volume, he deals with the pervading mitzvah of teshuvah. After explaining many details — the obligation of correcting transgressions, the parameters of repentance, the window in time, possible barriers — the fifth chapter continues by stating that “Free will is granted to all people…From the Most High, neither evil nor good come forth. Accordingly, it is the wrongdoer alone who causes his loss…”
An obvious query arises in Maimonides’ positioning: Free choice is a giant tenet in Torah, central to all mitzvahs, and should seemingly be expounded at the onset of the volume — not at the end, during the subject of teshuvah (only one of the many mitzvahs). But his order provides us with an underlying lesson. More than any command, teshuvah is inherently linked to free choice: In the absence of free will, the notion of “commandments” (and any corresponding reward and punishment) is meaningless.
Theoretically, a world without true free will could exist, where humans function like animals, bound to follow their nature, unable to bend or transform it. In this scenario, the internal mechanism of choice would be missing, yet the external mitzvah (the deed) may still be accomplished — like a well-trained dog following his master’s whistle with instinctive fidelity, or an angel executing a divine mission to aid or destroy.
Teshuvah, which primarily rests within the heart, is different: The existence and exercise of free choice directly concerns its accomplishment; looking back, if a person does not feel accountable, there’s no space for sincere regret. Moving forward, if someone is unable to change, there’s no room for growth — no teshuvah.
Healthy regret that leads to change (teshuvah) can be prompted in two general ways: a) through external circumstances where, for example, suffering softens the heart and pushes a person to change, or b) through firm resolution stemming from one’s own initiative. Complete teshuvah, the purest form, is when that inner resolve is free, untied to any outside influence such as fear, or lesser temptation to go astray — since there’s no substantial assurance of how one will respond if the original scenario arises again.

Free choice in both directions

On a deeper level, not only are teshuvah and free choice interdependent regarding the ability to act differently in the future, but it also becomes necessary to recognize that past mistakes were performed with free choice.
Wholehearted change comes through careful self-reflection of previous choices, sifting through the layers of thoughts and feelings the behavior. During that process, it is easy to acknowledge the outcome — that you erred in action. Nevertheless, you may reason that circumstances subtly led to the slip — based on your character at the time, or what you were going through, or how certain internal and external conditions pushed you in one direction — that it was unavoidable. While true on one level, this mentality prevents you from fully recognizing it, owning it and leaving it. So notwithstanding improved behavior, the internal repair is incomplete.
A complete rectification comes from acknowledging that even if, at first glance, it appears that we were not completely at fault, we still possessed the strength to overcome all obstacles to choosing the good path.

A different dialogue

Returning to our story, the brothers’ initial expression of regret seemed to result from their stressful circumstance and anguish — “therefore this has come upon us.” And when regret results from a side reason, such as suffering, the compulsion to change may not stem from the deepest force inside the person, from the person’s own effort to change their ways, where the intent is truly to reconnect and come closer.
In order to instruct his brothers how to remove all obstacles, to wash away any remnants of their mistreatment, Reuven reminded them of the original context: “Didn’t I tell you…” He was not chastising, but communicating the best path of teshuva: to travel back to your original mindset, get to the root cause and examine why, when “I told you… you didn’t listen.” As for the anguish that has come your way, that’s only the superficial layer.


The unlimited power of choice (wherein nothing can hold you back) that is gifted to each soul expresses itself in the effort of teshuvah — when someone feels distant from their true potential, estranged from anything holy, stuck in a space where according to all natural tendencies it seems impossible to connect. Nevertheless, the widespread message from above is that activating the power of free choice enables a person to overcome any internal barriers to growth and to renew themselves by moving closer to God — the direct opposite movement which dominated them at the time of their fall.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is the director of the non-profit Maayan Chai Foundation. He hosts the Sinai Cafe, a series of weekly Torah study at the Aaron Family JCC and in the community. For more information visit


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