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Enjoy nature — don’t destroy it

Posted on 09 November 2018 by admin

Dear Families,
This has been a strange fall — how much more rain can we get? But before winter hits, get outside to enjoy the beauty of nature. As you work in the yard (or even clean out your garage) remember this important Jewish value: bal tashchit (do not destroy).
The rabbis tell us a story in Ecclesiastes Rabbah that, after the creation of humans, God took Adam and Eve around the Garden of Eden. God showed them all of its beauty, then said, “See how beautiful is My handiwork. I have created all of it for you to use. Please take care of it. Do not spoil or destroy My world.”
This is a special message to us even though the rabbis could not have imagined that we would do such damage to our world. The mitzvah of bal tashchit comes from this verse from Deuteronomy 20:19: “When you wage war against a city…do not destroy its trees.” The rabbis tell us that we must not destroy any object from which someone might benefit.
Shabbat teaches us the relationship between nature and mankind. We were given six days to manage the earth, but on Shabbat, we must neither to create nor destroy. On Shabbat, we can just enjoy the beauty of the universe. Jewish agricultural laws also give us the “sabbatical year” to give the earth a rest. Talk about these texts:
• Care is to be taken that bits of broken glass should not be scattered on public land where they may cause injury. Pious people often buried their broken glassware in their own fields. — Talmud, Baba Kamma 30a
• A tannery must not be set up in such a way that the prevailing winds can send the unpleasant odor to the town. — Jerusalem Talmud, Baba Batra 2:9
• Whoever breaks vessels, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a fountain or wastes food, in a destructive way, transgresses the law of bal tashchit. — Mishneh Torah, Melachim 6:10
A few things to do:
• Recycling is a beginning to help the world. What can we do or do more of in recycling?
• Can you go through your books, toys and clothes and give any away? What are other ways you can give to others and help the world?
• Do you recycle? If not, begin now. Pick one thing: newspaper, plastic bottles, soda cans? Decide and do.
What are other things that would fit under “do not destroy”?
And make sure to get outside. Take a Jewish nature hike — look with eyes that see God’s creation. Enjoy beauty — say a blessing.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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Our Tree of Life must remain strong in tragedy

Posted on 09 November 2018 by admin

I heard about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue on my walk home from shul on Saturday afternoon. A Jewish neighbor of mine went out to grab his mail and stopped in his tracks when he saw my family and I walking down the sidewalk in our Shabbos attire. After a little informal chit-chat, he asked me about my feelings about Pittsburgh.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” I replied. “You mean you haven’t heard?” He stopped for a moment, seemingly surprised by my ignorance of the matter. “A gunman shot up a shul in Pittsburgh.”
My heart stopped. I was stunned to silence. However, as a Jew connected to a national memory stretching back through the anti-Semitic ages, I was not completely shocked.
I’m certainly not the only one who has sat in shul and proactively planned an escape route in case of a terror attack. In fact, I regularly think about my unique role in case of such an attack as one of the only people in my synagogue who faces the back of the sanctuary, with a perfect view of anyone, familiar or otherwise, who might come in.
As Shabbos ended, whatever feelings of peace and tranquility I had managed to retain over the remainder of the holy day left me as I read one news article after another and update after update on the carnage that was wrought in Squirrel Hill by a man firmly set on killing as many Jews as he could get his hands on. Sadness tinged with righteous anger filled me. One mourning Jewish heart in Texas reaching out to Jewish brothers and sisters far away.
My 9-year-old son noticed my distressed, mournful countenance, and soon I sat him down and told him what had transpired in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t long before tears began tumbling down his cheeks. “I’m scared to go to shul,” he said. “Will that happen to us too?”
I’ve no doubt many Jewish parents had this same conversation with their children that night and in the days that followed. Sadly enough, such conversations are Jewish rites of passage — waking us up to a realization as old as our people that we live in a world in which people might want to kill us for the simple fact that we are Jews.
I remember sharing my sons fears and waking up to the truth of the fragile existence of the Jew in this world during what seemed like yearly bomb threat evacuations at my Jewish day school in Atlanta and through multiple swastika-painting incidents at two different schools I attended. More than these events, though, it was watching CNN’s live coverage of scud missiles raining down on Israel during the Persian Gulf War that made me fully aware of the potential consequences of my heritage. I was only a little older than my 9-year-old son was then.
We, as individuals and communities, will mourn and pray over the coming days and weeks. We will try, as best we can, to allay our children’s fears. These things are both appropriate and praiseworthy. But we must equally confront the hulking elephant in all of our rooms. The question of all questions at a time like this. Why do we continue to expose ourselves and our children to this national fate? Why do we not choose to slink back and camouflage ourselves amongst our non-Jewish neighbors and communities? We can assimilate as many others have done before. And so, the question remains, why don’t you? And why don’t I?
Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief for The Daily Wire, asked this question to his audience of online readers and wrote what I believe to be a quintessentially Jewish response to the question. I will leave you with his profound words, words which we ought to share with our children as they begin to navigate their new reality in a world much darker than it was but days ago.
“In that Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday morning, the Jew-hating murderer rushed into a room in which a brit milah was taking place: a circumcision ceremony, a ceremony as old as the Jewish people, a ceremony welcoming an 8-day-old child into the community of the Jews. In other parts of the synagogue, different minyanim were reading the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac on a mountain.
“Why would Jews continue to inaugurate children into the most targeted community in human history? Jewish destiny may be inescapable, but why embrace that destiny? The members of the Tree of Life synagogue were shot to death in a synagogue. So why continue to cluster in synagogues, fulfilling age-old commandments, the elderly passing down their traditions to infants?
“Because, as the Tree of Life synagogue’s name attests, the Torah — the Jewish destiny — is a ‘tree of life for all those who cling to it.’ (Proverbs 3:18) And we are enjoined to choose life. That, after all, is the story of Abraham and Isaac: a story not of God asking Abraham to kill his son, but a story of God asking if Abraham is willing to place his son in mortal danger in service to God — and God’s grace in saving Isaac thanks to Abraham’s commitment. That is the story of the Jewish people. That is the story members of the Tree of Life Synagogue were reading as they died al kiddush Hashem, in the sanctification of God’s name.
“And that is the story of our civilization. An attack on the Tree of Life is an attack on all of us — those of us who wish to imbue our own children with a sense of Godliness in a dark world, a sense of eternal value in a society eating away at itself. Inside the sanctuary, all was peaceful on the Sabbath — until the gunshots rang out.
“The only proper response is the same response Jews have given throughout time: to fight back. To stubbornly cling to that which stamps us with the image of God. To fight darkness with light, untruth with truth, and death with life.”

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Let’s meet the horror with acts of kindness

Posted on 09 November 2018 by admin

Dear Friends,
We join ranks with Jews and Gentiles alike throughout the country and the world who are all sharing their pain and horror at the senseless and horrific massacre of 11 of our beloved brethren during a service at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. As we know, this also includes six injured, including four dedicated police officers hurt in the line of duty protecting Jewish lives, and our prayers are with all of them and their families, as well as the families of those murdered.
As Jews with a shared history of thousands of years of anti-Semitism, we cannot be foolish enough to brush this under the carpet as just another hate crime. What has been happening for some time in Europe, and in Israel since its inception, has come to our shores. Many of our universities, which are our country’s future, have become well-known as hotbeds for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric that is now bearing bitter fruit in the statements of some young politicians and leaders.
We can’t help but wonder, as do the Jews of Europe: What does this mean for the future of a Jewish presence in America?
What are we, the non-political and simple Jews, to do in the moment?
We are, sadly, living in a time of division and hatred; a nation divided on multiple levels, politically, racially and more.
Our response, as Jews, is to perform acts of kindness. To say an extra, heartfelt, kind word to a spouse, child or parent. To greet another with a heartfelt, warm smile. To reach out to a friend in need of strength. To find ways to bring sunshine into another’s life who is feeling dark and going through a difficult time. Sadly, with so many sicknesses, divorces, unhappy marriages, losses of income and more, those in need of a warm hand and a soft word are not hard to find.
We, as a Light Unto the Nations, need to lead the way with love, caring and understanding. We cannot underestimate the ripple effect and the power, both tangibly and spiritually, that this could cause.
We, especially, need to be extra careful not to speak badly or negatively about, or to, a fellow Jew. This is a prohibition in the Torah known as lashon hara. Numerous books have been written on this subject, and perhaps this would be a good time to become well-versed in these amazing laws — laws that only the Holy Nation has on its lawbooks, unlike any other nation in the world.
This should extend to the way we speak about and treat our Gentile neighbors and friends, as well. Every interaction between us and our Gentile neighbors should create a Kiddush Hashem, or sanctification of the Name of God.
Even a little light can dispel a lot of darkness. It’s not enough to say we are upset and unite in our horror; we, as Jews, need to take the lead in something positive. In this case it is to extend ourselves on behalf of another. May God see that effort as a way to bridge the divides and bring mercy upon us and all in this great country.
Sincerely, and with much pain and prayer on behalf of the victims,
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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Pittsburgh tells us to take a stand for all humanity

Posted on 09 November 2018 by admin

I wore the T-shirt to shul last Friday night. The message is so good, I thought; everyone should see it: “Take a Stand for Humanity,” it says. It’s the motto of the Illinois State Holocaust Museum, a reminder of my recent visit.
On Saturday morning, I traded it for my pink “survivor shirt” and went off early to take part in my 34th Komen Walk for the Cure. I’ve been “cured” twice, and it’s a pleasure to sit in the Survivor Tent, sip coffee and tell young, newly diagnosed women that, yes indeed, there is lots of good life after breast cancer.
Then I went home to learn that life had gone out for 11 people in Pittsburgh, folks in my hometown who had been worshipping while I was walking, who had been wearing tallitot while I was in pink, who paid the ultimate price — not because of cancer, but simply because of being Jewish.
I love the city of my birth, my education, my career start — which was at the Pittsburgh Jewish weekly of that time. I love its many bridges over its three rivers and the breathtaking view of “The Point,” where those rivers come together, often called “Pittsburgh’s Front Door.” I can still sing in my mind the old songs of the great steel city Pittsburgh once was, and about Joe Magarac, its imaginary but iconic steel worker.
I have lived in Dallas for almost 40 years and it is very much my home. But Pittsburgh will always be my heart’s home. And my heart broke with the news that Tree of Life, one of many synagogues within walking distance in a very close, very Jewish neighborhood, had been chosen by a demented anti-Semite as the place to release his pent-up rage with vile shouts and fatal gunshots.
Many people know I’m a Pittsburgher, so I at first received many phone calls and emails asking if my family (so much of it is still there) was OK. And then came more, saying how thankful they were that none of my family had been among the 11. I appreciated that because it was said with genuine good feeling. But in my heart, I was not thankful, because every one of those dead was a part of my Pittsburgh family. Theirs were old family names I have known all my life. If I didn’t know any of those particular people personally, I have known some of their families. There is no difference in my mourning.
I’ve learned that a high school classmate of a former Pittsburgher I know here in Dallas was among the Tree of Life dead. I have learned that Holocaust survivor Judah Samet was a few minutes late arriving at the synagogue and was in the parking lot when the shots were fired. He had evaded death years ago in Bergen-Belsen and might have confronted it head-on again had he been on time. I suspect from the family name of one who did not survive that she was a distant cousin of my Boubby the Philosopher. My Pittsburgh cousin who keeps adding leaves to our greatly extended family tree can let me know.
I’ve also learned that security was non-existent at Tree of Life, with police presence only for the High Holidays. And I suspect this has been true for all those other nearby synagogues and for the Jewish day schools as well. My own son works at the largest of these; his succinct comment was “I guess this will be our new normal.” I suspect the attitude in Pittsburgh — if there was ever any thought given to such horrors as this — was “It will never happen here.” But it did. I bless our own Federation for making all of us look squarely at what might never happen here, but prepare for it anyway.
I wore that same T-shirt again to the community memorial gathering Sunday evening. It is surely time for all of us to Take a Stand for Humanity.

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This week’s parasha urges us to spring into action

Posted on 25 October 2018 by admin

The current Torah readings discuss the life of our patriarch Avraham, referred to as the first Jew. Last week, the section of “Lech Lecha” opened with Avraham receiving a command to journey from the comfort of his birthplace to the unknown, “the land that I will show you.” This week opens with “Vayeira,” in which G d reveals Himself to Abraham three days after his circumcision.
The soul — loosely defined as the bridge between our experiencee of the body and the physical world around us, and our experience of divinity — has three main modes of expression: thought, speech and action. Simply put, our personality is reflected in how we think, what we feel and what we do.
In the very first Torah portion about creation, the commentaries explore the defining feature of a human. The natural selection is superior intellect and wisdom. Indeed, thought is potent — our mindset has a powerful influence on the outcome of any action.
But in the Holy Tongue (Hebrew), a human being is called a medaber (a speaking being), indicating that, more than any other trait, the faculty of speech reflects our primary distinction. The esoteric commentaries explain that the natural willingness and ability to share thoughts and feelings with another is sublimely rooted within the soul, stemming from a place inside that recognizes no boundaries — no separation between one individual and another.
When someone is precise with language, capturing images and fleeting reality in words for the sake of transferring light (wisdom and information) to uplift another person, then he or she has utilized this garment of the soul on the highest level.
Then comes action — what we choose to do — which seems to be the most external feature of our personality, largely removed from the intense color and vitality of the inner world. At the same time, action is the garment with the most tangible impact on the environment.
For us to be whole, we must continually sort through and upgrade how we use these three modes of expression, often deciding where to place priority.
When it comes to the emotion of love, for example, people may assess it in different ways. Is love primarily measured by one’s experience or displays of emotion? Or is it measured more simply, by whether someone adheres to the other’s wishes through action?
In relationships and marriage, a deficiency in one type of expression may result in dissatisfaction. Some may want the other person to think and feel more, not just to “do what’s right.” They want their partner to be interested, able to understand them and recognize what makes the other person special. Or the partner may turn around and say, “Don’t just love me in your way; it’s great that you appreciate and feel for me so much, but I want you to do more — show, don’t tell.”
In the spiritual arena, the notion of “a covenant” focuses mainly on doing, regardless of what’s experienced in the moment. Indeed, the real test of commitment within any relationship is what you do when you aren’t enthused or inspired, or even when you are pulled in the opposite direction.
With this idea, we can return to answer a common question about why, despite all the great accomplishments of Abraham, the Torah begins with the command of “go from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house…”
When beginning to study, a Jewish child encounters a series of rich stories within our tradition, relating Avraham’s growth — progressing from an idolatrous upbringing into a profound intellectual investigation, arriving at the recognition of a singular Creator, showing the courage to stand against the prevalent culture of the time and sharing his insights with the multitudes.
We often take the above episodes for granted. It’s strange, however, that within these passages of the Torah, there is no mention, not even a brief introduction, about Avraham’s character. Our first encounter is the divine instruction (and his submission) to “leave your land…” Moving into this week, the style of the Torah is rarely to describe his thoughts, disposition and emotions. All this is reserved for accompanying commentaries and midrashim, while the scriptural verses focus on action, self-sacrifice and withstanding tests.
One explanation of this omission of literary content is that the Torah is sending a message for all generations: Notwithstanding the merit of individual elevation, contemplation and spiritual experience, the starting point of Judaism is listening to “lech lecha,” being able to take the personal journey that is not always comfortable or understood. While knowledge and inspiration vary from one individual to the next, the connection to God through the simple fulfillment of a mitzvah is in a distinct category.
Like the first instruction, each mitzvah we encounter is an opportunity to unite divine desire with human action. The essential quality that fuels action is commitment. Commitment is the ability to dependably override what you may feel for the sake of what you believe is right — adhering to a purpose or principle beyond your immediate desires.
Similarly, the characteristic that surfaces in the continuation of Avraham’s life is blind loyalty, which may be taken as a deficiency. But there’s another way of viewing the simplicity: as a virtue and the foundation of a relationship. After having determined one’s beliefs, ideals and purpose, there will always be temporary moments of darkness, where the inner resolve to move forward — to act despite any lack of enthusiasm — must be employed.
The term for this quality in Jewish literature is “kabalat ol” (acceptance of the commandments), a commitment that joins faith to action. This quality demands (and evokes) more strength than any other. When implemented, that power also flows into other faculties to provide an internal boost.
If, for example, using only the intellect will take a person to a certain level, by tapping into the energy of commitment, the mind is able to function more smoothly. That’s one reason why somebody who is motivated in a certain area will automatically grasp it better. Or, on a lower level, why discipline in a craft can paradoxically generate more creativity.
A clear message from this week, then, is that God values buy-in. He wants us to trust Him and sincerely try, for a while, to get in the habit of not demanding endless miracles in return on a timeline that we dictate. But whether in one’s own experience or that of the Jewish people, once we take enough sincere steps in that direction and stop thinking about the quid pro quo, we receive opportunities to see the divine hand at work, when we least expect it.
Returning to our opening theme, Avraham first recognized his Creator (thought process), then he spread his teachings (speech) and finally performed circumcision (deed). Ever since the Torah was received, however, the spiritual development of a Jew moves in the reverse order: from action (refinement of the body), to speech and, finally, study (thought).

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Shin on mezuzah cover is a reminder of God

Posted on 25 October 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’ve been wondering about the Hebrew letter shin on the mezuzah cover. Could you please fill me in on its significance?
Thx,
Howard L.
Dear Howard,
The letter shin on the mezuzah case is reflective of the name of God, Sha-Dai, which is written on the back of the mezuzah parchment and begins with the letter shin.
On the inside of the mezuzah are the two paragraphs of the Shema; on the back, that name of God. This needs explanation.
One reason that name is written there, explain the Rabbis, is to hint that God promises to protect and watch over the home of a Jew who affixes a mezuzah on his doorway. The Talmud says that our King stands outside our homes and protects us, unlike a mortal king whose subjects stand outside his palace and protect him.
This is hinted to in the letters of that name, shin, dalet and yud, standing for “Shomer dalsos Yisrael,” or “Guardian of the doorways of the Jews.”
There is another, deeper meaning to this as well. The Talmud says that one of the meanings of the name Sha-Dai is “she’amar le’olamo dai,” or “He said to his world, ‘enough.’” At the time that God was creating the universe, the heavens were stretching out and going without an end, until He expressed anger at them and said “dai,” enough. (The expanding universe.)
The meaning of this is that the creations of God, Who is infinite, innately strive to infinity and perfection. God, however, did not want to create a perfect world. He desired an imperfect world in order to leave room for man to partner with Him in perfecting the universe, which is our part in “tikkun olam,” enhancing the world. If it was already perfect, we would have no purpose and no way of earning reward.
The first mitzvah Abraham was commanded was bris milah, circumcision. It was proceeded by God telling him “I am E-l Sha-Dai; go before me and be complete.” This is the first tikkun of an imperfection, to remove the foreskin, manifesting our partnership with God’s name of Sha-Dai.
Ultimately the prime place in the world where a Jew perfects the world is in the Jewish home. That is the place where we sanctify the mundane, elevating all of our everyday life activities to the holy and sublime by living according to the laws of the Al-mighty. The Jewish home, much more than the synagogue, is the pinnacle of a Jew’s tikkun olam.
We are reminded of that every time we walk into our doorways, by the mezuzah. By remembering God every time we pass through our doorway we are reminded of His presence both outside our homes, as our Protector, and inside our homes, resting His presence in all that we do.
For this reason, every door in the house needs a mezuzah. For there isn’t an area of life, whether the kitchen, bedroom or living room, that is bereft of kedushah, holiness.
This is another reason why we have the name Sha-Dai on our mezuzah, reflected by the shin on the cover, to serve as a constant reminder that we are to live our lives as partners of God, and in all that we do to create a tikkun olam and a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s Name.

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Fellow alumnus wins Nobel for chemistry

Posted on 25 October 2018 by admin

A graduate of my high school has just won a Nobel Prize.
I’m holding before me a front-page clipping from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and looking at the smile (is it triumph? or shock?) on the face of Frances Arnold, 62, now a California Institute of Technology professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry. She is one-third of a trio honored for “harnessing evolutionary principles to create new proteins.” The other two are men. She is only the fifth woman ever to score a chemistry Nobel; the most recent before her was almost 10 years ago.
So, what can I say except: What happened to all the rest of us who went to Taylor Allderdice? It was, and still is, a public school, a neighborhood school. It always did, and still does, have an excellent academic reputation — such that people with children often factor that into their home-buying choices. But — a Nobel?
In my own class — which exited those somewhat hallowed halls more than two decades before Dr. Arnold graduated — was a young man who received his doctorate in art history from Yale and retired after a long career as director of the Frick Museum in New York City. I thought that was tops — but not a Nobel. Arnold distinguished herself at Princeton and is now one of the few, according to the news release, who can claim simultaneous memberships in the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering.
What a surprising list of achievements. But what’s even more surprising is what the achiever says herself about her high school days: “I didn’t take chemistry then. I was too busy cutting classes.” Talk about late bloomers. And she wasn’t a child of wealth and privilege, either: While she was at Allderdice, she worked part-time at Walt Harper’s Attic, a Pittsburgh club owned by a mildly nationally known local jazz pianist. And after graduation, before college, she drove a Yellow Cab.
At some point, our high school established a Hall of Fame, and one of its first members was Iris Rainer Dart, who has written nine novels. Best known is “Beaches,” which later became a film starring Bette Midler and Mayim Bialik. (This should clue you that the subject matter would resonate with us because the author was Jewish — as were many students of Allderdice in that long-gone past.)
Iris also had a humble childhood; her father owned and operated a neighborhood hardware store, known citywide for the kind of appealing disarray that led to a sort of cult belief: Virtually anything could be found on its shelves if one only looked long enough. Which was probably true. So, her literary achievement is not to be looked down upon. Still — it’s no Nobel.
Dr. Arnold’s big prize comes from “harnessing the power of evolution,” according to Goran K. Hansen, who is secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Her work is being used to create sustainable biofuels, the Academy says, thereby “contributing to a greener world.” And now, for the winning statistics: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded 110 times to 180 individuals since 1901 — a quite small but incredibly distinguished collection of scientists.
It’s now obvious that somewhere along the line, after a lackluster high school career, Allderdice’s winner somehow took to heart the motto that stands forever, carved in stone over our school’s main entrance even before its doors first opened in 1927: “Know Something. Do Something. Be Something.” Or maybe not. Maybe it just happened. Sometimes in life, things just happen.
I suspect this Nobelist’s next honor will be election to the Taylor Allderdice High School Hall of Fame. Given her record there, plus her Nobel, she may just laugh at this. But she may embrace it. I’ll never know. Still, I’ll always be wondering: What in the world happened to the rest of us?

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For People of the Books, the choices are endless

Posted on 25 October 2018 by admin

Dear Families,
It is not a secret — I am a biblioholic. I am addicted to buying books. We all have the genetic potential for this disease, as we are the People of the Book. However, I have always maintained that we are really the People of the “Books.” Jews are committed to learning, and books have always been the way to pass on the learning to others.
Here is a quote from Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
“The Egyptians build pyramids, the Greeks built temples, the Romans built amphitheaters. Jews built schools. They knew that to defend a country, you need an army, but to defend a civilization, you need education. So, Jews became the people whose heroes were teachers, whose citadels were schools, and whose passion was study and the life of the mind.”
The Torah has always been the beginning of learning, and books upon books upon books have been written with commentary and explanation of that essential book. All 63 tractates of the Talmud and the Midrash and the Codes and the commentaries from the past through today are helping us understand what that first book, the Torah, can teach us about life. Books galore and commentaries ancient and modern — does it ever end? Hopefully not ever. And now we have websites and blogs and eblasts to go through and decide what to read.
How do you choose? For many, we reach to the movement that we belong to — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and more. For others, it is an attempt to read a little of everything and find what resonates at that particular moment. Is there a right way to study Torah, to find answers to life’s questions?
Yes, there are a million right ways and the goal is to find what works for you at this moment in time and, most important, to keep searching and learning. Be open to new (and old) ideas and, as has been the practice of generations of students, learn with a friend, especially one who challenges you.
We are at the beginning of the cycle of the Torah, which is a great place to start. You don’t have to catch up on too much, but remember, you can start wherever and whenever you want. I will not tell you all that I am reading right now, but I am excited about the newest Chumash out there that I just got — “The Steinsaltz Humash,” published by Koren Publishers. It is a beautiful book with amazing insights from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. It is in both Hebrew and English, with sections on each page titled Discussion and Background, plus there are occasional pictures.
But what I like the best is that the English text is bold and the commentary follows as if part of the text. Steinsaltz has us reading both at the same time.
Have I convinced you to buy the book? Have I convinced you to keep learning? That is the bigger goal. We are the People of the Books, and we continue to thrive as a people because we keep learning and searching for answers.
A favorite quote of mine is: “Some girls watched ‘Beauty and The Beast’ and wanted the prince. I watched it and wanted the library.”

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With G-d as my witness, I shall not want

Posted on 18 October 2018 by admin

If a man achieves a great feat in a forest and no one is there to witness it, does the success resonate less within the man? Does it feel less significant?
It’s a difficult question, I admit.
As for myself, I can’t shake this feeling inside of me that a great act both deserves and requires a great witnessing to match; and that the witnessing itself impresses significance upon a deed (a retelling of one’s personal unwitnessed events to interested parties often serves as something of a surrogate witnessing). After all, we humans are selective viewers, restricting our purview to those things we deem worthy of our time and interest, and keeping our watchful eyes on the goings-on of only people we care about most. The gift of one’s attention says, “What’s going on here matters.” It proclaims, “These actions, these lives no less, are significant and meaningful!”
As the character of the wife in “Shall We Dance” answers to the question of why she wants to be married:
“We need a witness to our lives. There are eight billion people on the planet…I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything — the good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things…all of it, all the time, every day. You’re saying, ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’”
In an article in Psychology Today (Aug. 22, 2016), Dr. William S. Breitbart writes extensively and eloquently of this collective need to be witnessed:
“What is clear is that we human beings need to have our lives witnessed, Viktor Frankl wrote ‘the only thing worse than suffering is suffering that goes unwitnessed.’ (Frankl – The Doctor and the Soul, 1955/1986). This need for our lives to be witnessed, I believe, is related to the concept of ‘significance.’ The question of significance is an essential one. ‘Did it matter that I lived?’ ‘Did I leave some mark in this world?’ ‘Did I have some impact on this world or on someone?’ Was there a ‘sign’ that I was here. The idea of having a life witnessed relates to the question of whether someone else in this world noticed me, and ultimately judged the value of my life. It is as if one was a playwright and had a play that only you performed, but was never viewed by an audience, or reviewed by a theater critic. Were you a playwright? Was the play a work of art? A work of great significance?”
Witnessing has an additional function, as within it lies the power to lift up the moments in our lives to transcendent heights. If unobserved accomplishments last but singular moments in time and live on in but the select hearts and minds of the protagonists themselves, witnessed occasions take on a lifeforce of their own, inviting others to both partake in the moments of our lives as well as to share their memories of the event with others not present. A witnessed event may be recorded in a book or passed down as family or national narrative. And the life of that witnessed event can long survive the life of the character of whom the story is told. As such, witnesses allow us to transcend the limited confines of both self and time. It allows for the building of legacy.
But there are significant drawbacks to our need to be witnessed, great dangers awaiting our demand for external validation and significance. It’s true that we tend to act better in the company of others than we do in the privacy of our own homes, but it’s easy to fall in to the trap of worrying more about “looking good” than actually working on “being good.”
And with eyes focused outward comes both unhealthy societal pressures that must be met if we are to remain in good standing with our neighbors and peers, as well as a steady inculcation of foreign value systems that work to slowly but steadily replace our Jewish values for central primacy in our lives.
What’s more, there is scant room for the development of the prized trait of humility when “likes” on social media don’t generate themselves — we need to be “out there” for the public to see if we are to earn their approval and esteem.
And after all is said and done, we still find ourselves questioning if we are truly loved and valued by the people around us. It’s a no-win affair.
Breitbart suggests a different, rather confounding solution to the witnessing dilemma at the tail end of his article. He concludes that we, ourselves, serve as our own life’s witnesses:
“We are never completely alone. Our observing ‘self’ or ego is our constant companion; that constant voice, commentator, judge, critic, witness to our lives. In living a truly authentic life, the only judge or critic who really matters is us, our observing self. So as you live, you are creating your legacy through witnessing and striving towards a life of significance.”
While Breitbart’s solution circumvents the many issues detailed above that emerge from the need of external validation, his suggestion seems more word play than anything else. For, in as much as I am more or less aware of the details of my life, I cannot also bear witness to my life. A witness stands ipso facto removed from the person being witnessed, and any significance that a witness brings to the table derives from the very fact that he is separate. It’s hard, then, to believe that many, if any, will find comfort in a life “self-witnessed.”
And what of the transcendence of external witnessing? What of the comfort that comes with the knowledge that one’s life, one’s legacy, will endure beyond the grave, in the memories and in the impact made upon those still living? In Breitbart’s vision one must be satisfied that “The legacy you live does not require remembering after death; it is a legacy lived unto death.” I, for one, find no solace in such a forecast.
There are other issues, as well. While external validation often comes with unhealthy societal pressures, it also comes with healthy pressures that push us forward. Caring friends and family tell it like it is, pointing out areas in one’s life that require attention and improvement. Their cajoling is generally aimed at moving us out of our comfort zone (the thing we despise the most), something “self-witnessing” is less likely to generate on its own.
And none of this touches upon the problem that is the natural conclusion that Breitbart reaches, that in “self-witnessing” we become “the only judge or critic who really matters.” That’s a biased judge indeed, one more likely to accept excuses and let things slide than to convict and chastise. Can we really, then, rely upon ourselves alone to know if we are acting appropriately and living lives of real significance?
There is a third option, though, one that sidesteps the pitfalls of both external witnesses and Breitbart’s “self-witnessing”: G-d is our life’s witness. G-d carefully watches all we do, both because we are the apple of His eye (“So said the L-rd, ‘My firstborn son is Israel. [Shemot 22:4]’”), and because our lives matter so that the Almighty himself to cares to watch.
The benefits of G-d serving as our witness are multifold. For starters, He’s always witnessing, and the entirety of our lives is uplifted and transcended in His witnessing (as opposed to human witnessing, which only covers the public portion of our lives).
With G-d as our witness, we are propelled to evolve into our best selves – to become more and more G-dlike. Such witnessing generates a healthy external pressure without any of the damaging and often misguided social pressures that come with human witnessing.
There is no concern of foreign value systems creeping into our lives with G-d as our witness. To the contrary, we are infused with the will to keep our Witness’ values in the face of competing value systems. As King David proclaims, “I will speak of Your testimonies before kings, and I will not be ashamed” (Tehillim 119:46). And with our steadfast commitment to living a life in consonance with G-d’s will, we can feel confident in the knowledge that we are living big, significant lives and bound tightly in the favor of the only One whose opinion really matters.
Equally as important, with our need for witnessing fulfilled in full by G-d, we come to grasp that we need not the approval or recognition of flesh and blood, and with this final, vital shard of wisdom the gates of humility open up to us in all their glory. Our compulsion for self-promotion and exhibitionism slowly give way to the subtle pleasures of humble living, and the excitement once felt whilst basking in the limelight moves aside for the hallowed feelings which arise when we let the other lights around us shine a little brighter. It is fair to say that with G-d as my witness I shall not want for anything more.

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Shoah museum near Chicago has myriad options

Posted on 18 October 2018 by admin

I have just returned from a two-day visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, located – not, as you might expect, in the heart of Chicago, but in a northern suburb named Skokie. The chosen site speaks volumes about Holocaust history and the collective power of its Survivors.
After World War II’s opening of the infamous concentration and death camps and the liberation of those still alive there, many Survivors who made it to the United States somehow wound up in Skokie, which became a town whose population was about three-quarters Jewish. And among those Jews clustered some 7,000 Survivors, which is why in the late 1970s, a group of Neo-Nazis banded together and picked Skokie to make another stand against them.
But this time, there was no cowering, running or hiding. Many Survivors had not yet spoken about their horrific experiences at Nazi hands, but they decided to make their own stand, and were joined by thousands more, Jewish and not. On the day originally scheduled for a Nazi march, it was the citizens of Skokie who marched and had their own victory. The museum opened on that same location in 2009, and it is now the third-largest Holocaust museum in the world, behind only Yad Vashem and the U.S. national museum in Washington, D.C.
Notice its official name: Holocaust Museum and Education Center. As has our own Dallas facility, which went from being a Holocaust Museum to its current Holocaust Museum Center for Education and Tolerance, and will soon become the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, the thrust of both institutions has changed with the passage of time. As there are fewer and fewer Survivors to give personal-experience testimony, emphasis has shifted toward future prevention of such past horrors, with outreach to students and their teachers of primary importance. As does our own center, the one in Skokie is grooming future “Upstanders” to take personal action against even the smallest violation of human rights.
I won’t try to detail for you the many and varied programs that go on under the roof on the massive Illinois structure, the many opportunities for personal involvement, and the many exhibits that fill its rooms and line its hallways. My favorite – if there can be such a thing in such a setting – is called “Stories of Survival: Object – Image – Memory.” Susan Abrams, the museum’s CEO, calls the collection “an exploration of the meaning behind the everyday things that become so much more.”
So, the viewer can see actual items that Survivors clung to during their ordeals and brought with them afterward: a doll’s dress – a coin – a few keys on a ring – a bracelet – a photograph. But what is most exceptional here is how these items, actually in cases, are further illustrated with wall-mounted photos that include comments by those who saved and still treasure them.
And these objects go far beyond what the visitor would initially expect to find in a Holocaust museum: not all are from Holocaust Survivors, but from Survivors of other genocides, including Cambodia, Sudan, Rawanda… The message is frighteningly clear: human suffering on a mass scale has continued on after “our” Holocaust; we must bring up new generations to stop them from happening in the future.
I shake the hand of Fritzie Fritzshall, once a teenage girl among several hundred older women, each of whom would give her a crumb or two of their daily bread ration in turn for her word: “I made a promise to those women in Auschwitz,” she says now, “that if I survived, I would tell the world my story.” And she has, in one of the biggest ways possible: she is currently president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
There are many great things there, more than I could fully experience in just two days. But now, I’m looking ahead to great things here, when our new Dallas museum opens on Sept. 17, 2019.

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