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Showing posts from December, 2010


This week’s Torah portion, Vaera, opens with the words: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Adonai.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Y-H-V-H…”  (Exodus 6) To Moses God offers this personal name of YHVH.  We, however, no longer know how to pronounce this name and so we say, Adonai, my Lord.  This name is related to the name revealed at the burning bush.  When Moses asks, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?’”  God responds, Eyeh Asher Eyeh, meaning “I will be what I will be.”  (Exodus 3)  YHVH is thus a form of the verb, “to be.”  What a mysterious, and wonderful, name.  The name of God means: God is. As a consequence the Jewish tradition has many names for God.  A casual search of the prayerbook yields well over 50 different names.  Here are a few: the Teacher, the Holy One Blessed be

Psalms 19-21

19. This might be one of my favorite psalms. The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims His handiwork. Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out. There is no utterance, there are no words, whose sound goes unheard. There are no words.  The only fitting testimony is nature.  Have you ever walked outside and seen the leaves changing colors in the fall or the flowers first blooming in spring or the sun streaming through the clouds in summer or the snow first beginning to fall on the winter’s frozen ground?  There is no utterance.  How beautiful is God’s world!  The heavens spin story after story telling of God’s glory. The teaching of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul… The precepts of the Lord are just, rejoicing the heart… The fear of the Lord is pure, abiding forever the judgments of the Lord are true, righteous altogether, more desirable than gold, than much fine gold; sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb. Just like nature, everything from God i

100 Jewish Songs

You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs - by Dan Klein; Tablet Magazine The author responds to the volume of coments about his interesting list of the top 100 Jewish songs.  He writes in part: Why are there so many secular/Ashkenazi/American songs?  ...As for the inclusion of so many secular pop songs: I stand by all those choices. Look, people, the fact is, in historical terms—in terms of impact, influence, and global reach—American popular music is one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of civilization. That sounds bombastic, but it’s true. What other art has reached more people, in more places, than pop and jazz and soul and rock & roll and hip-hop? (Maybe Hollywood movies—another Jewish invention.) Jews have played a disproportionate role in pop music, in both its creative and commercial spheres. I wanted the list to acknowledge that achievement. What’s more, as I argue in the list, many of these so-called “secular” pop songs aren’t especially


A little over 400 years have passed since the conclusion of Genesis.   The memory of Joseph, his family, and in particular all of the great things Joseph did for Egypt, are no longer read in Egypt’s history books.   The new rulers only see how numerous the Israelites have become and so they enslave and oppress the Jewish people.   Pharaoh decrees that all first born sons of the Israelites must be killed.   But in one of the first acts of civil disobedience, the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, ignore Pharaoh’s law and thwart his plan.   Pharaoh then declares that every Jewish boy shall be drowned in the Nile. In an effort to save the newborn Moses, his mother and sister place him in a basket in the Nile.   Thus begins one of the more interesting chapters in the Torah, Exodus 2.   It is punctuated by several acts of compassion.   The first instance is surprisingly that of Pharaoh’s daughter, an unnamed woman who notices the baby boy. “She spied the basket among the reeds and sent he

Jewish Songs?

Songs of Songs - by Jody Rosen and Ari Y. Kelman; Tablet Magazine Everyone seems to be thinking about the same thing! Or, are my eyes drawn to such articles because I am still thinking about these things?  Yes, I am still singing after our wonderful musical Shabbat service!   And I am still thinking about music and song, Judaism and prayer.  So here is another interesting article from Tablet Magazine about the 100 best Jewish songs. You might be surprised to see what makes it on the list. Listed are: "White Christmas," "Hound Dog" and "Over the Rainbow" (#1) as well as Adon Olam (#11 here; listen to our cantor singing this prayer to see why it really should be #1), Kol Nidre, Shema Yisrael, Avinu Malkeinu and Oseh Shalom. There are the Israeli favorites too: Yerushalayim shel Zahav, Shir LaShalom, Hatikvah, Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu (#88) and Hava Nagila (you must listen to Bob Dylan's version of this classic here !). What makes a song Jewish?  Is i

Jewish Christmas Songs

Have Yourself a Jewish Little Christmas - by Marc Tracy; Tablet Magazine Following up on the theme of Friday's sermon, here is an article about the most famous American Christmas songs, all written by Jews.  Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" is the most well known by far, but even "Santa Baby" now made famous by Taylor Swift, was composed by Joan Ellen Javits and Philip Springer.  Watch the below video for some more interesting tidbits about this remarkable cultural phenomenon. A Fine Romance from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo . I of course favor Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Clause is Coming to Town." I certainly don't mind listening to that on E Street Radio! At this time of year I find myself singing many of these songs. So we have a choice. Shut out the world at large. Or sing along with our neighbors. I choose to get into this holiday spirit! I love a good song, no matter who wrote it. For those who would like more information

Richard Holbrooke Obituary

Richard Holbrooke Obituary By Leon Wieseltier | The New Republic Leon Wieseltier writes eloquently, and powerfully, as he most often does, about the accomplished diplomat, Richard Holbrooke. He writes: What [Holbrooke] believed in most of all, I think, was in the ability, and the duty, of the United States, by a variety of means, to better the world. He was, in his cast of mind, a realist, but his cast of mind was not his philosophy: this realist—the Democrats’ most accomplished Machiavellian—was always returning to first principles, to moral considerations, to the alleviation of human suffering and the spread of political liberty as goals of American statecraft. He came away from his early years in Vietnam with lessons but without a syndrome. He was unanguished about the use of American force, when it was morally justified and intelligently applied—which is to say, he was the last of the postwar liberals. Even in his most virulent criticism of what he regarded as America

Vayechi-R&B Shabbat Sermon

On Friday evening we welcomed four talented musicians to our Shabbat services.  (They were Erica von Kleist on saxophone and flute, Richie Barshay on drums, Ike Sturm on bass, and David Virelles on piano.)  To help mark this occasion I delivered the following sermon. On this evening and this particular Shabbat I am thinking about Leonard Chess, and of course his brother Phil.  Let me tell you about the Chess brothers.  They were the founders of Chess records, one of the most, if not the most influential labels in the early Blues scene.  Leonard was born in Poland, in an area that is now Belarus, to a Jewish family.  He came to Chicago in 1928.  The family changed their name to Chess from some name that I did not have the time to check with Annie about how to accurately pronounce. (His given name was: Lejzor Czyz.) Chess Records, memorialized in the movie "Cadillac Records," one of my favorite movies (not because it stars Beyonce or Adrien Brody but because it is all abo

Childish Things - by Etgar Keret

Childish Things - by Etgar Keret; Tablet Magazine Here is another great story by Israeli writer, Etgar Keret, in today's Tablet Magazine . It is another take on my post Hanukkah Fires . Keret dreams of an argument with Bibi Netanyahu and concludes: “I’m sorry,” I say. “But I just can’t accept, that you, the prime minister of Israel, are evading responsibility and trying to shift the blame on a 5-year-old.” “Prepare for action,” Bibi interrupts me in the middle of my dream. “A huge, nasty robot dog at 12 o’clock is trying to devour our slide.” And then I woke up, I think, or maybe I was just watching the news. Are we in danger of burning down our home?

Psalms 16-18

16. I am ever mindful of the Lord's presence; He is at my right hand; I shall never be shaken. So my heart rejoices, my whole being exults, and my body rests secure. In typical Jewish fashion this is one of the psalms read at a funeral.  The opening can be alternatively translated: "I have set the Lord before me--always.  Because He is at my right, I shall not falter.  Therefore my heart celebrates, and my being sings, and my flesh rests--assuredly."  Why read these verses at a funeral?  It is of course a statement of faith. Hold God close. Draw Adonai near.  Then you will not fall.  You may very well feel like you are faltering, but say a blessing and a prayer.  Baruch dayan ha-emet.   For You will not abandon me to Sheol, or let Your faithful one see the Pit. You will teach me the path of life. In Your presence is perfect joy; delights are ever in Your right hand. With God at your side you might feel like there are only simchas.  These celebrations are more i


This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, is the final portion in Genesis.  Two death scenes are recorded in this week’s portion.  Both are framed by journeys.  The final act in the Joseph saga begins.  The aged patriarch Jacob summons his son Joseph to his bedside and says, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” (Genesis 47:29-10) After Jacob blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh he offers a unique blessing to each of his sons.  He then breathes his last breath and is gathered to his people.  “Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” (Genesis 50:1)  Jacob is mourned for 70 days and then Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to travel to the land of Israel to bury his father.  Joseph and his brothers, as well as many of the leaders of Egypt, travel to Hebron to bury Jacob alongs


Again, I don't usually cite CNN or favor it as a resource, nonetheless its series on this year's everyday heroes is inspiring.  CNN presents a selection of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  Peruse the nominations and their accompanying videos on ( 2010 Heroes ) to witness these remarkable examples of humanity at its best.  I presume this is part of CNN's intention.  What most often makes the news is unfortunately the opposite.  This year's winner is Anuradha Koirala, a humble woman from Nepal who has nearly singlehandedly rescued 12,000 girls from Asia's sex trade.  I found the below story about India's Narayanan Krishnan particularly inspiring.  Krishnan is a Brahmin and therefore according to Hinduism's orthodox interpretation is not supposed to come in contact with anyone who is "impure" and not a member of his caste.  But he states: "I am just a human being.  Everybody is the same." According to rabbinic legend

Nobel Prize

On a number of recent occasions I have found myself profoundly disappointed by the Nobel committee's selection for their prestigious peace prize.  This year's winner however is an inspiring choice.  Liu Xiabo, a dissident who languishes in a Chinese prison cell, stands alongside other giants.  He appears equal to the legacy of such winners as Andrei Sakharov and Martin Luther King.  Liu Xiabo was of course one of the leaders of the Tienanmen Square protests of June 1989 and is now jailed for continuing to speak in behalf of human rights.  He could not travel to Norway to accept the award and so in his stead last year's "I Have No Enemies" speech was read.  Last December, he delivered this final statement to the court sentencing him.  He steadfastly holds to the principle of non-violent resistance.  Remarkably he speaks of having no enemies, and no hatred.  Freedom of expression, he argues, is the foundation of human rights.  He believes, moreover, that ultimatel

Vayigash Sermon

Our Torah portion contains the dramatic reunion of Joseph and his brothers.  In this story Judah pleads in behalf of Benjamin, who has been framed by Joseph, by offering himself instead.  Joseph is unable to control himself, sends his servants out of the room, and forgives his brothers.  He tells them not to worry about what they did to him so many years ago.  It was, he states, to do God’s will that he was sent into slavery in Egypt.  Finally the brothers are able to speak and they hug and kiss each other, crying over the remarkable turn of events.  Joseph sends them back to the land of Israel to bring their father to Egypt.  I wonder: Why did Joseph not go back with them to see his father after these 20 years? There are two possibilities to explain Joseph’s motivation for the elaborate test he creates for his brothers. 1. He wanted to exact revenge and so the thought of throwing his brothers in jail was too tempting to avoid.  Or, 2. Joseph wanted to test his brothers to see if the


In my recent post "Hanukkah Fires" I failed to note all of the countries that came to Israel's aid in fighting the Carmel forest fires.  Here is a more complete list of countries: Azerbaijan Bulgaria Croatia Cyprus Egypt France Germany Greece Holland Italy Jordan Palestinian Authority (The PA is of course not a country, but perhaps the most significant of my prior omissions.  The Palestinian Authority sent three fire engines and 21 firefighters.) Russia Spain Switzerland Turkey United Kingdom United States This is an extraordinary list, especially given the number of Muslim and Arab countries who participated.  Turkey for instance sent two planes

Psalms 13-15

I continue my soliloquy on the psalms...  Is anyone listening?  No matter, the psalmist speaks to my heart.  That place is always the measure of true poetry. 13. How long, O Lord; will You ignore me forever?/ How long will You hide Your face from me?/ How long will I have cares on my mind,/ grief in my heart all day? We begin with a lament.  We continue with a prayer.  We plead to God. Look at me, answer me, O Lord, my God!/ Restore the luster to my eyes... And we conclude with a song. My heart will exult in Your deliverance./ I will sing to the Lord,/ for He has been good to me. Often people come to services with broken hearts.  They are drawn to attend to mark a yahrtzeit or because they are in mourning or because they wish to offer a Mi Shebeirach for friends or family who are sick.  Rarely do people come because of the joy of Shabbat.  It is difficulty and brokenness that compels people to pray.  Like the psalmist we open with a cry, we begin with pain.  If our prayer service

Hanukkah Fires

Hanukkah has of course ended but its themes still linger.  In Israel this past week 39 ultra-Orthodox rabbis representing various municipalities issued a ruling that Jews should not rent to non-Jews.  The vast majority have of course decried their ruling and the Attorney General is now investigating whether any laws have been broken.  Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced the ruling as well.  Even Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Elyashiv, the head of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian community, said in response, "I've said for some time that there are rabbis who must have their pens taken away from them."  I am sure he might say the same thing to some of my writings, nonetheless his words are here on the mark.  No matter where you live it is impossible to cut off the world. The spirit of the Maccabees lives on.  That is what I have been thinking about lately.  I have been mulling over Hanukkah's long since suppressed history.  The heroes of our Hanukkah story quickly became co


I love to watch football.  Even given its violence I enjoy watching any game, especially close contests.  Sunday night’s Steelers-Ravens game was thrilling.  Monday’s Jets-Patriots was disheartening.  I admit as well that although I favor the Jets (and even the Giants) I carry no loyalties.  When I was young I cheered for the St. Louis Cardinals who are now the Arizona Cardinals where a cardinal can scarcely be found sitting in a tree (nay, a cactus).  Soon after I left my home town St. Louis acquired the Rams who I still remember as coming from Los Angeles but who now have Oakland’s Raiders.   So I am left only watching for the love of the game. A few short weeks ago I found myself cheering for the Philadelphia Eagles.  In that game Michael Vick ran for two touchdowns and threw for another four.  Despite the fact that I don’t believe that history is made on a football field it was still an extraordinary performance, and a worrisome one for the day when I will cheer for

Race to Nowhere

Here is a film that adds more evidence to one of the themes in this year's Rosh Hashanah sermon .  Our schools are indeed quashing creativity and papering over mistakes. Amen!  Selah!

Hanukkah in the Soviet Gulag

Camp Fire - by Natan Sharansky; Tablet Magazine - A New Read on Jewish Life What follows are a few excerpts from Natan Sharansky's moving story of lighting the Hanukkah menorah when he was a Soviet dissident and was imprisoned in the gulag.  Read the story in its entirety by following the above link. On the sixth night of Hanukkah the authorities confiscated my menorah with all my candles. I ran to the duty officer to find out what had happened.  “The candlesticks were made from state materials; this is illegal. You could be punished for this alone and the other prisoners are complaining. They’re afraid you’ll start a fire.”  I began to insist. “In two days Hanukkah will be over and then I’ll return this ‘state property’ to you. Now, however, this looks like an attempt to deny me the opportunity of celebrating Jewish holidays.”  The duty officer began hesitating. Then he phoned his superior and got his answer: “A camp is not a synagogue. We won’t permit Sharansky to pra

Psalms 10-12

Sorry for the delay...  It was the many distractions of Hanukkah! 10. Why O Lord do You stand so far away/ concealed in times of great sorrow. When people experience tzuris they often ask, "Where is God?"  The psalmist echoes this sentiment.  During times of great pain we feel that God is distant and most certainly, concealed.  The remainder of the psalm is a restatement of a familiar theme.  Rise up against the wicked.  Banish evil.  Robert Alter suggests that these verses do not fit with the opening line, but to my mind they do.  Sometimes our pain is the result of other people's misdeeds.  Therefore the psalmist cries out to God.  Live up to Your promise to be a God of justice.  Yet there are other times when our problems are not the result of others or of our mistakes, but instead because of nature.  People are struck with disease not because of any fault of their own.  Such is the nature of our bodies.  It is in these moments that the psalmist most accurately captu

Another Hanukkah Message

The End of Hanukkah by Rabbi Donniel Hartman Hanukkah lends itself to many interpretations.  My teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman offers the following insights in his most recent opinion piece. Hanukkah is a holiday with an identity crisis. From the beginning, the rabbis had difficulty pinpointing what it was that we are celebrating. Was it the Maccabees' or God's military victory over the Assyrians? Was it a spiritual victory of Judaism over Hellenism? Or was it the miracle in which one small jar gave light in the Temple for eight days? Or is it a holiday celebrating a victory of the Jewish people against religious oppression? ...The essence of the modern era, however, may be encapsulated as the period in which such dichotomies have come to an end. A modern Jew is one who has multiple identities and multiple loyalties. He or she is a traveler in an open marketplace of ideas in search of new synergies and meanings. What a previous generation would call assimilation, that is,

Hanukkah-Miketz Sermon

At services we not only celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah but presented our fourth graders with their very own prayerbooks.  What follows is the sermon I delivered marking this special occasion. It is interesting that Shabbat Hanukkah nearly always coincides with Parshat Miketz, this week’s Torah portion about Joseph and his brothers.  Here is why I find this coincidence so intriguing. The very first Hanukkah was quite different than our own.  As you know centuries ago the Maccabees fought a three year struggle against the mighty Syrian-Greek army.  The ruler of the Syrian-Greeks, Antiochus Epiphanes had decreed that our people could no longer practice their Judaism.  Here are just a few of his oppressive rules. No Jewish sacrifices could be offered.  Instead sacrifices of pigs had to be made to Zeus.  Pagan temples had to be built in the land of Israel.  Circumcision was prohibited.  We could no longer observe our Torah laws but instead had to follow Greek laws.  Shabbat and holiday

Matisyahu's New Video

Here is Matisyahu's new video and song, "Miracle on Ice."  My favorites are still "Exaltation" from the "Shake Off the Dust" album or of course "Jerusalem" from "Youth."  For those who are unaware Matisyahu is a Hasidic reggae artist.  Enjoy!


This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, is part two of the Joseph saga.  Our hero Joseph is in an Egyptian jail.  He was there because he was wrongly accused of having an affair with his master’s wife.  Having dreamed dreams all his life, Joseph has the uncanny ability to interpret others’ dreams.  He occupies himself with dream interpretation while languishing in jail.  Scene two: Pharaoh is plagued with frightening dreams.  No one is able to interpret their meaning.  The chief cupbearer (what kind of a job is that!) who remembers Joseph from the days when they shared a jail cell tells Pharaoh of Joseph’s remarkable abilities.  Joseph is summoned, interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and thereby accurately foretells seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Joseph wisely prepares Egypt for the years of want by storing up food during the preceding years of abundance.  Meanwhile back in Canaan Joseph’s family has run out of food and is forced to travel to Egypt to seek relief.  Gi