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Showing posts from January, 2011

Mishpatim

The Zionist thinker, Berl Katznelson, wrote: “When I see a person walk among us as though he has solved all riddles and conundrums, or as one for whom a new ‘Guide of the Perplexed’ has been written…or one who really doesn’t need any such guidance at all, since his mind is clear and relaxed and he has never known any sort of confusion, I think of him as someone who lives in another world, beyond the reversals, torments and hopes of our own muddled world, or perhaps someone who has solved all problems by chewing some magical cud.   As for myself, I’m happy with my confused, uneasy soul…” This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, elaborates many laws and introduces the Jewish notion called by its name.   According to tradition it is these mishpatim, laws, for which there are rational explanations.   An example: “When a person’s ox injures his neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal.   If, however, it is known that

Yitro Sermon

In this week’s Torah portion the Ten Commandments are revealed.   Rather than focus on their familiar words I prefer to focus on the verse that follows.  “And the people saw the thunder—ro-eem et hakolot.”  How could they see the thunder? There are two possible explanations.  1. Anything is possible because the Mount Sinai experience is a miracle.  But this is too easy an explanation.  And besides, there would not be much to discuss if I followed this line of reasoning.  2. In such an extraordinary experience the senses are overwhelmed and play tricks on you.  This is analogous to smells that sometimes awaken long since suppressed memories. Neither of these reasons explore the meaning of seeing the thunder.  A Hasidic teaching suggests a better line of reasoning:  “What they heard on Mount Sinai they later saw translated into action in their homes, in the way they lived and in their behavior.  What they heard they later saw: the spirit of the Sabbath, the spirit of kosher food, the

Yitro

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, details the revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments.   It is these words that are emblazoned on the walls of many sanctuaries.   “I am the Lord your God.   You shall have no other gods beside Me.   You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.   Remember the Sabbath day.   Honor your father and mother.   You shall not murder.   You shall not commit adultery.   You shall not steal.    You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.   You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.”   (Exodus 20) The most interesting of verses however, immediately follows the Ten Comandments: “All the people saw the thunder and lighting, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.”   The revelation at Mount Sinai was accompanied by many miracles and wonders.   But how could the people see thunder?   The first answer is that the event was

Psalms 22-24

22 . My God, my God Why have You abandoned me; why so far from delivering me and from my anguished roaring? My God, I cry by day—You answer not; by night, and have no respite. According to the New Testament (Mark 15:34) Jesus invoked this opening verse when crucified on the cross.  It is a powerful opening for a prayer.  Anyone could have mouthed such words from the midst of their anguish and pain.  The psalmist often opens with such words but then concludes with words of praise.  The psalms open with pain and conclude with faith.  This psalm however is far longer on pain.  It concluding words are as follows: Let all the end of the earth pay heed and turn to the Lord, and the peoples of all nations prostrate themselves before You; for kingship is the Lord’s and He rules the nations. But the psalm began on a personal note of pain: why have You abandoned me?  It concludes with an impersonal note of faith.  Has faith indeed been restored?  Earlier the psalmist writes: Because of You I of

Beshalach

This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, marks the beginning of the journey that will define the remainder of the Torah.   “So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”   (Exodus 13:18) The wandering begins.   The journey through the wilderness starts this week. As the week draws to a close I want to reflect on the journey of Jews in America.   I am given to reflect about two Jewish women.   One brought the contemporary to Judaism.   The other brought Judaism to the contemporary. On Sunday the great Jewish singer and songwriter, Debbie Friedman, died.   Debbie composed the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing that we sing each and every Friday night.   She wrote countless other prayers that we sing.   So many of her tunes have become a part of the American Jewish prayer experience that we often fail to acknowledge her authorship.   Beginning in the 1970’s Debbie Friedman rewrote the music of traditional prayers, accompanying them to contemporary sounds.

Derekh Eretz

Founder of 'Civility Project' Calls It Quits - NYTimes.com The way of the land, a euphemism for proper manners, has fallen out of practice in many circles.  Today's Times reports that the recent Civility Project is a bust.  The project was started last year by Mark DeMoss and Lanny Davis, a Republican and Democrat.  Last year they asked all governors, senators and representatives to sign the following pledge: I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it. Only three signed the pledge: Senator Joseph Lieberman, independent of Connecticut; Representative Frank Wolfe, Republican of Virginia; and Representative Sue Myrick, Republican of North Carolina.  DeMoss remarked:  "Whether or not there’s violence, whether or not incivility today is worse than it’s been in history, it’s all immaterial. It’s worse than it ought to be."  That is exactly the

Bo Sermon

This Torah portion concludes the telling of the ten plagues.  The first seven are delineated in the previous portion: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils and hail.  In this week we read of locusts, darkness and the killing of the first born.  It is interesting and perhaps curious why the plagues are divided in this manner, but in doing so the rabbis certainly guaranteed that we would return to hear this week’s resounding conclusion. There is also much discussion as to the purpose of the plagues.  Nowhere do we read that their purpose is to punish the Egyptians.  It is instead to motivate the Egyptians to let the Israelites go free.  In some commentaries we read that their purpose is to demonstrate God’s power to the Israelites.  But I don’t very much like this explanation.  Why would God want other human beings to suffer so that Israel can learn of God’s might? Regardless our tradition has tempered the force of the plagues by insisting that whenever we retell them

Debbie Friedman z"l

The singer and songwriter, Debbie Friedman, died early yesterday morning. More than anyone else she created the genre of Jewish music. It was she who in the early 1970's began matching traditional prayers to contemporary tunes. It was she who wrote the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing that we sing each and every Shabbat.  This new prayer and song has become so much a part of our liturgy that I dare not forget to recite it.  The Mi Shebeirach  has become so much a part of every Reform congregation's prayer service that it was included in the new siddur.  What so many of us have come to accept and expect as "normal" Jewish prayer was quite revolutionary when Debbie Friedman first began writing and singing.  Today there are many more Jewish songwriters.  Today we sing many of our prayers to contemporary tunes.  Today there are many singers and musicians who bring contemporary sounds and sensibilities to the Jewish prayer experience.  It is true that Debbie Friedman die

Bo

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, details the last three plagues brought down upon Egypt: locusts, darkness and the killing of the first born.   The first seven are described in last week’s portion.   The telling of the plagues is punctuated by an interesting, and perhaps troubling, phrase: “For I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”   The drama moves back and forth.   Moses goes to Pharaoh telling him that the Jewish people must be allowed to leave.   Pharaoh refuses.   God brings a plague.   Pharaoh decides to let the Jewish people go.   Pharaoh changes his mind telling Moses the people cannot leave.   God brings another plague.   Even after the tenth plague Pharaoh again has a change of heart and pursues the Israelites to the Sea of Reeds where his army is drowned.   The Torah’s drama then moves away from Egypt to the wilderness. Pharaoh’s change of heart is marked by the phrase “For I have hardened his heart.”   The Hebrew would be better translated as “I made his heart heavy” or perha