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Showing posts from January, 2013


There are two competing rabbinic versions regarding how the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. In one interpretation God first offers the Torah to the other nations of the world. One objects to the prohibition against stealing. Another nation to murder. And yet a third to adultery. Each refuses to accept the Torah. Finally God approaches the people of Israel, offering the engraved Ten Commandments, Torah and all of its requirements. The Jewish people say, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) Aside from this tale’s pejorative sting, the legend suggests that the Torah was a choice. We chose our tradition and affirmed its obligations. Another rabbinic story offers a radically different account. In that midrash, God holds Mount Sinai above the heads of the Israelites and declares, “Either accept the Torah and its laws and statutes or die.” The Jewish people of course wisely accept the Torah and thereby discover life. This account offers a disturbing image of


“God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer…” (Exodus 13:17) Why?  Why not take the more direct route?  Why the roundabout path?  The commentators debate this question. Many suggest that God’s concern was practical.  If the people traveled through what is today the Gaza Strip, the land then controlled by the Philistines, they would most assuredly confront war.   This of course might give them pause.  They might have a change of heart and want to return to slavery.  The Torah agrees: “…God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt .’”   The medieval commentators Rashi and Ramban concur. On the literal level this makes sense.  But God parts the Sea of Reeds in this week’s portion as well.  The sea is divided so that the Israelites might escape the advancing Egyptians.  In the beautiful poem “Song of the Sea,” that includes our Mi Chamocha prayer, the Israelites exclaim: “Pharaoh’s chariots an


What follows are some questions from our synagogue's 5 th graders and of course my answers.  This article appeared in our congregation's January-February Newsletter. Why do we wear yamahas in temple? First of all we wear yarmulkes not Yamahas.  Some people actually ride Yamahas although not too many Jews.  Motorcycles are dangerous.  So don’t ride motorcycles, but if you ever do, wear protective equipment especially a helmet.  We cover our heads in synagogue not for protection but out of respect.  This custom developed at a time when covering our heads was how we showed respect rather than taking off our hats as we do today for the Star Spangled Banner.  Yarmulke is Yiddish.  The Hebrew is kippah.  It simply means “cap” or “dome.”  In fact Israel ’s new, and successful, anti-missile missile system, Iron Dome, is called in Hebrew “Kipat Barzel.”  Some people wear a kippah all the time, others only when they are in synagogue.  And still others whenever they are doing somet


I have been thinking about Lance Armstrong.  I know I should be spending more time thinking about Israel’s upcoming elections and gun control laws, but I remain riveted, or perhaps distracted, by the spectacle of yesterday’s hero seeking to regain the past glory that we now learn was most certainly stolen.  This evening we will be able to watch him confess to Oprah.  Such is the contemporary paradigm.  Public confessions have become the substitute for righting wrongs. But public tears, however heartfelt (and I remain skeptical about his motivations), are only the beginning of the repairing of wrongs.  According to Moses Maimonides there is only one true measure of complete repentance and that is for a person to be in the exact same situation, tempted by the exact same sin, but this time to make a different choice and ultimately the right decision.  Rarely do we have the opportunity to test our repentance.  Rarely are we afforded the chance to see if we have indeed changed.  Most ch

Vaera Sermon

We begin our story with an angry Pharaoh.  The Jewish people are suffering more and more under his oppressive bondage.  God hears their cries.  So, as everyone knows, God sends Moses.  Moses worries that Pharaoh will not listen to him.  The Jewish people, he complains, have not been such good listeners.  Why would Pharaoh listen? Moses really does not want the job.  One of the characteristics of our biblical heroes, especially those called prophets, is that they do not want the job.  They do not feel they are qualified or even worthy.  God quells his worries by promising to send his brother Aaron with him and of course arms him with a few tricks, for example a staff that magically turns into a serpent.  Moses appears before Pharaoh and says, “Let My people go that they may serve Me.”  This phrase is often misquoted as “Let My people go” but the second part is perhaps the more significant. The purpose of their freedom is so that they may serve God.  For the Bible fr


What takes God so long? After 400 years of slavery God responds to the Israelites’ suffering. God says to Moses, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” (Exodus 6:5) 400 years! Why now? Why wait for the Israelites to suffer for so many years? Did the slavery become that much worse? Was God indifferent to their pain? Impossible! Still the question remains. Interestingly God’s response to the Israelites’ suffering mirrors Pharaoh’s daughter’s response to the infant Moses. In last week’s portion she hears the cries of Moses. “When she opened the basket, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (Exodus 2:6) My newfound hero, the unnamed Pharaoh’s daughter, is the first to show compassion to the Israelites. Perhaps this is what God was waiting for. God waits for us. There are other traditions that suggest as well that God waits for h

Shemot Sermon

Jewish tradition has some very strong opinions about naming. In Ashkenazi circles it is a strongly ingrained custom to name a child for a family member who died, in particular someone who recently died. In Sephardi homes naming follows a more prescribed order, typically first child for father’s father whether living or not, second for mother’s father and so on. Parents spend considerable hours, days, weeks and even months discussing and debating their future child’s name. There is also a custom, or perhaps better called, a superstition, of renaming a sick child so as to trick the angel of death. Many of those of older generations named Hayim or Haya are often called these names for this reason. All of this is by way of introducing this week’s Torah portion, Shemot—Names. First we read the names of Jacob’s sons who find their way into Egypt and of course settle there, ultimately leading to our slavery and eventual freedom. In chapter two we first meet Moses. Curiously no one in


Parents deliberate for months the names that they select for their children. For whom should they name their child? What if the baby is a girl? A boy? What should be the child’s Hebrew name? Do the origins of the name matter? Will the name influence their child’s future character? The most significant book of the Torah begins in a similar fashion. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher…” (Exodus 1:1-4) And yet the story of the most significant person in the Torah begins without naming a single person. Listen to how the Torah frames our hero’s beginnings. A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitum