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Showing posts from February, 2013


In ancient times olive oil was the primary fuel.  We read in this week’s portion: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for kindling the eternal light.” (Exodus 27:20) Why olive oil?  The first answer is because it was ubiquitous in the ancient Middle East .  The midrash suggests additional answers.  The olive branch was a sign of peace.  One reason it is such a sign is because it takes five years before the olive tree produces olives.  There must be a time of peace in order for farmers to tend to their olive grove.  Thus one cannot cultivate such a crop during times of war. In addition the oil must be pure.  The Etz Hayim commentary points out that the fuel for the ner tamid must be uncontaminated by jealousy, selfishness, pride or greed.  Given the care and nurturing, peace and tranquility, required to produce olive oil this is why it was the most prized fuel for lighting fire the eternal light.  In fact an olive tree can live for

Rabbi David Hartman z"l

On Sunday my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, died. It was he who founded Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute where I study every summer. In the room where I have spent countless hours studying our sacred texts and debating with my colleagues, his body lay shrouded in a tallit at Monday’s funeral service. On Sunday we also welcomed the Hebrew month of Adar, the month in which the holiday of Purim is celebrated. We are told that when Adar begins, joy begins. On this day my joy is of course diminished. Nonetheless my heart continues to rejoice for the years I was blessed to spend with my teacher. I am grateful for his teachings. Rabbi Hartman was eulogized by many, including Israel Knohl, a renowned scholar of the Hebrew Bible. He reminded us that David lived by three alefs. Emet. Ometz. Ahavah. Truth. Courage. Love. It was these qualities more than any others that made him my rabbi. He loved his students like few teachers do. He welcomed our questions. He invited dis


Remember when the pooper-scooper law was introduced? I still recall when Mayor Koch z”l advocated for it. He said, “If you’ve ever stepped in dog doo, you know how important it is to enforce the canine waste law.” No one thought then that people would willingly clean up their dog’s poop or that it would be commonplace to see dog walkers carry plastic bags with them. New York led the way for the rest of the country. Sometimes laws can change the way people behave. Governments can in fact legislate change. That of course is the philosophy that gives rise to the current mayor’s attempt to forbid big gulps. Although these examples seem trivial, there is a direct line from these laws to those in this week’s Parashat Mishpatim. Long ago the Torah revolutionized the thinking about laws. It taught that it is possible not only to forbid wrongs but also to legislate good. In this week’s portion we read for example, “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take

Ed Koch z"l

I admired Ed Koch.  In particular I liked his brashness.  I did not always agree with his views, but I could always count on knowing where he stood.  I could reckon with his ideas. Following his recent death I was somewhat surprised to learn that he searched throughout Manhattan for its best burial spot, finally choosing a site in Trinity Church's cemetery.  The stone was erected prior to his death, and I recently saw a photograph of him walking beside it.  A haunting image!   But that is Koch chutzpah!  Here is what is written on the stone: "Edward I. Koch; Mayor of the City of New York 1978-1989; 'My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.' (Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.); Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." His funeral is tomorrow.  As I reflect on his legacy it occurs to me that history's greatest heroes should not require so many words.  Below is Ben Gurion's grave.  The grave

Beshalach Sermon

My sermon from last week's Shabbat. We are free at last! In this week’s Torah portion we see that we are now marching to the Promised Land. But wait, it is not going to be a direct path. We are going to take the long, arduous route, the path filled with struggle, conflict, rebellion, hunger and wanting. Why would God lead us in this indirect way? The Torah’s answer is that so we might avoid war with the Philistines. I don’t like that answer very much. We are going to face 40 years of adversity so what why worry about one war. I am not a fan of war but it could be better than the 40 years in the wilderness. Such are not our choices. Others suggest that we need 40 years to nurture freedom. You have to be born into freedom in order to fashion freedom. I think of Russian immigrants who struggled with the choices they confronted here in the United States. I once read that even the cereal aisle was overwhelming because of its wealth of choices. Growing up in a communist count