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Numbering Our Days with Meaning

We find ourselves in the midst of the Omer, the period when we count seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. The custom originated in biblical times when we counted from Passover’s wheat harvest until Shavuot’s barley harvest. An omer is a sheaf of grain. During this time semi-mourning practices are observed, namely no weddings are celebrated. The explanations for this are various and somewhat mysterious. I have often thought that it was most likely because there was worry about the upcoming harvest. Others suggest that during rabbinic times a plague afflicted the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. According to some accounts 24,000 students died. Miraculously on the 33rd day of the Omer the plague lifted. Today is in fact the 33rd day called Lag B’Omer. On this day the mourning practices are lifted. People celebrate and gather around bonfires. We are no longer downcast. Our worry disappears. The Omer serves to connect the freedom celebrated on Passover with the giving of Tor

Remembering Annie, Remembering the Holocaust

Shalom and welcome to Congregation L’Dor V’Dor. I am Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, and I am so pleased that you have joined us for this special occasion when we dedicate Annie’s Garden in memory of Annie Bleiberg, a longtime member of our synagogue community…. I had the privilege of serving as Annie’s rabbi for almost eighteen years. It was one of my greatest honors that she chose to call me rabbi. Hearing someone say that who has lived through the history that I only study and teach about feels especially weighty. And sometimes, when I am reading and learning about the Shoah, I can still hear Annie’s voice in my ears. I can still hear the words she would offer to our students when she came every year to our sixth-grade class to speak about how she survived the Holocaust. I recall how she would tell them how her life was similar to theirs before the Nazis invaded her native Poland. I remember many things, but a few notes from her story are deserving of mention. She told the students h

Enlarge Your Vision and Feed the Hungry

After several courses at our Passover seder, including matzah ball soup, chicken, brisket, tzimmes, various vegetables, and of course many glasses of wine, dessert was finally served. And then after that quintessential Passover sponge cake, we still found room for a few macaroons, jelly rings and candied fruit slices. What a feast! It seemed fitting for a king or queen. That is of course by design. When crafting the rituals for our seders the rabbis looked toward the lavish meals of the Greeks and Romans. They thought to themselves, “This is how free people eat. They recline. They are served. They dip their foods. This is how we should celebrate our feast of freedom.” I think of this lavishness, and yes, its overindulgence, when reading this week’s portion. It contains a list of all the holidays. Shabbat leads the list. Then comes Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and finally Sukkot. (The Torah does not mention our beloved Hanukkah or even Purim because the events these ho

Israel Is About Tomorrow

People often return from trips to Israel and speak about the power of visiting its ancient sites. It is extraordinary to stand in what was once King David’s palace or to play in Ein Gedi’s waterfalls and read the psalms a young David penned when hiding from King Saul. Walking through such archeological sites one can also imagine the moment when the young king and Batsheva first saw each other from afar. In Jerusalem, one can envision Abraham and Isaac walking those final steps before reaching Mount Moriah where the father was instructed to sacrifice his son. As I trace their path, I think to myself, did they speak? The Torah suggests they walked in silence, but I wonder, how could they not if it also states they were bound together as one. It was there that our ancestors built the holy Temple. All that remains is the Western Wall. How many people touched these very same stones? How many people tried to reach this place, but died during what was once a perilous journey to the holy lan

Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story

Today marks Yom HaShoah. The day the Israeli Knesset set aside, in 1959, to remember the Holocaust. Setting aside one day, or one service for that matter, to remember six million souls and the countless more they would have fathered and mothered, and the many Jewish towns and villages erased from the map and the flourishing of Jewish culture that is no more, seems immeasurable when compared to the enormity of our loss. How can any gesture or ritual, song or remembrance capture so much destruction and loss? Think about this. If one were to recite all six million names it would take nearly five months to read the list from start to finish, assuming no breaks for sleeping or eating or even pauses for taking a breath between names. (For the mathematicians among us, I am assuming it takes two seconds to read each name and that there are 31,536,000 seconds in a year.) Now imagine this.... This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Uneasy Lies the Teacher's Crown

There are many “fours” at the Passover table. There are the four cups of wine, the four questions and of course the four children. The Haggadah recounts: “The Torah alludes to four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to task.” Each asks a question. And each is answered with an explanation appropriate to their understanding. I have often bristled at the description of the wicked child. This suggests that the child is beyond teaching, shaping and even saving, that the teacher’s role is inconsequential. Labeling any child, as wicked most especially or even simple, for that matter, implies that the teacher’s role is negligible. The wicked child’s character appears set in stone. The Haggadah continues: What does the wicked child say? “What does this service mean to you?” This child emphasizes “to you” and not himself or herself! Since the child excludes himself or herself from the community and rejects a major principle of faith, you should  “set tha

Taste the Matzah of Pain

Most people think that the purpose of Jewish rituals, most especially those performed when we gather around our seder tables, is to make us more Jewish. While this is true, their spiritual goals reach far beyond our Jewish identities. They serve to raise awareness in our hearts. Rabbi Shai Held comments: “Jewish spirituality begins in two places. One is a place of gratitude, and one is a place of protest. The challenge is to be capacious enough to hold gratitude for life, along with an equally deep sense that the world-as-it-is is not how it is supposed to be.” The seders we are about to celebrate encapsulate this teaching. On the one hand, they are replete with symbols reminding us that we are free. We drink wine, recline, and eat far too much food to instill sentiments of joy and gratitude in our hearts. We are free!. At the very same occasion, and at the very same moment, we remind ourselves that we were once slaves by eating matzah, maror and charoset. We are commanded to taste b

Harmful Feathers, Harmful Words

A Hasidic story. One day a man heard an interesting, albeit unflattering, story about another man. (Let’s call the first man Steve and the second, Mike.) It was an amusing tale and so Steve shared it with others. He told lots and lots of people. Everyone found the story entertaining. Steve reveled in the laughter. Soon Mike noticed that people gave him strange looks as he passed by on the street. He quietly wondered why. “Was it his hair style?” (Ok, I have made some changes to the original version.) Then he noticed that people frequented his store less often. Soon he discovered the unkind words people were saying about him. He asked a friend what they were saying. He could not believe his ears. He soon found out the source of the tale. It was Steve! Mike confronted the Steve, complaining that he had ruined his reputation by repeating this one, unflattering episode. Steve tried to make excuses that it was such an entertaining story and that it always got a laugh. “But now,” Mike st

Don't Turn Away from Illness

This past weekend I ran into a former student who said, “I always remember my bar mitzvah Torah portion?” “Why?” I asked. And he responded, “It was about leprosy. I will never forget that!” Indeed, one thing that can be said for certain about this week’s portion is that it leaves a lasting, and memorable, impression on the students who chant its words. We read about how the ancient Israelites approached this feared disease. When people developed a suspicious looking skin infection, they would go to the priest. If he suspected it was leprosy, he would instruct them to quarantine for seven days. (Sound familiar?) If it disappeared, or diminished after the week, they were allowed to return to the camp. If, however, the infection grew, and the priest determined that they indeed had leprosy, they would take on some mourning customs, rending their clothes and bearing their heads. They were required to dwell outside the camp for as long as they had leprosy. On their way out the door, so to

Feeding the Spirit

People often think that eating and the preparation of food are not religious acts. They are simply among the mundane activities we do, day in and day out, that sustain our bodies. Going out to a restaurant with friends, gathering around the dining room table with family, or even schmoozing with one another as dinner preparations are made, are secular affairs. This could not be further from the truth. Religions in general, and Judaism in particular, add two key ingredients to every meal: gratitude and limits. Whether it is the Passover restrictions against the eating of bread or this week’s detailed list of prohibited animals, the preparation of meals is infused with the question of “Does my God permit me to eat this or not?” For some this may appear like an inopportune, or even outrageous, question in the rush of preparing breakfast before heading out the door to work or school, but the asking makes us pause. It adds a sense of religious intentionality to something that our bodies re

Take In Some Joy!

Today is Purim, the day in which the tradition suggests all rules are suspended. We are commanded to celebrate our victory over Haman’s genocidal designs with wild abandon. We dress in outrageous costumes, drink far too much wine and drown out Haman’s name when reading the megillah. It seems like a counterintuitive response to a history filled with suffering. Purim urges us to look within and ask, should we always fixate on antisemitism? Should we dwell so much on the many tyrants who sought to destroy us? What is the cost to our own souls of speaking so frequently about antisemitism and hate? Purim asks and answers its own question. It suggests that mourning, and eternal vigilance, must not be our only responses. Purim commands. Let loose. Celebrate. Party. When the world’s travails can dispirit even the most optimistic of people, Purim suggests that we put these aside at least for this one day. Contemporary struggles tug at our compassionate hearts. Our history gnaws at our souls

Sacrifices Are the Best Prayers

This week we begin reading the Book of Leviticus. It details the ancient rituals surrounding sacrifices. Until the Temple was destroyed, in 70 C.E., we approached God by offering animals as sacrifices. Because we instead pray, and offer words, it sounds strange to read the details of slaughtering animals, sprinkling their blood on the altar and then turning their flesh into smoke. My students often turn away in disgust. Even though every single one of them loves a good barbeque, they are repelled by the Torah’s details and the notion that God would want us to bring the choicest bull, sheep, goat or turtledove to the Temple and then kill it. The notion of sacrifice is foreign to them. The idea of making sacrifices, however, derive from this ritual. We must give up something of value, something that we want and even need. These animals were prized. They were therefore given to God—first. By giving something up our ancestors drew nearer to God. In fact, the Hebrew word for sac

Stand with Ukraine!

This feels different. And I would like to ponder why. The war for Ukraine—I believe this to be the better descriptor than the benign Russia-Ukraine war—has affected me in ways that other conflicts and humanitarian crisis have not. While I remain exercised about America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, the collapse of the country’s economy, and the knowledge that over twenty million Afghanis will soon face hunger and starvation (there are innocent children in that land too!), my heart looks toward the hourly reports from Ukraine. Why my focus turns toward Europe, why my heart weeps more for Ukrainians gnaws at me, but at this moment I can only look toward Ukraine. This place matters to us. It matters to us as Americans. And it matters to us as Jews. I have only begun to articulate why. I hear Hayyim Nachman Bialik’s words in my ears: Arise and go now to the city of slaughter; Into its courtyard wind thy way; There with thine own hand touch, and with the eyes of thine head, Behold o

How to Respond to War for Ukraine

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the incomparable nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi who lived and taught in what is now Ukraine, once said, “The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the essence is not to be afraid.” These days the world appears even more narrow. We are afraid. We watch in horror as ordinary Ukrainians fight battle hardened Russian soldiers. We worry about Vladimir Putin’s designs. We fear about the emerging humanitarian crisis. If you would like to support efforts to alleviate this crisis, I recommend the following: UJA-Federation of New York “In light of the escalation of violence, UJA-Federation of New York has approved up to $3 million in emergency funding to support the Jewish community of Ukraine. To date, $1.375 million has been allocated to our primary overseas partners — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) — who have the capacity, experience, and reach to provide for the safety and well-being of the Jewish comm

Fire and Light; Fear and Awe

The Torah declares: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35) And the tradition constructs a myriad of laws so that one does not even inadvertently light a fire. Electric lights cannot be turned on or off. The stove is kept at a simmer. Driving cars is not allowed. The lighting of Shabbat candles is performed eighteen minutes before sunset and the kindling of the havdalah candle well after it becomes dark on Saturday evening. And while I am not observant of these prohibitions and drive and cook and turn the lights on and off (if one counts telling Google to do this for me) and even light Friday evening’s candles when our family is together rather than at the exact appointed minute, I understand the Torah’s intention of prohibiting kindling fires. Fire can be dangerous; it can burn. This is the essence of why it was prohibited. It can consume; it can destroy. Such powers are contrary to Shabbat; they are forbidden on this holiest of da

The Artist's Eye

The artisan, Bezalel, is chosen to fashion the tabernacle and its furnishings. He is from the tribe of Judah, the largest of the tribes. His assistant, Oholiab, is from Dan, the smallest tribe. According to the Talmud this shows that everyone is represented in the building of these holy items. The rabbis also suggest Moses was displeased that God did not choose him. He assumed God would have picked him because God chooses him to do everything else. Again, the rabbis offer a message. Don’t think that only someone as holy as Moses can draw near to God or in this case, help us build something that adds holiness to our lives. Anyone, and everyone, can help us fashion the sacred and draw the earthly closer to the heavenly. Moreover, Bezalel is endowed with a “divine spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge of every kind of craft.” (Exodus 31) He is a first rate artist. I wonder. What makes an artist top notch? Each of us has our favorite. I may be partial to Ansel Adams and others to

Lighting Jewish Flames

“What happened to the old eternal light? If it is eternal, how can it be replaced?” the seventh graders asked when our first class met in our newly renovated sanctuary. My answer that the new light is more beautiful and uses an energy saving LED bulb was met with disapproval. “It’s eternal!” they shouted back. I realized that as far as they are concerned our synagogue has always existed. The founding date of 1963 is just as distant as 1948, or for that matter, 70 C.E. This synagogue is the only place most of them have ever known. I imagine they also think this Jewish space will exist forever. Their synagogue is as eternal as the eternal light. Their questions made me realize that eternity is more about memory than fact. This can be a jarring realization. Every synagogue has an eternal light. In some they are modern. In others more traditional. I cannot think of a synagogue without this familiar symbol. The term, however, suggests a misunderstanding of the Torah’s intention. The Torah c

Holy Places

Our homes are called a mikdash ma’at, a small sanctuary, because this is where Judaism, and Jewish values are most lived. We can pray there. We can eat there. We can offer words of healing there. We can most importantly rejoice there. This is why as maddening as this pandemic continues to be, meeting on Zoom or livestream for what is now nearly two years, makes perfect Jewish sense. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, we sanctify time rather than place, moments rather than even mountains. We do not urge people to pilgrimage to far off destinations but instead compel them to allow a day, the day of Shabbat, to transport them to another place. And yet, this week we read God’s instruction, “Build for me a sanctuary that I dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) This is followed by a list of all the items the Israelites will need to build a portable tabernacle for God. It is quite an exhaustive list. Gold, silver and copper. Blue, purple and crimson yarns. Tanned ram skins and even dolphin skins. Despi

Remember This Date

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. January 27th was chosen by the United Nations, in 2005 by the way, because it was on this day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated.  On January 27, 1945, the international community brought the horrors of the Holocaust to an end. That of course is not entirely true. It took nearly three more, grueling and deadly months before all the camps were liberated. It was not until May 8, 1945, when Nazi Germany was defeated and in fact not until the following day that the last camp was liberated. And yet Auschwitz-Birkenau represents the massiveness of the destruction of European Jewry and the evil of the Nazis. It was there that one million Jews were murdered. Still, I think January 27th was chosen because it represents the day the world defeated the Nazi death machine. Likewise, Israel’s Knesset chose the 27th of Nisan because it is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It is the day when Jews revolted against their Nazi

Repro Shabbat

Judaism constructs its value system around phrases inscribed in its sacred texts. It begins with verses from the Torah and traverses through words written by rabbis who lived during its formative stages. It walks from what we call the written Torah, revealed at Sinai, through the oral Torah, revealed in rabbinic debates throughout the ages, until arriving at today. And so, when we ask what wisdom Judaism has to offer about abortion rights, we first turn back to yesterday. Why are we again talking about abortion rights? The reason so many synagogues are asking this question on this Shabbat has nothing to do with the fact that Justice Stephen Breyer is retiring from the Supreme Court or that this court seems poised to roll back the rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade, but instead because the first verse alluding to abortion rights occurs in this week’s Torah portion. This is why many Jews are observing what the National Council of Jewish Women has called Repro Shabbat. The Torah proclaims

Antisemitism Is Here to Stay

When I spoke with my mother this week she remarked, “I never imagined that you and your brother Michael, who is also a rabbi, are in a dangerous profession.” Now even though my mom can sometimes be overly dramatic and does tend to personalize even the most distant of world events (I come by these traits naturally), her comments do on this occasion deserve unpacking rather than the usual brushing away. Moms often verbalize fears and, on this occasion, the singular fear that has entered the sacred space of our synagogue sanctuaries. My Christian friends do not have security guards at their church’s doors. Their congregants do not receive emails detailing new security protocols. What was once only the purview of synagogues in Europe or common in Israel where every gathering place has a guard, has now become normative in our own beloved country. For obvious reasons I am not going to publicly discuss what security enhancements we are putting in place and we are working on. Rest assured

Fears That Really Matter

We remain grateful that the rabbi and congregants of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville who had gathered for Shabbat morning services were rescued. I am sure that many of us spent anxious hours waiting on Saturday for word of how this might end and were relieved that this hostage crisis did not conclude in tragedy. Our thoughts now turn to the increasing scourge of antisemitism. Tomorrow evening I will devote my remarks to this plague and how Colleyville fits into a worrisome pattern and a growing worry. At this moment, I want to focus on the fear many of us are feeling. Rest assured we are redoubling our attention to security at our synagogue. And yet, no matter how many security measures we take, and how many changes we institute, these can never allay the fear that so many of us now feel. Security is about prudent measures an institution can, and should, take. It is about what steps individuals can choose so that they avoid dangers. Fear is more a matter of the heart. When

Uncertainty and Its Roundabout Path

At the last Shabbat evening services on Friday night, the camera did not work properly. No matter how emphatically I pressed the buttons on the app, the camera remained frozen on the Shabbat candles and then when it did respond, zoomed in on my bald head. I was finally able to get it set to the default position and left it there for the remainder of the service. I am sure others have had similar frustrating experiences when attending Zoom meetings or online conferences. At that point all we can do, or should do, is laugh. Despite our increasing dependence on technology, it is as imperfect as the human beings who design it. Nothing ever works perfectly or even runs exactly according to plan. A smart home is rendered quite dumb when power is lost or the internet is down and even then, sometimes one app stops talking to another, and the newest smart TV will not show the latest movie everyone is talking about. Don’t get me wrong. Technology is great. It allows us to do things that w

Lightning and Truth

I opened the Torah to this week’s portion somewhat apprehensive that I would have to once again read about the final three plagues visited upon the Egyptians. (These days I don’t need any more plagues!) I would not have to justify the Egyptian’s pain as the price for our freedom and as a necessity to demonstrate God’s power to our people. That was not where my heart can be found. My Hasidic commentaries rescued me. I scanned the words of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the movement and Menahem Mendl of Kotzk. Menahem Mendl, the Kotzker rebbe, offered me a path away from the plagues. He did not even make it past the first word. He never made it to locusts or the death of the first born. He asks, “Why does the portion begin with the word bo? Why does the verse say the following: “And God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh?’” This makes no sense. It should say instead, “Go to Pharaoh.” The Kotzker rebbe responds, “The Torah does not say, lekh—go—to Pharaoh, but bo—come. The rea