Let It Shine Let It Shine Let It Shine

For the second night of Chanukah we should think about the idea of “pirsum et haMitzvah”  The commandment to publicize or promote the the lighting of the chanukiah.  Our rabbinic ancestors thought we should place our chanukiah in the window to show and share the light of Chanukah!  Of course there were times in our history when doing so would have been too dangerous and so the light had to be contained.  But now more than ever we the Jewish people do have light to be shared with everyone.  We have a prophetic tradition that calls upon each of us to stand up for those who can’t and we have a calling as the Jewish people to share the light of Torah and God with others.  So as the old spiritual says… This little light of mine I’m gonna’ let it shine…Let it shine let it shine let it shine!

Tonight on this Second night of Chanukah—do just that! Let your inner light shine.  Let God’s light bathe you and your family and friends and uplift your spirits.  And let the light of justice burn brightly in these difficult times.  Let it shine let it shine let it shine!

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance.  Nov. 20.   For the last 18 years this day has been dedicated to the memory of all those transgender men and women who have been murdered because they were hated.  Many transgender people have experienced violence and hatred directly.  Many are victims of society’s misunderstanding of their lives.

I learned long ago that God loves everyone.

In Jewish tradition the Mishnah in Sanhedrin teaches us:

“…to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God, for one stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike, but the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow.”

Though we are all human beings each person is unique created from the original human being ADAM–not a man’s name in the Torah but a word that means human.  For the very first human creature was created both male and female. (See Genesis 1:27)

So God created mankind in his own image,
 in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Our Rabbis taught that the first human being was Both Male and Female and it was only in the second creation story in Genesis chapter 2 that humanity became two separate beings.

On this Transgender day of Remembrance we mourn for the lives destroyed by hatred and violence.  And we remember we each came from the first human being –both male and female.

Toledot: Is Isaac a Patriarch for all times?

Parshat Toledot

Genesis 25:19-28:9

This week’s Torah portion Toledot is about Isaac, the second of our Patriarchs.  And yet the Torah portion never really tells us much about it him as it does about the people surrounding him.  We only get glimmers of who Isaac is.   We learn of his marriage to Rebekkah and the subsequent way he intercedes with prayer to God to help her conceive.  But much more time is spent on her worries about her children.  We learn about the twins subsequently born to Isaac and Rebekkah and the way they fight all their lives.  We have several stories about Jacob and Esau and their interactions.

We learn about Isaac and Rebekkah’s sojourn to Egypt to escape a famine only to encounter a similar experience as his father and mother.  They become entangled in a lie to the ruling king about the status of their own marriage.  And yet we don’t really have any reflections by the character of Isaac that he is reliving the same scenario!


Throughout this portion dedicated to the life of Isaac we learn little about Isaac himself.

We learn little about how he feels and little about his thoughts.  Isaac is more a foil for all the people around him.

Perhaps the most difficult moment in this week’s Torah portion is the anguish of Isaac’s son Esau. After his younger brother, Jacob, outwitted him for the birthright and their father Isaac’s blessing, Esau cries to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father.”

Isaac does offer words of blessing but it is clear that the older brother, Esau shall serve the younger brother, Jacob.  This is a pattern that began with Isaac and his older brother Ishmael.


Isaac in some ways was never his own man.  He was always someone’s son-close to his mother Sarah.  Comforted by his wife Rebekkah, Isaac perhaps scarred from the experience of near death on Mt. Moriah beneath the knife his father held kept him from being able to stand on his own and stand up for his own ideas.

We are all products of our families as Isaac was of his.  He saw the strife between Hagar and Sarah.  He was bound to an altar by his father only to return to his mother.  He saw the infertility of his wife and then the subsequent constant trouble between his twin sons.  Isaac was always caught in a storm.

Ironically his name has to do with the laughter of his mother when the angel’s announce his impending arrival.  And yet Isaac’s life is not filled with laughter.  Perhaps that is a reminder to all of us: to look beyond the ways our family destiny keeps us entwined and to work spiritually and psychologically to break free from that which holds us from becoming fully liberated and empowered human beings.  We don’t divorce our families but growing up and maturing is really about the ability to take the good of our families and the not so good and grow beyond them while integrating what’s best.  Onward to the task together.

Laugh Laugh Laugh

Purim is just a couple of days away.  The story of good Queen Esther, who doesn’t really know she is Jewish marries King Ashuereus who is a bit of an oaf.  The Evil Haman, descendent of the arch enemies of the Israelites, manipulates the King into decreeing the death of all the Jews of the Kingdoms of Persia and Medea and the more than 120 countries he rules over. But in the end Queen Esther at the urging of her very proudly Jewish uncle Mordechai speaks truth to power and reveals that she too is Jewish and reveals that Haman is behind this ethnic cleansing plan. Haman is hung on the gallows with his ten sons.  The Jews of the realm are saved by the heroic actions of this young woman.

If this story weren’t in the Bible itself we would laugh! It has all the makings of a genre of plays known as a farce.  Here is the definition of a farce from Wikipediea:

In theatre, a farce is a comedy which aims at entertaining the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity, verbal humour of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include word play, and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases, culminating in an ending which often involves an elaborate chase scene.

This is our story.  But it is meant to teach us many lessons because we can learn from fiction, literature and plays about our lives and the meaning of life and justice and hope and despair.  
The way we learn in the Esther story is through laughter and tears.

We learn to never abandon your roots.  You can live an assimilated life in the palace of the King as it were but you will always be Jewish. You can pretend your are not but your proud lineage and heritage will indeed be noted at some point.  And you will also need to decide if you will stand with your family or abandon them.  

We learn that justice only happens when we speak the truth to power as Esther did in this story.  

We learn about fighting back as the Jewish community did at the end of the story.

We learn that God may be hidden (Hester panim) in this story but the reason it was included in the Bible was to teach us that while God’s hand may seem hidden, the strength that God provides Esther to speak is there if we ask and invite it in.  Esther prayed before her meeting with the king.  She fasted and prayed and looked within herself to build courage for this important encounter.  And yet the story of Esther in the Bible never mentions the word God.  God doesn’t speak to Mordechai or Esther as God speaks to Moses and Abraham in the Bible.  

This teaches us in our time even as we are assimilated into the society at large be proud of being Jewish .

This teaches us in our time and maybe especially in our time we must speak up when family and friends are under attack. When governments try to annhilate its citizens we have an obligation to speak up.  The torah teaches us also: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  To do less is   inhuman. 

This story teaches us that God is present even if God seems hidden from us.  All we have to do is tap into that Force of the Universe.  Jews do this through prayer, reflection and community and yes, occasionally fasting (although most often we are feasting! But that’s another blog altogether.) 

So Purim is here it begins on Wednesday night.  Laugh at the story of Esther after all it is written like a farce. But pay close attention to the lessons that it teaches.  Chag Purim!




War and Torah

Parshat Shofetim

Deuteronomy 16:18 -21:9


The United States is a nation who has been at war for nearly a decade. In the aftermath of 9/11 we are still fighting in Afghanistan and there are still troops in Iraq.  We have been part of the NATO forces helping put asunder the cruel dictator, Ghaddafi in Libya.  Sometimes there are reasons to go to war. Israel has had to defend itself from aggressive neighbors and knows all to well that sometimes war is necessary.


Sadly, there are many anti-religious people who blame religion for the world’s problems.  They cite religion for causing so many wars between different groups rather than seeing the ego of dictators and kings and using the trappings of religion as a tool.  Journalist Christopher Hitchen’s particularly takes religion on in his book “God is not Great” and blames the world’s ills on people of faith and religion in particular.

But if we examine this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim and really study it Hitchen’s and others like him might see a different window into the notion of war and peace and the role of religion.  But there are times when a war is necessary. No one likes war. It is gruesome and cruel. The toll it takes on everyone is extraordinary; the lives lost, the injured and families torn apart. War is not a preferred method of resolving disputes over land or assets but if there is to be a war there are rules for the conduct of engagement. The Torah teaches us this week-that even when war is conducted there are specific rules that must be adhered to.

This week’s Torah portion Shofetim has some of the most interesting and compassionate passages for the conduct of war.  Yes, compassionate.  The Bible recognizes that there are disputes between human beings and nations.  And the Bible recognizes that there are “times for every purpose under heaven. (Eccl 3:1).”  And so the Torah this week’s gives very specific instructions to the Israelite nation for the conduct of war.


Before a city is attacked, before the first stone is thrown there must be an “offer of peace” (Deut 20:10).  And if a city accepts that offer, one does no harm to the city or its people. They become labor for the conquering nation.  This is an extraordinary restriction.


Also unusual in this week’s portion before the troops are engaged in battle, the official must come before the warriors and give an out.  They must ask a series of questions: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated? Let him go back to his home lest he dies in battle and another dedicatesit. Is there anyone who as planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it.  Is there anyone who has paid the bride price for a bride but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home lest he die in battle and another marry her. The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back home let the courage of his comrades flag like his” (Deut. 20:5-8).  So many cases and possibilities for getting out of the business of soldiering!  So many exceptions are presented here that shows the Torah’s emphasis on life and living.  It allows a soldier the opportunity to build his life before he is called to engage in warfare-dedicate a home, get married, harvest fields!  These are all life giving and life building activities.  And the Israelite must engage in these first before they can even think about becoming a warrior and connected to death.  And the Torah acknowledges that it takes courage to be a soldier. It wasn’t meant for everyone.  And so compassionately provides an “out”.


This is a far –cry from conscription and forced soldiering so often done by king’s and nation-states without regard for the individuals.


War is always ugly and gruesome.  But our tradition recognized long ago that there should be ways to give order and even do battle with others providing some guidelines of civility and order. War does terrible things to the human soul.  To the victims and to the warriors as always it is preferable to make peace when possible and when not to follow high ethical standards and remember that those whom you fight are human beings with families and lives like yours.



Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai

Here is a wonderful story of redemption for Tisha B’av

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai Saves Torah

Annette Labovitz

The three-year Roman siege of Yerushalayim portended doom for Jewish nationalism. The inhabitants of the Holy City were divided; some were wearied from the hopelessness of the situation; others, although refusing to surrender, fought among themselves. Hunger and disease were rampant. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was among those leaders who determined to do something about the impending destruction of Yerushalyim.

“The Jewish people are fighting among themselves,” he reasoned. “There are so many different political parties, so many different opinions how to deal with the enemy; theSicarii, or Biryonim, as they sometimes call themselves, are clandestine killers. Anyone they see speaking to a Roman finds his life endangered and becomes a target for their foul play. The Zealots want to fight the mighty enemy and restore Jewish independence; they think the situation is the same as it was in the days of the Maccabbees.

[Ed. Approximately two hundred years prior to the Roman siege, the Jewish people rebelled against pagan Greek/Syrian domination and overcame them. Mattathias and his five sons (one was named Judah, and was called Maccabbee) organized the rebellion. The holiday of Chanukah is celebrated to commemorate the victory over paganism and the restoration of Jewish life.]

“I, and the rest of the Pharisees onlywant to live peacefully, so we can study and transmit Torah. The Saducees want to become allied with the Romans. And the Romans? what do they do? They enforce the siege and wait patiently while brothers destroy brothers. Woe unto us! If the Holy Temple isdestroyed, it will be because my people did not want to live together in peace. It will be because we hated each other for no reason. We are one people, but we act so differently. There are four political parties, each with its own agenda. [Ed. Why wasthe Second Holy Temple destroyed? Because needless hatred prevailed. Talmud Bavli Yoma 9b]

“I must do something, something spectacular, something that will save the Torah way of life. The Jewish people will be able to survive without the Holy Temple, but they will not survive without Torah. Hmm … Maybe my plan will work. But, perhaps my nephew, Abba Sikra, will conceive an even better plan.”

The next morning, he called his nephew, who was the leader of the Binyonim:

“How long will you continue to kill your brothers?”

“What can I do to stop them? I am their leader, but they do what they want. If I reprimand them, they will think that I have joined with you and the Pharisees, and they will kill me too.

“Listen, I have to escape from Yerushalayim in order to try to save the Torah way of life.” He explained his plan. “What do you think of it? Is it possible for me to succeed?”

“Let’s do it this way, uncle. I believe it will have a better chance. No one must know what we are planning except you and your two most loyal disciples, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.

“I want you to pretend that you are gravely ill. We will announce throughout Yerushalyim that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is dying. People will come to pay their respects. Youwill pretend to grow weaker and weaker. Finally, you will feign death. I will find some decayed flesh, that has a terrible odor, and I will place it on your bier. You must practice lying perfectly still, not moving a muscle, not even an eyelid. Eliezer, Yehoshua, and I will carry the bier to the gates of the city. We will demand that the guards let us pass, in order to bury you outside the walls.

“What will you do once you are outside the walls?”

“Make sure that I get out of the city safely, and you will see!”

It did not take many days for Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua to announce the death of their revered teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. A great procession followed the bier until the gates of Yerushalyim, where it was halted by the Jewish guards posted inside the gates.

“Let us through,” Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Abba Sikra demanded. “The cemetery is outside the walls and we must bury our teacher with dignity.”

“We must check that you are not tricking us; that he is actually dead,” they insisted. One of the guards lifted his sword, preparing to stab the body.

“How can you do that?” they clamored. “The Romans will say that the guards at the gates violated a body and thereby disgraced their revered master.”

“Then we will just shove the body a little,” they continued stubbornly.

“Then all the Jews inside the city will also condemn you for not having respect for the dead.”

Ashamed, they opened the gates and allowed Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Abba Sikra towalk through with the bier.

As soon as they reached a safe distance, out of sight of the gates of Yerushalyim, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakki jumped off the bier, bid farewell to his students, and ran toward the Roman camp. Once there he demanded that the guards escort him to General Vespasian’s tent. Stunned to find a Jew among them, they pointed to the place where Vespasian sat in war council with his lieutenants.

“Peace to you, your majesty, King of Rome,” pronounced Rabban Yochanan, as he lowered his head respectfully.

“You deserve to die twice,” ranted Vespasian. “First, you have pronounced me’king,’ while I am but a general; second, if I am the king, why haven’t you come sooner to pay your respects?”

“I will answer your second questionfirst, your majesty,” whispered Rabban Yochanan. “You see, my people are sorely divided. Some among them would surely have put me to death, had they found that I tried to contact you. As it is, my escape from Yerushalyim on a bier is nothing short of miraculous.”

At that exact moment, a messenger from Rome arrived.

“Your majesty,” the messenger called out. There was a stunned silence all around. “Nero has died. The Senate has sent me to inform you that they have proclaimed you emperor!”

Rabban Yochanan no longer had to answer the first question.

“You are so wise,” continued Vespasian. “Before I return to Rome, and leave the siege of your holy city in the hands of Titus, my son, I will grant you any request.”

“Grant me, your majesty, permission to move the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) and its scholars from the besieged city of Yerushalyim to Yavneh, a small town near the Mediterranean coast; allow the family of Rabban Gamliel, descendants of the Davidic dynasty to live; and send a doctor to cure Rabbi Zadok who has fasted so long for Yerushalyim to be saved that it is almost impossible for him to digest food.”

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s requests were granted. Yavneh became a major center of Torah learning, the first of such cities where Torah was the focus of Jewish life. There Jewish spiritual leaders prepared for a long and arduous exile that was to begin three years later when the Holy Temple lay in ruins. The precedent of moving the Torah center from Yerushalayim to Yavneh, and then to other cities in the Diaspora (lands outside of Eretz Israel) sustained the Jewish people in the centuries that followed. [Ed. As the (first) Holy Temple was burning, a group of young priests went to the roof. Their leader carried the keys in his hand. He prayed: Master of the Universe! We were not worthy keepers of Your House. Therefore, please take back your keys. In the presence of the other young priests, he threw the keys heavenward. Immediately, a Heavenly Hand emerged and grasped the keys. Talmud Bavli, Taanit 29a]

Some thoughts on Shavuot

Tonight we observe the holy day of Shavuot. The Feast of Weeks. For seven weeks we have counted the omer, marking off with anticipation and excitement our journey from Passover and freedom to this moment at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  We are here! Soon God will reveal the Torah to us.  One tradition says all Jews were at Sinai.  Even us. Even those who are alive in 2011! Sinai is an eternal moment not just a moment in time.  The Torah is being revealed to us continuously.  Over and over again with ancient thoughts and contemporary ideas.  This is an amazing thought that we are still discovering new ideas, new revelations from a God who seeks a deeper understanding and relationship with each one of us.

As we counted the omer we explored the deep,mystical map of God.  Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malchut, 7 of the sephirot of the Mystical tree.  These aspects of God are also part of the revelation and it is up to each one of us to incorporate these into the world. After all we were created in the Divine Image.

So light candles tonight, lift a kiddish cup in praise and thanksgiving for life, and for the Torah.  Open your heart and come celebrate the revelation that you are an ongoing part of!

See you at 7 pm for our Shavuot celebration. Chag Sameach.