Thursday, December 1, 2011

Vayetzei -Jacob's Deal with God-An act of gratitude?

Jacob leaves home to spend the next 20 years at the home of his Uncle Laban.At the beginning stage of his journey eastward, he encounters God's Presence in a dream assuring him of protection, a safe return to his home,and the fulfillment of the Promise that the land of Canaan will become the inheritance of his descendants, the Jewish People.
Upon awakening he utters the following pledge:"If God remains with me, if he protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear and if I return to my father's house safely, the Lord shall be my God, and this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall be God's abode and of all that you give me I will set aside a tithe for You. "(Genesis 28:20-22)
On the surface it appears as if Jacob is entering into a deal with God, attempting to bargain with Him,making his allegiance conditional on God's response! The implication appears obvious and typical of the mindset of many who find themselves in situations of danger.If you help me, I will reciprocate.The converse is also implied-if not, then our bargain is off and all that I pledge-my accepting Your Godship, my dedication of a shrine and my commitment to give back in the form of tithes-is null and void!
Another way of viewing this exchange is prompted by his perception of gratefulness toward life and his God..
We can understand Jacob's ostensible conditionality of a reciprocal response differently-he articulates his awareness of God's protection and care as conveyed to him during the night time and announces his deep sense of gratitude which elicits a response not only of verbal thanksgiving but one translated into a commitment of giving and compassion-he dedicates a place to God and commits himself to a lifetime of tzedaka-of generosity and kindness.
He recognizes that at the root of his existence both materially and spiritually resides the guiding Presence of the Holy One. Not only his food and clothing, but his very safety and survival, and a promise of a dream's fulfillment embedded in his very being, are all the result of God's compassion and goodness.
Jacob underwent a night time transformation from not knowing-
"Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it."(Gen.28:16) -to recognizing that embedded in all of life is the subtle but real presence of the divine which evokes an inner response of gratefulness and ensuing gestures of compassion and concern.
Taking with him this experience of transformative gratefulness he was able to "lift up his feet and continue on his journey into the future.(Gen.29:1)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Grateful for America's Uniqueness-more reflections on 9/11

Three thousand names! The reading of the names of victims of 9/11 was the centerpiece of the commemoration on Sunday,9/11/11, ten years after that awful moment in our lives, a moment that changed the face of the entire world.
Those who watched their TV screens were afforded the added visual dimension of a photograph and an age, which added a greater sense of reality to the public recitation.
So many of the names were mispronounced; as a matter of fact, if called upon to write out those names, most of us would not know how! The scope of ethnic variety and national diversity was staggering! The World Trade Center-a microcosm of NYC and the USA, housed a veritable united nations of peoples and ethnic groups.
As one name followed the other, it became clear to me,on an emotional level, how unique and extraordinary America is in this world. No country anywhere, perhaps with the exception of our neighbor to the north, Canada, can claim a population of such diversity and difference. Given our population numbers-300 million-the American reality is sui generis on this planet.
How daunting a task, I thought, to achieve some consensus and mutuality, a sense of unity and shared values, so necessary to govern successfully, from so many disparate groups.
And yet, in face of this challenge, the greatness of America lies precisely in its extraordinary amalgam of people, all of whom are bound together by the dream of personal and political freedom.
Ethnic, cultural or religious background mattered little to those who committed this evil act-no distinctions were made by the terrorists-they were attacking Americans and it was the American who was their enemy.
Perhaps one of the reasons for such murderous hatred is deeply embedded in the psyche of so many people who simply cannot abide by the notion of human freedom that allows each one of us the right to be ourselves. How impossible it seems for nations and groups, religions and ideologies to tolerate, with understanding and respect, the commitments and ways of life of others. If anything makes America singular and a model to be emulated it is not its military power, wealth or technological dominance. It is its internal cultural , intellectual, social and spiritual structures that embrace us in the canopy of freedom, tolerance and an abiding respect for difference and diversity. This is America's strength and uniqueness; for this we all can be profoundly grateful.
9/11 is a powerful and painful reminder of the American dream and promise to this world. Let us hope that we can achieve our dream without repeated nightmares of terrorism and murder.

Grateful for so much-reflections on 9/11

Unexpectedly, I found myself riveted to the television screen for 6 hours as the commemoration ceremony in honor of the victims of 9/11 unfolded. My wife sat beside me and for most of the time, we stared at the images with tear-filled eyes. The ceremony was perhaps one of the most poignant and simple expressions of sadness and hope that could be presented to New York and to the world.
When considering the capacity for gratitude at this time, it becomes fairly obvious that all of us experience profound gratitude to those heroes of the police and fire departments who risked and lost their lives in the performance of their duty as the rescuers of others. Additionally, we are most grateful for the many average citizens who likewise stepped forward to help, sacrificing their time, effort and even health in the process.
What struck me most as I listened and watched family members recite the names of the victims and share brief, simple and often poetic personal expressions of love and loss, were the everyday, ordinary things and experiences that these loved ones now miss because of this tragedy.
A son expressed his sadness in not having a father to show him how to play baseball; another child was pained by not being able to hug her daddy; a brother indicated that a lost sister's meatloaf is something that is deeply yearned for; a wife would give anything just to see once again her husband's smile or deep blue eyes. Parents bemoaned the absence of their "baby,"desperately praying against all reality that they once again hear their child's voice, touch her cheek, kiss his lips.
SImple everyday things; these were the constituent parts of the fabric of life and love so painfully missed by the thousands of family members and friends. I don't think I heard one reference to success, wealth or celebrity-merely the emotional and spiritual substance of human life, a substance that we take for granted not realizing that it is the very stuff of our human existence.
What do we have to be grateful for?
I leave it up to you to figure out as we pay tribute to these fallen heroes and ordinary people-however painful and frightening the reliving of that traumatic moment was, I pray that through our tears we catch a clearer glimpse of the endless blessings bestowed upon all of us.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.”(Lev.26:3-5)

This segment of the Torah ostensibly contains one of the most obvious expressions of the doctrine of reward and punishment in Judaism.The modern mind is skeptical about the accuracy of this doctrine if understood literally. How do we resolve the dilemma of the righteous suffering and those who don't follow God's laws, prospering? Some gain clarity from the view of faith and the assumption that all outcomes are unknown by the mortal mind .Others see this as a collective assurance that when a community lives morally it will prosper even though some individuals may be subject to suffering in the process. Or we can understand these passages as reflecting an historic time when Israel was in its childhood and like children they needed this type of conditional reasoning and understanding in order to withstand the possibilities of straying from God's path.

From a spiritual-psychological point of view I offer another way of understanding this passage.Security comes from within.The Torah suggests that if we have the capacity to “eat our bread” -לשבע- to our fill, with an ability to feel grateful for what we have, this grateful heart will result in the feeling of dwelling securely in the peacefulness and fullness of mind and heart pulsating with thankfulness for out gift of food. Gratitude engenders faith and the assurance that one can dwell securely and safely without fears of not having and without feelings of debilitating insecurity and anxiety about the future.Sensing deeply the gift of all of life, we can take the strength and faith of living our lives anchored in a trust in the world's goodness and the compassion of a God whose gifts we are bidden to enjoy.


These are the laws that God commanded Moses and Israel on Mount Sinai—

A well-known question that emerges from this opening sentence is found in Rashi who asks: Ma inyan shemittah etzel har Sinai? Why is Sinai referred to in the setting of the Sabbatical laws and the rules governing the Jubilee year? I spite of his answer that establishes the Sinaitic authority for all the laws of the Torah-that is, just as these laws were enunciated divinely, likewise all laws, in their general presentations and in their minutiae are to be considered as divine in origin, I prefer to find in this juxtaposition a different meaning and interpretation.

The first question to be raised is related to the content of these laws, their spiritual purpose. The injunction to allow the land to lie fallow each seventh year and the wider embrace of release in the Jubilee year, namely the release of slaves and the remission of all debts, suggest the overriding principle that in the realm of human affairs absolute ownership of goods and property is a fiction; we are only temporary owners of what we have whether it be land or indentured servants. The earth is the Lord’s and at best our possessions are objects of lease. Ultimately, even our lives do not belong to us. In other words life is impermanent and temporary.

The question remains: does anything survive death and the passage of time? Is there not something that somehow lasts, that out lives the cycles of time? Fields return, debts are cancelled; even belongings are worth only the period of their lease, not the intrinsic value of the object itself.

What about the soul, the higher self, the spirit, the image of God, the divine refraction embedded in the human personality? Does that not belong to us eternally?

Our tradition maintains quite firmly that such a reality is spiritually unmistakable. Thus the text places the reality of impermanence in the setting of that which represents the transcendent, the godly, the moment of a shofar’s sound that only grows louder and stronger-Mount Sinai, a moment of eternity.

Things are shared; they perish. The individual human spirit somehow always occupies a mountain top. Sinai is the symbol of the eternity and indestructibility of the human soul; of a uniqueness that is shaped out of the lives of ordinary human beings who leave behind a legacy of their spirits to others.


If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.”(Lev.26:3-5)

This segment of the Torah ostensibly contains one of the most obvious expressions of the doctrine of reward and punishment in Judaism.The modern mind is skeptical about the accuracy of this doctrine if understood literally. How do we resolve the dilemma of the righteous suffering and those who don't follow God's laws, prospering? Some gain clarity from the view of faith and the assumption that all outcomes are unknown by the mortal mind .Others see this as a collective assurance that when a community lives morally it will prosper even though some individuals may be subject to suffering in the process. Or we can understand these passages as reflecting an historic time when Israel was in its childhood and like children they needed this type of conditional reasoning and understanding in order to withstand the possibilities of straying from God's path.

From a spiritual-psychological point of view I offer another way of understanding this passage.Security comes from within.The Torah suggests that if we have the capacity to “eat our bread” -לשבע- to our fill, with an ability to feel grateful for what we have, this grateful heart will result in the feeling of dwelling securely in the peacefulness and fullness of mind and heart pulsating with thankfulness for out gift of food. Gratitude engenders faith and the assurance that one can dwell securely and safely without fears of not having and without feelings of debilitating insecurity and anxiety about the future.Sensing deeply the gift of all of life, we can take the strength and faith of living our lives anchored in a trust in the world's goodness and the compassion of a God whose gifts we are bidden to enjoy.

Grateful for a Bird's Nest

It was an early summer's day and we returned to our cabin in the country for a restful Shabbat. In typical pre-Shabbat fashion, we hurried as we deposited our things in closets, on tables , in the refrigerator, and began our food preparations for the Sabbath day. Amidst our scurrying about I heard my wife exclaim excitedly but in hushed tones: “Come here-the nest is back!”

I rushed to my wife's side and looking up to the corner of a log beam that crisscrosses with the side of our cabin I caught sight of a perfectly constructed bird's nest, of an unmoving tail and the head of the mother bird scouting for potential risk to her soon to be fledglings.When would the eggs hatch ?When would the first stirrings of life grace our rear deck with their chirping cries of life reborn and renewed? I wondered aloud. We dropped everything and for a few minutes stared at the nest in silent reverence and awe.

At each visit, we make our way to the kitchen window and await, like nervous parents, the arrival of our new-found guests.

How simply wondrous is this everyday phenomenon of nature! The precise construction of a nest, the protectiveness by the mother of her soon to be born young, and the exciting emergence of life from within the confines of thinly covered shells!

The miracle continues with the unstoppable foraging of the mother for food to bring back to her young and with the image of wide open tiny beaks reaching upwards to catch the worms and live.

The final stage of this amazing unfolding of life are the valiant but hesitant attempts of the babies to fly, to leave their nests and soar upwards toward the heights of life's greatness and challenges.

Each step in this wondrous process is reason for praise, for gratitude that life stubbornly pushes on.This persistence is always a sign of hope.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kedoshim-Grateful for fathers,mothers and the Sabbath Day

This Parasha is often considered one of the most morally significant sections of the Torah- at the heart of the many ethical injunctions beats the aspiration toward the Godly reality of holiness in the spiritual world of humankind. It has been pointed out that in fact we discover in this segment unmistakable references to and some expansions of, the Ten Commandments. Perhaps the most popular of all Torah declarations is found in this Torah section-”You shall love your neighbor as yourself!”(Lev. 19:18)

From the “scattering” of so many laws, both ethical and ritual, there have been attempts to impose some philosophical or conceptual order on the diversity of content in our chapter. Some connections appear natural while others are somewhat strained.

I would like to share one attempted association that on the surface don't appear to have much connection or equivalency; as a matter of fact , traditional commentators view the two verses as suggesting a situation in which conflict arises and difficult choices must be made.

A man must fear his mother and his father and observe My sabbaths.”(Lev. 19:3) According to the Halachik interpretation of these passages-Rashi et al-should an individual be commanded by one's parent(s) to violate the Sabbath , the Torah makes it clear that he must disobey his parents (a transgression of the fifth commandment) and not violate the Sabbath(the fourth commandment) related to the higher authority of God.

I see in these passages a different spiritual insight , one at the heart of Torah itself.I believe that both verses contain an underlining principle that is reinforced and supported by both passages. In the verse read about “fearing” mother and father, the Hebrew-”tee-ra-oo”-תיראו- is usually translated as “you shall fear”-”yaroh”-ירא- meaning fear. However, I would prefer to translate the word-”tee-ra-ooh” as you should be in awe of.While fear can be viewed as a powerful pedagogical tool in moral education, its benefits are short-lived and often misguided and counter productive. Positive behavior can indeed be arrived at out of fear; indeed much of our legal system is founded upon the fear of penalty and punishment. The younger child naturally behaves at home because of the fear of parents, a fear that continues to influence the behavior of our young, up to a certain point. But in the total scheme of things spiritual, fear fuels suspicion, anger and antagonism. Fear divides us, creating distance and distrust. Whether in our relationships to our parents or to God, few would disagree that the higher form of relationship is that founded not on fear as much as one based on reverence-awe and love.

How does one arrive at the reverence for parents? I suggest that the awareness of the gift of life and its care and cultivation provided by parents allows one to relate to one's parent from the perspective of reverential and loving partners with God in the act of creation and continued nurturance, the child is called upon to experience gratitude and thanksgiving in the parental relationship; a crucial component of the child's love for her parent is that of gratitude.

From gratitude to parents the Torah then naturally proceeds to bring our attention to the need for gratitude in relation to the world that is a gift to all of us, a gift which is acknowledged and celebrated each Shabbat -”Remember the Sabbath day- for in six days He created the universe and rested on the seventh day.”Simply put, Shabbat is essentially a day of gratefulness.

Therefore, the injunction to bein awe of one's parents and to observe the Sabbath have nothing to do with conflict; rather they complement and reinforce each other in the deepening capacity of the human heart to cultivate gratefulness in one's life and in this way arrive at stage of greater holiness and come closer to God the Source of all holiness.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Grateful for a Mother's Day Card

It's the day after Mother's Day-perhaps the most wonderful expressions of a child's love for her mother is expressed in the child's own words-so when my daughter pours her feelings into her own words, they find their way straight into her mother's heart-and mine as well!
But, every now and then you stumble on the perfectly phrased purchased greeting card that seems to sum it all up in a way that is beyond the expressive capacities of most of us.I was fortunate to randomly find a card that contained the following inscription, so perfect for my wife and for all the mothers of this very challenging world.
Here they are:
"A mother holds her child's hand for a while..
Their hearts for ever."

Need we say more? Grateful for the mothers of the world,
from a son and a father!

Emor-Holiness: A Coperative Effort

The kohayn –the priest, is the subject of the first part of this parshah. One of the well-know halachic proscriptions has to do with the priest being forbidden to have contact with the dead, thus preventing the priest from attending funerals except in the case of immediate family members. According to tradition, one’s status as either a kohayn, levi or yisrael is determined by the status of the father.

A humorous story: A man comes to his rabbi;” Rabbi, I want you to make me kohayn?

Rabbi’s reply: “I can’t do it!”

I’ll make a donation of $50,000 to the synagogue.”

Rabbi hesitates. “Come back tomorrow-let me think on this.”

The man returns. He’s told that nothing can be done.

I will give you $100,000,” the man offers desperately.

Rabbi pauses and asks, “Tell me, why do you want to be a kohayn?”

The man answers: “Because my father is a kohayn!”

Priestliness is synonymous with holiness. The Torah suggests that while functionally holiness is vested in a particular group, its embrace is extended to all of Israel-“You shall be for Me a Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.”(Exodus 19:6)

The Rabbi of Gur, in his masterpiece Sefat Emet-The Language of Truth- interprets the notion of priesthood in a radical, democratic manner. We read in the Torah- “V’kidashto kee lechem elohaucha huh makriv,”-You must treat him-lit. you must sanctify him, since they offer the food of your God.”(Lev.21:8)

God instructs Moses to sanctify Aaron-“The holiness of the priests depends upon that of the people Israel.”(The Language of Truth, Green, Arthur, JPS, 1998,p.193.) Furthermore, the rebbe of Gur takes another passage and transforms its literal meaning into a source of radical understanding with regards to the nature of holiness.

The priest who is greater than his brothers”-“hakohayn hagadol may echav.”(Lev.21: 10) is read to mean-the priest is made great from or by his brothers.” Instead of understanding the text as a reiteration of a static state of superior holiness among the priests over the rest of Israel, the Gerer rebbe infuses the text with the spiritual challenge that suggests all of Israel is inherently holy and spiritual greatness emerges out of a commitment to share that holiness with others.

From other references regarding the meaning and function of the kohayn in more formal ways, we can arrive at a fuller understanding of holiness. The priest blesses Israel-beahavah-with love; Aaron is known by tradition as a lover and pursuer of peace; the Hebrew word for priest-kohayn-literally means the one who serves; if we rearrange the three letters of khn, we have hkn, which means the one who prepares.

Thus, holiness is constituted by the components of love, peace and service; holiness is not automatic-it demands preparation, inner and outer refinement and discipline.

Israel as a kingdom of priests lives out its destiny when it serves the world with the living messages of love and peace. We have been preparing this holiness for a long time; it will take a little longer.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Achare Mot-Inner Freedom- A Passover message

“You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or the land of Canaan to which I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws; My rules alone shall you observe and faithfully follow My laws...”(Lev. 18:3-4)

The Sefat Emet raises the following question: “If it refers to the forbidden sexual liaisons that are about to be explicitly listed,why does it make them dependent upon the deeds of Egypt and Canaan? Rather the intent is that all in our deeds we do not things as they are done in Egypt and Canaan.Every deed has an inner and outer side; the inner root of all things is surely in holiness, since it was created for God's glory..that is why the deeds of the nations are referred to as 'statutes.'...they have no relationship to the inner meaning of all things, and cleave only to mere externals”(The Language of Truth, Arthur Green, JPS1998,pp.179-80)

In my thinking, the Sefat Emet is pointing to two different approaches by which life can be seen-from the perspective of the external, the changeable and that which is subject to transient tastes and interests ,and the inner, that dimension of reality that carries with it permanence and solidity no matter what the seasons bring to us. The way of the external-modeled after Egypt and Canaan, suggest the way of narrowness and superficiality, Egypt in Hebrew being read not as mitzrayim-מצרים-but rather as meitzarim-מיצרים- a place of constriction, where one is enslaved to a rigid understanding of things without the fullness and depth arrived at through one's imagination and heart whereby the inner meanings are understood and enjoyed. Canaan too elicits a status of external reality.Historically it has been suggested that Canaanites were itinerant traders, perhaps deriving their function from the word-Na-נע-meaning movement, travelling, wandering.The way of the Cannanite was thus one which demanded constant changeability and transformation to suit new extenal environments.There were no deeply ingrained realities that were fixed in the inner life of its people.For both peoples, image and appearance were all important. Is this not one of the dimensions of idolatry reflected in the significance of idols and external representations?

Is this not an indication of a human tendency to partialize perception, making the partial absolute and thereby losing sight of reality's greater fullness and indeterminacy? Religion's purpose is to widen and deepen our perceptions as broadly as possible to embrace the other under the canopy of kindness and compassion! Our God is the One God of All, not a god whose purview is one partialized realm of natural reality!.Consider today's contemporary western society.All is image, fashion, external perceptions of realities that are more often than not artificial makeovers to create illusion rather than discover truth and authenticity.From the point of view of the Sefat Emet, we are deeply immersed in a world powerfully influenced by “Egypt” and “Canaan!”

Israel cries out for the re-emrgence of the inner world in our lives and the return to the path of authentic self-discovery.

A joyfully grateful Passover.

Grateful for A NJ bus driver

I am blessed with the convenience of having a bus stop alongside my apartment house building. Both departures and arrivals ease my life considerably. As an instructor in a city college, Touro College, the 158 takes me directly to the Port Authority bus terminal in approximately 45 minutes-no GWB hassles, a significant savings in tolls and parking costs, and the added feature of traveling with others from all walks of life.
I am an observer-unlike most others, I cannot read on a bus and do not own an I-POD; while others' eyes slant downward towards a tiny screen or look absentmindedly in the distance as they converse on cell phones, I sit patiently with eyes that wander with curiosity about all that transpires around me. It's a time to think, to allow my mind to wander, even to meditate.
I catch my bus at 3:20 pm, 3 times a week. It happened to have been quite a windy afternoon, not uncommon where I live. In preparation for the bus' arrival, I had several dollar bills in my hands. Suddenly, as the bus approached, I thought that one bill had been carried away by the wind and I began to feverishly search for it. I motioned to the driver to please be patient and not drive away. A few minutes passed; it seemed that the wind had carried the money into oblivion.I looked up and to my surprise and great gratitude was the driver who had descended from the perch of his large steering wheel and joined me in the search for the dollar bill. Finally, not wanting to hold up the bus any longer I gratefully acknowledged the driver's unusual kindness and informed him that to search was of no avail and we could return to the bus.
The dollar bill disappeared but in its place was the priceless experience of an average individual's simple yet extraordinary act of kindness.
Thinking to myself as the bus rolled on, I became acutely aware of how rare it was for most bus drivers to go out of their way in this manner; further, if one thought about it, it should not be a rarity among those who serve the riding public , namely to be a helping hand in all circumstances of passenger difficulty. Most of the drivers I have met have acted courteously and helpfully in virtually all situations. Every now and then we encounter an act beyond the call of duty, one that elicits a special sense of gratitude.I was given that lovely moment of another's care and concern a moment well beyond the value of a lost dollar bill, perhaps more precious than money itself.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Once again the reader is challenged to understand Torah content that is obscure, obsolete and entirely irrelevant to our time.How does one make sense of the ritual involving a metzora-מצורע- one who has contracted an undefined skin disease-some say leprosy-and apply it to the moral issues of today? Clearly, this kind of material demands an imaginative response which was forthcoming by our Sages who understood the afflicted metzora as one who had committed the sin of slander.They based this association on a word play derived from the word-metzora-מצורע.What emerges from this activity is the phrase “motzi shem ra”-מוציא שם רע—one who slanders, literally, one who brings out a bad name.Thus, the Rabbis conclude that this esoteric disease is the result of the abuse of others by way of language or speech.

I would like to extend this “playful” interpretation into a different area of spiritual concern.If we change the vocaliztion of the phrase-motzi shem ra- מוציא שם רע- -we can read the phrase in the following way-motzei sham ra-מוצא שם רע- meaning “finding there the bad.” Instead of shem-name, we can read the consonants as sham-there. Rather than evil in a moralistic way, ra can be understood as that which is negative,undesirable, unpleasant. In other words, the modern metzora is the one who encounters all places and things in life with a perspective that is negative, a view of things as only undesirable, unsatisfactory, problematic . Life for the “metzora”is a source of sorrow and sadness, not a reason for joy and gratitude. To see life through the lens of unrelenting dissatisfaction and suffering is to create a terribly painful situation of social distance, cutting oneself off from the orbit of human interaction and experience. Like the Biblical metzora-”leper”- the contemporary complainer finds himself isolated, even quarantined. Such constant unhappiness and ingratitude also suggests an attitude of thanklessness toward the Source of all creation, finding fault rather than favor with the world around him.

The antidote to such a response is the capacity to discover the good, tov-טוב- and strive to attain an attitude of a motzi sham tov-מוציא שם טוב- of one who sees life as a precious gift and blessing for which to be deeply grateful. It is perhaps with such an approach to life that others will then recognize the reality that the blemishes and lesions of negativity, once a major component of the metzora's identity have disappeared, and what emerges is an identity of self-worth capable of embracing the world and life as one who found a priceless treasure for which to be eternally grateful. Only then can the high priest declare-”You are now reinstated as a member of a holy people and can be once again considered clean and. pure!”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dayenu - a personal formulation

The following is a personal rendition of Dayenu that I inadvertently omitted from the Gratefulness Haggadah. I think that its simplicity and universality can add to the meaning of your Passover Seders.

If I could only wiggle my toes

And know something that no one else knows,


If I could bend my knees,

And see what everyone else sees,


If I could raise my arm,

Holding back from doing harm,


If I could twiddle my thumb

And scratch my bum


If I could bend the wrist

And my ankle twist,


If I could hear my belly growl

And wipe away a scowl


If I can slide off the bed

And not land on my head


If I can hear birds chirp

and my gut give out a burp


If I have my teeth to brush

And get dressed in a rush


And let’s not forget,

Hands and face that get wet,


I cannot overlook,

How little effort it took

To open my eyes

And for my belly to rise


Heart going pitter patter

It’s not some small matter


Breathing in,

Breathing out,

I can sing

I can shout


Roof over my head,

Simply alive and not dead.


I can do it all and so much more

To be grateful is the door

To our joy , our longevity

Happiness and serenity.

Dayenu-we declare

We thank God for our share.

Hag Sameach-Happy Passover

Monday, March 28, 2011

Grateful for My Gratefulness Haggadah

Finally, after months of work that entailed not only interpretation of the text but making use of designing and formatting skills I never imagined I could use, the Gratefulness Haggadah - Dayenu - is complete. I hope to eventually have the haggadah published so that it can be used more comfortably at a Seder table. In the meantime, all or parts of the document can be downloaded (you can access the haggadah by clicking on the cover located on right-hand side of my blog or at and referred to in my hope that in some small way it can add to the sense of celebration, freedom and gratitude that are inherent in the Passover Seder experience.
I would welcome comments so that inclusions, deletions or changes can be considered to enhance the beauty and richness of one of the most exciting and satisfying rituals in Jewish life.
With deepest gratitude to the Author of All things, I offer these pages to you in blessed memory of my devoted father-in-law, Jacob Lederman, and my dearest cousin, Eric Joel Tanenbaum, may they rest in peace.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Shemini-THE ELDERLY:The Wings of Israel

The Wings of Israel"On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel."(Lev.9:1)

Midrash Rabah, 11:8, makes the following statement: “ Israel is compared to a bird; in the same way that a bird has wings with which to fly, likewise Israel can do nothing without their elders.”

As a bird can only achieve her nature by having wings, so does Isrel remain incomplete, without the ability to fulfill itself and its destiny, without the presence of the elderly in their midst.I was struck by something of an incongruence in this particular parable. The midrash equates the elderly with wings-does this not raise a contradiction regarding the appropriateness of the analogy? Wouldn't a birds paws or feet , which enable her to stand on the limb of a tree or on the ground , not be a more accurate point of comparison? After all, the elders usually represent a base of security, an anchor of tradition and experience that gives a community or culture a foundation and sense of continuity and linkage to a past?

The wings of a bird, by contrast, point to the capacity to take flight, to soar into unfamiliar skies and places of freedom never before explored? Do the elderly represent this dimension of Jewish experience or challenge, the ability and necessity to spread one's wings and take off into new adventures of discovery and attainment? Is not this sense of freedom and buoyant adventure better connected to youth rather than to the elderly? Isn't this parable off the mark, demanding an interpretation beyond the obvious?

I believe that the midrash provides us with an incredibly contemporary understanding of old age. Firstly, before one can fly-excuse the pun-one needs to learn to walk.The elderly represent the accumulation of experience, the wisdom of the past, the rules of life -all of which must be imparted before the young can flap their own wings, and take off by themselves. An anchor and foundation provides security and strength to a young person wishing to search in new directions for meaning and experience.

More importantly, the elderly have a vital role to play in enabling and freeing the young to reach out for the skies and explore the richness of life's many unanswered questions. In the popular mind, there exists an almost irreconcilable tension between the commitment to the past represented by the elderly and the belief in the future that defines the journey of the young. So often both directions are at odds with each other, leading to great hardship and difficulty, a generational gap that seems to require divine intervention to resolve. On the Great Sabbath, Shabbat Hagadol, the Sabbath before Passover, we read in the prophet Malachi -”I will send the prophet Elijah to you...He shall return the hearts of the fathers to their children and those of the children to their fathers.”(3;23)

Our Midrash offers us a psychological and natural solution. It is the duty, and the great opportunity of the elderly, to encourage and support the natural ability and desire of the young to spread their wings and fly! Perhaps in addition to preserving the past, the elderly can be called upon to join with Aaron and his sons to offer guidance, support and the fullest measure of their love in demonstrating their joy at the young person's willingness to soar to the heights of heaven in pursuit of her dreams. In a psychological way, the elderly are empowered to release the young from the Oedipal attachments that create fear, confusion and paralysis in the lives of so many of the sons and daughters of Israel.Perhaps this is what Moses meant when he unequivocally declared before Pharaoh- “We shall go with our young and our old” (Exodus 10:9)-toward the great gateways of life leading to greater freedom and fulfillment. This is the path of freedom so important to recognize as we anticipate the Festival of Freedom, the festival of Passover, which will be celebrated in peace and freedom, we pray, in less than 30 days from today.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Grateful for Purim-Why?

Purim is a controversial holiday.You might be surprised by this assertion given how much fun it is and how beloved a holiday it is , especially for children. After all, who but a curmudgeon would object to partying as a way of celebrating an experience of deliverance and rescue? Who could object to having a carnival with costumes, the exchange of food packages and achieving the pinnacle of celebratory intoxication-with the blessings of the Rabbis- to the point of losing any sense of discrimination between the villain and hero of the Purim story, Haman and Mordechai? Is it not a psychological victory to throw all caution to the winds-especially with rabbinic sanction and under its supervision, and experience a moment of guilt-free letting go of restraints and simply having a great time?

However,there are serious voices in the Jewish community that attempt to temper this extreme form of celebration. It is felt that such extreme behavior is un-Jewish, bordering on the pagan!

Nonetheless, Purim is regarded by the talmud as a holiday that will outlast all others; its message elicits great gratitude that has the power of surviving the passage of time and circumstance.

What are we grateful for on Purim?

If the story is true and reflects the reality of Jewish life in the Diaspora, we are grateful for being rescued from annihilation. This gratitude is unmistakable and quite dramatic. Furthermore, we can be grateful for the chance to have fun, an opportunity not always available to us, something that lightens the burden of our existence.

In my opinion, Purim essentially is a time to celebrate and acknowledge one overarching historical reality of the Jewish people-its survival. No other people has succeeded to survive as a distinctly creative entity in spite of all odds, as the Jewish people. So salient is this characteristic, that at a gathering of Jewish leaders not long ago, the Dalai Lama expressed his deep interest in understanding the nature of this Jewish experience in order to glean some insights on the dynamics of survival in circumstances that logically would make survival virtually impossible-homelessness, powerlessness, discrimination and persecution. He, of course, is struggling with the loss of Tibetan independence to the hegemony of the Chinese government.

The Story of Purim is a paradigm narrative of Jewish survival in the Diaspora. In spite of imaginative interpretations and mystical exegesis prevalent among commentators trying to suggest the hidden hand of God, an honest reading of the Book of Esther leads one to conclude the utter absence of God and any intimations of supernatural interventions. Stripped bare of any theological implications-no mention of God in any shape or form is made throughout the book-we are left with a story that unfolds within the realities and circumstances of history and the nature of Jewish precariousness in the Diaspora.While many point to one passage as a disguised yet suggestive reference to God's perennial availability , words spoken by Mordechai to Esther in the face of her refusal to appear unannounced before Ahasuerus- “ ...if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter...”(Esther 4:14), I believe that this statement merely reflects the unyielding trust that Mordechai had in the survivability of the Jewish people no matter what Esther would decide. There is little question that the fate of the Jewish people was questionable at best; they could be done away with at the mere whim of a monarch or despot. Without homeland, a government or military structure with which to defend itself, the Jew had very few options for successful survival. Yet the Jew survived! How? This mystery continues to fascinate us and fill us with wonder.

What is the answer of the Book of Esther to this question?

Again, I reiterate that no amount of pilpulistic creativity will convince me that the author(s) of this book conveyed an unmistakable belief in God's readiness to intervene publicly and overtly as demonstrated in so many other parts of the Bible' over-all narrative.The Jewish people was left to its own devices, and did survive. How?

First, with the cunning, courage and daring of its leaders. Mordecai emerges , like the many “Court Jews” that followed him, a presence that is attuned to the workings and intrigues of palace politics. He pays close attention to all that transpires around him, observing carefully the interactions of the many players for power within the confines of the royal court.He overhears the plot to kill the king, reports it, and in this way injects his loyalty and indispensability into the fabric of the court's political unfolding, winning the favor of the king. He is cautious about making his Jewish identity public recognizing that Jewish vulnerability can easily be taken advantage of, and insists that Esther conceal her identity from the king. The tools of his trade are subtle, the use of any and all possibilities for successful interventions with the source of power, the king, exploiting the king's weakness for wine, wealth, women and his need to compensate for his impotency with a semblance of masculine decision-making power. Interestingly, a close look at the text reveals that Ahashuerus never makes a decision about anything without first consulting advisors. He merely ostentatiously exhibits his affluence and possession of beautiful women in order to gain an authoritative respect for his kingly masculinity.

Esther daringly makes use of her physical beauty, charm and appeal, to win her way into the king's heart and thereby gain entry to a vulnerability that can be effectively manipulated in order to reverse his decisions which in fact were not his but Haman’s. Like so many of her Biblical predecessors who commanded power by cunning and manipulation, Esther has no choice but to do the same if she is to rescue her people.There was always risk and great danger to all such efforts but no other recourse remained.

Additionally, another source of Jewish survival skill was the cooperation and participation of the entire people. When Esther demands that the people fast, mourn ,wear sackcloth and cry out in preparation for her daunting challenge of confronting the king, no where is it indicated that the object of this public act of mourning and grieving was God! No prayers were recited; only wailing and crying filled the homes and public places of their communities. This outpouring represented more an act of public solidarity and support , perhaps a gesture of reaching out to the general public for some attention, consideration, even support. A Jew who felt the sorrow of his fellow Jew was indeed a “good” Jew, offering her concern and empathy as a means of bolstering the community's strength.What else could the average Jew do? Protests and demonstrations are political realities of the 21st century but were beyond the consciousness of ancient Persian civilization. The people lived the dictum of the Rabbis-”He who shares in the sorrow of Jerusalem will one day join in celebrating its joy!”

Jews survived this way throughout its history. Of course faith in God and the promise of a Messianic future played a central role in its capacity to maintain hope and strength in the face of such insurmountable odds and hardships. But for the author of Esther, survival was the ability of the people to withstand all the uncertainty of tomorrow with a deep sense of trust in itself and its leaders. Without such sources of leadership and loyalty , the Jewish people would find itself without any hope of self-preservation as a people.

The Book of Esther is a bold, straightforward narrative of the precariousness of Jewish existence in the Diaspora.The scenarios presented reflect a a common paradigm of Jewish history over the ages. Societies were ruled by monarchs whose primary concern was their own personal well-being and reputation, usually guided by a clique of advisors who in fact were the powers behind the throne. Ahashverus certainly fits this mold; a king with little interest other than enjoying the privileges of his position through the ready availability of women,wealth and wine, sources of monarchial masculinity. According to the story, he makes no independent decision of importance and rules at the response of advisors and his queen , to whom he pays deference out of his deep passion for her.

As long as “harmless” rulers like Ahashuerus occupy their thrones untouched by agents of evil and ambition, life unfolds undramatically, and securely for the Jews. Unfortunately, when men of overreaching ambition will go to any length to achieve their hunger for power, against the backdrop of a weak ruler a power vacuum is created with ideal conditions for the emergence of those seeking power and glory at the expense of others, in particular the long-standing scapegoat for occupiers of power throughout the generations, the Jew.

Repeatedly, the counter valence of persons with special ties to seats of power who were either Jews themselves or were favorably disposed toward the Jewish people, with sufficient political skill and cunning could outmaneuver these other forces of peril to the Jewish community. Steadfast support of the rank and file of the Jewish community reinforced the strength of the community at large and the voice of Jewish leadership as well. The anxiety associated with living in exile and not knowing the outcomes of tomorrow was somewhat mitigated by the determination of the Jewish community to learn how to navigate the perilous waters of a hostile and unpredictable world around them. The Purim story is such a story of successful and skillful political maneuvering that rescued an entire community from annihilation.

For this moment and the many others, we are grateful and pay tribute to the fearless leaders of our people who risked their lives and those of loved ones to provide an anchor of some security in the ocean of stormy exilic existence.

How much more grateful can we now be with the State of Israel restored and constantly strengthened as the homeland of the Jewish people once again.

Happy Purim.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Vayikrah-An open invitation to all

“And He called, summoned Moses ...”(Leviticus 1:1)

The book of Leviticus opens with an invitation-from God to Moses. Unlike the many other introductions to moments of communication where we read that God spoke to Moses saying, here it seems as if Moses needed a special introduction , a calling to attention by God before the communication will flow. Many are the interpretations associated with this unique opening between God and Moses.Some portray Moses as standing outside the Tent of Meeting hesitant to enter, awaiting God's summons or permission. We encounter the image of Moses on the outside wanting to get in, wanting to enter into a divine space, yet reluctant, waiting to be invited, to be called upon.Many point to Moses' humility as expressed in the posture of waiting; others understand this withdrawl as a way of showing deference to Aaron his older brother who is responsible for the cult of sacrifices and thus should be addressed by God.

The midrash in Vayikrah Rabah focuses upon the institution of conversion as a part of the attention paid to this phenomenon of being called upon to step forward and enter the space of the divine. The Midrash emphasizes the positive and the desirable aspects of conversion and praises the convert for her decision to abandon idolatry and link her life to the Jewish people.In a very dramatic way, we are being informed that God awaits the stepping forward of not only Jews but all people, making it clear that the torah and the God of Israel are not the exclusive possessions of natural born Jews-all have an opportunity to embrace the reality of the godly in life, so much so that the summons is addressed to all humanity and God' eagerly awaits our response to His open invitation to enter the tent of sacred living.Moreover, according to Jewish law, the non-Jew is permitted to offer sacrifices in the Sanctuary based on the verse: “adam ki yakriv mikem,” adam refers to generic man which is inclusive of the non-Israelite.

The section, which curiously appears to be the most parochial and exclusive to the Israelite- the code of sacrifices- especially since we tend to think of the ethical dimension of religion as the more universal, suggests that the invitation by God to reach out to the holy by way of worship, is in fact extended to all human beings. There is a place for all at the table of sacrifice and giving, and the only cover charge is the willingness of one's heart to respond to the “vayikrah”-the voice of the divine in any way it can be heard.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pekudei - The Beauty of Teshuvah

In the opening verse of the Torah reading the completed Sanctuary is referred to as a “mishkan edut”- the dwelling place of testimony. To what idea, object, event or other reality does this structure attest to? What makes this paricular structure a spiritually significant one? One obvious answer is related to the need for creating a sacred space in which the Israelite can experience God's presence.

Another interpretation offered by the Sefat Emet speaks to the nature of God's presence that one can experience in a tangibly spiritual way. For the Sefat Emet, as in the opinion of other commentators, the erection of the Sanctuary represents a profound opportunity for Israel to atone for and undo the transgression of fashioning the Golden Calf. The testimony inherent in the “mishkan”is to the inner capacity of the Israelite to transform himself, to restore herself to her innately unblemished self and recapture the goodness and holiness that reside deep within the person's soul. Israel sinned because of the negative influences of the “mixed multitude” that led her astray. Without the external interferences of other contaminating cultures, left to her own spiritual devices and following her intrinsic nature, Israel would flower into a state of utter purity and sanctity.The sanctuary attests to Israel's innate destiny as an on-going witness to God's Presence in the world. This spiritual vocation is an essential and inescapable part of who Israel is.

We read: "Why did they need this witness, ( the Sanctuary)? Israel had been deeply disgraced by that sin(the Golden Calf). Now God gave the people the tabernacle as witness, in order to strengthen their hearts, to show that they had indeed repaired the damage wrought by their sin....Israel are God's witnesses as it is written 'You are My witnesses'(Isaiah 43:12). But how is it possible that Israel...could worship idols? This thought caused Israel to neglect their witnessing until God had to demonstrate that the sin was incidental to who they were, brought on by the 'mixed multitude'...The rabbis teach in fact that 'Israel were not deserving of such a sin; it came upon them only to teach the way of teshuvah.”(The Language of Truth,trans.and interpr. by Arthur Green, JPS, 1998,pp.141)

The Sefat Emet posits a spiritual understanding of the Jewish people as possessing an inner goodness and holiness that can never be entirely erradicated. The waywardness of Israel, their distance from God is temporary, an aberration, not an expression of authentic Jewish self-identification.

The soul is pure and yearns to unfold as an instrument of drawing closer to the Divine source in all its undertakings. Teshuvah, return, suggests the need and ability to facilitate a process of redicscovery and restoration of one's authentic spiritual self, a reality that is deeply desired by the fragmented and frightened heart. Each time the Israelite worshipped in this Sanctuary, she was reminded of her essence, of her task as a witness to the reality of God's Presence in the world.

Characteristic of the Hassidic view of the spiritual life, the way to improvement and to God Himself was not the emphasis on the negative, the guilt-inducing process by which the individual experiences great pain and harshness of self- judgment but rather the loving and forgiving response of God and man. The path to the divine is not conditioned by harsh, demeaning criticism but is paved by compassion and the embrace of human understanding and sensitivity.

If we understand the Mishkan as the prototype of all sacred spaces ie.synagogues, shuls, temples etc. then the above interpretation clearly delineates the purpose of these houses of worship, these sacred spaces and what they should signify and the role they should play in Jewish life. In the same way the original dwelling place of testimony reflected God's acceptance of Israel as His witnesses, in spite of their temporary sinfulness, and represented Israel's innate goodness and the beauty and efficacy of teshuvah, likewise if our contemporary places of sanctity are to emulate the mishkan's unique spiritual function they must adhere to the standards of God which point out Israel's essential purity and goodness, and the unending and pervasive availability of teshuvah to prevent any despair or surrender of Israel's self-awareness as God's witnesses.Thus the work of the synagogue is to reinforce and enhance this piritual identity of the Jewish people, to help those who are estranged not feel guilty but reassured and loved that their holy task is to be witness to God's reality in this world. A synagogue that fails to meet this religious expectation, misses its mark as an authentic mishkan edut, a dwelling place of testimony.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Va'Yakhel - Creating a World

Bezalel was skilled in the combination of the letters by which the heavens and the earth were created.

He could only stand in the shadow

That was his name,

But the silhouette was sacred,

Not in God’s light-it blinds, it kills,

But His shade refreshes creation,

Each day re-moistening

The parchedness of the mouth ,

In the dew of early morning.

At the window I see creation

Ships of white floating

Beneath the translucent blue waters of the sky,

Waters that welcome not fish, but

Angels, and rising wisps of smoke.

Below, branches , bare and brown ,

Bending in the biting breezes of a winter’s

Silvery afternoon.

All I have are words, letters, and

A heart that seeks the right combination

By which to unlock the secrets of the soul,

God’s secrets that await the messianic arrival

Of the right word.

And when a momentary revelation

Crackles in the cortex,

To the thunder of the heart’s sudden thumping,

Like Bezalel, I clamor to combine,

To click one letter to the next,

Like atoms and molecules and cells

Exploding in the space of one’s soul-

And he saw all that he had written and it was…

Was it a creation that was good, but not good enough?

Tov-good, but never tov meod-very good.

We can only stand in God’s shadow, never in Her light,

And so my zeruf otiot- my mingling of metaphors

Can never touch the purity of Bezalel, whose zeruf was zaruf,

A composite of the spotless, a sanctuary untainted by

A mortal’s desperate reach for immortality.

Looking up, the clouds inch away,

Soon to vanish like all things in the sky,

Except for angels,

They have a task to perform,

God needs their praise.

And we must be grateful,

Content that we are a mere hairbreadth lower

Than them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ki Tissa - The Perils of Perfectionism

Upon witnessing Israel’s act of idolatry in fashioning the Golden Calf, Moses shatters the tablets he received from God. It was as if he took a piece of God and flung it to the ground. Imagine if you can the drama and power of this response.

Why did this happen? We can only speculate that the most intense of inner reactions led to this overpowering act of invalidation and reversal. Anger, disappointment, betrayal, utter impotence, sheer helplessness all accounted for this most extreme of form of behavior.

The tablets lay strewn about in tiny fragments. They were the letters and words of God; what was to be done with them?

They could have been ground up and scattered upon the people as some act of expiation, similar to the fate of the Golden Calf!

Or as is the custom today in dealing with discarded fragments of sacred writings, burial would reflect a proper way of removing the evidence of such a shameful and tragic experience committed by Israel!

We are told that the fragments were gathered up and placed alongside the newly crafted tablets that rested in the ark in the Holy of Holies. These tainted tablets would forever remind Israel and God of this enormous sin of apostasy. Why not discard them and start fresh with the new tablets?

Rather than a reminder of failure and sin, these broken tablets were designed to help Israel and God be mindful of the inherent imperfection of the human heart, its vulnerability and susceptibility to false expectations of utter security that flow out of fear and find their external concretization in an image, in the fashioning of an idol onto which futile hopes are projected!

Yet, these shattered pieces of life, of human error, of striving that somehow sputtered out of steam, deserve a rightful place in the context of a holy spsace, within the Ark of the Covenant itself. Perhaps it is only the broken heart that understands the precious holiness of life, that can touch some aspect of the divine in the unfolding of all things. Perfection seems to suggest hubris; the need to be perfect represents the absence of one's ability to embrace humility and submit to the overarching grandeur of the universe and its Creator.

Each tablet, the shattered one and the intact one, brings to mind the wonderful typology of Rabbi Soloveitchik 's analysis of the nature of the human being based on the two accounts of human creation in the book of Genesis.( The Man of Faith-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) The Rav talks about two parts of the human personality; one, the Adam I dimension “created “in the first chapter of the Bible which speaks to our innate capacity to strive for achievement and success, majestic man who is called upon to have dominion over the world. This type is followed by the emergence of Adam II, created out of dust, asleep, taken from another's rib, whose coming to life is a product of a passive, 'defeated' posture, and whose purpose unfolds and takes hold by way of attachment to relationship and the experience of ultimate dependency. This is the human personality who encounters God out of imperfection, humility and a sense of utter need. All of us are endowed with both capacities, and the balance of the two reflects a wholesome spiritual personality who can live happily and meaningfully. Our lives become holy arks when we can recognize that thse two dimensions are inseparable, and are constantly in an inner state of seeking some equilibrium and balance.

Shattered fragments are symbolic of the human’s inescapable imperfection and need for faith in a reality that is in a constant state of flux, in a reality that transcends the ostensible and pulsates with the holy beyond the immediacy of human existence and within the very fabric of our recognizable world.

Shabbat Shalom

Tetzaveh - Gratefulness for Light

This past week I received a wonderful gift from a special friend, an extraordinary photographer and poet. It was a book of photographs, a collection of samples of a long and distinguished career as a “humanistic” photographer. Incredibly relevant to this week's Torah reading which opens with the invitation by Moses to the Israelite community to “bring clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly...outside the curtain which is over the Ark of the Pact....”(Exodus 27:20-21), is the title and purpose of this lovely book-”Dipping into the Light. “ The author takes the title from a poem by Mary Oliver,”Winter Hours,” who describes prayer as “ a dipping of oneself toward the light.”

References to light abound in the Bible , from the very first item of creation,”and God said 'Let there be light' “ to the kindling of lamps in the Sanctuary, a place where the divine can dwell within the hearts and souls of the Israelite community. Our tradition drew the parallel between the creation of the world and the the construction of the Sanctuary to suggest that God's creation is in a sense re-enacted through the efforts of Isreal to construct a spiritual home for the divine Presence in the world. Thus, the lighting of the olive oil is a daily act of godly creation. In fact, one can summarize all of spiritual effort as an act of “dipping” oneself toward or into the light.Without the possibility of spiritual and human luminescence in the world, our lives would be engulfed in despair and sorrow. In the words of my friend, Abraham, light “returns daily to reassure us not to despair; we wait in the dark, we wait in faith, and night eventually turns into day.”

What I always find remarkable in my friend's thinking and work is his adamant faith in the beauty and sacredness of all things. Most of us struggle to find goodness in the manifestations of that which we consider evil; yet my friend Abraham recognizes in the photograph and the poem , an expression of ”darkness (which) holds stars in her bossom and is the womb where life and creativity incubate.” To this principle and teaching he has dedicated his life.

I am filled with gratitude for his gift; it is a wonderful Midrash on the Torah reading of this Shabbat. Perhaps as an exercise by which to bring light into each Shabbat, we could ask ourselves and our loved ones- what has brought light into your life this past week?

What are you grateful for, and in articulating a response , we can illuminate our hearts by simply dipping our “toes” into the light.

Shabbat Shalom.


Forty six years ago this Shabbat, as a senior student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I was required to present my "senior sermon" to the faculty and students of this august institution. Needless to say, I was terrified. Sitting in the audience were some of the world -renowned scholars of Judaica at that time-prominently among them were Prof. Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor, Dr.Saul Lieberman, perhaps the most outstanding Talmudic scholar of his time, and the very well-known, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Not surprisingly, these many years later, I continue to ask the very same question-where can one discover a personal contact with the divine? I have changed considerably since that challenging morning so many years ago; yet, God's presence persists in eluding me, and I doggedly struggle to catch a glimpse, to sense a mere flutter of the godly in the course of my life's swiftly passing moments.

This weeks parsha, Terumah, address this question in a unique way. It contains instruction for the construction of a place in which God's presence can be encountered. "Build for me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them!"

Let me present some of my thoughts in response to this instruction and invitation by the Compassionate One .The story is told of a child in religious school who asked his teacher a question about God that the teacher was unable to answer. He was brought before the principal who patiently inquired of the child what his question was; he answered: “ I asked my teacher –where is God? And he told us that God is everywhere. But I don’t want a God who is everywhere; I want a God who is somewhere!”

In the opinion of many commentators, primarily Nachmanides, the construction of a dwelling place for God is the expression of Israel’s desire to preserve the experience of closeness to and intimacy with God that they experienced at Sinai. The architectural structure of the Sanctuary with its three divisions of space, the outside Court, the Inner Court and the Holy of Holies is reminiscent of Mount Sinai’s three areas of holiness, the foot of the mount, the middle where Aaron and the elders remained and the very top, which encompassed God’s immediate Presence and was accessible only to Moses. Sinai was a one-time moment, one of a peak experience, and shortly thereafter was no more. Israel had a long distance to travel before arriving at the Promised Land. How were they to perpetuate the sense of God’ s Presence as an ongoing reality? The Sanctuary emerges as this spatial attempt to capture the fleetingness of temporal revelation. As God’s voice penetrated the foreboding silence of Sinai, so too was Israel able to concretely connect to a caring God by transporting a Sanctuary along their journey through the endless barrenness of an inhospitable and indifferent wilderness.

The building of the sanctuary was an expression of Israel’s desire for a God who is somewhere, a divine reality that can be recognized and incorporated into their lives anywhere and everywhere, whether in the wilderness, the Holy Land or dispersed to all four corners of the earth. It is this search for God, for the sacred, that is the overriding challenge of the Jewish people.

Moreover, the opening verses of the parasha suggest the initial possibility of God awareness in their own midst.

The act of giving-emulating God as the Ultimate Giver of All-in a way that reflects a generous and open heart-yidvenu libo- is the starting point of the quest for God. Not philosophical speculation or even a leap of faith; rather the leap of love and giving, the taking unto oneself in order to give for a purpose that transcends one’s egoic constraints and limitations. Some read the opening words -vayikchu li-take for Me-as “Take Me”- in other words, when one gives -whether gold, silver or bronze-as

long as it is raised up as an offering of an open and giving heart, steps are taken on the journey toward a God who is somewhere, with the eventuality that indeed God will dwell in their midst.

God can be perceived in many places; in Nature, in the Mitzvah,in the myriad moments of wonder that touch our lives. To gain entry to this dimension of the godly, perhaps the first step is to construct in our hearts a sanctuary, a space, even a tiny opening, which is loving and compassionate. Through this opening, we will, perhaps find a fleeting moment of divinity and wonder.

Shabbat Shalom