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  • Ask the Painful Questions

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 24, 2023 | 16:41 pm

    These days I am plagued by a question. How does a group come to recognize its wrongs? Last week I traveled to Washington DC. There we visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. As one wanders through its exhibits one question stands out, “Where was America?” After hours walking through this painful history, one confronts newspaper headlines reporting the murder of Europe’s Jews. Juxtaposed with these reports, one sees a copy of a letter from Assistant US Secretary of War, John McCloy. He writes: “At the present critical stage of the war in Europe, our strategic air forces are engaged in the destruction of industrial target systems vital to the dwindling war potential of the enemy, from which they should not be diverted.” And yet, US forces bombed factories within five miles of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The question lingers. Where was America? And then one comes to an additional exhibit about the Rohingya genocide. Myanmar officials continue their oppression, persecution, and murder of their country’s Muslim minority. Nearly one million are now refugees. Nearly 25,000 have been killed. The question continues. Where is America? We crossed the Mall, and then visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. As one enters, the words of the Declaration of Independence are seen emblazoned on the wall: “All men are created equal.” The journey through the exhibits moves from slave ships to plantations, and continues from the 1960’s civil rights struggle to today’s Black Lives Matter protests. As one turns the corner, the large wall is again seen. The words of Langston Hughes’ epic poem are etched above: “I, too, am America.” The realization is stunning. It is the same wall. The same nation that changed the world with the words, “All men are created equal” is the same nation that enslaved Blacks. The two are inseparable. The question has changed. What is America? Can we be both great and flawed? And then it occurred to me. Whereas the atrocities in Europe happened over there, I felt an increasing intimacy to America’s ongoing struggle with racism and its lingering presence in the country I[…]

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  • Creating in God's Shadow

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 17, 2023 | 12:51 pm

    This week we read about the requirements for building the tabernacle. These details were already offered in prior chapters. Are these now repeated because the Israelites need a reminder about what they should be setting their hearts to build? So soon after gathering against Aaron and pressuring him to help them build the Golden Calf Moses reasserts his leadership and gathers them for a renewed holy purpose. We can gather for bad. We can congregate for good. The leader helps redirect the people’s energies. “Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose hearts so move them shall bring them—gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns…” (Exodus 35) And then Moses singles out an artisan from among the tribe of Judah who will lead this project. His name is Bezalel. The Torah records: “God has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill (hokhmah), ability (t’vunah) and knowledge (da-at) of every kind of craft.” The famous medieval commentator, Rashi, offers this explanation about the differences between these artistic qualities. Skill, or wisdom, is what a person learns from others. Ability describes one’s own insights or experiences. Knowledge, he equates, with divine inspiration. Artistic creations sometimes overwhelm us with their power. We wonder what unknown, or otherworldly, source inspired the artist. This is what Rashi deems da-at. It is not simply knowledge but instead divine knowledge. Often, we think of artists as singular. We describe the artists we admire as unique and unparalleled. It is how I felt when I walked into La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s soon to be completed cathedral. The work on this church began in 1882. It was conceived by Antoni Gaudi. The stained-glass windows are unlike anything I have ever seen before. The way the windows illuminate the sun’s rays are breathtaking. And yet Gaudi most certainly saw his creations as standing on the shoulders of his Christian faith. The Torah reminds us of an important lesson. Artists must learn from others. They lean on their predecessors. No creative work stands disconnected from others. They are bound together by the[…]

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  • Defend Israel's Democracy

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 10, 2023 | 13:15 pm

    Israel is on fire from within and from without.From the outside it continues to face lethal terrorist attacks and the specter of an increasingly emboldened and nuclear Iran. From within it faces something which has long been simmering but has now found voices of legitimacy within the current ruling coalition.I mourn the deaths. Their numbers increase. Two young brothers, Hillel and Yagel Yaniv, were recently murdered when traveling to their home. Elan Ganeles, an American who had made aliyah, was also murdered. He was on his way to a friend’s wedding. Rockets are fired from Gaza at Israeli towns. Terrorism continues.Israel responds with force. Its soldiers kill terrorists. Its police continue to thwart planned attacks. Fierce fighting was reported in Jenin. Settlers rioted in the town of Huwara. They burned hundreds of homes. A Palestinian was killed. Sameh Aqtesh. I grieve over the deaths of innocent Palestinians.During these riots, Israeli soldiers rescued Palestinians from their burning homes. Their commanding officer called the settlers’ rampage a pogrom....This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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  • Secure the Soul

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 2, 2023 | 19:35 pm

    Purim is celebrated on Monday evening. With its penchant for costumes and carnivals, it is a day typically relegated to children. And yet the rabbis imagined otherwise. The Talmud commands: “A person is obligated to get drunk until they do not know the difference between 'cursed is Haman' and 'Blessed is Mordechai.'” (Megillah 7b) This is derived from the concluding lines of the Book of Esther: “The same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their enemies and the same month which had been transformed from one of grief and mourning into one of festive joy, they were now to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking.” (Esther 9). Nothing suggests feasting and merrymaking more than abundant food and most especially, plenty of wine and spirits. Still, it is a curious commandment and gives one pause. This is how we are supposed to commemorate a victory over antisemitism? We are supposed to get wasted? This is counterintuitive. The only way to achieve victory over antisemites is by remaining clear headed. The essence of confronting evil and hate lies in the ability to draw distinctions. When we get drunk nothing is clear. Often the lines between right and wrong become blurred. And we must keep these straight. We must remain clear eyed if we are to face today’s threats. Antisemitism threatens us in two ways. One is the obvious. Throughout our long history, and especially our more recent history, antisemites have succeeded in carrying out their lethal threats. We have been gunned down in synagogues and supermarkets. We have been murdered in Nazi concentration camps and chased from cities and villages. The list is lengthy. It is painful to enumerate. What began with Haman did not end with Mordecai’s victory. This threat remains forever clear. The other danger is blurred. Antisemites threaten our soul. We can become consumed by the fear antisemitism ingenerates. Take our response to last weekend’s so called “Day of Hate” as but one example. The Jewish community, its leaders and members, discussed this in more detail and at greater length than the Nazis who promoted[…]

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  • Building the Sanctuary of the Heart

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 24, 2023 | 00:04 am

    The Hasidic movement was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer in eighteenth century Ukraine. It was a radical departure from traditional norms in which rabbinic leadership was predicated on scholarship and in particular mastery of the Talmud.Rabbi Israel, who later became known as the Baal Shem Tov, was a schoolteacher and laborer. He was more enamored of mystical texts such as the Zohar than classical rabbinic texts. He loved meditating rather than studying. Unlike other rabbis he did not spend his days poring over traditional passages. Instead, he would spend considerable time wandering in the woods. He taught that the spiritual path was a mystical road open to anyone. The secret is not, the Hasidic masters taught, mastery of chapter and verse, but instead in finding a teacher, a rebbe. Follow in his footsteps. Sing wordless melodies (niggunim) by his side. These were always the best medicine and the recipe Hasidism offered to the Jewish masses hungry for spirituality but unable to devote hours to study and learning. Each of the Hasidic masters who followed Rabbi Israel offered nuanced perspectives. They developed competing schools of thought. Each generation refined their masters’ teachings and sometimes offered insights not heretofore known. Some took their master’s teachings in new and unfound directions.Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk drew a sharp contrast with his predecessors. Whereas the Baal Shem Tov was forgiving in his approach and emphasized God’s compassion, the Kotzker rebbe as he later became known, was obsessed with God’s justice. In fact, he was so intoxicated with truth that he burned nearly all of his writings. Nothing a person writes could ever really approximate God’s truth. Too often the outer life veils the inner. We spend our days dwelling on appearances and outer trappings rather than focusing on mastering the spirit.Abraham Joshua Heschel observes:If he were alive today, the Kotzker would look aghast at the replacement of spirituality by aesthetics, spontaneity by decorum. Like Kierkegaard he would vehemently condemn an aesthetic concept of Judaism acted out in customs, ceremonies, sentimental celebrations and polished oratory, as well as in decorative representations of God in[…]

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  • Why Study Chemistry? Why Study Torah?

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 17, 2023 | 16:13 pm

    Recently my seventh graders engaged in a heated discussion about the virtues of the subjects they are studying in school. I asked them which class they liked the best. “Math,” said one. “FCS,” said another one. “What is FCS?” I asked. “Family and Consumer Science,” they answered. “What is “Family and Consumer Science?” I responded. “We learn how to cook and sew,” a student chimed in.All their answers hinged on the subjects’ apparent usefulness. They reasoned they should know how to balance a checkbook and cook dinner. Learning about American history was another matter. Studying the periodic table did not make much sense. I offered, “Isn’t there value in learning for learning’s sake? Isn’t their merit in learning how to think? Isn’t there interest in finding meaning and inspiration in something as small as an atom?”This week, I open the Torah to a flurry of laws. I read:When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. (Exodus 21)I hear my seventh grader’s questions. “What does a goring ox have to do with me? No one, I know, even owns an ox.”The renowned biblical scholar, Nahum Sarna, suggests that the Torah’s laws are unique and stand apart from other ancient near eastern law codes. Other ancient codes made distinctions between the human life that was taken. In other words, there was a guilty party received greater punishment if the person killed or injured was a prince. A wealthy person’s life was accorded more weight. In the bible’s estimation, no distinction can be made between people.Sarna writes: “The sanctity of human life is such as to make bloodshed the consummate offense, one viewed with unspeakable horror. Neither man nor beast that destroys a life can[…]

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  • Give Me Some Rest

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 9, 2023 | 22:05 pm

    People often say they are spiritual and not religious. “Rabbi, I am not really into organized religion. I am spiritual.” Sometimes I respond, “You do recognize that you are talking to one of the organizers.” Most of the time, I offer an understanding nod and ask them to tell me more. They suggest that they find spirituality and meaning in nature. They believe in the Ten Commandments. By this they mean the ethical precepts such as, “You shall not murder. You shall not steal.” I do not have the heart to remind them about the fourth commandment, “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of Lord your God: you shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20) In the early 1970’s Princeton University conducted a study of its seminary students. All the students were of course familiar with the story from Christian scriptures about the Good Samaritan from which the law protecting someone who stops to help another derives. This tale emphasizes that it is often ordinary people, not devout or holy people, who help those in need. All the students were told that they had to travel to another campus building where they would partner with a fellow student on a sermon. They then divided the group into three. The first group was told that they had little time and they should rush across campus. The second was told that although they were not rushed, they needed to arrive promptly. The third was told that they could take their time and there was no sense of urgency regarding their arrival. On their way to the other building, all the students confronted a stranger who appeared desperate and in need. Here is what the study revealed. 63% of those who did not feel rushed stopped to help. 45% of the participants who felt slightly rushed stopped. And only 10% of those students who believed that they were running late offered help to the stranger. And here is the lesson. There is an ethical[…]

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  • Why the Journey Is So Long and Hard

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 2, 2023 | 21:26 pm

    The Torah relates: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer.” (Exodus 13) Why? Why not take the more direct route? Why lead the Israelites on a roundabout path? The commentators debate this question. Many suggest that God’s concern was practical. If the people traveled through what is today the Gaza Strip, an area then controlled by the Philistines, they would most assuredly confront war. This of course might give them pause. They might have a change of heart and want to return to slavery. The Torah agrees: “God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.’” The medieval commentators Rashi and Nachmanides concur. On the literal level this makes sense. Then again God parts the Sea of Reeds. The sea is divided so that the Israelites might escape the advancing Egyptians. In the beautiful poem “Song of the Sea,” that includes our Mi Chamocha prayer, the Israelites exclaim: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army God has cast into the sea; and the pick of his officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds.” (Exodus 15) So why would God not fight the battles with the Philistines as well? Perhaps the stated reason does not offer the more important lesson. The commentators Ibn Ezra and Maimonides offer more interesting explanations. Ibn Ezra suggests that the Israelites first had to sense freedom before claiming the land of Israel as their own. They needed to live as a free people, wandering throughout the wilderness, before establishing freedom in the land of Israel. Maimonides, on the other hand, suggests that the Israelites needed to take this roundabout route so that they might experience hardship. The hunger and pain, rebellions and complaining, offer important lessons for these former slaves. Only after taking these lessons to heart will they be able establish their own nation. The easy path rarely offers the greatest lessons. When things are given to us without struggle, or even suffering, we do not always appreciate them as we should. What we earn through hardship[…]

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  • Taste the Wonder

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 27, 2023 | 14:34 pm

    When I was young and we would go out for a nice dinner with my grandparents, towards the end of the meal when everyone was sharing their delight about the restaurant and raving about this dish or that, my Nana would quietly sit there. I would then invariably ask her, “Nana what did you think about dinner?” And she would respond, “It was tasty.” Her response never wavered. It could be the best meal or the worst, the most expensive restaurant, or the least. Food was tasty, never delicious. Meals were not deserving of accolades unless of course she was related to the cook and then superlatives could be showered on my mom or dad or even me when I cooked the one thing I could make as a child, an omelet. On Monday we entered the Hebrew month of Shevat. In two weeks, we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat (the fifteenth of the month), the day on which we mark the new year of the trees. This month is associated with the faint beginnings of spring. In the land of Israel trees begin to blossom, most particularly the beautiful, pink flowers of almond trees. And the Jewish mystics associated this month of Shevat with taste. The only time I ever recall my Nana offering something other than her usual tasty judgment about was when she told me about her first bite of a tomato. Soon after arriving in America from Eastern Europe someone gave her a tomato to eat. The vegetable was unfamiliar to her, and she thought it was an apple. When she bit into it and the tomato exploded, she spit it out. She hated it. The taste did not mirror the expectation. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory are the different types of taste, although some experts suggest there are more. (I am sure the family experts will weigh in on this debate and my son, and probably my mother, and perhaps even my nephew will suggest corrections.) What makes chefs celebrated masters are how they finesse these tastes and conjure flavors from ingredients that in other[…]

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  • Take a Breath

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 19, 2023 | 21:08 pm

    Before God brings down the plagues on Egypt, Moses tells the people they will soon be freed from slavery and delivered to the promised land. The Torah relates: “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6) A story. One winter evening, during the darkest days of the Holocaust when Hugo Gryn and his father were imprisoned by the Nazis, Gryn’s father instructed him to come to a quiet corner of the barrack. His father said, “My son, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. Hugo then watched in astonishment as his father plucked a few threads from his tattered prison uniform in order to create makeshift wicks for the Hanukkah lights. He then gently placed these in several days’ miniscule margarine ration. Hugo became incensed with his father. “You did not eat your margarine. You need those calories to survive. We could have even spread it on that measly crust of bread they gave us. Instead, you saved it to kindle Hanukkah lights?” Hugo’s father turned to him and said, “My dear son, you and I have seen that it is possible to live a very, very long time without food. But Hugo, a person cannot live, for even a day, without hope.” I have often told this story. It is inspiring. It seems almost super-human. How can someone stave off hunger for the sake of lighting a candle? How can anyone be hopeful in the midst of such extraordinary cruelty and death? The Israelites’ reaction seems the more understandable. The Hebrew can be translated as follows: “They would not listen to Moses; their spirits were shortened (m’kotzer ruach) and their servitude hard.” What does it mean for our spirits to be shortened? How do we become so dispirited? It all depends on how one feeds the soul and nourishes the spirit. For Hugo Gryn’s father it only required saving some margarine. For others it might require more. How do we instill hope in our hearts? How can we fortify our souls? Is it possible to[…]

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  • Rise Up and Take Note

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 14, 2023 | 15:31 pm

    My sermon in honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day. Discrimination is real. Racism in America is a pervasive force. What are we to do? We must rise up and take note!  This weekend we mark Martin Luther King Jr Day and so I wish to reflect on the lessons we can, and should, draw from Reverend King’s example. He fought, and died, so that African Americans might achieve equal rights in this nation that promises equal rights for all. That struggle continues. The promise remains unfulfilled.A few years ago, I travelled with a number of rabbis to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This remarkable, and stirring, museum was inspired by Bryan Stevenson who founded the Equal Justice Initiative that fights for those who are wrongly incarcerated. Among its more startling exhibits are soil remains from sites where Blacks were lynched and terrorized. There were photographs on the museum walls showing how snacks were distributed to those who attended these lynchings. Children were brought by parents to these hangings as if these acts of terror constituted proper entertainment. Such lynchings occurred in our country into the 1950’s. As one leaves the museum and memorial, one confronts rows of copper metal slabs with the names of Southern towns etched on their surface. These are where such horrors occurred. These bear witness to the locations of past lynchings. A sign indicates the purpose and intention of these rows and rows of slabs. They are for the towns to claim and erect in their squares. Then they might confront their past. Only by acknowledging past wrongs can we build the better future that Martin Luther King dreamed about. None of these has yet to be claimed. Bryan Stevenson remarked, “I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America. I want to liberate America.” We have much work to be done. Our nation can do better. It must do better. The fight against injustice continues. It did not end when Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a[…]

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  • Eternal Struggles

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 12, 2023 | 21:07 pm

    Leon Wieseltier writes:There are problems and there are struggles. Problems have solutions; struggles have outcomes. Problems are technical; struggles are historical. Problems recur; struggles persist. Problems teach impatience; struggles teach patience. Problems are fixed; struggles are fought. Problems require skill; struggles require character. Problems demand knowledge; struggles demand wisdom. Problems may end; struggles may not end. A problem that does not end is a defeat or a failure; a struggle that does not end is a responsibility and a legacy.We turn to the Book of Exodus. It details our enslavement in Egypt and then our miraculous rescue from slavery. And yet our freedom does not end the institution of slavery. In fact, the Bible’s record is mixed. Even though the injustice and cruelty of the Israelites’ slavery are remedied, slavery continues. The Bible details laws about how one must treat slaves. Hebrew slaves are accorded more rights than others. We read, “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, that person shall serve six years—and shall go free in the seventh year, without payment.” (Exodus 21) Slavery endures. It was not eradicated with the Exodus. Its abolition remains our sacred task. Likewise, the civil war did not end discrimination against African Americans. Racism continues. The defeat of Nazi tyranny did not eliminate the hatred of Jews and Judaism. Antisemitism gains new life in our own day. These are struggles that span generations. Wieseltier counsels that our error is treating these as problems for which we can find practical—or technological—fixes rather than girding ourselves for life-long fights. I ponder his advice. Does this new-found revelation lead to despair? World War II was only a battle? The Civil War a skirmish? The magnitude of these struggles can lead to a despondent spirit. Where can I discover a measure of hopefulness? History’s timeline is long and its struggles are mighty. I recognize that I may not see the day when slavery ends. I may not witness antisemitism eradicated. I may never behold a time when war and bloodshed cease. Their absence remains my hope. The fight against discrimination, antisemitism and violence must forever remain our[…]

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  • Our True Jewish Identity

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 5, 2023 | 21:40 pm

    The English term Jew originates in the Hebrew Yehudi, meaning from the tribe of Judah. This week we read, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him, and the homage of peoples be his.” (Genesis 49) Judah was one of Jacob’s eldest sons. Each of these sons gave birth to one of the twelve tribes. Some 3,000 year ago, after the death of King Solomon, the northern kingdom of Israel, comprising the territory of ten of these tribes, was conquered by the Assyrians, which led to their absorption into the Assyrian empire or their integration into the southern kingdom. This southern kingdom of Judah was formed by the combination of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Eventually the tribe of Benjamin was likewise absorbed and thus Judah’s descendants came to dominant the ancient landscape and the future Jewish story. To be a Jew is to trace one’s lineage or connection to this tribe of Judah. To be Jewish is perhaps a different matter. It can be at times confusing and confounding. George Santos, our rightfully embattled incoming representative, contorts the term, and defames those who take pride in their Jewish identities as well as those who believe honesty—at least about oneself—is a prerequisite to service, to mean that he is only somewhat Jewish. He appears to believe that an invented biographical detail about having one Jewish grandparent allows him to make a partial claim on being a Jew. Can one’s Jewish identity be partial? For millennia we have debated the meaning of these terms and argued about our identities. (This controversy did not start with Santos!) What does being Jewish mean? What does saying, “I am a Jew!” convey? We can hear our brethren suggesting that some people are members of the tribe and others are not. In today’s Israel, these debates will soon emerge anew, and we will once again fight (and I expect, vociferously) about who is a Jew. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis will argue that only a person who is born to a Jewish mother[…]

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  • Foreshadowing Our Concern

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Dec 29, 2022 | 19:00 pm

    Joseph’s story mirrors what will soon happen to the Israelites. Joseph is imprisoned in Egypt. The Israelites are later enslaved by Pharaoh.The Torah offers hints of what it is to come. The Book of Genesis foretells the travails of Exodus.When Joseph realizes that his brothers have changed and this time stand up to protect their younger brother Benjamin rather than selling him into slavery as they did to Joseph earlier, Joseph breaks down and cries. He reveals himself to his brothers, saying, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45)The Torah relates: “His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.” Hints appear. They point toward later events.In Exodus we read, “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.” (Exodus 2)Look at the contrast. Take note of the hints.Pharaoh ignores Joseph’s cries. He is indifferent to the Israelites’ pain. He turns aside from the suffering and pain he causes.God is attuned to our pain. “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”The Psalmist concurs: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit God delivers.” (Psalm 34)And I am left wondering about these hints.Are we more like Pharaoh who turns away from the cries around us? And are we likewise responsible for a measure of this suffering? Or are we more like God who is forever attuned to the multitude of broken hearts?Let us turn inward and resolve. Can we become more like God? Can we become more attentive to pain?

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  • Hanukkah’s Unwanted Miracles

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Dec 22, 2022 | 11:15 am

    In Israel the dreidel’s phrase shifts. One word changes from there to here. It reads “a great miracle happened here.” There creates distance. Here denotes an intimacy with the events of the past. I am wondering if this is a good thing. When it comes to miracles does being “here” become intoxicating?I am back where it all happened. And I have returned to where it is again happening. No matter how many times I visit Israel, it is a privilege to be here. It is an unparalleled blessing to live in this age alongside the sovereign Jewish state of Israel. And yet, I find myself worrying. Can the past overwhelm the present and begin to suffocate the future?There is a strain of Jewish thought that was once minor that I fear is becoming major. You can hear it in the medieval thinker Yehuda Halevi who argued that there is something special in the Jewish soul and that when combined with the land of Israel results in prophecy. It flows through Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook the first chief rabbi of British controlled Palestine who saw the holiness of the land above all else.You hear their thinking more today. It is the result of what happens when the miracles of yesterday begin to be felt today…This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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  • Hanukkah's Freedoms

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Dec 15, 2022 | 22:51 pm

    A great miracle happened there. These words are part of Hanukkah’s essence and the phrase the dreidel’s letters point us toward. Thousands of years ago the Maccabees fought against oppressors who persecuted our ancestors, prohibited Jewish practice and desecrated Jerusalem’s holy Temple. When the Maccabees succeeded in their fight, they rededicated the Temple to Jewish prayer and instituted our holiday of Hanukkah. In their eight-day long dedication ceremony, they rejoiced that Jews could once again freely acknowledge their faith. We continue to celebrate the Maccabees’ achievements and mark this holiday of Hanukkah every year with the lighting of the menorah, the playing of dreidel and the eating of latkes or sufganiyot (jelly donuts). On each successive night we light one more candle as the miracle increases. We recall that during Hanukkah’s first celebration we did not know if the oil would last for the requisite eight days. The increasing miracle, and the growing light, dispels our worries. Hanukkah is about the freedom to celebrate our Judaism. Is this miracle enough? This holiday reminds us that we can proudly proclaim our Jewish faith in a world where our Jewish identities are sometimes demeaned, and other times begrudged us. In the face of mounting antisemitism and hate, this year’s Hanukkah has taken on new meaning and additional import. We must take up the Maccabees’ resolve. On Saturday, the cantor and I participated in Oyster Bay’s holiday festival. The focus of the festivities was of course the lighting of the Christmas tree and as far as the hundreds of children in attendance were concerned, Santa Claus riding in on a fire truck. And yet, I remain grateful that town officials asked us to participate and wanted to display a Hanukkah menorah alongside the tree. I am grateful that they invited me to speak and the cantor to sing. We can dwell on the alarming increase in antisemitism, or we can focus on Saturday’s events. In Oyster Bay our neighbors go to great effort to make us feel welcome. Here we are made to feel invited. We are asked to display a menorah. We[…]

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  • Silenced No More

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Dec 8, 2022 | 20:28 pm

    Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, never speaks. The Torah is also silent about the meaning of her name. When a son is born, we read for example the words of Leah, “God has given me a choice gift; this time my husband will exalt me for I have borne him six sons. So she named him Zebulun.” Regarding Dinah, the Torah is succinct. “Last, Leah bore Jacob a daughter, and named her Dinah.” (Genesis 30) Our Bible silences Dinah. This week we read a harrowing tale. We confront the story of how Dinah is raped. “And Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw Dinah; he took her and lay with her: he forced her.” (Genesis 34) Her father, and brothers, turn away from Dinah. They are filled with rage. They suggest that Shechem can marry Dinah if he and his fellow townsmen become circumcised. Shechem agrees. The townsmen follow their prince’s lead. Then when they are recovering from their circumcisions, the brothers kill Shechem and slaughter the townsmen. And how does Jacob respond? He says to his sons, “You have stirred up disaster for me, making me reek among the people of the land. For I am few in number; they will band together against me and strike me, and I will be wiped out, I and my household!” Jacob does not speak with Dinah. The brothers do not try to console their sister after she is raped. Our forefathers worry more about themselves and their own reputations. Recently I watched the movie, “She Said,” about The New York Times investigation of Harvey Weinstein. The reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, spend considerable time and energy convincing women to speak out and share their stories of rape and sexual harassment. These women are weary and trepidatious. They are silenced. Few want to listen. The culture urges them to keep silent. Often, they feel they are somehow to blame for what was done to them. The enablers are many and varied. The name Dinah means judgment. I am left wondering.Is judgment too often silenced? Are we complicit[…]

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  • Journey Here, Journey Now

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Dec 2, 2022 | 21:16 pm

    The poet David Whyte writes:Pilgrim is a word that accurately describes the average human being; someone on their way somewhere else, but someone never quite knowing whether the destination or the path stands first in importance; someone who underneath it all doesn't quite understand from whence or from where their next bite of bread will come, someone dependent on help from absolute strangers and from those who travel with them. Most of all, a pilgrim is someone abroad in a world of impending revelation where something is about to happen.Likewise, one of the Torah’s great themes is that of journeying. We are traveling to a place (the land of Israel) to which we never fully arrive. And when our patriarchs do arrive at this long sought-after destination their arrival proves only temporary. Our arrival always remains unfulfilled. The destination remains but a dream. This week, we discover Jacob who becomes Israel is forever journeying. The young Jacob is now on the run after deceiving his father Isaac and tricking his brother Esau out of the birthright. He is rightly terrified Esau might kill him and so sets out on a journey to his mother’s hometown. Somewhere on his way to Haran from Beersheva, he stops for the night. God appears to him in a dream. We do not know where Jacob stops. The Torah reports: “He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.” (Genesis 28) And yet it is here, in this apparently nondescript place, that he experiences God and gains reassurance from God’s promise. This place is of course not located in an ordinary place. It is found in the promised land of Israel. “The ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.” We do not know its GPS coordinates. We might not know where exactly Jacob rested for night and where he experienced God. We do know that it lies within the borders of the promised land. Perhaps this place is not as nondescript as we were first led to believe. The[…]

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  • The Question Is the Sermon

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Nov 23, 2022 | 14:46 pm

    The Hebrew word for sermon is drasha. It is derived from “l’drosh” meaning “to inquire” or “to expound.” The Torah relates: “The children struggled in Rebekah’s womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist? She went to inquire (l’drosh) of the Lord.” (Genesis 25) Like Sarah before her and Rachel after her, Rebekah faces difficulty conceiving a child. God likewise intervenes and she miraculously becomes pregnant. Rebekah carries twin boys: Jacob and Esau. Their struggles, and battles, with each other begin before they are even born. And this causes their mother pain. Is her distress physical or emotional? I wonder. Why is pain the motivation for Rebekah’s question? Why does her struggle turn her towards God? Why does pain send us searching for answers from an unknowable being? Why do our struggles make us question our existence? God responds to her inquiry: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” I remain perplexed. This is an answer to her pain? This justifies the struggle between Jacob and Esau? How can Rebekah’s torment ever be assuaged? We pine after answers that cannot, and will not, arrive. And yet we must continue the inquiry. The question is the essence of who we are. The asking is what defines us. Peter Cole, observes in his poem, “Notes on Bewilderment”:Lord, goes the prayer, keep me from delusion.Which really means allow my mind to be opento all that comes my way, without bringingruin upon me—through fusion of things that aredistinct at heart. Keep me from conclusion.We pretend that God answers. We speak with far too many exclamation points. We would be better served by concluding with question marks. At the heart of every sermon is a question. The beginning of learning is asking, “Why?” Indeed! Why do I exist?

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  • Don't Ask Google, Ask Grandma

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Nov 17, 2022 | 22:47 pm

    Rabbi Ben Zoma asks, “Who is wise?” He answers his own question and responds. “The person who learns from every human being.” (Avot 4)I am thinking about Ben Zoma and his teaching these days. Every day we read about the arrogance of tech wizards. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, to name but two, seem to believe that the unparalleled successes of Tesla and Facebook make them experts in every manner of things. Will they learn? There is something to be said for leaning into the expertise of others. No one is expert in everything. Even starting a phenomenal company does not mean you can take over and improve another. Even creating a platform for over a billion users does not mean it will be used for good or that people will prefer the metaverse over the real world. Experience matters. Years and years of living, and working, offer wisdom. There is something to be said for leaning into the experience of those older than us. That is our tradition’s posture. Consult first what was said, and taught, long ago. This week we read about Abraham and Sarah’s deaths. Sarah dies at 127 years and Abraham at the age of 175. He is called zakein which is usually translated as old. That makes sense because 175 is old by anyone’s measure. The rabbis, however, suggest that the Hebrew letters spelling out zakein, namely zayin, koof and nun point to an acronym, zeh kanah hokhmah—this one has acquired wisdom. In our tradition’s view old is synonymous with wise. The older the book the better. The older the person the more wise. I love gadgets and technology, but they are not wise. Even the smartest of gadgets is rendered stupid if there is no power or internet. Soon we will be gathering around our Thanksgiving tables. Rather than scrolling through the latest TikTok videos or Instagram posts, perhaps we should drink in the wisdom of those gathered around us. Instead of asking Google to solve a debate swirling around our tables. Ask an elder. Listen to others. Who is wise? The person who[…]

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  • Bringing Justice and Healing

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Nov 10, 2022 | 21:49 pm

    There are no parallels in ancient near eastern literature to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible’s tale stands apart. Moreover, this episode in which these sinful cities are completely destroyed is referenced not only in this week’s portion but in several other instances in the Torah. Rabbi Gunther Plaut (1912-2012), a Reform rabbi and author of an exhaustive commentary, argues that “only a historic cataclysm of startling proportions could have impressed itself so deeply on popular memory.” These cities were situated at the southern end of the Dead Sea. There, even the air is thick with the smell of salt and sulfur from its mineral deposits and formations. Listen to the tale. “The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire.” In addition, a fault line runs through this area, extending from Armenia to Central Africa. Scholars suggest, the rift valley is the result of a catastrophic earthquake. If its magnitude was significant, the earthquake could have raised the Dead Sea’s waters and flooded the valley, including the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps there are natural explanations for this story. That is not, however, how the Torah frames this tale. Instead, it offers two related lessons. On the one hand, it is an illustration of the closeness of Abraham and God’s relationship. God thinks, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him?” (Genesis 18) Abraham and God are partners. God does not wish to do much without conferring with him (and his descendants). On the other hand, the Torah emphasizes that God’s justice is exacting. Abraham asks, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Thus, the only reason why these cities were destroyed is because every single resident town is bent on evil. All try[…]

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  • Who Is (Really) Rich

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Nov 4, 2022 | 02:33 am

    My brother called me and excitedly screamed. “Steve, I bought a lottery ticket. It’s up to 1.2 billion dollars!” “That’s great,” I said. “I am sure if you win, you will share it with your brother.” He retorted, “No can do. I already promised to buy the cashier a new car with my winnings.” Rabbi ben Zoma taught: “Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion.” (Pirke Avot) For the ancient rabbis wealth is about perspective. Happiness is not a matter of winning the lottery. It is instead about being content with one’s lot. It is about not pining after what others have. To be fair. My brother has not lost perspective. His heart is truly filled with gratitude. I have great admiration for how hope rules his thoughts (and guides many of his sermons). Even 300 million to one odds will not deter him! The Torah calls to Abraham, “Lech lecha. Go forth from your native land.” (Genesis 12). It goes on to describes our forefather as wealthy. “Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver and gold.” (The Hebrew uses a curious phrase. “Avram kaved maod…” A literal rendition might instead read: Abram was very heavy with cattle, silver and gold. The Hebrew adds a layer of meaning. It suggests he was weighed down by his riches. The plain meaning is clear. The journey on which God sends Abraham is difficult not only because he must leave his ancestral home but also because of all the riches he must carry with him. It is not easy to travel across the desert with so many belongings. It is not easy to shepherd a flock across the wilderness. Better to travel light. Abraham is unable to do so. And thus, he travels in stages. “And he proceeded by stages from the Negev as far as Bethel.” Perhaps there is an even greater truth hidden within this verse. How do our riches weigh us down? How do they prevent us from seeing beyond ourselves? Holocaust survivors tend to accumulate portable wealth. Some lack faith in financial institutions. Many do[…]

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  • Don't Let Antisemitism Define Us

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 29, 2022 | 03:27 am

    My sermon about the rise of antisemitic hate and how best to respond. Four years ago, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was attacked and eleven of its members were murdered. In January members of a Colleyville synagogue were held hostage. Thankfully none of the hostages were killed or even seriously injured. And over the past several weeks, Kanye West has been spewing hatred towards Jews and Judaism to his 30 million followers. And while the motivations for each of these attacks—let’s be clear words can be just as dangerous as bullets and guns—might be slightly different, they are connected by the thick thread of antisemitism. Let us reflect on this rising tide of antisemitism and our response—or better yet, our responses—to it.First of all, let me state this sad but obvious truth. Antisemitism is never going away. My grandparents who experienced first-hand the murderous antisemitic hatred of the Cossacks and the antisemitic barriers suburban America presented them they were right and my twenty-five-year-old self who experienced perhaps one or two anti-Jewish jokes was wrong. It has been here since ancient times. It exists in countries where there are few if any Jews. It will always be with us. It morphs depending on time and circumstance. Sometimes it metastasizes into something even more lethal. Yet, each passing century has demonstrated that antisemitism remains stubborn and enduring.Second, today there are three basic forms of antisemitism, and it is important that we understand their differences because the tools we use to fight against these different types should not always be the same. On the one hand there is the antisemitism of the far right. These are groups such as neo-Nazis (although I object to the term neo-Nazi because there is nothing new about it), the Ku Klux Klan and white nationalists. Such groups have been active on our very own Long Island since at least the 1930’s. And such groups inspired the Tree of Life synagogue murderer. On the other hand, there is the antisemitism of Islamist groups like Hamas. Again, there is a direct line between the hostage taker in Colleyville[…]

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  • Listen to the World's Languages, Hearken to the World

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 28, 2022 | 16:10 pm

    Listen to the World's Languages, Hearken to the World The Basque language is unique. It is what scholars call a language isolate and is unrelated to any other existing language. It stands apart from every other European language. Some scholars date its origins to the days when cave dwellers first formulated spoken languages nearly 7000 years ago. Today it is spoken by some 750,000 people who live primarily in the Basque region, an area that straddles the border of Spain and France on the Atlantic coastline. I became somewhat fascinated by this region when we visited our son Ari who was working at a farm in the Northern Basque region and where I discovered a newfound passion for hard cider, although much to our host’s bewilderment, not his homemade jamon. We travelled throughout the area, moving effortlessly across the French-Spanish border. Throughout our travels we heard Spanish and French but became particularly attuned to the sounds of Basque. I continue to wonder. How is it that this language remains isolated and unrelated to all others? The Torah teaches: “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” (Genesis 11) And then they built the Tower of Babel with its top reaching into the heavens so that they could make a name for themselves. God punished them, scattering the people throughout the world and making it impossible for everyone to understand each other. “That is why it was called Babel because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth.” To this day, we remain confounded by the earth’s myriad of languages. And yet, even though I do not know a single word of Basque, I find our intricate web of languages a blessing and its nuances an occasion for learning. It often rains in the Basque country, and more than frequently lightly mists, and so its language has a unique word for what we might term mild rain. Languages are often the products of their homes and reflect the climates and geographies of the areas in which they are born. In Basque one can often see the ocean’s Bay of Biscay, or at least feel its[…]

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  • The Power of Naming

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 20, 2022 | 22:37 pm

    One of the most challenging, and profound, decisions new parents make is what to name their children. They often worry how others might perceive the names they choose. Will others like the names? Will children embrace their parent’s choice? How will these names frame their identities? The Torah states: “And God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the Human to see what he would call them; and whatever the Human called each living creature, that would be its names.” (Genesis 2) The medieval commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi, suggests that the first human being could recognize the essence of every animal and name it accordingly. I wonder. Does the name given to each of us become our essence? Does one’s character emerge immediately? And how is this connected to our names? The power to name is unrivaled. The Torah opens with the creation of the world. In its first lines we read, “God called the light Day and called the darkness Night.” (Genesis 1) God names. The power to name is God like. And God gives this power to humanity. Throughout our lives we name. Often friends give each other nicknames. (Rabbi David Kimhi is called the Radak.). On sport teams players give each other names. These suggest privileged knowledge. Couples give each other private names. These suggest intimacy. Naming defines relationships. It is unique to humans. It is shared with God alone. Other times we use the power of naming to push people away. Look at the discussion surrounding immigration as but one example. When we call immigrants “illegals,” we turn our backs to their plight. We define human beings as other. Then again, even when we use the term “refugee” we place others in a category deserving of our benevolence. There is only one proper way to call another human being. That is by the name they were given or perhaps by the name they have earned. To name is God like. Learn their names! Too often language is coarse and hurtful. Instead, it can[…]

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