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  • You Gotta Laugh

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 25, 2021 | 22:57 pm

    It’s a topsy turvy world and Purim’s tale is a topsy turvy story. Here is that story once again.A long, long time ago, in the land of Persia, and the city of Shushan, there lived a king and queen.One day Queen Vashti refuses to dance naked in front of the drunken King Achashverosh and his friends. Flummoxed by her refusal the king consults with his male advisors who say, “Now all women will ignore men’s commands. They will refuse all of their husbands’ demands. Kick Vashti out of the palace.” The king is easily persuaded and goes along with their advice. And so, Vashti loses her crown. And how does the king pick a new queen? He consults with his advisors who tell him to organize a beauty pageant. Esther of course wins the pageant. The Bible relates that she spent twelve months preparing herself: “Six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics.” We learn nothing about Esther’s character. We are taught nothing about her wisdom. We know only that she hides her Jewish identity and that is she is exceedingly beautiful. This is why she is selected as queen. Meanwhile, her uncle Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman, so the king’s most trusted advisor suggests that the king kill all the Jews. The logic and rationale of antisemites was, and perhaps always will be, elusive. Esther’s character emerges. Her wisdom shines. She fasts and prays. Esther reveals her Jewish identity to the king and explains how her life is threatened.“Who is he and where is he who dares do this?” stammers the king. Esther points toward Haman. “The enemy is this evil Haman!” she declares.Haman and his sons are hanged. The Jews make bloody war against their enemies. They emerge victorious, and their enemies are routed and killed.The story illustrates that all plans can be upended, and every strategy turned upside down. What is expected does not always come to pass. This tale rings true in our own age. Who could have expected what has transpired since we last celebrated Purim? Who[…]

  • Give Diamonds

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 19, 2021 | 19:00 pm

    This week we read about the building of the tabernacle. God commands Moses: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus 25)Gifts, most especially those intended for the building of the sanctuary, should come from the heart. They should not be coerced (or even commanded?) but freely given. The Torah continues: “And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.”That’s quite an exhaustive list. I wonder. How can gifts that are supposed to be freely given come from such a detailed list? If they are indeed gifts of the heart, shouldn’t the giver decide what to give, rather than the recipient?“Dear Susie, I know you said you wanted diamonds for your birthday, but I decided to give you some lapis lazuli instead.” How do you think that is going to go over? Even though Susie likes lapis lazuli if she is expecting (suggested?) diamonds then most would agree that this would not be a good decision on my part. Giving a gift is not so much about the object itself but instead about bringing joy, and happiness, to the recipient. God knows what God wants. And while we may not associate the giving of material things to God, perhaps God’s intention is not the accumulation of objects but that the gift giver achieves a measure of holiness by fulfilling God’s wishes. Our freedom only finds meaning in relationship to something greater. It is not about getting to do, or give, whatever one wants. It is instead about fulfilling God’s desire and pledging one’s heart to the recipient’s wishes. This is not to suggest that Judaism’s ideal is some mystical notion in which one’s freedom, and desires, are completely negated and entirely subsumed in God. Our[…]

  • How We Treat Others Comes First

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 12, 2021 | 20:32 pm

    The Torah proclaims: “These are the statutes that you shall set before them.” (Exodus 21). This is then followed by a detailed list of commandments required to build a just and thriving society. For instance, the consequences for murder, manslaughter, kidnapping are stealing are addressed. Here are a few more examples of the detailed laws enumerated in this week’s reading:When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, the person who started the fire must make restitution.You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to your enemy.The Hasidic rabbi, Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, comments: the portion’s opening verse that concludes with the words “before them” means the Torah teaches that civil law, namely the commandments between human beings and his or her fellow, come before anything else, before the mitzvot between human beings and God.Too often people think that religion, and Hasidism most especially, is all about how we approach God. It is not. Instead, it is first and foremost about how we approach each other. Judaism reminds us, and I quite frequently do so as well, that if we don’t do that right, if we don’t treat other human beings with dignity and respect, then we really have no business coming before God. This is why the laws about how to build civil (civilized?) society appear even before the Torah’s instructions for the building of the tabernacle. Judaism is not so much about what we do in the synagogue but instead how we speak, and treat, the person standing right by our side.The synagogue is supposed to further that holy purpose. The building of a just society, whose foundation are the laws given in the Torah, is our foremost concern. All the prayers we might offer are really about strengthening that goal. How we treat other people will always be what God is most concerned about.And that is exactly what we should be most concerned about[…]

  • It's Really About Character

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 10, 2021 | 14:43 pm

    Like so many proud Americans I was shocked and dismayed by Wednesday’s events. To see the Confederate flag marched through the Capital, rioters wearing Proud Boy slogans and QAnon paraphernalia, groups who traffic in conspiracy theories and antisemitism, to see people smashing the Capital’s windows, the mob desecrating the American flag and climbing Congress’ walls as if it were a jungle gym, to stare in disbelief as rioters vandalized our government’s sacred halls while senators and representatives scurried to safety, to read that people were killed and officers were injured and that one then died all on the day in which Congress was supposed to formally recognize the Electoral College votes and affirm Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris as our next president and vice-president, and finally, to hear President Trump’s earlier words exhorting the crowd to do such violence, was more than I could take. It was more than I could bear. Never was I more ashamed, and frightened to be an American.The hallmark of our system is that we have elections, some of which are of course hotly contested, but when they are over one person is deemed as having gained more votes, whether they be elector or popular votes, and he or she is granted the privilege of serving as our president, vice-president, representative, senator, governor, town supervisor or whatever the office may be. The person who earns less votes then graciously concedes and the disappointed among us start working towards the next election and righting the wrongs they believe their political opponent will now unveil. Senator John McCain offered these words when Senator Barak Obama became President Elect Obama: “I would not be an American worthy of the name, should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century. Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone and I thank the people of Arizona for it. Tonight — tonight, more than any night, I hold in[…]

  • Blessed be the USA

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 4, 2021 | 23:56 pm

    Although the names given to the Torah portions convey little if anything about their content, it is fascinating to discover that this week’s reading, containing the revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments, is named for Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, Yitro. Very few portions are even named for a person. They are Noah, Hayyei Sarah, Korah, Balak and Pinhas. Like Yitro, Noah and Balak are not Israelites. Noah, however, precedes the Torah’s division of the world into Israelite and non-Israelite.Moreover, Balak and Yitro descend from Israel’s enemies. And yet both offer words of blessing. Balak provides us with the well-known morning prayer, Mah Tovu: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” (Numbers 24) This week we read, “Yitro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when God delivered them from the Egyptians. Yitro then said, ‘Blessed be the Lord.’” (Exodus 18)Even though the ancient rabbis did not ascribe meaning to the names of the portions—they are mere locater words so that the portion can be found in the Torah scroll—this week we are made to wonder. Does their choice to begin the reading with the words, “And Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done...” imply greater meaning?The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra suggests that Yitro’s recognition of God’s power comes to teach us that not every gentile is our enemy. Coming on the heels of Amalek’s attack on the Israelites this passage serves as a reminder that everyone is not like Amalek. The world is not divided into us and them, Israelites and Amalekites. Ibn Ezra writes, “Although there are Amaleks, there are also Yitros.”Everyone is not our enemy. In fact, our seeming enemies can sometimes offer truths that we cannot even see in ourselves. Those who appear to be our enemies may in fact be our friends, and even our family. Is this the underlying message of Balak and Yitro? Is this what our ancient rabbis wish to convey by beginning the revelation at Mount Sinai with Yitro’s words?I take notice. I heed their hidden exhortation. I[…]

  • No More Miracles

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 29, 2021 | 00:40 am

    You cannot sustain the miraculous. It is a flash that quickly dissipates. And yet people still chase after them. That’s why they pilgrimage to religious sites, hoping to recapture the spirit of what once happened there. They spend inordinate resources to travel back to where the inspiration for their faith first occurred. This is a mistaken effort and one which Judaism by and large rejects, although more by accident rather than design.We do not know the exact location of Mount Sinai. The Torah does not record the burial place of its hero Moses. We cannot even find the Sea of Reeds.And yet the impulse to rediscover such miraculous inspirations still drive religious followers. The medieval philosopher and poet, Yehudah HaLevi, who authored countless poems, most notably the words, “My heart is in the East, but I am trapped in the depths of the West,” died during his journey to reach the Holy Land. Legend records that he was killed as he reached out to touch the stones of Jerusalem’s gates, but he actually never made it to the land of Israel. People often ask, how come our kids don’t see the modern State of Israel as miraculous. “What’s wrong with them? Don’t they understand and appreciate the modern-day miracle Israel represents?” These questioners recall the moments of euphoria after the State of Israel was founded or following Israel’s unexpected (and miraculous) victory in the Six Day War. Or they remember, as I am often given to relate, Israel’s daring rescue of hostages in Entebbe and the feelings of celebration and affirmation (and even vindication) that we then experienced. I remember the day like it was yesterday when we, and every other New Yorker, cheered the Israeli navy ships entering the harbor on July 4, 1976. We forget the obvious. Our children were not there on that day. And no matter how many times we might take them out on a boat to New York harbor, or bring them to the battlefields that dot Jerusalem’s landscape, and describe yesterday’s scene they cannot truly imagine the moment. They cannot feel what I[…]

  • The Dawn Is Up to Us

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 22, 2021 | 00:26 am

    Our central prayer, the Shema is recited two times a day, once in the evening and again in the morning. The question arises how a person determines when it is evening and when morning. When is the first moment someone can recite the Shema, for example? Is it when we see the first glimmer of light, peering out of night’s darkness? The rabbis of the Talmud argue at length about this question. One responds, when one can determine between the sky’s blue and white. Another retorts, when one can distinguish between two similar animals, such as a wolf and a dog. The sages respond, when one can recognize an acquaintance from a distance of four cubits (six feet!). Jewish law follows the sages’ majority opinion. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 9b).Dawn is not about the glow of red and orange emerging at sunrise. Instead, it is about seeing, and in particular our seeing each other. The distinction between day and night is determined by our ability to see others. Darkness is not so much the absence of light but instead the inability to see friends and acquaintances.This darkness was the evil that enveloped Egypt during the ninth plague. “Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where they sat; but the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10)The ninth plague of darkness was not so much a punishment from God but instead a recognition of the evils the Egyptians brought upon themselves. They did not really see each other. With the exception of Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued Moses, the Egyptians did not see others, in particular the strangers among them, the Israelites. They did not see the pain of others. The plague was a spiritual darkness. At yesterday’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman, the young and extraordinarily talented poet, proclaimed:And yet the dawn is oursbefore we knew itSomehow we do itSomehow we've weathered and witnesseda nation that isn’t brokenbut simply unfinishedAnd I am renewed[…]

  • We're on the Same Boat!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 17, 2021 | 23:09 pm

    I have been thinking about the divisiveness we now face, and the unity that so clearly eludes us.Looking back on our history, we tend to diminish disagreements, and naysayers, and amplify agreement, and even exaggerate cohesiveness. When we peer at the events of yesterday, we tend to forget the pain that separated us from our neighbors.Think about how we retell our experience of going out from slavery in Egypt to freedom and wandering in the wilderness. And yet we read over and over again, that the people doubt Moses and even God. The Torah reports: “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: ‘I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage….’ But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6)Once free, we spend the remainder of the Torah arguing and fighting with each other. Moses dies in the Torah’s last chapter, his dream of touching the land of Israel is left unfulfilled. We are then left peering into the Promised Land, hoping and praying for a more unified, and less divisive future. That is how the Torah concludes. That is the Torah’s story. We retell it, however, in different fashion. We speak about the value of am echad, one people, struggling together, and as one, to reach their promise. On Passover, we do not speak about the bitterness that divided us. Instead, we offer up words about Pharaoh’s oppression and God’s redemption. We mythologize our unity. We elevate our cohesiveness in the face of (outside) forces arrayed against us. (Perhaps it was inner forces that divided us all along.) Even the rabbis who sanctify the value of machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven, who imagine how lofty disagreements can bring us closer to God, paper over the distaste competing rabbis must have had for each one another. The Talmud says: “For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed!” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b) I wonder. Did rabbis Hillel and Shammai even talk to each[…]

  • Conspiracy Theories No More!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 8, 2021 | 20:38 pm

    Conspiracy Theories No More! The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an infamous antisemitic tract written in the early 20th century advancing the conspiracy theory that Jews seek to control the world through a secret cabal. Scholars have long suggested it was written in Russia around the time of deadly antisemitic pogroms in the early 1900’s. In the 1920’s Henry Ford published 500,000 copies of this tract and distributed them throughout the United States to English reading audiences. Despite the fact that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was long ago debunked, it continues to find audiences and sympathetic ears.Today QAnon and its followers allege an equally outrageous conspiracy theory. A group of Satan worshiping pedophiles is running a sex-trafficking ring whose goal is the downfall of President Donald Trump. According to QAnon, among the ring’s followers are some Democratic leaders and liberal Hollywood actors who secretly meet in the basements of Washington DC pizza restaurants. There are of course other debunked and discredited theories out there seeking to explain how nefarious forces stole what many people wanted to happen, namely the election of Donald Trump to a second term. The core belief of such theories is that there exists some mysterious all powerful other out to get the “good guys.” It is now painfully obvious that far too little is being done to protect us against these dangerous ideas. As Jews we should know the deadliness of such conspiracy theories. Their dangers were on vivid display yesterday when a violent mob stormed the capital and delayed the work of Congress as they were meeting to sanctify the will of the majority of American voters. Shame on the leaders who encouraged them. Shame on the leaders who granted them the space to amplify their distorted views. Their actions sullied the reputation of every American. Let all our elected leaders stand with the institutions they serve, speaking truth against such insidious dissension and the kindling of violence.Conspiracy theories cannot be refuted by facts...This post continues on The Times of Israel.

  • Beware of Bringing the House Down

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 7, 2021 | 20:21 pm

    What follows is my sermon from Shabbat evening services, delivered the evening before Vice President Biden crossed the 270 electoral votes threshold.   On this evening, as we look out on the precipice of discovering who will serve as the president for the next four years, I wish to offer a reflection about our current divisions and urge us, once again, to work towards greater unity. I turn, as I always do, to the rabbis for guidance. Sometimes 2000-year-old stories are the best stories for today’s struggles. I wish to explore one of their most famous stories about community. It is the story of the oven of Aknai, contained in the Babylonian Talmud and told over and over again, most especially if you study at the Hartman Institute. Here is the story.It all starts with a seemingly innocuous question of whether or not an oven is kosher. The Talmud begins. A question was asked: is the oven clean or unclean? Rabbi Eliezer of Hyrcanus, considered the greatest mind of his day, declared it clean. The other Sages ruled it unclean. Rabbi Eliezer would not accept the majority’s decree. He brought forward every imaginable argument. Still they would not accept his logic. “Even though the oven is constructed of individual tiles, the cement which binds it together makes it a single utensil and therefore liable to uncleanness,” the Sages ruled. They refused to accept Eliezer’s view.Rabbi Eliezer became enraged and said: “If the law agrees with me let this carob tree prove it.” A miracle occurred and at that very instant a carob tree was uprooted from its place and moved 150 feet. Some say it moved 600 feet. (The Talmud often preserves debates within debates.) The Sages scoffed at Eliezer’s magic and declared: “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.” Eliezer became even more adamant and summoned all of his miraculous powers, saying: “If the law agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it.” Thereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” the Sages rejoined. He screamed: “If[…]

  • Renewing Friendships

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 4, 2021 | 15:43 pm

    Renewing Friendships As we close the Book of Genesis, and bury our remaining patriarchs, mourning in particular the death of Joseph, and as we bid farewell to the last remaining hours of 2020 with its searing pain and unrivaled singularity--who could ever have imagined a year like the one we just experienced--I wish to offer one lesson gained from 2020. This is what staying home for these many months has taught me.Sometime in May, my brother suggested (thank you Mike!) the idea for Monday Musings, in which I talk with friends and colleagues for 15-20 minutes. I was a guest on Mike's show before creating one of my own. He is the rabbi of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, Michigan. The thought is that this program can serve as a spiritual kick start to the week, that our conversations can inspire others or give our listeners ideas to ponder. In a year in which weeks seem to blur into one another and look all too similar to each other, we envisioned that at the very least they can begin with different and varied thoughts.   A meeting with someone from whom we might learn something new can start each week.The program evolved as time marched forward. I realized that I did not want to debate, or argue, with colleagues. I did not want the experience to be marked by disagreement but instead by discovery. There is plenty of disagreement out there and far too often argument that masquerades as entertainment rather than thoughtful debate. I wished instead to learn about friends' passions and gain insights from their personal journeys. And I share this not so much as a promotional piece for my program (or Mike's for that matter), but instead as an opportunity to share what I have learned and to suggest that each of us can do likewise and gain similar sustenance from weekly get-togethers with friends.Start every week with a phone call with a friend, although better to see your friend's face on FaceTime or Zoom. Put the date on the calendar well in advance. Allow yourself the pleasure of[…]

  • Compassion Rewrites History

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Dec 25, 2020 | 22:27 pm

    After many years apart, and at odds, Joseph and his brothers are reconciled. It is prompted by the elder Judah’s petitions. “For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Genesis 44) Judah appears to be a changed man. He now fears that the loss of his youngest brother Benjamin would cause his father Jacob’s death. Earlier he offered no such worry when he and his brothers sold Joseph into slavery and told their father that his beloved son was killed by wild beasts. Earlier Judah and his brothers only exhibited resentment towards Joseph and anger that their father favored him. Now they offer compassion. They acknowledge that Jacob shares a special bond with Benjamin, the son of his beloved wife Rachel who died in childbirth. It is this note of compassion that moves Joseph to offer forgiveness. It is their newfound understanding of the special bond one son shares with their father that causes Joseph to no longer to see the pain caused by their terrible deed but instead the good that has now transpired. Can good really emerge from terrible deeds? Can future successes redeem history’s errors? The Torah reports: “Joseph could no longer control himself…. He said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” Perhaps Joseph has also rediscovered a favored place in his heart for his father. Perhaps he was once angry at his father for doting on him and pushing his brothers toward their near deadly resentment. Joseph continues: “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45) It is a remarkable transformation. The brothers have changed. Joseph too is a new man. Resentment and anger have become love and affection. All are transformed by compassion and understanding. Years of anger, years of seething are seemingly undone in an instant, by a few well-chosen words. I do not imagine their ill feelings are forgotten. And yet is appears to be so.[…]

  • The Genesis of Healing and Reconciliation

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Dec 17, 2020 | 22:40 pm

    We are nearing the end of the Book of Genesis. This week we find ourselves in the midst of the Joseph story. Our hero Joseph, recently sold into slavery by his brothers, has now achieved power and renown in Egypt. The brothers who think he is a slave in a faraway land must now approach him and beg for food. They do not recognize him. He walks like an Egyptian. He talks like an Egyptian. He, however, recognizes them. And so, Joseph tests them. Much of Genesis can be viewed through the lens of the siblings it portrays. It is a story about brotherly love, although more often than not jealousy and rivalry. Ultimately the book concludes with a note of forgiveness and reconciliation. There are four sets of brothers.We open with Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. Cain is so consumed with anger that he kills his brother Abel. The hatred, apparently fostered by God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s, is never overcome.The next set of brothers is Isaac and Ishmael. They too have difficulty getting along, although fare better than their predecessors. After Isaac is born Sarah banishes his brother Ishmael. They are forced to live apart from each other. And yet they come together to bury their father Abraham. No words are exchanged. After the funeral they immediately go their separate ways. Still there appears a moment of reconciliation.Next, we read about Jacob and Esau. After Jacob steals the birthright Esau threatens to kill him. Jacob runs from his angry brother. He builds a successful life, again living apart from his brother for many years. Later they are reunited. The Torah offers a tender description about their reconciliation: “Esau ran to greet Jacob. He embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33) But then once again the brothers go their separate ways.The Joseph story is far lengthier and offers more detail. It occupies four portions. It is the culminating story of the Book of Genesis. In response to Joseph’s test, he discovers that his brothers[…]

  • Stand Up and Light the Hanukkah Candles

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Dec 11, 2020 | 23:13 pm

    Stand Up and Light the Hanukkah Candles According to rabbinic legend Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil. After the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greek army and recaptured Jerusalem, they discovered the Temple desecrated. They decreed an eight-day rededication ceremony but found only enough holy oil to last for one day. Lo and behold, a miracle occurred, and the oil lasted for eight days.Usually when we retell this story, we imagine the miracle growing brighter with each successive day. On each of the days of this dedication ceremony, the Maccabees must have expected the light to go out or at least the light to grow dimmer. Instead, the light kept burning. And so, the eighth day appears more miraculous than the first.Yet, the more important, and perhaps even more miraculous, moment occurred on the first day when the light was first kindled. I imagine a debate ensued about whether or not to light that wick floating in the cup of olive oil. Some must have argued against its lighting. Others might have retorted, “Let’s light it anyway and see how long it lasts. Even if it lasts for one day, that will be good enough.” I doubt there were few, if any, who thought the oil would last all eight days or that there was enough oil to last much longer than a few days.Despite this, someone had to stand up and light the oil. Even though no one knew what to expect, or what the future days might hold, someone kindled the light. Someone had the courage to light the Hanukkah lights on that first night even though evidence and reality argued against it. It is going to be a hard winter. The news is increasingly dispiriting. We cannot travel as much as we might like or certainly as much as we did in past years. We cannot see all the family and friends with whom we usually gather in December. But we can still light these Hanukkah candles. We can summon the courage of that individual Jew who stood up and lit the oil even though others thought it would never last more than one day. Some[…]

  • Our Questions Are Our Heritage

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Dec 6, 2020 | 15:01 pm

    Our Questions Are Our Heritage The Hasidic master, Sefat Emet, points out that Jacob is not called whole (shalem) until after he limps. “Jacob arrived shalem in the city of Shechem.” (Genesis 33:18) This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, describes the journey from which he arrives in Shechem. It describes our patriarch’s movement from cheating and brokenness to wholeness and peace. Jacob, now married with two wives, two maidservants, eleven sons and one daughter, many slaves and an abundance of livestock, sets out to return to his native land. At the same place where he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, he sends his family across the river and again spends the night alone. He is understandably nervous about the impending reunion with his brother Esau who twenty years earlier vowed to kill him for stealing the birthright.That night his experience is neither a dream nor an earthly reality. He wrestles with a being that is described as divine. Unable to free himself from Jacob’s grasp the being offers Jacob a blessing in exchange for his release. This being declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) The being wrenches Jacob’s hip causing him to limp. Jacob’s new name becomes the name of the Jewish people. Yisrael means to wrestle with God. What a remarkable statement about our people and our tradition! We can wrestle with God. We can question God. In fact, we should question God. While most people understand that questioning is part and parcel to being Jewish, few appreciate that such questioning extends towards heaven. The rabbis called this notion, chutzpah klappei shamayim, chutzpah towards heaven. It is a beautiful and telling concept.Long ago the rabbis codified action over belief, the duties of the hands over the feelings of the heart. We have books and books detailing exactly which cuts of beef are kosher, when to recite the Shema, even how much we should give to tzedakah. We do not have such books telling us exactly what we must believe. We have many discussions and debates[…]

  • The Blessings of 2020

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Dec 4, 2020 | 14:31 pm

    The Blessings of 2020 Recently I started giving myself haircuts. (Bring on the jokes!) I soon realized that no one could tell the difference. And so, I declared I will never go to the barber again. 2020 is bringing more than its share of firsts. My 85-year-old father bought a Peloton. (And my mom bought the cycling shoes as well.)  And, he will never again return to the gym for spin classes. I cook more and go out to restaurants far less. I am even thinking of growing my own vegetables in an indoor garden, but so far it is only some mint.One day we will actually turn the corner and emerge on the other side of this pandemic. I pray that every one of us will emerge with our health intact and that we will not be so scarred that we will be unable to offer each other the hugs our spirits require. I wonder what changes will become permanent. Will family meals regain their exalted place in our homes? Will family movie nights, or game nights, become fixtures of our lives?Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving will be unlike any other. And while I won’t miss the cursed traffic, I will miss the extended family members that usually gather with us and even the arguments about politics, theology and who best avoided New York’s traffic delays. I will miss the familiarity of it all, of how we never fail to eat more than we should and tell the same stories year after year. This year, we have a choice to make.And here it is. We can dwell on who is missing from our small gatherings. Crowds are both a distant memory and a far-off hope. (I really do miss seeing each and every one of you in person!). Or, we can focus on the new-found blessings we have discovered. Everything is smaller and more intimate. Can we rediscover the wonder, and enjoyment, that now sits before us? Will we offer blessings for the intimacy this year offers?Among my favorite prayers is the almost never used blessing for a king or queen. Our rabbis authored these words[…]

  • Seeing Is Believing

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Nov 20, 2020 | 21:12 pm

    The cliché “seeing is believing” is an apt description for a prominent refrain the Genesis stories.In Genesis 21, for example, we read of Ishmael who when dying from hunger and thirst is miraculously saved by the appearance of a well. “Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water.” Then again perhaps the well was there all along. In Genesis 22 we read, “When Abraham lifted up his eyes, he saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” Did God make the ram appear out of thin air or was it there all along and Abraham failed to see it because he was blinded by desire to fulfill God’s command? Most people read the Bible and think that miracles are akin to magic. God magically provides a well and a ram. In my estimation however miracles are about the lifting up of the eyes. The ram was always there. Abraham only needed turn away from his son, bound on the sacrificial altar, and loosen his grip on the knife. The well was there all along. Hagar only needed to wipe the tears from her face to see what was already there. Sometimes zealousness and grief prevent us from seeing what (miraculously) stand before us.This refrain is what makes this week’s portion and its story all the more remarkable. Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac and steals the blessing intended for his brother Esau. The story begins: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27) Jacob prepares a meal for his father and dresses like his brother Esau as his mother directs him and says to Isaac, “I am Esau, your first born: I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” The Torah continues, “So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered, ‘The voice[…]

  • We Are All Resident Aliens; We Are All Brothers and Sisters

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Nov 13, 2020 | 20:28 pm

    We Are All Resident Aliens; We Are All Brothers and Sisters Heba Nabil Iskandarani recently became a Spanish citizen. The story of how this 26-year-old Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, with no state calling her a citizen, acquired a Spanish passport is a fascinating tale.After Iskandarani discovered that her Palestinian father had Jewish roots dating back to the Spanish expulsion, she applied for Spanish citizenship. In 2015 Spain adopted a law whose intention was to atone for its persecution and forced exile of the Spanish Jewish community in 1492. The law allowed descendants of Sephardic Jews to apply for citizenship if they could demonstrate Jewish ancestry and a special connection to Spain. In the past five years, over 150,000 succeeded and became Spanish citizens. Of these 43,000 are like Iskandarani not Jewish. Iskandarani was able to prove her Jewish roots after uncovering her great-grandmother’s old identity card whose name Latife Djerbi references an island off the coast of Tunisia where many Sephardic Jews once lived. In addition, the family observed the curious Springtime custom of dipping hard-boiled eggs in saltwater. Iskandarani now thinks that what the family called a Tunisian tradition was actually a Passover seder ritual. Her mother also always thought it strange that no one in her husband’s family had Muslim names. Her uncles were named Jacob, Ruben, Moses and Zachary. And so now, with her Spanish passport in hand, Heba Nabil Iskandarani can visit Jaffa, the city where her grandfather was born but which he fled at the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. She remarked that her family’s Jewishness exiled them first from Spain and then their Muslim identity forced them out of the nascent state of Israel. She said, “Quite ironic don’t you think being exiled twice for the exact same reason?” Iskandarani continues to be interested in Judaism and fascinated by her Jewish roots. The journey continues. After Sarah’s death in the land of Canaan, Abraham approached the Hittites to purchase a burial plot. He said, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site…” (Genesis 23) And Ephron sold him the Cave of Machpelah in the city of Hebron. It is there[…]

  • Thoughts on the Elections

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Nov 10, 2020 | 05:22 am

    Thoughts on the Elections Four years ago, I wrote: “Donald Trump will be our president. He is our nation’s choice. That does not mean we must remain silent—when we disagree. That also does not mean that we can say he is not my president if I did not vote for him. To respect our nation’s institutions means that we must accept the decision of our fellow Americans, even, or perhaps most especially when it is different than our own. I will not scream that the election results are unjust.”Likewise, Americans should join me in saying, congratulations to President Elect Biden and Vice President Elect Harris. And in addition, we should offer thanks to President Trump and Vice President Pence. That is how we move forward. That is how we leave this increasingly dangerous hyper-partisanship behind us. I acknowledge that some are happy and feeling vindicated by these election results and others are saddened and feeling robbed. My goal remains how best to move past the contentiousness and become more unified. (Read Friday evening’s sermon about my worries that we might tear ourselves apart if we continue to attack each other and forget how the system works, “Beware of Bringing the House Down.”)I have come to understand that our democracy is far more fragile than I ever realized. I never knew how much it hinges on convention and character. There are no laws demanding that a sitting president concedes and pledges to work on a smooth transition. What a missed leadership opportunity to echo Senator John McCain’s sentiment from twelve years ago when he spoke about the significance Barack Obama’s election had for African-Americans and when he silenced those who booed the president elect’s name. Imagine how faith and hope could be restored not just for 75 million voters but for Democrats and Republicans alike if President Trump would say, “This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for women and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.” A woman has become Vice-President Elect! Then the tears of joy, and sense of pride, could be all of ours to share.There[…]

  • Every Vote Counts

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Nov 6, 2020 | 02:05 am

    Never before have I spent so much time coloring in circles and making sure that my pen never once went outside the lines of the bubbles and that each was perfectly painted in black. Never before have I felt that an election matters more or that my vote was so consequential. Such were the feelings that accompanied me as I entered the voting booth. Our democracy is surprisingly fragile and yet remarkably durable. It has survived many tumultuous episodes, the Civil War and Vietnam War come to mind.It is also far more fragile than anyone cares to admit. It depends on the belief that each of our votes matter and that each and every vote counts. And while states have the right to determine the rules by which they tabulate the results, every ballot must be counted. It is this tenet that binds us together, whether we call ourselves Democrats, Republicans or Independents. Let no one declare that votes should not be counted. Let no one proclaim victory before every vote is recorded.Each of us entered the voting booth, or sealed the envelope weeks ago, believing that the future of our country rides on the results of this election. Regardless if one voted for President Trump or Vice President Biden all appear to agree that their vote was a matter of saving the republic from the dangers of the other side. It is a remarkable, and somewhat frightening, thing that despite our political affiliations everyone seems to agree that victory for the other side will doom the country.Come the day (may it be very soon!) that Biden or Trump wins the presidential election, half of the country will rejoice, and the other half will mourn. And that fact remains one of my greatest worries. We are divided and polarized. I recognize this is not an insightful or revelatory observation, but I wonder how are we going to rally together to fight this current pandemic, or any of the many other looming challenges, if half the country will be devastated by the election’s results and believes the country is doomed because[…]

  • Following in Our Father's Footsteps

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 29, 2020 | 23:25 pm

    Although the reading of the Torah in public dates back to Ezra and the fifth century BCE (and traditional authorities say, Moses), the weekly division of the Torah into fifty-four portions hearkens to Babylonian times, approximately 1500 years ago. And so, we conclude last week’s portion with the words, “The days of Terah (Abraham’s father) came to 205 years; and Terah died in Haran.” (Genesis 11:32)We begin this week with the verse: “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1) For thousands of years, we have read these sentences a week apart, and have therefore seen them as disconnected. The rabbis plant the question in our hearts by this division. Why was Abraham called? And they have an answer ready-made. They offer countless stories about Abraham’s character explaining why God called him. I would imagine in synagogues throughout the world rabbis will begin their weekly discourses describing the story about young Abraham working in his father’s idol shop.This all too familiar rabbinic midrash in which Abraham destroys all but one idol and then blames the destruction on the remaining idol seeks to offer a reason why God called Abraham seemingly out of nowhere. The rabbis see in Abraham the first monotheist who on his own recognized that there must be one God who created the world and moves history rather than a multitude of idols for each and every occasion. But this out of nowhere understanding of the call is dependent on the division of the Torah into our portions and the dividing line between Parashat Noach and Lech Lecha being drawn between the end of chapter of eleven and the beginning of twelve. By drawing the line in this way, the rabbis add an exclamation point to their understanding of Abraham. They draw an arrow to the theology they wish to teach. They imply that the story moves because of Abraham’s vision. God is one, they exclaim. Such is the power of the editor’s hand. If we read these verses as[…]

  • Walking and Sauntering

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 22, 2020 | 23:38 pm

    Walking and Sauntering Henry David Thoreau in his seminal essay, "Walking" idealizes going for a walk in the woods. The purpose of such an endeavor is not to reach a destination but instead to be at one with nature. He recommends these walks should be at least four hours long. We should saunter through nature. Sauntering, he explains, is derived from the Middle Ages when people wandered about the Europe, asking for charity, in their quest to journey to "a la SainteTerre," the Holy Land. He writes: This is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.... For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land. And while I am troubled by the term crusade for it conjures negative connotations in my Jewish heart, I find his idealism deeply uplifting. Every walk is a religious quest, a pilgrimage, to a far-off destination, where insights, discoveries, and even revelations are found during the journey rather than at the moment of arrival. God calls each of our heroes as they walk. Moses discovers God in a lowly bush as he is shepherding. God appears to stop him in his tracks. There is movement in these calls. The first words Abraham hears are: "Lech lecha-go forth." This week, we read "Noah walked with God." (Genesis 6) What does the Torah mean by this walking? The biblical commentator, Sforno, who lived in fifteenth century Italy, responds: "Noah walked in God's way trying to be helpful to others, and to instruct them and if necessary, to rebuke them, as our sages pointed out." This is the typical Jewish answer. Walking means to follow the Jewish path, to walk in the path of our ancestors. In fact, the Hebrew word for law, halachah, comes from the very same root as walking. It[…]

  • This Is Very Good; We Could Be Very Good

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 16, 2020 | 18:23 pm

    I have a life-long fascination with the Northern Lights. Their luminous beauty inspires me.  I have long wanted to travel to Iceland or Scandinavia, or even Alaska to see this winter spectacle. A bat mitzvah student recently reminded me that they are also called aurora borealis. She too is fascinated by them and wants to see them with her own eyes. She helped to rekindle my fascination with their beauty.To my eyes, these lights appear as evidence of God’s handiwork.“God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1)Then again scientists teach us that solar flares send microscopic particles hurtling toward the earth. These protons and electrons then bounce off the atmosphere and gather around the poles. These excited particles create energy that then produce the dazzling display of light with flashes of green and the occasional pink. This is the same principle that produces the colors in neon signs except in that case plugging the sign in an electric socket causes the electrons to bounce around the gas inside the tubes. That is at least my rudimentary understanding of the science that causes this incredible natural phenomenon. I relish in the beauty of nature.The awe-inspiring heavens stop us in our tracks. We marvel at the multitude of stars in the nighttime sky. We are unable to count the millions we can see. God agrees and shares my sense of awe. “And God saw that this was good.” On the sixth day, after the creation of human beings, the Torah reports, “And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good.”And yet we often fail to live up to “very good.” In fact, the remainder of the Torah is evidence of our failures to live up to God’s expectations. Not to give away next week’s story, but there is a flood. Why? Because people are flouting rules and[…]

  • The Torah Cannot Be Torah Without Us

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 12, 2020 | 23:29 pm

    It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17-18)Recited at the conclusion of the Torah reading service, these verses from Proverbs reinforce the centrality of Torah in Jewish life throughout the ages. They remind us that the Torah, the story of our people, is to be prized and revered.The beginning of the Torah service, too, when the scroll is paraded through the congregation in a ritual known as hakafah offers us an opportunity to demonstrate our love of Torah – with kisses. As the Torah passes through the aisles, it is customary to reach out to touch it – with a hand, a prayer book, the corner of your tallit – and then to touch that object to your lips....This post continues on ReformJudaism.org.

  • Dancing in the Torah's Words

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 8, 2020 | 23:15 pm

    Given the growing controversy surrounding the celebration of the Jewish holidays in New York City’s Hasidic enclaves and our brethren’s apparent disregard of health directives, I joined with hundreds of other rabbis and signed a letter supporting the government’s efforts to do what is necessary to protect us from the Coronavirus. As I said on Yom Kippur, I believe Judaism is adamant that health takes precedence over the observance of holidays. And I remain disappointed, and disturbed, by my co-religionist’s response. That being said I am really going to miss our typical Simhat Torah celebration. I love it when we unroll the scroll around our sanctuary, and then get to journey from the last verses describing Moses’ death to the Torah’s first verses detailing the creation of the world. To be honest Simhat Torah is my favorite holiday. Not only does it represent that the exhausting set of Tishrei holidays are behind us, but it affirms that all my dancing is not only required but laudatory and even holy. Moreover, Simhat Torah represents what is central to my spiritual life, the study of Torah. It means that once again I will have the opportunity to discover something new in the words and verses of the Torah. I get to read the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs with new eyes. I can look at our going out from Egypt and our crossing the Sea of Reeds through lenses now colored by this year’s experiences. I wonder how for example six months, and counting, of social distancing and mask wearing will influence my thinking. I look forward to what new discoveries I might uncover in the Torah’s words. What new revelations will become illuminated as I unroll the scroll to these portions once again? This is Judaism’s central question. It reflects our principal faith statement. Read the Torah year in and year out. Examine its verses. Pore over its words. Meditate even on its letters. The Torah may appear not to change, but you have. And the fact that you have changed makes all the difference. That’s what makes the Torah new all over again. We are[…]


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