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  • Earth's Bonds

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 30, 2021 | 01:34 am

    The Torah, and the Book of Deuteronomy in particular, argues that if we care for God’s commandments, if we follow the mitzvot, then the land will in turn care for us. In fact, the second paragraph of the Shema, reminds us: “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God, and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late.” (Deuteronomy 11) In other words, follow God’s mitzvot and then it will only rain when it is supposed to rain. Nature will follow its proper course if we listen to God. (As if it were that simple!) Too often people think that observance means lighting candles, wearing a tallis, or reciting the Shema. It also entails ethical mitzvot: loving your neighbor, giving tzedakah or honoring parents. We forget the agricultural commandments that are also part of our sacred literature. We are commanded to leave the gleanings of the field for the poor and the stranger. We are told let our fields lie fallow on the seventh year. We are enjoined not to eat fruit from trees until after the third year. Perhaps we would do we well to rediscover the meaning and intention of these commandments. We are connected to the land. The earth gives us life. The early Reform rabbis removed these verses, and the second paragraph of the Shema, from the prayer service arguing that it represented too literalist of a theology. It offered a stark theory. If you do good, namely listening to God, then good happens. If you do bad by ignoring God and even worse bowing down to idols, then bad happens. Everyone knows the world does not follow such a neat and simplistic order and so the rabbis said, “Better not to say these words as a prayer.” And yet, we live in a time when we are becoming more and more aware of how fragile our earth really is. Need we look any further than the forest fires raging[…]

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  • Please God! Help Us Bring Peace

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 23, 2021 | 21:22 pm

    For all his successes and triumphs, our hero Moses is denied setting foot in the Promised Land. Because he grew angry at the Israelites and hit a rock, God states that he will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel. This week Moses begs God to change this decree: “And I pleaded (vaetchanan) with the Lord… Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.” (Deuteronomy 4) The commentators are bothered by Moses’ behavior. They think it is unbecoming that Moses pleads. How can the great Moses sink to such a level and beg, they wonder. His words seem undignified for a leader. They wonder as well how Moses can question God’s judgment. The medieval writer, Moses ibn Ezra, suggests that even in this instance, Moses, who the tradition calls “Moshe Rabbeinu—Moses, our teacher,” is offering a lesson. And what is it that he teaches the people? It is a lesson about the supreme value of living in the land of Israel. It is as if to say, “To be able to live in the land of Israel is worth it. It is such a privilege that one can beg and plead.” The modern commentator, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, reads this passage differently. He suggests that Moses is not asking for forgiveness, or pleading his case, but instead arguing that he did not even commit a wrong. The decree is unjustified and should rightfully be annulled. What chutzpah! In the end Moses’ request is partially fulfilled. God responds to his plea and allows him to see the land from afar. Moses is allowed to glimpse the beauty of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. I continue to wonder. For what is it appropriate to plead? For what can I beg God? This summer suggests an answer. How about peace? Let my plea be heard! Let shalom be granted—even if but partially. Let us stop arguing about whether or not we should eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and start doing the hard work of trying to make peace between Israelis and[…]

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  • Teach in All Languages

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 15, 2021 | 22:16 pm

    This week we begin reading the Torah’s final book, Deuteronomy. Moses is now 120years old and is told he must relinquish his leadership to Joshua. Soon he will die and be buried on Mount Nebo, on the other side of the Jordan. Beforehand he takes the time (pretty much the entire book of Deuteronomy) to remind the Israelites about the many rules they must follow. He begins by reviewing their adventures (and misadventures) during their forty years of wandering the wilderness. This is Deuteronomy’s plot. “I am about to leave you. Don’t forget to…” The Torah states: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 1) The rabbis ask: How did he begin to teach the Torah? Being rabbis they answer their own question and state, “Moses began to explain the Torah in the seventy languages of the ancient world.” Didn’t the Israelites all speak the same language? Didn’t they speak Hebrew? Of course they did. So why would Moses need to explain the Torah in every language the rabbis believed to exist in the entire world? It is because the Torah has universal import. Too often we focus our Jewish learning on the mastery of the Hebrew language. Too often we mistake the Torah’s language for its essence. While Hebrew is of course important it does not always unlock its secrets; it cannot always unravel its mysteries. This is why even Moses taught the Torah in many languages. The lesson is clear. The most important thing about Torah is its teachings. These must be translated into every language. Moreover, these teachings must be interpreted according to everyone’s ability. Torah was never meant to belong to a privileged few. It is meant for all. It is meant for the world. It begins with whatever language we speak.

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  • A More Perfect Union

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 9, 2021 | 15:58 pm

    On this July 4th weekend we pause to celebrate the United States of America whose Declaration of Independence was adopted 245 years ago and whose words have inspired people for countless generations. Its opening words stir our souls. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And so, on this July 4th we pause to celebrate the gifts and blessings of this country, the freedoms we enjoy, unparalleled in our thousands of years of wanderings and the blessings we have garnered, unrivaled in the many nations we have called home. Here, we can freely profess our faith, here we can proudly declare our beliefs, here we can rest on the guarantees of a constitution that grants no religion primacy over another. In this great land we can indeed enjoy life, liberty and happiness. There is much for which to celebrate. There is much for which to give thanks. On this July 4th we also pause to remember that this same promise has fallen short fortoo many. There is still much work to be done. Our founding vision deserves to be expanded. Our founding dream must grow wider. In the words “all men” we must hear and declare “all men and women.” And we must find renewed strength to say, “all races.” Every color, every faith, every immigrant story must become part of the American promise and dream. Our nation’s history is cluttered with examples in which the liberties enjoyed by many were also denied to many. Pause to celebrate. Pause to remember. Give thanks for these United States of America. Gather strength that this nation might indeed become a “more perfect union.”

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  • Rejoice and Be Glad

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 9, 2021 | 15:58 pm

    I am looking forward to the moment when the band leader says, “It’s Hora time. Everyone to the dance floor!” And we jump from our seats and join in dancing and singing the words of Hava Nagila. “Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice and be glad. Let us sing. Let us sing. Let us sing and be glad. Awaken brethren. Awaken brethren with a joyful heart.” And then my heart will most certainly rejoice. Few realize that the words to this familiar song are not that old. In fact, the tune is based on a Hasidic niggun, prevalent among Jews living in nineteenth century Ukraine. And many nigguns are based on what was then popular songs. The Hasidic rebbes removed the words from these songs and transformed them into wordless, religious melodies. Hava Nagila is no different. It is apparently very similar to a Ukrainian folk song. The Hasidic movement gave these wordless melodies meaning and import. They were known to sing them over and over, their voices growing softer and then louder. They would sing and dance to welcome Shabbat, to rejoice at a holiday’s arrival, to celebrate a young couple getting married. They were passed from one generation to the next. They are typically attributed to specific rebbes. It was the belief of Hasidic Jews that singing helps connect us to God. Music is the universal language. It was also their belief that no words can suffice in approaching God and so we are left with their wordless melodies. And so, the Hava Nagila tune was carried by such Hasidic Jews when they came to Jerusalem from the Ukraine. It was there that Abraham Idelsohn soon discovered it. He is considered the dean of Jewish musicologists. Some believe that he authored the accompanying words in 1918 to celebrate the victory of the British in World War I. The song soon spread throughout Palestine and then made its way to the United States. By the 1950’s it had become what we recognize today: the staple at Jewish parties and simchas. There is nothing quite like it.[…]

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  • Their Poems, Our Prayers

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 25, 2021 | 19:27 pm

    Poetry speaks in ways that prose cannot always achieve. I offer a few poems. Denise Levertov, a British born American poet, writes in "Making Peace":A voice from the dark called out,     ‘The poets must give usimagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiarimagination of disaster. Peace, not onlythe absence of war.’             But peace, like a poem,is not there ahead of itself,can’t be imagined before it is made,can’t be known exceptin the words of its making,grammar of justice,syntax of mutual aid.                     A feeling towards it,dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we haveuntil we begin to utter its metaphors,learning them as we speak.                             A line of peace might appearif we restructured the sentence our lives are making,revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,questioned our needs, allowedlong pauses . . .     A cadence of peace might balance its weighton that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,an energy field more intense than war,might pulse then,stanza by stanza into the world,each act of livingone of its words, each worda vibration of light—facetsof the forming crystal.Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet, offers these words in his poem "In Jerusalem":In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,I walk from one epoch to another without a memoryto guide me. The prophets over there are sharingthe history of the holy...ascending to heavenand returning less discouraged and melancholy, because loveand peace are holy and are coming to town.I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: Howdo the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I seeno one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I flythen I become another. Transfigured. Wordssprout like grass from Isaiah’s messengermouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t be safe.”I walk as if I were another. And my wound a whitebiblical rose. And my hands like two doveson the cross hovering and carrying the earth.I[…]

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  • LGBTQ Rights, Juneteenth and Antisemitism

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 19, 2021 | 22:58 pm

     What follows is the sermon from this past Shabbat when we also marked Pride Month and Juneteenth.On this Shabbat we recognize Pride Month and give honor to those, most especially those who are part of our congregational family and who identify as LGBTQ. We give honor to those who have struggled for equal rights for those who are gay and lesbian since the Stonewall uprising in June of 1969. We affirm that all human beings are created in God’s image, regardless of their sexual orientation. How one identifies, and to whom one is attracted, is a complicated, and mysterious, thing that is beyond human understanding and that we therefore should hesitate to judge. On this Shabbat we recommit ourselves to the Jewish values of hesed, compassion, acceptance and welcome. We open our arms to all. We celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision affirming marriage equality. It has been only six years since that date. The experience of LGBTQ teens is far different than it was when I was in high school. People were then hesitant, and afraid, to come out. People were counseled by rabbis, teachers, peers, and parents to stay closeted. We have traveled far since those days and made great progress.But there is still unfinished business we need to get busy doing. Some people are still too hesitant to open their arms to others. People are still afraid to come out to friends, to parents, to teachers. And that is on all of us. Images are everywhere about what ideal love looks like. There is the ever-present image that an ideal couple is a man and a woman. Our tradition continues to uphold this. Our language supports this. We forget that when we idealize love, and couples in this way, we too often push aside those who are struggling with how they can measure up to what is most certainly a myth. We must make room for many, different images. We must insist that if an LGBTQ couple wishes to be married under a huppah, and sanctify their relationship, we will do so. Their love deserves to be celebrated.[…]

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  • First We Grieve, Then We Move Forward

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 18, 2021 | 15:12 pm

    In yesterday’s weekly newsletter, Frank Bruni from The New York Times writes: A heartbreaking and unacceptable number of people didn’t survive the coronavirus. They’re gone — their own lives cut short, their loved ones still grieving their absence. But for others, the pandemic was more of an inconvenience, and for a few, it wasn’t all that inconvenient. When they talk about how excited they are about eating in restaurants again or how eager to see a movie in a theater, their voices and manners aren’t weighed down by the recognition of what the United States and other countries have been and are going through. Of the body count. Of the ruined businesses. Of the depleted bank accounts. They mostly just sense that we’re turning a corner, and they’re looking forward, not backward.I can resonate with his description of turning a corner. I share the glee and rapture of returning to the conveniences, and luxuries of years past, of children being packed up for camp, of spontaneously going out to a favorite restaurant, of hugging friends and wishing everyone a “Shabbat Shalom.” I am taken aback about the obviousness of Bruni’s cautionary note. We have this unfortunate, American tendency to avoid even talking about the hundreds of thousands who died. If we do not figure out how to grieve for them and how to mourn our collective losses, then we will be unable to march forward. This week we read that Miriam and Aaron die. We also read that Moses is destined to die in the wilderness, at the edge of fulfilling his life’s mission of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. The reason why he will not cross over into the land is because he becomes angry at the people when they complain (yet again) about the food and in particular the lack of water. He strikes the rock two times rather than commanding it as God instructed him. God commands, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.” (Numbers 20) Instead Moses hits the[…]

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  • The Promised Land Is in Your Soul

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 11, 2021 | 00:59 am

    When God calls to Abraham and instructs him to set out on a journey to the Promised Land, God commands: “Lech lecha—Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12) This week when God instructs Moses to send scouts to survey the Promised Land, God similarly commands: “Shelach lecha—Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people.” (Numbers 13) In both instances the Hebrew is unusual and perhaps untranslatable. God literally states, “Go for yourself” and “Send for yourself.” Commentators note the peculiar wording and imagine novel explanations to justify this Hebrew phrasing. One rabbinic midrash suggests that the command to Abraham was more about him finding himself than discovering a new land. Its author writes: “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” Is a promised land about its geographical contours or instead about unearthing some, hidden inner promise? Is a journey, whether undertaken at God’s command or out of inner desire, about exploring new vistas or about discovering oneself? This week we are confronted with a new question. What could Moses possibly find out about himself when commanding others to set out on a journey? He has been leading the people for years. He has been through countless tests. The people are given to lots of complaining, and rebelling (more about that in the weeks to come). This moment appears to produce an unlikely crisis of faith for our leader.The midrash once again makes plain what the Hebrew only implies. It imagines God saying to Moses that this reconnaissance mission is more about Moses’ needs, and perhaps the people’s, rather than God’s. Our ancient rabbis fill in the gaps, found in between the Torah’s verses and write, “God seems to be saying, ‘I have you told you already that the land is good and that I will give it to you. If you need human confirmation of that, go ahead and send scouts.’” And I wonder. Is finding oneself, and setting out[…]

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  • Leadership Is About Others

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 11, 2021 | 00:59 am

    This week we read about Korah and his rebellion against Moses. It is a troubling story. On the surface Korah’s complaints appear legitimate. He, and his followers, approach Moses and Aaron and say, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16) This statement seems true. Judaism does not believe one person is holier than another. In fact, our greatest moments of holiness are achieved not when we stand alone but instead when we stand together. We require the voices of others to elevate our prayers. Moses does not hear Korah’s words as critiques but instead as threats. He becomes distressed. Aaron becomes crestfallen. God becomes enraged. Korah and his followers are severely punished. The rebellion is mercilessly quashed. And so, the wrong, must be with Korah and his followers. The tradition argues—at length—about Korah’s sins. What did he do to merit such punishment? The rabbis draw inferences. They reason: “Every dispute that is for the sake of heaven, will in the end endure; but one that is not for the sake of heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his followers.” (Pirke Avot 5) When we argue with respect, when we debate so as to understand the truth standing in opposition to our own views, this is an argument for the sake of heaven, this is a controversy like that of the first century rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. When we argue, however, to destroy the opposition, when we debate so as to undermine others, these are controversies s like those of Korah and his followers. In the rabbinic imagination, it was all about how Korah argued, and complained. In the rabbis’ estimation, it is very much about how we debate. Controversies can make the community better or they[…]

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  • The Antisemitism Pandemic

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 27, 2021 | 21:18 pm

    For the first time in over a year, many of us now feel like we can see around the bend of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, most especially that many of our children can get vaccinated, and that we can safely get together with friends, and family members, our sense of relief has grown. Light is emerging from around the corner. The plague that upended our lives appears to be ebbing. Just as we wearily begin to emerge from the shadow of this plague, another grows in ferocity.Antisemitism has once again emerged with a renewed strength that caught many off guard. Whereas several years ago we saw its ugliness, and violence, emanating from the right, now it confronts us from the left. Let me be clear. Anti-Zionism easily morphs into violent antisemitism. Hatred of Israel quickly becomes antisemitic. The evidence lies before us—be it at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles or a synagogue in New York. It is now especially incumbent upon those who call themselves liberal, progressive or Democrat to call out the antisemitism growing from within their ranks.People always prefer to say, “Look at how bad they are,” rather than “Look at how we have gone wrong,” or, “Look at what we have allowed to fester.” People always prefer to point accusatory fingers at those who stand on the other side of the aisle while making excuses for those who share their political commitments. This is not how we must reckon with such a plague. Call out those who traffic in antisemitic tropes. Make clear that these most recent attacks on Jews, and Israel, are irreconcilable with liberal, progressive and Democratic values. This is what is called for at this moment and in this hour.Of course, there are legitimate criticisms of Israel’s policies and Israel’s government...This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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  • Praying for Peace, Hoping for Unity

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 21, 2021 | 19:10 pm

    The familiar priestly blessing, contained in this week’s portion, states: “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the light of the Lord’s face shine upon and be gracious to you! May Lord always be present in your life and grant you peace!” (Numbers 6)In its original formulation it was a blessing offered by the ancient priests for the Jewish people. The Torah continues “Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: ‘The Lord bless you…’” The grammar appears incorrect. The “you” of the blessing is in the singular not the plural. Why would a blessing directed to “them” be formulated in the singular?Rabbi Simhah Leib, a Hasidic rebbe, comments: “The priestly blessing is recited in the singular, because the most important blessing that the Jewish people can have is unity.” I am leaning on his wisdom during these trying and difficult days when Jews shout and scream at one another. We hear, “You’re too critical of the State of Israel in its hour of need and urgency!” Or, “You’re too forgiving of Israel’s wrongs and missteps!” People often mistake unity for agreement. A group can be unified but not always agree. Disagreements, passionate debates, are part of any healthy relationship or community. There must, however, be a unity of purpose and mission. I wonder if we have lost this unified vision. And I wonder, if this is why we are no longer able to tolerate disagreements or abide criticisms. Losing sight of a shared mission creates disunity. Do we continue to share the belief that the purpose of leading a Jewish life is not only to teach children how to perform Jewish rituals or to make sure that each and every child has a bar or bat mitzvah, but to relieve the suffering we see in our broken world? The purpose of the Jewish people’s survival is to make the world better. Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked, “To be a Jew is either superfluous or essential.” He then continues, “We learn the purpose of Jewish existence: we are obligated to live lives that will become[…]

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  • The Heart Speaks Truth

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 14, 2021 | 02:48 am

    The medieval poet Yehudah HaLevi writes: “L’bi b’mizrach v’anochi b’sof maarav—my heart is in the East and I am in the depths of the West.” His words were an expression of the unending Jewish attachment to Jerusalem and the land of Israel.His poem captures my sentiments at this very moment. He speaks to my heart’s travails. My attachment is to the State of Israel. My worries are tied to my brothers and sisters in the land of Israel. I am nervous about Israel’s future. I mourn for those killed and pray for those injured—both Israelis and Palestinians.My nephew, who is living and studying in northern Tel Aviv, spent the better part of the last two evenings in a bomb shelter. Countless friends, and acquaintances, have done the same. Others are deploying to this conflict’s front lines.It is personal. I am a Jew. This is our Jewish home...This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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  • Reclaiming the Earth

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 7, 2021 | 01:02 am

    A Missouri farmer offered these words of praise and reverence for the land he and his family farmed for their entire lives. “It’s the ground that can never be replaced. They don’t make any more ground, and this ground in the spillway is the best in the world.”I wonder where his family now farms. Ten years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited a hole in the Mississippi river levee, flooding the spillway, in order to save a small town. In the process they sacrificed precious Missouri farmland. Years ago, when my family and I used to boat on the mighty Mississippi we would marvel at the homes on the river’s banks. Why would people build on a flood plain? Every year the Mississippi river floods. Every year the river nourishes the surrounding farmlands. Some years the floods are greater than others. Precious farming land comes at great cost. Apparently, this is nature’s equation. And so, every year families must flee their homes. There is a pull of the land that defies reason. There is the pull of an ancestral home that surpasses explanation. It is the sanctity of the land that pulls families toward it.This week we read about the sanctity of the land of Israel. So revered is this land that it alone is granted a sabbatical year. “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord.” (Leviticus 25) What is the purpose of this sabbatical year, a year in which the land must be allowed to lie fallow? Its purpose is twofold. On the one hand it is a reminder that only God truly owns the land. There is in truth no property ownership. The land is lent to us by God. On the other hand, the sabbatical year teaches us that everything, that all of God’s creations, must rest. Menuchah, Shabbat rest, is a universal right. It is not just a Jewish obligation, but instead a right that every living thing must enjoy. The land as well is a living and breathing creation.The sabbatical year of[…]

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  • Hear Her Pain!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 1, 2021 | 01:38 am

    Many are the examples of those who abuse their power to take advantage of others. During the past year, many have been the instances when women have revealed how they were victimized, their personhood objectified or their bodies inappropriately touched or how they were forced into unwanted sexual relationships, or even raped. The details of many situations are only recently coming to light. The details of far too many remain hidden in women’s memories.This week, it was revealed that a leading rabbi, a fellow Reform colleague, committed some of these very sins. Nearly fifty years ago he took advantage of his position and coerced a few young women into sexual relationships. He justified his actions to these young, impressionable women by using the Jewish philosophy of Martin Buber. Buber argues that we gain glimmers of the divine when we experience what he termed an I-Thou encounter with another, when all that exists—however briefly—is that relation.I have always found Buber’s philosophy revelatory. Martin Buber, more than any other thinker, opened Judaism’s door for me. That slim volume of I-Thou and its companion Hasidism and Modern Man (sic!) signify my invitation to explore and learn more about my heritage. It was painful to read that for another his philosophy did the exact opposite. In the hands of an abusive teacher, Buber slammed the door shut. Only recently did this brave woman peer through Judaism’s door. Ironically it was the pandemic that helped to push it open.During these past High Holidays, she could visit the synagogue of her youth, but now from the comfort of her home. She took in the new rabbi’s words about coming to grips with past sins and failures and approached her with the painful story of her youth. The synagogue is now openly reckoning with what was done in its name.I greatly admire Rabbi Angela Buchdahl and the leadership of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue.  They have shown exemplary strength and courage. For countless generations, the impulse was to do otherwise. “It happened long ago,” I am sure some suggested. “He is no longer our rabbi,” others perhaps said. Throughout[…]

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  • Who Is My Neighbor?

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 23, 2021 | 01:26 am

    Who is my neighbor?Is it the person who lives on my block? Or is it the Jew who lives in Tel Aviv? Is neighbor defined by physical distance or instead by emotional connection?We tend to rely more on feelings rather than distance when defining who is in and who is out. We rely on emotional nearness rather than short distance separating us from others.The Torah proclaims: “Love your neighbor as yourself!” (Leviticus 19) If this statement were about loving those to whom we already feel close, then what would be the point of this command? The Torah cannot mean that we are to love those to whom we feel a kinship. Instead, it commands the difficult. It obligates us contrary to our feelings.We are told to love those who are nearby but those to whom we do not feel close. Think of those who live mere blocks from our homes, who toil mowing our lawns or who clear the tables at the restaurants we used to frequent. These are our neighbors!On Tuesday, a Minneapolis jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd. Many, including myself, breathed a sigh of relief that he was found guilty. Here sat someone who publicly crushed the breath out of another human being. Here sat a police officer who is duty bound to protect but instead killed. I exhaled. At least in this brazen instance, justice was upheld. Our judicial system might deliver just punishment. Still, I find myself feeling disconnected. I am distant. I stand apart.Who is my neighbor?Do I identify with the Black victim whose experience is so unlike my own? Never have I been stricken by terror when police officers approach my car. Do I feel a kinship with the White police officer? Never have I brandished a gun, or a taser for that matter, to quell a dispute. The distance between a George Floyd and a Derek Chauvin is vast. The distance between their experiences and my own are monumental.Miles separate the experiences of Black and Whites in our great nation. Even though little distance separates our[…]

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  • Celebrating the Land, Celebrating Israel

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 16, 2021 | 02:09 am

    In the nineteenth, and early twentieth, century the roots of the modern State of Israel were sown. Zionist thinkers argued about the character, and purpose, of the state for which we now celebrate seventy tree years of independence.People are most familiar with Theodor Herzl who more than any other thinker, laid the foundation stones for the modern state of Israel. He was a masterful organizer, convening the First Zionist Congress in 1897. He was a tireless politician. Herzl’s political Zionism envisioned a state for the Jews, wherever it might be located, that would finally cure the world of antisemitism. Although his dream did not succeed in eradicating antisemitism, it did lay the groundwork for the modern state. The State of Israel would be, as it now most certainly is, the master of its own fate. No longer would Jews be subjugated to the whims of tyrants. Instead, they would rule their own lives.Unlike Herzl, Ahad Haam, believed that such a state must be located in our ancient land and that there we must speak Hebrew. This state must be a Jewish state in which Jewish culture and the rhythms of Jewish life were observed. He did not mean by this traditional Jewish observance. Instead, he understood that schools would mark Sukkot and Hanukkah. On Friday evenings when people ventured out to cafes, as they currently do in great numbers, they would greet each other by saying, “Shabbat Shalom.” The culture would be steeped with Jewish resonance. And this would help to cure the spiritual malaise that infected the Jewish people. In Israel Jews would find a place that helped to revitalize the Jewish spirit.Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook is considered the founder of religious Zionism. For many nineteenth and early twentieth century traditional Jews, Zionism ran counter to the religious belief that the Jewish people could only reclaim sovereignty in the land of Israel when God sends the messiah. Kook argued that secular Zionists were doing God’s work even if they refused to acknowledge it. He was instrumental in accommodating traditional Jewish belief with Zionist activities. One could believe in the[…]

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  • Justice for the Six Million?

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 9, 2021 | 02:05 am

    Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day) is today. It is a day filled with special services, concerts and public ceremonies. But no commemoration can adequately mark this tragedy. Still, it was not always the case that such services marked our calendar.Sixty years ago, Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and secreted him to the state for trial. Eichmann was one of the principal architects of the Nazi final solution. David Ben Gurion made the startling announcement to the Knesset and the world at large. So many years later we still fail to recognize the significance of Eichmann’s trial and the historic shift it represented. It was pivotal in our understanding of the Holocaust and our formulation of modern Jewish identity. It was the day that survivors’ stories began to be told—and heard.In 1961 Holocaust museums did not dot the landscape of American cities. Yad VaShem was only established in 1953 and Yom HaShoah declared that same year. The Eichmann trial brought the Holocaust to the world’s attention. The Nuremberg trials that immediately followed the end of World War II did not do the same. With the Eichmann trial the recent victims, now embodied in a fledgling state, tried their former tormentor. With this trial the memory of the Holocaust was forever tied to the State of Israel.Attorney General Gideon Hausner proclaimed: “In this place, where I stand before you, judges of Israel, to serve as the prosecutor of Adolf Eichmann, I do not stand alone. With me, here, at this very moment, stand six million prosecutors.” One hundred survivors shared riveting testimony in order to add human faces to the millions of victims and the crimes committed by the accused. One of the most famous of these survivors was Abba Kovner, Israeli poet and leader of the Vilna ghetto’s resistance. While the intention of showcasing the testimony of survivors was noble and most certainly served to humanize the innumerable victims, it also gave rise to unintended consequences. The parade of survivors suggested that the modern State of Israel represents justice for the Holocaust.We have been living[…]

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  • Count Down to Revelation and Meaning

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 1, 2021 | 19:43 pm

    I feel like I have been living in the Omer for the better part of a year.The Omer is the seven-week period in between Passover and Shavuot. According to tradition every evening, beginning on the second night of Passover, we recite a blessing and count: “Today is five days of the Omer.” I have now been counting the days, and weeks, since last year’s seders and perhaps even from last year’s Purim celebrations. I feel like what was only supposed to last for weeks, and then months, now promises to last for at best six seasons.The trepidation associated with the Omer is now our daily existence.The Omer represents a mysterious custom. In ancient times, when our lives were more intimately tied to the land, we counted the sheaves of grain (omer). Passover was tied to the barley harvest and Shavuot to that of wheat. There was great worry, and even fear, about the impending harvest. Will the harvest be plentiful enough? Will our grain stores last us through the summer and into the fall, before the fall harvest of Sukkot?This is why some suggest the tradition assigned semi-mourning practices to this Omer period. Weddings are not celebrated. Large dinners, and even dancing, are even forbidden. When is the last time you danced on a crowded dance floor? These restrictions are lifted on Lag B’Omer (the thirty third day of the Omer). Why? The tradition suggests a legend. During the second century, thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students died from a mysterious plague. The Talmud reports the number to be 24,000. But then just as mysteriously the plague ended, and the deaths ceased, on Lag B’Omer. And thus, in remembrance of this miracle, the mourning ends on the thirty third day of the Omer. The Omer also connects the theme of Passover to that of Shavuot. Passover celebrates our going free from Egypt and Shavuot the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. And thus, we count the days in anticipation of marrying our freedom to its revealed meaning. The freedom granted to us on Passover is given its import on Shavuot.Will[…]

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  • It's a Tie!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 25, 2021 | 22:55 pm

    Many years ago, when studying in Jerusalem, my friend and I skipped an evening lecture to attend a soccer match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Yerushalyim. Our teachers were displeased with our decision. What could we possibly learn at a soccer stadium? How to curse in the most colorful of ways? Soccer matches do not represent the highbrow culture of the poet Yehudah Amichai or the thoughtful debate of the beit midrash, the study hall. We watched fights break out. We looked on in disbelief as fans threw smoke bombs.It was a rather unsatisfying game. The final score was 0-0. It ended in a tie. It concluded with the fans muttering “Teiku.” Modern Hebrew has borrowed a word from Talmudic times. It has lifted a word out of the study hall and brought it into the everyday.Teiku is the Talmud’s word for when a debate is concluded without rendering a decision. It means let it stand. Others say it is an acronym meaning when Elijah comes and heralds the coming of the messiah this disagreement will be resolved. This is the original meaning for Elijah’s cup at the Seder table. Some rabbis said there should be four cups of wine and others said five. Teiku! For now, we compromise. We drink four cups and leave the fifth for Elijah. No one wins. No one loses. The beauty, and genius, of the Talmud is that it allows contradictions to stand. Our book is not a law code of answers. It is a record of discussions and debates. The Jewish people are often called the people of the book. Many think this phrase refers to the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but it is the Talmud that better gives life to our spirit. What we find in the pages of the Talmud best exemplifies the Jewish heart. It is there that Israel, the people of the book, is born. And again, it is here, in this book that the outline of the Seders we will soon celebrate are given expression. Its central ritual is the four questions.[…]

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  • Offer Empathy

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 18, 2021 | 22:57 pm

    The sacrifices detailed with obsessive length in the Book of Leviticus, are about bridging the distance between human beings and God. The people offer up animals and grains, and the Torah reports God accepts these offerings. “It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1) The smell of the smoke rising up from the sacrifice appears to bridge the gap between heaven and earth.The Hebrew term for sacrifice is korban, coming from the root to draw near.And so, it is quite striking that the opening word of this book is vayikra, to call. The book begins with the words, “And God called to Moses.” To call out suggests there is a chasm separating speaker from listener. In most other instances, God speaks (vayidaber) with Moses. Elsewhere their conversations are marked by intimacy. Their discussions appear like those between two friends. Here, God calls out. It is as if they are no longer close enough to talk. What separates them in this moment? Why is there distance in the very moment when receiving the commandments to draw near? Perhaps Moses is afraid. The medieval commentator, Moses Nachmanides, believes this to be the case. Moses was intimidated by the awesome grandeur of the sacrificial ceremonies. Their holiness, and perhaps all the fire, blood, and guts overwhelmed him. This suggestion seems odd. How could the person who was unafraid to commune with God on the mountaintop be afraid when approaching the Tent of Meeting’s sacrifices? Perhaps it was because on Mount Sinai, there was no distance between God and Moses, between God and humanity. In the wilderness, the distance appears greater. The responsibility to bridge that divide, with only the tools of the everyday is fraught with worry. Finding God in the here and now is oftentimes daunting. Offering sacrifices is sometimes terrifying.And yet, breaking down distance is our sacred task.There are many divides now separating us. We stand apart from the earth that gives us food. We stand apart from the many places that define our lives: the synagogue, the gym, theatres, concert halls,[…]

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  • Gathering Goodness

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 12, 2021 | 00:11 am

    Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was a popular teacher in pre-war Poland, leading a community in a Warsaw suburb. After the German invasion, and following the death of his family, he was shipped to the Warsaw ghetto. There he managed to run a secret synagogue. His teachings and sermons were popular among those trapped in the ghetto.As the Warsaw ghetto uprising neared its bitter end, Rabbi Shapira prepared for the worst. He hid his sermons and teachings in a milk canister. After the war they were found by a construction worker. His writings continue to be studied to this day. I have spent some mornings in the warmth of Jerusalem’s summer pouring over his words. I return again and again to his work Bnai Machshavah Tovah, a treatise on creating and sustaining a conscious community. He writes there of the power of community and how the group can elevate individuals and lead them to holiness. For Judaism gathering is of prime importance. Our tradition maintains an unmitigated faith in the group. It believes that we are at our best when standing with others, that with the aid of the group we can better achieve holiness and realize our full human potential. The community is the corrective to individual wants and needs. The congregation lifts us. The synagogue nurtures us. The community guides us. And so, in this week’s portion we read: “Moses then gathered (vayakhel) the whole Israelite community… This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them…” (Exodus 35:1-5) The people join together and build the mishkan, the tabernacle, so that they might focus their worship of God while wandering throughout the wilderness.I wonder. Should this faith in the edifying power of the group remain unqualified? We also confront the opposite example. In last week’s reading we are reminded of the golden calf: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered (vayikahel) against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall[…]

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  • Smash Anger

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 4, 2021 | 23:58 pm

    Soon after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai which of course contains many commandments forbidding idolatry, the Israelites build a Golden Calf and bow down to it. They were understandably nervous and worried. In their estimation, Moses had abandoned them. He was spending more time communing with God than with them. The people complain to Aaron, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32) Aaron quickly, and surprisingly, acquiesces to their demand and builds for them an idol in the familiar image of a calf. After forty days of wild partying (ok the Torah does not put it in those words), Moses finally descends from the mountain. Despite the fact that God warns Moses about what he is going to see, when he does actually see the people dancing before the idol, he becomes enraged. Moses smashes the tablets and then burns the Golden Calf. He then grinds the idol into powder, dumps it into the water, and forces the Israelites drink it.And while I don’t particularly like Moses’ version of washing the Israelites mouths out with soap, I do understand his passion, indignation and anger. The idol should be smashed to bits. Not the tablets, however.And herein lies the lesson about anger. Even when the object of anger, or the person with whom one is angry, is deserving of rage, other things, and other people, get hurt in the process. How many times, after a justifiably frustrating day at work, or after reading a report about the day’s news that makes one’s blood boil, does a person snap and get angry with those closest to them? Children, for example, can be frustrating when they neglect to clean up their rooms, but does such an oversight, even a repeated one, really deserve a shout or curse?Too often anger makes us smash the good stuff along with the deserving things. Like Moses, we frequently smash our sacred tablets when we should instead be grinding our Twitter and[…]

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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[…]

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  • 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[…]

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