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  • The Question Is the Sermon

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

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

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  • Don't Ask Google, Ask Grandma

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

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

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  • Bringing Justice and Healing

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

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

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  • Who Is (Really) Rich

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

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

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  • Don't Let Antisemitism Define Us

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

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

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

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

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

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  • The Power of Naming

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

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

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  • I Am Going to Keep Dancing (and Like This)

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 13, 2022 | 21:18 pm

    I have a confession to make. I cannot sit still. (Are you surprised?) I marvel at those who can sit in a chair for hours while reading a book. I, on the other hand, shift and fidget. After fifteen minutes I am propelled to get up and walk around. Movement is part of what defines me. It’s why I love cycling, running and swimming. It is why I love dancing. It does not matter that I am not the best dancer in the room or that I never even took a dance class. I love dancing. And I love being on the move. Dancing is what makes a simcha feel like a simcha. When we dance at a party (or on the bima!) it is as if our entire being is rejoicing. Movement helps to exile darkness. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov agrees. He writes: “Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.” When you feel depressed—and Rebbe Nachman was given to fits of sadness and despair—get up and go for a walk or even start tapping your feet. Get moving. And leave those dark thoughts behind. Movement not only propels us forward but moves us to give thanks. Instilling a sense of gratitude is the essence of prayer. And there is nothing quite like the praying and singing and dancing of Simhat Torah. On this day we celebrate the opportunity to read, and study, the Torah again. We rejoice that we can move to the rhythms of the Torah. Rebbe Nachman offers this prayer:Dear God,if only my heart would bestraight with You all the time,I would be filled with joy.And that joy would spread all the waydown to my feet,and uplift them in dance.Please, never let my feet falter,release them from their heavy bonds,and give me the strengthto dance, dance, dance.And I would add, may we find the strength to dance. May we let go of the worries of how we might look or even how silly our dance steps might appear. Just dance. Or as David Byrne sings (and not in the early 1980’s[…]

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  • Invitations Are the Holiday's Secret

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 7, 2022 | 15:52 pm

    The Jewish calendar does not let up in the month of Tishrei. After the whirlwind of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we immediately launch into Sukkot and then conclude with Simhat Torah when we celebrate the renewal of the Torah reading cycle. Sukkot begins in a few short days. On Sunday evening, the tradition urges us to leave our homes and spend as much as time as possible in temporary shelters (sukkot). The most important requirement of these sukkot is that their roofs be porous enough to allow us to see the stars in the nighttime sky. The sukkah must also not be so sturdy, keeping the wind and rain out. Its defining character is its flimsiness. It is not a house. A sukkah is a flawed structure. The sukkah reminds us of the frailty of nature. It represents the booths in which the Israelites lived during their wanderings from Egypt to Sinai. Some suggest it symbolizes God’s presence in our lives. Given that we just spent hours in synagogue we think that the Yom Kippur holiday better represents our connection to God. Sukkot, however, is the more representative of our holidays. It is about bringing God’s presence to the earth. Literally! We build these booths to remind us that God’s presence, while seemingly temporary and even fleeting, can be brought to this world with our own hands. That is what we are building as we put up the boards of our sukkot. On Sukkot we are supposed to invite as many guests as possible to share meals with us. On Shabbat evening we pray that God might protect us with a sukkat shalom—a sukkah of peace, but in truth we are supposed to create that very sukkah here and now. It is defined not by the flimsy walls surrounding us but instead by the friends we gather within our sukkah and then in the weeks that follow, in our warm and comfortable homes. In fact, there is a custom that we invite ushpizin, honored and imaginary guests, to dine with us on this holiday. The tradition suggests seven for[…]

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  • Piles of Memories, Piles of Stones

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 6, 2022 | 14:44 pm

    Piles of Memories, Piles of Stones My Yizkor memorial service meditation about the meaning of bringing stones when visiting graves and the new ritual we created from an ancient custom.When visiting the graves of loved ones, we leave a stone. This tradition dates back to biblical times when grave markers were piles of stones. Most Jews do not observe the custom of bringing flowers. These wither and can rarely withstand nature’s surprising, and oftentimes unpredictable, temperament. Stones offer permanence. Although they are smoothed by the weather’s steady drumbeat, they remain unmoved. In addition, rocks remind us of one of the tradition’s many names for God: Tzur Yisrael—Rock of Israel. God stands against life’s precariousness. God stands above life’s vicissitudes. Leaving a stone is a beautiful custom. It can be as small as a pebble or as large as the palm of a hand. We walk to the footstone and bend over, placing the stone on its corner, or we approach the headstone, often reaching over the bushes and then find a comfortable resting place for the pebble or rock. And there they sit for months and perhaps even years, unmoved by wind and rains, unmoved by how often we visit or if we only choose to light a candle in the quiet of our homes. There they sit reminding others who might visit of our remembrances. Over the years, the piles accumulate into memories. I have often encouraged families to invite young children to write thoughts or wishes on these stones with permanent markers. And then, even after many months one can still decipher the scrawl of “I love you grandpa. Or I miss your matzah balls, grandma.” I also urge people to collect stones on their travels. And while our biblical ancestors never piled seashells atop a grave marker, we can. When you pick up a perfectly smoothed stone at the beach and bring it to the cemetery you connect your loved one to your travels. Often when returning from a trip you want to call and share your adventures with the mother or father, sister or brother with whom you talked about everything. Or[…]

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  • Why We Need Israel (and Zionism)

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 6, 2022 | 14:18 pm

    My Yom Kippur morning sermon about why American Jews need to reexamine the meaning of Zionism and Israel. He argues that we need Israel as much as Israel needs us.  Several years ago, Yotam was working on a Greek island when Syrian refugees were struggling to escape from Assad’s murderous regime. When a boat capsized near the shore and a young child was unable to swim, Yotam rushed into the ocean to carry her to shore. Her father was able to swim and was greeted on the beach by other Israelis who welcomed him with blankets and fluent Arabic. The little girl was reunited with her father and when he realized that his daughter’s rescuer as well as everyone else who lined that beach were Israeli, he said, “My own people and the people who are supposed to protect me are chasing me away while my worst enemy has become my greatest friend.”This summer I met Yotam. I was in Israel attending the Shalom Hartman Institute’s rabbinic convention. It had been three years since my last visit. I did not realize how much I missed being there and the inspiration I would find there among Israelis. I wish to explore what I rediscovered there. I wish to ponder why we need to revisit the meaning of Israel in our own day and why we need to reassess the import of Zionism for our own age. Jewish leaders spend considerable effort talking about why Israel needs us. Let’s instead take a step back. Let us reexamine why we need Israel. First some background.Zionism, and the nationalisms to which it is related, have become dirty words...This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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  • Give Some More Peace

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 6, 2022 | 12:53 pm

    My Yom Kippur evening sermon about about the importance of making peace with those closest to us. Pursuing peace is not so much about nations but instead about us.   John Lennon sings, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” I prefer Elvis Costello’s “What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding.” And every Shabbat we pray, “Shalom rav—grant abundant peace” and “Oseh Shalom—may the One who creates peace on high, bring peace to us.” The examples are endless. Peace is the stuff of countless songs. Shalom is one of our prayerbook’s favorite words. Peace is elusive. It often appears distant. Our longing for it persists. And so, peace constitutes are most fervent, and frequent, prayers. And it obviously makes for some of our best songs.Back to Costello. “As I walk through this wicked world/ Searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity/ I ask myself, is all hope lost?/ Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?/ And each time I feel like this inside/ There's one thing I wanna know/ What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?” Aside from the discovery that your rabbi’s musical tastes are stuck in the early 80’s (“Same as it ever was”), why is it that every generation who has ever lived pines after peace but never fully experiences it? Why is peace so fleeting? Why is shalom so seemingly unattainable?All around us are examples of its absence. Every day we are barraged by news of violence and war. Take the war in Ukraine as but one example. Let us pause and take note. Praise is due to the Ukrainians for fighting for democracy and against the tyranny of Russia. Who would have expected that a Jewish comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky would have rallied his citizens as well as much of the world against Vladimir Putin’s onslaught. He is deserving of unending praise. Accolades are also due to President Biden and our own country for helping to lead the world in its support of Ukraine’s noble fight. There is no question who is right and who is wrong. Ukraine is[…]

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  • Letting Go of Certainty

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 29, 2022 | 15:00 pm

    The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes:From the place where we are rightflowers will never growin the spring.The place where we are rightis hard and trampledlike a yard.But doubts and lovesdig up the worldlike a mole, a plow.And a whisper will be heard in the placewhere the ruinedhouse once stood.As we approach Yom Kippur I am leaning into the poet’s words. The only way we can grow, and learn, is to let go of certainty. We must open ourselves to others and their opinions. We must invite the possibility that we could be mistaken.Certitudes, and the stubbornness they foster, lead us away from change.Our tradition believes we can turn. It believes we can always do better. We can admit mistakes. We can make amends. This is the path laid before us on the High Holidays. It is plowed by opening ourselves to doubt. It is heralded by making room for love.Every year we are summoned to build our lives anew. We are called to rebuild what is ruined. We are roused to repair what is broken. It begins by letting go. Cast stubbornness aside. Banish certainty if but for a moment. Allow a whisper of repair to enter.Let us open ourselves to doubt. Let us take in the blossoming of love.

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  • It's All About the Kippah and Concession Speech

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 27, 2022 | 01:33 am

    My Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon about how custom, rather than law, are integral to our families, community and country.   An Upper West Side synagogue recently announced that it will no longer serve lox. Can you imagine? A shanda! Its leaders argue that they wish to help reduce pollution and the environmental impact of overfishing. And while salmon farming is indeed environmentally damaging and provides eighty percent of the salmon we eat on a far too regular basis, can you envision break-fast without bagels, cream cheese and lox? The rabbis added this note to their announcement about the elimination of lox from the synagogue menu: “We know that for some this is a heretical move! We are here to support you as you process this change.” Such changes make us feel as if we are mourning the loss of something precious. Messing with we have come to know as traditional foods can be tantamount to heresy.Our holidays seem to turn on food. And lox is right up there with the other High Holiday staples like round hallahs and apples and honey. The funny thing is that we have only been eating lox in recent years—at least if you measure time in the thousands of years that amount to Jewish history. My Nana never ate lox in the shtetl in which she was born and from which she fled. If she ate any fish, it was the less expensive carp that was ground up into gefilte fish. Claudia Roden, author of The Book of Jewish Food, writes there is no evidence that Jews ate lox in Eastern Europe. Apparently, it is an American Jewish creation and dates back about hundred years when salmon from the Pacific Northwest became available in New York thanks to the railroads. Most of the immigrant families from whom we are descended and who lived in the 1920’s and 30’s could not afford a refrigerator and so cured fish was the perfect solution. And herein is how our beloved custom was born. The origins of customs are often mysterious. Their power, and hold, over our lives remain profound.[…]

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  • Apples, Honey and the Bees

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 23, 2022 | 01:57 am

    Apples, Honey and the Bees I am thinking about apples and honey.  On Rosh Hashanah we dip apples in honey. This custom originated when Jews first made their way to Europe where apples could be found in the fall. During biblical times we were more familiar with those fruits found in the Middle East such as figs and dates, and most especially pomegranates. In fact, the pomegranate is the quintessential Jewish fruit. There is nothing quite like the sight of a pomegranate tree with its picturesque fruits hanging from its branches or its floral blooms which attract bees for pollination. According to tradition there are exactly the same number of seeds in the pomegranate as there are commandments: 613. And while I have never counted its sees, the pomegranate figures more prominently in our tradition than the apple. Some therefore add the pomegranate to their holiday meal. In addition, even though the Bible calls the land of Israel a land flowing with milk and honey it was not bee honey to which it referred but instead date honey. And so now I found myself thinking about bees. Many have read about the collapse of the world’s bee population. This does not have to do with honeybees who are raised, like other farm animals, for their honey and were brought from Europe to the American colonies in the seventeenth century. It does involve the ordinary bees we occasionally see buzzing around the flowers adorning our lawns. It is this indigenous bee population which is dramatically decreasing. While scientists debate the causes for this precipitous decline, there is little doubt that the numbers of native bees, as well as bumble bees is far less than it should be. We depend on these bees to pollinate flowers and crops. Without them there will be less beauty and nourishment in our world, and maybe even less coffee. We depend on their tireless work. The bees’ work is extraordinary. A grain of pollen here or there eventually amounts to something grand. It eventually amounts to something larger and more monumental than anything we can imagine. I look to my garden[…]

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  • Dreaming of Better Borders

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 17, 2022 | 02:29 am

    In the West Bank, near Nablus, one finds Mount Ebal, one of the tallest peaks in the area. From its 3000-foot peak one can almost see the entire land of Israel: Mount Hermon in the North, the hills surrounding Jerusalem in the South, the Jordan to the East and the Mediterranean Sea to the West. The city of Shechem sits below and serves as a reminder of Abraham and Sarah’s first journey to the promised land. After Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, the people constructed an altar on Mount Ebal. In the 1980’s archaeologists uncovered what some believe to be the altar’s remains and evidence of the Torah’s command and the Book of Joshua’s report: “At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal...  an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded.” (Joshua 8) Sadly, the Palestinian Authority apparently used some of these ancient stones for the construction of new roads.This past Spring, archaeologists announced they had dated a small piece of stone found on Mount Ebal, inscribed with God’s name written in proto-Semitic to the eleventh century BCE. This discovery provides archaeological evidence that the Israelites were literate when they entered the land and that our ancestors have been present in the land of Israel for over 3000 years.Archaeologists have not, however, uncovered evidence that the Israelites observed another of the Bible’s instructions. The Torah commands: “Upon crossing the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I charge you this day, on Mount Ebal, and coat them with plaster…. And on those stones, you shall inscribe every word of this Torah most distinctly.” (Deuteronomy 27) There is debate if the word “Torah” refers to all five books. The rabbis suggest it does. Biblical scholars believe this seems unlikely and theorize these stones included select chapters from the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew word “Torah” can be translated as “Teaching” and so the phrase is open for interpretation. Regardless, even if it ten chapters were inscribed, there must have been a lot of[…]

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  • Sharing Is Commanded

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 9, 2022 | 20:32 pm

    Years ago when hiking through Israel’s Galil region, my guide would sometimes take a detour through a farmer’s field. There she would reach up and take an orange from a tree, immediately peel off its skin and then eat it. I protested. “This is not your field. These oranges are not yours to take.” She would then correct my understanding. “Our Bible permits it.”The Torah proclaims: “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.” (Deuteronomy 25)Our Bible has a different understanding of ownership. We do not own the land. The earth belongs to God. We are but tenants. So when I look to my yard, the flowers, vines and trees (the Kousa Dogwood’s branches are now weighed down by fruit) I might think they are mine, but the food they produce is certainly not mine alone. The Torah makes clear. If you are hungry, you can take the fruit from any tree, whether it be yours or your neighbor’s. Even though the farmer has expended all the effort, and expense, to grow and nurture the tree, its fruit must be shared. Still foragers can only take a little bit. They can only take enough to satiate their hunger. They may not take so much that they fill a basket and are then able to sell the fruit in the market. That would be stealing. Sharing is demanded. Stealing is forbidden. While very few of us have vineyards or even know how to grow grapes, or for that matter have an abundance of fruit trees, imagine how different the world might be if we shared some of nature’s bounty with our neighbors.I continue to dream.And then I recall the fruit that spoils in my refrigerator, and the bag of half-eaten grapes that make their way into our garbage can.My dreams are within reach if I can let go and share. Perhaps all it takes for no one to know hunger is for each of us to offer some fruit here or[…]

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  • Pursuing Justice, Making Peace

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 2, 2022 | 17:39 pm

    We live in a world where people scream about injustices. Sometimes, justified. And sometimes, unjustified. Those we most often speak about are the wrongs, or slights, that involve people closest to us. We complain about this friend or that. We criticize this family member or another. Rarely do we seek to make amends and make peace. Rarely do we shout about societal ills needing repair.This week we read about seeking justice. In addition to legislating how judges should be appointed, the Torah proclaims: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16)We must hear this call for justice. Too often we misapply its message to friends and family. Instead, we need to spend more time pursuing justice for our society. Our country faces many challenges. One example. There is a growing inequity between rich and poor. On our very own Long Island there are far too many homeless and hungry. The Interfaith Nutrition Network, for example, serves over 300,000 meals per year. We need to do more. We need to fight against the injustice of hunger and poverty. This is the Torah’s demand. We must pursue justice.Rather than working to fix these problems we look elsewhere to those closest to us and level the charge of injustice against family members and friends. With regard to these relations, we are instead commanded to pursue peace. According to our tradition Aaron best exemplifies peace making. Why? The Israelites clamored to build a Golden Calf when their leader Moses was busy on the mountaintop communing with God. Aaron was left in charge. He did not as one might expect talk them out of their unholy task of building an idol. Instead, he appears to have helped them. Aaron facilitated the building of the calf. The Torah’s judgment of his actions is harsh. The rabbis, however, see in Aaron a model of peace making. They call him a pursuer of peace. Their suggestion is extraordinary. Even when family members are straying, or in this case building idols, we are to[…]

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  • A Song Is All We Need

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 28, 2022 | 14:53 pm

    The High Holidays begin in one month. During the preceding Hebrew month of Elul which starts this weekend, we focus on the task of repentance. We seek to better our lives. We turn inward. We make promises about our Jewish commitments. A Hasidic story. A student came to see the Karliner Rebbe because he was depressed. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m not a good Jew. I don’t study enough, I don’t know enough; all I do is work, work, work. But I want to study more. Rabbi, I have a question. What do our great and holy rabbis study on Friday night?” “Well,” said the Karliner, “some study Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.” “Oh,” said the student, “that is not for me.” “No,” said the Karliner, “that is not for everybody. But I am sure you study Talmud regularly. How is that going?” “Rebbe, I am ashamed to admit it, but I do not study Talmud regularly. You see, I grew up poor. I had to work from an early age to help my family out. I did not get much of an education. I find the Talmud very difficult.” “Perhaps you study something with a friend?” asked the Karliner. “My friends also work very hard; they don’t know much about Jewish tradition. Besides, I have no time to sit in the study hall for hours. What else can I do?” “Working hard for your family is a mitzvah and an important Jewish obligation,” said the Karliner. “You can study the weekly Torah reading for one hour a week.” “Oh no,” said the man. “I always found doing that too difficult. As I told you, I hardly got a Jewish education. I struggle through the portion each week. If I am really being honest, the Torah portion does not uplift me. I am a failure. I am really not a scholar. I prefer to work with my hands. All I know how to do is work long hours.” “No Jew is a failure!” said the Karliner sternly. “Every Jew can learn. And every Jew should learn. I[…]

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  • Taste the Wonderment

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 18, 2022 | 21:27 pm

    Taste the Wonderment This past year, Susie and I joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The requirement is that we pay the farm for the upcoming season’s vegetables in April. And then beginning in June and lasting through November, we pick up an assortment of vegetables every Tuesday at our Huntington drop off location. We don’t know for sure what will be in our bag until Monday evening when the farm emails us what to expect. This week it was corn, tomatoes (large and grape), baby bok choy, potatoes, and cantaloupe (there is the occasional melon). A few weeks ago, we picked up onions, romaine lettuce, beets, new potatoes, kohlrabi, corn and ong choy (Chinese water spinach).In addition to the extraordinary freshness of the vegetables (the lettuce lasts two weeks!), we have to adjust our cooking based on what the farm provides. While I can eat corn on the cob every week, after several weeks corn salad felt like a necessary and welcome change. And again, after weeks of potatoes it was time to make salad rather than the usual roasting of them. We have to be inventive or at least more creative than we used to be. Sometimes we have to do research. And so, after some reading, we grilled the kohlrabi. And while it will probably take us several summers to perfect what to do with this somewhat strange looking cruciferous vegetable, we must admit that had it not come in our bag we never would have purchased this large turnip looking thing with green horns. We better start preparing for the inevitable squashes that will arrive in the fall! For most of our lives, our cooking was dictated by what we were in the mood for or what Shabbat or the holiday required, rather than being influenced by what the land provides. It is a refreshingly demanding shift in orientation. So much of American cooking is built around convenience. Restaurants are often touted for their prompt service. They are heralded for their portion size. All we seem to want is more. We want whatever we want when we want it.[…]

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  • Live the Question!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 12, 2022 | 16:30 pm

    Rainer Marie Rilke, the early twentieth century mystical poet, writes:Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day. (Letters to a Young Poet)When Moses pleaded before God that he be allowed to step foot in the land of Israel, I imagine questions to plague his soul despite his many years of experience. “Why cannot I cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan?” Questions defined him throughout his years. When God first called to Moses, he wondered aloud about his worthiness and protested God’s choice to send him to Pharoah. And yet God’s demands guided him. For forty years he led the people through the wilderness. He lost his temper on several occasions. God became impatient and angry with the Israelites as well. And on one occasion, God said to Moses that is enough. “Now you cannot lead the people into the Promised Land.” “Why now? Why this moment?” Moses must have thought. The Torah relates: “I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, ‘O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness…. Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…’ The Lord said, to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to Me of that matter again!’” (Deuteronomy 4) The commentators are also perplexed. Why would Moses plead on his own behalf? Why would he share with the people his frustration that his plea was denied. The medieval commentator, Ibn Ezra, suggests it is to teach the importance of living in the land of Israel. This land is more important than any other. The rabbis believe it is to convey the lesson that no one should ever lose hope. Our[…]

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  • Getting the Future Back on Track

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 5, 2022 | 11:42 am

    Representative Jamie Raskin, who recently appeared at our synagogue in conversation with Representative Steve Israel, writes: “If we cannot get the past right, we will get the future all wrong.” (Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy) Ours is an oftentimes sad and tortured history. We sometimes struggle to get it right. This is because holidays are not the same as history. Holidays are about creating memory. They are about inculcating identity. History is about uncovering truth. It is about drawing lessons. On Sunday, Jews will commemorate Tisha B’Av, the day our tradition sets aside to mark past tragedies, in particular the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the Second by the Romans in 70 C.E. We look at these through the lenses of tradition. Judaism suggests that not only were the temples destroyed on this day, but nearly every tragedy that ever happened to the Jewish people occurred on the ninth of Av. The spies returned from the land of Israel with a bad report on Tisha B’Av. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and then from Spain in 1492 on the ninth of Av. World War I started, and operations began at the Treblinka death camp, as well as deportations from the Warsaw ghetto, on Tisha B’Av. Our tradition is decisive. History is less clear. The tradition suggests the Babylonians leveled the temple. Historians continue to dig for the truth. Some suggest it was not really King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia but instead the Edomites who burned the temple to the ground. The tradition turns away from this debate and shifts the focus to why. The Book of Lamentations, the words we chant on this fast day, argues that it was all because of our sins. “Jerusalem has greatly sinned; therefore, she is become a mockery.” (Lamentations 1) Likewise, the rabbis looked within to explain the destruction of the Second Temple. The Talmud tells a remarkable story. Here is the legend. A man had a friend named Kamza and an enemy called Bar Kamza. One time when he was[…]

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  • The Importance of Keeping Our Word

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 29, 2022 | 14:26 pm

    The Torah states: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded: when people make vows or take an oath, they shall not break their pledge; they must carry out all that has crossed their lips.’” (Numbers 30)Commentators ask, “Why did Moses speak to the heads of the tribes? Why did he direct his words to the leaders and not all the people?” And like most rabbis, they answer their own questions.The Hatam Sofer, a leading nineteenth century rabbi, responds: “The reason is that leaders often make all types of promises which they don’t keep. Because they often go back on their promises, this warning was aimed specifically at them.”Leaders should be the most careful with their words. They should be more careful than everyone else.The Torah’s counsel remains even more relevant today. Its teachings are a reminder of the power of what we say, and promise, and the importance of keeping our word.

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  • The Wilderness Light Is Nearby

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 23, 2022 | 14:06 pm

    The Wilderness Light Is Nearby Ed Yong writes: “More than a third of humanity, and almost 80 percent of North Americans, can no longer see the Milky Way. ‘The thought of light traveling billions of years from distant galaxies only to be washed out in the last billionth of a second by the glow from the nearest strip mall depresses me to no end,’ the visual ecologist Sönke Johnsen once wrote.” (“How Animals Perceive the Word," The Atlantic, July/August 2022) Sometimes a phrase startles. It radiates meaning. I can still recall those few, miraculous times when I witnessed the nighttime sky iridescent with millions of stars. One instance was many years ago when I was hiking in the Sinai desert. There, after the light of the campfire was extinguished, I looked up to see the blackness filled with innumerable stars. When I look up from my backyard, I can often see a few stars, but nothing as luminous as when I turned my eyes upward from the Sinai wilderness. That difference is only a matter of a billionth of a second! These days I have been marveling at the images from the Webb Telescope. I did not know what the Carina Nebula was before last week, but I have now discovered it is breathtaking and beautiful. There is the Southern Ring Nebula, Stephan’s Quintet and even SMACS 0723. Science reveals nature’s majesty. One of the blessings of the pandemic—and I hesitate to extol its blessings while we are still struggling with its disruptions and reckoning with its losses—is how it turned us toward nature. For those first months most especially God’s handiwork was the only spectacle we could attend. And I suspect this might be why I became captivated and intrigued by Ed Yong’ article. In it he explains that every animal lives within its own sensory bubble, called Umwelt. Its perceived world is its entire world. Only human beings can appreciate the Umwelten of other species. Only human beings can expand their vision and broaden their concern to other worlds. Because of this we have the added responsibility to care for the earth and its[…]

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  • Mr. President, Visit the Parks and Coffee Shops

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 15, 2022 | 07:36 am

    President Biden arrived in Jerusalem yesterday. He is staying a short walk from the institute where my wife Susie and I are studying.The other evening, we walked home past the King David Hotel where the president is staying and made our way through Liberty Bell Park. It was filled with Muslims celebrating Eid al-Adha, the holiday commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. (Islam’s version of this story is different than Judaism’s.) There was enthusiasm, and ease, in the air as families shared picnic dinners and children played on the basketball courts.We then made our way to the First Station, the renovated space of what was once the train station where people arrived in Jerusalem when they traveled from Tel Aviv. There, among the restaurants, bars and shops, we discovered secular, ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis, as well as a fair number of rabbis from our program. In one area, Israelis were taking a dance class and in another, they were enjoying a late dinner and in yet another, an evening cocktail.There was no sense of the tension, and challenges, one reads about in the news....This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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