Rabbi's Weekly Torah Thoughts

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  • Rosh Hashanah from Home

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 17, 2020 | 17:18 pm

    This Rosh Hashanah will be like no other.The Cantor and I will be standing in our sanctuary.And you will be watching our services on your TV's, computers or even iPhones. You will be participating from your homes. If you have not yet registered to access the livestream link, please do so on my congregation's website.  Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening with services at 8 pm and then morning services on Saturday and Sunday at 10 am.Children's services are on Saturday at 1 pm.We will gather for in person Tashlich services at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park beach on Saturday at 4 pm.Please wear a mask and bring breadcrumbs so that you can symbolically cast your sins into the Long Island sound.Judaism teaches that our homes are a mikdash maat, a small sanctuary.The meals that we share, the blessings that we recite, the love that we discover there, help to sanctify our homes. Our tradition has never believed that you can only observe Jewish rituals in a synagogue, or that Jewish bests can only happen in our beautiful sanctuary.In fact, it is the day of Rosh Hashanah that is holy, not the place where we observe it.Judaism sanctifies time not space, we teach over and over again.This year we are really going to have to take this principle to heart.Given that we will not be together and that you will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah from the comfort of your homes, I wanted to offer some suggestions for how you might make your home feel more like a sanctuary.Think about which room in your house would be best to help you feel like this is a prayer experience.Discuss this with your children.Entertain a debate about this question. And then watch from there.If you are able to stream the services to a TV, do so.If this is a technological leap for you then don't do it for the first time on Rosh Hashanah.Still this is not a Netflix movie, so I would not recommend a bowl of popcorn by your side to watch services.Then again do what you are comfortable doing and what will[…]

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  • Finding Kindness

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 10, 2020 | 21:09 pm

    This week was a good week.I discovered a poem. It was revealed to me as I turned through the pages of our new prayerbook, Mishkan HaLev.It called to me as I prepared for the upcoming High Holidays.Before you know what kindness really isyou must lose things,feel the future dissolve in a momentlike salt in a weakened broth.What you held in your hand,what you counted and carefully saved,all this must go so you knowhow desolate the landscape can bebetween the regions of kindness.How you ride and ridethinking the bus will never stop,the passengers eating maize and chickenwill stare out the window forever.Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,you must travel where the Indian in a white poncholies dead by the side of the road.You must see how this could be you,how he too was someonewho journeyed through the night with plansand the simple breath that kept him alive.Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.You must wake up with sorrow.You must speak to it till your voicecatches the thread of all sorrowsand you see the size of the cloth.Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,only kindness that ties your shoesand sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,only kindness that raises its headfrom the crowd of the world to sayIt is I you have been looking for,and then goes with you everywherelike a shadow or a friend.I endeavored to learn more about the poet who until this blessed hour was unknown to me. Naomi Shihab Nye was born in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American who traced her lineage back to Germany. Nye spent her teenage years moving between Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas.I learned more about the inspiration for the poem.While traveling on her honeymoon in Columbia, the bus on which she and her husband journeyed was robbed.A man was killed, and all of their belongings were stolen.Left alone when her husband went searching for how to get themselves out of this mess,[…]

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  • Say Your Blessings Slowly

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 3, 2020 | 15:49 pm

    This week we read a lengthy list of curses, beginning with what the Torah imagines to be the worst kind of people: “Cursed be the person who misdirects a blind person on his way.—And all the people shall say, Amen.Cursed be the person who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.—And all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27)It continues with a list of what will befall those who disobey God’s command: “Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.”And an abbreviated list of blessings that those who heed God’s mitzvot will enjoy: “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.” (Deuteronomy 28)The theology is crystal clear.Obey God’s commandments and blessings will follow. Disobey God’s mitzvot and you will see a long, detailed list of curses.It is not a very comforting thought.The graphic curses are in fact frightening.They make one recoil.Perhaps they even make people uncomfortable with the Torah and its stark theology.I for one don’t find the threat of cures a particularly effective way of motivating me to do good. The tradition appears to recognize this dilemma.When chanting this portion, the Torah reader chants these lengthy curses in a very soft voice and in a rushed manner.To recite these curses in a loud and commanding voice would be to suggest a confidence in this theology.It would be to affirm something we experience to be false.Everyone can cite examples of people who follow all the commandments and yet experience far too many calamities and likewise those who appear to subvert the rights of the stranger and appear to enjoy untold blessings.And so, what do we do?We recite these words in hushed tones. It is almost as if the tradition is instructing us to dwell on the blessings and rush past the curses.The Hasidic master Simhah Bunim of Pshischa notices something more.He teaches that these detailed punishments are only attached to one specific command.He hears the Torah shouting: “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.”Perhaps the rebbe is[…]

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  • Indifferent No More!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 27, 2020 | 16:43 pm

    We offer prayers of strength and healing to our fellow Americans who are only beginning to survey the devastation from Hurricane Laura.This week we read, Ki Tetzei, the Torah portion containing the most commandments.According to Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker, 72 mitzvot can be discerned from this week’s verses.They offer detailed instructions for how to reach out to others, of how we might best express our concern for other human beings.These rules are about inculcating the value of compassion for our neighbors.This principle is illustrated by one example: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow… so too you shall do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22) The tradition adds several exclamation points to this commandment when it rules that anyone who finds a lost object or animal and does not try to return it to its rightful owner is considered a thief.The wisdom is clear.If, when finding an object, we say not, “Look what I found!” but instead ask, “To whom does this belong?” we begin to fashion a wider circle of concern.Our failures to correct injustices, whether they be small or large, begins with our indifference.How do we begin to turn toward others and not away?This week we were confronted by the image of a black man shot by police officers.While the specifics of this case remain obscured, we join in offering prayers for Jacob Blake’s recovery.We pray that his Milwaukee home might soon find peace.We pray for strength in behalf of those who raise their voices in protest.One fact remains startlingly clear.Black men, and women, are far more likely to suffer violent deaths at the hands of police than their white neighbors.I have known this truth for some time, but I feel as if I have only begun to see it this summer.I shall not remain indifferent.Do the many objects adorning my home, that bring me a measure of comfort and peace, really belong to me or are they better meant[…]

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  • Rearrange the Furniture

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 21, 2020 | 16:25 pm

    A familiar Yiddish folktale. Once upon a time in a small village lived a seemingly poor unfortunate man who lived with his wife, his mother, and his six children in a little one-room hut. Because they were so crowded, the once loving couple often argued. The children were rambunctious, and often fought. In winter, when the nights were long and the days were cold, life was especially difficult. The hut was full of crying and quarreling.One day, when the poor unfortunate man couldn’t take it anymore, he ran to the Rabbi for advice. “Rabbi,” he cried, “things are really bad, and only seem to be getting worse. We are so poor that my mother, my wife, my six children, and I all live together in one small hut. We are too crowded, and there’s so much noise. Help me, Rabbi. I’ll do whatever you say.”The Rabbi thought for a long while. At last he said, “Tell me, my poor man, do you have any animals, perhaps a chicken or two?” “Yes,” said the man. “I do have a few chickens, also a rooster and a goose. “Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now go home and take the chickens, the rooster, and the goose and bring them into your hut to live with you.” Although the man was a bit surprised, he said, “Of course, Rabbi. I will do whatever you say.”The poor unfortunate man hurried home and took the chickens, the rooster, and the goose out of the shed and brought them into his little hut. When some weeks had passed, life in the hut was worse than before. Now along with the quarreling and crying there was honking, crowing, and clucking. There were even feathers in the soup and goose poop on the floor. The hut grew smaller, and the children bigger.When the poor unfortunate man couldn’t stand it any longer, he again ran to the Rabbi for advice. “Rabbi,” he cried, “you should see what misfortune has befallen me. Now with the crying and quarreling, there is also honking, clucking, and crowing, and even feathers in the soup. Rabbi,[…]

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  • Build Your Own Temple

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 14, 2020 | 17:08 pm

    The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes that worship in general, and the sacrifices in particular, cannot be performed in sanctuaries throughout the land, but must instead be centralized and moved to one location.That location will later become Jerusalem and its Temple.“When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you… then you must bring everything that I command you to the site where the Lord your God will choose to establish God’s name…” (Deuteronomy 12)Why would the one God need to be confined to this one place?Moreover, how can God be limited to one location?Historians and scholars have puzzled over this law.Biblical scholars suggest that the reasons for this law are political.In their view it was written during a time when Israel’s leaders wanted to centralize worship, and power, in the capital.The Book of Deuteronomy reflects this philosophy.Moses Maimonides, on the other hand, argues that sacrifice is an inferior form of worship.Prayer is the ideal.Over time Jewish law works to limit sacrifice.Deuteronomy is therefore a step in this educational process.Before eliminating sacrifice entirely, it is limited.Sacrifices can only be performed in this one location.Sefer HaHinnukh, a medieval commentary, offers an interesting explanation.It suggests that a sanctuary can only inspire people.It does so if it is unique and unparalleled.When we can do something anywhere and everywhere it loses its power and grip over our lives.This is of course why the Western Wall is such a powerful place and why it holds greater meaning to far more Diaspora Jews than Israeli Jews.For us it is a place of pilgrimage.For Israelis it is their backyard.Yet, with the destruction of the Temple in the second century, Judaism became purposefully decentralized.Many rituals were moved to the home.Each and every home became a sanctuary and is called by our tradition, mikdash maat, a small temple.The sanctuary became not so much about location but instead about experience.Place became secondary to time.This is how Judaism remains.We mark days as holy.The Israeli songwriters Eli Mohar and Yoni Rechter capture this sentiment when singing about Tel Aviv, a city that a mere[…]

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  • No More Tests and Trials

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 6, 2020 | 16:22 pm

    Really?Another calamity?Now you throw hurricanes at us too.The Torah responds: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts…” (Deuteronomy 8)And I shout back, “No more tests.” Our prayer book adds: “Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.”Why must there be so many hardships?And why must there be any hardship at all?How do these challenges purify our hearts?At the very least can these difficulties be spread out.Why does tzuris appear to come in successive waves?Just when we feel like we are gaining enough strength to stand up again another wave comes crashing in and knocks us down.The tradition suggests that the righteous are tested even more than the wicked.Abraham was, for example, tested not one time but ten.Who then would we want to aspire toward righteousness?The tradition counters that what makes people truly righteous is that they do not seek the title of tzaddik.They do good for its own sake.They do not wish to acquire status and stature.Their suffering becomes added proof of their righteousness. Still these days I find myself wanting to run in the other direction.2020 is exhausting.It is bedeviling.Enough!No more!Then again if we are able to find meaning in even the most difficult of challenges, and amidst this current piling of incremental difficulties, we will better for it.When we are tested our hearts grow stronger.The problem is not these tests and trials.It is found instead when we offer meaning and lessons about other people’s challenges.When we offer a cliché to a friend, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”Or when we try to interpret someone else’s pain or explain away their difficulty, we add to the pile of tzuris.In that moment, when we think we are offering a healing explanation we do more harm than good.No one wants their pain to be justified.During Tuesday’s storm our beautiful apple tree was uprooted and fell on our neighbor’s property.Yesterday our neighbor walked over to our house so we could strategize about the tree’s[…]

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  • Rescuing History

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 31, 2020 | 16:23 pm

    Today marks Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating nearly all Jewish tragedies, most especially the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the subsequent 2000-year exile from the land of Israel. Our weekly portion appears to foretell this cataclysm. Should you, when you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing the Lord your God displeasure and vexation, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish from the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out.(Deuteronomy 4)Not only do these verses foretell tragedy, they also assign blame.We are the victims of our own wrongdoings.No wonder that the prophet Jeremiah castigates the people and blames them for causing destruction of the first Temple, even though it was the Babylonians who laid siege to Jerusalem.No wonder that some 500 years later, the rabbis again fault the people for the decimation of first century Jewry, the destruction of the second Temple, and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants at the hands of the Romans.It was all because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews, the rabbis argued.This provided an opening for Rome to conquer Jerusalem.Jeremiah earlier laments: “Jerusalem has greatly sinned.Therefore, she has become a mockery.” (Lamentations 1)We stand guilty.History is evidence of our sins. Generations of Jews find blame for historical tragedies in our own actions.“If only we had been more faithful to God.If only we had not disobeyed the commandments.If only…”Such are the explanations offered for millennia.And while there is great spiritual power in seeing historical tragedies as occasions to reexamine our ways, and to look within our souls to discover how we might be responsible and how we might even be deserving of blame, it appears blasphemous when looking back at more recent tragedies.To suggest that the Jewish people are somehow to blame for the Nazis murderous rampage is sacrilege. It may be in keeping with Deuteronomy’s thinking, but it has[…]

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  • Waiting for Leadership

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 24, 2020 | 17:07 pm

    I am losing faith in leaders. I am losing faith in Moses. He is given to anger.He frequently loses his temper with the Israelites.A few weeks ago, he smashes a rock and God then tells him that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.This week we find him standing on the other side of the Jordan River, offering the Israelites some last tidbits of advice before handing the leadership reigns to Joshua.(The entire book of Deuteronomy is in large part Moses’ farewell address, filled with a lengthy to do list of exhortations: “Don’t forget…. Don’t you ever…. You better not…. Beware of…”)Moses appears exasperated and even exhausted.I recall that he never really wanted the job.He begs for God to pick someone else.He complains that he is not a good speaker.And now forty years later, Moses appears to be saying, “I told you so.”He castigates the people and exclaims: “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself….How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deuteronomy 1)Was his early premonition correct?Did he know that no matter how much he cajoled and how often he prodded, no matter how many times he shouted and how frequently he commanded, his followers would disappoint?Or is this the natural course of leadership?The gap between the leaders’ expectations and the people’s behavior is sometimes too wide.It pains the leader to even acknowledge or give voice to this widening gap.I am left wondering.I am certain that during these days I find myself increasingly disappointed in Moses.I am losing faith in his leadership.Why did he not begin with the words, “I am grateful for the privilege of leading you.We have experienced untold heights.We crossed the Sea of Reeds.We stood at Sinai.We have also experienced unimaginable challenges.I admit.Eating manna gets tiresome day after day.Running out of water on more than several occasions was indeed trying.But here we are, at the edge of what will be our new home, standing at the precipice of our hoped-for redemption.Thank you for the honor of calling me your leader.” Instead he begins with[…]

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  • Writing Our Own Torah

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 16, 2020 | 16:45 pm

    We often describe the Israelites journey through the wilderness as forty years of wandering, implying that they were forever on the move.And yet the concluding chapters of Numbers delineate twenty places at which they encamped.There is the wilderness of Sin where the manna first appeared and Rephidim where the people complained about lack of water and Moses struck a rock in anger.The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that the Israelites were really on the move in the first year when they left Egypt and the last year when they prepared to enter the land of Israel.During the thirty-eight intervening years they were actually living normally at one place or another.They were not constantly on the run, or even on the move.Instead they journeyed from Egypt to the promised land in stages, stopping for even years at a time at one oasis or another.Often when recounting a trip, we speak about the destination, we paint a picture of what we experienced there.Perhaps we encountered in this place great natural beauty or met unique and wonderful people in that land.And yet the Torah never arrives at its destination.It concludes with the journey’s goal incomplete.Thus, we imply that its chapters and verses are about aimless wanderings.We never arrive so our journey lacks direction and purpose.And while there is great value in meanderings, in setting off on a walk that offers no purpose than to be accompanied by others or one’s thoughts, this might not be the most accurate description of our forty years in the wilderness.Instead “the Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth.They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham…” (Numbers 33)The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, teaches: “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual.All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual, between the time he is born and the time he dies.”For the first years of my life I lived in Northern New Jersey, and then we journeyed to the suburbs of Saint Louis and then back again to New Jersey and then back once[…]

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  • Don't Give the Keys to the Likes of Pinchas

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 10, 2020 | 12:20 pm

    Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred.It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead.And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered.150 years ago, a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches are allowed to perform their rituals.A schedule is followed.By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.This was not always the case.On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade.Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith.A fight ensued.Eleven monks were taken to the hospital.And yet, when I visited the church a few years ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed.Some took pictures.Some marveled at the artwork.Others posed for selfies.Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body.People were clearly overcome by emotion.There were many tears and many more songs and prayers.I found myself marveling at their religiosity. I also found myself admiring their freedoms.No one policed behaviors.No one shouted that something was inappropriate.No one said, “Stop doing that!This is a holy place.”Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched.We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount.Apparently, the authorities fear that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount.It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban. Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what we’re allowed to do and not do.They examined the women in our group.Some were told that they were not[…]

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  • The Voice of Others

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 3, 2020 | 12:06 pm

    A few poems.Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nineteenth century Jesuit priest and English poet, writes:The world is charged with the grandeur of God.It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oilCrushed.Why do men then now not reck his rod?Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soilIs bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.And, for all this, nature is never spent;There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;And through the last lights off the black West wentOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—Because the Holy Ghost over the bentWorld broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.And Denise Levertov, a twentieth century American poet, offers:Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsiveto action and inaction.Remain in stasis, blown sandstings your face, anemonesshrivel in rock pools now wave renews.Clean the littered beach, clearthe lines of a forming poem,the waters flood inward.Dull stones again fulfilltheir glowing destinies, and emptinessis a cup, and holdsthe ocean.Hafiz, the fourteenth century Persian poet, affirms:What is the differenceBetween your experience of ExistenceAnd that of a saint?The Saint knowsThat the spiritual pathIs a sublime chess game with GodAnd that the BelovedHas just made such a Fantastic MoveThat the saint is now continuallyTripping over JoyAnd bursting out in LaughterAnd saying, “I Surrender!”Whereas, my dear,I am afraid you still thinkYou have a thousand serious moves.And this week, in our Torah, we discover another poem:How fair are you tents, O Jacob,Your dwellings, O Israel!Like palm-groves that stretch out,Like gardens beside a river,Like aloes planted by the Lord,Like cedars beside the water…They crouch, they lie down like a lion,Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?Blessed are they who bless you,Accursed they who curse you! (Numbers 24)So said Balaam, the foreign prophet sent by Israel’s sworn enemy, the Moabites.King Balak instructs Balaam to curse the Jewish people.Instead the prophet provides us with a prayer.“Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov…”With these words we begin our morning prayers.So records our Torah. And so, we are reminded. Torah[…]

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  • Prophet or Rebel?

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 25, 2020 | 16:33 pm

    The prophets of old shouted and railed against injustices.Few listened.At best they were surrounded by a small number of loyal, disciples.Most ignored their pleas.They turned a deaf ear to their screams.And yet, centuries later, we turn to their words for inspiration.The prophet Isaiah declares:Cry with full throat, without restraint;Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!Declare to My people their transgression,To the House of Jacob their sin….This is the fast I desire:To unlock the fetters of wickedness,And untie the cords of the yokeTo let the oppressed go free;To break off every yoke.It is to share your bread with the hungry,And to take the wretched poor into your home;When you see the naked, to clothe himAnd not to ignore your own kin.(Isaiah 58)And yet, despite the fact that we read these words every Yom Kippur, Isaiah’s shouts and cries remain muted.He was ignored in his own generation.He is still by and large ignored today.Perhaps it is because communities, and even countries, too easily become unraveled by such screams.Is this why the prophet Jeremiah was jailed?Prophets, with their calls for change and their demands to undo injustices, are threats to the established order.Where they see injustices aplenty, others see an unraveling of what they have come to love and an undoing of the many comforts they now enjoy.Is it possible that Korah was a prophet?The tradition answers with an emphatic, “No.”Korah, and his followers, question Moses’ leadership.They say, “You have gone too far!For all the community are holy, all of them and the Lord is in their midst.” (Numbers 16)The Torah judges these words to be the fomenting of rebellion.God sides with Moses. The earth then swallows up Korah and his followers.I am thinking that there is a very thin line between prophecy and rebellion.The Talmud counsels: “The world endures on account of people who are able to restrain themselves during a quarrel.” (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 89a). The prophets quarrel with everything.They see injustices everywhere.The world might not very well endure if we are led by prophets. Then again, the world might never change, or be made better, if we fail to heed[…]

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  • Why Juneteenth Matters

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 20, 2020 | 08:06 am

    What follows is my sermon from Shabbat Services on June 19th.  Join us every Friday evening at 7 pm on Facebook Live. David Ben Gurion once said:Three hundred years ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World.This was a great event in the history of England.Yet I wonder if there is one Englishman who knows at what time the ship set sail?Do the English know how many people embarked on this voyage?Or what quality of bread did they eat?Yet more than three thousand three hundred years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt.Every Jew in the world, even in America or Soviet Russia knows on exactly what date they left—the fifteenth of the month of Nisan; everyone knows what kind of bread the Jews ate.Even today the Jews worldwide eat matza on the 15th of Nisan.They retell the story of the Exodus and all the troubles Jews have endured since being exiled.They conclude this evening with two statements: This year, slaves.Next year, free men.This year here.Next year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisrael.That is the nature of the Jews.Ben Gurion offers a remarkable insight.Our Passover celebrations are about remembering our going free from Egypt.Every symbol on our tables is meant to do one of two things: on the one hand, to recall the pain and suffering of slavery, i.e. eating the haroset and maror or on the other hand, to celebrate the joy of being free, namely drinking four cups of wine and reclining.Why do we observe this holiday?Why do we celebrate Passover, over 3000 years after the event it commemorates?So that we might not only remember our own pain but also so that we might be sensitive to the pain of others.We eat matzah so that we might be better attuned to the suffering not just of Jews but of all people.The Torah makes clear what the symbolic gestures of the Seder imply.“You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23). You know what it feels[…]

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  • We Are Only as Small as We Think We Are

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 19, 2020 | 11:38 am

    There are days when everything appears as giants.And every problem appears insurmountable. How will we ever overcome this pandemic?Or its consequent economic downturn?Will life ever return to what it was once like?How will we eradicate racism from our country, from American culture and its institutions?What more can we do to uplift the lives, and livelihoods, of our fellow Americans who are Black?The questions appear enormous.The problems feel like foreboding giants.When the spies returned from scouting the land of Israel, they offered this report: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.All the people that we saw in it are giants…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13)Why did they see themselves as small grasshoppers?Perhaps it was because they were beaten down by this new experience of wandering in the wilderness?Then again perhaps it was because they still saw themselves as slaves.After hundreds of years of slavery, they could not imagine they would be able to overcome their enemies and achieve any measure of success. These words are why the Israelites must now wander for forty years.God determines that only a generation born in freedom can build a nation of its own. Still I wonder.How did they know how they appeared to others?And this is perhaps the ten spies’ most worrisome, and even insidious, claim.They had such poor self-esteem and self-worth that they imagined everyone saw themselves as small as they saw themselves. In the end, it’s one thing to see mounting problems as gigantic.It’s an added thing to see ourselves as too small, or too unprepared, or even too unwilling, to tackle these immense challenges.It’s an unforgivable thing entirely to imagine that others, in particular our enemies, whether they be viruses or other nations, see us as tiny grasshoppers who can be smashed underfoot.We can overcome whatever we believe ourselves able to overcome!Much of our challenges can be overcome by faith, by faith in God and belief in our abilities to surmount any and all difficulties.When King David was just a boy the Israelites’ enemy were[…]

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  • No More Complaining

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 11, 2020 | 20:45 pm

    This week we read a litany of complaints.There is the complaint about Moses’ leadership: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12) and the complaint about the food in the wilderness.Listen to the Israelites: “If only we had meat to eat!We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.Now our gullets are shriveled.There is nothing at all!Nothing but this manna to look at.”(Numbers 11)But the manna is not meant to be looked at.It is instead meant for eating.It provides ample sustenance.Instead the Israelites just stare at it.The Hebrew implies, “There is nothing but this manna before our eyes.”I wonder.Is it the lack of variety that leads to the Israelites’ complaints?“Really, pasta again tonight!?”Or is it instead that in Egypt the food was provided for them?Even though they were slaves, the food was free.What a bitter irony these words offer.The Israelites may not have paid for their food, or even worked to prepare it, but they toiled day and night, and lived (and died) according to their taskmasters’ yes or no.It was not really free.They paid for it with their lives.And yet, the newly free Israelites, remain dissatisfied and complaining.Then again free people do a lot of complaining about food.“I want some of those delicious shitake mushrooms!I want my blackberries.I want, I want, I want…”. How often I have complained during these past few months about the food that was now unavailable at the store?I should not have said, “There is nothing but this…to look at,” and instead offered, “Thank God there is food enough to eat.”Isn’t that the not so hidden message of manna?Sustenance is not about the food, but instead about the state in which we enjoy it.Think of our Jewish mourning rituals.The first thing a mourner is supposed to do after returning from the cemetery, and after washing their hands, is to eat.The foods prescribed for this meal of consolation (seudat havraah) are hard boiled eggs in Ashkenazi circles and lentils in Sephardic homes.Both foods[…]

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  • Maybe We Are All Racists

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 8, 2020 | 13:13 pm

    I recall some years ago, when I happened to be in the traffic court of a beautiful Long Island hamlet (we will leave unsaid why I was there) and I remember looking around and noticing something very distinct.The vast majority of those joining me on that day were not White, but Black and Latino.And on that day, and in that moment, I said nothing about this glaring disparity and galling incongruity.In fact, I said to myself, “I guess they are really bad drivers.”This memory has been running through my mind as I begin to take in the protests precipitated by the killing of George Floyd z”l.Black men and boys are two and a half times more likely to die during a police encounter than their white counterparts. Individuals from minority communities are also far more likely to be stopped by police.In addition, those stops are more apt to result in frisks, searches, and arrests.Ninety percent of those in New York City’s local jails are people of color.This is not so much an indictment of the police.It is instead an indictment of every one of us.Police, and policing, are a reflection of the communities they serve.Ask yourself these questions....This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

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  • Renewing and Reinterpreting Torah

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 29, 2020 | 08:36 am

    People often think that the Torah provides an exact guide for leading a Jewish life.This is simply not the case.They say as well, “Herein one finds the 613 mitzvot—commandments.”Again, although these mitzvot are derived from the five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, they are not arranged there in numerical fashion.Long ago the rabbis said there were 613 commandments, but it was not clear how they derived this number.It was not until the medieval period that commentators started enumerating this list. And here is another surprise.Each of these commentators’ lists are organized in different manners.The details are not exactly the same.It’s not that there is debate over whether or not Shabbat observance is a mitzvah, it is instead how many commandments are contained therein or what number it occupies the list.Does one begin the list with the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply” or instead with the first positive commandment: “Believe in God?”We are dependent on a body of interpretation, and generations of interpreters, in order to give us the detailed instructions, and laws, that we call Judaism. The Torah does not describe Jewish observance and belief.It is instead the groundwork upon which we build, and continue to construct, our tradition.We are not fundamentalists.We do not point to the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible, for that matter, and say, “This is exactly how we should do things.”Otherwise, to cite one obvious example, we would be sacrificing animals rather than reciting the Shema and Amidah. What makes us Jews more than anything else is Talmud Torah, the study of Torah.We pore over the Torah’s words in order to glimpse what God wants of us.We gain mere glimmers.These truths are refracted through millennia of interpretations.The glasses through which we look are those of preceding generations of interpreters.We continue to interpret in our own day.We look through these glasses not at them. On this holiday of Shavuot, we renew our commitment to Torah.It’s not so much the book but the study of Torah that makes us Jews and continues to give us Judaism. And that more than[…]

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  • Counting Each and Every Person

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 21, 2020 | 19:32 pm

    We begin studying the fourth book of the Torah this week.We open to the first chapter of Numbers and read: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral homes…”. Later the Torah reports the census’ tally.603,550 Israelites.That is an extraordinary number.The tradition recognizes the magnitude of seeing so many Jews in one place and so prescribes a blessing for those who might be privileged to witness the sight of 600,000 or more Jews.We say, “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, knower of secrets (chacham harazeem).” It is a curious blessing.Why not say words that acknowledge the magnitude of the sight or the vastness of the number?Instead the tradition appears to point us away from the crowd, the mass of people, and instead towards the individual.The Talmud concurs. “Why do we say this particular blessing?It is because God sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other and God knows what is in each of their hearts.”It is as if to say, “Look away from the crowd.Think instead about what resides in each and every individual heart.”According to another tradition there are the same number of 603,500 letters in a Torah scroll. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, an eighteenth-century Hasidic master, comments: “Just as the absence of one letter renders a Torah unfit for use, so too the loss of even one Jew prevents the Jewish people from fulfilling its mission.”Each and every one of us matters.Every individual counts.Just as the Torah’s individual letters are beautifully calligraphed and the pieces of parchment stitched together, so too we are bound to one another.We may be unique individuals, with different thoughts and aspirations, but we need each other.Whatever secrets we might hold in our hearts, we are bound to one another.There should be no secret in that truth.

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  • Study Is Its Own Reward

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 14, 2020 | 19:17 pm

    The rabbis argued that Torah study is its own reward.They famously said that Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is equal to such lofty commandments as honoring one’s parents, engaging in deeds of lovingkindness, arriving early for study, extending hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, dancing with wedding couples, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer and making peace between neighbors.(Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a)Why would study be of equal merit to the difficult task of visiting the sick or the uplifting duty of dancing with wedding couples?Some have suggested that it is because study leads to action. I remain skeptical that this is always the case.Study can offer its own promise.Study can provide a measure of comfort.To be honest, during these past few months, I have discovered new meaning in this practice.Part of the meaning is uncovered in the fact that we have now succeeded in making Torah study a regular habit.Every Tuesday at 1 pm we gather to study and discuss the weekly Torah portion.Some join us every week.Others join us on occasion.Never before have we been able to sustain this regular practice.And while I am certainly not grateful that it took our present worrisome circumstances to provide this opportunity, I am thankful that this has once again become part of my weekly routine.There is comfort in this rhythm.There is solace in reading aloud the verses of our holy writ.It’s not that we uncover answers to our many questions.In fact, more often than not we discover even more questions.Oftentimes they remain unresolved.And yet there is comfort to be gained in the practice.There is elucidation to be found in our discussions.It is only when sitting across from others, even on Zoom, that we find new meanings in these ancient words.And so, this week I discovered something that had remained hidden.The portion begins, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce…” (Leviticus 26:3). The Hebrew, however, does not state “follow” but instead “walk.” One has to get up and walk.To follow[…]

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  • New Meanings in Old Stories

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 7, 2020 | 17:30 pm

    Lag B’Omer is a mysterious holiday.It occurs this coming Tuesday.Its meaning, and origins, are curious.Its name is clear enough.It is the thirty-third day of the Omer.The Omer is the period in which we count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot.The Torah relates: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks.” (Leviticus 23)The rabbis make clear what the Torah leaves obscure.We count the days from Passover to Shavuot.We connect these two ancient agricultural festivals when our ancestors moved from Passover’s harvest of barley to Shavuot’s of wheat.We bind the freedom celebrated on Passover with the Torah given on Shavuot.Freedom must be bound to commitment. Long ago, our people worried about the impending harvest and asked, “Would the wheat crop be bountiful?” This led to the Omer gaining semi-mourning status in which wedding celebrations, for example, are forbidden.These restrictions are lifted on Lag B’Omer.The rabbis again elaborate.(Those rabbis can really tell some stories.)In the days of Rabbi Akiva a plague decimated his followers, killing thousands of the famed rabbi’s students.But then, on Lag B’Omer, the plague mysteriously ebbed.The sick recovered and regained their strength.People left their homes.They congregated once again in large groups.(That would be my rabbinic tale.I pray.May it be so!May it come to pass in our own day!)And thus, Lag B’Omer became a day of celebration in which these prohibitions are lifted. The rabbis continue spinning their tales.Lag B’Omer, they teach, is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a contemporary of Akiva, who was spared the plague and even the destruction that the Romans meted out after the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion. It is possible that the plague was a rabbinic euphemism for this rebellion and the destruction that followed. According to tradition, Shimon bar Yohai, is the author of the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism.On Lag B’Omer people flock to his grave.They exclaim that he is a light that continues to illuminate our paths.They dance around giant bonfires.They cut children’s hair for the first time because this too is forbidden during[…]

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  • Celebrating Israel

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 1, 2020 | 08:31 am

    I begin with a confession.In addition to watching all of the seasons of Money Heist, I binged on season three of Fauda, the Israeli drama that depicts the battles of a counter-terrorism unit.It is a gripping series.The season concludes on a depressing note.The cycle of violence does not end.One terrorist is killed, and his plans are thwarted only to have another take his place.Spoiler alert.An informant, and unknowing collaborator, becomes so enraged at the trickery and betrayal, that he becomes a terrorist leader and murderer. Although the show is wildly popular, in Israel and throughout the world, and even in Arab countries, I worry about its depressing conclusion.I refuse to accept this idea that we cannot escape the cycle of kill or be killed.I do not wish to believe that we are forever trapped in what the poet Yehuda Amichai once called the Had Gadya machine. An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount ZionAnd on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.An Arab shepherd and a Jewish fatherBoth in their temporary failure.Our two voices met aboveThe Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.Neither of us wants the boy or the goatTo get caught in the wheelsOf the "Had Gadya" machine.The show’s creators, Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, former counter-terrorist operatives, suggest that Fauda offers a sympathetic portrayal of Israelis and Palestinians.They have heard from Arab viewers that the show helped them to understand the pain of Israelis.And they have reported that Jewish viewers offer that the series has helped them to sympathize Palestinian suffering.There is a measure of truth to this claim.And yet I cannot escape the feeling with which the show’s conclusion left me.We are trapped.And so, I turned to what I often do on such occasions when such feelings overwhelm me.To the books of poetry, most especially Hebrew poetry, that line my shelves.I opened a book by a newly discovered poet.Rivka Miriam, writes:I remained aloneand sat on a benchspeaking to God about the people I metwho suddenly left me alone.I told him about the flowers I loved to smell,about the wide fields.I[…]

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  • No Eulogies for the Holocaust

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 23, 2020 | 16:32 pm

    When preparing for funerals I often share with families that it is impossible to adequately capture a person’s spirit and character in a few, well-chosen words, sentences and paragraphs.Eulogies are imperfect.Although important, they are inadequate representations of people’s lives.No life can be perfectly summarized.No life can be encapsulated in poetry or prose. I recall this sentiment at this moment as I reflect on the memories of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.For very few, if any, was a eulogy recited.No prayers were chanted.In fact, we recall them en masse and as a single memory.“The six million!” we intone.Their individuality, their unique character traits, the large things around which their lives turned and the small things that only their families and friends knew, and perhaps loved, are forgotten.Such sentiments have never been recorded in even the briefest of eulogies. “I remember when Sarah…. I recall when Jacob…” are words that were never said or heard.When we offer the words of eulogies, we convey that the lives we remember are valued.They signify that the lives of our family members and friends continue to have meaning.We recall what was unique about each of their individual lives. And this is what the Nazis robbed us of as well.The six million were stripped of their humanity in life and in death.We cannot even remember them as we should.We cannot even eulogize them as they deserve.Their individuality was destroyed. Primo Levi, one of the most eloquent of survivors, penned many words in order to give expression to these sentiments.His seminal work first written in Italian in 1959, If This Is a Man and translated into English with the inaccurate title of Survival in Auschwitz, struggles to convey the dehumanization of the camps.He writes, “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom…. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves[…]

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  • Swimming in Hope

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 16, 2020 | 21:51 pm

    In her recent article, “What I Miss Most is Swimming,” Bonnie Tsui writes: There’s a poignancy to being a swimmer now, in that we’re not able to do it just when we need it most. But even though public pools are closed and we are limited in the wild places where we can swim, thinking about immersion in our favorite watering holes is still a balm. As the writer Heather Hansman pointed out to me recently, there is value in those places even (and especially) when we’re not in them — it’s what Wallace Stegner called “the geography of hope.”I have been thinking about how we create such a geography of hope when we are trapped inside.(And when I cannot even swim in the chlorinated pools of our local gyms or locate the soothing balm of the ocean’s waves.). And so, I do what I often do, and lean on the ancient rabbis who even though they lived thousands of years ago, remain my teachers and guides.Living at a time when their beloved Temple was destroyed and they were exiled from the holy city of Jerusalem, they fashioned prayers that touched on these geographies and instilled hope in the hearts of countless generations of Jews.To this day we conclude our Passover Seders, as we did only last week, with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!”It is difficult to imagine that for centuries, nay millennia, we said these words even though returning to Jerusalem was a distant, and impossible, dream.And I would add, that we have now returned to Jerusalem, and rebuilt and revitalized the land of Israel, we too often take for granted.At every wedding ceremony, we sing the words of the Sheva Brachot and say, “O God, may there always be heard in the cities of Israel and in the streets of Jerusalem: the sounds of joy and happiness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the shouts of young people celebrating, and the songs of children at play.”And then a glass is broken in remembrance of that now distant and remote sadness of Jerusalem’s[…]

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  • Embracing the Seder's Order

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 8, 2020 | 15:41 pm

    According to Jewish tradition, the Book of Kohelet was written by King Solomon when he was an older man.It offers a melancholy appraisal of life, suggesting that we are fated to bounce back and forth between highs and lows.Solomon laments:A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: a time for being born and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted; a time for slaying and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up; a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for wailing and a time for dancing; a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces; a time for seeking and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for discarding; a time for ripping and a time for sewing, A time for silence and a time for speaking; a time for loving and a time for hating; a time for war and a time for peace. (Kohelet 3)Kohelet offers a painfully true insight.It is a wisdom that Solomon’s age affords him.His years have taught him difficult lessons.Whether we like it or not, whether we are prepared for it or not, we will at some point be confronted with all emotions, with laughing and weeping, dancing and wailing.We will have opportunities to mourn and rejoice.I have never, until now, and until these days, believed one of the phrases Solomon offers. “There is a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces.”I refused to heed his wisdom.I have long believed, and forever taught, that Judaism is about wrapping our arms around each other.We are commanded to do so at the best of times, when we for example grab our friends and swirl about in a hora or at the worst of times, when we offer hugs of consolation.These days however demand something far different of us.For the sake of life, we must now shun embraces.And I hate the fact that Solomon[…]

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