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  • Reclaiming the Earth

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

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

  • Hear Her Pain!

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

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

  • Who Is My Neighbor?

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

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

  • Celebrating the Land, Celebrating Israel

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

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

  • Justice for the Six Million?

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

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

  • Count Down to Revelation and Meaning

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

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

  • It's a Tie!

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

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

  • Offer Empathy

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

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

  • Gathering Goodness

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

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

  • Smash Anger

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

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

  • You Gotta Laugh

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

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

  • Give Diamonds

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

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

  • How We Treat Others Comes First

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

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

  • It's Really About Character

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

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

  • Blessed be the USA

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

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

  • No More Miracles

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

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

  • The Dawn Is Up to Us

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

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

  • We're on the Same Boat!

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

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

  • Conspiracy Theories No More!

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

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

  • Renewing Friendships

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

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

  • Compassion Rewrites History

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

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

  • The Genesis of Healing and Reconciliation

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

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

  • Stand Up and Light the Hanukkah Candles

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

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

  • Our Questions Are Our Heritage

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

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

  • The Blessings of 2020

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

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


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