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  • Enough Guns!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 27, 2022 | 00:45 am

    After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I thought our country would finally address its epidemic of gun violence. After students spoke out and organized following the murders at Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High School, I thought our nation would finally develop gun safety laws. I don’t know why we cannot agree. It is first and foremost about guns. It is about Americans’ love affair with guns and the easy access we have to these lethal weapons. Our nation is unique among affluent countries. We experience sixty times more gun deaths than people living in the United Kingdom and six times as many as neighboring Canada. There is one explanation for these staggering differences. There are more guns in the United States than people. Why does a nation of 330 million people need 393 million guns? Will laws eliminate gun deaths? Of course not. Will regulations prevent every person intent on doing harm from injuring or killing? Again, of course not. But can we do more? Should we be doing much, much more? Absolutely. I cannot even scroll through all the pictures of these adorable, smiling and loving children. I make it only to Amerie Garza and then must look away. Their teacher Eva Mirales’ beautiful smile, framed by our country’s breathtaking landscape, makes me gasp and look elsewhere. Have I already forgotten Celestine Chaney and Roberta Drury who were murdered in Buffalo last week? How many people remember the name of Daniel Enriquez who was killed in our very own city’s subway? I must not look away. I must take in every single one of these now erased smiles. Do I even know the names of the approximately fifty people shot and killed by guns every day? Can I even count the names of those additional fifty who use guns to take their own lives every single day of the year? It is about guns. And it is about our inability to develop better laws that will allow us to continue using and owning guns while also better protecting us from the dangers of these very same guns. How[…]

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  • Numbering Our Days with Meaning

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 20, 2022 | 20:47 pm

    We find ourselves in the midst of the Omer, the period when we count seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. The custom originated in biblical times when we counted from Passover’s wheat harvest until Shavuot’s barley harvest. An omer is a sheaf of grain. During this time semi-mourning practices are observed, namely no weddings are celebrated. The explanations for this are various and somewhat mysterious. I have often thought that it was most likely because there was worry about the upcoming harvest. Others suggest that during rabbinic times a plague afflicted the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. According to some accounts 24,000 students died. Miraculously on the 33rd day of the Omer the plague lifted. Today is in fact the 33rd day called Lag B’Omer. On this day the mourning practices are lifted. People celebrate and gather around bonfires. We are no longer downcast. Our worry disappears. The Omer serves to connect the freedom celebrated on Passover with the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai. The Jewish tradition’s claim is obvious. Freedom is meaningless if it is not wed to something greater, to something larger than itself. Passover is not about the freedom to get to do whatever we want. It is about freely choosing Torah.That is why the tradition stubbornly insists on counting the Omer. We count from freedom to revelation. We march from Egypt to Sinai. Our history is about the journey from this holiday to the next. Our story is reenacted during the Omer.The rabbis wonder why the plague was so severe. In typical fashion they see its devastation as a critique of their behavior. They see our remembrance of this tragedy as an opportunity to turn inward. And what was the sin that caused the plague? The rabbis teach: it was because they and their disciples failed to act respectfully towards each other.What extraordinary self-awareness! What remarkable willingness to offer self-criticism!Although their historical claims appear questionable the lesson remains instructive. We are again plagued by the failure to act respectfully towards each other. Our leaders scream at one another. Our politicians call each other names. Our debates[…]

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  • Remembering Annie, Remembering the Holocaust

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 17, 2022 | 18:45 pm

    Remembering Annie, Remembering the Holocaust Shalom and welcome to Congregation L’Dor V’Dor. I am Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, and I am so pleased that you have joined us for this special occasion when we dedicate Annie’s Garden in memory of Annie Bleiberg, a longtime member of our synagogue community…. I had the privilege of serving as Annie’s rabbi for almost eighteen years. It was one of my greatest honors that she chose to call me rabbi. Hearing someone say that who has lived through the history that I only study and teach about feels especially weighty. And sometimes, when I am reading and learning about the Shoah, I can still hear Annie’s voice in my ears. I can still hear the words she would offer to our students when she came every year to our sixth-grade class to speak about how she survived the Holocaust. I recall how she would tell them how her life was similar to theirs before the Nazis invaded her native Poland. I remember many things, but a few notes from her story are deserving of mention. She told the students how when she and her family were crammed into a train car heading for a death camp, her father managed to pry open the small window with the tools he had smuggled on the train. Men, and boys, squeezed through the opening and jumped first. And then it was the women’s, and girl’s, turn. The last boy became scared and so Annie who was to be the first girl jumped in his stead and then he after her. By then the guards on top of the train discovered what they were doing and shot and killed that boy when he jumped. Annie’s last memories of her mother and sister, who were murdered in that death camp, is saying goodbye to her sister in that cramped train car and the feeling of her mother’s hands pushing her from behind to help her squeeze through the window. She never saw them again. Only she and her father managed to survive. Still, even after her many attempts to avoid capture, the Nazis did manage[…]

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  • Enlarge Your Vision and Feed the Hungry

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 12, 2022 | 19:52 pm

    After several courses at our Passover seder, including matzah ball soup, chicken, brisket, tzimmes, various vegetables, and of course many glasses of wine, dessert was finally served. And then after that quintessential Passover sponge cake, we still found room for a few macaroons, jelly rings and candied fruit slices. What a feast! It seemed fitting for a king or queen. That is of course by design. When crafting the rituals for our seders the rabbis looked toward the lavish meals of the Greeks and Romans. They thought to themselves, “This is how free people eat. They recline. They are served. They dip their foods. This is how we should celebrate our feast of freedom.” I think of this lavishness, and yes, its overindulgence, when reading this week’s portion. It contains a list of all the holidays. Shabbat leads the list. Then comes Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and finally Sukkot. (The Torah does not mention our beloved Hanukkah or even Purim because the events these holidays commemorate had not yet occurred.) Sandwiched in between the instructions about marking Shavuot’s wheat harvest and Rosh Hashanah’s sounding of the shofar, is a commandment that appears out of place. The Torah states: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I Adonai am your God.” (Leviticus 23) Not only does this commandment appear out of nowhere but it is repeated almost word for word from last week’s portion. I want to shout: “Did you think I already forgot this mitzvah or that my attention span is that short?” I want to retort, “My field of view, and in particular the horizon of my compassion is not that limited?” Or is it? All those sumptuous desserts, and the wonderful company of family and friends, can obscure our peripheral vision. The poor and the stranger are cast aside. While the holidays elevate our lives, they can also diminish our sensitivities. The Torah exclaims,[…]

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  • Israel Is About Tomorrow

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 5, 2022 | 19:08 pm

    People often return from trips to Israel and speak about the power of visiting its ancient sites. It is extraordinary to stand in what was once King David’s palace or to play in Ein Gedi’s waterfalls and read the psalms a young David penned when hiding from King Saul. Walking through such archeological sites one can also imagine the moment when the young king and Batsheva first saw each other from afar. In Jerusalem, one can envision Abraham and Isaac walking those final steps before reaching Mount Moriah where the father was instructed to sacrifice his son. As I trace their path, I think to myself, did they speak? The Torah suggests they walked in silence, but I wonder, how could they not if it also states they were bound together as one. It was there that our ancestors built the holy Temple. All that remains is the Western Wall. How many people touched these very same stones? How many people tried to reach this place, but died during what was once a perilous journey to the holy land? The medieval poet, Yehudah Halevi, famously wrote: “My heart is in the East, and I in the uttermost West…. A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain—Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.” He died on his journey to Jerusalem. And yet for all the history contained in Israel’s stones, for all our tradition’s words scribed in these very hills, this is not what I most celebrate. Today is Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day. 74 years ago, the modern State of Israel was founded when David ben Gurion proclaimed: “By virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, we hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael—the Land of Israel—to be known as Medinat Yisrael—the State of Israel.” Israel is not so much about our history as much as it is about the present. Sure, it is about returning to our[…]

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  • Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 28, 2022 | 21:55 pm

    Today marks Yom HaShoah. The day the Israeli Knesset set aside, in 1959, to remember the Holocaust. Setting aside one day, or one service for that matter, to remember six million souls and the countless more they would have fathered and mothered, and the many Jewish towns and villages erased from the map and the flourishing of Jewish culture that is no more, seems immeasurable when compared to the enormity of our loss. How can any gesture or ritual, song or remembrance capture so much destruction and loss? Think about this. If one were to recite all six million names it would take nearly five months to read the list from start to finish, assuming no breaks for sleeping or eating or even pauses for taking a breath between names. (For the mathematicians among us, I am assuming it takes two seconds to read each name and that there are 31,536,000 seconds in a year.) Now imagine this....This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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  • Uneasy Lies the Teacher's Crown

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 21, 2022 | 21:34 pm

    There are many “fours” at the Passover table. There are the four cups of wine, the four questions and of course the four children. The Haggadah recounts: “The Torah alludes to four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to task.” Each asks a question. And each is answered with an explanation appropriate to their understanding. I have often bristled at the description of the wicked child. This suggests that the child is beyond teaching, shaping and even saving, that the teacher’s role is inconsequential. Labeling any child, as wicked most especially or even simple, for that matter, implies that the teacher’s role is negligible. The wicked child’s character appears set in stone. The Haggadah continues:What does the wicked child say? “What does this service mean to you?” This child emphasizes “to you” and not himself or herself! Since the child excludes himself or herself from the community and rejects a major principle of faith, you should  “set that child’s teeth on edge” and say:“It is because of this, that Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt.”“Me” and not that one! Had that one been there, he or she would not have been redeemed.The child is beyond saving! Was not every Israelite slave redeemed from Egypt? God made no distinctions about their wisdom or abilities. God did not ask if they believed or not. Back to the classroom. How many math teachers have heard, “What is the point of learning how to do geometry?” Or English teachers bristled at the words, “Why do I have to read what Shakespeare wrote hundreds of years ago?” Or rabbis recoiled at the statements, “Why do I have to study Hebrew?” (Or, if you have been reading my ruminations for the past few weeks, learn about leprosy?) While teachers might be tempted to castigate students who reject the very essence of what they are teaching, and what they have devoted their lives to, impatience, or in the case of the wicked child, anger, never succeeds in effectuating learning. And herein lies the import of[…]

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  • Taste the Matzah of Pain

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 14, 2022 | 15:22 pm

    Most people think that the purpose of Jewish rituals, most especially those performed when we gather around our seder tables, is to make us more Jewish. While this is true, their spiritual goals reach far beyond our Jewish identities. They serve to raise awareness in our hearts. Rabbi Shai Held comments: “Jewish spirituality begins in two places. One is a place of gratitude, and one is a place of protest. The challenge is to be capacious enough to hold gratitude for life, along with an equally deep sense that the world-as-it-is is not how it is supposed to be.” The seders we are about to celebrate encapsulate this teaching. On the one hand, they are replete with symbols reminding us that we are free. We drink wine, recline, and eat far too much food to instill sentiments of joy and gratitude in our hearts. We are free!. At the very same occasion, and at the very same moment, we remind ourselves that we were once slaves by eating matzah, maror and charoset. We are commanded to taste bitterness and suffering. Scholars suggest that slaves and poor laborers were fed matzah not only because it is cheap but because it is filling and as we quickly discover, requires a long digestion period. Matzah is designed by the oppressors to exploit the enslaved. Matzah is the rations of a slave. Every day we are to taste—and thereby try to feel—what it must be like to be a slave. Of course, our matzah does not come close to the real experience of suffering and slavery, but this is what this symbol is designed to do. Sometimes I wonder if our feasting overwhelms the matzah’s essential purpose. We butter up the matzah sometimes quite literally and other times repackage it as soup-soaked matzah balls. We lather it with lots and lots of eggs and turn it into matzah brie. We do all manner of things to transform the slave bread into a treat befitting a feast and celebration. And I worry that in these delicious transformations we undermine the matzah’s simple, but powerful, message.[…]

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  • Harmful Feathers, Harmful Words

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 7, 2022 | 22:38 pm

    A Hasidic story. One day a man heard an interesting, albeit unflattering, story about another man. (Let’s call the first man Steve and the second, Mike.) It was an amusing tale and so Steve shared it with others. He told lots and lots of people. Everyone found the story entertaining. Steve reveled in the laughter. Soon Mike noticed that people gave him strange looks as he passed by on the street. He quietly wondered why. “Was it his hair style?” (Ok, I have made some changes to the original version.) Then he noticed that people frequented his store less often. Soon he discovered the unkind words people were saying about him. He asked a friend what they were saying. He could not believe his ears. He soon found out the source of the tale. It was Steve! Mike confronted the Steve, complaining that he had ruined his reputation by repeating this one, unflattering episode. Steve tried to make excuses that it was such an entertaining story and that it always got a laugh. “But now,” Mike stammered, “Everyone just laughs at me.” Steve was overcome with remorse and ran to his rabbi (let’s call her Susie) to seek counsel. Steve approached the rabbi and explained the situation. “How do I fix this? How can I repair Mike’s reputation?” The eminently wise rabbi offered a curious suggestion. “Go get a feather pillow and bring it to me.” Steve asked, “A feather pillow? Do they even sell those at Bed, Bath & Beyond anymore?” “This is not the time to make jokes!” Susie exclaimed. “Go, buy the pillow.” Steve traveled throughout the greater New York area in search of such a pillow. He wondered how this was going to fix the problem. Still the rabbi offered a solution, and he was anxious to repair Mike’s reputation. A week later, he finally found the pillow on Amazon and texted the rabbi about his success. Susie texted him back, “Meet me in the center of town, at the corner of Main and Wall Streets. Don’t forget to bring the pillow.” Steve thought to himself,[…]

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  • Don't Turn Away from Illness

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 1, 2022 | 01:57 am

    This past weekend I ran into a former student who said, “I always remember my bar mitzvah Torah portion?” “Why?” I asked. And he responded, “It was about leprosy. I will never forget that!” Indeed, one thing that can be said for certain about this week’s portion is that it leaves a lasting, and memorable, impression on the students who chant its words. We read about how the ancient Israelites approached this feared disease. When people developed a suspicious looking skin infection, they would go to the priest. If he suspected it was leprosy, he would instruct them to quarantine for seven days. (Sound familiar?) If it disappeared, or diminished after the week, they were allowed to return to the camp. If, however, the infection grew, and the priest determined that they indeed had leprosy, they would take on some mourning customs, rending their clothes and bearing their heads. They were required to dwell outside the camp for as long as they had leprosy. On their way out the door, so to speak, they were required to shout, “Impure! Impure!” (Leviticus 13) If it were not bad enough already to have contracted leprosy, shouting, “Impure! Impure!” seems cruel. The Talmud justifies this requirement. The rabbis suggest that these words served to warn others that they were (potentially) contagious. They continue. These words not only serve as a warning but are meant to elicit compassion and prayers. Some time ago I officiated at a funeral. It was for a woman who lived well into her nineties, but sadly suffered from Alzheimer’s for the last ten years of her life. In attendance at her funeral were four women who cared for her during these years. After I finished speaking, one asked, “Can I say a few words?” I responded, “Of course.” She then pulled out her written remarks and said, “I prepared some words.” “Even though Sarah could not speak, I knew she was a kind lady. The way she looked up at me told me she was kind. I could see it in her eyes.” I was taken by her words.[…]

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  • Feeding the Spirit

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 24, 2022 | 22:20 pm

    People often think that eating and the preparation of food are not religious acts. They are simply among the mundane activities we do, day in and day out, that sustain our bodies. Going out to a restaurant with friends, gathering around the dining room table with family, or even schmoozing with one another as dinner preparations are made, are secular affairs. This could not be further from the truth. Religions in general, and Judaism in particular, add two key ingredients to every meal: gratitude and limits. Whether it is the Passover restrictions against the eating of bread or this week’s detailed list of prohibited animals, the preparation of meals is infused with the question of “Does my God permit me to eat this or not?” For some this may appear like an inopportune, or even outrageous, question in the rush of preparing breakfast before heading out the door to work or school, but the asking makes us pause. It adds a sense of religious intentionality to something that our bodies require us to do. We can eat whatever we want, whenever we want, or we can eat with a sense of the holy. We pause and ask, “How does God want me to eat?” I am not suggesting that the only way to bring a sense of Godliness to the breakfast table is by eliminating bacon. I am proposing, however, that asking the question is how one elevates what we tend to think is only about the body, and the secular, and not about the spirit, and the sacred. Every day I am forced to pause and ask, “Do I use the milk or meat utensils?” It’s not an earth-shattering question to be sure, and I am at times skeptical that the Torah’s prohibition about “Boiling a kid in its mother’s milk” meant I should have a second set of every dish, pot, and utensil, but the question, and sometimes the ensuing discussion, transforms the experience. I pause. I look up. I think if but for a brief moment, “What should I be doing?” And then, “Why I am doing[…]

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  • Take In Some Joy!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 18, 2022 | 18:26 pm

    Today is Purim, the day in which the tradition suggests all rules are suspended. We are commanded to celebrate our victory over Haman’s genocidal designs with wild abandon. We dress in outrageous costumes, drink far too much wine and drown out Haman’s name when reading the megillah. It seems like a counterintuitive response to a history filled with suffering. Purim urges us to look within and ask, should we always fixate on antisemitism? Should we dwell so much on the many tyrants who sought to destroy us? What is the cost to our own souls of speaking so frequently about antisemitism and hate? Purim asks and answers its own question. It suggests that mourning, and eternal vigilance, must not be our only responses. Purim commands. Let loose. Celebrate. Party. When the world’s travails can dispirit even the most optimistic of people, Purim suggests that we put these aside at least for this one day. Contemporary struggles tug at our compassionate hearts. Our history gnaws at our souls. Our spirits require celebrations as much as they need historical know how and attunement to the suffering around us. On this day, allow the worries of history and even the calls of “never again” to retreat if but for this brief moment. Take in the joy of Purim.

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  • Sacrifices Are the Best Prayers

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 11, 2022 | 17:46 pm

    This week we begin reading the Book of Leviticus. It details the ancient rituals surrounding sacrifices. Until the Temple was destroyed, in 70 C.E., we approached God by offering animals as sacrifices. Because we instead pray, and offer words, it sounds strange to read the details of slaughtering animals, sprinkling their blood on the altar and then turning their flesh into smoke. My students often turn away in disgust. Even though every single one of them loves a good barbeque, they are repelled by the Torah’s details and the notion that God would want us to bring the choicest bull, sheep, goat or turtledove to the Temple and then kill it. The notion of sacrifice is foreign to them.The idea of making sacrifices, however, derive from this ritual. We must give up something of value, something that we want and even need. These animals were prized. They were therefore given to God—first. By giving something up our ancestors drew nearer to God. In fact, the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, derives from the word meaning “to get close.”By sacrificing prized possessions, by relinquishing ownership to the creator God, the ancient Israelites demonstrated that their property was not owned, but instead borrowed. In effect, they said to God, “I return Your creations to You.” To let go, to relinquish ownership, is not how we approach the world. It is not how we look at our possessions. We even call them “belongings.” While I realize that belongings more often refer to those things that we can pack into a suitcase, the word suggests a sense of personal ownership that is absent from the Torah. In our tradition, the focus is on God’s ownership.The only true owner is God. We care for what God creates. We are custodians and stewards. Giving up and making sacrifices makes perfect sense if nothing is truly mine. We do not relinquish but return. If everything is borrowed, if all that I hold is but lent to me, then offering it (back) to God is easy. And then sharing with others is even easier. For when we sacrifice[…]

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  • Stand with Ukraine!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Mar 4, 2022 | 13:32 pm

    This feels different. And I would like to ponder why. The war for Ukraine—I believe this to be the better descriptor than the benign Russia-Ukraine war—has affected me in ways that other conflicts and humanitarian crisis have not. While I remain exercised about America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, the collapse of the country’s economy, and the knowledge that over twenty million Afghanis will soon face hunger and starvation (there are innocent children in that land too!), my heart looks toward the hourly reports from Ukraine. Why my focus turns toward Europe, why my heart weeps more for Ukrainians gnaws at me, but at this moment I can only look toward Ukraine. This place matters to us. It matters to us as Americans. And it matters to us as Jews. I have only begun to articulate why.I hear Hayyim Nachman Bialik’s words in my ears:Arise and go now to the city of slaughter;Into its courtyard wind thy way;There with thine own hand touch, and with the eyes ofthine head,Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead.Bialik wrote in Hebrew. He lived in Odessa....This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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  • How to Respond to War for Ukraine

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 27, 2022 | 22:50 pm

    Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the incomparable nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi who lived and taught in what is now Ukraine, once said, “The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the essence is not to be afraid.”These days the world appears even more narrow. We are afraid. We watch in horror as ordinary Ukrainians fight battle hardened Russian soldiers. We worry about Vladimir Putin’s designs. We fear about the emerging humanitarian crisis. If you would like to support efforts to alleviate this crisis, I recommend the following:UJA-Federation of New York“In light of the escalation of violence, UJA-Federation of New York has approved up to $3 million in emergency funding to support the Jewish community of Ukraine. To date, $1.375 million has been allocated to our primary overseas partners — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) — who have the capacity, experience, and reach to provide for the safety and well-being of the Jewish community — as well as to smaller grassroots partners who also have ties to individuals in dire need. We expect additional needs and requests to emerge in the days and weeks ahead.” World Union for Progressive Judaism“In the light of the recent conflict on the Ukrainian border, the World Union for Progressive Judaism launches the Ukraine Crisis Fund. We ask people from all over the world to make donations towards the support of the Jewish community in Ukraine. Money will be spent on individuals and communities to ensure their safety and well-being. If the conflict escalates further, your money will become crucial and necessary help for many people. If the tension eases, the fund will be spent on the development of the progressive Jewish community in Ukraine.” World Central Kitchen“On February 24, Russia launched a large-scale attack on neighboring Ukraine, invading the country on several fronts. As a result, thousands of Ukrainian families are fleeing their homes in search of safety. Working at a 24-hour pedestrian border crossing in southern Poland, WCK began serving hot, nourishing meals on Friday evening. In addition to providing meals for families in Poland, WCK[…]

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  • Fire and Light; Fear and Awe

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 24, 2022 | 17:00 pm

    The Torah declares: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35) And the tradition constructs a myriad of laws so that one does not even inadvertently light a fire. Electric lights cannot be turned on or off. The stove is kept at a simmer. Driving cars is not allowed. The lighting of Shabbat candles is performed eighteen minutes before sunset and the kindling of the havdalah candle well after it becomes dark on Saturday evening.And while I am not observant of these prohibitions and drive and cook and turn the lights on and off (if one counts telling Google to do this for me) and even light Friday evening’s candles when our family is together rather than at the exact appointed minute, I understand the Torah’s intention of prohibiting kindling fires. Fire can be dangerous; it can burn. This is the essence of why it was prohibited. It can consume; it can destroy. Such powers are contrary to Shabbat; they are forbidden on this holiest of days.Then again, the lighting of candles marks the beginning of every holiday. We kindle yahrtzeit lights to remember those we mourn. These candles serve as beacons, reminders of our loved ones and the sanctity of the holiday. The dual meaning of fire is part of its power. It echoes the Hebrew term for religious, yirat hashamayim. Literally this means fear of heaven. I prefer to translate this as standing before heaven, placing heaven at the forefront of our thoughts. I lean into feelings of awe rather than those of fear.The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes:The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.Fire is[…]

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  • The Artist's Eye

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 18, 2022 | 02:39 am

    The artisan, Bezalel, is chosen to fashion the tabernacle and its furnishings. He is from the tribe of Judah, the largest of the tribes. His assistant, Oholiab, is from Dan, the smallest tribe. According to the Talmud this shows that everyone is represented in the building of these holy items. The rabbis also suggest Moses was displeased that God did not choose him. He assumed God would have picked him because God chooses him to do everything else. Again, the rabbis offer a message. Don’t think that only someone as holy as Moses can draw near to God or in this case, help us build something that adds holiness to our lives. Anyone, and everyone, can help us fashion the sacred and draw the earthly closer to the heavenly. Moreover, Bezalel is endowed with a “divine spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge of every kind of craft.” (Exodus 31) He is a first rate artist. I wonder. What makes an artist top notch? Each of us has our favorite. I may be partial to Ansel Adams and others to Annie Leibovitz. I may like Salvador Dali and others Jackson Pollock. I may prefer vibrant colored artwork and others black and white photographs. Regardless of these subjective evaluations, I have come to think it is more about the “understanding” rather than any other quality. The artist sees things differently than other people. I could be standing in the same exact surroundings as Frederic Brenner (the French Jewish photographer who took a photograph of your favorite rabbinic couple) and I will still never be able to see and understand what he sees. No matter how extraordinary and expert my iPhone camera becomes, he understands something that I cannot. I remain grateful for his vision. I can have the same vocabulary as Mary Oliver and find myself in the same Cape Cod Pond about which she writes, and I will still never be able to craft a poem that captures the spirit she conveys with her words.At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settledafter a night of rain.I dip my cupped hands. I[…]

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  • Lighting Jewish Flames

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 10, 2022 | 23:38 pm

    “What happened to the old eternal light? If it is eternal, how can it be replaced?” the seventh graders asked when our first class met in our newly renovated sanctuary. My answer that the new light is more beautiful and uses an energy saving LED bulb was met with disapproval. “It’s eternal!” they shouted back. I realized that as far as they are concerned our synagogue has always existed. The founding date of 1963 is just as distant as 1948, or for that matter, 70 C.E. This synagogue is the only place most of them have ever known. I imagine they also think this Jewish space will exist forever. Their synagogue is as eternal as the eternal light. Their questions made me realize that eternity is more about memory than fact. This can be a jarring realization. Every synagogue has an eternal light. In some they are modern. In others more traditional. I cannot think of a synagogue without this familiar symbol. The term, however, suggests a misunderstanding of the Torah’s intention. The Torah commands, “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly (ner tamid).” (Exodus 27) We are supposed to light this lamp regularly. In fact, the Bible suggests that the lamp was only lit during the evening hours to illuminate the darkness. In later times, the light was kindled two times a day, in the morning and evening, corresponding to the times for prayer services.It appears that the eternal light with which we are familiar and which we associate with a synagogue’s sanctuary did not become commonplace until the seventeenth century. Even its Hebrew name suggests that it is anything but eternal. Ner tamid should be more accurately translated as “regular light” or even “always light.” It is up to us to light it. It is also up to us to invest it with meaning. Symbols are about the meaning we assign to them. We like to believe that such things are eternal. We like to think that the symbols we find meaningful have always been[…]

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  • Holy Places

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Feb 4, 2022 | 15:16 pm

    Our homes are called a mikdash ma’at, a small sanctuary, because this is where Judaism, and Jewish values are most lived. We can pray there. We can eat there. We can offer words of healing there. We can most importantly rejoice there. This is why as maddening as this pandemic continues to be, meeting on Zoom or livestream for what is now nearly two years, makes perfect Jewish sense. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, we sanctify time rather than place, moments rather than even mountains. We do not urge people to pilgrimage to far off destinations but instead compel them to allow a day, the day of Shabbat, to transport them to another place. And yet, this week we read God’s instruction, “Build for me a sanctuary that I dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) This is followed by a list of all the items the Israelites will need to build a portable tabernacle for God. It is quite an exhaustive list. Gold, silver and copper. Blue, purple and crimson yarns. Tanned ram skins and even dolphin skins. Despite this, and despite the approximate thousand years that the temple stood in Jerusalem, Judaism, and in particular rabbinic Judaism, argued that we don’t need a special place to do Jewish rituals. All we need are ten people, some prayerbooks and of course a Torah scroll. If you have the right books and the right amount of people, it does not matter where you are. You can be at the beach, at the synagogue or as we have come to know all too well, our homes. And yet despite the fact that this is true and philosophically sound, I find myself missing my places, and yearning for our places. It is not so much that I love the gym, and most especially the pool, but I miss the camaraderie of my fellow swimmers. I find myself missing as well not the concerts or the movies, but even, and perhaps most of all, the casual conversation struck up with strangers as we wait in line or for the gates to open. We may not know[…]

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  • Remember This Date

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 29, 2022 | 21:18 pm

    Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. January 27th was chosen by the United Nations, in 2005 by the way, because it was on this day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. On January 27, 1945, the international community brought the horrors of the Holocaust to an end. That of course is not entirely true. It took nearly three more, grueling and deadly months before all the camps were liberated. It was not until May 8, 1945, when Nazi Germany was defeated and in fact not until the following day that the last camp was liberated. And yet Auschwitz-Birkenau represents the massiveness of the destruction of European Jewry and the evil of the Nazis. It was there that one million Jews were murdered. Still, I think January 27th was chosen because it represents the day the world defeated the Nazi death machine.Likewise, Israel’s Knesset chose the 27th of Nisan because it is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It is the day when Jews revolted against their Nazi oppressors. The small ragtag group of Jewish fighters held off the Nazi army longer than the Polish army was able to. It was a remarkable feat and one that continues to inspire Israel’s sense that it, and it alone, can protect Jewish lives. And no matter how small we may appear even when standing before armies with far larger numbers, we will triumph. The Knesset debated other dates—some thought Tisha B’Av would be better when every tragedy seemed to happen to us—but ultimately the 27th of Nisan was chosen in 1959. It is the day when we, as a synagogue community, remember the Holocaust.We need such days to remember the uniqueness of the Holocaust. They remind us that the Holocaust was singular in its evil. In an age when people conjure up Holocaust comparisons to such things as mask or vaccine mandates, we really need such days. And yet no perfect day can encapsulate the evils and horrors of the Holocaust.I have been reflecting on these days when the Jewish community and the international community focus on Holocaust remembrance and education. It seems to me[…]

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  • Repro Shabbat

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 28, 2022 | 21:18 pm

    Judaism constructs its value system around phrases inscribed in its sacred texts. It begins with verses from the Torah and traverses through words written by rabbis who lived during its formative stages. It walks from what we call the written Torah, revealed at Sinai, through the oral Torah, revealed in rabbinic debates throughout the ages, until arriving at today. And so, when we ask what wisdom Judaism has to offer about abortion rights, we first turn back to yesterday. Why are we again talking about abortion rights? The reason so many synagogues are asking this question on this Shabbat has nothing to do with the fact that Justice Stephen Breyer is retiring from the Supreme Court or that this court seems poised to roll back the rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade, but instead because the first verse alluding to abortion rights occurs in this week’s Torah portion. This is why many Jews are observing what the National Council of Jewish Women has called Repro Shabbat.The Torah proclaims: “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning.” (Exodus 21) We learn from these sacred words that the fetus is not considered a life. A miscarriage is about damages. It is not a capital offense. The fetus is not accorded the same value as the mother’s life.We then turn to the Mishnah, the first layer of rabbinic writings, codified around the year 200 C.E. This text makes the Torah’s implication crystal clear. “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth, one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.” (Mishnah Oholot 7)The rabbis are definitive in their judgment. The mother’s life takes precedence. A potential life[…]

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  • Antisemitism Is Here to Stay

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 22, 2022 | 15:00 pm

    When I spoke with my mother this week she remarked, “I never imagined that you and your brother Michael, who is also a rabbi, are in a dangerous profession.” Now even though my mom can sometimes be overly dramatic and does tend to personalize even the most distant of world events (I come by these traits naturally), her comments do on this occasion deserve unpacking rather than the usual brushing away. Moms often verbalize fears and, on this occasion, the singular fear that has entered the sacred space of our synagogue sanctuaries.My Christian friends do not have security guards at their church’s doors. Their congregants do not receive emails detailing new security protocols. What was once only the purview of synagogues in Europe or common in Israel where every gathering place has a guard, has now become normative in our own beloved country.For obvious reasons I am not going to publicly discuss what security enhancements we are putting in place and we are working on. Rest assured our synagogue will always be safe and secure.Most mornings I say the blessing, “Baruch Atah…matir asurim. Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who frees the captive.” To be honest, this was always said as just one among many in that long list of morning blessings. Sometimes I thought to myself, “That was for a different age and a different time.” Never before did I think I would see these words come to life in my own age and that my blessing would be realized by a fellow Reform rabbi and his congregants. On Saturday evening, I felt as if a miracle came to be and then I thought, “Being Jewish, praying in synagogue and just being rescued from murder should not be a miracle.” Being a living Jew should not be dependent on heroics.Most of my friends who follow the words and traditions of other faiths do not understand or appreciate what I felt this past weekend or for that matter, what we are now feeling.I had this sense that for those harrowing eleven hours we were one people...This[…]

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  • Fears That Really Matter

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 21, 2022 | 13:54 pm

    We remain grateful that the rabbi and congregants of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville who had gathered for Shabbat morning services were rescued. I am sure that many of us spent anxious hours waiting on Saturday for word of how this might end and were relieved that this hostage crisis did not conclude in tragedy.Our thoughts now turn to the increasing scourge of antisemitism. Tomorrow evening I will devote my remarks to this plague and how Colleyville fits into a worrisome pattern and a growing worry.At this moment, I want to focus on the fear many of us are feeling. Rest assured we are redoubling our attention to security at our synagogue. And yet, no matter how many security measures we take, and how many changes we institute, these can never allay the fear that so many of us now feel. Security is about prudent measures an institution can, and should, take. It is about what steps individuals can choose so that they avoid dangers. Fear is more a matter of the heart.When it comes to the heart, I thought I knew it well. I used to think that all I have to do is work to banish fear. I would say to myself, “Just sing.” Singing, even poorly, helps to drive fear away. Or I would think, “Get back on that bicycle and go for a ride on that same road you got hit on.” And even though I rode much more slowly, the fear no longer accompanies me. True, it sometimes finds its way into my thoughts, but pedaling seems to drive it away. Or in the past, I could be heard saying, “Get on that plane and go to Israel because your love of Medinat Yisrael (the state of Israel) and Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) are more important than all the bombs they are throwing at us.” And away I went. Such sentiments continue to work for me—most of the time. On these occasions, I am (mostly) successful in making sure that my loves overwhelm my fears. Yesterday, I read the words of Amanda Gorman,[…]

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  • Uncertainty and Its Roundabout Path

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 14, 2022 | 01:50 am

    At the last Shabbat evening services on Friday night, the camera did not work properly. No matter how emphatically I pressed the buttons on the app, the camera remained frozen on the Shabbat candles and then when it did respond, zoomed in on my bald head. I was finally able to get it set to the default position and left it there for the remainder of the service. I am sure others have had similar frustrating experiences when attending Zoom meetings or online conferences. At that point all we can do, or should do, is laugh. Despite our increasing dependence on technology, it is as imperfect as the human beings who design it. Nothing ever works perfectly or even runs exactly according to plan. A smart home is rendered quite dumb when power is lost or the internet is down and even then, sometimes one app stops talking to another, and the newest smart TV will not show the latest movie everyone is talking about.Don’t get me wrong. Technology is great. It allows us to do things that were once unimaginable. People can attend services no matter where they are. They can find meaning in our Shabbat prayers and songs whenever they choose. And this is very good.But technology offers the illusion of perfection. It looks so neat and tidy that we start thinking it’s perfect. Likewise, we think that science can offer certainties and these days we seem to expect that scientists can offer perfect advice. They speak in the language of exactitudes, but science is filled with educated guesses.The Webb telescope that recently blasted off to outer space is a technological marvel, but it is also an illustration of how much science does not know. We are spending billions of dollars in the quest to answer questions that have captivated astrophysicists. As soon as this telescope discovers the answers to these questions it will crack open the door to heretofore unknown questions. With every answer comes even more questions. Certainty evades us. One can trust scientific experts—I recognize that there are astrophysicists who know more about the cosmos[…]

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  • Lightning and Truth

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jan 6, 2022 | 21:53 pm

    I opened the Torah to this week’s portion somewhat apprehensive that I would have to once again read about the final three plagues visited upon the Egyptians. (These days I don’t need any more plagues!) I would not have to justify the Egyptian’s pain as the price for our freedom and as a necessity to demonstrate God’s power to our people. That was not where my heart can be found. My Hasidic commentaries rescued me. I scanned the words of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the movement and Menahem Mendl of Kotzk. Menahem Mendl, the Kotzker rebbe, offered me a path away from the plagues. He did not even make it past the first word. He never made it to locusts or the death of the first born.He asks, “Why does the portion begin with the word bo? Why does the verse say the following: “And God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh?’” This makes no sense. It should say instead, “Go to Pharaoh.” The Kotzker rebbe responds, “The Torah does not say, lekh—go—to Pharaoh, but bo—come. The reason for this wording is because one cannot go from God; one cannot move away from God because God is everywhere. Therefore, God told Moses, “Come,” or in other words, “Come with Me, for I will be with you wherever you are.”His interpretation was revelatory. It hit me like lightning. And so, at first, I thought the Kotzker rebbe had redeemed the portion and its plagues. I would not have to talk about darkness again. I would not have to wrestle with the dilemma of why God made Pharaoh so stubborn. The first word tells us all we need to know. Bo. God is everywhere. I delved into the Kotzker rebbe’s life. I followed his teachings and asked where they might lead me. Menahem Mendl was brilliant, but troubled. Darkness hovered over his life. He was exacting and controversial. Some report that one year he did not even show up for High Holiday services. Imagine that! And yet it makes sense when you think about the Kotzker’s life. He was[…]

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