5783 Musical Torah Journey
Nitzavim/Vayeilech 5783 – Hayom Harat Olam
“Today the world is pregnant with possibility. Today all of creation stands in judgment.” On Rosh Hashanah each year we say this line after every set of shofar blasts. It may look more familiar in the Hebrew: “הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם – הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמִים” This year on the first day of Rosh Hashanah that moment will look different, for we will be saying these words after silence – the shofar is not traditionally blown on Shabbat. How can we feel the awe and grandeur of the day without this iconic literal wake up call? I like to believe this provides us with a powerful opportunity – how will we center and wake ourselves up when there is no sound here to do it for us?
Rosh Hashanah is unique among beginnings on the Jewish calendar. We celebrate the new month (Rosh Chodesh) every month with fanfare and Hallel. We even precede Rosh Chodesh with an announcement on the Shabbat beforehand where we proclaim the exact day (or days) when Rosh Chodesh will occur (this Shabbat ritual is called mevarchim chodesh – blessing the new month). But Rav Shmuel Bornsztain (1855-1926 Poland) notes that for the month of Tishrei (the month we are about to enter), we do not announce the month. Why? He writes,
כִּי זֶה שֶׁמְּבָרְכִין הַחֹדֶשׁ הוּא לְהַמְשִׁיךְ מִקְּדֻשַּׁת הַשַּׁבָּת עַל הַחֹדֶשׁ. וְהִנֵּה בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה אָנוּ אוֹמְרִים: זֶה הַיּוֹם תְּחִלַּת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ זִכָּרוֹן לְיוֹם רִאשׁוֹן, הַיְנוּ: כְּמוֹ תְּחִלַּת בְּרִיאַת הָעוֹלָם שֶׁלֹּא בָּאָה עַל יְדֵי שׁוּם הִתְעוֹרְרוּת, שֶׁהֲרֵי לֹא הָיָה מִי שֶׁיְּעוֹרֵר וְלֹא הָיָה לָהּ כָּל הֶמְשֵׁךְ מֵהַשַּׁבָּת הַקּוֹדֶמֶת, שֶׁהֲרֵי לֹא הָיְתָה שַׁבָּת קוֹדֶמֶת לָהּ. “
Because mevarchim chodesh is meant to continue/spread the holiness of the Shabbat onto the upcoming month. And behold on Rosh Hashanah we say, “This is the day of the beginning of your creation, remembrance of the very first day.” That is to say, just as the creation of the world did not come about through any particular awakening, for there was no one to awaken it and there was no previous Shabbat from which to “continue”/receive the spread of holiness, for there was no previous Shabbat at all!
We’re going back to the very beginning! And if it truly is the beginning, then nothing came before it. What does that mean for us practically?
וְזֶה לִמּוּד לְאָדָם שֶׁיַּתְחִיל לְגַמְרֵי מֵחָדָשׁ, כְּאִלּוּ הַיּוֹם נוֹלַד “וְלֹא תִזָּכַרְנָה הָרִאשֹׁנוֹת וְלֹא תַעֲלֶינָה עַל לֵב.
And this is to teach human beings that they should really start anew, as if they are reborn, as it says in Isaiah, “For behold! I am creating A new heaven and a new earth; The former things shall not be remembered, They shall never come to mind (Isaiah 65:17).”
We have to give ourselves the opportunity and the permission to start anew. This teaching opened up a new understanding for me in the words of this particular prayer, Hayom Harat Olam. If today is the very beginning of the world and today is the day all of creation is going to be judged, then how can we not be judged favorably today? It’s day one! This isn’t to say we should forget about all of our mistakes and not try to make amends. Rather, in this season of repentance and reflection, what would it be like to give ourselves one moment to visualize a world in which we were actually able to start anew? What would that world look like? It would be filled with hope and possibility! Now, how can we get as close to that as possible today, tomorrow, and in the year to come?
Shabbat Shalom, and if you’re in the Chicago area this weekend, join us for a wonderful Shabbat and Selichot concert at Beth Judea in Long Grove!
Ki Tavo 5783 – Darashti
In one of the most famous lines from one of my all time favorite movies, Ferris Bueller looks directly at the camera and says to us, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It seems cliche at this point, but, as I’ve mentioned a few times already in these writings, I believe this is a core tenet of Judaism – living life with awareness and intention. Judaism makes life meaningful. We say brachot to notice and mark important moments in our lives, whether that moment is a holiday, lighting candles, seeing a rainbow, or even meeting a new person or seeing a friend after a long time.
In this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, the people of Israel are at the periphery, about to enter into the land of Israel. They receive laws about how to treat each other and the stranger in their midst, and listen to a very long list of curses (the tochecha) and blessings they may or may not receive should they follow God’s law. Moses says to the people of Isreal,
“וּבָאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַבְּרָכוֹת הָאֵלֶּה וְהִשִּׂיגֻךָ כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ (דְּבָרִים כח:ב)”
“And all of these blessings will come to you and catch up to you (catch you) because you listened to the voice of your God (Deut. 28:2)”
The word הִשִּׂיגֻךָ is usually translated as “will be achieved” or “will come to be.” But the Chasidic commentator Degel Machaneh Ephraim (Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov 1748-1800) translates it as “catch up to you.” He says,
הָאָדָם בְּקֹצֶר דַּעְתּוֹ יֵשׁ שֶׁהוּא בּוֹרֵחַ מִן הַטּוֹב, כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁטּוֹב הוּא לוֹ, עַל כֵּן הִתְפַּלֵּל דָּוִד “אַךְ טוֹב וָחֶסֶד יִרְדְּפוּנִי,” מֵחֲמַת שֶׁאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ לִפְעָמִים לִרְדֹּף אַחֲרֵי הַטּוֹב וְהַחֶסֶד, יִהְיוּ הֵם רוֹדְפִים אַחֲרַי וּמַשִּׂיגִים אוֹתִי. זֶהוּ שֶׁאָמְרָה תּוֹרָה: “וּבָאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַבְּרָכוֹת הָאֵלֶּה וְהִשִּׂיגֻךָ,” הֵם יָבוֹאוּ אֵלֶיךָ וְיַשִּׂיגוּ אוֹתְךָ.
A person sometimes, perhaps due to lack of judgment or understanding, runs away from the good. Maybe they don’t know that this thing is good for them. This is why David prayed, “surely goodness and kindness will chase after me” because sometimes I don’t know/don’t realize that I should be chasing after the goodness and the kindness, so instead it chases after me and catches up to me. And that’s what the Torah means when it says, “All of these blessings will catch up to you,” they will come to you and catch up to you.
The Degel Machaneh Ephraim must have seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! Our lives are moving by so fast and we have so many things vying for our attention at all times. We are so inundated that we often don’t even give ourselves time to think or breathe and we fall deeper into despair. If we stop the pursuit of happiness, of money, of fame, of success, for a minute and allow ourselves to take stock, we give ourselves the greatest gift: the opportunity to notice the blessings, the friendships, the love, the small miracles in our lives that we sometimes feel we are too busy for or don’t have time for.
These blessings are looking for us – they are chasing after us. If only we can pause for a moment to notice their presence. This song, Darashti, is a Shabbat zemer that I wrote for my wife Adina for our wedding. It is based on a Yehudah Halevi poem called Ya Ana Emtza’acha, “where might I go to find you?” The chorus says, “דָּרַשְׁתִּי קִרְבָתְךָ בְּכָל לִבִּי קְרָאתִיךָ וּבְצֵאתִי לִקְרָאתְךָ לִקְרָאתִי מְצָאתִיךָ” “I sought your nearness, with all my heart I yearned to be close to you. And when I went out searching for you, I found you already coming towards me.” Love, blessings, hope, success – they’re all waiting for us if we can notice their presence and reach out.
As we move through Elul and closer to the High Holidays, take a moment to pause and note the blessings in your life – maybe even write them down! What blessings are you grateful for over the past year, and what blessings can you set an intention for in the year to come?
Ki Teitzeh 5783 – If Only (Lulei)
We are now a few days into the month of Elul – a time of introspection and reflection, of looking forward and looking back. This time period need not only be felt with fear and trepidation, but rather with hope and excitement. The letters א.ל.ו.ל also spell out the word לוּלֵא – meaning “if only.” This time of year is filled with possibility if we allow ourselves to be open to change.
And so much of this is a matter of our own intentionality, our own mindset. We see this clearly in a verse from this week’s parashah, Ki Teitzeh. We read,
לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת־שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ׃
“If you see your kin’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your kin (Deut. 22:1).”
A very similar line appears in the book of Shemot, with one very important difference:
כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹֽיִבְךָ אוֹ חֲמֹרוֹ תֹּעֶה הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לֽוֹ׃
When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to them. (Ex. 23:4)
According to Rabbeinu B’chayeh (A prolific Bible commentator who lived in 13th century Spain), these two verses are actually talking about the same person and the same lost animal. Taken together, these two verses are telling us that it is not enough to just return the lost property of our enemy. Rather, in the process of doing this mitzvah, our entire relationship with this person must change, from הַשֵב תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לֽוֹ, “give it back to them,” to הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ, “give it back to your kin.”
With time and thought, our perspective changes. We begin to understand ourselves and our fellow human beings better. But this only happens if we can soften our hearts. That is what this month of Elul, this month leading up to the High Holidays, is for.
The verse in this song above by my dear friend Eliana Light comes from Psalm 27, the psalm we say every day from Rosh Chodesh Elul to the end of the High Holiday season. It captures that feeling of לוּלֵא, of “what if?” and sings to us to look forward, strengthen ourselves, and ready ourselves for whatever may lie ahead in the year to come. Be sure to check out her new album which comes out next Thursday August 31st! Pre-save here
This Shabbat, think about the ways in which we can reflect on our past interactions. How can we view those moments differently? How can we change our perspective and our relationships for the better in the year to come?
Shoftim 5783 – Mah Rabu
In a week where we have seen daring and wisdom from our judges and officials in Georgia and around the country, we read parashat Shoftim, where God tells us to set up judges and officials throughout our communities to uphold the law, maintain order, and sustain a thriving and fair society. The Toldot Ya’akov Yosef, Jacob Joseph of Polonne (1710–1784), teaches us not just to view this message as an external declaration to elect judges, but also to think about how we judge ourselves and the people around us. The verse in the Torah reads:
שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ (דְּבָרִים טז:יח)
Judges and officials you shall give to you for all your gates
He points out the word Lecha, “to you” in the verse and says:
לְךָ, לְעַצְמְךָ. קֹדֶם לְכָל תִּשְׁפֹּט אֶת עַצְמְךָ, קְשֹׁט עַצְמְךָ תְּחִלָּה. וּבְאוֹתָהּ מִדָּה שֶׁאַתָּה מוֹדֵד לְעַצְמְךָ תִּמְדֹּד גַּם לַאֲחֵרִים. שֶׁלֹּא תְּהֵא מֵקִיל לְעַצְמְךָ וּמַחְמִיר לַאֲחֵרִים, מוֹחֵל וּוַתְרָן לְעַצְמְךָ, וּמְדַקְדֵּק עִם אֲחֵרִים כְּחוּט הַשְׁעָרָה, דּוֹרֵשׁ מֵהֶם מָה שֶׁאֵינְךָ מְקַיֵּם בְּעַצְמְךָ. בְּכָל שֶׁעָרֶיךָ: בְּכָל הַשִּׁעוּרִים וְהַמִּדּוֹת שֶׁלְּךָ.
To you, for yourself. First of all, judge yourself, hold yourself up to truth. And by the same measure which you measure yourself, measure others. So that you are not lenient on yourself but stringent on others, forgiving for yourself but exacting with others to the letter of the law, asking of them what you do not ask of yourself. “For all your gates” – for all the ways in which you measure yourself.
This song above, Mah Rabu, was one of the first prayer melodies I ever wrote. In 2013, I was on the subway on my way to teach music at the Hebrew school at BJ (B’nai Jeshurun) in Manhattan. I was about to head out to Los Angeles for an interview weekend to serve as the artist-in-residence at Temple Beth Am and I wanted a fun and catchy melody to teach. These words kept reverberating in my head, taking me back to when I used to hear them shouted out loud in the middle of the paragraph in the siddur by my friend and teacher (and then-counselor) JAR (Jonathan Adam Ross). I wanted to bring light to these words, to open up our eyes to the potential within them, and the potential within ourselves to view the world through the wisdom of their teaching.
What if we looked upon our own deeds the same way we sing about God in Mah Rabu? For each creation, this prayer says, kulam b’chochma asita, “You created each one with wisdom.” What if we measured our deeds in the same way? If we asked ourselves, “am I acting with wisdom right now? Am I creating something that will add to the beauty in the world? As we head into Elul this week, what would it look like to live our lives with that kind of intention, and to see and notice that intention in others as well?
Re’eh 5783 – Lecha Dodi (Corning)
“There’s only us, there’s only this
Forget regret, or life is yours to miss
No other path, no other way
No day but today”
If you know me, you know how much I love musicals. As I was studying this teaching for this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, these words kept singing their way through my mind. At the very beginning of the parsha we read these words:
רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה׃
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: (Deut. 11:26)
A blessing and a curse – a fork in the road lies before us. And it seems so daunting to confront this choice and not know which path to take. Rather than focusing on the choice, The Vilna Ga’on (HaGaon Rabbenu Eliyahu, 1720-1797) focuses on how we get there – those five words that precede this choice. Perhaps there is more here in this single sentence intro than meets the eye. He says:
And notice that it says “Re’eh” (See) in the singular, so that a person will not say, “Who am I that I alone should choose a good path, if the whole world is behaving badly?!: That is why it says “Re’eh” in the singular, i.e. see what is before you: you do good yourself and don’t supervise/watch over the rest of the world.
“Anochi” (I) – So that a person will not say: “How can I stand up against my evil inclination and its trickery?!” Anochi (God) will be with you as a support and a helper, like it says in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30): The inclination of human beings is attempting to overtake them every day, but the Holy One is there helping them.
“Noten” (Give) – And it doesn’t say “gave,” rather it says “give” in the present tense, because there is always a chance/opportunity for humans to choose a good path, as it is written, “And until the day of their death God waits for them to return, and if they return, God immediately accepts them.”
“Lifneichem” (Before you) – And if a person were to say: “How can I discern a good path from a bad path? Everything is covered and hidden!” Rather the Torah comes and announces: “Lifneichem.” It is before you. Look and search out, listen and see with a discerning eye at all of the things that are happening to the nation and all will become clear before you.
“Hayom” (This day) – Lest a person say: “What repair/correction is there for me? If I am so dirty with sin, what am I to do with all of the transgressions I have done up to this point?!” Therefore it is written, “Hayom” – Every day should be in your eyes like new, and you can begin again that day. One who has repented is like a newborn child.
As we move next week into the month of Elul, we must remember the message of this teaching: Each day we have the opportunity to start anew. Each day we have the personal responsibility to make a change, no matter what the rest of the world is doing. We are not alone in this responsibility – we have God’s presence with us, and we can feel it when we bring goodness into the world. In the last two verses of this section of Lecha Dodi we sing, hitna’ari me’afar kumi, arise and shake off the dust… uri uri shir daberi, wake up wake up and sing out a song! There is always time, and there is no time like the present.
What will you choose to do today?
Ekev 5783 – Ya Ribon
One of my favorite comics growing up as a kid was Calvin and Hobbes. I had every anthology book and would read them over and over again. In a classic series of strips from 1992, Calvin has to write a story for a class and ends up going time traveling instead. Of course, he has writer’s block, and Hobbes (his anthropomorphic stuffed pet tiger) gives him some incredible advice:
I think this is the feeling basically all clergy have as we head towards the High Holiday season. And maybe last-minute panic works for some, but for others concluding Tisha B’av reminds us that the High Holiday season is fast approaching and they should figure out what the central message is that they hope to share with their communities.
In this week’s parashah, Eikev, Moses seems to have a pretty good idea of what he thinks God’s central message to us is at this time,
וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם־לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ וְלַֽעֲבֹד אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ׃
לִשְׁמֹר אֶת־מִצְות ה׳ וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לְטוֹב לָךְ׃
And now, O Israel, what does God demand of you? Only this: to revere God, to have awe of God, to walk in all of God’s ways, to love God, and to serve God with all your heart and soul, keeping the commandments and laws, which I repeat to you today, for your good. (10:12-13)
This is it! In her commentary on this parashah, Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz says that this verse is a summary of the essence of the entire Torah. What is required of us? To walk in God’s ways. We say God helps lift up the downtrodden? So should we. We say God lowers the prideful? So should we.
But the bookends of this sentence are what she really focuses on. V’atah – and now. This is the beginning of a new chapter looking ahead. Even through all that they have done, all that the people of Israel have been through, now is still always the right time to begin again, to make a change.
And L’tov Lach – For your good. It may seem like it would take so much time to do all of this! To focus on awe and live our lives with more wonder. It would take a lot of time out of each day for this to happen. But really, that time can serve a higher purpose. It can center us, guide us, prepare us for what the world has in store for us.
Some times the words of our siddur can seem foreign to us – so much about celebrating and praising and glorifying a God that we might not relate to in that way. But at their core these prayers are really about letting go of the ego – finding a way to look out at the world and know that we are just a tiny part of it – and knowing that there is more to this world than just you.
Ya Ribon, one of my favorite Shabbat Zemirot, reminds us of this very same theme. We sing,
“God, Sovereign of all the Worlds, You are the Ruler, above all rulers. Your mighty deeds and wonders, it is beautiful to declare before You.” Though I don’t relate to God as a deity sitting on the throne, I can get behind the idea that there is so much beauty and wonder in the world that was here before me and will exist long after me. And so we sing out, we look around, we marvel, and we take this new now as an opportune moment to start again.
V’etchanan 5783 – Hapotei’ach
This week on the Jewish calendar is known as shavua shechal bo (The week “it” resides in) – referring to the week of Tisha B’av, the fast day that commemorates, among other things, the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. It is one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar, and the week is marked with mourning rituals such as refraining from eating meat and playing instrumental music. Throughout Jewish history, it has been a reminder of times when our prayers were left unanswered, when we called out to God and did not hear a response.
The destruction of the Second Temple was attributed to a proliferation of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, amongst the people of Israel. This week, I feel that senselessness in the Kenesset’s vote to limit the powers of the Supreme Court in order to be able to enact conservative laws that will further divide the country and threaten the very essence of Israel’s democracy. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets and walked out of jobs in protest in an inspiring display of unity, perseverance, and resolve.
On a week like this, however, it can feel like we are at the end of our wits, lost and without direction. Moses too felt this way. Confronted with the fact of not being allowed to enter the homeland he spent his life guiding a people towards, he says,
וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל ה’ בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר
I pleaded with God at that time, saying, (Devarim 3:23)
The Pa’aneaḥ Raza, a 16th century Chasidic commentator from Prague notices that in Gematria (Hebrew numerology) the word V’etchanan is equivalent to 515 (6+1+400+8+50+50). This is the same as Tefillah (prayer) and also the same as Shirah (song). Song and prayer can lift up the pleading intentions of our hearts. They can unify us, orient us, empower us to change the way we walk in the world, especially when we pour into the song and prayer the feelings within our hearts and souls. In fact, in the Talmud we learn,
מִיּוֹם שֶׁחָרַב בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ נִנְעֲלוּ שַׁעֲרֵי תְּפִלָּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״גַּם כִּי אֶזְעַק וַאֲשַׁוֵּעַ שָׂתַם תְּפִלָּתִי״.
וְאַף עַל פִּי שֶׁשַּׁעֲרֵי תְפִילָּה נִנְעֲלוּ, שַׁעֲרֵי דִמְעָה לֹא נִנְעֲלוּ
Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked and prayer is not accepted as it once was, as it is written: “Though I plead and call out, God shuts out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8). Yet, despite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked, the gates of tears are not locked (BT Berachot 32b)
That is what these words from our liturgy are attempting to reflect: Hapotei’ach b’chol yom daltot sha’arei mizrach u’vokei’ah chalonei raki’a – The One who, every day, opens up the doors to the Gates of the East, breaking open the windows of the sky…
Our voices, united together, can change the course of history, move mountains, and break open the heavens. This week, find ways to gather in community to pray, to sing, to plan, and to act.
P.s. my dear friend Eitan Kantor has a gorgeous melody for the talmudic quote above. You can listen to it here
Devarim 5783 – Havdalah
There are many amazing things about living in Columbus, Ohio, but one of the strange things is that Shabbat never ends. Well, it does end, but at 10:00pm when I’m almost asleep. Columbus is on the Westernmost edge of the Eastern time zone, so it’s almost as if the sun never sets! What a gift to have so much sunshine! It has always been fascinating to me that during the summer, a time of light and sunshine and joy, we commemorate one of the darkest periods of the Jewish calendar, Bein Hametzarim, “between the narrows” – the three weeks between the fast of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’av. This is a period of mourning and sorrow as we remember many terrible things that happened to the Jewish people.
This Shabbat, the Shabbat before Tisha B’av, is known as Shabbat Chazon (vision), due to the vision of destruction Isaiah predicts in this week’s Haftorah. But the Chasidic sage Rav Avraham Ya’akov of Sadigora (1820-1883) has a different understanding of what this Shabbat can represent. He says,
צַדִּיקִים הָיוּ אוֹמְרִים: שַׁבָּת זוֹ שַׁבָּת גְּדוֹלָה הִיא, וְהַטַּעַם פָּשׁוּט: כְּשֶׁמַּכְנִיסִים נֵר בְּמָקוֹם אָפֵל אוֹרוֹ חָבִיב מְאֹד. וְלָכֵן בְּיָמִים אֵלֶּה, יְמֵי שְׁפֵלוֹת וִירִידָה, דִּכָּאוֹן וַחֲשֵׁכוֹת, כְּשֶׁבָּא אוֹר שֶׁל שַׁבַּת קֹדֶשׁ, הוּא חָשׁוּב וְחָבִיב מְאֹד… וְכֵן בִּימֵי הַמְּצָרִים, שֶׁהֵם בִּבְחִינַת הֶסְתֵּר וְדִין, כְּשֶׁבָּא אוֹר הַשַּׁבָּת מִתְגַּלֶּה הַטּוֹב הַצָּפוּן בְּתוֹךְ הַהֶסְתֵּר.
Our sages used to say: This coming Shabbat is a very important/big Shabbat, and the reason for it is simple: When you place a candle in a very dark place, its light is valuable/greater indeed. And that is why in these days, days of feeling low, days of depression and darkness, when the light of the Holy Shabbat comes, it is so important and beloved… And so too with these days “bein hametzarim, between the sorrows,” which are very much filled with seriousness, gravity, and mystery, when the light of Shabbat comes, the good that is hidden within the mystery is revealed.
I love this idea. Light, like love, grows when it is given as opposed to receding. When one candle lights another, the glow grows and the original light is none the smaller – We do not have less when we give, rather we are filled up even more. Shabbat can be that light, and at the same time each one of us can also be that light.
This is why the wicks of the Havdalah candle are fused together. We light two separate candles to begin Shabbat, but over the course of Shabbat we learn, we grow, we pray, we sing, and we come together, so that by the time Shabbat is over we are united and re-energized, greater and stronger than when we began. That is what this melody for Havdalah sings out, and that is what I hope for us all this Shabbat. How can you be a light in the darkness, and how can you share your light with others today, tomorrow, this Shabbat, and beyond.
Matot/Mas’ei 5783 – Hameirah
In today’s world of constant creation, AI, and innovation, it’s almost impossible to create something that is inherently “new.” Ed Sheeran was recently in the news for a copyright infringement case, where Marvin Gaye’s estate claimed that he copied Gaye’s song “Let’s Get it On” in his hit, “Thinking Out Loud.” The court found Sheeran not guilty, stating that the chord structure of both songs was simply “common building blocks.” So how do we find and experience newness in the world when so many things feel routine, mundane, and the same?
I feel like this question is also constantly asked of Torah learning. Why study and read the same stories over and over and over again? What’s the point? Rashi quotes a midrash that states,
שֶׁיִּהְיוּ דִּבְרֵי תּוֹרָה חֲדָשִׁים עָלֶיךָ כְּאִלּוּ הַיּוֹם נִתְּנוּ
The words of the Torah shall be new to you, as if they were given just today.
This week we conclude the book of Bamidbar with a double portion: Matot and Mas’ei. As the people of Israel are about to enter the land of Israel, the book ends with Moses reflecting on some recent events and saying,
“וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל פִּי ה’ לֵאמֹר כֵּן מַטֵּה בְנֵי יוֹסֵף דֹּבְרִים (בַּמִּדְבָּר לו:ה)”
“So Moses, at God’s bidding, instructed the Israelites saying, ‘The plea of the Josephite tribe is just’ (Bamidbar 36:5).”
The plea he is talking about here is a concern the Josephites had about the inheritance of Tzlophechad’s daughters (who last week were told they would be the first female inheritors of their father’s property in the Bible!) In a fascinating commentary, the Mei Hashiloach (Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbitza 1801-1854) claims that this particular story is actually the end of the Torah. Since Deuteronomy is really just a repetition of everything that came before (a retelling by Moses of the story), the Torah actually ends with the book of Bamidbar! So why end with this very specific story about inheritance? He writes,
General principles and laws in the Torah are always needed, but it is necessary for a person to understand and seek out what is God’s will in the matters of this particular moment as well, in the times we live in now that are always changing.
And that is why this particular case, specific to a particular moment, is what concludes the entire Torah. In order to show us that throughout the entire Torah there are hints and specific details that are applicable in any time, and to show us that all of the words of the Torah are advice to give insight to humans to understand what the will of God is now, in this particular moment. And so we need to investigate Torah to understand these insights. And that is why the Torah concludes with this particular case, to show us that the Torah is not bound to a particular time, but can guide us in all times.
The Torah ends in the particular so that we remember that the Torah matters and can help guide us if we read it into our lives today. Every time we look again at these words and stories, we see ourselves in them in fascinating and different ways. That’s the whole point!
This evergreen-ness is a theme of so much of the liturgy we say every day. Right after the Barchu we sing, “Uv’tuvo mechadesh b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh b’reishit,” “In God’s goodness, every day, creation is made new again.” As we return time and time again to these stories and to our tradition, the ways in which we have changed and grown change the ways in which we read and understand these stories. This is an important and potentially life-changing opportunity every single time we engage with our tradition and our faith.
How can you find a way to see the new in the world, in Judaism, and in Shabbat this week?
Pinchas 5783 – Gam Ki Eilech
Every few years Shavuot falls during the summer and I get the distinct privilege of celebrating Shavuot at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin during staff week. Counselors stay up all night studying, with many offering to teach and lead sessions over the course of the evening. A few years ago, I crafted a session on eight lessons in leadership from the eight summer Torah portions. It was very hard to pick just eight (there could be eight alone in just this week’s parsha, Pinchas!).
At the end of Parashat Pinchas, Moses asks God to choose his successor. He says,
יִפְקֹד ה׳ אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכל־בָּשָׂר אִישׁ עַל־הָעֵדָה׃ אֲשֶׁר־יֵצֵא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁ֤ר יָבֹא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁר יוֹצִיאֵם וַאֲשֶׁר יְבִיאֵם וְלֹא תִהְיֶה עֲדַת ה׳ כַּצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר אֵין־לָהֶם רֹעֶה׃
Let God, Source of Breath/Spirit, appoint someone over the community, who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that God’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd (Num. 27:16-17)
We have lots of different names for God, but Elohei Haruchot, “Source of Breath/Spirit” is a unique one. Why does Moses call God by this name here? Our Biblical commentator Rashi asks the same question: He says, “What is the point of this phrase? Moshe said to God: Master of the Universe! Everyone’s unique and diverse thoughts are revealed and known to you—Appoint a leader for them who will be able to bear each and every one of them. And so, Moshe’s request and hope is for a leader who will be able to embrace the multivocality of the community and the diverse and varied individuals who comprise it.”
This is such incredible insight and vision from Moses. My teacher Rabbi Avital Hochstein notices that this request from Moses happens right after we hear about the request of the daughters of Tzelafchad. She writes:
“Give us an inheritance among our father’s brothers”(Bamidbar 27:4). Moshe does not give them an immediate and direct answer, rather he refers the matter to God: “Moshe brought their claim to God.” The divine response is unambiguous: “God said to Moshe as follows: Indeed, the daughters of Tzelofhad speak justly” (Bamidbar 27:5,7).
God here is able to embrace the statements and claims of the daughters of Tzelofhad, to proclaim them as just, even when their words push beyond mainstream thinking of the day. I would like to suggest that it is Moshe’s experience of God here that inspires him to turn to God as the “God of spirits,” the God who is capable of hearing many different voices and of bringing them into the divine realms of truth and justice. Perhaps this is how we should understand Moshe’s request for a “man imbued with spirit”—someone who understands the spirits of different people. Perhaps Moshe understands and has internalized his own shortcomings. He was not able (on his own) to fully embrace all of the “spirits” and to accept the words of the daughters of Tzelofhad. He therefore hopes for a new leader who will succeed him and who can attain these divine heights.”
This is true leadership. Someone who understands their own shortcomings and seeks to find support in areas in which they need help or know they might not be able to deliver. We all need leaders like this, and we all need to strive to be leaders like this as well. None of us can do this alone!
This melody, Gam Ki Eilech, is put to words from the 23rd psalm. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that the melody line in the verse shifts from voice to voice, as if to say that if you are lost and alone and lose the strength to sing, know that someone will be there to share their strength and voice and sing with you.
Where are you finding support and strength this Shabbat?
Chukat-Balak 5783 – Anan V’arafel
My brother Daniel and I have been known to have whole conversations made up solely of movie quotes. He once texted me “bum ba ba bum bum bum bum bum bum…” and I knew immediately that he was singing the Transformers movie theme song. In one of our favorite movies, Star Wars, Yoda says, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Moses in this week’s parsha could have learned a lot by listening to Master Yoda.
In Parashat Chukat, the people of Israel are complaining again, this time for lack of water. God tells Moses to speak to a rock and water will flow through it, but Moses gets angry and strikes the rock twice instead. As I’ve mentioned a few times in these weekly emails, our rabbinic commentators believe that no word in the Torah is superfluous; every letter has to mean something. So why does the Torah note that Moses strikes the rock not once, but twice?
Rav Yisrael of Rozhin (1796-1850 Ukraine) explained that this was Moses’ sin.
אֵצֶל מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ שֶׁהִכָּה עַל הַסֶּלַע פַּעֲמַיִם נֶחְשָׁב לְחֵטְא, כִּי פַּעַם אַחַת אֶפְשָׁר לוֹ לָאָדָם לָצֵאת מִגִּדְרוֹ וּלְהִתְרַגֵּז. אֲבָל אִם חוֹזֵר אָדָם עַל כָּךְ הֲרֵי זֶה סִימָן שֶׁהוּא כַּעֲסָן, וְהַכַּעַס מִדָּה מְגֻנֶּה
Moshe Rabeinu hit the rock two times! Just once it is reasonable for a person to lose their temper and get angry, but if a person continues to stay angry and lose their temper, this is a sign of hot-headedness, and anger is a negative (offensive) trait.
This is such a human response. Everyone gets angry! That’s okay! What matters is if you make a habit out of it. Or if your anger gets out of hand or lasts too long. We must find ways to work through these traits, even when we are so hurt that we feel we have no other course of action but anger.
Rav Yisrael adds that in trying to move through our anger, we are being like God:
וְהוֹסִיף: חָזָ”ל אָמְרוּ (בְּרָכוֹת ז), הקב”ה כּוֹעֵס בְּכָל יוֹם, וְכַמָּה זַעֲמוֹ? רֶגַע, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תְּהִלִּים ל:ו): “כִּי רֶגַע בְּאַפּוֹ.” מִכָּאן יֵשׁ לִלְמֹד שֶׁלֹּא הֻתַּר לְאָדָם לִהְיוֹת בְּכַעֲסוֹ יוֹתֵר מֵרֶגַע, כְּכַעֲסוֹ שֶׁל הקב”ה. וּמֹשֶׁה, כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִכָּה פַּעֲמַיִם, נִתְגַּלָּה שֶׁעָמַד בְּכַעֲסוֹ יוֹתֵר מֵהַשִּׁעוּר הָרָאוּי, וְלָכֵן נֶעֱנַשׁ. – י’ יפת (חקת)
Our sages taught that the Holy One would become angry every single day. But how long did God’s anger last? Just a minute, as it is written, “For God’s anger lasts a moment (Psalms 30:6). From here we can learn that a person is not permitted to be in their anger longer than a moment, like the anger of the Holy One. And Moses, because he hit the rock twice, it was revealed that he stayed in his anger longer than he should have, and this is the reason he was punished.
This melody, Anan V’arafel, is to words we say every Friday night at Kabbalat Shabbat. “Clouds and misty uncertainty surround God, yet justice and righteousness are the foundation of God’s throne (Psalms 97:2).” Even though God gets angry, righteousness and justice prevail.
Can we aspire to this? When we get angry, do we have the emotional tools and support available to make sure that anger doesn’t get out of hand?
In the Talmud Rav Yishmael ben Elisha blesses God with this beautiful blessing:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, שֶׁיִּכְבְּשׁוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ אֶת כַּעַסְךָ
May it be your will that your mercy overcome your anger.
כן יהי רצון
So may it be for us as well
Korach 5783 – V’ahavta
It truly is the greatest joy to get to return to one of my favorite places every summer: Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. We’ve been up here for a little over a week now, and highlights include swimming in the lake, late night singing in the cabins as campers are going to sleep (yishun), energetic and fun musical Tefillot, and Hava Naglidah, our epic weekly all camp song-session followed by an ice cream party every Monday night! Come join us next summer!
After the terrible incident with the spies last week, Parashat Korach finds the People of Israel in crisis. Korach, from the same Levite tribe as Moses, threatens to rebel, saying that Moses has too much power – why should he be in charge? He has some important followers including Datan and Aviram, two Israelite leaders from the tribe of Reuben. After the original protest incident, the Torah says,
וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לִקְרֹא לְדָתָן וְלַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹא נַעֲלֶה׃
“Moses sent for Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, but they said, ‘we will not come!’ (Bamidbar 16:12)”
Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa notices this simple and strange verse and asks, what’s going on here?! He says, “Why was Moses unable to come up with a way to impose peace in the Israelite camp? Because Moses didn’t bother to reach out to Datan and Aviram, to go over to them, to persuade them with words of appeasement and calming. Rather, he sat in his tent and sent messengers to have them come to him. Therefore the path twisted away from peace.”
There is a serious leadership lesson here for all of us. You need to meet people where they are at. Datan and Aviram were hurt and insulted! They were upset and they needed to be listened to. Instead of going out to meet them and hear their concerns face to face, Moses sent messengers to bring them to him. How do you think that would make someone feel? As a leader, we need to see when those we are leading need extra support. We need to approach them directly and privately in a way that makes them feel heard, held, and understood.
My brother and I wrote this song, V’ahavta, in 2014 as the theme song for a USY International Convention. It’s about finding a way to love our friends and community members like ourselves, and understanding that the time is now to act with love! This Shabbat, how can you make sure you are taking the extra step to make those whom you care for feel heard and supported?
Sh’lach Lecha 5783 – Va’ani Tefilati
Spies! Guys! Lies!
This week’s parsha, Sh’lach Lecha, has tons of action in it. Moses sends twelve spies to scope out the land of Israel, with specific questions and things to search for when they get there. These chosen leaders were the chieftains of the twelve tribes! One would think that they would have been trustworthy and reliable messengers. But that’s the sad thing about leaders – they sometimes turn out to be the opposite.
The parsha opens with these words,
שְׁלַח־לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם׃
“Send agents to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one participant from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.” (Num. 13:2)
The particular selection of the chieftains as messengers is something the rabbis choose to focus on. The Chasidic Master Degel Machaneh Efraim (Moshe Chaim Ephraim, 1748-1800 Poland, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s grandson) has a beautiful teaching on leadership that he learns from the word, nasi, chieftain:
מִלַּת “נָשִׂיא” יֵשׁ בָּהּ אוֹתִיּוֹת “אֵין” וְאוֹתִיּוֹת “יֵשׁ”. נָשִׂיא שֶׁמַּחֲזִיק עַצְמוֹ לְ”אֵין” הוּא “יֵשׁ”. אֲבָל אִם מַחֲזִיק עַצְמוֹ לְ”יֵשׁ” הוּא “אֵין”
The word “chieftain” contains the letters for “nothingness (אַיִן – Ayin)” and “Is-ness (יֵש- Yeish)”. A leader who holds themself to nothingness has “isness” i.e. substance. But a leader who holds themself to “is-ness” (read: ego) is nothing.
A leader is someone who can practice tzimtzum, contraction – a lessening of the ego to think about the greater good for the community they are leading. That’s also what the prayer Va’ani Tefilati at the end of the Mah Tovu prayer is trying to get us to focus on. Mah Tovu is the prayer we say when we first walk into a prayer space. Who is the Ani (me) who is walking into that space? Who do I hope to be today? How can I be present for myself and also for the people around me? The word nasi, chieftain, also contains all of the letters for the word ani, me. But only if we are able to arrange ourselves properly are we able to be the kind of leaders the world needs.
I am currently up at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin where I wrote the melody for these words with my former camper Yael Bettenhausen. This Shabbat I’ll be singing it on the Kikar (central square at camp), and I’ll hope you all will be singing with me wherever you are!
B’ha’alot’cha 5783 – Kol B’Ramah
Summer is here and I’m heading to camp! I’ll be up at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for the next month as the mashgiach ruchani, spiritual guide, creating joy and music and prayer in one of my favorite places in the world. I’m also visiting Camp Ramah Darom, Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, and Synagogue Emanu-El in Charleston, SC this summer, so let me know if you’ll be there! We’ll be singing this tune, Kol B’Ramah, a whole bunch, as it’s an anthem for the Ramah camps about what it feels like to come home to the place where you can truly be yourself!
קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע, סוֹף סוֹף הִגַּעְתִּי לְבֵיתִי. רַק פֹּה חָפְשִׁי לִהְיוֹת אַתָּה וַאֲנִי
A voice was heard at Ramah, “I’m finally home!” Only here are we truly free to be you and me…
Hot weather has arrived for the Israelites in this week’s parsha, b’ha’alot’cha, as well. It’s hot in the desert as they march on their journey and they are getting cranky. They complain to Moses about basically everything, especially the lack of meat. Moses is at his wit’s end and seemingly can no longer handle the pressure of the immense responsibility of leadership. God has a solution. God tells Moses to:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה אֶסְפָה־לִּי שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל… וְיָרַדְתִּי וְדִבַּרְתִּי עִמְּךָ שָׁם וְאָצַלְתִּי מִן־הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלֶיךָ וְשַׂמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם״
“Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders…and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and place some on them as well. (Bamidbar 11:16).”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, Germany) asks why these verses are placed here amidst this story of the complaining Israelites? Who cares about “the spirit” right now? They need meat! Rather, there is something deeper happening that God really understands here: Even though they are complaining about their lack of meat and about other material lacks, it is really their spiritual needs that they are most unfulfilled. Therefore, infuse in them some of the spirit that is on you, give them spiritual sustenance that they may be satisfied and may celebrate in the goodness of the Holy One, and then they won’t cry out anymore for lack of meat.
Sometimes a surface level complaint hides deeper struggles or needs underneath. If we aren’t able to correctly diagnose the problem, finding the right solution is impossible. God realizes that the People of Israel are frightened and lost and are choosing to complain about meat when really what they need is love and support.
This Shabbat, how can we make sure to not only open our eyes, but to truly see and understand the needs of our community and those whom we love?
Naso 5783 – Sim Shalom
Who merits to be able to give a blessing? Naso is one of the longest Torah portions and it comes right after we received the Torah over Shavuot. It is filled with sacrifices, gifts, and blessings, but the most familiar is probably the Priestly Blessing, which Kohanim (priests) use to bless the people of Israel and parents say over children every Shabbat. When this blessing is recited in synagogues on Shabbat or holidays, it is preceded by a blessing recited by the Kohanim:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹקֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בִּקְדֻשָּׁתוֹ שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן וְצִוָּנוּ לְבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאַהֲבָה
Blessed are you, God, who sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron and commanded us to bless the People of Israel with love
The “Love” at the end of that blessing is both unique and incredibly important. The Chasidic commentator Netivot Shalom (Rav Shalom Noach Berezovsky) quotes the Zohar which teaches that any priest who is not loved by the people and who does not love the people in return cannot raise their hands up to bless the people and participate in this mitzvah. He explains that the whole world and all of Gods creations were created through a system of “influencers and receivers” – משפיע ומקבל. For example, the earth is “influenced” by the sun and rain and as a result receives their blessings and is able to grow grass and vegetation. But this system only works when it is based on love. The sun and the rain love the earth, and this relationship causes literal blossoming. So too with human beings. Abraham blesses Isaac with love, Jacob blesses Joseph’s children with love, and so on.
A blessing needs love, and love also helps maintain the balance inherent in the blessing. Because we can have too much blessing! Just like we can have too much ice cream. Or too much of the life-giving force that is rain for the earth. When we pray for rain in the Geshem blessing on Shemini Atzeret (end of Sukkot), we say, “לברכה ולא לקללה” – “for blessing and not for a curse.” We want the right amount of blessing.
This blessing of balance is present especially in the priestly blessing. We say, “יברכך ה׳ וישמרך” – “May God bless you and protect you.” If we’re getting blessed, what need is there to also be protected? The protection is actually from the blessing! We want to be blessed, but we cannot get carried away with the blessing.
As I read this insight this week, I thought about the idea of being a mashpia, an influencer. It’s a real job these days! What does it mean to be an influencer and what kind of responsibility comes along with being one?
The priestly blessing ends with a blessing for peace, like so many of our blessings. The Amidah also concludes with a blessing for God to grant peace to all of us, Sim Shalom. This peace is a literal one, as well as a hope for contentment and balance.
Each one of us can be blessing influencers in the world, but how can we make sure that we are influencing through love?