Seder Supplement 2016/5776

Here’s my Passover Seder Supplement for this year. All of the text’s of this year’s supplement are connected to the text, “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean,” which is originally found in the Book of Deuteronomy, and is quoted in the Haggadah.

Seder Supplment image

(Special thanks to HIAS, the LEAP Fellowship at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in partnership with CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, the Beth David Torah Study group, and Andrew Saltz, one of Beth David‘s amazing Religious School teachers!)

Click here to download a PDF of this year’s one-page supplement. You can also find previous years’ Haggadah supplements here and here.

CCAR Convention in Israel: Day 1

Finally finding a moment to blog after a busy first few days in Israel! This will unfortunately be a quick trip, but I’m so glad to be here to take part in CCAR Convention, the annual conference of American Reform rabbis, held in Israel every seven years.

There are over 300 of us participating in the convention (mostly rabbis from the US, but others from all over Israel and all over the world), and it’s a small enough world of Reform rabbis that part of the fun of coming here is catching up with friends from rabbinical school, mentors and teachers, and rabbis from all walks of Jewish life whom I’ve gotten to know at previous conferences. The first meeting comes before I’ve even left the U.S., when I bump into my classmate Rabbi Noam Katz (we’ve been singing some of his music at Beth David, including “Roll into Dark“) at Newark airport. 

After an El-Al flight that included my favorite airplane breakfast (admittedly,the competition isn’t so tough, but the hot cheese blitzes win me over every time) – we land in Ben Gurion airport and make our way to Jerusalem by sherut, a group taxi. I always find it exciting to ascend into the hills of Jerusalem, even if that morning’s route, which included our van driving backward downhill on a narrow street of Jerusalem stone, directly ahead of a garbage truck doing the same thing. It was hard not to fall asleep immediately in my hotel room after the long flight, but I stayed awake long enough to eat a little more delicious dairy. It was a pretty standard Israeli hotel breakfast buffet, which meant three kinds of eggs, potatoes, eight kinds of cheese, more than a dozen different vegetable and salad options including olives, tomatoes, peppers, and an array of fruits, cereals, pastries, and three different options that featured some kind of chocolate.  

Yes, that’s right – Israeli cottage cheese has up to 9% fat. it’s pretty delicious.

My plate included a helping of Israeli cottage cheese, and cucumbers, both of which are too delicious in Israel to bear much assocation to the foods that go by the same names in the US.

The conference began with a political update. The Van Leer Institute led a panel discussion about some of the issues preventing the full equality of Arab citizens of Israel, from practical ways that Arabic’s role as an official language of the state is undermined, to socio-economic and health inequalities between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. And in two presentations, Member of Knesset Benny Begin, and separately, a panel with Member of Knesset Hilik Bar, and Elias Zananiri, the Vice Chairman of the PLO Committee for Interaction with Israel Society, shared their views about the viability of the two-state solution. 

Benny Begin, the son of Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and now a member of Knesset in the center-right Likud Party, emphasized the impossibility of peace in the face of the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to see the Jewish people as a national group entitled to sovereignty, as well as the difficulty in finding a partner for peace in the context of so much hatred. A fundamental change, he argued, can occur only following a deep change in the Palestinian leadership. Most of our neighbors are decent people who just want to raise their families, he said, but they are held captive by their leaders. 

MK Bar, of the center-left Labor Party, was unsurprisingly the most optimistic for the viability of a two-state solution, arguing that peace is “possible, it’s reachable, and it’s totally in our hands.” Already, he argued, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have a shared understanding of what 90% of a peace agreement would look like, and Israel’s Arab neighbors have a strong interest in helping us to resolve the remaining 10% if we would engage with them. There is no solution other than the two-state solution, he insisted. The approach of “managing the conflict” has failed, as the recent attacks should illustrate, and what Israel needs is leaders who will solve the conflict, not continue trying to manage it indefinitely. 

Zananiri concurred that the parameters of solving this conflict are largely agreed upon, arguing that the challenge is how to get there, how to move from “this very dark time” to an arena where the remaining problems can be solved. “There is a dangerous lack of hope,” he warned. “We have been listening to our president talk about a peace process for too long without it going anywhere. I think this is our last  best chance – I hope Israelis will wake up to the fact that what is possible today might not be possible in the future.”

At the end of the day, we gathered at Dormition Abbey, a Benedictine monetary in the Old City of Jerusalem that welcomes German-speaking Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, and that has been vandalized several times, including last month, in connection with several of the recent extremist “price tag” attacks. The most recent vandalism, which was condemned by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and for which 3 Jewish teenagers were arrested, consisted of hateful anti-Christian graffiti on the abbey’s outer walls and doors.  

Anat Hoffman of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, and one of the monks at Dormition Abbey lead interfaith prayers for religous tolerance

March for Tolerance

 After a short prayer service led by the Benedictine monks and several of our rabbis, we continued in a March for Tolerence to protest the recent extremist attacks.

All that was enough politics for day one, so we ended our march at the Reform Movement’s Jerusalem headquarters, Mercaz Shimshon, and sat down to a delicious dinner overlooking the Old City. “Well that was a great meal – I’m stuffed!” one of the rabbis at my table declared after the abundant second helpings of hummus and other salatim had been passed around the table. We hated to break it to her that we hadn’t even been served the main course yet … But somehow we all managed to eat it!

Bo: D’var Torah and Davar Acher

A little late, but here’s my D’var Torah for Bo for Ten Minutes of Torah,  followed by the Davar Acher that Jeff Saltz, a past president at Beth David, delivered at Shabbat services.

Pharaoh’s Final Request, by Rabbi Beth Kalisch

In the middle of the night, in Parashat Bo, Pharaoh and his whole court wake up to the horror of the 10th plague: as the firstborn sons are slain, every Egyptian household is suddenly in mourning. Under the weight of this tragedy, the king who fancies himself a god is finally humbled. In desperation, he gives in to Moses’ demands of freedom for the Israelite slaves. Pharaoh declares, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Eternal as you said!” (Exodus 12:31).

But at the end of this middle-of-night surrender, as Moses must have already been heading out the door, Pharaoh tags on a surprising request. “Uveirach’tem gam oti,” he calls after Moses, “and may you bring a blessing upon me also!” (Exodus 12:32).

I’d often read this line as a bit of a throwaway, hardly worthy of consideration, but when I stopped to think about it, Pharaoh’s request seemed incredibly galling. What chutzpah for a tyrant who had until this point been mocking Moses and refusing God’s demands, to suddenly ask for a blessing! For the entire narrative in Exodus so far, Pharaoh has refused to acknowledge God’s power. And now, in the moment when he finally does humble himself before God, he wants to benefit from God’s power to receive a blessing. Even as Pharaoh finally acknowledges the limits of his own power, he still unabashedly focuses on himself.

Traditional commentators interpret Pharaoh’s request in several different ways. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, thinks Pharaoh is being cynically practical. What Pharaoh means, Rashi suggests, is that Moses should ask his God not to let Pharaoh die – because Pharaoh himself is a firstborn son. Because the 10th plague threatens his own life, Pharaoh is suddenly ready to seek God’s blessing. Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish sage, reads Pharaoh’s words slightly more generously, arguing that Pharaoh is seeking a blessing not just for himself, but for the entire kingdom of Egypt.

But the most generous reading, and I think the most surprising one, comes from the M’chilta D’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, an ancient midrash. According to the M’chilta, Pharaoh’s request indicates that:

Pharaoh knew that he was lacking in prayer, and God does not forgive someone until he has persuaded his neighbor [to forgive him as well].1

In other words, Pharaoh’s change in heart is not just a reluctant surrender by a king who has lost to a more powerful rival, but a kind of t’shuvah. Suddenly, Pharaoh is aware of his own spiritual distance from God. In order to repair that breach, though, Pharaoh must go through Moses. This is the same Rabbinic teaching that we emphasize on Yom Kippur in our contemporary Reform liturgy:

For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.2

Now t’shuvah is a powerful force in Judaism, so if Pharaoh did do t’shuvah, the M’chilta reasons, he must have earned some reward for it. The M’chilta then provides a number of biblical verses as answers. It points to the way the Egyptian soldiers died at the Red Sea, indicating that it was a dignified death, a proper burial (Exodus 15:12). It references the commandment, “You shall not abhor an Egyptian” (Deuteronomy 23:8), reasoning that while we were oppressed by Egyptians so many generations ago, we are forbidden to hold on to any hatred, in part because of Pharaoh’s t’shuvah.

But it is a third reward suggested by the midrash that I think offers the most intriguing possibility. The M’chilta quotes a verse from Isaiah that envisions a future where the Egyptian people worship God, just as the Jewish people do (Isaiah 19:19). Pharaoh’s reward, the M’chilta seems to suggest, is that future generations of Egyptians will not experience the same distance from God that he feels.

But if you keep reading in Isaiah, the imagery is stunning. The very next verse explains the significance of the future Egypt’s loyalty to God: “when [the Egyptians] cry out to the Eternal against oppressors, God will send them a savior and champion to deliver them.” (Isaiah 19:20).

The reward for Pharaoh’s t’shuvah, our midrash suggests, is that one day, God will liberate Pharaoh’s people from a tyrant – just as, in our Torah portion, God is liberating the Israelite slaves from Pharaoh. And what’s more, this role reversal will culminate in the adversaries becoming allies, each nation sharing in God’s beneficence. Isaiah prophesied, “In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth, for the Eternal of Hosts will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed be My people Egypt … and My very own Israel’ ” (Isaiah 19:24).

What an image for the moment of liberation! At the very moment when Moses is walking away from Pharaoh, leaving Pharaoh’s presence for the last time to go and lead the Israelites out of Egypt – and at the moment he finally emerges victorious over Pharaoh – Pharaoh is planting the seeds for a future reconciliation. Perhaps that is a true vision of liberation: not simply overcoming the ones who had oppressed us, not simply escaping from their control, but also glimpsing a future, however far-off, when together, we will serve as a blessing.

1 W. David Nelson, trans. and annot., Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, Pisha 15:4 (Philadelphia: JPS, 2006), p. 50

2 Gates of Repentance (NY: CCAR, 1996, rev.), p. 324.


Davar Acher by Jeff Saltz

My cousin Dick died a few weeks ago.  I had visited him in the assisted living facility just a few days before he passed, and he was clearly failing.  After he died, I went to his funeral, hugged his family, helped to carry his casket as a pallbearer, watched him lowered into the ground, performed the mitzvah of shoveling dirt onto the casket, caravanned from the cemetery to his daughter’s home, and returned again that evening for the shiva service.  In other words, his death was a concrete physical fact for me.

But it didn’t strike me that he was really gone until a few days later, on Friday night, here at Beth David.  It was right when we began the Misheberach l’Cholim — the prayer for healing of the sick.  Many months before, after Dick’s cancer had returned, I had begun to whisper his name when our Rabbi asked for the names of our loved ones in need of healing.  It had become a regular ritual for me, every time the Rabbi’s gaze panned across the room, inviting names to be spoken.  So on the Friday night after Dick’s death, right after the sermon, the Rabbi turned to the Misheberach — and it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks.  Dick was gone.  I couldn’t say his name anymore.  The time for healing was past.

I went through a series of emotions as I sat in the pew and thought about it later.  My first reaction was amazement that I had not really appreciated that my cousin was gone until that moment.  My amazement turned quickly to anger and frustration.  Why was I saying his name, week after week?  What good did it do, when we knew that his cancer was terminal?  Then foolishness at feeling angry.  Did I ever think that praying the Misheberach was going to result in a miracle cure?  So why was I upset when it didn’t?

Then this week came around, and I had to prepare a Davar Acher — another point of view, a response to Rabbi Kalisch’s D’var Torah for Parashat Bo.  Her commentary — which you really should read if you haven’t yet done so — focuses on what seems to be a throwaway line in this week’s portion.  When Egypt has been devastated by the tenth plague and Pharaoh finally allows Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, Pharaoh adds, “And may you bring a blessing upon me also.”  But of course, no line of Torah is a throwaway, and Rabbi Kalisch explores what Pharaoh could have meant by asking Moses, of all people, for a blessing.  Was he acknowledging that the God of Israel was indeed the most powerful?  Was he asking to be spared the death of the first-born that his fellow Egyptians has suffered through?  Was he in fact making t’shuvah, repentance, so that one day the Egyptian people, the children of slaveholders, might worship the same God as the children of slaves?

As I read this commentary, I pondered what it means to even ask for a blessing.  We use the word “blessing” all the time, without even thinking about it.  On Shabbat, we bless the candles and the wine and the challah.  We bless our children.  Our Rabbi begins many services by asking us to share blessings from the past week.  We sing out loud, “You shall be a blessing.”  Even when someone sneezes, we reflexively say, “God bless you.”  But do we know what a blessing is?  Do we know what it means to be a blessing?

For some reason, I turned back to the Misheberach l’Cholim.  Our siddur includes it under the heading “Prayers for Healing.”  But the more I looked, the more I felt that this heading isn’t quite right.  The prayer begins, Mi Sheberach avoteinu v’emoteinu — may the one who blessed our fathers and our mothers — hu m’vareich et ha-cholim — may that one bless those who are ill.  Actually, the English translation in our siddur reads, “bless and heal those who are ill,” but even from my rudimentary Hebrew, I can tell that the words “and heal” are not part of the Hebrew.  The prayer asks for blessing, not for healing.  True, it goes on to pray for a r’fuat ha-goof — a healing of the body — but only after we have prayed for r’fuat ha-nefesh — a healing of spirit — and, most importantly, r’fuah shleimah.  That phrase is normally translated as a complete healing, but it can also be read as a healing of peace.

So I wonder whether, instead of calling the Misheberach a prayer for healing the sick, we should read it as a prayer for blessing the sick.  May the one who blessed our fathers and mothers grant blessing to those who are most in need of it — those who are suffering from illness, physical or spiritual.  Grant them r’fuah shleimah — a blessing of peace.  And may we find a blessing in caring for them and comforting them.

I still don’t think that I understand what a blessing is.  But I’m pretty sure I want one.

Va-eira: Learning New Names

Here’s my Dvar Torah for last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, followed by a beautiful Davar Acher that Neil Sukonik, one of the Vice Presidents of Beth David, offered at Friday Night services.  To receive this week’s Dvar Torah by email, you can sign up to receive Ten Minutes of Torah.

Learning New Names, by Rabbi Beth Kalisch

How well did our spiritual ancestors actually know God? At the beginning of our Torah portion, Va-eira, God seems to suggest the relationship wasn’t quite as intimate as we would have thought.

“God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Eternal [YHVH]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH” (Exodus 6:2-3).

The patriarchs had known God by one name, but apparently, not by the name through which God will be known to Moses, to the Israelites in the later books of the Bible, or to Jews today. It’s a surprising statement. The patriarchs, after all, are understood by Jewish tradition to have been particularly intimate with God. In the Amidah prayer, we invoke their names when we address God – God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob – precisely because of the strength of their relationships with God. And now, we find out that they didn’t even know one of God’s most important names?

If we open up the Book of Genesis, we find things a little more complicated than our verse might suggest on its surface. The name Eternal appears all over Genesis; the patriarchs are quite familiar with Eternal as a name of God. Abraham refers to God as Eternal when directly addressing God (see, for example, Genesis 15:2) and when speaking to others about God (Genesis 14:22). Sarah also uses the name Eternal when she speaks to Abraham about God (Genesis 16:2). And Isaac and Jacob use the name as well (See, for example, Genesis 26:25 and Genesis 28:16).

But even if the patriarchs do know the name, what they don’t know seems to be even deeper. Both medieval and contemporary scholars agree that the verse is not referring simply to “Eternal” as a name of God, but to the aspect of God’s essence signified by that name. “In the ancient Near Eastern world names in general, and the name of a god in particular . . . were expressive of character, or attributes . . .” explains the 20th century scholar Nahum M. Sarna.1 Rashi, the 11th century sage, paraphrases the meaning to be: “They were not familiar with Me in My attribute of “keeping faith,” which is represented by the name Eternal.” (Rashi, commentary on Exodus 6:3)

In other words, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew God – and they even knew the same names for God that Moses knew – but they had never really experienced the side of God that Moses is about to experience, the God who intervenes in history and frees slaves from oppression. Even though God told Abraham that his descendants would one day be enslaved, but that God would free them (Genesis 15:13-14) Abraham never experienced or witnessed that aspect of God’s power. Neither did Isaac, Jacob, or anyone else who lived before Moses.

It’s a provocative teaching. The idea of God as redeemer, freer of slaves, and splitter of seas, is central to biblical and later Jewish theology. If the patriarchs’ knowledge of God did not include any familiarity with this aspect of God, did they really know God well at all?

Curiously, Jewish tradition never doubts that they did. We continue to pray in their names. Their knowledge of God might have been incomplete, but it was still just as deep. And to me, that’s the most interesting part of this discussion: the understanding that knowing God fully is not a prerequisite to knowing God well, because God was still emerging within the story of our Torah.

It’s a lesson that seems like such an important one to remember for our relationships with other human beings, created as we are in the image of God. To know another person is in many ways akin to knowing God. We can know someone very deeply, but we cannot ever fully, completely know them, or be fully known ourselves – not so much because we are mysteries, with secrets locked away, but because there is so much potential for growth and change within us.

We often think of ourselves – our identities, our personalities, our strengths and weaknesses, our yearnings – as so static and so concrete. We give ourselves and others labels and think of them as describing who someone really is. We think our friends are only what we’ve seen of them; we think we know what choices our partner will make or what our children are capable of. But to be created in the image of God means to contain that same potential for unexpected growth and change. Even when we know someone very well, we can still be surprised by new qualities, new aspects of them that emerge in different circumstances. Even generations into the relationship, we can still reveal a new name.

And so is it true for God, still in our day: what we have experienced of God in our lifetime is not the fullness of what we might yet experience. Who knows what names we might still learn? And who knows what the next generation might be privileged to learn about God’s Presence – getting a closer glimpse, perhaps, than we have at any name we have ever experienced.

1. Nahum M. Sarna, commentary, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: JPS, 1991), p.31

Davar Acher by Neil Sukonik

In this week’s D’Var Torah Rabbi Kalisch contemplates the depth of the relationship with God that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had as compared to Moses.  Specifically, with less knowledge of all of God’s names and the full powers of God, did they really know him? And why did God reveal these to Moses and not before?  The D’var extends its discussion to the various depths of relationships among ourselves as we are created in God’s image. It discusses the significance and importance of continuingly evolving relationships as we all grow and evolve ourselves, and that this is the more pertinent point being made within the Torah portion than that somehow Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were in any way lesser in God’s view than Moses because God had not chosen to fully reveal himself to them.

As another perspective of this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, I would like to offer this D’var Acher (another perspective) and discuss why “God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Eternal [YHVH]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH” (Exodus 6:2-3). Why did God choose to reveal His additional self and additional powers to Moses and not to those before him?

In relationships, what we are willing to reveal about ourselves often occurs as much by circumstances as for any other reason.  With Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God needed only to reveal as much of Himself as necessary for them to reaffirm their belief in Him based on their circumstances.  They were looking for God to reaffirm his existence and divine goodness for their personal needs, however Moses’ needs were on behalf of an entire Jewish people first to be freed from slavery and then to be lead on a long journey across the desert to the Promised Land.  Moses had the burden of an entire people whose doubts were surfacing in addition to his own uncertainty that was beginning to emerge. Moses needed more than merely a reaffirmation of God’s existence and goodness.  Moses needed to be shown a deeper vision of God based on the pressure he was under and the difficulties he was facing on behalf of the Jewish people and for himself.  It can be argued that both of these extended beyond than those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses needed to be shown a more complete God because he was enduring a deeper crisis.

Much as the difficult circumstances in which Moses found himself created the need for God to reveal a deeper Self, so do circumstances in people’s lives create the need for others to reveal a deeper side of themselves. The reason for a greater part of ourselves to be revealed is often caused by another’s personal crisis or difficulties being encountered.  In others’ times of need, who among us has not opened our hearts by extending compassion, empathy, or sympathy beyond what we typically reveal? Who among us has not stuck our neck out for someone who desperately needed someone to come to their aid?  It is our compassion as human beings, much like the compassionate God in whose image we are made, that compels us to open the deepest sides of ourselves to help another in need. What the contrast between how much God revealed of Himself to Moses as compared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob teaches us is not something negative regarding their lack of complete knowledge of God as compared to Moses. Rather, it is an example of a compassionate God revealing a deeper part of Himself when a greater need arose. And it shows us, as being created in God’s image, that it is both appropriate and desirable to reveal a deeper more complete part of ourselves when others need us whether for strength, encouragement, or just to have someone to lean on in their time of need.

From the January Monthly: Changes

Dear Friends,

As 2016 begins, the board, the rest of the staff and I are starting to prepare for some major transitions at Beth David.

Of course, Beth David has been immersed in change for a few years now. I know that in many ways, I am still the “new rabbi” here. It was not so long ago that you said goodbye to Rabbi Egolf and welcomed me to Beth David – although I will say that I feel so at home here that it is hard for me to believe it has been less than three years!

The rabbinic transition was followed by the first stage of our cantorial transition, when our beloved Cantor Lilia retired in June after 31 years as the voice of Beth David. Thanks to the Cantor Search Committee’s hard work, we found Cantor Jessi Roemer and Cantorial Soloist Joel Kutner to serve us on an interim basis this year, and we have been blessed by their voices and presence on the bima and in the classroom.

The second stage of our cantor search begins now, as the Cantor Search Committee resumes its work planning for the long-term musical leadership of our congregation.

As if that weren’t enough change, we are now also heading into educational transition, as our beloved educator of nearly 25 years, Susan Levey, prepares for her retirement. As Tracy shared with you last month in her email, Susan has wisely counseled us that in order for us to have a two-year window to find the right person to serve as her successor, we should begin searching this year, with the possibility that Susan will retire as early as this summer, and as late as next summer.

At their December meeting, the Board of Trustees decided to follow Susan’s suggestion, and in the next few weeks, we will be appointing the Educator Search Committee. Because some of the people who are trained in Jewish education are also rabbis, our search will likely include some candidates who would serve as a second rabbi to the congregation in addition to their role as Educator.

As difficult as it was to imagine Beth David without Cantor Lilia on the bima, it is even more difficult to imagine Beth David without either Cantor Lilia on the bima OR Susan’s loving leadership of our Religious School. Please know that the Board, the rest of the staff and I are acutely aware of what a major transition their two retirements represent. Just as Susan and Cantor Lilia cared for this congregation through so many ups and downs, so are we committed to making sure that the transition goes as smoothly as possible, that Susan is fully honored, and that the best of the Beth David spirit not get lost amid all this change. At the same time, all of this change represents a potentially once-in-a-generation opportunity to dream big about the vision for Beth David’s future, and the kind of Jewish life we want to create for ourselves and our children.  We will not be taking these decisions lightly.

If you have questions or concerns about all of this transition work, please reach out. I am grateful that our immediate past-president, Susan Anderer and the co-chair of the rabbinic search committee, Susan Cohen-Dickler have agreed to oversee the senior staff transition, and to coordinate communication between the two search committees. Please feel free to reach out to them, to me, or to Tracy, with any overall questions or concerns. If you have specific comments about Cantor Search, you can reach out to the co-chairs of the Cantor Search Committee, Judy Grinspan and Barry Siegel. For specific comments about Educator Search, you can contact the newly appointed co-chairs of the Education Search Committee, Rachel Mauceri, and Jason Newman.

With gratitude for this opportunity to lead this congregation l’dor va-dor, from one generation to the next –

Rabbi Beth Kalisch

Ten Minutes of Torah: Shemot

Those of you who have been following me on Facebook know I’m writing a weekly D’var Torah for the Monday edition of the Reform Movement‘s daily email, Ten Minutes of Torah.  I’m the writer for Exodus this year, so I’ll be publishing a D’var Torah each week through early March.  If you don’t already subscribe, I’d encourage you to ad_ten_minutes_torah_1sign up for Ten Minutes of Torah – each day of the week has a different theme, and you can sign up for as many or as few days of the week as you’d like. Since I know a lot of the readers of this blog are signed up for TMT, you can read my Divrei Torah on Mondays there – but later in the week (sometimes the following week), I’ll also be reposting them here with an added bonus.

In the Ten Minutes of Torah email, each of my Divrei Torah will be followed by a “Davar Acher” – a brief reflection written by another rabbi or scholar in response to my D’var Torah, offering a different perspective or opinion.  But on Shabbat evening at Beth David, I’ll be inviting a member of our community to give their own Davar Acher – and (most weeks) I’ll be publishing their words here on this blog along with mine.  So these blog posts will be longer than usual, but you can just scroll down if you’ve aleady read my D’var Torah on the Ten Minutes of Torah email.

To start, here’s my D’var Torah from last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, followed by a really beautiful Davar Acher from Jessi Roemer, one of the Interim Cantors at Beth David this year.

How Humble is Too Humble?
Rabbi Beth Kalisch

When we open the Book of Exodus this week, and turn to Parashat Sh’mot, we find that the Israelites are suffering under the tyranny of ego. Pharaoh, a despot who believes himself to be more powerful than God – indeed, he believes that he is a god himself – has enslaved the Israelites in order to secure his own power.

In this context, I find it particularly fitting that the leader who emerges to help the Israelites escape from Egyptian slavery is Moses, whom the Torah describes as “a very humble man, more so than any other human being on earth” (Numbers 12:3). While Pharaoh’s first words in Exodus are focused on oppressing the Israelites to consolidate his own power, our introduction to Moses in this week’s Torah portion highlights Moses’ humility and his doubts about stepping into leadership. No one can accuse Moses of being a rival to Pharaoh, of leading the Jewish people for his own self-aggrandizement. When God calls to Moses at the Burning Bush and charges him with the mission of going to Pharaoh and demanding the Israelites’ freedom, Moses humbly shrugs off the mantle of leadership five times (See Exodus 3:11, 13; 4:1; 4:10; 4:13).

First, Moses is merely modest: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh . . . ?” (Exodus 3:11) he asks God. But God assures him that God’s Presence will be with him, and so Moses need not feel intimidated. Next, Moses demeans his own standing among the Israelites and points out that he has no proof to show them that he has actually spoken with God (3:13). So God gives Moses proof: the knowledge of God’s own name, and reassures him that “they will listen to you,” (3:18). But Moses hesitates a third time: “What if they do not believe me?” (4:1). This time, God gives him physical proof in the form of a staff that becomes a snake on command, the quick healing of a skin affliction, and the promise of water turning into blood.

Still, Moses is not ready to accept. He tries a fourth time (4:10), pointing to his speech impediment or perhaps a generalized fear of public speaking, as making him a poor spokesman. When God reassures him that he is up to the task, Moses has no more excuses, but simply begs, “Please, O my lord, make someone else Your agent!” (Exodus 4:13).

Some years I read this interaction and feel inspired by Moses’ humility. This, I think, is what the world needs more of: leaders who lead only as an act of service to a greater good, not in order to feed their egos. I read it and think about how far my own humility falls short of the model that Moses sets for us. When I have stepped up to leadership, I wonder, have I always done so out of pure motives?

But this year, I’ve been thinking about humility a little differently, thanks to a midrash I read in a little-known collection that dates to the first two centuries C.E. The Rabbis who wrote this midrash imagined that far from being pleased by Moses’ humility, God must have seen it as an affront:

“They told a parable: To what is the matter alike? It is like a king who had a servant whom he loved completely. The king sought to make him his administrator… What did the king do? He took the servant by his hand, and brought him into his treasury, and showed him his silver vessels, golden vessels, fine stones and gems, and all that he possessed within his treasury. After this, he brought him outside and showed him [his] trees, gardens, parks, enclosed areas, and all that was his in the fields. Afterward, the servant closed his hand and said, ‘I am unable to be the administrator…’ The king said to him, ‘Since [you knew] that you could not be the administrator, why did you put me through all this trouble?!’ And the king was angry with him, and decreed that he should never enter his palace.” (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai1:4)1

This parable, the Rabbis explain, can be compared to God, who wanted Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and must have been angry when Moses, although he spent time talking with God at the Burning Bush, didn’t feel comfortable accepting the job. It was at this moment and for this sin, the midrash imagines, that God decreed the punishment for Moses that he would not enter the Land of Israel together with the rest of the people.2

It’s a strikingly vivid parable – one that inverts our expectations for the relationship between God and Moses, and challenges us to think about the proper balance of humility and ego. Moses was being called to serve, called to a sacred task, the midrash reminds us. For him to show such reluctance was not an act of humility, but of hubris. By making himself so small, he ended up making himself more important than the people that he was being called to serve.

I think the most challenging part of the midrash is the king’s – and hence God’s – frustration at “all this trouble” that the king has gone through, only to have the servant turn down the opportunity to serve. What a powerful image: God as a sovereign in search of a partner, frustrated that capable people refuse to help with all the work that needs to be done in the world.

And so this year, as I read the conversation at the Burning Bush, I wonder how deeply I have responded to God’s call. What is the “trouble” that God has gone to in order to prepare me to be the kind of leader that my community, my congregation, and my family need? What are the gifts I have received that will be squandered if I don’t have enough regard for them to put them to use? Like Moses, may we all find the courage to stop coming up with excuses to avoid the sacred work we know we need to do.

1) W. David Nelson, trans., annot., Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006), p. 4

2) Ibid.

And here is Jessi Roemer’s Davar Acher:

This week’s portion, Shemot, starts us on the winter’s walk toward Spring and Pesach with the story of our slavery in Egypt, Moses’ call to leadership, and the first part of our path to freedom.

One of the pivotal scenes in this portion is when Moses encounters God at the burning bush, and God convinces Moses to take the cause of the slaves to Pharaoh. As we remember, Moses does not accept this assignment readily; he first protests several times that he is not sufficient to the task.

In her “Reform Voices of Torah” drash this week, Rabbi Kalisch eloquently posits that it may be hubris, not humility, that initially prevents Moses from accepting the call to leadership. She interprets a midrash from Shimon Bar Yochai to suggest that lack of belief in ourselves can actually be an affront to God. “What a powerful image:,” she says, “God as a sovereign in search of a partner, frustrated that capable people refuse to help with all the work that needs to be done in the world.” She asks herself, and inspires us to ask ourselves: In what ways am I not answering the call to my sacred task? Rabbi Kalisch challenges us all to recognize the sacred call in our lives and to answer it.

I agree with Rabbi Kalisch: Yes, answer the call. I want to unpack a little bit what answering the call means.

First: Recognize that there are many different types of calls and each of us has a unique contribution.

This portion headlines Moses’ slow coming to the realization that he is the only one who can confront Pharaoh on the Hebrews’ behalf. But this portion actually shows several different characters answering several different calls; each plays a unique role in this story of liberation.

For starters, Neither God nor Moses is the first savior in this story — for the whole first two chapters, Moses is a baby and God is nowhere in sight. The very first saviors, besides Yocheved, a slave woman who bravely gives birth, are the midwives Shifra and Pu’ah, who defy Pharaoh’s orders and save Moses’ life (as well as the lives of several other slave babies).

The next savior is Miriam, Moses’ sister, who cares for Moses and follows him along the river, and persuades the princess Batya to bring Moses’ own mother to the palace nurse him. Then there is Batya, who adopts Moses and raises him, and Yocheved again, who nurses him. Each of these women is answering her own sacred call, connected to but also independent of Moses. It takes a strong moral compass for a midwife to refuse a King’s order on pain of death, for a sister to insist on preserving a life that is doomed, for a princess to take into her care a baby that she knows is not only a slave, but a slave boy who could only have been kept alive in defiance of her father’s decree, and for a mother to share her child with another mother for the sake of the child. As a result of their answering their own sacred calls, all of them together – midwives, sister, and mothers – not only save baby Moses’ life, but sustain him until he is grown. Long before Moses is called to fulfill his sacred task, it is the sacred acts and the compassion of these women that get this story rolling.

So the first step is to be aware of the many different models of sacred task that are out there. Second is to become aware of your own skills, your own privilege, and your unique position to do good.
Shifra and Pu’ah don’t know they are saving the baby who will one day free a nation; they recognize that they are in a unique position to save lives, and they do. Miriam recognizes that she, unlike any of the Hebrew adults, can follow baby Moses unseen and convince Pharaoh’s daughter to bring his mother as a wet nurse. Batya knows that without her this Hebrew baby would die — she is the one person who can legitimately rescue and raise him. Yocheved is the one person best positioned to nurse him, and she does.

Moses eventually realizes how he is uniquely positioned to free the slaves, having been raised with the standing and mentality of a free man (and royalty at that), but knowing in his heart his kinship with the Hebrews. Aharon, having lived his life as a slave, cannot fill Moses’ role, but as Moses’ clear-spoken brother, he can do the speaking for Moses. Even God has a unique, but not omnipotent role: God could not have delivered the baby Moses, nursed him, or gone by Godself to demand freedom from Pharaoh. However, God’s own unique powers do position God to be the inspiration and the muscle behind Moses’ demands for justice.

Each of these characters not only has a particular skill, but recognizes how they are uniquely positioned to do good. Redemption happens when each and every character uses both their skill and their position to help.

By contrast, Ramses, who as Pharaoh is uniquely positioned to uphold the covenant between the Egyptian people and Joseph, allows his fear to override his commitment and plunges an entire people into slavery.

Third step: Recognize that you can’t do it alone. Each of the women is dependent on the others; Moses is dependent on all of them. Plus, he needs God to push and support him, he needs his brother to help him confront Pharaoh, and he later needs both his brother and his sister to help him lead the people out of Egypt. Even God, as we’ve said, requires human partners to bring about redemption. No one of these characters could have accomplished what they did alone; it is all of their actions together that result in the freeing of the slaves.

I recently came across a public letter, entitled, “To the White Parents of My Black Son’s Friends.” In it, the mother of a black child makes it clear how white allies are uniquely positioned to help protect her son from the dangerous, sometimes deadly effects of racism:

“We are doing what we can to find this bizarre balance of helping him be proud of who he is and helping him understand that not everybody is going to see him the way we see him. Some people are going to see him as a “thug” before they ever know his name, his story, his gifts and talents. But here’s the thing– as much as we can try to protect him and teach him to protect himself, there may come a time when your child will be involved. As the parents of the white friend of my black son, I need you to be talking to your child about racism. I need you to be talking about the assumptions other people might make about my son. I need you to talk to your child about what they would do if they saw injustice happening.

“If they see my son being bullied or called racist names,” she says, “they need to stand with him … If your child is with my child playing soccer at the park and the police drive by, tell your child to stay … Be a witness. In that situation, be extra polite, extra respectful. Don’t run and don’t leave my son by himself. If you are with my son, this is not the time to try out any new risky behaviors. Whatever trouble you get into, he will likely not be judged by the same standard you are. Be understanding that he can’t make the same mistakes you can.”

The letter calls on people who benefit from privilege in our system to a) become aware of the different situations they find themselves in where her son is vulnerable; b) understand how they may be uniquely positioned to help her son or someone else in his position; c) join her in the effort to keep her son safe and alive, because she cannot do it alone.

To me this is a perfect example of a call to sacred task: We all are, to different degrees, modern-day Shifras, Puahs, Yocheveds, Miriams and Batyas, Moseses and Aharons and Pharaohs. We don’t always know what part we are playing in the larger story of a people, or of our world; we don’t know how the story will end until it does. But what we do have are these moments when we may be called to a sacred task.

Sometimes the task takes a lifetime; sometimes it happens in a moment. Sometimes it requires sacrifice; sometimes it requires merely being aware. The trick is to prepare ourselves for them, and be present when they arise. What skills do we possess, and what positions do we hold, that will enable us to do good – in small or big ways – when these moments do arise? In this new Gregorian year, may we each be blessed with the clarity to realize the unique roles, skills, and the powers we have at our disposal to sustain life and bring about redemption.

A Jewish Blessing for Christmas?!

Is there a Jewish blessing for Christmas?

I know that my synagogue community will be celebrating in many different ways tonight and tomorrow. For all of my Christian friends, and for everyone within our community who celebrates Christmas, including our Christian parents devotedly raising Jewish children in our school, may this holiday bring you joy, wonder,jewish20fortune20cookie_0 and light.  For the rest of us not celebrating Christmas, but perhaps participating in that ancient Jewish tradition of Chinese food and a movie, or spending the day with your Christian loved ones, may it be a time to relax, enjoy, and appreciate the unique blessings of being a Jew in America today.  (Since tomorrow evening is both Christmas and Shabbat, we’ll be enjoying a special Chinese food Shabbat dinner at Beth David tomorrow at 6:30 pm – it’s not too late to call the office and let us know you’ll be coming!)

Our sages taught that a person should say 100 blessings each day – and so yes, I think that there is room within that 100 to say a blessing for Christmas.  I offer you these two blessings I wrote to share at your dinner table tonight or tomorrow night.  I’d love to hear from you whether either of these prayers reflects your Jewish experience on Christmas, or whether you have other ideas about how we might think about this day 

Blessing for Eating Chinese Food on Christmas

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who has helped the Jewish community to flourish in this great country, the United States of America.  We are conscious of the many times in our people’s history when we were persecuted by the majority culture, and of the places in our world today where minorities are still persecuted for their beliefs.  So we give thanks especially tonight for the blessing of living in an open and cosmopolitan society, where our right to practice as Jews is secure, and where our differences need not separate us from our neighbors.

We pray that our Christian friends and family members may find joy and blessing on their holiday.  May the spirit of generosity that characterizes their holiday season inspire all in our country to work more fervently for justice.

Eternal our God, tonight we express our gratitude for the way this country has embraced our immigrant ancestors as well as so many other immigrant groups, and for the ways our lives are enriched living in such a diverse society.  May this meal be a tribute both to our right to be different, and to our delight in sharing in other cultures
בָּרוּךְ אַתָה, יְיָ, שׁוֹמֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַד.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Shomer Yisrael laad.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Guardian of Israel.

Blessing for Sharing Christmas Dinner with Family or Friends

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who brings your children together from different faiths to share a meal together on this night, sacred to so many around this table and around the world.  May the spirit of generosity that characterizes the Christmas season inspire all in our country to work more fervently for justice.  May this day be filled with joy and blessing.

We are conscious of the many times in history when Jews and other minorities were persecuted and separated from the majority culture, and of the places in our world today where minorities are still persecuted for their beliefs. So we give thanks especially tonight for two blessings of living in an open and cosmopolitan society: the blessing that our right to follow our own traditions is secure, and the blessing of knowing that our differences need not separate us from each other.  May this meal be a tribute both to our right to be faithful to our own traditions, and to our delight in sharing in each other’s cultures.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָה, יְיָ, שׁוֹמֵר אֶת-כָּל-אֹהֲבָיו.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Shomer et kol ohavav.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Guardian of all who love You.