Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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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!

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.

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.

Fearlessly Spreading Light

As we celebrate the final nights of Chanukah, we remember the miracle that the little bit ofimgp8008
oil kept spreading light, against all odds, even as the days passed.  But I often think that the greater miracle is the courage it must have taken to have lit the oil in the first place.  What kind of person would light the flame, needed for 8 days, with the almost certain knowledge that the oil they had wouldn’t be enough?  What kind of person would commit to kindling light when darkness seemed certain to swallow up the light?  But just as they had refused to give into the enemy that seemed impossible to defeat, the Maccabees also refused to give into hopelessness, and so they kindled the flame that we now commemorate every year.

Like the Maccabees, we also live in a world where the threats against us can seem overwhelming.  My prayer for this sixth night of Chanukah is that we might have the courage not to give into our fears, and commit ourselves instead to spreading light despite that fear.

Chanukah is a holiday that celebrates religious freedom.  It should remind us how much of our history as Jews is tied up with the rights of minorities.  Jewish life in America has flourished because our country was built on a commitment to religious freedom.  Sadly, though, some of the loudest voices in our society today would have us see our nation’s diversity as a threat, not a blessing. In particular, I’m proud that so many voices in our Jewish community – from the Reform Movement to organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – have condemned Donald Trump’s offensive and hateful remarks about Muslims.  Tomorrow, Shabbat morning at Beth David, I hope you’ll join us to learn more about the refugee crisis with a special presentation from HIAS Pennsylvania at 9:30 am.

There is a recent tradition that dubs this evening, the 6th night of Chanukah, as Ner Shel Tzedakah, “the candle of righteousness” or “the candle of charity,” on which Jews are asked to give “gelt” – real money, not the chocolate kind! – to charity in place of or in addition to giving gifts to children or loved ones.  Before Shabbat starts this evening, I’ll be donating tzedakah to some of my favorite organizations that help spread light and hope in this world, and when I light the menorah at services this evening, I’ll be dedicating this evening’s lighting to spreading light in the face of hate.  Whether you’ll be lighting the menorah together with us at Beth David or in your home, I hope you’ll join me.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah!

On a Shabbat When Shalom Seems Elusive

This week marked the beginning of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, nicknamed Mar Heshvan, or “Bitter Heshvan,” because there are no Jewish holidays this month.  As we watch the violent attacks against our people in Israel in recent days, it does indeed feel like a bitter time.

Like many of you, I have been reading the news with a mix of fear, anger, and sadness.  But being one Jewish people means that we cannot turn away from Israel at this difficult time.  Yesterday, in response to the heartache of everything I was reading, I booked my next flight to Israel, a few months from now.  Libi b’mizrach – “My heart is in the East,” as Jews living far away from Israel have affirmed for centuries.

Tonight, together with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist synagogues around the country, Beth David will observe a Shabbat of Solidarity with Israel.  I hope you can join us for services tonight.  If not, I hope you’ll consider taking a few minutes to join in Week 2 of our Shabbat candlelighting experiment, focusing on the Shabbat goal of “Illuminating what matters” in connection to Israel this week.  Here’s my suggestion for this week’s meditation for Shabbat candlelighting:IlluminateSavorSweeten

  1. Light two candles
  2. Say the blessing:
    Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
  3. Close your eyes and ask yourself:
    In a week when Jews in Israel are under attack, but I am far away in safety, what have I done to fulfill the value of Klal Yisrael, connection with Jews around the world?  Over the next 25 hours, what one thing can I do to deepen my understanding and strengthen my connection to Israel, and to lift up hope rather than despair?

While we observe the Solidarity Shabbat here in the US, a group of 56 American Reform Jews are gathering in Jerusalem for the World Zionist Congress, pressing forward on the work of building a peaceful, secure, and just future for Israel.  A few months ago, I asked you to support ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, in the WZC elections, and thanks in part to your votes, ARZA won nearly 40% of the vote, making it the largest American delegation at the WZC.  You can read about our 40 American Reform Jewish delegates to the Congress on ARZA’s Facebook page.  You can become an ARZA member on their website.

Shaalu Shalom Yerushalayim – as the psalmist taught us so many centuries ago, Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem.

From the October Monthly: Shabbat Candles

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I offered my vision for what a Reform Shabbat might look like.  And now that it’s acherei he-chagim  – “after the holidays” – I hope that many of you will join me in exploring more deeply how a Reform Shabbat practice might enrich our lives.  If you weren’t at services on Rosh Hashanah morning, I hope you’ll read my sermon when you have a chance.

One of the ideas I presented were three goals for a Reform Shabbat, with each part inspired by one of the symbols at Shabbat dinner:IlluminateSavorSweeten

  1. Illuminate what really matters (Shabbat candles)
  2. Stop and Savor (Wine)
  3. Sweeten the everyday (challah)

Over the course of the year, I hope to explore each of these Shabbat goals in more depth.
For the next six weeks, we’ll begin with the first goal, using Shabbat to illuminate what really matters in our lives – to rebalance our priorities, to focus our time and energy on what is lasting, rather than on the many urgent tasks that demand our attention, but don’t reflect our deepest priorities.

Ritually, I hope to explore how lighting Shabbat candles might help focus us on this goal.  Here’s the first experiment we’ll be trying out.  Over the next six weeks, you’ll notice a change when you come into the building on Shabbat: there will be a big table where you can light your own Shabbat candles when you enter the lobby.  While we will still light Shabbat candles on the bima, I want more people to have the opportunity to participate actively in this fundamental Jewish ritual that has been passed down through so many generations – even if you can’t light candles at home because you are running out the door to services.  So when you come in on Friday nights over the next six weeks, there will be a table with plenty of Shabbat candles by the entrance, instructions, the words of the blessing in Hebrew and English, and a special kavana, or spiritual focus, related to the goal of illuminating and focusing on what matters most in our lives.  I’ll be eager to hear your feedback about this experience after the six weeks are complete.

If you’re new to the ritual of lighting Shabbat candles, or you don’t regularly make it part of your life, I hope you’ll consider joining us on this experiment.  If you can’t stay for services, but just want to come light candles in the lobby, you are welcome to do that as well. If you’d prefer to light candles at home, as Jews have for centuries, we’ll make sure to have extra candles on hand in the office during the week – feel free to come pick up a pair for free.  You can light Shabbat candles with anything as simple as a set of little tea lights.  Of course, the tradition of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the mitzvah, has inspired generations of Jews to light their Shabbat candles in beautiful candlesticks.  If you need a pair of those, our gift shop, Gifted, always has plenty of gorgeous ones on hand!  Call our office to find a time when the gift shop will be open.

Thank you for joining me in the first step of this experiment.  And Shabbat Shalom!