LETTING GO (Dvar Torah by Elyse Carter-Vosen)

[The following dvar torah was given by Temple Israel member and College of Saint Scholastica faculty member Elyse Carter-Vosen on 1/18/19 at our special Shabbat Shirah service for the week of Torah portion Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16).  Kol Hakavod, Elyse!]

This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, “when he let go…” refers to Pharoah releasing the children of Israel into the desert. But I’d like to reflect more broadly on the idea of letting go, and its implications for justice work, for I have found this theme of release central to both human relationships with the natural world and to the transformative power of song.

 In order to draw people together, to work in harmony with each other and especially with land, requires a deep well of energy and optimism, strength and resiliency. Working toward economic and environmental sustainability as well as social equity and cross-cultural respect can be an exhausting and sometimes paralyzing task. What I have realized is that one must first know and free oneself from oppressive mindsets. The most dramatic part of the Beshalach occurs in this way:  

“And Pharaoh will say about the children of Israel, They are trapped in the land. The desert has closed in upon them.” And the children of Israel, feeling trapped and frustrated, cried out to Moses, questioning him:  “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? “ Why didn’t you just leave us there? They wondered. The known oppression was better in that moment than the unknown wilderness. 

But Moses said to the people, “Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see the power that God will wield for you today,” And God told Moses that if he raised his staff and stretched out his hand, the sea would part, and the children of Israel would somehow miraculously go through to the other side. Then Moses and the children of Israel sang to God, and later Miriam, the prophetess, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with dances.

For me, the image of the parting sea that includes looming, gargantuan walls of water on either side has never particularly spoken to me. As a very sensorily-oriented person, I imagine what it would feel like, and I cannot embrace it because my fear takes over. My chest feels like it’s crushing in and I start to panic.  I’m deeply claustrophobic. I get that from my mom. And there is another legacy she passed along to me: a deep curiosity and desire for adventure and discovery, and especially a deep yearning for closeness with land, with its openness and its possibility. 

I was seven when we moved onto our thirty acres of pine and birch, with the loons and the deer, the warm sun on fallen logs and the soft dark mystery of the mossy swamp. I knew immediately those woods were the place for me. I loved wandering in them with my mom. I soaked up her knowledge, wanting to know every plant and every tree. Sometimes I pretended to run away into the woods, and imagined what it would be like to live there, but what always held me back was that feeling of aloneness. I ultimately needed other voices.  I ventured out but then I had to turn back home.

My very first year of college, Spring Break came, and there was an opportunity to travel across the country from Minnesota to go rock-climbing in Joshua Tree national monument. I picked up the phone to call my single mom and I thought, “I’m prone to heatstroke. I could fall off a cliff. There’s no way she’s going to say yes to this.” But she said, “Go.”

Having never spent time in the desert, I was mesmerized by its stark beauty. We each spent an afternoon on a solo hike, and I remember that feeling of being completely alone with my thoughts, for hours. As someone who keeps my mind busy with thoughts from morning until night, I imagined it would be overwhelming, but when I got out there, I stepped calmly away from a rattlesnake, watched the sun slowly creep up the canyon wall, and I felt surprisingly free.

The summer after my sophomore year, there was an internship possibility in Bangor, Maine As I picked up the phone, I thought, “Ok, she let me do this once, but this time, I know no one. I don’t have a car, I don’t have a place to live.” And she said, “Go.” When I roommate took her car every weekend and went home to New Hampshire, I wandered the Maine countryside walking five, eight, ten miles at a time. I wandered through farmers’ hayfields and got lost in the woods. 

Years later, my mom went on a 10-day solo trip to New Zealand. My dad couldn’t get away from his work in Australia, so she just booked herself a tour, and she went. She had been living with her life-threatening autoimmune disease for a couple of years, and I think it focused her. She started taking more time to breathe, but also taking more risks. She didn’t know a soul, but she went. She traveled with new people, learned about Maori culture, and drank in the power of the lush green mountains. Throughout my whole life, I was inspired by her adventurousness and courage, from the life of survival she created for us in the woods and her backbreaking work in the mines, to living through her health challenges and ultimately facing cancer, to this trip she took on her own in her sixties. Her curious, artistic spirit and openness to other people have left me a path to follow.

So perhaps it is no surprise that when the opportunity came last year as an ethnomusicologist to pursue fieldwork in the Berkshires of Connecticut, the woods of upstate New York, and the Mohave Desert, I went. I went to Boston and Philadelphia too, seeking Jewish communities where I’d never been before. In the West Philadelphia neighborhood of the Jewish Farm School and Reconstructionist congregation Kol Tzedek, I saw people taking beautiful risks, reaching out across their differences. There are partnerships with the local mosque, with the local branch of Black Lives Matter, with churches on immigration issues, and with a whole range of urban farmers that host Philly Farm School volunteers to ameliorate food insecurity in West and Northeast Philadelphia. Kol Tzedek shares its worship space with two churches, and the Jewish Farm School share an office and learning space, which hosts Shtetl Skills workshops and a nigun collective.

I spent a Shabbat at Kol Tzedek in West Philly, at a gathering called Let My People Sing. Its founders believe in “the liberatory power of song and the importance of vibrant Jewish singing communities.” The creators of these weekends of song are all graduates of the Adamah farm fellowship, which immerses a cohort of 20-35 year olds in a three-month intensive experience of work, prayer, and study on a six-acre organic farm at Isabella Freedman, also home to Hazon, the headquarters of the Jewish environmental movement in Connecticut. I spent Sukkot and Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, drinking in Torah study, hikes, food grown on the Adamah farm, prayer, and song. I spent a day at the farm at Eden Village Camp, getting sunburned and dragging a rake through muddy soil, helping prepare fields for planting. While we thinned tiny carrot plants, I got to talk with a set of college students doing a summer fellowship at the camp’s farm.  I sat down and talked with the camp director about his philosophies of creativity, which encompass growing food, kids, hands-on learning, and artistic expression.

And thirty years after my first trip to the desert, I found myself back in the desert again.  This time my travels took me near Death Valley, celebrating Passover with Wilderness Torah. It was a long plane trip, an even longer drive through LA traffic on 12-lane freeways. Incredibly, the rush of traffic gradually narrowed to 8 lanes, then 4, then 2, and then, almost impossibly, I found myself on dusty dirt roads with no more phone signal, outside the ghost town of Ballarat in the Panamint Valley. There a small village of tents had been constructed of steel poles weighted down by sand, with canvas tops and sheer black mesh walls so the wind comes through, adorned by large batiked cloths and filled with colorful, vibrant people of every age, gender, and Jewish ethnicity.

On Shabbat morning, we chanted the morning blessings, sang some psalms, and then walked out into the desert for an extended silent Amidah.  For me, it was anything but silent, especially at first, because I was surrounded by the clamor of thoughts in my head.

In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitzrayim. According the mystical text of the Zohar, the name is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits” or “from the narrows.”  The children of Israel came through that narrow strait and went out into the midbar, the wilderness. And it was there that they wandered until they found themselves.

My “narrow place” is being devoured by my thoughts and worries.  I know I am not alone in this constriction. Many of us drive ourselves too hard, succeeding, producing. Carrying so deeply about so many things has its price: we carry a cacophony of critical voices and fears in our heads.

Sitting in the desert, I was struck by the fact that being in touch with earth, in whatever form that takes, forces us to encounter the world directly through our senses.  I made a list of all of the sounds I heard:  the rush of the wind, the peeping song of a single bird, a fly buzzing by, an insect rustling a twig as it crawled over it. And here was I, quiet enough that I could listen to the beat of my own heart. Hineni.

I looked around and saw colors. The orange canyon, the ridged red rocks, pink and white quartz, charcoal basalt, green sage, deeper green creosote bushes with bright yellow flowers, tiny white flowers in a gray dried bush, smooth cream and beige mountains, and some deeper brown mountains with smooth wrinkles like an old person’s face.

After three hours, at the sound of a shofar blowing, one by one we wandered back to the Tent of Meeting. We sang “Esa Einai” and “Ma Norah HaMakom Hazeh” (how awesome is this place). And it was. We sang the same song on Shabbat morning this fall at the Reconstructing Judaism convention, once more in the heart of Philadelphia. It was a rich, harmonious sound. We were invited to turn around and look around us, to take in all of the beautiful, imperfect people who were a part of this beautiful, imperfect place.

For me, the greatest gifts are gratitude and quiet, and they are both hard-won.  I have recognized that this yearning for openness of my soul is shared by many people of several generations I have encountered during this past year. We feel weighed down by anxieties, pulled in many directions by responsibilities, and at times trapped by the narrow places of wanting so badly to solve the world’s injustices, all the while pushing ourselves to ill health. The incidence of anxiety and depression has skyrocketed during the past two generations. According to psychologists, up to 33% of all adults in our country over age 18 has a diagnosed anxiety disorder. The youngest generation speaks frequently at how overwhelmed they are at all of the choices and problems in the world. 


It’s messy, seeking freedom. The sea doesn’t open up neatly and make a path. As David Teutsch notes in a commentary in Kol Haneshamah, the divine-human partnership, the process of becoming, is messier than a retreat in the wilderness because we have to do our lives every day. He notes, “in the rabbinic imagination, the ancient Israelites slog through mud up to their knees, their waists, even their chests. It falls to us to continue the task of redemption—to face the contemporary morass and find the resolve to wade through it with waves threatening to submerge us on either hand…The hint of the Promised Land is in our loving moments.”

What I am finally starting to come to, nearing age 50, is this realization of needing love not only others but oneself deeply enough to connect to that deeper love and healing that permeates the world.  We have to seek those moments of wholeness in the midst of all of the forces trying to pull us apart. For me personally, I find the same feeling of quiet and healing in sitting and singing, hearing other voices just as I do in hearing the wind or the water, cataloguing the ancient colored rocks and absorbing the wisdom of the mountain’s face, digging my hands into the soil and pulling out weeds. In all of these things is a focus, and a feeling of purpose. Not just idle singing. Not just idle digging. Both are for healing the illnesses of ourselves and the world. 

My mom, spent a lot of time working to heal other people. She supported and cooked and nurtured and problem-solved. She was a bartender, so she listened to a lot of people’s daily struggles. She was a union steward who represented maintenance and cleaning staff in positions of lesser power. She took care of her dying mother. And she fought cancer.  I am acutely aware of the stress in her life and if there is still time left, I want to try to find better health. I am so grateful for the seeds of light and joy my mom sowed, even in the course of her struggle with the messiness of everything life threw at her. As physically and mentally tough as she was, she never stopped being vulnerable to other people. She never stopped building community and creating beauty around her. I took her spirit with me on so many of my adventures this year. 

As we move from Martin Luther King Day toward Passover off in the distance, and as we come to the place in the Torah this week where Miram and the women sing and dance on the muddy bank of the river, I hope we can embrace the value of getting dirty in all of its forms. We need to slog through the mud of our own shortcomings and then find ways to let go.

All week I’ve been carrying around a song in my head which I think gets at the cost of the stress of injustice on our bodies and hearts, and also at the healing power of song, breath, connectedness, and also surrendering to something larger than ourselves. It’s from a Let My People Sing composer named Aly Halpert, and it’s called “Loosen.”

Loosen, loosen baby / You don’t have to carry / The weight of the world in your muscles and bones / Let go, let go, let go

            Holy breath, and holy name / Will you ease, will you ease this pain         

Surrender is something I am continuing to work on, and I want to keep finding places to encounter it, whether through nature, community work, or song. We as humans are awed by the immense beauty of creation, and are humbled by our own imperfection. We know we cannot do things all by ourselves. We work together to rebuild structures that are constraining and oppressive. We express joy and celebration at overcoming our struggles. The fight for justice goes on and we extend it beyond ourselves. These are Jewish values.

Posted on January 23, 2019 .


Thoughts on Bo (5779)

(Exodus 10:1 – 13:16)

[dvar torah given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 1/11/19]

The climax of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, is the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt – yes, that same yetziat mitzrayim that we mention in the third paragraph of the Shema every morning and every night – and that we recall in the Kiddush over the wine or grape juice every Shabbat and Festival – and that we recount in the Haggadah at the Passover seder each year.   

But according to our parashah, it was not just the Israelites that left Egypt on that fateful day.  As it says at Exodus 12:38 ---   

  וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב, עָלָה אִתָּם...

And a mixed multitude went up also with them…

(Vegam eyrev rav alah itam…)

Who was this eyrev rav?  This “mixed multitude?”

Rashi (11th century France) identifies them as “ta’arovet umot shel geyrim.” (“an ethnically mixed group of converts”).  

For most of Jewish history, the Jewish people have not sought out converts.  In part this reflects the political circumstances of living under various Christian or Muslim regimes past and present where to do so was a capital offence.  However, surely more importantly, Judaism has never held itself out to be the only acceptable religious path for humanity.  Instead, Judaism asserts that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.

Those who DO convert to Judaism are highly respected in our tradition.  There is even a special mention of Jews by choice in the thirteenth blessing of the weekday amidah, where we ask for God’s blessing “al gerei hatzedek”   [The Mishkan Tefillah Reform siddur translates the phrase “al gerei hatzedek” as “toward those who choose sincerely to be Jews.” ]

Further, anyone not born Jewish who chooses to convert to Judaism is supposed to be treated as equal in every way to those who are born Jewish. Jews by Choice are traditionally seen as having mystically already been present at Sinai.   Jews by Choice are  entitled (according to no less an authority than Maimonides) to use the traditional prayer formulation  “eloheinu veylohei avoteinu”/ “Our God and God of our Ancestors,”  which traces our Jewish ancestry back to the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. 

As Maimonides says in his famous “Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte,” – “no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you.”  (A Maimonides Reader, Isidore Twersky, editor, Behrman House, 1972, p. 476).

And, as this week’s parashah emphasizes soon after the mention of the mixed multitude -- “Torah achat yihyeh la’ezrach velageyr hagar betokhekhem”/ “There shall be one law for the ezrach and the ger who dwells among you.”  (Ex. 12:49).  Both those words --- “ezrach” and “ger” are multivalent. “Ger” means “stranger” but also has traditionally been understood to refer to converts to Judaism.  “Ezrach” can mean a Jew who was born Jewish –-- or, more broadly, it can mean a citizen who is a native of the country in which he or she claims citizenship. 

It’s hard not to see a parallel between the mixed multitude who wanted to join up with the Israelites in the time of the Book of Exodus and the mixed multitude of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who want to come to the United States in our own day and who seek a path towards citizenship. 

Once we get past the xenophobic tweets of those who would falsely brand them as rapists, terrorists and drug smugglers, we realize that most of those who yearn to come to our country are motivated by the same forces that brought so many of our own ancestors here: The search for a safer and better life. We can identify with them because we too are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants

We learned in Parashat Shemot a couple of Torah portions back, that Moses named his first child Gershom.  If you split up those two syllables into two separate Hebrew words you get “Ger” “Sham” --- literally “a stranger there” –

As it says in Exodus 2:22 --

וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ גֵּרְשֹׁם:  כִּי אָמַר--גֵּר הָיִיתִי, בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה

(Vayikra et shemo Gershom ki amar, gar hayiti be’eretz nochriyah.)

“and he called his name “Gershom” for he said – I was a stranger in a foreign land.”

I am reminded of the evocative title of American author Adam Haslett’s short story collection published in 2002.  The title of that book is “You are not a stranger here.”  

And that’s really our vision for our own people as well, is it not?

As a wise person said this week: “The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a thirty-foot wall.”[1]

And like the mixed multitudes of the Jewish people through the millennia – and like the mixed multitudes of this sweet land of liberty in which we currently dwell, we ask – in the words of the siddur --  Barkheinu Avinu Kulanu ke'echad b'or panekha – “Bless us, O source of being, all of us, as one, in the light of the Divine presence"    

Shabbat shalom.


© Rabbi David Steinberg

January 2019/ Shevat 5779

[1] https://twitter.com/ABC/status/1082894520398811137

Posted on January 15, 2019 .


Thoughts on Parshat Vayechi  (5779/2018)

(Gen 47:28 - 50:26)   
(Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel, Duluth on Friday evening 12/21/18)

This Shabbat, with Torah portion, Vayechi, we come to the end of the Book of Genesis.  And more specifically, we come to the end of the Torah’s narratives about the patriarchs and matriarchs.  Our parasha this week features Jacob’s deathbed blessings for his twelve sons, and for his two grandsons from Joseph, and finally the death of Joseph himself.  The very last word of the book is “bmitzrayim” meaning “in Egypt” --- one of the many literary touches that transition us into the story of slavery and exodus that we’ll begin reading next week.

In reviewing the parasha this time around, I find myself drawn to a mysterious verse that comes in the middle of Jacob’s series of blessings of his twelve sons.  In Genesis 49: 18, after Jacob has blessed seven of his twelve sons: Reuven, Shimon, Levy, Yehudah , Yisachar, Zevulun and Dan --- and before he blesses the remaining five of his sons:  Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Yosef, and Binyamin – it seems like Jacob suddenly switches gear and blurts out an emotional prayer for himself.  He exclaims:

לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

In the Plaut Torah commentary this is translated as “I wait for your deliverance, O Lord”.  We could also translate yeshuatkha as “your salvation”.  And we could also translate “kiviti” as “I hope” or “I expect” or “I long for.” (That verb “kiviti” has the same grammatical root as the word “tikvah” / “hope” --- as in the title of the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah”/ “The Hope”

So what’s going on here with this verse:  לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

“I wait for Your deliverance, Adonai!”

How are we to understand these words?

Depending on how you deliver the line, I suppose it could be a statement of utter faith and confidence:  “I expect your salvation, Adonai”

Or it could be a statement of utter despair and anguish:

“I long for your deliverance, Adonai”

In the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, one of the explanations offered for this verse is that it “could be a prayer uttered by Jacob who, in a sudden moment of weakness, calls for strength to finish the testament.”   

Let me read you the verse in the context of the verses that surround it so that you can get a sense of how jarring it sounds.  Remember that we are in the middle of Jacob’s deathbed blessing of his twelve sons.  We pick up the text with the blessing of Zevulun at Gen. 49:13:

Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore; He shall be a haven for ships, And his flank shall rest on Sidon. Issachar is a strong-boned ass, Crouching among the sheepfolds. When he saw how good was security, And how pleasant was the country, He bent his shoulder to the burden, And became a toiling serf. Dan shall govern his people, As one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the road, A viper by the path, That bites the horse’s heels So that his rider is thrown backward.

I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord!

Gad shall be raided by raiders, But he shall raid at their heels. Asher’s bread shall be rich, And he shall yield royal dainties. Naphtali is a hind let loose, Which yields lovely fawns.[1]  


It does seem to come out of nowhere, doesn’t it?

How does it feel when we encounter the verse in our Torah portion ---

לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

“I wait for Your deliverance, Adonai!”

Not only for Jacob, but each one of us as well  – when we are tired and depleted, when we feel immobilized by fear or depression or grief or simple physical exhaustion ---- it is a natural reaction to look to God, however we may understand God, to help us persevere.   Jacob seems to be doing so because he is near the end of his life --- and his life has been a hard and stressful one.

And this sense of deliverance is available for us as well.  Whatever circumstances we find ourselves in at the end of each week, Shabbat provides a respite, a taste of redemption that, if we let it, can stay with us throughout the week and even in our most difficult times.

לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

I wait for Your deliverance, Adonai!

Alternatively, a number of commentators both traditional and modern, see the verse not as a separate aside by Jacob, but rather as part of Jacob’s previous blessing for Dan. In one interpretation[2], Jacob is prophetically channeling a prayer that Samson, from the tribe of Dan, would utter as he – Samson -- prepared to topple the walls of the pagan Temple and kill himself and the Philistines gathered there.

In another interpretation[3], when Jacob says “yeshuatekha” “your salvation” --  Jacob is himself addressing the future tribe of Dan.  In other words when he says “yeshuatekha” your salvation -- he means “your” with a lower case “y”,  praying that the future tribe of Dan will find deliverance through God’s help.  Later in the Tanakh the tribe of Dan has as its designated territory the Mediterranean coastal region that now includes the city of Tel Aviv.  Indeed, “Dan” is the name of the municipal bus system in Tel Aviv today. 

But in the book of Judges in the Tanakh, the tribe of Dan was unable to secure its designated territory and so they had to wander to the farthest northern reaches of the land of Israel to establish themselves there.

How does all this apply to our day?

Trying to make political commentary based on biblical texts is an impressionistic game at best. 

But when I think about Samson bringing down the pillars of the pagan Temple – creating what some see as havoc and some see as deliverance –  I can’t help but think of the chaos of international relations today – and of the foreign policy twists and turns that change by the minute as we follow news reports and scroll through our social media accounts.

Are the walls tumbling down on us?

Difficult to say.

And I don’t know about you, but I for one am glad for the peace of Shabbat and for the deliverance and salvation that comes from having a little faith in God and in ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi David Steinberg
© Tevet 5779/ December 2018

[1] Gen. 49:13-21

[2] https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.49.18?lang=bi&with=Rashi&lang2=en

[3] https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.49.18?lang=bi&with=Chizkuni&lang2=en

Posted on December 28, 2018 .


(Remarks given at the closing ceremony for the Duluth Nelson Mandela Committee series of programs marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela.  The event was held on Sunday, December 2, 2018 at St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church of Duluth)

Good Afternoon!

Our celebration today of Nelson Mandela’s centenary year coincides with the approach of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights that begins less than three hours from now.

In the second century before the Common Era, the Jewish people under the leadership of the Maccabees secured their freedom from a tyrannical regime and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem.  They commemorated the victory with an eight-day celebration, a practice that continues to be observed by Jews around the world to this very day.

The Maccabees’ victory over the Seleucid dynasty was not accomplished without the use of physical force.  But ultimately, the Jewish sages enacted that we would emphasize the spiritual component of this freedom struggle.  And so we read in synagogue the message of the prophet Zechariah:

לֹ֤א בְחַ֨יִל֙ וְלֹ֣א בְכֹ֔חַ כִּ֣י אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י אָמַ֖ר יְהוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת

Lo bechayil, velo vekhoach, ki im beruchi amar Adonai Tzeva’ot

“’Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit’ – says the Lord of Hosts.”[1]

Similarly, the long struggle of the people of South Africa against the evil tyranny of the Apartheid regime was not achieved without acts of armed resistance.  But, ultimately, it was the spiritual force of non-violent struggle led by Nelson Mandela that brought about the democratic society that exists there today.

In his inaugural celebration address in 1994, as President of a newly free South Africa, Nelson Mandela said:

“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”[2]

May it be God’s will that Nelson Mandela’s legacy continue to be a model and an inspiration for all of us in the ongoing struggle to achieve freedom, dignity and justice for all peoples.


[1] Zechariah 4:6

[2] https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Inaugural_Speech_17984.html

Posted on December 4, 2018 .


(Note: Temple Israel convened a memorial service which took place November 1, 2018, in the aftermath of the shootings in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Over 500 people attended. Speakers included Duluth’s Chief of Police Mike Tusken, Dr. Nik Hassan from the Islamic Center of the Twin Ports, and Rev. Robyn Weaver of Glen Avon Presbyterian Church of Duluth.  Pastor Robyn grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. My own remarks follow:)

Thank you, Pastor Robyn for your poignant recollections of Squirrel Hill.  Your words help us be more present to the tragedy of what occurred there last Saturday morning.  I also have some connections to the area.  I lived in Squirrel Hill for several months in 1986, during the summer between my second and third years of law school.   I had a summer clerkship that year in a downtown Pittsburgh law firm and was subletting a room in an apartment in Squirrel Hill.  My recollections are a bit hazy at this point, but I don’t think I ever went to the Tree of Life Synagogue.  Rather I attended services at one of the other synagogues in the neighborhood on most of the Shabbases that I was in the area.  But I do remember the vibrancy of the Jewish and general cultural life in Squirrel Hill and I loved going running in the two huge city parks – Schenly Park – which bordered Squirrel Hill on the west and Frick Park which bordered Squirrel Hill on the east.

In addition to knowing that my friend Pastor Robyn had Squirrel Hill connections, several of my colleagues in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association grew up in Squirrel Hill, including one colleague in particular who was a cousin of the two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were killed in last week’s attack.  So, it all hits pretty close to home.

As we all gather here tonight, I know that for many of us our emotions are still swirling and we are still stressed out and upset --- not only over the anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, but also over the racist attack at the Kroger’s Supermarket in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, and also over the politically partisan pipe bomb attack attempts last week --- and also over the generally horrific depths to which civil discourse has fallen in our country lately.

That is why the words

of the President of the United States

have been so healing

and restorative

and supportive

and inspiring to me and to so many others….

I refer of course to the words of President George Washington.

Here’s what our first President wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:  These words remind us of how fortunate we are to live in this great country:


While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington[1]

Of course, we know that back in 1790 just as today, our country is still far from being a perfect union.  The events of last week remind us only too well that racism, anti-semitism and general xenophobia and intolerance remain powerful forces.  We have to be ever vigilant, not only for our physical safety but also for our political liberty.

Neighborly support of one another is imperative.  Civic engagement is imperative --- if you haven’t taken advantage of early voting opportunities already, please make sure you vote on election day this coming Tuesday!

We in the Jewish community are particularly shaken by the fact that the Pittsburgh dead were targeted specifically because they were Jews.  This is not unprecedented.  Anti-semitism has been a repugnant societal evil for centuries and millenia. 

But we will refuse to be intimidated. 

And we are ever grateful for the friendship and support of our friends from beyond the Jewish community – including those of you who have joined us here this evening.

Yesterday, one of our Temple Israel congregants, Robin Washington, and I were interviewed by Henry Banks on his Wisconsin Public Radio program “People of Color.”  One of the things Robin talked about was how he is impacted by being part of two groups that have been the target of hatred and violence – being both Jewish and African-American.  And I talked about the impact on me of being part of two groups that have been the target of hatred and violence – being both Jewish and gay.  Each form of hatred has its own unique historical background and expression but ultimately it all comes down to whether or not we truly see ourselves and our fellow human beings as btzelem Elohim – in the image of God.  That’s the charge that’s set out for us in all of the great faith traditions --- to treat others as we would have ourselves treated.  To see the good in each person.  To love our neighbor.  To love the stranger.

The lectionary reading in Jewish congregations around the world this week is Parashat Chayyei Sarah.  This Torah portion opens with an account of Sarah’s death.  But towards the end of the parasha, in Genesis 24 verse 67, when Rebecca unites with Sarah’s son Isaac, Torah teaches:

וַיֶּֽאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַֽחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ

“And he loved her and thus Isaac found comfort after his mother’s death.”

Similarly, may those who lost loved ones in Jeffersontown, Kentucky and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania find comfort in their time of loss.

And as for us, we who are profoundly shaken by these deaths though we are not the designated mourners ourselves, may we stay hopeful and resilient as we work together towards what the American Framers called the formation of a “more perfect union” and what the Jewish Sages called “tikkun ha-olam”/ “the repair of the world.”[2]

So that the memories of

Vickie Lee Jones

Maurice E. Stallard

Joyce Fienberg

Richard Gottfried

Rose Mallinger

Jerry Rabinowitz

Cecil Rosenthal

David Rosenthal

Bernice Simon

Sylvan Simon

Daniel Stein

Melvin Wax


Irving Younger

may truly be for a blessing.



© Rabbi David Steinberg

November 2018/ Cheshvan 5779



[1] http://tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/gw-letter

[2] http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/

Posted on November 2, 2018 .


Thoughts on Noach (2018/5779)

(Gen. 6:9 – 11:12)

 [Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday 10/12/18]

This week we are in Parshat Noach.  Noach (or “Noah” in its typical English form) is of course most popularly known for the story of Noah’s ark and of the flood that lasted forty days and forty nights.

One of my favorite cartoons[1] which I keep tacked up on the bulletin board in my office – shows two dinosaurs on a little rock, with rising waters around them and an ark in the distance with pairs of various kinds of animals looking back at them.  And one dinosaur says to the other: “Oh, crap! Was that TODAY!”

But, ultimately, it’s no laughing matter. 

Most of us have known the story of Noah’s Ark from the time we were young children.  It’s pretty scary if you dwell on it, just as current accounts of rising sea levels and melting polar ice caps can scare us today.  In the Torah’s account of Noah and the flood, the great deluge is brought about by God because society had become so full of violence that God regretted creating humanity in the first place.   But, as it says in the last verse of last week’s Parashat Bereshit: 

וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

“But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Eternal.”[2]

At the end of the flood narrative, God promises Noah not to ever flood the earth again.

As I learned in Hebrew School when I was a little boy, the lesson is that just because God won’t destroy the world with a great flood doesn’t necessarily mean that we humans won’t destroy the world by ourselves.  When I was a kid, the big concern we all worried about was the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Nowadays, regional conflicts notwithstanding, environmental crises seem like bigger threats to the world than the nuclear arms race – for the moment anyway.

This morning, I drove over to Canal Park and then ventured out onto the Lakewalk – or what’s left of it.  Up here in the Twin Ports we haven’t experienced the sort of destruction that hurricanes in the Southeast United States have caused in recent days, months and years.  However, damage on our Lakewalk[3], following similar damage last year around this time, should certainly give us pause.

With mid-term elections coming up in just a few weeks, let us hope that the representatives we elect will take seriously the need to address climate change.  It’s no hoax, no matter what the current administration might claim.

As memorable and evocative as the story of Noah and the flood is, I’ve long been more fascinated by the briefer and more mysterious tale of the Tower of Babel, which we also find in this week’s Torah portion.

The Torah is relatively clear about what was the sin that caused God to destroy Noah’s generation in the great flood.  The whole earth, we are told, was corrupted and filled with violence.[4]  Rashi comments that the corruption was that of lewdness and idolatry and the violence was that of robbery.

But the Torah is not so clear about what was the sin that caused God to destroy the Tower of Babel and to create mass confusion by mixing up people’s languages. 

Unlike the generation of the flood, the generation of the Tower of Babel were not violent towards one another.  Rather they cooperated with one another.

As it says in Gen. 11:1  --

 וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים, אֲחָדִים.

“All the earth had one language and the same words.”

Rabbi Jay Kelman untangles the mystery for us.  He writes:

The generation of the flood, or rather, the culmination of ten generations, was one that tore people apart. Murder, rape, and deceit were their hallmarks. One did not know whom to trust, nor who might stab you in the back. Our sages, in a remarkable comment (Sanhedrin 108a), note that THE sin that caused G-d to destroy the world—the straw that broke the camel’s back—was that of theft.

Thievery is indicative of a total breakdown of society. Cities go into decay when people are afraid to venture outside for fear of being mugged. And though lacking the violence, white-collar crime is just as dangerous to the fabric of a community. […] 

If the generation of the flood was marked by total disarray, the dor haflaga, the generation of dispersion, had the opposite problem. They were too unified. While speaking the same language is great from a communication point of view, it’s not so great if it means that we all think alike. The dor haflaga was not only safa echad, one language; it was also devarim achadim, the same things. There was no room for dissent, questioning, or differing opinions. [5]

Still being dispersed is much better than being drowned.  From this the sages teach that conformity might be problematic, but all things being equal it’s better to get along with one another than to be violent to one another.  Or, in the words of Rashi’s commentary:

Which sin was greater: that of the generation of the Flood or that of the generation of the Dispersion? The former did not stretch forth their hands against God; the latter did stretch forth their hands against God to war against [God] (surely, then, the sin of the generation of the Dispersion was greater) and yet the former (the generation of the Flood) were drowned and these did not perish from the world! But the reason is that the generation of the Flood were violent robbers and there was strife among them, and therefore they were destroyed; but these conducted themselves in love and friendship, as it is said, “They were one people and had one language”. — You may learn from this how hateful to God is strife and how great is peace. (Rashi on Gen. 11:9, citing Genesis Rabbah 38:6).

The Tower of Babel story seems like a parable for today.

In this age of podcasting and curated newsfeeds and political tribalism, we often find ourselves surrounding ourselves only with people with whom we agree.  Reasoned debate seems endangered.  Diversity of outlooks seems denigrated. 

Cooperation and consensus are good if they are genuine.  But not if they are the result of enforced social and ideological conformity.

The terror of the flood story concludes with the beautiful image of the rainbow.  Its multiple hues remind us of the beauty of diversity.

The Tower of Babel story ends with the creation of multiple human languages.  Yes, it can cause confusion, but the diversity of the world’s languages is also something beautiful in our world.

Striking that balance between social cohesion and individual freedom remains the challenge for each generation including our own.

Shabbat shalom


© Rabbi David Steinberg

(October 2018/ Cheshvan 5779)






[1] http://climatebites.org/climate-communication-humor-and-cartoons/158-Missing-the-boat-Oh-crap

[2] Genesis 6:8

[3] http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/video/qJSu6t7d

[4] See Gen. 8:11 and Rashi’s commentary on it. https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8171/jewish/Chapter-6.htm#showrashi=true

[5] https://www.torahinmotion.org/discussions-and-blogs/noach-coming-apart-coming-together

Posted on October 16, 2018 .


Thoughts on Bereshit (5779/2018)   

(Genesis 1:1 – 6:8) [dvar torah given Friday evening 10/5/18]

[On the occasion of Jake W. becoming a bar mitzvah]

In the first chapter of the first book of the Torah, which is part of this week’s first Torah Portion of the yearly lectionary cycle, God creates אָדָם  )”Adam”)[1] .  The name Adam first appears as a generic term for human beings – male and female.  As we learn in Genesis 1: 26-27:

כו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; …

26 And God said: 'Let us make ADAM in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'

כז  וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.

27 And God created the ADAM in [God

s] own image, in the image of God did [God] create it; male and female [God] created them.

In Genesis 2, which has a somewhat different version of the Creation story, the androgynous species of Genesis 1 becomes a particular individual character --- Adam – who, along with his companion Eve – eat the forbidden fruit and are banished from Paradise.  

Then their first son Cain murders their second son Abel, and Cain, like his parents before him, is banished from his home to wander the earth as a marked man.

Later on, Adam and Eve become parents to a third son, Seth (or, in the original Hebrew,  שֵׁת  [Sheyt]).   

And Seth later has a son called Enosh..

The name “Enosh”, like the name “Adam”, functions as both an individual character and as a generic term for humanity. 

As a character – we read that Enosh is the son of Seth.  He is next in a line of ten generations from Adam to Noah.

But “Enosh”, like “Adam” is also a symbolic name designating human beings in general.

As the Psalmist writes (and as our choir sang during our Yizkor service on Yom Kippur):

אֱ֭נוֹשׁ כֶּֽחָצִ֣יר יָמָ֑יו    כְּצִ֥יץ הַ֝שָּׂדֶ֗ה כֵּ֣ן יָצִֽיץ׃
כִּ֤י ר֣וּחַ עָֽבְרָה־בּ֣וֹ וְאֵינֶ֑נּוּ    וְלֹֽא־יַכִּירֶ֖נּוּ ע֣וֹד מְקוֹמֽוֹ׃
וְחֶ֤סֶד ה׳ מֵֽעוֹלָ֣ם וְעַד־ע֭וֹלָם    עַל־יְרֵאָ֑יו
וְ֝צִדְקָת֗וֹ    לִבְנֵ֥י בָנִֽים׃

The days of man[2] are but as grass :
 he flourishes like a flower of the field;
When the wind goes over it, it is gone :
 and its place will know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the Eternal endures for ever and ever
   toward those that fear God :
 and God’s righteousness is upon their children’s children;

(Psalm 103: 15-17)

(Though, ironically, Enosh, the biblical character, is reported to have lived for 905 years!) 

What else do we know about Enosh?

The Torah adds a side comment right after it reports his birth, the last five Hebrew words of which are ambiguous:

As we read in Genesis 4:26:  ---

  וּלְשֵׁת גַּם-הוּא יֻלַּד-בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ; אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה

26 As for Seth, to him too was born a son, and he named him Enosh.  Then it was that people began to invoke the Eternal.

Well, maybe the English translation I just read, from our Plaut Torah Commentary[3] doesn’t sound ambiguous but that’s because the translators have already made a decision about how to resolve the ambiguity of the Hebrew phrase ----

אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'. 

(az huchal likro beshem Adonai)

The ambiguity is that the Hebrew word “huchal” can mean either “began” or “profaned”.  The translation in our Plaut Torah commentary follows the reasoning of medieval commentators like Ibn Ezra and Rashbam. 

They argue that the phrase אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'.  means “Then they BEGAN to pray to God.

Other commentators of the middle ages follow Rashi, who bases his commentary on still older midrashim.  Rashi argues that “Huchal” is a term related to the word “Chulin”  [meaning “profane”].

Rashi explains that the verse means that God’s name was being profaned (huchal) הוּחַל  through the actions of people who would (likro beshem Adonai) לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה' --- that is to say, people who would call various things and other people by the name of God.  In other words, people were committing idolatry by worshipping other people or other things  --- as deities. 

Accordingly, the Artscrooll Chumash, an Orthodox Torah commentary[4] – translates

אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'. 

(az huchal likro beshem Adonai)

as “Then, to call in the name of Hashem became profaned.”

So, comparing those two possible interpretations of Genesis 4:26 side by side, the verse could mean that the birth of Adam and Eve’s first grandchild – the birth of Enosh  --- which as we have seen can also symbolically be understood as a new beginning for all of humanity – that this was a time when either (A) people began to invoke the name of God or (B) people committed profanity and idolatry when they invoked the name of God

Both of these interpretations seem to me to have merit.

First there’s the approach of the Midrash and of Rashi:  As far back as the earliest days of humanity, people were already committing evil and yet claiming to do so in God’s name.

There are too many examples to recount of how this flaw in humanity has extended through the ages to the present day!

Genocides have been committed -- purportedly in the name of God.

Discrimination has been perpetrated -- purportedly in the name of God.

Hatred has been fanned -- purportedly in the name of God.

It’s enough to turn a person off from religion entirely – and, indeed, that’s what we find in a large swath of the population today.

But here we all are today, gathered in this House of God, celebrating the holy Sabbath, as a kehillah kedoshah/ a holy congregation  -- rejoicing as another member of the Jewish people reaches the age of religious maturity.

Whatever that earlier generation of Enosh ben Sheyt  (“Enosh, son of Seth”) was doing --- our generation of Enosh – the human race --- must seek holiness not profanation.

When we read in the Torah in Parashat Bereshit

  אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'. 

(az huchal likro beshem Adonai)

We hope to identify with huchal as “techilah” – a new “beginning” and not with huchal as “chullin” a “profanation”.

If Enosh symbolizes all of Humanity – we want to be among those following in the footsteps of the generations upon generations of people of good will of all nations, faiths and backgrounds of whom it could have been said

אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'. 

(az huchal likro beshem Adonai)

in the sense of “It was then that people began to call upon the name of the Eternal.”

To call upon God -- לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'  (likro beshem Adonai) --is to call upon the best and most humane values we can draw from our hearts, our souls, our beings and our sacred heritage.

As it says in tractate Sotah of the Talmud:

Just as God clothed the naked [referring to Adam and Eve], so too you should cloth the naked.

Just as God visited the sick [referring to Abraham after his circumcision], so too you should visit the sick.

Just as God consoled the mourners [referring to Isaac after Abraham's death], so too you should console the mourners.

Just as God buried the dead [referring to Moses], so too you should bury the dead."[5]

Each of us continues to develop morally and spiritually throughout our lives.  However, Jewish tradition teaches us that reaching the age of 13, the age of becoming a Bar Mitzvah, is an important milepost on that journey.  Jake has already been blessed with a loving family who have instilled good values in him, and with friends within and beyond our congregation who are proud of him and rooting for him. 

We all are confident that he will do a great job tomorrow morning as he takes his place as a full member of the Jewish community.

Life is all about choices.

Torah teaches

אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'

(az huchal likro beshem Adonai)

Then it began that people would invoke the name of the Eternal.

For us too, on this Sabbath when we begin once more our Torah reading cycle, and when one more young man begins this new stage of his life, may it be an auspicious beginning with only the best yet to come, not just for Jake but for all of us.

Shabbat shalom.


© Rabbi David Steinberg (October 2018/ Tishri 5779)

[1] In the original Hebrew pronunciation both “a”’s in the word “Adam” are like the “a” in the English word “mop” or “stop” – but as an American would pronounce them…

[2] Hebrew: “Enosh”

[3] https://www.ccarpress.org/shopping_product_detail.asp?pid=50297

[4] http://www.artscroll.com/Books/9780899060149.html

[5] https://www.sefaria.org/Sotah.14a?lang=bi

Posted on October 10, 2018 .


Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5779 (September 19, 2018)

Where were you on Yom Kippur day 45 years ago? 

Of course, I know that some of you weren’t born yet, but for many of us who are old enough to remember, Yom Kippur day in 1973 was different from all other Yom Kippurs in our lives.  For it was on Yom Kippur 1973, on the holiest day of the Jewish year, that Egyptian and Syrian armies attacked Israeli forces in a surprise attack.  The war lasted for several weeks, amid concerns of escalation since the United States and the Soviet Union were also getting involved and were supporting opposite sides of the fighting.  I was only 12 years old at the time, so I don’t remember it all that well.  But what I do remember is anxiously listening to the news with my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins as we gathered at my grandmother’s house in Queens, New York for the holiday break-the-fast.

Israel suffered major losses in the first few days of the fighting but was soon able to regroup and turn the tide.  However, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War Golda Meir was forced to resign as Prime Minister due to the scandal of Israel’s having been caught up unprepared.

Another major result of the Yom Kippur war was that many Israelis were disabused of any fanciful notion that they might have had that the strategic depth gained by the territorial conquests of the Six-Day War of 1967 would lead to the end of their security concerns.

On the secular calendar, we have just marked two other major anniversaries. Forty years ago this week, on September 17, 1978, the Camp David Accords were signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter.  And twenty-five years ago last week, on September 13, 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn.  Many of us remember that famous tableau of President Bill Clinton standing in between Yitzchak Rabin and Yassir Arafat as the latter two shook hands and vowed no more war.

Those events seem so long ago.  The existential dread of Yom Kippur 1973 and the buoyant hopes in which we still basked on Yom Kippur 1978 and Yom Kippur 1993 have morphed into a pessimistic stasis.   Israel is strong and unlikely to be destroyed.  But Israel is also stuck in an existential crisis to some extent caused by outside forces but also to some extent of its own making.

Last month I spent a couple of days in Washington, DC attending the annual AIPAC National Rabbinic Symposium on August 15th as well as a preliminary conference the previous day for rabbis of Reform congregations at the offices of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (known as the “RAC” for short).  The bulk of the afternoon at the RAC was taken up by listening to Rabbi Eric Yoffie discuss his thoughts on the current situation. He subsequently published an article in Haaretz that repeated much of what he told us in private.

(As you may recall, Rabbi Yoffie was the President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 until he was succeeded by Rabbi Rick Jacobs in 2012.)

When Rabbi Yoffie met with the group of us in Washington last month he emphasized that it is up to Reform Jews and other liberal supporters of Israel “to represent the sensible center, at a time when that center is collapsing.”[1]

He told us of his concern that the American Jewish community has lost the ability to construct a centrist narrative on Israel.  However, he urged that this is a time for us to be thoughtful, creative and astute because otherwise American Jews will increasingly distance themselves from concern for and support of Israel. 

Rabbi Yoffie finds that currently there are three main narratives about Israel that are dominating our discussion and that none of them are helpful.

One narrative, coming from the West Bank settlement movement is that Messianic redemption is at hand and so Israel must therefore resettle the Biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria. 

From the opposite end of the political spectrum, there is what he calls an “End the Occupation Now” narrative from groups like “If Not Now” and “Jewish Voice for Peace.” While these groups are admirable in some respects, the problem with them is that they are open to the possibility of not just the end of the occupation of the West Bank but also of the end of the State of Israel as a Jewish State.   Rabbi Yoffie’s particular critique of these left-wing Jewish groups is that before ending the occupation, Israel needs to have a plan for what comes next.  We should not simply be non-committal on the question of one state or two.

Finally, Rabbi Yoffie observes that there is another current narrative, which he calls the “Peace is Impossible” narrative, which has both a right-wing version and a left-wing version.

The right-wing version is that the Middle East in general is volatile and unstable.  Look at Syria.  Look at Iran.  Look at Egypt.  Look at Libya, etc….  In such a climate, Israel could not possibly ever feel secure enough to make territorial concessions. Thus, as Yoffie writes, “the occupation may be unfortunate, the hawks say, but there is no alternative to the status quo.”[2]

Meanwhile, the left-wing version of the “Peace is Impossible” narrative is that Israel’s relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank has passed a point of no return and that the “Peace Camp” in the Israeli political scene is too weak to do anything about it.  And, moreover, the Trump administration’s uncritical support of the Netanyahu government has removed any pressure on Netanyahu to pursue peace.

But Rabbi Yoffie sees the Reform movement as being “the voice of the sensible center”.  He says “Our love for Israel is unconditional but not uncritical.”

He says that there is a certain Don Quixote aspect to all of this but nevertheless “we have a dream of peace and we are not going to give up on it.” 

And he reminded those of us who met with him in Washington last month that just six months before Sen. George Mitchell successfully negotiated the 1998 Northern Ireland peace accord Mitchell had described the situation there as hopeless.

So, in other words, things might not be as hopeless as they seem.

From my own perspective, there is a part of me that thinks that if only the Israeli electorate would simply vote out Netanyahu and his allies and vote in a left of center coalition, the peace process would get new life.  It seems so clear to me that there is validity to both the Zionist narrative and the Palestinian nationalist narrative and so therefore we should have territorial compromise and two states living in peace side by side. 

So why don’t the Israelis simply vote for a government that will stop expanding West Bank settlements and that will be more pro-active in negotiating with the Palestinians?  The basic answer appears to be that they trust Netanyahu more than those to his political left regarding security issues.  Indeed, Netanyahu’s major political challenges at the moment appear to be fending off the parties that are further to his right.


Later this afternoon we will have the Avodah Service that describes at length the procedures for purifying the Jerusalem Temple that were to be carried out each year on Yom Kippur.  Of course we haven’t actually carried out those rituals in almost two thousand years.  Instead, the experience of the Avodah liturgy in our machzor is an opportunity each year for us to consider how we can purify our hearts and our world at large.

Nevertheless, there is still something to be gained by retaining our focus on Jerusalem itself, the place, as it says in Psalm 122:


שֶׁשָּׁ֨ם עָל֪וּ שְׁבָטִ֡ים שִׁבְטֵי־יָ֭הּ


“[…]to which tribes would go up, the tribes of the Eternal, —as was enjoined upon Israel— to praise the name of the Eternal.

There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace.

May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.”

For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being;

for the sake of the house of the Eternal our God, I seek your good.”

Well, it was in Jerusalem where, exactly two months ago today, on July 19th, that the Knesset of the State of Israel passed the so-called “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People.” Or in Hebrew:  “Chok Yisod:  Yisra’el – Medinah HaLe’um Shel Ha’am Hayehudi” 

On Yom Kippur in the periods when the First and Second Temples stood in Jerusalem, the Kohen Gadol would be in charge of purifying it from spiritual contamination.

Today as Jews gather around the world to read of those ancient rituals, we have to be mindful of the danger of spiritual contamination caused by this new law, which was passed by a narrow margin --- 62 to 55, in the middle of the night.

In case you were not familiar with the particular details of the Nation State Law, here is what it says: 

The first section of the law is entitled  “Basic Principles”

A.   The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.

[That sounds good to me.]

B.    The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.

[That sounds good to me as well]

C.    The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

[Now that’s where it gets problematic.  On one level, this is not controversial.  The United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947 spoke of the establishment of a Jewish State.  However, it also spoke of the creation of an Arab state alongside it.  And that Arab state has never yet been established.  So, to put this language in the new law, when there is not yet an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel in which Palestinian Arabs can fulfill their natural, cultural, religious and historical rights to self-determination, turns this new law into an unnecessary irritant.]

[Even more problematic is what is NOT included in this section of the law on “Basic Principles”.  There is no reference to Democracy as a basic principle.  There is no reference to Equality as a basic principle. Israel’s Declaration of Independence had famously declared:  that the new state would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”[3] but we find no mention of those principles among the basic principles listed in the Nation-State Law.]


The second section of the law is entitled: “Symbols of the State”

A. The name of the state is “Israel.”

B. The state flag is white with two blue stripes near the edges and a blue Star of David in the center.

C. The state emblem is a seven-branched menorah with olive leaves on both sides and the word “Israel” beneath it.

D. The state anthem is “Hatikvah.”

E. Details regarding state symbols will be determined by the law.

[All of that seems reasonable and straightforward to me, although over the years there has been discussion about how the words of Hatikvah refer only to Jewish identity and how this might make non-Jewish Israeli citizens, who comprise over 20% of the population, feel excluded.]


The third section of the law is entitled “Capital of the State”

Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.

[Now this is a deliberately provocative statement.  No rational person can honestly believe that peace with the Palestinians will be achieved without at least part of the Eastern part of the city coming under Palestinian sovereignty.  Even President Trump, who has gotten lots of flak abroad but lots of praise within Israel for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was careful to declare “"We are not taking a position on any of the final status issues including the final boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. Those questions are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides."[4] ]


The fourth section of the law is entitled “Language”

A. The state’s language is Hebrew.

B. The Arabic language has a special status in the state; Regulating the use of Arabic in state institutions or by them will be set in law.

C. This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.

[One can easily see how part B causes unnecessary offense to the Arabic speaking portion of the population, even though part C makes clear that the change of Arabic from being an official language to being only a language with a “special status” has no practical effect.]


The fifth section of the law is entitled Ingathering of the Exiles

The state will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles.

[This provision goes to the heart of Zionism.  I agree with it wholeheartedly.  Never again must any Jewish person anywhere in the world be at the mercy of anti-semitic persecution without the option to move to our ancient and revived homeland where Jews will always be welcome. This is further spelled out in…]


section six which is entitled: “Connection to the Jewish people” ]

A. The state will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness or their citizenship.

B. The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.

C. The state shall act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.

[On the one hand, this sixth section of the bill is wonderful, reminding those of us Jews who live outside Israel that Israel will always look out for us all the same.  But what has caused tremendous controversy is that the wording here limits the State of Israel’s concern about the Jewish people to Jews in the Diaspora and not in the State of Israel itself.  That seems crazy, no?  Earlier versions of the bill referred to Jews everywhere not just Jews in the Diaspora.  However, the reason that the final version of the bill was changed so that it referred only to Jews in the Diaspora is because MK Uri Maklev of the Ultra Orthodox Political party United Torah Judaism did not want Israel to help Diaspora Jews advance religious pluralism in Israel in general and at the Western Wall in particular.[5] ]


The seventh section of the law is entitled “Jewish Settlement”

A.   The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

[There are two problems with this section.  First, it could be taken to mean that the State could establish towns and cities that legally bar non-Jewish citizens of Israel from living in them.  Second, it could be taken to refer to the West Bank and not just Israel proper.]


The eighth section of the law is entitled “Official Calendar”

The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state and alongside it the Gregorian calendar will be used as an official calendar. Use of the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar will be determined by law.

[This seems reasonable to me.]


Section nine says concerns “Independence Day and Memorial Days”

A. Independence Day is the official national holiday of the state.

B. Memorial Day for the Fallen in Israel’s Wars and Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day are official memorial days of the State.

[No problem]


Section 10:  “Days of Rest and Sabbath”

The Sabbath and the festivals of Israel are the established days of rest in the state; Non-Jews have a right to maintain days of rest on their Sabbaths and festivals; Details of this issue will be determined by law.



Finally, section 11 of the Nation-State Law, entitled “Immutability” says:

This Basic Law shall not be amended, unless by another Basic Law passed by a majority of Knesset members.[6]  


All in all, we can see that the law is mostly symbolic.  It mostly spells out aspects of Israeli society that are already in place.  However, in some respects it is polemical and hurtful.

Here’s some of what URJ President Rick Jacob had to say about it:

“This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy. The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic—and Jewish—nation is enormous.

“We will continue to fight back by promoting the values of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and by forging new ties between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. We will deepen our engagement with Israel, using every means possible to promote a Judaism in Israel that is inclusive and pluralistic and reflective of our values of equality for all. The Israel Reform Movement and the North American Reform Movement passionately oppose this new law because of the harmful effect on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, as well as its negative impact on the balance between the various core founding values of the State of Israel.”[7] [8]

Why was this law passed now?  One prominent commentator who spoke at the AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium I attended suggested that the Nation State Law as it stands is mostly symbolic but, nevertheless, it still has the potential to be a real threat to Israel’s democracy.  How so?  Because if the Israeli political right goes ahead and achieves its goal of having Israel formally annex all or part of the West Bank, then this new Nation State Law would give justification for not extending voting rights to Palestinians who might be absorbed into a Greater Israel.

In the meantime, the law is a big slap in the face to the more than 20% of Israel’s citizens who are not Jewish.  Massive demonstrations were held this summer in Tel Aviv in the aftermath of the passage of the Nation-State Law.  One demonstration was organized by the Druze citizens of Israel.  The other one by the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

They are hurt and frustrated by the tone of the new law, just as many Israeli Jews are. 

As for us, we should all, as Rabbi Yoffie advises, be unconditional but not uncritical lovers of Israel. 

Those of us who don’t live in Israel have, to be sure “less skin in the game.”  But that does not prevent us from criticizing Israel when it needs to be criticized. 

At the same time, I hope that each of you will defend Israel to those who challenge its right to exist. 

We need Israel, and Israel needs us.

Israel is the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.  It is the place where Judaism began and first developed.  It is the place that we look to as a refuge for Jews facing anti-Semitic dangers anywhere in the world.  It is the only place in the world where Jewish culture can flourish as a public, majority, national culture. 

Our congregation, along with Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha, Wisconsin, will be going to Israel in late October of next year.  There’s a discount if you register by October 1st of this year.  Details are in the bulletin and TTW and posted here at Temple.  I hope some of you will be able to join us.

In the meantime, let us wish for one another gmar chatimah tovah, that we and all Israel be sealed for a good year ---  a year of health, happiness and prosperity and a year in which the prospect of peace for Israel and the Palestinians and for the world at large might be achieved.  Im Tirtzu eyn zo agada – If you will it, it is no dream.[9]

Gmar chatima tovah.



© Rabbi David Steinberg (Yom Kippur 2018/5779)

[1] https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-what-on-earth-can-rabbis-say-about-israel-this-rosh-hashana-1.6433074

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_Declaration_of_Independence

[4] https://www.cnn.com/2017/12/06/politics/president-donald-trump-jerusalem/index.html

[5] http://arza.org/resource/58

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_Law:_Israel_as_the_Nation-State_of_the_Jewish_People#cite_note-TOI-180718-20

[7] https://urj.org/blog/2018/07/18/urj-president-rabbi-rick-jacobs-statement-israels-nation-state-law

[8] For further critique of the Nation-State Bill see https://www.nif.org/news-media/press-releases/backgrounder-jews-nation-state-bill/

[9] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/38474-if-you-will-it-it-is-no-dream

Posted on September 20, 2018 .


Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5779

September 18, 2018

I guess it’s not strange that, as a member of the clergy, I am often intrigued and absorbed by artistic portrayals of clergy.  So when the film “First Reformed” came out earlier this year I was primed to see it.  I did so on a Saturday night in June when I was in Milwaukee as the installation speaker for my friend and colleague Rabbi Michal Woll at her new congregation.  The film “First Reformed” had premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and features the amazingly talented actor Ethan Hawke.  A brief synopsis on the film’s official website describes the plot as follows:

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a solitary parish priest at a small church in upstate New York, which is on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary. Now more of a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation, it has long been eclipsed by its nearby parent church, Abundant Life, with its state-of-the-art facilities. When a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, Toller is plunged into his own tormented past and finds himself questioning his own future and where redemption might lie. With the pressure on him beginning to grow, he must do everything he can to stop events spiraling out of control.[1]

Ethan Hawke’s character in “First Reformed” is basically destroying himself physically and emotionally. He is in a state of existential despair over the fate of the world and of his ability to do anything about it.  And as the film progresses, his actions become more and more extreme and ethically problematic.

“First Reformed” is a somber and disturbing film.  As I wrote afterwards to my Reconstructionist rabbi colleagues on our listserve RRANET:

[…] [B]oy was that an intense piece of cinema!  I found the film very gripping and I came out of there thinking – wow – Ethan Hawke’s character certainly needed some better pastoral supervision and support!  But, without giving too much of the plot away in terms of spoilers, I’d say that the film powerfully reminds us clergy-folk that we are not God, we are not saviors and we cannot single-handedly cure the world’s ills.  And to forget that lesson can lead to tragedy for ourselves and for others whom we would purport to serve.

Then in July, Liam and I were in Chicago on vacation and we saw a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s theater piece entitled “Mass.”   A big part of that piece also involved a clergyperson, identified in the program notes only as “the Celebrant.”  And like Ethan Hawke’s character of Reverend Toller in “First Reformed,” the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” is also having an emotional and spiritual breakdown over the state of the world and of his ability to do anything about it.

And recently I watched the third and final season of the British television series “Broadchurch” on Netflix.  “Broadchurch” takes place in a fictional small seaside town which over the course of the program’s three seasons has had to deal with communal crises involving murder and rape.  The first role to have been cast when the series was in its initial phases of production was the role of the town’s Anglican priest, Reverend Paul Coates.  It’s played by Arthur Darvill, whom the Doctor Who fans in the house will remember played the character of Rory on that series. 

Although Reverend Coates is a minor character in “Broadchurch” let it be said that whenever his character is on screen he too appears downtrodden, frustrated, pessimistic and anguished.

As we gather together on this most awesome of these Days of Awe, I want to assure all of you -- and I am happy to report -- that that is not how I feel.  I am neither downtrodden, nor frustrated, nor pessimistic nor anguished.  Thank God. 

And I sincerely hope that none of you are feeling downtrodden, frustrated, pessimistic or anguished.

Yes, there is plenty going on in any of our personal lives and in the world at large that could, as my late mother would say, give us conniption fits.  And far be it for any of us to deny that opportunities exist for tikkun ha-olam (the repair of the world) and tikkun ha-nefesh (the repair of our souls.). 

Each of those fictional clergypersons I’ve mentioned   ----  Reverend Ernst Toller in “First Reformed,” the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” and Reverend Paul Coates in “Broadchurch” could be described as being “tightly wound” and ready to explode. 

I am thankful and feel blessed that, at least at this particular moment in my life, I do not personally feel tightly wound and ready to explode.  Rather, I am grateful for the love in my life, grateful for the adventures I have had thus far in my life, and grateful for the privilege of doing the work I do in this wonderful community.

But I have certainly had times in my life when I DID feel that way.  And I might in the future.  And I am sure that all of you as well have in the past been, or right now are, or might in the future be feeling downtrodden, or frustrated, or pessimistic, or anguished, or tightly wound and ready to explode.

The word “Ya’aleh” means “Let it rise”. 

In the poem “Ya’aleh” that we read a little while ago, I love how the poet Ruth Brin transforms for us the idea of being “tightly wound.” Rather than exploding destructively when we are tightly wound she encourages us to think of Yom Kippur as an opportunity to release our pent-up energies in a positive direction.  She writes:

The day, Yom Kippur, is like a person’s life:

It begins in darkness and ends in darkness:

It has a time to prepare, a time to labor,

And a time to reflect before the closing of the gates.

The years follow one another

Alike as the coils of a tightly wound spring

But on Yom Kippur we think of our power

To release that spring: to soar upward.

I pray that each one of us, despite whatever challenges and crises we have faced in the past or are facing today, or might face in the future is able to find comfort and strength in the support of family, in the support of friends, in the support of one another here in our congregation --- and in the support of the spiritual resources at our disposal, and, in particular, in the gift of this day of Yom Kippur. 

The climax of the piyyut Unetaneh Tokef says that repentance, prayer and charity can ease the harshness of whatever ills may befall us.  Not that they can eliminate them.  For God does not prevent bad things from happening to good people.  But rather, God is with us in both the good and the bad.

As for me on this Yom Kippur 5779, as I said --- I am generally happy and healthy and content. 

However, I always knew that someday it was likely to happen:  Someday, the words of Psalm 27, which we traditionally recite throughout the month of Elul and on through the fall holiday season, would come true for me.  As it says in Psalm 27 verse 10:

כִּֽי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי  וַֽה'  יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

(Ki avi ve’imi azavuni, vadonai ya’asfeyni)

Though my father and mother abandon me, Adonai will gather me in.[2]

With the death of my father, Arvin Steinberg, last December, I have now lost both of my parents.  My mother, Beverly Steinberg, had died a year and a half before that, in June 2016.     

As some of you may know, in Hebrew the word “Torah,” and the word for teacher (moreh or morah), and the word for parents (horim) all are derived from the same Hebrew verbal root yod-resh-hey.  So, I find it striking that the very next verse of Psalm 27 begins with the plea to God -- “Horeni Adonai Darkekha”[3] / “Teach me, Adonai, your ways”.  But in light of that grammatical connection  --- with only the most infinitesimal of poetic license --- we could translate “Horeni” Adonai”  not just as as “Teach me, Adonai” but also as “Parent me, Adonai”

When I profess that I look to God to teach me, guide me, PARENT me --- what I mean to say is that I look to my faith in God to provide a sense of safety and security, and I look for a sense of guidance, clarity and comfort.

As it says in the hymn Adon Olam,

בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי,
בְּעֵת אִישַׁן וְאָעִירָה.
וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי,
יְיָ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא.

B'yado afkid ruchi f
b'et ishan v'airah.

V'im ruchi g'viati
Adonai li v'lo irah.  

Into [God’s] hand I commend my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake;
And with my spirit, my body also: the Lord is with me, and I will not fear.

As I continue to observe the year of mourning for my father, and as I continue to remember my mother   --- indeed, as I continue to do so every single day --- it is a comfort to me that we now have plaques in their memory here on one of our memorial boards, and that their names are in print in the “Roll of Remembrance” that we will distribute at the yizkor service tomorrow afternoon.

It is a comfort to me that a photo of my parents renewing their vows on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2010 is on my desk in my office, and that other photos of them are displayed in my home.

It is a comfort to me that, whatever actually happens to us after we die (and I’m personally agnostic on the details of the afterlife), my parents remain with me in my memories, in my values, and in my outlook on life.

It is a comfort to me that I have received such heartfelt support from many of you in the wake of these losses that I have experienced.

And it is a comfort to me that Judaism provides a framework for life that existed before my parents were born and continues to exist after their deaths and will continue to exist beyond the lifetimes of every one of us gathered here this Kol Nidre night.

But enough of about me.  What about you?

Whatever state you find yourself in on this Kol Nidre night, may you be comforted in your sorrows, may you rejoice in your blessings and may we be forgiving of others as God is forgiving of us.

Gmar chatimah tovah ve-tzom kal/ May we be sealed for a good year and may those who are doing so have an easy fast.


© Rabbi David Steinberg (2018/5779)

[1] https://www.firstreformed.film/synopsis/

[2] Psalm 27: 10

[3] Psalm 27:11

Posted on September 20, 2018 .


(Sermon for First Morning of Rosh Hashanah 5779/ September 10, 2018)

I really liked what our Temple President Josh Widdes wrote in his bulletin article this month.  Josh wrote:

“As we look around our country and the entire world at all of the division and anger towards others that maybe don't see things from your point of view:  Understand that the only way our world will continue to get better is to show respect for others’ opinions and beliefs.  We have to live together no matter the circumstances. “

Josh has it right!  Jewish tradition for centuries – and not just for centuries ---  for millenia -- has distinguished between makhlekot leshem shamayim / arguments for the sake of Heaven --- and makhlekot shelo beshem shamayim --- Arguments not for the sake of heaven.

When we try to put our heads together to seek solutions to common problems, the interplay of conflicting conceptions is a valuable exercise.  But when our policy debates devolve into tribalistic hatefests that deny the integrity of the other --- then we end up worse off than when we began.

Last night we talked about the word “teruah.”  Liturgically speaking, teruah is that rapid fire shofar sound which in the Talmud is compared to the sound of a cry of alarm or distress.   And this holiday is called in the Torah --- Yom Teruah.  And, let it be said, many of us are indeed distressed at the current state of our nation.

However, as I shared with you last night, the medieval commentator Rashi  defined “teruah”   as leshon chibah ve-re’ut/ an expression of love and friendship.[1]

As loving friends we don’t have to agree on everything.  Unanimity of opinion has never been a primary Jewish value. In general, we Jews don’t have schisms – we have arguments for the sake of heaven.  

Or, at least, that’s the ideal.

It is also, I would suggest, the ideal for American society. 

Our national motto may be “E Pluribus Unum”/ “Out of Many, One” but the vigorous competition of ideas has always been a strength of our nation. 

In these United States, can we still be friends in the midst of these heated times? 

One of the most famous stories of friendship in the Talmud, at least among the rabbinic circles in which I have travelled, is a story that teaches us that -- as President Josh has suggested in his bulletin article --  debate can be harmful if done in an atmosphere of condescension but beautiful if done in an atmosphere of mutual respect:

This Talmudic tale is found masechet Bava Metzia, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud which is mostly concerned with matters of civil law.  I won’t repeat the whole story here because it gets a little complicated.  But the upshot is that there was this big muscular guy named Resh Lakish who was a bandit, a thief, a good for nothing scoundrel.  But one day he laid his eyes on Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai  --  and was entranced by how beautiful he was.

(It’s quite a homoerotic account – I’m leaving out some details but you can check out Baba Metzia 84a if you don’t believe me.)

Anyway, the Talmud pulls back from that aspect of the tale and goes on to recount how Rabbi Yochanan took Resh Lakish under his wing and taught him Torah until Resh Lakish become one of the foremost scholars of his generation --- as well as becoming Rabbi Yochanan’s friend, study partner and brother-in-law in the process.

But one day, years later, there was a big academic debate in the study hall of Rabbi Yochanan’s yeshiva.  The sages were arguing obscure halachic questions about at what point in the process of manufacture do various metallic weapons become subject to ritual impurity.  Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan asserted differing views on the matter at which point Rabbi Yochanan lashed out at Resh Lakish in a personal attack and said in front of all the sages who were gathered there:

לסטאה בלסטיותיה ידע  / lista’a belistiyutey yada

“A thief knows about thievery!”

Friends, that’s not the way to argue.

In fact, as the Talmud’s tale continues, Resh Lakish was so embarrassed and hurt by Rabbi Yochanan’s insensitive jibe that words escalated on both sides and the two friends became estranged. 

Here let me pick up the story in the words of the Talmud itself, as translated and interpreted by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:

As a result of the quarrel, Rabbi Yoḥanan was offended, which in turn affected Reish Lakish, who fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan’s sister, who was Reish Lakish’s wife, came crying to Rabbi Yoḥanan, begging that he pray for Reish Lakish’s recovery. She said to him: Do this for the sake of my children, so that they should have a father. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to her the verse: “Leave your fatherless children, I will rear them” (Jeremiah 49:11), i.e., I will take care of them. She said to him: Do so for the sake of my widowhood. He said to her the rest of the verse: “And let your widows trust in Me.”

Ultimately, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Reish Lakish, died. Rabbi Yoḥanan was sorely pained over losing him. The Rabbis said: Who will go to calm Rabbi Yoḥanan’s mind and comfort him over his loss? They said: Let Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat go, as his statements are sharp, i.e., he is clever and will be able to serve as a substitute for Reish Lakish.

Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat went and sat before Rabbi Yoḥanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yoḥanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would say to him: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakha by itself would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good? Being rebutted by Reish Lakish served a purpose; your bringing proof to my statements does not.

Rabbi Yoḥanan went around, rending his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish? Rabbi Yoḥanan screamed until his mind was taken from him, i.e., he went insane. The Rabbis prayed and requested for God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yoḥanan died.

End of story.

I am always moved by this story. 

Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan had a falling out because their philosophical debates got sidetracked by personal insults and condescending behavior.

But when mutual friends tried to fix Rabbi Yochanan up with a new friend, with a new study partner – Rabbi Yochanan remained miserable because the new guy was a yes man who would just agree with him all the time and wouldn’t argue with him.


So, my remarks so far in this dvar torah are basically a very long winded way of me saying that I agree with Temple President Josh – and with centuries of Jewish tradition --- that debate is healthy but disrespect and condescension is not.

It gets challenging, however, to keep our debates on a respectful plane when the stakes seem very high and when the underlying assumptions of the different sides seem very far apart.  That is certainly the case in our country today.

One particular area of ideological conflict that has preoccupied our society in recent months is the debate over immigration and asylum law as it affects our border with Mexico. 

My friend Neal Rosendorf is a history professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and a resident of the nearby border city of El Paso, Texas.  He recently published an article about the situation at the El Paso-Juarez border in the journal The American Interest. 

Here’s some of what Dr. Rosendorf has to say on the topic:

Let me be clear: Every state has the right to control its borders and to decide who, how many, and on what schedule they should be admitted. This is as true for the United States as it is for any other country. At the same time, America’s history as a land of opportunity and a haven for refugees puts it on a different moral-historical plane than other states, at least for those of us who still embrace the notion of American exceptionalism and Ronald Reagan’s vision of “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.” But the basic, indeed defining, concept of a viable state having the capacity to maintain secure borders and exercise discretion over entrants is incontrovertible.

“The central question is: How do we decide what constitutes how many, and on what schedule? And then how should we carry out that policy? It is here that things get particularly sticky, given the noxious molasses of racism and xenophobia coursing throughout American history and the difficulty of separating it out, both intellectually and instrumentally, from the necessary task of making and enforcing rational immigration policies.

“I have always maintained, including in classrooms full of Hispanic immigrants and their children at New Mexico State University where I teach, that completely defensible arguments concerning the devising and implementation of immigration quotas—including reducing as necessary the number of legally admitted immigrants per year—can be made on the basis of economics, costs of social service provision, infrastructure and environmental stresses, preservation of respect for the rule of law, and national security. Furthermore, circumstances change so that potential immigrant cohorts who are an asset at one juncture can legitimately be perceived as a liability at another. The devil is in the criteria, the fraught historical context, and, crucially, the tone.


“President Obama’s immigration and expulsion enforcement policies were vigorous to the point that liberal immigration advocates denounced even him. But even as they did so, no one believed that the President of the United States harbored racial animosity toward [Central Americans or Mexicans][2] or countenanced it in others, much less that he had made it a central plank in his appeal for support. But from the moment Donald Trump rode down the escalator of Trump Tower in June 2015 to vilify Mexicans coming illegally into America as “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he drew a blood-red line between his predecessor’s policy and his own. […][3]

I think Neal Rosendorf does a great job of teasing out the complexities of the topic. 

From my own perspective, however, and I’m sure Neal Rosendorf would agree with me on this, I would suggest that --- as Jews --- we always need to look at the human impact of whatever we do or whatever is done in our name. 

We read this morning in our Torah portion how Hagar and Ishmael were forced to wander through the wilderness under harsh conditions such that Hagar was at one point convinced that Ishmael would die of thirst. 

That’s a story from centuries ago – and, really, who knows how historically factual it is?

But it is nevertheless a story that resonates in today’s world.

Today, in 2018, at the start of the Jewish year 5779, undocumented migrants fleeing gang violence, or fleeing political repression, or simply fleeing poverty, face conditions easily as harsh as those faced by Hagar and Ishmael, as these poor souls wander through the desert regions of the American southwest. 

Let me share with you an account that my colleague Rabbi Margaret Holub posted to RRANET, a listserve for members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.  She posted this early last month, around the same time that Neal Rosendorf was publishing his journal article that I shared with you just now. 

Rabbi Holub writes:

“Hi folks — I’m just back — along with [rabbinical] colleagues Brant Rosen, Ari Lev Fornari, Salem Pearce and Shahar Colt and about 55 other faith leaders — from Faith Floods the Desert, a solidarity action organized by No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths together with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Association.  About sixty clergy-types, including the five of us rabbis, joined the extraordinary, mostly volunteer humanitarian aid workers of No More Deaths and the local Ajo Samaritans to leave water for migrants making the crossing in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, a remote, magnificent and blistering hot area of the Sonora Desert.   Since 2001 the remains of approximately 7,000 people have been recovered in the Arizona desert by volunteer groups like the ones we joined —  including 57 this past year from the desert area where we left water.  Many more people have been reported missing but never found.   

“Since the mid-1990’s folks from No More Deaths and others have been leaving water and other lifesaving supplies in the most remote and inhospitable places in the desert where migrants are known to pass.   In recent days many of the gallon jugs of water have been found slashed or crushed.  Analysis by NMD shows that it is extremely likely that this destruction of lifesaving water is being done by Border Patrol officials.  More recently still, nine NMD activists have been charged with Federal crimes of abandoning property (jugs of water) in a wildlife refuge and similar offenses.  This was the motivation for organizing this more public action by faith leaders — to shine a light on the obstacles being put in front of these humanitarian aid workers to prevent them from doing pikuach nefesh. [saving life]. It was also one more lens onto the particulars of US immigration policy and how these particulars actually affect — and sometimes destroy — the lives of human beings seeking refuge in the United States.  

“It was 110 degrees yesterday when we were in the desert.  The soles literally melted off Brant’s hiking shoes.  We ferried 125 gallons of water out to spots where we hope that they will bring some bit of relief and safety to people who need them.  And hopefully we provided some solidarity to these heroic activists who do this work week after week, year after year.  

“I know that many of you are involved in all kinds of important work supporting immigrants and refugees in these times.  I wanted to let you know about the experience that the five of us just had — just because it was so powerful and also in case any of you would like to know more about No More Deaths or about what we witnessed in the desert.  I’d be happy to share my experiences and thoughts, and I’m sure the other four rabbis (and anyone else who joined us on the delegation) would as well.”

Rabbi Holub added to that post a link to two letters from No More Deaths supporters, one asking the land managers of the various Sonora Desert areas to permit humanitarian aid to migrants, the other to the US Attorney for Arizona to drop the charges against those already charged with violations connected with humanitarian aid in the area.  I have signed on to those letters and I’ll include the link when I upload my High Holiday sermons onto the www.jewishduluth.org  website so that you can also sign on if you choose.[4]  

As we gather today to mark the Jewish New Year, issues surrounding the plight of would-be migrants, refugees and asylum seekers continue to be fought over in a hyper-partisan way.  However, surely there exist legislative and administrative solutions that can address both humanitarian concerns as well as concerns for border security and the rule of law.  

Such issues have been with us from time immemorial.  Today’s Torah reading from the Book of Genesis spoke of the plight of Hagar and Ishmael as they wandered through the wilderness of Beer-Sheva, but of course all four of the remaining books of the Torah are filled with accounts of our ancestor’s wanderings through the wilderness of Sinai in search of a better life.  And, speaking of Genesis --- even its opening saga of Adam and Eve tells of their expulsion from Eden and the trials and tribulations that would follow. 

As we move into this new year 5779, may we be granted the wisdom and the perseverance to advocate for our nation to live up to its highest ideals in offering refuge to those in distress, and the chance for a better life to those who would seek to join our society. 

May we sort out the means for doing so in a spirit of mutual respect – leshem shamayim – for the sake of heaven.

And may all of us ---- friends, neighbors and the strangers at our gates, be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness, prosperity and peace.



© Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2018/ Tishri 5779)

[1] Rashi on Num. 23:21

[2] In his article Dr. Rosendorf actually uses the term “Mesoamericans” but I felt that that term would not be readily familiar to my audience.  According to Wikipedia, “[t]he Mesoamerican region (often abbreviated MAR) is a trans-national economic region in the Americas that is recognized by the OECD and other economic and developmental organizations, comprising the united economies of the seven countries in Central AmericaBelize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama — plus nine southeastern states of MexicoCampeche, Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Veracruz, and Yucatán.[1] […] Situated within the wider region of Middle America (on the tapering isthmus of southern North America), the geographical region defined by the MAR loosely correlates with that of Mesoamerica, the pre-Columbian culture area defined and identified by archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and ethnohistorians.[3] For several thousand years prior to the European colonization of the Americas beginning in the early 16th century, the diverse cultures and civilizations of Mesoamerica also shared in common a number of broad cultural, historical and linguistic traits. The modern-day indigenous populations who are the descendants of pre-Columbian cultures number roughly over 11 million people (approx. 17.2% of total regional population) spread across the MAR economic territory,[4] and are largely among the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups in the region.[5]

[3] https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/08/09/suffer-the-little-children-the-view-from-el-paso/

[4] http://forms.nomoredeaths.org/show-your-support/  

Posted on September 20, 2018 .