Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

September 9, 2018

It’s wonderful to see all of you here tonight, but I know what you’re all really waiting for as far as Rosh Hashanah is concerned: The spectacle of the sounding of the shofar tomorrow morning.  Maureen O’Brien will surely do a great job with that important role as she does each year.  And we also look forward to Gerry Wallace doing the honors on Tuesday during our Second Day Rosh Hashanah morning service.

There are many complex thoughts and emotions that arise in us when we observe the mitzvah of “lishmoa kol shofar”/ “hearing the sound of the shofar”.

In the signature verse for the Rosh Hashanah Amidah from Psalm 81 that we sang earlier tonight we declared:

תִּקְע֣וּ בַחֹ֣דֶשׁ שׁוֹפָ֑ר


Tik’u vachodesh shofar

From that imperative verb form “tik’u” we get the noun “tekiah,” which is why our machzor translates the phrase “Tik’u vachodesh shofar” into English as “sound teki’ah on the shofar on the New Moon.” The rabbis of old interpreted the verse to refer to the new moon of Tishrei.  And --- fun fact --- the Zohar, the main text of the Jewish mystical tradition, notes that when spelled in Hebrew,  בראשית

(“Bereshit”) --- the first word of the Torah --- meaning “in the beginning” – is an acronym for בא  תִּשׁרִי    (“Ba Tishrei”) --- Tishrei comes….

Well the month of Tishrei is here, and with it, our celebration of Rosh Hashanah on the 1st and 2nd days of Tishrei.

Oddly enough, this holiday is never referred to as “Rosh Hashanah” in the Bible.

And, although we highlight the verse in Psalm 81 that says “sound Tekiah on the shofar on the New Moon” --- this holiday is never referred to as “Yom Tekiah”

But there IS another name for Rosh Hashanah right there in the Torah that refers to the sound of the shofar.

As it says in the Rosh Hashanah maftir Torah reading that we will read from the second of two scrolls tomorrow:

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. It shall be “Yom Teruah” for you.”   (Num. 29:1)

And in Psalm 47, which in some machzorim is included as part of the shofar service, it says:   

עלה אלהים בתרועה ה' בקול שופר

(“alah elohim bitruah, adonai vekol shofar”)

“God ascends with a “teru’ah”; Adonai, to the sound of a shofar.”

What is this “teru’ah” of which Scripture speaks?

The sages debated what a “teru’ah” on the shofar should sound like.  Some said it should sound like sighing --- an interpretation reflected in what we now call “shevarim”  -- three notes whose total length adds up to the length of one “tekiah” blast.  That word “shevarim” means “broken” --- and thus it reminds us of the brokenness of our world and of God’s call to us to work together to heal and repair it.  

Other sages said that “teru’ah” was a crying sound – an interpretation reflected in the series of nine short notes to which we do indeed now give the name “teru’ah”. 

In Tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Talmud we learn that the teruah sounds should remind us of the distressed wailings of Sisera’s mother as she awaited her son’s return from battle. 

Sisera was a bitter Canaanite enemy of the Israelites who was killed in battle by Ya’el, and the image of Sisera’s weeping mother comes from the Song of Deborah in the Book of Judges.  It’s all portrayed very much as a just war.  And yet, in this most charged ritual of Rosh Hashanah we are supposed to remember the tears of the mothers of our enemies.[1] 

What a profound model of empathy and compassion that is for us – the shofar reminding us to remember the human cost of war.

But tonight I’d like to highlight a more joyful understanding of the concept of “teru’ah”.

The new Jewish Publication Society translates the word “Teruah” in Psalm 47 verse 6 as “acclamation” ---

עלה אלהים בתרועה

(“alah elohim bitru’ah”)

“God ascends with acclamation”. 

The word “teru’ah” is derived from the verb להריע (lehari’a),  which, in my dog-eared copy of the Oxford University Press Hebrew-English Dictionary is defined as “to cheer, shout for joy, applaud or acclaim.”[2]

One particularly well-known use of the verb “lehari’a” ----  is found in Psalm 100 – well known in the sense that this Mizmor Letodah/ Psalm of Thanksgiving is part of the traditional weekday morning liturgy throughout the year.

There we find these words of acclaim:

הריעו לה' כל־הארץ

(“Hari’u ladonai kawl ha’aretz”)

The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates this as: “Raise a shout for the LORD, all the earth.” But we could also translate it as “Make a TERU,AH sound to Adonai all the earth….

If the verb lehari’a means to acclaim – and “teru’ah” (the noun derived from that verb) is an acclamation, a shout for joy, a cheer…

What is it that we are acclaiming? What is it that we are enthusiastically praising when we hear those rapid notes of the “teru’ah” on this Jewish New Year – on this “Yom Teru’ah?”

At the most basic level, we acclaim the simple joy and miracle of being alive --- as it says in Psalm 146:  “Halleluyah – Praise the Eternal O my soul.  I will praise the Eternal all my life, singing hymns to my God while I exist.” 

Or, to put it another way, as we heard in the passage that we read earlier in tonight’s service from the writings of the physician and poet Lewis Thomas ---- “The probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise…. You’d think we’d never stop dancing”[3]

You know, when we go through our Torah reading cycle each year there are always new lessons to learn in each and every go-around.  And a few months ago, in our Shabbat morning Torah study group we encountered another possible definition for “Teru’ah”  -- which I have been thinking about ever since.

It comes in Torah portion Balak.  That’s the parasha in which a Moabite king named Balak hires a pagan prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam finds himself compelled by God to bless the Israelites instead.  The most famous verse in Balaam’s various speeches is the line that we know well from our morning prayers – Mah tovu ohalekha ya’akov, Mishkenotekha yisrael”   ---   which our “On Wings of Awe” machzor translates as “What goodness fills your tents, O Jacob, The Places where you dwell, O Israel.” (Num. 24:5)

The verse in Parashat Balak that mentions the concept of “teru’ah” comes earlier in that Torah portion:  In Numbers 23:21 Bilam blesses the Israelites with these words: 

“No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel; Adonai their God is with them, and the teru’ah of the sovereign is in their midst.”

And what is this “teru’at hamelekh” this “Teruah of the sovereign?”

The Jewish Publication Society translation, consistent with its translation of “teruah” in Psalm 47 as “acclamation,” translates it here in Parashat Balak as “their King’s acclaim”. 

We had previously seen “teru’ah” translated as “acclamation”.  However, the 11th century commentator Rashi , commenting on Numbers 23:21, says teruah is לשון חבה ורעות,  (leshon chibah vere’ut) --- “an expression meaning love and friendship.”

Rashi cites the example of  2 Samuel 15:37, where a character named Chushai is described as “the רעה (re’a) of David’ — “the friend of David.”

It’s all a lovely Hebrew word play.  For my fellow grammar nerds in the hall – the word “teru’ah” is derived from the root letters resh-vav-ayin --- but Rashi wants us to understand it as coming from the root letters resh -ayin – hey.

For my fellow music theory nerds in the hall, I’d suggest he’s treating the word like a pivot chord in a piece of music that is modulating to a new key.

Rashi, through this play on words, is saying that the word “teruah” can be seen as being related to the words “re’a” (friend) and “re’ut” (friendship)

For me this brings to mind a beautiful passage from the Sheva Berachot—the seven blessings of the Jewish wedding ceremony:

“same’ach tesamach re’im ha’ahuvim kesameychakha ytzirkha began eden mikedem”

“May you, O God, bring great joy to these re’im ha’ahuvim/ these loving friends as you brought joy to your creations in the Garden of Eden.”

So, this Rosh Hashanah, each time we hear those teru’ah acclamations on the shofar, or read about them in our machzor, we might think about love, about friendship, about companionship ---- about the miracle of human connection that goes back to the dawn of humanity.

And, amid all of this --- as it says in Psalm 81

עלה אלהים בתרועה

(“alah elohim bitru’ah”)


“God ascends with a teru’ah”. 

Meaning – I would suggest – that we experience the infusion of Godliness in the world when we cultivate “teru’ah” --- which stands for friendship – love – companionship and fellowship --- with one another.

That is what enables us to find that sense of gratitude and shalom that we seek, even amid the inevitable challenges and hardships of daily life and even amid the painful evidence all around us of a world still filled with injustices to be rectified and sufferings to be assuaged.  

As we learn in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a)

או חברותא או מתותא

(O chevruta, o mituta)

“Friendship or Death”

which Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains is an expression meaning that one who has no friends is better off dead.

Indeed, elsewhere in the Talmud, in Tractate Berachot 58b we learn –

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his or her friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing that friend recites:

ברוך שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

(Barukh shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazman hazeh)

Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time.

And one who sees his or her friend after twelve months recites:

ברוך מחיה המתים

(Barukh mechayey hametim)

Blessed…Who revives the dead.

Or, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Lina Zerbarini expresses it, “true friendship brings a piece of you alive.”

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this can get challenging as we get older.

Work responsibilities and family responsibilities can have the effect of distancing us from friends.

Social media can create virtual ties with friends old and new, near and far ----  but if we live too much “on line” and not enough “in real life”   --- those computerized interactions will still leave us hungry for more substantial connections.

Our regular Shabbat evening siddur, Mishkan Tefila features a beautiful reading by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg that opens with these words:

May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship….

Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teru’ah – The Day of Friendship.

May we be blessed in this New Year with good friends who support us and encourage us and care for us – and, even more importantly, may we be blessed with the wherewithal and the generosity of spirit to be able to be a good friend to others.

Getting involved in the life of our congregation is a good way to start!

And so ---

HIney mah tov u mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad – How good it is!  How sweet it is! To be together on this day.

And may this day be the start of shanah tovah u’metukah – a good and sweet year to come for one and all.



© Rabbi David Steinberg (2018/5779)

[1] Rosh Hashanah 33b

[2] Kernerman – Lonnie Kahn Oxford University Press English-Hebrew Hebrew-English Dictionary, Ya’acov Levy, editor, 1995, p. 72 [Hebrew to English section]

[3] Machzor Mishkan HaNefesh for Rosh Hashanah (CCAR Press), p. 127

Posted on September 20, 2018 .


Thoughts on Shofetim (2018/5778)

(Deut. 16:18 = 21:9)

[Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday 8/17/18] 

Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Shofetim, deals with many aspects of civil governance.  We are probably most familiar with the phrase that appears near the beginning of the parasha, “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof” – “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20) – words that inspire us to concern ourselves with society at large, and not only our own personal needs. 

Many different interpretations have been offered through the centuries regarding why the word “Tzedek/Justice” is repeated  -- Why doesn’t it just say “tzedek tirdof” / “justice you shall pursue”  Why does it instead reiterate TZEDEK TZEDEK. – JUSTICE JUSTICE?  In our own time, when our country is so politically divided, perhaps the most relevant interpretation is the one that suggests that the word “Tzedek”/”Justice” is said more than once  because there is more than a single view of what it means depending upon whom you ask.

This year we are in year two of our triennial cycle of Torah readings.

Our second triennial year readings open with the following passage, which, admittedly, doesn’t immediately jump out at you as being super dramatic or exciting. 

But here it is:

In Deuteronomy 18: 6-8, we read:

6 If a Levite would go, from any of the settlements throughout Israel where he has been residing, to the place that the Eternal has chosen, he may do so whenever he pleases. 7 He may serve in the name of the Eternal his God like all his fellow Levites who are there in attendance before the Eternal. 8 They shall receive equal shares of the dues, without regard to personal gifts or patrimonies.

According to Rashi and other commentators, the Levite referred to here is not just any old Levite but rather a Levite descended from Aaron’s family, i.e. a Kohen or Priest.  We had learned earlier in the book of Deuteronomy that once the Israelites would be settled in the Land of Israel, local sanctuaries would be outlawed and all sacrificial worship would take place only at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Biblical and historical evidence is not totally clear or consistent[1] about what happened after that.  However, the general traditional understanding is that the various priestly families would be divided up into mishmarot –or watches – with each kohen serving at the Jerusalem Temple for a one-week stint twice each year.   

These Levitical Priests were given special portions of the animal and grain offerings that they helped administer.  As it says at the beginning of Deuteronomy 18: 

The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no territorial portion with Israel. They shall live only off the Eternal’s offerings by fire as their portion, 2 and shall have no portion among their brother tribes: the Eternal is their portion, as [God] promised them. 3 This then shall be the priests' due from the people: Everyone who offers a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep, must give the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach to the priest. 4 You shall also give him the first fruits of your new grain and wine and oil, and the first shearing of your sheep.

This scenario raises the question:  What if they had no other source of sustenance during the 50 other weeks of the year when it was not their scheduled rotation?

So, Parashat Shofetim comes around and says --- even if it’s not currently his scheduled rotation time of active service, he could still come to Jerusalem and share in the priestly benefits

To be cut off from that source of sustenance would have been unthinkable.

In the URJ Women’s Torah Commentary, it is explained:

Since Deuteronomy outlaws local sanctuaries, the Levites formerly serving at those sanctuaries can no longer earn a livelihood except at the central sanctuary. Those who do not serve ther must depend on communal charity, along with the widow, the fatherless and the stranger.  Our passage seems to try to avoid that situation by providing the option for the unemployed Levite to find employment and allotment from sacrifices at the central sanctuary.  (Women’s Torah Commentary, p. 1149, note to Deut. 18: 6-8)

What possible connection can all of this have to our contemporary concerns?

Well, the continued priestly prerogatives of the Levites even when not currently their time of service reminds me of the continued security clearances of intelligence officials even when not currently their time of service. 

Their continued access to top secret information makes them more marketable as private consultants, just as the retention of priestly prerogatives for off-duty Levites helps assure them of economic security.

But, of course, it’s more than that:  

The 13th century French Torah commentator Chizkuni  explains that the Levites:   “were travelling teachers, leaving the towns set aside for the Levites and visiting small communities in order to teach there.”[2]  Thus it was beneficial to society as a whole that they continue to get their allotments even if they weren’t serving in the current Temple contingent.

Similarly, we could argue that it is important and beneficial to society that folks like CIA and FBI directors   ----  the modern equivalent of the Levites of old if you will --- should retain their security clearances – the modern equivalent of the priestly prerogatives of old if you will.

As CBS News reporter Olivia Gazis explains: “Former intelligence and law enforcement officials commonly retain their security clearances in order to ensure institutional continuity and in the event their expertise proves useful to their successors.” https://www.cbsnews.com/amp/news/top-former-intelligence-bosses-speak-out-in-favor-of-brennan/?__twitter_impression=true

That’s an observation that should seem obvious to us:  After all, right there in Psalm 92, the Psalm for the Sabbath Day,  that we chanted earlier in the service tonight, we said about  righteous people  -- OD YENUVUN BESEYVAH – they continue to be fruitful in old age. 

In other words, it behooves us to keep in the loop those vatikim/ the veterans among us --- whose prior experiences can help us address the complexities of our own day.

Cutting them off from being able to do so hurts not just them but us. 

And, indeed, that is the message that was relayed by a dozen former CIA directors from both Democratic and Republican administrations this week when they issued the following statement[3]

As former senior intelligence officials, we feel compelled to respond in the wake of the

ill-considered and unprecedented remarks and actions by the White House regarding the removal of John Brennan’s security clearances. We know John to be an enormously talented, capable, and patriotic individual who devoted his adult life to the service of this nation. Insinuations and allegations of wrongdoing on the part of Brennan while in office are baseless. Since leaving government service John has chosen to speak out sharply regarding what he sees as threats to our national security. Some of the undersigned have done so as well. Others among us have elected to take a different course and be more circumspect in our public pronouncements. Regardless, we all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances – and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech. You don’t have to agree with what John Brennan says (and, again, not all of us do) to agree with his right to say it, subject to his obligation to protect classified information. We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case. Beyond that, this action is quite clearly a signal to other former and current officials. As individuals who have cherished and helped preserve the right of Americans to free speech – even when that right has been used to criticize us – that signal is inappropriate and deeply regrettable.  Decisions on security clearances should be based on national security concerns and not political views.

So ends the statement that was signed onto by Robert Gates, William Webster, George Tenet, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus and others.

We are fortunate in our fractious era that individuals of good will remain committed to public service even as we continue to debate the proper course our nation should take in pursuit of justice.

We experience blessing when we can be open to considering the wisdom of those who have been there before and who continue to desire to contribute.

Od Yenuvun Beseyvah/ They shall be fruitful even in old age.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg

August 2018/ Elul 5778 




[1] See Encyclopdia Judaica on the subject https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mishmarot-ma-amadot

[2] Chizkuni on Deut. 18:6 as retrieved on www.sefaria.org

[3] https://www.cbsnews.com/amp/news/top-former-intelligence-bosses-speak-out-in-favor-of-brennan/?__twitter_impression=true

Posted on August 21, 2018 .


(Thoughts on Bechukotai 5778/2018)

Lev. 26:3 – 27:34

Dvar Torah given on Friday evening 5/11/18

This Shabbat we come to the end of the Book of Leviticus, with Torah portion “Bechukotai.”  

Most of the parasha consists of a short list of blessings followed by a long list of curses that God promises as rewards for obeying or as punishments for disobeying God’s mitzvot.

The blessings and curses run the gamut from military victories and defeats, to agricultural surpluses and shortages, to climatic forecasts, to psychological syndromes.

It can be sort of a slog to read through, let alone study and meditate upon. The conditionality of it is I guess what troubles me.  Why doesn’t Torah just assert that God loves us unconditionally, whether we obey or whether we disobey? 

If we translate this to the sphere of human relationships, who cannot but feel that love should be freely given and received, and not conditioned on performance.

This weekend is Mother’s Day Weekend, and as I remember my mother, who died a little less than two years ago, that’s the one message that stays in my heart always, and that I think about every day --- that she loved me unconditionally and that, in the words she often repeated to me – that she was always “in my corner.”

And yet, when I look closer at Parashat Bechukotai, I find that, yes, there is still a way for finding the heart embedded within its stern language.   The clue first appears midway through the long list of curses and threats, at Leviticus 26:21, where we read:

וְאִם-תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי, וְלֹא תֹאבוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ לִי--וְיָסַפְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַכָּה, שֶׁבַע כְּחַטֹּאתֵיכֶם. 

Ve'im-telchu imi keri velo tovu lishmoa li veyasafti aleychem makah sheva kechat'oteychem.

The Jewish Publication Society translation renders this as: “And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.”

Yeah, I know that doesn’t immediately stand out as the sort of touchy-feely sentimentality we may be hoping for.  But consider this:  This Hebrew word “keri” – translated here as “hostile” --- has never up until now appeared in the Torah.  It is repeated several times in the remainder of this chapter – but it never again appears anywhere else in the Bible. 

What is it telling us here?

The notion that “keri” should be translated as “hostile” comes from Onkelos, who translated the Torah from Hebrew to Aramaic back in the 2nd century C.E.  He translated “keri” as “hardness” or “obstinancy”[1] because he thought that the word “keri” was connected to the Hebrew root “koof-resh-resh” meaning “coldness.”[2]  (In modern Hebrew, “kar” (קר) means cold, and a “mekarer”   (מקרר) is a refrigerator.) 

In other words, the Torah is saying here that what God, as it were, is so upset about is not so much our disobedience but rather our coldness. 

And, isn’t that true in our personal relationships as well?

None of us are perfect and we all make mistakes and mess up from time to time in our interactions with one another --  But, what is hardest to forgive – what strains our ties to the breaking point – is when we are cold to one another.

Thinking about this notion reminded me of that song from the rock band “Foreigner” that came out in 1977:

You're as cold as ice
You're willing to sacrifice our love
You never take advice
Someday you'll pay the price, I know

I've seen it before
It happens all the time
Closing the door
You leave the world behind

You're digging for gold
Yet throwing away
A fortune in feelings
But someday you'll pay

You're as cold as ice
You're willing to sacrifice our love

An alternative translation favored by various medieval commentators renders the Hebrew word “keri” as “accident” or “happenstance”.  They understand the word as being derived from the Hebrew root koof-resh-hey, like the Hebrew word “mikreh” (מקרה)   —meaning a coincidence or random occurrence.   

So, as Rashi writes: 

וְאִם-תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי   “Our Rabbis said that the word ‘keri’ means ‘irregularly’, ‘by chance’, something occurring only occasionally so here it means “if you follow the mitzvot only occasionally”[3] 

And in a way that can be even worse, right?  If you care about someone and they only think about you occasionally or when you happen to come to mind, that can conceivably be even more painful than if they were hostile towards you but at least thinking about you.

I’m sure I’ve shared many times that one of my earliest memories of Hebrew School when I was a kid in Brooklyn, was my Hebrew School teacher Rabbi Shapiro telling us that it was okay to be angry with God, but that the big sin would be to ignore God.

And, indeed, doesn’t that apply to our own interpersonal relationships as well.  Better to be angry – and express it – than to shunt our loved ones out of our consciousness altogether.

It’s always, always true that what matters is the heart and the warmth that we put into our relationships and not the scorecard of what we do right and wrong.  This message comes through when we search for it.

Even in those passages of the Torah that seem harshest.

And even in those personal interactions in life that seem most fraught with emotion.

Shabbat shalom.


 (c) Rabbi David Steinberg 2018/5778


[1] וְאִם תְּהָכוּן קֳדָמַי בְּקַשְׁיוּ (retrieved at http://www.mechon-mamre.org/i/t/u/up0310.htm

[2] Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (p.186)

[3] Rashi on Lev. 26:21

Posted on May 13, 2018 .


(Dvar Torah on Parashat Bo [Exodus 10:1 - 13:16] given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 1/19/18)

In our yearly Torah-reading cycle, we’re in the second of the five books of the Torah.  In Hebrew it’s called “Sefer Shemot” (“The Book of Names”) because it starts out with the declaration,  

וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃

These are the names (Hebrew: “shemot”) of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household. (Ex. 1:1)

However, the English titles for the books of the Torah are based on the main subject matter of the book.  In English, we call the second book of the Torah “Exodus” – and this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, is the one in which the exodus that gives the book its English title actually occurs.  As we read in Exodus 12:40-41: 

וּמוֹשַׁב֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָשְׁב֖וּ בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃

 וַיְהִ֗י מִקֵּץ֙ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֗י בְּעֶ֙צֶם֙ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה יָֽצְא֛וּ כָּל־צִבְא֥וֹת יְהוָ֖ה מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

“The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.

And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of the Eternal departed from the land of Egypt.”

And, a few verses later, at the end of the chapter, it reiterates:

וַיְהִ֕י בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה הוֹצִ֨יא יְהוָ֜ה אֶת־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם עַל־צִבְאֹתָֽם׃

“That very day the Eternal freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.“[1]

The weird thing about Exodus chapter 12, however, is that most of the rest of the chapter digresses from the narrative of the Exodus and instead talks about the laws for celebrating Passover in generations to come.

Most of us are familiar with at least some of those laws because they are embodied in the ritual of the Passover Seder, one of the most widely observed Jewish traditions, even among Jews who are not particularly religiously observant.

You may recall a well-known section of the Passover Haggadah – the description of four types of children who are present at the seder: The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who doesn’t even know how to ask a question.  The midrash of the four children grew out of the fact that, in the Torah, it says four different times that one must tell one’s child about the story of the Exodus.  And much of the language of the Haggadah is based on the language in the Torah.

But every year when Parashat Bo comes around I always find myself wondering about one particular section in which the Torah and the Haggadah diverge.

Specifically, in Exodus 12:26 it says:

וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

“And when your children ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’”

This you may recall is the question that, in the Passover Haggadah, is asked by the so-called “rasha” or “wicked child.”  By calling this child “wicked” we already have a sense of what the writers of the Haggadah thought about that kid’s question.  In the Haggadah, we are told that when the wicked child asks that impertinent question we should respond harshly:

“What does the wicked child say? “What is this service to you?!” Saying “to you”—implying that it is not for him. By excluding himself from the community, he denies an essential principle. You should ‘blunt his teeth’ (speak harshly to him) and say to him: “It is because of this that the Eternal acted for me when I left Egypt—for me, but not for him. If he [the wicked child] had been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

But this harsh response in the Haggadah is different from the response given in the Torah.  When we read that same question

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

"What is this service to you?"

in Parashat Bo, at Exodus 12:26, the response given in verse 27 is this:

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל

“You shall say, ‘It is the Passover offering to the Eternal, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’”

So, in the Torah, this child is not labeled wicked or rebellious. 

In the Torah, the parent answers with a description of the miracle of Passover that does not include any reprimand of the questioning child.

In short, the Biblical era parent seems to take the child’s question in stride, to welcome it even.

But the rabbinic era parent in the Haggadah is defensive and reactive and annoyed, and basically scolds and shames the kid.

I find myself imagining that this parent is one particular parent at different times in their life, and I wonder what that parent went through that made them so jaded that they became reactive and accusatory when they had once been open-minded and engaging.

I’m not personally a parent, so, unsurprisingly, I find myself thinking about my myself in the role of the child.  In doing so I think about my own parent -- or, more specifically -- about my own father, Arvin Steinberg, who passed away just a few weeks ago.

My earliest memories of Passover seders were of my grandfather, my father’s father, Boris Steinberg, leading the seder.  Pop-Pop, as we called him, would speed-read through the full traditional Hebrew text of the Haggadah (though we still paused to do all the ritual actions like eating the karpas (parsley) and the charoset and the matzah, and – of course – hiding and later ransoming the afikomen ...)

When Pop Pop died, or more specifically, the last Passover of his life, when he was in the hospital over Passover and we had seder without him, the next in line to lead the seder would have been my father.  But Dad asked me to lead our family seder instead.  He said it was because he didn’t have any patience for impertinent interruptions.  Actually, he wasn’t even talking about me and my siblings.  He was talking about HIS younger brother, my Uncle Joey, who passed away about four or five years ago.  And I do remember Uncle Joey being really impertinent and disrespectful during previous seders.

In any event, I’ve led many a seder since then, both with my family of origin, and for congregational seders after I became a rabbi.

And I think I’m generally a patient guy and I give it my best effort never to disrespect an impertinent kid.  (or grown-up for that matter).

But since Parashat Bo is this week’s Torah portion, I want to think a bit more about that question:

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

“What is this service to you?”

If someone says that to me, whether about the ritual of the Passover seder, or about this Shabbat evening service that we’re at right now, my reflexive inclination is more like the Torah parent   -- sharing the message of God’s beneficent care --- than the Haggadah parent  -- who scolds the questioner as being a sneering punk.

No, I do not find myself wanting to say – Whaddya mean TO YOU?  Don’t you think of yourself as part of the Children of Israel? As part of the Jewish people?  What?  Are you so assimilated and divorced from your Jewish identity that you think it’s something just to sneer at from a distance?

No – Believe me that’s not where I’m at.  After all --- That kid at the seder table is present! He didn’t run off!  He showed up!

And, as for each of us here at this Shabbat service, we all made the effort to be here.  That counts for a lot! That deserves respect and appreciation!

It all comes down to how we understand the question.

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

“What is this service to you?”

Maybe that child just really wants to understand who his parent is as a person deep down.  Maybe that child just really wants to be empathetic when saying “What is this service TO YOU?”.  Maybe that child really is just the opposite of stand-offish and self-centered.

I guess I am, to a certain extent, that “Rasha,” that wicked child.  But it’s not because I asked the impertinent questions.  Rather, it’s because I didn’t ask them!  I never asked my father – or at least I didn’t ask him enough --- the supposedly “wicked” question of  

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

 “What is all this to YOU?”

I never really got to know – or at least didn’t get to know enough -- what his feelings were deep down – what his essence was really all about.

I’m not here tonight to scold myself about this --- or to scold any of you about how deep or shallow your relationships are or were with your parents or with other loved ones in your life.

I guess the piece of Torah that’s sticking in my craw on this Shabbat, less than a month after my father’s death, is not so much the explicit commandment about what the parent should answer but rather the unspoken commandment to the child to be outwardly focused enough to ask the question in the first place.

Rest in peace, Dad. I hardly knew you.  I wish I had more often been “wicked” enough to probe more deeply, asking “what is all this to you?”

And Shabbat shalom u’mevorach --- A sabbath of peace and blessing to each one of us, to all of our loved ones, both those who are here with us and those who are not here with us.

Shabbat shalom.



© Rabbi David Steinberg

(January 2018/ Shevat 5778)



[1] Exodus 12:51


Posted on January 23, 2018 .


(Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday, 1/12/18)

Thoughts on Vaera (5778/2018)

(Exodus 6:2 – 9:35)

It has been another one of those frustrating days in our country when we are drained and demoralized by the latest stain on America’s reputation in the world.  One of the top trending search terms on Twitter today is an eight-letter word allegedly spoken by President Trump that I am not going to repeat here.  He reportedly used it in a White House meeting yesterday with congressional leaders to describe countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America from which he would prefer we do not accept immigrants. 

These were countries with majority non-white populations. 

By contrast, he is reported to have wondered aloud why we could not be trying to get more folks from places like Norway.

My reflexive reaction as a way of fortifying myself today was to reach for the 12th century advice of Abraham Ibn Ezra in the poem “Ki Eshmera Shabbat,” which is one of those traditional zemirot sung on Shabbat.  It’s chorus and first verse go like this:

כִּי אֶשְׁמְרָה שַׁבָּת אֵל יִשְׁמְרֵֽנִי,
אוֹת הִיא לְעֽוֹלְמֵי עַד בֵּינוֹ וּבֵינִי.

אָסוּר מְצֹא חֵֽפֶץ עֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכִים,
גַּם מִלְּדַבֵּר בּוֹ דִּבְרֵי צְרָכִים,
דִּבְרֵי סְחוֹרָה אַף (אוֹ) דִּבְרֵי מְלָכִים,
אֶהְגֶּה בְּתוֹרַת אֵל וּתְחַכְּמֵנִי.

Ki Eshm'rah Shabbat El Yishm'reini,
Ot hi lol'mei Ad Beino uveini.

Asur M'tso chefetz, Asot d'rachim,
Gam mil'daber bo divrei ts'rachim,
Divrei s'chora af (o) divrei m'lachim, ehgeheh b'torat Eyl utchakmeini.

 “If I keep the Sabbath, God will keep me. It is a sign for ever between God and me.

"Forbidden are business or practical tasks, Even speaking of the things we need, Or about money or politics; I will ponder God’s Torah and it will make me wise.”

Thus, Ibn Ezra advises us that on Shabbat we should avoid the workaday preoccupations of the rest of the week, not least of which is דִּבְרֵי מְלָכִים “divrei melachim”. 

This expression “divrei melachim” is often translated as “politics” but it can also literally be translated as “words of rulers”.

Well, the words of THIS nation’s head of government that we learned about this week are certainly worthy of being banished from our hearts and minds if we wish to create a nation of brotherhood and sisterhood and a world of Shabbat peace. 

Yes, perhaps we are indeed better off following Ibn Ezra’s example:

אֶהְגֶּה בְּתוֹרַת אֵל וּתְחַכְּמֵנִי / Ehgeh betorat Eyl, utechakmeinu --- “I will ponder God’s Torah and it will make me wise.”

So, let us not focus on the explicit word that President Trump has made famous in this week’s news reports.  Instead let us focus on an ambiguous word found in this week’s Torah portion. 

It’s the word עָרֹב (“arov”) which first appears at Exodus 8:17.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’era, includes the account of the first seven of the ten plagues that God inflicts upon the Egyptians before they are willing to let the Israelites go forth from slavery to freedom. 

“Arov” is the name of the fourth of the plagues.

As we read in Exodus 8: 16-18:

16 The Eternal said to Moses, "Get up early in the morning and set yourself before Pharaoh as he is coming out to the water, and say to him, 'Thus says the Eternal: Let My people go that they may worship Me. 17 For if you do not let My people go, I will send against you and your servants and your nation and your houses the “arov” – and the “arov” will fill all the houses of the Egyptians, as well as the ground they stand on. 18 But on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no “arov” shall be there, that you may know that I the Eternal am in the midst of the land. 

What does the Torah mean by “arov?”

The sense of the Hebrew name for that fourth plague is somewhat ambiguous.  The word “arov” in Exodus 8:17 literally means “mixture,” without specifying what sort of mixture.  Older Bible translations, following Rashi’s commentary, translate “arov” as a mixture of different kinds of wild animals.  Other translations, including the Jewish Publication Society version used in the Plaut Torah commentary propose that “arov” refers to a swarm – specifically, a swarm of insects.

The same word, with slightly different vowels, also describes the “mixed multitude” עֵרֶב רַב   (erev rav) who ultimately went forth from Egypt along with the ethnic Israelites.[1]

Yet another use of the same word ,“erev,”  brings us the idea of “evening.” 

Erev tov/ good evening.

Erev Shabbat/ Sabbath Eve.

Ma’ariv/’ the evening prayer service.

For what is evening, erev, but a mixture of day just ending and night just beginning? (Remember that traditionally, Kabbalat shabbat services would be beginning just as the sun was setting.).

This plague of “mixture”/ “arov”, like all the other plagues in the Passover story, strikes at the Egyptians but spares the Israelites. 

Looked at in a more symbolic manner, we might say that the phenomena described in our Torah portion harm only those who of their own accord experience “mixture” as a plague:  Those who would cling to a society that seeks to deify itself while enslaving those who are different.

But on the other hand, if we embrace diversity rather than trying to subjugate it, then the mixture is no longer a curse but a blessing.   AROV/MIXTURE becomes not a plague of swarming insects or marauding wild animals, but rather a multicolored panorama of God’s work of creation.

We find a related idea in the wording of the traditional blessing for Torah study.  When we have our Saturday morning Torah study group each week, we usually just recite the first sentence of that blessing, in which we praise God for the mitzvah of “La’asok bedivrei Torah”/ “Occupying ourselves with words of Torah.” However, the longer form of the blessing, continues by quoting language taken from the Talmud (Berachot 11b):

הערב נא ה' אלהינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפיפיות עמך בית ישראל

“[M]ake sweet (Hebrew: “ha’arev”), Adonai, our God, the words of Your Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people, the house of Israel,

The word “ha’arev” is a verb form (hifil) that shows causation so “ha’arev” means “cause those words of Torah to be arov --  sweet or pleasant.

Think about this concept:  MIXED = SWEET OR PLEASANT.

“Please, O Adonai our God, “HA’AREV” “make sweet” (or “make pleasant”) the words of your Torah in our mouths.”

Here we understand that the idea of a mixture/ “AROV” can imply sweetness and pleasantness – not just fearful swarms.

It all depends on how we view “mixing” (“Arov”) in general.


When we have faith that the protecting embrace of God is with us in the dark of night as well as in the light of day, then this transitional time, moving from day to night, becomes for us a time of blessing, not a time of fear and anxiety.

As we mark the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend we recall that one of the most inspiring aspects of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s was that it brought together an “Erev Rav” / “a mixed multitude” of people of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds in the fight for civil equality for all.

And, similarly, a mixed multitude of people of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds have come to the United States from before its founding to the present day.  They haven’t all come from wealthy countries.  They haven’t all come from majority white countries either.  We can “Make America Great Again” by remembering that our strength as a nation is in our diversity.

We continue to see in the unfolding of history, the transformation of plague to blessing as we “mix things up” in our lives.  As we share our Torah with others and as we take in the Torah that others share with us.  Then “Arov” becomes not a plague but a blessing. Not swarms but sweetness.

Shabbat shalom.


© Rabbi David Steinberg (January 2018/ Tevet 5778)


[1] Exodus 12:38

Posted on January 18, 2018 .


(Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday, 11/17/17.  I am very appreciative of the thoughtful insights shared with me by Gayle Held which helped me in crafting this Dvar Torah.)

Thoughts on Toledot  (5778/2017)

(Gen. 25:19 – 28:9)

Early on in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, God addresses Rebecca as she suffers through a rough pregnancy.  God tells her that she will have twins, each of whom will be the leader of a nation.  Moreover, as it says in Genesis 25:33, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר /verav ya’avod tza’ir. The Jewish Publication Society translation found in our Plaut Torah commentary translates this as “the elder shall serve the younger.”  However, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes[1] that the Hebrew ---- וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר / verav ya’avod tza’ir --- is ambiguous. We could just as easily translate it as either ----  “the elder shall serve the younger”  or as “the elder shall the younger serve.” 

When the twins are born, Esau (also known as “Edom” because of his “Admoni” or “reddish” complexion) comes out first. And Jacob (or Ya’akov from the Hebrew word “ekev” meaning “heel”) follows immediately afterward “וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו” / v’eyado ochezet ba’akeiv Eisav (“with his hand grasping Esau’s heel.”) (Gen. 25:26)

Esau is described as a hunter, while Jacob is a tent dweller. 

Esau is associated with the great outdoors, Jacob with the study hall.

Ultimately, these twin brothers become archetypes for alternative conceptions of masculinity.

Esau is course and uncouth.  When he comes in all grimy and smelly from the field and sells his birthright to Jacob in return for the lentil stew that Jacob has prepared, the Torah describes him brusquely: 

וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ; וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה

Vayochal, vayesht, vayakom, vaylekh; vayivez Esav et habechorah.

(“He ate, he drank, he got up and went; so Esau despised his birthright.”)[2]

According to Rashi, the most famous of the Jewish commentators of the medieval period, Esau wasn’t just uncouth, he was also violent.  The Torah reports that Esau got married when he was forty-years old, but Rashi comments:

“For the first forty years of his life, Esau would kidnap wives from their husbands and take them forcibly. When he turned forty he said, Father was forty when he married and I will do likewise.”[3]

Perhaps if they lived today, the women whom we are told that Esau assaulted during his first forty years might come forward and share their stories on Twitter or Facebook.  As it is, they remain nameless to us.

In recent weeks and months reports of sexual harassment and assault have proliferated.   It seems like every day we read of yet another man who has behaved horribly.  

But, in fact, sexual harassment and assault have been a fact of life from time immemorial

We might try to separate ourselves from this sordid tale, telling ourselves that this is a problem of the Esau’s of the world, of the sorts of men whom our tradition has rejected as being “other.” 

By contrast, a quiet, studious, domesticated guy like Jacob, whom our tradition sets up as the role model for later generations, would never be a sexual predator like the ruffian Esau.

However, one of the sad and sobering realizations of recent times has been that sexual assault, rape and molestation have been committed in this world not just by the Esau’s of the world but by the Jacob’s as well.  Not just by the politically conservative but also by the politically liberal.  Not just by the macho men but by the metrosexuals.

Our tradition includes evocations of loving relationships that help us to go beyond ourselves to the level of mystical communion with the divine.  Shabbat itself is compared to a bride.  God is compared to a lover.

And we pray that our own personal relationships share in that quality of holiness.

But, sadly, infuriatingly, we know that so often in the world, this is not the case. 

I’m pretty sure that, if we were to do a survey of the membership of our congregation, or, indeed, a survey of the families on the street where we live, we would find a high percentage of people who have experienced sexually predatory behavior, or who have known someone who did.

But Shabbat is supposed to give us a hint of the better world to come.

There must be some silver lining that we can find in the wake of these disturbing revelations. 

Well, perhaps it is merely just this:

The times are changing.

Behavior that might have been dismissed in the past as “boys just being boys” is no longer acceptable today.  Victims of sexual harassment or assault who in the past might have felt alone and afraid to speak, are now finding supportive community – both in the real world and in the world of cyberspace – so that they now have more of an ability to tell their stories.

May God help us and our society to find a way forward towards a world in which each person’s integrity is respected and protected; towards a world where interpersonal connections are based on love and respect, rather than on violence and oppression.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg (November 2017/ Cheshvan 5778)


[1] http://www.rabbisacks.org/jacob-right-take-esaus-blessing-toldot-5775/

[2] Gen. 25:34

[3] Rashi on Gen. 26:34

Posted on December 1, 2017 .


Sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5778

(September 30, 2017)

Last night I spoke a bit about the introductory paragraph before the Kol Nidre prayer, in which we proclaim: “Anu matirin lehitpalel im avaryanim”  -- “We grant permission to pray with transgressors.” 

As I also mentioned last night, the word עברינים  / avaryanim  (“transgressors”) is linguistically related to the word  עברי / ivri – (“Hebrew”).  Both words come from the verbal root ע.ב.ר.  )ayin-vet-resh( – the basic meaning of which is “to cross over” or “to pass.”

I mentioned the midrash about how Abraham was called “Ivri”/ “Hebrew” -- because he was proud to stand up for his beliefs even if that put him mey’ever echad/ on one side of a philosophical divide while the whole world stood mey’ever echad/ across from him on the other side of the philosophical divide.

Another explanation about why Abraham was called “ha-Ivri” (“the Hebrew”), taken from that same midrash passage in Bereshit Rabbah, simply says: 

וְרַבָּנָן אָמְרֵי שֶׁהוּא מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר, וְשֶׁהוּא מֵשִׂיחַ בִּלְשׁוֹן עִבְרִי.

But the Sages say – that he was “mey’ever hanahar” (“from across the river”), and he spoke Hebrew.[1]

(The river being referred to there is the Euphrates River.[2])

Fast forward a few centuries and the latter books of the Torah talk a lot about crossing over the Jordan River as, for example, in Torah portion Nitzavim, where Moses refers to

הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹבֵר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן, לָבוֹא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ

the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.[3]

All this reminds us that, as Jews, we are boundary crossers – like Abraham and Sarah when they left their native land to go forth to a land that God would show them; and like the generation that grew up in the wilderness of Sinai after their parents had gone forth from Egypt.

If our Jewish identity is bound up with the idea of being boundary crossers, so much more so for our identity as Americans.  If you go back far enough (and for some of us you don’t have to go back very far at all) none of our families originated within the borders of the United States.  And that’s even true for American Indians in the sense that anthropologists tell us that they came to North America across a land bridge from Asia a few thousand years before everyone else came along. 

Speaking of Parashat Nitzavim, many Reform and Reconstructionist congregations read from Parshat Nitzavim (starting in Deuteronomy chapter 29), for their Yom Kippur morning Torah reading, instead of the traditional reading from Parashat Acharei Mot (starting in Leviticus 16) that we read in our own Torah service this morning.

Let’s all turn to page 443 right now and read the English translation of that first paragraph of Parashat Nitzavim out loud together:

You stand today – all of you – before Adonai your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officials, every man, woman, and child in Israel, the stranger in the midst of your camp, form the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, that you may enter into the sworn covenant of Adonai your God which Aodani your God is confirmeing with you this very day, for the purpose of establishing you as the people whose only God is Adonai, as you have been promised, and as God swore to your father, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  But it is not only with you that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before Adonai your God, and with whoever is not here with us today.[4]

From just this first paragraph, we can readily see why the Reform and later the Reconstructionist movements included this passage as an alternative Yom Kippur morning Torah reading.

The reading from Parashat Nitzavim emphasizes the idea of inclusion, of everyone being part of the process, not just an elite few.  While the traditional Torah reading in Leviticus focuses on one High Priest making atonement on behalf of everyone else in the community, this alternative Torah reading has a much more democratic focus.  Look at the way it starts:

“You stand today – all of you – before Adonai your God”

and the passage then goes on to include every single person in society – men, women and children; community leaders and common folk; citizens and resident aliens; present attendees and future generations. All are to be included in the transmission of Torah and in the establishment of a covenant with God.  

This emphasis on democratic inclusion is particularly appropriate for liberal Jewish movements like Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism which reject the continuation of special honors for Kohanim and Levi’im, the descendants of the priestly castes.  Also, this inclusiveness naturally leads to our contemporary advocacy for equal opportunity for all --- without invidious discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, physical disability or other factors. 

But getting back to the idea of boundary crossers – its’ especially noteworthy in the Torah’s language in Parashat Nitzavim that it explicitly includesגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ “gerkha asher bekerev machanekha --  meychoteyv eytzekha ad sho’eyv meymekha”/ .  “the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.” 

The traditional rabbinic interpreters identify these woodchoppers and water carriers as Canaanites who came to the Israelite camp claiming that they wished to convert to Judaism.  Rashi, following the lead of the Talmud, argues that Moses doubted their sincerity, yet agreed to let them stay and assigned them menial labor tasks like chopping wood and drawing water.

It would behoove us not to gloss over the implications of this:  We seem to have here a recognition that mistrust of foreigners has a long pedigree in Jewish tradition.  This is a trait that we ought to combat within ourselves even as we recognize how easily we can succumb to it.  

Let us remember the contemporary counterparts to these ancient woodchoppers and water carriers: The people from Mexico, Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere who struggle for a secure foothold for themselves and their families in a strange new land. 

For many, the Rio Grande crossing to El Norte has become the modern equivalent of the Jordan crossing to Eretz Yisra’el.

And remember:  As Jews and as Americans, whether or not we have United States green cards or passports, we are still all boundary crossers or the descendants of boundary crossers.  We are still all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

Americans of goodwill may, and do, differ on the specifics of how best to construct a fair immigration policy for our country. 

Nevertheless, our tradition calls upon us to remember the strangers in our midst --- the choppers of wood and drawers of water who stood with us in our journey to freedom.  Responding to that call today, we must make sure that our legitimate concern with protecting our borders does not lead to the oppression of resident aliens within our borders who are struggling for existence.  And this is especially true in these times.  For it would be easy to succumb to xenophobia as we continue to be on the defensive against international terrorism even now, sixteen years after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

I know that we’re not serving lunch here at Temple today as we do almost every other Shabbat of the year.  But it’s worth recalling the words with which we begin the Birkat Hamazon or Grace After Meals, those stirring opening words of Psalm 126:

שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב ה' אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים׃

Shir hama’a lot beshuv Adonai et shivat tziyon hayinu ke-cholmim

“A song of ascents. When the Eternal returned the fortunes of Zion —we were like dreamers.”

On this Shabbat Shabbaton – This Sabbath of Sabbaths[5] which is Yom Kippur – we remember today’s cholmim – todays’ “Dreamers” – the undocumented young adults who arrived in this country as children and know no other home but the United States of America.  We hope and pray – and we advocate and lobby – that Congress will rise to the task of setting the DACA program on a firm legislative footing.

And we hope and pray – and we advocate and lobby – on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world who are desperate to reach our shores. 

The United States does not have the capacity to absorb all of the potential immigrants of the world or all of the potential asylum seekers of the world or all of the potential refugees of the world.

But our faith as Jews, and our heritage as Americans, impels us do our part – and to advocate that our country does its part.

That we not sit idly by in the face of discriminatory travel bans, or heartless forced family separations, or miserly refugee limits.

May God be with all of us boundary crossers --- nitzavim hayom lifney Adonai – standing today in the presence of the Divine – today and in the days to come.

Gmar chatimah tovah/ May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness, prosperity and peace.

And Shabbat Shalom!

© Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2017/ Tishri 5778)

[1] Bereshit Rabbah 42:8 

[2] See Joshua 24: 1-4

[3] Deuteronomy 30:18

[4] Deuteronomy 29: 9-14 as translated by Rabbi Richard N. Levy, in On Wings of Awe (revised edition),  KTAV Publishing House in Association with Hillel: The Foundation of Jewish Campus Life (2011), p. 443

[5] Leviticus 16:31

Posted on October 3, 2017 .


Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5778

September 29, 2017

Just before we sang Kol Nidre this evening, we included a short Hebrew paragraph (on p. 252 of our machzorim) to which the editors of our machzor have given the title “Permission.”

The key phrase in that “Permission” paragraph is “Anu matirin lehitpalel im avaryanim”  -- which literally means “We grant permission to pray with transgressors.” 

An old legend exists that claims that the word avaryanim/transgressors was code for Iberyanim – Iberians or Spaniards-- and that the idea was to permit the participation of those conversos during the Spanish Inquisition who had gotten baptized under duress but who still secretly identified as Jews. 

As it turns out, that story is not historically true.

In fact, the paragraph was introduced into the High Holiday liturgy some two centuries before the start of the Spanish Inquisition by a German rabbi, Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg

Scholars tell us that Rabbi Meir based his liturgical invitation to pray with transgressors on a Talmudic teaching found in Tractate Keritot, page 6b, where it says:

כל תענית שאין בה מפושעי ישראל אינה תענית שהרי חלבנה ריחה רע ומנאה הכתוב עם סממני קטרת

Any fast that doesn't include the sinners of Israel is not a true fast. For behold galbanum has a foul smell and yet the Scripture counts it among the ingredients of [the] incense [used in the Temple].

Or to put it another we --- We think you stink but you belong here together with us all the same.

The specific context for Rabbi Meir’s introductory paragraph before Kol Nidre was to invite back into the congregation any Jews who had been previously excommunicated by the local Jewish community for disobeying communal regulations.

As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman explains:

Such people, presumably, would already have been put into cherem (“excommunication”), declared outside the pale so that no one could have anything to do with them; [but] the Yom Kippur fast was declared an exception to that rule.[1] 


I have been thinking lately about how this principle might be applied to American society at large.

Rabbi Meir back in the 13th century was urging us to make our community open enough so that we could include even those who had violated communal norms.

But for us in the American society of the 21st century, it seems more and more difficult to engage with those of whom we disapprove.  I cannot recall a time when our country has seemed so divided. 

And that’s not just because Russian bots have been trolling Facebook and Twitter.

It seems like our political and cultural schisms are so sharp that we are unable to claim a common bond with those with whom we disagree.  To those on one extreme of the political spectrum, those on the other extreme are avaryanim/transgressors beyond the pale. 

The biggest shame of it all is that President Trump himself has gleefully sought to exacerbate these societal fissures.

The latest iteration of this trend came last Friday night when the President was in Alabama on a campaign swing on behalf of Alabama’s junior U.S. Senator Luther Strange.  Sen. Strange had been appointed to his seat as a mid-term replacement for Sen. Jeff Sessions when Sessions became Attorney General.  And now Strange was running for the Republican nomination for a term in his own right.

And the President chose this venue to talk about football. 

I’ve seen the video clip.  It looks like President Trump was just trying to entertain the crowd because, really, the state of professional football would not appear to be a relevant issue in the Alabama senatorial campaign.

But he chose this venue to complain that NFL players who were going down on one knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner should be fired.  And he called them s.o.b’s.  --- though he didn’t abbreviate that epithet as I did just now.[2]

This for me was the last straw in my dogged attempts to cut him some slack. 

For months I have been trying to focus on the things that President Trump has said and done that are not stupid and hateful. 

For months I have been trying to focus on the times he did manage to seem presidential.

But how are we supposed to deal with a President who curses out and demeans thoughtful individuals who were peacefully and – yes – respectfully --demonstrating their concerns about American society.  They were not interrupting the game.  They were not interrupting the singing of the Anthem.   They were showing their profound RESPECT for this country’s ideals of freedom, justice and equality but reminding us with their stance that our country is not living up to those ideals.  They were showing RESPECT for the flag by bearing witness that they took the ideals that the flag stands for seriously.  

But for Trump, the N.F.L. players’ kneeling was a transgression calling for communal ban – for cherem – for excommunication from the American quasi-religious spectacle of professional football. 

I still tried to understand.  Maybe there IS a reasonable argument to be made that the playing of the national anthem before the start of the game is not the appropriate time or place for protest – even for quiet, somber, respectful protest. 

But no, I’m sad to say it, but this was about racism.  Most of the NFL players are black.  And the motivation of those who kneeled, following the example set last year by Colin Kaepernick, was specifically to protest the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers in recent months and years.     

I know that one could still argue that this was about decorum and not about race. 

But what clinched it for me was how Trump mixed in with those remarks another complaint about recent NFL rules designed to limit brain injuries.  

Here’s what he said:

"Because you know, today if you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game. They had that last week, I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom! 15 yards. The referee goes on television, his wife's so proud of him. They're ruining the game! They're ruining the game," he said. That’s what they want to do.  They want to hit? It is hurting the game.”

What these remarks tell me is that, for our President, the entertainment value of watching violent tackles is more important than the health and safety of the players.  And what that tells me is that he sees those men, whether or not they are taking the knee during the National Anthem, as mere tools for the amusement of the spectators.  

But the fact that the players are highly paid doesn’t mean that they forfeit their humanity.[3]

The fact that the President saw fit to sneer at NFL rules designed to lessen the danger of C.T.E. -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy, was in my view of a piece with his remarks to police officers earlier this year that they shouldn’t try to keep criminal suspects from having their heads bashed in when being shoved into police cars.[4]

And it reminded me of his encouragement at his campaign rallies for protesters to be beaten up.[5]

And it reminded me of his encouragement of so-called “Second Amendment People” to take out Hillary Clinton.[6]

This President is a thug.

I cringe at saying this.

Indeed, I have felt annoyed and even disgusted for months at those who have gone around saying that Trump is “not my President” and who have termed opposition to his politics as “the Resistance” – as if we were under foreign military occupation.  No, to the contrary, although I voted for Hillary Clinton (in case you were wondering…), and although I was sad that she lost the election, I still feel that it’s part of being a good citizen to accept the results of the election, to continue to advocate for one’s preferred policy positions, and to pray for the health of our elected leaders and representatives including this President.

And I do.

Yes, Donald Trump is still “my President” because I’m an American and he won the election. 

And yet, I cringe at the harm he has done and is continuing to do to this country. 

I knew we had turned a corner when even my father, who is sometimes on some issues more conservative than me, posted the following on Facebook earlier this week (and I did get my Dad’s permission to quote him here):

He wrote:


To which I responded:

Dad, I knew that Trump had really gone over the deep end when I saw your post. Like you, I have definitely been trying hard to give Trump the benefit of the doubt even though I disagree with most of what he stands for and even though I find most of his actions and statements to be insensitive and foolish. And even then, I have tried to temper my expressions of disgust with some sense of respect for the office he represents even when I couldn't respect him as the person filling that office. But it ain't easy! And I think with his attacks on serious-minded concerned citizens as S.O.B.'s, he has really gone too far. I don't think we have yet seen grounds for impeachment. But I hope […] in the interim, [that those] in Congress will develop enough backbone to oppose Trump when he pursues policies that are stupid and unjust.

So, that’s (a somewhat edited version of) what I replied on my Dad’s facebook page. 

I’ll tell you – when I was in Israel earlier this year one of the weirdest things to contemplate was that Israeli society seemed calmer than American society when it’s usually the other way around. 

As a rabbi, I’ve generally tried not to be overly partisan on the bima.

But when “my President” --- “our President” --- goes after thoughtful protesters as S.O.B’s --- he shows me that he just doesn’t get it about what being an American really is all about.

And for us, as American Jews, it’s especially important for us to remember from whence we come.  We are spiritual descendants of Avram Ha-Ivri --- Abra[ha]m the Hebrew[7].  Why was he called “Hebrew” (or “Ivri”) in Hebrew?

I’ll tell you why – because he was an iconoclast.

The word “Ivri”/ “Hebrew” comes from the same root as “Avaryanim” – The “Transgressors” whom we invite to pray together with us on Yom Kippur.

Abraham was an idol smasher.  He transgressed from the status quo. And God approved.

Abraham, in the words of the classic midrash, was called “ha-ivri”, the Hebrew, because he stood “meyever”/ “on the opposite side”.

As it says in Bereshit Rabbah:

רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד וְהוּא מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד.

“Rabbi Yehudah says, all the world [stood] on one side while [Abraham stood] on the opposite side.”[8]

Whatever our own individual politics are, as Jews we respect the value of principled dissent – a tradition that goes all the way back to Avraham Avinu, Avraham Ha-Ivri.

Whatever our own individual politics are, as Americans we respect the value of principled dissent – a tradition that goes all the way back to the Boston Tea Party.

You don’t have to agree with our President that there were ANY fine individuals among the fans of Confederate statues who marched in Charlottesville.

And you don’t have to agree with our President that the football players who have taken the knee are s.o.b.’s.

There are people in this society whose morals, whose beliefs, whose behaviors stink like the galbanum of the Temple incense.

Some (including me) would include in that group the Tiki-Torch carrying white nationalists in Charlottesville. 

Some (not including me) would include in that group those who take a knee when the national anthem is played.

But, our challenge, our calling, our mission, is to find a way to coexist in one nation. 

As the Talmud teaches: “Any fast that doesn't include the sinners of Israel is not a true fast.”

And as the Machzor beseeches:  “Beshivah shel malah, uvishivah shel matah, al da’at hamakom, v’al da’at hakahal anu matirin l’hitpalel im ha'avaryanim.

By the authority of the heavenly court, and by the authority of the earthly court , with the permission of God the Ever-Present, and with the permission of the congregation, we grant permission to pray alongside the transgressors of this world.

Tzom Kal/ May our Yom Kippur fast be an easy one.

Because our tasks ahead as a society sure aren’t easy.

And yet, may we be grateful for the progress that has been made, hopeful for the progress that can be made, forgiving of ourselves, and forgiving of one another   --just as God is forgiving of us all.



© Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2017/ Tishri 5778)


[1] Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, PhD, “Kol Nidre: Translation and Commentary,” in All These Vows: Kol Nidre, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, editor (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011), p. 92

[2] http://time.com/4954684/donald-trump-nfl-speech-anthem-protests/  

[3] See http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-nfl-criticism-concussions-brain-injuries-cte-2017-9

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/29/nyregion/trump-police-too-nice.html

[5] http://mashable.com/2016/03/12/trump-rally-incite-violence/#ODoXKPqhWiqu

[6] http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/aug/09/context-donald-trumps-second-amendment-I’ll tepeople-comm/

[7] Gen. 14:13: וַיָּבֹא֙ הַפָּלִ֔יט וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאַבְרָ֣ם הָעִבְרִ֑י וְהוּא֩ שֹׁכֵ֨ן בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֜י מַמְרֵ֣א הָאֱמֹרִ֗י אֲחִ֤י אֶשְׁכֹּל֙ וַאֲחִ֣י עָנֵ֔ר וְהֵ֖ם בַּעֲלֵ֥י בְרִית־אַבְרָֽם׃

[8] Bereshit Rabbah 42:8 רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד וְהוּא מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד.

Posted on October 3, 2017 .


Sermon for First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5778 (September 21, 2017)

We’ve all heard about the stereotypical homework assignment that many kids get assigned each fall when the school year begins.  You know -- the old, “What I did on My Summer Vacation” essay.

That’s sort of what I’ve assigned myself to do in this talk today.  Except that this is my “What I did on my Six-Month Sabbatical” essay. 

In the Torah  “sabbatical” is first introduced as an agricultural concept:

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow.[1]

My recent sabbatical, during my seventh year as your rabbi, was indeed a “fallow” time for me in that I had a much-appreciated break from my day to day work of teaching, writing, counseling and generally representing the Jewish community.  It was a wonderfully rejuvenating experience for me.  I am so grateful for the support of the congregation in enabling me to have a sabbatical and in welcoming me back so warmly at its conclusion. 

So, what did I do on sabbatical?  From the time that I was ordained 20 years ago I always had hoped that someday I’d be at a congregation for an extended enough tenure that I could be eligible for a sabbatical in Israel.  In particular, I wanted to live in Tel Aviv – my favorite place in Israel – and get an extended experience of life there and get closer to fluency in modern Hebrew.

So that’s what I did.  After a few days off as I prepared to leave the United States last December, I spent five months in Israel, followed by a few weeks of travelling in Europe on my way home.  If you’ve been following the monthly bulletin articles that I wrote while I was away you already know about some of the experiences I had during those travels.

With respect to my educational endeavors:

I attended an eight-hour per week advanced modern Hebrew immersion class or “Ulpan” at a public institution called Ulpan Gordon.

And I attended a six-hour per week course on parshanut (that is, classical Torah commentary through the ages) at the “Bet Midrash Tel Aviv” program run by a pluralistic organization called Bina: The Jewish Movement for Social Change. https://bina.org.il/en/ .  That course was taught in English but we studied the texts in the original Hebrew.

I also engaged an individual tutor for modern conversational Hebrew through a private Ulpan program called “Citizen Café.”

Other learning that I did on a more limited basis included attendance at study groups that were conducted totally in Hebrew including the Talmud group at the Alma Center for Hebrew Culture and the Bet Midrash that met weekly at the Tel Aviv LGBT Center.  I also had lots of other informal opportunities for trying to improve my Hebrew and general understanding of Israeli culture.

It was just so great reconnecting with family and old friends whom I had not seen in years, and making new friends – including native Israelis, recent immigrants and other foreign visitors.

Of course, I missed all of you, and it was especially challenging to be away from Liam (who is sitting over there).  For those of you who don’t know, Liam and I had started dating in April of last year, when I had already committed myself to going to Israel on sabbatical.  But we had a wonderful time when he visited me in Israel in February, and when we travelled together in Europe during my last few weeks before I returned to Duluth.

During my time in Israel I really enjoyed being a “Jew in the Pew.”  I enjoyed studying the Torah portion each week without the responsibility of sermonizing or teaching about it.  But I did participate regularly in various pluralistic congregations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and several times accepted invitations to share in the musical and liturgical leadership of various Shabbat services as Torah and haftarah reader, cantor and instrumentalist.

In June, after my return to Duluth, I spoke at our monthly Learner’s Lunch about my general impressions of Israel.  Those impressions included:    

---  How Tel Aviv has lots more “pluralistic” and “non-charedi” religious options than in the past.  

---  How significant numbers of young immigrants from western Europe have been arriving in recent years.

---  How there are construction projects everywhere, including a new Tel Aviv light rail system and the renovation of historic Dizengoff Square.

---  How Tel Aviv is an LGBT Mecca.

---  How great are Tel Aviv’s beaches and parks and the outdoor gyms that dot the landscape.

---  And how wonderful it was to experience some of the traditional Jewish and modern Israeli holidays in a place where they were ubiquitous.

When rabbis or lay people write divrei torah it’s standard practice to try to connect our thoughts to a relevant Biblical verse or line from the liturgy. But, really, who needs to find a specific textual link in order to talk about our relationship to Israel.  As I see it, our entire identity as Jews is tied up with our connection to the land and people of Israel.  To quote from the opening lines of the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence –

"The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

"After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom."

As I’m sure most of you know, this return on a mass scale began with the rise of the modern Zionist movement, starting in the late 19th century, though small numbers of Jews had lived continuously in the land of Israel throughout the intervening centuries.  The re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the ancient Jewish homeland is no small thing.  How different is our standing and place in the world since 1948 as compared to the previous centuries of exile when we were at the mercy of foreign governments who, to put it mildly, did not always have our best interests at heart.

In the decades when our grandparents and great-grandparents were young, the majority of the world’s Jews lived in Europe.  We know what happened to millions of them.

In the decades when people of my generation were young, the largest Jewish community in the world was in the United States.  

Today, the largest Jewish community in the world is in The State of Israel.  According to the Jewish Virtual Library[2], as of 2016, out of a global Jewish population of about 14 and a half million Jews, 44% of the world’s Jews live in Israel and 39.5% of the world’s Jews live in the United States.  The next largest Jewish community is in France, with 3.2% of the world’s Jews. 

As a percentage of national population, 73.7% of Israel’s population is Jewish and no other nation on earth has a population that is more than 2% Jewish.

What this tells me is that, now more than ever, to be a Jew means to have a relationship with what is going in our Jewish homeland, the State of Israel.

As you can gather from what I’ve said so far—I loved being in Israel.

But it’s a complicated relationship.  I knew that before I started my recent sabbatical and I know it even more now that I’m back home in Duluth.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it never occurred to me to think of Israel as anything other than a safe haven in case, God forbid, a new holocaust might ever arise; or as the birthplace of Judaism which would be interesting to visit at least once in my life --- just like Muslims try to go on Hajj to Mecca once in a lifetime. 

When I was growing up, Jewish was my religious identity and a mix of Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and Polish was my ethnic identity.  The idea of Jewish as a “national” identity was foreign to me. 

All that changed for me when I spent my junior year of college as an exchange student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I expected to be homesick for Americans and I didn’t expect to be homesick for Jews.  And, as it turned out, the opposite was true.  I found myself homesick for fellow Jews and totally fine with not having other Americans to hang out with.  And then, during the December 1981 holiday break, I flew from Britain to Israel – meeting up with extended family there, and taking a 10-day tour of the country organized by ISSTA – the Israel Student Travel Agency.  (This was before “Birthright” so it wasn’t free…)

During the course of that first short visit to Israel in December 1981, I fell in love with the country. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of being “at home” even though I had never been there before.  And I was moved by the ubiquity of Hebrew, by the nationwide Chanukah celebrations, and by the incredible geographic diversity within such a small area.  When I got back to Scotland for the second half of my junior year abroad, I started getting involved in the Edinburgh University Jewish Society and I started thinking about going back to Israel is summer 1982 to volunteer on a kibbutz.  And I started thinking about making Aliyah a year or two after that once I would have finished up my American undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

My parents were horrified.

And, yes, I was an impressionable 20-year-old at the time.

By the time the summer rolled around, I had decided that – no, I wouldn’t emigrate to Israel – but I’d still go back that summer for the experience of volunteering on a kibbutz, learning some more modern Hebrew, and seeing more of the country.

To this day, I remember one of my Israeli relatives that summer of 1982, telling me that I was a “goyishe kopf”  (Yiddish for someone with a non-Jewish head --- it’s not a compliment) for thinking that I or anyone else could possibly live an authentic Jewish life anywhere but in Israel.  Now, mind you, none of my Israeli relatives were particularly religious.  They looked at me like I was from the moon when I expressed interest in attending Shabbat services.   But what my father’s cousin in Haifa said about herself was this: “I’m a good Jew.  I love my country.”  As if Zionism and Jewish identity were simply synonymous.

The Israel I experienced this year on my sabbatical was a lot different from the Israel I had experienced back in 1981 and 1982.  Two of my Israeli-born second cousins left Israel decades ago to live in the United States and England.  And my subjective sense is that most Israeli Jews have long since recognized that the Jews of the free world are not going to make Aliyah en masse.  There will be no universal ingathering of the exiles anytime soon. But meanwhile, construction cranes were everywhere.  The city of Beersheva, where I spent the 1995-96 academic year, was barely recognizable to me as it had tripled in size during the past two decades.  And in Tel Aviv, I heard lots of French on the streets in Tel Aviv from recently arrived immigrants.

Yes, we can experience rich Jewish lives outside of Israel – even here in our beautiful Zenith City on the Unsalted Sea.  And we can all give ourselves a little pat on the back about how active we are as a Jewish community here in Duluth where there are so few of us and where we are such a small minority. 

But I have to admit, it’s a pale imitation of what Jewish life can be in a Jewish country.  And I’m also increasingly convinced that without a strong connection to the vibrancy of Jewish life in Israel, our own American Jewish identity will become more and more attenuated and more and more distant from knowledge of our Jewish heritage. 

The result of all this is that I had somewhat of an identity crisis while I was in Israel this year.  There were times that I felt embarrassed to let people know that I was a rabbi.  I mean, how could I be a rabbi when my Hebrew is not fluent.  How could I be a rabbi when I know so little Talmud.  When I don’t plan to make Aliyah.  When my personal ritual practice is so inconsistent.

But then I remembered the classic Jewish story of Reb Zusya, which Martin Buber retold in his collection “Tales of the Hasidim.”  It goes like this:

Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:

"Zusya, what's the matter? 

And he told them about his vision; "I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life."

The followers were puzzled. "Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?"

Zusya replied; "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?' and that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?"'

Zusya sighed; "They will say to me, 'Zusya, why weren't you Zusya?'"[3]

So, really, this is not after all a sermon about Israel.  It’s a sermon about being ourselves.

And who are we?

We are Jews (and those who love Jews). 

The ways in which we express Jewish identity and live out Jewish values are all over the map --- but we treasure that diversity.  And though we live thousands of miles from the global center of Jewish life, our own Jewish identities are nevertheless valid, authentic and life-affirming.

We are Americans --- of diverse backgrounds --- who live in a Republic which has many imperfections and in which much work needs to be done to turn it into a more just and compassionate society.  But as someone who for many people I know is best thought of as “He who shall not be named” recently said: 

"[N]o matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws; we all salute the same great flag; and we are all made by the same almighty God. We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry, and violence. We must discover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans. Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our creator, we are equal under the law, and we are equal under our constitution.”[4]

We are Jews (and those who love Jews). 

We are Americans --- of diverse backgrounds

And we are existentially connected to the State of Israel, a society still trying to define itself almost 70 years after its establishment.

Among those still pressing issues:

What will be the relationship between the Jewish religion and the institutions of the State of Israel? 

What will be the status of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism there --- or even of liberal streams within Orthodoxy?  

What needs to be done to eliminate all vestiges of discrimination within Israeli society, and. in particular, to guarantee civil equality for non-Jewish citizens of the Jewish state?

And what can be done to achieve the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living in peace next to the State of Israel?

We are Jews (and those who love Jews). 

We are Americans --- of diverse backgrounds

We are existentially connected to the State of Israel

And, yes, we are individuals.

Each of us here in Temple today – though we are all Jews (or people who love Jews), though we are all Americans, though we are all existentially connected to the State of Israel ---

We are also, each of us, like Reb Zusya, unique; each of us with our own bit of Torah to teach’ each of us with our own capacity to heal the world--- even if just a little bit.

That’s what I learned on my sabbatical.

And all I have to add to that is simply to say, Happy New Year 5778!

Shanah tovah u’metukah/ May it be a good and sweet new year for us, for our loved ones, for our congregation, for our city, for our state, for our country, for the State of Israel and all its inhabitants, for the entire Jewish people in all its dispersion, and for all who dwell on earth.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2017/ Tishri 5778)



[1] Exodus 23:10

[2] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-population-of-the-world

[3] Quoted in http://talmudictreasures.blogspot.com/2012/12/be-true-to-yourself-ask-susiyas-question.html

[4] https://qz.com/1053270/full-text-donald-trumps-statement-on-charlottesville/

Posted on September 26, 2017 .


Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778 (September 20, 2017)


“L’chayyim!” – “To Life” – That’s what we Jews say whenever we raise a glass in celebration.

But with each Rosh Hashanah on the 1st of Tishri,

just as with each secular New Year on January 1st,

just as with each of our own birthdays whenever they happen to fall ---

we notice how quickly the years of our life fly by.

The older one gets, the more quickly time seems to pass. 

And once you reach an age when it’s likely that your life has at least reached its midpoint, you become more reflective about the overall contours of your life, about the overall narrative arc of your existence.

I know at least that that’s true for me.

I chuckle to think that, though I’m 56 years old now, I thought I had it all figured out 50 years ago. 

Fifty years ago, when I was only six years old, all of us in my first grade class in P.S. 100 in Brooklyn, New York were being introduced to the concept of poetry. Apparently, I liked the subject so much that I started telling people that I wanted to be a poet when I grew up. 

I actually went ahead and scribbled out my own book of poems – which I imaginatively titled “David Steinberg’s Poetry Book.”  My parents kept that book in a cabinet in their house for many years though I’m not sure I can find it now.  But I still remember that one of the last poems in the collection was called “What Life Is.” 

And so, here is that poem, written by six-year-old David Steinberg in 1967:   


“What Life Is”


When you’re a kid, you go to school

and you learn spelling and math.

And then when you come home from school

your mom says “take a bath!”


When you grow up you’ll have a wife

 and your towels will say “hers” and “his”

What I have just told you,

is what I think life is.


Fifty years later, my understanding of “what life is” has evolved.

Especially the part about having a wife.

And I wonder about the rest of you:  What do you think life is?  What story do you tell yourself about yourself?  What are the narrative themes of your life?



At Rosh Hashanah we speak of being inscribed “bsefer hachayyim” / “in the book of Life”.

This image of a “Book of Life” comes from Masechet Rosh Hashanah, the Talmudic Tractate on Rosh Hashanah:

As we read in Masechet Rosh Hashanah page 16b:

א"ר כרוספדאי א"ר יוחנן שלשה ספרים נפתחין בר"ה אחד של רשעים גמורין ואחד של צדיקים גמורין ואחד של בינוניים. צדיקים גמורין נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר לחיים. רשעים גמורין נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר למיתה. בינוניים תלויין ועומדין מר"ה ועד יוה"כ. זכו נכתבין לחיים לא זכו נכתבין למיתה.

R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Yohanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah — one with the names of the completely wicked, one with the names of the completely righteous, and one with the names of those who are neither completely righteous nor completely wicked. The completely righteous: their verdict — life — is written down and sealed at once. Those neither completely righteous nor completely wicked: their verdict is suspended between New Year’s Day and the Day of Atonement. If they are deemed to deserve it [by resolving to repent], they are inscribed for life; if [they fail to repent] and therefore deemed not to deserve life, they are inscribed for death.

You could give yourself an anxiety attack if you took this too literally.

But, of course, this is poetic, metaphorical language.   

Yet it’s still powerful poetry.  It’s meaningful metaphor.

What does this come to teach us?

I believe that what the idea of being inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah teaches us is that our actions have consequences. 

That how we live our lives affects the lives of others. 

I think the Hebrew language itself hints at these interconnections. 

In English, the word “Life” is a singular noun.  If we wanted to make it plural we would speak of “Lives” rather than “Life”

But in Hebrew, what do you notice about the word “chayyim?” Is it grammatically singular or is it grammatically plural?

Those of you who know even a little bit of Hebrew grammar will recognize that it's plural.  Thus, the word "chayyim," depending on the context, can be translated as either “life” or “lives”. 

What might we make of this?

I can think of three possibilities.

The first way of understanding why “chayyim” means both “life” (singular) and “lives” (plural) is that it implies that each person’s actions affect the lives of others.  No person is an island.  All Israel are responsible for one another.  All humanity are brothers and sisters.

In Genesis 4:10, after Cain kills his brother Abel, God challenges Cain: 

  מֶה עָשִׂיתָ; קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן-הָאֲדָמָה

(Mah asita; kol demey achikha tzo'akim eylay min ha'adamah)

“[...]What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground.

But just as “chayyim” is grammatically plural so is “demey achikha”. 

Idiomatically, "demey achikha" is generally translated as “the blood of your brother” but grammatically it’s plural so that the literal translation would be “the bloods of your brother”.

As the Talmud in Tractate Sanhdedrin page 37a explains: 

שכן מצינו בקין שהרג את אחיו שנאמר (בראשית ד) דמי אחיך צועקים אינו אומר דם אחיך אלא דמי אחיך דמו ודם זרעותיו

“And so we find with Cain that he killed his brother but the Torah says the “bloods of your brother ("demey achikha") cry out.  It doesn’t say "the blood of your brother" ("dam achikha")  . But rather “the bloods of your brother” ("demey achikha") -- [What does “thebloods” of your brother mean?] -- His blood and the blood of his descendants ("damo vedam zarotav")"

L’chayyim!/ To Lives!

Our actions in our own lives affect the lives of subsequent generations – including whether or not those subsequent generations will even be able to exist.

As it says just a few lines later on that same page of Talmud:

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered as if they had destroyed an entire world, and whoever preserves a single life is considered as if they had preserved an entire world.”

How we live our lives affects the lives of others.  The consequences may be subtle or they may be dramatic.

And so, on this Rosh Hashanah, we ask ourselves:  How have my deeds impacted others?  How have my deeds affected the world at large? 


A second way of understanding why “chayyim” means both “life” (singular) and “lives” (plural) is that it implies that there exists not just the life of this world (“olam hazeh”) but also the life of the world to come (“olam haba”). 

And so, the 13th century commentator Shlomo Ben Avraham Ibn Adret (a student of Nachmanides) commented that when the Talmud talks of being inscribed on Rosh Hashanah in “the Book of Life” or the “Book of Death”:

ואי נמי יש לפרש דחיים ומיתה דקאמר בעולם הבא קאמר

“one should understand that the ‘life’ and ‘death’ referred to here is [life and death] in the world to come, while in this world there are cases of a righteous person perishing though he or she performs righteous acts and of an evil person who lives a long life though he or she is evil. “ [1]

On the other hand, my colleague and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College classmate Rabbi Margot Stein, in the aftermath of the devastating loss of her college-aged son to cancer, wrote in a 2015 High Holiday sermon:  

I think I saw this on Facebook, that source of great spiritual wisdom: ‘We each have two lives. The second one begins, when we realize we have only one.’

Let this be that moment.  Let now be when you wake up to this one precious life.

Let this be when you choose to live like you mean it.”[2]

So, is there an olam haba?  A world to come?  And, if so, what is the nature of the life after this life? 

Jewish tradition includes many opinions on the subject.  I always told myself that I believed that there is an eternal life force that we are a part of both now and after our earthly deaths, but that our individual personalities and consciousnesses don’t survive our physical deaths.

But then last December when I was in synagogue in Tel Aviv on the morning of Shabbat Chanukah, we came to a verse in Hallel that I’ve sung many times in my life and that we’ve sung in this sanctuary every time we’ve sang the Hallel service, Psalm 115, verse 17. 

  לֹא הַמֵּתִים, יְהַלְלוּ-יָהּ;    וְלֹא, כָּל-יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה

The dead cannot praise the Eternal, neither any that go down into silence.

And I had this sudden strong feeling, that brought me to tears, that I can’t possibly believe this claim of the Psalmist is true. 

  לֹא הַמֵּתִים, יְהַלְלוּ-יָהּ;    וְלֹא, כָּל-יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה

The dead cannot praise the Eternal, neither any that go down into silence [??!!??]

No!  I don’t believe it!

My mother had died just six months earlier but sitting there I suddenly had this feeling that --- despite what the words of Psalm 115 said – that nevertheless my mother was still praising God in the next world just as she so often did in this world.

Lechayyim!/To lives! – The life of this world and the life of the world to come. 


Finally, a third way of understanding why “chayyim” means both “life” (singular) and “lives”(plural) is that it implies that an individual’s life is a collection of experiences not just one long, undifferentiated slog from the cradle to the grave.  Maybe my life is NOT a unified narrative.  Maybe, on the contrary, my LIFE--  is – are --- LIVES --- A collection of discrete moments that don’t have to add up into a coherent whole….

I used to think that we had to combine all the discrete moments of our lives into one logically coherent story.   I no longer am so sure that that is true. 

I remember just before my ordination from rabbinical school my academic advisor, Adina Newberg gave us this advice:  Surprise yourself.  Don’t limit yourself to your stereotype of yourself.  Don’t be a slave to routine.

On Rosh Hashanah we sing “Hayom Harat Olam”/ “Today the world is conceived”.  And in the daily Shacharit prayers throughout the year we chant “uvetuvo mechadesh bekhawl yom tamid ma’aseh vereysheet”/ “with divine goodness God renews each day, continually, the work of Creation.

So may it be with us –That we be inscribed in Sefer Chayyim/ A book not just of life but of lives. 

With each new day bringing new possibilities.  

With each sorrow in this life tempered by a faith in an eternal salvation. 

With each of our actions informed by our care for the web of connections in which we are tied to others.  

הרחמן, הוא יחדש עלינו את השנה הזאת לטובה ולברכה.

Harachaman, hu yechadesh aleynu et Hashanah hazot letovah veliverakha.

May the All-Merciful One, renew this year for us with goodness and blessing.




© Rabbi David Steinberg (October 2016/Rosh Hashanah 5777)


[1] Rashba on Rosh Hashanah 16b

 ואי נמי יש לפרש דחיים ומיתה דקאמר בעולם הבא קאמר, אבל בעולם הזה יש צדיק אובד בצדקו ויש רשע מאריך ברעתו

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-arthur-waskow/we-each-have-two-lives_b_8252184.html

Posted on September 25, 2017 .