Jewish Hope

Image: A person blows a shofar against a background of clouds. ((Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

This is the sermon I gave on Yom Kippur 5782 in a Zoom service for Jewish Gateways.

We are living in times that are genuinely frightening.

We meet tonight virtually because there is a deadly virus circulating in our world, and so we refrain from gathering in person because we want to live, and we want our neighbors to live.

We are living through a time of political unrest. Whatever our individual political positions, surely we can agree that we’ve never seen times quite like these before.

We are living in a time when the world is teeming with refugees: climate refugees, political refugees, and refugees from housing insecurity.

We are facing the realities of climate change: our state is literally on fire, while other parts of the country face killer storms. We are suffering through a drought, while other parts of the country and the world, are drowning.

And personally, we each have stories of injury and loss. Our beloved Rabbi Bridget is recovering from a fall that injured her badly. Some have lost jobs. Some have lost their homes. Some need medical care but cannot access it.

Tomorrow we will read a prayer called the Unataneh Tokef, the Yom Kippur prayer that affirms that we don’t really know what may happen in the coming year, who will live and who will die, who will suffer and who will have comfort, and so on. Even in an easy year it is a difficult prayer. Last year and this year, it has a terrible resonance, because the times are so uneasy.

What’s a Jew to do?

Our tradition is actually quite clear on this, and it offers us resources. Jewish tradition does not encourage us towards empty optimism. Instead, it encourages us to remain hopeful, even in the darkest moments. Not every individual Jew will survive, but as a people, we shall work towards better times, a better world.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l was the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, a major Jewish voice in the 20th and 21st century. He wrote:

“Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage – only a certain naivety – to be an optimist. It takes courage to sustain hope. No Jew – knowing what we do of the past, of hatred, bloodshed, persecution in the name of God, suppression of human rights in the name of freedom – can be an optimist. But Jews have never given up hope.”

It’s true, we Jews as a People have been through some truly terrible times over the millenia. Our Temples were destroyed – twice. We lived in exile for centuries. We suffered the Inquisition and the Holocaust.

But we have never, as a people, lost HOPE.

Hope – the belief that we can make change for the better — is baked into our tradition.

The book of Genesis begins with a statement of hope:  Bereshit bara Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha’aretz. “When God was beginning to make the heavens and the earth…”

The Torah’s first words, Bereshit bara Elohim – when God was beginning to create – Those hold Hope. The Torah tells us that creation is not finished, and God is not finished with creation. Nothing is a done deal. Change is still possible. That’s HOPE.

In Exodus, Moses asks for God’s name. God answers with a mysterious name, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. All a translator can say for sure about it is that the Name of God is in the future tense. Some translate it, “I will be what I will be.” Again, things are not done, not finished: Judaism focuses on the future.

In the beginning of the Book of Ruth, the widow Naomi gives up hope. She says to her widowed daughters in law, “Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up?” One way to read the Book of Ruth is to say it is the story of how Naomi lost all hope of grandchildren – and then at the end, she gets a grandson. Ruth does mitzvot, Boaz does mitzvot, the people of Bethlehem do mitzvot, and hope is reborn.

Jewish hope is not mindless optimism. It looks at a difficult, sometimes cruel world and says, “We can fix this.” Sometimes it has to be very tough-minded. As Yehuda Amichai wrote in his poem Ein Yahav, “And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be like barbed wire to keep out despair, hope must be a mine field.” Those are ugly images, but I think the poet is onto something important: the opposite of hope is despair, and we must guard against despair for hope to survive.

Many of the Jewish texts that speak of hope talk about hope in God. That may be very comforting for believers in a personal God, or it may be a challenge, if our idea of God is more abstract. When I read those texts, I remember that we are God’s hands in the world. God is still creating the world, but now God does it with our hands, our brains, and our determination.

How does that work? A person who lives a life of Torah does their best to keep the mitzvot, the commandments in the Torah. They are following God’s directions as expressed in our Torah. When such a person feeds the hungry, God is feeding the hungry. When such a person welcomes a stranger, God is welcoming that stranger. When a person who lives a life of Torah takes action to save the earth, God is saving the earth. No single human being can accomplish much by themselves, but we are not alone: we are part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, in all our diverse splendor. We are the erev rav, the mixed multitude, who left Egypt together, Jews and people who love Jews or who dwell with Jews, and all together, living lives of Torah, there is hope: we’ve got this.

So now I look out through this screen at all of you, and I feel my faith renewed. Members of this congregation stepped up this High Holidays to take care of one another while Rabbi Bridget was injured. You are continuing to do mitzvot even while your rabbi and teacher has to be out sick. You lift one another up, you speak kindly and truthfully, you do what needs to be done.

That is Jewish hope.

We have what it takes to survive difficult times, to learn what can be learned, to record what can be recorded, to remember those who need to be remembered. We can do this.

As Rabbi Sacks wrote, no Jew can be a mindless optimist, knowing what we know about how low humanity can go. But Jews – and those who love Jews – can face reality, and have a quiet resolve that we will do our part to heal this troubled world. We will not give up hope. 

So I want to finish this sermon tonight with a quotation from the end of Psalm 27, a psalm about hope,

A psalm that challenges us to keep walking forward, to keep on keeping mitzvot, to keep on doing what needs to be done in the world:

Kaveh el Adonai, hazak v’amatz libehkha, ukaveh el Adonai  —

Hope in the Eternal One;
be strong and of good courage! 
O hope in the Eternal, hope in one another.

“Chazak v’amatz” – be strong and of good courage – let’s say it together, to each other —  chazak v’amatz!

Keyn y-hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.  Amen.

Shabbat Shalom: Ki Teitze

Image: One of my bookshelves, with Bibles, a crown, and a yahrzeit candle. (Ruth Adar)

This week’s Torah portion has a little surprise in it.

Readers familiar with the Book of Ruth may be puzzled to read the commandment against marrying Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:4:

“An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord.” Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, was born a Moabite: that is the whole point of the Book of Ruth.

How could King David be descended from a forbidden marriage?

The sages struggled with this text and its apparent conflict with the Book of Ruth, especially since the prohibition is reinforced by a line from Nehemiah 13:1-2: “At that time they read to the people from the Book of Moses, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite might ever enter the congregation of God, since they did not meet Israel with bread and water, and hired Balaam against them to curse them; but our God turned the curse into a blessing.”

The sages resolve the issue in M.Yevamot 8:3, ruling that the prohibition is only against Moabite men converting or marrying a Jewish woman; Moabite women are permitted to convert. The Gemara elaborates with a story about an Edomite who suggested to Saul that David may not be fit even to be part of the kahal, since he descends from Ruth the Moabite. Saul’s general, Abner, replies that the prohibition applies only to males, because women stay in the house when men go out to meet strangers. (Yevamot 76b)

Another possibility from modern scholarship: Megillat Ruth (The Scroll of Ruth) was composed from a legend that had circulated for centuries. It was written down in the early Second Temple period when Ezra was making his proclamations against “foreign wives.” It was composed as a reply to Ezra’s attitude about intermarriage, by arguing that even King David had an ancestor who was not born a Jew.

At every point in Jewish history, there is someone warning against converts in general or against a particular convert. As a giyoret (female convert) myself, I take comfort in knowing that there have also been, in every age, someone speaking up for us.

Shabbat Shalom! – Shoftim

Image: A blackboard with “Rules for Prophets” written on it. (Source: Ruth Adar.)

Parashat Shoftim contains what we might call the Rules for Prophets. First we are told what prophets are not: they are not augurs, soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers, casters of spells, or consulters of ghosts. Deuteronomy 18:12 twice uses the word to’evah (abomination) to describe such people. We do not look to the prophets to “tell the future” to us. We look to them for messages from God about God’s priorities.

God promises to raise up prophets for Israel from among the people, citing our choice at Sinai to hear the word of God through Moses instead of directly. Prophets are answerable to God, but we will have to choose which prophets to heed: according to Deuteronomy 18:22, if they speak in the name of God, and what they say comes true, then the prophet is genuine.

This circular solution — believe them IF what they said comes true — is not entirely satisfying. In Jeremiah 28:9 Jeremiah debates Hananiah, a false prophet, and reminds him that “only when the word of the prophet comes true can it be known that YHVH really sent him.” In M. Sanhedrin 1.5, we get a sense of the seriousness and difficulty of determining the veracity of a prophet from the requirement that it requires a full Sanhedrin court of 71 to try a prophet. Jesus of Nazareth may have been thinking of this week’s Torah portion when he said, “Beware of false prophets… you shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7: 15-16)

The Age of Prophecy is over, but the problem of judging those who claim to predict the future is still with us. Jewish tradition encourages us to be skeptics and to require facts, to ask, “What are your results?” before we put our faith in a human being. In practical terms, that means we need to question information that comes before us. What is the source? How good a source is it? How well does it prove out, when held up against reality?

Shabbat Shalom: Shelach L’cha

Summary:

  • Moses sends twelve spies to the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and the country. Despite the positive report of Joshua and Caleb, the people are frightened. (13:1–14:10)
  • God threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel but relents when Moses intercedes on their behalf. To punish the people, God announces that all those who left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel except for Joshua and Caleb. (14:11–45)
  • Moses instructs the Israelites regarding setting aside challah, the observance of the Sabbath, how to treat strangers, and the laws of tzitzit. (15:1–41)

Name changes in the Torah text have great significance. Most of us are familiar with the story in which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, and the patriarch Jacob gets a new name, Israel.

This week’s Torah portion has another significant name change. 

In the initial list of leaders going into the Land of Israel as spies,

Verse 8 tells us, “From the tribe of Ephraim, Hosea son of Nun.

Then in verse 16, we read:

Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land; but Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.”

What the text does not tell us is why Moses changed the name of Hosea to Joshua ben Nun.

When I asked Rashi, he told me that “by giving him this name Joshua, which is a compound of Yah and Hoshia, “God may Save”, he in effect prayed for him, “May God save you from the evil counsel of the spies.”

When I asked Sforno, he told me that Hoshea was already known to be a man of valor among his peers, who had given him the name Joshua, and Moses was only formalizing the custom that already existed.

When I asked Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, she told me that Moses added the yud to the front of Hosea’s name because it was the equivalent of the number 10, and Moses hoped to arm him spiritually by making him the spiritual equivalent of the other ten spies. The yud he received was a special letter, because it was the yud that was replaced with a hey when God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah. Sarah had a strong spirit, and the yud was given to Joshua for strength.

When I asked Bamidbar Rabbah, she told me that Moses added the yud to Joshua’s name because Caleb would get his reward from the land, as it teaches in Deuteronomy 1:36, “to him will I give the land on which he has trod.” But Joshua received the reward that would have gone to the other ten spies, in that a yod, which stand for ten, was added to his name.

In another place, Bamidbar Rabbah said, “When Moses saw that the spies were a wicked bunch, Moses said to Hosea ben Nun, “May the Lord “YAH” save (Hoshia) you from this evil generation.”

All of this is to say that Joshua was lifted up by God and Moses to be a mighty leader of a strong-willed people. From it we also learn that one of the glories of Torah is that there is no single story, no single right answer. When we perform the mitzvah of engaging with words of Torah, we need not fear that all the answers are found, because we continue learning more from that time to this.

“See the Priest”- Tazria/Metzora

Image: Two people talking at the beach by wei zhu from Pixabay

Tazria/Metzora deals with genital discharges and skin diseases, very unpleasant, embarrassing things. Medicine addresses disease these days, but what if we used the teaching in this portion to address modern plagues: racism, sexism, enviousness, unkindness? Perhaps some family member has pointed out our unkind behaviors, or a friend has told us that an opinion we voiced is racist. Our first impulse on hearing such things may be denial.

The Torah offers us a different path: it directs us to go to the priest (in our day, a trusted counselor) and say, “My wife says I am unkind,”  “I am envious when I see friends get honors,” or “I would hate it if my child dated a black person.” The good counselor would take a close look at the evidence and the context. They’d explore it with us. And perhaps things are not what they seem (“he is clean”) or perhaps there are issues to address. Then they could help us toward change for the better.

Seeking guidance requires honesty, humility, and bravery. It is not fun saying to a counselor, “So-and-so said that my behavior was racist.” 

But as with the mysterious disease in the Torah portion, these things affect others. Some are communicable (children learn racism and sexism from someone) and some are just plain contagious (I am unkind to someone, and that person passes along their pain to a third party.) These problems can’t heal on their own; we may need help to change.

Here in the 21st century, there are many diseases we can cure, and many more that we can manage. Besides physical illnesses there are other plagues with which we have made much less progress. Perhaps the prescription in Tazria/Metzora is also for them, the plagues of the human spirit.

This D’var Torah appeared in a slightly different format in the CCAR Newsletter.

Basic Jewish Books: 5781 Edition

Image: Two of my bookshelves. Photo by Ruth Adar.

Every year I take a hard look at the list of books I recommend to the Intro to the Jewish Experience students. This year’s list omits some oldies and adds many new books. No one needs to own ALL of these – I offer this list as a browsing list for your next step in growing your interest in specific Jewish topics.

*Books with an asterisk are those I strongly recommend to my Intro students. If I weren’t so concerned about their budgets for time and money, I’d require all of them.

Required Texts for Intro to the Jewish Experience

*Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. I chose this as a text because it is a good book, at a reasonable price, and it has an index that will allow students to use it as a reference book after the class is done.

*Tales of the Holy Mysticat: Jewish Wisdom Stories by a Feline Mystic by Rachel Adler. A simple story that introduces the reader to the language used to talk about observant Jewish life. Excellent glossary included.

*Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green. When people ask me for a “first book” about Judaism, this is the one I offer. It is little but it gets at what I regard as the heart of the matter.

General Introductory Texts on Judaism

Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach, by Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub. A good Intro text, and the best introduction I know to Reconstructionist Judaism.

Here All Along: Finding Meaning Spirituality & a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism After Finally Choosing to Look There by Sara Hurwitz. New and highly recommended.

Judaisms: A 21st Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper. This is a college text, a little more challenging but a truly wonderful book.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzner. Another good basic text.

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin. More of a reference book than a basic introduction, but it covers such a broad scope that it seemed to fit best here in the list.

Jewish Bibles

*Every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Many Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh in the pews and for study. (JPS is the Jewish Publication Society.) 

If you are curious as to how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, read Beginners’ Guide to the Jewish Bible. For a discussion of the various translations of the Tanakh available, read Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

If you would like to own a commentary on the Torah, a book with footnotes that explain things in the text, I recommend any of these:

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss. In this commentary the JPS translation has been amended slightly to deal with the most egregious cases of gendering God. This is by no means a book just for women.

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. Gunther Plaut (in many Reform synagogues)

Etz Chaim: Torah and Commentary, ed. JPS (in many Conservative synagogues)

About the Bible

Jewish Study Bible by Adele Berlin. An excellent one-volume resource for text study, no Hebrew required.

The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, by Ellen Frankel. One of the first books to wrestle with Torah from a feminist point of view, and still with excellent insights on the text.

What’s In It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Jewish Narratives by Stephen Fuchs.  This little book is helpful for those who wonder what a collection of old stories and rules has to say to modern Jews today.

Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman is a basic, readable explanation of the “documentary hypothesis,” the idea that the Torah is a blend of several different voices.

Jewish Prayer

A Guide to Jewish Prayer, Adin Steinsaltz. This is a guide to prayer by one of the most respected rabbis in recent memory.

Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration, by Naomi Levy

A Book of Life, Embracing Judaism as a Spritual Practice, by Michael Strassfeld

Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life, by Alan Lew

Minding the Temple of the Soul: Balancing Body, Mind & Spirit through Traditional Jewish Prayer, Movement and Meditation, by Tamar Frankiel.

Lost in the Service? by Ruth Adar. For the person who feels completely lost in a Jewish service. (article, accessible online)

How do Jews Pray for the Sick? by Ruth Adar. (article, accessible online)

Jewish Ethics & Social Justice

There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition, by Jill Jacobs

The Passionate Torah: Sex & Judaism by Danya Ruttenberg

Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice, and Religious Reconciliation, by Deborah Hart Strober, and Gerald H. Strober.

To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, by Jonathan Sacks

The Book of Jewish Values: A Day to Day Guide to Ethical Living by Joseph Telushkin

Jewish Holidays

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow.  This book is rather old, but it is my favorite because of the format, looking at the origins of the holidays as well as how-to’s of observance.

Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel. 

*The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel The greatest book ever written about Shabbat. Essential reading.

Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days: A Guided Journal by Kerry M. Olitzky and Rachel T. Sabath

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon (High Holy Days) This is a collection of facts and quotations about the entire High Holy Days cycle, from Elul to Simchat Torah.

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew (High Holy Days) 

My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays and One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin

Passover & Haggadah

Every Jewish home should have at least one copy of the haggadah, the script by which we lead the seder every year at Passover.  There are many to choose from, from some rather uninspiring free haggadot to very expensive art books. Some of the best fall in between those two extremes. The best way to find one is to go to a bookstore during the month before Passover and browse them until you find the one that speaks to you. Some households write their own haggadot; that’s a project that’s best done after you’ve been to a few seders and have seen what you do and do not want in your haggadah.

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot 

Jewish Home

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg. Ms. Greenberg is the wife of an Orthodox rabbi and a thoroughgoing feminist. Her book offers us a view inside traditional observance. (Hollywood depictions of traditional Jewish observance are often problematic – don’t believe everything you saw in a movie.)

The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (New Edition) by Daniel B. Syme. A basic guide to keeping a liberal Jewish home in the 21st century.

*On the Doorposts of Your House, CCAR Press (also in .pdf format) This book includes very detailed explanations of home rituals, from hanging a mezuzah to lighting the Chanukah candles. It is a great reference book to own.

Jewish Lifecycle

Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener. A superb guide for mourners. Rabbi Brener is both a Reform rabbi and a psychotherapist.

Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle by Simeon Maslin

The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement by Dr. Ron Wolfson and David J. Wolpe

Living a Jewish Life, Updated and Revised Edition: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today’s Families, by Anita Diamant

Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life, by Harvey Goldberg

Jewish Parenting

Nurture the WOW by Danya Ruttenberg. The author is a rabbi and a parent.

Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November, MSSW

How to Raise a Jewish Child by Anita Diamant

The New Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant

Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah by Salkin, Lebeau, and Eisenberg

Conversion to Judaism

Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant (conversion)

Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff (conversion)

5 Things to Do If You Want to Become a Jew, by Ruth Adar (article)

Jewish Thought

*Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme. Clear and simple approach to the question, What do Jews think about God?

Thinking About God: Jewish Views, by Kari Tuling. An excellent new book by a Reform rabbi.

Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, by Danya Ruttenberg.

God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism , by Abraham J Heschel. A beautiful, challenging book outlining Heschel’s theology of radical amazement.

Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, by Judith Plaskow. One of the first books to address Judaism from a feminist point of view. A classic.

Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition, by Arthur Green.

LGBTQI & Gender

Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells, edited by Denise L. Eger. A collection of essays, prayers, and blessings, specifically around LGBTQI issues.

Queer Jews, by David Schneer & Caryn Aviv, Published in 2002, this is already a little out of date but it will acquaint you with many of the queer Jewish voices out there.

A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, by Noam Sienna

Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing and Brightening, by Haviva Ner-David

Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, by Daniel Boyarin. Just as interesting as its title: eye-opening about gender roles and Judaism.

Engendering Judaism, by Rachel Adler. Not an easy book, but a groundbreaking 1998 book that demonstrates that “Jewish Law” need not be a patriarchal straightjacket.

Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, by Daniel Boyarin. Heavy going but worth the effort. Boyarin is a major talmudist, and in this book he looks at the sexual lives and preoccupations of the sages of the Talmud.

Jewish History

Your choice of history book will depend on your taste and preferences. Choose the one that works for you. *Do read at least one of these!

The Story of the Jews by Stan Mack This is in graphic novel format and is quite good. It is an excellent choice if wordy books put you off.

A History of Judaism by Martin Goodman. I have not read this yet, but have heard good things about it.

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok Potok is a great story teller, and this history reads like a novel.

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson An outsider history of the Jews, very well done. Strikes a balance between scholarship and storytelling.

A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin A shorter history, good if you want “just the facts, ma’am” history.

The Story of the Jews, 2 Volumes, by Simon Schama. This is a take on Jewish history through the eyes of a British Jew and art historian — quite different than a rabbi’s point of view. The link given is to volume 1, but don’t miss the second volume.

“Jewish History” is an enormous subject, crossing both thousands of years and nearly the entire globe and many, many cultures. Therefore I include this list of more focused histories:

The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane Gerber. A solid history of Sephardic Judaism.

Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism by Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez 

The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home. Joyce Goldstein. Explore Sephardic and Mizrahi culture through their food.

*JIMENA.org — Not a book, but a website full of stories, photos, news and information. You can also follow the organization on Facebook and Instagram.

American Judaism: A History, Jonathan Sarna. The best source on American Jewish History.

The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America, BethWenger. In addition to the voices, the book is full of excellent photos.

Antisemitism & Holocaust

Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.

Antisemitism: What it is, What it isn’t, Why it matters. by Julia Neuberger.

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein. A close examination of the best-documented pogrom before the Holocaust.

Auschwitz and After by Charlotte Delbo. It is a literary memoir by a resistance leader, a non-Jewish woman.

*Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Psychiatrist Frankl wrote a memoir of his time in the Nazi death camps, and wrote this book of lessons for spiritual survival.

Night by Elie Wiesel. The classic first-person account of the Holocaust through one man’s eyes.

The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart. An excellent novel about the Holocaust.

Israel

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert A detailed history of Israel from 1862-1997. Predominantly Zionist in its point of view.

Israel is Real by Rich Cohen Very readable. There are a few minor errors, but it is remarkably clear-eyed about the complexity of Israel and its emotional connection for American Jews.

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar A scholarly approach, staunchly Zionist.

The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977 by Gershom Gorenberg. Gorenberg is an Israeli journalist. If you are curious about the roots of the current situation and the occupation of the West Bank, this is a good choice.

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 7th Edition by Walter Laqueur A reader of primary documents. Better if you already know a little bit of the history of Modern Israel.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. The writer is controversial, but the book is excellent and centrist in stance.

Parashat Mikeitz: Joseph Weeps

Image: A man crying. (Daniel Reche / Pixabay)

Parashat Miketz begins and ends with tests.

The first test: Pharaoh summons Joseph from prison to interpret his dreams. In telling Joseph about the dreams he changes tiny details in the dreams to see if Joseph is really the seer that the servants claim. (Midrash Tanchuma, Miketz 3) Joseph passes the test: in his interpretation of the dreams, he smoothly corrects the details without comment. Pharaoh trusts him immediately, declaring that he is full of ruach Elohim, the spirit of God, and appoints him vizier of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. Thus Joseph passes Pharaoh’s test.

The second test: At the conclusion of the Torah portion, Joseph tests the brothers who sold him into slavery. His brothers arrive and do not recognize him; he has disguised himself in Egyptian finery. (Genesis 42:7) Seeking to see if they have changed, Joseph administers an elaborate test, holding first one brother and then the other hostage.

Joseph’s mistrust runs deep. He is so overcome with emotion that at one point he leaves the room to weep. By the end of Miketz, he is still testing, wondering if these men have changed, if he can trust them enough to reveal himself as their brother.

In the first test, Joseph is supremely capable and at the same time humble. He shows no anxiety. In the second test, his emotions overcome him. What is the difference? In the first case, he has little to lose and everything to gain. In family matters the stakes are much higher. The secular world encourages us to focus on career and accomplishments, but trouble in family relationships reduces even the Vizier of Egypt to tears.

Here in the United States we have all but made a god out of business. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people. Business ethicists tell corporations that their first duty is to stockholders, over all the other stakeholders in a situation. Civic leaders have been given a false choice between “the economy” and “curbing the pandemic” as if money and human beings are an equal exchange.

He turned away from them and wept.

— Genesis 42:24

The second most powerful man in Egypt wept over his estrangement from his family. Nowhere else in the long Joseph story does Joseph weep: not when his brothers dump him into a pit to die, not when he is sold into slavery, not when his employer’s wife framed him for rape and sent him to prison. Only at the sight of these brothers is he moved to tears.

We human beings are social creatures. Relationships are key to our spiritual lives and our physical health. People are more important than business. People are more important than money.

Human life and relationships are priceless. Whenever we talk about the good of the economy over the good of human beings, we flirt with the grave sin of idolatry.

Ask Joseph. He knew.

Parashat Vayera: A Dead Sea Story

Image: The Dead Sea (Photo by Matthijs van der Ham from Pixabay)

Once upon a time, in the middle of the wilderness, there was a beautiful green valley.  The valley was green because a river flowed through the valley, from the mountains in the North to a lake in the South.   It was the most fertile place for miles around; food and flowers grew there, and the river and lake were full of fish.   It was no surprise that many people wanted to live in that place.  Anyone who passed by would take a look at it, and say, wow, I want to live there

The people in those towns in the valley knew it was a wonderful place, and they wanted to take care of it. They thought that they would keep it beautiful and happy by outlawing anyone who wasn’t beautiful or happy.  They especially didn’t want poor people to stick around, and so they passed a law saying that it was a crime to give any help to poor people.  They didn’t like strangers, either – so it was the custom in the town to be mean to strangers, so they wouldn’t stay around for long. 

When a poor person or a stranger left the valley, they’d look at each other and nod and say, see, we know how to keep this place nice.

A family came traveling through the valley, a man and his nephew and their wives and households.  They were not poor people, in fact they were very well to do, and they were going to settle down.  The nephew and his wife looked at the valley, and the town, and said, this is a beautiful place – we want to live here!  The uncle and his wife looked at it, and said, well, yes, but the people are not very friendly.  So the party split up, and the nephew, Lot, and his household moved to the valley.  Abram, his uncle, continued traveling, but they stayed in touch. 

Now that I’ve mentioned their names, maybe you recognize the story.  Abram was Abraham our ancestor, and Lot was his nephew the shlmiel.  (A shlmiel is a Yiddish word for a hapless fool, a mediocre sort of guy who can’t ever seem to make a wise choice.)  Lot saw the beautiful rich valley, and he chose to live in Sodom.  The Torah only tells us a little bit about Sodom, that it was a sinful place, but there is midrash that tells the rest of the story, about the law against helping poor people, and the culture of cruelty to strangers.  In the Torah story, God is so angry at the meanness in Sodom and Gemorrah, that God blasts the place with fire.  Abraham tries to bargain with God about it, but in the end, even Abraham cannot save the cities because there are so few good people in them.  Lot has to flee in the night, and loses his wife when she makes the mistake of looking back.

If you visit that valley today – which you can do! – you will not see a beautiful green valley.  You’ll see one of the most desolate places in the entire world, the desert valley around the Dead Sea.  Nothing grows.  The sand and rocks are full of salts that will burn your feet if you walk barefoot.  The water in the Dead Sea is so poisonous that if you swallow even a single mouthful of it you’d have to be rushed to a hospital.  It is so salty that any tiny cut will burn like fire when the water touches it. 

Now you may be asking yourself:  did God really blast a green valley and kill everyone in it because they were mean to poor people and strangers?   Or was the Dead Sea just such a mysterious and dreadful place that our ancestors felt the need to come up with a story about the poisoned land?

My answer to that is that I wasn’t there, and I don’t know, and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.  What I do know is that the story of Sodom and Gemorrah is a powerful story about Jewish values.    It teaches us that hospitality is not a frill, but a core value, a mitzvah.  It teaches us that tzedakah is not just charity, it means justice.  It teaches us that a city that mistreats the weak, a city like Sodom, is a doomed city.

If Sodom is a giant lesson in what NOT to do, the Torah also gives us an example of the way we as Jews are called to live.  Abraham Avinu, Abraham our ancestor, was no fool: he was an astute businessman.  But he did not confuse being “smart” with being cruel.  He ran to greet strangers, to offer them hospitality.  The sages tell us that he and Sarah had a huge tent with open sides, where they welcomed many souls. 

Nothing lives in the Dead Sea.  There are no descendants of Sodom; it only survives as the name of an evil place.  Yet the memory of Abraham is still green, as green as the Torah says the valley was before the sins of Sodom.  Let us, the children of Abraham, keep his memory green, by acting as he did, with kindness and with generosity to all in need.

Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

What many of us strive for in life is achieving personal integrity, a state of being when our ‘inside’ motivation matches our ‘outside’ behavior. Ideally, our actions should reflect who we (really) are. We don’t just want to believe that we’re honest, we want to act in ways that are honest, a perfect match-up of […]

Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

Shelach L’cha – Joshua’s Name

Summary of the portion:

  • Moses sends 12 spies to the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and the country. Joshua and Caleb give a good report, but the rest of the spies say the land is too dangerous and the people are frightened.
  • God is furious, and threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel. Moses intercedes on the behalf of the people. God announces that only Joshua and Caleb will enter the land – all others who left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel.
  • Moses teaches the Israelites about taking challah, the observance of Shabbat, how to treat strangers, and the laws of fringes.

Name changes in the Torah text have great significance. Most of us are familiar with the story in which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, and the patriarch Jacob gets a new name, Israel.

This week’s Torah portion has another significant name change.

In the initial list of leaders going into the Land of Israel as spies,

Verse 8 tells us, “From the tribe of Ephraim, Hosea son of Nun.

Then in verse 16, we read:

Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land; but Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.”

What the text does not tell us is why Moses changed the name of Hosea to Joshua ben Nun.

When I asked Rashi, he told me that “by giving him this name Joshua, which is a compound of Yah and Hoshia, “God may Save”, he in effect prayed for him, “May God save you from the evil counsel of the spies.”

When I asked Sforno, he told me that Hosea was already known to be a man of valor among his peers, who had given him the name Joshua, and Moses was only formalizing the custom that already existed.

When I asked Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, she told me that Moses added the yud to the front of Hosea’s name because it was the equivalent of the number 10, and Moses hoped to arm him spiritually by making him the spiritual equivalent of the other ten spies. The yud he received was a special letter, because it was the yud that was replaced with a hey when God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah. Sarah had a strong spirit, and the yud was given to Joshua for strength.

When I asked Bamidbar Rabbah, she told me that Moses added the yud to Joshua’s name because Caleb would get his reward from the land, as it teaches in Deuteronomy 1:36, “to him will I give the land on which he has trod.” But Joshua received the reward that would have gone to the other ten spies, in that a yud, which stand for ten, was added to his name.

In another place, Bamidbar Rabbah said, “When Moses saw that the spies were a wicked bunch, Moses said to Hosea ben Nun, “May the Lord “YAH” save “Hoshia” you from this evil generation.”

All of this is to say that Joshua was lifted up by God and Moses to be a mighty leader of a strong-willed people. From it we also learn that one of the glories of Torah is that there is no single story, no single right answer. When we perform the mitzvah of engaging with words of Torah, we need not fear that all the answers are found, because we continue learning more from that time to this.

I gave this d’var Torah for the Tuesday Morning Minyan at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA, in celebration of the beginning of my 26th year as a Jew. A quarter century ago I entered the mikveh and became a Jew; a wandering soul found her way home at last.