Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tetzei

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetzei (“When you go out”) and it includes many commandments, some of them quite difficult to understand. The commandments for a woman taken in war are here, as are the commandment concerning an unloved wife and the one concerning a disobedient son. Those are just in the first eleven verses!

Many of these commandments continue to perplex us as we struggle to see how to live lives of Torah. Some concern matters we’d rather not think about at all. Some seem to propose impossible acts!

For instance, the rules for dealing with lost property begin with verses found in this portion. If we take the commandments literally as written, then any time we find any object that might be lost, no matter how beat up it is, no matter how hopeless it is to find the original owner, we must keep that object and search until we find the owner! If we read it literally, then every observant Jew would lug around a huge bag full of lost pennies, broken ballpoint pens, and other detritus, searching for their owners. This is where the process we know as “Talmud” kicks in – the Talmud is the record of our communal struggle with seemingly impossible or unfair commandments. (If you want to learn more about that, I refer you to the post What is the Talmud? elsewhere in this blog.)

Lots to talk about in this portion! So without further explication, here are some divrei Torah on Ki Tetzei:

On Right Relationship with Each Other – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

At Home and On the Road – Rabbi Dan Fink

Whether You Believe in the Metzaveh or Not – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Shimon Peres: Pursuer of Peace – Rabbi Sharon Sobel

Honor – Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

To Wear is Human – Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Rabbi Reuven Zellman

What Would You Change?

If there were one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?

This is a question for you in your innermost heart. Don’t tell me the answer. Don’t think about what you “ought” to say. In what way would you most like to be different?

Another way to ask that question is to ask yourself whom you most admire. What is it about them that impresses you? What quality do they have that you wish you had?

Now then: what would it take to become that person?

Remember Pastor Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Some things we can change with effort. I can work harder. I can learn better behavior and attitudes. I can make better habits.

Other things can’t be changed; they are fixed. I can’t change my DNA. I can’t change change other people’s behavior. I can’t change things that happened in the past.

So, back to that secret thing you wish you could change about yourself: which is it: something you can change, or something you can’t?

If it’s the former, we are in the season for change. Yom Kippur offers us a whole day to think, to pray, and to plan how to become the person we’d like to be. 

If it’s the latter, if you are longing to change something that cannot be changed, it’s time to ask, “Do I want to spend my life longing for something I cannot have?” Perhaps Yom Kippur could be a day to let go of that longing.

I wish all of you a fruitful day of prayer.





Scholars Engage with “Torah of Truth”

Image: Study partners examine a Torah together. Photo by Linda Burnett.

I learned tonight about a marvelous study resource online that I’d like to share with you. has organized a symposium of 25 major Torah scholars to write meditations on “Torat Emet” [Torah of Truth].  Their articles on the subject are available online for all of us to read.

I have only begun to delve into the articles myself, but the introduction is well worth your time. I decided to rush ahead and share it because this is a time of year when many Jews are looking for serious reading as we prepare for the High Holy Days.

The scholars grapple with the notion of truth, of being a “Torah true Jew,” and of the problems an ancient text can present to a modern reader. There are many ways to read Torah, and it is difficult for all of us. Still, the rewards are mighty.



What Should I Do if I See Bullying?

Image: “Bully” artwork by John Hain via

How many of us would feel confident intervening if we saw one person yelling slurs at another person? It might be someone harassing a woman in a hijab, or toughs pestering a disabled person, or kids teasing a fat person. What can we do that won’t make matters worse? What can we do to de-escalate the situation?

When someone sees others bullying another person and fails to intervene, it’s called “bystander syndrome.” It is specifically forbidden in Torah, in Leviticus 19:

לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor – Lev. 19:16

What should we do, especially if we are nervous about intervening? This is something that has troubled me.

A wonderful woman, an artist named Maeril, addresses the solution to bystander syndrome in a cartoon specifically aimed at Islamophobic harassment. Her advice is solidly based in psychology, and its purpose is to de-escalate the situation. It would translate nicely to many other situations, however, and I plan to practice it the next time I see someone being mean to someone else. As with anything else, it will get easier the more often I do it.

I will put the cartoon in its entirety at the bottom of this post, but to summarize the steps:

  1. You see someone harassing a vulnerable person. Go to the person under attack, be as calm and collected and FRIENDLY as you can, and say hello. Sit next to them if you can. Pay no attention to the harasser(s).
  2. Pick a random topic and start chatting. The weather, a TV show, anything – something neutral and easy to ramble about. Continue ignoring the attacker; do not even look at them. They do not exist.
  3. Continue the conversation until the attacker leaves. Offer to escort the person to a safe place, but respect their wishes if they say they just want to leave.

This way of dealing with the situation is based in a psychological concept called “non-complementary behavior” – instead of “fighting fire with fire” we deal with a situation by doing something completely the opposite of the expected script. Think of it as fighting fire with water. In this case, if the attacker is yelling racist slurs at a woman, we sit by her as if nothing unpleasant is going on, and engage in a pleasant conversation, ignoring the screamer. He wanted to feel big and powerful – now he’s totally irrelevant! Even if he temporarily escalates to calling you names too (“slur-lover” etc) if it gets no reaction at all, he will begin to feel like a fool. That’s not what he wanted at all, so he’ll move on.

My pronouns assume that “he” is the bad guy and “she” is the innocent – that matches the cartoon – but harassment can come in any gender. A woman yelling at a transman is equally horrible and yes, he needs your support!

And yes, it may be that the bully won’t move on and someone will have to call the cops. At least in the meantime, the innocent person is not left alone to deal with the torture. And it really is our best shot at getting the creep to go away and leave the person alone.

I know I feel a lot better equipped to be a mensch after seeing this – I hope you do too!


The Three Books of Solomon

Image: Woman reading a book. Photo by Lucia Parillo via

The tradition teaches that Solomon is the author of three books of the Bible. The first is the book Shir haShirim [Song of Songs] a love song written when he was a young man. The second one, Mishlei [Proverbs] was supposedly the product of middle age. The third is Qohelet [Ecclesiastes] which he wrote as an old man who had become cynical. As a description of the contents, it works. In fact, all three books were likely written or assembled long after Solomon’s death. We know this because there is Aramaic in each, and that language did not come into use among Jews until after the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE.

Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are read for Passover and Sukkot, respectively, but Proverbs does not have a fixed use in the Jewish calendar. The most famous part of the book is Eshet Chayil [Woman of Valor], Proverbs 31: 10-31, which is read or sung in some Jewish homes on Shabbat evening.

A capable wife who can find?
    She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
    and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
    all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
    and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
    she brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night
    and provides food for her household
    and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
    with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
    and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
    Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
    and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
    and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
    for all her household are clothed in crimson.
She makes herself coverings;
    her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the city gates,
    taking his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
    she supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
    and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
    and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy;
    her husband too, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
    but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
    and let her works praise her in the city gates.


The Blessing for Earthquakes

Image: Kenemetrics Seismograph recording a quake. Photo by Yamaguchi, some rights reserved.

At 12:50 last night a small earthquake shook my neighborhood. Given that I live not far from the Hayward Fault in California, it was not a huge surprise except that it woke me up. I fumbled for my cell phone, to check the time and to check Twitter to see if it was an #earthquake or merely a dream. Nope, #earthquake.

Then I tried to remember the blessing for earthquakes. That one wasn’t so easy – I remembered seeing it in Tractate Berakhot [Blessings] of the Talmud but for the life of me I couldn’t remember it. Finally I had to get up and look it up:

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shekokho oogevurato malei olam.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, whose strength and might fill the world. – Tractate Berakhot 54a

Whew! Having settled that, I could go back to sleep!


Is There One Right Way?

Image: A confused child. Photo by Sergey Nemo, via

There is a story about a woman who was teaching her daughter-in-law how to make brisket. She said, “Always have the butcher cut off the narrow end of the brisket. Otherwise it won’t be kosher.” Now, the daughter-in-law had taken an Introduction to Judaism class before her conversion, and she thought that sounded odd. She called her rabbi and asked about it.

“That IS interesting,” the rabbi said. “Ask your mother-in-law who taught her to do that.” And the mother-in-law said that her mother had taught her just exactly that (and what is wrong with that rabbi, anyway, that she doesn’t know the rules of kashrut?)

“Ahh,” said the rabbi, who was going to be visiting the Home for Jewish Parents the next day. “I’ll get back to you.” And the rabbi made sure to visit the grandma-in-law while she was at the Home the next day.

“I always made brisket that way because I had a short pan!” said the grandma-in-law. “We didn’t have money to buy either a whole brisket or a new pan, so I always just had the butcher cut me off a piece!”

Every Jewish family has its own way of doing things. Some cut the challah; others tear it. Some put a mezuzah only on the front door; others put one on every door but the bathroom door. Some have roasted chicken for Passover; others have roast lamb.

Be a little skeptical any time that someone tells you there’s only one correct way to do something Jewish. It is true that there are some things that are so firmly part of the tradition that you don’t want to mess with them: don’t bring bread to a Passover seder, for instance. But there are other things that may be a firm tradition for only part of the Jewish people (e.g. some Sephardic Jews eat lamb on Passover, Ashkenazi Jews regard lamb as forbidden for the seder.)

There are also some things that are only “Jewish law” for a very limited community or even a single family. We refer to those things as minhag hamakom [custom of the place.] Inside that limited community, those practices carry a great deal of weight, but outside they are not required. Often, those practices begin as something practical (as in the brisket story) or as someone’s private piety. Others copy, and then it becomes “Jewish Law” for that community.

If you are curious about a practice, you can always ask, “Where did you learn that?” You can also ask a rabbi about it. It is always good to know why you are doing something – otherwise practice devolves into superstition.

Some family customs are beautiful and worth keeping. Others may be due for a little update. A little curiosity and a little study can reveal all sorts of interesting things about that “one right way” to do something Jewish!