Opening Minds, Bridging Differences, Living Jewish Values.

Parashat HaShavua

Parasha Hashavua - Ki Tisa

אֵין מֻקְדָּם וּמְאֹחָר בַּתּוֹרָה – מַעֲשֶׂה הָעֵגֶל קוֹדֶם לְצִוּוּי מְלֶאכֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן יָמִים רַבִּים הָיָה

There is no "earlier and later" in the Torah -- the Golden Calf preceded the building of the Tabernacle by many days. (Rashi on Exodus 31:18)

This week's parasha describes the epigrammatic moment of heresy and betrayal on the part of b'nai yisrael, the building of the Golden Calf. The classical commentators struggle mightily with the psychology that led to this event. Some emphasize how challenging it must have been for b'nai yisrael to maintain faith in God and not backslide to old habits after so many years of Egyptian slavery. One midrash compares the situation to a father who sets his son up in business in a bad neighborhood and then gets angry at his son for becoming corrupted by his peers. There is a sweetness to the loyalty the rabbis show to the people in this parable. They are willing to point the finger even at God to rationalize the people's actions.

Other commentators are less sympathetic. Nehama Leibowitz points out that when God becomes enraged with b'nai yisrael, God doesn't say "they have turned away from Me" but rather, "they have turned away from my commandments." Only a short time ago, b'nai yisrael stood at Mount Sinai and heard a Divine voice instructing them not to worship other gods. And here they are, doing the exact thing they were commanded refrain from doing.

Rashi brings these two perspectives together with a daring move, invoking the rabbinic principle אֵין מֻקְדָּם וּמְאֹחָר בַּתּוֹרָה -- meaning, the Torah is not necessarily in chronological order. Rashi contends that the episode of golden calf took place before, not after, the events of the parshiot of the last two weeks, when God commands b'nai yisrael to build the Tabernacle. Why would Rashi dispute the chronology of the Torah's narrative? By doing so, Rashi portrays God as realizing that in order for the people to change and grow, they will need -- to use an educational term -- scaffolding. Moving directly from idol worship to faith in a completely abstract and invisible God of the universe was too big of a leap. So God gives them the opportunity to build a "home" for God's presence, a place to focus their attention and ease the transition by providing a concrete symbol of God's presence.

In adopting this new chronology, Rashi portrays God as acknowledging what Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, calls the inevitability of gradualness. No matter how big a miracle is, people don't change in a moment. And so, having been repositioned in the Torah, the Golden Calf becomes situated as part of a longer journey as the people who were once ovdei paroh (servants of Pharaoh) will now be able to slowly, step by step, grow into a nation of ovdei ha shem (servants of God).

Rabbi Anne Ebersman
Early Childhood/Henry Lindenbaum Lower School Judaic Studies Programming Director & Director of Hesed and Tzedek

Parashat Hashavua - Tetzaveh

וְאַתָּה תְּדַבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-חַכְמֵי-לֵב אֲשֶׁר מִלֵּאתִיו רוּחַ חָכְמָה

"And you will speak to all those whose hearts are wise and whom I filled with spiritual wisdom"

In this pasuk, God instructs Moshe to speak with Aaron and his sons, the future priests, and provide them with instructions as to the garments that they are to prepare and wear. God refers to the priests as those whose hearts are wise. Ibn Ezra raises a grammatical challenge with the verse noting that the suffix in the verb filled (מלאתיו) suggests that God filled one person, whereas the noun "חכמי-לב" wise-hearted people, is in the plural. Ibn Ezra (12th century commentator & poet) offers two solutions to this grammatical challenge.

The first solution suggests that the verse places emphasis on each and every priest as an individual. God reminds Moshe – priests are holy not only as a group, but each individual person is one that God filled with spiritual wisdom: רוח חכמה.

The second suggestion is that the suffix at the end of the verb (מלאתיו) refers back to the word heart (לב), which appears in the singular, and not to the word wise people (חכמי), which appears in the plural. In this way, the pasuk, places emphasis on the heart as a source of wisdom.

Later in the book of Exodus, we are introduced to Betzalel who is charged with building the mishkan. The Torah states that God filled Betzalel with "God's spirit, with wisdom, with insight and with all craftsmanship abilities...and the ability to teach others He (God) gave to his heart." Following this verse, the phrase חכם-לב (wise heart) repeats itself numerous times referencing those who built the Mishkan. Ibn Ezra suggests that Betzalel and Aholiav (who worked with him) were different from others in that they knew how to teach craftsmanship.

Tomorrow, in preparation for Purim, we read a special maftir for Shabbat Zachor. This maftir teaches the commandment to eradicate Amalek's memory. The verses read include the words: זכור – remember, as well as לא תשכח – don't forget. Rambam (12th century commentator & philosopher) explains the need for both phrases by suggesting that the former (remember) refers to your mouth and the latter (don't forget) refers to your heart. Another commentator explains that the words "don't forget" are needed to remind us to teach our children and their children about this commandment. Again, we see a connection between teaching and the heart.

Rabbi Heschel's advice to young people was to build their life as a work of art. The book of Exodus is now in the midst of teaching the priests about their garments and Betzalel about the intricate details of building the mishkan – both works of art. Successful execution requires people whose hearts are filled with God's spirit and with wisdom. Such hearts are needed not only so they complete do their job with perfection, but so that they can teach, inspire and empower others to do the same. Indeed, teaching is a craft that requires people whose labor is an outpouring of love and of wisdom.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim!

Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
HS Director of Jewish and Student Life

Parashat HaShavua - Teruma

Is chosenness optional or imposed? Both, it seems, according to our tradition. This week in Parashat Terumah God instructs Moshe to invite the children of Israel to give "according to the generosity of every person's heart / מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ." (Ex. 25:2) Yet what immediately precedes this story of voluntary contributions? "These are the laws / וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים." (Ex. 20:1) And what immediately follows? "And you shall command / וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה." (Ex. 27:20)

Well, which is it? Are we in it because we want to be or because we have to be? This tension is further highlighted by the battle between two midrashim, or rabbinic tales. One is based on the passage describing Bnei Yisrael "at the foot of the mountain" during Revelation (Ex. 19:17): "Rabbi Avdimi said: 'This teaches that God held the mountain over them like a vat, and said to them, If you accept the Torah, great. But if not, this is where you will be buried.'" At which point Rav Acha rightfully objects: "This shows they were coerced into accepting the Torah!" (Sabbath 88a). Meanwhile, in stark contrast to this story, another midrash teaches that nation after nation was offered the Torah and said no thank you, and then Bnei Yisrael accepted it. (Sifre on Deut. 33:2) In this version we were not chosen; we were the ones smart enough to make the right choice.

These midrashim are reflected in our blessings over the Torah, I think. First, we thank God "who chose us from among all the nations / אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר בָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים." Then we thank God who "gave us the Torah of truth / אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ תּוֹרַת אֱמֶת."

For many people today, the notion of choice is more comfortable than chosenness, which is often associated with self-righteousness and hubris. However, what can then be lost is that being Jewish is special. Chosenness is preferable to chance. And the chosenness of one people is not mutually exclusive with the chosenness of another.

It is worth considering that, whether we like it or not, chosenness also can be imposed for negative reasons, as it has been with the shocking American wave of anti-Semitism. Leon Pinsker, in an extreme description of the Jewish condition during challenging times, stated: "He must be blind indeed who will assert that the Jews are not the chosen people, the people chosen for universal hatred." (Auto-Emancipation, 1882) Let us not forfeit the positives of chosenness only to be left with its negative manifestations; let us instead emphasize what a blessing it is to be Jewish. And let us also remember that chosenness is not a blank check; it comes with responsibilities. As we read in this week's Haftorah, God will not forsake us as long as we walk in God's statutes, fulfill God's laws, and keep all God's commandments. (1 Kings 5:12) Clearly a tall order, which, if attended to, can help elevate us to being "a light to the nations." (49:6)

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor N-8


Parashat Hashavua - Yitro

כִּי-כָבֵד מִמְּךָ הַדָּבָר, לֹא-תוּכַל עֲשֹׂהוּ לְבַדֶּךָ.

The thing is too heavy for you to do alone (Exodus 18:18)

This week, our 4th grade students volunteered at the Judith Bernstein Lunch Program, a soup kitchen run by Congregation B'nai Jeshurun. Before the visit, they participated in a lesson about homelessness led by a staff member who works with the soup kitchen. In response to different statements about homelessness, they had to physically place themselves on a spectrum between "Agree" in one corner of the room and "Disagree" on the other.

One of the statements was: "I can do something to help solve the problem of hunger/homelessness in America." Most students went straight to the "Agree" end of the room. However, one child had a lot of trouble choosing a spot. She eventually landed half way between "Agree" and "Disagree." When the students were asked to share why they chose their spot, at first she had trouble articulating her rationale. But then you could almost see the light bulb go off in her mind as she realized how she would explain her stance. "I guess I don't think that I can do something to help solve these problems, but I do think that we can."

"This thing is too heavy for you to do alone," Yitro compassionately observes to his very overworked son-in-law, Moshe, and then proceeds to offer Moshe some very practical, and needed, advice about sharing leadership. Some tasks -- perhaps all of the most important ones -- are too great to be undertaken in isolation. As our 4th grade student intuitively understood, in working to make significant change, people have to come together. In facing the challenges and obstacles and frustrations of trying to build a more just world, people need to know that they are not alone.

The verse above was quoted by Ariela yesterday at the gathering we held in memory of our CFO, Jordan Levy, z"l. Ariela spoke about how Jordan was always there to take counsel, to offer support and wisdom -- to make sure that his colleagues would never have to feel that they were alone in facing a thorny dilemma. "This thing is too heavy for you to do alone," he taught us all, offering his capacious heart and his no-nonsense advice, always searching for ways to be of service to the families of this school. I think he would have liked our 4th grader's statement, "I guess I don't think that I can do something to help solve these problems, but I do think that we can." I hope that we can honor Jordan's memory by taking our student's sage advice to heart in coming together to help one another and others who need us, in working together to create a more just and peaceful world.

Parashat Hashavua - Beshalach

This Shabbat – Shabbat Shira (Shabbat of Song)­ – we read of the final act of redemption from Egypt, the parting of the sea. Immediately thereafter, Moshe and the Israelites break out in song. This lengthy song of gratitude and praise is repeated daily as part of our morning tefillah (prayer) and is quoted from briefly before the Amidah when we chant "mi camocha" (who is like you God!). Equally as significant, even if not included in our daily liturgy, is the song Miriam and the women sing following Moshe's song. The introduction to the song refers to Miram as a prophet and as Aaron's sister. Miriam is the first person in the Bible to be referred to as a prophet. What was the nature of her prophecy? And what is the relationship between her name as "Aaron's sister" and her prophecy?

Midrash (Mechilta) suggests that Miriam is referred to as Aaron's sister because he is the one who stood up for her and protected her when she was struck with leprosy. The Midrash equates this to Deena who is also referred to as the sister of Shimon and Levi as they sought to protect her honor. Ramban suggests that Miriam is referred to as Aaron's sister to ensure that all three siblings are included at the introductions to the songs following the crossing of the sea. The first song is sung by Moshe and the second by Miriam. In order to ensure that Aaron is given proper recognition, Miriam is referred to as his sister. In this way, Miriam's prophetic wisdom was to celebrate all who had contributed to this liberation – Aaron and women included!

The Talmud (Megillah 14a) offers a different answer. The Talmud suggests that the Torah refers to Miriam as Aaron's sister, and not Moshe's sister, because her moment of prophecy preceded Moshe's birth. Rav Nachman teaches that Miriam predicted that her mother would birth a son who would redeem Israel. The Midrash (in Exodus Rabbah) teaches that Miriam pleaded with her parents to stay married and not separate due to this prophecy. Rav Nachman continues and states that when Moshe was born, the house filled with light, and Miriam's father kissed her head and praised her for the fulfillment of her prophecy. When they needed to place him in the Nile, Miriam's father turned to Miriam and said "where is your prophecy?". Rav Nachman suggests this is why the Torah states that Miriam "stood from a far to know" – to know what the end of her prophecy would be. Following this account, we can understand prophecy to be incomplete. In other words – the prophet does not offer a detailed account of what will be in the future, but rather, offers a direction, an inspiration. Miriam's prophecy was that her mother would give birth to a son who would redeem Israel – the details of how he would do so were not known, even to her.

With that said, the Midrash (Mechilta) raises the question: how did the women and Miriam have timbrels in the desert for their song? The Midrash teaches that the righteous knew that God would redeem them and therefore left Egypt prepared with timbrels. This Midrash seems to contradict the lesson derived from the Talmud – namely that Miriam stood from a far to observe, or even to learn, how her prophecy would play out. This Midrash suggests that prophecy means knowing and therefore having the opportunity to be fully prepared for the future as it unfolds.

Perhaps a way to understand these two teachings as complementary – is that the role of the prophet (or the righteous) is to have certainty and to be humble in their recognition that even with their certainty, they leave room for wonder and possibility.

Shabbat Shalom and Tu Bishvat Sameach!

Rabbi Dahlia
HS Director of Jewish and Student Life

Parashat HaShavua - Bo

"Can I see the trace of God on the face of a stranger, in the face of one whose color is not like mine, whose culture is not like mine? Can I see God's image in one who is not in my image?" This, according to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, "is the greatest religious challenge." (From Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid a Clash of Civilizations) Accordingly, this week in Parashat Bo, we are commanded: "There shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger who lives among you / ״.תּוֹרָ֣ה אַחַ֔ת יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לָֽאֶזְרָ֑ח וְלַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתֽוֹכְכֶֽם (Ex. 12:49) And it is commonly cited that on thirty-six occasions the Torah reminds our ancestors - and by extension us - that we were strangers in a strange land. For example, as the book of Exodus continues, we are twice told "do not oppress the stranger...because we were strangers in a strange land" (Ex. 22:20 and 23:9); the second time observes further that due to our experience we "know the soul of the stranger."

Why the need to remind us so many times of our roots as foreigners? The easiest answer might be that modeling oneself after one's oppressor can be easier than learning empathy from one's oppression. Openness to and trust of others is supremely difficult after extreme degradation. We are therefore reminded to choose the path of empathy rather than succumb to a cycle of violence. There is, however, a more tantalizing explanation: What if our ancestors did not actually see themselves as strangers in Egypt to begin with? What if the purpose of reminding us so many times is not only that we must learn the proper lesson from being strangers in Egypt, but that - even before that - we need to remain ever-cognizant that we were actually strangers there!

A clue to this understanding is God's instruction to Moshe that he ask Pharaoh for permission to travel three days from Egypt to worship God. (Ex. 3:18) Moshe and Aaron repeat this exact request to Pharaoh, which he flatly rejects. (Ex. 5:3) Later, after the plague of arov, Pharaoh does briefly grant Bnei Yisrael permission to take their three day journey to worship God. (Ex. 8:22-23) This permission is short-lived, however, and once the plague is removed Pharaoh reneges.

The next time we see three days mentioned is during this week's plague of darkness. It lasts three days, we are told, and for those three days - the timeframe is repeated - the darkness was so dense for Egyptians that they could not move. (Ex. 11:22-23) But not for Bnei Yisrael! They all had light in their settlements. (Ex. 11:23) So weren't these the three days they had been waiting for, their chance to escape while Egyptians were immobilized? Apparently not. Instead, they opt to stay. Perhaps, when push came to shove, Bnei Yisrael did not truly see the need to go.

Three days comes up one last time in the context of the Exodus, after their departure; when, for the first time, they become thirsty and complain to God because the only available water is bitter. (Ex. 15:24) God instructs Moshe to sweeten the water, and then adds a seeming non sequitur: "all the sicknesses that I placed on Egypt I will not place on you." (Ex. 15:26) But there had not been any mention of Egypt! Did Bnei Yisrael do so, and the Torah not report it? In the very next episode, the implicit becomes explicit when Bnei Yisrael is hungry and laments that they left behind the meat and bread of Egypt. (Ex. 15:3) It has been only three days and they already want to turn back.

Maybe, no matter how difficult and degrading their lives were in Egypt, they still didn't see themselves as strangers there. And so when they left, God's concern wasn't that they would learn the wrong lessons from being strangers and model themselves after their oppressors; God's concern was that they might not even realize their foreign origins and identities in the first place! And so the message of repeating this information so many times is that we always remember that we were not Egyptians, with their values and views of social strata and an inherently imbalanced humanity. This was not us, and it never can be us. Rather, it is our eternal mandate to instead "see God's image in one who is not in my image, " as Rabbi Sacks writes so beautifully; "to see the trace of God on the face of a stranger."

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor N-8


Parasha Hashavua - Vaera

יְחַזֵּק יְהוָה אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם: כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה.

God hardened Pharaoh's heart and he did not listen to Moshe.

This week's parasha includes the famous theological conundrum -- how can we hold Pharaoh responsible for what happened in Egypt if God hardened his heart? Isn't God to blame in that case?

Nahum Sarna points out that the hardening of Pharaoh's heart is mentioned 20 times. The first 10 instances occur during the first 5 plagues, and in these cases we read:

וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב-פַּרְעֹה -- Pharaoh hardened his heart. For the first half of these calamitous plagues, it is Pharaoh who is responsible for his continued stubbornness. In fact, when we look more specifically at Pharaoh's behavior in the first two plagues, it is stunning to witness the accumulation of cruel and amoral traits he embodies.

He is indifferent to the suffering of his own people. After the Nile has turned to blood, the Torah tells us:

וַיַּחְפְּרוּ כָל-מִצְרַיִם סְבִיבֹת הַיְאֹר, מַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת: כִּי לֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת, מִמֵּימֵי הַיְאֹר

The Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile. Even a need as simple as clean water for his own people was of no concern to Pharaoh.

He displays a complete lack of integrity. When beseeching Moses to make the frogs go away, he promises: אֲשַׁלְּחָה, אֶת-הָעָם, וְיִזְבְּחוּ, לַיהוָה

"I will let you go and worship God." But as soon as the frogs have disappeared, only 7 verses later, he reverses his decision.

Finally, he is utterly unable to learn from his mistakes -- again and again, he is given an opportunity to grow, to do teshuvah, to handle things differently, and though the frogs were jumping everywhere, he continues to tread the path of ruthless indifference. As Pirke Avot teachers, עברה גוררת עברה -- one sinful act leads to another. At a certain point, his choices must have become so ingrained, he had dug himself in so deep, that it might even have felt like the outcome was out of his hands. As Erich Fromm observes, "The more man's heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more is he determined already by previous action. But there comes a point of no return, when a man's heart has become so hardened and deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom." In the beginning, Pharaoh was making all of his own choices but as his cruelty and indifference mount, we see that at a certain point, it becomes difficult, even impossible, to turn.

Rabbi Heschel writes that human beings are "a little lower than the angels and a little higher than the beasts. Like a pendulum [we swing under] .. the gravitation of selfishness and the momentum of the divine." The work of keeping one's heart open to the suffering of others, to seeing the divine in our fellow human beings, and then daring to act on their behalf, can feel daunting. But we see clearly in this week's parasha the unimaginable, destructive cost -- both to the victims and to the one who fails to act -- of allowing the reverse to happen, of allowing our hearts to harden.

Rabbi Anne Ebersman
Early Childhood/Henry Lindenbaum Lower School Judaic Studies Programming Director & Director of Hesed and Tzedek

Parashat Hashavua - Shemot

אדמת קודש הוא
For this is Holy Ground

This week, we mourn the untimely death of Jordan Levy, our beloved CFO and member of our community. This Devar Torah is dedicated to his memory.

In this week's Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, we read of the encounter Moshe has with God at the Burning Bush. After Moshe responds to God's call with the word "hineni" - here I am - God instructs Moshe that before he gets any closer, he must remove the shoes on his feet for the place where he is standing is holy ground.

The Chofetz Chayim (19th century Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Belarus/Poland became known as the Chofetz Chayim named for his most famous work) learns a general lesson from this instruction to Moshe to remove his shoes. The Chofetz Chayim states that at any time or place, a person can achieve closeness with his or her creator by removing any barriers that stand in the way of intimacy. In other words, the first step to intimacy is access.

The Chofetz Chayim further warns that we should not make the mistake of suggesting that there were fewer barriers back in the good old days. In other words, we should not suggest that "all Moshe had to remove were his shoes" whereas the barriers in our time are far too great to overcome. By focusing on the verb in the verse that means "is standing" and by pointing out that it is in the present tense, the Chofetz Chayim concludes that intimacy is possible at any time and any place - for all places are holy. All we must do is remove the barriers.

In his work at Heschel, Jordan saw it as his task to ensure that a Heschel education would be accessible to all. He worked tirelessly to remove barriers and to open our doors to all members of our community. Parents describe Jordan as accessible and as treating each parent and each student with dignity, with joy and with care.

We all experienced Jordan as a person who interacted with others in a way that truly embodied what the Chofetz Chayim explains as בכל מקום ובכל זמן קודש הוא - at every time and at every place, the experience is holy. Jordan's kindness and sincerity were always palpable. Jordan lived a full and meaningful life. At his funeral, his daughter Eliana described him as a man full of love - love for his children and love for his wife. At his shiva, his wife Sue described him as a father who cherished having fun whether at concerts, sporting events or family vacations. And finally, at school, we remember Jordan's humor, his candor, his genuine interest in others and his collegiality.

We continue to send our love and support to Jordan's family. We missed Jordan this week at our lunch table, at our meetings, in his office and on the phone. We are comforted by the lessons he taught us about ensuring access and remaining true to our mission. We were blessed and enriched by Jordan's presence and guidance. He sustained our community and ensured our time and our place were and continue to be holy ground.

יהי זכרו ברוך

May his memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
HS Director of Jewish & Student Life


Parashat HaShavua - VaYechi

Why do the two Torah portions with "life" in their names actually open by focusing on death? In this week's parasha "Va'yechi / and he lived," we are told that Jacob lived for 140 years and immediately thereafter that his death was near. (Gen. 47:28-29) In the portion "Chayei Sarah / Sarah's life," we are informed practically in one breath first that Sarah lived to be 127 and then of her death. (Gen. 23:1-2)

So why seemingly signal that a portion is about life when in fact it starts with death? One possible answer is to teach us that the proper lens through which to view death is life. In other words, the Torah frames the deaths of Sarah and Ya'akov in terms of how long they lived because, when people die, we are meant to focus our conversations about them not on their deaths - difficult though this may be, especially under tragic circumstances - but rather on the lives they lived.

Is it also possible that by viewing death through the lens of life we somehow breathe life into death? In other words, by giving death the name life, as these two Torah portions do, can we understand that in some way life continues after death?

In fact, certain halachot (Jewish laws) regarding how we care for the deceased seem to ask that we relate to them as though they are still alive. When tahara is done - ritual purification of a person for burial - the chevra kadisha (holy burial society) does not view the body of the deceased in an immodest way. The deceased is wrapped in a tallit with one of the fringes cut, so as not to be taunted by a commandment that can no longer be fulfilled. And even more than that, people around the deceased must keep their tzitzit - their fringes - tucked in and out of sight for the same reason.

It is customary to not leave the deceased alone between death and burial, and instead to constantly have shemirah - guarding - of the body. Those who are with the deceased, however, are not allowed to study Torah, again because this is something the deceased can no longer do. They also cannot, for the same reason, eat, drink or perform other commandments such as reciting prayers in front of the deceased.

Do we actually think that those who are dead still know what is happening around them? Of course not. What we do know is that those who physically are no longer alive continue to exist through those of us who are. By continuing to treat them as though they are aware, by continuing to be sensitive and empathic towards them, we are reminded of our responsibility to continue stewarding them through this world.

Rabbi Heschel, in an essay entitled "Death as Homecoming," wrote: "There is a vast continuum preceding individual existence, and it is a legitimate surmise to assume that there is a continuum follow­ing individual existence. Human living is always being under way, and death is not the final destination."

In our remembrance prayer that opens with "God full of mercy / אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים," we ask God to "bind her/his soul to the bond of life - יִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתָהּ/נִשְׁמָתוֹ." (As an aside, it is interesting that the word צְרוֹר in Aramaic also is translated as "stone," which can help explain why we place stones at grave sites, to symbolize this bond.) Those who have died remain intertwined with the life forces around them and in our lives, continuing to live through us. And while we pray for God to make this happen, in fact every person has the power - the responsibility even - to do so as well.

This responsibility can be felt and fulfilled for people we know well and even people we barely know, for those of us living simpler lives and those of the stature of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose words and deeds we have been honoring this week. May we continue to merit bringing to life the values and ideals of these great men, as well as those of the many people we are blessed to have had in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisory N-8


Parashat Hashavua - Vayigash

וְעַתָּה, יֵשֶׁב-נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר--עֶבֶד, לַאדֹנִי; וְהַנַּעַר, יַעַל עִם-אֶחָיו. (בראשית מ״ד: י״ח)

Now therefore, let me stay as your prisoner instead of the boy; and let him go home with his brothers.
(Genesis 44:19)

In an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times about rural voting patterns, Robert Leonard -- a reporter from a rural county in Iowa -- makes an interesting distinction. He posits that one of the key factors affecting how people vote is how they view human nature. If you believe, as a Baptist minister quoted in the article, put it that "we are born bad" and need to be taught and disciplined to become good, a whole series of consequences follow about how you believe society should be structured. So too, if you believe that human nature is fundamentally good -- this perspective will shape how you view civic structures and the job of political leaders.

The Torah for its part sees both sides of human nature, a fact which is clearly laid out in the foundational parshiot of Bereshit and Noah. In Bereshit, we learn that we are created in God's image and that God views all of creation, including human beings, as fundamentally good. However, God's subsequent experiences with human beings, including the Garden of Eden and the generation of the flood, lead God to set down some basic laws of behavior, with a new understanding that human beings are creatures who "from the time they are young, will desire to do evil."

This week's parasha contains outstanding examples that ask us to reflect on the human potential to for goodness and how it relates to our true nature. The parasha opens with Judah's speech to Joseph, begging him to set Benjamin free. The climax comes when he beseeches Joseph:


כִּי עַבְדְּךָ עָרַב אֶת-הַנַּעַר, מֵעִם אָבִי לֵאמֹר: אִם-לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ, וְחָטָאתִי לְאָבִי כָּל-הַיָּמִים. וְעַתָּה, יֵשֶׁב-נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר--עֶבֶד, לַאדֹנִי; וְהַנַּעַר, יַעַל עִם-אֶחָיו.

I made a promise to my father regarding the boy, saying: "If I do not bring him back to you, then shall I bear the blame." Now therefore, let me stay as your prisoner instead of the boy; and let him go home with his brothers.

Here, Judah is the master of teshuvah. He has been changed by his experience with Joseph all those years ago. Finding himself in a similar situation, he is now ready to take appropriate responsibility for others, calling himself an עָרַב -- a surety or even a collateral -- for his brother. He has learned what it means to stand up and make a sacrifice for what is right.

Joseph's response, once he shares his true identity to his brothers, is equally revealing:

עַתָּה אַל-תֵּעָצְבוּ, ...כִּי לְמִחְיָה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם. (בראשית מ״ה: ה)

Do not feel sorrowful about what has happened, because God send me here to preserve our lives.

Joseph, like Judah, has changed. He is no longer the boy who shows off his dreams of dominance. He is able to forgive his brothers and focus on the good that has come of his tribulations.

What is remarkable about these instances is the complex way that goodness is portrayed, making room for different interpretations of how we are -- or become -- good. One way of looking at Joseph and Judah in this parasha is that with maturity, they can now make contact with the goodness that was always in them. Life has become their teacher and enabled them to fully realize who they always had the potential to be. Conversely, Joseph and Judah can also be seen as having found ways to consciously and intentionally tame and discipline the more unsavory aspects of their character, to mold themselves into the kind of men they want to be.

We are looking towards Rabbi Heschel's yahrzeit and Dr. King's birthday. One trait they had in common was their ability to harness both the goodness that is inborn and the goodness that can be learned, and to use those qualities to work for a world of greater justice and love.

-Rabbi Anne Ebersman