Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: September, 2015

Heart and Sheol: Ha’azinu 2015

Most of this week’s portion is Moses’s farewell poem to the Israelites, filled with praises of God and warnings to the Israelites about past transgressions and potential future pitfalls. It is one of the great literary works of the Hebrew Bible.

Here is a text from this week’s Torah portion, with commentaries and topics for you to discuss:


Text: “For a fire has flared in My wrath and burned to the bottom of Sheol, has consumed the earth and its increase, eaten down to the base of the hills.” (Deuteronomy 32:22)


Commentary #1: “Those in Sheol are viewed as separated from God, though … God has access to Sheol. Sheol is never referred to as the abode of the wicked alone. While Sheol is never identified as the place where all go, the burden of proof rests on those who suggest that there was an alternative. … It is not viewed as a place where judgment or punishment takes place, though it is considered an act of God’s judgment to be sent there rather than remaining alive. Thus it is inaccurate to translate Sheol as “hell,” for the latter is by definition a place of punishment. There is no reference that suggests varying compartments in Sheol. ‘Deepest’ Sheol refers only to its location rather than a lower compartment.” – John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

Questions: Jewish theories on the afterlife are varied and wide-ranging. Why are we so eager to understand what might happen to us after we die? Would a unified Jewish view on this topic change the way we approach religious observance? Or, would it be better for us to be uncertain on the topic, so that we can live well on Earth for its own sake?


Commentary #2: “The word [Sheol] is widely supposed to derive from Hebrew shaal, ‘to ask, inquire,’ perhaps referring to the practice of necromancy or the notion of calling the dead to account. In biblical texts, Sheol is the land of dust, darkness, forgetfulness, where the ‘shades’ of the dead (refaim) are gathered, although there is a tendency to associate the place with premature or evil death.” – Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, Jacob Neusner, editor-in-chief

Questions: While trying to communicate with the spirits of the dead is strictly prohibited according to Jewish law, there are many instances when our ancestors from the Bible somehow “appear” in rabbinic stories – stories that take place many centuries after their deaths. Should instances like these be seen as metaphors? If we wanted to seek “guidance” from those who have passed away, couldn’t we do so symbolically? Or are these appearances permitted to the ancient rabbis but not to those living in our day and age? And is it truly instructive to find out what our ancestors might have said about our lives today?


Commentary #3: “The ‘hills’ are a simile for the high-ranking personages, all of whom were the first ones to be exiled prior to the destruction of the first Temple. – Sforno

Questions: Sforno seems to relate the imagery of “hills” in our verse to Jews who were exiled when the Assyrians captured the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. He notes that wrongdoing in a community tends to hurt the common people first, with those in leadership being among the last to feel the negative effects. How does this tendency manifest itself in today’s society? What measures can be taken to reverse it, if it’s possible?


Emanu-El Happenings: Our synagogue boasts the largest sukkah in South Carolina! We will be privileged to celebrate Sukkot in it throughout the coming week. Many thanks to the Men’s Club and YAD for helping us construct the sukkah again this year.


The Big Inning at the End: Yogi Berra’s death this week was a great loss for all who love baseball. Much has been written about Berra’s talent for mangling the English language – as his friend Joe Garagiola said about him, Berra didn’t say funny things, he said things funny. But it’s easy to forget what an elite player Berra was; he was arguably the greatest catcher who ever played (Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella and Josh Gibson certainly belong in the discussion as well). As we enter Sukkot – the festival of our joy – surely we can appreciate someone like Berra, who added to our joy both on the field and off of it. Hopefully, in heaven, it gets late early up there …

Shabbat Shalom! And Hag Sameach – have a wonderful start to Sukkot!


Shabbat Shalom! And Hag Sameach – have a wonderful start to Sukkot!

Lessons of the Mother Emanuel Nine: Yom Kippur sermon 2015

On June 17, 2015, our lives changed forever. We will never be the same after the horrible slaughter of nine innocent people at Mother Emanuel church, and on this Yom Kippur, it is worthwhile to ponder how we should go about our lives for the better knowing that this kind of evil lives so close to home. But before we do, it’s worthwhile to discuss the first time an unexplainable tragedy takes place in Jewish tradition. As it happens, the story I speak of provides the very backdrop for the first observance of Yom Kippur, and offers us insight about how we deal with catastrophes of all kinds.

We know very little about the family of Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first High Priest. We do know that when the system of sacrifices is introduced in the Torah, Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, are supposed to be Aaron’s main assistants in this holy work. But beyond that, these two men are historical footnotes, except in the way they died. Chapter 10 of Leviticus tells us that at the climactic moment of the dedication of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, Nadav and Avihu ascend the altar and offers to God what is known as an “esh zarah,” a strange fire, one that God had not commanded. Without a word, God kills Aaron’s two oldest sons.

The reason for their deaths is one of the great mysteries of the Torah, and many a commentator has tried to offer a theory. Some have suggested that God wished to make an example of what can happen when people ignore the commandments. Others have theorized that this was a twisted punishment for Aaron’s role in the creation of the Golden Calf. Some even have argued, quite insensitively in my view, that this was actually a reward for Nadav and Avihu, a chance to be closer to God rather than to deal with mundane matters on Earth.

Yet one explanation seems to satisfy most queries. Just a few verses after the description of these deaths, God commands the remaining priests to not be under the influence of alcohol when doing their holy work. Many conclude that Nadav and Avihu must have been drunk when offering the strange fire.

Regardless of what theory makes the most sense to you, it’s notable that God refrains from shutting down the entire sacrificial system right then and there. Based on this episode, we could reasonably think that being an Israelite priest is a perilous job, and perhaps it would be safest to take part in less risky kinds of ritual. But this is not the answer to the problem. In the ancient world, sacrifices were the language of the common man and woman who wish to communicate with God. Scrapping the whole sacrificial system and doing something completely different would not have resonated with the earliest Israelites. So instead, God creates reasonable barriers to ensure that the offerings can take place safely. And among these barriers is the one against consuming alcohol while performing these rituals.

So when the priests gather on Yom Kippur, as we saw in our Torah reading, there is a heightened sense of concern, but also a clearer understanding of the limits of behavior surrounding the sacrificial practice. And while not every accident can be prevented, and not every tragedy avoided, the priests know a little more about how to do their jobs safely and effectively.

It is imperative for us to apply these same lessons to where we stand today. Before the summer, the thought of a mass murder in Charleston, at a holy place, would have seemed unthinkable, or at least something that happens in other cities, not ours. Now we have a heightened sense of concern. But just as God realizes in the book of Leviticus, it is not time to fold up our tents and to cease our holy work. Like our ancestors, we must continue — just with a better sense of how to reduce the possibility of another tragedy.

This is why holy places such as ours have a moral obligation to finally stand up to those who block the path of sensible gun control. You don’t have to be an academic to know that the rate of handgun deaths in the United States is far worse than the rest of the industrialized world. You don’t have to know someone who has been killed by someone using a gun to understand that almost 100 handgun deaths per day in this country is an epidemic. And you don’t have to be a religious scholar to echo the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said that “an act of violence is an act of desecration.”

And I know that some of you believe that gun control is not the answer. I have heard the rationale that guns don’t kill, people kill. Indeed, there is no way to prevent every tragedy, just as Nadav and Avihu could have made numerous other mistakes having nothing to do with alcohol to ignite God’s wrath. But when God prohibited alcohol at all subsequent priestly functions, God made subsequent tragedies less likely. We have to do the same. Just as other nations have instituted background checks, serial numbers on weapons, childproof handguns, gun-ownership licenses, and other measures that have greatly reduced gunshot deaths, we too must do everything in our power to reduce the odds of the kinds of attacks that pierce the heart of a city, just as Charleston experienced this summer.

Indeed, we pray that the Mother Emanuel Nine did not die in vain. We pray that our elected leaders actually act like leaders to create common-sense strictures, just as we see in our reading of the Torah. And we pray that, as we commence the Yizkor service, we can be inspired by all of our loved ones who are no longer with us to do what we can to preserve life in all ways.

Sandy Koufax and Yom Kippur, 50 Years Later

I gave this sermon at my synagogue on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sunday night, September 13th. But the ideas are relevant for our upcoming Yom Kippur holiday. Wishing everyone a meaningful day!

Fifty years ago, as American Jews gathered in synagogues for the High Holidays, it was clear that this year’s holidays would be different. That year, 1965, the beginning of the Jewish year coincided with the conclusion of the baseball season, and what’s more, the first game of the World Series would take place on Yom Kippur afternoon. Not only that, one of the participants would be the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose star pitcher, Sandy Koufax, was Jewish.

What happened next is partly based on fact, and partly the stuff of Midrash. It’s well-known that Koufax declined to pitch that first game, and that his replacement, Don Drysdale, pitched so badly that he asked his manager if he wished Drysdale were Jewish too. What isn’t so well-known is where Koufax was on that Yom Kippur day. Since the game took place in Minneapolis, the parishioners of synagogues across the Twin Cities eagerly awaited the possibility that the great pitcher would enter their sanctuary to worship with them. Not surprisingly, many urban legends emerged; depending on which account you read, Koufax appeared in multiple synagogues on the Day of Atonement. But according to biographer Jane Leavy, Sandy Koufax never showed his face. He stayed in his hotel room all day, alone and quiet, befitting his private personality.

Koufax’s decision to observe the High Holidays instead of pitching on baseball’s biggest stage remains one of the most celebrated declarations of Jewish pride in recent years. As a young sports fan, I shouldn’t have been surprised to receive three copies of the book “Great Jews in Sports” as Bar Mitzvah presents, a volume in which Koufax is prominently featured. But how can we put this moment in proper context, now that 50 years have passed?

As a student of synagogues and Jewish communities, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman wrote why actions like Koufax’s shouldn’t be that surprising. In his book ReThinking Synagogues, Hoffman wrote that one of the things that makes Judaism unique compared to other religions is its emphasis on returning, on going home. Whereas other faiths may speak of things like “being born again,” the Jewish perspective is that we never stray so far from our roots that it becomes impossible to return to them once again. We tend to translate a common word for this time of year, the Hebrew word teshuvah, as “repentance”. Indeed, repentance and living our lives more ethically are important aspects of the High Holidays. But a closer translation of the word is “to return.”

On that Yom Kippur 50 years ago, Sandy Koufax returned. Maybe not in the way his Jewish mother or grandmother would have wanted him to; perhaps they would have preferred for him to attend synagogue as well, and to stop pitching on Shabbat altogether, oh and by the way it wouldn’t have killed him to call once in a while. Still, Koufax realized that no matter where he was in life, his Jewish heritage, his home, wasn’t far away. All he had to do was wait until Game 2 of the World Series to pitch, instead of Game 1.

As we begin this year’s High Holidays, I hope we can be inspired by Sandy Koufax once again. I hope we can remember that a synagogue’s doors remain easy to open to all of us, no matter how foreboding they may seem at times, no matter how far we may have walked from them in them in the past. Whether you have been in this synagogue hundreds of times before or whether this is your first time here, know that this can be a home for you, a place to learn, a place to connect, a place to serve the greater good. Whatever your observance level has been in the past, this can be a place that will embrace you in the present and in the future. May our quest for teshuvah not be encumbered by regrets of the past but by a commitment to return and to be home once again.

Everyone Hears Torah: Vayelekh 2015

Before Moses delivers a farewell song and poem, he must take care of some logistics, including preparing Joshua to take over as Israel’s leader, and establishing a Torah text for people to refer to after his death.

Here is a text from this week’s Torah portion, with commentaries and topics for you to discuss:


Text: “Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before your God Adonai in the place that [God] will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere your God Adonai and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere your God Adonai as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 31:10-13)


Commentary #1: “Moses is not to teach the law only to the elders; this was not to be an esoteric tradition, held in secrecy and confidence by a privileged few. This was instead to be a tradition shared by the masses. To make sure that that is the case, the Torah insists that once every seven years, Jewish ‘men, women, and children’ – and even ‘the strangers in your communities’ – gather to hear the entire Torah read and explained.” – Elliot N. Dorff, Unfolding Tradition: Jewish Law After Sinai

Questions: As Rabbi Dorff points out, the biblical command is to read the Torah out loud once every seven years; that practice has changed dramatically, as we read from the scroll several times per week. Were we to return to the frequency prescribed by our portion, how would that change the way we see our religion? Would it lessen our commitment to Judaism in general, or would Jewish communities simply focus on matters other than biblical study instead?


Commentary #2: “[Deuteronomy is] preeminently a public and official document. [It] is also the first biblical text to speak consistently of ‘the Torah’ or ‘the book of the Torah’, and is presented in the lawgiver’s own words as a patrimony to his people, a last will and testament. Its intent is to provide a binding and comprehensive blueprint for the Israelite commonwealth, defining … the scope and function of public offices, the operation of the judicial system and the cult, and qualifications for membership. – Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch

Questions: Blenkinsopp sees the role of the book of Deuteronomy as primarily legal, not narrative or theological. To what extent is the entire Torah a book of laws, stories, and philosophy? When you think of the Torah, which of the above aspects is most relevant to you? Why?


Commentary #3: “Moshe Rabbenu insists that even though individuals live in different locations and probably do not see each other from year to year, nevertheless they must all come together at least once in seven years to listen to what makes them unique, what binds them together. The king would read to the people the fundamental affirmations of Jewish life that give the community its uniqueness and purpose. Everyone would hear the same message, and all would be obliged to adhere to that message. Thus would be reinforced the unity of purpose, in the atmosphere of the unified presence of all Israel.” – Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, More Torah Therapy

Questions: To Rabbi Bulka, gathering to read the Torah in public enables the Jewish people to “be on the same page” and to understand God’s will in the same way. If that is true, why do so many active and learned Jews observe Judaism so differently from one another? Does a shared experience ensure a shared memory of the meaning of that experience?


Emanu-El Happenings: I’d like to tell you more about the new Adult Education initiative that I’m starting after Simhat Torah. I’m calling it “Torah A La Carte.” Essentially, I’m inviting any of you with a particular educational interest – whether it’s learning to read Hebrew, figuring out how to lead services or read Torah, knowing how to do a home ritual, or any number of Jewish texts or topics – to get in touch with me so that we can set up an individual educational plan. I’m willing to schedule learning sessions, to research and provide learning materials, and to investigate whether there are other congregants who would like to learn with you. I can try to set up individual sessions, but I also will have open “office hours” – Tuesdays from 7:00-7:30pm and Thursdays from 10:30-11:00am, starting in mid-October – when you can show up, unscheduled, and discuss your latest topics and questions. I hope to learn with you.


The Big Inning at the End: I will post the full sermon in a couple of days, but on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the fact that this Yom Kippur will mark the 50th anniversary (by the Hebrew calendar) of Sandy Koufax declining to pitch the first game of the World Series so that he could observe the Day of Atonement. Koufax, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is legendary for many reasons, but for the Jewish community, his religious stance is his main claim to fame. Successful Jewish athletes seem to get an inordinate amount of attention due to their relative scarcity, but when we learn about them, we understand more about the American Jewish experience, and about ourselves. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend that you read The Great Rabbino blog, created by my colleague and friend Rabbi Jeremy Fine.

Shabbat Shalom! And G’mar Hatimah Tovah – may you be inscribed for a good year on Yom Kippur!

My Rosh Hashanah Day Two Sermon

Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5776 Sermon

Rabbi Adam J. Rosenbaum

Synagogue Emanu-El, Charleston, SC

I’d like to speak with you about the nuclear deal with Iran, but not in the way you might expect. I’d like to do so by telling you about the actions of two modern rabbis, as well as two ancient rabbis.

The first contemporary rabbi is my stepfather, Fred Greenspahn, whom some of you may remember meeting on one of his previous visits to Charleston. He was ordained by Hebrew Union College but his main profession is a Biblical studies professor at Florida Atlantic University. Over the years, Rabbi Greenspahn has never shied away from controversial topics, certainly not in public.

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Greenspahn joined hundreds of rabbis by signing a petition in favor of the Iran deal. The petition expressed hope that the agreement would slow Iran’s nuclear capabilities, all the while acknowledging that Iran remains a threat to Israel and the entire Middle East. I should say at this point that you may very well disagree with my stepfather’s stance, but if you read the petition, you’d have a hard time calling it radical or extreme.

Yet the ensuing days were anything but peaceful for Rabbi Greenspahn. I’d like to read you some of the messages that my stepfather received in the days after he declared his support.

The first was a voicemail on his home phone that said, “Hey Greenspan, You’re probably one of those [expletive] Jews that sold themselves out to the Nazis. You [expletive] little weasel coward. What is it with you self-hating creatures. You’re just weaklings. You are an embarrassment to our race. No wonder so many people don’t respect Jews because people like you are just so afraid of their enemies: ‘Let’s make peace.’ You [expletive].”

The second was another voicemail: “You are at a…you are some Jew. I mean don’t even say you are Jewish. God. You’re really a rabbi? A leader? You’re horrible. Get out of there. Good-bye. Oh God, you are disgusting. Good bye.”

A third message, this time an email: “You pathetic [expletive] -you put your name down to a paper that is meant to help the worst enemy Israel has ever had-a plan that the Muslim President has helped create so that the Jews would be incinerated-you-you traitor-you are disgusting; [it’s] 1938 – and you are leading the march to the ovens.” 
My stepfather received eight more messages like the ones I quoted. Understandably, he contacted the police so they could ensure his safety, and so far, thank goodness, both he and my mother are fine.

This is where we are in 2015 in the American Jewish community. Our ability to have sane, rational arguments about difficult topics is evaporating as we speak. I know it’s tempting to dismiss these hostile statements as the unfortunate spewings of a few cranks and yahoos, but I fear that vitriol like this has entered the mainstream. Each day, there are more reports about those active in the Jewish community shying away from Jewish organizational meetings or religious services for fear of rancor over the issue, while those who are not involved in the community use this controversy as another excuse to avoid involvement altogether. As one observer put it, the Jewish community is on the verge of committing “fratricide” against one another. A poignant example was the angry outcry when Congressman Jerold Nadler of New York announced that he supported the deal.

I’m all for vigorous debate and feeling passionate about the key issues of the day. But there’s a line between arguing fervently and launching personal attacks and hatred. Again, you’re welcome to take issue with my stepfather’s stance, and I’m sure at least some of you do, but I also know for a fact that he is someone who loves the state of Israel, and is not, as one of his emails accused him, a “Judas goat”.

I’d like to tell you about a second modern rabbi, someone I don’t know nearly as well, but someone whose courage is worthy of the same amount of respect. His name is Victor Urecki, and he’s the rabbi of a synagogue in the place that I refer to as “the other Charleston” – that is, Charleston, West Virginia. Rabbi Urecki has a keen interest in politics and has been attending AIPAC events for years; he’s even become something of a point person for AIPAC activities in the state.

When the Iran deal was finalized and made public, Rabbi Urecki, who actively uses Facebook to communicate with his congregants, announced that he would reserve judgment until he read the entire text of the agreement. While he was ruminating, he posted articles both for and against the deal, saying that he wanted his followers to take a careful and informed position. Eventually, Rabbi Urecki announced that he was against the agreement, and he argued his position publicly, but he never stopped posting articles on all sides of the issue. What’s more, when Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, one of our most prominent Jewish legislators, announced that she would support the deal, the rabbi defended her publicly against those who called her a traitor.

Rabbi Urecki’s approach to the issue also deserves our respect. He was able to embody an all-too-uncommon trait of arguing for the sake of heaven. This very phrase is mentioned by our Sages in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, and tells of two more rabbis who are worthy of our admiration: Hillel and Shammai, who lived more than 2,000 years ago, during the early formations of Jewish law.

These two men and their disciples were well-known for disagreeing on numerous aspects of the law. Both men were great scholars, yet Hillel is often thought of as the greater of the two, because we are taught that the law agrees with Hillel’s point of view in all but a few cases. Also, Hillel is known as a man of great patience, while Shammai sometimes would lose his temper. The reason why Hillel’s opinion is more accepted is because, when he would teach Jewish law to his students, he would always explain Shammai’s opinion before arguing for his own position. The house of Shammai, meanwhile, would share the house of Hillel’s position only after it would argue for Shammai’s opinion. It’s fair to say that Rabbi Urecki has emulated the admirable behavior of Hillel by sharing articles both for and against the Iran nuclear agreement.

But the story of Hillel and Shammai has another aspect, perhaps the greatest reason why Jewish tradition honors both men. The Talmud tells us that the descendants and students of each scholar often socialized with one another, leading to several marriages between people on either side of the proverbial fence. This is a tribute to a spirit of cooperation and community in spite of personal differences – a spirit that has been evaporating in today’s American Jewish community.

I share all of this today because I am concerned on multiple fronts. I am concerned about the Iran deal; while it may very well be better than no deal at all, I remain highly skeptical. But I am even more worried about the state of discourse in the Jewish world. For those who argue that this agreement might annihilate the Jewish population, I say that it might not even come to that, since the verbal abuse in this argument is fraying our connections enough as it is. And for those who claim that being against this deal is the equivalent of warmongering, it pales in comparison to the warmongering uttered by Iran’s leadership every day. As with every generation, we face people who wish to destroy us, but we need to learn that self-inflicted wounds cut the deepest of all.

Rather, we should follow the example of Rabbi Greenspahn, who refused to be intimidated by the verbal threats that arrived on his doorstep. Rather, we should follow the example of Rabbi Urecki, who chose to educate others about the issues facing the Middle East rather than engaging in insults and demeaning others. And rather, we should follow the example of Hillel and Shammai and their disciples, who found ways to coexist in spite of deep intellectual divisions. Let us not forget to speak with one another with care and respect so that we may combat the threats of the future together.

My Rosh Hashanah Day One Sermon

Rosh Hashanah Day One 5776 Sermon

Rabbi Adam J. Rosenbaum

Synagogue Emanu-El, Charleston, SC

When I was in Rabbinical School, my classmates and I particularly enjoyed planning silly skits and documents for the holiday of Purim. Purim, which takes place near the beginning of spring, is a day when we read the book of Esther and celebrate the Jews’ deliverance in the most irreverent ways possible. While preparing for one Purim, a group of us began a list of potential sequels to the books assigned to us in our classes. One such book was written by the great philosopher of our movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and it is called, I Asked For Wonder! I suggested that the sequel to the book should be called, I Asked For Wonder … And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt!

All joking aside, the philosophy of Heschel in this and in many of his other works centered around our search for wonder, our desire to feel inspired, motivated, and even to feel a touch of the Divine. And as with many times we search for inspiration, we are better off not seeking it directly, but rather exposing our souls to as many experiences as we can, and seeing what resonates with us. If we ask for wonder specifically, we risk looking too hard and only disappointing ourselves. Rather, the key to discovering wonder is to do something that sounds almost the same: In order to wonder, we must wander. For we find that the moments that move us the most happen when we least anticipate it. All we can do is wander, and if we wander enough, we will find wonder in the most unexpected places.

I’ll talk in a couple of minutes about the wandering that I’ve done in recent months, but before I do, it’s worthwhile to learn or relearn the wanderings of Abraham, the main character of our Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah. The Torah tells us that Abraham was born in Mesopotamia, then moved to Haran in his later years, only to be told by God that he should continue his journey to a land previously unknown to him. But no sooner does Abraham arrive in Canaan that a famine breaks out, forcing him to relocate to Egypt. Once he returns to the Promised Land, he must determine where he and his nephew Lot should settle as they go their separate ways. Subsequently, Abraham fights on the battlefield and struggles to establish and maintain his family, but only at the end of his life can we say that he is settled in his home, in Beersheva.

This travelogue might seem like aimless wandering, but according to scholar Bruce Feiler, that would trivialize Abraham’s journey. “Abraham is not a settled man, or a wandering man,” Feiler writes in his book Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. “He’s a combination, who embodies in his upbringing a message he will come to represent: the perpetual stranger in a strange land, the outsider who longs to be the insider, the landless who longs for land, the pious who finds a palliative in God for his endlessly painful life.” Feiler believes that Abraham is not just wandering, but also opening himself up for wonder, trying to make sense of a mysterious God who has guided him on a remarkable path, and trying to bring meaning to his life. And many of the most moving aspects of his life – his initial encounter with God, the covenant that God gives him, and the births and the relationships he forms with his two sons – are all surprises to him, moments he may never have had if he stayed in Mesopotamia all along.

It’s only natural for us to feel like Abraham must have felt, journeying from place to place, hoping to discover something that will make our hearts leap into action. Wandering from time to time only benefits us in the long run, even if we don’t have a specific goal in mind. Mark Twain once said that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

With this in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about what I did this summer – why I wandered for two months, and the possibility of wonder that I hope we can discover together.

A few years ago, this synagogue offered me the unique privilege of granting me a summer sabbatical. While numerous synagogues allow their rabbis this opportunity, I recognize there are many that don’t, so I want to thank this synagogue’s lay leadership for giving me this chance. I’d also like to recognize and thank Rabbi Alan Cohen for coming to Charleston during my two months away and providing this community with stability and wisdom, much as he did when he led this congregation earlier in his rabbinic career.

The purpose of a sabbatical involves a lot of words that begin with “re” – it’s a chance to recharge, reflect, and refocus. It is not a vacation, although it is understood that it’s meant to be less stressful than the day-to-day responsibilities of the congregational pulpit. More than anything, it gave me the chance to wander in search of wonder. While I spent the bulk of my time in Denver, the place where I grew up and where the majority of my family still lives, I also drove through the midwest and the Pacific northwest. I focused my work in three areas: First, I visited various Conservative synagogues, met with their rabbis, compiled information about the successes and challenges of their communities. Second, I read several books about synagogue life, the kinds of books I always meant to read but never had the time to do so. And third, I studied commentaries on the Torah, the fruits of which will appear on my blog and the weekly emails I send to this congregation over the course of the next year. 

During these wanderings, I deliberately made my goals somewhat nebulous, if only because I didn’t know where exactly I might discover wonder. As we’ve learned from the example of Abraham, we learn most of our important lessons over the course of journey, when we least expect to find something that moves us. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about some of the wonderful things I learned during my recent journeys.

First, when it comes to connecting with our Jewish heritage, we can’t underestimate the power of ritual to transform a community. In his book Empowered Judaism, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer wrote that “The ultimate goal of prayer [is] to unlock some of the emotional space that is cordoned off by the modern world.” When I attended services at various Conservative synagogues, I saw that many are not afraid to make bold changes to services, all in the name of broader participation and discovering the passion that can be found in our prayer books. One particular synagogue in Denver, the Hebrew Educational Alliance, has a weekly service called “Shir Hadash” which, through a combination of a lay-led davening team and soulful yet traditional music, is a moving experience for all who attend. Perhaps not every aspect of this service would be useful for our congregation, but after attending two Shir Hadash services, I felt confident that we can refine our Shabbat service in a way that would inspire many of us to attend more often and to participate more actively.

A second source of wonder was the synagogues’ determination to be vocal and active on social issues that were important to them. Specifically, I found that many of them were determined to waste fewer resources and to be more inclusive of every aspect of the population. Whether it was entirely compostable kiddush at Congregation Bonai Shalom in Boulder, Colorado; the numerous synagogues that have specifically added unisex restrooms; or the places that have created Friday night services geared toward people with special needs, I received a clear message from these communities that all people are precious, as is the earth on which we stand. These are ideas aren’t exactly controversial, and I know that our synagogue has made great strides in welcoming diverse populations, as evidenced by the new membership structures we adopted three years ago, and in caring for those in need, as evidenced by our campaign over the last year to fight hunger. But it’s also exciting to know that we can follow examples set by others and to do even more.

The third major lesson from the summer is that synagogues are constantly discovering new ways to connect with its congregants, whether in person or electronically. In her book The Self-Renewing Congregation, Isa Aaron wrote that “The effectiveness of an organization is dependent on the synergy between its members.” There are so many ways to make this synergy possible, and easier to follow. Whether you’re in Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois, where they post the complimentary wi-fi password all over the building so that visitors can feel comfortable to stay in the building; or whether you’re at the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York City, which you probably found because you downloaded its free iTunes app; or whether you’re home-bound but can still watch synagogue services streaming live on your computer, there are many ways to harness technology to enable us to feel more connected. While over-reliance on the digital age has its drawbacks, when it’s used effectively, relationships that are forged or maintained online can become even stronger in-person – and as we know, face-to-face relationships are the ultimate goal.

I’m grateful for the time I spent away this summer. But I’m even more grateful to be in Charleston now, at Synagogue Emanu-El, for I am ready to act upon the wonderful lessons I’ve learned. Now that my summer wanderings have concluded, it’s time to make our strong congregation even stronger. And I believe we can do it, as long as we remember that wherever we wander, we must leave ourselves open to wonder, and to help make our community even more wonderful. L’shanah Tovah U’Metukah.

You’re Going to Do What To My Heart?!: Nitzavim 2015

Moses’ farewell address reaches its dramatic conclusion, and he notes that all of Israel is there to listen – every single Israelite living being, including those of later generations. They will hear that the Torah is completely accessible to all who seek it – and at the same time, as mysterious as ever.

Here is a text from this week’s Torah portion, with commentaries and topics for you to discuss:


Text: “Then your God Adonai will open up [circumcise] your heart and the hearts of your offspring — to love your God Adonai with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)


Commentary #1: “We have a principle that if someone takes the first step in the direction of purifying himself he will experience a Divine assist during his continuing efforts in that direction. Moses assures the repentant sinner that God will assist by removing hindrances, metaphorically described as a foreskin that are strewn on the path to one’s rehabilitation.” – Rosh

Questions: As we approach the High Holidays what are the barriers that prevent us from taking that first step to returning to a better path? How can God, as the Rosh claims, help us to remove those barriers? Who or what else can help us remove them?


Commentary #2: “Once the Lord will remove the obstruction that is closing up your heart, you will be able to enjoy the Torah and its commandments and to delight in them even as you delight in pleasures of the body. Then you will love the Torah just as you love the other things that keep you alive, ‘that you may live.’” – Ohel Yaakov

Questions: Ohel Yaakov challenges us to love the commandments as much, if not more, than sensual pleasures. Must these two kinds of “loves” be separated, or can they ben interrelated? Can one love bodily pleasures too much? Can one love the Torah and commandments too much?


Commentary #3: “Here [Moses] promises that once Israel returns to God, God Himself will remove the psychological impediments to wholehearted devotion. … Several of the prophets said that God would ultimately ‘program’ Israel to be loyal and obedient to Him, so that they would obey Him instinctively and never again experience exile. Moses stops short of saying that: the removal of the ‘foreskin’ implies only that God would remove impediments that prevent Israel from voluntarily following God’s teachings.” – Jeffrey Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary

Questions: Tigay stresses that our quote from this week’s Torah portion still enables mistake-prone people to have an amount of free will in their journeys to improve themselves. To what degree does God give us free will? To what degree is our path toward living a meaningful life already chosen for us? How does your answer to these questions impact your approach to the prayers of the High Holidays? Are you more or less likely to expect God to change you, or are the prayers more of a wake-up call for you to start on a better path?


Emanu-El Happenings: Oh, there isn’t much going on … besides a 9/11 tribute service tonight, a baby-naming tomorrow, a Religious School Open House on Sunday, and of course, Rosh Hashanah beginning Sunday night. It’s a privilege to be with this congregation during such a dizzying time of year, and I know it will be fulfilling. Be a part of it. Click here and here for more information.


The Big Inning at the End: As much as I love baseball, I sometimes question the value of devoting so much time and energy to a game in which adults try to hit a ball with a stick. But it is unmistakable that baseball, as well as other sports, can be a source of healing and renewal. Never was that more on display than the weeks immediately following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Living in New York City at the time, the sense of grief was palpable no matter where I walked. And even though the Yankees are the team I most actively root against, I couldn’t help but feel that their run to the World Series – and several of their dramatic comeback victories – helped to awaken a sense of resilience among even the most cynical of us. During that October and November, baseball was not just an escape from the realities of the day, but also a reminder that the ability to dust our selves off and to rise again is almost unlimited. We remember with love those who perished on that terrible day 14 years ago, and we thank those who encouraged us to embrace life once more.

Shabbat Shalom! And L’shanah Tovah U’Metukah – a happy and sweet 5776!

Between Two Mountains: Ki Tavo 2015

It can be difficult to connect with the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, as it is dominated by the Tochecha, the lengthy list of harrowing curses that Israel will receive if it does not follow God’s commandments. The Tochecha is disturbing to read and imagine. Yet even a frank discussion of the meaning of blessings and curses can yield bring some intriguing lessons. One such moment occurs with a shorter set of curses the Israelites are instructed to hear about after they enter the Promised Land. 

Here is a text from this week’s Torah portion, with commentaries and topics for you to discuss: 


Text: “After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. The Levites shall then proclaim in a loud voice to all the people of Israel. …” (Deuteronomy 27:12-14)


Commentary #1: The ritual prescription of Numbers 5:11-31 [the description of the Sotah] does not contain many emphatic messages. However, there is one that stands out: at the end of the oath administered by the priest, the suspected woman is to respond “Amen! Amen!” (Numbers 5:22). This repeated response is rather unusual. In the list of the 12 curses found in Deuteronomy 27:11-26, the people reply to each curse with a single “amen”. – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Questions: Even though the word “Amen” does not appear much in the Torah, it is a central word in our religious life today. What do you think about when you say “Amen” after hearing a blessing? Are there occasions in Jewish ritual when you might refuse to say “Amen”? Does the word “Amen” simply indicate your agreement with something you’ve just heard, or does it mean something more to you?


Commentary #2: The tribes who ascended Mount Gerizim were all sons of Rachel and Leah, Jacob’s primary wives. The descendants of his concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, stood on Mount Eval. Nevertheless, to balance the number of tribes on each peak, Reuven and Zebulun, the eldest and youngest of Leah’s sons, joined [those on Mount Eval]. – Ibn Ezra

Questions: Ibn Ezra’s observation shows that the segregation between the factions of Jacob’s family is still in full force long after Jacob’s death; the tribes that descended from Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, are ensured that they will hear blessings, as are some of the tribes descending from Rachel’s sister Leah; the curses are reserved for the tribes descending from Jacob’s concubines, as well as two of “Leah’s tribes.” Once again, there is a pecking order in Jacob’s family. Many scholars believe that dysfunction and favoritism are a hallmark of biblical families in which a man is married to more than one woman at once; hence, the text subtly discourages polygamy, which was legal during biblical times. Does this theory ring true? Does it seem strange that the Bible might mock practices it permits?


Commentary #3: On his way to pray in Jerusalem, Rabbi Ishmael son of Rabbi Yosi was passing that notorious Mount [Gerizim] when a Samaritan saw him and asked: Master, where are you going? Rabbi Ishmael: I am going up to pray in Jerusalem. The Samaritan: Would it not be better for you to pray at this mountain, upon which a blessing was pronounced, than at that dunghill? – Genesis Rabbah

Questions: This text hearkens back to a time shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, in which the Romans left the city in ruins. The Samaritan in this excerpt wonders why the Jerusalem of that time would be preferable to a place like Mount Gerizim, in which blessings had been uttered. Which location would you choose to pray in? To what extent should we honor the history of a legendary location, even if that location is in terrible straits today? Would you prefer to travel to, say, Athens – a city with a rich heritage located in a country filled with turmoil – rather than a place in better condition but with a less significant history?


Emanu-El Happenings: Tomorrow night, our synagogue’s Selihot program will begin with Havdallah at 8:30pm, concluding with a brief Selihot service that will conclude at 10:00pm. Selihot kicks off the High Holy Day season by turning our minds and hearts to repentance and self-evaluation. So it will be appropriate that, during the heart of the program, we will discuss the concept of ethical wills. I’ll bring examples of ethical wills and encourage attendees to begin writing their own. Hope you’ll join us.


The Big Inning at the End: No matter how much we hope that the Jewish people see themselves as a singular, united people, even the Torah indicated that the Israelites were very much defined by their respective “teams”; in the case of this week’s portion, the teams are the 12 tribes. Similarly, many baseball fans follow their favorite team to the exclusion of all else. I’m an anomaly in this respect; I have been a Chicago Cubs fan since I was seven, but I am also a fan of baseball in general. (This comes in handy during October, when I can root for a different team each year in the World Series, since the Cubs never get that far.)

What’s it like to be a Cubs fan? Perhaps it was described best by the late Steve Goodman, a folk singer who wrote “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request.” Here is the song’s chorus:

Do they still play the blues in Chicago when baseball season rolls around?

When the snow melts away, to the Cubbies still play in their ivy-covered burial ground? 

When I was a boy, they were my pride and joy, but now they only bring fatigue

To the home of the brave, the land of the free, and the doormat of the National League.

But the Cubs might actually make the playoffs this year … so maybe Goodman’s words won’t apply anymore …

Shabbat Shalom!