Current Thoughts from Rabbi Katz

A Message from Rabbi Katz - June 27, 2019

For the past two weeks, the Jewish community has been involved in a furious debate around the use of Holocaust analogies to explain phenomena happening in America today. Though there have been many times in the past when these analogies have been employed, this latest debate was sparked when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the detention centers on the Southern Border and around the country “concentration camps.” 

Two things must be stated. First, there is no question that what is happening to immigrants in this country is perhaps of the worst humanitarian disaster I have seen on our shores in my lifetime. Whatever the nomenclature, we must pay attention to it. 

Second, plenty of people have used holocaust analogies. It must be named that calling them “concentration camps” was no more or less of a use of Holocaust imagery than when has often been said these past months. Thus, this latest debate is as much a product of people’s attitudes and biases toward Ocasio-Cortez as it is about the issue at hand.  

However, the debate does raise an interesting question about whether one can use language from the Holocaust about anything other than the Holocaust. Where does one draw the line? 

As I have in the past, I have curated a number of interesting articles about the topic from a variety of perspectives. Feel free to take a look at these as a way to help you refine your own thinking on the uses and abuses of the legacy of the Holocaust. 


Never again’ means nothing if Holocaust analogies are always off limits 

By Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg 

“If done with caution, those analogies can be useful. Looking at Holocaust history — thoughtfully, carefully — can help us to see the parallels between then and now. It can also help us to understand when those parallels are not apt, and what that does and doesn’t mean about news as it breaks. Of course, analogies are imperfect, and every situation has its own nuances and context, but looking at monstrous events of the past can help us understand where we are in ways that can be difficult to see in the day-to-day.” 




Whose Concentration Camps?  

By Noah Kulwin  

What, then, is the meaning of a phrase like “never again” when the institutions that proselytize it also argue that Holocaust memory cannot be sullied by the present tense? 




The AOC ‘Concentration Camp’ Debate Has Jews Divided. 18 Jews Weigh In.  

By Jenny Singer  

“We collected 18 searing tweets from both sides of the debate, from Jewish people.” 




It’s Not the Holocaust  

By Deborah Lipstadt 

“Using historically invalid analogies gives those responsible for these outrages a chance to wriggle out from the avalanche of justified attacks on their policies. It gives them the opportunity to shift the conversation to the appropriateness of the comparison, and the precision of the parallel.” 






We Jews do not own this term. But in fact, I would argue it is imperative that we Jews use this term whenever these dreadful facilities are imposed on groups of people other than ourselves. History has shown us that the concentration of humanity into forced detention invariably leads entire societies to exceedingly dark places. This practice did not begin with Nazi policies against European Jewry—nor did it end there.” 




I’m a Jewish historian. Yes, we should call border detention centers “concentration camps.”  

By Anna Lind-Guzik 

Invoking the word does not demean the memory of the Holocaust. Instead, the lessons of the Holocaust will be lost if we refuse to engage with them. 




U.S. Holocaust Museum Repeats ‘Unequivocal’ Opposition To Holocaust Analogies   

By Ron Kampeas 

“The museum “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,” the museum said in a statement. “That position has repeatedly and unambiguously been made clear in the Museum’s official statement on the matter.” 




And for those who want to better understand how the Holocaust can be remembered today here are two articles about the recent exhibit in NYC about Auchwitz: 


Processing the Israeli Election

To my TNT community, 

I write to you as the results of Israel’s election are still coming in. In all likelihood, the next prime minister will be Benjamin Netanyahu. However, there is still a little more counting and much negotiation before that becomes a reality. This was one of the closest elections in Israeli history. 

Since Israel is a coalition government, the prime minister needs to get a block of parties to agree to vote with him. To do anything, he will need 61 of the 120 members to join him. Currently, his party has 35 seats (though still in formation). Thus, he, along with his political rival in the “Blue and White” party need to court parties and convince them to join their respective coalitions. Whoever gets to 61 first will win. This political maneuvering will be done in the coming weeks. Thus, the results of the election are still in formation. 

I want to invite everyone to join me at an informative panel discussion about the election on Sunday, April 14 at 11:15 am, moderated by our own Jodi Rudoren (former Jerusalem bureau chief of the NY Times) on the results of the Israeli elections.  

At this session, we will learn what the Israeli elections mean for Israel and America. The panelists include Aiden Pink, Reporter/Deputy News Editor of the Forward, Amit Stern, Community Shaliach at Jewish Federation of MetroWest, David Halbfinger, Jerusalem Bureau Chief of the NY Times. Also, featuring special guest Yisrael Campbell, world-renowned American-Israeli Orthodox comedian. For the more information click here. 

However, if you want more food for thought, I’m including a series of articles and op-eds that I curated that will help you figure out where you see Israel going after this latest election. They come from a variety of sources, and though the many more pieces are likely in a day or two away once the dust settles, these will give you a head start. 

First up, here's a guide, written pre-election, about the different parties and players. For those new to Israeli politics, this will give you the background you need to understand some of these other articles.  

It's Netanyahu's Israel Now
by David Halbfinger (one of our speakers!)

" Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent re-election as prime minister of Israel attests to a starkly conservative vision of the Jewish state and its people about where they are and where they are headed"

12 Takeaways From Israel’s Looniest Election 
By Chemi Shalev 

“The overall appraisal of the results is in the eyes of the beholder. Those who view the Israeli public as inherently right wing can view Gantz’s achievements as spectacular. Those who maintain that in any normal country, a prime minister wallowing in a can of worms such as Netanyahu would have crashed and burned in elections will concede that public opinion is, indeed, in the right’s pocket, and could very well stay there forever.” 

Why Israel Still Loves Netanyahu 
By Shmuel Rosner 

“Those Israelis who do want Mr. Netanyahu gone — and yes, there are many — want him gone because of his personality, his coarsening of Israeli political discourse, his pettiness and, maybe, his corruption. Those Israelis who want Mr. Netanyahu to stay — and the election makes clear that there are many — want him to stay despite those same characteristics. They can forgive the prime minister for often being a small man, because they appreciate him as a great leader.” 

Israel needs a unity government now 
By Ben-Dror Yemini 

“Israel would benefit from a national unity government while a narrow coalition will continue down the wrong path leading ultimately to a bi-national state” 

Netanyahu's Next Coalition: Annexation for Immunity From Indictment 
By Aluf Benn 

“The new Netanyahu government will have two main goals: Get rid of the indictments looming in his future, and annex the settlements to Israel, in coordination with the Trump administration” 

Israel Election: They Say Netanyahu Is a Magician – He’s Much More Than That 
By Yossi Verter 

“In no Western country, not even Italy, could a person who is allegedly a serial lawbreaker, on his way to trial and possibly to jail, be elected to the highest office in the land” 


 “Strong election showing of Shas and United Torah Judaism will lend the haredi parties heavy political clout in their demands for a High Court override bill and mass haredi exemptions from the army.” 

Netanyahu won, everyone else lost: 5 takeaways from the 2019 election

“Tuesday’s vote did not provide the ‘upheaval’ the center-left had hoped for. Now Labor is set to dump Gabbay, while Bennett is reduced to hoping the soldiers will save him” 

And if you want a heartfelt prayer for after the election, please check it out here. 

Hope to see you Sunday 

Rabbi Marc Katz 

Thoughts on New Zealand

Last week, in New Zealand we saw one of the worst acts of hatred against the Muslim community in decades. I’m sure many of us are deeply hurting from this, both for our Muslim brothers and sister and because this is yet another example of rising hatred and intolerance around the world, of which we too have been victims.  

Moments like this can leave us feeling powerless. If that is you, there are things you can do to make a difference. The first is to reach out to Muslim communities nearby and lend your support. I know many in our community attended a vigil on Friday night, other will be going to MSU today for another. As soon as the attack happened, I was in touch with our friends at Peace Island Institute to offer our support. We already have been discussing plans to get together with them for an Iftar meal during Ramadan. 

I also spoke about the attack this past Friday night. Here is a recording of the sermon. 

However, you may feel that you want to do something more immediately tangible. If so, there are places to focus your energy.  

First the Muslim community in Detroit set up a page for donations to go to victims families. Already it is at 2.5 million dollars. 

In addition, the Federation in Pittsburgh, still reeling from its own act of hate, also set up a donation page for the Muslim community in New Zealand. 

Additionally, I want to encourage everyone to read more about this rising hatred around the world. There has been no shortage of these studies. Personally, I am in currently in the middle of Deborah Lipstadt’s book Antisemtism: Here and Now. If you have read it or are interested in reading it and discussing it, I would love to chat. Or, I’m always taking recommendations, so please reach out. 

We may feel powerless at this time, but in fact, we have much more power than we think. Through education, building bonds, advocacy, and service we can move this world one step closer toward love. 

Parashat Terumah: February 9, 2019

I’ve always loved the idea that the final piece of the creation of the world was the building of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle.

In our Torah portion this week, after freeing the Jews from Egypt and giving the Torah, God instructs the Jews to build a home for God on earth. “Make me a sanctuary,” God says, “and I will dwell within it.”

The Torah then dedicates three whole chapters to the building of this structure. We learn every detail, from the size of the beams to the way the fittings should look. But seeing such detail raises the question: why spend so much time on this structure. The most important moments in Jewish history get a chapter or two. This one gets nearly a dozen.

To answer this question, the Rabbis explain the role of the Mishkan in the world’s creation. As they write in Midrash Tanchuma:

During the twenty-six generations that passed from the creation to the giving of the Torah, the world was upheld by God’s loving-kindness, which was, so to speak, the pivot upon which the world existed. When the Torah was given to and accepted by Israel, an additional support was given to the world upon which it could stand, and yet it was only like a bench standing upon two feet, not very well supported. With the erection of the Mishkan, the world received a substantial support. So, a stool which only stood upon two legs receives a third and is rendered firm.

I truly love this teaching for what it tells us about how to build a community. Our world is held up by three forces, each symbolizing something different: love, learning, and deeds.

Love is clear from our text. It says it directly. One leg of the stool holding the world up is chesed, a divine un-ending love.

The second is the Torah, symbolizing not just law but learning. If love touches the heart, Torah is the mind. It is intellectual engagement, arguing, bantering. And a world without learning is devoid of meaning and thus sure to fall.

But the final piece of the puzzle is the action. We built the Tabernacle with our own hands and thus every time we read about it we remember that the world is not just sustained by what we feel and what we know, but also what we do. Our world stands up because we take initiative and using our hearts and minds as tools, we get to work building.

I’m proud of the love we give to others at TNT. I’m proud also of the intellectual engagement, the classes we offer and the discussions that happen in these walls. But our community really takes shape when we do things, concrete things: when we feed the poor, when we house the homeless, when we collect food at ShopRite or lobby for immigrant rights.

In the rush of our lives, it's so easy to forget the power of action. But when we act, we might just be holding up the world a little longer.

Parashat Ki Tissa

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tissa, includes the story of the Golden Calf. It’s a familiar tale. Moses has been atop Mount Sinai for forty days and the people are becoming restless. Knowing that he is delayed in returning they approach Aaron and ask him to build an idol for them, so they may worship God through it. Aaron acquiesces and aids them in building the statue, toward which they worship and around which they dance. 

Soon Moses receives word of what they are doing and comes down the mountain incensed. Moses breaks the tablets of the Ten Commandments that he is holding and rebukes the people. Then, he goes back up and has to stay there additional time as he receives revelations again. 

I’ve always felt for Moses in this story. He feels angry and betrayed by the people. He is usurped by his brother Aaron. He becomes an advocate for the people to an angry God, all while he seethes inside.  

But there is a cruelty that I recently noticed in the way the people relate to Moses. When they ask Aaron to build them the calf, they fail to use a pronoun. In essence, they say to him: Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for this one, that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” 

Reflecting on the strange construction of their statement and their use the word “this” (zeh in Hebrew) when referring to Moses, the medieval commentator Chizkuni writes: 

From the manner in which they referred to Moses with the pronoun “this,” although “HE” was not present, we can form an idea of the urgency haste and confused thinking that dominated the people’s mind at that time. We find the word "zeh” used in inappropriate situations on numerous occasions, such as in Kohelet, 7,27, where the author refers to something intangible when he says: “see this is what I found” 

The quote in the biblical book of Kohelet to which he is referring is a sexist rant by the author: 

Now, I find woman more bitter than death; she is all traps, her hands are fetters and her heart is snares. He who is pleasing to God escapes her, and he who is displeasing is caught by her. See, THIS is what I found... 

It’s clear when we read the Kohelet text what is happening. The author is taking away the personhood of the women in reference. Rather than calling her by name or by she, he is deciding to make her an object. Losing her personhood, she becomes a thing rather than a being.  

And this is what happens to Moses. The people no longer care about the soul of their leader. He is fully objectified. No longer a human being, he is simply a tool, an item at their disposal. He is no longer one of them. He is the ultimate “othered.” 

In truth, the people’s reaction is not unique to their circumstance. How often do we remove a fellow human being’s personhood when we want something from them. We yell at cab drivers, we hang up on customer service agents, we ignore janitors and domestic workers. We lose track of who they are and instead concentrate on what they are. They become “this one” to us, just as Moses was to the people.  

Our goal, together, is to foster a community at TNT and outside these walls where we do not follow in the people’s folly, where everyone is a person, created in God’s image. Where we know their essence, their being, their heart. 

Together, let’s make sure that no one who walks in our door ever feels like anything but the unique soul that they are. 

Shabbat Bo: January 12, 2019

Yesterday was one of my favorite days of the year because it’s the day when the winners and finalists for the National Jewish Book Award are announced.  

For the full list click here.

Indeed, I am excited because now I have a great new reading list, amazing books to learn from and hopefully teach from as well. On top of that, I get to see some books that I really enjoyed getting recognition. The Talmud: A Biography by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer won the award in the Education and Jewish Identity category and Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money by Daniel Judson become a finalist in the American Jewish Studies category.  

But the main reason I am excited is because, as some of you know, I am a fiction judge for the book awards and I get to see my hard work come to fruition. For that reason, I want to tell you a little about the four books that were chosen either as winners or finalists. 


The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas: 
This is a really interesting book that takes place in three historical eras. The first centers around the first Arab watchman of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. The second is the story of two women who work with Dr. Solomon Schechter who discovered one of the largest stashes of old documents in Jewish history called the Cairo Geniza. The third is the tale of an American man, half Jewish, half Arab who discovers his past and his connection to the synagogue. The writing is beautiful and the characters come alive. Really worth your time. 


The Mandela Plot by Kenneth Bonert:  
This coming-of-age novel follows a Jewish boy growing up in apartheid, South Africa. The book has a rich cast of characters and though it is action filled, it also educates about the time period. It’s one of those books that is about a past era but feels as relevant today as any novel about our contemporary world. 

Mother India: A Novel by Tova Reich:  
This novel is hard to pin down. It deals with Indian Jewry, extremism, gurus, cults, and class. But it somehow all works. It’s the hardest novel of the bunch and won’t be for everyone but if you put in the effort I found moments of true glowing brilliance. If you want to feel catapulted into another world, wholly different than one that you know, this is the novel for you. 

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart: 
I’m a huge Shteyngart fan and have loved everything he wrote. And this is no exception. The book follows one man as he travels through the country, escaping his life. Somehow Shteyngart managed to make me like a very unlikeable protagonist, which is a real feat. The book has a lot to say about contemporary America, wealth, race, and inclusion. The book takes aim at everyone and really exposes all the warts of our society. 


No matter what, I love to read and discuss books. If you have any suggestions for me or want to talk about any of these books after you read them, don’t hesitate to reach out. I always love to chat about literature! 

Shabbat - December 8: Hanukkah

This past week, we welcomed neighbors from two faith traditions, Muslim and Christain to services. For those who may not know, Temple Ner Tamid is part of a fellowship with the Peace Islands Institute and Brookdale Reformed Church. A few times a year about 15 people from each community get together to pray, study and eat. Last Shabbat, they joined us for all three. 

Together we studied the theme of light. 

And in those discussions, I was reminded of a famous debate about how to light the Hannukah candles. About two thousand years ago, two men, Hillel and Shammai, fought about whether we should begin with one candle on the first night of Hannukah and built or start with eight and diminish.  

Shammai believed that he was correct because if Hannukah is meant to commemorate the miracle of the oil then we should model our observance after our oil supply, beginning full and watching it shrink each day.  

Hillel, on the other hand, believes that our joy should grow. What kind of holiday would it be if we lessened our happiness each day? As he observes, we should “elevate our sanctity rather than diminish is” (ma’alin b’kidush v’ein moridin). 

Clearly, Hillel wins. 

However, what many don’t realize is that this debate is moot. According to the preceding discussion in the Talmud, all any house needs is one candle for Hannukah. The really good houses give each person in their household a candle. Only those who are reaching for the highest level of holiness (mehadin min hamehadrin) need to light eight candles.  

Yet, no one I know just lights just one. The reason? 

Hillel’s plea to increase holiness every day has captured the hearts of the Jewish people. We so love the idea that at this darkest moment we can bring increasing light into our lives, that we go above the law and we make the special standard. We ignore the fact that we need only one candle and we built our Hanukkiah 

At this time that often feels dark, figure out how to increase your light. It is difficult to fathom because we often think that the more we give the less we have left to give. But you are a miracle as well. Like the oil in the Temple, you have much more stored up than you think. Let each moment of spreading your light inspire you to add to that light. Become brighter with each passing day.  

We are the candles this world needs. Shine evermore.


Earlier this week, I taught a class to our confirmation students on the tension, inherent in Judaism, between the particular and the universal.

As we defined it, particularism is caring first and foremost about your community. It is telling your story, attending to your history, celebrating your past. It is an internal conversation between you and those like you, a way to better understand yourself, your people, and your faith. 

Universalism, on the other hand, is taking the lessons of a holiday, a story, a prayer, or a teaching and making it applicable to all. It tells us to focus our energies outward. Instead of talking only about Jewish suffering, we use that story to end suffering around us. Instead of focusing on making the world better for our neighbors, we seek to help as much of the wider world as we can. 

We spoke about three issues where universalism and particularism come into tension: (1) When we give Tzedakah, do we privilege Jewish causes? (2) When we memorize the Holocaust, how much do we call it a Jewish tragedy knowing that just as many non-Jews were killed by the Nazis? (3) When we tell the Passover story, how much extra do we add to make it a universal lesson in ending persecution? How many spirituals, voices from activists, extra symbols on the Seder plate do we include? 

Naturally, as one might expect, most of our students were universalists but by the end of class, many understood the balanced nature of our tradition. 

This week, as we come upon Hannukah, I couldn’t help reflecting on that tension inherent in the practice and ideology of the day.  

For those who may know, there are two Hannukah stories. The first, the folk story we teach our kids, tells that Hannukah was a reaction to religious persecution of the Greeks who forced us to worship their gods and bow down to their idols. This story is a universal story. It is like many other tales of resistance when a people rose up against tyrants and fought back, making our world a little more just. Our struggle wasn’t just about us, it was about every minority at the time who also lived under Greek rule. 

However, the second story, which is actually the story that appears in the Book of Maccabees (not found in the Bible) is more complicated. There, Hannukah was a struggle, not against the policies of the Greeks, but their influence. The Maccabees feared that having Greek culture so prevalent would become too appealing to the Jewish masses and they would turn away from Judaism and willingly choose to worship other gods. Their rebellion was one of fear, fear of foreign influence, fear of losing their heritage 

Though these are by no means a perfect paradigm and there is a great deal of religious zealotry that may make us uncomfortable about these stories, the two telling show the tension inherent in a particularist and universalist telling of the story.  

Universalists will proclaim that this story should inspire us to seek justice for all those who need it in the same way the Maccabees did, to add light to all who live in darkness. One need only look at the song, Light One Candle by Peter Yarrow to see this at play: 

Light one candle for the strength that we need 
To never become our own foe 
And light one candle for those who are suffering 
Pain we learned so long ago 
Light one candle for all we believe in 
That anger not tear us apart 
And light one candle to find us together 
With peace as the song in our hearts 

But we can’t forget that the holiday cannot only be universal. It is our story, our persecution, and our triumph. If the Maccabee revolted, because they worried about losing themselves in the wider mass, then it can’t just be about everyone. In this day and age, when Anti-semitism is on the rise, we must acknowledge that we are in need of salvation along with everyone else. 

This Hannukah, when we tell the story, take turns between the themes of universalism and particularism. Tell our story and everyone’s story. Speak of our persecution and then use it to inspire you to heal the world. 

There is a place for both tales. They are both in our toolbox. We just have to know which to take out at a given time.

What can Judaism teach us about what it means to be thankful this Thanksgiving?

This piece will be coming out on Thanksgiving at 

Two thousand years ago, a rabbi named Ben Zoma outlined the difference between a grateful and ungrateful guest.

As he explains, a grateful guest who comes to dinner will say, “How much trouble did my host take for me! How many kinds of wine did he bring before us! How many kinds of cuts [of meat] did he bring before us...and all the trouble that he took for me!” However, an ungrateful guest will say, “How little trouble did this household take...I ate only a loaf of his bread. I drank only a cup of his wine. He went to all this trouble only to provide for his wife and children” (Tosefta Berachot 6:2).

The difference between these two guests can be summarized by the use of the word “only.” Where the first guest sees the bounty before him, the other sees all the bounty that was not placed on the table. These sets of words – only, just, barely, merely – are perhaps the most destructive words in the English language. They set up barriers, making us unable to acknowledge the good that lay before us. Where a grateful person marvels at the three kinds of wine before him, the ungrateful person wonders why there was no beer. Where one imagines the many hands that made his bread, the other is busy searching for dips.

Gratitude is difficult because it is inextricably linked to humility. In order to be truly grateful, we have to learn to get out of our own way. Many of us walk around the world believing that we are deserving. We expect the best because we assume we have earned it. Then, when someone does not give us what we want, we grow indignant and our anger or disappointment overshadows the beauty of their gift. We wonder why we were “only” given so much when we should have had more.

The problem is that few people will ever meet our expectations. Our proverbial hosts will go out of their way for us, but if we cannot practice humility, we will only see what they do not give us, not what they do.

In a way, ingratitude is a form of idolatry. If God is defined as the greatest of all things and idolatry is replacing God with something of this world, then when we are ungrateful it is because we have made ourselves so big that we let ourselves turn into a God. Rather than knowing our place in the universe, we occupy all of it, crowding out any goodness that we might celebrate.

This Thanksgiving, before we can adequately practice gratitude we have to first tap into our own sense of humility. We have to learn to make ourselves smaller so we can get a clear look at our blessings. So, try these steps and you will soon see how quickly you let gratitude in:

  1. Avoid using the word “only”. Replace it with wonder at what is rather than disappointment at what could have been.
  2. Notice how much you are talking. If you find yourself talking more than you are listening, try being quiet for a bit and noticing what you see.
  3. Take another piece of advice from Ben Zoma who taught that when we eat we should think about what it took Adam, the first human being to make his food, how “he seeded, plowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed, separated, ground sifted, kneaded, and baked, and only then could he eat.” Then reflect as Ben Zoma did, “But I arise in the morning and find all these [foods read] before me” (Tosefta Berachot 6:2). Imagine all the hands that were not your own that went into making your food.
  4. Notice who or where your idols are. What takes up too much space in your life? Then, try to let them go.

Shabbat - November 10: Toldot

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. It’s a complicated one. Though they support one another in their quest to have a child, those who are familiar with the story know that Rebecca spends much of it tricking her husband into giving Jacob, her favored child, the birthright. 

However, this week, as the election results have come in, I found myself thinking, not of this week’s portion, but of last week’s portion and the beginning of their love story.  

Isaac and Rebecca meet because Isaac’s father Abraham tasks his servant Eliezer with going to the land of Haran and finding Isaac a wife. Though a simple task, our Rabbis imagine that this request tore Eliezer apart. As they imagine it, Eliezer wanted his daughter to marry Isaac. They explain that he sat up at night “weighing up his daughter: is she fit to be Isaac’s wife or unfit (Gen Rabbah 59:9). Then, before he is able to propose this idea, he gets his answer. Not only will his daughter not marry Isaac, but he will be tasked with personally finding Isaac a wife.  

Soon he sets out on his journey. However, before reaching his destination he prays to God. When we chant this prayer, we chant a very rare trope mark knows as a shalshelet. To hear what this sounds like, click here. This ornate trope signifies Eliezer’s ambivalence. Yes, he wants Isaac to be happy, and true, he wants to do right by Abraham, but at the same time, he holds in his hands his disappointment that he will not be Isaac’s father-in-law. 

In Judaism, the shalshelet is the sound of ambivalence and each place that it is uttered signifies that. As one of my favorite modern rabbinic thinkers, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, when someone utters a shalshelet “He is torn between two alternatives, both of which exercise a powerful sway on him. He must resolve the dilemma one way or another, but either way will involve letting go of deeply felt temptations or deeply held aspirations. It is a moment of high psychological drama.” 

Now that we are a few days out from our elections, I can’t help but think that many of us are singing the sounds of the shalshelet. In my memory, I can’t think of an election that was as diverse as this one. A blue wave met a red wave and now it seems we are left with stormy seas. No matter your political outlook there is something to celebrate, but also something to mourn. Rather than calm us, this election unsettled us. 

But the beautiful thing about the shalshelet is that after singing it, the person who utters it moves forward. Eliezer may have been holding his desire to marry Isaac to his daughter in one hand, but he did not let that stand in his way. He marched forward and found Rebecca, introducing her to Isaac and creating a bond that in our tradition is found the first mention of spousal love. 

Like Eliezer, we have a right to hold many things at once. But we can’t let that cripple us. Judaism is a religion of optimism. We mourn what we must, but then we march forward, singing our own unique song and creating the world we wanted to see all along.

Shabbat - October 13: Noach

One of the most famous debates about the character of Noah surrounds the nature pf his righteousness. As Rashi asks: If Noah is called “righteous in his generation” (b’dorotav) does this mean he was more or less righteous than us? He writes: 

Some of our Sages interpret it [the word b'dorotav] favorably: How much more so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance. — [Sanh. 108a, Gen. Rabbah 30:9, Tan. Noach 5] 

Part of what makes the debate so interesting is that there is no way to know who he was before the biblical account. That story does not exist. He could have been a saint or a sinner, but the Bible does not tell us anything about him.  

However, a quick glance at the way he reacts when God calls to him gives us further insight. If he tried to change the minds and hearts of the people around him, he must be good. But if he selfishly thought only of his family (and the animals that would accompany him) then he may not be the best role model.  

It should come as no surprise that this debate is found among our Rabbis. For some, Noah is indeed righteous. They explain: 

[Noah was] a righteous man who warned [others].For one hundred and twenty years Noah planted cedars and cut them down. On being asked, Why are you doing this? he replied: The Lord of the Universe has informed me that He will bring a Flood in the world. (Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 30:7) 

Yet other texts say something different. In one particular text Noah is compared to Abraham who spoke out against God in order to save a large group of his generation from destruction: 

After the flood, Noah opened the ark and looked out. He saw the earth desolate, forests and gardens uprooted, corpses visible everywhere. There was no grass, no vegetation; the world was a wasteland. In pain and dismay, he cried out to his Master, Sovereign of all creation! In six days You made the earth and all that grows in it: it was like a garden, like a table prepared for a feast; now You Yourself have brought the work of your hands to naught, uprooting all that You have planted, tearing down all that You built. Why did you not show compassion for Your creatures? God then replied, O faithless shepherd! Now, after the destruction, You come to Me and complain. But when I said to you, Make an ark for yourself, for I am going to flood the earth to destroy all flesh, and you did not plead for your neighbors! How differently Abraham will act: he will pray on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. And Moses, when his people anger Me with their calf of gold, will offer his life for them. But you -- when you saw that judgment was about to strike the world – you thought only of yourself and your household, while all else perished by fire and water! Then Noah understood that he had sinned. (Midrash Tanchumah) 

One of the challenges of texts like these is to harmonize their outlooks. True, there might be general disagreement about Noah’s legacy, but is it possible for both texts to be correct? The answer is yes. 

In the first text, Noah did indeed make a statement but it was quiet. He acted well and showed the world an example of goodness. But the world did not need a gentle shepherd, it needed an outspoken advocate. Noah gave warnings through his diligence, but not in a way that showed urgency, and he failed to seek justice at its source. He could have changed God’s mind, but he chose not to.  

This Yom Kippur, I gave a sermon about the importance of advocacy, and Noah provides yet another example of why this is important. While cutting down those trees he opened up dialogue and worked to change things, person by person. But if he had only argued with God, who knows what he could have accomplished.  

In the coming weeks, there will be many opportunities to work for advocacy.  

On October 23rd at 7:30 pm join me and a team of others so we can talk about how we might “go to the source” and make meaningful change in our society through advocacy. We will make plans and talk together about how we might make big changes to our society tomorrow.

And if you want to work on these issues immediately, I’ll be speaking at an interfaith rally on October 18th in Trenton in an effort to get undocumented immigrants drivers licenses. If you want to attend, please email me at And for more information about this issue click here

Shabbat - August 25: Ki Tetzei

A few summers ago, in 2014, before the fighting began in Israel and when tensions in the region were still a bubbling cauldron, I led a birthright trip. Lasting from June 16th-26th, there was one issue on the minds of nearly every Israeli I met, the kidnapping of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, three Israeli teens who were taken on June 12th. Throughout the trip, we knew nothing of their fates, yet it was clear from the mood around Israel that their kidnapping was sincerely impacting the united Israel consciousness. Fear, doubt, and anger hung heavy in the air as a nation prayed for their collective fates.

This isn’t the first time in my life I have observed this phenomenon. A few years ago, the Israeli public rallied around Gilad Shalit, a kidnapped soldier as Benjamin Netanyahu agreed at the time to exchange 1,027 prisoners for his life. Following this decision, many both domestically and internationally questioned whether it was appropriate to make such a large trade for one soldier. Yet, for anyone who understands the way Jewish law speaks about kidnapping, Netanyahu’s actions are no surprise, for contained in this week’s portion, Ki Teitzei, is the strongest condemnation possible against kidnapping: “If a party is found to have kidnapped – and then enslaved or sold – a fellow Israelite, that kidnapper shall die; thus shall you sweep evil from your midst” (Dt. 24:7).

Kidnapping is a serious business, especially when it deals with one of your own. In fact, this commandment is repeated earlier in the Torah, in the middle of the book of Exodus. Furthermore, the rabbis go out of their way to include an additional condemnation of kidnapping. The command, they say, against theft in the Ten Commandments, isn’t against property (that’s mentioned elsewhere) but against stealing a fellow human being. “Thou Shalt Not Kidnap” is one of the big ten.

In fact, so horrid is kidnapping, that Jewish tradition developed a name for the command to free the captive, Pidiyon Shvuyim. This command implored a person or a nation to do everything they can to free someone who is bound. The famous precept, Osek B’Mitzvah Patur Min Hamitzvah, which tells us that if we are busy engaging in one Jewish commandment, we are exempt from others, was often exemplified through the context of freeing the captive. Our tradition declares that if one is helping to redeem a kinsman from slavery he or she does not need to worry about daily prayer, building a sukkah, or other temporal Jewish acts. He is busy enough with the most holy of work.

And no one understood this better than Maimonides, history’s most vocal opponent of kidnapping and the slavery that often accompanied it. In his famous legal magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides states that the act of freeing the captive is the greatest commandment in the Torah (MT Matanot Aniyiim 8:10). It supersedes feeding the poor and clothing the naked. In fact, he finds no less than six other commandments that are contained within the need to free a captive ranging from the need to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18) and the prohibition against standing idly by the blood of our neighbors and doing nothing (Lev. 19:16).

Though, no sooner does Maimonides tell of the importance of freeing the captive than he puts two restrictions on the act. Basing his ruling on a second-century adage in Mishnah Gittin, Maimonides warns against two things: we don’t redeem captives for more than they are worth (so that enemies will not pursue more people and up their ransoms) and we don’t encourage captives to escape (because it might lead captors to treat captives more severely using chains and employing abuse). Both of these rulings are employed mipnei darchei shalom, for the sake of peace, a term which has come to mean here and in various other places, the act of stepping outside of the plain meaning of a law to avoid further or heightened disagreement (MT Matanot Aniyiim 8:12).

Yet, as we know when someone you care about is in danger, how could you not seek to free them? There are cases in the Talmud when rabbis go against the expressed ruling that we do not redeem a captive for more than their value, most notably Levi Bar Darga who was said to have gone against the explicit will of the sages and ransomed his daughter for thirteen thousand denarri of gold, a huge sum at the time (Gittin 45a). In another place, we are told that if a husband learns that his wife was taken, he can ransom her for as much as ten-times her value (Ketubot 52a-b).

In any country, and especially in Israel, those taken captive often become the adopted children of their nation. It happened with Gilad Shalit. I watched it happen with Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah and we all saw the aftermath when we were not successful. And more recently we saw the efforts in Gaza to destroy the tunnels that might bring the opportunity for even more Israelis to be taken. The question to ask, though, is what is the cost of “sweeping [this] from our midst.” How do we get our captives back and send a message to their captors which will prevent further abuses without making the situation worse for ourselves? What is the modern example of mipnei archei shalom? There was little agreement among our ancestors about how to deal with kidnapping, and there is surely little agreement between us. Yet, perhaps we might pause in the moment, holding our anger, fear, and doubt in check and engage in dialogue with our ancestors. They’ve clearly got something to add to the conversation.

Shabbat - August 18: Parashat Shoftim

In commenting about this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim or judges, our ancient rabbis discuss the nature of justice and in doing so they make a bold claim about the virtue: 

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says: The world exists on account of three things: on account of justice, truth, and peace, as it is stated, “Judge with truth, judgment and peace in your cities.” (Zechariah 8:16). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: all of them depend on justice, for through justice comes peace and truth. (Midrash Tanchuma Shofrim 15).  

The radical idea in this quote appears at the very end: justice determines both peace and truth. But how does this happen?  

To understand this quote one must first define what the Torah means by justice. Though there are many descriptions, I’ve always admired the definition from the Institutes of Justinian, a codification of Roman Law from the sixth century AD and one of the earliest articulations of the subject. In it, we find that justice is ‘the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due’. Though the text is vague, it encompasses most of what we hold to be innate when we think about justice. 

First, it leaves open the fact that people are owed certain behaviors and outcomes. In the Jewish tradition, we owe another respect simply because they are created in the image of God. However, when someone crosses a legal boundary, justice dictates that they are owed a consequence – often a punishment – for their action. 

Second, it shows that justice is not a choice. Kindness, for example, is not the “constant and perpetual will” to show good favor to another. The presence and degree of kindness is determined by the person dispensing it. Justice, on the other hand, is coercive. We cannot select when we are just. A judge cannot pick and choose when to be fair and balanced. 

So, with this in mind, what is the relationship between justice, peace, and truth? And why does justice matter in understanding each? 

The easy part of the Midrash above is that peace comes from justice. This isn’t surprising. If we live in a society where many don’t think they will get their due, why bother living in harmony with one another. The good have no reason to be good because they will receive no reward. The evil can continue to do wrong because they will not be punished. Neighbor will attack neighbor, country will conquer country. 

But what about the second claim, that justice always precedes truth? On the surface, it seems this should be the reverse. Benjamin Disraeli famously said that “Justice is truth in action.” Without truth, no one would accept testimony, have faith in the integrity of a ruling, or believe evidence. In order for people to each get “his due” one must believe that they have acted with malice or virtue and are deserving of their reward and punishment. 

However, at a closer glance, there is a great deal of truth to Yehoshua ben Levi’s statement. Truth is not a stagnant thing. Often, when a legal case is difficult, it is because we don’t know what the truth is. And the problem with divining the truth comes in two forms. 

First, a “truthful” testimony can still be false. As Leonard Shelby, the forgetful protagonist in the movie Momento artfully explains: “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts.” What Shelby means here is that someone can be telling the truth and can be utterly wrong. Thus, a judge will have truthful and faithful testimonies from two people, one of which calls a car red and the other blue, and it’s his job to figure out who is right. In this case, justice does indeed determine truth. In the act of judging (often without the photo to prove it), a judge will actually determine which color the car truly is. In judging, he creates what is “true.” 

Second, because hard cases are often the difference between two “rights” one’s ruling can determine the nature of the relationship between each. If someone steals bread for his starving family, we are left with a tension. Should he be punished in the same way as a kleptomaniac or does this case deserve special treatment? In deciding, the judge will determine how much of a say the person’s dire economic situation should have in his punishment. Is it “true” that all stealing is equal or is it “true” that sometimes stealing is justified? Here to justice determines truth. 

We often live in a world where truth seems monolithic. And in an era where often the “truth” of news stories are called into question, we often react against that notion and claim there is only one right way to see things. But the wisdom of our midrash is that when someone judges, they do indeed create truth, always unfolding, with each judge and each generation understanding it a little better and a little clearer. The key is to avoid making claims on truth that are impossible. We have the power to shape it. The goal is to do so with justice for indeed “through justice comes peace and truth.”

Shabbat - August 11: Re'eh

Sometimes you come across a text that changes the way that you see the Bible and Jewish history. This week, I had occasion to read such a text.  

Most know the story of Noah’s Ark. In it, God decides to destroy the world with a flood because of its wickedness. But to save humanity, God chooses a righteous individual named Noah to build an ark. In it he will bring a representative sample of every animal on earth that will survive, thus beginning the world again.  

One of the chief debates around Noah’s character has centered around this line: 

This is the line of Noah—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.
(Genesis 6:9)

As the debate goes, Noah was one of two kinds of people. Either he was unquestionably righteous, or he was righteous in his “age,” being only relatively good compared to the people around him. As Rashi explains: 

Some of our rabbis explain it (this word) to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance (cf. Sanhedrin 108a). 

Though this text is interesting in its own right, it looks at Noah’s generation in only one dimension. The argument is not about whether humanity was righteous but about whether Noah was. For our Rabbis, it was obvious that everyone around him was wicked. Why else would God choose to destroy the earth? 

However, I learned this week that this was not a universally held belief. In the course of a conversation about the first line in this week’s Torah portion which reads, “it is not by the order of the Most High that evil and good come” (Dt. 11:26) our Rabbis rewrote the preclude to the Noah saga: 

Rabbi Avin said: When Israel stood before Mount Sinai and the Holy One, Blessed is He, gave them the Torah, from that time on, if anyone sinned, the Holy One, Blessed is He, would exact retribution from him. For in the past, if anyone sinned, the [entire] generation would pay for his sin. [For example] concerning the generation of the [Great] flood, our Rabbis said that there were many good and respective people there such as Noah, but they were wiped out with the rest of generation. During the generation of the Dispersion, the people sinned and even the small children paid for their sins. When Israel stood at Sinai and the Holy One, blessed is He, gave them the mitzvot (Torah), God said, “In the past [the people of] the generation were punished for the sin of even an individual. From now on, the [entire] generation will not be punished for the [sins of] an individual. Hense, “It is not by the order of the Most High that evil and good come.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Re’eh 3).  

In essence, Rabbi Avin reads the text “it is not by the order of the Most High that evil and good come” as teaching that suddenly with the giving of the Torah we have become responsible for our own actions. Where once, in the days of the flood, communal responsibility prevailed, and the ills of society could determine an individual’s fate, at Sinai everything changed. No longer could a righteous nation flounder because of the sins of others. We now have the Torah, which means each of us can study and learn about our ethical ideals and then follow them. Because the path of righteousness is written before us, it is no longer in God’s hands whether good and evil come. We control our own destiny. God will judge us by what we do, not on account of our neighbor’s mistakes. Since often we speak about the moment of revelation as creating a cohesive community, this focus on individualism is a radical reframing of the purpose of Sinai. 

What is amazing about Rabbi Avin’s statement is that where we once imagined Noah’s earth as evil and him as the beacon of light, here his world matches ours. He has evil and good in his midst. The only difference is that he rises and falls with society whereas we are punished on our own accord. 

Perhaps our world is as broken as his? And Sinai gives us the gift of radical individualism to rise and fall on our own and to have the freedom to take the lessons of the Torah and bring a little more wholeness to it. 

Shabbat - November 10 Toldot

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. It’s a complicated one. Though they support one another in their quest to have a child, those who are familiar with the story know that Rebecca spends much of it tricking her husband into giving Jacob, her favored child, the birthright. 

However, this week, as the election results have come in, I found myself thinking, not of this week’s portion, but of last week’s portion and the beginning of their love story.  

Isaac and Rebecca meet because Isaac’s father, Abraham, tasks his servant, Eliezer, with going to the land of Haran and finding Isaac a wife. Though a simple task, our rabbis imagine that this request tore Eliezer apart. As they imagine it, Eliezer wanted his daughter to marry Isaac. They explain that he sat up at night “weighing up his daughter: is she fit to be Isaac’s wife or unfit (Gen Rabbah 59:9). Then, before he is able to propose this idea, he gets his answer. Not only will his daughter not marry Isaac, but he will be tasked with personally finding Isaac a wife.  

Soon he sets out on his journey. However, before reaching his destination he prays to God. When we chant this prayer, we chant a very rare trope mark knows as a shalshelet. To hear what this sounds like, click here. This ornate trope signifies Eliezer’s ambivalence. Yes, he wants Isaac to be happy, and true, he wants to do right by Abraham, but at the same time, he holds in his hands his disappointment that he will not be Isaac’s father-in-law. 

In Judaism, the shalshelet is the sound of ambivalence and each place that it is uttered signifies that. As one of my favorite modern rabbinic thinkers, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, when someone utters a shalshelet “He is torn between two alternatives, both of which exercise a powerful sway on him. He must resolve the dilemma one way or another, but either way will involve letting go of deeply felt temptations or deeply held aspirations. It is a moment of high psychological drama.” 

Now that we are a few days out from our elections, I can’t help but think that many of us are singing the sounds of the shalshelet. In my memory, I can’t think of an election that was as diverse as this one. A blue wave met a red wave and now it seems we are left with stormy seas. No matter your political outlook there is something to celebrate, but also something to mourn. Rather than calm us, this election unsettled us. 

But the beautiful thing about the shalshelet is that after singing it, the person who utters it moves forward. Eliezer may have been holding his desire to marry Isaac to his daughter in one hand, but he did not let that stand in his way. He marched forward and found Rebecca, introducing her to Isaac and creating a bond that in our tradition is found the first mention of spousal love. 

Like Eliezer, we have a right to hold many things at once. But we can’t let that cripple us. Judaism is a religion of optimism. We mourn what we must, but then we march forward, singing our own unique song and creating the world we wanted to see all along.

Shabbat - August 4: Eikev

This week, we hear from Moses about his experience at the Golden Calf. He speaks about how after the Israelites built the idol, he walked down the mountain, smashing the first set of Ten Commandments only to return up the mountain to receive them again. For generations, our ancestors have debated Moses' response. Was it right for him to break these stones, engraved with God's word? Should he have had more patience? 

This debate reaches its climax in the rabbinic period when Rabbis Akiva and Ishmael take opposing sides. Our text does not identify who was for the breaking of the tablets and who was against, but we do know that one said that God rebuked Moses for breaking the Tablets saying "Take others from my hand, Moses, because you broke [these]." The other saw God as praising Moses saying, "You did well." (Midrash Tanchuma, Eikev 11). 

In truth, each of these voices has a point and is echoed in a myriad of other texts. The side against claims that Moses acted rashly: 

It is written (Ecclesiastes 7:9) “Do not be fast to anger [for anger resides in the bosom of fools].” Who was angry? Moses, as it is written: “Moses got angry and flung [the tablets] from his hands” (Exod. 32:19). God said to him: “So, Moses, you are calming your anger by [destroying] the Tablets of the Covenant? Do you want me to calm my anger [by destroying things]? Do you not see that the world would not last even one hour [were I to do so]?” Moses said to [God]: “What should I do?” God said: “You need to pay a penalty. You shattered them, you replace them.” Thus: “Sculpt two stone tablets” (Deut. 10:1). (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:14) 

This idea is echoed in a comment by the Russian Talmudist, the Eitz Yosef (Enoch Zundel ben Joseph - died 1867) who explained that "God spoke to him angrily and complained, saying that since you did this deed and broke the Tablets, you must take others from My hand. But it would have been preferable if you had not broken the first ones." 

In fact, in the most audacious telling of the story, our Rabbis imagine that Moses wrestles the tablets out of Gods hand, who is unwilling to see the Divine word shattered on the floor: 

The Tablets were six handbreadth long and three handbreadths wide. Moses held on to two [handbreadths], the Holy One Blessed is He held on to two, and there was a two handbreadth space between them. Moses' hands prevailed and he grasped the Tablets and smashed them, as it is stated, "He cast them from his hand." (Exodus 32:19) (Midrash Tanchuma, Eikev 11).  

Yet, for as many texts that rebuke Moses, there are many others that praise his actions. When God told Moses that he should go up a get a new set up tablets, our rabbis play with the wording of the phrase "that you shattered" which sounds in Hebrew like the phrase "yashar koach," meaning idiomatically congratulations but literally "May it be for strength" (b. Shabbat 87a). Yashar koach, may be familiar to many as a greeting that is given after someone does something praiseworthy like reading Torah. Here, our rabbis imagine that Moses' actions deserve the same accolades.  

But perhaps the most famous articulation of why Moses' actions were meritorious appears in a Midrash that compares him to the escort of a king: 

This can be compared to a king who betrothed a woman. He said to her, "Soon I will send your marriage contact with your escorts." After a while the king indeed sent it. However, while it was in transit, he heard that she had an affair with someone else. So what did the escort do? He ripped up the marriage contract and said, "It is better that they judge her as an unmarried woman than as a married woman." Similarly, the Holy One, Blessed is He, betrothed Israel, as it says, "You shall become sanctified today and tomorrow" (Exodus 19:10). Moses then came to give them the Torah and found that they had done that deed [the golden calf]. So what did he do? He smashed the Tablets... (Midrash Tanchuma, Eikev 11).  

Here, Moses is saving the people by breaking the tablets. If they don't know they did wrong or they cannot be held accountable for "worshiping other Gods" then they will avoid their punishment.  

In all, the big lesson that we can draw from this debate is that often the most important moments in history are consequential not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Where one stream of history can judge an action to be worthy of praise, another can condemn it. Yet, that doesn't mean that one should not act. Just because we might face criticism doesn't mean we should remain silent. Real leadership is being prepared to deal with the consequences of and reactions to any decisions we make.  

Moses may have been the first, but he set the stage for other weighty decisions worthy of critique, be they going to war, dropping the bomb, fighting an injustice, or any other debatable endeavor. The key is not to worry about history but rather to be concerned with our own integrity. Future spectators (and generations) will surely have their share of Avikas and Ishmaels. The key is knowing that either way, we knew in the moment that what we were doing was right.  

Shabbat - July 28: V'etchanan

I have always thought that it was a great injustice that Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land. He marched the people through the desert for forty years only to learn at the eleventh hour that he would die, and they would proceed without him.

This week's Torah portion begins with Moses's account of his pleading with God to change God's mind:

I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying, “O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” But the LORD was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The LORD said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! (Dt 3:23-26)

Though this conversation teaches a lot about both the character of Moses and of God, there is a still much left unsaid. God does not give a satisfying answer for why he has chosen to abandon Moses. Luckily, two thousand years ago, our ancient Rabbis used their imagination and filled in the gaps in this conversation. As they explain, Moses refused to take God's answer at face value and pushed back. They write:

Moses said to God, "What is the reason for all this anger against me?" God replied, "Because you did not sanctify me." Moses said to God, "Concerning all other beings You employ your attribute of Mercy twice or even three times...Yet in my case, You do not pardon even one sin!" The Holy One, Blessed is God said to Him, "Moses, you have committed six sins, yet I did not reveal any of them to you." (Midrash Tanchuma V'etchanan 6).

As the rabbinic story continues, God proceeds to list these six sins. They are:

  • Moses not wanting to go to Pharoah when God appeared to him in the burning bush (Ex 4:13)
  • Moses complaining to God that the first sets of plagues only made the people's lives harder (Ex 5:23)
  • When the people complain to Moses during the forty years of wandering in the desert that they miss eating meat, Moses complains about them to God. This is seen as an act of slandering the people (Num 11:22)
  • During a rebellion, Moses rebukes the people and leaves open the idea that God will not come to his aid (Num 16:29)
  • When the people ask Moses for water, he responds by screaming at them and calling them rebels (Num 20:10)
  • After a group of people ask to remain behind and not enter to Promised Land because the land for their cattle is better across the Jordan, Moses calls them " a breed of sinful men" (Num 32:14).

Each of these stories requires their own essay and interpretations. But for our current conversation, what is important about the episodes is less their individual content but the fact that, our rabbis imagine that God had decided to "not reveal any of them" to Moses. Though each sin is distinct they share a number of common themes: Moses tends to doubt God; Moses is short with his people; Moses is critical with those he leads. Sadly, Moses never knew of these faults.

The tragedy of Moses' story is that had God given him ongoing feedback he might have stopped sinning after the first instance. If he only knew what he was doing wrong, he might have been able to fix his poor behaviors. He might have had the opportunity to do teshuva, to repent his wrongdoings and grow as a leader.

The Torah contains the command:

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. (Lev 19:17).

For our Rabbis, one reason that the command to reprove another is followed by the line about incurring no guilt is that by not acting, by remaining silent and not speaking out, we remain guilty for the sins we might have stopped. Here, God does not follow God's own advice. By not admonishing Moses sooner, God is responsible for the sins that led to Moses' death. Moses' blood is on God's hands.

Moses' tragedy teaches us an important lesson. When noticing the ills of another we must act. To delay only exacerbates the problem. As our tradition teaches:

Whoever can protest against his household but does not is held responsible for the sins of his household; if he can protest against the people of his town but does not, he is held responsible for their sins; if he can protest against the sins of the whole world but does not, he is held responsible for the sins of the whole world (Talmud, Shabbat 54b)

With all the behaviors, communal and personal we see and judge every day, we must remember that not conveying those critiques to those who need to hear them only adds to the tragedy that is the increasing brokenness around us. Who knows, maybe you could be the voice that allows someone to enter the Promised Land.

Shabbat - July 20: D'varim

This week we begin a new book of the Torah. Called the Book of D'varim or Deuteronomy, we begin reading the last speech of Moses. Moses has led the Israelites for forty years, marching them through the desert, and he knows he cannot continue with them. For the next number of weeks, we will hear Moses relate the history, ideals, theology, and values he wants to them to carry forward as the next generation assumes the mantle of leadership.

As part of relating that history, Moses tells the story of appointing judges over the people to help him carry the burden of leadership. These people would mediate conflict, consider solutions, and proclaim judgement. As he retells the history of their appointment, he describes the attributes he used when choosing each of these leaders: they would be wise, understanding, and known (Dt. 1:13). If we add to that, the fact that in a different place in the Torah, we find a list that includes the description of a good judge as "able, God-fearing, truthful, and hating unjust gains" (Ex 18:21) we find that every judge must simultaneously be seven things at once.

Yet, as we know, judges are human. And they err. But, as our rabbis explain, our job should still be to look for people who fulfil as many of the above attributes as possible. We should look for the greatest minds and hearts of our generation but allow ourselves to fall short in our task and accept the person who comes closest to our vision. As our rabbis explain, the reason all seven of these attributes are not explained together in one biblical passage is to teach that:

If men possessing all the seven qualities are not available then those possessing four are selected; and if such are not available, then those possessing three qualities are selected; and if even three are not available then those possessing one quality are selected (Dt Rabbah 1:10).

There is no question that finding the right judge is hard. It's difficult enough to be wise or God-fearing, understanding or known. It's nearly impossible to be all of these at once. Like anyone, a judge will have certain strengths and many weaknesses. When we acknowledge this, when we allow our judges to have their humanity, we will come to accept our legal system as imperfect rather than bemoan it.

Judaism understands that law is evolving as life is evolving. If we are doing things right, we get closer to Truth at each generation. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, which is perhaps why Jewish law understand that the latest authority in time has the final say in legal matters (halacha k'batra). We are not constrained by the decisions of the past.

This frees us up to do our best when choosing leaders. Since mistakes are not only accepted but expected, we should come to presume that certain held beliefs of today will be overturned tomorrow. We should seek perfect judgments and understand that they almost never come.

And the reason for this is that often, when we judge, we are forced to choose between two "rights" rather than between "right and wrong." Our tradition illustrates this through a parable. Since the Torah does not define the seven terms they use to describe a good judge, our rabbis take up the task. In doing so they seek to examine the difference between the terms "wise" and "understanding."

According to our rabbis, the two terms  might seem similar but they are in fact very different:

What is the difference between wise men and understanding men? A wise man is like a rich money changer: when people bring him dinars to examine (to value) he examines them; and when they do not bring to him, he sits and does nothing (he does not go out to seek any). An understanding man, however, is like a merchant money changer: when they bring him coins to examine, he examines them; and when they do not bring to him, he goes about and brings of his own money (i.e. he himself buys coins) (cf. Sifrei Devarim 13:3).

For our rabbis, a good judge must simultaneously be able to embody and engender two opposite characteristics. He should know what it is like to be that rich man, able to sit in ease but ready to help when asked. But he should also know what it is like to be a merchant, hungry for the next transaction, never allowing himself to be idle.

The reason for this dual outlook is that a judge needs to understand the people that he judges. If he is out of touch with a working-class person, he will miss the nuance of their argument. But if he only sees the world through their point of view he cannot relate to those who have more money than he. To be a good judge, one needs to do the impossible work of embodying each individual he comes across and seek to see the world through their eyes. Since no one can do this all of the time, every judge will inevitably fail some of the time.

Though we do not always have occasion to vote for a judge or to support a pick to the high courts, we all often have the occasion to choose lesser judges in our own lives. These are people who make important decisions that affect us, be they a coworker, a teacher, a mentor, or a friend. Though they might not work in a courtroom we hope that when they make important decisions in their lives they embody many of the attributes of the biblical judges. And like them we hope they perfectly comprise their role.

But if the lesson of choosing judges teach us anything it is that life is unspeakably complicated, that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we will always fall short. Our goal, like it was for Moses, is to reach for the stars, to seek out the best people we can, and to understand that if they don't live up to our grand vision of leadership, it is not because of a defect on their part but on the grand and wondrous inadequacy of humanity.

Shabbat - July 14: Matot-Maasei

Much of American history and folklore is centered around the idea of the "self-made man." We believe that if we only try hard enough, we can succeed. Individually, we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make something of ourselves.

However, though an appealing idea, the image of the self-made person is a myth. As Elizabeth Warren famously said during her 2011 campaign:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody...You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did....

In essence, we cannot claim sole credit for our deeds. Every one of us has someone else, even a team of people, who stand behind us to make our successes possible. Benjamin Franklin, the progenitor of the American ideal of "rags to riches" only was able to succeed because his sister took care of his aging parents and absolved him of the responsibility. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a 2017 graduation address to the graduates at the University of Houston notably said, "It's important to recognize that at every step of the way, I had help." He then proceeded to talk about the people who helped him gain the notoriety and fame he eventually achieved.

However, even though we need others for success, it is part of human nature to overlook those whose gifts moved us forward. Jewish history is littered with ungrateful individuals who seek to claim what is only partially theirs.

In an extended conversation about the nature of the "self-made" person, our ancient Rabbis speak about three gifts that each individual can achieve in this world. They are wisdom, valor, and wealth. For our ancestors, the question of whether someone can gain these three things on their own centers on the statement, "Does a person need God for success?"

Our Rabbis then innumerate individuals throughout history whose downfall is caused by their hubristic insistence that they deserve all the credit for their fortunes. Wise figures like Bilam and Achitophel, mighty warriors like Solomon and Goliath, and wealthy individuals like Korach and Haman all failed because they could not accept that their success might be a product of efforts above their own. They gave themselves all the credit and this attitude proved ruinous (Midrash Tanchuma Matot 5).

However, while this folly often occurs on an individual level, our rabbis point out that whole societies can fall victim as well. And they point to this week's Torah portion. In it the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of the tribe of Menashe petition Moses to allow them to stay in the desert and not enter the promised land with the rest of the Jewish people. Each had large herds and knew that by staying on their own side of the Jordan River, they could better feed their flocks and increase their wealth. In fact, they wished so desperately to remain behind that they agreed to serve as shock troops for the campaign to conquer Canaan if they were allowed to leave the land and return home after they were done.

Many commentators have sought to explain why their request was so wrong. They point to the fact that in a few short generations, these tribes were punished and were wiped out by foreign invaders. Thus their request must not have been so innocent. Among the many answers our Rabbis gave to this question is the idea that these tribes, who were very wealthy, believed that they had achieved their success solely on their own merits. They didn't give credit to God, to their fellow Israelites, or to leaders like Moses. They assumed they had become wealthy in a vacuum and wanted to keep their wealth for themselves (ibid).

We do not succeed alone. Whether it's our community, our family, our teachers, or our mentors we gain our gifts through the efforts and help of others. And whether we believe in God, as our Rabbis did, or simply understand the role of luck, we know there are certain gains and open doors that we just cannot explain.

Having humility means standing tall and saying, I did not get here alone. I am a product of so many hands. I am a beneficiary of so much love.

And when we do, we will understand, that gratitude must be outward focused. True, we have worked hard for our station in life, but none of us solely holds our own destiny. Our lives are the results of the acts of others, large and small, that got us to today.

July 3 - Welcome Message

To my new TNT family, 

I want to start off by saying thank you! This is my first week as your new Rabbi and already you have made me feel so welcome and at home. The warmth that Ayelet and I have received as we transitioned from Brooklyn really reaffirms how special Temple Ner Tamid is. 

As I begin this new role, I want to let you know how I will be spending my summer. In short, my task is simple: I want to get to know you. If we haven't met, I look forward to meeting you. If we already have, I want to know you better. The engine of any synagogue is relationships. This summer is all about fostering these connections. 

For that reason, there will be many opportunities to gather together, both formally and informally over this summer. I'll be at every Shabbat service participating alongside the cadre of talented lay leaders who usually lead. Three Friday evenings (7/6, 7/27, and 8/24) we will be having potluck dinners following services to get additional chances to connect.  

Moreover, thanks to the hard work of the transition committee, led by David Katowitz, I'll be having a number of small house meetings where I will get a chance to meet groups of congregants in an intimate and focused way. Many of these meetings are themed (Purim Shpiel, Shoresh, etc.). If you have not been invited to one of these and would be interested in attending, please let us know and we would be happy to find the right gathering for you. 

And if you would rather meet up in a more individualized setting, please know my door is always open. While I don't keep formal office hours, I love to fill my schedule with meaningful conversations. My goal, by years end, is not only to learn the majority of the names of our congregants but to know your stories, your background, and what brought you to this community. Just shoot me an email and we will find a time ( 

In the Jewish tradition, the way we say welcome is B'ruchim HaBa'im, literally meaning "blessed are those who come." As I am welcomed into your community, you have already made me feel so blessed. Thank you for the warmth, the energy, and the openness you have shown to Ayelet and me.  

If you are going away from most of the summer I look forward to meeting you in the fall. For those sticking around, come say hi. I can't wait to meet you. 


Rabbi Marc Katz