Shabbat Tzav 22 Marzo, 2019

Parashat Tzav continues the catalogue of sacrifices brought by the Israelites to the Ancient Temple. In addition to the burnt, guilt, and sin offerings mandated in Scripture, reference is made to the zevach ha-todah, the offering of Thanksgiving.

The offering of Thanksgiving was a subset of the sacrifice of Wellbeing – the Torah’s way of telling us that gratitude is a pre-requisite or at least an essential component of healthy and purposeful living. There are in fact a number of scientific studies that vindicate just this very proposition. Grateful people it seems have a longer life expectancy of about 7 years.

There is the classic story, though, of the Jewish mother and her young son who were playing by the seashore. Suddenly a huge wave came and took the child out to sea. Terrified the mother called out, “God, save my child!” A second enormous wave came rolling in just then and washed the boy back to shore. The mother looked up into the heavens and said, “He had a hat.”

Giving rise to the question: Are we human beings naturally inclined to gratitude or is the very opposite the case?

I think that Judaism is of two minds on this question. The fact that it is mitzvah, a good deed and a commandment to recite a blessing before you eat is indication of how easily it is to take just about anything and everything for granted.

A Rebbe once asked his disciples, “Do you know the difference between you and me? You say a blessing so you can eat the apple. I eat the apple in order to say the blessing.” In other words, every brachah is either Judaism’s ritualized invitation or mandated subpoena to pause and take note of the blessings you are about to enjoy. I guess it depends on the person.

We Jews take our name and the name of our religion from our ancestor Judah, Yehudah, the fourth son of the Matriarch Leah. We call ourselves yehudim. The name Judah and by extension the word Jew and Judaism are both derived from the Hebrew verb meaning “to give thanks.” ”And Leah conceived and bore a son and declared, ‘This time I will give thanks (odeh) to the Lord. And she called his name (yehudah) Judah.” Gratitude then is a quality encoded into the very core of our Jewish being.

I would like to think that including a sacrifice of Thanksgiving on the list of Levitical offerings was the Torah’s way of acknowledging and anticipating a natural Israelite inclination to express gratitude to God. I would like to think that we too are a people inclined to Thanksgiving, but I know for a fact that gratitude is a quality that must be continually nurtured, appreciated and affirmed. Why? Because grateful people are happier and healthier people, to say nothing of the healthier society they can collectively and purposefully help to build.

I don’t think this turn of a phrase will work in Italian, but TGIF, Thank God It’s Friday.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayikira March 15, 2019

With this week’s Torah portion we move into Levitical territory. Annually, the third of the Five Books of Moses presents a challenge to the Biblical commentator - and has ever since the year 70 AD.

With the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans, animal sacrifice passed from the practice of Judaism. There was simply no longer a place to bring the offerings detailed in the Torah. Thus, the first seven or so chapters of Leviticus - sefer vayikra - dealing as they do with the particulars of ritual slaughter remain largely irrelevant to us. What possible application could there be?

Back then, the Ancient Near East could no more conceive of religion without animal sacrifice than we could imagine a faith without prayer, services or holiday observance. Yes, it was a messy business, but - if you were ‘religious’ - sacrifice was just what you did. Still, I am told that there are rabbis in Jerusalem right now who study the laws of the various animal offerings to be ready, just in case the Holy Temple was miraculously rebuilt tomorrow.

While the mechanics have changed, the notion and purpose of ‘sacrifice’ remains with us. We just think about it differently. To sacrifice is to give up something of value in exchange for something of greater value. Today, we give up of our time, our attention, our financial means in the service of something Higher.

The word sacrifice - in Italian and English at least – is derived from the Latin, and literally means ‘to make holy.’ The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, from the verb ‘to bring close.’ Sacrifices were and still are actions intended to elevate an undertaking to a higher plane and to bring the worshipper closer to the Source of all Being, the God addressed in prayer or ritual.

In the Book of Micah we read: It has been told to you what is good and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

The first two injunctions are easy to understand, but what about the third? Surely, the phrase is not meant to be taken literally. Our sages equated walking with God to the performance of mitzvot – to performing acts of goodness, kindness and compassion – for these mitzvot foster a sense of partnership with the Divine. Even more they bring us an ‘it makes me feel good’ sense that we are actually taking a step closer to God and moving in the direction of who and what we ought to be.

A passage in the old Gates of Prayer comes to mind. “How I would rejoice to be free of doubts and perplexities, to know in my innermost being that I stand in the presence of the Most High all my days and nights.” It is in the things we choose to make holy – to sacrifice – that we secure that reassurance and fulfill the spiritual purpose of our being.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Pekuday March 8, 2019

The Torah is not a book like any other. It does not follow the conventions of the Western narrative tradition. It tells its stories and makes its points in ways easy to overlook.

This week’s portion Pekuday concludes the reading of the Book of Exodus and records the formal consecration of the Tabernacle. The myriad tasks required to construct the mishkan have been completed. Then, the Torah says: And when Moses saw that the people had performed all the tasks, as the Eternal had commanded, Moses blessed them.

It’s important to note here that the ending of the Book of Exodus mirrors the beginning of the Book of Genesis. The word choices of the second book of the Torah resonate with the word choices of the first. With respect to creation “God (too) saw all that was made…and God (too) blessed.” Critics call this type of literary noticing ‘inter-textuality.’

So Genesis begins with an act of divine creation and Exodus concludes with a work of human creation. The point being the second can be as holy as the first.

Ever since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, work has been the common lot of humanity. “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread,” says the Torah. But the work we do in this world can be for blessing or for curse. We have the ability to ennoble and improve the world by the tasks we undertake and the causes we support. Our efforts can mirror the highest ethical and moral standards that we Jews call the way of God.

The portion Pekuday does not share with us the exact words of the blessing Moses imparted to the Children of Israel. By rabbinic tradition, however, Moses prayed: May it be God’s will that the Divine Presence rests in the work of your hands.

When the work of our hands promotes peace, understanding, equality, and justice; when the work of our hands helps to show concern for the sick, the aged, the poor, the lonely, the disposed – then indeed it can be said that, like the work undertaken to build the Tabernacle, our efforts too are worthy of blessing as well.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayakheil March 1, 2019

Children around the world know the story of the Three Bears – a happy ursine family whose home is invaded by one Goldilocks who manages in short order to wreck the place but good. Trying out the family’s three bowls, three chairs and finally three beds she finds this one too hard, that one too soft and the third one, happily, just right.

Goldilocks was indeed a very fortunate young lady. Because after some experimentation and trial and error she managed to get her reality to match up exactly with her preconceived notion of the desirable, the expected, and the sufficient. Everything turned out ‘just right.’

The story of the Three Bears is not in this week’s Torah portion. Parashat Vayakheil does continue, though, with an account of the building of the Tabernacle. The portion begins with Moses asking the people to contribute gifts for the construction of the sanctuary – gold, silver, precious stones, fine fabrics and the like. God further instructs Moses to accept gifts from any and every person whose heart so moves him or her to bring. And bring the people did, in spades. The Torah tells us that the Israelites continued to bring gifts morning after morning until the artisans finally came to Moses and said. ‘The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks that must be done.’ Consequently, Moses restrained the people from bringing because, as the Torah explains, ham’lahchah hayetah dahyahm, their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks that needed to be done.

It’s the word ‘enough’ that gave rise to the problem of sanctuary over supply. Moses had failed to specify the needed quantity of material for any given category of building material, proving once again that sometimes too much is as bad as too little. And with all the tasks needed for sanctuary construction, it took some doing before the Tabernacle could come out ‘just right.’

Enough is an essential but tricky measure. Since enough is a function of the desirable, the expected and the sufficient ‘enough’ is subject to a wide variety of interpretations. When does a person have enough money, enough time, enough attention, affirmation, acceptance, love or recognition? With regard to these last measures, what can I reasonably expect from others and what can they reasonably expect from me? In other words, what and when is ‘enough’ enough?

Unfortunately, in such matters there is no ‘enoughometer’ to unquestionably gauge ‘correct,’ but I do suspect that - with every attribute or gift we desire - we all hold within ourselves some sense of what constitutes sufficiency. Our tendency , however, is to keep that measure secret, sometimes from ourselves but especially from those closest to us. The better strategy is to make that measure known and to honestly and candidly express our needs to the person or persons we need to provide them. It is unfair to hold others responsible for not giving us what we have never asked for, or similarly to find others guilty of not hearing what we have never said. The incantation “I shouldn’t have to tell you. You should just know” is a formula for disappointment. By the same token, it is unfair, unrealistic, even irresponsible to hold others to a measure of sufficiency that is impossible for them to provide. No one can fill a black hole.

Like Moses with the tabernacle and Goldilocks in the home of the Three Bears, sometimes we get to ‘enough’ only through trial and error or better some back and forth negotiation.

So I will wish you a Shabbat Shalom and Sabbath rest in sufficient measure to strengthen and nourish your soul.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Ki Tisa February 22, 2019

Judaism is a 3000 plus year old faith and our sages have been considering, commenting, and debating its details and meaning for all that time. We inherit a vast treasure of ideas and opinions from those who have gone before. As such, it’s actually very hard for a rabbi to come up with an insight that someone else hasn’t thought up before.

But here’s mine. Or at least in the voluminous storehouse of rabbinic commentary I have never come across this interpretation anywhere else.

This week’s Torah portion relates the story of the Golden Calf. Parashat Ki Tisa is usually taken to be an account of how the Israelites broke faith with God and worshiped an idol made of gold. The portion begins: And when the people saw that Moses was so long on the mountain they went to Aaron and said, Make us (an) elohim to go before us for that man Moses we do not know what has happened to him. The Hebrew word elohim can mean God, gods (as in false or pagan gods) or actually just someone in authority ( as when God says to Moses, ‘Aaron will be your spokesman but you will be an elohim to him)

It could be that the people were just asking Aaron to appoint a temporary leader given Moses’ continuing absence from the Israelite camp. But Aaron misunderstood or better assumed that he understood what the people were asking for. They wanted an elohim, a leader and he thought they wanted an elohim, a new God. Assuming his interpretation of their request was correct and never checking the accuracy of his interpretation Aaron told the people to bring him their gold and the next thing you know events were spiraling out of control.

There is certainly more to the Golden Calf story than my little insight but in part this interpretation warns us to be very cautious when we assume we know with certainty what other people mean or intend by their thoughts, words or deeds. Especially in close family relations, we are prone to think that we KNOW when in actuality there is the real possibility that we are making up a meaning never intended.

The warning signs that we are going down this path are the words ‘obviously’ and ‘clearly’. Obviously she meant… Clearly his intent was…

Be on guard for these signals that alert us to the truth that while we may think we know exactly what others mean or intend, we can always be wrong. Misunderstandings have a nasty habit of escalating, and the next thing you know people are dancing around a golden calf.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Tetzaveh February 15, 2019

This week’s Torah portion describes the elaborate vestments worn by Aaron and the priests when they ministered in the Tabernacle. I don’t suppose it’s all that surprising then that the reading of Parashat Tetzaveh coincides this year with Men’s Fashion Week in Milan.

Aaron’s vestments were a glorious thing to behold, an outer indication of the important role he played in ancient Israelite worship. The breastplate - set with twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel – though was a sartorial reminder that Aaron acted on behalf of the entire community.

As high priest, Aaron also wore what the Bible calls a holy diadem, a piece of gold on which were engraved the words kadosh l’adonai, holy to the Lord. Surely this adornment was meant to remind the people that Aaron was fulfilling a sacred vocation.

Attached by a blue cord to the headdress, the holy diadem was worn on the forehead, most probably centered between the eyes. Why there?

Positioning the diadem on the forehead would make it highly visible to others, but I have a suspicion that the diadem was deliberately placed where Aaron would not be able to see it.

Power, authority, position – these are necessary but seductively dangerous tools when exercised by human beings. They stand always on the edge of being misused. Power – be it religious, political, economic, organizational or familial – should always be wielded with a healthy measure of humility. I suspect that the personally unobservable placement of the diadem was an admonition to Aaron: Don’t let all this finery and position go to your head.

Power corrupts, especially when and if those in power seek only to stay in power, forgetting and subverting even the holy causes that moved them to seek position in the first place.

Power wielded with arrogance is a deadly cocktail because human beings can and do so often get it wrong. Life can be understood in part, then, as a continual test of how we handle the power and authority we exercise over others. If done with sensitivity, compassion, and a healthy dose of humanity, our actions too may be recognized and understood as “holy to the Lord.”

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Terumah February 8, 2019

The Torah devotes 1 chapter to the creation of the Universe, 3 to the revelation on Mount Sinai and 13 to the particulars of building the Tabernacle, the portable tent-like sanctuary that the Israelites constructed and carried with them throughout their 40 years of desert wanderings. Seems a disproportionate allocation of scriptural space and sacred focus.

And the rabbis tell us that of all the commandments given to Moses, none perplexed him more than the one that leads off this week’s Torah portion, “Make me a mishkan, a sanctuary that I may come and dwell among you.”

The rabbis imagine Moses responding to God: “Lord of the Universe, I don’t get it. Not even the heavens or the highest heavens can contain Your glory, so why do You require a mishkan, a little room 10 x 30 cubits in dimension?” And God answered: “Moses, dear boy, it is not as you reason. The mishkan isn’t for Me. It’s for you. You make the gesture and - as it were – I will contract my Presence and come to abide among you.” That’s why the Tabernacle - and by extension the Temple and the synagogue that follow - hold such important places in Judaism.

But note the word ‘reason’ in the paragraph cited above. Moses and the people probably could have come up with any number of reasons why it was not important to devote time and resources to the mishkan. By the same token, you and I could probably come up with just as many reasons not to get involved in the synagogue. Competing commitments. Crowded calendars. Inconvenience. Family concerns and obligations. Quirky co-religionsists.

The excuses are legion and sometimes even valid. The reasons I don’t celebrate Shabbat, the reasons I don’t come to services, the reasons I don’t volunteer to help out when my community calls.

But like the mishkan, with respect to the synagogue I think God would say: “These things. These gatherings, these holidays, these study groups and meetings. They’re not for me. They’re for you. And putting aside the reasons why not, remember I’m not asking you to match the fullness of My all consuming commitment and concern. You just make the gesture, and – as it were - I will come to dwell among and within you.”

This week’s portion tells us that it took the whole Israelite community bringing their time, their talents, and their gifts to make the mishkan a reality. The same holds true for any and every Jewish community.

As individuals we need only make the gesture. And that is reason enough to do what each and every one of us can and ought to do. Because taken together, these gestures, collectively, ensure that the presence of God will dwell within and among us as well.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Mishpatim February 1, 2018

Eskimos have numerous ways of naming what we refer to in Italian with the single word ‘snow.’ I suppose that is because they have so much of it. Hebrew works the same way. When the Torah directs us to do or to refrain from doing the many, many things enumerated therein, the text uses multiple terms to categorize what we would usually refer to with the single word ‘commandment.’

This week’s portion begins: These are the mishpatim, these are the rules that you shall set before them. Hebrew differentiates between mishpatim (judgments) edut (statutes) and chukim (laws). The translations are inexact, but since there are no exact synonyms in any language it would seem that these three Hebrew words are referring to different things.

The Rabbis explain it this way. Mishpatim refer to laws of social legislation that if they had not been put into the Torah people could or would have thought them up themselves simply on rational grounds. (You shall not steal) Edut would not have been legislated by human means but once established these laws make perfectly good rational sense. (Shabbat rest) Chukim, on the other hand, are laws that transcend our human understanding. (The Red Heifer) In the last case, it would seem that the Rabbis are reminding us that human reason isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Liberal Judaism makes sense. We have enshrined the exercise of reason along with an awareness and acceptance of discoveries in science and archeology and new approaches in philosophy, anthropology and Biblical studies into our religious understanding. But it’s not all about the mind. Human reason can take us only so far. Let’s leave a little room for mystery.

We haven’t figured it all out. As Shakespeare wrote: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.

I have just returned from conducting the wedding of a former congregant in Houston. I had officiated at the bride’s Bat Mitzvah and previously, when she was only 11, at the funeral for her father. Of course, the memory of that sad day and the absence of her ‘daddy’ were keenly felt by all assembled. As the wedding service began, one – and only one - Texas sized rose bud fell from the huppah and hit the floor with an audible thud. The bride took that as a sign that in a way mysterious and beyond all reasonable explanation, her father was still very much with her in that moment. Who is to say otherwise? There are more things in heaven and earth…

We modern, mostly secular minded, reasonable, rational folks would do well to pay careful attention to those seemingly random, serendipitous moments that we all too often dismiss as a fluke but in actuality lie just beyond the border of our rational understanding. They may just be providing us with a little peek behind of the curtain and an intimation of a realm of being far more glorious than we are usually want to consider.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Yitro January 25, 2019

Parashat Yitro, this week’s Torah portion recounts the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and God’s direct revelation to the people of Israel. “And God spoke all these words saying…”

Jewish tradition differs on just how much of the Ten Commandments was actually orally conveyed to the people. At some point the Israelites implored Moses, “You speak with us and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.” The generally held rabbinic teaching is that the Israelites heard only the first two commandments before terror induced them to pull the revelation-al plug.

Moses wanted and fully anticipated that his people would hear not only all ten of the Ten Commandments but the entire Torah as well. But that  was not to be. “Moses, you speak with us and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.

Was Moses overestimating the strength and character of the people? Did he simply expect too much from them? Or, conversely, had Moses accurately perceived the true spiritual potential of the Israelites, and as their leader wanted only to bring that potential  to the fore. In other words, had Moses accurately recognized in them talents and abilities they were yet to recognize in themselves? 

If you see more deeply into me than I am capable of seeing into myself, who has the better read on the real me? 

The week’s Torah portion takes its name from Yitro, Jethro the father-in-law of Moses. When Jethro enters the Israelite camp he comes upon Moses sitting – from dawn to dusk – arbitrating disputes brought to him by the people. Jethro says: “The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out…for this matter is to heavy for you. You cannot do it alone.” Jethro then counsels a delegation of judicial authority.

Jethro could see the harm Moses was doing both to himself and to the people, even if Moses could not see it himself. Sometimes it takes a person standing outside the circle to accurately perceive what is going on within it. That’s how business consultants and mental health professionals make their living. That’s the value of a true friend and valued counselor. A prisoner cannot free himself.

In the Ethics of the Fathers, Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehoshua taught: (So) Get yourself a teacher (counselor); acquire for yourself a friend.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Whiman


Shabbat Beshalach January 18, 2019

They had witnessed the ten plagues hurled against Egypt, waded through the parted waters of the Red Sea and watched their pursuers drowned in a miraculous deliverance. But only three days journey into the wilderness, at a place called Marah with only bitter water to drink, the people began to murmur against Moses. Not long thereafter they would long for the fleshpots of Egypt and cry out, “Would that we had died in Egypt at the hand of the Lord.”

On the bank of the Red Sea, the people sang praises to God, but not a week into their journey and already they felt free to express their resentment, grievances and displeasure. The Israelites should have been the most grateful, faithful people in the world. How to explain our ancestor’s unflattering and somewhat embarrassing behavior?

Parashat Beshalach tells us that three days journey from the Red Sea the Israelites ‘came to Marah’ - a place that took it’s name from the bitter water found there. The Hebrew word marah means ‘bitterness’ lending the verse to two possible translations. (1) They (the Israelites) came to (a place called) Marah or (2) They (the Israelites) came (to feel) embittered. The Torah’s use of the language is masterful.

The Israelites had endured 400 years of cruel bondage and oppression. The Egyptians had ‘embittered their lives with mortar and brick.’ Yes they had been released from slavery, but why had it taken God so long to act? Why had they been forced to suffer so much? When the exhilarating moment of liberation passed, anger and resentment for all they had endured came right to the surface. 

Bitterness begins with hurt and builds on the emotional pain that follows; and left to fester, that hurt and subsequent anger eventually become the corrosive ulcer that is bitterness. When a person continually rehearses how he or she has been victimized, mistreated or offended, those wrongs eventually come to define some essential part of who the person is. The generation that left Egypt never discarded its slave mentality and carried the burden and bitterness of that identity throughout their wanderings. Obsessed with blaming someone (or something) else for their misery—rather than refusing to permit external hindrances or setbacks from blocking them from pursuing their goal -  prevented the physically liberated Israelites from experiencing the potential joys of living in the freedom of the present.

In Beshalach, God shows Moses how to sweeten the bitterness of Marah by tossing a piece of wood into the brackish water. Nowadays, modern counselors posit forgiveness as the ultimate remedy for those beset by the emotional condition. Forgiveness is never easy, but when a person ‘comes to bitterness’ learning to forgive - with or without loving compassion - facilitates recovery from a wound that, while it may have originated from outside the self, has been kept alive (and even “nurtured”) from within. “And it can hardly be overemphasized that when you decide to forgive a perceived wrongdoer, you do so not so much for them but for you.”

If only our Israelite ancestors had developed a new way of looking at their past by maintaining focus on their evolving present and holding on to the vision of their Promised Land. A lesson many of their descendents would do well to ponder and embrace.

It is hardly possible to build anything if frustration, bitterness, and a mood of helplessness prevail.” Lech Walesa

“Bitterness is like taking poison and hoping your enemy will die.”

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman 

Shabbat Bo - 11 January 2019

On the very eve of the Exodus from Egypt, Moses speaks to the people not of freedom and their imminent liberation from bondage but rather of a time in the far distant future.

Three times in this week’s portion, the Torah recounts: And when your children ask you “What is the meaning of (these Passover) rites you shall say, It is because the Lord passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians but saved our houses.”(Exodus 12:25-27) On that day you shall tell your child, ‘It is because of this that God acted for me when I left Egypt. (13:8) Your child may later ask you, ‘What is this?” You shall answer, “With a show of power, God brought us out of Egypt.(13:14) These passages from Parashat Bo are familiar to us from the recited script of the Passover seder

Moreover, every Shabbat and festival begins with a kiddush that reminds us that the day’s celebration is also a zechar y’tsirat mitsrayim, a remembrance of the going out from Egypt. Of all the pivotal events in Jewish history, then, the Exodus stands out as the most significant.

But an event has continuing significance only if it is remembered and only if its importance is recognized. Perhaps that explains why Moses is so concerned not about how the actual Exodus will be experienced but rather how the significance of the Exodus can be sustained for future generations. The Torah posits storytelling as the antidote to amnesia.

The New York Times today reported the death of Georges Loinger, a wartime rescuer of Jewish children, at 108. Loinger, raised in a religious family,  led hundreds of Jewish children from occupied France to safety in neutral Switzerland. After the war he helped Holocaust survivors make their way to British mandated Palestine. No doubt Georges Loinger had heard the story of the Exodus recounted many times around his family’s Passover table. Loinger’s story is the story of yet another Moses who led his people to safety and freedom. His son reported that the last words his father spoke on his deathbed were: Personne ne pourra detruit la culture Juive. No one can destroy Jewish culture.

That is true as long as stories – especially ones like that of Georges Loinger  - continue to be told and passed from one generation to the next.

Rabbi Jonathan Sachs writes: And no story, at least in the West, has been more influential than that of the Exodus - the memory of how the Supreme Power in the Universe intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless, and together with a people covenanted to create a society that would be the opposite of Egypt, where individuals would be respected as created in the image of God, where one in seven days all hierarchies of power would be suspended and where dignity and justice would be accessible to all.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vaera - January 4, 2019

This week’s Torah portion is filled – to use the words of the old Maxwell House Haggadah – with signs and wonders, with plagues and portents. Parashat Vaera recounts the first seven of the ten plagues sent against Egypt.

The seventh was the plague of hail. But this was not some ordinary meteorological event. The Torah describes it as ice with fire flashing inside of it. Which, of course, set the Rabbis to wondering.

How could that be? Fire in the midst of hail? Would not the fire melt the ice or conversely would not the melted ice extinguish the fire. Their conclusion: the two elements made peace in order to do the will of their Creator.

The Rabbis gave two similar examples. They pointed to the practice of floating a thin layer of water over the oil used in the lamps of the study house. Passing a wick through the two contradictory elements not only made the oil last longer but the lamp burn brighter.

Similarly they noted that as a pomegranate matured the seeds expand and push outward just as the skin of the fruit shrinks and pushes inward. The two contrasting forces to their way of thinking made the juice so exquisitely healthy and sweet.

I write this installment of my weekly blog from Essaouira on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Essaouira for many hundreds of years has been a prosperous and important town. It seems that well into the 19th century this city was about fifty percent Jewish. Who knew?

There has long been a tradition of religious tolerance and mutual respect in Morocco. The main gateway into Essaouira has the symbols of the three Abrahamic faiths carved prominently into the stonework – the cross, the crescent and the six-pointed star. One more example of how when seemingly contradictory elements make peace to do the will of their Creator the result is inevitably illuminating, encouraging and decidedly sweet.

The history of the Jews of Morocco extends over many thousands of years – alternating between periods of prosperity and persecution but generally a remarkably tolerant kingdom. During World War II, when the French Vichy government ordered Mohammed V to turn over his Jewish subjects, the king refused. Who knew?

Increasingly we live in an either-or world constantly struggling to exert one option, one idea or one perspective over all others. It need not be so. When differing, seemingly contradictory ideas find accommodation the outcome is usually more beneficial to all the parties concerned. And the outcome, I would say, reflects more accurately the will of our shared Creator.

All good wishes for a happy secular New Year and Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Shemot 28 December 2018

In the Book Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty asks Alice her name. When she tells him, he replies, “That’s a stupid name. What does it mean?” Alice asks, “Must a name always mean something?” “Of course,” Humpty Dumpty says. “My name means the shape I’m in. With a name like yours, you might be in ny shape at all.”

This week’s portion, Shemot means ‘the names.’ Shemot is also the Hebrew name of the second book of the Torah. What we call ‘Exodus’ the Torah calls ‘The Names.’ The portion and the book of Exodus begin aleh shemot b’nai yisrael, these are the names of the children of Israel who went down into Egypt.

Anthropologists study names as a way to gauge the values a culture holds most dear. In some societies, names refer to aspirations or accomplishments. Teutonic names for instance tend to express warrior-like courage, power, strength and nobility. Though there are plenty of warriors in the Torah, most biblical names have a more spiritual tone. Many Hebrew names express an association with God. Michael means God is my strength. Daniel – God is my Judge. Yael – Adonai is my God.

In Judaism, there are many honorifics and recognitions. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Simeon taught: There are three crowns – the crown of priesthood, the crown of kingship and the crown of learning – but the fourth, the crown of a good name, is the highest of all. The crown of a good name is the reputation you earn by your good deeds and upright actions. You cannot inherit a good name. You must earn it. A good name comes to you only through a lifetime of honest, righteous and ethical effort. It is secured only through diligent struggle, and it can easily be squandered or bartered away.

Ours is the power to determine the manner in which our name will be spoken during our lifetime and how that name will be recalled when we are gone. So, as a secular new year begins resolve to live your life in such a way that your name will indeed be honored and remembered for blessing.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayechi - 21 Dicembre 2018

Since October, each week, I have written and posted a commentary on the parshat ha-shavuah, the assigned Torah reading for the upcoming Shabbat morning service. And no sooner has one blog been finished and emailed off then I have to start thinking about the next one.

 The New York Times recently carried an article on Milan’s upcoming spring Fashion Week. The title ran something like: Design. Plan. Produce. Execute. Wow. Do it all over again. To be sure, no sooner is one season’s clothing line in stores before fashion houses begin tooling up to design and produce the next year’s offering.

 Such is the endlessly recapitulative nature of so much of human activity.

 Mythology tells of Sisyphus, King of Corinth, who so angered the gods that he was sentenced to roll an immense bolder up a hill only to watch it roll back down and then have to repeat the task again and again through eternity. Thus the word sisyphean – a word meaning an endlessly repetitive and unavailing labor or task.

 This Shabbat Vayechi we complete our reading of the Book of Genesis and next week we head off again into the Book of Exodus – a task we do annually at this time of the year as we read through the Torah cycle yet another time. So much of what we do is repetitive, but is it sisyphean? 

 The Mishnah states and the passage is repeated daily in the morning service: These are the obligations without measure whose reward too is without measure, deeds of which it can never be said “I have done enough.” Check out the list and you will see that these are acts of moral rectitude, compassion and caring that though repeated over and over again they never fall into the category of ‘done enough.’ They include honoring father and mother, performing acts of loving kindness, attending the house of study, consoling the bereaved, and making peace where there is strife. With respect to these mitzvoth it is also a case of:  Design. Plan. Produce. Execute. Do it all over again.

Do such actions make a difference? In faith, Judaism proclaims that in fact they do. They actually repair the world.

 So it is that when we get to the end of the reading of any one of the five books of the Five Books of Moses we say: chazak chazak v’nitchazek – be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened. So that we will have the koach, the strength and the resolve to act with goodness and then do it all over again.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayigash

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, the Joseph story builds to its dramatic conclusion. In Egypt, Joseph had risen to prominence and power and when his brothers come down to buy grain they do not recognize him. Joseph toys with them, accuses them of being spies, takes youngest brother Benjamin as a hostage and now, as the reading begins, older brother Judah approaches Joseph to offer himself as a slave in Benjamin’s stead. The Hebrew word vayigash means ‘and he approached.’

One of the Rabbinic commentaries offers that as Judah stepped forward he had a strategy and a well thought out plan in mind. First, he would flatter Joseph, then reason with him. Should that fail, he would argue with Joseph, and then, if need be, physically fight for Benjamin. Only as a last resort, would Judah deploy his ultimate weapon – he would pray.

Despite what our rabbinic forebears might have taught, we moderns probably would not think of prayer as an ‘ultimate weapon’ or the most effective means to achieve a desired end. My hunch is that many if not most see in prayer something akin to ordering from Amazon, a theological request for goods, services and blessings with a much less predictable delivery schedule at that. Formal Jewish prayer does in fact partake of such supplicational religious discourse. But there is more to it than that.

There is a passage in the old Gates of Prayer, the former prayerbook of the American Reform Movement, that taught: Prayer cannot bring water to a parched field, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.” There is great truth in this formulation and in that sense, I do believe that prayer has power.

And there is yet another way to look at it. I have read that Beethoven wrote music that could not be adequately played on the instruments of his day. Beethoven’s music then was a kind of prayer. It said, “Give me instruments tomorrow on which to play the music I have written today.”

There is an impossibly steep section of the Alps called the Semmering. In 1848 they began to lay down train tracks over these mountains to connect Vienna with Venice. They built the tracks, however, long before there was a locomotive powerful enough to use them. The Semmering section of track was a kind of prayer. It said: Build me a train tomorrow to use the pathway I have laid down today.  

Prayer in the Reform tradition is also a way of putting out into the world what we might call ‘the hoped for not yet’ – that would include things like justice, equality, serenity, freedom, fulfillment and peace. And in Judaism it is a way of holding up a portrait of God’s ‘hoped for not yet’ as well - for the world and for ourselves. Prayer understood in this way serves as a powerful reminder to act in such a way to help bring that ‘hoped for not yet’ into being.

Which I suppose was the thought behind another great passage in the Gates of Prayer: Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you. 

Shabbat shalom.

Shabbat Hanukah

In ancient Israel, the Houses of Hillel and Shammai dominated Jewish thought. The two schools disagreed on and about even the smallest particulars of Jewish practice. The Mishnah documents their debates and their divergences. Not even the Happy Holiday of Hanukkah escaped their contrarian pronouncements.

Hillel and Shammai both agreed that Hanukkah should be an eight-day festival and that the miraculous oil of Maccabeean rededication should be recalled with the kindling of lights. But there the agreement ended.

The School of Shammai ordered that eight lights be used on the first night of Hanukkah and then reduced by one on each successive night - seven lights on day 2, six on day 3 and so on. The School of Hillel took exactly the opposite view mandating one light on day 1, two lights on day 2, etc. Because, said Hillel, “In matters of holiness one should never decrease but always increase.” The decision on menorah lighting eventually went with Hillel, and that is the practice we generally follow to this day.

But the truth is that both approaches do make some sense.

Shammai’s practice of progressively reducing the number of lights might have been prompted by a recognition of the ever-diminishing quantity of oil in the original container. So Shammai’s menorah starts off in a blazing array of light and then slowly fades into a diminishing brilliance.

Hillel’s practice, on the other hand, of progressively increasing the number of lights might have been prompted by the ever-increasing wonder experienced by the Maccabees with their realization that something profoundly out of the ordinary was at hand. Hillel’s menorah begins with a single point of light and ultimately builds to an inspiration of illumination.

Elsewhere, the Talmud relates another major disagreement between the two houses. The question this time was: Given all the troubles in this life, the propensity for humans to act badly, would it have been better if humankind had not been created? Shammai said yes. Hillel said no.

This time Shammai argued that human beings were sinful beings, disasters waiting to happen. Hillel reasoned that on the contrary every moment in life was an opportunity to do good, to fulfill a mitzvah, to live in accordance with God’s dream for humanity. Their debate, the Talmud tells us, lasted for two and half years until finally the matter was brought to a vote.

These two disagreements actually have more in common than you might at first suspect. Just under the surface of both, there is a fundamental disagreement on the nature of the human condition. Are we human beings inescapably prone to wrongdoing and violence or are we good deeds waiting to happen? And consequently is the future essentially darkening into despair or progressively brightening with hope?

The decision to follow Hillel’s prescription for lighting the menorah, increasing the number of candles on each successive night, is a symbolic enactment, a statement of faith in a future that can be increasingly made brighter by our good deeds and loving actions.

And who won the dispute between the two houses on whether humanity should or should not have been created? Actually, surprisingly, it was Shammai. The vote of the rabbis indicated that it would have been better if humanity had NOT been created; but having said that, the Talmud adds: But we have been created, so best we get on with the business of living.

You and I have come into this world, and in matters of holiness we increase and do not decrease. So Judaism’s prescription at this season would be: Even when things seem their darkest, do the best you can do today and do a little bit better tomorrow. And - little by little, step by step, the world - your world and mine – will surely be made brighter.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukah.

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayeshev

New Bern is a small city that sits on the convergence of two beautiful rivers in coastal North Carolina. New Bern is old by American standards, founded but yesterday by Milanese reckoning. You would think there would be very little connection between this relatively rural American town and our sprawling, fast-paced Italian metropolis. But there is.

For one thing, the two cities share a Rabbi. I conduct High Holy Day services in New Bern and this column appears in both the Beth Shalom and the B’nai Sholem weekly email sent out by the respective congregations.

Several weeks ago I received a note from a North Carolina congregant that his grandson would be studying in MiIan this semester and perhaps I might make contact with him while he was here. Noah came to our Beth Shalom Shabbat morning service in November ,and David and I invited him to join us for our American Thanksgiving dinner the following week. One more connection.

It is a custom at Thanksgiving to go around the table and for each person to share with the assembled those things for which he or she is particularly grateful. Noah’s list included his gratitude for being included in our happy gathering because “otherwise he would be feeling far from home and very homesick.”

The story of this Noah, as opposed to the Biblical story of Noah, is all about connection and hospitality and family. While it is said that ‘six degrees of separation’ connect any two people anywhere in the world, for Jews - most of the time - the six degrees reduces down to just two.

A couple weeks ago David and I attended Shabbat morning services at Guastalla. Outside the building, the gatekeeper was rudely turning away yet another hopeful visitor. Security concerns aside, the woman it turned out was a Jew from Mexico City whom, in conversation, we learned was a close family friend of one of David’s former long-term business associates. Yes, most of the time - it only takes two.

This week’s torah portion begins ayleh toldot ya’akov, this is the family history of Jacob. We Jews refer to ourselves collectively as b’nai yisrael – the children of Israel. We are indeed all the spiritual descendents of Jacob, and that makes us all family - distant relatives perhaps, but family nonetheless.

One of the distinguishing and most laudable qualities of our Beth Shalom community is the warm and gracious welcome we extend to those ‘relatives’ from near and far who come to be with us for any of our congregational activities.

Yaron came to Milan after attending a Rockefeller Foundation meeting on Lake Como. He wanted only to find a place to say kaddish for the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting. What he found in addition was - as the home page of our website puts it - a congregation with a heart in the heart of Milan. This world travelling millennial wrote: Beth Shalom is the most warm and welcoming congregation I have ever attended.

In our tradition, hachnasat orchim – the hospitality shown to a visitor – is a great mitzvah. It is said that hospitality was one of the signature qualities of our patriarch Abraham. Beth Shalom can be rightly proud of our collective and continuing commitment to the performance of this righteous and holy deed, and I am personally thankful to be associated with such warm-hearted and welcoming people.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayishlach

As the Sabbath morning Amidah is concluding, we sing: Sim shalom tova u’verachah - O God, grant peace, goodness, blessing and favor to us, to Israel and to all the world. The prayer continues ki b’or panechah - literally ‘for by the light of Your face, O God’ – you have given us a love of kindness.

What does or could that mean? Remember, the Torah says that when Moses asked God: “Pray, show me Your glory,” God responds: “No one sees my face and lives.” So how should we understand ‘by the light of the Divine face’ do we discover and nurture our love of kindness?

The answer is given in this week’s portion, Vayishlach. The brothers Jacob and Esau had been estranged from one another for many years. Jacob stole the birthright and the blessing from Esau. Esau, in turn, swore revenge and plotted murder. But when the two meet again the brothers embrace. They are reconciled. Jacob presses his brother to accept gifts, but Esau refuses. Jacob entreats his brother further and says: “If for no other reason than seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”

When we see or when we experience kindness, compassion, forgiveness; When we see or help someone who is wounded to be made whole; When we see others acting as we understand God would act and wants us to act, that is as close as we mortals ever come to seeing the face of God.

And when we attune ourselves to seeing the face of God in the kind actions of others, that in turn can inspire in us the impulse to respond in kind. It is in the seeing and the receiving of acts of loving kindness, that the love of kindness is born and grows. And when we in turn perform gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness, then others may well begin to see the face of God in our actions as well.

We see the face of God when we see the honor that others bestow on their aged parents; when we see others helping the bereaved perform the rituals of mourning, or when we see others rejoicing in the achievements and celebrations of their friends and neighbors. It is possible to see the face of God in the ones who drop a coin into the outstretched hands of the needy. So who looks like God to you?

Or to put it in a slightly different but more important way, who looks at your actions and thinks this is like seeing the face of God?

If you are approaching life in an honorable, upright, compassionate and caring way, observing the ethical and moral commandments of our tradition, then I am relatively sure that there is someone out there who when they look at you, it is as if they too were seeing the face of God.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: We cannot make an image of God but we can be an image of God.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayatsai

When Italian castles stopped being fortresses and began to serve simply as homes for the nobility, the most important feature of the architecture was the main staircase, and the grander the stairway the more impressive the castle. Furthermore, the mark of a visitor’s status was a function of how far down the staircase your host came to greet you. So if you had to walk all the way up to meet the Lord of the Manor or your host came down some number of steps to meet you, you got an instant read on your social standing and status.

 In Parashat Vayetze,  Jacob dreams of a sulam mutazav artza, a ladder, a stairway, a staircase reaching from heaven to earth. Angels are going up and down on it. Jacob, on the other hand, is always depicted sleeping on the ground, down at the bottom of the ladder. But where is God at this point in the dream?

 The Hebrew says, adonai nitzav alav, which could be translated God was ‘on it’, that is at the top of the ladder, or the same phrase could also be understood to mean ‘besides him’, meaning God was now standing besides Jacob. So depending on the translation and applying the principle of Italian castle staircases to our Torah reading, Jacob was either the most insignificant of visitors ushered into the presence of a God who stood infinitely far removed at the very top of a very long ladder. Or Jacob was the most important guest God had entertained perhaps since Adam and Eve because we see that God had descended all the way to the very bottom of the ladder to welcome his visitor into the divine presence. Either way heaven and earth are connected, but God is either - to put it in the words of the American Reform prayer book – “farther than the farthermost star or closer than the air we breathe.” So which was it?

 Well I would like to suggest that it was really both, and the choice of the Hebrew phrase is brilliantly deliberate.

 Think of it this way. Jacob had deceived his father and wrested the blessing from his older brother Esau. He had previously managed to get the birthright by similarly questionable means. He is running from his brother’s revenge. He stops for the night in the middle of nowhere, puts a rock under his head and sleeps like a baby.  Alone, in a place beset by brigands, robbers and wild beats -  yet there he is fast asleep. But when God shows up and promises him all these seemingly good things, then Jacob is shaken, afraid, terrified.

How is it that Jacob could sleep so soundly before the dream? My sense is that up to this point Jacob was sure he had gotten away with it. He had acted in a morally and ethically questionable, even objectionable way and it had all paid off. He had cheated his brother, bamboozled his father and the plan had worked. Or so it seemed. But now God shows up and says, u’shmartechah, which on the one hand means I will guard, protect you. But it also means I’m on to you, I’m observing you, I have my eye on you, and I won’t let go of you.

Then God says v’ hashevotechah – and I will bring you back – on the one hand the Hebrew means ‘return you to this place’. But hashevotechah is also the word Hebrew uses for repentance, to cause you to repent. In other words, God also says I will expect and assist you in your moral development. Jacob, God says, You are going to become a different, a better person. If it’s the last thing you do. If it’s the last thing I do. And that’s what scares the hell out of Jacob.  

 In Judaism, our understanding of what it means to be moral and ethical is rooted in the sacred teachings of our tradition. The God who stands at the top of the ladder, the God we call Adonai who is fully beyond our imagining, is nonetheless the source of our sense of right and wrong and the ground of our moral and ethical understanding. But that God who is simultaneously standing with us at the bottom of the ladder, next to us, within us is also the source of our ability to hope, to grow, and to become better than we are.

We are not meant to imitate Jacob’s questionable ethical actions and standards of morality. We are intended rather to use them to question and instruct ourselves with respect to our own. Jacob does not get to make up what is right and wrong. We are supposed to use these ancestral exemplars of a less than perfect humanity not as an absolute model to emulate but rather as a mirror with which to evaluate how well we are doing in our own spiritual and ethical journey of becoming. The Jew who follows the virtuous teachings of the tradition will more likely develop a moral character that will be seen and understood to be a blessing.

 In Judaism, righteousness is a possibility not a guarantee. As God says to us as God said to Jacob: I am with you, to encourage you, to assist you, and to put a forgiving and understanding arm around you if and when you need me. Now go forth to blessing.

Shabbat Toldot

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, the family line of Abraham is extended into the third generation with the arrival of the twins Jacob and Esau. But even before their birth there is a premonition of discord. The twins struggle in their mother’s womb. God reveals to Rebecca that this pre-natal conflict will continue on into the lives of the children and their descendents. “Two nations shall issue forth from your body and the older will serve the younger.”

While the Torah does not explicitly tell us, it would seem logical to assume that Rebecca never shares the content of this revelation with Isaac. That would explain why Isaac, who appreciates Esau’s skill as a hunter, actually goes on to favor first-born Esau, the one who would customarily inherit the birthright and blessing.  And why Rebecca favors Jacob, the one designated by God to carry on the covenant of Abraham. To quote a classic movie line from the past “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

And because Rebecca keeps her revelation a secret, the family dynamic will be further damaged by incidents of fraud, theft, deception and ultimately Esau’s intention to murder his brother. The Yom Kippur confessional contains a long list of transgressions brought about through the agency of speech, by the rough words, the unkind words, the malicious hurtful words that we let escape from our mouths. But sometimes it is equally wrong to withhold our words, not to speak, not to communicate the thoughts, feelings and concerns that we hold in the head and heart.

In family life, some secrets are healthy and necessary but others limit the next generation’s freedom and self-acceptance. What a child doesn’t know can hurt him or her. Kim Edward’s novel, The Memory Keepers Daughter tells the story of a doctor who delivers his wife’s set of twins and then sends away the Down-syndrome-afflicted daughter at birth. Over the next 25 years the family suffers the consequences of the doctor’s secret as secrets beget more secrets and obfuscations abound.

The truth is families are paradoxical. Secrets that are so carefully guarded get revealed and uncovered when the children act them out – if not in their own generation than in the next. As the story of Jacob unfolds, the consequences of Rebecca’s secret keeping will play out in the lives of her children and grandchildren. Family secrets have consequences far beyond what the secret keepers ever imagined.

The downside of secret keeping shows up in organizational life as well. When problems are kept off the table for fear of threat or embarrassment they remain impervious to correction. An un-disscusable problem is an un-solvable problem. When an organizational truth is an open secret, even the well intentioned - who want the best for their organization - will dance around the real issues focused on redressing the multiple symptoms and not the root causes of their problem.

The truth is that there are few secrets so dangerous that they cannot stand being brought out into the open, where they suddenly lose the evil and darkness that once surrounded them. Though there is always some risk to revealing what has previously been kept secret, the maxim ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’ is worth keeping in mind.

The writer of Ecclesiastes counseled “There is a time for every purpose under heaven.” Among other things, “A time for silence and a time for speaking.” If Rebecca had shared her revelation with Isaac perhaps Jacob’s deception of his father and the rift between brothers could have been avoided. At any rate it is no secret that open and honest communication is an essential key in sustaining any and all relationships. 

Shabbat Shalom