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  • Judaism and Abortion Rights

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 24, 2021 | 20:46 pm

    What follows is my sermon exploring Jewish teachings about abortion rights from the second day of Rosh Hashanah services. I know I professed a desire to talk about everything that happened last year, but I am afraid I only have time to tackle the events of this past month. That about sums up this year. Every month felt like a year. And so, this morning one more discussion about contemporary events. Given the recent decision of the US Supreme Court to let the Texas law stand that effectively blocks access to abortions after six weeks, I thought it important to lay out the Jewish view of abortion. After the holidays, we will host a panel examining this recent Supreme Court decision and Roe v. Wade. We are fortunate to have among our members Robin Charlow, a professor of law at Hofstra University and Lauren Riese Garfunkel, a Board member of the National Council of Jewish Women. They will help walk us through the constitutional issues and what more can be done in the fight for reproductive freedom.This morning I will turn to the texts of our tradition. For those who are regulars at our second day Rosh Hashanah service, you know it is my custom to examine Judaism’s sacred texts. This is what I will walk us through this morning. Here are the three crucial texts elucidating the Jewish view of abortion. First an aside. As Jews we are informed by our sacred texts. We are guided by their words. We don’t just make decisions without looking to the wisdom of those who went before us. First and foremost, we look to the Torah.Here are the words of the Torah, from Parashat Mishpatim in the Book of Exodus.“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage result, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand,[…]

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  • Jefferson's Statue, Jefferson's Words

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 22, 2021 | 01:00 am

    I imagine a debate about our founding father, Abraham and what would happen if we were looking at a statue of him. On the one hand, he set out on a journey that reshaped the world. In this new land to which he traveled, he grew closer to God. His family, and wealth, increased. Through his heirs three religions were born, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I would like to think the world has benefited from his extraordinary vision. On the other hand, he fathered a child with his slave, Hagar. He then cast this child, Ishmael, and his mother aside, leaving them to die in the desert. I remain troubled by his heartlessness. I recognize his flaws but hold on to his faith in God. Others might be unable to look past his wrongs. If holders of these divergent views were staring at the same image, would they be able to compromise? Would the nuances, the mistakes and failures, be smoothed over? In the Torah’s words, there is room for opposing views. I wonder as well. Do I hold on to the aspirations in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” or the image of Jefferson now removed from New York City’s Council chamber? I have come to believe that statues are more about their creators than the people they depict. Did you know that Jefferson’s statue was commissioned in 1834 by one of the first Jewish officers in the U.S. Military? Uriah Phillips Levy served in the navy and fought in the War of 1812. He was a member of New York’s famous Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. He saw in Jefferson the possibility of overcoming the antisemitism he experienced. In fact, Levy is also responsible for commissioning the Jefferson statue in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Was Levy unaware that Jefferson was a slaveholder? I doubt it. Levy was like far too many of his contemporaries unaware of slavery’s evils. I[…]

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  • Answering the Unexpected

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 14, 2021 | 20:19 pm

    Seemingly out of nowhere God calls Abraham, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12) We are left to wonder why Abraham? What is it about his character that made God choose him?The rabbis of course spin many stories to explain this. The most famous of which is the tale about the time young Abraham was working in his father idol shop. Abraham smashes all the idols except one and then when his father confronts him, he blames the single idol. His father screams, “That is ridiculous! An idol can’t destroy other idols.” And Abraham says, “Exactly!” He reasons that a statue of wood and stone cannot be responsible for our lives. In that moment Abraham begins to realize that there is only one God who moves heaven and earth.Moses Maimonides offers a similar insight. He suggests that Abraham looks to the stars and realizes that they should not be objects of our worship. He understands that there is an invisible force who instead moves the stars and orders the heavens. Aristotle, whose writing greatly influenced Maimonides, called this force the Prime Mover. Maimonides saw this as synonymous with God. Abraham understood that only this force is worthy of our devotion.The particulars of these different stories are somewhat immaterial. All the commentators agree that there was something remarkable in Abraham’s character. There was something unique in his insights. He must have been called by God because he was in essence the first to understand the power of monotheism. Perhaps the commentators are wrong. Perhaps our rabbis are mistaken. Is it blasphemous to suggest such an idea? Is it instead possible that there was nothing special in Abraham’s character? Is it imaginable that God decided to pick an ordinary, everyday man? Perhaps the power of the story is what Abraham accomplished after the call. That in truth might be the more important Torah. Abraham’s character is inconsequential until he is called.We spend so much of our lives devoted to establishing our credentials. Here[…]

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  • Walking with Others, Walking with God

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 8, 2021 | 01:48 am

    What does it mean to walk with others? Moshe Cordervero, one of the greatest Jewish mystics, who lived in sixteenth century Safed, offered this advice. Go for long walks with friends. He and his friend, and fellow mystic, and brother-in-law, Shlomo Alkabetz, who authored one of our favorite Friday night prayers, Lecha Dodi, would go on walks in the fields surrounding Safed. Their goal was to see where their friendship led them. What truths could they uncover as they walked? Cordevero offered this counsel: “One should desire the best for friends, view their good fortune favorably and cherish friends’ honor as your own.” What they discussed on those walks were recorded in a book called the “Book of Wanderings.” Go on an undetermined path with a friend. Go get lost with a friend. Wander together and there you can be found. There you might discover some truth. He offered practical suggestions about his spiritual practice. 1.Always walk with a friend. And 2. Only discuss matters of great importance. No discussions about the weather. Or what this person or that is doing or wearing or buying. Talk about the world. Argue about weighty matters. Discuss Torah. Often, we think mysticism is about separating ourselves from the world. We imagine going on walks by ourselves in the woods or perhaps on the beach. There we are at one with nature. We commune with God’s creation and look within. But Cordervero suggests this is the wrong approach. Instead, we must walk in nature, with others. The Torah offers this insight: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6). Only about Enoch, a descendant of Adam and Eve, do we also read that he walked with God. No other figure in the Bible is described in this manner. It is fascinating to discover that the Bible does not write “walked with God” about any Jewish figure. Abraham is commanded to walk with God. He is not, however, judged as having walked with God. That is what he is supposed to do not what he has already done.[…]

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  • Get Angry, Be Joyful

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 5, 2021 | 16:52 pm

    What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.  We require the emotions of anger and joy to face life's uncertainties.     A Hasidic story. When the seer of Lublin was a child, he lived near a forest. Almost every day the young boy ventured off into the woods by himself. His father, who was basically a tolerant and understanding man, didn’t want to interfere with his son’s daily excursions, but to be honest, he was concerned. He knew all too well that the forests near their home could be dangerous. One day the father pulled his son aside and said, “I notice that every day you go off by yourself into the forest.” He continued, “I don’t want to forbid you from going there, but I want you to know that I am worried about your safety.” The father added, “Why is it that you go there, and what is it that you are doing there?” The boy responded, “I go into the forest to find God.” His father was deeply moved by his son’s spirituality. “That’s beautiful my son,” he said. “And I am pleased to hear that you are doing that and searching for God in the forest. But don’t you know? God is everywhere. God is the same wherever you go.” “God is,” the boy answered, “But I am not.”The spiritual quest is not about finding a new forest, or even a different and safer forest, but instead about finding a new self. It is about changing ourselves. Every day we are different. And every day we have to start that search anew. The search is about making ourselves different, each and every day. And that to be honest, is confounding and exceedingly difficult, most especially given the times we currently find ourselves in. How do we get up each morning and go out into the world, when confronted with such uncertainty? Every day there seems some new bit of evidence, or advice, about went to wear masks or how many shots to get. Is it advisable to go out to a restaurant, or Yom Kippur[…]

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  • Grasping the Divine Image

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 1, 2021 | 02:20 am

    This week we begin the Torah reading anew. We begin with the opening chapters of Genesis. We join with others so that we might uncover new, and yet undiscovered, understandings in these ancient words.And we notice there are two creation stories. In the first chapter God creates human beings from the earth. The name Adam comes from the Hebrew adamah, meaning earth. Furthermore, humanity is created in God’s image from the outset. This image is a matter of divine will. It is given to humanity by God’s hand. The Torah reports: “And God created adam in God’s image, in the image of God, God created adam, male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1) Man and woman are created simultaneously. The rabbis suggest that adam was an androgynous human with both male and female traits. God then divided this figure into two and fashioned male and female.In the second creation account, man is created first and the woman from his rib. This is perhaps the more familiar account and has for centuries led people to suggest that the Bible believes women are subservient to men. But first created does not necessarily first in a hierarchal order. In fact, one could argue that with the second creation, namely woman, God worked out the kinks in the first creation. Is the artist’s first draft always the best version? Still, I am left wondering how to reconcile these two distinct stories. And then it occurs to me, and only because of poring over these words with others, that these two accounts are not so much about how human beings were created, or for that matter, the relationship between man and woman, but instead about how we gain divine like qualities. In the first it is God’s creative act that fashions God’s image within us. In the second we do not gain a measure of divinity until we eat from the tree of knowledge. Although God forbids us from eating this fruit, we achieve something worthwhile and commendable, when we reach for this tree. We gain knowledge. We grab hold of right and wrong.[…]

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  • Grief is Like the Ocean

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 28, 2021 | 12:29 pm

    The following meditation was included in our Yizkor memorial book.  I composed it after listening to a friend describe her waves of grief.Bonnie Tsui writes, “Not everybody is a swimmer, but everyone has a swimming story to tell.”(Why We Swim)Grief is like the ocean. There are days when the waves come crashing down upon us. There are other days when the water appears calm but then an unexpected wave knocks us off our feet and holds us down as it crashes overhead. We struggle to the surface and gasp for air. And then there are days when the waters are tranquil, and we can float on its gentle current and be carried by a sea of pleasant memories. Grief is like the ocean. No day is the same. We have no choice but to go out and swim into the waters. We have no choice but to recount our tale.

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  • Welcoming Guests, Welcoming Strangers

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 23, 2021 | 22:37 pm

    The holiday of Sukkot is an agricultural festival. In ancient times we built temporary shelters so that we could spend our days out in the field harvesting the Fall crops. The Torah also suggests that we lived in these booths during our wanderings in the wilderness and they therefore remind us of our journey from freedom (Passover) to revelation (Shavuot). Rabbi Akiva believed that these temporary booths symbolized God’s protective shelter over us. For one week we are commanded to eat, and even sleep, in the sukkah. The sukkah should never be built so well that it keeps out rain. In fact, one is supposed to be able to see the stars through its roof. The sukkah’s temporary quality reminds us of the fragility of our lives. Spending time in the sukkah helps to reconnect us to nature. Sleeping in the sukkah teaching us gratitude for the beautiful homes in which we live. We are to invite guests into our sukkah and share our meals with them. The tradition suggests that everyone who is fortunate enough to celebrate Sukkot should invite at least one poor person to join them in their sukkah. Another tradition counsels us to invite ushpizin, imaginary, and legendary, guests. We invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. And I would add, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther. On each of the holiday’s seven days, we single out a different Jewish hero. The prayerbook suggests we say, “I invite to my meal the exalted guests, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. May it please you, Abraham, my exalted guest, that all the other exalted guests dwell with me and with you: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.” It is an interesting custom that reminds us of the importance of welcoming guests. Our homes, and our hearts, must always be open others. According to the tradition, Abraham and Sarah were models of how we are to welcome strangers. I cannot help but think of their example as I watch, once again and yet again, images of people struggling to enter our[…]

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  • Embracing Change

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 19, 2021 | 14:33 pm

    What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur evening in which I argue that only change will ensure the Jewish people's survival. Let me tell you about our people’s survival. It is captured by a story from nearly 2,000 years ago. It involves the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E, the most catastrophic event the Jewish people ever experienced, until the twentieth century’s Holocaust. It is the story about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. During the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, Yohanan was secreted out of town by his students. They carried him to the Roman general’s camp in a coffin. There he negotiated with Vespasian that Yavneh be spared so that a rabbinic academy could be established there. Why did he need to sneak out of Jerusalem? Because his Jewish compatriots might very well have killed him. So divided were the Jewish people during those years that he feared for his life. He was a known critic of the Sadducees who stubbornly held fast to the rituals surrounding animal sacrifices. Yohanan ben Zakkai also stood against the Zealots who took up arms against the mighty Roman army. He argued that making peace was the best course of action, that accommodation with forces more powerful than our own would best ensure our survival. That is the story in a nutshell. That is also not how we tell it.Instead, we never even visit Yavneh. On every trip to Israel, the tour guide wakes us up early in the morning so we can climb the winding snake path to Masada’s fortress. There we watch the most glorious sunrise over the mountains. The sight never fails to take my breath away. There we glorify the events surrounding Masada’s downfall. We tell the story of how the Zealots held out for three years following the destruction of Jerusalem. When our heroes realized that the Romans would soon break through the fortress walls, because they had completed a ramp on the mountain’s opposite side, the Zealots decided to commit mass suicide rather than be taken as slaves. The Roman army arrived[…]

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  • Zoom Stories

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 19, 2021 | 14:32 pm

    What follows is the meditation I offered at this year's Yom Kippur Yizkor service reflecting what I learned at Zoom shiva.  This year was a difficult year. Our congregation suffered many losses and far more than past years. This year was also a strange year. We observed shiva more often than not on Zoom. Because of this there was a regular shiva minyan in my home for months on end. And yet, even though I sat by myself in my study I strangely, and perhaps even miraculously, felt surrounded by hundreds of people. There, we huddled together on my laptop screen, all trying to bring a measure of comfort to grieving friends.This was not the shiva I had come to know in my thirty years of being called rabbi. In the past this is what I instead observed. More often than not people would arrive and find their way to the kitchen. They would exchange sometimes uncomfortable “Hello’s” and “It’s so sad.” They would talk about the weather’s latest storm or the maddening traffic, or a confounding Jets loss or on occasion, a surprising Mets win. There were times when I would observe a beautiful moment of healing. A familiar face to the mourner, but a stranger to me, would come over and say, “Can I tell you about when your dad did this for me?” or “Can I tell you a story about your mom? There was the time…” And that was my cue. I would offer a hug and a goodbye to the mourner because I then knew they were in good hands. I had confidence that such stories would uplift their spirits and maybe even fill their emptied hearts. I never heard those extra stories. They seemed private utterances, between mourner and storyteller, between the bereaved and their comforter.In this past year, however, I discovered something new. I had to stay in that virtual room because I was now managing the technology. I had to make sure Aunt You Know Who stayed muted when she loudly whispered something to her husband about a relative they had not[…]

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  • On Yom Kippur, Lift Our Chair

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 15, 2021 | 15:51 pm

    On Yom Kippur, Lift Our Chair In Jerusalem’s Breslover synagogue, located in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, there is aa beautifully carved ornate wooden chair placed near the Ark. No one sits in it. The chair once that of Rebbe Nachman, the founder of this Hasidic dynasty. In 1808, in the days before Rosh Hashanah the butcher of Teplik Ukraine made this gift for the rebbe. The rabbi was so impressed with the craftsmanship, and most especially with the fact the butcher spent so much of his free time during the prior six months making it, that Rebbe Nachman loved to sit in the chair. He felt that the kavvanah, intention, of the butcher helped to lift his prayers. After the great rabbi’s death, this chair became a symbol of the Breslover Hasidim. How it found its way to Jerusalem is the stuff of legends. There are two stories. The first is most likely closer to the truth. During the Cossack pogroms of the 1920’s, Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Lippel cut the chair into pieces in order to carry it to safety. He walked, and some say ran, twenty miles to the nearby town of Kremenchug where it was then hidden by the Rosenfeld family. In 1936 Rabbi Moshe Ber Rosenfeld brought the chair to Jerusalem. It was restored in the late 1950’s by artisans from the Israel Museum, and then again in the 1980’s. The chair was then placed in the synagogue where it can be seen to this day. The second is the story I prefer to tell. When the Nazis invaded the Ukraine, Rebbe Nachman’s disciples realized that the only way for some of them to survive was to run and to scatter throughout the world. But what should they do with the Rebbe’s chair? And so, they decided to cut the chair into small pieces and every disciple would carry a piece of the chair, and the intention of their great rabbi, as they ran for their lives. After the war, the Rebbe’s many disciples and their descendants found each other in Jerusalem. Miraculously every single one who carried a piece of the[…]

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  • Changing Our Perspective

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 13, 2021 | 16:44 pm

    What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah morning services. Shanah Tovah! May it be a good year, a sweet year. May it be a year of health and happiness. And may this coming year not be as exhausting or as consequential as the one in the rearview mirror. Let 5782 be ordinary. I can’t remember a year in which so much happened. I don’t even know where to begin. Should I talk about antisemitism? Hurricanes? January 6th? Abortion rights? Israel’s ongoing battles—on Gaza’s border, in the university and at Ben & Jerry’s? This maddening pandemic that we thought would already be behind us? Afghanistan? You know I would like to say, “All of the above!” That of course is way too much for one sermon. Well, it was way too much for one year! Let’s turn around and examine the past. Let’s figure out what Jewish lessons we can discern from this painful year. On this Rosh Hashanah let’s focus on the outside world. Let’s look at contemporary events. Judaism offers us help. It offers us answers for how we can make sense of our reeling world. We need our Judaism to offer us a way out of all these messes. This morning let’s look out. Let’s look back. We begin with the last weeks. This morning let’s tackle just two recent events: the Hurricane and Afghanistan. Tomorrow morning, I will examine abortion rights.Hurricane Ida. In case seven inches of rain, streets transformed into rivers, people drowning in their apartments as well as cars, didn’t convince us, climate change is real. In case the drought that plagues the American West, the Colorado River drying up, forest fires producing so much smoke and toxic fumes that we choke on it here in New York, didn’t convince us, climate change has already happened. The weather is changing before our eyes. I watch the Weather Channel more than the news. My phone flashes more alerts for weather emergencies than Instagram DM’s. Ok, that may have more to do with the fact that I am no longer in high school, but you get my[…]

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  • A 9-11 Prayer

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 11, 2021 | 01:18 am

    A 9-11 Prayer In the days and weeks, and even months, after 9-11, I could still recall images of the towers burning and crumbling, the cinder and ash enveloping downtown, the many pictures of the people missing, and buried, and the firefighters killed, first adorning the fences of New York, and then the pages of The New York Times. But mostly I remember the sky. I recall thinking what a beautiful, regal blue the sky was on the morning of that dreadful day. I also remember how empty the sky was in the days that followed. It was empty of planes, save the occasional military jet or helicopter. It felt even empty of birds. It appeared emptied of sounds. The country too was empty of words that could fill the void, that could comfort us in our horror, that could assuage the first responders’ hurt. Sure, we offered memorial services, we shared songs and poems and even prayers—as if those could somehow fill the emptiness the families who lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives now felt, as if those could soften the terror we also felt now that our city no longer gleamed with its chaotic enthusiasm. Our city was emptied of its hustle and bustle save the hurried, and harried, work begun at ground zero to remove the mountains of rubble. “We must rebuild,” we shouted. And we did. “We must go after those responsible for these murders,” we cried. And we did. “We must dedicate a memorial to those lost.” Again, we did.Mostly I remember the sky. Its vastness, its blueness, its emptiness pointed to something greater. We were empty of divisions. We were unified for a brief moment in time.That same sky will reappear tomorrow morning on September 11, 2021. We will look up to the heavens. The planes return overhead. I no longer have to strain to hear the birds sing. We will remember the sky’s royalty. Its blue thread held us together. Now that has frayed. The divisions, and recriminations, drown out the songs. The heaven’s beauty is shrouded in grey.[…]

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  • The Book (Revue) Never Closes

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 9, 2021 | 22:21 pm

    The Book (Revue) Never Closes Years ago, Leon Wieseltier wrote about the closing of his beloved music store. He wondered what the world would be like when he could no longer wander into the store and discover an album for which he did not even know he was looking. He wrote: “Browsing is the opposite of ‘search.’ Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance.”Tomorrow evening Huntington’s Book Revue will close its doors.  Even before we moved to Huntington, we would pilgrimage there in search of books. I don’t know all the details about why it is closing. There has been plenty of online debates, and accusations, about how this was allowed to occur. I do know this. It saddens me. It is one more sadness piled on to a year of sadness. There were countless evening outings when we would end up in Book Revue. Often, after finishing dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, we would walk around town. Inevitably we would find our way to the Book Revue. There we would often divide up and each go to our favorite sections. I usually ended up in the poetry section to see what new book had arrived. Or that destination might be chosen because Susie would say, “There is this book I want to get, let’s go see if it’s at Book Revue.” And there we would go, with friends or children in tow.Or she might say, “I ordered something at Book Revue, let’s go pick it up.” Again, I would wander to the poetry section. I would flip through Denise Levertov, Maya Angelou, Billy Collins and Rainer Maria Rilke. On other occasions, I would lug home W.B. Yeats, Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz and Harold Bloom. It’s been eighteen years since we moved to Huntington.I rarely if ever entered the store’s doors intending to buy another poetry book, yet the discoveries now line my shelves. Other times we would go there with Shira and Ari. Each of us[…]

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  • How to Help

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 3, 2021 | 16:39 pm

    Hurricane Ida has now passed through the New York area and left destruction and hardship in its wake.  It is difficult to believe that more people were killed in our own area from what was no longer a hurricane than when the storm made landfall in Louisiana as a category 4 hurricane.  I pray for those who were injured.  I pray most especially for the families of those who lost their lives.  If you would like to lend support to those in need, I recommend giving to these organizations: Nechama: A Jewish Response to DisasterWorld Central KitchenThese organizations are already in Louisiana helping people rebuild, providing temporary shelter and feeding those who need food and even water.  People are hungry!  Let us help our fellow Americans.  As I became aware of those organizations who are providing help to people in need within our own area, I will share that information as well.  Give to those in need.  Pray for their healing.

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  • Wash Your Hands

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 3, 2021 | 01:20 am

    As we near the High Holidays and approach this period of introspection and repentance, I offer this prayer:Let us cast away the sin of deception, so that we will mislead no one in word or deed, nor pretend to be what we are not.Let us cast away the sin of vain ambition which prompts us to strive for goals which bring neither true fulfillment nor genuine contentment.Let us cast away the sin of stubbornness, so that we will neither persist in foolish habits nor fail to acknowledge our will to change.Let us cast away the sin of envy, so that we will neither be consumed by desire for what we lack nor grow unmindful of the blessings which are already ours.Let us cast away the sin of selfishness, which keeps us from enriching our lives through wider concerns, and greater sharing, and from reaching out in love to other human beings.Let us cast away the sin of indifference, so that we may be sensitive to the sufferings of others and responsive to the needs of our people everywhere.Let us cast away the sin of pride and arrogance, so that we can worship God and serve God’s purposes in humility and truth. (Mahzor Hadash: The New Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah)Judaism counsels us that actions and deeds define our lives. Good intentions do not redeem bad deeds. Whereas bad intentions are dissolved by good deeds. Thus, we can only correct our wrong actions. We can only repair misdeeds. How many times do we instead discuss and debate intentions? Our tradition’s counsel is that they are secondary to actions. Only deeds can be judged. If a person does good, then he or she is deemed righteous. Intentions are known by God alone. What a person holds in his or her heart is the purview of the divine. It is not the province of human beings. The High Holidays are devoted to repairing and correcting our actions. We spend these days focusing on what we might do different, not what we might intend. We resolve to cast away our wrongs and repair our lives.[…]

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  • My Father Was Lost

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 28, 2021 | 21:58 pm

    Once settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites are instructed to give thanks for their harvest. In what is perhaps the first recorded Thanksgiving celebration, the Torah commands them to make an offering. “You shall leave the first fruits before the Lord your God and bow low before the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 26). Prior to bringing these offerings, the Israelites recite an encapsulation of their history proclaiming that it was God who brought them out of slavery to the land of Israel.  This recitation begins with the words: “My father was a fugitive Aramean—Arami oved avi.” The English lacks the Hebrew’s alliteration. It also disguises the power contained in these three words. The first word uttered is: Aramean. My father was not an Israelite. He was a foreigner. The implication is clear. The land is borrowed. It belongs to God. It is not owned or possessed. This is why the land’s harvest is shared first with God and then the stranger. “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household.” Moreover, “oved” can be translated as “lost” rather than “fugitive” or “wandering.” Lost connotes something far more powerful. Our ancestors were not simply freed from slavery. They did not escape, but rather were lost. Abraham was not a wanderer. Instead, he was directionless—until God called to him. It was the call that set his path. It was the going out from Egypt that carved our direction. Why begin the offering of first fruits with the recitation of these words? Why profess that our ancestor was a stranger? Why state that the founder of our faith was lost? To teach empathy for the outsider. To inculcate thanks. Giving thanks is not about saying, “Look at the bounty with which God has blessed me.” It is instead, “Look at the bountiful blessings that I can share.” If the first fruits are borrowed from God, then there are no limits to the blessings we can share. Recall that our ancestors wandered aimlessly.[…]

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  • Lost Together

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 20, 2021 | 20:23 pm

    The Hebrew month of Elul began on Sunday, August 8th. According to Jewish tradition this day begins a forty-day period of introspection and repentance that concludes with the beautiful Yom Kippur Neilah service. We belong to a remarkable tradition. We believe that human beings are capable of change. We believe that we have the capacity to mend our ways. No one is perfect. All have erred. Let us take these precious days to mend our failures. This is the grand purpose of the upcoming High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah begins the evening of September 6th. (Yes, this is early and very soon.) A Hasidic story that I learned from Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Reb Chaim Halberstam of Zanz once helped his disciples prepare for Elul and its goals of teshuvah (repentance) and tikkun (repair) by sharing the following tale. Once a woman became lost in a dense forest. (Obviously this was before the advent of Google Maps.). She wandered this way and that in the hope of stumbling on a way out, but she only got more lost as the hours went by. Then she chanced upon another person walking in the woods. Hoping that he might know the way out, she said, “Can you tell me which path leads out of this forest?” “I am sorry, but I cannot,” the man said. “I am quite lost myself.” “You have wandered in one part of the woods,” the woman said, “while I have been lost in another. Together we may not know the way out, but we know quite a few paths that lead nowhere. Let us share what we know of the paths that fail, and then together we may find the one that succeeds.” “What is true for these lost wanderers,” Reb Chaim said, “is true of us as well. We may not know the way out, but let us share with each other the way that have only led us back in.” Together we are always stronger. Together we can find ourselves out of any difficulty and surmount any stumbling blocks. This year, most especially we need walk together.[…]

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  • Gates of Justice

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 14, 2021 | 12:15 pm

    In ancient times, the court room was the city’s gates. In fact, archeologists have uncovered stone benches attached to gates of biblical cities where judged sat, heard cases, and issued rulings. It is unfortunate that most contemporary translations render the Hebrew “shaarecha” as your settlements rather than the more literal “your gates.” The Torah proclaims: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements (shaarecha) that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” (Deuteronomy 16) The Bible’s intent is clear. Your gates are where justice is established. Why else would the Torah also instruct us “To write these words on the doorpost of your house and on your gates?” It is because justice begins, and ends, at the threshold of a house or a city. This is why justices sat and ruled at the city’s entrances. When people debated matters of law, or had difficulties they could not resolve, they are supposed to go to judges who are more expert in the law and more experienced in rendering decisions. People, quite literally, took their disputes to the edge of town where they were resolved. In this way the community is kept whole, and differences, are kept at its outskirts. Only justice is allowed to enter through our gates. It is a wonderful, and enlightening, image. Keep your arguments out there. Maintain your cohesiveness within. Repair to the gates when matters become heated, when it is too difficult for you to solve your problems without the assistance of a professional. The prophet Amos declares: “Hate evil and love good. And establish justice in the gate.” (Amos 5) If you establish justice in the gate, then your cities and towns, countries and communities, can indeed remain whole.

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  • Get Vaccinated! It's the Jewish Thing to Do

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 6, 2021 | 18:24 pm

    Can we talk about vaccines? Not the science part, but instead the Jewish piece. Judaism believes that our primary responsibility is towards others. We are taught to think about the community’s needs first and foremost. A few illustrations. Attending services is about the fact that others need us to be there. We do not say, for example, the mourner’s kaddish except in the presence of a minyan of ten people. Being there is so that others can stand and mourn. While services are most certainly meaningful and uplifting to the individual, the tradition sees their import in the “we” rather than the “I.” Our prayers are in the plural because we are only one when praying with others. Even dancing at a wedding is not so much about how the spirit (spirits?) move us but instead about making sure the couple dance and celebrate on their wedding day. It is a religious obligation to make sure that the wedding couple rejoice. I dance in large part to lift others on to the dance floor. No one can be hoisted on high for the horah unless they are surrounded by the community. Getting vaccinated is then about making sure that we are protected and healthy. The difficulty is that we are unaccustomed to making medical decisions with anyone else in mind but ourselves. Many have been faced with difficult medical choices. Do I have the surgery as one doctor suggests or take the medicine as another recommends? Do I have the procedure or wait and see what the next blood test indicates? All such decisions are fraught with risks. No medical decision, or any choice for that matter, is risk free. Even the most ordinary of tests or procedures carry with them some risk. But when we evaluate the pros and cons we think only of our own individual health. For the first time in many of our lives, we are now faced with a decision that is not just about my health, but also the health of others. Even though the risks of the vaccines appear minimal, they are not[…]

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  • Earth's Bonds

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 30, 2021 | 01:34 am

    The Torah, and the Book of Deuteronomy in particular, argues that if we care for God’s commandments, if we follow the mitzvot, then the land will in turn care for us. In fact, the second paragraph of the Shema, reminds us: “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God, and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late.” (Deuteronomy 11) In other words, follow God’s mitzvot and then it will only rain when it is supposed to rain. Nature will follow its proper course if we listen to God. (As if it were that simple!) Too often people think that observance means lighting candles, wearing a tallis, or reciting the Shema. It also entails ethical mitzvot: loving your neighbor, giving tzedakah or honoring parents. We forget the agricultural commandments that are also part of our sacred literature. We are commanded to leave the gleanings of the field for the poor and the stranger. We are told let our fields lie fallow on the seventh year. We are enjoined not to eat fruit from trees until after the third year. Perhaps we would do we well to rediscover the meaning and intention of these commandments. We are connected to the land. The earth gives us life. The early Reform rabbis removed these verses, and the second paragraph of the Shema, from the prayer service arguing that it represented too literalist of a theology. It offered a stark theory. If you do good, namely listening to God, then good happens. If you do bad by ignoring God and even worse bowing down to idols, then bad happens. Everyone knows the world does not follow such a neat and simplistic order and so the rabbis said, “Better not to say these words as a prayer.” And yet, we live in a time when we are becoming more and more aware of how fragile our earth really is. Need we look any further than the forest fires raging[…]

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  • Please God! Help Us Bring Peace

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 23, 2021 | 21:22 pm

    For all his successes and triumphs, our hero Moses is denied setting foot in the Promised Land. Because he grew angry at the Israelites and hit a rock, God states that he will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel. This week Moses begs God to change this decree: “And I pleaded (vaetchanan) with the Lord… Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.” (Deuteronomy 4) The commentators are bothered by Moses’ behavior. They think it is unbecoming that Moses pleads. How can the great Moses sink to such a level and beg, they wonder. His words seem undignified for a leader. They wonder as well how Moses can question God’s judgment. The medieval writer, Moses ibn Ezra, suggests that even in this instance, Moses, who the tradition calls “Moshe Rabbeinu—Moses, our teacher,” is offering a lesson. And what is it that he teaches the people? It is a lesson about the supreme value of living in the land of Israel. It is as if to say, “To be able to live in the land of Israel is worth it. It is such a privilege that one can beg and plead.” The modern commentator, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, reads this passage differently. He suggests that Moses is not asking for forgiveness, or pleading his case, but instead arguing that he did not even commit a wrong. The decree is unjustified and should rightfully be annulled. What chutzpah! In the end Moses’ request is partially fulfilled. God responds to his plea and allows him to see the land from afar. Moses is allowed to glimpse the beauty of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. I continue to wonder. For what is it appropriate to plead? For what can I beg God? This summer suggests an answer. How about peace? Let my plea be heard! Let shalom be granted—even if but partially. Let us stop arguing about whether or not we should eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and start doing the hard work of trying to make peace between Israelis and[…]

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  • Teach in All Languages

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 15, 2021 | 22:16 pm

    This week we begin reading the Torah’s final book, Deuteronomy. Moses is now 120years old and is told he must relinquish his leadership to Joshua. Soon he will die and be buried on Mount Nebo, on the other side of the Jordan. Beforehand he takes the time (pretty much the entire book of Deuteronomy) to remind the Israelites about the many rules they must follow. He begins by reviewing their adventures (and misadventures) during their forty years of wandering the wilderness. This is Deuteronomy’s plot. “I am about to leave you. Don’t forget to…” The Torah states: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 1) The rabbis ask: How did he begin to teach the Torah? Being rabbis they answer their own question and state, “Moses began to explain the Torah in the seventy languages of the ancient world.” Didn’t the Israelites all speak the same language? Didn’t they speak Hebrew? Of course they did. So why would Moses need to explain the Torah in every language the rabbis believed to exist in the entire world? It is because the Torah has universal import. Too often we focus our Jewish learning on the mastery of the Hebrew language. Too often we mistake the Torah’s language for its essence. While Hebrew is of course important it does not always unlock its secrets; it cannot always unravel its mysteries. This is why even Moses taught the Torah in many languages. The lesson is clear. The most important thing about Torah is its teachings. These must be translated into every language. Moreover, these teachings must be interpreted according to everyone’s ability. Torah was never meant to belong to a privileged few. It is meant for all. It is meant for the world. It begins with whatever language we speak.

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  • A More Perfect Union

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 9, 2021 | 15:58 pm

    On this July 4th weekend we pause to celebrate the United States of America whose Declaration of Independence was adopted 245 years ago and whose words have inspired people for countless generations. Its opening words stir our souls. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And so, on this July 4th we pause to celebrate the gifts and blessings of this country, the freedoms we enjoy, unparalleled in our thousands of years of wanderings and the blessings we have garnered, unrivaled in the many nations we have called home. Here, we can freely profess our faith, here we can proudly declare our beliefs, here we can rest on the guarantees of a constitution that grants no religion primacy over another. In this great land we can indeed enjoy life, liberty and happiness. There is much for which to celebrate. There is much for which to give thanks. On this July 4th we also pause to remember that this same promise has fallen short fortoo many. There is still much work to be done. Our founding vision deserves to be expanded. Our founding dream must grow wider. In the words “all men” we must hear and declare “all men and women.” And we must find renewed strength to say, “all races.” Every color, every faith, every immigrant story must become part of the American promise and dream. Our nation’s history is cluttered with examples in which the liberties enjoyed by many were also denied to many. Pause to celebrate. Pause to remember. Give thanks for these United States of America. Gather strength that this nation might indeed become a “more perfect union.”

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  • Rejoice and Be Glad

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 9, 2021 | 15:58 pm

    I am looking forward to the moment when the band leader says, “It’s Hora time. Everyone to the dance floor!” And we jump from our seats and join in dancing and singing the words of Hava Nagila. “Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice and be glad. Let us sing. Let us sing. Let us sing and be glad. Awaken brethren. Awaken brethren with a joyful heart.” And then my heart will most certainly rejoice. Few realize that the words to this familiar song are not that old. In fact, the tune is based on a Hasidic niggun, prevalent among Jews living in nineteenth century Ukraine. And many nigguns are based on what was then popular songs. The Hasidic rebbes removed the words from these songs and transformed them into wordless, religious melodies. Hava Nagila is no different. It is apparently very similar to a Ukrainian folk song. The Hasidic movement gave these wordless melodies meaning and import. They were known to sing them over and over, their voices growing softer and then louder. They would sing and dance to welcome Shabbat, to rejoice at a holiday’s arrival, to celebrate a young couple getting married. They were passed from one generation to the next. They are typically attributed to specific rebbes. It was the belief of Hasidic Jews that singing helps connect us to God. Music is the universal language. It was also their belief that no words can suffice in approaching God and so we are left with their wordless melodies. And so, the Hava Nagila tune was carried by such Hasidic Jews when they came to Jerusalem from the Ukraine. It was there that Abraham Idelsohn soon discovered it. He is considered the dean of Jewish musicologists. Some believe that he authored the accompanying words in 1918 to celebrate the victory of the British in World War I. The song soon spread throughout Palestine and then made its way to the United States. By the 1950’s it had become what we recognize today: the staple at Jewish parties and simchas. There is nothing quite like it.[…]

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