Rabbi's Weekly Torah Thoughts

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  • Following in Our Father's Footsteps

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 29, 2020 | 18:25 pm

    Although the reading of the Torah in public dates back to Ezra and the fifth century BCE (and traditional authorities say, Moses), the weekly division of the Torah into fifty-four portions hearkens to Babylonian times, approximately 1500 years ago.And so, we conclude last week’s portion with the words, “The days of Terah (Abraham’s father) came to 205 years; and Terah died in Haran.” (Genesis 11:32)We begin this week with the verse: “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1) For thousands of years, we have read these sentences a week apart, and have therefore seen them as disconnected. The rabbis plant the question in our hearts by this division.Why was Abraham called?And they have an answer ready-made.They offer countless stories about Abraham’s character explaining why God called him.I would imagine in synagogues throughout the world rabbis will begin their weekly discourses describing the story about young Abraham working in his father’s idol shop.This all too familiar rabbinic midrash in which Abraham destroys all but one idol and then blames the destruction on the remaining idol seeks to offer a reason why God called Abraham seemingly out of nowhere.The rabbis see in Abraham the first monotheist who on his own recognized that there must be one God who created the world and moves history rather than a multitude of idols for each and every occasion. But this out of nowhere understanding of the call is dependent on the division of the Torah into our portions and the dividing line between Parashat Noach and Lech Lecha being drawn between the end of chapter of eleven and the beginning of twelve.By drawing the line in this way, the rabbis add an exclamation point to their understanding of Abraham.They draw an arrow to the theology they wish to teach.They imply that the story moves because of Abraham’s vision.God is one, they exclaim. Such is the power of the editor’s hand.If we read these verses as connected, however, we gain an additional understanding of Abraham’s actions.The Torah[…]

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  • Walking and Sauntering

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 22, 2020 | 18:38 pm

    Walking and Sauntering Henry David Thoreau in his seminal essay, "Walking" idealizes going for a walk in the woods.The purpose of such an endeavor is not to reach a destination but instead to be at one with nature.He recommends these walks should be at least four hours long.We should saunter through nature. Sauntering, he explains, is derived from the Middle Ages when people wandered about the Europe, asking for charity, in their quest to journey to "a la SainteTerre," the Holy Land.He writes: This is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea....For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land. And while I am troubled by the term crusade for it conjures negative connotations in my Jewish heart, I find his idealism deeply uplifting.Every walk is a religious quest, a pilgrimage, to a far-off destination, where insights, discoveries, and even revelations are found during the journey rather than at the moment of arrival. God calls each of our heroes as they walk. Moses discovers God in a lowly bush as he is shepherding.God appears to stop him in his tracks.There is movement in these calls.The first words Abraham hears are: "Lech lecha-go forth."This week, we read "Noah walked with God." (Genesis 6) What does the Torah mean by this walking? The biblical commentator, Sforno, who lived in fifteenth century Italy, responds: "Noah walked in God's way trying to be helpful to others, and to instruct them and if necessary, to rebuke them, as our sages pointed out."This is the typical Jewish answer. Walking means to follow the Jewish path, to walk in the path of our ancestors.In fact, the Hebrew word for law, halachah, comes from the very same root as walking.It would be better to translate halachah as "walkway" for that is what the[…]

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  • This Is Very Good; We Could Be Very Good

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 16, 2020 | 13:23 pm

    I have a life-long fascination with the Northern Lights.Their luminous beauty inspires me.  I have long wanted to travel to Iceland or Scandinavia, or even Alaska to see this winter spectacle.A bat mitzvah student recently reminded me that they are also called aurora borealis.She too is fascinated by them and wants to see them with her own eyes.She helped to rekindle my fascination with their beauty.To my eyes, these lights appear as evidence of God’s handiwork.“God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1)Then again scientists teach us that solar flares send microscopic particles hurtling toward the earth.These protons and electrons then bounce off the atmosphere and gather around the poles.These excited particles create energy that then produce the dazzling display of light with flashes of green and the occasional pink.This is the same principle that produces the colors in neon signs except in that case plugging the sign in an electric socket causes the electrons to bounce around the gas inside the tubes. That is at least my rudimentary understanding of the science that causes this incredible natural phenomenon.I relish in the beauty of nature.The awe-inspiring heavens stop us in our tracks.We marvel at the multitude of stars in the nighttime sky.We are unable to count the millions we can see. God agrees and shares my sense of awe.“And God saw that this was good.” On the sixth day, after the creation of human beings, the Torah reports, “And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good.”And yet we often fail to live up to “very good.”In fact, the remainder of the Torah is evidence of our failures to live up to God’s expectations.Not to give away next week’s story, but there is a flood.Why?Because people are flouting rules and the earth becomes filled with lawlessness.Soon after that is Sodom and Gomorrah.Then, Abraham nearly sacrifices[…]

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  • The Torah Cannot Be Torah Without Us

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 12, 2020 | 18:29 pm

    It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17-18)Recited at the conclusion of the Torah reading service, these verses from Proverbs reinforce the centrality of Torah in Jewish life throughout the ages. They remind us that the Torah, the story of our people, is to be prized and revered.The beginning of the Torah service, too, when the scroll is paraded through the congregation in a ritual known as hakafah offers us an opportunity to demonstrate our love of Torah – with kisses. As the Torah passes through the aisles, it is customary to reach out to touch it – with a hand, a prayer book, the corner of your tallit – and then to touch that object to your lips....This post continues on ReformJudaism.org.

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  • The Holiday Set List

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 9, 2020 | 17:08 pm

    The Hebrew month of Tishrei offers quite the set list!Immediately following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Sukkot.This holiday begins tomorrow evening and marks the Israelites wandering through the wilderness and living in these temporary shelters. This month provides us with a record setting concert.Year after year it is the same.Rosh Hashanah.Yom Kippur.Sukkot.Simhat Torah.There is an interesting tradition that even before breaking Yom Kippur’s fast, one is supposed to place the first board on the sukkah.Like the best of concerts there is no pause between songs.We move from the introspection of Yom Kippur to the rejoicing of Sukkot.The two holidays are bound to each other.The joy of Sukkot takes over.The inwardness of Yom Kippur is transformed by the earthiness of Sukkot.We let go of our sins and wrongdoings.We turn to the world.Whereas Yom Kippur is all about prayer and repentance, Sukkot is about our everyday world.Its mandate is to celebrate our everyday blessings. What is its most important mitzvah?Leishev basukkah—to live in the sukkah.We are commanded to eat our meals in the sukkah and even sleep in the sukkah.For one week our lives move from our beautiful homes to these temporary shelters.The sukkah must be temporary in its character.If it is too comfortable then it is not a sukkah.If it provides too much shelter, then it defeats the meaning of Sukkot.Central to this definition of the sukkah is the schach, the roof.One must be able to see the stars through its lattice.So what does one do if it rains?What happens to living in the sukkah if the weather is uncomfortable?The rabbis are clear in their answer.Go inside!A temporary shelter cannot protect us from the rains.A temporary shelter should not protect us.Its fragility is part of its message.Even more important than the sukkah’s temporary quality is the joy of the holiday.It is no fun to sleep outside in the rain.It is no fun to be eating outside during a late fall sukkot.One’s joy would be diminished.First and foremost, this day is about rejoicing.We rejoice in the gifts of this world.We celebrate the bounty of creation. Living in these temporary shelters helps[…]

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  • Look in the Mirror: We Can Do Better!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 9, 2020 | 14:57 pm

    My sermon "The Need for Soul Searching" from Yom Kippur evening also appears in The Times of Israel. The glass mirror before which we spend a good deal of our time as we prepare to venture out into the world or these days, present ourselves on Zoom, was invented in the early 1300’s. Prior to this people polished precious metals that only gave them an inkling of how they appeared to others.Imagine looking at your reflection in the waters of a lake.This gives you a rough approximation of how you might appear in ancient mirrors.Glass mirrors by contrast offer an accurate measure of how others see us.We stand before the mirror and ask ourselves if our grey hairs are showing or the outfit we are wearing is flattering to our figures or prior to that Zoom call, do we have any food stuck in between our teeth.I have been thinking about mirrors and the technological leap they represent.Seeing ourselves more accurately, being able to hold a mirror so close to our faces that we can glimpse even our pores, helped to give rise first to an explosion of portrait painting and now to a heightened sense of individual rights.For our ancient rabbis, from whom we draw inspiration and wisdom, the mirror was not like our mirror.It was only an approximation of our appearance.And so, they saw our reflection more in how we behaved toward others rather than how we looked.For them the mirror was not about appearance but instead about how we acted.Our hands, when doing good, became a reflection of the divine image with which each of us is created.And so, during this season of repentance, I wish to look into their mirror and ask ourselves some difficult questions.Yom Kippur is devoted to heshbon hanefesh, self-examination and soul searching.This fundamental Jewish value is central to strengthening our souls.As difficult as it is, this soul searching, and self-examination offers needed medicine for this difficult and trying year.We stand before God and admit our errors.We make amends for our wrongs.We say, “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…. We are guilty.”We beat our chests and proclaim,[…]

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  • Dancing in the Torah's Words

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 8, 2020 | 18:15 pm

    Given the growing controversy surrounding the celebration of the Jewish holidays in New York City’s Hasidic enclaves and our brethren’s apparent disregard of health directives, I joined with hundreds of other rabbis and signed a letter supporting the government’s efforts to do what is necessary to protect us from the Coronavirus.As I said on Yom Kippur, I believe Judaism is adamant that health takes precedence over the observance of holidays.And I remain disappointed, and disturbed, by my co-religionist’s response. That being said I am really going to miss our typical Simhat Torah celebration.I love it when we unroll the scroll around our sanctuary, and then get to journey from the last verses describing Moses’ death to the Torah’s first verses detailing the creation of the world.To be honest Simhat Torah is my favorite holiday.Not only does it represent that the exhausting set of Tishrei holidays are behind us, but it affirms that all my dancing is not only required but laudatory and even holy. Moreover, Simhat Torah represents what is central to my spiritual life, the study of Torah. It means that once again I will have the opportunity to discover something new in the words and verses of the Torah.I get to read the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs with new eyes.I can look at our going out from Egypt and our crossing the Sea of Reeds through lenses now colored by this year’s experiences.I wonder how for example six months, and counting, of social distancing and mask wearing will influence my thinking.I look forward to what new discoveries I might uncover in the Torah’s words. What new revelations will become illuminated as I unroll the scroll to these portions once again? This is Judaism’s central question.It reflects our principal faith statement.Read the Torah year in and year out.Examine its verses.Pore over its words. Meditate even on its letters.The Torah may appear not to change, but you have.And the fact that you have changed makes all the difference. That’s what makes the Torah new all over again.We are renewed, and even restored, by reading the same book with new eyes.The Torah becomes new each[…]

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  • The Need for Community

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Oct 7, 2020 | 22:04 pm

    What follows is my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon. Years ago, when my children were very young, and I was not so old, Susie and I both had to officiate at separate occasions.And so, Ari tagged along with me and Shira with Susie.It was a baby naming.After officiating at what would now be a twenty-year-old’s ceremony, I told my then five-year-old he could go outside and play with the other young children.Later I was told by the grandparents the following story.The other children apparently asked Ari who he was and why he was there.He was the only kid who was not family at the event.Ari explained, “My dad is the rabbi.”The children looked at him quizzically.“What’s a rabbi?” one asked.“What does a rabbi do?” another one of the kids said.And Ari responded, “He goes to parties.”I have held on to that story for some time.As funny as it sounds, and apparently as easy as my job appears to five-year old’s, Ari was serious.And he points us toward an important, Jewish message.Since Purim, and the middle of March, I have felt like I have been officiating at your sacred occasions with an arm tied behind my back.I could not offer a hug of consolation at funerals.I could not embrace you when we shared joyous occasions.(I am of course the guy who even hugs his electrician after he finishes his work.)And I miss the essence of my calling and the defining element of our congregation and our people.I do not mean to suggest that we should not be social distancing or that we should not be wearing masks.Health comes first.But at this moment, I am missing a great deal.Like you I just want to wish 2020 away.And even though we could not, or should not, have made any other choice for these High Holidays, standing in this sanctuary without you, is like trying to lift a thousand-pound weight alone.Our prayers are really only our prayers if you join in, if we sing together.So, I hope you have been singing loudly because that is what we need more than ever.I miss seeing your smiling[…]

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  • The Need for Perserving Life

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 30, 2020 | 17:02 pm

    What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.Part 3 in our return to Jewish values series.Preserving life—pikuach nefesh.Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement which emphasizes personal ethics and the importance of refining one’s character, was a leading thinker in nineteenth century Lithuania.Beginning in 1846, the world faced a cholera pandemic that spanned nearly fifteen years.He was still a young scholar at the time, when the epidemic first reached Vilna.He decided to focus all of his energies on saving lives.He argued, and as Judaism teaches, pikuach nefesh—the preserving of life—takes precedence over all other commandments, most especially ritual observances.He enlisted his students to help care for the sick.He rented a building that served as a makeshift hospital for 1500 people.He became enraged when his fellow rabbis argued that Shabbat and holiday observances should take precedence over health measures. He publicly declared that everyone should listen to doctors first and foremost.  When physicians advised people that they should not fast on Yom Kippur because that might weaken them and make them more susceptible to disease, Rabbi Salanter did the most dramatic thing of all.He issued a ruling that said every Jew should eat on Yom Kippur.He did not stop there.Afraid that people would not heed his advice, he traveled from synagogue to synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, with wine and cake in hand, recited the kiddush and then ate in front of everyone.Some reports suggest that Salanter did not leave each synagogue until he was sure everyone had also eaten. And so, this year’s decision to hold services online and not in person was easy.Of course, it was emotionally difficult.We miss each other. We miss being together.But from the perspective of Jewish law and the guidance it affords, the decision was easy.Health takes precedence.I am even tempted to take out a pastrami sandwich and eat it on this Yom Kippur to add an exclamation point to this teaching.Health is first and foremost.Moses Maimonides, the great medieval thinker—he wrote books of philosophy and law— illustrated this point in a different manner.He was also by the way a physician. If,[…]

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  • Blessings for the New Year

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 30, 2020 | 17:01 pm

    What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah evening. People think that blessings happen to you.This is what I also always thought and believed.In fact, this is how I ordered my spiritual life.Blessings find you.They capture you at the unplanned, and unexpected, moments. For years I held on to this idea. Leon Wieseltier, the writer and thinker, once wrote: “Serendipity is how the spirit is renewed.”He wrote those words years ago when bemoaning the closing of his beloved record store.He taught that we are losing the art of browsing. We no longer wander into a record store or a bookstore and discover something new and wonderful. I admit.It’s been years since I went to a bookstore—or even seen a record store—and found myself lost in the poetry section, sitting on the floor, trying to decide which of the many newly discovered poetry books I might purchase—or asking the record store employee which Blues CD he might recommend to add to my collection.Those serendipitous moments sustained my spirit.They renewed my soul.It’s the casual meeting, the unplanned encounter that restores us.At least that is what I thought. That is how I believed it is best to approach a spiritual life.I gravitated toward the meeting that was unexpected.I gained more sustenance from the chance encounter.That casual discussion in the lobby of our synagogue or the random debate at the oneg renewed me; the new friend made when we were both on a delayed flight to Los Angeles.I marveled about that experience.An upended journey transformed into a blessing by this chance encounter. But then in March all this came crashing to a halt.The unexpected, the unplanned, the unchoreographed, came to frightens us.The serendipitous bumping into a stranger no longer electrifies our spirit; it terrifies the soul.We rush past the chance meeting so as to minimize contact and avoid the potential for contagion.We no longer linger.We no longer meander through occasions.Life moved online....This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

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  • Yahrtzeit Candle Meditation

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 30, 2020 | 16:57 pm

    What follows is my Yom Kippur Yizkor service meditation. I began these High Holidays with a meditation about blessings.Judaism has a blessing for everything.Whenever we eat—an apple or hallah, when we see the beauty of nature—the ocean or a rainbow, when we celebrate a holiday—Passover or Yom Kippur, when we light the candles on Shabbat, we say a blessing.When we say the words of our tradition, we awaken our consciousness and fill our hearts with gratitude.That is the purpose of the blessing.But there is one item for which we don’t say a blessing.When lighting the yahrtzeit candle.One might think this is because we are not feeling very thankful in the moment.The pain of our loss still stings our hearts.Still, this cannot be the tradition’s thinking.At the moment when we are confronted by the death of a loved one, we say “Baruch dayan ha-emet—Blessed are You Adonai our God judge of truth.”So why would the tradition not prescribe a blessing for this candle?Why has a tradition that has words for everything and anything chosen none for that moment when we light the yahrtzeit memorial candle. Perhaps it is because there are no perfect words to say at this moment.Silence is the only response.The tradition proclaims by its silence.Let memories fill the heart.Let tears stream down the cheek.I offer a poemThere are two tears.There are the tears of pain.These tears burn our cheeks when death stands before us, when the weight of the heartache and loss feel crushing. These are the tears of despair when we feel like we will never be able to live without our loved one. We look back at these tears and wonder how we ever summoned the strength to place a shovel of earth into our loved one’s grave.Later the tears of memory beginto roll down our cheeks.These tears do not sting.Instead they are sweet.We find that we laugh and smilewhen recalling stories of our father or mother,husband or wife, brother or sister, son or daughter,grandfather or grandmother.These tears bring with them the memories of loved ones.They hurt, but do not sting.Their taste is not the salt[…]

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  • Finding the Lights

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 27, 2020 | 07:22 am

    What follows is the story I shared on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. This morning, I offer a Jewish story.In a mountain village in Europe many centuries ago, there was a nobleman who wondered what legacy he might be able to leave for his townspeople.He was a very wealthy man and wanted to use his fortune to enrich the community for years to come.After much consideration, he decided to build a synagogue. He told the townspeople what he had set out to do and everyone became really excited.“But there’s one condition,” he said, “You cannot see the plans for the building until it is completely finished.”Soon the work began with architects and craftsmen working for days on end.Materials were carted in and there was a constant racket as they worked.But as the nobleman warned, no one was allowed to see what was being designed inside.After this went on for weeks, everyone began to wonder what their new synagogue would look like. Would it be like that first sanctuary in Jerusalem with gold and silver, crimson, and blue?Would it have a huge menorah, an eternal flame, stained glass windows?Would the seats be in rows or in the round, the bimah high or low?The Ark rounded or square?The people could hardly wait to see what was being built for them!Finally, after several months—now you know for sure it’s a fictional story, an announcement went out that the synagogue was completed, and a great cheer erupted across the town.The nobleman called everyone to come as he would finally reveal what the synagogue looked like. When the people came and started to look around, they marveled at its beauty and how perfectly it was designed.They sanctuary was exquisite, the ark awe-inspiring.There were even corners, nooks and crannies everywhere in which the townspeople could gather. It was a good kibbitzing kind of congregation.The ark was indeed inlaid with gold, the huge menorah glistening, and the stained-glass windows bursting with color.But as the sun was setting, the synagogue began to grow quite dark and someone asked, “Where are the lamps?How will this place be lit?How[…]

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  • Kol Nidre's Mystery and Power

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 24, 2020 | 16:30 pm

    Kol Nidre is a mysterious prayer.Scholars suggest its origin may very well hearken back to the belief in magic found in ancient Babylonia some 1500 years ago.Its language is striking.“Let all vows, resolves and commitments…be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone.”It has even provided the basis for antisemites to say, “See you cannot trust the word of Jews.Look at what they say on their holiest day.”Controversy surrounds its words. Yet its haunting melody and its majestic accompanying rituals are what transports us.The drama of the open Ark, the Torah scrolls adorned in white, and our congregation’s leaders holding these scrolls close to their hearts, lift our spirits.The cantor’s chanting of its words—irrespective of their meaning—stirs our souls.We hold fast to the melody.(And we acknowledge that no one sings it better than our cantor!)We cling to the mystery of Kol Nidre. I turn to the words of the mystics whose teachings I often find mysterious but whose insights carry me through the power of this, our most sacred evening of Yom Kippur. Isaac Luria, the sixteenth century mystic, offers a parable.It is a foundational teaching of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah.He teaches: At the beginning of creation God spoke; and primordial light infused all existence, contained in radiant vessels.  And intention arose in the mind of God: to create a being capable of choice, able to distinguish good from bad, holy from profane. God breathed in and withdrew—tzimtzum—and for the smallest moment was absent, to make space for human beings to develop their godly essence, as expressed in the divine intention: “Let us make the human being according to our image.” Utter darkness reigned; the forces of chaos tore at the cosmos; the vessels were broken.All creation threatened to fall asunder. At that instant, when darkness was complete and creation was in peril, the human being came into existence. And God breathed out again, filling the universe once more with splendor. But what of the rays of light that escaped from the broken vessels—were they lost forever? Now the fusion of the divine intention and human potential became clear.For human beings are able and thus commanded to retrieve the wandering rays of[…]

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  • Rosh Hashanah from Home

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 17, 2020 | 17:18 pm

    This Rosh Hashanah will be like no other.The Cantor and I will be standing in our sanctuary.And you will be watching our services on your TV's, computers or even iPhones. You will be participating from your homes. If you have not yet registered to access the livestream link, please do so on my congregation's website.  Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening with services at 8 pm and then morning services on Saturday and Sunday at 10 am.Children's services are on Saturday at 1 pm.We will gather for in person Tashlich services at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park beach on Saturday at 4 pm.Please wear a mask and bring breadcrumbs so that you can symbolically cast your sins into the Long Island sound.Judaism teaches that our homes are a mikdash maat, a small sanctuary.The meals that we share, the blessings that we recite, the love that we discover there, help to sanctify our homes. Our tradition has never believed that you can only observe Jewish rituals in a synagogue, or that Jewish bests can only happen in our beautiful sanctuary.In fact, it is the day of Rosh Hashanah that is holy, not the place where we observe it.Judaism sanctifies time not space, we teach over and over again.This year we are really going to have to take this principle to heart.Given that we will not be together and that you will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah from the comfort of your homes, I wanted to offer some suggestions for how you might make your home feel more like a sanctuary.Think about which room in your house would be best to help you feel like this is a prayer experience.Discuss this with your children.Entertain a debate about this question. And then watch from there.If you are able to stream the services to a TV, do so.If this is a technological leap for you then don't do it for the first time on Rosh Hashanah.Still this is not a Netflix movie, so I would not recommend a bowl of popcorn by your side to watch services.Then again do what you are comfortable doing and what will[…]

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  • Finding Kindness

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 10, 2020 | 21:09 pm

    This week was a good week.I discovered a poem. It was revealed to me as I turned through the pages of our new prayerbook, Mishkan HaLev.It called to me as I prepared for the upcoming High Holidays.Before you know what kindness really isyou must lose things,feel the future dissolve in a momentlike salt in a weakened broth.What you held in your hand,what you counted and carefully saved,all this must go so you knowhow desolate the landscape can bebetween the regions of kindness.How you ride and ridethinking the bus will never stop,the passengers eating maize and chickenwill stare out the window forever.Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,you must travel where the Indian in a white poncholies dead by the side of the road.You must see how this could be you,how he too was someonewho journeyed through the night with plansand the simple breath that kept him alive.Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.You must wake up with sorrow.You must speak to it till your voicecatches the thread of all sorrowsand you see the size of the cloth.Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,only kindness that ties your shoesand sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,only kindness that raises its headfrom the crowd of the world to sayIt is I you have been looking for,and then goes with you everywherelike a shadow or a friend.I endeavored to learn more about the poet who until this blessed hour was unknown to me. Naomi Shihab Nye was born in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American who traced her lineage back to Germany. Nye spent her teenage years moving between Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas.I learned more about the inspiration for the poem.While traveling on her honeymoon in Columbia, the bus on which she and her husband journeyed was robbed.A man was killed, and all of their belongings were stolen.Left alone when her husband went searching for how to get themselves out of this mess,[…]

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  • Say Your Blessings Slowly

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 3, 2020 | 15:49 pm

    This week we read a lengthy list of curses, beginning with what the Torah imagines to be the worst kind of people: “Cursed be the person who misdirects a blind person on his way.—And all the people shall say, Amen.Cursed be the person who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.—And all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27)It continues with a list of what will befall those who disobey God’s command: “Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.”And an abbreviated list of blessings that those who heed God’s mitzvot will enjoy: “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.” (Deuteronomy 28)The theology is crystal clear.Obey God’s commandments and blessings will follow. Disobey God’s mitzvot and you will see a long, detailed list of curses.It is not a very comforting thought.The graphic curses are in fact frightening.They make one recoil.Perhaps they even make people uncomfortable with the Torah and its stark theology.I for one don’t find the threat of cures a particularly effective way of motivating me to do good. The tradition appears to recognize this dilemma.When chanting this portion, the Torah reader chants these lengthy curses in a very soft voice and in a rushed manner.To recite these curses in a loud and commanding voice would be to suggest a confidence in this theology.It would be to affirm something we experience to be false.Everyone can cite examples of people who follow all the commandments and yet experience far too many calamities and likewise those who appear to subvert the rights of the stranger and appear to enjoy untold blessings.And so, what do we do?We recite these words in hushed tones. It is almost as if the tradition is instructing us to dwell on the blessings and rush past the curses.The Hasidic master Simhah Bunim of Pshischa notices something more.He teaches that these detailed punishments are only attached to one specific command.He hears the Torah shouting: “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.”Perhaps the rebbe is[…]

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  • Indifferent No More!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 27, 2020 | 16:43 pm

    We offer prayers of strength and healing to our fellow Americans who are only beginning to survey the devastation from Hurricane Laura.This week we read, Ki Tetzei, the Torah portion containing the most commandments.According to Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker, 72 mitzvot can be discerned from this week’s verses.They offer detailed instructions for how to reach out to others, of how we might best express our concern for other human beings.These rules are about inculcating the value of compassion for our neighbors.This principle is illustrated by one example: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow… so too you shall do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22) The tradition adds several exclamation points to this commandment when it rules that anyone who finds a lost object or animal and does not try to return it to its rightful owner is considered a thief.The wisdom is clear.If, when finding an object, we say not, “Look what I found!” but instead ask, “To whom does this belong?” we begin to fashion a wider circle of concern.Our failures to correct injustices, whether they be small or large, begins with our indifference.How do we begin to turn toward others and not away?This week we were confronted by the image of a black man shot by police officers.While the specifics of this case remain obscured, we join in offering prayers for Jacob Blake’s recovery.We pray that his Milwaukee home might soon find peace.We pray for strength in behalf of those who raise their voices in protest.One fact remains startlingly clear.Black men, and women, are far more likely to suffer violent deaths at the hands of police than their white neighbors.I have known this truth for some time, but I feel as if I have only begun to see it this summer.I shall not remain indifferent.Do the many objects adorning my home, that bring me a measure of comfort and peace, really belong to me or are they better meant[…]

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  • Rearrange the Furniture

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 21, 2020 | 16:25 pm

    A familiar Yiddish folktale. Once upon a time in a small village lived a seemingly poor unfortunate man who lived with his wife, his mother, and his six children in a little one-room hut. Because they were so crowded, the once loving couple often argued. The children were rambunctious, and often fought. In winter, when the nights were long and the days were cold, life was especially difficult. The hut was full of crying and quarreling.One day, when the poor unfortunate man couldn’t take it anymore, he ran to the Rabbi for advice. “Rabbi,” he cried, “things are really bad, and only seem to be getting worse. We are so poor that my mother, my wife, my six children, and I all live together in one small hut. We are too crowded, and there’s so much noise. Help me, Rabbi. I’ll do whatever you say.”The Rabbi thought for a long while. At last he said, “Tell me, my poor man, do you have any animals, perhaps a chicken or two?” “Yes,” said the man. “I do have a few chickens, also a rooster and a goose. “Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now go home and take the chickens, the rooster, and the goose and bring them into your hut to live with you.” Although the man was a bit surprised, he said, “Of course, Rabbi. I will do whatever you say.”The poor unfortunate man hurried home and took the chickens, the rooster, and the goose out of the shed and brought them into his little hut. When some weeks had passed, life in the hut was worse than before. Now along with the quarreling and crying there was honking, crowing, and clucking. There were even feathers in the soup and goose poop on the floor. The hut grew smaller, and the children bigger.When the poor unfortunate man couldn’t stand it any longer, he again ran to the Rabbi for advice. “Rabbi,” he cried, “you should see what misfortune has befallen me. Now with the crying and quarreling, there is also honking, clucking, and crowing, and even feathers in the soup. Rabbi,[…]

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  • Build Your Own Temple

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 14, 2020 | 17:08 pm

    The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes that worship in general, and the sacrifices in particular, cannot be performed in sanctuaries throughout the land, but must instead be centralized and moved to one location.That location will later become Jerusalem and its Temple.“When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you… then you must bring everything that I command you to the site where the Lord your God will choose to establish God’s name…” (Deuteronomy 12)Why would the one God need to be confined to this one place?Moreover, how can God be limited to one location?Historians and scholars have puzzled over this law.Biblical scholars suggest that the reasons for this law are political.In their view it was written during a time when Israel’s leaders wanted to centralize worship, and power, in the capital.The Book of Deuteronomy reflects this philosophy.Moses Maimonides, on the other hand, argues that sacrifice is an inferior form of worship.Prayer is the ideal.Over time Jewish law works to limit sacrifice.Deuteronomy is therefore a step in this educational process.Before eliminating sacrifice entirely, it is limited.Sacrifices can only be performed in this one location.Sefer HaHinnukh, a medieval commentary, offers an interesting explanation.It suggests that a sanctuary can only inspire people.It does so if it is unique and unparalleled.When we can do something anywhere and everywhere it loses its power and grip over our lives.This is of course why the Western Wall is such a powerful place and why it holds greater meaning to far more Diaspora Jews than Israeli Jews.For us it is a place of pilgrimage.For Israelis it is their backyard.Yet, with the destruction of the Temple in the second century, Judaism became purposefully decentralized.Many rituals were moved to the home.Each and every home became a sanctuary and is called by our tradition, mikdash maat, a small temple.The sanctuary became not so much about location but instead about experience.Place became secondary to time.This is how Judaism remains.We mark days as holy.The Israeli songwriters Eli Mohar and Yoni Rechter capture this sentiment when singing about Tel Aviv, a city that a mere[…]

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  • No More Tests and Trials

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 6, 2020 | 16:22 pm

    Really?Another calamity?Now you throw hurricanes at us too.The Torah responds: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts…” (Deuteronomy 8)And I shout back, “No more tests.” Our prayer book adds: “Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.”Why must there be so many hardships?And why must there be any hardship at all?How do these challenges purify our hearts?At the very least can these difficulties be spread out.Why does tzuris appear to come in successive waves?Just when we feel like we are gaining enough strength to stand up again another wave comes crashing in and knocks us down.The tradition suggests that the righteous are tested even more than the wicked.Abraham was, for example, tested not one time but ten.Who then would we want to aspire toward righteousness?The tradition counters that what makes people truly righteous is that they do not seek the title of tzaddik.They do good for its own sake.They do not wish to acquire status and stature.Their suffering becomes added proof of their righteousness. Still these days I find myself wanting to run in the other direction.2020 is exhausting.It is bedeviling.Enough!No more!Then again if we are able to find meaning in even the most difficult of challenges, and amidst this current piling of incremental difficulties, we will better for it.When we are tested our hearts grow stronger.The problem is not these tests and trials.It is found instead when we offer meaning and lessons about other people’s challenges.When we offer a cliché to a friend, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”Or when we try to interpret someone else’s pain or explain away their difficulty, we add to the pile of tzuris.In that moment, when we think we are offering a healing explanation we do more harm than good.No one wants their pain to be justified.During Tuesday’s storm our beautiful apple tree was uprooted and fell on our neighbor’s property.Yesterday our neighbor walked over to our house so we could strategize about the tree’s[…]

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  • Rescuing History

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 31, 2020 | 16:23 pm

    Today marks Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating nearly all Jewish tragedies, most especially the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the subsequent 2000-year exile from the land of Israel. Our weekly portion appears to foretell this cataclysm. Should you, when you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing the Lord your God displeasure and vexation, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish from the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out.(Deuteronomy 4)Not only do these verses foretell tragedy, they also assign blame.We are the victims of our own wrongdoings.No wonder that the prophet Jeremiah castigates the people and blames them for causing destruction of the first Temple, even though it was the Babylonians who laid siege to Jerusalem.No wonder that some 500 years later, the rabbis again fault the people for the decimation of first century Jewry, the destruction of the second Temple, and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants at the hands of the Romans.It was all because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews, the rabbis argued.This provided an opening for Rome to conquer Jerusalem.Jeremiah earlier laments: “Jerusalem has greatly sinned.Therefore, she has become a mockery.” (Lamentations 1)We stand guilty.History is evidence of our sins. Generations of Jews find blame for historical tragedies in our own actions.“If only we had been more faithful to God.If only we had not disobeyed the commandments.If only…”Such are the explanations offered for millennia.And while there is great spiritual power in seeing historical tragedies as occasions to reexamine our ways, and to look within our souls to discover how we might be responsible and how we might even be deserving of blame, it appears blasphemous when looking back at more recent tragedies.To suggest that the Jewish people are somehow to blame for the Nazis murderous rampage is sacrilege. It may be in keeping with Deuteronomy’s thinking, but it has[…]

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  • Waiting for Leadership

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 24, 2020 | 17:07 pm

    I am losing faith in leaders. I am losing faith in Moses. He is given to anger.He frequently loses his temper with the Israelites.A few weeks ago, he smashes a rock and God then tells him that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.This week we find him standing on the other side of the Jordan River, offering the Israelites some last tidbits of advice before handing the leadership reigns to Joshua.(The entire book of Deuteronomy is in large part Moses’ farewell address, filled with a lengthy to do list of exhortations: “Don’t forget…. Don’t you ever…. You better not…. Beware of…”)Moses appears exasperated and even exhausted.I recall that he never really wanted the job.He begs for God to pick someone else.He complains that he is not a good speaker.And now forty years later, Moses appears to be saying, “I told you so.”He castigates the people and exclaims: “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself….How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deuteronomy 1)Was his early premonition correct?Did he know that no matter how much he cajoled and how often he prodded, no matter how many times he shouted and how frequently he commanded, his followers would disappoint?Or is this the natural course of leadership?The gap between the leaders’ expectations and the people’s behavior is sometimes too wide.It pains the leader to even acknowledge or give voice to this widening gap.I am left wondering.I am certain that during these days I find myself increasingly disappointed in Moses.I am losing faith in his leadership.Why did he not begin with the words, “I am grateful for the privilege of leading you.We have experienced untold heights.We crossed the Sea of Reeds.We stood at Sinai.We have also experienced unimaginable challenges.I admit.Eating manna gets tiresome day after day.Running out of water on more than several occasions was indeed trying.But here we are, at the edge of what will be our new home, standing at the precipice of our hoped-for redemption.Thank you for the honor of calling me your leader.” Instead he begins with[…]

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  • Writing Our Own Torah

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 16, 2020 | 16:45 pm

    We often describe the Israelites journey through the wilderness as forty years of wandering, implying that they were forever on the move.And yet the concluding chapters of Numbers delineate twenty places at which they encamped.There is the wilderness of Sin where the manna first appeared and Rephidim where the people complained about lack of water and Moses struck a rock in anger.The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that the Israelites were really on the move in the first year when they left Egypt and the last year when they prepared to enter the land of Israel.During the thirty-eight intervening years they were actually living normally at one place or another.They were not constantly on the run, or even on the move.Instead they journeyed from Egypt to the promised land in stages, stopping for even years at a time at one oasis or another.Often when recounting a trip, we speak about the destination, we paint a picture of what we experienced there.Perhaps we encountered in this place great natural beauty or met unique and wonderful people in that land.And yet the Torah never arrives at its destination.It concludes with the journey’s goal incomplete.Thus, we imply that its chapters and verses are about aimless wanderings.We never arrive so our journey lacks direction and purpose.And while there is great value in meanderings, in setting off on a walk that offers no purpose than to be accompanied by others or one’s thoughts, this might not be the most accurate description of our forty years in the wilderness.Instead “the Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth.They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham…” (Numbers 33)The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, teaches: “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual.All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual, between the time he is born and the time he dies.”For the first years of my life I lived in Northern New Jersey, and then we journeyed to the suburbs of Saint Louis and then back again to New Jersey and then back once[…]

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  • Don't Give the Keys to the Likes of Pinchas

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 10, 2020 | 12:20 pm

    Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred.It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead.And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered.150 years ago, a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches are allowed to perform their rituals.A schedule is followed.By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.This was not always the case.On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade.Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith.A fight ensued.Eleven monks were taken to the hospital.And yet, when I visited the church a few years ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed.Some took pictures.Some marveled at the artwork.Others posed for selfies.Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body.People were clearly overcome by emotion.There were many tears and many more songs and prayers.I found myself marveling at their religiosity. I also found myself admiring their freedoms.No one policed behaviors.No one shouted that something was inappropriate.No one said, “Stop doing that!This is a holy place.”Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched.We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount.Apparently, the authorities fear that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount.It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban. Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what we’re allowed to do and not do.They examined the women in our group.Some were told that they were not[…]

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  • The Voice of Others

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 3, 2020 | 12:06 pm

    A few poems.Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nineteenth century Jesuit priest and English poet, writes:The world is charged with the grandeur of God.It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oilCrushed.Why do men then now not reck his rod?Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soilIs bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.And, for all this, nature is never spent;There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;And through the last lights off the black West wentOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—Because the Holy Ghost over the bentWorld broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.And Denise Levertov, a twentieth century American poet, offers:Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsiveto action and inaction.Remain in stasis, blown sandstings your face, anemonesshrivel in rock pools now wave renews.Clean the littered beach, clearthe lines of a forming poem,the waters flood inward.Dull stones again fulfilltheir glowing destinies, and emptinessis a cup, and holdsthe ocean.Hafiz, the fourteenth century Persian poet, affirms:What is the differenceBetween your experience of ExistenceAnd that of a saint?The Saint knowsThat the spiritual pathIs a sublime chess game with GodAnd that the BelovedHas just made such a Fantastic MoveThat the saint is now continuallyTripping over JoyAnd bursting out in LaughterAnd saying, “I Surrender!”Whereas, my dear,I am afraid you still thinkYou have a thousand serious moves.And this week, in our Torah, we discover another poem:How fair are you tents, O Jacob,Your dwellings, O Israel!Like palm-groves that stretch out,Like gardens beside a river,Like aloes planted by the Lord,Like cedars beside the water…They crouch, they lie down like a lion,Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?Blessed are they who bless you,Accursed they who curse you! (Numbers 24)So said Balaam, the foreign prophet sent by Israel’s sworn enemy, the Moabites.King Balak instructs Balaam to curse the Jewish people.Instead the prophet provides us with a prayer.“Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov…”With these words we begin our morning prayers.So records our Torah. And so, we are reminded. Torah[…]

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