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  • Letting Go of Certainty

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 29, 2022 | 15:00 pm

    The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes:From the place where we are rightflowers will never growin the spring.The place where we are rightis hard and trampledlike a yard.But doubts and lovesdig up the worldlike a mole, a plow.And a whisper will be heard in the placewhere the ruinedhouse once stood.As we approach Yom Kippur I am leaning into the poet’s words. The only way we can grow, and learn, is to let go of certainty. We must open ourselves to others and their opinions. We must invite the possibility that we could be mistaken.Certitudes, and the stubbornness they foster, lead us away from change.Our tradition believes we can turn. It believes we can always do better. We can admit mistakes. We can make amends. This is the path laid before us on the High Holidays. It is plowed by opening ourselves to doubt. It is heralded by making room for love.Every year we are summoned to build our lives anew. We are called to rebuild what is ruined. We are roused to repair what is broken. It begins by letting go. Cast stubbornness aside. Banish certainty if but for a moment. Allow a whisper of repair to enter.Let us open ourselves to doubt. Let us take in the blossoming of love.

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  • It's All About the Kippah and Concession Speech

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 27, 2022 | 01:33 am

    My Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon about how custom, rather than law, are integral to our families, community and country.   An Upper West Side synagogue recently announced that it will no longer serve lox. Can you imagine? A shanda! Its leaders argue that they wish to help reduce pollution and the environmental impact of overfishing. And while salmon farming is indeed environmentally damaging and provides eighty percent of the salmon we eat on a far too regular basis, can you envision break-fast without bagels, cream cheese and lox? The rabbis added this note to their announcement about the elimination of lox from the synagogue menu: “We know that for some this is a heretical move! We are here to support you as you process this change.” Such changes make us feel as if we are mourning the loss of something precious. Messing with we have come to know as traditional foods can be tantamount to heresy.Our holidays seem to turn on food. And lox is right up there with the other High Holiday staples like round hallahs and apples and honey. The funny thing is that we have only been eating lox in recent years—at least if you measure time in the thousands of years that amount to Jewish history. My Nana never ate lox in the shtetl in which she was born and from which she fled. If she ate any fish, it was the less expensive carp that was ground up into gefilte fish. Claudia Roden, author of The Book of Jewish Food, writes there is no evidence that Jews ate lox in Eastern Europe. Apparently, it is an American Jewish creation and dates back about hundred years when salmon from the Pacific Northwest became available in New York thanks to the railroads. Most of the immigrant families from whom we are descended and who lived in the 1920’s and 30’s could not afford a refrigerator and so cured fish was the perfect solution. And herein is how our beloved custom was born. The origins of customs are often mysterious. Their power, and hold, over our lives remain profound.[…]

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  • Apples, Honey and the Bees

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 23, 2022 | 01:57 am

    Apples, Honey and the Bees I am thinking about apples and honey.  On Rosh Hashanah we dip apples in honey. This custom originated when Jews first made their way to Europe where apples could be found in the fall. During biblical times we were more familiar with those fruits found in the Middle East such as figs and dates, and most especially pomegranates. In fact, the pomegranate is the quintessential Jewish fruit. There is nothing quite like the sight of a pomegranate tree with its picturesque fruits hanging from its branches or its floral blooms which attract bees for pollination. According to tradition there are exactly the same number of seeds in the pomegranate as there are commandments: 613. And while I have never counted its sees, the pomegranate figures more prominently in our tradition than the apple. Some therefore add the pomegranate to their holiday meal. In addition, even though the Bible calls the land of Israel a land flowing with milk and honey it was not bee honey to which it referred but instead date honey. And so now I found myself thinking about bees. Many have read about the collapse of the world’s bee population. This does not have to do with honeybees who are raised, like other farm animals, for their honey and were brought from Europe to the American colonies in the seventeenth century. It does involve the ordinary bees we occasionally see buzzing around the flowers adorning our lawns. It is this indigenous bee population which is dramatically decreasing. While scientists debate the causes for this precipitous decline, there is little doubt that the numbers of native bees, as well as bumble bees is far less than it should be. We depend on these bees to pollinate flowers and crops. Without them there will be less beauty and nourishment in our world, and maybe even less coffee. We depend on their tireless work. The bees’ work is extraordinary. A grain of pollen here or there eventually amounts to something grand. It eventually amounts to something larger and more monumental than anything we can imagine. I look to my garden[…]

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  • Dreaming of Better Borders

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 17, 2022 | 02:29 am

    In the West Bank, near Nablus, one finds Mount Ebal, one of the tallest peaks in the area. From its 3000-foot peak one can almost see the entire land of Israel: Mount Hermon in the North, the hills surrounding Jerusalem in the South, the Jordan to the East and the Mediterranean Sea to the West. The city of Shechem sits below and serves as a reminder of Abraham and Sarah’s first journey to the promised land. After Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, the people constructed an altar on Mount Ebal. In the 1980’s archaeologists uncovered what some believe to be the altar’s remains and evidence of the Torah’s command and the Book of Joshua’s report: “At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal...  an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded.” (Joshua 8) Sadly, the Palestinian Authority apparently used some of these ancient stones for the construction of new roads.This past Spring, archaeologists announced they had dated a small piece of stone found on Mount Ebal, inscribed with God’s name written in proto-Semitic to the eleventh century BCE. This discovery provides archaeological evidence that the Israelites were literate when they entered the land and that our ancestors have been present in the land of Israel for over 3000 years.Archaeologists have not, however, uncovered evidence that the Israelites observed another of the Bible’s instructions. The Torah commands: “Upon crossing the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I charge you this day, on Mount Ebal, and coat them with plaster…. And on those stones, you shall inscribe every word of this Torah most distinctly.” (Deuteronomy 27) There is debate if the word “Torah” refers to all five books. The rabbis suggest it does. Biblical scholars believe this seems unlikely and theorize these stones included select chapters from the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew word “Torah” can be translated as “Teaching” and so the phrase is open for interpretation. Regardless, even if it ten chapters were inscribed, there must have been a lot of[…]

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  • Sharing Is Commanded

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 9, 2022 | 20:32 pm

    Years ago when hiking through Israel’s Galil region, my guide would sometimes take a detour through a farmer’s field. There she would reach up and take an orange from a tree, immediately peel off its skin and then eat it. I protested. “This is not your field. These oranges are not yours to take.” She would then correct my understanding. “Our Bible permits it.”The Torah proclaims: “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.” (Deuteronomy 25)Our Bible has a different understanding of ownership. We do not own the land. The earth belongs to God. We are but tenants. So when I look to my yard, the flowers, vines and trees (the Kousa Dogwood’s branches are now weighed down by fruit) I might think they are mine, but the food they produce is certainly not mine alone. The Torah makes clear. If you are hungry, you can take the fruit from any tree, whether it be yours or your neighbor’s. Even though the farmer has expended all the effort, and expense, to grow and nurture the tree, its fruit must be shared. Still foragers can only take a little bit. They can only take enough to satiate their hunger. They may not take so much that they fill a basket and are then able to sell the fruit in the market. That would be stealing. Sharing is demanded. Stealing is forbidden. While very few of us have vineyards or even know how to grow grapes, or for that matter have an abundance of fruit trees, imagine how different the world might be if we shared some of nature’s bounty with our neighbors.I continue to dream.And then I recall the fruit that spoils in my refrigerator, and the bag of half-eaten grapes that make their way into our garbage can.My dreams are within reach if I can let go and share. Perhaps all it takes for no one to know hunger is for each of us to offer some fruit here or[…]

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  • Pursuing Justice, Making Peace

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Sep 2, 2022 | 17:39 pm

    We live in a world where people scream about injustices. Sometimes, justified. And sometimes, unjustified. Those we most often speak about are the wrongs, or slights, that involve people closest to us. We complain about this friend or that. We criticize this family member or another. Rarely do we seek to make amends and make peace. Rarely do we shout about societal ills needing repair.This week we read about seeking justice. In addition to legislating how judges should be appointed, the Torah proclaims: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16)We must hear this call for justice. Too often we misapply its message to friends and family. Instead, we need to spend more time pursuing justice for our society. Our country faces many challenges. One example. There is a growing inequity between rich and poor. On our very own Long Island there are far too many homeless and hungry. The Interfaith Nutrition Network, for example, serves over 300,000 meals per year. We need to do more. We need to fight against the injustice of hunger and poverty. This is the Torah’s demand. We must pursue justice.Rather than working to fix these problems we look elsewhere to those closest to us and level the charge of injustice against family members and friends. With regard to these relations, we are instead commanded to pursue peace. According to our tradition Aaron best exemplifies peace making. Why? The Israelites clamored to build a Golden Calf when their leader Moses was busy on the mountaintop communing with God. Aaron was left in charge. He did not as one might expect talk them out of their unholy task of building an idol. Instead, he appears to have helped them. Aaron facilitated the building of the calf. The Torah’s judgment of his actions is harsh. The rabbis, however, see in Aaron a model of peace making. They call him a pursuer of peace. Their suggestion is extraordinary. Even when family members are straying, or in this case building idols, we are to[…]

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  • A Song Is All We Need

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 28, 2022 | 14:53 pm

    The High Holidays begin in one month. During the preceding Hebrew month of Elul which starts this weekend, we focus on the task of repentance. We seek to better our lives. We turn inward. We make promises about our Jewish commitments. A Hasidic story. A student came to see the Karliner Rebbe because he was depressed. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m not a good Jew. I don’t study enough, I don’t know enough; all I do is work, work, work. But I want to study more. Rabbi, I have a question. What do our great and holy rabbis study on Friday night?” “Well,” said the Karliner, “some study Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.” “Oh,” said the student, “that is not for me.” “No,” said the Karliner, “that is not for everybody. But I am sure you study Talmud regularly. How is that going?” “Rebbe, I am ashamed to admit it, but I do not study Talmud regularly. You see, I grew up poor. I had to work from an early age to help my family out. I did not get much of an education. I find the Talmud very difficult.” “Perhaps you study something with a friend?” asked the Karliner. “My friends also work very hard; they don’t know much about Jewish tradition. Besides, I have no time to sit in the study hall for hours. What else can I do?” “Working hard for your family is a mitzvah and an important Jewish obligation,” said the Karliner. “You can study the weekly Torah reading for one hour a week.” “Oh no,” said the man. “I always found doing that too difficult. As I told you, I hardly got a Jewish education. I struggle through the portion each week. If I am really being honest, the Torah portion does not uplift me. I am a failure. I am really not a scholar. I prefer to work with my hands. All I know how to do is work long hours.” “No Jew is a failure!” said the Karliner sternly. “Every Jew can learn. And every Jew should learn. I[…]

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  • Taste the Wonderment

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 18, 2022 | 21:27 pm

    Taste the Wonderment This past year, Susie and I joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The requirement is that we pay the farm for the upcoming season’s vegetables in April. And then beginning in June and lasting through November, we pick up an assortment of vegetables every Tuesday at our Huntington drop off location. We don’t know for sure what will be in our bag until Monday evening when the farm emails us what to expect. This week it was corn, tomatoes (large and grape), baby bok choy, potatoes, and cantaloupe (there is the occasional melon). A few weeks ago, we picked up onions, romaine lettuce, beets, new potatoes, kohlrabi, corn and ong choy (Chinese water spinach).In addition to the extraordinary freshness of the vegetables (the lettuce lasts two weeks!), we have to adjust our cooking based on what the farm provides. While I can eat corn on the cob every week, after several weeks corn salad felt like a necessary and welcome change. And again, after weeks of potatoes it was time to make salad rather than the usual roasting of them. We have to be inventive or at least more creative than we used to be. Sometimes we have to do research. And so, after some reading, we grilled the kohlrabi. And while it will probably take us several summers to perfect what to do with this somewhat strange looking cruciferous vegetable, we must admit that had it not come in our bag we never would have purchased this large turnip looking thing with green horns. We better start preparing for the inevitable squashes that will arrive in the fall! For most of our lives, our cooking was dictated by what we were in the mood for or what Shabbat or the holiday required, rather than being influenced by what the land provides. It is a refreshingly demanding shift in orientation. So much of American cooking is built around convenience. Restaurants are often touted for their prompt service. They are heralded for their portion size. All we seem to want is more. We want whatever we want when we want it.[…]

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  • Live the Question!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 12, 2022 | 16:30 pm

    Rainer Marie Rilke, the early twentieth century mystical poet, writes:Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day. (Letters to a Young Poet)When Moses pleaded before God that he be allowed to step foot in the land of Israel, I imagine questions to plague his soul despite his many years of experience. “Why cannot I cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan?” Questions defined him throughout his years. When God first called to Moses, he wondered aloud about his worthiness and protested God’s choice to send him to Pharoah. And yet God’s demands guided him. For forty years he led the people through the wilderness. He lost his temper on several occasions. God became impatient and angry with the Israelites as well. And on one occasion, God said to Moses that is enough. “Now you cannot lead the people into the Promised Land.” “Why now? Why this moment?” Moses must have thought. The Torah relates: “I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, ‘O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness…. Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…’ The Lord said, to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to Me of that matter again!’” (Deuteronomy 4) The commentators are also perplexed. Why would Moses plead on his own behalf? Why would he share with the people his frustration that his plea was denied. The medieval commentator, Ibn Ezra, suggests it is to teach the importance of living in the land of Israel. This land is more important than any other. The rabbis believe it is to convey the lesson that no one should ever lose hope. Our[…]

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  • Getting the Future Back on Track

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Aug 5, 2022 | 11:42 am

    Representative Jamie Raskin, who recently appeared at our synagogue in conversation with Representative Steve Israel, writes: “If we cannot get the past right, we will get the future all wrong.” (Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy) Ours is an oftentimes sad and tortured history. We sometimes struggle to get it right. This is because holidays are not the same as history. Holidays are about creating memory. They are about inculcating identity. History is about uncovering truth. It is about drawing lessons. On Sunday, Jews will commemorate Tisha B’Av, the day our tradition sets aside to mark past tragedies, in particular the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the Second by the Romans in 70 C.E. We look at these through the lenses of tradition. Judaism suggests that not only were the temples destroyed on this day, but nearly every tragedy that ever happened to the Jewish people occurred on the ninth of Av. The spies returned from the land of Israel with a bad report on Tisha B’Av. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and then from Spain in 1492 on the ninth of Av. World War I started, and operations began at the Treblinka death camp, as well as deportations from the Warsaw ghetto, on Tisha B’Av. Our tradition is decisive. History is less clear. The tradition suggests the Babylonians leveled the temple. Historians continue to dig for the truth. Some suggest it was not really King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia but instead the Edomites who burned the temple to the ground. The tradition turns away from this debate and shifts the focus to why. The Book of Lamentations, the words we chant on this fast day, argues that it was all because of our sins. “Jerusalem has greatly sinned; therefore, she is become a mockery.” (Lamentations 1) Likewise, the rabbis looked within to explain the destruction of the Second Temple. The Talmud tells a remarkable story. Here is the legend. A man had a friend named Kamza and an enemy called Bar Kamza. One time when he was[…]

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  • The Importance of Keeping Our Word

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 29, 2022 | 14:26 pm

    The Torah states: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded: when people make vows or take an oath, they shall not break their pledge; they must carry out all that has crossed their lips.’” (Numbers 30)Commentators ask, “Why did Moses speak to the heads of the tribes? Why did he direct his words to the leaders and not all the people?” And like most rabbis, they answer their own questions.The Hatam Sofer, a leading nineteenth century rabbi, responds: “The reason is that leaders often make all types of promises which they don’t keep. Because they often go back on their promises, this warning was aimed specifically at them.”Leaders should be the most careful with their words. They should be more careful than everyone else.The Torah’s counsel remains even more relevant today. Its teachings are a reminder of the power of what we say, and promise, and the importance of keeping our word.

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  • The Wilderness Light Is Nearby

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 23, 2022 | 14:06 pm

    The Wilderness Light Is Nearby Ed Yong writes: “More than a third of humanity, and almost 80 percent of North Americans, can no longer see the Milky Way. ‘The thought of light traveling billions of years from distant galaxies only to be washed out in the last billionth of a second by the glow from the nearest strip mall depresses me to no end,’ the visual ecologist Sönke Johnsen once wrote.” (“How Animals Perceive the Word," The Atlantic, July/August 2022) Sometimes a phrase startles. It radiates meaning. I can still recall those few, miraculous times when I witnessed the nighttime sky iridescent with millions of stars. One instance was many years ago when I was hiking in the Sinai desert. There, after the light of the campfire was extinguished, I looked up to see the blackness filled with innumerable stars. When I look up from my backyard, I can often see a few stars, but nothing as luminous as when I turned my eyes upward from the Sinai wilderness. That difference is only a matter of a billionth of a second! These days I have been marveling at the images from the Webb Telescope. I did not know what the Carina Nebula was before last week, but I have now discovered it is breathtaking and beautiful. There is the Southern Ring Nebula, Stephan’s Quintet and even SMACS 0723. Science reveals nature’s majesty. One of the blessings of the pandemic—and I hesitate to extol its blessings while we are still struggling with its disruptions and reckoning with its losses—is how it turned us toward nature. For those first months most especially God’s handiwork was the only spectacle we could attend. And I suspect this might be why I became captivated and intrigued by Ed Yong’ article. In it he explains that every animal lives within its own sensory bubble, called Umwelt. Its perceived world is its entire world. Only human beings can appreciate the Umwelten of other species. Only human beings can expand their vision and broaden their concern to other worlds. Because of this we have the added responsibility to care for the earth and its[…]

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  • Mr. President, Visit the Parks and Coffee Shops

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 15, 2022 | 07:36 am

    President Biden arrived in Jerusalem yesterday. He is staying a short walk from the institute where my wife Susie and I are studying.The other evening, we walked home past the King David Hotel where the president is staying and made our way through Liberty Bell Park. It was filled with Muslims celebrating Eid al-Adha, the holiday commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. (Islam’s version of this story is different than Judaism’s.) There was enthusiasm, and ease, in the air as families shared picnic dinners and children played on the basketball courts.We then made our way to the First Station, the renovated space of what was once the train station where people arrived in Jerusalem when they traveled from Tel Aviv. There, among the restaurants, bars and shops, we discovered secular, ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis, as well as a fair number of rabbis from our program. In one area, Israelis were taking a dance class and in another, they were enjoying a late dinner and in yet another, an evening cocktail.There was no sense of the tension, and challenges, one reads about in the news....This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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  • Walking Jerusalem's Streets, Walking to Redemption

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jul 8, 2022 | 05:55 am

    In 1996, the leading American Jewish historian, Jonathan Sarna wrote: “The Zion of the American Jewish imagination became something of a fantasy land: a seductive heaven-on-earth, where enemies were vanquished, guilt assuaged, hopes realized, and deeply felt longings satisfied.”The Torah reports: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’” (Numbers 20)This week, I returned to Jerusalem after a three-year pandemic induced hiatus. Walking the streets of Jerusalem, even though still jet-lagged, felt immediately restorative. I have returned home. I wonder. Is this imagined or real?It is an incalculable blessing to live in this unparalleled time in Jewish history....This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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  • Greatness Is an Aspiration

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 30, 2022 | 23:43 pm

    This week we read the story about Korah’s rebellion. He, his followers and 250 leaders, gathered against Moses and Aaron. They said: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy.” (Numbers 16) At first glance their complaint appears legitimate. They seem to say that no person is greater than another. Every Israelite is holy and can have a relationship with God. They appear to suggest that while no one is Moses, every person can aspire to his level of holiness. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the great Israeli philosopher, finds meaning in the words “are holy.” The rebels believe they are holy, that they have already achieved greatness. Leibowitz teaches that holiness is about striving for greatness. Korah and his followers say in effect, “We have achieved everything. Nothing more is demanded of us.” The Torah teaches the contrary. Holiness must never be a present boast, but instead a future goal. Leibowitz continues to say that there are people like Korah in every generation. In every time and every place, there are people who believe that they are already holy and great. They are convinced that there is nothing more for them to do to improve their lives or the lot of those who surround them or the people they serve or the world, and the earth, they are bequeathed. The Torah reminds instead. Our task is to become holy. Look as well at Moses’ humility. When he was first called at the burning bush, he proclaimed his unworthiness. The true measure of someone who wants to serve God, and others, is to always proclaim, and feel, that they are not up to the task. And yet, circumstances (and God’s call) propel them to serve others. They spend their lives striving, but never achieving. On this July 4th weekend, when we celebrate the gifts, and responsibilities, of American democracy, we would do well to heed the Torah’s message. Holiness is about becoming. Greatness is not an achievement. It is instead an aspiration.

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  • Self-Esteem Is the Secret

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 25, 2022 | 15:44 pm

    At the conclusion of a recent family get together we stood for the requisite photo. The twenty somethings among us said things like, “I want to be on the left. This is my better side. Let me stand in the middle. I look better in that spot.” To be honest, I have no idea which is my better side, despite the fact that photographers often move me around for better angles. Unlike prior generations, our children are keenly aware of how they appear to others. They are also the most photographed, and catalogued, group of people in history. What a monumental task to sift through the innumerable digital files we collect in order to stitch together a montage. Today, because of social media, most especially Instagram, people are intensely aware of how they look to others. The spies returned from scouting the land of Israel and reported, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13) How did they know how they looked to the land’s inhabitants? I wonder. Is their estimation of themselves so diminished that this is how they imagined everyone saw them?Abraham Twerski who was both a rabbi and psychiatrist, comments:The person who sees a given object is certain that everyone else sees just what he sees. He does not doubt the validity of his sense of perception, and if he sees a brown-table, he naturally assumes that everyone else also sees the object as a brown table. Similarly, the person who has a perception of himself as being dull, socially inept, unattractive, or unlikeable, is convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is also the way others perceive him. To him, his perception is reality.The spies could not hear what the Canaanites said about them. They imagined that they called them puny grasshoppers because that is how they saw themselves. They heard the inhabitants saying over and over again, “Look at how small those Israelites are.” In our own age, this phenomenon is compounded by social media. The tabulation of likes has become the incessant and imaginary[…]

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  • Unexpected Turns Make for Great Stories

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 17, 2022 | 13:05 pm

    Imagine the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. They moved from camp to camp and from location to location throughout their wanderings in the Sinai desert. They were led on this forty-year journey by God. When the cloud remained over the tabernacle they stayed in camp. When the cloud moved, they broke camp. The Torah reports: “Whether it was two days or a month or a year—however long the cloud lingered over the tabernacle—the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp.” (Numbers 9) And I am lingering on those opening words: “whether it was two days or a month or year.” How unsettled is the Israelites’ lot. They did not know which way they were headed or how long they would stay once they got there. Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno who lived in late fifteenth century Italy comments:This is now already the fifth time the Torah belabors the subject of these journeys, something totally unprecedented. It alerts us to how sometimes the people did not even have time to send their beasts to graze, whereas on other occasions they had to dismantle everything at very short notice, any plans they had made having to be abandoned.It is no wonder that they complained. It is no wonder that they grumbled against Moses. “The people took to complaining bitterly.” (Numbers 11) Just when they started getting comfortable in one place they had to pack up and move to another. Sforno again comments: “It was impossible to predict with any degree of probability how long they would stay in one location.” Perhaps the entire journey was a test. Perhaps all of their wanderings were meant to teach the Torah’s most important truth. There is only one thing on which the people can know for certain and on which they can rely. And that is God. The journey was entirely in God’s hands. Do we have the faith to determine the same? Do we have the faith to exclaim, “Our wanderings are entirely at God’s direction?” Is it possible to see life’s journeys, its unexpected[…]

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  • Going It Alone

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 10, 2022 | 19:29 pm

    The first king of Israel, Saul, was threatened by the brash and charismatic upstart, David and so he did what kings frequently do. Saul tried to kill him and chased David into the wilderness. There, in hiding, David found sanctuary in the beautiful and majestic oasis of Ein Gedi. And there, alone and afraid, he composed the psalm’s words:My soul is depressed, for they set a trap to ensnare my feet; they even dug a pit to capture me, but they themselves, fell into it, selah.My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready; I shall sing and chant hymns of praise. Awake, my glorious soul. Awake, lute and lyre, for I shall awaken the dawn.I shall acknowledge You among the nations, Adonai; I shall sing of You among the peoples of the world. (Psalm 57)Sometimes the most heartfelt, and beautiful, prayers are composed in moments of existential crisis. Spiritual longing is often solitary. The quest is singular. David is terrified Saul is going to kill him and attempts to prepare himself for death. “I am ready.” But then he finds strength. “I shall sing.” He suggests an antidote to his fears. “Awake, my glorious soul. Awake, lute and lyre, for I shall awaken the dawn.” I often visit Israel during the hottest days of July. Hiking along Ein Gedi’s paths the heat starts to get to the better of me and I can imagine David’s fears. When I finally reach what is now called David’s Waterfall, my exhaustion finds relief. The fear dissipates. The waterfall’s cool mist tempers the heat. My spirit is restored. Awake, my glorious soul. More words of David’s poems come to mind:O God, You are my God and thus shall I be first every morning to seek You out.  My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You as though I were parched in an arid land, as though I were exhausted in a land without water.Surely I have seen You in the sanctuary; I have merited to see Your power and glory. And, as Your mercy is better than life itself, my lips shall[…]

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  • The Meaning of Shavuot

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Jun 3, 2022 | 18:17 pm

    Recently, I opened one of the many Torah commentaries that line my shelves, and found these words, “My Haftorah can be find [sic] on pg. 509 in the larger Hertz Chumash.” Forty-five years ago, I read those words before chanting the prophet Amos on the Shabbat when I became a bar mitzvah. As I looked over the pages, I could even decipher transliterations over a few select Hebrew words. I had opened this Bible in search of an alternative translation of a curious Hebrew phrase. In our weekly class, we were transfixed by an unusual verse and grappling with the meaning of some of the Torah’s words. More often than not, I rely on other commentaries, but on this occasion, I searched for another interpretation. Mysteriously, the Bible opened to my Haftorah. And when I saw my handwriting and the introductory words scrawled above the Haftorah Amos, I stumbled upon my thirteen-year-old self.I wondered. “Why did the rabbi instruct me to scribble those words in the chumash?” I tried to jog my memory, “Did anyone else turn to pg. 509? Had the rabbi taught me the meaning of the words I chanted?” I do not recall. I do remember the praise of family members and friends. A flood of memories filled my heart. My grandparents acted as if my bar mitzvah was the greatest in thousands of years.I laughed as I remembered...This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

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  • Enough Guns!

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 27, 2022 | 00:45 am

    After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I thought our country would finally address its epidemic of gun violence. After students spoke out and organized following the murders at Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High School, I thought our nation would finally develop gun safety laws. I don’t know why we cannot agree. It is first and foremost about guns. It is about Americans’ love affair with guns and the easy access we have to these lethal weapons. Our nation is unique among affluent countries. We experience sixty times more gun deaths than people living in the United Kingdom and six times as many as neighboring Canada. There is one explanation for these staggering differences. There are more guns in the United States than people. Why does a nation of 330 million people need 393 million guns? Will laws eliminate gun deaths? Of course not. Will regulations prevent every person intent on doing harm from injuring or killing? Again, of course not. But can we do more? Should we be doing much, much more? Absolutely. I cannot even scroll through all the pictures of these adorable, smiling and loving children. I make it only to Amerie Garza and then must look away. Their teacher Eva Mirales’ beautiful smile, framed by our country’s breathtaking landscape, makes me gasp and look elsewhere. Have I already forgotten Celestine Chaney and Roberta Drury who were murdered in Buffalo last week? How many people remember the name of Daniel Enriquez who was killed in our very own city’s subway? I must not look away. I must take in every single one of these now erased smiles. Do I even know the names of the approximately fifty people shot and killed by guns every day? Can I even count the names of those additional fifty who use guns to take their own lives every single day of the year? It is about guns. And it is about our inability to develop better laws that will allow us to continue using and owning guns while also better protecting us from the dangers of these very same guns. How[…]

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  • Numbering Our Days with Meaning

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 20, 2022 | 20:47 pm

    We find ourselves in the midst of the Omer, the period when we count seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. The custom originated in biblical times when we counted from Passover’s wheat harvest until Shavuot’s barley harvest. An omer is a sheaf of grain. During this time semi-mourning practices are observed, namely no weddings are celebrated. The explanations for this are various and somewhat mysterious. I have often thought that it was most likely because there was worry about the upcoming harvest. Others suggest that during rabbinic times a plague afflicted the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. According to some accounts 24,000 students died. Miraculously on the 33rd day of the Omer the plague lifted. Today is in fact the 33rd day called Lag B’Omer. On this day the mourning practices are lifted. People celebrate and gather around bonfires. We are no longer downcast. Our worry disappears. The Omer serves to connect the freedom celebrated on Passover with the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai. The Jewish tradition’s claim is obvious. Freedom is meaningless if it is not wed to something greater, to something larger than itself. Passover is not about the freedom to get to do whatever we want. It is about freely choosing Torah.That is why the tradition stubbornly insists on counting the Omer. We count from freedom to revelation. We march from Egypt to Sinai. Our history is about the journey from this holiday to the next. Our story is reenacted during the Omer.The rabbis wonder why the plague was so severe. In typical fashion they see its devastation as a critique of their behavior. They see our remembrance of this tragedy as an opportunity to turn inward. And what was the sin that caused the plague? The rabbis teach: it was because they and their disciples failed to act respectfully towards each other.What extraordinary self-awareness! What remarkable willingness to offer self-criticism!Although their historical claims appear questionable the lesson remains instructive. We are again plagued by the failure to act respectfully towards each other. Our leaders scream at one another. Our politicians call each other names. Our debates[…]

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  • Remembering Annie, Remembering the Holocaust

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 17, 2022 | 18:45 pm

    Remembering Annie, Remembering the Holocaust Shalom and welcome to Congregation L’Dor V’Dor. I am Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, and I am so pleased that you have joined us for this special occasion when we dedicate Annie’s Garden in memory of Annie Bleiberg, a longtime member of our synagogue community…. I had the privilege of serving as Annie’s rabbi for almost eighteen years. It was one of my greatest honors that she chose to call me rabbi. Hearing someone say that who has lived through the history that I only study and teach about feels especially weighty. And sometimes, when I am reading and learning about the Shoah, I can still hear Annie’s voice in my ears. I can still hear the words she would offer to our students when she came every year to our sixth-grade class to speak about how she survived the Holocaust. I recall how she would tell them how her life was similar to theirs before the Nazis invaded her native Poland. I remember many things, but a few notes from her story are deserving of mention. She told the students how when she and her family were crammed into a train car heading for a death camp, her father managed to pry open the small window with the tools he had smuggled on the train. Men, and boys, squeezed through the opening and jumped first. And then it was the women’s, and girl’s, turn. The last boy became scared and so Annie who was to be the first girl jumped in his stead and then he after her. By then the guards on top of the train discovered what they were doing and shot and killed that boy when he jumped. Annie’s last memories of her mother and sister, who were murdered in that death camp, is saying goodbye to her sister in that cramped train car and the feeling of her mother’s hands pushing her from behind to help her squeeze through the window. She never saw them again. Only she and her father managed to survive. Still, even after her many attempts to avoid capture, the Nazis did manage[…]

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  • Enlarge Your Vision and Feed the Hungry

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 12, 2022 | 19:52 pm

    After several courses at our Passover seder, including matzah ball soup, chicken, brisket, tzimmes, various vegetables, and of course many glasses of wine, dessert was finally served. And then after that quintessential Passover sponge cake, we still found room for a few macaroons, jelly rings and candied fruit slices. What a feast! It seemed fitting for a king or queen. That is of course by design. When crafting the rituals for our seders the rabbis looked toward the lavish meals of the Greeks and Romans. They thought to themselves, “This is how free people eat. They recline. They are served. They dip their foods. This is how we should celebrate our feast of freedom.” I think of this lavishness, and yes, its overindulgence, when reading this week’s portion. It contains a list of all the holidays. Shabbat leads the list. Then comes Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and finally Sukkot. (The Torah does not mention our beloved Hanukkah or even Purim because the events these holidays commemorate had not yet occurred.) Sandwiched in between the instructions about marking Shavuot’s wheat harvest and Rosh Hashanah’s sounding of the shofar, is a commandment that appears out of place. The Torah states: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I Adonai am your God.” (Leviticus 23) Not only does this commandment appear out of nowhere but it is repeated almost word for word from last week’s portion. I want to shout: “Did you think I already forgot this mitzvah or that my attention span is that short?” I want to retort, “My field of view, and in particular the horizon of my compassion is not that limited?” Or is it? All those sumptuous desserts, and the wonderful company of family and friends, can obscure our peripheral vision. The poor and the stranger are cast aside. While the holidays elevate our lives, they can also diminish our sensitivities. The Torah exclaims,[…]

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  • Israel Is About Tomorrow

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz May 5, 2022 | 19:08 pm

    People often return from trips to Israel and speak about the power of visiting its ancient sites. It is extraordinary to stand in what was once King David’s palace or to play in Ein Gedi’s waterfalls and read the psalms a young David penned when hiding from King Saul. Walking through such archeological sites one can also imagine the moment when the young king and Batsheva first saw each other from afar. In Jerusalem, one can envision Abraham and Isaac walking those final steps before reaching Mount Moriah where the father was instructed to sacrifice his son. As I trace their path, I think to myself, did they speak? The Torah suggests they walked in silence, but I wonder, how could they not if it also states they were bound together as one. It was there that our ancestors built the holy Temple. All that remains is the Western Wall. How many people touched these very same stones? How many people tried to reach this place, but died during what was once a perilous journey to the holy land? The medieval poet, Yehudah Halevi, famously wrote: “My heart is in the East, and I in the uttermost West…. A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain—Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.” He died on his journey to Jerusalem. And yet for all the history contained in Israel’s stones, for all our tradition’s words scribed in these very hills, this is not what I most celebrate. Today is Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day. 74 years ago, the modern State of Israel was founded when David ben Gurion proclaimed: “By virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, we hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael—the Land of Israel—to be known as Medinat Yisrael—the State of Israel.” Israel is not so much about our history as much as it is about the present. Sure, it is about returning to our[…]

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  • Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story

    Rabbi Steven Moskowitz Apr 28, 2022 | 21:55 pm

    Today marks Yom HaShoah. The day the Israeli Knesset set aside, in 1959, to remember the Holocaust. Setting aside one day, or one service for that matter, to remember six million souls and the countless more they would have fathered and mothered, and the many Jewish towns and villages erased from the map and the flourishing of Jewish culture that is no more, seems immeasurable when compared to the enormity of our loss. How can any gesture or ritual, song or remembrance capture so much destruction and loss? Think about this. If one were to recite all six million names it would take nearly five months to read the list from start to finish, assuming no breaks for sleeping or eating or even pauses for taking a breath between names. (For the mathematicians among us, I am assuming it takes two seconds to read each name and that there are 31,536,000 seconds in a year.) Now imagine this....This post continues on The Times of Israel.

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