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Rosh Hashanah 5779: Who We Are

“Excuse me.  Are you Jewish?”

It’s a straight-forward question.  Given that today is Rosh Hashanah and we are all in shul, the answer should be pretty obvious, as well.  But in different settings, the question may elicit very different reactions.  If someone were to ask on the streets of Pikesville, we might think, “how much is this going to cost to me?”  But if we were asked on the streets of one of the European cities where anti-Semitism is on the rise, we might run the other way.

As most of you know, I am fond of listening to podcasts.  This past summer as I made one of my many drives back and forth to the Poconos where Toby and the kids were at camp, one of these podcasts wrestled with the “are you Jewish?” in a fascinating way.

The podcast is called Unorthodox.  It features three Jewish hosts, none of whom are Orthodox.  They spent the day on a Chabad Mitzvah Tank in Midtown Manhattan asking people if they are Jewish and then offering them Shabbos candles or the opportunity to put on Tefilin. (

It was quite interesting to hear their own personal reflections to how they feel when they are asked whether they are Jewish.  As one of the podcasters said at the beginning: “All non-Orthodox Jews, when they are approached by Lubavitchers, have feelings about it.  Nobody is neutral…They really force Jews to confront Judaism.”

They struggled with how to ask strangers the question, how to avoid profiling people and making assumptions about their appearances.  And they spoke about how to understand and interpret people’s reactions to the question.  One of the most interesting discussions they had, and a favorite game was to guess which people who said “No, they are not Jewish” and walked on, were in fact Jewish but were too embarrassed/ashamed/upset, etc. to admit it.

It is not only Jews on the streets of Manhattan accosted by strangers who have a hard time admitting who they actually are.  In fact, being able to articulate who we are and what we stand for is one the greatest challenges facing us today.

A few months ago the Jewish world was up in arms over the passage of the Israel Nation State Law.  While Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu declared that the law was a “defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the State of Israel,” not everyone shared his excitement.

First some of the basics.  Here are the basic features of the bill:

  • Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, who have the unique right of national self-determination
  • The flag and the Menorah are national symbols. Hatikvah is the national anthem
  • Jerusalem is the united capital of Israel
  • The official language of Israel is Hebrew.

I was most surprised to learn that these were not well-established laws from the founding of the State in 1948.

I was perhaps less surprised if not deeply disappointed to hear the outcry against the bill.  The American Jewish Committee, for example, issued a statement saying it was deeply disappointed by the law” and that it “put[s] at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism said: “This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy.  The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic — and Jewish — nation is enormous.”

Much of the criticism stems from the fact that the new law downgrades the status of Arabic from an official language to a language with special status.  This combined with the fact that only Jewish rights to self-determination are recognized, leads many to conclude that the bill is racist and promotes apartheid.  Non-Jewish citizens of Israel, especially Arab citizens, are being relegated to second-class citizens.

Others were less concerned about the content of the bill – after all, these are firmly established facts on the ground.  Rather they questioned the need to pass a bill stating the obvious and questioned what political gains there were in entrenching these facts into law.

Similar questions were raised over President Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  Rather than celebrate a move that was long overdue, much of the Jewish world reacted as if the move was a tragedy.

The words of Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, resonate with me.  In an Op-Ed in the Jewish Press titled “Stop Apologizing for Jewish Values,” he writes:

It seems to me, in this season of forgiveness, the one deserving some of these apologies is the Almighty, for how in the interest of political correctness, we sometimes put His agenda second and our eagerness to be loved and to integrate first. …While we must always carry ourselves with sensitivity and concern for others, we must not apologize for our existence or for being ourselves. (

In a very different context, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon gave a shocking commencement speech at the Hebrew Union College Institute for Jewish Religion.  Intermarriage remains one of the biggest challenges facing the Jewish community.  In the broader Jewish world, among sociologists and demographers, there is almost universal agreement that intermarried families should be welcomed into the Jewish community.  If conversion has not occurred, perhaps it will some time in the future.  And at the very least, the children should grow up with a Jewish identity.  But all agree that the best way to assure Jewish identity and Jewish continuity is in-marriage.  Jews should marry Jews.  That is, all except Chabon.

He told the graduates at HUC:

“were you to ask me if I hope my children marry-in, I would say, Yes. I want them to marry into the tribe that prizes learning, inquiry, skepticism, openness to new ideas. I want my children to marry into the tribe that enshrines equality before the law, and freedom of conscience, and human rights. I want them to marry into the tribe that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards and ethnicity as a construct prone, like all constructs, to endless reconfiguration.”

Anticipating the obvious response that such an attitude will ultimately lead to Judaism’s extinction, Chabon seemingly shrugs his shoulders and says:

“If Judaism should ever pass from the world, it won’t be the first time in history—far from it—that a great and ancient religion lost its hold on the moral imaginations of its adherents and its relevance to their lives. Nor will it be the first time that an ethnic minority has been absorbed, one exogamous marriage at a time, into the surrounding population.”  (

A former teacher of mine, Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman co-wrote a response to Chabon along with Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, where they claim that Chabon’s views are already gaining traction:

It is tempting to dismiss Chabon’s thinking as hyperbolic, idiosyncratic or unworthy of reply, perhaps performance art of a personal psychodrama in a public setting. But Chabon’s undeniable and sometimes dazzling talent as a novelist and the high status he enjoys among elite reading audiences make it critical to respond…
Chabon’s views are worrisome because among liberal American Jews they are not so outlandish. We live in an age that not only is opposed to behavioral norms imposed from above but to social boundaries to our left and right. Jews, a tiny minority in a sea of over 300 million Americans, are being engulfed increasingly by the majority society.  (

And a friend of mine, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, who is the rabbi of a shul in Chicago wrote a response with Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Toronto:

In our view, even on a universal level, Chabon is wrong. The absence (and vilification) of identity is self-defeating. If you want to be a good universalist, you need to have a solid and particular identity. Judaism has done this throughout its history. Judaism has something to teach the world at a moment when so much political debate surrounds borders and the interface between particular and universal identities.   (

This is the very message of Rosh Hashanah.  Rosh Hashanah is the most universalistic holiday that we have.  It marks the anniversary of the creation of the world and all of humanity; not just the Jewish people.

The Gemara Rosh Hashanah 27a states that we follow the opinion of R. Eliezer that the world was created in Tishrei.  Tosafot explain that there is a competing opinion that the world was created in Nissan.

Rabbi Yehdua Mirsky explains the debate as follows:

To say that creation began in Nissan, therefore, is to imply that the rhythm of the universe follows the rhythm of this one people’s life.

Tishrei is the beginning of the rainy season in the Land of Israel, when new life replaces the brown fields of summer. Looking outward from where we live, Tishrei appears to be when nature – rather than history – is born. To say Tishrei is the moment of creation is to stress the universal, the beginning of a universe in which the people of Israel is just a small part.  (R. Yehuda Mirsky “When the World Began, When We Began”  Uri L’Tzedek Mah Ani: Self Reflection and Social Action for the High Holidays. )

And because it is the anniversary of the creation of the entire world, ALL of humanity is judged.  After sounding the Shofar we declare:

היום הרת עולם.  היום יעמיד במשפט כל יצורי עולמים

Today is the birthday of the world.  Today all of creation stands in judgment.

This morning’s Torah reading concludes with the story of Avraham and Avimelech, the king of the Gerar creating a covenant, or a peace treaty.

בראשית כ״א:כ״ב-כ״ג
(כב) וַֽיְהִי֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲבִימֶ֗לֶךְ וּפִיכֹל֙ שַׂר־צְבָא֔וֹ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר אֱלֹהִ֣ים עִמְּךָ֔ בְּכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה׃ (כג) וְעַתָּ֗ה הִשָּׁ֨בְעָה לִּ֤י בֵֽאלֹהִים֙ הֵ֔נָּה אִם־תִּשְׁקֹ֣ר לִ֔י וּלְנִינִ֖י וּלְנֶכְדִּ֑י כַּחֶ֜סֶד אֲשֶׁר־עָשִׂ֤יתִי עִמְּךָ֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה עִמָּדִ֔י וְעִם־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־גַּ֥רְתָּה בָּֽהּ׃

 (22) At that time Abimelech and Phicol, chief of his troops, said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything that you do. (23) Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin, but will deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as loyally as I have dealt with you.”

With this covenant Avraham is established as a player on the global scale – or at least in the Ancient Near East.  What prompts Avimelech to forge a covenant with Avraham now?

The Rashbam writes:

רשב”ם על בראשית כ״א:כ״ב:א׳
ויהי בעת ההיא – שנולד יצחק משרה וידע אבימלך נסים שעשה לו הקב”ה, לכך בא עתה לכרות ברית עמו.

Rashbam on Genesis 21:22:1
ויהי בעת ההיא, at the time when Yitzchok was born by Sarah and Avimelech had become a first-hand witness to the miracles G’d had performed for Avraham. This is why he and his chief general were now interested in concluding an alliance with Avraham.


The Sforno similarly explains:

ספורנו על בראשית כ״א:כ״ב:א׳
אלהים עמך לפיכך אני ירא ממך לא מגבורתך ועשרך לכן אני מבקש שתשבע לי:

Sforno on Genesis 21:22:1
אלוקים עמך, seeing that G’d clearly is on your side I am afraid of you. I am not afraid of your personal strength, but of that of your G’d. This is why I ask you to swear to me.


As he emerges as a political force, recognized by other for his closeness to God, Avraham has a new challenge.  He must be able to articulate who he is and what he stands for.


In previous years we have discussed the significance of the Torah identifying Avraham as Avraham ha-Ivri (Breishit 14:13).

Genesis Rabbah 48:2 בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מב:ח

רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד,

  1. Yehudah – all the world was on one side and he stood alone on the other.

Being isolated, going against the tide is no easy task.  But integration and acceptance into broader presents challenges as well. Not only are there challenges of maintaining one’s commitments and identity, but there is also the challenge of being able to articulate your beliefs, and commitments to others.

This is one of the great challenges that the Modern Orthodox community faces.  Over Shabbos we discussed Rambam’s idea of negative attributes – that when it comes to God, we cannot make any positive statements describing God.  We can only say what God is not.  God is not corporal.  God is not bound by time. Etc.  This allows us to approximate an understanding of God, but it would be wrong and problematic for us to try to say what God IS.

This is one area in life where we are very good at acting Godly.  Because too many times we define ourselves by what we are not.

  • We are Orthodox, but not Crazy Orthodox like the Black Hatters.
  • We believe that women should have more roles in shul and leadership opportunities. But NOT like the Reform or Conservative.

Our challenge is to be able to articulate a vision of what it means to be committed, Modern Orthodox Jews. What does it mean to be a community that is accepting, and non-judgmental and also bound by Halacha?  What are our red lines and how can we express them in ways that are true to who we are and not hurtful to others?

In Hichot Teshuvah the Rambam writes that viduy/Confession is an essential component of Teshuvah.  Rabbi Soloveitchik explains in Al Ha-Teshuvah

Feeling, emotion, thoughts and ideas become clear and are grasped only after they are expressed in sentences bearing a logical and grammatical structure.  As long as one’s thoughts remain repressed, as long as one has not brought them out into the open, no matter how sublime or exalted they may be, they are not truly yours; they are foreign and elusive…Repentance contemplated and not verbalized is valueless. (pp.91-92)

The same is true when it comes to our religious lives.

I began my talk by describing a ragtag group of Jewish podcasters who spent a day with Chabad Shluchim on a mitzvah Tank in Manhattan.

After spending a long time asking people if they are Jewish, they get their first yes…. Sort of.  Someone says they’re Jewish but don’t have time for Tefilin.

They turn to one of the Shluchim and ask, “Does that count?”

The Shaliach answers  “Well make it this way.  You have a Jew who in the middle of the streets of NYC is proud to say ‘Yes.  I am Jewish”

And that is a success.  To embrace and articulate who you are.

The bracha and the challenge to us this year is that we should be able to articulate – first to ourselves and then to others – who we are and what we stand for.  Shanah Tovah!


Family Separation and Parah Adumah

My inbox has been filled this past week with emails from friends and colleagues – Rabbis wondering whether it is okay to speak about the latest development of families being separated at the US border. Part of the difficulty is the more general question of whether it is ever acceptable to speak about politics from the pulpit. Others question whether this is a political issue or one a more basic moral/ethical question. Here’s what I came up with…

The parsha contains two details that bother everyone. The first, is the opening chapter describing the ritual of the פרה אדומה (Red Heifer), which is recognized by our Rabbis as being one of the greatest mysteries in the Torah.

When someone comes in contact with a corpse and as a result is in a state of טומאה (impurity) they must go through a purification process that involves sprinkling over them the ashes of a red heifer mixed with some other ingredients followed by immersion in the mikvah. Why this is effective is anyone’s guess. A second mysterious detail associated with this ritual is that while it achieve the desired effect of being מטהר את הטמאים (purifying those who are impure), at the same time it is מטמט את הטהורים it renders the person who sprinkles the waters over the defiled individual impure.

The second troubling passage in our Parsha is the punishment of Moshe and Aharon so that they may not enter the land of Israel. Again, our sense of justice is questioned. Moshe and Aharon were instructed to speak to a rock in order to provide water for the people. They hit the rock instead. To be certain, they were wrong and they did not follow instructions, but the punishment seems rather excessive for a seeming misdemeanor.

I’d like to offer a few approaches to these great mysteries in light of current events.

When it comes to the  פרה אדומה (Parah Adumah), I heard a fascinating analysis on a podcast. The podcast is called ParshahLab and it features Rabbi David Fohrman, whose approach to Tanach is AMAZING. The truth is, I’ve been looking to present one of his ideas as a way of introducing the podcast and his website – alephbeta academy ( – to those who are not familiar with his work. This week the podcast featured an idea of one of the staff writers, Rabbi Daniel Loewenstein, which he develops along with Rabbi Fohrman.

The key detail that they focus on is the Torah’s description of the liquid mixture containing the ashes of the Red Heifer. In Bamidbar 19:9 we read:

(ט) וְאָסַ֣ף ׀ אִ֣ישׁ טָה֗וֹר אֵ֚ת אֵ֣פֶר הַפָּרָ֔ה וְהִנִּ֛יחַ מִח֥וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה בְּמָק֣וֹם טָה֑וֹר וְ֠הָיְתָה לַעֲדַ֨ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֧ל לְמִשְׁמֶ֛רֶת לְמֵ֥י נִדָּ֖ה חַטָּ֥את הִֽוא׃

(9) A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing.

It is called מי נדה (Mei Nidah).  Don’t even bother trying to understand the English translation “water of lustration.” We know that נדה refers to a woman who is menstruating. But what does that have to do with our purification ritual?

Rashi, following Rav Sa’adiah Gaon says that נדה means sprinkling, either because that is its meaning in Aramaic (Torat Chayim footnote on R. Sa’adiah Gaon 19:9) or because we find similar usage later in Tanach.

(ב) למי נדה. לְמֵי הַזָּיָה, כְּמוֹ “וַיַּדּוּ אֶבֶן בִּי” (איכה ג’), “לְיַדּוֹת אֶת קַרְנוֹת הַגּוֹיִם” (זכריה ב’), לְשׁוֹן זְרִיקָה:

(2) למי נדה FOR WATERS OF נדה — i.e. for waters of sprinkling (or casting); similar are, (Lamentations 3:53) “and they cast (וידו) a stone upon me”; (Zechariah 2:4) “to cast down (לידות) the horns of the nations”, both of which are expressions denoting “casting”.

Rabbis Loewenstein and Fohrman turn our attention back in Tanach to the first time the word נדה (or its root) appears.  It first appears in the aftermath of the story of קין והבל (Cain and Abel) in Breishit 4. Cain’s punishment is (Breishit 4:10-12):

(י) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ (יא) וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃ (יב) כִּ֤י תַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹֽא־תֹסֵ֥ף תֵּת־כֹּחָ֖הּ לָ֑ךְ נָ֥ע וָנָ֖ד תִּֽהְיֶ֥ה בָאָֽרֶץ

Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! (11) Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. (12) If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.”

To drive the point home, this episode ends with us being told that Cain settles in the land of Nod (4:16) (same root as Nidah/Nad)

(טז) וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י ה’ וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת־עֵֽדֶן׃

Cain is punished to be a wanderer, or more precisely to be DISTANT from his current place.

They further point out that once our attention is focused on this story, another key parallel emerges. The פרה אדומה (Red Heifer) is spelled חסר, without the ו (letter vav).  This spelling can be vocalized as אדמה (land/earth). קין, we are told is וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה׃ Cain worked the ground (Gen. 4:2). Further in the story we find:

(י) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ (יא) וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃

Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

How does this help us to understand the פרה אדומה (Red Heifer)? The suggestion made by Rabbis Fohrman and Loewenstein is that the ritual of the Parah Adumah is supposed to take us back to the shocking story of Cain murdering Abel. Not only is it the first act of murder in the Torah, it is the first recorded instance of death!

Death is supposed to be shocking. It should not be easily accepted or understood. One of the more troubling details in Cain’s response to Hashem is how un-shocked he is by his own actions. Not only is Cain distanced from the physical place he had been, but he is distanced from his own true self.

Parah Adumah brings us back to Cain and Able as a corrective. Cain wasn’t shocked and dismayed by his encounter with death. But WE should be deeply affected when we encounter death. פרה אדומה is illogical because there is no good way to make sense of death when we encounter it.   It renders the individual who sprinkles the ashes impure because he faces the greatest danger of becoming desensitized to death – he is involved with this ritual all the time, and thus constantly coming into contact with death.

If Parah Adumah was meant to be a wake-up call or splash of cold water to ensure that we remain properly sensitized and shocked by encounters with death, then I would suggest that the whole question of family separation serves as a modern day Parah Adumah – no matter where one stands politically, no matter one’s position on immigration policies – the idea of separating parent from child crosses a red line. This is unacceptable.

Which brings me to the second mystery of our Parsha – why were Moshe and Aharon given such a harsh punishment for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it?

When Hashem conveys the punishment, He tells them (Bamidbar 20:12):

(יב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃

But 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.”

Rashi explains:

ב) להקדישני. שֶׁאִלּוּ דִּבַּרְתֶּם אֶל הַסֶּלַע וְהוֹצִיא, הָיִיתִי מְקֻדָּשׁ לְעֵינֵי הָעֵדָה, וְאוֹמְרִים מַה סֶּלַע זֶה שֶׁאֵינוֹ מְדַבֵּר וְאֵינוֹ שׁוֹמֵעַ וְאֵינוֹ צָרִיךְ לְפַרְנָסָה, מְקַיֵּם דִּבּוּרוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם, קַל וָחוׂמֶר אָנוּ:

להקדישני TO SANCTIFY ME — For had you spoken to the rock and it had brought forth water I would have been sanctified before the whole congregation, for they would have said: What is the case with this rock which cannot speak and cannot hear and needs no maintenance? It fulfils the bidding of the Omnipresent God! How much more should we do so?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l expounds:

Contrary to our intuitive sense that there must be something wrong with what Moshe and Aharon did, the verse states simply and explicitly that the sin is grounded in what they did not do…

Sometimes, failure to act is far more serious than negative action. We must do all that we can so that when we come before the Heavenly Court, we can answer in the affirmative: Yes.

Rav Yakov Medan, one of the current Rashei Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion says that the key to understanding it occurs before Hashem even mentions the stick or the rock. When B’nei Yisrael first come to complain, how did Moshe and Aharon respond?

וַיָּבֹא֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה וְאַהֲרֹ֜ן מִפְּנֵ֣י הַקָּהָ֗ל אֶל־פֶּ֙תַח֙ אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֵּרָ֥א כְבוֹד־יְהוָ֖ה אֲלֵיהֶֽם׃ (פ)

Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of the LORD appeared to them,

Moshe, the greatest of all prophets, failed to exercise proper leadership in this instance. Instead of addressing the challenge, he falls upon his face, in a gesture of helplessness and despair….

Again, to apply the lesson to our current day situation, when we experience the Parah Adumah moments in life; When we are shocked and outraged by what we see around us, we cannot sit and do nothing about it. Moshe, our greatest prophet and leader faced his biggest punishment because of his failure to act.

With President Trump’s signing the executive order, things have taken a turn for the better. But children are still separated from their parents and many questions remain up in the air. I can’t tell you what the proper actions are, but if you are upset by this, then there has to be action as well – attending a rally, donating money, calling the offices of our representatives, etc.

Wishing everyone a peaceful Shabbat. Shabat Shalom.


Mishpatim — Beyond the Letter of the Law

Good Shabbos. This morning I am going to speak about the immigration debate. And following the example of Nancy Pelosi I’ve got about 8 hours’ worth of material — give or take a couple of hours – so make yourselves comfortable.
Actually, the immigration issue I’d like to speak about is not the ongoing debate in America. Rather, I’d like to focus attention to Israel where a debate about the status of African immigrants has consumed the country.
Since 2005, approximately 60,000 Africans, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan have made their way to Israel claiming to seek refuge from ongoing war and violence in their countries. This migration stopped in 2012 when the Israeli government built a fence across the border with Egypt thereby preventing the refugees from entering the country. The government has claimed that the overwhelming majority of these folks came to Israel seeking economic opportunity, and has undertaken efforts to remove them from Israel. Recently an ultimatum has been declared: The African immigrants have until March to leave Israel or face being sent to jail. The government has offered them $3,500 and a plane ticket to another country in Africa. And while the crackdown (for now) is limited to single males – women, children and families will be allowed to stay – and has excluded those from the Darfur region of Sudan, still, approximately 35,000 African refugees in Israel are facing deportation.
The debates in Israel are just as intense as the debates here – maybe even more so. As the New York Times headline summarizes it: “Israel Moves to Expel Africans. Critics Say That’s Not Jewish.” (
Many point to this week’s parsha and the Torah’s commandment not to oppress the stranger, “For you were a stranger in Egypt.” Others turn to the Holocaust as reason why the Jewish state should never expel asylum seekers.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli journalist writes that this is a pivotal moment in Israel’s history:
“There are moments that touch on the core of a people’s identity and experience that transcend legal categories. When it comes to asylum seekers, international law cannot be the only measure of Jewish behavior. We need to judge ourselves by our memories and values….” (
There have been swelling grassroots protests against the crackdown. El Al pilots have said that they would refuse to pilot the flights removing them from the country. Rabbi Susan Silverman (sister of the comedian Sarah Silverman) began an initiative called Miklat Yisrael, which is known in the English press as Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement. So far 500 families have signed up to adopt asylum seekers and hide them in their homes, if necessary. This has prompted a whole other debate over whether use of Anne Frank and the Holocaust is appropriate. (See here for one provocative article on the subject

I believe that our parsha provides a perspective on how to think about this issue and debate. With Parshat Mishpatim we transition away from the narrative of the Exodus and focus on Jewish civil law.
Toward the end of Chapter 22 we read of two cases that call for attention:

כ) וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ (כא) כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן׃ (כב) אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַעֲקָתֽוֹ׃ (כג) וְחָרָ֣ה אַפִּ֔י וְהָרַגְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם בֶּחָ֑רֶב וְהָי֤וּ נְשֵׁיכֶם֙ אַלְמָנ֔וֹת וּבְנֵיכֶ֖ם יְתֹמִֽים׃ (פ) (כד) אִם־כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ תַּלְוֶ֣ה אֶת־עַמִּ֗י אֶת־הֶֽעָנִי֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ לֹא־תִהְיֶ֥ה ל֖וֹ כְּנֹשֶׁ֑ה לֹֽא־תְשִׂימ֥וּן עָלָ֖יו נֶֽשֶׁךְ׃ (כה) אִם־חָבֹ֥ל תַּחְבֹּ֖ל שַׂלְמַ֣ת רֵעֶ֑ךָ עַד־בֹּ֥א הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ תְּשִׁיבֶ֥נּוּ לֽוֹ׃ (כו) כִּ֣י הִ֤וא כסותה [כְסוּתוֹ֙] לְבַדָּ֔הּ הִ֥וא שִׂמְלָת֖וֹ לְעֹר֑וֹ בַּמֶּ֣ה יִשְׁכָּ֔ב וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־יִצְעַ֣ק אֵלַ֔י וְשָׁמַעְתִּ֖י כִּֽי־חַנּ֥וּן אָֽנִי׃ (ס)

(20) You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (21) You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. (22) If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, (23) and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (24) If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. (25) If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; (26) it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate. (Shemot 22:20-26)
Nahum Sarna observes:
The exploitation of these unfortunates was so tempting, and apparently so widespread, and seemingly beyond the reach of the law, that the Torah amplifies the ordinary apodictic formulation with a passionate emphasis on the gravity of the sin in the eyes of God.
And Jeffrey Tigay, the great Biblical scholar explaining why Hashem must insert Himself writes: “the warning may imply that human government was not well equipped to protect the rights of [widows and orphans] and that God was[thus] their only recourse. ”
The Ibn Ezra notes that the Torah’s presentation of the situation is problematic.
Pasuk 21 begins in the singular: כל אלמנה ויתום לא תענו – you (plural)  shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan
Pasuk 22 then is in the singular – אם עני תענה if you (singular) will mistreat
Ibn Ezra writes
: ואחר שאמר לא תענון לשון רבים. אמר אם תענה. כי כל רואה אדם שהוא מענה יתום ואלמנה ולא יעזרם גם הוא יחשב מענה
This is because whoever sees a person oppressing an orphan or a widow and does not help the orphan and the widow, he too is considered an oppressor.

Turning to the second case which evokes God’s anger, we have the case of a debtor who is unable to pay back his loan. All that this person had to offer as collateral was literally the shirt off his back – the shirt that he sleeps in. The Torah says that it would not be right for this person to be left without his “only clothing, the sole covering for his skin.” So the creditor must return the garment to him before nightfall and collect it again in the morning.
The Sridei Eish (R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, 1884-1966) says that this a strange arrangement and not one in which we can reasonably expect the debtor to ever repay the loan. The person is clearly too poor, and the arrangement is rather convenient for him. The Torah instructs that this rather absurd practice should continue for days, weeks, even months…
While the Torah cannot ignore the claim of the creditor, the Sridei Eish suggests that the Torah here teaches an important lesson which should be applied to all instances of civil law: While it would be easy to issue a ruling in favor of the creditor, such a ruling would not be just. The proper response is not to insist that the law “drive through the mountain,” leaving the welfare authorities to deal with the debtor. Rather, the Torah anchors the principles of kindness and righteousness within the legal system itself.
It demands that judges be capable of observing, evaluating and understanding the person standing in judgment. It demands of them not to be right, but rather to be wise, and this wisdom is itself Divine justice…
In both instances the Torah steers us away from the technical, strict letter of the letter to a more compassionate spirit of the law.
Returning to the debate in Israel, Yossi Klein Halevi says that the debate cannot be about the strict letter of the law:
“Supporters of the deportation are right about this: It is not the responsibility of the state of Israel, which is the only designated safe refuge for the Jewish people and which has taken in millions of destitute Jews, to worry about the world’s refugees. Israeli society, already fragmented in multiple ways, might not survive a massive influx of refugees with no connection to the Jewish people. That’s the reason the government built a fence along our border with Sinai. And that fence has solved the problem: Last year, not a single asylum seeker crossed the Sinai border.
“But it’s one matter to keep out asylum seekers, however painful, and quite another to deport those who have found refuge among us.”
He concludes by pondering what Menachem Begin would do in this situation. Begin’s first act as Prime Minister was to take in Vietnamese Boat people
“In one sense it’s an unfair question: Bringing in a few dozen Vietnamese refugees is hardly of the same magnitude as absorbing 35,000 African asylum seekers. But I strongly suspect that, at the very least, Begin would have agonized over the decision. He would have understood that this isn’t just a matter of meeting the minimal standards of international law. He would have felt the weight of risking the moral capital of the Jewish people.
Where is the sign of unease from our leaders, some indication that they understand why so many Jews are tormented by their decision? Part of my feeling of shame today is the absence of shame among our leaders”
Indeed, the message of Parshat Mishpatim is that we must go beyond our legal responsibility.
Shabbat Shalom.


#MeToo — Our Failures and the Failures of Avraham

Good Shabbos. There is a classical and ongoing debate among the Jewish people. Is it appropriate to criticize the אבות (patriarchs)?  Must we justify their behavior even when it seems to be wrong, or is it okay to point out their mistakes?

One of the more provocative applications/discussions of this important issue takes place at the end of our Parsha. The parsha concludes with the story of the Akedah. As troubling as the story is, there is almost universal recognition that it marks the capstone of Avraham’s career; it is the final test that he passes with flying colors.

And yet, there is a school of thought that offers the opposite interpretation: The Akedah marks a test that Avraham failed! Avraham should have refused to follow God’s instructions. After all, how could he go to bat for the wicked people of Sodom but remain silent when it comes to his own flesh and blood.

While I could spend the rest of this Drasha speaking about this idea, I mention it here only because it helped me to realize that the Akedah may not be the only test that Avraham failed.   Perhaps there are other tests that he failed as well. My understanding of Avraham’s other failed test(s) is informed by events of the past few weeks – the allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against Harvey Weinstein and so many more. The most powerful response was the #MeToo campaign in which women who have been sexually abused and harassed went public with their experiences. .

The words of NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow resonated very strongly with me:
With the recent rash of high-profile accusations of sexual harassment and assault… I found myself feeling shocked at the pervasiveness of this sort of behavior, and embarrassed that I was shocked. After all, I know all the data. (

According to a recent survey, more than half of U.S. women have experienced unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances from men ;3in 10 have put up with unwanted advances from male co-workers…

But hearing these statistics in the abstract is very different from being able to connect them with faces that we know.

What does any of this have to do with Avraham?

In our parsha we read that Avraham and Sarah travel to Gerar.

Breishit 20:1-2

וַיִּסַּ֨ע מִשָּׁ֤ם אַבְרָהָם֙ אַ֣רְצָה הַנֶּ֔גֶב וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בֵּין־קָדֵ֖שׁ וּבֵ֣ין שׁ֑וּר וַיָּ֖גָר בִּגְרָֽר׃ וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־שָׂרָ֥ה אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ אֲחֹ֣תִי הִ֑וא וַיִּשְׁלַ֗ח אֲבִימֶ֙לֶךְ֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ גְּרָ֔ר וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־שָׂרָֽה׃

Abraham journeyed from there to the region of the Negeb and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he was sojourning in Gerar, Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him.

This is an exact repeat of what took place in last week’s parsha when Avram and Sarai (before the name changes) go to Egypt to escape famine.


Breishit 12:10-13

(י) וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨רֶד אַבְרָ֤ם מִצְרַ֙יְמָה֙ לָג֣וּר שָׁ֔ם כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָרָעָ֖ב בָּאָֽרֶץ׃ (יא) וַיְהִ֕י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הִקְרִ֖יב לָב֣וֹא מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ הִנֵּה־נָ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֛י אִשָּׁ֥ה יְפַת־מַרְאֶ֖ה אָֽתְּ׃ (יב) וְהָיָ֗ה כִּֽי־יִרְא֤וּ אֹתָךְ֙ הַמִּצְרִ֔ים וְאָמְר֖וּ אִשְׁתּ֣וֹ זֹ֑את וְהָרְג֥וּ אֹתִ֖י וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ׃ (יג) אִמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ׃

10) There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. (11) As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. (12) If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. (13) Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”

Let us fully understand what is happening here. Twice Avraham and Sarah go to a new society where the expectation is that the king and those in power will forcibly take a woman and force her into marriage/sexual servitude. Avraham takes this as a given. He doesn’t even show any signs of regret. He accepts that this is the reality.

The Radak tries to justify Avraham’s actions by saying he was forced to make a choice between the lesser of two evils: If he discloses the truth he will be killed, and his wife, beautiful and unprotected in an alien society of low morality, will assuredly be condemned to a life of shame and abuse.  If, however, he resorts to subterfuge, she may be violated by some Egyptian, but at last husband and wife would both survive. 

While there may be some truth to Avraham’s dilemma as explained by Radak, I am not convinced. Remember, we are talking about the same Avraham who argues with Hashem over the fate of the people of Sodom. He is recognized and challenged by Hashem to be a beacon of צדקה ומשפט – righteousness and justice.

Breishit 18:17-19

וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃ וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ׃ כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃

Now the LORD had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.”

We are talking about the same Avraham who is described as העברי (a Hebrew/Ivri). Recall on Yom Kippur we discussed the significance of this term:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מב:ח
רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד

R. Yehudah – all the world was on one side and he stood alone on the other.

Avraham’s entire identity was of someone who stands in opposition to the culture around him. He defies authority.

The Ramban (Breishit 12:10) therefore introduces Avraham’s descent into Egypt by saying:

ודע כי אברהם אבינו חטא חטא גדול בשגגה שהביא אשתו הצדקת במכשול עון מפני פחדו פן יהרגוהו והיה לו לבטוח בשם שיציל אותו ואת אשתו ואת כל אשר לו

Know that our father Abraham inadvertently committed a great sin by placing his virtuous wife in a compromising situation because of his fear of being killed.  He should have trusted in God to save him, his wife and all he had, for God has the power to help and to save

The case against Avraham’s actions is even stronger. The great biblical scholar, Nahum Sarna in the JPS Commentary on Breishit introduces the episode with Avimelech in our parsha with the following observation:

“The story is strongly reminiscent of the couple’s earlier encounter with Pharaoh in Egypt. Here it serves to complete a literary framework. The first kidnapping of Sarah occurred after receiving the divine promise of posterity. The second takes place after the last such promise.”

Why would the kidnapping (and abuse) of Sarah be preceded by a promise of becoming a גוי גדול a great nation?

The conventional understanding is that the promise that Avraham will become a great nation is made to silence anyone who would claim that the child born to Sarah was really Avimelech’s or Pharaoh’s.

But in light of the ongoing current events, the promise of posterity from Hashem should have given Avraham the wherewithal to protest against the taking of Sara and the rampant sexism that existed in the two societies of Egypt and Gerar.  It’s as if with the promise of posterity, Hashem is telling Avraham, “It’s okay to protest against the taking of your wife and the abuse of power I have your back.”  It might be an invitation to Avraham, much as the introduction of Hashem’s telling him of the destruction of Sodom is an invitation to Avraham to protest.

Unfortunately, Avraham does not answer the call.
And this, I would suggest is another failure on his part.

As the latest revelations of rampant sexual abuse has shown, we too have failed as a society and as a community. I know that there are women in our shul who have been sexually abused and harassed and who might be listening to my speech thinking, “how can you only see this message from the Torah NOW? Where have you been all these years?” I don’t have a good answer.

We are once again being given the same test that Avraham Avinu was given twice in his lifetime. The test of what to do when living in a society that accepts as normal the abuse, harassment, and objectification of women. It is a test that Avraham failed, and it is a test that up to this point we have failed. Let this be the time that we ensure that we do not repeat his mistake again.



The Floodwaters of Noah

I wrote the following for the Baltimore Jewish Times (

One of my favorite Shabbat zemirot (songs sung at the Shabbat meal) is “Yom Shabaton,” a song attributed to Rabbi Yehudah haLevi (1075-1140). The entire song centers around imagery from Parshat Noah. The chorus begins with the line “On [Shabbat] the dove found rest,” referring to the dove that Noah sent from the Ark to test whether the floodwaters had receded. The song concludes with a promise that bad things will not happen to the Jewish people because of the promise God made to us “over the Waters of Noah” (mei Noah). The phrase mei Noah (the waters of Noah) comes from Isaiah 54:9 — “… As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you.”

Why are the floodwaters attributed to Noah? Noah, after all, was a tzadik, the only person of his entire generation worthy of being saved from the flood. Why then does Isaiah say “the waters of Noah,” implying that Noah was responsible for the flood?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1978) explained, “It is attributed to Noah because he did not pray on behalf of his generation.” Basing himself on a passage in the Zohar, he wrote that even if Noah knew that his generation had sinned beyond the point of no return, Noah should have still been concerned for his fellow citizens to pray for them. Noah is responsible for the floodwaters because he did not do all he could to save the world. Even worse, by not praying for them, Noah showed that he had given up on humanity. He should have shown concern and empathy for others; even those whose fate is sealed.

The message could not be more relevant for us. We must be constantly concerned for the world around us and for broader society. Indeed, the Torah states that the Ark contained a tzohar, which many commentators translate as a window. I believe that this component of the Ark parallels a ruling brought in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 90) that synagogue be constructed with windows. The reason for this is that our prayers should be directed outwards, to the world around us. Every time we enter a synagogue to pray, it should be our hope and desire to improve the world around through our prayers. By the same token, we must also allow our prayers to be influenced by the world around us. We do not pray in a vacuum but out of an awareness of what is happening in the world, and out of a real concern for the rest of humanity. With this awareness, we avoid the mistake made by Noah; we internalize the message of Mei Noah.

Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom.

Yom Kippur 5778 Self-Definition


There are certain questions that are bound to bring about anxiety.  We know the question is coming, and it is almost never asked with ill intent.  But still, we can drive ourselves crazy thinking about how we will answer the question, and then spend the next hour analyzing the answer we gave.

To give one example:  when I was the Rabbi at Brandeis I would walk on egg shells every time I ran into a senior during the second semester.  Social norms require me to ask what their plans are for next year.  But I also knew that for so many seniors whose plans were up in the air as they awaited responses from grad schools or job applications, this innocent question could bring on a full-blown anxiety attack.

Recently, I’ve acquired my own anxiety-inducing question:  “What do you do?”

As many of you know, I recently completed an MBA and during the week I work as a financial analyst.  My friends are still surprised to hear me say that I went to business school or that I have anything to do with a position with the name “financial” in the title.  People that I work with do not know what to do make of it when I tell them that I am a Rabbi.   And in the office building where I work, which is occupied 100% by Orthodox Jews, I am fairly certain that I am the only one in the building with the Semicha.  I am also the least frum person in the building.  At least in Baltimore, such a statement makes sense.

Indeed, we all face dilemmas when it comes to defining ourselves and who we are.

Yom Kippur davening offers a few models how to answer the question of how we define ourselves.

  1. Yonah – עברי אנכי

We will recall the story of Yonah:

  • Yonah is told by Hashem to go and prophesy to the city of Ninveh that if they do not improve their ways, Hashem will destroy them and their city
  • Instead of going on Hashem’s mission, Yonah runs away on a ship headed to a far-off land.
  • Hashem brings a storm.  All the sailors on the boat pray to their gods to no avail.  While this is happening Yonah is sleeping.  They wake him up and he tells them that he is to blame for the storm because he has run away from Hashem.
  • Yonah is thrown overboard and swallowed by a giant whale.  Yonah prays to Hashem and is freed from the whale
  • He goes to Ninveh and delivers Hashem’s message.  The people repent.

In his encounter with the sailors when he explains that he is to blame because he has run away from Hashem, Yonah uses an interesting term.   וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם עִבְרִי אָנֹכִי  I am a Hebrew (Ivri)

The term עברי/Ivri   is first used in the Torah in relation to Avraham.  And R. Yehudah offers a fascinating explanation of this phrase

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מב:ח
רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד,

R. Yehudah – all the world was on one side and he stood alone on the other.

To be an ivri means to stand in opposition to the world around you.

Rabbi Sacks writes in the introduction to the Koren YK Machzor:

To be a Jew is not to go with the flow, to be like everyone else, to follow the path of least resistance, to worship the conventional wisdom of the age.  To the contrary, to be a Jew is to have the courage to live in a way that is not the way of everyone.  Each time we eat, drink, pray or go to work, we are conscious of the demands our faith makes on us, to live God’s will and be one of His ambassadors to the world.  Judaism always has been, perhaps always will be, counter-cultural…The sages said that Abraham was called haIvri because all the world was on one side and Abraham on the other.  To be a Jew is to swim against the current, challenging the idols of the age whatever the idol, whatever the age.

On Yom Kippur, as we reflect on our religious and spiritual lives, we are reminded what it means to be a Jew, an עברי.    We must be prepared to answer, “What do we stand for?”  “Wat unpopular positions do I take?”  What unpooular position am I prepared to take?”

2. Nadav and Avihu

The Torah reading for Yom Kippur comes from Parshat Achararei Mot, which opens with mentioning the death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.

ויקרא טז:א
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י מ֔וֹת שְׁנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן בְּקָרְבָתָ֥ם לִפְנֵי־יְהוָ֖ה וַיָּמֻֽתוּ׃

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD.

Why does the Torah introduce the description of the Yom Kippur service with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu?  This is an especially troubling question when we consider that the story of their death has already been recorded with great detail in chapter 10.  So why repeat it now?

I always understood it as follows:
The Torah introduces the laws of Yom Kippur with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to show the impact of this tragedy on Aharon. Because Aharon was so deeply affected by his sons’ deaths, he heard and internalized the details as well as the overall purpose of Yom Kippur differently.  Aharon must serve as the representative of the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur as he seeks atonement for all sins that they have committed.  His capacity to empathize and identify with the sins and shortcomings of others was radically enhanced after he was forced to reconcile with the sin and shortcomings of his own sons.  Aharon is much better able to facilitate the teshuvah of others after he has come to terms with this tragic event in his own life and the breach it must have formed in his relationship with God.

Part of our self-definition must include the capacity to empathize with others.  Empathy means to identify with someone else – to expand the definition of the self.  This is certainly addressed by the inclusion of Nadav and Avihu in the YK Torah reading.

I came across another explanation for the inclusion of Nadav and Avihu in the Yom Kippur Torah reading in the Ba’er Heitev commentary to the Shulchan Aruch.

באר היטב או”ח תרכ”א:א
אחרי מות. והמצטער על מיתת בני אהרן ומוריד דמעות עליהם בי”כ מוחלין עונותיו ובניו אין מתים בחייו זוהר והאר”י ז”ל.

One who is saddened over the deaths of Aharon’s sons and cries for them on YK, his sins are forgiven and his children will not die during his life.

This seems a bit extreme.  How can a person have so much emotion and empathy for something that happened thousands of years ago?

R. Chaim Shmuelevitzz” l, who was Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva during its sojourn in Shanghai and again in Jerusalem, answers with a Gemara from Chulin 71a.

חולין עא.
חבל על בן עזאי שלא שימש את רבי ישמעאל

He then said to me these very words: Alas for Ben ‘Azzai, that he did not attend upon R. Ishmael.

Rashi expounds:

חבל על בן עזאי – הפסד וחבלה היא בעולם תלמיד ותיק כמותי אני בן עזאי שלא שמשתי את ר’ ישמעאל.

It is a great loss to the world that an established student such as myself, Ben Azzai, did not serve R. Yishmael.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz writes:

ואף זהו הטעם להצטער על מיתת שני בני אררן שעולם כולו נחבל ונפסד בחסרונם, ורישומו של הפסד וחבלה זו שבעולם ניכר אף לאחר אלפי שנים, כי הפסד וחבלה כזה הוא חסרון אשר לא יוכל להמנות, ועל חסרון זה יש לבכות מרה ולהצטער עד מאד, והבכיה על זה היא תקון גדול לכפרת עונות ולהצלת בניו.

This is the reason to be disturbed by the death of the sons of Aharon.  The entire world has lost out by their demise, and the impact of this loss is recognized and felt even after thousands of years.  Such a loss cannot be measured.  For this loss, one should cry and be extremely distressed.

We read of the death of Nadav and Avihu to teach of lost opportunity; what could have been had they lived.  How their teachings and leadership may have impacted the world.  Their inclusion in the Torah reading of Yom Kippur emphasizes the deep sense of loss felt over missed opportunities.

I heard an interview with Amy Summerville, a professor of psychology who runs the Regret Lab at Miami University in Ohio.  — She must be very busy this time of the year.   A distinction is made between regrets of commission – when you regret having done something and wish you hadn’t – vs. regrets of omission, where you regret NOT having done something.   (

Research shows that in the short term people are more likely to have regrets of commission:

SUMMERVILLE:… And what those researchers argued is that we regret things we did a lot more in the moment. So if you say something really stupid in a job interview, you’re going to walk out and have that hand-to-the-forehead feeling of, oh, why did I say that? That was such a terrible thing to have said in that moment.

But in the long run, we tend to have things that are kind of incomplete goals stick around in our memory as kind of a mental to-do list, basically. And that – as a result, our inactions wind up getting kind of added to that mental to-do list.

While I’m sure we all have regrets of both kinds, we cannot let those regrets define who we are.  It is okay to be remorseful for things that we wish we could have done differently or for things we wish we had done, but we cannot allow ourselves to be defined by those regrets. 

3. Acting Godly

For the past two weeks, with the recitation of Selichot, and most certainly for the next 25 hours, our tefilot have revolved around the י”ג מדות רחמים– 13 Attributes of Mercy.  The source for this is a statement by R. Yochanan in Rosh Hashanah 17b:

ראש השנה יז:
ויעבור ה’ על פניו ויקרא א”ר יוחנן אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו מלמד שנתעטף הקב”ה כשליח צבור והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה אמר לו כל זמן שישראל חוטאין יעשו לפני כסדר הזה ואני מוחל להם

The verse states: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed” (Exodus 34:6). Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Were it not explicitly written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this, as it would be insulting to God’s honor. The verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrapped Himself in a prayer shawl like a prayer leader and showed Moses the structure of the order of the prayer. He said to him: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order. Let the prayer leader wrap himself in a prayer shawl and publicly recite the thirteen attributes of mercy, and I will forgive them.

There is an interesting debate among the commentators:  Is R. Yochanan simply saying that we must say these words and somehow, they will achieve forgiveness?  Or, does he mean to say that not only must we recite the words of the יג מדות but we must ACT on them.  יעשו לפני (“They should ACT before Me”)– which brings us to the famous idea of imatio Dei – we must emulate God.  מה הוא רחום… Just as He is Merciful, so you should be merciful…

Whichever side is right, they both agree on a fundamental fact.  In our tefilot of Yom Kippur and the entire Yamim Noraim season we are being called upon to emulate God.

It is especially hard when we are immersed in Teshuvah, which is often accompanied by deep feelings of regret and remorse, to remember that we are created בצלם אלקים  (in God’s image).  Part of our self-definition has to be that as beings created in God’s image, we must be Godly in all that we do.

4. Kol Nidrei

Finally, we come to the prayer that we just recited – to usher in Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre.  Kol Nidre is perhaps the most “famous” prayer we have, but also one of the most controversial.

Many objections are raised on technical grounds and conceptual grounds.  It remains unclear if the intention of the prayer is to nullify vows that were made LAST year, or if we are nullifying vows that we will make in the COMING year – different versions of the prayer exist.

The legal/halachic mechanism that allows for התרת נדרים, the nullification of vows, is the notion of חרטה, regret. The vow-takers adduce that there were circumstances beyond their cognizance at the time the vow was taken that now have led them to reconsider the vows.

Kol Nidrei, then, is a reminder to ourselves and a declaration to our community that we will not allow ourselves to be victims of circumstance.  We will not let the world around us define who or what we are.  We don’t let the image of ourselves that we once held close to hold us hostage to whatever preconceived notions we hold.

There will always be questions in our lives that bring about anxiety.  Yom Kippur forces us to reflect on the essential question of who we are, what defines us and how we define ourselves.

  • We are created in God’s image and we are called upon to act Godly, even when engaged in an intense process of teshuva that could lead us to feel down on ourselves.
  • We must be prepared to act as an Ivri, and to know what we stand for and which unpopular opinions we hold.
  • Part of our self-definition is to empathize with others; to see ourselves in the other
  • We refuse to allow regrets of what might have been define who we are.
  • And finally, we make the strong statement that we will not allow our preconceived notions of who or what we SHOULD be prevent us from becoming who we CAN be.


Meditation before Neilah 5778 — Don’t Hold Back

The day is almost over. I know that everyone is hungry and tired. I want to share a very short thought to hopefully help us get over that last hump.


The Selichot that we have been saying for the past two weeks and that serve as the cetral piece of Ne’ilah are structured around the 13 attributes of mercy. Each time they appear, the section concludes with alluion to another episode in the Torah, Moshe’s asking for mercy in light of the חטא המרגלים (sin of the spies). It concludes with God’s response:

ויאמר ה’ סלחתי כדברך — And God said, ‘I forgive them according to your words” (Bamidbar 14:20). This, then becomes our focus in Selichot– Hashem forgives us according to our words; according to what we ask for.

Rabbi Soloveitchik has an interesting insight into this idea in his commentary on the Haggadah of all places. He writes, describing the slavery experienced by the Jews in Egypt:

“The real tragedy of the slave consists in the fact that he himself does not understand how shameful and horrible the experience of slavery is. the Jewish slaves in Egypt complained only about the work, the physical labor they were forced to do. However, the did not cry about the disintegration of the famil community caused by Pharaoh’s edict. They did no indict Pharaoh for denying them the basic rights that God granted to every human being…Yetziat Mizrayim would not have been a total act of redemption if god had been guided only by their prayers.

“Indeed, I always say that we would be a most unfortunate people if god were guided exclusively by our prayers. Sometmes we pray for things that are a menace to us, and sometimes we not pray for things that are of the greatest importance….” (The Seder Night. An Exhalted Evening, p. 75)


I was reminded of a great story that relates to this. The story comes from Randy Pausch, who was a professor at Carnegie Mellon, author of The Last Lecture. Pausch was diagnosed with brain cancer. He prepared a final lecture to impart wisdom and life lessons he wanted to share with his family. His focus of study was computer science and artificial intelligence. From the time he was a young kid, he was fascinated by Walt Disney World and one of his lifelong dreams was to work at Disney as an Imagineer. He was able to realize that dream when he was able to convince his university and Disney to allow him to spend a sabbatical working at Disney on one of their first rides employing Artificial Intelligence, the Aladin Ride. The story describes a family vacation to Disney. Pausch is with his father and his son, Dylan:

ON MY dad’s last trip to Disney World, he and I were waiting for the monorail with Dylan, who was then four years old. Dylan had this urge to sit in the vehicle’s cool-looking nose-cone, with the driver. My theme-park-loving father thought that would be a huge kick, too. “Too bad they don’t let regular people sit up there,” he said.

“Hmmmm,” I said. “Actually, Dad, having been an Imaginer, I’ve learned that there’s a trick to getting to sit up front. Do you want to see it?”

He said sure.

So I walked over to the smiling Disney monorail attendant and said: “Excuse me, could the three of us please sit in the front car?”

“Certainly, sir,” the attendant said. He opened the gate and we took our seats beside the driver. It was one of the only times in my life I ever saw my dad completely flabbergasted. “I said there was a trick,” I told him as we sped toward the Magic Kingdom. “I didn’t say it was a hard trick.”

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

As we say Neilah, let’s keep this in mind. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. Hashem is listening and prepared to answer for whatever we ask for. Let’s not hold back.