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Torah Learnings from Genesis
Torah Learnings from Exodus
Torah Learnings from Leviticus
Other Torah Learnings (Such as holidays)

Mishpatim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/24/14

Torah Portion: Mishpatim
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 21:1-24:18
January 24, 2013

“He [Moses] then took the Book of Covenant and read it in earshot of the people [at Mt. Sinai]; in response [to the reading] they said “All that God spoke we will do and we will hear.” (Exo. 24:7)

After Moses reviews the responsibilities contained in the covenant entered into on Mt. Sinai, the gathered masses of Israelites respond, as one, by saying “We’ll do it and we will hear it (in Hebrew, Na’aseh v’Nish’ma).” Wouldn’t one want to first “hear" about their responsibilities before actually doing them? This verse has intrigued bible scholars for centuries.

Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk (1787-1859), understanding the verse in its literal form asks, “How can we do something before we hear it?” His answer: “The people of Israel possess special instruments that elevate their perceptual capacity and enable them to transcend the level of their intellect. . .and these are their instruments: the Mitzvot.” The Kotzker Rebbe teaches through the performance of the mitzvot (responsibilities to God and humankind) one comes to understand God.

A key difference between Judaism and Christianity is in the relative importance of faith. For the Christian, it is “creed” over “deed.” What one believes is ultimately more important than what one does. One should, of course, live a moral and ethical life, but in the end one is saved by belief in Jesus regardless of past deeds. For the Jew, it is the opposite: “Deed” over “Creed.” What one does, and how one behaves, is more important than what one believes. Doing God’s will (working to make this a better world) is the path to faith and understanding of God’s ways. Salvation is in the deed. Through deed’s (mitzvot) God provides humankind with the spiritual strength to carry on the work of redemption.

A striking example of this position is a commentary on the verse in Jeremiah, which states: "[They] have forsaken me and have not kept my Torah." To which the Pesikta D'Rav Kahana, a 5th- to 7th-century midrash (legend), comments: "If only they had forsaken me and kept my Torah.” If it be a choice between believing in God or performing the moral/ethical obligations of Torah, better one observes the Torah!

The best illustration of the preeminence of the “deed” in describing the Jew is found in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Who is a Jew? A person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.” A faith in God is discovered in the response to hurt and pain.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Yitro posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/17/14

Torah Portion: Yitro
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 18:1-20:23
January 17, 2014

What kind of person was Moses? We know he grew up in the house of Pharaoh and shared in the privileges of royalty. Yet, he turned his back on a life of leisure to take issue with the very family who raised him. He rejected his Egyptian upbringing and cast his lot with his Hebrew heritage. His place was with the slaves, not the masters. He would emerge as the voice for the collective freedom of the Israelite slaves and the founding leader of the Jewish people.

Leadership roles in the community often come at a high price. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, follows him into the desert with the Israelites ostensibly to offer council, but more likely to check on the welfare of his daughter Zipporah and his grandsons, Gershom and Eliezer. How are they being treated by their husband and father? Since first appearing before Pharaoh to plea for the Israelites freedom, nothing has been heard with regard to Moses' wife or children. Jethro is concerned.

After seeing Moses serving as the only judge among the people, and the people themselves standing in line for hours to request Moses assistance in settling a matter, Jethro speaks up: “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well” (Exo. 18:17). Jethro suggests Moses find others to also serve as judges, relieving him of this time-consuming burden.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, writes, “Jethro sees that his daughter and grandchildren are being neglected, but rather than chastise Moses for being selfish and irresponsible, he expresses his respect for Moses’ accomplishments, makes an effort to understand the challenges of his situation, and seeks to alleviate his burden. A more enlightened and supportive father-in-law would be hard to imagine!”

Was Jethro successful? The Torah tells us,“Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and [Jethro] went his way to his own land” (Exo. 18:27). After Jethro’s departure, still nothing is heard from Moses' wife or children. What we do know is Moses returns to his work.

Could the ancient Israelites have accomplished the exodus from Egypt without Moses? Could they have survived 40 years in the Sinai desert without Moses? Was his sacrifice of family for the sake of a people worth it? All we know is when Moses approached death, he was alone. His brother and sister-Aaron and Miriam-had already died. Nothing more is said of his sons. Zipporah has long since disappeared from his life. Moses is buried in an unmarked grave. There is no one to visit him.

Rabbi Ehrenkrantz notes, “However demanding our professional lives may be, we can be thankful that our burdens are not as great as those shouldered by Moses. We know that while we might not be able to “have it all,” if we cultivate wisdom and spirit we will be able to have enough-a close relationship with God, a warm circle of friends, a rich family life, and the ability to contribute to society while deriving satisfaction from our work.”

The life of Moses has more to teach than just faith and commitment.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Beshalach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/10/14

Torah Portion: Beshalach
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 13:17-17:16
January 10, 2014

With the Winter Olympics just around the corner, and this week’s reading of the miraculous account of the ancient Israelites departure from Egypt, I’m reminded of the U.S./Russian Olympic hockey game in 1980 at Lake Placid, NY. The U.S. victory was more improbable than David’s slaying of Goliath. Al Michaels, the ABC sportscaster who called the play-by-play action, will be forever remembered for his call in the final moments as the U.S. team braced for victory: “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”

Was it a miracle? It was certainly an inspiring “feel good” moment. It buoyed the spirits of America and, for a time, changed the lives of a team of over-achievers. The replay of the game’s final moments still send chills down one’s body. But, by 1982, the U.S. hockey team, fielding several of the original Olympic team members, finished dead last in the World Championships. So much for miracles.

The Torah’s account of the exodus from Egypt is replete with miracles: plagues against the Egyptians, the splitting of the Red Sea, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, and more. How effective were God’s miracles? Rabbi Brad Artson notes, “What is particularly noteworthy is how quickly the Israelite slaves forget about the extraordinary redemption. Barely have they crossed to freedom when the people complain to Moses and God. They complain about a lack of water, they complain about a lack of goods, and they complain simply about no longer being surrounded by good, old, familiar Egypt!”

In the scheme of things, God’s miracles never have faired well. There was the Garden of Eden which eventually was compelled to expel Adam and Eve. Noah and the flood; an attempt at re-starting creation only to see matters get worse. And then God intervenes in history to free the Israelite slaves only to see them rebel against their new-found freedom. What’s a God to do?!

An ancient rabbinic axiom reflects the not-so-subliminal message of the Torah: “Don’t depend on miracles!” What was revealed on Mt. Sinai was not miracles but mitzvot (responsibilities). Through human deeds of lovingkindness and caring we create the miracles that make an indelible imprint on the lives of this and future generations. As Rabbi Artson writes, “To reform human character takes much more than “special effects,” no matter how divine their origin.”

The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team did not defeat Russia by means of a miracle. They won as a result of grueling practice, tedious repetition, miles of skating, and countless hours of conditioning. Because of their preparation, on February 22, 1980, they upended the Russians.

God has given us a plan to make this world work. For Jews, it’s called mitzvot. The performance of these responsibilities is not easy. It requires discipline, commitment, and countless hours of doing. This is how we make miracles.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Bo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/03/14

Torah Portion: Bo
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 10:1-13:16
January 3, 2014

The Egyptians have suffered through seven devastating plagues with no resolution at hand. Pharaoh's courtiers approach him asking, "How long shall this [Moses] be a snare to us?" (Exo. 10:7) Pharaoh summons Moses, and his brother Aaron, and says to them, "Go, worship the Lord your God! [and, by the way,] who will actually be going?!" (Exo. 10:8)

Torah scholar Pinhas Peli notes, "Pharaoh is ready to let the "trouble makers" go, but he denies there is any "Jewish problem" in Egypt. Pharaoh is insinuating that in fact only very few activists would take advantage of the historic opportunity and would actually pack up and go. When the time comes for the actual going out of Egypt, he sneers to Moses and Aaron: "Who will be going?"

Effective and visionary leadership is a recurrent theme in Torah. It is Moses' father-in-law Jethro who teaches him he cannot do everything himself. A good leader requires others to share responsibility. Otherwise, the leader becomes aloof and disconnected from the wants and needs of his constituents. Pharaoh is a case in point. He is so removed from the common person (Egyptian or Israelite) that he has no idea what their condition is. His courtiers (the "yes" men he surrounds himself with) have convinced him Moses and Aaron represent a small number of malcontents.

Skipping ahead 1,600 years, the Babylonian scholar Rabbi Ashi was approached by his students who asked him what the Jewish law was on a certain matter. He responded in Aramaic by saying "Puk V'hasi"-Go out among the people and see what they are doing." The best way to understand the needs of a population is live among them, understand their concerns, and respond to their issues.

The Russian president Vladimir Putin is the modern day Pharaoh. Totally oblivious to the poverty that exists in Russia, he personally commits billions of dollars to create a showcase Winter Olympics in a most unlikely location, Sochi, which just so happens to be the favorite vacation spot of Putin and Russia's elite. Former Russian world chess champion, Garry Kasparov writes, “Picking Sochi and organizing everything there against all the odds, against the nature, against the interest of people who live there, that’s about Putin. That’s about his regime. That’s about stealing money. It’s not about Russia.”

The Jewish people and the modern state of Israel are a testament to how wrong Pharaoh was. May the same be true for Vladimir Putin and any other despot who fails to heed the advice of Rabbi Ashi-"Go out among the people and see what they are doing!"

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Sh'mot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/20/13

Torah Portion: Sh'mot
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 1:1-6:1

Question: Who was the Book of Exodus written for, and why?

Professor Burt Visotsky of the Jewish Theological Seminary poses the above question with regard to the famous midwives of Exodus-Shifra and Puah. Pharaoh, blinded by his wanton hatred for the ancient Hebrews, was determined to destroy not just their will but there very presence. His personal genocide would be carried out by midwives ordered to kill all Hebrew male babies at birth.

"The King of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah, saying, 'When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live. The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live." (Exo. 1:15-17)

Noting the ambiguous nature of the Hebrew translation, Prof. Visotsky writes, "It could be that they were Egyptian midwives who delivered Hebrew women. Or it could equally be Hebrew midwives delivering Hebrew women. . . .Here's the crux of the matter: If the midwives were Jews, why did Pharaoh talk to them at all? Why not delegate a lesser officer to speak to slaves? The other side of the argument asks, If they were Egyptians, why did they disobey Pharaoh at all?"

Again, who was the book of Exodus written for? The deliverance of the Israelites from "slavery to freedom" forms the foundation for the creation of the Jewish people. However, if Shifra and Puah were in fact Egyptians, the very presence of the Jewish people is a result of brave and courageous gentiles who put their lives on the line for others. Prof. Visotsky profoundly asks, "Are non-Jews supposed to read about the gentile midwives and cheer them on, applaud their resolve to oppose evil, learn a moral lesson from them? Shall Egyptians read of the Egyptian midwives and react like the Germans did to the viewing of Schindler's List, delighted to find a Good German as moral exemplar, even if fifty years after the fact? Is Exodus really for non-Jews to read and identify with? Shall we suggest that the lessons of this book are universal, meant to appeal to the downtrodden everywhere? Could the story of redemption be a story for everybody?"

If there be only one lesson learned from the Torah, let it be that regardless of nationality, religious belief, or sexual orientation, we are all in this together. We may live unique lifestyles, attend different schools, and debate variant theologies, but in times of crisis it is not "them and us," but "we." Victims and perpetrators, those who have known slavery and those who have only known freedom, Christians, Muslims, and Jews are capable of hearing and heeding the "still, small voice" of God; a message of goodness and caring in the Book of Exodus.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayehi posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/13/13

Torah Portion: Vayechi
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 47:28-50:26
December 13, 2013

Woody Allen once said, "It's not death I'm afraid of, I just don't want to be there when it happens!" None of us do, but like everything else in life, it happens.

Jacob knows death is coming. He prepares for it not with fear or anxiety, but as one who has come to terms with his life and his impending death. He makes certain he will not be buried in Egypt, but in the family burial place in Hebron. He then gathers his children to express his thoughts on their future. And, with that, Jacob's life comes to an end. Or, does it?

Is there life after death? This question has been the source of theological, sociological, and populist conjecture since the beginning of time. Is birth the beginning and death the end? Or, as mere mortals are we only capable of comprehending birth and death as the bookends of life? Could death be one door closing while another door opens?

The Jewish mystics of the 13th century taught of the reincarnation of the soul in the effort to perfect the world. Each soul is given a certain task to perform in its earthly body. Since each person has freewill, the soul of humankind (the impulse for good) must contend with that within humankind that would lead astray (the impulse for evil). The soul is the infinite presence of God within each finite human being. When death comes, if the soul has not completed its mission, it returns again and again until the task has been performed. Then, the soul is reunited with the heavenly source. When all souls have completed their mission, the world will have achieved perfection.

In his final moments of life, Jacob implores his sons to take stock of themselves, realize their shortcomings, and work for a better world. Ultimately, Judaism is not about what happens after we die, but what we do while we are alive.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayyigash posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/06/13

Torah Portion: Vayyigash
Chaps. 44:18-47:27
Book of Genesis
December 6, 2013

Rabbi Bradley Artson of the American Jewish University writes, "If contemporary America were to pick a motto, it might well be "What have you done for me lately?" Fifty-three years ago, President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." America prides herself on being a country of "rugged individualism", which has come to mean "Me first!" It wasn't always this way.

When Jacob learned that his beloved son Joseph was still alive and well in Egypt he knew immediately he must join him ("My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die." (Gen. 45:28). Before going to Egypt, Jacob had to make a stop in Beersheva to make sacrifices to God. During his years of despair, a belief in God sustained him. His first obligation was to give thanks to God and his community of supporters, then greet his long-lost son.

The synagogue is the Jew's community and our sacrifices are the support we give to maintain it. Rabbi Artson goes on to write, "Once upon a time Jews understood that communal institutions deserved their support and affiliation-not for what each individual got out of them at the moment, but because those institutions allowed us to take care of each other and to serve God."

When a Jew suffers a death, who does he/she turn to? The synagogue community. When a Jew celebrates a wedding, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, or other important life-cycle event, who does he/she turn to? The synagogue community. When the Jew looks for support in passing on the tradition and identity of Judaism, who does he/she turn to? The synagogue community. And, after having been consoled in moments of darkness, uplifted in moments of joy, and enlightened in moments of learning, what does the Jew do? Make certain the synagogue is there for other members of the community in their time of need. Wouldn't it be nice if this scenario played out in reality?

If we don't like the rabbi's sermons, we get another rabbi. If we no longer have children in the religious school or participate in any synagogue committee or organization, we drop our membership. Once our needs are met, we move on. The problem is if we only involve ourself with the synagogue community when we need something, we can no longer count on each other in times of need.

Jacob never turned his back on God and community. They were there for him in tough times, and he was committed to be there when others faced difficulty. This is what community does. This is what President Kennedy meant when he challenged America to be less selfish and more selfless. The synagogue community of today is deeper than a sermon, song, or service. It is people reaching out to people in the sacred community of God.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Hanukkah 5774 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/22/13

Hanukkah 5774
November 22, 2013

Usually, when we discuss the holiday of Hanukkah in public we do so in relation to the celebration of Christmas. This year, for the first time since Abraham Lincoln declared the celebration of Thanksgiving in 1863, the first day of Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving (November 28). Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, as opposed to the familiar solar-based Gregorian calendar, these two holidays will not coincide again until the year 79,811.

Unlike Hanukkah and Christmas, two celebrations with little in common except occurring during the same seasonal period, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving share an important theme: The successful quest for religious freedom. Hanukkah honors the ancient Maccabees who fought against forces that would compel them to compromise their beliefs and practices, just as the pilgrims celebrated their escape from religious persecution in England with Thanksgiving. Both holidays draw upon other themes as well, but this year the common thread of religious freedom brings Jews and non-Jews together.

The 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion or impeding the free exercise of religion. This is understood in two ways: freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Religion, at its best, described in the words of the late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, is "the grand premise. . .that man is able to surpass himself; that man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with God who is greater than the world." Heschel goes on to write, "The purpose of religion is not to satisfy the needs we feel but to create in us the need of serving ends, of which we otherwise remain oblivious." However, religious detractors like the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire, writes "A wise and courageous prince, with money, troops, and laws, can perfectly well govern men without the aid of religion, which was made only to deceive them; but the stupid people would soon make one for themselves, and as long as there are fools and rascals there will be religions."

Both sides have a right to their beliefs and protection from one another. The framers of the Constitution were religious men. However, they understood that theocracies ultimately punish their own citizenry for what they do or don't believe. Therefore, they legislated a democracy that protects religion regardless of its beliefs while offering equal protection to the non-believer regardless of his/her disbeliefs. This is part of the celebration of Thanksgiving. Hanukkah is a mirror reflection of this theme. Rabbi Marc Angel writes, "When we light the Hanukkah candles, we need to remember the value of religious freedom. We also need to remind ourselves—and others—that religious freedom is a two-way street. It allows us to claim the right to practice our religion freely; but it also entails that we grant this same freedom to others who do not share our religious beliefs and practices."

This year, as we Jews simultaneously light the candles of Hanukkah while sitting at aThanksgiving table, give thought to Thomas Jefferson who wrote, "It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read." I would only add, whatever religion or non-religion that may be! Happy Hanukkah and Happy Thanksgiving!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayishlach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/15/13

Torah Portion: Vayishlach
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 32:4-36:43
November 15, 2013

As my children grew into adulthood, I prayed they would always remain lovingly close and supportive of one another. I hoped for the day when their children would run and play together, embracing their relationship as brothers, sisters, cousins, and family. And, of course, I wanted to be there when it happened. I was!

If only the same could be said for our patriarch Jacob. In his youth, he connived his brother Esau out of his birthright, later stole from him their father Isaac's blessing, and then, following his mother Rebekah's instruction, ran away from home fleeing Esau's anger. Twenty years passed. Jacob has two wives, two handmaids, twelve sons and one daughter. He has acquired wealth in the home of his Uncle Laban. The only thing lacking is a brother he can share his happiness with.

Jacob has matured. He finally understands family comes first. He now returns home hoping to reconcile with his brother Esau. "Esau ran to greet [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept." (Gen. 33:4) They probably spent hours catching up on one another's life. Jacob tried to apologize for his mistakes of youth by offering Esau gifts, but Esau turned him down-"I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours." (Gen. 33:9). Esau is satisfied just to have a brother, again.

Looking to rebuild a relationship and reestablish family, Esau turns to Jacob and says, "Let us start on our journey [together] and I will proceed at your side." (Gen. 33:12) Jacob feigns tiredness, urges Esau to go ahead of him and says he will join him at his home in Seir. As Esau rides off, Jacob and his entourage journey not to Seir but to the city of Succoth. Even though they were brothers, twenty years apart made them strangers. Esau was the hunter and Jacob the scholar. After embracing, Jacob realized he had little in common with his brother. The years robbed them of their closeness and made them mere acquaintances. His home could not be with Esau. His children would never know their cousins. Reconciliation could only go so far.

Cherish family. Don't allow distance and time to come between brothers and sisters. When it does, Rabbi Norman Cohen reminds us, "Like Jacob and Esau, we, too, hopefully achieve a rapprochement with our brothers-yet that moment of understanding and healing will not necessarily last forever. Reconciliation between brothers does not always mean closeness, at least in a world that is not yet Eden."

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayetze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/08/13

Torah Portion: Vayetze
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 28:10-32:3
November 8, 2013

Jacob, after cheating his brother Esau out of his birthright, now fools his father Isaac into giving him the family blessing intended for the first-born Esau. The result of these acts of deception is Jacob must flee his home to protect himself against the rightful wrath of Esau. Having done so, he takes refuge for the night in a previously unnamed place. There, Jacob has his famous dream of a ladder extending from earth into the heavens with angels ascending and descending. Upon awakening from the dream, Jacob exclaims, "Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!" (Gen. 28:16)

The commentary in the Etz Hayim Humash writes, "How often do we find ourselves in the presence of God, not only in synagogue sanctuaries but at crucial moments of our lives or in the midst of natural beauty, and remain unaware of it?" What makes Jacob the most personally impactful patriarchal figure is his authentic humanness. He's not that different from you and me. He learns the lessons of life through trial-and-error. He makes mistakes. For a good portion of his life he took God for granted. The God of his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac was just. . . there! His "ah'ha" moment occurred only after being compelled to leave his home and family. Only then did he realize "the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it."

Most of us are no different than Jacob. For many, God is discovered in the night of our lives. How many celebrate God's presence when things are going well? How many more seek God's presence when times are bleak? Margaret Fishback Powers authored the following story Footsteps in 1964 as a young woman searching for direction at a crossroad in her life, not unlike the crossroad Jacob encountered with his dream:

"One night, I dreamed a dream. I was walking along the beach with my God. Across the sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to me and the other belonging to God.

When the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. There was only one set of footprints. I realized that this was at the very lowest and saddest times of my life.

This really bothered me, so I questioned God.

"God, You told me when I decided to follow You that You would walk and be with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life, there is only one set of footprints in the sand. I don't understand why, when I needed you most, You would leave me?"

And God said, "My precious child, I love you and will never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you."

God is always there, even when we don't know it! As my colleague Rabbi Wayne Dosick writes, "When evil and suffering engulf you, when pain and anguish threaten to destroy you, do not blame God or think that He has abandoned you. God is not in the problem. He is in the solution. God is not in the challenge. He is in how we respond to the challenge."

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Toldot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/01/13

Torah Portion: Toldot
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 25:19-28:9
November 1, 2013

In 1996, Bill Moyers, then host of the new MSNBC program Insight, convened a group of Jewish and Christian theologians, authors, poets, and philosophers to discuss the Book of Genesis in a television series called Genesis: A Living Conversation. The result was a 21st century understanding of the ancient underpinnings of monotheism, the belief in the One God.

A resource guide was written to accompany the television series. Chapter 8 is entitled: "Blessed Deception: The Story of Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, and Jacob." Regarding the relationship of this biblical family, the guide's author writes, "Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, and Jacob-they are one of the most difficult families to understand in the whole of the Bible. Just stop for a moment and consider: Esau and Jacob are twins, but they don’t look or act like twins-or even like brothers. By the end of this part of the story, Jacob has deceived Esau, stolen both his birthright and their father's blessing, and has fled; Esau, in turn, has sworn to find and kill Jacob. More than twenty years will pass before they see one another again."

This particular portion of Torah is about many things, but it is all linked to the destructive nature of sibling rivalry. Like throwing a stone into a pond, there is the initial splash, but it doesn't end there. Then comes the ripple effect. So, too, when siblings-in this case twins-are compelled to compete against one another for their parents blessings and approval, their actions of deceit and resentment affect not only them, but generations yet unborn.

Noam Zion, a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, writes: "Just as Jacob successfully diverts the blessing for his benefit, many "descendants" of Jacob have used the story to justify their triumphalism over contemporary rivals. In ancient Israel, it was the biological children of Jacob who claimed priority of blessing and of land over Abraham's less favored posterity-Ishmael, father of the Arabs; Lot, father of Moab and Amon; and especially Esau, father of the Edomites and Amalekites. The Jews read a thousand years of acrimonious relations with their Semitic neighbor, Edom (offspring of Esau), into the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esau."

Ripples from the contentious relationship of Esau and Jacob in biblical times continue in our day with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our ancient ancestors were fraternal twins with differences in physique and nature. Yet, as brothers, they still possessed the possibilities for reconciliation. These thousands of years later, amidst what often appears as insurmountable obstacles, a common brotherhood still holds out the hope for reconciliation between Israel and her Palestinian Semitic brother.

Zion concludes, "When all the biological and spiritual descendants of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar learn that the pain of our brothers and sisters cannot be taken lightly-even when we believe divine destiny is on our side-then reconciliation may become a real possibility."

After twenty years, Jacob's love for his brother Esau proved stronger than his fear of him. Esau's familial bond to Jacob overcame his emotional desire for revenge. When the two met, they embraced. With courage and understanding, the ripple effect of that ancient embrace might also be felt, again, in our time.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Haye Sarah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/24/13

Torah Portion: Haye Sarah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 23:1-25:18
October 25, 2013

Remember the "good 'ole days"? In truth, they probably weren't that good, but we are blessed with a selective memory that, with time, accentuates the positive. The trick is to discover the good in life while we live it rather than wait for the memory.

In reporting the death of Sarah, wife of Abraham, the Torah writes, "Sarah's lifetime-the span of Sarah's life-came to one-hundred years and twenty years and seven years." (Gen. 23:1) The medieval commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak) notes, "The word years is repeated and without number to indicate that they [the years of Sarah's life] were all equally good." Sure, whenever you look back on someone's life-especially at the time of their death-the natural tendency is to sum up their years as good. Is it possible this is what Rashi is referring to?

According to the renown 19th century Bible scholar Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, "There must be differences, variations, and changes during the years of a person's lifetime. There are special times during a person's youth and special times during a person's old age. But the ones who are truly righteous find fulfillment in all their days." Rabbi Yehudah understands Rashi's comment to mean each and every year of Sarah's life was good. What about the times that weren't so good-the jealous rage over the presence of Hagar & Ishmael, the near-death sacrifice of her son Isaac, the years she struggled with becoming pregnant? We are taught Sarah's righteousness is displayed in her willingness to find good even in the most difficult of times.

The following is an urban legend about renowned violinist Yitzhak Perlman that first appeared in the Houston Chronicle in November 2001:

"Childhood polio left Isaac Perlman able to walk only with braces on both legs and crutches. When Perlman plays at a concert the journey from the wings to the center of the stage is long and slow. Yet, when he plays, his talent transcends any thought of physical challenge.

Perlman was scheduled to play a difficult, challenging violin concerto. In the middle of the performance one of the strings on his violin snapped with a rifle-like popping noise that filled the entire auditorium The orchestra immediately stopped playing and the audience held its collective breath. The assumption was he would have to put on his braces, pick up his crutches and leave the stage. Either that or someone would have to come out with another string or replace the violin. After a brief pause, Perlman set his violin under his chin and signaled to the conductor to begin.

One person in the audience reported what happened: "I know it is impossible to play a violin concerto with only three strings. I know that and so do you, but that night, Isaac Perlman refused to know it. You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing in his head. At one point it sounded as if he were re-tuning the strings to get a new sound that had never been heard before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence that filled the room. Then people rose and cheered. Perlman smiled, wiped his brow, and raised the bow of his violin to quiet them. He spoke, not boastfully but quietly in a pensive tone. 'You know, sometimes it is the artists's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left."

Finding the strength to appreciate life even amidst trial and tribulation is holy and righteous. The Houston Chronicle's report on the Perlman concert concluded: "Perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left."

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayera posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/18/13

Torah Portion: Vayera
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 18:1-22:24
October 18, 2013

Rabbi Bradley Artson notes, "Personality is molded by experience. How we live our lives and the events that we confront serve to shape our very beings. We respond to each new situation by referring to earlier ones-always seeking to avoid past mistakes, always looking to improve on earlier interactions. In this light, our response almost always comes one event too late. We become trapped by our most recent experience."

The above observation is made in relation to the story of Abraham, Hagar, and their son Ishmael. Unable to have children, Abraham's wife Sarah gives her handmaid to Abraham for the purpose of creating offspring. Abraham and Hagar give birth to Ishmael-Abraham's first son. Subsequently, Sarah does become pregnant giving birth to Isaac. In a fit of jealously, Sarah compels Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from their common home. Hagar takes her son into the desert. Having run out of water, Hagar becomes depressed resigning herself to the fact she and her young son will die, alone, in the wilderness. It is at this moment that God hears the voice of the crying child, and "opens [Hagar's] eyes and she saw a well of water." (Gen. 21:19)

Is it possible that God miraculously provided a source of water or was it, in fact, always there? Could it be that Hagar was so overwhelmed by her situation, and the events of the recent past, that she did not see the body of water? The water was always there, and may best be understood as a metaphor for the future. The appearance of God in her life opened Hagar's eyes to new hopes and dreams.

Professor Ernest May, in his book Uses of The Past suggests that America's string of military failures are the result of relying upon errors committed in past experiences to determine present action. In Korea, we were determined to improve upon the military mistakes of WWII. In Vietnam, we fought a conflict based on lessons learned in Korea. Vietnam was not Korea, and Korea was not WWII. The environment, cultures, and rules of engagement were entirely different in each instance. America closed her eyes to the realities on the ground and looked to improving upon models from the past.

Sigmund Freud calls it "repetition compulsion"-repeating past encounters in an effort to overcome the pain and frustrations experienced in the past. An action is repeated over and over again, with the results only getting worse. As Rabbi Artson noted above, "We become trapped by our most recent experience."

If synagogue communities and educational endeavors are to succeed and grow, Jewish leaders and educators must, like Hagar allow God to open our eyes to new constructs, new possibilities and new visions.

Rabbi Artson concludes, "To escape our enslavement to past experience requires a radical openness to the present, a willingness to see the world afresh each moment that we live."

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Lech Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/11/13

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 12:1-17:27
October 11, 2013

Every journey begins with a first step. For the Jewish people, the first step followed God's command to Abraham:

"Go forth! From your native land and from you father's house to the land that I will show you." (Gen. 12:1)

Abraham, who not only fathered the Jewish people but championed the belief in One God, is commanded by God to leave the country he has lived in his entire life, the home he has grown up in, his father and mother, and go to a place he does not even know. Did he respond, "What?" or "Let me think about it" or "I'd really like to, but. . ." Abraham's response: "Abraham went forth as the Lord had commanded him." (Gen. 12:4) He neither questioned nor argued, he just went forth!

The Hebrew command "Lech Lecha" is most commonly translated as "Go forth." It can also be understood to mean "Go to yourself." Accordingly, one biblical commentary understands the command to mean "Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be." For Abraham, this could only be accomplished by leaving everything that was intimately familiar to him and pursuing a journey of self-discovery.

Several years ago there was a film entitled "Failure To Launch." The movie was a romantic comedy about a young man in his late 20's or early 30's who still lived at home with his parents in the same room he had grown up in. He had a good job, but as he explained to a friend, "I get breakfast, lunch and dinner, a room to sleep in and someone to clean the room at no cost. Why would I want to leave?" Who knows, the same might have been said about Abraham!

Life is the journey that begins when one courageously leaves the comfort and security of home and sets out to discover oneself; who he/she is and what he/she is meant to be. For the parent, the challenge is knowing when and how to let go, but let go we must!

Walt Whitman, in his work Leaves of Grass reminds us:

“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere - on water and land.”

Though Whitman writes you "must travel [the road] by yourself," Abraham teaches with a faith in the One God, even when we journey alone, we're not!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Noah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/03/13

Torah Portion: Noah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 6:9-11:32
October 3, 2013

"Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation." (Gen. 6:9)

For many, one of the most lasting memories from childhood is the story of Noah and the flood. Who can forget the ark, the animals (two-by-two), the forty days & nights of rain, and the ultimate survival of both human and animal life; the result of one man's actions-Noah. The Torah introduces the story by first reminding the reader that Noah was, in fact, a righteous man. How righteous was he?

Some years ago, Bill Moyers produced and moderated a series of dialogues for PBS entitled "Talking About Genesis." Rabbi Burt Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary brought together Jewish and Christian theologians, poets, writers, and educators to discuss each of the Torah portions in Genesis. One of the participants-Elie Wiesel, who to this day remains the conscience of the Holocaust-offered the following commentary on the righteousness of Noah:

"Did Noah ever argue with God as Abraham did [about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah]? Did he ever implore God to show mercy? Did he ever utter a single word of protest or prayer? Did he ever try to intercede with God on behalf of the countless human beings who were already doomed but didn't know it? As soon as he learned that he himself was not in danger, he stopped asking questions, he stopped worrying altogether. . .Was he in fact a Just man?"

Karen Armstrong, also a participant in the PBS dialogues and author of The Beginning: An Interpretation Of The Book Of Genesis, went even further in questioning the righteousness of Noah when she compared his actions to the actions of Oskar Schindler ("Shindler's List") during the Holocaust:

"A playboy and a philanderer, Schindler was no "righteous man" in the conventional sense of the word: He would most certainly have been condemned to death by the vengeful God of the Flood. Yet ultimately he proved to be more righteous than Noah, risking his own life to rescue people deemed unworthy of life by his own society and peers. Most of Schindler's contemporaries behaved like Noah, blocking out all knowledge of the carnage that was being perpetrated around them, obeying orders in order to save themselves and their immediate family."

On the other hand, the Babylonian Talmud offers the following teaching:

"Noah was a righteous man in his generation": Rabbi Yohanan pointed out, "in his generation", but not in other generations. However, according to Resh Lakish, the verse intimates that even in his generation Noah was a righteous man, all the more so in other generations."

Again, I ask: How righteous was Noah? Are his actions as worthy as we would like to believe, or does this story of destruction and rebirth come to teach something else? Think about it!

Rabbi Howard Siegel


Sukkot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/24/13

September 24, 2013

This week Jews celebrate Sukkot. The holiday remembers the ancient desert journey of the Israelite from Egypt to the Promised Land. It also celebrates the ingathering, or Fall harvest. Sukkot is often referred to as the "Jewish" thanksgiving. The central focus is the "Sukkah", a fragile booth or hut built outside the synagogue or in the backyard of one's home. For a full week, Jews are asked to leave the comfort of their home and, literally, dwell (eat, and even sleep) in the Sukkah.

The word "Sukkah" means "shelter." Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin notes, "Most days of our lives we find a measure of security in our walls and our bricks and our boundaries. "Good fences make good neighbors." And that security-as God learned in the desert-is essential to our well-being. And yet, there are times when our ordinary world meets extraordinary challenges, when our boundaries are penetrated and our fences fail. What then? What will comfort us in the presence of dangers that walls cannot repel: the dread of illness and loss, the pain of shame and uncertainty, the shadow of hopelessness or despair, the fear of failure, the struggles of aging? Sukkot reminds us that the ultimate security is found not within walls of our home but in the presence of God and one another."

Sometimes too much security is the result of too much insecurity. Fearing our perceived inability to cope with dangers-both physical and metaphysical-we construct walls, install alarms, and create barriers to protect us from the storms of life. We believe by cutting ourselves off from the threat of others we stand a better chance to survive; to live. But, what kind of life is this? Insecurity is not overcome by bricks and mortar, rather, as Rabbi Cardin profoundly observed, by opening ourselves up to the "presence of God and one another."

Sukkot compels the Jew to leave the sanctuary of his/her home, go outside, build a makeshift hut, and enjoy a meal in the sanctuary and security of God!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Yom Kippur posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/12/13

Yom Kippur

"Who Shall Live And Who Shall Die?"

The above line from the High Holiday liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is meant to be understood figuratively. God is not determining who shall physically live and die in the next year. Rather, who among us will embrace the year with spiritual vitality and life, and who will merely go through the motions? Who will make a difference in the lives of those around them, and who will just exist?

Outside the sanctuaries of Yom Kippur are millions of people worldwide for whom the question, "who shall live and who shall die?" is a real one. Just this past week, a United Nations Investigative committee reported that in the last 2 years of the Syrian conflict, the Syrian government has participated in 8 massacres of its civilian population including the recent incident of chemical warfare. The rebel forces, themselves, have carried out at least one massacre. The organization "Action Against Hunger" reports that every year at least 3.5 million people globally die from malnutrition-related causes. Ruth Messinger, president of the "American Jewish World Service" stated, "Worldwide, women aged 15-44 are more likely to be killed or maimed due to male violence than by cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined."

The above-mentioned populations depend upon the "spiritually alive" to help them avoid "physical death." When the Jew recites the words "Who Shall LIve And Who Shall Die?", he/she assumes a level of responsibility in the determination. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "A religious person is someone who holds God and humankind in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers in himself harms done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."

The message of Yom Kippur to the American Jew is this is not a time for isolation. Our community extends beyond the borders of city, state, or even nation. This day requires we lobby our resources to demonstrate concern for what is happening in Syria. This day demands we not turn our back on the epidemic of world hunger. This day insists we physically and emotionally protect those who are unable to protect themselves from the ravages of human indignity.

We, in partnership with God, possess the power to determine "who shall live and who shall die." May this Yom Kippur ignite in the Jew a spiritual fire of determination to make a difference in the crown of God's creation: humankind.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Rosh Hashanah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/30/13

Rosh Hashanah 5744
August 30, 2013

Rabbi Hayyim of Zans (1793-1876) told the following story: "A man had been wandering in the forest for several days unable to find a way out. Finally he saw another man approaching. He asked him, 'Brother, will you please tell me the way out of the forest?" Said the other, "I do not know the way out either, for I too have been wandering here for many days. But this much I can tell you. The way I have gone is not the way.' So it is with us. We know that the way we have been going is not the way. Now let us join hands and look for the way together."

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is defined in one Hebrew word: Tshuvah, commonly referred to as "repentance," but more accurately defined as "return." Rosh Hashanah is the time to stop, survey the past year's journey and make the necessary course correction; to "return" to the ideals and goals originally set before steering off course. A Jew is not left to wander the soul-searching wilderness alone. He/she is joined by community gathered in the synagogue seeking a new path, together. On Rosh Hashanah, prayer is the map, the Holy deed the destination.

The late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "Prayer teaches us what to aspire to. So often we do not know what to cling to. Prayer implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish." Three of these ideals form the centerpiece for the celebration of Rosh Hashanah: Tzedakah (acts of giving), Tshuvah (acts of return/repentance) and Tefila (acts of prayer). Re-directing one's life begins not with words, but actions. Start by giving Tzedakah, taking a portion of one's material wealth and freely giving to an individual, institution, or cause who will, in turn, make the world a better place. After taking this first step, the next effort will be easier and increasingly more gratifying until one possesses a clearer understanding of what we are here for. Rabbi David Wolpe writes, "Religion answers this question on a different, deeper level. We are here to grow in soul, to achieve goodness, to work for causes larger than existence alone." It all begins on Rosh Hashanah with prayer.

In the coming week we will enter the synagogue as individuals transformed into community. The significance of the day will require we shed the costume of rich or poor, young or old, liberal or conservative and stand before God as one people who "know that the way we have been going is not the way. Now let us join hands and look for the way together."

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of happiness, health, and peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tavo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/23/13

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 26:1-29:8
August 23, 2013

"If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank."
-Woody Allen

One's earliest understanding of God is a Supreme being who rewards the good and punishes the bad. Many a 6 and 7-year old child grows up learning that God is everywhere and sees everything. This Torah portion, on the surface, reinforces the above notion by giving an exhausting list of rewards and punishments for observing God's mitzvot (commandments or obligations).

"Now, if you obey the Lord your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day. . .These blessings shall come upon you and take effect. . .Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country. (Deut. 28:1-3)."

What does it mean to be "blessed" in the city and in the country? The Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah suggests that in the city God rewards one for service to the community, and in the country one is rewarded for sharing a harvest with the poor and hungry. The Talmud suggests that the actual reward for doing God's bidding in the city is a home in a good neighborhood. These two teachings actually compliment one another.

Serving the needs of one's community is how good neighborhoods are established. Who doesn't want to live in a location that boasts good schools, caring neighbors, and community activism? Similarly, what concerned Jew doesn't want to be part of a vibrant, active and inspiring synagogue community? Both instances require people to step forward and commit to becoming moral, ethical, and spiritual guides, builders & architects. The reward is good neighborhoods and strong congregations. I like to remind Jews, it is not rabbis who create great congregations, but vibrant congregations who create great rabbis.

The ancient prophet Micah understood that it was not enough just to say "good things come from following God's commandments." After all, there are 613 of them. Where does one start? He made it simple, but yet profound, when he wrote: "What does God require of you? To do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your God." That's all, in the words of Nike: JUST DO IT!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tetze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/16/13

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 21:10-25:19
August 16, 2013

The book of Deuteronomy, more so than the previous four books of the Torah, frames the mitzvot (divine commandments or obligations) in moral and ethical terms. For example, "If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life (Deut. 22:6-7)."

The Torah is teaching that even in moments of hunger, there is still concern for how one acquires food. This teaching later became the basis for the general principle of avoiding unnecessary pain to animals. Of equal interest, but less often referred to, is the final phrase in the above verses: ". . .in order that you may fare well and have a long life."

Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, only two are accompanied by the reward of long life: showing compassion to the mother bird and honoring one's parents! In the Talmud there is the story of a young boy whose father instructed him to climb a tree and fetch eggs from a nest. He was also told to chase away the mother bird if she was on the nest. He climbed the tree, chased away the mother, and in the process of retrieving the eggs fell from the tree and died. This event caused Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great rabbinic minds of the 2nd century, to question God's very existence. After all, wasn't one promised long life for the performance of this mitzvah? What is "long life"? Is it only measured in years?

No one really knows how long he/she will live. Advances in medicine and healthcare have extended our lifespan, but there is no end to the number of good people who die young, and "no-goodniks" who live long lives. It is not the length of one's life, but the quality and substance that is brought to that life that makes the difference. The ancient rabbis taught, "Do not look at a flask but at its contents. You can find a new flask with old wine and an old flask that does not hold even new wine." The saddest moment in life is reaching old age unfulfilled. Don't wait to experience the wonders of life. A "long life" is measured not in years, but in experiences.

The late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel died in 1972 at the age of 65. Several years before Heschel’s death, he suffered a near fatal heart attack. At that time, he stated to his student Sam Dresner, “When I regained consciousness, my first feelings were not of despair or anger. I felt only gratitude to God for my life, for every moment I had lived. I was ready to depart. “Take me, O Lord,” I thought, “I have so many miracles in my lifetime. I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And you, O Lord, gave it to me.” At age 65, Heschel had lived to 120! This is the reward of long life!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shoftim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/09/13

Torah Portion: Shoftim
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 16:18-21:9
August 9, 2013

No war has ever created peace. The necessity of battle might have ended conflict, but in the words of the famous author "anonymous", "Those who prefer victory to peace will have neither."

Judaism and pacifism are not one in the same. Judaism in its infancy understood war was an option, but only when the conflict could not be resolved through negotiation and reconciliation. The Book of Deuteronomy teaches, "When you approach a town to attack it, you shall [first] offer it terms of peace (Deut. 20:10)." The Eitz Hayim Pentateuch comments on this verse by saying: "Peace is always the preferred option. War may be necessary, unavoidable, and morally justified, but it can never be "good." In war, innocent people always die and lands are devastated."

As a young Navy chaplain, I had the occasion to visit the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The mission of the War College is to develop and enhance the leadership skills of naval commanders. Several years ago, the Navy had the foresight to add a chaplain to its teaching faculty. They understood that those in a position to wreak war and havoc on an enemy must be grounded in the morals and ethics that inform such a decision. In personal meetings with some of the commanding officers, I did not meet even one who had burning desire to go to war. In fact, written on one blackboard was a verse from Psalms 34- "Seek peace, and pursue it!"

The awful cost of victory has taught the State of Israel that war only puts off the possibilities for peace. On the White House lawn in September 1993, after signing a peace agreement with PLO president Yassar Arafat, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke from his heart (and the hearts of Jews everywhere) when he said, "We are destined to live together on the same soil in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from the battle stained with blood. . .we who have fought against you, the Palestinians-we say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears! Enough!" Twenty years later, we know it wasn't enough.

We are living in a time when the tensions of terrorism and religious fanaticism have pushed the "doves of peace" to the edge of the proverbial cliff. More time and effort is being expended in building higher fences, sophisticated weaponry, and precision drones, then building understanding, confidence, trust, and faith.

It was Paul McCartney and the late John Lennon who said in song, "All we are saying is give peace a chance." The Torah is teaching the same lesson.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Re'eh posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/02/13

Torah Portion: Re'eh
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 11:26-16:12

The American author of children's books, Eleanor Hodgman Porter (1868-1920) created an iconic character who was known for her excessive cheerfulness and unlimited optimism. She named her Pollyanna. And now you know!

There is nothing wrong with expressing a pollyannish attitude toward life as long as one does not lose sight of reality. The Book of Deuteronomy gives voice to reality when it writes: "For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land (Deut. 15:11)." Deuteronomy goes on to teach with regard to Jewish celebration: "You shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter, your servants, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your midst. . . (Deut. 16:11)."

Understanding the unending presence of poverty and homelessness, loneliness and strife, the Jew is obligated to open his/her hand to the needy, not just when a moment arises but even as part of religious celebrations. The medieval Jewish Bible scholar Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki (acronym, "Rashi") explained that the mitzvah (obligation) of remembering that we were slaves in Egypt is the primary reason that God redeemed us in the first place. Rabbi Brad Artson writes, "An awareness of our own lowly origins and a memory of having suffered the hatred and scorn of Egyptian power can only lead us to adopt the weak and the despised as our own."

One might suggest reaching out to the disenfranchised is, in fact, part of the Jewish "DNA." The story is told of an army sergeant calling roll one morning. "Kelly!" he shouted. "Here,," came the response. "Armstrong!" "Here." Then came the turn of Private Cohen. "Cohen!" shouted the sergeant. Cohen being accustomed to so many charity appeals automatically responded, "Twenty-five dollars!"

It is not pollyannish to believe we can forge a better, more caring society as long as we greet the challenge with a non-judgmental outreach to the poor and needy. The Torah, in our day, speaks loudly and clearly when it commands us to learn to live with, offer assistance to, and even celebrate with those living at the poverty level ("poor and needy"), the "widows and orphans", and the immigrant ("stranger").

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Matot-Mas'ei posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/05/13

Torah Portion: Matot/Ma'sei
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 30:2-36:13
July 5, 2013

Biblical society was far different than the American society we live in. Regardless of efforts by religious fanatics of every stripe to return us to the Middle Ages, the drumbeat of freedom and human dignity for all continues to beat loudly. This does not mean we cannot still learn from the wisdom of the Torah.

In this week's Torah portion it is written, "If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation while still in her father's household by reason of her youth, and her father learns of her vow. . .and remains silent, all her vows shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows. . .shall stand (Num. 30:4-6)." Commenting on this verse, Rabbi Brad Artson writes, "While many moderns are troubled by the power of men to override the vows of women, it is also striking that the Torah insists that the husband either use his power instantly, or lose it forever." The Torah does not afford the father an option to wait. By speaking out or remaining silent, he has acted.

The Torah is teaching that "silence is assent." Remaining silent is still a vote. The old saying, "Bad candidates are elected by good people who don't vote" is just another way of saying "silence is assent." Artson goes on to write, "How often do we face acts of injustice or callousness with silence? A derogatory joke in our presence, an act of selfishness or cruelty, or simply reading about political oppression in our newspapers. We can either verbalize our opposition immediately, or, through our silence, become allies of the act or words we abhor."

Martin Niemoller, a prominent German Protestant pastor who became an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in a concentration camp, is best remembered for the following quotation:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

Today, and in this country alone, we face record numbers of homeless and unemployed. Violence threatens the very fabric of our communities and neighborhoods. Schools are producing illiterate children who grow up to be unskilled and poorly motivated adults. There, but for the grace of God, go I. Religious people cannot remain silent. Silence is assent.

Rabbi Judah Loew, the great 16th century rabbi of Prague, wrote: "While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil. Not only will such piety not avert the impending evil, but such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and not doing so."

Is silence really golden?

Rabbi Howard Siegel

A Landmark Moment posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/28/13

A Landmark Moment
June 28, 2013

The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the constitutional rights and federal privileges of marriage extend equally, and in all ways, to homosexual partners legally married in states that recognize same-sex marriage. In the weeks and months ahead, federal agencies will further define the length and breadth of this ruling. The proverbial "ball" is now in the (excuse the pun) court of the faith groups-the many who supported same-sex marriage and those who did not.

As a Jew, my faith in God and Judaism is strengthened by the age-old requirement to defend the dignity of the human being. The great 20th century scholar and rabbi Louis Ginzberg taught that Jewish law is more sensitive to the humiliation of the individual than to the disrespect to the public. In a paper on "Homosexuality, Human Dignity And Halakhah", Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevens, and Avi Reisner wrote, "It is difficult to imagine a group of Jews whose dignity is more undermined than that of homosexuals, who have to date been told to hide and suppress their sexual orientation, and whose desire to establish a long-term relationship with a beloved friend have been lightly dismissed by Jewish and general society. They have, in effect, been told to walk alone, while the great majority of Jews are expected to walk in pairs and as families. In such a context, where is the dignity of homosexual Jews? How can we hide from their humiliation? What [Jewish legal] recourse is available to integrate gay and lesbian Jews into the observant community with full dignity?"

I write these words and celebrate this moment not as an innocent bystander, nor even an objective onlooker. My sister, the mother of four children and grandmother of another eight, is in a long-term same-sex marriage. Her love, faithfulness, honesty, and loyalty to her same-sex partner is a model for all marriages, heterosexual and homosexual. The Supreme Court action did not suddenly change their status, rather it recognized their existence, their love, and their right to be treated equally.

The Book of Leviticus states emphatically, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence (Lev. 18:22)." Then, again, in the Book of Exodus we are told "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. . ." When one stops to consider, there is a great deal of biblical verbiage that might have made sense in the context of its time, but in our day requires re-interpretation. God doesn't change, our understanding of God does. When we preserve human dignity, we give honor to God. Today, that means blending the knowledge of the mind with the emotion of the heart and offering our blessings to both homosexual and heterosexual unions.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Balak posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/21/13

Torah Portion: Balak
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 22:2-25:9
June 21, 2013

Political commentator, satirist, and author, Bill Maher hosts the HBO weekly series "Real Time." Patience and tolerance for conservative pundits and politicians are not his strong suit, but he saves his most vindictive attacks for religion and the belief in God, whom he refers to as "your imaginary friend!"

Though Maher takes his case to the extreme, millions of Americans are knowingly or unknowingly either agnostics or atheists. They either doubt God's existence or just don't believe. Quite honestly, a doubter (or even a believer!) who only read this week's portion of Torah might share Bill Maher's misgiving. Almost out of nowhere comes this story of a pagan prophet (Balaam) who is hired by the king of Moab, Balak, to place a curse on the desert-wandering Israelites. In preparing for this task, Balaam enters into a conversation with his talking donkey (Mr. Ed?) who has just seen an angel standing in the road. Balaam, of course, is unable to see the angel and wonders why his donkey stopped walking. . .and so on! This story, taken out of context without any commentary or explanation, sheds light on why so many are turning away from organized religion and personal faith. A talking donkey?

Faith in God is often discovered in the night of our lives; in personal and familial crises. David Wolpe was already a prominent rabbi in Los Angeles when he discovered his real faith. It emerged from his encounter, and that of his wife, with cancer. Rabbi Wolpe writes, "[after our struggle with cancer] I began to ask myself questions about faith that I have, in subsequent years, asked thousands of lecture audiences: 1) Do you believe only that which is tangible-that which you can see or touch or measure-is real, or do you believe there is an intangible reality? 2) Do you believe that there is a mystery at the heart of the universe that we will never be able to fully understand, not through lack of effort but because it cannot be understood?"

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstader writes: "Do you believe in voices? How about haircuts? Are there such things? What are they? What in the language of the physicist, is a hole-not an exotic black hole, but just a hole in a piece of cheese, for instance? Is it a physical thing? What is a symphony? Where in space and time does "The Star-Spangled Banner" exist? Is it nothing but some ink trails on some paper in the Library of Congress? Destroy that paper and the anthem would not exist? Latin still exists but it is no longer a living language. One doesn't have to believe in ghosts to believe in selves that have an identity that transcends any living body."

Albert Einstein has said: "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." The two can, and must, co-exist. Science helps us to live; the transcendent mystery of God gives meaning and fulfillment to our living. Rabbi Wolpe poignantly concludes, "Not a God on a page, or a God of ancient miracles. Not the God of this or that faction, or the God who is invoked on coins and in campaigns. Rather the living God who whispers inside us the powerful force urging us to goodness and giving us a sense of peace. This God cannot be proven or disproven. This God, who can be intuited, can be felt, is the living God. And this God can never be argued away."

Do I, a reader of the Bible, believe in talking donkeys? No. Do I, a reader of the Bible, believing in a living God? Yes. Have faith!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Chukat posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/14/13

Torah Portion: Chukat
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 19:1-22:1
June 14, 2013

After winning freedom for the Israelite slaves in Egypt and leading them for forty often-tormented years, God does not permit Moses to enter the "Promised Land." Why? Because he could not control his temper. The community was without water and demanded Moses and Aaron do something about it. This was one demand too many. Moses appealed to God who told him to take his rod, assemble the people and speak to a certain rock from which water will then come forth.

"Moses took the rod from before the Lord as He commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came a great amount of water and the community and their beasts drank (Num. 20:9-11)."

When Moses struck the rock instead of following God's order to speak to it, he became condemned to die in the wilderness with the others from the generation who left Egypt. The commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash asks, "Why should Moses, who served God so loyally for so many years through so many trying times, be so harshly punished for what seems like a minor infraction?" Bible scholars from ancient to modern times have tried to make sense of this troubling punishment. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) in the 12th century suggests his punishment was the result of two things: Losing his temper and losing patience with the people by calling them "rebels." Maimonides quotes the Talmud where it is written, "When a prophet loses his temper, his gift of prophecy abandons him."

I am convinced each person possesses a "boiling point," i.e. a point where patience, logic, and rational thinking can no longer hold back the tide of emotion. For some of us the threshold is lower than for others. We all lose our temper, but it is when we lose it that makes the difference. The rabbinic text Ethics of Our Ancestors teaches, "What is the definition of strength? One who is able to control his emotions." Among the qualities one seeks in a leader is strength of character and disposition. President Barack Obama, who has withstood a barrage of criticism and complaint, has always appeared unruffled; or, as other critics describe him, "too cool!" In debate, when one loses their temper, they have lost the argument. In leadership, when one loses their cool, they lose credibility.

The Eitz Hayim commentary continues, "One might conclude that God's decree of death in the wilderness for Moses and Aaron was not so much a punishment as a recognition that their time of leadership was over." They had come as far as they could. It was time for a new generation of leadership; a leadership more patient and understanding of the wants and needs of a younger generation. For the leaders among us, patience is not just a virtue but a requirement.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Korach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/14/13

Torah Portion: Chukat
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 19:1-22:1
June 14, 2013

After winning freedom for the Israelite slaves in Egypt and leading them for forty often-tormented years, God does not permit Moses to enter the "Promised Land." Why? Because he could not control his temper. The community was without water and demanded Moses and Aaron do something about it. This was one demand too many. Moses appealed to God who told him to take his rod, assemble the people and speak to a certain rock from which water will then come forth.

"Moses took the rod from before the Lord as He commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came a great amount of water and the community and their beasts drank (Num. 20:9-11)."

When Moses struck the rock instead of following God's order to speak to it, he became condemned to die in the wilderness with the others from the generation who left Egypt. The commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash asks, "Why should Moses, who served God so loyally for so many years through so many trying times, be so harshly punished for what seems like a minor infraction?" Bible scholars from ancient to modern times have tried to make sense of this troubling punishment. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) in the 12th century suggests his punishment was the result of two things: Losing his temper and losing patience with the people by calling them "rebels." Maimonides quotes the Talmud where it is written, "When a prophet loses his temper, his gift of prophecy abandons him."

I am convinced each person possesses a "boiling point," i.e. a point where patience, logic, and rational thinking can no longer hold back the tide of emotion. For some of us the threshold is lower than for others. We all lose our temper, but it is when we lose it that makes the difference. The rabbinic text Ethics of Our Ancestors teaches, "What is the definition of strength? One who is able to control his emotions." Among the qualities one seeks in a leader is strength of character and disposition. President Barack Obama, who has withstood a barrage of criticism and complaint, has always appeared unruffled; or, as other critics describe him, "too cool!" In debate, when one loses their temper, they have lost the argument. In leadership, when one loses their cool, they lose credibility.

The Eitz Hayim commentary continues, "One might conclude that God's decree of death in the wilderness for Moses and Aaron was not so much a punishment as a recognition that their time of leadership was over." They had come as far as they could. It was time for a new generation of leadership; a leadership more patient and understanding of the wants and needs of a younger generation. For the leaders among us, patience is not just a virtue but a requirement.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Chukat posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/14/13

Torah Portion: Chukat
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 19:1-22:1
June 14, 2013

After winning freedom for the Israelite slaves in Egypt and leading them for forty often-tormented years, God does not permit Moses to enter the "Promised Land." Why? Because he could not control his temper. The community was without water and demanded Moses and Aaron do something about it. This was one demand too many. Moses appealed to God who told him to take his rod, assemble the people and speak to a certain rock from which water will then come forth.

"Moses took the rod from before the Lord as He commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came a great amount of water and the community and their beasts drank (Num. 20:9-11)."

When Moses struck the rock instead of following God's order to speak to it, he became condemned to die in the wilderness with the others from the generation who left Egypt. The commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash asks, "Why should Moses, who served God so loyally for so many years through so many trying times, be so harshly punished for what seems like a minor infraction?" Bible scholars from ancient to modern times have tried to make sense of this troubling punishment. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) in the 12th century suggests his punishment was the result of two things: Losing his temper and losing patience with the people by calling them "rebels." Maimonides quotes the Talmud where it is written, "When a prophet loses his temper, his gift of prophecy abandons him."

I am convinced each person possesses a "boiling point," i.e. a point where patience, logic, and rational thinking can no longer hold back the tide of emotion. For some of us the threshold is lower than for others. We all lose our temper, but it is when we lose it that makes the difference. The rabbinic text Ethics of Our Ancestors teaches, "What is the definition of strength? One who is able to control his emotions." Among the qualities one seeks in a leader is strength of character and disposition. President Barack Obama, who has withstood a barrage of criticism and complaint, has always appeared unruffled; or, as other critics describe him, "too cool!" In debate, when one loses their temper, they have lost the argument. In leadership, when one loses their cool, they lose credibility.

The Eitz Hayim commentary continues, "One might conclude that God's decree of death in the wilderness for Moses and Aaron was not so much a punishment as a recognition that their time of leadership was over." They had come as far as they could. It was time for a new generation of leadership; a leadership more patient and understanding of the wants and needs of a younger generation. For the leaders among us, patience is not just a virtue but a requirement.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Korach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/07/13

Torah Portion: Korach
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 16:1-18:32
June 7, 2013

The more things change, the more they remain the same! The truth in these words is not lost on this week's Torah portion, nor on today's world events.

Amidst the years of desert wandering, there arose a rebellion against Moses' leadership. Three names are identified as rebel leaders: Korach, Datan and Aviram. "Now Korach, son of Izahar, son of Kohat, son of Levi, took himself, along with Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliab and On, son of Pelet, descendants of Reuben to rise up against Moses along with 250 Israelites who were community leaders, representatives of the assembled, men of good repute (Num. 16:1-2)."

Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, an early modern Zionist of the 19th century asks, "Why is the verb "took", referring to what Korach, Datan, and Aviram all did, written in Hebrew singular (V'Ye'kach) and not in the plural (V'Yek'chu)? Because each and every one of them was in this battle for himself." Rabbi Kerry Olitzky notes, "they were merely challenging the leadership of Moses and Aaron on their own personal behalf, selfishly trying to fulfill their own self-serving agendas.

If we fast-forward to today's world and to the same Middle East region, we see the same thing happening. For the most part, the Arab spring has had nothing to do with the oppression of the masses under corrupt and cruel dictatorships and everything to do with the imposition of various individual agendas upon a confused and still-oppressed populous. From police brutality to persecution of minorities, from the arrests of journalists to the suppression of political dissent, Mubarak's Egypt was a textbook police state. For 30 years, anger and frustration brewed among his subjects, bottled up and sealed with fear. Egyptians cheered his falling, but is the Muslim Brotherhood the answer? Their agenda had nothing to do with the young secularists who were responsible for the rebellion. Has peace been restored? Is a new, brighter future in the cards?

An even better example is taking place this very moment in Syria. For more than 40 years, Syria has been under the control of one family-the Assad's. Thousands of Syrians have been tortured and murdered on orders from Haffaz al-Assad, and now his son Bashar Haffaz al-Assad. The courage of those who initially stood up against the Assad rule of terror seemed unmatched. As the rebellion continued, it became more difficult to know who these rebels really were. There are so many different religious factions and militias, each fighting against a common enemy but with very different agendas. These are rebellions doomed to failure, even if the rebels (whomever they be) win!

Moses and Aaron were not without fault. There were elements of truth in the complaints of the three ancient rebels. Though they appeared to speak with one voice (Korach), each had a separate agenda. Change for the sake of change is like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, the result will still be the same. Constructive change, even successful rebellion, requires a unified, thought-out approach whose aim is to better the lives of the many, not merely satisfy the agendas of the few.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shelach Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/31/13

Torah Portion: Shelach Lecha
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 13:1-15:41
May 31, 2013

What is the meaning of a "land flowing with milk and honey"? As the Israelite wanderers approached the Promised Land, Moses dispatched chieftans from each tribe to spy out the land. The scouting party returned with the following report, "We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. . .[however] all the people that we saw in it are men of great size. . .and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them (Num. 13:27, 32-33)."

For the ancient Israelites, the land they surveyed was one whose "milk and honey" were the promising agricultural advantages. The downside was the apparent might and strength of the current inhabitants, and a case of low self-esteem. Generations of servitude had made the Israelite psychologically believe he/she was nothing more than a lowly grasshopper. This communal inferiority complex is given voice by the Israelites who cry out, "Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? It would be better for us to go back to Egypt (Num. 14:3)."

Rabbi Harold Kushner comments on this situation: "A sense of helplessness, a feeling of inadequacy, and inability to deal with one's problems can lead to a person's giving up on life and wishing for death. In contrast, a sense of hope in the possibility of a brighter future, a belief that God can help us to do what we find hard to do unaided, can banish that sense of futility and restore the will to live."

Low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority plagued the Jewish people from the destruction of Jerusalem's 2nd Temple in 70 c.e. until 1948. The response to the ghettoization of the European Jewish community in the Middle Ages, the virulent anti-semitism of Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th century, and the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust was that of a dispirited victim beaten down by centuries of physical and mental abuse. For these generations of Jews, a "land flowing with milk and honey" was the dream of a place where one could hold their head high, proudly proclaiming their peoplehood.

The greatest event in the past 2,000 year history of the Jewish people was the founding of a Jewish state in Israel in 1948. It wasn't important that the land was rocky and barren, nor that it had no oil. What was important was it was ours. A place where the Jew could live, learn, and work freely. A place where our present and future was dependent only on the lengths we were willing to strive to build a democratic egalitarian society. We, the people, the Jews, were the "milk and honey" of this new land.

As Rabbi Bradley Artson writes, "For all these reasons-biblical memory, rabbinic longing and love, unity of the Jewish people, a renewed Jewish culture, pride, and character, and a haven for oppressed Jews-Israel is still the land of milk and honey, still our eternal homeland."

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Naso posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/17/13

Torah Portion: Naso
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 3:21-7:89
May 17, 2013

Parents are always looking for the perfect gift, the right greeting card, the special event that will convey their love for their children. Sometimes we don't give enough attention to the subliminal message we deliver when (and how) we say "I love you!"

Rabbi Harold Schulweis told of an incident with his son, then a high school student. One evening Rabbi Schulweis walked into his son's room. Upon seeing him sitting at his desk studying, the rabbi put his arm on his son's shoulder. His son quickly turned and, facing his father, asked, "Why is it you only put your arm around me when I'm studying?" Rabbi Schulweis had never thought about this. His subliminal message was "when you study I truly love you." His son was asking, "But, what about the times when I'm not studying? Do you love me any less?"

This portion of Torah contains the famous "Priestly Benediction"-"May the Lord bless you and protect you! May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! May the Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace (Num. 6:24-26)". In ancient times, it was the role of the priest to offer this blessing to the Israelite people on behalf of God. With the Roman destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE, the priests no longer carried out this task. From 70 CE to this day, each home has become a Temple. Each table we sit at to partake of food is an altar, and each parent a priest within the home. Today, it is traditional for parents to recite the priestly prayer over each child at their Shabbat dinner table. This is how a Jews says "I love you" to their children.

As my children grew from infancy into adulthood, each Friday evening we placed our hands on their heads and recited in Hebrew this blessing of "Jewish love." Contained in these words were the hopes and prayers of loving parents. Over the years, we gave our children any number of material gifts. To this day, the one memory they all internalized was being blessed by their parents each Friday evening. They, in turn, offer the same blessing to their children.

The Priestly Benediction is one of only two blessings prescribed in the Torah. The other deals with Passover. When said today, it conveys the message, "I love you, the Jewish people love you, God loves you, and you'll never walk alone!" Can you think of a better gift to give?

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Behar/Behukotai posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/03/13

Torah Portion: Behar/Behukotai
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 25:1-27:34
May 3, 2013

The famous "Liberty Bell" was dedicated in Philadelphia in 1751, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn's "Charter of Privileges", Pennsylvania's original constitution. The verse chosen to be engraved into the bell, and from which the name "Liberty Bell" derives, is Leviticus 25:10-"You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants."

What did the founders of this nation mean by liberty or freedom, and how is it understood by Jewish tradition? As Americans, we have been taught from an early age that freedom gives us the right to openly express our feelings and attitudes and allows us to believe in the religion of our choice. The 11th century Bible scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhacki, known by his acronym "Rashi", understood freedom to mean the ability to live wherever one wishes.

Rabbi Brad Artson explains the teaching of Rashi: "One cannot, he claims, be truly free unless one is able to choose where to live. Do the homeless in our major cities have that freedom? Can they choose where to live? What of recent college graduates, so saddled with untenable debts that they are unable to purchase a home? What about members of racial or ethnic minorities who are victimized in certain neighborhoods? What of the freedom of gay men and lesbians to live freely where they choose without fear of intimidation or assault?"

In the weeks ahead, the US Congress will address the issue of illegal immigration. According to a CBS News poll done in 2011, 57% of Americans believed that undocumented immigrants should be given the right to apply for citizenship or stay as a guest worker. The same poll done in recent months show the figure to have risen to 74% of Americans. The traditions and tenets of Judaism stand with the 74%. We are a people whose faith is founded in the notion that all humankind are created in the image of God. The pursuit of freedom and liberty, as Rashi explains it, is a basic human right to be enjoyed by all people. How often does the Torah remind the Jew to remember we were once "strangers in the land of Egypt?" We know, all too well, what it is like to be turned away and expelled from homes and lands of our birth. We fled slavery in Egypt only to later be expelled from England, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Eastern Europe to mention a few! We, like so many of today's immigrants, sought refuge on the shores of America. Just as those doors were open to us then, we bear an obligation to keep them open for today's immigrants. In the words of the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, engraved upon another American icon-the Statue of Liberty-"Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

We work for day when the words of Leviticus, and the poetry of Emma Lazarus, need no longer be reminders.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Emor posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/26/13

Torah Portion: Emor
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 21:1-24:23
April 26, 2013

It's quite normal to want to be more than we are. We are taught from early age that "our reach should always exceed our grasp." Don't settle for mediocrity when one can be so much more. An ad for Army recruits encourages one to "be all that you can be," implying who you are now is not the person you have the potential to be. Even the ancient rabbis professed the unique nature of humanity when they taught that in creating humankind, God created male and female, but no two alike. Knowing that one bears a uniqueness separating him/her from every other human being, makes one also believe that there must be more to him/her than what appears.

Bible scholar Pinhas Peli teaches, "Holiness is the Jewish answer to the problem of human existence. [Humankind] has always sought to ascribe some metaphysical meaning to physical life, suggesting that if man is not somehow more than human, he is less than human. . .Judaism taught that it is holiness that can add this extra dimension to our lives, not by escaping from life, but rather by striving to "be holy" in this world and in this life."

This Torah portion teaches, "The Lord said to Moses, speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person among his people" (Lev. 21:1). In the ancient context, this meant the priests (Cohanim) were not permitted to have anything to do with the preparation and burial of the dead. This restriction came to include a prohibition against priests even entering a cemetery. In their early stages, the Jewish people defined themselves by differences between their God and religion, and that of the Egyptians from whence they came. In ancient Egypt, all of life centered around a cult of death. "Houses of eternity" were built for the dead. The chief responsibility of the Egyptian priests was to watch over and perform the required death rituals. Peli points out, "[This difference] emphasizes the fact that [the Israelite priest's] job is not to cater to the dead, but to serve as a teacher and model of holiness for the living."

The ancient priests, like today's rabbis and teachers, were responsible for modeling the attributes the individual Jew should be striving for; attributes of "holiness." What does it mean "to be holy"? Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless, and lending a hand to the needy are all acts of "holiness." Being a "holy" person means reaching beyond one's grasp, stepping out of one's immediate comfort zone, doing the doable while dreaming the impossible.

For a "holy" person, the status quo is never acceptable while even one human cry is heard. This is the challenge of being Jewish. It is a challenge of uniqueness, measured not in the terms of fame and fortune but in acts of holiness.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Aharei Mot/Kedoshim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/19/13

Torah Portion: Aharei Mot/Kedoshim
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 16:1-20:27
April 19, 2013

The cornerstone of the Torah is written in one simple verse: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord." (Lev. 19:18)

The 20th century philosopher Martin Buber interpreted the above two statements as one. The Eitz Hayim Humash commentary explained Buber's interpretation: "Because all human beings are part of the same body, to hurt another person in an effort to get even is to hurt part of oneself. [Buber] compares it to a person whose hand slips while holding a knife and he stabs himself. Should he stab the offending hand that slipped, to get even with it for hurting him? He will only hurt himself a second time. So it is when we, in anger, hurt another person, not understanding that we are all connected. Anger and a thirst for vengeance corrode the soul."

During the mayhem following the bombings at the Boston Marathon this week, one notable Bostonian was asked how the residents will respond. He said, "There are only three things that are of great importance to a Bostonian-Sports, Politics, & Revenge. We'll get our revenge not by a counter-act of violence, but by rebuilding and carrying on with life."

Tom Friedman responded to the Boston bombing in an editorial: "[In 2003] a Hamas suicide bomber had blown himself up at a bus stop outside the Tsrifin army base, and by coincidence I was nearby and got there to witness the immediate aftermath. . . Israeli rescue workers calmly carried away the dead on stretchers, with an odd mix of horror and routine. But what I remember most was something the police spokesman said to me, "We will have this whole area cleaned up in two hours. By morning, the bus stop will be repaired. You will never know this happened." Friedman goes on to write, "So let's repair the sidewalk immediately, fix the windows, fill the holes and leave no trace-no shrines, no flowers, not statues, no plaques-and return life to normal there as fast as possible. Let's defy the terrorists, by not allowing them to leave even the smallest scar on our streets, and honor the dead by sanctifying our values, by affirming life and all those things that make us stronger and bring us closer together as a country."

Vengeance is an awful emotion. It brings out the worst in people and casts a giant shadow over all humanity. In the end, it does nothing to change the circumstances that resulted in revenge. Acts of vengeance only serve to make the avenger no better than the perpetrator. There will be no lynching mob in Boston. Those responsible will be (and have been) brought to justice by the law enforcement agencies. Everyone else will respond by repairing the sidewalk, fixing the windows, and immediately setting about planning the next Boston Marathon.

The lesson taught this week by so many Bostonians is loving and caring for your injured fellow humans, far exceed acts of grudge and vengeance.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Tazria-Metzora posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/12/13

Torah Portion: Tazria/Metzora
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 12:1-15:33
April 12, 2013

This week President Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor upon a soldier who died 62 years ago in a Korean prison. The fact it took so many years to honor this soldier says more about the humble nature of the man then the process, itself.

35-year old Army Captain Emil Kapaun was a Catholic priest and an army chaplain during the Korean war. I was privileged to serve my country as a Navy chaplain during more peaceful times. Anyone who has served in the military, or encountered a military chaplain, knows these are people of immense faith-both in God and the soldiers they minister to. Chaplain Kapaun exhibited these qualities and much more.

The New York Times described the heroism of Chaplain Kapaun: "The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded. After his unit was captured by the Chinese, they were taken on a lengthy march to a prison camp. When Chaplain Kapaun saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade who couldn't keep up, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 86, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family."

In the prison camp, Chaplain Kapaun was tortured for his show of faith. Nonetheless, he led the Christian prisoners in an observance of Easter mass. Those who survived the captivity reported that Chaplain Kapaun would give the clothes off his back to a wounded or sick soldier suffering from the harsh weather. He also risked his life to steal food and other necessities for the other imprisoned soldiers.

The Times writes, "The priest had a blood clot, dysentery and then pneumonia, and in May 1951, guards sent him into isolation, without food or water, to die. As Mr. Obama recounted, based on testimony from Father Kapaun’s comrades, the priest looked at the guards and said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

His remains were never recovered. When the prison camp was liberated, the surviving soldiers walked out carrying a 4-foot wooden cross they had made in Chaplain Kapaun's honor. As his nephew received the Medal of Honor on behalf of his deceased uncle, President Obama reported that one of the veterans present said in a short, but poignant expression, "He kept a lot of us alive."

The Geneva Convention, establishing the humane rules of war, does not permit military non-combatants-like chaplains-to carry weapons. They were not aware of Father Emil Kapaun. In presenting the medal, the President profoundly observed, “An American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live.”

Kindness, compassion, and care are mightier than the sword.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shemini posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/05/13

Torah Portion: Shemini
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 9:1-11:47

The most identifiable feature of Judaism are the dietary laws, known as Kashrut. The underpinnings of this dietary observance are found in the Book of Leviticus. The ancient Israelites were told to eat only animals that had a split hoof and chewed their cud, a select list of birds and fowl (notably omitting birds of prey), and fish that had fins and scales. The only rationale the Torah gives for this practice is, "You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy (Lev. 11:44)."

Probably no other subject in the Torah has elicited so many explanations and speculative justifications as the dietary restrictions. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) in the 12th century suggested Kashrut helped one achieve good health. His speculation was repudiated hundreds of years ago. One 15th century scholar argued, "Were that so, the Torah would be denigrated to the status of a minor medical treatise or worse!"

2,000 years ago the Alexandrian philosopher Philo taught that Kashrut was intended to teach one to control bodily appetites. If one can discipline what goes into one's mouth, how much more so what comes out of it.

In our own times, authors Dennis Prager and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin have written, "keeping kosher is Judaism's compromise with its ideal of obtaining food without killing, namely vegetarianism." This explanation is based on an interpretation of the first chapters of the book of Genesis, where Adam and Eve are told to eat only of the fruits and vegetables in the Garden of Eden. Since not all people are capable of achieving this ideal, the dietary laws were developed to acquiesce to humankind's appetite for meat by limiting the animals, birds, and fish one could eat. The ancient rabbis of the first centuries of the common era further defined these limitations by requiring a specific method for animal slaughter.

Bible scholar Pinchas Peli reminds us, "Kosher does not mean "clean" nor "holy" or "blessed" by a rabbi. Kosher means proper. The purpose of the laws of kashrut is to help us choose guidelines to what is proper in our habits in this basic human activity of eating, and our treatment of living things in general."

All the above explanations have one thing in common, they all suggest Keeping Kosher is a means to an end and not an end, in itself. The late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel makes the same point when he writes, "Most hotels in Israel are Kosher. This is not enough. As we have supervisors to oversee the Kashrut in restaurants and butcher shops, we should also put them in banks and factories. A drop of blood in an egg makes it non-kosher, how about spots of blood in the way business is done and employees are treated."

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Passover posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/22/13

March 22, 2013

Hametz is leavening, specifically the yeast that makes dough rise. According to the biblical account of the Israelites exodus from Egypt, they had to depart so quickly, there was no time to allow the bread they were baking to rise. Thus, their first meals in the desert included a flat, hard bread called Matzah. From that time to this very day, one of the foundation pieces of the week-long celebration of Passover is eating matzah and ridding the house of hametz.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, in his book "Preparing The Heart For Passover", teaches "The rabbis suggest that the leaven transcends the physical world. This leaven, this hametz, also symbolizes a puffiness of self, an inflated personality, an egocentricity that threatens to eclipse the essential personality of the individual. Ironically, it is what prevents the individual from rising spiritually and moving closer to holiness. Thus, what hametz effectively does in the material world is exactly what it precludes in the realm of the spirit. That’s why it has to be removed."

The process of searching out and eventually ridding ourselves of physical hametz can also be understood on a spiritual level. This is a holiday of cleaning, sorting, and throwing out the leaven that has gathered over the year in the hidden corners and recesses of our mind and body. Egocentricity and selfishness are the bloated examples of too much hametz. Passover is a time for re-assessment of priorities, removing the attitudinal tendencies of personal superiority or inferiority.

Chicago-based author Anita Silvert writes, "Chametz is what makes things puff up with air; the difference between matza and Wonder Bread is just air. On a transcendent level, our spiritual selves can be over-inflated, puffed up by our egos. When our egos get too inflated, they erupt and begin seeping into everything we do, and affecting every relationship we have. True too, when a house is filled with the chametz of insensitivity, anger, self-centeredness or indifference, it will also erupt, and the effects will seep out of the very walls of the home."

The ritual practices of Passover, as with the other celebrations of Jewish life, are not for the sake of an all-powerful deity, but a discipline for those who do them. If I can take the time to purge my home and possessions of any source of leavening agent, how much more so myself? And, if I can be seen ridding myself-both physically and spiritually-of hametz, what sort of ripple-effect might this have on those whose lives I touch?

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayakhel/Pekude posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/08/13

Torah Portion: Vayakhel/Pekude
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 35:1-40:38
March 8, 2013

Religion in general, and Judaism in particular, thrives on ritual practices that to the uninformed (or disinterested) make little sense. Political humorist Bill Maher likes to say, "We are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion. I do believe that. I think religion stops people from thinking. I think it justified crazies", or "Religion, to me, is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don't need." From his perch, outside looking in, there exists some truth to his claims. However, there is another, too often neglected view, from within.

It is one thing for me, a rabbi and one who lives a life within the perimeters of Jewish religious tradition, to offer my perspective on the innate benefits of participation in Jewish ritual. It is quite another to hear this message from a "regular" or "normal" person. David Brooks, a member of the New York Times editorial staff and a non-Orthodox Jew, wrote the following article after a walking tour of Midwood, Brooklyn, an Orthodox neighborhood:

"In Midwood, Brooklyn, there’s a luxury kosher grocery store called Pomegranate serving the modern Orthodox and Hasidic communities. It looks like a really nice Whole Foods. There’s a wide selection of kosher cheeses from Italy and France, wasabi herring, gluten-free ritual foods and nicely toned wood flooring.

The snack section is impressive. There’s a long aisle bursting with little bags of chips and pretzels, suitable for putting into school lunch boxes. That’s important because Orthodox Jews spend a lot of time packing school lunches.

Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple. In the New York City area, for example, the Orthodox make up 32 percent of Jews over all. But the Orthodox make up 61 percent of Jewish children. Because the Orthodox are so fertile, in a few years, they will be the dominant group in New York Jewry.

Another really impressive thing about the store is not found in one section but is pervasive throughout. That’s the specialty products designed around this or that aspect of Jewish law. There are the dairy-free cheese puffs in case you want to have some cheese puffs with a meat dish. There are the precut disposable tablecloths so you don’t have to use scissors on the Sabbath. There are the specially designed sponges, which don’t retain water, so you don’t have to do the work of squeezing out water on Shabbat.

Pomegranate looks like any island of upscale consumerism, but deep down it is based on a countercultural understanding of how life should work.

Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker.

For the people who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with God is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation. They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order.

The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.
The laws are gradually internalized through a system of lifelong study, argument and practice. The external laws may seem, at first, like an imposition, but then they become welcome and finally seem like a person’s natural way of being.

Meir Soloveichik, my tour guide during this trip through Brooklyn, borrows a musical metaphor from the Catholic theologian George Weigel. At first piano practice seems like drudgery, like self-limitation, but mastering the technique gives you the freedom to play well and create new songs. Life is less a journey than it is mastering a discipline or craft.

Much of the delight in life comes from arguing about the law and different interpretations of God’s command. Soloveichik laughingly describes his debates over which blessing to say over Crispix cereal, which is part corn, but also part rice. Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth who is on a tour through New York, notes that Jews are constitutional lawyers: “The Torah is an anthology of argument with a shared vocabulary of common restraint.”

But there are still obligations that precede choice. For example, a young person in mainstream America can choose to marry or not. In Orthodox society, young adults have an obligation to marry and perpetuate the covenant and it is a source of deep sadness when they cannot.

“Marriage is about love, but it is not first and foremost about love,” Soloveichik says. “First and foremost, marriage is about continuity and transmission.”

The modern Orthodox are rooted in that deeper sense of collective purpose. They are like the grocery store Pomegranate, superficially a comfortable part of mainstream American culture, but built upon a moral code that is deeply countercultural.

This sort of life involves a fascinating series of judgment calls about what aspects of secularism can safely be included in a covenantal life. For example, Soloveichik’s wife, Layaliza, was admitted into Harvard, but she went to a religious college, Yeshiva, instead. Then she went to a secular professional school, Yale Law, and now works as an assistant U.S. attorney.

All of us navigate certain tensions, between community and mobility, autonomy and moral order. Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future."

Not my words, but I wish they were.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tissa posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/01/13

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 30:11-34:35
March 1, 2013

There is an expression in Hebrew, "Ein Navi B'Eero"-meaning, no one is a prophet in his/her own city. Several years ago, when Rabbi Harold Kushner became famous for his book, "When Bad Things Happen To Good People", he was asked if his congregation realized how fortunate they were to have such a person as their spiritual leader. He responded, "I still receive complaints from congregants that I either speak too long, too short, or overshadow the Bar Mitzvah, and, by the way Rabbi, when are we bringing in the next out-of-town scholar?"

The highlight of this week's Torah portion is the famous account of the Golden calf. "And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from Mt. Sinai, the people gathered themselves unto Aaron and said to him: 'Up, make us a god who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man brought us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him' " (Exo. 32:1). Some Biblical commentators suggest Moses was only six hours late, and already the Israelites were clamoring to replace him. Rabbi Shmuel Moholiver, an early Zionist of the late 19th century, asked, "When the Israelites lost faith in Moses' return from Sinai, why did they not appoint Aaron in his place? Instead, they construct a Golden calf. This teaches us that people seek someone from the outside, even if he is but a senseless calf, rather than choose one from among themselves, even if he is as great and experienced as Aaron, their acclaimed high priest."

How many organizations, corporations, or companies, have failed because they overlooked local talent to chose someone from the "outside". Granted, some have succeeded, but the "grass is always greener on the other side" axiom is too often the rule rather than exception. Because one comes from New York City does not make him/her brighter, more capable, or even more worldly than one from Spokane, Washington. The tendency to dismiss even ourselves as lesser beings because of who or where we live is to deny that everyone is equally endowed with the same infusion of Godliness. Our "local" talents are too often overlooked, underestimated, and unused. . .and this is a real shame!

Storyteller and Tzedakah Maven, Danny Siegel teaches one should always assume the person sitting next to him is the Messiah, waiting for some simple act of human kindness to reveal himself. A whole lot of the answers for living and loving are, in fact, right next to us.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Purim 2013 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/22/13

February 22, 2012

On Saturday evening, Jews world-wide will take time to "kick back", put on a costume, partake of Hamantashen (pocket-filled cookies) and the appropriate libation, and listen to the reading of the Book of Esther while shaking a Gragar (noisemaker) at the mention of Haman (the villain). Sounds a bit silly? It's supposed to. Amid the trials and tribulation of daily life, Judaism has set aside one day just to have fun. I'm reminded of the words of my Psych 101 professor, "If you take life more than half-seriously, you'll go insane!" I keep thinking, he's probably right.

What separates Purim from celebrations such as Halloween or, more recently, Valentine's Day is the basis for the holiday: The Book of Esther. The book is notable for a variety of reasons including the fact that God's name does not appear even once, and yet the book is included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. The story, set in the city of Shushan in the kingdom of Persia, tells of a crazed king who, amidst a 180 day party, expels his queen for refusing to dance before the men of the kingdom. A beauty contest is held to replace the queen, and Esther is entered by her guardian uncle Mordechai. Mordechai's only instruction to Esther is to not reveal that she is Jewish. Esther garners the favor of the king and becomes his new queen. Meanwhile, the king's prime minister, a gentleman known as Haman, angered that Mordechai will not bow down to him, asks the king for permission to kill all the Jews in Persia. The king, not knowing his own queen is Jewish, approves the project. Mordechai learns of this plot against the Jewish people and presses Esther to now tell the king who she is and ask that the Jews be spared. After initial hesitancy, Esther complies, the king changes his mind, has Haman and his family hanged, and allows the Jews to take revenge against those who sought to destroy them. The book ends with a joyous celebration that becomes known as Purim. Just from reading this brief summary, you might understand why God didn't want his name associated with these events! Historically, there is no record of an Esther, Mordechai, Haman or even King Ahasuverus. What we are left with is an interesting story that has been read aloud annually for over 2,000 years.

Over the centuries, a number of reasons have been advanced for this holiday and the reading of the Book of Esther. The ancient rabbis saw the book as a Zionist document. That is, look what Jews do when they don't live in their own land. They deny their heritage, enter beauty contests, and come close to getting wiped out. Others see this as an effort to empower the individual to do the right thing. Mordechai and Esther become the heroes of this story, not because they were selfless human beings but because they did the right thing at the right time. Still others understand this story to teach that the willful hatred of anti-semitism lies just beneath the surface of society in every generation. The Jew is told, "Have a great time celebrating this day, but don't forget there is more to the Book of Esther than just a beauty contest!"

I understand the various levels of meaning attached to Purim. I usually spend time giving thought to them. Still, what I most look forward to is the joy, happiness, and laughter of the children-young & old-as if they never heard this story before. One line in the concluding chapters of Esther sums it all up: "And to the Jews, there was light and happiness, joy and honor." This is the essence of Purim.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Terumah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/13/13

Torah Portion: Terumah
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 25:1-27:19
February 15, 2013

"And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exo. 25:8). This command of God begs the question: Is God only to be encountered in a sanctuary built in a specified manner?

The story is told of the 18th century hassidic master, Rabbi Naphtali of Rhopshitz. When he was a young child, his father chided him and said: "Naphtali, I will give you a gold coin if you tell me where is God." "And I will give you two," the child replied on the spot, "If you tell me where He is not."

Bible scholar Pinchas Peli writes, "The task of bringing holiness into the world, which is the main obligation of the Jew, has always been seen in the Bible as a partnership, a combined project of humans and God." Following the teachings of his mentor, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Peli goes on to explain that humankind partners with God within three realms: time, space, and person. The Sabbath and festivals, which God commands us to sanctify and celebrate, are an encounter in time. The sanctuaries and synagogues, which God commands us to build, are an encounter in space, and the mitzvot (commandments), which God placed before the Jew, are an encounter in person.

All three encounters require active rather than passive participation from humankind. Peli reminds us, "The in-dwelling of God among the people cannot take place as long as the people are passive and do nothing to help bring the sacred into the world." Just giving "lip service" to Godliness is not sufficient, or, if I may be permitted the cliché, "Actions speak louder than words."

Actions also bespeak commitment. The ancient Israelites were a band of slaves lacking in belief, direction, and unity. Moses challenged them to accept a belief in the One God. This was fine as long as God provided them food, shelter, and freedom from bondage, but the relationship was not a partnership until the Israelites committed themselves to this faith through an action on their part. The construction of a sanctuary was less about a place for God to dwell then their commitment to encounter God not just in time but in space and person.

When we pause in the week to take in the natural beauty of our surroundings, we stand in partnership with God. When we reach out to the poor, hungry, and homeless, we stand in partnership with God, and when we build a spiritual sanctuary in our community and in our home, we stand in partnership with God. As the Kotzker Rebbe taught, "God is present wherever we let him in."

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Yitro posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/01/13

Torah Portion: Yitro
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 18:1-20:23
February 1, 2013

Every few years an event occurs that captures our brief attention span for a few moments, days, or even weeks. The massacre of elementary school students in Newtown, CT is such an event. It happened on December 14, 2012. Over a month later we are still (thankfully) focused on finding a way to prevent these awful occurrences. The case for stricter gun control has brought intense opposition, especially from those who fear their 2nd amendment rights ("right to bear arms") are being infringed upon. In over a month of argumentation and debate, I have heard no one invoke the fear that our 6th commandment ("Thou Shall Not Murder") was being violated. There is no question of the importance of the U.S. Constitution to the rule of law in this country. The truths contained in the 10 commandments are no less important to the moral/ethical fabric of this country.

Of the 10 biblical statements, none is better known then number 5: "Thou Shall Honor Your Father And Your Mother." Rabbi Bradley Artson asks an important question, "If parents are so central, why doesn't the Torah or the Talmud (compendium of Jewish law) mandate the love of parents?" The Hebrew word "Ka'beid" means honor. In other passages the Torah states "You shall LOVE the Lord your God" and "Love your neighbor like yourself," but in one of the ten most central affirmations of ethical responsibility one is told to "honor" one's parents, not "love."

Rabbi Artson notes, "The lack of an imperative [to love] is the result of a recognition that there is no relationship as complex, multilayered, and deep as that between parent and child. Experiences of dependency, of rebellion, of increasing similarity, are all commonplace between the generations. Spouses can divorce, and friends can separate, but a parent is forever."

During the span of a lifetime one falls in and out of love for people, places, and things, any number of times. Honor is a different form of love. One might be angry with a parent for something they said or did, or for inhibiting some activity or relationship, but the Torah reminds us one is still required to "honor" one's parents, if not love them. Rabbi Artson concludes his remarks by reminding us, "As the people to whom we owe life itself, as the people who provided years of care, and as transmitters and links to Judaism and the Jewish past, our parents merit our honor and respect."

Would that we defended the "10 Commandments" with the same fervor we do the Constitution!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Tu BiShevat posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/25/13

“If you are holding a seedling in your hand and you hear that the Messiah is coming, plant the seedling and then go and greet the Messiah.” These are the words of the 1st century c.e. scholar Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. He understood that just sitting and praying for the messianic era was not sufficient. As partners with God, we have an obligation to work toward a messianic goal and maybe that process begins by the simple act of planting a tree.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin writes, “Imagine paradise without trees. Imagine lullabies, summer camp, the grand sweep of a boulevard, or autumn’s canvas-imagine any one of them without trees. Is it any wonder that God chose to put the first people in the garden of trees? Tending to the trees was Adam and Eve’s only divinely ordained task.”

This weekend, Jews observe the yearly celebration of Tu BiShevat-the new year of the trees. When the ancient Temple stood in Jerusalem, Tu BiShevat (or, the 15th day of the Hebrew month Shevat) was the occasion for reminding farmers to start considering the annual tithing of their forthcoming fruits. In the year 70 ce, Roman forces destroyed the Temple. Its destruction marked an end to agricultural tithing in Israel.

In the 10th century, Jewish mystics revived Tu BiShevat as an occasion for Jews who lived outside of Israel to celebrate the land by eating the fruits that were grown there. As Jews returned to Israel, especially during the late part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century, they were greeted by a barren landscape. The Jewish National Fund was established to raise money for the reforestation of Israel. Planting trees became the new focus of Tu BiShevat.

Today, Israel is a tree-laden country, and now the focus of Tu BiShevat has become our stewardship of the environment. Global warming and climate change is a constant reminder of why God made the tending of trees the only ordained task of Adam and Eve. Our health, and the health of this planet, is inextricably connected. Some may wish to believe that humankind plays no role in the alarming increase in the earth’s temperature. This does not excuse one from still working to protect the environment we live in for the generations to come.

I conclude with the tale of a legendary Jewish character known as “Honi The Circle maker.” On one occasion, Honi saw an elderly man planting a seedling. He said to him, “Old man, why do you plant this tree? You are too old to ever enjoy its fruit or shade!” The old man responded, “When I was young, I remember playing beneath large shade trees, being protected by them from the rain, and enjoying their fruits. I don’t plant for myself, but so future generations may cherish the same experience.”

Tu BiShevat reminds the Jew that a relationship with God means a relationship with the earth.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Bo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/18/13

Torah Portion: Bo
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 10:1-13:16
January 18, 2013

"And Moses said to the people, remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand." (Exo. 13:3)

This Shabbat Jews the world over read the final chapter in the slavery of the ancient Israelites in Egypt. During this same weekend we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, the modern-day Moses whose non-violent methods pried open the gates of bondage for African Americans. These concurrent events culminate in the 2nd inauguration of the first black President of the United States.

As Jews, our liturgy reminds us on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis that we were slaves, oppressed, and at the mercy of a nation who refused to recognize our basic human rights. Having shed the chains of servitude, we became responsible for reaching out to those still imprisoned and enslaved by the wanton hatred of racism.

In August 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, Martin Luther King declared, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal." Two years later, in March 1965, Abraham Joshua Heschel, a renowned Jewish theologian, marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. In recounting this momentous event, Professor Heschel famously said, "When I marched in Selma, my legs were praying." Heschel reminded Jews of their eternal commitment to freedom for all peoples.

Abraham Joshua Heschel first met Reverend King at a conference on "Religion and Race" sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews held in Chicago in January 1963. In his opening speech to the conference, Heschel said, "At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.... The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses."

So much has happened. As a nation, we have come so far. As a civilization, our journey has barely begun. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring an end to the slavery of African Americans. A hundred years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King declared his dream of the day that proclamation would finally be realized. On Monday, January 21, 2013, Barack Obama, a black American, will take the oath of office as President of the United States. He will take this oath on two bibles-one is the bible on which Lincoln took his oath of office in 1861 and the other is the bible Martin Luther King meditated and prayed with.

The first words of this writing belonged to the ancient Moses. The last words belong to Martin Luther King, the modern-day Moses:

"When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Va'era posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/11/13

Torah Portion: Va'era
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 6:2-9:35
January 11, 2013

I enjoy a good sporting event-football, basketball, baseball, etc. Maybe that's because, as a rabbi, I am always looking for the next sermon and, in many ways, sports is a reflection of life. This was certainly true last Sunday when the Washington Redskins faced the Seattle Seahawks in an NFL playoff game.

The Redskins leader was a rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III (known, affectionately, as RG3). His ability to throw, run, and make things happen is extraordinary. It also makes him more vulnerable to injury. Two years ago, in college, he had to undergo an operation to repair ligaments in his knee. Entering this playoff game, he had incurred another knee ligament injury but decided (and was encouraged) to still play. By the final quarter, and trailing the Seahawks, RG3 had re-injured himself but continued to play despite injury.

NY Times editorialist Maureen Dowd, an avid football fan, wrote the following: "Coach Mike Shanahan committed malpractice, letting a hobbled young quarterback lurch around “like a pirate with a peg leg,” as The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins wrote. The autocratic, crusty 60-year-old, who makes $7 million a year, risked the kid’s career and the team’s future trying to win a wild-card playoff game."

There is another professional sports team in Washington, DC. If you are a baseball fan, you know of the recent success enjoyed by the Washington Nationals. For the first time since the team re-located to the nation's capitol, it made the playoffs. They lost in the first round. They might have won the series if they had the services of their young phenom pitcher, Stephen Strasberg. At the beginning of the season, the team decided that Strasberg would only pitch so many innings and then his season would end. They wanted to protect him from injury and make him available for more years. He hit his limit before the playoffs and the team management shut him down. Strassberg will return next season, Griffin probably will not.

How different was Pharaoh with regard to the ancient Israelites? His stubbornness and unwillingness to see beyond the moment; to grasp a long-term vision of what was in the best interests of the Egyptian people, and not just his own self-interest, resulted in hurt, pain, and meaningless loss. In an effort to save face for a moment, Pharaoh allowed his people to encounter ten awful plagues when the same result could have been achieved with none.

Dowd saw the football game as a microcosm of what is occurring in Washington, DC politically. She writes, "Everything they do on Capitol Hill is about getting through the next few months, or next few minutes, or next confrontation. John Boehner is now talking about raising the debt limit in monthly increments. What’s wrong with weekly, or how about hourly? Like Congress patching gaping fiscal wounds, the Redskins didn’t seem to fathom that they were damaging the franchise long term. “Trying to win that game, they risked 120 victories over the next 10 years,” the writer David Israel told me. “That’s crazy.”

The account of Moses and the ancient Israelites is a story of visionary leadership; the kind of leadership that sees beyond self and moment. It is a leadership that envisions the needs of the collective body and creates & innovates opportunities to realize these goals. A visionary leader is one who bears the "slings and arrows" of others perceived misfortunes, but never loses sight of the better day.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shemot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/04/13

Torah Portion: Shemot
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 1:1-6:1
January 4, 2012

The two central themes in the Book of Exodus reflect the two central themes in life: Exile and Redemption. Exodus deals with the physical and spiritual exile of the ancient Israelites from their land and their God. Exiled in Egypt, the Israelites become an underclass group of slaves. At their lowest point, Pharaoh determines this slave group is growing too quickly. He orders all male babies born to Israelites be immediately destroyed. When nothing can get worse, redemption begins.

The road to redemption is paved in the actions and deeds of good people. Not just people of one's country, religion, or even acquaintance, but ordinary people. They are the one's who make a difference. Two such people were the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah. They are mentioned only once in the entire Torah but their courageous and selfless actions made the freedom of the Israelites possible. Choosing to ignore Pharaoh's decree, the two midwives continued to assist Israelite women in birthing their male children.

Who were these women? The text says they were "Hebrew midwives." One interpretation of this verse suggests they were, in fact, Egyptian women employed to serve as midwives to the Israelites and to carry out Pharaoh's decree against male babies. This makes their efforts even more remarkable.

Bible scholar Pinhas Peli asks, "What was it that made these early "righteous gentiles" different from the rest of their people? What was it that gave them the courage to resist evil, even at the risk of their lives?" The Torah says, "the midwives feared God. . ." (Exo. 1:17), but what does that mean? Pharaoh was a god in the eyes of the Egyptians, but they didn't seem to fear him? Or, is "fear" better understood as knowledge of the moral obligations of God and Godliness? However one understands this, these two women put their lives on the line for strangers who were not "one of them." Peli profoundly observes, "The case of the midwives is proof that dissenting individuals can resist evil, and thus start a whole process of liberation."

It is almost "cliché" to say, but regardless of beliefs, color of skin, or nationality, human beings are all defined by a common humanity that links us one to another. In today's global village, these links bring us even closer. When tyranny and oppression exist-even a half a world away-remember the actions of Shifra and Puah. Their names might only be a footnote in biblical history, but what they contributed was so much more.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

New Years' 2013 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/28/12

New Year 2013
December 28, 2012

New Years', by definition, is a chance to start over, again. Make the tough decision to change. Get it right. For Jews, this occasion occurs twice-Rosh Hashanah and January 1st. One occasion is associated with a religious agenda, the other with a secular. Real change only occurs at the intersection of religion and secularism.

Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, taught that life is best understood backward. To right the proverbial ship, one must understand from whence it came. For us, the new year of 2013 needs to reflect a conscious understanding of what transpired in 2012.

Charles Dickens penned these famous words in the beginning of his novel "The Tale of Two Cities": "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way." He could just as easily have been referring to 2012. The last few weeks-including the awful tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT-can certainly be understood as the "worst of times." New Years' 2013 needs to reflect a change in our attitudes and practices; our understanding of God's purpose and ours.

Maureen Dowd, an editorial columnist for the New York Times, grew up in a devout Catholic home. In an article she wrote for the Christmas edition of the Times, she asked her priest, Father Kevin, to offer a seasonal meditation responding to this terrible event occurring at the end of this calendar year. He wrote:

"I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not."

May the new year of 2013 be a year in which God's divine presence is reflected in the hearts, hands, and faces of humankind. Happy New Year!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayyigash posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/21/12

Torah Portion: Vayyigash
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 44:18-47:27
December 21, 2012

This portion brings to a climax the dramatic story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, who was cast into a pit to die by his vengeful brothers, then sold down to Egypt by passing merchants, has now risen to become Pharaoh’s 2nd-in-command. Years have past, a famine has stricken the area and the only food depositories are in Egypt. Joseph is the person responsible for rationing the food. His brothers, unaware that the person they are dealing with is Joseph, come to Egypt seeking food.

As this portion of Torah begins, Judah, the very brother who first proposed selling Joseph to the caravan of traders heading for Egypt, steps forward to speak on behalf of his family. Judah has changed. He has grown from a callous and self-indulgent man into a compassionate and courageous leader. It is this change in character that causes Joseph to break down in tears and lovingly reveal himself to his brothers. Rabbi Ismar Schoresch writes, “To my mind Judah is the more interesting of the two main characters. Joseph is graced with God’s favor from the beginning. Whatever the setbacks, he is destined to triumph. But his character remains relatively static. Judah, on the other hand, starts out a villain and ends up a hero evincing the human capacity to mature and change in all its glory. For Judah, as for the rest of us, virtue is not a gift but a goal. Disciplining ourselves can remove the sediment of sin; remorse has the power to restore ties that were ruptured.”

Who I was twenty years ago is not the same person I am today. Then, as now, I remain in pursuit of virtue in my words and actions. If I am a better person than I was it is the result of two omnipotent human qualities: The ability to change and the quality to forgive. We live in a time when lives are vetted not to account for who we are but to find fault in who we were. None can escape the past, but one can learn to judge others on the behavioral journey they have traveled since then. Judah was callous and uncaring in his youth, but that’s not the same person who stood before Joseph in Egypt. The former president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was a Nazi sympathizer in his youth, but that was not the same person who stood before the Israeli parliament in 1977 asking for peace with Israel. The former prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, was the leader of the pre-State of Israel Irgun considered a Jewish terrorist organization, but that was not the same person who shook hands with Anwar Sadat on the White House lawn in 1979 forging a still-lasting peace treaty with Egypt.

Judah’s journey was greater and his personal growth more profound than Joseph. He deserves to be revered for what he has become, not derided for what he was. Change and forgiveness are the divine and omnipotent tools provided us to make this a world worthy of God’s presence.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Guns, Violence, & Rhetoric posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/14/12

Guns, Violence, And Rhetoric
December 14, 2012
6th Day of Hanukkah

Despite the joys of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, this has been anything but an enlightening week for America.

First, there was the Education Task Force in Florida suggesting that college students with business-friendly majors pay less tuition than those in traditional liberal arts fields. Florida state governor Rick Scott said in October, “You know, we don’t need a lot of anthropologists in this state. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on.” Really? Discouraging the study of history, philosophy, language, literature, and the arts seems more like a recipe for ignorance and intellectual illiteracy.

And today, December 14, 27 or more people (mostly elementary school students) are massacred by a lone 22-year old gunman in an elementary school in Connecticut. This follows on the footsteps of the gunman who opened fire in a busy shopping mall in Portland, Oregon, killing two innocent bystanders and himself. Only days earlier, an NFL football player in Kansas City killed his pregnant girlfriend before turning the gun on himself. And this is just two weeks. What are we doing about it? What we always do, talk. House democrats have already requested that discussions of gun control begin immediately. Of course, the same politicians made the same request in July after a gunman massacred innocent people in a Colorado movie theater. What came of it was rhetoric, and nothing else. Do you think it is going to be any different now? The republicans are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association and too many democrats fear for their jobs if they oppose the NRA.

The root of the word Hanukkah (“dedication”) is Hankh, meaning “education.” There is a clear link between “dedication” requiring “education” and celebrating this union with a “festival of lights.” Knowing our past guarantees a future. Grappling with issues of morality and ethics sensitizes one’s approach to humanity. Learning to appreciate the beauty and creativity within us, and those who preceded us, helps protect these treasures for future generations. Educating oneself in the arts, as well as the sciences, will not bring an end to gun violence and its like, but it might create a generation of learned activists with the courage to stand up for human life in the face of political expedience. We have done it before, we can do it again.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Hanukkah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/07/12

December 7, 2012

Of the many celebrations on the Jewish calendar, the most unique is Hanukkah. Unique in its origin (the 1st Jewish religious celebration not mentioned in the Hebrew bible), its position in the hierarchy of religious holidays (Hanukkah is considered a “minor” festival), and its celebration (more Jews participate in the celebration of Hanukkah than any other Jewish religious holiday).

Even more amazing are the contradictions that exist with regard to Hanukkah. If God did not ordain this holiday, as is the case with the other Jewish religious celebrations mentioned in the Torah, than why is it still celebrated, and then for eight days? If this is a minor festival, why do more Jews embrace it than they do major festivals? And most interesting, why do so many self-defined secular Jews (of whom many would not step foot in a synagogue) light candles on Hanukkah?

According to studies done by renowned Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen, the number of Jews observing Hanukkah has increased from 66% to 75% in the past twenty years at the same time as observance of the other Jewish religious celebrations, together with synagogue affiliation, has decreased. Why?

In 1985, Charles Silberman wrote a book entitled A Certain People. The book was in response to those in the Jewish community preaching “doom and gloom” for the future of American Jewry. Silberman responded that not only was the proverbial glass not half empty, it was more than half full! Included in his book was the following: “For many American Jews, lighting a Hanukkah candle is an ethnic far more than a religious act; it is a way of asserting cultural and national identity rather than of obeying God’s law. . .Despite the frequent forecasts of Judaism’s imminent demise, secular Jews are turning to religious rituals to affirm their Jewish identity.”

Survival depends on evolution, and Judaism is an ever-evolving spiritual presence. To the early descendents of the Maccabees, Hanukkah was a grand celebration of “the few prevailing against the many.” To the ancient rabbis, Hanukkah represented the continuing miracle of God’s presence. To the modern Jew, Hanukkah-and its eight candles-are the cultural and ethnic link to the past, identity in the present, and stepping stone to the future. The simple act of lighting a candle can serve to ignite a soul.

In spite of the best efforts of some to minimize the importance of Hanukkah, is their any holiday on the Jewish calendar more important? By the way, the 1st candle is lit this year on Saturday evening, December 8, 2012. Happy Hanukkah!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayetze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/23/12

Torah Portion: Vayetze
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 28:10-32:3
November 23, 2012

“Black Friday,” an apt description for a day that preys on the dark underbelly of human existence: The pursuit of happiness through the possession of “things.” People line up (or even camp out) at stores until the bewitching hour. Then, through a process of pushing, shoving, and grabbing, bargains are reigned in, the day is complete, humanity is served, and, of course, a profit (not prophet) is made. After all, ‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly’!

The Book of Genesis introduces us to 2 Jacob’s. The first Jacob measures life in terms of material success. To achieve this goal, he cheats his twin brother (the first-born) out of his birthright and later, with the help of his mother Rebecca, steals Esau’s blessing from his father as well. Jacob flees home to escape the wrath of Esau only to discover a greater conniver than himself, his uncle Laban. Jacob, in a dream, finally comes to the realization that “God is present in this place, and I did not know it! (Gen. 28:16).” Acknowledging God’s presence was an admission of Jacob’s ignorance of ethics, morality, and the divine presence within humanity. This would not be enough to avoid the mishaps he would encounter at the hand of Laban, but it recognized a change within Jacob. He would no longer be known as Jacob (Ya’akov-he who held on to the heel of his brother). God bestowed upon him the name Israel (Yisrael-he who wrestled with God).

We live in a world of technological gadgetry. Computers, smart phones, I-Pads (and Pods), and more, have diverted our attention from bettering the world to possessing it. The relationship with a Smart Phone replaces meaningful interactions with people. A text message is a substitute for dialogue. And, the more these “things” proliferate and dominate our lives, the more we become like Ivan Pavlov’s famous dogs. Pavlov learned when a bell was rung in subsequent time with food being presented to the dog in consecutive sequences, the dog will initially salivate when the food is presented. The dog will later come to associate the ringing of the bell with the presentation of the food and salivate upon the ringing of the bell. In a sad way, “Black Friday” is proof that what works for dogs, works for people as well.

There is nothing wrong with possessing things as long as they don’t possess us. Everyone, like Jacob, needs a “God moment” to remind us who we are and what really is of ultimate importance, in the words of another seasonal melody-”Peace On Earth, Good Will Toward [Humankind].”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Thanksgiving 2012 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/16/12

Thanksgiving 2012
November 16, 2012

Thanksgiving rises above the other secular holidays on the calendar with its observed themes of "thanks" and "giving." The centerpiece for this holiday celebration is the family dinner table. Each family is different in their observance, but the inclusion of a moment of thanks seems to be the rule rather than exception. And, the most common expression of thanks is usually for those-family & friends-gathered around the table. It is occasions like this that remind us of what is most important in life-familial relationships.

The late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel noted many years ago, "What is characteristic of the modern family is that on the level of profound personal experience, parents and children live apart. The experiences shared at home are perfunctory rather than creative. . . . Unless a fellowship of spiritual experience is reestablished, the parent will remain an outsider to the child's soul. This is one of the beauties of the human spirit. We appreciate what we share, we do not appreciate what we receive. Friendship, affection is not acquired by giving presents. Friendship, affection comes about by two people sharing a common moment, by having an experience in common."

For many, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the “season of giving.” Whether it be Hanukkah or Christmas, too much attention is focused on “giving”, not enough on “sharing.” For Jews, Thanksgiving is a vision of Shabbat; a time to share, in the words of Omar Khayyam, the 11th century Persian philosopher and poet, “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou.” Unencumbered by the stresses and strains of daily life, families gather with an air of reverence to share a moment of themselves with those for whom their lives are interwoven. These are the experiences to which Professor Heschel alludes.

My fondest memories of my grandfather are not the gifts he gave, but the moments he shared. Whether it was walking with him to the synagogue on Shabbat morning, sitting next to him at the Passover Seder table, or watching him serve meals to the needy on Thanksgiving, it was these moments that became permanently etched into my psyche, my soul, my very being.

As a Jew, I feel a special privilege in celebrating Thanksgiving not just once a year but every Friday evening. Still, I feel compelled on this Thanksgiving, as every year, to begin the feast with a blessing: Blessed Are You, O God, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this awesome moment. Thank you!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Lech Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/26/12

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 12:1-17:27

With two words, the Torah marks the beginning of Jewish history: “Lech Lecha”-literally, Go forth! “God says to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).” It is this call to action that begins the journey of the Jewish people.

Abraham’s mission requires him to leave his homeland, his family’s home, and go to a land he has not known. His destination is Israel. Torah scholar Pinchas Peli writes, “For the people of Israel, the immanence of God in this world is inextricably linked with the Land. The call addressed to Abraham to go to the Land is so meaningful that anything which happened in his life up to this point is totally ignored. This juncture is of fundamental significance in the entire biblical story.” Professor Andre Neher further notes that just as the Hebrew Bible begins here commanding Abraham to take his family to Israel, so to, 1,500 years later in the final book of the Bible (Chronicles), it is written, “Whosoever there is among you of all His people. . .let him go up [to Israel] (II Chronicles 36:23).”

Judaism-and the Jewish people-rest on three essentials: Torah, God, and Israel. A people are defined by land, language, and custom. For the Jews, the land is Israel, the language is Hebrew, and the customs & traditions are what has developed into Judaism. At the center of it all is a belief in One God who has sanctified us as a people and commanded us to follow the path of Abraham, the journey of Moses, and the discovery of Israel.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We are tired of expulsions, of pogroms; we have had enough of extermination camps. We are tired of apologizing for our existence . .When I go to Israel every stone and every tree is a reminder of hard labor and glory, of prophets and psalmists, of loyalty and holiness. The Jews go to Israel not only for physical security for themselves and their children; they go to Israel for renewal, for the experience of being born, again.”

What is Israel to the Jewish people? Israel is the Jewish people. And, it all began with two words: Lech Lecha/Go Forth!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Noah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/19/12

Torah Portion: Noah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 6:9-11:32
October 19, 2012

Noah is unique among Biblical personalities. The late Professor Judah Goldin pointed out that Noah is the one human being in the Hebrew bible given the title, Tzadik (“righteous” one). Neither Abraham nor Moses was spoke of in this manner. Not just Tzadik, but in the same verse Noah is referred to as Tamim (“blameless”): “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God (Gen. 6:9).”

Bible scholars of all ages have interpreted the meaning of being both “righteous” and “blameless”. Among the most compelling explanations is that of 12th century Spanish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra. He distinguishes between these two attributes suggesting Noah was “righteous” in his deeds and “blameless” in his heart. Together, this suggests the complete human being (in Yiddish, Mensch); one whose outward actions reflect one’s inward impulse. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch writes, “Ibn Ezra’s enlightening distinction alludes to a lofty theory of morality which posits the worth of a deed not in terms of its effect but the motive from which it springs.” In Noah, God had found a human being who recognized and understood the need to act in order to preserve creation, and when called upon to build an ark responded without hesitation. The needs of the time required it.

While reading a Torah commentary written by Rabbi Schorsch, I was reminded of the actions of one religious Jew in 1995. Aaron Feuerstein was the owner of Malden Mills Industries, a textile supplier and largest employer in Lawrence Massachusetts. On a cold winter night in December 1995, a fire destroyed three of the Malden Mills four buildings effectively shutting down the business and putting 3,000 employees out of work. Mr. Feuerstein could have walked away from this disaster. Instead, he vowed to not only re-build but continue paying his 3,000 employees there full salary during the time it took to start up, again. Feuerstein spent millions keeping all 3,000 employees on the payroll with full benefits for 6 months. In an interview for Parade magazine in 1996, Feuerstein said, “I have a responsibility to the worker, both blue-collar and white-collar. I have an equal responsibility to the community. It would have been unconscionable to put 3,000 people on the streets and deliver a deathblow to the cities of Lawrence and Methuen. Maybe on paper our company is worthless to Wall Street, but I can tell you it's worth more.” It would cost Feuerstein 25 million dollars and filing for bankruptcy in 2001. Eventually, with the help of creditor generosity and government subsidy, Malden Mills would again become profitable.

In 1996, Columbia University Business School honored Aaron Feuerstein for his efforts. In responding to the honor he told of his faith in God who is the same God he worships in the synagogue, who inhabits his home, and presides over his business. This is the type of person Abraham Ibn Ezra was describing who is righteous in his deeds and blameless in his heart.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Bereisheet posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/12/12

Torah Portion: Bereisheet
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 1:1-6:8

Among the many memorable verses and stories from the first chapters of Genesis is God’s effort to find an “Eizer K’negdo” (literally, one who is over against him) for Adam. “He took one of his ribs. . .and the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man (Gen. 2:22-23).”

Mordechai Yosef Leiner, a 19th century eastern European Torah scholar, interpreted this verse in the following manner: “The desire of the Creator was that there should spring up for Adam a supporter and a helper who was opposite him, as in the relationship of a master and disciple.” Leiner is understood to mean that it is not a spouse that God seeks for Adam, instead someone who reflects an even higher kind of love, such as that shared by a teacher and student. What sort of relationship is that? Mordechai Leiner continued his discourse by describing a student who had only praise for his teacher and one who argued each point his teacher raised. In the former case, the teacher responded to his student’s lavish praise by stating, “it is not from your praise that we both can grow but from your critique.” Adam was not seeking a companion who would support his every thought and action, but one whose challenges would help both develop. Leiner concludes his remarks by writing, “And this is the decree of all creation: specifically, that controversy creates unity.”

Argument and debate are fundamental to the healthy growth of an individual, and an absolute requirement in a democracy. Good ideas must be able to withstand the scrutiny of well-intentioned challenges. The one absolute necessity for healthy debate is the presence of a “teacher/disciple” relationship. When a teacher challenges a student, or a student argues with a teacher, the unseen force standing between them is love and respect for one another. In its absence, the interaction becomes subject to insult, innuendo, and enmity.

If only our politicians, on either side of the political aisle, could let go of their pretense of truth and righteousness long enough to see each other-Republican or Democrat, Black or White, Jew or Christian or Muslim-as all fashioned in the image of the same God; all deserving of the love and respect accorded to the crown of God’s creation: humankind. We will continue to argue, continue to debate, but do so with a common purpose and an appreciation for one another.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Sukkot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/05/12

October 5, 2012

The holiday of Sukkot is most often understood as the “Jewish Thanksgiving.” During these days Jews, from ancient times to the present, leave the comfort of their homes for a loosely-constructed hut (Sukkah) with tree branches for a roof. The Sukkah is commonly decorated with hanging fruits and vegetables symbolizing the fall harvest. Some Sukkahs are more extravagant than others but all share a common fragility and lack of permanence.

This celebration can also be understood as a time to address “Jewish Homeland Security” (and I’m not just referring to Israel!). Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, in her book The Tapestry Of Jewish Time speaks to this theme:

“Sukkot is a holiday of paradoxes: We leave the sturdy shelter of our homes for the flimsy shelter of the Sukkah just as the weather is turning colder. This paradox poses the question, “Where is the true shelter in our lives? Is it the human constructs of bricks and mortar, in the security of walls of wood and locks of steel? Is it found in the consistency of our thinking? In filtering things out? In not letting other things in? In knowing which is which?”

“Most days of our lives we find a measure of security in our walls and our bricks and our boundaries. “Good fences make good neighbors.” And that security is essential to our well-being. And yet, there are times when our ordinary world meets extraordinary challenges, when our boundaries are penetrated and our fences fail. What then? What will comfort us in the presence of dangers that walls cannot repel: the dread of illness and loss, the pain of shame and uncertainty, the shadow of hopelessness or despair, the fear of failure, the struggles with aging?

“Sukkot reminds us that ultimate security is found not within the walls of our home but in the presence of God and one another. . .This holiday helps us understand that sometimes the walls we build to protect us serve instead to divide us, cut us off, lock us in. The walls of our Sukkah may make us vulnerable, but they make us available, too, to receive the kindness and the support of one another, to hear when another calls out in need, to poke our heads in to see whether anybody is up for a chat and a cup of coffee! Sukkot reminds us that freedom is enjoyed best not when we are hidden away behind our locked doors but rather when we are able to open our homes and our hearts to one another.”

Jewish tradition teaches that the messianic era-a time of world peace, understanding, and universal justice for all-will be ushered in on the holiday of Sukkot, and for good reason!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Yom Kippur posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/21/12

Yom Kippur
September 21, 2012

“I am sorry. Forgive me.” Rabbi Nina Cardin writes, “These may be some of the hardest words to say. How often do we say instead, “I am not responsible.” “They started it.” “it is not my fault!” We renounce responsibility and, therefore, ownership of the deed. Sometimes we simply deny that it was ever done.

Yom Kippur is the day one takes responsibility for one’s actions and comes to terms with oneself. Rabbi Cardin continues by writing, “Yom Kippur is a time when we are reminded that we own what we do, that over a lifetime of actions we become the fullness of what we do.” To acknowledge that we have committed a wrong is the necessary first step of teshuvah, repentance or, literally, return.

Finding the way back to the path from which one strayed requires a compass, or spiritual guide. Discovering a guide is only a matter of turning one’s attention to those people who do not require attention. One such person was the focus of an article appearing in the New York Times on Friday, September 21, 2012. Dr. Joseph Dutkowsky is a devout Catholic with an unyielding faith in God and at the top of his profession as an orthopedic surgeon “specializing in the care of cerebral palsy, spinal bifida, Down’s syndrome and similar afflictions.” “This is my ministry,” said Dr. Dutkowsky, 56. “Some people stand next to the ocean to feel the presence of God. I get to see the likeness of God every day. I see children with some amazing deformities. But God doesn’t make mistakes. So they are the image.”

Dr. Dutkowsky is a physician who understands medical science can only provide a part of the cure. The rest requires the touch of humanity. One of Dutkowsky’s patients was a man in his 30’s and afflicted with cerebral palsy. The NY Times article reports, “Dr. Dutkowsky began his session with Mike on the floor, at the patient’s feet, looking less the expert than the supplicant. He swiveled his head and propped his chin on his palm to keep his face within Mike’s shrinking field of vision. He was, by choice, “Dr. Joe.” Before turning to anything diagnostic, Dr. Dutkowsky spoke to Mike person to person, chatting about the Baseball Hall of Fame, joking about how he mows the lawn to reduce stress. “My psychiatrist,” he said, “is named John Deere.” Only then did he examine Mike’s legs and discuss a regimen of conditioning and strengthening exercises to return some mobility to them.”

“We have a culture that’s addicted to perfection,” Dr. Dutkowsky said later. “We’re willing to spend thousands of dollars to achieve it. The people I care for are imperfect. And I can’t make them perfect. I only hope that they can sense that I actually care they’re more than skin and bones, that we have a bond.”

Joseph Dutkowsky is one of a number of spiritual guides-compasses-whose actions and deeds provide a light in the darkness; direction in the wilderness to all. In preparing for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Dr. Dutkowsky is my inspiration.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of happiness, health and peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Rosh Hashanah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/14/12

Rosh Hashanah
September 14, 2012

A woman comes to a lawyer and tells him that she wants a divorce.

The lawyer asks: “Do you have grounds?
She says: “About a half an acre.”

He says: “No, that not what I meant. Do you have a grudge?
She says: “No, we have a carport instead.”

By this time, the lawyer is getting frustrated. He says to her, speaking very carefully: “Tell me, does he beat you up?”
She says: “No, I get up in the morning before he does.”

By now, the lawyer has really had it. He says to her: “Will you please tell me exactly why you want a divorce?
And she answers: Because he doesn’t understand me!”

Understanding one another can be a difficult task. With the arrival of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Jews are embarking on 10 days of prayer, study, talking, and listening. This is a time of re-connection to the hopes and aspirations we once had for ourselves, a time of re-examination of what we have become, and a time of return to the moral/ethical ideals we can still pursue. Internal to the entire process is learning to understand ourselves and those among whom we live.

I grew up at a time when one’s world was defined by their neighborhood. Everyone had a common set of values. Though not everyone in the neighborhood shared the same religious beliefs, we still shared a common faith in God and country. Today’s neighborhood is not defined in terms of streets and avenues. To borrow from the world of politics, today we live in a “global village.” Modern technology has shrunk the distance between nations and peoples. It can be argued that whether one lives in Spokane, Washington or Alexandria, Egypt, we are now part of the same neighborhood. No longer do we necessarily share common values, faith, or country. Today tolerance, acceptance, and understanding have become a challenge rather than birthright. Being able to master the God-given attributes of listening, learning, and understanding is the key to a better world; the only effective weapon against hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, and indifference.

As we begin another Jewish new year, may we learn what God has to say us and may we learn how to speak to God, and may we listen to each other.

Shana Tova Tikotay’vu v’Tichatay’mu-May we be inscribed and sealed for a year of happiness, health, and peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Selichot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/07/12

September 7, 2012

This Saturday evening, many Jews will gather in their synagogues to formally begin the “High Holiday” season by participating in Selichot/prayers of forgiveness. Among the most egregious transgressions of the past year are the hurtful words spoken one to another. The ancient psalmist taught the importance of words when he wrote, “Who is the person who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from speaking evil, and your lips from deceitful speech.” (Psalm 34:13-14)

Most Americans, and citizens of the world, have a high regard for former President Bill Clinton. Unquestionably, he possesses his own personal demons and ethical struggles. What makes him remarkable is the kindness and love he exudes through his actions and words. He gives the impression that he really cares about each person he encounters regardless of race, creed, or even political stripe. His speech at the recent Democratic National Convention was lauded not just by the “usual suspects” (democratic spinsters and pundits) but by republicans, as well. No question this was a political speech, but some of what he said transcended politics. Early in his address he took issue with the way politicians speak to one another. “And -- so here’s what I want to say to you. And here’s what I want the people at home to think about. When times are tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurting and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good, but what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is cooperation.”

During his presidency, this master of words convinced the Jews of America and the overwhelming majority of Israelis that he and America were Israel’s best friends. What is remarkable, at the same time Yassar Arafat and the Palestinians were also convinced that Clinton was their best friend. This resulted in the first steps in bringing Israel and the Palestinians closer to peace. It wasn’t just the middle east, but almost anywhere an American traveled in the world they could expect to hear kind words about “their” President and the United States. So much more can be accomplished with a smile, a good word, a positive attitude, and a love for humanity.

Rabbi Jack Reimer, a noted writer and orator, devoted an entire Yom Kippur sermon to what he referred to as “Four Phrases To Live By.” He urged his congregation “to resolve that in the coming year you will learn to say four phrases more often than you have in the past: “Thank you”, “I love you”, “How are you?”, and “What do you need?” Commenting on this sermon, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes, “These four short segments and questions express gratitude, love, and caring, the three most important concerns that healing words can convey.”

In these difficult times, words can exacerbate the pain, but they can also heal it.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tetze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/31/12

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 21:10-25:19
August 31, 2012

We Americans are a curious nation. We say one thing, but mean another. We want to be known for our rugged individualism, yet considerable effort is made to wear the same clothes, live in similar homes, drive the same cars, and associate with others espousing similar opinions. We are taught to think for ourselves, but then compelled to identify as right, left, center, conservative, libertarian, or liberal. Anyone outside these ideological lines of demarcation are either weird, crazy, or both! The Torah suggests we might not be listening to the right message. At times, the ideological shouting and yelling drowns out cries, tears, and anguish of those whose voices we should be heeding.

The Torah teaches, “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. . .and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent (Deut. 22:2-3).” Rabbi Brad Artson asks, “How often do we silently sit through a joke that stereotypes and insults other people for their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation? How often do we hear a bigoted remark or witness a racist act, and yet we still keep quiet? How often have we passed a beggar and given nothing.” Sometimes we are listening to the wrong message and heeding the wrong words. The Torah is clear: “You shall not remain indifferent.”

Several weeks ago I had a flat tire. I pulled the car to the side of the road and began changing the tire. This has happened before and is one of the few automotive skills I possess. Still, someone pulled up behind me, got out of his car and asked if he could help. As a result, I have become more attentive, and less indifferent, to other motorists in need.

As noted earlier, Americans are a curious nation. We take pride in our constitutional separation of “church & state”, yet require a religious litmus test for our political candidates. Too often, we mistake “religious” for what one believes rather than what one does. For the Jew, believing in One God is important; acting on the moral/ethical precepts of this faith is more important. One demonstrates a faith in God by responding to the needs of God’s creations. Or, as Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel said when marching with the late Rev. Martin Luther King, “In Selma, Alabama I have learned to pray with my feet.” We need better listening skills and more of this kind of prayer.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shoftim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/24/12

Torah Portion: Shoftim
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 16:18-21:9
August 24, 2012

As Moses’ leadership of the Israelites approaches its end, he makes final preparations for their entering the Promised Land by instructing them: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” (Deut. 16:18)

The Eitz Hayim Torah commentary writes, “The well-being of society depends neither on the goodwill of the ruler nor on the ascendance of the most capable in a competitive environment but on the certainty that the law will treat all alike and will protect the most vulnerable against the most powerful.” Moses understood no society can long exist without government, but that government must be founded on principles of justice and equality.

The ancient rabbis understood that chaos and mayhem fill any vacuum created by the absence of government. In the ancient rabbinic text Pirke Avot: Ethics Of Our Ancestors Rabbi Hananiah, of the 1st century c.e., wrote, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive.” He lived during the rebellion of Judea against Rome in 66 c.e. Hananiah saw first-hand what happens in the absence of a just and fair governing body-the death of over one million residents of Judea, the destruction of the ancient Temple and the plunder of Jerusalem.

Wherever Jews have lived, and at times to their detriment, they have been supportive of their local and national authorities. This has especially been true in America. Thomas Jefferson said, “The purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation to live in safety and happiness. Government exists for the interests of the governed, not the governors.” It has been the safety and happiness guaranteed under the US Constitution that has allowed the Jew to make a home in this country. The Constitution is to America as the Torah is to the Jew-both “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity (from the Preamble of the US Constitution).” Both are worth protecting!

Elections are the democratic tool for protecting and preserving the “safety and happiness” afforded the citizens of this country. It is also the opportunity of re-visiting the role of government in our lives. In 2010, Bob Schieffer, a well-respected journalist for CBS News, wrote the following: “Call me old-fashioned, but I still hold with the ancient Greeks who said government has only one purpose, to improve the lives of citizens. If it doesn't, there is no reason for it, no reason at all, which is why I was a little surprised that with the nation at war, our intelligence services in a complete mess, the deficit soaring and jobs going overseas, the Senate decided the most important thing it needed to do was debate a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.”

At times like this, when so many are so uncertain about the role of government, it is good to be reminded by our ancient, and not so ancient, ancestors that governing means providing due justice, protecting the most vulnerable against the most powerful, and making safety and happiness a national priority.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Re'eh posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/17/12

Torah Portion: Re’eh
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 11:26-16:17
August 17, 2012

“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land (Deut. 15:11).”

Despite proclaiming the messianic ideal of peace and prosperity for all, the sober reality is there will always be those in need. The Torah takes note of this and “commands” those who have to open their hand to those who have not. Torah commentator Pinchas Peli writes, “Human society, even at the peak of its social advancement, will always have its deprived and its poor. Their immediate problems should not be “tabled” until such time when the overall reform of the “system” will take place, but it is you, as an individual, that “I command to open your hand. .”

In this election year, welfare has become a “hot button” issue. Government’s role in caring for the underclass is employed as a divisive political tool to separate the “good guys” from the “bad guys”; those who would turn their backs on the poor against those who would create a welfare state. In fact, government does have a role in protecting the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of its citizenry, which includes the needy. However, as Peli noted above, governments, even with the best of intentions, are too often ill-prepared to deal with the immediate needs of the poor. This is where “you” step in.

Individually, and as religious communities, we are the first-responders to the cries of the poor, hungry, and homeless. This may mean opening synagogues and churches to the homeless and hungry. This may also mean reaching into our pocket to provide money for someone’s next meal. On a more constructive basis, it may require those who create jobs to make jobs for the unemployed. None of this occurs because governments require it, but because individual people and institutions step forward.

In theory, former President George W. Bush’s idea for a “faith-based initiative” providing government financial assistance to churches and synagogues who work with the needy, was good. The program recognized that the religious communities were better committed and prepared to help the underclass. In practice, governmental bureaucracy proved its undoing.

It was a person of faith, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose life, like this passage from the Book of Deuteronomy, taught the ultimate responsibility for the poor, hungry, and homeless is ours, individually and communally.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Matot-Mas'ey posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/20/12

Torah Portion: Matot/Mas’ey
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 30:2-36:13
July 20, 2012

This has not been a good week on the world stage. Civil war with increased loss of life continues in Syria, a lone gunman murders at least 12 people in a Colorado movie theatre, and a suicide bomber associated with Hezbollah and Iran blows up a bus with Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. The latter case appears to be an act of revenge for the alleged assassinations of Iranian scientists by Israel.

Vengeance has become a popular theme, especially in the Middle East. In most cases, the act of vengeance is justified by a religious tenet or text. “Honor killings” were the system of justice in the ancient Near East. If someone killed another-regardless of whether it was an act of murder, self-defense, or manslaughter-family members of the deceased were obligated to avenge the death of their kinsman. The Torah tried to reign in this “frontier justice” with the creation of cities of refuge:

“Speak to the Israelite people and say to then: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee. The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly (Num. 35: 9-12).”

The tradition of revenge was so deeply ingrained in the ancient population that the Torah made no effort to stop the blood pursuer, but rather to protect the pursued. Regardless of the biblical effort to mitigate the cult of vengeance, the Torah, itself, states earlier: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: ‘Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin (Num. 31:2).” Moses’ last responsibility before his death is to avenge a grievance between God and the Midianites. This would include the death of not only the Midianite men, but their wives and children. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his commentary in the Eitz Hayim Pentateuch, writes, “The reader is likely to be uncomfortable with the notion of a “holy war.” Does placing the seal of religious approval on a military undertaking change and sanctify the battle or does it compromise the religion and contaminate it with the stain of bloodshed?”

The Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom suggests historically the Midianites were “the most powerful and menacing enemy that Israel had to encounter during its migration to Canaan." He further notes “if this account of Israel’s victory over the Midianites were not in the Torah it would have to be invented.” Still other, less scholarly, responses try to explain out of existence the entire notion of a religious war of vengeance. It is further noted that Moses-whose first wife was the daughter of a Midianite priest-did not, himself, participate in the war. With regard to biblical texts, mainstream Jews are not literalists. We have come to understand our most sacred books in a historical context; speaking to each generation in the context of their times.

So much of the bloodshed and terror that demonizes this world could be avoided if only people understood their religious texts as vibrant and evolving rather than written in stone.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Pinhas posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/13/12

Torah Portion: Pinhas
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 25:10-30:1
July 13, 2012

As Moses draws closer to the end of his life, his main concern is who will succeed him: “Let the Lord, source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community. . (Num. 27:16).”

According to the ancient Biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak (known by his acronym, Rashi) Moses not only beseeches God to appoint a new leader but also suggests the necessary requirements for leadership. “Sovereign of the universe, God of all spirits of all flesh, you know the minds of all humankind, and how the mind of one person differs from that of another. Appoint over them a leader who will be able to bear with the differing spirits of every one of your children.” The contemporary Bible scholar Pinchas Peli explains, “The true leader is not a single-minded fanatic, but a person able to tolerate all views. Someone over the community, who is above petty party politics.”

As this country prepares to select a leader for the next four years, it is fair to ask what is the most important quality one should look for in a President? To date, the conversation has been about creating jobs, strengthening the economy, and healthcare. These are work orders, not qualities. Any person elected to the office will have to deal with these issues. His success depends on what sort of person he is. Is he open to new ideas and differing opinions? Is he interested in every American he serves or just those who agree with him? Peli suggests, “A good leader must know his own mind, he must be able to stand up for his views, he also must be capable of changing his mind, of freeing himself from preconceived ideas. He must not be the type who declares: “My mind is made up-don’t confuse me with facts.”

The 19th century ethicist Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, affectionately known as the Chofetz Hayim (he who desires an ethical life), taught, “A dog usually runs ahead in front of his master, and looks as if he is leading the way. In fact, however, the dog stops from time to time to look back and see in which direction the master wants to go. A leader who keeps looking back to see where the masses want him to go, is no leader and is likened to a dog.”

In the end, Joshua ben Nun is selected to succeed Moses as the leader of the Israelites. Joshua is described as a “man in whom there is spirit (Num. 27:18).” The quality of his “spirit” (character, personality, likeability, and willingness to get along with others) will allow him to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. May we find the same spirit in the next President of the United States.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Hukkat posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/29/12

Torah Portion: Hukkat
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 19:1-22:1
June 29, 2012

Among the most difficult decisions in life is knowing when to move on. In these moments one is guided more by emotion than intellect. The star athlete whose aging body and diminished abilities have become a liability, but in his heart still believes he can muster the strength to continue on for another season. The celebrity who thinks one more facelift or plastic surgery will preserve the sex appeal that made her so popular in her youth. Or, someone like Moses, who after 40 years of difficult leadership wonders why these new, young Israelites born in the desert, won’t heed his sage advice.

After so many difficult years of wandering, Moses’ patience has worn thin. The Israelites continue complaining. This time there is not enough water. “Why [Moses] did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Num. 20:5) God tells Moses to speak to the rock from which water will be produced. Moses gathers the Israelites, but instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it twice. “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice. Out came water, and the community and their beasts drank.” (Num. 20:10-11) While the people quench their thirst, God tells 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.” (Num. 20:12)

Why did Moses deserve such a severe punishment? For centuries, Bible commentators have tried to answer this question. Pinhas Peli provides a fresh insight: “Moses, who began his career by admonishing the contentious Israelite (Exo. 2:13) “Why do you kill your fellow?” has ended it by smiting a rock! Moses who knew how to face stormy situations in the past, now runs away and falls on his face. Moses, who set an example in how to treat his flock firmly but respectfully, now heaps insults on them. He could not be the leader anymore. He would not steer the people to the land.”

Moses has aged. His leadership qualities of years passed have diminished. His patience has worn thin. God’s decision to seek a replacement to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land is less a punishment than an acknowledgement: It is time for even Moses to move on.

“Moving On” does not mean death. It means re-assessing strengths to face new challenges, new opportunities, and new episodes in the glorious story of life. We all grow older. Denying the future does not preserve the past. It’s how we face the future-each day, month, and year-that will inspire generations to come.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Korach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/22/12

Torah Portion: Korach
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 16:1-18:32
June 22, 2012

Among the stories told of the Israelites journey in the desert, the most compelling is the account of the Korach rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach gathers 250 of the Israelite tribal chieftains and publicly confronts Moses and Aaron: "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3) This is the first we hear of Korach in the Torah, and this is all he has to say. Yet, the legends (Midrash) that have grown from this brief encounter portray Korach as Moses’ arch enemy.

One such Midrash reports Moses protesting to God saying, “I have not taken even the mule of one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.” The ancient rabbis conclude that Moses must have been wealthy. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch points out, “A wealthy man, Moses had no need of a large remuneration for sustenance. His financial independence rendered him immune to corruption. He was not in public service to amass a private fortune.” Rabbi Yohanan, of Talmudic notoriety, suggests that “God’s presence graces only a person endowed with bodily vigor, wealth, wisdom, and humility.” The qualification to be a leader requires one who has proven success in every aspect of life. . .and is still able to possess humility. This was why Moses and Aaron were chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. They had it all, but were able to keep life in perspective. Korach and his followers were incapable of understanding this.

A more contemporary scholar, Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, qualified Rabbi Yohanan’s teaching. Of all these attributes-bodily vigor, wealth, wisdom-humility rises above them all. Material success breeds arrogance. One who is able to achieve great success in his/her life and not laud it over others, possesses the divine capacity to inspire. It is easy to be humble when you have little; much more challenging in the penthouse!

Rabbi Schorsch profoundly observes, “Actions that come instinctively fail to stretch us. Growth results from constant self-exertion until we internalize and embody the ideal.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shelach Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/15/12

Torah Portion: Shelach Lecha
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 13:1-15:41
June 15, 2012

Franz Kafka, in his work “Metamorphosis” tells the following story:

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his back, as it were armor-plated, and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed-quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes. "What has happened to me?" he thought. But it was no dream.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein offers commentary on this tale noting, “As we read through the story, it becomes increasingly apparent that Gregor Samsa wasn't transformed. He always was a bug. Encased in a narrow and rigid exoskeleton of familial expectations, social class propriety and professional demands, he has no room to grow and no power to move. He is a small man with small dreams and small satisfactions. All that is heroic and noble within him has died. Gregor Samsa is Franz Kafka's startling portrait of a man who awakens one morning to the truth that he has grown satisfied too soon with too little. Content with an ordinary, mediocre, useless life, and bereft of the capacity to change. What is it in the human soul that kills our dreams and turns us into bugs?”

This portion of Torah tells of the twelve Israelite leaders sent by Moses to scout out the Promised Land. Ten of the twelve bring back a negative report: "The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its inhabitants. All the people that we saw in it are giants...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them (Num. 13:32-33).” Of the twelve, only two-Joshua & Caleb-argue, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it (Num. 13:30).” At this point it becomes clear the overwhelming majority of Israelites are not prepared to shed their former slave mentality, their addiction to a previously dehumanizing status quo. They are the bugs in Kafka’s story, incapable of breaking free from the shell of darkness that encapsulates them. They left Egypt, but Egypt never left them. The Promised Land is not for them, but their progeny.

Being alive means settling for more than the “ordinary, mediocre, useless life.” It’s not just about getting out of Egypt; that’s only the beginning. It’s about hoping, anticipating and planning for new realities and new opportunities. Life, itself, requires one’s “reach to exceed one’s grasp.” As Rabbi Feinstein concludes, “You are no bug. You carry the dreams of God. And before you lies God's Promised Land.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Be'ha-alot'cha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/08/12

Torah Portion: Be’ha-alot’cha
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 8:1-12:16
June 8, 2012

Remember the “good ‘ole days”? After brushing away the dust of glorified nostalgia, for me it was a time when there was no Internet, few televisions, no microwave, one bathroom for an entire household, push-lawnmowers, and one telephone (with a “party line”, meaning you shared your phone line with more than one home) for each family. They were good days, but I’m not ready to abandon the privileges and opportunities afforded me in today’s world.

We are blessed and cursed with a selective memory. In remembering the past, memories tend to filter out those times that were not so good. This is why so much attention continues to be paid to events like the Holocaust for fear it, too, will fall victim to the waste bin of history or to a revisionist’s pen.

It doesn’t take long to forget. The ancient Israelites were only two years removed from slavery in Egypt when they complained to Moses, “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to! (Num. 11: 5-6)” Rabbi Jacob Weinstein explains, “What we have here is an indication of how present difficulties cast a retroactive glow of delight over the past and suffuse old woes and mute old indignities. . .The Israelites did what many people in similar circumstances do. They idealized the past because they were so frightened about the uncertainties of the future.”

Old habits are often passed along. Some of the greatest advances in modern technology are efforts to literally re-write the past. There is the “Photoshop” application allowing one to “airbrush” photos thus removing unwanted blemishes, aging marks, etc. A remarkable way of trying to believe this is what the past looked like. There is nothing innately wrong with a bit of nostalgic recall; enhancing the past to inspire the future. There is something wrong when we allow the myth or legend to become the historical truth.

After 40 years of struggle in the desert, the ancient Israelites succeeded because they were never allowed to forget from whence they came-you were slaves in the land of Egypt. The 18th century father of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov, taught "Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption."

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Naso posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/01/12

Torah Portion: Naso
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 4:21-7:89
June 1, 2012

What is the “Messianic Era” and is it anything more than a dream? Sometimes the best answers appear trite, simplistic, and, God forbid, non-intellectual. If you visited Disneyland or Disney World you are probably familiar with the attraction “It’s A Small World.” This is a boat ride featuring nearly 300 brightly costumed dolls singing and dancing to bring the world's cultures closer together. One cannot help but leave this experience with a tune on their lips and a smile on their face. It’s a good day for all people. It’s also just a dream, albeit a “messianic” one!

In this portion of Torah, the 12 tribes of Israel celebrate their new Tabernacle (portable place of worship in the desert) by each presenting gifts of thanks. What is of particular interest is all twelve tribes offer the same gifts! Ancient midrash (Jewish legend) explains that God’s presence on Mt. Sinai transformed these twelve disparate tribes of former slaves into a wholly united nation-Israel. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch suggests, “The list [of gifts] does not betray that some tribes are privileged or more important. The uniformity in giving conveys rather an extraordinary sense of national unity. . .The completion of the sanctuary temporarily eliminates any expression of dissent.”

This wonderful moment of “Kum’ba’yah” and national unity is just that, a moment in time. The Israelites would continue their trek through the Sinai desert fighting and complaining with their leadership and one another. Maybe this is the reason the Torah pauses in the account of the Israelites journey to report this brief moment of national unity. Just like a day at Disneyland, the good feelings follow you out of the park but by the next morning reality sets in.

Without the hope for a better future, what is there? Are we willing to sacrifice hopes, dreams, and even happiness to protect the status quo? Can’t things get better? Can’t we learn to see ourselves for what we are, one humanity all fashioned in the same image of God? I know it’s only a dream, but I do have an example to draw upon-a time in the desert when we all stood together as one. Then, there are synagogues, churches, and a Disneyland attraction to offer some measure of inspiration for a better day. As Moses [probably!] said to the Israelites in the desert, “Keep on ‘truck'in!”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Memorial Day/Shavuot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/25/12

Memorial Day/Shavuot Weekend
May 25, 2012

I graduated from Mercer Island High School in 1966 during the height of the Vietnam War. My class, like those before and after, bore the trademark features of adolescence. There were the ins, outs, and way-outs. Those who were popular, those who could only dream of being popular, and those who didn’t care. Pete Sparkman fell in the latter category.

Pete’s crowd didn’t hang out in the Physics lab, nor for that matter in the Pep Club. More often than not, Pete and his friends could be located in the school auto shop or the Principal’s office. Pete gained a measure of respect from everyone for his toughness. I don’t remember him ever bullying anybody, but he could be counted on to stand up for anyone who was. He was a wrestler, and a very good one.

As one who never felt really connected to high school life, I found in Pete a friend who accepted me for who I was. It’s not like we “hung out.” We didn’t have that much in common. But, on those times when I walked alone through the daunting halls of high school life, Pete was sitting there in the school lobby willing to share a moment with whomever approached him. Pete Sparkman was the kind of person you wanted on your team.

in ‘66, most of my fellow graduates went directly to college. For the guys, it was either college or Vietnam. Pete was never a student, so after high school he enlisted in the Marines. He completed one tour of duty in Vietnam and on July 24, 1969, at the age of 21, he returned to Nam for a second tour. Two weeks later, he was killed in action. Every time I visit Washington, DC, I make a point of going to the Vietnam Memorial Wall and spending a few private moments at “Panel 19W Line 024”-Lance Corporal Leonard Peter Sparkman. Who knew his first name was Leonard?

Memorial Day is about remembering the Pete Sparkmans who once made us laugh, gave us companionship, and “walked the canyons of our lives” by our sides. Pete is gone now, but it doesn’t have to be this way. War needn’t be a generational rite of passage. Besides losing a war we should never have been in, America also lost 58,000 lives in Vietnam. This didn’t stop our government from engaging in a senseless war in Iraq. Nor did it prevent the ongoing “saber-rattling” with regard to Iran. Maybe the rule should be that those set on making war should be the first recruited to fight it. There is a better way, and Memorial Day is a time to remember just that.

This year Memorial Day weekend coincides with Shavuot-the holiday celebrating the receiving of Torah. Each year, the Jew is called upon to, again, receive the the moral/ethical imperatives of Torah into his/her life. Among those imperatives are the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Nation Shall Not Lift Up Sword Against Nation; Neither Shall They Learn War Anymore (Isaiah 2:4).”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Behar/Behukotai posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/18/12

Torah Portion: Behar/Behukotai
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 25:1-27:34
May 18, 2012

This week a person approached me bemoaning the dearth of American visionary leadership and the moral/ethical erosion of American values. I agreed with her that these are tough times economically, politically, and religiously. Nonetheless, I still attend the school of thought that sees life as a glass half full rather than half empty. We possess great potential and the means to achieve it. We just need the courage to open our hearts and minds, and therein lies the challenge.

This final Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus states no less than four times, “if your brother [or sister] should be reduced to poverty. . .” this is your responsibility to them and the poor among you. In addition to addressing their immediate needs, one ancient rabbi suggests the Torah is particularly concerned about the feelings of the needy. They should not be made to feel embarrassed about their plight. Other rabbis warn against shaming the poor with embarrassing questions: “Why don’t you go out and get a job like everyone else?!”, “Do you realize how much you are costing us taxpayers?!” The Midrash (Jewish legend) teaches that this sort of behavior “will bring evil upon themselves because they do not honor others as images of God.”

Emma Lazarus was born in New York City in 1849 to Jewish immigrants from Portugal. From an early age Emma took a strong interest in literature and writing. For a number of years she corresponded regularly with American author Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emma became deeply involved with her Jewish heritage in the late 19th century after learning of the pogroms in Eastern Europe and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The result of these events were the arrival of thousands of destitute eastern European Jewish immigrants to New York. Lazarus became an advocate for this population and worked to create the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York to help the immigrants learn to help themselves.

Emma Lazarus will undoubtedly be best remembered for the sonnet, “A New Colossus” whose words appear on a bronze plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. In keeping with the words of Torah and Jewish tradition, this poem has come to express the American dream and the kind of people who make it possible:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

As Americans, I have to believe we can do better. We are an immigrant nation founded by a persecuted few in search of a better life. This is who we are. This is our greatness. America is the flaming torch in the darkness of poverty and persecution. We can reclaim our birthright and, in doing so, re-discover America.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Mothers Day posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/11/12

Mothers Day
May 11, 2012

“A [mother] of valor, who can find? Her worth is far above rubies. . . .Her children come forth and bless her. . .”Many women have done superbly, But you surpass them all.”. . .Wherever people gather, her deeds speak her praise.”
-Proverbs 31

The stay-at-home mom and the career mom have one important thing in common: Motherhood! In the introduction to her book “Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession”, Irma Bombeck writes, “Motherhood is the second oldest profession in the world. It never questions age, height, religious preference, health, political affiliation, citizenship, morality, ethnic background, marital status, economic level, convenience, or previous experience.”

There are women who spend their lives from youth dreaming of one day being a mother, and those who have it hoisted upon them in a moment of passion. There are women unable to have children, and others who would part with them. Bombeck reminds us, “It's [motherhood] the biggest on-the-job- training program in existence today.”

My father abandoned our home when I was 7 years old. Fathers can do that; leave their wives and walk away from their children. Mothers cannot. Few things in nature are as universally imbedded in the DNA of creation than a mother’s connection to her children. My sister and I were raised by a mother who worked full-time to provide us with food and shelter, Jewish and secular education, summer camp experiences, athletic opportunities, birthday parties, graduations, and love. The late songwriter Dan Fogelberg wrote a beautiful tribute to his father entitled, “Leader Of The Band.” I often think of the final verse as a tribute to my mother and so many other mothers:

“I thank you for your music
And the stories of the road
I thank you for my freedom
When it came my time to go
I thank you for your kindness
And the times when you got tough
And, [mama], I don’t think I
Said “I love you’ near enough.”

There is a reason why God is described by the feminine term “Shechinah”/Divine Presence. When growing up, one is blessed with two mothers-God and Mom-who can always be depended upon to be there when no one else is. My mother passed away a few years ago, but the memories of what she did for me, even when I was incapable of understanding and unable to appreciate, are always there; especially on Mothers Day.

Appreciate and love your mother, not for what you wish she would be but for who she is. Irma says it best, "Mother" has always been a generic term synonymous with love, devotion, and sacrifice. There's always been something mystical and reverent about them. They're the Walter Cronkites of the human race . . . infallible, virtuous, without flaws and conceived without original sin, with no room for ambivalence.” Happy Mothers Day!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Aharei Mot/Kedoshim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/04/12

Torah Portion: Aharei Mot/Kedoshim
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 16:1-20:27
May 4, 2012

Woody Allen’s 1983 film, Zelig, is about a man who can look and act like whoever he's around, and meets various famous people. Zelig is pictured with Indian chieftains, Nazi generals, and capitalist millionaires. In each instance, he finds acceptance and success by becoming like those he lives among.

One of the remarkable features of the Jewish people, contributing in no small measure to our survival to this day, is our uncanny ability to assimilate. Rabbi Bradley Artson points out with regard to assimilation, “It is certainly one of our consummate talents. American Jews talk, dress, vacation, and work in the same ways as all other Americans. With a few exceptions, our habits and lifestyles reflect the priorities of American culture. It is no coincidence that “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” was written by a Jew, or that “You’re a Grand Old Flag” was sung by one.” This in spite of the Toraitic dictum: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you. . .My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God (Lev. 18:3-4)."

Is assimilation good for the Jew? Since the Holocaust, we have been told the greatest threat to Jewish survival is assimilation; the greatest fear, that the Jew will abandon his/her Judaism in favor of American modernity. Yet, even the ancient Bible commentators took exception with this outlook. In commenting on the above verse, Rashi points out that the command to not copy other countries practices only applies to the ancient Egyptians and Canaanites whose rituals were considered abhorrent to Judaism. Rashi, himself a 10th century winemaker from southern France, understood that much can be learned from adopting and adapting to the ways of one’s land of birth. Artson writes, “Those non-Jewish practices and insights which strengthen Jewish survival, which sensitize us as a people, which teach us how to be loving, caring, and sensitive, which increase our understanding of Judaism and prompt us to practice it fully, pose no threat to our Jewishness. . . .Much in modern life deserves our opposition. But insights that strengthen Torah, that make Jewish identity vibrant and central, deserve our study and our adoption.”

The secret to Jewish survival for two-thousand years in the absence of a land was not the abandonment of traditions, but the willingness to cloak Jewish life in the apparel of the world we live in.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Tazria/Metzora posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/27/12

Torah Portion: Tazria/Metzora
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 12:1-15:33
April 27, 2012

Religions of the ancient Near East viewed skin diseases and bodily infections the result of a ritual or moral/ethical transgression. The ancient Israelites were no exception. Since these maladies were traced to God, those inflicted went to the priest for a cure. Not surprisingly, the ancient priests were looked upon as “medicine men.” Priests not only examined the infected person or home, but they also performed special rites including sacrificial offerings. Harvey Fields, in his work “A Torah Commentary For Our Times” notes, “Because the diagnosis of such infections and the rituals celebrating their conclusion affected everyone in the community, the services of priests had to be accessible to everyone. Essentially, public need necessitated ethical and economic fairness.”

Leviticus 14:21 writes, “If, however, he is poor and his means are insufficient,[he shall bring a more affordable offering than that which is required].” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the reason for treating the poor in this manner. “The poverty stricken and suffering people often presume that they have been forsaken by God’s care, abandoned by God. As a result, they abandon themselves, give themselves up to despair. . .lose their self-respect.” At one’s most vulnerable moment, it is important they not feel abandoned even by God! The Torah teaches here, and in other verses, that the offerings of each person, rich or poor, are of equal value to God.

A September 2011 study (Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010) commissioned by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that the national poverty rate has risen to an astounding 15.1% (43.6 million), the highest since poverty rates were published in 1959. More alarmingly, 22% of our children (18 and below) are now living in poverty! In our own day, there is a concerted effort by some political pundits to portray the majority of the jobless, homeless, and needy as opportunists choosing to live off government handouts. This is why I place my faith in Torah!

The Torah does not divide the poor and needy into those who choose to be poor and those who do not. The Torah operates on the assumption no human being consciously desires to be homeless or impoverished. It is a condition that for a variety of reasons exists. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of those who “have” to lend a hand, create a job, offer shelter to those who find themselves in difficult straits. The Torah teaches all our futures are entwined one with the other.

Poet & Storyteller, Danny Siegel, captured the ethical responsibility of being human in his translation of “The Rebbe’s Proverb”-

“If you always assume
the man sitting next to you
is the Messiah
waiting for some simple human kindness–
You will soon come to weigh your words
and watch your hands.
And if he so chooses
 Not to reveal himself
In your time–
It will not matter.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Happy Birthday, Israel posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/20/12

Israel Independence Day 2012
April 20, 2012

I am a Jew. America is the land of my birth, but Israel is my homeland. I cherish the privilege of American citizenship with its inherent hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow. I also embrace the dream of 2,000 years to reunite the Jewish people with Israel, their ancestral homeland. In the coming week, the State of Israel celebrates her 64th birthday.

Since the birth of the modern State of Israel in May, 1948, not a day has passed without her very existence being tested by her neighbors and challenged by nations of the world. Then, again, this is nothing new for the Jewish people. Despite everything, Israel refuses to give up on a peace between her and her neighbors, between Arab and Jew. In a famous speech delivered at the White House in September 1993, on the occasion of the signing of the first peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said, “We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you: Enough. Let us pray that a day will come when we all will say: Farewell to the arms.” Sadly, the struggle for peace still continues and Israel’s existence still questioned.

Why am I, and so many other Jewish Americans, so tied to a “foreign country”? Part of the answer is revealed in the words of the late Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel. In 1967, in a war lasting six days, Israel reclaimed the old city of Jerusalem with the last remaining wall of the ancient Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 c.e. For 2,000 years, Jews had made pilgrimage to this holy place to remember ancient glories. Shortly after the June ‘67 war, Heschel journeyed to Israel and stood at the “Kotel” (wall). His words convey the thoughts of the entire Jewish people:

“What is the Wall? The unceasing marvel. Expectation. The Wall will not perish. The redeemer will come.

Silence. I hug the stones; I pray. O, Rock of Israel, make our faith strong and Your words luminous in our hearts and minds. No image. Pour holiness into our moments.

I am afraid of detachments, of indifference, of disjunctions. Since Auschwitz my joys grieve, pleasures are mixed with vexations.

No security anywhere, any time. The sun can be a nightmare, humanity infinitely worse than a beast. How to be in accord with Isaiah? I ask in my prayers.

Suddenly ancient anticipations are resurrected in me. Centuries went and came. Then a moment arrived and stood still, facing me.

Once you have lived a moment at the Wall, you never go away!”

Israel, happy 64th!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Passover posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/13/12

Torah Portion: Conclusion of Passover
April 13, 2012

The kids are strapped in, the parents shut the car doors, and a misty-eyed grandfather watches as his children and grandchildren return to their home. The 10-day visit included two Passover Seders, multiple boxes of Matzah, innumerable questions, a lot of laughs, a mixture of tears, and the requisite visit to Disneyland.

Anyone who is a parent or grandparent can empathize with me. As physically tired as I am (daily car trips, touring, setting tables, washing dishes, changing diapers, etc), watching my family’s car disappear around the corner cast a mild pall over me. Why can’t they stay just another day!? A much-anticipated Passover family celebration has drawn to an end.

The annual celebration of the ancient Israelites freedom from bondage in Egypt, and of our personal/communal freedom today, is more than just the re-telling of a story. Though the theme of Passover is expressed in the words of the Haggadah, the significance of Passover are the familiar faces gathered around the Seder table-Family. Next to Hanukkah, Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday. Two-thirds of all Jews-affiliated, unaffiliated, or disaffiliated-attend a Passover Seder. For many, the reason is less about religious obligation than familial belonging.

The driving force behind Passover is memory. On this occasion the Jew is told to remember “We Were Once Slaves In The Land of Egypt.” It’s the memory of this memory that brings us back. Remembering sitting at my grandfather’s Seder table, hearing him read words I couldn’t understand, but always with a smile. Remembering eating my grandmother’s Matzah ball soup and, of course, competing with my sister to find the Afikomen. There were the uncles, aunts, and cousins who joined us each year. And, each year we told the same story, sang the same songs, and grew a year older. My grandparents and parents died, I married, had children, and they sat at my table; learned the stories and sang the songs. Today, my children-who live a thousand miles away-have their own children. On this particular Passover, we came together, three generations, to tell stories, sing songs, and forge another link to the chain of Jewish tradition.

As my children and grandchildren begin the long drive home, I know my immediate sadness will eased by phone calls, e-mails, photos, and a summer get-together. What about sisters, brothers, parents, and close family members who no longer communicate with one another? What must their pain and sadness be like? I hope I will never have to know. I also hope those who bear this burden will find the strength to grow beyond the words and actions that separated them from family. This is also the message of Passover.

Yes, I am saddened to see Passover conclude, but heartened to know it will return for generations past, present, and yet unborn.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shabbat Ha'Gadol posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/30/12

Torah Portion: Shabbat Ha’Gadol
March 30, 2012

In the coming week, Jews will begin the 7-day celebration of Passover. Passover commemorates the ancient exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and Egyptian bondage. The all-embracing theme of the holiday is “Freedom.” Jews world-wide will gather next week at dinner tables to discuss and argue what it means to be free.

In the present political climate of America, a discussion of freedom is like walking through a minefield; never knowing when something or someone is going to explode. Those on the far right understand freedom only in relation to individual rights. Those on the far left see freedom only in relation to collective responsibility. In a more normal environment (if one, in fact, exists), the balance between individual rights and collective responsibility would be determined by a middle ground. These are not normal times and there is no apparent middle ground. What is a Jew to do?

This is a good time to re-focus on the famous ancient teaching of the School of Hillel (1st century before the common era): “If I am not for me, who will be? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” Judaism teaches the individual is responsible for seeing him/herself as part of a greater community. Yes, freedom gives me the right to focus on my immediate needs as it is unfair for me to expect others to. Yet, if I am only concerned about my selfish needs with no eye nor ear toward helping others, what sort of person am I? And, how long can I dismiss the human cry before acting? In more concrete terms, Hillel teaches for example that paying taxes supporting your child’s school is doing something for yourself. Continuing to pay the taxes when you no longer have children in the school system is showing concern for others.

Judaism occupies the middle ground in understanding the meaning of freedom. Ours is a tradition that teaches one is only as wealthy as what they give away; only as free as their struggling neighbor. The Jew’s obligation to meet the needs of all humankind (including oneself) is founded in a belief in One God. Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of faith. He is asked to surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does. . .Through the ecstasy of deeds he learns to be certain of the hereness of God. Right living is a way to right thinking.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayikra posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/23/12

Torah Portion: Vayikra
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 1:1-5:26
March 23, 2012

This week Jews around the world begin reading the third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus. Often misunderstood, misread, or just avoided because of its detailed discussion of the ancient sacrificial cult, the book actually provides one of the most profound insights into the character of Judaism and the Jewish people. The theme of the book is clearly stated in Leviticus 19:2 where it is written, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” How Israel was to live as a “Holy Nation” is the subject matter of Leviticus.

Before even tackling the complex of rituals and priestly rites, one should understand the meaning of “Holy.” Rabbi Harold Kushner said it best when he wrote, “Everything in God’s world can be holy if you realize its potential holiness. One of the fundamental teachings of Judaism is that the search for holiness, for the encounter with God, is not confined to the synagogue [or church]. Everything we do can be transformed into a Sinai experience, an encounter with the sacred. The goal of Judaism is not to teach us how to escape from the profane world to the cleansing presence of God, but to teach us how to bring God into the world, how to take the ordinary and make it holy.”

An example of Rabbi Kushner’s teaching is dealt with in the Book of Leviticus with regard to dietary restrictions, or “Kashrut.” Chapter 11 lists the animals, fish, and fowl a Jew is permitted, and not permitted, to eat. The Torah does not present a reason or rationale for the list; just a list. Over the centuries a variety of explanations have been developed, but in the end it comes down to one purpose: To be holy. Holiness requires that one learns to curb their appetite. One cannot just kill, plunder, and eat anything they wish. Rather, some of God’s creations may provide sustenance, while others are off-limits. If I can learn to discipline myself with regard to what goes in my mouth, how much more so with regard to what comes out. The simple act of eating is an expression of holiness.

The ways we encounter people in the marketplace of life speaks volumes about one’s notion of holiness. When a beggar on the streets asks for loose change, do we look away or display human kindness? When we disagree with another’s political, ideological or religious position do we go into attack mode or agree to disagree with honor and respect for each other? Every day and every where our commitment to holiness is tested.

The opportunity to invest moral/ethical Godly behavior in the ordinary moments of life, and not just those lived within a sanctuary, is holiness. Those whose character displays this behavior are holy.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayakhel/Pekudei posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/16/12

Torah Portion: Vayakhel/Pekudei-Shabbat Parah
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 38:21-40:38
Book of Numbers
Chap. 19:1-22
March 16, 2012

Weather has been in the news a lot these past months. Especially troubling have been the spate of tornados that tore through portions of the country. Most families were fortunate to survive the destruction of their homes and property. Some were not so fortunate. In the aftermath of the storms, news agencies aired a common scene; survivors picking through the rubble of their home in search of personal treasures that defined their lives. It could be a photograph, a doll from youth, or any object imbued with stories and moments of the past. The value of these mementos far exceeded their actual worth.

The final chapters of the Book of Exodus contain a detailed accounting of the Mish’kan-portable sanctuary built in the desert. At the conclusion of the audit, we are told, “[Moses] took the Tablets of God and placed it in the ark (Exo. 40:20).” The ancient rabbis were confused. Which tablets were placed in the ark, the first set which Moses tossed to the ground upon seeing the Golden Calf or the second set later received on Mt. Sinai? They conclude that both sets were in the ark; the broken pieces of the first and the complete second set. This legend teaches that the love of the ancient Israelites for the first broken set was no less than for the second.

Rabbi Brad Artson writes, “Think of your feelings about your wedding ring. Chances are strong that in the course of your lifetime you will be able to purchase more elaborate, more expensive rings. Yet your love for the original plain gold band is not simply because it adorns your finger. We love our wedding bands because they remind us of a momentous and happy day in our lives, they signify the most important relationship we will ever have with another human being. Those rings are irreplaceable.”

It is the objects and rituals of the past whose memory infuses within us the spirit to strive, build, and carry on. The soiled photograph beneath the tornado’s rubble possesses a value at that moment far greater than even the home it was displayed within.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tisa posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/09/12

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 30:11-34:35
March 9, 2012

“And when the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from Mt. Sinai, the people gathered themselves unto Aaron and said to him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of Egypt, we know not what has become of him’ (Exo. 32:1).”

Moses left the Israelite camp to ascend Mt. Sinai and receive the Torah. According to rabbinic legend, Moses was only six hours late in returning. This was enough to incite the Israelites to abandon the God who delivered them from slavery, give up on their leader, Moses, who risked his life for their freedom and immediately demand another God-one they could see and touch-a Golden Calf!

Torah commentator Pinchas Peli writes, “How swift and how shocking! And how typical of mass psychology. They, the masses, must have a leader. What a gap between Moses and a hand-made calf! But to them this gap does not mater. “Make us a god who shall go before us!” They are ready to follow blindly any leader, be he Moses or a Golden Calf.”

The lesson is clear: Effective leadership requires a responsible and committed people. The ancient Israelites were neither. Theirs was purely self-interest: Free me from the bonds of slavery and give me a safe place to live. Who procured their freedom was secondary. They had no commitment to One God, nor responsibility to any given leader. In the absence of one, or both, a Golden Calf would suffice. It took 40 years for Moses to transform these slaves into a functioning people.

The United States, after 200-plus years, faces a similar situation. We still struggle to understand who we are, what we are about, and to whom we are committed and responsible. Are we a nation of immigrants still believing in the words of Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!") or are the doors to America closed? Are we a nation who enthusiastically marches to a drumbeat of war or do we seek other ways of reaching out to a troubled world? Are we a nation of compassionate hope for all our citizens or cynical neglect for those in need?

The 1975 film “The Wind And The Lion” dramatically chronicled the 1904 kidnapping of an American citizen by a band of Arab pirates. The event prompted a military invasion by President Theodore Roosevelt. At the end of the film, the Arab leader sends the following letter to President Roosevelt: “You are like the Wind and I like the Lion. You form the Tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the Ground is parched. I roar in defiance but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place. While you like the wind will never know yours.” How prophetic!

There is a difference between making an effort to understand oneself and denying there’s an issue. For us, as for the ancient Israelites, growth and maturity result from healthy struggle, not complacency.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shabbat posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/02/12

March 2, 2012

Life-changing moments do not always occur in a classroom, lecture hall, or even sanctuary. More often than not, they happen in ways we least expect. Such a teaching/living moment occurred this week in Houston, TX.

This is the story of a Jewish Orthodox day school (Pre-School thru High School) that just so happens to have one of the best parochial school basketball teams in the State of Texas. In fact, the Beren Academy qualified for the semi-final round of the parochial/private school state championship. The game was scheduled to be played in Dallas, TX this Friday evening at 7:30 pm. The Sabbath begins on Friday evening at 5:30 pm. Beren Academy-with complete support from parents & players-asked that the game be re-scheduled so as not to conflict with the Sabbath. League officials denied the request. The players, coaches, and students of Beren Academy were profoundly disappointed, but ultimately the observance of the Sabbath was more important. The league prepared to elevate the team Beren had beaten in the quarter finals to the semi-finals in their place. This is where we begin!

Word spread quickly. The story was first covered by the local Jewish press, then picked up by the Houston Chronicle. Local television added coverage followed by ESPN Sports network, the New York Times, Associated Press, and other world press outlets. The mayor of Houston called upon the league to reverse its decision. She was joined by prominent coaches and NBA players. Soon we were listening worldwide to the coach and players of the Beren Academy Stars explain their sorrow, but also their commitment to Jewish life and tradition-and, the most important day in the Jewish year-Shabbat!

Thanks, in part, to technology, but most importantly perseverance, responsibility, and commitment, the league reversed its decision and re-scheduled the semi-final to comply with observance of the Sabbath.

To borrow from the vernacular, I was “blown away!” What a teaching moment. I have spent a career encouraging, cajoling, and even haranguing Jews to find the joys in making the Sabbath a regular part of their livesl How often I have been told that “we’d like to bring the Shabbat into our lives, but this weekend our son/daughter is playing soccer/baseball/you-fill-in-the-sport.” Here is a team that was not only playing a game, but playing for a state high school title. Yet, the Sabbath came first.

What is most gratifying is in the end their principled stand won out. Rather than acquiesce for the sake of a game (and, that’s all it is!), the team put their religion, tradition, and people first. What stories these young men will have to tell to their children and grandchildren. They represent what Jewish tradition is about.

Thanks for the moment!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Presidents Day posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/17/12

Presidents Day Weekend
February 17, 2012

Washington’s Birthday, in honor of George Washington (1st president of the U.S.), was implemented as an Act of Congress in 1880. In 1971, the federal holiday was officially moved to the 3rd Monday in February. By the mid 80’s, through marketing efforts (notably, not an act of Congress), it became known as Presidents Day and gave honor to the office of the Presidency. What better time to reflect on the growth of America from her 1st president to her 44th.

For me, this period of reflection began on Super Bowl Sunday in the now-famous ad run by Chrysler Corporation featuring Clint Eastwood. In a calm but raspy voice, Eastwood noted, “It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game”. He goes on to say, “I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life. And, times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems like we’ve lost our heart at times. When the fog of division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.”

These are challenging times for the world in general, and the United States in particular. Our issues and concerns extend beyond a smoke-screen of financial and economic undoing. David Brooks, the conservative editorialist for the New York Times, wrote this week, “The half-century between 1912 and 1962 was a period of great wars and economic tumult but also of impressive social cohesion. Marriage rates were high. Community groups connected people across class. In the half-century between 1962 and the present, America has become more prosperous, peaceful and fair, but the social fabric has deteriorated. Social trust has plummeted. Society has segmented. The share of Americans born out of wedlock is now at 40 percent and rising”.

The Liberals tell you the problem is the loss of working class jobs resulting in a deterioration of communities. Libertarians place the blame on government-created entitlement programs that, for many, have removed the incentive to work. The Neo-Conservatives fault a breakdown in traditional middle-class values leading to social disruption.

Brooks quotes research suggesting, “no matter how social disorganization got started, once it starts, it takes on a momentum of its own. People who grow up in disrupted communities are more likely to lead disrupted lives as adults, magnifying disorder from one generation to the next.”

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, one of the great Jewish theologians of the 20th century, discovered God in the innate qualities of kindness and compassion of the human soul. He famously observed, “We [human beings] are the Power that makes for Salvation.” Not by religious decree, nor Congressional order, but by the human spirit shall this world, this country, be redeemed. The answer to a stronger, more cohesive, society is not to be found in a ballot box. We have risen to be a great country not because of great leadership, but because our leadership has had a great people to work with. The Divine nature of human resolve can make for a better day.

Eastwood’s ad, a minute of home-spun American philosophy, said it best: “We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one. . . . This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin.”

Enjoy, celebrate, and give some thought to the significance of this Presidents Day weekend.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Yitro posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/10/12

Torah Portion: Yitro
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 18:1-20:22
February 10, 2012

The commandment is not “Thou Shall Not Kill,” but “Thou Shall Not Murder.” There is a significant difference. Even though Judaism holds the sacredness of life above all else, it still recognizes there are times when one must kill-in defense of one’s life, people, and nation. What is forbidden is murder whose dictionary definition is “the unlawful and premeditated killing of one human being by another.” The ancient rabbis understood “murder” in a broader sense.

The Eitz Hayim Humash (Pentateuch) notes, “The sages understood “bloodshed” to include embarrassing a fellow human being in public so that the blood drains from his or her face, not providing safety for travelers, and causing anyone the loss of his or her livelihood.” The medieval Jewish Bible scholar Abraham Ibn Ezra reflects this same thought when he writes, “One may murder with the hand or with the tongue, by tale-bearing or by character assassination.”

One of the great Jewish ethicists was Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933) of today’s Belarus. He was known popularly as the “Hofetz Chayim” (he who desires life). Literally, a “legend in his own time,” he became the subject of countless stories and tales. One such story tells of the Chofetz Chayim and another Rabbi who were eating in an inn renowned for its food. The innkeeper, realizing that he had two illustrious guests, did all he could to serve them the finest meal. As the dessert was being brought out, the innkeeper asked them, "How did you like the meal?" The Chofetz Chaim complimented the innkeeper and his cook, and thanked them warmly. The other Rabbi however mentioned that the soup could have used a little more salt. The Chofetz Chaim turned white. "My whole life I have managed to avoid hearing Loshon Hara (hurtful speech) and here you have just spoken Loshon Hara."

"What are you talking about?", asked his companion skeptically.

The Chofetz Chaim described the scene that must be going on in the kitchen right now. "The cook is probably a poor widow and the innkeeper is chastising her for not putting salt in the soup and thereby ruining the meal of his illustrious guests. He is probably screaming at her and ready to fire her over the incident. Besides, you have also violated six injunctions: 1) You spoke Loshon Hara. 2) You caused others to hear it. 3) You caused the owner to repeat it (rechilut/gossip). 4) You caused the cook to lie, saying that she did put salt in the soup in order to save face. 5) The owner caused pain to a widow. 6) You caused an argument."

The other Rabbi smiled. "Surely you are exaggerating."

"Let's go see", said the Chofetz Chaim.

They went together into the kitchen to find the innkeeper berating the poor cook for her stupid mistake. The second Rabbi, realizing his blunder, begged the innkeeper to keep the cook assuring him that the soup was quite good, and the rest of the meal extraordinary, and promised that he would always stop to eat at this inn on all his journeys.

In 1839, English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword.” The Chofetz Chaim suggests it’s better understood as “the tongue is at least as hurtful as the sword.” How often have we used premeditative words to hurt another. Destroying one’s self-esteem can be as deadly as murder.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Beshalach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/03/12

Torah Portion: Be’shalach
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 13:17-17:16
February 3, 2012

One of the best known of the Midrashim (Jewish legends) relates to the Israelites crossing of the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the Egyptian pursuers. In the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin (39b), the following account is given:

“. . .The Holy One sat in judgment over the Egyptians in accord with the measure of justice and drowned them in the sea. In that instant the ministering angels wished to utter song before the Holy One, but God rebuked them, saying, “The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence?!”

This simple teaching has come to define the Jewish response to the defeat of one’s enemies. Jews do not gloat over, nor celebrate, military victories. Case in point is the Book of Joshua. The book chronicles the wars fought and won by the Israelites in taking the land of Canaan. The written accounts are not pretty. There is blood, gore, and violence. What is noticeably absent is celebration. The Canaanites, like the Egyptians, were creations of God. Their loss is no less tragic than that of any other human being. The war was necessary, but the loss of life was mourned, not cheered.

Given this ancient Midrash, and its recognition of the holiness of all living beings, the song Moses sang after crossing the Red Sea is troublesome. This same song, referred to as the Shirat Ha’Yom/Song of the Sea, is read each day as part of the morning prayer service. Contained within the song are the following verses:

“I will sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. . .Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; And the pick of his officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds. . .You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them. They sank like lead in the majestic waters. Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials; Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in splendor, working wonders! (Exo. 15:1-18).”

The song is a celebration of the defeat and destruction of the Egyptian army. How is this justified in light of what we’ve learned? Most rabbis explain that the redemption from Egypt was not complete until the purveyors of the Israelite slavery and servitude were punished. For this reason, the verses praising the destruction of the Egyptian army appear as part of Moses’ song. However, only the verses praising God are put to song in the synagogue service. The other verses are merely read.

Not a satisfying explanation? Perhaps not, but it is a reminder that humankind (including Moses!) has not yet achieved perfection. We still have work to do. In the meantime, we can begin by learning to celebrate “all” achievements, while mourning “all” losses.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Bo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/27/12

Torah Portion: Bo
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 10:1-13:16
January 27, 2012

Did Moses free the Israelites from Egypt, or did the Egyptians expel them? After the 10th and final plague (slaying of the first-born Egyptians), the Torah writes, “The Egyptians urged the [Israelites] on, impatient to have them leave the country, for they said, [if they don’t leave] we’ll all be dead (Exo. 12:33).” Sound familiar? The Israelites must leave Egypt. Why? Because they were deemed responsible for the terrible deaths occurring among the Egyptian population. What about Pharaoh and his courtiers? Don’t they bear some responsibility?

Here is a “new twist” on an old story: Maybe Moses’ great contribution was not the freeing of Israelite slaves, but re-directing their attention after having been blamed for the plagues and expelled from Egypt. Moses’ and God kept their spirits up with the promise of a new land where they would be the captains of their own fate. No longer slaves, but a free people guided by a set of moral/ethical standards. They would enter the “Promised Land” and establish the first Jewish commonwealth. However, as we know too well, this would not be the end of the story.

Since the beginning of the Common Era, Jews have been expelled from almost every European country and, again, from Egypt. Between 1290 c.e. and 1956, Jews were forced out of England, France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Sicily, Lithuania, Spain, Portugal, and Egypt (to name a few!). These were not just a few families, but entire populations. Why were they expelled? During difficult economic times, Jews were blamed for the financial distress, the “Black Plague” pandemic of the 14th century was blamed on the Jews, and so on. Finally, on January 20, 1942, the Nazi leadership decided expulsion was an age-old method proven ineffective. With regard to the Jews, what was needed was a “Final Solution.”

In fact, each previous expulsion was meant as a final solution to the Jewish problem. And each time, the Jew-in the spirit of the exodus from Egypt-took their people, language, literature, and Torah to a new place. The Jew, and his/her message, will not go away!

What is this indestructible message? One of the best-known stories in the Talmud tells of a non-Jew who approached the great sage Hillel and asked him, “Can you summarize all of Judaism for me while I stand on one foot?” Hillel answered, “What you don’t like, don’t do to others. That’s it; the rest is commentary. Now go and study the commentary!” Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “Hillel understood that the essence of Judaism was not just a matter of obeying God or pleasing God. . . .The essence of Judaism is creating holiness in the way we relate to this world and to the people in it.” To dictators and despots, this can be a dangerous message. Yet, it is this message transmitted in the way a Jew lives, loves, and learns that continues as an “Ohr La’goyim”-a light unto all nations!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayehi posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/06/12

Torah Portion: Vayehi
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 47:20-50:26
Friday, January 6, 2012

What’s wrong with America? The answer might be found in recent studies comparing the upward mobility of Americans to that of comparable nations. The project, led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that “42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults.” The studies conclude that a growing percentage of Americans on the bottom rung of society are raising children unable to move up the ladder of American success. Why?

An article in the New York Times suggests, “One reason for the mobility gap may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.” Neither of my parents attended college, nor did the parents of many of my friends. Yet, we all are college graduates who pursued graduate degrees in various professions?!

In the concluding Torah portion of the Book of Genesis, Jacob gathers his children and grandchildren to hear his ethical will. Unlike the legal will, which allocates one’s estate to his/her inheritors, an ethical will is a persons hopes, dreams, and expectations for his/her children. Jacob informs each son what he expects from him in the years ahead. “You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise; Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes. .(Gen. 49:8).” He also challenges his children to take stock of their past in pursuing a future. “Reuben, you are my first-born, My might and first fruit of my vigor, Exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor. Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer (Gen. 3-4).” Tough love!

The notion that a child whose parents are less educated and lower on the socio-economic ladder will follow suit does not take into consideration the role of effective parenting. Rabbi Harold Schulweis once told me that a good upbringing is one in which the child is encouraged to succeed the parent. Regardless of my mother’s lack of education, her ethical will was certain I went to the right schools, attended the right summer camps, participated in the synagogue youth groups, and set high goals for myself. I did not follow my parents educational trajectory, but their desire that “my reach should always exceed my grasp.”

If America’s best days are still ahead, then parents have to instill hope and dreams in their children. Teachers educate, but parents inspire.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

New Years' 2012 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/30/11

New Years’ 2012
December 30, 2011

For Jews, Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year) is a time to reflect on personal growth and accomplishment during the past year. The secular calendar new year (January 1st) is a time to reflect on the events and happenings in the world we live. In this spirit, here is what I think-there is too much noise!

Pico Iyer, in an opinion piece appearing in the New York Times, writes: “I noticed that those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.” She goes on to note, “In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them-often in order to make more time.”

Did you know?. . .the average American spends at least 8 1/2 hours a day in front of a screen. . .the average teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day. Couple these intrusions in our lives with the noise they produce. Each morning I go to the gym. In the “old days,” one could think about the day ahead (or the one just past) while riding a stationary bike, lifting weights, or using an exercise machine. Today, it is necessary to work out in the presence of at least twenty television screens (each turned to a different channel) with background music from Lady Gaga and Metallica, then returning to the locker room for a shower, shave, and three TV screens of ESPN Sportscenter. And then my day begins! Not surprising is the growing number of people taking up Yoga.

Ms. Iyer has learned to deal with the increasing noise of daily life by going to a Benedictine hermitage several times a year. She writes, “I don’t attend services when I’m there, and I’ve never meditated, there or anywhere; I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness.” I try to do the same. Each year I visit family and friends in the Pacific Northwest. The trip from Los Angeles to Seattle is about 2 hours by air and 3 days by car. I choose to drive. Usually I drive alone. Like Pico Iyer, I find the hours on the road calming, still, and reinvigorating. I can think without the incessant intrusion of noise produced by the technology that promised, in the words of General Electric’s former slogan-“We Bring Good Things To Life.” In 2003, G.E. decided to retire the slogan. Interesting?!

I am by no means denying the importance of today’s technological advancements. In more ways than not they have improved our lives and brought the world closer together. At the same time, we have allowed them to intrude upon our sacred human identity. Being human means being able to make choices; being able to set aside time to re-discover and re-invigorate our “self.” A few days alone in a car doesn’t do it. Did I mention Shabbat (the Sabbath)? A special day of “introspection, meditation, and Thou” each week.

My resolution for 2012-Less noise and more discovery! Happy New Year!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Miketz posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/23/11

Torah Portion: Miketz
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 41:1-44:17
December 23, 2011

The story of Joseph occupies the final 13 chapters of the Book of Genesis. Joseph, not God, is the center of attention in this dramatic narrative. In fact, God does not intercede at any point in the story, but remains noticeably in the wings!

Joseph is both easy to identify with and difficult to understand. He angers his brothers with dreams of grandiose self-importance causing them to toss him into a pit only to be sold down to Egypt as a slave. Still, he dreams. In an Egyptian jail he becomes known as an interpreter of dreams and is brought before Pharaoh. Pharaoh becomes so impressed with his prophetic acumen that he makes Joseph his chief advisor. As Joseph rises in the hierarchy of Egyptian culture he takes on an Egyptian name (Zaphnat Paneah), marries the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Asnat) and, by all appearances, adopts the Egyptian life style. Joseph, the first assimilated Jew! Or is he?

The story of a Jew making it in the non-Jewish world by trading his identity for another is an all-too familiar one. For Joseph, the story does not end here. He and his wife give birth to two sons. They are named Ephraim and Manasseh. Both names are Hebrew, not Egyptian. At the most critical moment in his life, the birth of children, Joseph convinced his wife their children must be raised as Jews. Despite appearances, Joseph had not abandoned his people (even though his brothers had abandoned him) or his heritage. He might have been known as “Zapnat Paneah” to Egyptians, but he would always be known to us as “Joseph.”

Joseph’s message to the modern Jew is “you can have your cake and eat it, too!” One can enjoy the pleasures and privileges of America without compromising their identification as a Jew. Joseph was put in charge of distributing food during a time of famine in Egypt and Canaan. His brothers, believing Joseph had perished, came to Egypt to bring food back to Canaan. After revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph also informed Pharaoh of his continued allegiance to his family and Jewish heritage. This Pharaoh understood and made a place for Joseph’s family in one of the finer areas of Egypt. We live in a country that also understands who we are. The challenging question before us today is, do we?

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Hanukkah 5772 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/16/11

December 16, 2011

The Hanukkah ritual is simple: One lights candles each evening for eight nights. Each night an additional candle is added to the Hanukkah menorah (candle holder). The observance relates to a battle for religious freedom occurring in the year 164 b.c.e., between a small army of Jews, known as the Maccabees, and the Syrian occupiers who controlled Jerusalem and the ancient Temple. The war ran for several years, but at a critical moment, the Syrian military leadership found its attention being drawn away by other armies on the move against Syria. They found it in their best interest to make a truce with the Maccabees. The Jews once again took control of the ancient Temple. They thoroughly cleansed it and re-dedicated it to God and the Jewish people. In the process, they discovered only one small jar of oil with which to light the Temple menorah. The miracle of Hanukkah occurred when the oil lasted not just one night, but eight.

The ancient rabbis posed an interesting question: Each night during Hanukkah you are lighting the menorah and reciting a blessing in recognition of the miracle of the oil. If there was perceived to be just enough oil for one night, why recite the blessing on the first night. What was the miracle? After all, on the first night there was sufficient oil present, and its burning was natural enough. One commentator suggests there are several types of miracles. There is the miracle of Creation when “something” was created out of “nothing,” and there is this miracle when “something is created out of “something.” Jewish tradition defines modern day miracles as just that, something created out of something.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis writes, “We cannot often in our lives create or alter the “given,” change the diseases, accidents, misfortunes dealt out to us. We can, more often than we expect, make something out of them, create something out of something. . .The triumph of the human spirit over tragedy is a divine-human encounter, a creation of something of transcendent meaning formed out of something common.”

Hanukkah is a reminder that we-humankind-are empowered to make and discover our own miracles. By rising up to meet the challenges of life with a triumphal spirit and a giving heart we can bring the “miracle of the oil,” light, into the darkest recesses of human existence.

In 1920, Harry Dixon Loes wrote a children’s gospel song that later emerged as an anthem of the Civil Right movement in the ‘60’s: This Little Light Of Mine. It could easily be a part of the Hanukkah liturgy; the hope and prayer that we carry forth the light and “Let It Shine, Let It Shine, Let It Shine”.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayishlach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/09/11

Torah Portion: Vayishlach
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 32:4-36:43
December 9, 2011

“Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him (Gen. 32:25-26).”

What better metaphor for life than a “wrestling match.” As young children, we wrestled with “good & bad”, “right & wrong.” As adolescents, these same struggles were now informed by a more refined image of “self.” As adults, we are challenged to replace the vocabulary of youth with the more sophisticated concepts of “ethical & unethical”, moral & immoral.” The mature adult continues the struggle, but learns to effectively balance “selfish & selfless.”

Jacob’s youth was all about “me.” What will make “me” happier, make “me” richer, make me “greater.” With the goal being the satisfaction of personal need, it was not difficult for Jacob to justify cheating his brother Esau out of his birthright and later his blessing as first born. Even before Machiavelli, Jacob lived by the philosophy that “the ends justify the means.” Only after years of cheating, and having been cheated, does he experience the existential loneliness of “self.” Rabbi Brad Artson comments, “At night, left alone, Jacob suddenly finds himself wrestling with someone whom he cannot identify. Is this a person or an angel, or is it the embodiment of his own doubts and failings?”

I am always wary of religious fanatics; those who profess the truth, and nothing but the truth. For them there is no longer a struggle, but a way; the only way. True religion does not teach “the” way, but provides the necessary direction to help us along our path. The directions consist of a code of ethics, a concern for all God’s creations, and a course of rites and regimens to discipline and inform our actions. To wrestle with God is to put in play the moral/ethical struggle suggested by the ancient Rabbi Hillel who asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be? But, if I am only for myself, what sort of person am I?” With this we wrestle our entire lives.

Jacob finally attained maturity. He understood his personal needs and wants were circumscribed by those of others. He also realized this moment of epiphany, a wrestling match with God, or perhaps himself, was only the first of many to come. In the end, one’s life is measured less by what one did, then the satisfying struggle to make it happen.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayetze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/02/11

Torah Portion: Vayetze
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 28:10-32:3
December 2, 2011

“Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel. .(Gen. 29:16-18).”

To this point, the life of Jacob can be described in one word: deceitful. He cheated his twin brother Esau out of his birthright, and later disguised himself as Esau to deceive his father into giving him his brother’s blessing. Fearing a brutal response from Esau, Jacob fled to his Uncle Laban’s home. There, he first cast his eyes upon Rachel. In a world where marriage was typically an economic arrangement, Jacob expresses an emotional attachment to Rachel. Literally, love at first sight! For one whose early years were distinguished by deceit and superficiality, his response is not surprising.

What convinced Jacob he must have Rachel? And, why not her older sister Leah? The answer: “Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful.” In a superficial world, outer appearances always trump inner beauty. In the end, Jacob-the deceiver- is, himself, deceived by Laban. As Jacob lifts his wife’s veil beneath the wedding canopy, he discovers he has married Leah, not Rachel.

The Social Issues Research Center of Great Britain did a study on the influence of appearance in everyday life. Their findings suggested 1) attractive children are more popular, 2) attractive applicants have a better chance of getting a job, and 3) in court, attractive people are found guilty less often. In summary, all their research showed we react more favorably to physically attractive people.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to reach the above conclusions. Take a look at what appears on television. Have you ever seen a less-than-handsome bachelor or slightly overweight bachelorette featured on these matchmaking shows? Today’s society is infected by superficiality. What is most important in life is how you look. The Plastic surgery industry has gone beyond repairing bodily injury to perfecting on God’s creation. The SIRC research also found, “female dissatisfaction with appearance - poor body-image - begins at a very early age. Human infants begin to recognize themselves in mirrors at about two years old. Female humans begin to dislike what they see only a few years later.”

It is no crime to be physically attractive, but if that is the goal, it is as shallow as Jacob’s early life. The ancient rabbinic text “Ethics of Our Ancestors” teaches, “Do not judge a bottle of wine by it’s appearance, but by its contents.” When we speak of those who have shaped this world over the centuries, we seldom refer to their physical appearance but to their deeds and actions; their true essence.

In 1981, the late filmmaker Blake Edwards produced a movie re-make of Tarzan. The movie featured the “shapely and attractive” Bo Derek in the role of Jane. In a critical scene, Jane and her father are taken captive by a tribe of African cannibals. As the natives bathe Jane in preparation for their cannibalistic ritual, her father says to her, “Remember Jane, you are not of the flesh, but of the spirit.” The movie maker reminds his audience that Jane (Bo Derek) might be a “10” in appearance, but that is not who she really is; she is much more.

Leah might have possessed “weak eyes”, but Jacob’s were weaker.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Chayei Sarah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/18/11

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 23:1-25:18
November 18, 2011

Today, the least talked about subject from synagogue pulpits is interfaith marriage (formerly referred to as “intermarriage”). Noted Jewish historian and demographer, Jack Wertheimer, notes, “Not long ago, a Manhattan rabbi stunned his congregants by informing them that the future of the Jewish people would be secured not through trips to Israel, not through the battle against anti-Semitism, and not through the continued upward mobility of Jews, but in the bedroom. What shocked his sophisticated Upper East Side audience had nothing to do with his allusion to sex; these days, it is perfectly acceptable to speak in public about intimate behavior. What is not permissible in polite Jewish company is an allusion to the decisions people make about their own family lives, or to the impact of those decisions on the ability of the Jewish community to sustain itself.”

The Torah gives a detailed narrative of Abraham’s effort to find the right wife for his son, Isaac. Living in a land dominated by a Canaanite population, Abraham knows the future of God’s promise to make him the father of a great nation rests upon Isaac’s continued commitment to this vision and to his clan. Abraham’s concern is so great that he sends his servant, and not his son, to find the appropriate mate among the members of his brother’s family. He compels his servant to take an oath that he “will not take a wife for [Abraham’s] son from the Canaanites among whom [he] dwells, but will go to the land of [Abraham’s] birth and get a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:3-4).” Abraham’s concern is not about the worthiness of Canaanite people, but the cultural and spiritual differences that exist.

Before 1965, the intermarriage rate for Jews was 10%. By 1985, a demographic study found the rate to be 52%. What changed during this time? Were Jews less interested in being Jewish? Maybe so, but the years between 1965 and 1985 also marked an increasing acceptance of the Jew as an American. Barriers that previously prevented Jews from living in certain neighborhoods, attending certain schools, practicing medicine in certain hospitals, began to fall. The watershed moment of complete acceptance came in 2000 when an observant Jew (Sen. Joseph Lieberman) was nominated by a major political party to be Vice-president of the United States. Today, a Jew can live anywhere, be a part of any profession, and move freely through American society. With this openness comes increased involvement with the majority non-Jewish culture. In 1965, Jews primarily lived, worked, and socialized within their own parochial community. By 1985, their circles of involvement had greatly increased and, so to, the intermarriage rate.

Why marry a Jew? Jews need Jews to be Jewish. It is difficult enough to build a marriage and raise a healthy family. To complicate it with different belief systems and cultural norms, that too often come into competition with one another, can make difficult almost insurmountable. A number of non-Jewish spouses make the decision to convert, but an even larger number of Jews in an intermarriage decide to “drop out.”

The question we are left with is the same question Abraham had to confront- “Why be Jewish?” Rabbi David Wolpe’s answer to this question is, “Because Judaism can teach us how to deepen our lives, to improve the world, to join with others who have the same lofty aims. Judaism can teach us spiritual and moral mindfulness, a way of living in this world that promotes joy inside of us and also encourages ethical action. But finally, the answer to why be Jewish must reside in the mystery of each seeking soul, trying to find its place with others and with God.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Veteran's Day 2011 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/10/11

Veteran’s Day
November 10, 2011

No one is more anti-war than our military. I learned this lesson serving as a U.S. Navy chaplain. Many years earlier, in a speech delivered in Ottawa (Canada), former President and General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, and its stupidity.”

General Douglas MacArthur in an address to the U.S. Congress in 1951 stated, “I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a method of settling international disputes.”

Still, we insist on fighting. Since World War II, the United States has unsuccessfully waged war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. All we have to show for these efforts are 100,000 U.S. Casualties. . .and they all wore uniforms.

The average age of those fighting our wars is 19. These young men-barely old enough to vote and too young to drink-don’t start wars nor decide policy. Their job is to answer the call placing them in harm’s way. They make the ultimate sacrifice for both wise and unwise policy decisions.

Our country observes two occasions of remembrance-Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. Memorial Day is devoted to the memory of those who gave their lives in the service of this country. Veteran’s Day is for all who have served in the U.S. Military-living and dead. Rabbi Arnold Resnikoff, a former military chaplain, offers the following prayer on the occasion of Veteran’s Day 2011:

Almighty God,
As we gather here, we recall
that more than 90 years ago - in 1918
-on the 11th day of the 11th month - at the 11th hour of that day --
an armistice was signed
to end the war-
the war to end all wars, we said

and yet, other wars would come
and others would be called to serve
-so Armistice Day became Veterans Day,
a time to recognize and remember
those who would face new horrors
keeping peace
or answering the call to fight

O Lord,
we know too well
there have been times
when we have not honored those
who honored us
through sacrifice and service
in wars our nation chose to fight

today we pray that we have learned
to offer thanks
to show respect - and gratitude
to all our veterans - alongside those who serve our nation still
and to their families, too

today we pray
to mourn our dead
to help our wounded
to praise our heroes,
and to welcome home our troops
- with open arms -
when they return

we pray you give them strength
and grant us strength, as well-
- to keep our faith
that one day
-thanks in part - large part - to the courage of those we honor with our words today -
one day, we'll beat our swords to plowshares
and war will be no more

...and let us say, amen

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Lech Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/03/11

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 12:1-17:27
November 3, 2011

Life is a journey. Discovering fulfillment and meaning means a willingness to take the “road less traveled.” Abraham is given a simple command by God: Lech Lecha-literally, “Get out of here! Go forth from your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).” Abraham’s response? “Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him (Gen. 12:4).” In this risk-filled act of compliance was Judaism born.

Whether it be the journey of an individual or an entire people, no world-changing event or act of greatness has ever occurred standing in place. This past week, Dorothy Rodham, a woman who overcame years of struggle to become a powerful influence on the life and career of her daughter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, passed away at the age of 92. Dorothy’s story was a journey that can be told of any number of people in our time and former generations.

Her obituary in the New York Times notes, “Her childhood had been Dickensian. She was abandoned by dysfunctional, divorced parents at the age of 8 in Chicago, sent unsupervised on a cross-country train with a younger sister to live with unwelcoming grandparents in California and, at age 14, escaped into the adult world of the Depression as a $3-a-week nanny.”

On her own, she attended high school and graduated as a top student. Needing to work to survive, college was out of the question. She moved back to Chicago and became a secretary. After years of lonely toil, she married and raised three children. Her daughter, Hillary, said, “I’m still amazed at how my mother emerged from her lonely early life as such an affectionate and levelheaded woman.” How amazing is it? From all appearances, she was a woman who did not allow fear or self-pity to cloud her vision or disrupt her journey. Dorothy would later stand with her daughter as she took the Senate oath of office and she was by Hillary’s side when she began her campaign for the presidency and when she finally bowed out.

Abraham’s journey would see his first-born son banished from his home because of Sara’s jealousy, his nephew Lot taken captive, his son Isaac almost sacrificed on Mt. Moriah. Still, he journeyed on. Abraham did not fear nor lose faith. He followed his passion, gave meaning to his life, became a role model to his children and children’s children, and a father to the Jewish people.

Today it is our turn to hear the command and to go forth. Lech Lecha!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Noah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/28/11

Torah Portion: Noah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 6:9-11:32
October 28, 2011

The God of the Book of Genesis is a personal God; a caring and concerned parent. With the creation of man and woman, God-like any new parent-is full of joy, hope, and expectation. But, as Rabbi Norman Cohen writes, “Many parents euphoria when a child is born quickly gives way to frustration and even disappointment. Inexplicably, their little angel develops into a terror in a matter of a few short years! So, too, God!”

Disappointed with how humankind responded to the new world, God decides to destroy and build anew. He would bring a flood upon earth and depend upon one person to protect a remnant of creation in an ark. Enter Noah, a man who the Bible describes as “a righteous man, blameless in his age. Noah walked with God (Gen. 6:9).” Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki (10th century Bible scholar) comments: “This verse can be understood in two ways: 1) If he could be a righteous one in such a [wicked] generation, imagine how good he could be amidst a generation of good people or 2) sure, in that generation he could be a righteous one, but in the generation of Abraham, Noah would not be worthy of mention at all.” Was Noah such a good person or just lucky to be living when he was?

Rabbi Simchah Bunem of Przysucha used to teach that each person in Israel needs to designate two pockets. In one pocket there would be the verse from Genesis 18:27- “I am dust and ashes.” And in the other, the passage in the Talmud, “For my sake was the world created.” According to need, the person should draw out the message from either pocket.

When one’s ego becomes inflated by flattery and praise, reach into the pocket containing the verse “I am dust and ashes,” and when lacking in self-esteem and self-image, reach into the other pocket reminding oneself of the verse “For my sake was the world created.”

At the time of the flood, when wickedness and evil defined humankind, it was important for Noah to remind himself that he was capable of rising above the immorality of the masses. For his sake was the world created. Had he lived in the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he would have to remind himself that as great as he may think he is (privileged to “walk with God”), he was still of dust and ashes.

What’s good for Noah is no doubt a good lesson for us, as well.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Beresheet posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/21/11

Torah Portion: Beresheet
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 1:1-6:8
October 21, 2011

This Saturday morning, Jews all over the world will begin, again, a new cycle of Torah reading with the clarion call of Creation: “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth (Gen. 1:1).”

God’s first act of creation: “Let there be light; and there was light (Gen. 1:3).” Lurking beneath the surface of the text is a question that has troubled philosophers and theologians for ages. What was there before there was light? The philosophers Philo and Augustine, and even verses from the Qur’an, state emphatically “nothing.” God created his world out of nothing. Their conclusion remains confusing, especially with regard to the next verse in Genesis: “God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness (1:4).”

Where did “darkness” come from? We are only told that God created light. This suggests that darkness existed even before God began the acts of creation. It was not out of nothing this world was created, but out of darkness. Furthermore, God did not create darkness, rather in response to darkness God first created light. Rabbi Menahem Creditor of Berkeley, CA writes, “We are afraid of the dark and always have been. God didn't like it either. We name our fear every night when, during evening prayers, we say "You, God, who brings the day and brings the night," attributing to our Source of Comfort the power to bring the next day, and to thereby banish the scary darkness.”

As humans, we possess a primordial fear of darkness. We see within it evil, misfortune, death, and ignorance. We overcome the advantage of night by creating artificial forms of light to protect us until the dawn.

A wonderfully profound commentary in the Eitz Hayim Pentateuch states: “Light, the first thing God created, can be seen as symbolizing Judaism’s commitment to clarity rather than mystery, to openness rather than concealment, to study rather than blind faith. Light, God’s first creation, becomes a symbol of God’s Presence, in the fire of the Burning Bush and the revelation at Sinai.”

Before God could complete his design for the world, he first had to bring light into an all-consuming darkness. Before humankind can bring peace, prosperity, and happiness to a world sorely in need (and, in doing so, complete God’s act of creation), we must first shine light into those still dark corners of existence.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Sukkot 5772 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/14/11

October 14, 2011

America has always been different than other nations. Over two centuries, America has represented innovation, know-how, creative spirit, and an almost innate drive to make things better. Some of the greatest inventions of the 19th & 20th century came from Americans. From Thomas Edison’s light bulb to Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine to Steve Jobs Macintosh computer. Americans just seem to be forward-thinking. Our unique form of democracy allowed for a Civil Rights movement that cleared away the last vestiges of African American slavery, an Anti-War protest that ended the conflict in Vietnam, and an environmental movement that gave birth to the Environmental Protection Agency leading to important protections of air, water, and natural resources. It’s in regard to environmental concern that I find myself asking, “What has happened to the America I once knew?”

In the last ten years, we have witnessed a polar ice cap that is melting at an unprecedented rate. Hurricanes, tsunamis, droughts, wild fires, and other natural disasters are occurring more often, and in greater intensity, than at almost any other time in recorded history. The preponderance of scientific evidence emphatically concludes that these climatic changes are the product of global warming. The rapid increase of this phenomena is the result, in part, of human disregard for the environment. One would hope a nation as advanced as America would be in the forefront-through political and non-political means-of actively protecting the environment. Sadly, we remain divided. While the Titanic takes on water, we argue whether global warming does or does not exist; whether our mantra should be “save the earth” or “drill, baby, drill!”

Alas, Judaism-a 4,000 year old tradition-provides a glimmer of hope in the annual celebration of Sukkot. This 7-day festival requires Jews to leave the artificial comfort of their home and build a temporary tent-like dwelling with four less-than-sturdy walls (often just a fabric or canvas stretched between two-by-fours), and a roof made entirely of branches cut from trees. Then, the Jew is asked to spend the holiday in this booth, or “Sukkah.” While some actually eat and sleep in the Sukkah, most just eat their meals there. The Sukkah, itself, is decorated with hanging fruit and other products symbolizing the fall harvest. For 7-days the Jew is compelled to turn his/her attention away from the creature comforts of modernity, and learn to re-appreciate God’s world; the only one we have.

The ancient rabbis taught in a Midrash (Jewish legend), “When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: Look at my works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! Take care not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you” Midrash Rabbah, commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:13. One cannot observe the celebration of Sukkot and not feel responsibility to the precious and holy gift of Earth.

As Jews, and Americans, we need to remind ourselves of our traditions of innovation, know-how, and concern for life as engrained in the Torah and the U.S. Constitution.

In the spirit of Sukkot, I offer the following prayer authored by COEJL (Coalition On The Environment And Jewish Life):

For the sake of the earth, for the sake of generations to come, and for the sake of all the waters and creatures and plants,
For the sake of all who are hungry, for the sake of thankfulness, and for the sake of our own souls,
May we have the wisdom and courage to protect and restore, and not diminish, the integrity of creation.
May we always open our hearts and our hands to share the bounty of the Earth with all who are in need.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Yom Kippur 5722 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/07/11

Yom Kippur
October 7, 2011

All great religions offer believers a chance to start, again. A Christian who has “seen the light” becomes Born Again. The pious Jew who discovers his faith becomes a Baal Tshuva-Master of Repentance. A faith in God means there is forgiveness; there are second chances.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, compels the Jew to perform introspection; to come to terms with moral/ethical failures, personal hurt and pain, and acts of self-destruction. It is one day to be born again, become a baal tshuva, seek forgiveness and reconciliation. It all begins with a faith in God.

Rabbi David Wolpe asks, “Why does faith matter? Love of this world, of one another, is the sole hope in an age when we can destroy the world many times over. There is no power that is only good, that cannot be twisted for evil. Religion is hardly an exception. But while there are many things that can doom us, only one thing can save us. Faith. Not blind or bigoted faith, but faith that pushes us to be better, to give more of ourselves, to see glimmers of transcendence scattered throughout our lives. Such faith is both an achievement and a gift: It is an achievement of seeking, questioning, yearning, reasoning, hoping, and it is a gift of God, who fashioned this world, whose goodness sustains it and whose teachings could save it if only we-believers and deniers both-would listen, would love.”

The Jew believes on Yom Kippur the world stands in the balance. An individual decision to make one’s life part of a greater calling collectively can change the course of the universe. Replacing indifference and apathy with a simple act of kindness can tip this metaphorical balance in favor of goodness and life. This is certainly the meaning in the words of Mother Teresa who said:

“People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

G’mar Chatima Tova-May we all be sealed for a year of happiness, health, and peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Rosh Hashanah 5772 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/23/11

Rosh Hashanah
September 23, 2011
(Rosh Hashanah is celebrated this year from Wednesday evening, September 28-Friday, September 30)

Rosh Hashanah-the Jewish new year-is a celebration of the creation of the world. It is about celebrating our spiritual beginnings, and beginning, again, ourselves. On Rosh Hashanah, one pursues renewal through three separate acts-Tshuvah (repenting), Tefilla (prayer), and Tzedakah (gifts of money).

The word Tshuvah (repentance) literally means “returning.” Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin reminds us, “we are not stuck, our mistakes are not irreparable, we can turn and find a way out of the mess we made.” Before improving upon one’s shortcomings, one must recognize that, in fact, they exist. The first step in Tshuvah is admitting to moral and ethical failure. Rosh Hashanah compels the Jew to perform introspection; to confront behavior, both outwardly hurtful and self-destructive; to probe the depths of one’s consciousness for the painful acts buried deep within.

Rabbi Cardin notes, “Through acts of Tshuvah, we create patterns of a renewed self. Through acts of Tefilla (Prayer), we blend those patterns into an extended tapestry of self, God and community.” The prayers of Rosh Hashanah remind the Jew that our lives, and those of the community, are in the hands of God- “For we are the clay, and You are the potter; we are the sheep, and You are the shepherd. We are Your people, and You are our God.” Humankind is not the hub of the universe. Everything that happens is not all about “us”. The earth, and its bounty, do not exist for the sake of the human race. Through prayer, the Jew realigns his/her values and priorities for the coming year.

Finally, Judaism teaches that we are all fashioned “in the image of God.” Every human being has an innate right to dignity and a responsibility to treat others in the same manner. This means the “have nots” in society have a claim upon the “haves.” Tzedakah (acts of financial giving) is the way a Jew gives back to the world for the goodness they have been blessed with. Rabbi Cardin writes, “[Tzedakah] reminds us that our own fortune is tied to the fortunes of our fellow humans and to all Creation.”

When each individual commits him/herself to this three-fold act of renewal, he/she joins a growing community of people celebrating the creation of the world through actions that make this world a better place for all people.

May the coming Jewish new year inscribe and seal all of us for a year of happiness, health, and peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tavo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/16/11

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 26:1-29:8
September 16, 2011

One trait that unites all humanity is our unique differences. Each of us possess talents, abilities, and skills that set us apart from others. The root cause of much unhappiness is the desire to become something we’re not. An ancient rabbinic story is told of the final hours of 1st century b.c.e scholar, Reb Zusya. He laid on his death bed surrounded by students. One student noticed tears welling up in Zusya’s eyes. He asked him, “Reb Zusya, why are you crying? You, who have been like a Moses in your time, what have you to fear of death?” In one of his final breaths Zusya replied, “God will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you like Moses?,’ rather ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?!’

The Torah states, “The Lord will establish you as His holy people, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways. And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the Lord’s name is proclaimed over you (Deut. 28: 9-10).”

As unique as each person is, so, too, are all peoples. The Jewish people are a collection of individuals who, together, are defined by God as a holy people bearing the special responsibility of modeling a moral/ethical lifestyle for a world in search of wholeness. In describing the reality of the Jewish people, the late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel called them “messengers who have forgotten the message.”

The teachings of Judaism have had a profound influence. Over the centuries, those enslaved or oppressed have cried the words of Moses, “Let my people go!” People seeking freedom from tyranny have declared the words of Torah, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all its inhabitants thereof.” Rabbi Brad Artson writes, “Unexceptional as an entity in so many other areas, the Jews are a rich and fertile source of spirituality and religion for all humanity and ourselves.”

A messenger without a message is hardly a messenger! The Jew bears the special responsibility of learning the message and transmitting it-by example-to a world sorely in need of moral/ethical guidance.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tetze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/09/11

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 21:10-25:19
September 9, 2011

Maybe government should turn to the Torah for advice on healing an ailing economy and putting people back to work. In the Book of Deuteronomy it is written, “You shall not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen, whether in money or food or anything else that can be deducted as interest. . (Deut. 23:20)”

The Eitz Hayim Chumash notes, “There is no evidence for a money market of any significance in ancient Israel or evidence that solvent Israelites commonly borrowed for commercial or other purposes.” Other mentions of the practice of interest-free loans in the Torah (Exodus 22 and Leviticus 25) refer to the borrower as impoverished. Clearly, this practice was a form of economic stimulus during difficult times.

This practice continues in our own day. It is called the “Hebrew Free Loan Society” and almost all Jewish communities possess one. They are commonly a group of well-to-do Jews who raise funds from the wealthier members of the community and make available interest-free start-up loans to other Jews without the necessary means to start their own business.

One such example is the Jewish Hebrew Free Loan Association of Los Angeles. In 1904, a small group of businessmen met in the thriving city of Los Angeles to establish an organization to grant loans to the needy without interest or any other charges. Over one hundred years ago, loans were granted to help buy a sewing machine or a pushcart for fruits and vegetables. During World War II, JFLA was instrumental in helping thousands of families get a fresh start in the US; after the Watts riots in 1965, JFLA assisted businesses in rebuilding; in the late 1980's, with the rising costs of higher education, JFLA created the first of its many student loan funds; and in 1994, in the wake of the Northridge earthquake, JFLA granted cash loans to those who had to vacate their homes or who could not access bank accounts. Currently, JFLA grants approximately 1,200 loans per year, there is more than $7 million in interest-free loans circulating throughout the community, and JFLA maintains a repayment rate greater than 99%.

The idea is simple: When others succeed, so do we. Investing in the community’s economic future through stimulus spending (interest-free loans) puts people back to work which, in turn, strengthens the fabric of society and eventually provides a greater good for all. Best of all, the net cost to the community is zero. All the funds are raised from the wealthier members of the community who willingly understand their future is intertwined with that of the less well-off.

Makes sense to me. Then, again, I’m only a rabbi!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shoftim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/02/11

Torah Portion: Shoftim
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 16:18-21:9
September 2, 2011

The following story is told about Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsberg (Poland). Rabbi Shmelke was a kabbalist/mystic who lived in 18th century Poland and Galicia: “When he served as rabbi in a community, he would always hang his walking stick and his knapsack on the wall of the synagogue.”

“When the officers of the congregation would ask him, ‘Rabbi, why do you do this?’ he would reply, ‘I have no favorites; I don’t bend the rules; and I don’t show deference to anyone. It will be what it will be. Let the law pierce the mountain-let justice run its course. And if one of you is displeased, I am always prepared to resign as your rabbi, to pick up my staff and my knapsack.”

The Book of Deuteronomy clearly states, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes. .You shall not judge unfairly. . .Justice, justice shall you pursue. . .(Deut. 16:18, 19, 20).” Rabbi Shmelke took his position of communal/spiritual leader seriously. His example came from Torah. He understood that civil, as well as religious, governance required a leadership that places justice and mercy above self-aggrandizement; a leadership committed to “all” the people served and not just special interests. If his community was not happy with his choices or decisions, his “staff and knapsack” were always close by! Rabbi Kerry Olitzky comments on this story by saying, “He [Rabbi Shmelke] takes his work seriously, but not himself.”

This portion of Torah is devoted to impressing upon the Israelites the importance of effective government and leadership. These are skills they would require in establishing their own independent presence in the Promised Land.

The lessons of 2,000 years ago, or even 200 years ago, bear repeating in our day. We are a nation gifted with a Constitution and governed by laws. We, too, appoint and elect magistrates and officials to carry out the laws and judges to interpret the Constitution. When our leaders forget who it is they represent and why they were elected, they need to heed the example of Rabbi Shmelke: Stand for something, or don’t stand at all. And, if what you stand for is perceived to be not in the interests of those you serve, be prepared to pick up your staff and knapsack, and move on.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Re'eh posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/26/11

Torah Portion: Re’eh
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 11:26-16:17
August 26, 2011

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God. . (Deut. 11:26-28).”

This powerful biblical statement underscores the uniqueness of humankind. A commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash (Five Books of Moses) notes, “The distinguishing characteristic of human beings, setting us apart from other animals, is our ability to choose the values by which we live. Other animals are driven by instinct. The Torah repeatedly affirms that humans have the potential to control instinct. At our best, we are greater than the angels, who do not have to overcome temptation and apathy. At our worst, we are less than beasts. Their destructiveness is part of their nature; human cruelty is the result of choice.”

Our greatest blessing can also be our worst nightmare: Freewill. We have a choice of which direction in life we wish to pursue. Regardless of disabilities, shortcomings, or perceived obstacles, we are free to determine if we love or hate, feel good or bad, perform acts of kindness or cruelty, be selfish or selfless.

In the 1920 poem, “The Road Not Taken”, Robert Frost wrote:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

God has gifted us with “freewill” and a road map (Torah) to a life of fulfillment and happiness. It’s the “road less traveled by.” It requires confidence, self-esteem, and a burning desire to work on behalf of all God’s creations. It’s a road that circumnavigates the “spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties.” It is also a road scarred by potholes and pitfalls of homelessness, poverty, hunger, and disease. The road passes through the glorious achievements of humankind, but also the battlefields of war. It would be much easier to take the other more popular road of indifference, a trip through the carefree Disneyland of fantasy and make-believe. But, as Frost reminds us, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

We are blessed with choice. May the choices we make be a blessing to us and all humankind.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ekev posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/19/11

Torah Portion: Ekev
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 7:12-11:25
August 19, 2011

Several years before Abraham Joshua Heschel’s death in 1972, he suffered a near-fatal heart attack. At that time, his former student and friend, Rabbi Samuel Dresner, visited Professor Heschel’s home during his recuperation. In describing the near-death experience, Heschel said, “Sam, when I regained consciousness, my first feelings were not of despair or anger. I felt only gratitude to God for my life, for every moment I had lived. I was ready to depart. ‘Take me, O Lord.’ I thought, ‘I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime.’ This is what I meant when I wrote: ‘I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.’”

Rabbi Brad Artson makes a similar point with regard to prayer: “The act of praying has a larger purpose; it sensitizes us to the greatest marvel of all: that we exist, and that we are conscious of our existence. Jewish prayer should shock us into an awareness that life itself is miraculous.”

A simple verse from Deuteronomy (8:10) reads: “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” This verse becomes the foundation for the Bir’kat Ha’mazon/Blessing After Meals. One concludes the act of sustaining oneself by thanking God. Why? Does God require words of thanks? Probably not. Humans, though, need the constant reminder that we did not ask to be born, nor did we create the world and the sustenance it provides. In the words of the ancient Talmud (compendium of Jewish law), “Benefiting from this world without saying a blessing is like stealing from God.”

We are born into God’s world; a world of ‘spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties.’ A world with enormous potential. How does one express thanks for the many unsolicited gifts of goodness that are ours? We say a prayer. By taking a few moments to offer thanks for a meal just eaten, we are reminded of our Divine inheritance; God’s gift of creation. Or, as Professor Heschel so profoundly noted, “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Va'etchanan posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/11/11

Torah Portion: Ve’etchanan
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 3:23-7:11
August 12, 2011

Noted physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking (a familiar presence on the Discovery Channel), has devoted a good portion of this life to understanding the mystery of creation. He notes, “As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” Hawking would probably admit he is not denying the existence of religion, just the existence of God.

Another famous physician, scientist, and theologian of the 12th century, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (known as “Maimonides”) takes exception to the notion that God was not part of creation. He explains the meaning of the famous verse/prayer from Deuteronomy, “Hear (Sh’ma) Israel! The Lord Our God Is One God (Deut. 6:4)”, as not a statement of hope that one day all human beings will agree that there is only “One God”, but that “the Cause of all existence is One.” He maintains that God’s unity is eternal and unique. God creates all there is and continues to create all that will be.

So, what is it-evolution or creationism (intelligent design!), or both? It appears Hawking and Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon are saying the same thing, just using different terms to make their respective point. Hawking explains the “Big Bang” as Something (the universe) coming from Nothing. Maimonides would likely agree, but for him the Nothing is God. Hawking has many times stated that Nothing is the force that creates universes. Maimonides, also a scientist, has said God is the force that creates universes. In the absence of universes, all that remains is God; or using Stephen Hawking’s terminology, the great Nothingness!

The Jewish mystics of the 16th century also wrestled with the mystery of creation. They, too, asked, “Before there was something, what was there?” Their answer: the Ein Sof (literally, “without an end”). Before creation, all that existed was the Ein Sof (the mystics metaphor for God).

In fact, there exists a healthy relationship between science and theology. Science endeavors to discover the reason and rational for the existence of the universe from the moment of the “Big Bang.” Theology tries to understand the Divine force responsible for creating the “Big Bang.” Call it Nothingness, Ein Sof, or God- “the cause of all existence is One.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Devarim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/05/11

Torah Portion: Devarim
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 1:1-3:22
August 5, 2011

The fifth book in the Torah-Deuteronomy-begins with a very different Moses from the person we first encountered in the Book of Exodus: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel (Deut. 1:1).” Forty years earlier, when first approached by God to take the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses said, “Oh, Lord. I am not a man of words (Exo. 4:10).” What turned someone who was “not a man of words” into a person who will spend the entire final book of the Torah speaking, teaching, and poetically imploring the Israelites to follow God’s ways in the Promised Land?

Contemporary bible scholar Pinhas Peli writes, “Had Moses been a man of words when he first assumed the mission of freeing the Israelites from Egypt, he might have become, as so often happens, a captive of his own eloquence. . .What was needed at that time in the life of the people of Israel was a man of action, not words.”

Moses spent forty years proving his leadership skills by his actions. He stood before Pharaoh in defiance, led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea, climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, organized the construction of a portable sanctuary in the wilderness, fought against enemies who tried to destroy the new Israelite nation, made certain food and water were readily available, and finally brought the Israelites to the edge of the Promised Land. One may suggest Moses earned the right to speak and be listened to. His actions earned him the respect of a grateful nation.

I remember being a newly-ordained rabbi, fresh out of the Seminary and in my first pulpit. Most of my congregation were older than me and far more experienced in the ways of life. I remember thinking, “How can they take my words seriously?” So, I grew a beard! I also committed myself to teaching the mitzvot (obligations of Jewish life) by doing them. Let my actions speak louder than my words. Thirty-three years later I can speak before my congregation with greater confidence in knowing my words are reflected in my actions. The honor and respect accorded senior statesmen or retired generals is for their experiences and achievements. We show honor by listening and learning from their words.

Before writing the next epic novel or delivering the next life-changing address, take some time to first work the fields of life.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Matot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/22/11

Torah Portion: Matot
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 30:2-32:42
July 22, 2011

There is a Talmudic dictum that teaches, “Shteeka K’Hoda’ah”-Silence is like assent. If one who possesses the power to do so does not protest, it is considered as a sign of acquiescence or assent.

In ancient times, the father held sway over his minor children. This was especially true with regard to legal vows entered into by daughters living in his home. In the Book of Numbers it is written, “If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s household by reason of her youth, and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and offers no [immediate] objection, all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand (Num. 30:4-5).” At the moment the father learns of his daughter’s vow, he possesses the authority to immediately annul it. If, after learning of the vow he remains silent, the silence is understood as consent.

How often do we face acts of injustice with silence? A derogatory comment, an act of selfishness, or encountering cruelty toward others-in each instance we are called upon to take a side. By remaining silent, we tacitly agree to the hurt being administered to others. As Rabbi Brad Artson has noted, “There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.”

It is almost cliché to say, “We are living in difficult times.” While Congress argues whether to raise the debt limit, the number of homeless reaches record numbers, unemployment runs rampant, more middle class Americans fall into poverty. At the same time our schools produce more illiterate and educationally unmotivated children and racism & bigotry are on the rise. Remaining silent is voting for the status quo.

Not only is silence at this time unseemly, it also flies in the face of Jewish tradition. Our responsibility is to make this world whole & holy, or as we say “sanctifying God in the midst of the people.” We do this by letting our elected representatives know our position on present legislation. More importantly, we do this by lending a hand to the homeless, clothing the naked, healing the sick and actively pursuing peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Hukkat posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/01/11

Torah Portion: Hukkat
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 19:1-22:1
July 1, 2011

It must have been the worst news Moses ever heard. “. . .therefore you shall not bring this people into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). For 40 difficult years Moses led the Israelite nation from the slavery in Egypt to the entrance of the Promised Land. For 40 years he successfully navigated storms of hunger, thirst, rebellion, loss of faith, and distrust of authority. Strong leadership anchored by a faith in the One God made Moses the “Rock of Gibraltar” in the eyes of a young fledgling people.

What grievous action did Moses perform costing him the reward of entering the Promised Land? The incident at Meribah. In the sweltering heat of the summer sun, after just suffering the death of his oldest sister Miriam, the Israelites whine to Moses that they haven’t enough water to drink. They complain they were better off in Egypt! In response to their cries, Moses and Aaron beseech God to provide water. Moses is instructed by God to speak to a certain rock and water will come forth. In anger at the impatience of this “stiff-necked people” and the death of his sister, Moses strikes the rock twice instead of speaking to it. Water comes forth. The Israelites thirst is quenched. Moses is told he will not enter the Promised Land. Does the punishment fit the crime? Should one so devout and loyal for 40 years be treated in this manner?

Rabbi Bradley Artson notes, “Anger is not always sinful; there are times when anger is a righteous and appropriate response, as Moses demonstrated against the Egyptian taskmaster or against the Jewish rebel, Korah. What made this outburst of anger sinful was that it blinded Moses to the real possibilities that dialogue would have offered. He was so angry that all he could see were his own grievances and his rage. All he could remember was the long list of abuses he suffered at the hands of the tribes. Lashing out at the past, Moses misread the present. How often do we become so blinded by the hurts and wounds of the past that we carry them into our present, precluding the possibility of ever transcending the very wounds that hurt us? In a very real way, we become our own torturers, making certain that old injuries continue to harm us, that old cuts continue to sting.”

Pinhas Peli provides further insight into this incident, “The Lord orders [Moses] to “take a rod,” to go back to the days of his youth, when with the rod in his hands he would rise to overcome many a crisis. He is to talk to the rock and bring forth water. Moses, however, misunderstood the call. Instead of showing the strength of dignified leadership, his temper flares, and he insults the people: “hear now, ye rebels!” And in the same mood, he commits another mistake, an unforgivable one. Instead of talking to the rock, he smites it. This is why the dreadful verdict has been pronounced. Moses who knew how to face stormy situations in the past, now runs away and falls on his face. Moses, who set an example in how to treat his flock firmly but respectfully, now heaps insults on them. He could not be the leader anymore. He would not steer the people to the land.”

One teaching, two important interpretations: 1) Our past is just that, our past. Tomorrow is a new day. 2) We lead and learn by example.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Korach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/24/11

Torah Portion: Korach
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 16:1-18:32
June 24, 2011

For Moses, nothing is easy! He had to persuade not only Pharaoh but also the Israelite slaves that leaving Egypt was in their best interest. No sooner were they free, then Moses had to endure constant complaints-not enough food, not enough water, we were better off in Egypt than in the middle of a desert, and so on! Now, full-scale rebellion!

Korach, a member of the tribe of Levi like Moses, gathers together 250 Israelite tribal leaders and publicly assails Moses and Aaron’s leadership by proclaiming, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation? (Num. 16:3)” Rabbi Ismar Schorsch notes, “Behind the facade of democratic rhetoric lurks a grab for power.”

Korach’s claim is not without merit, but the manner in which he pronounced it (in public and, literally, ganging up on Moses with 250 Israelites) made clear his intentions were not just to “level the playing field,” but to usurp power. This was a rebellion doomed from the outset.

In the late 1990s, a group of Orthodox Jewish students filed a lawsuit against Yale University. Yale’s housing policy required that all unmarried undergraduates live on campus for their first two years; the school has a longstanding mission to create not just dormitories but college communities. There are single-sex floors for first-year students, but anyone of any gender can visit, sleep over, or use the bathroom. In 1998, several Orthodox Jewish students, subsequently known as the “Yale Five,” protested the policy, claiming that Yale’s accommodations compromised their modesty, or what is referred to in Hebrew as “Tzniyut”.

In keeping with their level of Jewish observance, there claim was reasonable. What most newspaper articles of the time failed to note was Yale’s initial response. The university quickly offered the students a suite in the dorm that would have spared the use of any common facilities. What Yale was not willing to do was forego its requirement that all unmarried 1st and 2nd year students reside in residential dormitories. The “Yale Five” showed their true colors when they turned down the offer and filed a law suit against the university. Like Korach, their real intentions were not what they seemed to be. In fact, the real issue for these students was not “modesty/Tzniyut”, but a desire to minimize social contact with anyone who was not like them. In the end, the courts sided with Yale ruling the students constitutional rights were not violated. Rabbi Schorsch, in commenting on this case, writes, “The case of the Yale plaintiffs is frivolous because it is unwarranted. Nothing is at stake except their misguided notion of God’s will.”

Both Korach and the Yale students hid their real agenda behind a facade of Torah and constitutional law. In doing so, they not only demeaned themselves but the moral/ethical teachings of Torah they purportedly held so sacred.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Be'ha'alotcha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/10/11

Torah Portion: Be’ha’alotcha
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 8:1-12:16
June 10, 2011

These Are The Good ‘Ole Days. . .
-Carly Simon from “Anticipation”

The most notable feature of the ancient Israelites under Moses’ leadership was their incessant need to complain! There is a Yiddish term applied to one who constantly complains. They are referred to as a “Nudnik,” literally a boring pest! Even the most patient eventually get fed up with the nudnik. Moses was no exception. Several times, in the 40 year desert journey, Moses wanted to be rid of this “stiff-necked people,” and each time it was the patience of God that got him through.

When the people complained about food, God gave them manna. When they cried of thirst, God provided water. Each time their cries, complaints, and murmurs were heard and responded to. There is a difference between lodging legitimate complaints and being a general pest/constant complainer/nudnik. After so many years of finding fault, it became second-nature to the Israelites. As Pinchas Peli points out, “Murmuring, bewailing, moaning, fretting, and whining became a family pastime.” “The Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to! (Num. 11:4-6).”

The wonderful thing aboutmmemory is its selective nature. The Israelites remembered the fish and cucumbers and melons as if the Egyptians made these foods readily available. The medieval bible scholar, Rashi, notes that the Egyptians would not even give them straw for their bricks, how much more so these food items. Furthermore, their wonderful memories of Egypt seem to have selectively excluded the pain and torture that was visited upon them. Nonetheless, for the ancient Israelites, those were the “good ‘ole days!”

We all know a nudnik. He/She’s the person who constantly complains how bad things are today and how much better they were in days past. For them, the proverbial glass is always “half empty” (and never “half full”). The late Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan liked to say, with regard to Jewish tradition, “The past has a vote, not a veto.” This is a good axiom to live by in most dealings. Or, has Carly Simon so profoundly wrote, “These Are The Good ‘Ole Days.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Naso posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/03/11

Torah Portion: Naso
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 4:21-7:89
June 3, 2011

What, and who, is a Nazarite? This Torah portion introduces a new category of religiousity-the Nazir. The Torah states, “If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant. . .no razor shall touch his head. . .he shall not go in where there is a dead person. Even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister, should die (Num. 6:1-5).”

In ancient Israel, there existed a hierarchy of holiness. Based on birth, the Israelites were divided into three groups: Cohanim (priests), Levi’im (Levites, or priestly assistants), and Yisraelim (ordinary common folk). The overwhelming majority of Jews were part of the third category. It was for their purpose the category of Nazir was created. For the priest and levite, their entire existence was devoted to the Divine service of God. What about the average Jew? What if he/she wished to devote their lives to a holier and more devout existence? What recourse was there for them? They could take a vow to become a Nazir requiring that they abstain from drinking alcohol, cutting their hair, and attending to the dead. Their vows had to be for no less than thirty days and it only applied in the Land of Israel.

No one is certain when the vow of the Nazarite ceased to be operative. What is known is from the 6th century c.e onward there is no mention of this practice. In fact, with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 c.e., the priests and levites were effectively out of work. In the absence of the Temple, synagogues arose. Devotion to the service of God became egalitarian-a pursuit available to all Jews.

Rabbi Brad Artson writes, “The Nazir was the path for the biblical Jew who wanted to make that relationship central and public. But what of our own age? What of the Jews who have those same deep spiritual needs, the same burning desire to make their Judaism a priority? Those people need look no further than their own synagogues. . .The challenge of participating with a full heart in the pageant and drama of Jewish living is still before us. Not as Nazirites, but as enthusiastic participants in learning and in worship services, as practitioners of the mitzvot, each one of us can claim a unique place as a servant of the living God.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Bamidbar posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/27/11

Torah Portion: Bamidbar
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 1:1-4:20
May 27, 2011

The 4th book of the Torah-Bamidbar/Numbers-begins with the following command: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Num. 1:2-3).

The purpose of this census was to determine the military strength of the Israelites. Their first concern was war-both for defensive and offensive purposes. A considerable portion of the Hebrew Bible is devoted to warfare. History-from ancient times to the present-is defined by wars. Most nations would rather not fight them, but few seem able to shy away.

It is odd how those most ready to commit their nation to war are those who will not have to stand in harm’s way. Those who least desire war, more often than not, wear uniforms. In an address to Congress in 1951, the late General Douglas MacArthur, General of the Armed Forces in the WWII Philippine campaign and recipient of the Medal of Honor, said, “I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a method of settling international disputes.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Gold Meier is remembered for saying, “The one thing I cannot forgive the Arabs for is that they forced our sons to kill their sons.”

As we prepare to commemorate another Memorial Day, we continue to bury dead soldiers from wars we’ve fought so long we’ve forgotten why; passed down from one administration to another, cloaked in terms like freedom and liberty but lacking in sensibility.

Religion is too often the underpinning of war. Mark Twain wrote a piece entitled “War Prayer” that was not to be published until after his death because, in his words, “only dead men can tell the truth in this world.” In his prayer he facetiously writes, “O Lord, our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells. . .for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their pilgrimage, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”

This weekend give pause to the countless number of Americans whose lives were consumed by an insatiable appetite for war. May their families be comforted among the many who will not give up hope for a brighter tomorrow.

The final words are those of the former Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who said: “The world will never have lasting peace so long as men reserve for war the finest human qualities. Peace, no less than war, requires idealism and self-sacrifice and a righteous and dynamic faith.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Behukotai posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/20/11

Torah Portion: Behukotai
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 26:3-27:34
May 20, 2011

Is it just a coincidence, or what? The concluding Torah portion in Leviticus, being read this week in synagogues, contains a list of “blessings” (if you obey God’s ways) and “curses” (if you do not!). “If you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments. . . I will wreak misery upon you (Lev. 26:14-16).” And, according to Harold Camping, a civil engineer turned self-taught biblical scholar-May 21, 2011 is Judgment Day-believers are heading for heaven and the rest of us, well, you can figure that one out!

These verses of Torah are best understood metaphorically, as for Mr. Camping’s prediction it is not without some merit. Regardless of the fact the three major western religions-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-go to great length to describe themselves as paths of peace and love, every major war conflict in the last century has roots in religion. We just don’t seem to be able to get along. And things are getting worse!

In the 60’s, singer-songwriter & satirist, Tom Lehrer, composed the song “National Brotherhood Week.” He was bemoaning the human condition of his time. How sad that 50 years later the lyrics are as relevant as they were when first written:

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks,
And the black folks hate the white folks.
To hate all but the right folks
Is an old established rule.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week,
Lena Horne and Sheriff Clarke are dancing cheek to cheek.
It's fun to eulogize
The people you despise,
As long as you don't let 'em in your school.

Oh, the poor folks hate the rich folks,
And the rich folks hate the poor folks.
All of my folks hate all of your folks,
It's American as apple pie.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week,
New Yorkers love the Puerto Ricans 'cause it's very chic.
Step up and shake the hand
Of someone you can't stand.
You can tolerate him if you try.

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week,
It's National Everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood Week.
Be nice to people who
Are inferior to you.
It's only for a week, so have no fear.
Be grateful that it doesn't last all year!

Our world-the world of Harold Camping-is not going to be saved by assuming the ostrich position. It is our responsibility to save ourselves from ourselves. The mitzvot/commandments are the Divine plan for making this world livable. It all begins with a simple act of kindness; an extended hand not just to those we love, but those we do not yet understand.

In 1952, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson noted, “The human race has improved everything but the human race.” If we do not seriously attempt to improve ourselves and our relations with others, predictions like those of Harold Camping and the curses of the Book of Leviticus, might just come to pass.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Behar posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/13/11

Torah Portion: Behar
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 25:1-26:2
May 13, 2011

This portion of Torah introduces two of the most advanced social reforms in history: The Sabbatical (seventh) year cycle and the Jubilee (fiftieth) year.

“The Lord spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard (Lev. 25:1-4).”

With regard to the Jubilee year, the Torah writes, “In this year of Jubilee [fiftieth year] each of you shall return to his original holding (Lev. 25:13).”

Two cycles were established for the Israelites upon entry to the Promised Land. As an agrarian society, every seven years they would leave their land unharvested and unplanted. In this year, only the poor would have access to the unharvested crops. Professor Baruch Levine points out that over-irrigated land runs the risk of being saturated in time with alkaline, sodium, and calcium. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch suggests that this was the primary cause for the decline of the prosperous ancient Neo-Sumerian economy in Mesopotamia. It made good sense to let the land rest.

After entering the Promised Land, each Israelite family would receive a land portion that was theirs in perpetuity. If, for some reason, the family was compelled to sell, rent, or lease their land, every fifty years they were guaranteed to get their land portion back.

In practical terms, the concept of a Jubilee year was soon abandoned. The requirements of the Jubilee year made it economically unfeasible to function as a society. With regard to the Seventh year, it is still practiced by religious kibbutzim (agricultural collectives) in Israel, but it, too, has lost much of its significance. In a time when the Jews were primarily a rural agricultural society, it made sense. Today, the modern State of Israel is a technological and urban society.

Still, the idea of maintaining a permanent possession over one’s portion and treating it with sanctity, respect, and concern is a lesson for us in our day. In the context of their times, these idealistic concepts served as a protection against totalitarianism and feudalism. As the renown Torah scholar Pinchas Peli writes, “they assured an inherent “liberty to all the inhabitants in the land (Lev. 25:10)” and the right of each individual to “return to his home and to his family.” From biblical times to this day, Judaism remains a force for liberty, freedom, prosperity, and peace for all.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Israel Independence Day posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/06/11

Israel Independence Day
May 6, 2011

This coming week celebrates the 63rd birthday of the modern State of Israel. As Yom Ha’atzmaut/Israel Independence Day approaches, I am reminded of a comment made by the late former Israeli military chief of staff and political leader Moshe Dayan. When asked about Israel’s perpetual struggle for survival, he commented, “What can I say, we live in a tough neighborhood!”

The State of Israel, the only operative democracy in the Middle East, has lived through major wars, intifadas, suicide bombings, and now rebellion in every country that borders her and yet still attracts record number of tourists to a vibrant and growing economy. What is it that makes this country, this people, so resilient and productive; a beacon of light in a region gripped by Middle Ages fundamentalism?

A clue to understanding the mission of Israel and Jews in our day is found in a story written by Leonard Fein, founder of Moment Magazine, in the 1970’s:

It was 1860, or maybe 1861, in Minsk, or possibly in Pinsk. Wherever, whenever, there were a dozen Jews who used to get together every Tuesday evening for some good talk.

What did the Jews talk about? Why, about what it would be like one day — what, that is, Jerusalem would be like. In exquisite detail, they would imagine Jerusalem: its climate and its curriculum, its cuisine and its culture. Their elaborate conversation had long since developed a near-ritual character, including its periodic interruption by the one skeptic in the group, a fellow named Berl.

Every few months, Berl would say, “Can’t we please, just this once, change the topic of conversation? Really, it’s quite tedious by now. If we’re really that interested in what it’s like in Jerusalem, why don’t we pack up and go? If we like it, we’ll stay. And if we don’t like it, we’ll also stay, and make it into something we like.”

To which the others would inevitably respond, “Berl, Berl, don’t be so naive. Don’t you realize how much easier, and how very much safer, it is to sit in Minsk [or Pinsk] and talk about what it might be like than to go and confront the reality?” And Berl, because he was a sociable fellow, would again drop his complaint and join in the talk.

This was, for those times and places, a rather sophisticated group; indeed, they had some non-Jewish friends. Once upon a Tuesday, they invited one of their non-Jewish friends to join with them, and together they talked until the wee hours of the morning, until, in fact, their guest stood and said, “Fellows, I’ve enjoyed the evening enormously, but I really must get going. Thanks so much for inviting me, and good night.”

“Thank you for coming,” they replied. “But before you go, we have just one question we’d like to ask.”

“Please, anything at all,” said their guest.

“Our question is…” — here there was an awkward pause, and much clearing of throats — “what we’d like to know is, what do, oh dear, how shall we ask it? What do people like you, if you know what we mean, think of people like us, if you know what we mean?”

“Oh,” said their guest, “you want to know how we feel about Jews.”

“Yes, that’s right, you have it. You see, we are usually so isolated, and we have so little opportunity for feedback. You don’t mind telling us?”

“No, not at all. I think you’re a wonderful people — passionate, generous, literate. I have only one problem with you.”

“A problem? What kind of problem?”

“Well,” replied the guest, “there is one aspect of Jewish behavior that really annoys me. You people seem to believe — why, I can’t imagine — that you’re morally superior to everyone else. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think you’re any worse than average. But I can’t understand your moral conceit, and I find it frightfully annoying.”

To their credit, for they knew it was so, his hosts did not deny the accusation; they sought instead to explain their “conceit.”

“As you yourself observed, it’s very late, so we can’t give you the whole etiology of our sense of moral superiority. We’ll explain it instead by way of a metaphor. We do indeed think we are your moral betters, and the reason we do is that we don’t hunt. You people hunt, and we don’t hunt, and that makes us better than you.”

Their guest guffawed, and then stormed at them: “You silly, trivial people; of course you don’t hunt! We don’t permit you to own guns! It’s easy to be virtuous if you’re impotent.”

Whereupon the 11 turned to Berl, the skeptic, and said, “Tomorrow we pack, then go up to the land, to Jerusalem, and there we shall prove that even with guns we will not become hunters.”

And this is the goal and mission of the State of Israel, to be able to model this behavior to a world so in need.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Kedoshim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/29/11

Torah Portion: Kedoshim
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 19:1-20:27
April 29, 2011

This remarkable portion of Torah, referred to by scholars as the Holiness Code and by others the Cornerstone of the Torah, begins by stating: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).”

Speak with two Jews about the meaning of holiness and you likely receive three opinions. There are some for whom Judaism is primarily a set of behaviors and rituals. Observance of Shabbat & festivals, the dietary laws (Kashrut), daily worship, etc. form the foundation of their beliefs and transcend every moment of their lives.

There is also a group of Jews who understand Judaism as a form of social action. Helping the poor, feeding the hungry, offering shelter to the homeless, and exhibiting ethical/moral concern for all God’s creatures is at the center of their Jewish identification.

Rabbi Bradley Artson astutely observes, “Neither of these approaches fully captures the totality of Kedoshim (holiness). At core, this week’s reading demonstrates the indivisibility of ritual and ethics. For the Torah speaks about paying a laborer his wages promptly, observing Shabbat, honoring parents, not making idols, the proper mode of sacrifice, and leaving food for the poor-all at the same time. In its purposeful jumble of ritual and ethical injunctions, the Torah offers only a single justification: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

In Judaism, ethics and ritual do not abide separately. Ritual only finds meaning if it results in ethical behavior. Ethical behavior doesn’t just naturally occur. It results from a life of meaningful discipline. For Jews, this is the province of ritual. Rabbi Artson further notes, “One of Judaism’s central insights is to fuse ritual and ethics into a single blazing light-the mitzvah.”

Each, alone, is empty without the other. Ethical behavior with no grounding in ritual/spiritual discipline can be objectively dry and unfeeling. Ritual, as an end in itself, can result in a chaotic and destructive passion. “You shall be holy” means bringing a bridled passion to the task of making this a better world.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Passover posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/15/11

Passover 5771
April 15, 2011

“This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover.”

With the statement above, the Passover Seder begins. Before embarking on a historical journey tracing the beginnings of the Jewish people, we are implored to remember who we were (slaves in Egypt) and never lose sight of those “who are hungry” or “who are in need.”

As far back as I can remember, each year at this time I sat at a Passover table. It is the same old matzah, no more tasty now than it was then. And, the same story told (or read) from wine-stained Haggadahs-some older, some newer; some thicker, some thinner. There is always a lot of talk and laughter (and a fair amount of “shushing”) and, of course, the prerequisite “Is it time to eat, yet?” Most Jews will tell you that first, and foremost, Passover is about family. When you don’t have family, it is about being included in the Seder of another family.

Still, through all these layers of celebration there remains the constant reminder that we have ancestors from 60 years ago or 100 years ago or 4,000 years ago, who were mistreated, persecuted, ostracized, and even put to death because of who they were. They were hungry, homeless, and in most cases treated as strangers even in the lands they thought of as home. “All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover”-it is easy to lose this message amidst the readings, songs, matzah ball soup, and afikomen of the Passover Seder. Maybe this is why the message has been repeated each year. We say it until we get it right!

None of us are slaves and few of us have experienced persecution. Historically, no one knows better than us what it means to be shunned for who we are. We have ancestors we’ve never met whose homes and lands were confiscated because they were not granted citizenship in their countries. We have members in our family tree who were expelled from France, England, Germany, Spain, and Russia because they were considered illegal immigrants. We have relatives we’ve never heard of who were homeless, hungry, and tired; in search of nothing more than a simple act of kindness. We don’t know them, but their history defines us.

We live in a nation increasingly divided by wealth and ethnicity. Passover is the reminder that a Jew does not judge a person by the color of their skin, the size of their wallet, or the country of their origin. We approach the stranger as a creation of God. “All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover.”

Passover is referred to as “z’man cha’ru’teinu/the time of our freedom.” May song, celebration, and words of freedom be a part of your Passover.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Metzora posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/08/11

Torah Portion: Metzora
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 14:1-15:33
April 8, 2011

In the aftermath of the 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza, the United Nations appointed a commission, under the direction of Richard Goldstone, to investigate and respond to allegations of criminal behavior in waging the war. As many of us are aware, the infamous Goldstone report held Israel liable for “crimes against humanity,” and further suggested that these actions be considered by the international tribunal of justice. This past week, Goldstone wrote an article for the Washington Post in which he admitted:

"We know a lot more today about…the Gaza war of 2008-09 than we did when I chaired the fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council that produced what has come to be known as the Goldstone Report. If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document…"Our report found evidence of potential war crimes and 'possibly crimes against humanity' by both Israel and Hamas. That the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional goes without saying; its rockets were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets. The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion."

There was a collective sigh of relief in Israel and Jewish communities around the world, in learning of Richard Goldstone’s retraction. None the less, the United Nations announced it had no intentions of withdrawing or backing off the original printed findings of the Goldstone Commission. In a high-tech digital world, one has to be especially careful of what one says and writes. Once the words are out there, it is impossible to call them back.

This is precisely the lesson learned in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah deals with a Metzora, a person who contracts leprosy. In biblical times, diseases were seen as a form of punishment from God. The person one turned to for healing was the priest. The ancient rabbis of the 1st & 2nd centuries taught that the word ]i]Metzora was in fact an acronym for Motzi Shem Ra/Libel. A person was stricken with leprosy for libeling another.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, who lived in the 19th century, dedicated his life to teaching the importance of guarding the words we say. In one of his lessons he taught, “If you say of a rabbi that he does not have a good voice and of a cantor that he is not a scholar, you are a gossip. But if you say of a rabbi that he is no scholar and of a cantor that he has no voice, you are a murderer.”

How often have we rationalized our words with excuses like “I was only joking,” or “This won’t hurt him,” or “Everybody knows it anyway.” Today, Facebook, YouTube, and the other digital social networks, afford the opportunity for instant recognition, fame, and infamy. The hurt, pain, and tragedy of misusing words on these social networks have become evidentiary briefs in legal trials for online bullying.

Richard Goldstone can make retractions until the end of time. His original words are still there. Their hurt continues to be felt. It’s nice to know he realizes the errors in his work. It would have been nicer had he spoken correctly the first time.

The Jerusalem Talmud had it right when it stated, “The libeler stands in Syria and kills in Rome.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Tazria posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/01/11

Torah Portion: Tazria/Shabbat Ha’Hodesh
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 12:1-13:59
April 1, 2011

This portion of Torah begins with the ritual concerns surrounding birth- “Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth. . . (Lev. 12:2)”

No human experience is more profound than the act of giving birth. We are simultaneously faced with life and death, the miracle of birth and the presence of God. In this moment we confront the very definition of what it means to be human.

The ancient rabbis reflected on the creation of Adam (the first human) in a Jewish legend: “When God created the first human, God created a hermaphrodite, fully male and female. Rabbi Levi further taught, “When Adam was created, God made Adam with two body-fronts, and then sawed the creature in two, so the two bodies resulted, one for the male and one for the female.”

There are several ways to understand this Midrash/Jewish legend. It clearly suggests the original hermaphrodite was the ideal-a creature possessing the knowledge, understanding, and sensitivities of both sexes. Yet, inner tension and conflict resulted in a separation into male and female beings. There exists a clear psychological need to know who we are.

The 21st century, to date, has been about breaking down gender barriers; bringing greater equality to women and men. Rabbi Brad Artson notes, “By adhering to either a masculine or a feminine self-definition, we chop ourselves in half-denying a significant part of our own longings, development, and possibilities.”

Still, the ideal is not so ideal. Gender differences are healthy and compliment each other, but we do not live in a world of just men or just women. We live together-male and female, alike. The ideal is not being alike, but learning from our differences; understanding the other without having to be. As Rabbi Artson writes, “In the depths of personal expression and gender identity, it means reclaiming our severed halves-learning from the men and women with whom we share our lives how to allow our souls to blossom and be infused by the full range of human potential.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shemini/Shabbat Parah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/25/11

Torah Portion: Shemini/Shabbat Parah
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 9:1-11:47
March 25, 2011

In the first dramatic narrative in Leviticus (after 9 chapters of priestly instructions on caring out the sacrificial cult), the sons of the High Priest, Aaron, “Nadav and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord (Lev. 10:1-2).”

The Torah never informs us of what explicitly Nadav and Abihu did to have caused their death. The Torah does suggest that God might have played a role. To this day, there have been numerous efforts to give a positive spin to this disastrous event. Some suggest Nadav and Abihu were put to death for bringing an offering that God did not request. Still others teach that the two were trying to take the reins of leadership from Moses and Aaron. The “strange fire” they brought was the fire of ambition. The Eitz Hayim Humash posits that “[Nadav and Abihu] brought the instruments for making a fire into the Tent, not realizing that on this special occasion God was going to send fire miraculously from heaven. Because they were too close to that fire, they were killed.”

Regardless of reason, one’s instincts are to respond to the grieving parent; in this instance, Aaron. As the High Priest, whose sons were training to follow in his footsteps, how did he respond to this horrific loss? “And Aaron was silent (Lev. 10:3).”

Silent? How could any parent remain silent at a moment like this? Wouldn’t parental instinct take over? Wouldn’t one be driven to seek justice, or in a worst case scenario revenge? But, to remain silent?! Rabbi Ismar Schorsch writes that Aaron’s silence was “perhaps the most pregnant silence in all of Scripture. Was his the silence of submission or of an anguish too great to voice?”

The question “why do good things happen to bad people?” has been on the minds of humankind since we were gifted with reason. There is no indelible answer to assuage one’s pain, but for the believer there is Faith. Rabbi Schorsch teaches, “In the final analysis, it is an unshaken belief in Providence that keeps us from going mad. The world is not without a Maker nor are our lives without a purpose. As long as that framework holds, we can endure the tests that come our way. Faith fills in where our understanding falters.”

The final words belong to Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the book When Bad Things Happen To Good People. “Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people? That depends on what we mean by “answer.” If we mean “is there an explanation which will make sense of it all?”-why is there cancer in the world? Why did my father get cancer? Why did the plane crash? Why did my child die?-then there is probably no satisfying answer. . .But the word “answer” can mean “response” as well as “explanation,” and in that sense, there may well be a satisfying answer to the tragedies in our lives. The response would be. . .to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Purim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/18/11

March 18, 2011

Let's take a snapshot of the World Today: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have been/are/could be involved in civil unrest and rebellion. The African nations of Sudan and the Congo continue to experience genocides that have cost millions of lives. The nations of the European Union and the United States face the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The Mexican government has all but lost control of its authority to vicious drug cartels. Japan is rocked by the 4th worst earthquake in recorded history and then devastated by a subsequent tsunami followed by the melt downs of multiple nuclear reactors. Oh, and did I mention Israel and the Palestinians?

Coincidentally, as the world of nations face one of the potentially darkest periods in history, Jews prepare to celebrate the holiday of Purim. Based on the biblical Book of Esther, Purim is a celebration of another potentially dark moment. The Book of Esther is about a Jewish community living in ancient Persia whose very survival is threatened by an edict to destroy all the Jews. As a result of a "last minute" act of heroism by Esther, the Jews are spared. This event is celebrated each year at this time by coming together in synagogues, reading aloud the Book of Esther-booing the villain (Haman) and cheering the heroes (Esther and her cousin, Mordechai). For a single day, ritual solemnity is replaced by laughter and frivolity; the synagogue becomes a place where the community can laugh in the face of sorrow.

This year, Purim could not come at a better time. In preparation for Purim, it is customary to lighten the spirits of those around us with a bit of humor. A person can only absorb so much pain, sorrow, worry and stress before one's own health becomes an issue. So, let's set aside our worldly concerns for a moment and (hopefully!) enjoy a good "Purim" chuckle:

A rabbi who's been leading a congregation for many years is upset by the fact that he's never been able to eat pork. So he devises a plan whereby he flies to a remote tropical island and checks into a hotel. He immediately gets himself a table at the finest restaurant and orders the most expensive pork dish on the menu. As he's eagerly waiting for it to be served, he hears his name called from across the restaurant. He looks up to see 10 of his loyal congregants approaching. His luck, they'd chosen the same time to visit the same remote location! Just at that moment, the waiter comes out with a huge silver tray carrying a whole roasted pig with an apple in its mouth. The rabbi looks up sheepishly at his congregants and says, "Wow - you order an apple in this place and look how it's served!"

The celebration of Purim begins on Saturday night, March 19 and continues on Sunday, March 20. Take this moment to visit the lighter side of life. Then, on Monday, return to the task of improving this world, reinvigorated and refreshed.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayikra posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/11/11

Torah Portion: Vayikra
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 1:1-5:26
March 11, 2011

Leviticus, the 3rd book of the Torah, deals primarily with the establishment of the ancient sacrificial cult. In a significant departure from the practices of the other near eastern religions, the ancient Israelites forbade human sacrifice. Furthermore, our God was not dependent on animal sacrifice for food. Instead, sacrifice became the ancient means of drawing nearer to God.

The first example of sacrifice in the Torah is when Cain offers God a gift of produce and Abel the choicest of his flock. The Torah tells us that only Abel’s sacrifice was found acceptable suggesting that animal sacrifice was God’s preference. Later, Noah offers an animal sacrifice in honor of having survived the flood. The Torah also records sacrifices offered by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The book of Leviticus begins the process of institutionalizing and centralizing a practice that had previously existed on an individual basis.

The Eitz Hayim Humash notes, “People must have felt that their prayers of gratitude or petition would seem more sincerely offered if they gave up something of their own in the process. Presumably, this is why game and fish were unacceptable as offerings. “I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing (2 Samuel 24:24).” Sacrifice implies a willingness to give up something you possess. In ancient times, this meant taking of the choicest of your flock or herd and offering it as a sacrifice of thanks or as a way of seeking forgiveness. On the seasonal holidays of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, it meant offering the choicest of your harvest. Understood on a more philosophical plane, Judaism taught from the outset that life requires sacrifice.

With the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem (70 c.e.), the sacrificial cult was abruptly halted. By this time, a new form of ritual worship had developed in fledgling centers called synagogues. It was called Tefila, or “prayer.” No longer would we sacrifice animals or first fruits to give thanks, ask forgiveness, or beseech God’s help. Instead, we would offer prayer of the heart. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel cautioned against viewing prayer as a substitute for sacrifice. He wrote, “Prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice. Prayer is sacrifice. . in true prayer, we try to surrender our vanities, to burn our insolence, to abandon bias, dishonesty, envy. Prayer is the means through which we sacrifice our selfishness and greed and get in touch with our powers for truth, mercy, and love.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Pekudai posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/04/11

Torah Portion: Pekudai
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 38:21-40:38
March 4, 2011

This section of Torah is an accountants dream. Moses gives a full audit of items and expenses involved in building the portable sanctuary in the desert. The Torah states, “These are the records of the Tabernacle. . .which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding (Exo. 38:21).”

The ancient rabbis and biblical commentators describe Moses as meticulous in accounting for every item used in the construction of the portable sanctuary, every contribution made, and every expense incurred. In fact, this is done not by a request from the people, but at the bidding of Moses, himself. For Moses, accountability by public officials is a moral responsibility. Public officials must be beyond reproach. Why insist on such accountability? The Midrash Tanhuma (among the oldest books of Jewish legend) writes that Moses wanted to avoid even a rumor that he might be misusing public funds or have anyone saying, “Look how well he is eating and drinking. He is living off our money. He is getting rich from our donations.” Therefore, he opened the community financial records to everyone.

From the actions of Moses, the Talmud developed a standard requiring those aspiring to, or holding positions of leadership to live “Lif’neem M’shoret Ha’din”-above and beyond the requirements of the law. If the law required filing tax returns each year, an effective community leader exceeds the essential by also making his returns public. In 1977, two weeks after having taken office, President Jimmy Carter held his famous “fireside chat.” During the first major energy crisis, he asked Americans to sacrifice in the interest of building a stronger America. In a unique (and symbolic) act he, himself, dismissed 20 limousines used by the White House, ate his meals in the White House cafeteria and closely monitored the heat and air conditioning use on Capitol Hill. Even though Carter’s presidency was doomed by an abundance of idealism with little room for pragmatism, this gesture in the early days of his incumbency was well-received by a majority of Americans.

Over 3,000 years later, we are still trying to find the leadership qualities of Moses in our leaders. Today’s politicians are more impressed with power and prestige than more humble achievements of honesty and trust. Jewish tradition maintains that public officials must be above suspicion. The community must have full confidence in the integrity and honesty of those chosen to serve.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayakhel posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/25/11

Torah Portion: Vayakhel
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 35:1-38:20
February 25, 2011

“You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day (Exo. 35:3).”

After the six days of creation, God rested on the seventh day-Shabbat (the Sabbath day). Therefore, in observance of Shabbat, one abstains from work and acts of creation on the seventh day of the week (Saturday). This includes lighting, extinguishing, or transferring a fire on Shabbat.

The ancient rabbis understood the prohibition of fire to mean fires kindled on the Sabbath, but not fires that were started before the Sabbath. In times when fire not only lit candles, but was depended upon for heating, cooking, and lighting, it was important to light the necessary fires before the Sabbath to provide for the needs of the day. During the early centuries of the common era there was a Jewish group, known as “Karaites” (literally, “literalists”), who only recognized the literal word of the Torah. They refused to light candles before the Sabbath or kindle any form of fire before or during the day. In fact, they spent their entire Sabbath in the dark!

Today, few of us depend on a fire in the home for warmth, cooking, or lighting. Electricity and natural gas provide a more reasonable alternative. This does not mean this portion of Torah is no longer relevant. In the rabbinic spirit of interpretation, fire needn’t be just a physical flame. The Eitz Hayim Humash writes, “You shall kindle no fire” is interpreted to include the fire of anger. Arguments and angry shouts are as much a disruption of Shabbat as working and spending money.”

The radio waves and television channels are bursting at the seams with talking heads yelling, calling names, and angrily arguing with one another. This inflammatory display of meanness and disrespect has found its way into the lexicon of the average American. Whether it be road rage, gossip, disrespect, or verbal abuse, it solves no issues nor does it have any place on the holiest day of the year-Shabbat. In Talmudic Aramaic we say “Adirabah”, or “quite the contrary.” The Shabbat is a time to exercise restraint over our lives and actions. For one day a week, we can try to consciously guard our tongue and assuage our anger. In doing so, we might just learn to see those closest to us in a more favorable and loving light, and we may be able to extend the exercise to a second day, and a third, and a fourth. . .

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tissa posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/18/11

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 30:9-34:35
February 18, 2011

Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the two tablets of the Law. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt-we do not know what has happened to him. (Exo. 32:1).”

In the absence of a leader mob psychology takes over. The people gather together (safety in numbers) and assail Aaron, the high priest and 2nd in command, demanding he construct an idol (like those in Egypt) they may worship. According to the legends of the ancient rabbis, Moses had only been gone six hours before the people began assembling. Torah scholar Pinchas Peli writes, “This always seemed to me to be one of the most shocking passages in the Bible, while also among the most revealing as to the complexities of human nature. Moses is but a few hours late and they, without much hesitation, with little reservation, unashamedly re-write history: this calf is your god which brought you out of the land of Egypt! How swift and how shocking. And how typical of mass psychology. They, the masses, must have a leader. . .They are ready to follow blindly any leader, be he a Moses or a Golden Calf.”

There is a startling similarity both in proximity to current events and the nature of the events. In the past several weeks, we witnessed the toppling of two autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. In both cases, it was the masses rising up. In both cases, the number of protestors was so great there was no hope for the ruling regime. Most notably, with regard to Egypt, there was also no single leader of the protest movement, leading one to speculate on what the future has in store. What will the new Egypt look like? Amidst their celebration of freedom and democracy, a female American reporter is beaten and sexually-abused by a mob purportedly shouting “Jew, Jew.” And she wasn’t even Jewish! In the absence of strong and visionary leadership even the most committed will succumb to mob psychology.

The Israelites would not have survived the desert, much less themselves, without being shepherded and parented by Moses, and guided by the moral/ethical ideals of Torah. Who are the shepherds, parents, and guides for the masses who gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo? With each new day, a new gathering of protestors in another autocratic Arab country rises against their government and, like Egypt, heavy on enthusiasm but lacking in leadership. Part of us wants to cheer on their fight for freedom. Another part of us fears the unknown. And, of course, we think to ourselves, “Is it good for the Jews?” It was then, is it still the case now?

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Terumah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/04/11

Torah Portion: Terumah
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 25:1-27:19
February 4, 2011

Though separated by thousands of miles, it is still difficult to escape the large-scale protests taking place in Egypt. The prospect of toppling the Mubarak regime and replacing it with an unknown form of government is both compelling and frightening. As a Jew, I want to see every human being given their inalienable right to freedom, but how will this freedom be defined? Will we end up with another fundamentalist Islamic state sworn to the destruction of Israel or will the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel be continued? Every “talking head” and “regional expert” agree on one thing-no one knows what to expect!

This week’s Torah portion details the process of building a portable sanctuary in the desert. First, funds have to be raised. “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts: you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Exo. 25:1-2). Torah scholar Pinchas Peli asks, “God who bestowed the Law upon them; God who split the sea for their safe crossing; God who gave them the heavenly bread and provided for their upkeep in the desert-God requests from them, that they shall give Him gifts of gold and silver and brass. Does God really need their gold or silver or brass?”

Peli’s question is rhetorical. Of course God does not need earthly gifts, but until the Israelites are required to make a real contribution to their future, God cannot know the measure of their commitment. To this point, it was easy for the Israelites to become caught up in the fiery excitement of witnessing the revelation of God on Mt. Sinai. It took little effort, amidst this carnival of enthusiasm, to get the people to accept the precepts of Torah. At Sinai they joyously proclaimed, “We shall do and we shall obey.” Reciting slogans, chants, and songs of praise is not the same as actually dirtying one’s hands in the process of people building. Demonstrations suggest one’s intent; participating in the act of building shows commitment. God required the Israelites to demonstrate their commitment by donating something precious and real to the construction of a community house of worship. If the people are willing to part with their silver and gold, then they are committed not just in words, but actions.

As I write this posting, the Egyptian people are demonstrating their desire for greater freedom and democracy. In the inevitable vacuum created by the departure of the present regime, will new leaders emerge willing to commit themselves to the hard work of restoring freedoms and building a democracy? Over 3,500 years ago, it was the Israelites who rose up in protest against Pharaoh and Egypt. Today there is a new pharaoh in Egypt and a new population of Israelites (albeit Egyptian) rising up. Would that their success mirror that of their ancient counterparts.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Mishpatim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/28/11

Torah Portion: Mishpatim
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 21:1-24:18
January 28, 2011

From Sunday school thru adulthood we are taught that the Exodus from Egypt is about going from “slavery to freedom.” Yet, the first verses in this Torah portion deal with how the recently-freed Israelites should treat their slaves: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment (Exo. 21:2).”

Most of the Torah commentators either say little about these opening verses of chapter 21 or point out that the institution of slavery in ancient Israel existed on a much higher moral/ethical plane. The late contemporary Bible scholar Nahum Sarna writes, “Biblical legislation is directed toward enhancing the social and legal status of this human chattel. This humanitarian approach expresses itself in a variety of ways: The slave is termed “your brother”, he possesses an inalienable right to rest on Shabbat and festivals; when circumcised, and thus identified with the covenant between God and Israel, he participates in the Passover offering; a fugitive slave may not be extradited and is accorded protection from maltreatment and the right to live wherever he chooses.”

There is no doubt that the early Israelites accepted slavery as a given part of the social order. What, then, was the exodus from Egypt about? It seems clear that it was not slavery that compelled Moses to act and God to bring the plagues upon the Egyptians, rather the way the slaves were being treated. The Israelites existed in Egypt as simply chattel (property) with limited to no rights, while being subjected to de-humanizing and oppressive conditions.

Once free from the abominable circumstances they lived with, the real task facing this new nation of people was learning to assume responsibility for themselves. As slaves, they were totally dependent on their masters for the food they ate, clothes they wore, and daily activities. Now, in the absence of tyranny they need to learn responsibility. Not an easy task.

In the 90’s, with the lifting of the “iron curtain” and the toppling of the Berlin wall, there was a naive notion that democracy and freedom would immediately be embraced. Twenty years later, the former Soviet Union is still wrestling with its autocratic past. When Iraq was freed from the horrors of Saddam Hussein, we declared “mission accomplished;” Iraq was now a democracy. Ten years later, the jury is still out. It takes time to change the mindset of people who have spent decades and centuries living with fear and oppression.

There was a more direct route from Egypt to the Promised Land, but Moses choose a more circuitous one; one that would take 40 years. It would take at least this much time to wean the former slaves from the breast of oppressive slavery and condition a new generation to the responsibilities of freedom.

The real tragedy of Egypt was not that Jews were slaves, but as slaves they were deprived of freedoms, rights, and responsibilities; the foundation pieces defining humanity.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Yitro posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/21/11

Torah Portion: Yitro
Book of Exodus
January 21, 2011

Commandment No. 1: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods besides Me (Exo. 20:2-3)”

The Israelites have been freed from slavery, left Egypt, arrived at Mt. Sinai and now experience the revelation of God and Torah with the handing down of the 10 Commandments.

The 20th century Jewish theologian Martin Buber was once asked by a Christian scholar, “Do you believe in God?” Buber did not know how to respond at the moment but later said, “If believing in God means being able to speak of Him in the third person, then I probably do not believe in God.” Buber’s point is knowing God requires a “first person” relationship. When I say I have heard Paul McCartney sing and know all about him, it doesn’t mean I actually know him. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch writes, “To be real, activating, and redemptive, our faith in God must be grounded in personal experience.” This is why the Decalogue (10 Commandments) begins with the above commandment.

Before presenting the Israelites with the mitzvot/obligations they will assume by accepting the Torah, God first introduces himself to them; lays the groundwork for a personal and intimate relationship (“I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage”). The midrash (Jewish legend) tells the story of a foreign ruler who comes to a certain country offering to conduct their affairs. The citizenry are justifiably skeptical. “Why should we turn over the responsibility for managing our realm to someone we hardly know?” The stranger hears them, backs off, and then constructs an aqueduct for their water needs and defeats enemies that intend them harm. Then, and only then, does the citizenry entrust their affairs to the foreign ruler. He is no longer foreign. They know him.

In keeping with the philosophy of Buber, one does not develop a relationship with God by attending classes in comparative theology or learning about the basics of Jewish belief. The only way to find God is by opening your mind, heart, and soul to spiritual encounter and experience. It might occur atop a mountain, gazing at a beautiful sunset, experiencing a birth, mourning a death, or a moment of intense love for another. These are the moments that change lives. God is to be discovered amidst the change. Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks of such a moment using the Kotel (western wall in Jerusalem) as a metaphor. He writes, “Once you have lived a moment at the Wall, you never go away.”

This is what it means to believe in God; to encounter God in a Divine moment that defines the rest of your life.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Violence In America posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/14/11

Violence In America
January 14, 2011

The Talmud (compendium of Jewish law) teaches that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse. We also learn that the harm done by lashon hara (gossip, rumor, libel, or false innuendo) is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially. Amends can be made for monetary harms, but the harm done by an evil tongue can never be repaired.

I doubt a direct relational existence between the recent act of violence in Tucson, Arizona and the lack of civility in public discourse. The young man allegedly responsible for the deaths and injuries in Tucson seems to have been tormented by demons of his own making. Still, in a country where political discourse is metaphorically framed in expressions of violence and symbolically represented by gun sights and targets, the subject of civility and decency did not take long to emerge.

David Brooks, a conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, profoundly observes, “Over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process. So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth. Of course you get people who prefer monologue to dialogue. Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents. They feel no need for balance and correction.
Beneath all the other things that have contributed to polarization and the loss of civility, the most important is this: The roots of modesty have been carved away.”

I am one who believes in gun control, but who does not believe the control of guns will suddenly curb the violence and political mayhem. This is a time when rabbis, priests, and ministers need to address the need for “balance and correction” in the way we relate-through discourse and action-with one another. One reaches for a gun when they see those on the other side as heretics rather than critics.

Brooks further notes, “Every sensible person involved in politics and public life knows that their work is laced with failure.” Failure, in turn, becomes an opening for help, assistance, and constructive critique from others. Legislation becomes a cooperative enterprise involving people of same commitment but with differing opinion. Leaders become models to those whom they lead. In the 1930’s and 40’s the children’s heroes were Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Who are they today? You don’t need me to answer the question!

David Brooks concluded his article by quoting from the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. ... Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

We can not bring back the lives of those murdered in Tucson, but we can honor their memory and re-direct this nation by learning and teaching civility in what we say, and consequently what we do.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Bo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/07/11

Torah Portion: Bo
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 10:1-13:16
January 7, 2011

After seven plagues, an eighth pending, and the Egyptian people tottering beneath a burden of suffering, Pharaoh gives consideration to his servants plea, “How long will this one [Moses] be a snare to us. Let the [Israelite] people go to worship the Lord their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost? (Exo. 10:7)”

Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron telling them, “Go, worship the Lord your God,” he then asks “Who are the ones to go?” One could understand Pharaoh to mean, “Moses, do you think that anyone is actually going to leave and follow you into the desert?” Just as Pharaoh was blind to the suffering of his own people through the first seven plagues, he was equally ignorant of the unhappiness and rebellion in the slave ranks of the Israelites. His power and authority-and the constant false praise from those around him-removed Pharaoh from the reality of his rule. Simply stated, he was out of touch.

There is an age-old axiom, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Too often, those who seek to lead do so to give voice to the people, only to be swallowed up in the pomp & circumstance of their new position.

The plethora of new congressmen/women who took their oath of office this week are giving rise to a new phenomena in Washington, DC. Hansen Clarke, a newly-elected democrat from Michigan told the New York Times, ““Washington is not going to be a home for me — I’m only there to work. I need to be able to work up to 20 hours a day and still get some decent sleep, and if I sleep in my office I’ll be able to do that.” Joe Walsh, a Republican Congressman from Illinois said, “It just seemed like sleeping in my office, just focusing totally on my work when I’m here, made the most sense. I don’t want to think about where I’m living, I don’t want to think about what I’m eating; I want to get in, do my work and then get home and talk to the people who sent me here.” A growing number of elected representatives will undoubtedly be “wined & dined” in the years ahead, but will be instantly reminded who they are and what they are in Washington to do as they return to their office in the evening to inflate an air mattress next to their desk.

Being an effective leader is no different than being an effective Pharaoh, one must be able to see through a facade of privilege and royalty to the task of representing and empowering those for whom one serves. In this respect, Pharaoh failed, the Egyptian people suffered, and the Israelites-through the humble and God-inspired leadership of Moses, won their freedom.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

New Years 2011 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/31/10

New Year’s 2011

“We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives... not looking for flaws, but for potential.”
-Ellen Goodman

The “Jewish” new year challenges the soul of humankind. One is asked to do introspection; to heal the spiritual wounds that held one back from achieving his/her potential. The “Secular” new year is about the physical process of achievement; applying one’s spiritual qualities to the actual task of improving our lives.

When you clear away the smokescreen of celebratory drinking, balls dropping in Times Square, and football, what remains are those annual resolutions: spend more time with family & friends, exercise more, eat better, quit smoking, get out of debt, help others, etc. This, in turn, is usually accompanied by the cynicism of those like Oscar Wilde who wrote, “Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”

In spite of what is said or written, it is sadly understandable why homelessness and poverty continue to increase, schools continue to fail, people are getting fatter and sicker, unhappiness and depression are on the rise, and disappointment & disillusionment reign supreme. What we say in resolution and do in reality are very different. Or, maybe Alexander Graham Bell had it right when he said, "When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us."

January 1 is the day “one door closes another door opens.” Our task is not to give up on ourselves, our family, our community, or even our country, but to actively purse that “open door” even if it doesn’t immediately present itself. It all starts with a simple resolution followed on January 2 by placing one foot in front of the other; taking that first step to change, renewal, and a better life. The next day will be even easier.

See you in the gym and Happy New Year!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayehi posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/17/10

Torah Portion: Vayehi
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 47:28-50:26
December 17, 2010

Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey tells of a rope bridge in a small Peruvian village that collapses, sending five people to their death. The event is witnessed by a Catholic priest, Brother Juniper, who becomes obsessed with trying to understand why God would let something so tragic occur. In researching the lives of the five who perished, Juniper discovers they all had one thing in common: a love relationship they had each recently resolved. The book concludes with Juniper noting, “Soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth. We ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough. . .There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

This same theme is reflected in the final Torah portion of the Book of Genesis. After being re-settled in Egypt and reconciled with his children, Jacob approaches the final days of his life. On his death bed, Jacob recalls the dreams and visions he had for his life. He remembers with sorrow the death of his beloved wife Rachel: “I buried her on the road to Eprath, now Bethlehem (Gen. 48:7).” Amidst a life of success and failure, great moments of happiness and desperate times of despair, one constant in the life of Jacob that kept him going were the precious moments of love he shared with Rachel. Rabbi Harold Kushner says it best: “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I wanted to be so important that everyone would know my name. I may not have done that, but along the way, I loved someone. I changed her life and she changed mine, and that meant everything. That made it all worthwhile.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson writes in his poem In Memoriam:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

What authors, poets, and storytellers have noted over centuries is the power and fulfillment of even a moment of love. No material possession, handsome salary, or fame can hold a candle to the complete and total fulfillment of body & soul imbued in a moment of love. When the 20th century Jewish theologian Martin Buber was asked, “Where is God?”, his answer was “God is found in relationships. God is not found in people; God is found between people.”

The greatest fear in dying is having not lived, and by that I mean having not loved. Jacob approached his death surrounded by family, but comforted in the knowledge he had known love and been loved. He had lived and was prepared to accept death. May our lives be long, our days fulfilled but may our fear of death be assuaged by our moments of love. It is in these moments we encounter God.

Rabbi Howard Siegel


Vayigash posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/10/10

Torah Portion: Vayigash
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 44:18-45:27
December 10, 2010

Jacob’s sons come down to Egypt seeking food in a time of famine. Unbeknownst to them, their brother Joseph, who they arranged to have sold into slavery in Egypt, has risen to great heights in the hierarchy of Egyptian life. In fact, it is Joseph from whom the brothers make their request for food. Joseph recognizes them, but they no longer recognize him. After playing with their emotions, and even conveniently arranging for their youngest brother Benjamin to be taken into Egyptian custody, Joseph is confronted by his brother Judah.

Judah, the very brother who first proposed selling Joseph to the caravan of traders heading to Egypt, is now appealing to him to not detain his brother, Benjamin. Judah offers himself to be taken into custody in the place of Benjamin. Clearly, these are not the same brothers who sold Joseph into slavery twenty-two years earlier. Either because of the inconsolable grief of their father Jacob over the perceived loss of Joseph or the maturity of years, they have changed. This is especially true of Judah. Judah’s appeal reduces Joseph to tears and reconciliation with his long-lost family.

While the character of Joseph receives top-billing in this biblical drama, the most important character may be Judah. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, notes, “Judah grows from a callous and self-indulgent man into a compassionate and courageous leader. Joseph is graced with God’s favor from the beginning. Whatever the setbacks, he is destined to triumph. But his character remains static. Judah, on the other hand, starts out a villain and ends up a hero, evincing the human capacity to mature and change in all its glory.”

For Judah, as for all of us, virtue is not a gift but a goal. In today’s world, casting judgment and aspersion has morphed from a rude mannerism to a public sport. A slip of the tongue or ill-advised action results in a media feeding frenzy and character assassination regardless of the truth or a person’s changed attitudes. On a personal level, how quick are we to dismiss people without taking the time to know them? How willing are we to forgive shortcomings in others and warmly receive those who have made the effort to change? Virtue is not innate but a goal that stands before all of us. We all possess the abilities to change, just as we all possess the power to forgive.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Hanukkah vs. Christmas posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/03/10

Hanukkah 5771/2010
December 3, 2010

Every so often I stumble upon an article articulating my thoughts better than I. Currently amidst the celebration of Hanukkah (Wednesday evening, December 1 through Thursday, December 9), I want to share a piece written by Dr. Ron Wolfson of the American Jewish University In Los Angeles. Dr. Wolfson has devoted his career to bringing Jews closer to the celebration and fulfillment of Judaism. Here are his thoughts, and mine, on the ever-present Hanukkah/Christmas dilemma:

“Early childhood educators tell us that one of the most crucial stages in socialization occurs when a child is between 18 and 30 months old and attends another child's birthday party. When the birthday cake is brought in, most of the little guests try to blow out the candles right along with the birthday child. As the child opens presents, little hands start to grab for the toys. Why do you think "party favors" were invented? To help children begin to distinguish between what's mine and what's his/hers. Toddlers must learn the difference between celebrating one's own birthday and celebrating someone else's.

Thus many Jewish educators will advise parents to give their children who want to celebrate Christmas a very important message: Christmas is someone else's party, not ours. Just as we can appreciate someone else's birthday celebration and be happy for them, we can wonder at how beautiful Christmas is, but it is not our party. And then many parents make a perfectly understandable, but incomplete, leap. "Christmas is for Christians. They have Christmas. We are Jewish. We have Hanukkah." In an attempt to substitute something for Christmas, the parent offers Hanukkah. In fact, Hanukkah is even better than Christmas. "Christmas is only one day. Hanukkah is for eight!" So now, incredible as it seems, the parental anxiety leads to the teaching that our party lasts longer, offers more presents, and is just as beautiful.

Of course, the problem is that it just isn't true. Hanukkah cannot hold a candle to Christmas. As we have learned, it is a minor event in the Jewish holiday cycle and has never, until recently, been viewed as a central celebration for the Jewish people. Therefore, the customs and ceremonies surrounding Hanukkah pale by comparison to those of Christmas--which is one of the two major holidays of Christianity.

In fact, it seems clear that among Jews who stand on the periphery of Jewish life, the attempt to combat Christmas with Hanukkah is doomed to failure. Even the sometimes outrageous attempts by mass marketers to inflate the importance of Hanukkah as the "Jewish alternative" to Christmas feel wrong in some fundamental way. "Hanukkah Harry" and "Hanukkah bushes" and even "Smiley Shalom," a Jewish version of "Frosty the Snowman," cannot hope to compete with the magnificence of the Christmas celebration.

The answer to the child is incomplete. "We're Jewish--we have Hanukkah" is only the beginning of the response. "We're Jewish, and we have Hanukkah, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, Purim, Simchat Torah, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Lag B'Omer, Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Tu B'shvat--and, most importantly, Shabbat every week." The child who has experienced the building of a sukkah will not feel deprived of trimming a tree. The child who has participated in a meaningful Passover Seder will not feel deprived of Christmas dinner. The child who has paraded with the Torah on Simchat Torah, planted trees at Tu B'shvat, brought first fruits at Shavuot, given mishloah manot at Purim, and welcomed the Shabbat weekly with candles and wine and challah by the time s/he is three years old will understand that to be Jewish is to be enriched by a calendar brimming with joyous celebration.

Then, of course, there are parents who believe that the December lesson, that Jews are different than almost everybody else, is an inescapable part of being Jewish, unless you live in Israel. There is a great value in being unique, different, valuable in your own right. In fact, for them, the celebration of Hanukkah in proximity to Christmas is a boon. They want their children to identify with the Maccabees' struggle for religious liberty and for the right not to assimilate into the majority culture. Is this not the very same struggle that we Jews living in a predominantly Christian society must also wage?

At the same time, most Jews are comfortable in North American society. The great promise of religious freedom has indeed created the diversity of culture that characterizes the free world. When we live side by side with other people of other religions, we must respect and appreciate their customs, arts, and traditions.
What does appreciation mean? It means that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the beauty of someone else's celebration. Is there any doubt that the music of Christmas is lovely and quite moving? Any number of rabbis and educators will admit that they are "closet carolers." How can one grow up in this culture and not learn the words to "White Christmas"? Can we deny the beauty of the Christmas tree, its ornaments and decorations? Not really. Shall we be embarrassed at finding ourselves moved to tears by the Christmas scene in It's a Wonderful Life? If we are strong in our Jewish commitments, there is little danger that appreciating the warmth and beauty of another's holiday will threaten our fundamental identity.

But appreciation does not mean appropriation. Because appropriation leads to confusion, loss of identity and ultimately, assimilation. And assimilation is what the Maccabees and generations of Jews after them fought so hard to prevent. To appropriate Christmas into our homes would give posthumous victory to Antiochus. Christmas does not belong in a Jewish home--period.”

A happy and fulfilling Hanukkah to all.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Thanksgiving 5771 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/26/10

Thanksgiving 2010/5771
November 26, 2010

On December 11, 1620, 102 Puritan pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Their first winter was devastating. By the following fall, 46 of the original pilgrims had died. Nonetheless, the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. The remaining pilgrims celebrated the harvest with a feast. They invited 91 native Americans to join them. These were Indians who helped them survive the winter, plant the crops, and begin their lives in the New World. The original feast of Thanksgiving lasted 3 days.

Nearly 400 years later, Americans still celebrate Thanksgiving with stories and legends about the original Puritan pilgrims. At many Thanksgiving tables there is, no doubt, also mention made of personal thankfulness for crises averted, health challenges overcome, and life-changing events and experiences. For this reason, I find Thanksgiving to be the most compelling national holiday on the calendar. New Year’s is a time for over-the-top celebration and too much drinking. The 4th of July is all about fireworks. Memorial Day and Labor Day is the Indianapolis 500 and a day off. Thanksgiving, though, is about family-nuclear, extended, or just a family of friends. It is about relationships with people; appreciation for the souls we have gathered around us or become a part of. With often reckless disregard for early winter storms, more people travel “home” on Thanksgiving than at any other time of year. In 234 years of US history, no other legislated secular celebration-and very few religious ones-even approach the thoughtful, thankful, and meaningful ritual of the annual Thanksgiving feast.

In the book of Ecclesiastes it is written, “Go eat your bread in gladness and drink your wine in joy.” Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, explains this verse by writing, “What is life about? It is not about writing great books, amassing great wealth, achieving great power. It is about loving and being loved. It is about enjoying your food and sitting in the sun rather than rushing through lunch and hurrying back to the office. It is about savoring the beauty of moments that don’t last. . .the rare moments of true human communication.” And, isn’t this what Thanksgiving is all about?

Sometimes returning home, sharing a meal with old acquaintances, is accompanied by painful anticipation. But, on Thanksgiving, we do it, anyway. Why? Because within our heart of hearts we have come to understand we are all mortal, our existence on this earth is but a fleeting moment. Allowing shallow pride or enmity to steal the precious and limited time we have with one another is a transgression we can ill afford.

I am thankful for so much in my life and so much of what I am thankful for has a place at my Thanksgiving table.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayishlach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/19/10

Torah Portion: Va’yishlach
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 32:4-36:43
November 19, 2010

On the eve of an uncertain reunion with his brother Esau, Jacob worries about what sort of reception he can expect. Having cheated Esau out of his birthright and his rightful blessing as the first born, Jacob pauses to reflect on the type of person he has become. The Torah reports, “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at the socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him (Gen. 32: 25-26).” Some commentators suggest the above incident was a dream or vision. The man who wrestled with Jacob was an angel of God. Others suggest the entire incident is a metaphor for wrestling with one’s conscience.

Jacob would not give in to his divine intruder until he received something in return. “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and prevailed (Gen. 32: 27-29).” For Jacob, a change in name from Ya’akov (he who held on to the heal of his brother) to Yisrael (he who wrestled with God), became a change in character and personality.

Rabbi Bradley Artson asks, “Can people change? Or is it more likely that human beings’ fundamental characteristics remain constant throughout their lifetimes? Judaism insists that people are dynamic. Throughout our lives we struggle to determine what kind of person we wish to be.”

Judaism offers tools to enrich each of our individual struggles. Talmud Torah (Jewish learning) deepens our understanding and appreciation for life and for those who live them, Mitzvot (commandments or obligations) provide an action plan for making this a better world for all people, and Tefilot (prayer) gives us daily reminders and inspiration for the task at hand.

Artson continues in his commentary by writing, “At night, left alone, Jacob suddenly finds himself wrestling with someone whom he cannot identify. Is this a person or an angel, or is it the embodiment of his own doubts and failings? We never learn the answer to that question. But we do learn what it takes to remake one’s own character-the ability to hold on. Jacob refuses to let go and he wrestles the stranger throughout the night.”

If we learn to see ourselves as works in progress, and not projects completed, then we can continue to re-shape our being and mold our presence into one that proudly declares the innate qualities of goodness and kindness we all possess. All it requires is effort, time, insight, and commitment.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Toldot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/05/10

Torah Portion: Toldot
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 25:19-28:9
November 5, 2010

The most important attribute a parent can instill in a child is self-esteem. In the Book of Leviticus we are taught, “Love your neighbor like yourself” (Lev. 19:18), implying that one must acquire a love for oneself before being able to demonstrate a mature love for another.

This week’s Torah portion begins, “This is the family line of Isaac, son of Abraham: Abraham fathered Isaac” (Gen. 25:10). Yechiel of Alexander, an influential Polish Hasidic rabbi of the late 19th century, writes, “Isaac never thought of himself as being much at all, other than the “son of Abraham”; everything depended on the merit of his father. Abraham, for his part, had never thought that he had done or accomplished much in the service of God or that he had earned any particular merit except for one thing: that he had raised up a worthy son- “Abraham fathered Isaac.” It was a holy way that they did not see themselves as worthwhile in their own eyes; instead their merit came either through their parents or their children.”

Yechiel suggests, in the case of Isaac, that the most important expression of respect for one’s parents is liking who we are. Yet at other times, like Abraham, our identity is defined by our children. One must be wary of allowing personal identity to become totally dependent on one or the other-parents or children. Isaac grew up in the shadows of his father Abraham’s greatness. Allowed to define himself solely in relation to his father would be to deny his uniqueness as a human being. Similarly, seeking an identity through the accomplishments of his children only mask his personal unhappiness. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky notes, “When we feel our “greatness” is a result of both our parents and our children, our sense of fulfillment, and even holiness is heightened.”

Self-esteem might be better understood as self-love. There is nothing wrong with loving who we are. First, we are all fashioned in the image of God. Secondly, we each possess our own unique personality, character, gifts, and talents. We fail when we try to become someone we are not, and even if we don’t fail we are seldom happy with who we’ve become. Take pride in the accomplishments of parents and children, but never lose sight of the specialness that defines oneself.

The prophet Malachi describes the messianic era as a time when “God will turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 3:23-24). That is, a time when we will reach out to another not because of need, but want. We will want to share the love discovered within with others.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Haye Sarah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/29/10

Torah Portion: Haye Sarah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 23:1-25:18
October 29, 2010

The Torah portion begins with the death of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. His first task is to find a suitable location for her burial. To this end, Abraham engages in a negotiation with Ephron the Hittite for the purchase of the Cave of Mahpelah in Hebron. The ancient midrash Genesis Rabbah writes, “This is one of three places where the nations of the world cannot accuse Israel of theft.” The other two are the Temple Mount in Jerusalem purchased by King David and a parcel of land in Shechem (today called Nablus) bought by Jacob. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch notes, “All three spots were not gained by force of arms but legally through bona fide sale.”

With regard to Abraham, hadn’t God already promised him the land of Israel? Why did he insist on purchasing a piece of property in a land already in his possession? Rabbi Brad Artson comments, “Aren’t there people today who claim an exclusive possession of the truth, who insist that their monopoly on morality, or compassion, or divine will, allows them to slander, to slight, to distort, or to oppress? From the liberal chic to the conservative smug, all over the world self-appointed spokespeople of the “correct” view trumpet their own infallibility and moral superiority. . . .And yet, despite his knowledge of God’s gift of Israel to the Jews, Abraham still made a point of respecting the humanity of his Pagan hosts, still insisted on taking seriously the perspective of the Hittites, their customs, and their properties.”

Today, we live in a dangerous world. In this world, the State of Israel resides in an especially tough neighborhood. For the first 62 years of her existence, the secular population has depended upon superior military force and the religious population upon the ancient promise of God to Abraham, as guarantors of Israel’s survival. Neither have brought peace to the land. Israel’s military might has not brought her any closer to peace and the claim of the two opposing sides in the Middle East conflict to Divine right to the land have only served to trump each other. Peace will happen only when each side is willing to lay down their weaponry and set aside Divine promises in the interest of negotiating a lasting peace. Nothing comes free. Abraham paid for property, that he could have argued was his, to maintain peace with the Hittite neighbors. At the end of the day, both Israelis and Palestinians will have to give up some of what they believe is theirs in exchange for making the neighborhood of the Middle East a safe place for all. Isn’t this, in fact, God’s will?

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayera posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/22/10

Torah Portion: Vayera
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 18:1-22:24
October 22, 2010

I am a sucker for movies that yank at my heart strings. One such film was “Blindside”, the true story of professional football player Michael Oher. It is the story of a poor, homeless black teenager in Memphis, Tennessee who is, literally, taken off the streets by an affluent white family who not only befriend him but, even in the face of social pressure, become his legal guardian. Their acts of care, love, and concern take a young man destined to go no where and make him a success. Currently, Michael is a 24-year old star offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League.

The Tuohy family, who took Michael in, is reminiscent of a biblical family who first taught the mitzvah (obligation) of hachnasat or’chim/welcoming strangers. In the Torah portion of Vayera, Abraham is said to have stood at the entrance of his tent looking for strangers and wayfarers who may need a helping hand or a good meal.

There is a Hasidic story of a great rabbi, then poor and unknown, who often traveled to a certain city where the only person who would offer him lodging was a poor Jew who lived in the poor section of town. As years went by and the rabbi acquired fame and fortune, he came again to visit the same city. This time the wealthy head of the community sent to welcome the rabbi, inviting him to stay in his palatial home. The rabbi gratefully accepted the invitation, but sent his horses to the house of the wealthy man, while he himself went directly to the poor home of his old host.

When the rich man came running to express his astonishment, the rabbi explained: When I used to come to this town previously, making my way by foot, you did not think of inviting me to your home. You did so now, when I arrived in town in style, in a splendid carriage pulled by four horses. Obviously it is not me, but the horses that you pay homage to; they should therefore go to your home and be received as the “guests of honor.”

Helping others shouldn’t be dependent on what they have or who they are, but what their needs require. Abraham didn’t first pass judgment on the merits of the three strangers he invited into his tent. They needed a meal and he provided it. Leigh Anne Tuohy didn’t see a large black teenager walking along the road in a cold Memphis rain on Thanksgiving. She saw a poor human being without a jacket, a meal, or anywhere to go, so she stopped her car and picked him up.

In a recent speech to the Florida Coalition for Children, Collins Tuohy, adopted sister of Michael Oher, reminded the audience how the best time of anyone's life is when they are giving. "We had the opportunity to do it with Michael every single day," Tuohy said. "We were the ones who hit the jackpot. We are the ones who got to give every single day."

Most films are a reflection of life. “Blindside” was the story of a real life and yet another affirmation of Abraham’s example of opening our arms and heart to even the stranger.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

A New Day posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/15/10

A New Day
October 15, 2010

On Tuesday, October 5th, I suffered a heart attack. I was taken to a nearby hospital where a stent was put in, opening the clogged artery. Within 48 hours I was home. By Friday I was engaging in light exercise and returning to a scaled-back schedule. Several factors figured into my survival. I am sharing them with the hope that maybe even one life is changed as a result. The Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin contains the following teaching: “He who saves one life, it is as if he saved an entire world.”

My clogged artery is popularly referred to as the “widow maker” (proximal left anterior descending coronary artery of the heart). I survived the attack because: 1) I responded to the chest pain quickly, 2) I maintain vigorous daily exercise, 3) I pay close attention to my diet, and 4) I follow a daily aspirin regimen. I have always known that I had a genetic proclivity for heart disease (it runs in the family), so I have followed items 2, 3, and 4, “religiously” in the hope of avoiding a heart attack. Now, I realize they also contributed to surviving one.

The human body is a Divine gift protecting the holiness of our soul and being. The only stipulation placed on us is the requirement to care for the health and welfare of the body we possess. The body is not “who we are,” but allows who we are “to be.”

Inactivity, obesity, and neglect of our body is denying our own Divine nature. I do not believe in a God who preordains human sufferings, such as a heart attack. Nor do I believe in a God who can prevent them. I do believe in a partnership between God and humankind. God has made possible the gift of life; we are responsible for its well-being. I also believe God is present in our moments of trauma and despair providing hope and support; holding our hand in the darkness of life.

If you want to continue experiencing the joys of a beautiful sunrise, an awe-inspiring mountain range, the cries and laughter of children and grandchildren, the gentle touch of a soul-mate companion, than commit to some practical steps:

1) Quit smoking. Not tomorrow, today!

2) Join a health club and begin regular daily exercise. Excuses don’t make pounds fall away, physical exercise does. The money saved from snacking and restaurants (especially the fast food variety) will pay for the health club.

3) Meet with your physician or nutritionist and begin a healthy diet. Start by avoiding processed meat (salami, corned beef, etc). Next, consider giving up meat entirely. In fact, the ideal of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) is vegetarianism.

It hurts me to see so many young mothers and fathers overweight and under-exercised. Don’t they want to enjoy the fruits of long life accompanied with good health or are they blinded by a myopic view that they’ll have more time to deal with this in the future. They won’t, and the one thing we can be certain about the future is it’s fatal!

Being a spiritual person means recognizing God’s presence in ourselves. Being a religious person means acting upon this realization. The first step is the hardest: Admitting you need help. “I am overweight,” “I have terrible eating habits,” “I really want to quit smoking,” “I know I am out of shape.” The next step is doing something about it.

I am so thankful for my life and the continued opportunity I have to learn and teach Torah, to celebrate with my wife, children, grandchildren, and friends, and to cherish my partnership with God. I pray we all share in the blessings of life for many, many years to come.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Bereisheet posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/01/10

Torah Portion: Bereisheet
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 1:1-6:8
October 1, 2010

Okay, let’s start again. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). A simple and straightforward statement, right? Not necessarily. Anyone who knows anything about the Jewish people knows where there exist two sides there is always a third opinion. It is said when you tell a joke to a Jew, even before you’ve had a chance to finish it he’s already interrupting you. First, he’s heard it before. Second, why are you telling it wrong? So he decides to tell you the joke, but in a much better version than yours. But, I digress!

In Rashi’s (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhaki-11th century from France) commentary on the book of Genesis, he cites the following Talmudic statement on the above verse, “Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah should have commenced with the verse “This month shall be to you the first of the months.” What is the reason for beginning with “God created the heaven and the earth”? Answer: Should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the land of Canaan”, Israel can reply to them, “All the earth belongs to God; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased.”

Again, in the spirit of debate, Rabbi Isaac (who lived almost 2,000 years ago) provides both a profound textual insight and some political spin. His point is that the Jewish people have a legitimate claim to the Land of Israel since God-to whom the earth belongs-chose to give them this particular plot of land. These many years later, Rabbi Isaac’s logic remains at the center of an on-going conflict over Israel’s right to exist. Each side in the Middle East conflict makes their own claim of legitimacy based on their understanding of their sacred text. In this instance, each side trumps the other. A new and more creative path must be sought out to bring peace to this region. Again, I digress!

If we only understand Rabbi Isaac’s statement in political terms, we miss the big picture. Rabbi Isaac profoundly notes that the earth does not belong to humankind, but to God. We are only tenants in the lands we live. As such, we bear the responsibility for maintaining the basic elements of life that comprise the earth-clean air and water, a healthy ecosystem, preservation of natural resources, and a respect for all living creatures.

The ancient Midrash says it best, “See my works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I created, I created for you. Reflect on this, and do not corrupt or desolate my world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” [Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13]

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Yom Kippur 5771 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/17/10

Yom Kippur
September 17, 2010

Erich Segal, a former professor of English at Yale University, was the author of the 60’s popular novel (later a movie) titled, “Love Story.” The most memorable sentence in the book proclaimed, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” In the culture of the times, it seemed profound. As I matured, I realized the callousness of such a philosophy. As I became more entrenched in the values and ethics of Judaism, I came to understand the damage caused by such behavior.

“To err is human” (we all make mistakes) and “to forgive is divine.” Yom Kippur is the annual reminder of what is missing in this equation: acknowledging the mistake and apologizing for it. The Jewish concept of repentance is referred to as “tshuvah”, literally, returning to where we were before we veered off the path. The process of “repentance” begins with a recognition of having wronged another. Only then can one begin to address the problem and put forth the effort to overcome it.

The first step in any addiction program is the admission there exists a problem. Most are familiar with the physical addictions to alcohol or drugs. There are also behavioral addictions such as verbal abuse. How often do we allow ourselves to become so overwhelmed with anger that we use hurtful words to strike back? And, how often are the targets of these attacks the one’s closest to us? Just saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t make it go away. True repentance only occurs when the problem is overcome; the addiction under control. However, you have to start some place and saying, “I’m sorry” is that place.

The fact so many Jews come together in the synagogue on Yom Kippur suggests the human desire to be judged before God and humankind; to be challenged to face our shortcomings and admit our guilt. To borrow from another religious tradition, we want to figuratively exorcise the demons within; to cleanse our souls and begin, anew.

The Unitarian minister, G. Peter Fleck, recalls seeing a drama on television in which a man dies and finds himself standing on line, addressed by a bored usher who tells him he can choose either door, the door on the right that leads to heaven or the one on the left that leads to hell.

“You mean I can choose either one?” the man asks. “There is no judgment, no taking account of how I lived?”

“That’s right,” the usher says. “Now move along, please. People are dying and lining up behind you. Choose one and keep the line moving.”

“But I want to confess, I want to come clean, I want to be judged!”

“We don’t have time for that anymore. Just choose a door and move along.”

The man chooses to walk through the door on the left, leading to hell. Fleck’s conclusion is that “in the end, we want to be judged. We want to be held accountable. . . . and ultimately to be forgiven.”

Erich Segal was mistaken. Love means saying you’re sorry and then taking the appropriate action to address the behavior. In the coming year, may we be judged and sealed in the divine book of judgment for a year of happiness, health, and peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Rosh Hashanah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/02/10

Rosh Hashanah 5771
September 2, 2010

It is here, again; the chance to start over. Rosh Hashanah-the Jewish new year-is the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” In a year filled with disappointment, doubt, failure, and break-up, it is comforting to know we can look ahead to another beginning. We can’t erase the past, but we can re-evaluate ourselves and the inner strength we possess. We can begin, again, to tackle the obstacles of life with renewed hope in the future. We can do all of this because of a faith in God.

My good friend Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose writings I turn to for inspiration and spiritual direction, asks this question: “What should the first announcement from this Bema be on this night of Rosh Hashanah?” The answer is revealed in the following story:

“It is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev that he once summoned all of the Jews to assemble in the town square the next day at noon because he had an announcement of the greatest importance to make. He ordered that the merchants were to close their shops, that all the nursing mothers were to bring their infants, and that everyone, with no exceptions, was to be there to hear the announcement. The people wondered what the announcement could be. Was a pogrom imminent or a new tax? Was the Rabbi going to leave? Or was he perhaps seriously ill? Did he know the time when the Messiah would come and was he going to reveal it? At noon the entire community was present with no exceptions and everyone waited with baited breath to hear what the Rabbi would announce. Precisely at twelve the Rabbi rose and said: “I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah, have gathered you here today in order to tell you that there is a God in the world!”

“At first the people were perplexed. Was this the big announcement that they had left their homes and closed their shops to hear? Had the Rabbi convened them only to tell them something that every school child already knew? But then, as they thought about it, they began to say to themselves: “Indeed, what could be more important than to know there is a God in the world.”

Rabbi Kushner explains, “If there is a God, then there are things we are tempted to do which we will refrain from doing. If there is a God, we won’t be afraid to spend our limited amount of love and compassion because we know that God will be there to replenish us when we run out. If we really believe there is a God in the world, we will treat each other better because we will recognize the image of God in our neighbor, whatever his race, religion, ability, or earning capacity.”

May the coming year of 5771 bring happiness, health, and peace to our families, communities, and all humankind. “There is a God in the world!”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tavo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/27/10

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 26:1-29:8
August 27, 2010

Rabbi Bradley Artson of the American Jewish University asks, “Why do people turn to Judaism? Certainly we have lived through enough to know that being religious doesn't mean that we can avoid the spills and disappointments that festoon the road of life. A Jewish commitment doesn't automatically liberate a person from fear or anxiety or guilt, nor can it guarantee happiness or success. If Judaism can't provide those lofty goals, then what good is it? Why bother?”

The Torah portion from Deuteronomy Ki Tavo contains a concise list of blessings and curses one can acquire through their actions. Among the short list of blessings is “Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings (Deut. 28:6).” What does this mean? Rabbi Artson suggests, "Blessed shall you be in your comings," in your first coming into the world, "And blessed shall you be in your goings," in your departure from this world. In other words, the Torah is here referring to the ultimate entrance and exit: birth and death.”

The Talmud (compendium of Jewish law) reports that the ancient Rabbi Berekiah (4th century c.e.) heard this same interpretation and explained it to mean that all babies enter the world with great blessings, hopes, and expectations. As we proceed through life, we shed the innocence of youth and begin making our own way. Our actions and words determine whether we leave this world as pure, innocent, and blessed as we were at birth. Artson explains, “With each new experience, with every single encounter, our own responses and deeds write a legacy--either one of integrity, self-control, goodness, and holiness, or one of selfishness, laziness, and indifference.”

All humankind begin life as a source of blessing to parents, grandparents, and relatives. The blessing received at birth is a gift. As one matures, to maintain the gift we have to pay it forward. We do this by embracing those closest to us regardless of their shortcomings, showing concern for our community, and reaching out to protect the world we live in and those who inhabit it with us. Religion is not a guarantee of a “blessed” life, but, at its best, a directive in how to achieve it. As Rabbi Artson concludes, “How we are characterized at birth is fashioned by others. How we are characterized at death is in our own hands.”

May we all discover blessings in our comings and goings.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tetzei posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/20/10

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 21:10-25:18
August 20, 2010

We live in a time when religion is being defined by a fringe fundamentalist element whose power far exceeds their number. Any good fundamentalist knows a literal understanding of an ancient sacred scripture supercedes reason and rationale. The New York Times reports a current case brought before a Saudi Arabian judge. Abdul-Aziz al-Mutairi, 22, was left paralyzed after a fight more than two years ago and subsequently lost a foot. Mr. Mutairi asked a judge in northwestern Tabuk Province to impose an equivalent punishment on his attacker under Islamic law. A Saudi Arabian judge has asked several hospitals in the country whether they could damage a man’s spinal cord as punishment for his attacking another man with a cleaver and paralyzing him. The family of the victim explains, “We are asking for out legal right under Islamic law. There is no better word than God’s word, an eye for an eye.”

There is no better way of understanding Judaism today than by examining the way Jewish tradition deals with troublesome passages in the Bible. In the Torah portion Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy, Chap. 21:18-21) it is written, “If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of our is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard. Thereupon, the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

No doubt the Torah, in the historical context of its time, meant what it said: A defiant child could be put to death, just as one who put out the eye of another would be required to have his eye taken out. But, we don’t live in those times any longer. In fact, even two-thousand years ago the ancient rabbis, inheritors of this text, were troubled by it. They tried to explain it away by limiting its application. It would only apply in cases where both the mother and father were present, where both shared a a common set of values and both were judged to be exemplary parents. Other ancient rabbis taught that this was merely a hypothetical example to underscore the importance of heeding one’s parents. Through the centuries, Jewish commentators and scholars have all reasoned away a literal understanding of this troubling text.

Modern scholars understand these passages as having less to do with the defiant son and more to do with poor parenting. Rabbi Amy Perlin writes, “Who is responsible for a wayward and defiant child? Deuteronomy 24:16 states, "Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: one shall be put to death only for one's own crime." Does this mean that if a child is poorly parented, as many teens are today, that they might never incur guilt or punishment? Or does it mean that having less than desirable parents is not an excuse for bad behavior; that God has given you the power to overcome the failures of bad parenting? For an educator, the toughest parent in the world is the "blind parent" who doesn't see the child or teen ever doing anything wrong, never imposes appropriate discipline, and is useless in trying to teach the child values and good behavior. And equally difficult are parents who overindulge their children and refuse to set limits, a situation that definitely contributes to a child being sucked into our society's gluttonous over consumption.

The significance of any ancient sacred scripture is to bring moral and ethical understanding to the realities we face today, not those encountered four thousand years ago. To understand Judaism and its relationship to the Bible is to understand this point.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

When Right Is Not Right posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/06/10

When Right Is Not Right
August 6, 2010

Among the myriad of concerns facing America, a considerable amount of attention has been directed to New York City. In particular, to “Ground Zero” and the purported Mosque and Islamic Center being proposed. This week, tensions were heightened as the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 9 to 0 against granting historic protection to the building at 45-47 Park Place in Lower Manhattan, where the $100 million center would be built. This allows the Muslim Center to raze the building and construct the center.

Opposition to the project has been significant. Everyone form local New Yorkers to the Anti-Defamation League to Sarah Palin and leaders of the Tea Party have mounted efforts to block the building of a mosque near the site of 9/11. Those opposed to the center argue that 9/11 was an Islamic fundamentalist attack on America. To construct a mosque in the presence of Ground Zero is tantamount to constructing a Muslim monument of victory. Other arguments have shamefully become anti-Islam and racist.

Among the proponents is the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, who addressed the issue this week when he said: “it is as important a test of separation of church and state as any we may see in our lifetime, and it is critically important that we get it right.” He went on to say, “ in the freest city in the world, the owners of the building have the right to use their property as a house of worship. The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right.” Mayor Bloomberg is absolutely correct. The Constitutional protections allowing the construction of this Muslim Center are the same protections that have contributed to the growth and influence of Jews and Judaism in America. We are at times compelled to defend the rights of those we do not agree with. Still, is it right to build a Mosque at the site of 9/11?

In a democracy, there are times when even though something is right, it is not right. For me, this is such a moment. In 1984 Cardinal Macharski, archbishop of Krakow, announced the establishment of a Carmelite convent in Auschwitz in a building on the camp periphery which had originally been a theater but was utilized during World War II to store the poison gas used in the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria. The issue energized the Jewish world and became a stumbling block in Jewish/Catholic relations. Eventually, even the Vatican spoke out against the idea and the project was halted. Those who wanted the convent built wished to do so as a tribute to Catholics who suffered in Auschwitz. This was trumped by the fact that Auschwitz has become an international reminder of what the Nazis (and a good number of Poles) did to Jews during WWII. There was no reason the convent could not be built, but it rightly was not.

The same is true for the Mosque and Islamic Center. Ground Zero has become a monument to the destructive potential of religious fanaticism in general, and Islamic fundamentalism in particular. There is no legal reason they cannot build, except this is not the time. Even though it is right, it is not right.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ekev posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/30/10

Torah Portion: Ekev
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 6:12-11:25
July 30, 2010

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The most important decision a thinker makes is reflected in what he comes to consider the most important problem. . .there is only one serious problem: And that is martyrdom. Is there anything worth dying for? We can only live the truth if we are willing to die for it.” Rabbi Brad Artson explains this statement to mean, “Our lives derive their ultimate value and sense of purpose not necessarily by what receives most of our time, but what commands our deepest commitment.”

Most parents would probably be willing to sacrifice their lives for those of their children. We are continually reminded of young soldiers sacrificing their lives for the preservation of freedom. What, in fact, is the Jews “deepest commitment”? For many, it is Eretz Yisrael/The Land of Israel. There are any number of Jews-in and outside of Israel-willing to give their lives to protect, defend, and preserve the Holy Land.

In this Torah portion, the Israelites are told by Moses, “You shall faithfully observe all the commandments that I enjoin upon you today, that you may thrive and increase and be able to possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your fathers (Deut. 8:1).” What remains ambiguous in the Torah is what is of ultimate importance: Faithfully observing God’s commandments (mitzvot) or possessing the Land of Israel?

Rabbi Artson writes, “The Land is of importance, not as an end in itself, but as the necessary backdrop for the fullest possible encounter with God. . .Yet, the significance of the land is not intrinsic to the land itself. The land is not the goal, but rather a sacred means to an even more sacred end. The ultimate goal is to observe all the commandments.”

Today, more so than at any point in the modern State of Israel’s existence, debate rages with regard to the place of Israel in the pantheon of Jewish life. Does the committed Jew pledge his/her life to protect the existence of the modern state or is the existence of Israel a “means” and not an “end.” Artson continues his commentary by noting, “To the extent that we engage the promise of the land to become more compassionate, more loving, and more just-to that extent alone do we merit inhabiting the land. And only to that extent do we fulfill the purpose of being there in the first place.”

The ultimate goal of Judaism is to create godly Jews who-through doing God’s bidding (mitzvot)-can make a positive difference in a troubled world. The Land of Israel is one of the important elements in achieving this, but it, alone, is not the goal.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Va'ethanan posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/23/10

Torah Portion: Va’ethanan
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 3:23-7:11
July 23, 2010

In 1995, Susan Smith, a 25-year old mother in South Carolina, strapped her two small boys into their car seats and then purposely allowed her car to roll into a lake taking the lives of both children. She was subsequently convicted of murder. Her minister speculated that she was witness to two presentations that night: “God made her a presentation and Satan made her a beautiful presentation.” After weighing them in her distraught mind, she opted for Satan’s. Were it so simple to define good and evil! Satan or the devil are not part of Judaism’s vocabulary, nor is original sin. Judaism teaches we have no one to blame but ourselves.

The centerpiece of this week’s Torah portion is the single-most important theological statement in Jewish life: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone (Deut. 6:4).” These words are followed by the following sentence: “Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day (Deut. 6:6).” The first statement, declaring God’s oneness, is not a prayer. We are not speaking to God, but are asked to listen; listen to these instructions which we are told to take to heart. What are these instructions? Mitzvot-commandments or obligations-reflecting God’s will and desire for humankind. The Torah understood that the heart was the internal mediator of humankind’s actions-good and bad.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch notes, “Our lifelong challenge is to take what feels alien and unnatural to us and make it our own. The words “take to heart” identify the scene of the battle. It is within the hidden confines of the human heart that our impulses frustrate our ideals. The blood-stained pages of history are but a mirror of our conflicted hearts. To quote the prophet Jeremiah, “Most devious is the heart; it is perverse-who can fathom it?”

Judaism teaches there is no such thing as supernatural forces for evil. To rid this world of terror and disaster requires an effort to temper our inner turmoil; to open our hearts to the moral and ethical demands of the mitzvot-God’s blueprint for goodness. This will not result from attending a religious service on occasion or reciting a formula of blessings. Training the heart requires learning. After being told to “Take to heart,” the Torah goes on to state: “Teach your children and speak these words to them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up (Deut.6:7).” Regular and responsible Jewish education is our best hope for raising a generation that will not abuse its freedom of choice.

The Torah provides a lifetime of learning but nothing more important than understanding the words of this week’s portion.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

In My Humble Opinion posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/09/10

In My Humble Opinion
July 9, 2010

This is a departure from the usual discussion of the weekly Torah portion. As one who is interested, entertained, and even informed by the world of sports, I found the “Lebron James” story a compelling opportunity to teach a different type of Torah referred to as Musar, a rabbinic literature devoted to ethics and doing the right thing.

On Thursday evening, July 8, 2010, a significant population tuned into ESPN (the cable sports network) to hear Lebron James (a 25-year old basketball phenom who has spent the past seven years playing professional basketball for the Cleveland Cavaliers) announce the team he would be playing for in the coming season. A few necessary facts for the uninformed: 1) Lebron James, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, signed a 7-year contract out of high school to play with Cleveland, the team he had grown up watching, 2) after completing the 7-year contract, James became a “free agent” able to negotiate with any other NBA team, 3) the best financial offer he received was from his home team in Cleveland, but 4) he decided to leave Cleveland and join the team in Miami where he felt he had a better chance of winning a league championship. These are the facts. It is also a fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the decision James made. Professional basketball is a business and Lebron James made a decision he felt was in his best interests. His chances of playing on a championship team are, in fact, much greater in Miami than had he chosen to remain in Cleveland. But, these are not all the facts.

Cleveland, like many communities in Ohio, has been hard hit by the recent recession. The number of people out of work is greater in Ohio than practically anywhere else. Amidst difficult times, Lebron James single-handedly lifted the spirits of thousands of Ohioans as he elevated the Cleveland Cavaliers from the dustpan of professional basketball to one of the “elite” teams. Cleveland is probably not the “garden spot” of America, but it is a part of the heartland of this great country. Sometimes one’s heart beats stronger and spirit rises higher by simply being associated with, in this case a sports team that bears your name. Somehow one is able to set aside, if just for a few moments, the worries and concerns of everyday life. Then, on Thursday evening, July 8, Lebron James announced he was leaving Cleveland because he wanted to be in a place where he could win a championship. It was, as he said, in “his best interests.”

As I noted, he did nothing wrong. This is America, a country founded on the notion of rugged individualism. Lebron James has the same right as any other American to pursue his dream. The question is, at what point does one become responsible not just for personal happiness and fulfillment, but for helping provide for those less fortunate? Lebron James was more than just a basketball player in Cleveland. He was the face of a city struggling to re-discover a future for itself and its residents. Whether one agrees or not, Lebron represented hope. He was a hometown hero who not only played a good game but made himself an active part of the community. His message of goodness, kindness, and hope resonated especially among children. He would be there for them; a hero they could depend on. Then, in an instant, he decided it was more important to win a championship than to be a champion.

Maybe Lebron James, at 25, is too young to realize that for thousands upon thousands of young and old, every time he took to the basketball court he was a champion. Every year he touched the lives of his hometown and home state he won a championship. Some day Lebron James will wear a NBA championship ring in Miami or wherever he may end up but will it be worth it? Can the presence of a ring on his finger ever equal the lives of so many who looked to him as an example of unselfishness, community-caring, and hope? Is this the lesson we want our youngsters to learn?

Two-thousand years ago, Hillel spoke these profound words: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But, if I am only concerned with myself, what sort of person am I? And, if not now, when?” At times, something that is right is still wrong. If we want to teach our children an important lesson in life, let it be Hillel’s words and not Lebron’s example.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Pinchas posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/02/10

Torah Portion: Pinchas
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 25:10-30:1
July 2, 2010

Last week’s Torah portion concluded with the zealous actions of the Israelite priest Pinchas: “Then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping [because of a plague] at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Pinchas, son of Eleazer son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked (Num. 25:6-8).”

Zealotry, in the name of God, has in our time erected an almost impenetrable wall between peace and war, life and death. It comes as no surprise that Jews and Israel occupy a central role in this tragic drama. Rabbi Barry Leff, a former congregational rabbi in the United States who now lives in Israel, offers his thoughts on this Torah portion and its relationship to the events of our day.

“Pinchas is the Bible's great zealot. Last week we read how in a fit of zealotry, he killed a couple who were engaging in very naughty behavior in public by skewering the two of them with his spear.

There are those who say this is a time for Israelis to be more zealous, to be more like Pinchas, to rise up and defend ourselves in the most vigorous possible fashion.

I wrote a response to someone who said just that -- it's a little bit of a "vent," but I thought it's too good a vent not to share...so here you go:

I understand how people living in America – especially rabbis – can feel passionate about Israel and want to comment about what’s going on here. I certainly publicly shared lots of opinions about Israel while I still lived in the US.

However, now that I’ve made aliyah, I have to say that I’m bothered by people who from afar call for things like “Pinchas zealotry.” I’m the one who has to live with the consequences of Israeli chutzpah and stupidity.

If “Pinchas zealotry” is called for, it’s called for in moderates being as passionate about their position as the extremists. It’s certainly NOT a time to pick up spears and skewer anyone who offends our sensibilities. It’s time to be less “righteous” and more “wise.” It’s time to realize that a dinky country like Israel can’t take on the whole world. 1,941 years ago our ancestors thought they could take on Rome. They were wrong.

We can be “strong” and find ourselves an international pariah. We can be “strong” and find that we have no allies left. We can be “strong” and find ourselves subject to a REAL Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions campaign that could cripple our economy, and put many of us out of work.

Or we can act in a more intelligent fashion, let the world see that Hamas is the problem, not Israel. The Shalit family should organize marches to Gaza, not marches to the Prime Minister's residence. Hamas is the one holding their son prisoner, not Netanyahu. We can try and make friends with countries like Turkey instead of turning them into enemies.

We’re not going to be able to bully our way to peace. We’re going to have to negotiate our way to peace. We’re going to have make territorial compromises for peace. We’re going to have to act a little more humble and a little less self-righteous if we want peace.

The problem is not the morality of the IDF (Israeli army). The IDF is, indeed, one of the most moral fighting forces in the world. The problem is our political leaders need to stop putting our troops into situations where they have to face those difficult decisions, like whether to fire on an apartment building where gun fire is coming from, but where there are also a lot of innocent civilians. The problem isn’t the IDF, it’s the politicians.

It bugs me when people sitting in comfort in America call on Israelis to “kick ass,” when we’re the ones who will have to live with the consequences of stupid behavior. It bugs the hell out of me when some guy in Brooklyn calls on us to defend the settlements to the last of drop of MY children's blood, not his children's blood.

Sorry for the venting. Maybe it’s partly because I just came from taking my family on an outing to Castel--a site just outside Jerusalem where many fierce battles were fought during the War of Independence. At Castel I saw a monument listing the names of the men killed in the battle for that small patch of land. Life is precious. I want my kids to live in Israel at peace with her neighbors, including a Palestinian state. We need to be more like Aaron -- bikash shalom v'rodef shalom -- seek peace and pursue peace -- not more like Pinchas”.

Thanks Barry for sharing your thoughts.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Balak posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/25/10

Torah Portion: Balak
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 22:2-25:9
June 25, 2010

One of the most eloquent descriptions of the ancient Israelites is pronounced by one of the most despicable characters in the Bible. King Balak of Moab hires the sorcerer Balaam to place a curse on Moses and the Children of Israel. From atop a peak overlooking the Israelite camp Balaam prepares his curse. Lo and behold, instead of a curse the following words of praise come forth: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel (Num. 24:5).”

From the mouth of a sorcerer came the phrase that would become part of every synagogue prayer service and often mounted above the synagogue entrance. How can this be bad? Many commentators, both medieval and contemporary, found difficulty associating such kind words with someone hired to destroy the very people he praised. One such commentator, Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye (17th century) writes, “What is the difference between a true prophet and a false one? The true prophet can be identified in most cases by their scoldings. They point out the blemishes and defects and want to break the measure. The false prophet flatters the people with sweet talk and sees none of the low land. “Peace, Peace, everything’s fine and there’s no need for correction.” Balaam does not sing from any great love of Israel, even though he has many songs and praises for Israel. On the contrary, he intends to entice Israel so that they will not do anything, so that they will no longer yearn to ascend higher and higher up the ladder.”

Years ago, as a summer camp counselor, I remember being told that the most popular counselor was not always the best. As a parent, I learned the same lesson. Seeking to be popular in the eyes of my children and hear them sing my praise did not necessarily correlate with being a good parent. Yaakov Yosef comes to teach that praise and popularity come at a cost- usually an inflated ego. To borrow from the vernacular, we “drink the Kool-Aid” and lose sight of who we really are. Growth seldom results from praise, but critique. Praise is important for self-esteem, but constructive criticism is the fuel that launches one’s self-esteem to even higher levels of achievement.

A good parent, effective teacher, and true prophet wants the people whose lives they touch to reach higher, to ascend the rungs of the ladder toward heaven. This sometimes translates into “tough love!”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Hukkat posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/18/10

Torah Portion: Hukkat
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 19:1-22:1
June 18, 2010

“The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. . .The Presence of the Lord appeared to [Moses and Aaron], and the Lord spoke to Moses saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. . .Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.” (Num. 20:2, 6-8, 10-11)

The above “water from the rock” incident is followed immediately by a statement of God’s condemnation: “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.” (Num. 20:12) When Moses strikes the rock to draw water instead of speaking to it as God commanded, he is condemned to die in the wilderness. This is Moses and Aaron’s reward for 40 years of service? Commentators of every century have grappled with this question. Why was Moses, God’s own servant, being treated so harshly for what on appearance would seem a minor offense?

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak-1040-1105) argues that Moses was responsible for diminishing the greatness of the miracle. Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) suggests Moses’ punishment is the result of needing to be told to perform the miracle rather than maintaining a faith in God. Still others suggest that Moses’ action of striking the rock, rather than speaking to it as God had asked, was done in public and in the presence of the Israelites, who might understand this as a lack of faith even on behalf of their leader. For this reason he and Aaron were harshly punished.

I find the explanation of Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon-1135-1204) most compelling. Maimonides teaches that it was not the incident of striking the rock that Moses was being punished for, rather for losing his temper: “and [Moses] said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10). At that moment, after nearly 40 years of leadership, it was clear that a change was necessary. By losing his temper, Moses had compromised the ongoing effectiveness of his leadership.

20th century psychologist B.F. Skinner is credited with being the father of behavioral modification. He developed the concept of “positive reinforcement.” One is more likely to change the behavior of a person or group through positive, rather than negative, stimuli. Losing one’s temper seldom results in the changes we strive for. The results are more likely to undermine than reinforce one’s efforts. This is what happened to Moses. For a split second he lost sight of who these people were and what was their immediate need. In doing so, he also lost his credibility as their leader. Lashing out at the Israelites made him no better than them.

Whether you are a leader, teacher, parent, or good friend, being able to exercise restraint in the face of crisis is a quality of greatness.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Hukkat posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/18/10

Torah Portion: Hukkat
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 19:1-22:1
June 18, 2010

“The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. . .The Presence of the Lord appeared to [Moses and Aaron], and the Lord spoke to Moses saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. . .Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.” (Num. 20:2, 6-8, 10-11)

The above “water from the rock” incident is followed immediately by a statement of God's condemnation: “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.” (Num. 20:12) When Moses strikes the rock to draw water instead of speaking to it as God commanded, he is condemned to die in the wilderness. This is Moses and Aaron's reward for 40 years of service? Commentators of every century have grappled with this question. Why was Moses, God's own servant, being treated so harshly for what on appearance would seem a minor offense?

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak-1040-1105) argues that Moses was responsible for diminishing the greatness of the miracle. Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) suggests Moses' punishment is the result of needing to be told to perform the miracle rather than maintaining a faith in God. Still others suggest that Moses' action of striking the rock, rather than speaking to it as God had asked, was done in public and in the presence of the Israelites, who might understand this as a lack of faith even on behalf of their leader. For this reason he and Aaron were harshly punished.

I find the explanation of Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon-1135-1204) most compelling. Maimonides teaches that it was not the incident of striking the rock that Moses was being punished for, rather for losing his temper: “and [Moses] said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10). At that moment, after nearly 40 years of leadership, it was clear that a change was necessary. By losing his temper, Moses had compromised the ongoing effectiveness of his leadership.

20th century psychologist B.F. Skinner is credited with being the father of behavioral modification. He developed the concept of “positive reinforcement.” One is more likely to change the behavior of a person or group through positive, rather than negative, stimuli. Losing one's temper seldom results in the changes we strive for. The results are more likely to undermine than reinforce one's efforts. This is what happened to Moses. For a split second he lost sight of who these people were and what was their immediate need. In doing so, he also lost his credibility as their leader. Lashing out at the Israelites made him no better than them.

Whether you are a leader, teacher, parent, or good friend, being able to exercise restraint in the face of crisis is a quality of greatness.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Korah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/11/10

Torah Portion: Korah
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 16:1-18:32
June 11, 2010

“Now Korah betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram, to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community. .They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and he the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation? (Num. 16:1-3).”

With this pronouncement, Moses is confronted with the first major insurrection against his leadership. The campaign is led by a member of his own tribe, Korah. On the surface, it appears Korah has made a good case. He is arguing for a more democratic society. As the modern commentator Pinhas Peli writes, “While Moses commands the people saying, “You shall be holy” and makes demands of them in order that they should become holy, Korah says “everyone of them” is holy. He propagates a “people’s democracy.” He makes everybody happy!”

In the end, Korah’s campaign fails disastrously. He is remembered for all time as an example of demagoguery; a political leader seeking support by appealing to the popular desires and prejudices of the people with little regard for rational argument. Rather than take his case to Moses and Aaron as an individual, he works behind their backs in quietly building a coalition of followers based on rumors and innuendo. Then, all at once, he and his followers pounce. His arguments have a superficial ring to them, but when confronted with facts and substance, they ring hollow. The ancient Midrash (legends) suggest that ultimately Korah was only interested in seeking power and influence for himself.

There is a time and place for protests and acts of civil disobedience. In a democracy, such as ours, when after due process one’s rights and privileges are still denied, one arguably has the obligation to stand up and protest. First, one makes a case-gathers factual evidence, not rumors or second-hand hearsay. Then one takes their case to the proper authorities and then to the people. This is the privilege and responsibility of living in a democratic country.

As stated at the outset, Korah had the makings of a case. He might have even brought about change but for his personal ambition and unwillingness to first try to work with Moses and Aaron. Of all the traits necessary for effective leadership, the desire for power and influence is not one.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shelach Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/04/10

Torah Portion: Shelach Lecha
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 13:1-15:41
June 4, 2010

Moses chooses 12 leaders, one from each tribe, to scout out the “Promised Land” and report back. He is certain the positive reports brought back by members of the Israelite tribes will re-instill confidence in himself, the mission, and the One God. What Moses failed to factor in was the possibility that not everyone would see this as a land “flowing with milk & honey.” And, of course they did not. Ten of the twelve spies report, “The people that dwell in the Land is powerful, the cities are fortified and very great, and they are like giants. . .we cannot conquer this people for they are too strong for us (Num. 13:28 & 31)!” Only Joshua and Caleb spoke favorably of the Promised Land.

It is an odd coincidence that the same week we read an account in the Torah disparaging the Land of Canaan, we also encounter disparaging accounts of the modern State of Israel in her actions against a flotilla of ships attempting to run the blockade of Gaza. In the Torah, it was 10 of the 12 tribal leaders who publicly denounced plans to enter Canaan. In our modern world, it is the leaders of nations who have denounced the State of Israel. Everyone has a different set of facts, opinions, and even video to explain the incident. Most of us do not live in Israel. Some among us visit Israel regularly, others on occasion, still others never have. Yet, a whole lot of us believe we know that Israel was right or wrong. I am re-printing below a piece that appeared in the New York Times Op-Ed page on Thursday, June 3, 2010. It is authored by a friend and colleague, Rabbi Daniel Gordis. Granted, this is just another opinion, but from someone who has a vested interest; he lives and raises his family in Israel:

“In the last few days, Jerusalem has been blanketed by an unusual combination of humiliation and steely determination. How is it, people here wondered aloud, that the same country that tripled its size in three lightning days in June 1967 and then pulled off the rescue at Entebbe nine years later now seems to botch everything?

We lost the 2006 war in Lebanon, believing — incorrectly — that our venerated air force could win the war from the skies. The strikes on Gaza in December 2008 were a military success, but we have utterly failed to convince the world that it was a defensive effort precipitated by eight years of Hamas’s firing Qassam rockets at us, killing and maiming and destroying any semblance of a normal life for Israelis living near the border. And then came Monday’s attack on the flotilla trying to break through the naval blockade of Gaza.

Yet, despite widespread criticism at the way the raid was conducted, few here doubted that stopping the flotilla was the right thing to do. Life in Gaza is unquestionably oppressive; no one in his right mind would choose to live there. But there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza; if anyone goes without food, shelter or medicine, that is by the choice of the Hamas government, which puts garnering international sympathy above taking care of its citizens. Israel has readily agreed to send into Gaza all the food and humanitarian supplies on the boats after they had been inspected for weapons.

Thus this flotilla was no “peace operation.” It was intended to break the blockade or to increase international pressure to end it. Its leaders, with the connivance of the Turkish government, set a trap, and Israel blundered smack into it.

But that does not make the blockade wrong. Hamas is a terrorist organization that completed its takeover of Gaza through brute force. It executes its political enemies at will. It is one of the world’s most misogynist regimes, allowing the murder of women for the slightest infraction of family honor.

Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, from Israeli territory and has held him for four years without giving the Red Cross any access to him, in violation of the most basic international standards of conduct. And, of course, Hamas openly insists that it will countenance no long-term peace with Israel; the resistance will not end, it says, until Israel is destroyed.

Like every other country, Israel has as its foremost obligation the protection of its citizens. Given that, why should it have allowed the flotilla to enter without inspecting its goods? If the United States were to impose a blockade on Iran (which seems unlikely), and another country dispatched a string of ships in a similar operation, is there any chance the United States Navy would let them through without inspection?

Israel will, of course, endure tremendous international condemnation for this week’s events. Sadly, though, we Israelis are becoming somewhat inured to such criticism. And we know that we dare not capitulate now.

It is no accident that Turkey sent the flotilla at this time. It is clearly cozying up to Iran these days, even teaming with Brazil to offer Tehran a deal on atomic fuel that would allow the mullahs to maintain their effort to build a nuclear arsenal. Ankara’s warmongering talk this week was not intended for global consumption; it was meant to show Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Turkey is playing a new role in the Middle East.

Iran finances Hezbollah and Hamas and does everything it can to weaken and marginalize Israel, inching toward its vision of a world without a Jewish state. The West has known of Iran’s nuclear intentions for well over a decade, but has effectively done nothing. Israelis understand that we — and we alone — will have to ensure our security and our survival.

The recent avalanche of international condemnation is very painful for Israelis, who remember the years in which we were seen as a beacon of democracy and sophistication in a repressive part of the world. Those days are gone, of course, because of the world’s impatience with the “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza.

Our problem is that though most Israelis want peace with two states — one Jewish and one Palestinian, living side by side — we cannot find anyone to make a deal with us. A decade ago, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, tried, but Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, walked away. Now the supposedly moderate Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, refuses to negotiate, as of course does Hamas.

Israelis are resigned to the fact that reason will not shake the world’s blatant double standard. Our blockade of Gaza is “criminal”; yet nobody mentions that Egypt has had a blockade of Gaza in place since 2007, and has never hesitated to use lethal force against those trying to break it. Israel’s attempt to enforce a blockade becomes an international crisis, while most of the world shrugs when North Korea sinks a South Korean ship. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared his willingness to sit with Fatah leaders any time, anywhere, but they insist on mere “proximity talks,” which they will probably now scuttle, using the flotilla as an excuse.

Israel’s geographic vulnerability means that we do not have the luxury of caving in to the world’s condemnation. We will have to gird ourselves for the long, dangerous and lonely road ahead, buoyed by hope that what ultimately prevails will be not what is momentarily popular, but rather what is just.”

The mistake of the ten spies was not in the factuality of their report, but its superficiality. The people occupying Canaan did live in fortified cities, were great in number and maybe even cast a giant shadow, but that was not the whole story. Nothing was said of their demeanor, personality, or character. There was no mention of the reason they needed to fortify themselves or the threats they faced nor the kind of society they lived in. Oblivious of who they might really be, the ten spies drew their conclusions based only on what they saw from a distance. Is there any difference between the Israelite spies of yesteryear and the condescending nations of today? I will let you answer that.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Memorial Day 2010 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/28/10

Memorial Day
May 28, 2010

Freedom is not free. Anyone who pays taxes is acutely aware of this fact. The greatest awareness is borne by families whose fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers paid the ultimate price for our right to enjoy the fruits of this great country. It is they who we pay homage to each year on Memorial Day. One of the most well-known expressions of sorrow and gratitude for those who gave their lives to protect our freedoms was written by Chaplain Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, who served with the Marine Corps in the WWII battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. The circumstances leading up to his famous sermon are described in the article below:

The fight for Iwo Jima in 1945 was one of the bloodiest of World War II. A tiny island in the Pacific dominated by a volcanic mountain and pockmarked with caves Iwo Jima was the setting for a five-week, nonstop battle between 70,000 American Marines and an unknown number of deeply entrenched Japanese defenders. The courage and gallantry of the American forces, climaxed by the dramatic raising of the American flag over Mt. Suribachi, is memorialized in the Marine Corps monument in Washington, D.C. Less well-remembered, however, is that the battle occasioned an eloquent eulogy by a Marine Corps rabbi that has become an American classic.

Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn (1910-95), assigned to the Fifth Marine Division, was the first Jewish chaplain the Marine Corps ever appointed. The American invading force at Iwo Jima included approximately 1,500 Jewish Marines, and Rabbi Gittelsohn was in the thick of the fray, ministering to Marines of all faiths in the combat zone. He shared the fear, horror and despair of the fighting men, each of whom knew that each day might be his last. Roland Gittelsohn's tireless efforts to comfort the wounded and encourage the fearful won him three service ribbons.

When the fighting was over, Division Chaplain Warren Cuthriell, a Protestant minister, asked Rabbi Gittelsohn to deliver the memorial sermon at a combined religious service dedicating the Marine Cemetery. Cuthriell wanted all the fallen Marines (black and white, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish) honored in a single, nondenominational ceremony. Unfortunately, racial and religious prejudice was strong in the Marine Corps, as it was then throughout America. According to Rabbi Gittelsohn's autobiography, the majority of Christian chaplains objected to having a rabbi preach over predominantly Christian graves. The Catholic chaplains, in keeping with church doctrine opposed any form of joint religious service.

To his credit, Cuthriell refused to alter his plans. Gittelsohn, on the other hand, wanted to save his friend Cuthriell further embarrassment and so decided it was best not to deliver his sermon. Instead, three separate religious services were held. At the Jewish service, to a congregation of 70 or so who attended, Rabbi Gittelsohn delivered the powerful eulogy he originally wrote for the combined service:

Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding. And other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and Whites, rich men and poor, together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy...

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this then, as our solemn sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: To the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of White men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price...

We here solemnly swear this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.

Among Gittelsohn's listeners were three Protestant chaplains so incensed by the prejudice voiced by their colleagues that they boycotted their own service to attend Gittelsohn's. One of them borrowed the manuscript and, unknown to Gittelsohn, circulated several thousand copies to his regiment. Some Marines enclosed the copies in letters to their families. An avalanche of coverage resulted. Time magazine published excerpts, which wire services spread even further. The entire sermon was inserted into the Congressional Record, the Army released the eulogy for short-wave broadcast to American troops throughout the world and radio commentator Robert St. John read it on his program and on many succeeding Memorial Days.

In 1995, in his last major public appearance before his death, Gittelsohn reread a portion of the eulogy at the 50th commemoration ceremony at the Iwo Jima statue in Washington, D.C. In his autobiography, Gittelsohn reflected, “I have often wondered whether anyone would ever have heard of my Iwo Jima sermon had it not been for the bigoted attempt to ban it.”

Hannah Senesh, who fought and died fighting the Nazis in Yugoslavia, wrote: “There are stars whose light reaches the earth only after they themselves have disintegrated. And there are individuals whose memory lights the world after they have passed from it. These lights shine even in the darkest night and illumine our path. .”

May the memories of those who gave their lives to protect the freedoms and liberties of this great nation be a blessing to all who remember them.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Naso posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/20/10

Torah Portion: Naso
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 4:21-7:89
May 20, 2010

In the final chapter of this Torah portion, the chieftains of each of the 12 tribes contribute gifts to the completed portable sanctuary (Tabernacle). What is most interesting is that each chieftain presents the identical gift. The Torah devotes 88 verses to repeat 12 times the same gifts, only given by 12 different chieftains. Would it not have been easier, and more efficient, to have simply stated that the same gifts were given by each of the 12 chieftains?

The eminent 20th century Torah scholar Nehama Lebowitz notes, “The system by which Pharaoh degraded the Jewish people, setting them one against the other and appointing their own leaders to carry out his decrees is only too familiar to us in these days.” According to the Midrash (Jewish legend) these same chieftains were those officers who stepped forward and sacrificed themselves on behalf of the Israelites in Egypt. When quotas were not met, they were held responsible & beaten. For willingly accepting the punishment of Pharaoh, the Torah honors them by placing each of their names into its eternal record.

One might be elected or appointed to a position of leadership, but that alone does not make a leader. A leader is not distinguished by number of votes received, but qualities inherent within him. Good leaders are seldom people who seek out a position of leadership, rather they are people who are sought out. What are the qualities necessary to be an effective leader? I list 10 for your consideration:

1. Vision- a clear, vivid picture of where to go, as well as a firm grasp on what success looks like and how to achieve it.

2. Integrity-A person with integrity is the same on the inside as on the outside.

3. Dedication-Being willing to devote whatever time is necessary to accomplish a task or meet a goal.

4. Magnanimity-Giving credit where credit is due. Empowering people with the feeling they accomplished the goal themselves.

5. Humility-Recognizing that you are just another member of the people. .no better, no worse.

6. Openness-Being willing to listen to new ideas and welcome suggestions even if they do not conform to your usual way of thinking.

7. Creativity-The ability to think “outside the box”. As the late Robert Kennedy profoundly stated, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

8. Fairness-Dealing with everybody fairly and consistently.

9. Assertiveness-The ability to clearly state what one expects so there will be no misunderstanding.

10. A Sense of Humor-A Psychology professor once noted, “If you take life more than half seriously, you’ll go insane.” Being able to laugh at oneself and with others engenders effective leadership.

Our tradition maintains the ancient Israelite chieftains were defined not by their position in life, but the qualities they brought to life. Do you have what it takes?

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shavuot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/14/10

May 14, 2010

We are living in a time when superficial is too often mistaken for real. When we are introduced to a stranger, what is the first question asked? “What do you do?”, as if the sum total of a person’s essence is captured in his professional pursuit. It offers an insight, but not the whole picture. For many people the question, “who am I?” is a daunting one. Am I defined by the clothes I wear, car I drive, the shape of my body or the job I work at? I hear myself replying to the question by saying, “I am a rabbi.” Is that who I really am? I am Howard Siegel who performs the functions of a rabbi (whatever they may be?!). The real question is, “Who is Howard Siegel?”, and that answer is not so simple.

Is Bar Mitzvah just being able to take Hebrew consonants and vowels, put them together with familiar melodies and make sounds on a Shabbat morning, or is it more? What is Torah? The superficial answer is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but is that all Torah is?

This week we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. Seven weeks after leaving Egypt (celebrated by Passover), the ancient Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai. There they encountered God, and there they received Torah. By accepting Torah, the Israelites became the Jewish people in a covenantal relationship with the One God. For some Jews, the Sinai event occurred once binding all Jews-present, past, and future-to this special holy covenant. For others, each Jew has a “Sinai moment” that opens his/her eyes to the rich tapestry of Jewish life. It is at that moment they enter the ancient covenant with God. Accepting Torah is much more than reading five books in the Bible!

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “Jews don’t read the Torah the way one reads a novel, for the plot. You don’t read it to see how it ends. Nor do you read it like a newspaper or a magazine article, skimming it to get the general idea. As a contemporary scholar has put it Jews read the Bible the way a person reads a love letter. When you read a love letter, you don’t just read it for content. You try to squeeze every last little bit of meaning out of it. (Why did he sign it “Yours” instead of “Love”? Why a dash instead of a comma?).”

Maybe this is the greatest compliment that can be paid to the relationship between the Jewish people and Torah; the metaphor of a love letter.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Behar/Behukotai posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/08/10

Torah Portion: Behar/Behukotai
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 25:1-27:34
May 7, 2010

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them. When anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply, . . . from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight.”

The conclusion of the Book of Leviticus brings an end to the Israelites extensive stay at Mt. Sinai. Before packing up and moving on, the final chapter of Leviticus is a reminder that their new portable sanctuary comes at a price. After receiving the Torah on Sinai, learning of the plans for a sanctuary, seeing it constructed, and celebrating its completion, the people are reminded that maintaining this place of God is costly. Nothing comes free. Even the “manna from heaven” came with strings attached!

The ancient form of taxation involved vowing something, or someone, to be given to the Temple. In the case of a human being, he/she was not actually given but redeemed from the requirement by paying a certain amount (in the case above, 50 shekels of silver). Whatever one brought to pay their Temple tax was valued and they would pay the value and redeem the object.

The Eitz Hayim Humash commentary asks a good question, “How do we measure the value of a person? The world at large values rich people more than poor people, economically productive people more than less productive, fertile women more than childless women, clever and attractive people more than others. In God’s temple, however, people are evaluated “by the sanctuary weight.” God views our worth differently than the world does.”

In our day, the synagogue should be a place where a person’s value is not measured in material or superficial terms. We live in a world that is obsessed with rich people, sports heroes, beautiful bodies and narcisstic pleasures. Enough! When one walks through the door into a synagogue sanctuary, they should be welcomed as one “fashioned in God’s image”; a co-sanctifier of God’s name.

After hurricane Katrina, NBC News realized that there exist other people-besides politicians and celebrities-who make a difference in this world. Since the hurricane, NBC has offered a special feature several times a week on their evening news entitled, “People Who Make A Difference.” They have traveled the country finding incredible human beings who are touching the lives of children, elderly, infirmed, and those in need of a gentle hand or kind smile. These are people who seldom appear on the front pages of daily life but without whom a meaningful life would not be possible. Borrowing an expression from the “material” world, their value is “priceless.”

Not surprising, most of these people who are making a difference happen to be religious and some are even Jews! The synagogue is a place-like the ancient Temple-where each person is a valued member regardless of who they are. As a result, many of these same people leave the synagogue intent on sharing their wealth of values and ethics with a world sorely in need.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Emor posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/30/10

Torah Portion: Emor
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 21:1-24:23
April 30, 2010

“You shall not profane my Holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people-I the Lord who sanctify you.” (Lev. 22:32)

The Hebrew word for “sanctifying God’s name” is Kiddush Ha’Shem, and for profaning God’s name, Hillul Ha’shem. As children, we believed that cussing and swearing were the way one profaned God’s name. As adults, we should know better. The Eitz Hayim Humash commentary notes, “The public performance of a mitzvah not only benefits the one who does it but has an effect on those who see it, even as a violation of the Torah in public is more damaging than similar behavior done privately. This leads the ancient Sages to view the Sanctifying and Profaning of God’s name as essentially a public act. . . .The Talmud states that there is no greater achievement for a Jew than acting in a way that causes others to praise and respect the God of Israel and the Torah’s ways; and there is no graver sin for a Jew than acting in a way that causes people to think less of Israel’s God and Israel’s laws.”

We are responsible for what we say and do, especially in public. Several years ago, the owner of a nursing home in New York was indicted for mistreatment of his residents. The man happened to be a rabbi. In court he made certain to wear a kippah and insist he be referred to as Rabbi. His efforts to masquerade as a religious figure, wearing a cloak of ethical behavior, became an important part of his defense and a “shanda”-embarrassment and humiliation-for the Jewish community. In the end, he was convicted and sentenced to jail, but he took his Jewish community to prison with him. His actions were a “Hillul Ha’shem” because 1) of his treatment of the elderly in his care, and 2) his public display of Jewish self-righteousness. Each night as the court proceedings appeared on television news (both local & national), he shamed not only himself, but his community. We all suffered because of the misguided and selfish actions of one.

I am always cautious when using my title “Rabbi” in the public arena. Whether it be a letter to the editor or an e-mail posting on Facebook, when I use the title Rabbi I am involving more than just myself. I am including my entire Jewish community. Rabbi Bradley Artson notes, “Our deeds implicate those who love us and those who are connected to us through family and through culture. . . .When Jews engage in fraud, we shame the values cultivated by our tradition. When Jews express contempt against other Jews-either through word or deed-we betray our common ancestry and endanger our shared future. When Jews ignore the suffering of other people-in our own communities and around the world-we implicate the Source of humanity.”

What is true for Jews is true for everyone. When one chooses to become a public personality, their actions reflect upon the community they represent. Hillul Ha’shem-profaning God’s name-occurs when a Jew’s words and deeds trample the precepts of Torah, when a popular sports figure’s behavior flies in the face of community values, and when a public official’s actions discredit the Constitution he/she swore to uphold.

As Rabbi Artson concludes, “The kippah on your head, the mezuzah near your door, or the Star of David around your neck is a pledge to reflect the highest standards of Jewish morality. We are one.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Israel Independence Day posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/23/10

Israel at 62
April 23, 2010

The State of Israel celebrated her 62nd birthday this week. While still a source of enthusiasm and excitement (especially in the large Jewish population centers of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago), each year there is a growing number of ambivalent Jews, and Jewish institutions. Reasons abound for the decline in interest in Yom Ha’atzmaut/Israel Independence day. Today, there are probably more Jews born after the creation of the modern state than before. Jews are growing weary of the continuous struggle for survival with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel. American Jews-especially those born after 1948-are more likely to identify the United States as their homeland, and Israel as just another foreign country, albeit Jewish.

If the mood among American Jews toward Israel has been less than ecstatic, the same can be said of Israelis themselves. The popular leftist newspaper Ha’Aretz wrote on the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day, “Israel is isolated globally and embroiled in a conflict with the superpower whose friendship and support are vital to its very existence. It is devoid of any diplomatic plan aside from holding on to the territories and afraid of any movement,” the editorial said. “It wallows in a sense of existential threat that has only grown with time. It seizes on every instance of anti-Semitism, whether real or imagined, as a pretext for continued apathy and passivity.”

“Doom and Gloom” are popular characters these days. Whether it be the economy, the Iranian threat, or the Middle East, everyone seems to be wearing a frown (sometimes masked by a smile!). None of these are reasons to abandon hope, or for Jews to abandon Israel. The real story of the Jewish state is seldom told. Israel, only a fraction of one percent of the Middle East land mass and 2 percent of its population, has the highest ratio of university degrees per capita in the world. The country, by a large margin, produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation in the world and has the highest number of scientists and technicians per capita in the world. With those achievements, it is not surprising that Israel has the highest number of PhD's and the highest number of physicians per capita in the world.

Israel also is the only nation in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in its number of trees.

Taking care of Jews around the world, the nation is the largest immigrant-absorbing nation on Earth while respecting other religions. It is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population has grown over the last 50 years and is the only country in the Middle East where Christians, Muslims and Jews are all free to vote.

Despite all its success, Israel also leads the world in United Nations Security Council resolutions against the Jewish State. Of the 175 U.N. Security Council resolutions passed before 1990, 97 were directed against Israel. Of the 690 U.N. General Assembly resolutions voted on before 1990, 429 were directed against Israel.

Over the years, what has been the source of your greatest stress, anger, and indignation? If you give pause to think about the question, you will probably answer “family.” At times it feels as if we have endless patience for the dealings of strangers. Not so family. The reason is obvious. We have vested interest in family. They are a part of us and we expect more from them. When a son or daughter disappoints a parent, the parent doesn’t divorce them but works with them to attain mutually desired goals. The same Is true of Israel and the Jewish people. We are family. By definition, this means we are not going to always be in agreement, but neither will we abandon one another.

The strength and confidence exhibited by the Jewish community of the United States is the direct result of there being a State of Israel. Before 1948, the American Jew’s mantra was “Shah, Shtil/be silent”, don’t expose yourself to this anti-Semitic world. With the creation of Israel this all changed. American Jews were identified, and identified themselves, with a Jewish state capable of defending herself against enemies while opening her arms to those in need. Israel became a beacon of light educationally, culturally, technologically, scientifically, and spiritually. Israel and the Jewish people were, again, ONE. And, for the 62nd year there is no reason to abate our relationship nor our celebration of it.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Tazria/Metzora posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/16/10

Torah Portion: Tazria/Metzora
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 12:1-15:33
April 16, 2010

This is a particularly difficult portion of Torah to understand. From its very beginning, one is challenged to ask why a new mother, after the long-awaited moment of childbirth, should be considered ritually “impure” (ta’may) for an extended period of time?

Baruch Levine, in his commentary to the Book of Leviticus, sheds some new insight into the meaning of this ritual:

“The rituals prescribed in the Torah regularly utilize the category of impurity for dealing with conditions that are life threatening. In ancient usage, “pure” (ta’hor) and “impure”(ta’may) correspond to what in modern health care is referred to as “immune” and “susceptible”, respectively. The childbearing mother was particularly vulnerable, and her child was in danger too, since mortality was widespread in pre-modern societies. By declaring the new mother “impure”, susceptible, the community sought to protect and shelter her.”

Judaism is a worship and celebration of the living, not the dead. Every effort is made to create, sustain, protect, and honor life. This is the meaning of “pure” (ta’hor): A spiritual & physical embrace of life; an “immunity” to life-threatening circumstance. When one does become “susceptible” (“impure”) to death, the community takes them aside and offers healing comfort and support until they can be restored to a state of “immunity”.

Understanding the ritual categories of “pure” & “impure” in this manner explains why one washes his/her hands after leaving a cemetery or goes to the Mikveh (ritual bath) after participating in a “Tahara” (preparation of a body for burial). In both cases, one has confronted death and become “susceptible” to its dark side, such as depression. The symbolic act of ritual cleansing is spiritually powerful enough to restore one to a state of “Ta'hor” (purity) and turn one’s attention, again, to the task of living.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shemini posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/09/10

Torah Portion: Shemini
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 9:1-11:47
April 9, 2010

This Torah portion provides a list of the animals, birds, and fish a Jew is permitted to eat. They are termed “Kosher”, meaning “fit for consumption under Jewish law".

The Eitz Hayim Humash notes, “The overriding purpose of the dietary code is explicit: “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 9:44). The dietary laws constitute a way of sanctifying the act of eating. The eating of meat requires killing a living creature, constantly seen by the Torah as a compromise. These laws elevate the eating of meat to a level of sanctity by introducing categories of permitted and forbidden. For animals, eating is a matter of instinct; only human beings can choose on moral or religious grounds not to eat something otherwise available.”

It is the ability to consciously choose that distinguishes humankind from all of the rest of God’s creations. Our choices each day, from the clothes we put on in the morning to the verbal communications in the workplace reflect the type of person we are, or aspire to be. For the Jew, the beginnings of life are neutral; we are neither good nor bad. What we become is determined by both nature and nurture. Kashrut is a moral discipline for the Jew striving to give meaning to him/herself and discover the power of Godliness in the world. “If I can be so particular about the food I put into my mouth, how much more so words that come out.” “Even though I have an appetite for everything I see, as a human being I must choose to curb my appetites and appreciate what I have.” “The taking of life, even that of an animal, is something that should never be taken lightly.”

The late Rabbi Samuel Dresner wrote, “Judaism ennobles something ordinary and everyday with a code of what to eat and how to eat, by teaching us that every act of life can be hallowed, even the act of eating. As Abraham Heschel wrote, “Perhaps the essential message of Judaism is that in doing the finite, we can perceive the infinite.” In eating a slice of bread we can discover God; in drinking a cup of wine we can sanctify the Sabbath; in preparing a piece of meat we can learn something of the reverence of life. Our glory as humans is in our power to hallow, by means of which we not only overcome the beast within but even surpass the angels.”

Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin wrote in their book Questions People Ask About Judaism, “Every time a Jew sits down to eat a kosher meal he or she is reminded that the animal being eaten is a creature of God, that the death of such a creature cannot be taken lightly, that hunting for sport is forbidden, that we cannot treat any living thing irresponsibly, and that we are responsible for what happens to other beings (human and animal) even if we did not come into contact with them.”

Keeping Kosher is not about separating myself from others, nor is it for reasons of health. I do it as a concrete and visible reminder of my holy responsibility to the world I live in and those with whom I share it.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Passover posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/26/10

March 26, 2010

In the late 1970’s, African-American writer Alex Haley published the book “Roots” describing his family history dating back to a relative, Kunta Kinte, who was brought to America in 1767 and sold as a slave. In each subsequent generation, the descendents would sit with their children and relate the family story. As slaves, they never wanted to forget that they were once a proud, free people; warriors from Africa. As free people, they never wanted to forget from whence they came. Sound familiar? Their story is our story, only three-thousand years removed!

We, too, were once slaves, in the land of Egypt. Separated by over one-hundred generations, Jews continue to remind themselves of their roots. We should never forget from whence “we” came so we never become immune to the cry of others still suffering under the bondage of slavery. Slavery is alive and well today. Modern day slavery is any system by which an individual or group of human beings is controlled and forced to work for another without their consent or is deceived or manipulated into serving another. This can take many forms, including but not limited to forced labor, commercial sexual exploitation, human trafficking, forced marriage, debt bondage, religious slavery, and more.

Passover also teaches that modern-day slavery may be understood as a euphemism for human pain and suffering; the type seen in the faces of the poor, destitute, and distraught. They may not fit the traditional definition of “slave,” but in America their continued deprivation-whether it be homelessness, hunger, or lack of healthcare-is a stain upon a declaration made by this country on July 4, 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration of Independence goes on to say, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted.” “We” are the government. “We” bear the responsibility for helping our citizenry realize a fulfilling and enriching life. As Jews, our responsibility is even more pronounced because “we were slaves in the Land of Egypt,” and know all too well what can occur when people turn their back on other people.

There are any number of questions that can (and should) be asked at the Passover Seder table. Let me suggest an additional three. These questions, asked by Rabbi Hillel two thousand years ago, are as relevant today as they were when first asked:

“If I am not for myself, who will be?”
"If I am only for myself, what sort of person am I?
"If not now, When?"

The significance of Passover is found in their answer.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayakhel/Pekude posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/12/10

Torah Portion: Vayakhel-Pekude
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 39:22-40:38
March 12, 2010

Among the insightful attributes of the Torah is its understanding of the psychology of humankind. It would be much simpler to speak of life in “Pollyannaish” terms: Everyone grows up happily, attends school enthusiastically, succeeds in a chosen profession, embraces the ideals of Judaism willingly, and shows care, concern, and love for all humankind. One can hope and wish, but the Torah realizes this is not the case. As long as “people are people”, there will be differences among us. Some will succeed and others will not, some will care while others care less, some will make a difference and others will subtract! The choice lies not in the hand of fate, but in the responsibility of good parenting.

The final Torah portions in the Book of Exodus return to the process of building a portable sanctuary in the desert. The portion Vayakhel begins with the words, “And Moshe assembled all the congregation of the Children of Israel (Exo. 35:1).” After exhorting the people to observe the Sabbath day even in the process of building something as holy as the ancient Tabernacle, Moses informs them of the need for contributions of gold, silver, brass, fine linen, seal skins, acacia wood, and more. Here we learn that giving is an acquired, rather than innate quality. Not everyone knows how!

“And all the congregation of the Children of Israel departed from the presence of Moshe. And they came, every one whose heart uplifted him, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and they brought the Lord’s offering (Exo. 35:20-21).”

A contemporary Midrash (Jewish legend) teaches, “All came to the assembly to hear Moses' speech, “And Moses gathered together all the congregation of the Children of Israel,” but after he had finished saying what he had to say, “all the congregation of the Children of Israel departed” one by one. Later only the select few individuals “whose heart uplifted them” returned with their donations.”

From the very beginning, Judaism has taught that humankind is not born good, bad, or indifferent; we are simply born. Goodness is acquired. It is taught from birth, both by example and study. The teacher-in this instance the parent-becomes entrusted with the single-most important responsibility in life: Transmitting the moral/ethical values of Judaism to a child. In doing so, a child learns to distinguish between “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong.” A child also learns that goodness requires giving. Again, it is through the parent’s words and example that the child acquires the “uplifted heart” necessary to respond to the needs of the community.

The Jewish parent is entrusted with the responsibility to “uplift” the hearts of his/her children to become giving, caring, and loving people. It all begins in the home. It doesn’t come naturally, but Judaism is here to assist in the transmission.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tisa posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/05/10

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa (Shabbat Parah)
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 30:11-34:35
March 5, 2010

One should never underestimate the value of art in molding cultural attitudes and behavioral norms. The Encyclopedia Judaica notes, “Of all the major biblical figures, not excepting David, Jacob, Joseph, and Solomon, Moses has inspired the largest amount of creative endeavor in literature, art, and music.”

The most famous sculpture of Moses is the statue by Michelangelo in the San Pietro in Vincoli Church in Rome. What is most notable about the statue are the horns protruding from Moses’ head. The work was originally intended for the mausoleum of Pope Julius II. The image of Moses with horns appears in a number of medieval statues and paintings. The key to understanding “why” is found in the Torah portion Ki Tisa.

Moses has come down from Mt. Sinai with the first set of tablets only to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. In anger, Moses throws the tablets to the ground. After scolding the people for their loss of faith, he pleads with God for another moment of divine intimacy. The second revelation of God on Mt. Sinai is done in the absence of the Children of Israel. Moses returns to Mt. Sinai alone. A second set of tablets are prepared, further instruction is given to Moses, and, again, he returns to the Israelites.

Upon returning to the people, Moses is greeted by his brother Aaron who notices “the skin of [Moses} face sent forth beams”(Exo. 34:30). The Hebrew word “keren” is correctly translated as either “a ray of light” or a “horn”. In this context, the correct understanding of the word is “a ray of light” or “beams”. A later Latin translation of the Bible chose to translate the word as “horn”. Medieval artists, including Michelangelo, dependent upon Latin for their understanding of the Hebrew Bible, were misled into believing Moses had horns!

The impact of medieval church art on early Christian theology was, in this instance, devastating. The fires of anti-Semitism were fed by the notion that Jews, like their famous leader Moses, had horns. How important is it to understand a text, like the Hebrew Bible, in its original language? One small mistranslation has taken centuries to correct!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Purim 5770 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/26/10

Purim Torah
February 26, 2010

The celebration of Purim begins on Saturday evening, February 27. Purim revolves around the Book of Esther. In the words of Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, “The [Book] of Esther is a coming-of-age story; it is the story of a young Jewish woman who is transformed from bauble to strategist and ruler; it is the story of her struggle with her identity as a Jew. It is the story of a person whose actions helped her people become victors rather than victims. It is a story about a Jewish woman who passes as a Persian, is chosen to be queen, and has to come out of the closet to save her people.”

The Book of Esther has its heroes (Esther & Mordechai) and its villain (Haman). It is an old-fashioned melodrama with danger, excitement, and a lot of joy. In an age when we take life far too seriously, Purim is the “Jewish” opportunity to dress in costume, make a lot of noise, and celebrate the joy of living. A part of this joy is the ability to laugh, even at ourselves. In this spirit, today I teach some “Purim” Torah. Enjoy!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

To those of us who have children in our lives, whether they are our own, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or students...here is something to make you chuckle.

Whenever your children are out of control, you can take comfort from the thought that even God's omnipotence did not extend to His own children.

After creating heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve.

And the first thing he said was "DON'T!"

"Don't what?" Adam replied.

"Don't eat the forbidden fruit." God said.

"Forbidden fruit? We have forbidden fruit?

"Hey Eve..we have forbidden fruit!"

" No Way!"

"Yes way!"

"Do NOT eat the fruit! " said God.


"Because I am your Father and I said so! " God replied, wondering why He hadn't stopped creation after making the elephants.

A few minutes later, God saw His children having an apple break and He was ticked!

"Didn't I tell you not to eat the fruit? " God asked.

"Uh huh," Adam replied.

"Then why did you? " said the Father.

"I don't know," said Eve.

"She started it! " Adam said.

"Did not! "

"Did too! "


Having had it with the two of them, God's punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own. Thus the pattern was set and it has never changed.

BUT THERE IS REASSURANCE IN THE STORY! If you have persistently and lovingly tried to give children wisdom and they haven't taken it, don't be hard on yourself.

If God had trouble raising children, what makes you think it would be a piece of cake for you?


1. You spend the first two years of their life teaching them to walk and talk.
Then you spend the next sixteen telling them to sit down and shut up.

2. Grandchildren are God's reward for not killing your own children.

3. Mothers of teens now know why some animals eat their young.

4. Children seldom misquote you. In fact, they usually repeat word for word what you shouldn't have said.

5. The main purpose of holding children's parties is to remind yourself that there are children more awful than your own.

6. We childproofed our homes, but they are still getting in.

ADVICE FOR THE DAY: Be nice to your kids. They will choose your nursing home one day.

AND FINALLY: If you have a lot of tension and you get a headache, do what it says on the aspirin bottle: TAKE TWO ASPIRIN AND “KEEP AWAY FROM CHILDREN!!”

Terumah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/19/10

Torah Portion: Terumah
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 25:1-27:19
February 19, 2010

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exo. 25:8)

This Torah portion presents the instructions for the building of a portable sanctuary. The sanctuary-referred to as the Mishkan-serves as the center for Israelite worship during the 40 years of wandering in the Sinai desert. More importantly, it becomes the blueprint for the construction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem.

Professor Ismar Schorsch notes, “The model society envisioned by the Torah would not long endure without a ritual link to the source of its inspiration.” Thus, the necessity to build a center for worship. The 10th century Jewish scholar, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, recognized that animal sacrifice-so embedded in the minds & hearts of the former Israelite slaves-had to be continued if this new people were to emerge. In order to take control and re-define the sacrificial cult, it was necessary to create one center-the ancient Temple-that would be the only place sacrifices would be offered, and the priests and levites the only one’s permitted to perform the sacrificial ritual. As centuries past, so did the taste for animal sacrifice. Schorsch points out, “While the destruction of the Temple by the Romans (70 c.e.) was surely a political calamity, it did accelerate the development of the synagogue and a liturgy predicated on the spoken word, prayer, the reading of the Torah, and preaching. Unlike the Temple, the synagogue was portable, inclusive, and democratic. Without it, neither the church nor the mosque is conceivable-nor, for that matter, is the survival of Judaism in the Diaspora. Modern Jews deemed worship by sacrifice a stage in the history of Judaism to be transcended.”

The religious fundamentalism that has gripped Islam, is not without a less violent counterpart in Judaism. There are sects of Jews today (albeit, small in number) who long for the re-building of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. For many of these Jews, the Western Wall (the last remaining remnant of the 2nd Temple) has become more than just a place to pray; but an idol to pray to. Many prayer books still contain the liturgical call to rebuild the Temple, but for the majority of Jews this is understood in metaphorical terms. The only reason for rebuilding the Temple would be to return to animal sacrifice. As a metaphor, the Temple’s rebuilding symbolizes a reunification of God, people, and the world in peace and harmony. A rebuilt Temple becomes a euphemism for the messianic era.

For Jews, the ultimate value is Jerusalem; not the Temple mount. The Temple mount (the present site of two mosques) is negotiable, Jerusalem is not. The ancient Temple, like the portable sanctuary described in the Torah portion, is an important part of the historical foundation upon which Judaism evolved. It served the early growth of Judaism in the same manner as the synagogue serves us now. An eternal people require a place of worship that mirrors eternity. For Jews, it is the Land of Israel whose heart is Jerusalem. As the 19th century Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Nahman of Bretslav, so poignantly taught, “Wherever I go, I go to Jerusalem.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Yitro posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/05/10

Torah Portion: Yitro
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 18:1-20:23
February 5, 2010

This Torah reading is an account of the single-most transformative moment in the history of the Jewish people-God’s revelation on Sinai. In a moment of thunder, lightening, and fire, a mountain lit up and a population of Hebrew slaves became the Jewish people. The acceptance of this pivotal moment is the cornerstone of Judaism, while it’s content is the subject of centuries of theological debate.

The traditional understanding of this seminal moment is that it occurred once, thousands of years ago, and by accepting the Torah, all Jews past, present, and future, became bound by commandments and obligations contained therein. Through the centuries this theological position was always a source of discussion and debate. After the 18th century emancipation of Western European Jewry, Jews began openly questioning their faith in relation to the new opportunities for learning and living in a more open society. By the 20th century, a number of new Jewish denominations (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc) viewed the moment of revelation in many different ways.

The early 20th century German philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig introduced Judaism to existentialism (existence of the individual self as a free and responsible agent). Buber suggested that all God revealed on Sinai was him/herself. There were no words or commandments. Each individual was challenged to openly reveal themselves to God. Revelation was the moment a person-with honesty & openness-approached another equally honest and open. In this moment, and in the space between these two people, stood God. For Buber, “commandments” got in the way of the intimacy he called an “I-Thou” moment.

Franz Rosenzweig, a colleague of Buber, went one step further. He saw commandments and mitzvot as a necessary roadmap to reach the existential moment of Godliness described by Buber. Rosenzweig also departed from the notion that Sinai occurred only once. He wrote that each person has his/her own individual “Sinai” or “aha” moment; a time, place, or experience that changes a person forever.

Mordechai Kaplan, the 20th century father of Reconstructionism, denied the existence of a supernatural God. For Kaplan, God was a part of all life and an integral part of each human. His theology of naturalism also rejected any notion of a supernatural revelation. Kaplan substituted the word “folk ways” for “mitzvot.” Judaism’s essence is its social base, its ethnic presence. The Jews survive because they are a people with a common language, land, and folkways.

The early founders of Conservative Judaism understood revelation in symbolic rather than literal terms. The Torah, the constitution of Judaism, was the product of divinely-inspired people. God was the God of history and each generation understand God and Torah in relation to their times.

And on, and on. Perhaps the only dogma in Judaism is the requirement for a belief in “One” God. How we understand our moment of origin, the Revelation on Mt. Sinai, continues to be a matter of debate, discussion, and a constant belief in unity through diversity. This is the strength of Judaism.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Tu B'Shevat posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/29/10

Tu B’Shevat (15th of Shevat)
January 29, 2010

“Whenever someone destroys a useful artifact, or rips clothing, demolishes a building, plugs up a spring, or senselessly destroys food, it violates the spirit of the Torah’s “Bal Tashchit/Do Not Destroy” rule. Such actions are disgraceful.” (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah)

Tu B’Shevat, the new year of trees, is a minor celebration in the Jewish calendar. For most of the 20th century it was celebrated in religious schools by purchasing trees to be planted in Israel by the Jewish National Fund. This single-minded campaign is responsible for the remarkable reforesting of the Judean Hills and the Galilee region of Israel. In the late 20th century, with the increased concern over global warming, air & water pollution, and the destruction of the world’s rain forests, Tu B’Shevat gained renewed importance as the Jewish response to environmentalism.

In Leviticus 19:23 it is written, “And when you enter this land, you shall plant fruit-bearing trees.” Even the ancient rabbis understood the practical importance of trees-shelter & sustenance. In our time, and with a far more sophisticated knowledge of science, we have begun to understand our very survival as a species depends upon the growth and protection of trees.

Trees are the largest and longest living organisms on earth. To grow tall the tree has become a miracle of engineering and a complex chemical factory. It is able to take water and salts out of the earth and lift them up to the leaves, sometimes over 400 ft above. By means of photosynthesis the leaves combine the water and salts with carbon dioxide from the air to produce the nutrients which feed the tree. In this process, as well as wood, trees create many chemicals, seeds and fruit of great utility to humankind. Trees also remove carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, from the air.

Trees are of continued importance to the environment. Tropical rain forests are of particular significance; although they now occupy less than 6 per cent of the land surface of the earth they probably sustain more than half of the biological species on the planet.

There is now a real danger that in the not very distant future humankind will destroy a large proportion of the present population of species on earth and create an uninhabitable environment. Tu B’Shevat comes to teach it does not matter whether you believe environmental changes are caused by human negligence or is a natural phenomena. Since the creation of humankind we have assumed a responsibility as caretaker for this world we inherit. We can ill afford to shirk this responsibility. A concern for trees is only the beginning.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Bo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/22/10

Torah Portion: Bo
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 10:1-13:16
January 22, 2010

Human beings possess an innate fear of darkness. Years ago, I was director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, WA. Each summer we took campers on an overnight hike into the adjoining woods. One of the purposes served by this exercise was teaching the campers a respect for the awesomeness of nature. As darkness fell upon the campsite, the first task at hand was building a campfire; not merely for warmth, but subconsciously as a separation from the fears that lurked in the darkness. After sitting around the campfire, we would gather the campers together for a “late night” walk in the woods. . .without flashlights. The slightest noise created fear among many of the campers. Everyone huddled closer together. The campers soon embraced the comfort provided by the light of the moon, but the fear remained until we returned to the safety of the campfire. No one likes to stand in the dark, physically or metaphysically.

Darkness was the 9th plague God brought upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The Egyptians worshipped the sun. Darkness was their greatest fear, especially when there was no proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, the final three plagues are united by the presence of darkness: In the 8th plague the locusts “darkened” the face of the earth and the 10th plague (death of the first-born) took place at midnight.

It is no coincidence that God is often discovered in the “night of our lives.” It is within moments of personal crisis that one turns to God for comfort. God becomes the primordial light when our world is enveloped in darkness. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “God is found in our insistence on finding our way through the valley of the shadow, knowing that there is evil in the world, knowing that some of the time the evil may overpower us, yet fearing no evil, “for Thou art with me.”

The 9th plague was intended to destroy the faith of the Egyptian people by blotting out their Sun god with 24-hour darkness. Without the light of hope, how long can one sustain life? Professor Ismar Schorsch writes, “That faith is a compassionate creator also helps to account for the unconventional fact that in Judaism the day begins at nightfall. Yet we greet the new day as our strength wanes because in the darkness we detect the light to come.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Earthquake In Haiti posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/15/10

The Haiti Disaster: Emergency Assistance Needed
January 15, 2010

Today is not just a time to “learn” Torah, but to “live it.”

As many as 40,000 or more lives were lost in a matter of minutes in the massive earthquake that rocked Haiti. The larger the number the more difficult it becomes to comprehend. With the sight of dead bodies lying along a roadside or being loaded by a bulldozer into a dump truck, the television screen numbs our senses to the enormity of this disaster. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

This moment demands action. In this time of need, donating food and supplies is not as important as contributing money. There is a large number of agencies requesting financial assistance. There is an even larger number of individuals, posing as agencies, using this disaster as an opportunity for a scam. I want to make this easy for you. First, everyone who reads this notice can do something. In the early stages of recovery, the most important work is being done by the International Red Cross. You can text “HAITI” to “90999” and $10 will be donated automatically to the Red Cross and charged to your cell phone bill. For further information and larger donations, check the Red Cross website at redcross.org.

The most important immediate Jewish response to the Haiti earthquake disaster is the American Jewish World Service. If you wish to donate to their efforts go to their website: www.ajws.org.

Torah’s teaching this week is “doing nothing is not an option”.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Shemot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/08/10

Torah Portion: Shemot
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 1:1-6:1
January 8, 2010

[This week’s Torah teaching is written by my colleague Rabbi Joyce Newmark of Teaneck, New Jersey. It’s good!]

As we begin reading the book of Shemot/Exodus, the Torah's narrative transitions from the story of a family - Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - to the story of the Jewish people and the two events that shaped our identity - the exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai.

We begin with an account of the birth and early life of Moses. This story's central event is God's revelation and call to Moses at the burning bush. The Torah tells us that one day Moses was tending his father-in-law's sheep when he noticed a burning thorn bush. Moses says, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight.” Then we read, “When God saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him.” We can easily understand this passage to mean that the burning bush was a test - that it was only after Moses decided to stop and take notice of it that God decided to call him.

It has been suggested that the bush had been burning for some time and that many people had seen it, said to themselves, “Oh, a burning bush, that's cool” - and just kept on walking. What distinguished Moses was that he saw the bush, recognized it as something extraordinary, and stopped to investigate it and try to understand what it meant.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner sees another test in the burning bush, because the Torah tells us, “the bush was not consumed.” Rabbi Kushner writes: “How long would you have to watch wood burn before you could know whether or not it actually was being consumed? Even dry kindling wood is not burned up for several minutes. . . . God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes.” In other words, God wanted a leader who understood that important tasks often require a significant commitment of time.

Today we seem to live in an “attention deficit” culture. Here's something new - try it once, if it's not everything you hoped for, forget it, and move on to the next new thing. For example, every fall (and now in winter and summer as well), television networks heavily promote the season's new shows, but if the ratings are disappointing after one or two episodes, the show is cancelled, never to be seen again.

It's not just television shows. People want instant success and gratification from their jobs, their friends, their fitness programs, and their family lives. “Been there, done that, it didn't work, so I'm outta here.” A congregant once told me she had come to shul one Friday night, “but it wasn't spiritual, so I won't be coming back.”

If you watch a TV show once and decide that it's not for you, there's no real harm done. But the things that matter - a career, good health and fitness, marriage, parenting, a relationship with God - take time. Sometimes you have to invest a lot of time before you see results. If you refuse to make that investment, you will be left with nothing.

Moses turned away from his daily routine to see a burning bush. He stood and watched it and thought about it, and, finally, he realized that the bush continued to burn but was not consumed. It was then that God called to him, because God knew that although taking the Israelites out of Egypt and leading them to the Promised Land would take 40 years, and that those years would be filled with frustration and disappointments, Moses would not abandon his mission - because God's promise was worth waiting for.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayehi posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/01/10

Torah Portion: Vayehi
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 47:28-50:26
January 1, 2010

This portion brings to a close the Book of Genesis. The Patriarchal & Matriarchal period of Jewish history comes to an end. Jacob, after living the final 17 years of his life in Egypt in the care of his son, Joseph, dies. Jacob’s sons fear that following the death of their father, their brother Joseph will finally unleash his vengeance against them for trying to kill him in his youth. Their fears are unfounded as Joseph explains to them:

"Have no fear, for am I in place of God? Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive a numerous people. Thus did [Joseph] comfort them and speak straight to their hearts (Genesis 50:19-20)."

At no point in Joseph's life did he ever express anger against those who disagreed with him. As a youth, his world view was contrary to that of the rest of his family, including his father. Yet, he never forced his brothers, through acts of verbal coercion, to accept his opinions and outlooks. Joseph gave the appearance of one who, at worst, respectfully disagreed with views he did not share. He understood what his brothers never would: the difference in the pursuit of "truth," as opposed to self-interest.

The famous Scottish author, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) wrote, "In a controversy, the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves." Anger is not a positive emotion. After having been involved in an argument, if the first response is, "that makes me so angry," then one is no longer interested in the argument, only the "self."

Remember the "good ole days" in Congress, when a Republican would vigorously debate a Democrat and then share dinner together in the evening? The Talmud notes that the ancient schools of Shammai & Hillel, who disagreed with one another on almost every aspect of Jewish observance and law, married their daughters to each other's sons. They understood that the aim of their arguments was not victory, but common progress.

Joseph seemed to know he served a greater purpose than just his own personal aggrandizement. He understood there was a "truth" bigger than him and his brothers. He wasn't willing to waste his precious time in anger, enmity, hatred, or vengeance. He saw the bigger picture; the future. It is only fitting that his death bring to a close the first chapter in the history of the Jewish people.

Happy New Year!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Hanukah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/11/09

First Night of Hanukah
December 11, 2009

Hanukah is a wonderful celebration that has captured the attention and imagination of more Jews than any other Jewish celebration of the year. The Hebrew School version of the Hanukah story portrays the “few overcoming the many” in a battle for religious freedom capped off by the “miracle of oil” (one day’s supply of oil keeping the ancient Temple menorah lit for eight days). The story of the ancient Maccabees, and the celebration of Hanukah, are historical realities, albeit, often embellished. This Friday’s edition of the New York Times contained an op-ed piece written by David Brooks, himself a Jew, entitled “The Story of Hanukah.” I have included the article below. Though brief, it offers an “adult” understanding of the history of Hanukah and a more sophisticated insight into the importance of this much-celebrated occasion.

“Tonight Jewish kids will light the menorah, spin their dreidels and get their presents, but Hanukkah is the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today. It’s a holiday that accurately reflects how politics is, how history is, how life is.

With the spread of Greek culture, Alexander’s Empire, and the smaller empires that succeeded it, brought modernizing ideas and institutions to the Middle East. At its best, Hellenistic culture emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. It brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities. It raised living standards, especially in places like Jerusalem.

Many Jewish reformers embraced these improvements. The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. The reformers wanted to merge these two ideas.

Urbane Jews assimilated parts of Greek culture into their own, taking Greek names like Jason, exercising in the gymnasium and prospering within Greek institutions. Not all Jews assimilated. Some resisted quietly. Others fled to the hills. But Jerusalem did well. The Seleucid dynasty, which had political control over the area, was not merely tolerant; it used imperial money to help promote the diverse religions within its sphere.

In 167 B.C., however, the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, issued a series of decrees defiling the temple, confiscating wealth and banning Jewish practice, under penalty of death. It’s unclear why he did this. Some historians believe that extremist Jewish reformers were in control and were hoping to wipe out what they saw as the primitive remnants of their faith. Others believe Antiochus thought the Jews were disloyal fifth columnists in his struggle against the Egyptians and, hence, was hoping to assimilate them into his nation.

Regardless, those who refused to eat pork were killed in an early case of pure religious martyrdom.

As Jeffrey Goldberg, who is writing a book on this period, points out, the Jews were slow to revolt. The cultural pressure on Jewish practice had been mounting; it was only when it hit an insane political level that Jewish traditionalists took up arms. When they did, the first person they killed was a fellow Jew.

In the town of Modin, a Jew who was attempting to perform a sacrifice on a new Greek altar was slaughtered by Mattathias, the old head of a priestly family. Mattathias’s five sons, led by Judah Maccabee, then led an insurgent revolt against the regime.

The Jewish civil war raised questions: Who is a Jew? Who gets to define the right level of observance? It also created a spiritual crisis. This was not a battle between tribes. It was a battle between theologies and threw up all sorts of issues about why bad things happen to faithful believers and what happens in the afterlife — issues that would reverberate in the region for centuries, to epic effect.

The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics. They were not in total revolt against Greek culture. They used Greek constitutional language to explain themselves. They created a festival to commemorate their triumph (which is part of Greek, not Jewish, culture). Before long, they were electing their priests.

On the other hand, they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.

Generations of Sunday school teachers have turned Hanukkah into the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire. Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses. Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.

But there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.”

What do you think about Hanukah, now? How does it speak to us today? Hmm.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayishlach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/04/09

Torah Portion: Vayishlach
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 32:4-36:43
December 4, 2009

To date, the patriarch Jacob’s life has been one of deception and disappointment. From birth, Jacob was to be the “chosen one”-the son who would carry on the journey of his grandfather Abraham. Could it be that parental expectations were too great? Did Jacob believe the only way he could please his mother Rebecca’s hopes for him was by taking advantage of others? Did the pressure of growing up in the tent of Isaac and Rebecca destroy Jacob’s self-esteem and undermine his confidence?

In the 50’s and 60’s there were a number of TV sitcoms purporting to reflect a normal American family. There was Ozzie & Harriet where every evening the family sat down to a meal and discussed inane happenings of the day. Curiously, never once did the father Ozzie go to work! Leave It To Beaver chronicled the daily routine of little Beaver Cleaver and his older brother Wally. Each day began with a family breakfast and concluded with a family dinner. Father Knows Best injected the caring physician and father into the mix. Any family that didn’t measure up to these standards was considered dysfunctional. The truth is more of us than not encountered some level of dysfunction in growing up. Most of us entered adult life carrying at least some troubling baggage from youth.

In trying to understand Jacob’s story, there is the gnawing question, “Who’s fault is it?” Did his parents, his mother in particular, permanently injure his character through unreal expectations? How about us? Are we permanently maimed by being raised in a dysfunctional environment? Is our parents divorce the reason for our bitterness and unhappiness? Was the lack of parental attention and affection the reason we are the way we are today? The answer to all these questions is maybe yes, maybe no. The questions that should be asked are, “Are we living a life of excuses? Do we have to be the way we are? Can we change?”

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob has a dream in which he enters into a wrestling match with an angel. In the end, he prevails and as a condition for releasing the angel Jacob demands a blessing. The angel responds, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and prevailed (Gen. 32:28-29).” If we understand the angel as a metaphor for Jacob’s conscience, then we have a person grappling with who he was and who he wants to be. In the end, Jacob prevails. He realizes he cannot escape his past but neither does he have to be defined by it. No longer will he be Jacob (literally, “he who held on to the heel of his brother”), but Israel (literally, “he who wrestled with God”).

None of us can deny our past. It is a part of who we are. Like Jacob, we possess the power to change the elements of personality and character we are not proud of. If we can learn to accept that a certain level of dysfunction occurs in the lives of all children, then as adults we have the ability to sift through the baggage of youth and make of ourselves the type of person our parents wanted us to be. The late Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan said it best when he wrote, “We [each individual human] possess the power making for salvation.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayetze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/27/09

Torah Portion: Vayetze
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 28:10-32:3
November 27, 2009

Among the secular holidays, Thanksgiving stands out as a time when we tend to focus on the past; memories of Thanksgiving gatherings and family celebrations from our youth. For many, it’s a day to reflectively understand what our parents and family members mean to us. Sure, they made a few mistakes, but who doesn’t? Perhaps, they were not everything we wanted them to be, but as we grew older it was amazing how much they learned (with a nod to Mark Twain)! One’s maturity is directly linked to the moment he/she is able to finally reconcile childhood issues of growing up with a love for those closest to us.

It took the patriarch Jacob 20 years to learn this lesson. Fearing a reprisal from his brother Esau for cheating him out of first his birthright and later his blessing, Jacob runs away from home taking refuge with his Uncle Laban. After 20 years, 2 wives, 2 handmaids, 12 sons, and 1 daughter, Jacob approaches his uncle and requests, “Give me leave to go back to my own homeland (Gen. 30:25).” Having nurtured his own large family and acquired great wealth, Jacob realizes an emptiness still exists; a longing to re-connect with his brother and those who made his life possible. It was time to go home.

Thanksgiving is about going home! It’s about re-visiting memories of good times and bad with the people who shaped our lives. Unlike a birthday, anniversary, or even Hanukkah celebration, people seldom bring material gifts to the Thanksgiving table, instead they bring something more important. . .themselves. The gift brought on Thanksgiving is another chance to love and be loved, to cherish and be cherished, by those who in spite of moments of disappointment still mean a great deal to us. It is no surprise that Thanksgiving is the busiest time of year for the travel industry. Human beings seem to possess an innate desire to re-connect.

The meaning of Thanksgiving, the significance of “going home,” is captured in the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner who shares the following story: “I was sitting on a beach one summer day, watching two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand. They were hard at work building an elaborate sand castle by the water’s edge, with gates and towers and moats and internal passages. Just when they had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand. I expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work. But they surprised me. Instead, they ran up the shore away from the water, laughing and holding hands, and sat down to build another castle. I realized that they had taught me an important lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Only our relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up. When that happens, only the person who has somebody’s hand to hold will be able to laugh.”

Happy Thanksgiving weekend!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Toldot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/20/09

Torah Portion: Toldot
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 26:1-28:9
November 20, 2009

Alan Dershowitz teaches and preaches law in the classroom, courtroom, and on television. His expert interest in constitutional law goes beyond just the U.S. Constitution to include the constitution of the Jewish people: Torah. He has even authored a text entitled “The Genesis of Justice”; a commentary on the Book of Genesis.

Dershowitz writes, “The entire Book of Genesis is about the early development of justice in human society. Jacob is born into a world with few rules and many inconsistent precedents regarding deception. His father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham, pretended their wives were their sisters in order to save their own lives. Moreover, his God is inconsistent in carrying out threats and promises. The result is a violent and lawless world.”

A considerable body of Midrash (Jewish legend) was written to find moral justification for Jacob’s early behavior. He is a person who cheats his twin brother, Esau, out of his birthright: “And Esau said to Jacob: Let me swallow, I pray, some of this red, red lentil soup for I am faint. . . . And Jacob said to Esau: Sell me first your birthright (Gen. 25:30 & 31)”. Then Jacob attempts to cheat his brother out of his rightful blessing by disguising himself as Esau: “And Jacob said to his father: I am Esau, your first-born son (Gen. 27:19)”).

If one is honest to the text, there can be no moral justification for Jacob’s early actions. The most that can be said is he was acting in the same manner as his father and grandfather, both of whom saved their lives by asking their wives to pass themselves off as their respective sisters (with regard to Abraham, see Gen. 12:11-20, and with regard to Isaac, see Gen. 26:1-12). In a world still lacking in lawful and ethical standards, deception was treated as “just another way” of doing business. Jacob followed in the footsteps of his ancestors.

As a child, I was taught “when you have a dance, you have to pay the band,” meaning, unless you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions, don’t do it! Jacob paid the price for his deception; he was deceived by his Uncle Laban. He also suffered from the later actions of his own sons who deceived him into believing his beloved son, Joseph, was dead.

As parents we must be constantly aware of the example we set for our children, and as adults we must be able to embrace the maturity required to leave the unnecessary baggage of youth behind.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Chaye Sarah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/12/09

Torah Portion: Haye Sarah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 23:1-25:18
November 12, 2009

“And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and seven years and twenty years: these were the years of the life of Sarah.”
(Gen. 23:1)

Whenever the Torah begins with the phrase “and the life of. . .”, it is coming to report a death. What is curious about the above verse is the way in which the Torah reports Sarah’s age at death. It could have simply written, “and the life of Sarah was a hundred and twenty-seven years.” Instead, it writes “a hundred years and seven years and twenty years.” The repetition of the word “years” prompted the 10th century Bible scholar Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhaki (known by the acronym “Rashi”) to explain, “The reason the word “year” is written at every term is to tell you that each term must be explained by itself as a complete number. At the age of one hundred she was a a woman of twenty in regard to her innocence. . .and when she was twenty she was as beautiful as when she was seven.”

Rashi teaches that one’s chronological age is merely a number, not a measure of one’s life. Sarah was as vibrant in spirit at 100 as she was at 20, and at 20 as youthful as at 7! No artificial makeover was necessary. Sarah was who she always was. Lest we think times were different then; people were less vain, don’t forget it was this same Sarah who, when told by God she would give birth to a son in her nineties, laughed and said, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment-with my husband so old?” She was conscious of the physical toll life had taken, but refused to let it define her.

With the aging of the 20th century “baby boomers”, a culture of “youth” has taken hold. Many people today define themselves not in terms of who they are, but what they look like. To paraphrase Rashi, what is important is not to be at hundred years like you were at twenty, but to physically appear at hundred years like you were at twenty! Entire industries have been created to make this dream a reality. A worship of God has been replaced by a worship of the body.

If the goal in Jewish life is to emulate God then being young at hundred means maintaining the youthful drive for a better world, continued intellectual pursuit and a moral/ethical innocence. The body is merely the shell serving as a vehicle for the character and personality of our strivings. As with any vehicle, we have the responsibility to keep it in shape, but it can never be a replacement for who we really are.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayera posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/06/09

Torah Portion: Vayera
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 18:1-22:24
November 6, 2009

When there exists a tension between human love and divine will, what wins out? Does one’s love for family and friends take precedence over divine expectation or does God’s will trump all?

Sarah says to Abraham, “Cast out that slave woman and her son (Gen. 21:10).” “The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned his [first-born] son [Ishmael]. . . . [And God said to Abraham] As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed (Gen. 21:11 & 13).” Abraham thus expelled Hagar and Ishmael from his house.

Sarah’s jealousy toward the son of her handmaid drives her to demand their expulsion. Abraham demonstrates a strong sense of compassion and concern, but his natural feelings give way to the divine scheme in which Isaac, Ishmael, and their descendents will have a special place in history.

The same theme occurs in the concluding section of this Torah portion when God tells Abraham: “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you (Gen. 22:2).” Does Abraham argue with God for the life of his son? “Early the next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. . .and set out for the place of which God had told him (Gen. 22:3).”

After expelling his first son, Ishmael, God now demands that Abraham offer up his other son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Here, too, Abraham’s love for his child is pitted against the demands of God. Rabbi Gunther Plaut points out, “Both deal with the mysterious purposes of the One who encompasses the whole world and is at the same time the guiding Force of the people of Abraham and Isaac.”

Abraham’s behavior seems so foreign to us. Like Job, it’s easy to believe in God when it requires little demand or sacrifice, but when confronted with ultimate sacrifice (in the case of Abraham, his own son) are we still willing to heed a divine calling? In truth, God exists in this world only when good people heed the divine command to work toward bettering the lives of those around them, even at the risk of sacrifice. Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he remarked, “God is waiting on every road that leads from intention to action, from desire to satisfaction.”

In the end, it was only a test, but-according to which midrash (legend) you read-Abraham was willing to act on God’s command. The medieval commentator Joseph Albo wrote, “The reward for potential good deeds is less than the reward for actual good deeds.” That Abraham was willing to not just give “lip service” to God’s word, but to act on it demonstrated the depth of his faith, commitment, and devotion to God and the future of the Jewish people.

There is a famous phrase in the Siddur (prayer book) that concludes a moment of personal meditation: May the words of [our] mouths and the meditations of [our] hearts be acceptable to You, O Lord. I might add, “and may there acceptance result not in more words but worthy deeds.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Lech Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/30/09

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 12:1-17:27
October 30, 2009

The founders of the modern State of Israel envisioned a mass aliyah (immigration) from wherever a Jew lived, including North America. It never happened. With a few exceptions, Israel has remained an ingathering for Jews living in oppression-Yemen, Syria, former Soviet Union, Argentina (during its economic fall-out), and Ethiopia. Even non-Jewish refugees-like the Vietnamese “boat people” of the ‘70’s-found sanctuary in Israel. The reticence of a Jewish population to leave its land of birth, even for a State of Israel, is not an historical anomaly.

It was not the idealistic initiative of Abraham to pick up, leave his parents and place of birth, and head for an unknown location (Canaan). It was God who had to tell Abraham, in no uncertain words, “Lech Lecha”-literally, “Get outta here!” Had he not heeded this command, the theological prominence of a belief in One God may not have taken root; the Jewish people might never have been.

In the 5th century b.c.e., when the Persian leader Cyrus permitted Jews to return from exile in Persia to rebuild the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, only a handful complied. The majority of the Jewish exiles were quite comfortable where they were. Even when times were not so good, Jews still identified with the lands of their birth. During the 15th century Inquisition in Spain, more than half the Jewish population chose to convert to Catholicism rather than face the prospect of expulsion. During the days leading up to the Holocaust, most German Jews refused to believe that the “Fatherland” would turn on them.

We live at a rare moment in history; a time when a strong and vibrant Jewish state exists. Yet, American Jews remain unwilling to give up their land of birth, even for a Jewish homeland. As a people we have never strived to be separate and apart but accepted and included. Even as we dreamt and prayed for a “Shevat Tzion”-Return to the Land of Zion, we unconsciously wanted nothing more than to be considered “normal” like everyone else. Though history continually reminds us we are not like everyone else, we still refuse to give up the dream. This is why every generation needs an Abraham to be reminded at least once, “Lech Lecha”-Get Outta Here! Except in our day, we have a place to go!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Noah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/23/09

Torah Portion: Noah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 6:9-11:32
October 23, 2009

Having recently concluded another holiday season, we should keep in mind it’s primary message: Tshuvah/repent, return, and begin, again. One should not wait until next year to evaluate the worthiness of one’s deeds, actions, and words. This is a process that goes on “24/7.” In part, this is the message delivered in the story of Noah and the Ark.

“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. . . God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark. . .” (Gen. 6:11-14). Targum Onkelos, an ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah, tried to understand God’s reasoning and purpose by offering a twist to the translation of Gen. 6:3. The original Hebrew seemed to express a frustration on behalf of God toward his/her creation: “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he is but flesh; let the days allowed him be 120 years.” Onkelos translated the verse, “And God said this evil generation shall not endure before Me forever; for they are flesh and their deeds are evil. I will grant them an extension of 120 years, to see if they repent.

The 10th century French Bible scholar, Rashi, picked up on the Aramaic translation and further noted, “God instructed Noah to begin building his ark long before the onset of the flood in the hope that people would ask him its purpose and be moved to repent.”

Understood in this manner, it was never God’s desire to destroy the earth. People would see Noah building this ark and ask him, “Why?” He would tell them God has given up on humankind and intends to destroy the world. They, in turn, would work to rehabilitate society and God would rescind the order. We know what happened!

The message is clear. We always have the chance to re-direct our actions, until it’s too late. We know we are depleting our natural resources and polluting the environment. We have been warned of what might happen if we do nothing. While there are those who refuse to accept scientific evidence of human harm to the environment, there are many more who are investing time and money in alternative energy sources and “green” technology. Whether humankind has a significant impact on global warming or not, learning to live a more ecologically-balanced life style can only be good for us and the world we live in.

The teachings of some of the ancient scholars suggest it was not God who destroyed the world but humankind through collective inaction to the threat that stood before them. Is it any different for us, in our day?

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Bereishet posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/16/09

Torah Portion: Bereishet
Chaps. 1:1-6:8
October 16, 2009

And we begin, again! The 1st chapter of Genesis contains the famous creation story. On the 6th day God created humankind. In an ancient legend (midrash) it is written, “When the Holy One came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.” Love said, “Let him be created, because he will dispense acts of love”; Truth said, “Let him not be created, because he will be a creature of lies”; Righteousness said, “Let him be created because he will perform righteous deeds”; Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he will lead to confrontation and war.” What did God do? He took Truth and cast it to the earth. Said the ministering angels before the Holy One, “Sovereign of the universe! Why do you cast away Truth?” God responded, “Let truth spring up from the earth (Psalm 85:12).”

The 18th century Eastern European Torah scholar Menahem Mendel of Kotzk (affectionately known as the “Kotzker Rebbe”) was confused by the above teaching. He explained it as follows: “What good would it do to only banish Truth? Peace, which had also argued against the creation of human beings, still remained. The answer is that in banishing Truth, obviously there would be Peace. For the root of quarreling is that everyone battles for his own truth. But if Truth is pushed off to one side, then there is nothing left to argue about, no one to denounce Peace!”

In the universe of faith, there exists one source of Truth-God. Having cast Truth to the earth, the Midrash describes an ideal peaceful world committed to the life-long search for Truth. The teaching also realizes then, as now, when individuals or communities of individuals invest themselves with their own truth, the result is division, confrontation, and war.

There are universal truths, national truths, political truths, and worst of all, religious truths. My god is greater than your god. My god requires the annihilation of disbelievers and heretics. My god only grants salvation to people who swear their allegiance to him. My god does not permit the evils of modern medicine. My god hates your god because your god is godless, and so on.

The midrash and the commentary of the Kotzker Rebbe are making the same point: The Light of Truth gives off more than one ray. Ours is not to denounce other religious traditions, but to respect them and work with them in a common and peaceful search for the ultimate good-Truth. The search begins this week as we embark on a new cycle of Torah study.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Sukkot 5770 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/02/09

October 2, 2009
(reprint from 2006)

This evening marks the beginning of the eight-day festival of Sukkot. A "Sukkah" is a small structure-often referred to as a "booth"- that in former times was constructed in the fields during the autumn harvest for the farmer to live in while protecting his crops from theft. The holiday is referred to in the Torah where the "Sukkah" has become synonymous with the tents the Israelites lived in during their 40 years of wandering.

In our day, Jewish tradition calls upon Jews to construct a Sukkah outside the comforts of their home. Many eat their meals in the Sukkah during the festival and some even sleep in it. Jewish law is rather precise with regard to how the Sukkah is built. The walls may be constructed of any material. Two complete walls and a part of a third will satisfy the minimum requirements and it should be strong enough to withstand the impact of ordinary winds. It is a temporary structure erected in the open air, under the sky and the ceiling is to be covered with cut branches. The branches on top should be loose enough so that one can see the sky, yet thick enough so that the shadow it casts on the ground exceeds the light thrown by the sun.

Sukkot is the Jewish thanksgiving. As such, it is also traditional to decorate the Sukkah with various fruits and vegetables symbolizing the harvest.

Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests a more contemporary understanding of the Sukkah and the holiday of Sukkot (plural of "Sukkah"). Rabbi Kushner sees the temporary, often flimsy, construction of a Sukkah as a way of saying "when part of your world collapses, make due with what you have left!” The holiday of Sukkot teaches us that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for all the blessings we have: Those we take for granted, those we discover in times of crisis, and those that still remain when all else is gone.

What better place to appreciate-at least once a year-what we have than a Sukkah which reflects how little we need when we have God.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center

Rosh Hashanah 5770 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/18/09

Rosh Hashanah 5770
September 18, 2009

Rosh Hashanah-the beginning of a new year of Jewish life & living-is defined by change; things change, time changes, and so do people. Nature instinctively sheds its seasonal appearance only to re-emerge with renewed beauty in the spring. Humankind is not so instinctive. For us, change becomes a choice. We can shed the habits and behavior that have held us back, or not. As the Torah so poignantly states, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!” (Deut. 30:19).

My colleague and friend, Rabbi Elie Spitz, offers the following teaching on this, the eve of a new year: “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that we should live our lives as if painting a work of art. I read that infrared photographs of the Mona Lisa revealed that Leonardo da Vinci had repainted parts of his masterpiece. “Aha,” I thought, “we can repaint.”

“Each relationship provides a canvas. Where we have failed our children or our life partners, we can repaint or fill in the canvas. Repair is often adding a bit more love, steadiness, or attention to make up for past conflict, neglect, or foolishness. Like a work of art, our relationships need the perspective of a full canvas, allowing us to appreciate the dark lines, drab patches, and the bright colors. These different moods and moments can be part of a coherent, attractive whole.”

“The meaning of the word Tshuvah is “to return.” This is the season for teshuvah. We can re-vision, revise and augment the canvases of our lives. We can make them more whole, more holy, more evocative of an embracing smile with each act, with each stroke of color.”

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of happiness, health, and peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Shoftim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/21/09

Torah Portion: Shoftim
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 16:18-21:9
August 21, 2009

“Justice, Justice shall you pursue that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:20)

This pithy verse is the foundation piece and moral underpinning of Jewish law and practice. Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests this statement implies more that just respecting and following justice; “we must actively pursue it!”

The New York Times reported this morning, “Over ferocious American objections, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the1988 Lockerbie jet bombing, flew home to a jubilant welcome in Libya on Thursday night after the Scottish government ordered his release on compassionate grounds. . . .he had served 8 years of a 27-year minimum sentence on charges of murdering 270 people in Britain’s worst terrorist episode.” Mr. Megrahi is reported suffering terminal prostate cancer and has only months to live.

The person responsible for making the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds was Scotland’s justice minister, Kenny MacAskill. In his statement to the press, MacAskill said, "Mr. Al Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them. But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days. Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated. For these reasons - and these reasons alone - it is my decision that Mr. Abdel baset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die."

Several countries, including the United States, protested vehemently the actions of the Scottish government. How can a dispassionate murderer of 270 innocent civilians be shown compassion? At the very least, shouldn’t he be required to serve out his sentence even if it means dying in prison? Where is the logic and reason in permitting him to spend his final days with his family, when he so callously took the same privilege away from 270 others? Sounds like a “no-brainer,” except for one matter: what does “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue” mean?

Many biblical and rabbinic commentators agree that the repetition of the word “Justice” conveys the idea that the pursuit of justice is not only the responsibility of government, of judges within society, but also a mitzvah for each individual. One may not say, “Let the courts worry about right and wrong or justice and injustice. I will remain silent.” Mr. MacAskill’s decision is a challenge to our moral/ethical value system. Because the perpetrator showed no compassion in his actions, should we respond to him in like fashion? He was not sentenced to death, but to a minimum prison term of 27 years. As the minister stated, “Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.” Justice is not about vengeance, it is about maintaining a social contract protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals. Is compassion not also an element in justice?

I am as perplexed as you are with this action, but a large degree of my perplexity is in trying to make sense of justice, mercy, compassion, and the gut reaction to seek vengeance. I do not want to present the perpetrator with even a posthumous victory knowing I abandoned my ideals to stoop to his level.

Elie Wiesel tells the following story: “There was a righteous man of Sodom, who walked the streets protesting against the injustice of his city. People made fun of him, derided him. Finally, a young person asked: “Why do you continue your protest against evil; can't you see no one is paying attention to you?” He answered, “I’ll tell you why I continue. In the beginning I thought I would change people. Today, I know I cannot. Yet, if I continue my protest, at least I will prevent others from changing me.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Eikev posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/07/09

Torah Portion: Eikev
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 7:12-11:25
August 7, 2009

Terrorism has made a large percentage of Americans distrustful of Arabs and Muslims. Illegal immigration has hardened the hearts of many toward Mexicans. Torah speaks loudly and clearly to a growing dispassion and insensitivity toward other races and creeds.

“For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:17-19)

The injunction to remember “you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,” appears no less than 36 times in the Hebrew Bible. The fact it is mentioned so many times suggests at least two concerns: 1) It must be of utmost importance, and 2) it must be a significant problem even among the ancient Israelites. Modernity has not wiped clean humankind’s continued inclination toward making judgments about others based on racial, geographical or theological persuasion. Whether it be the African-American man in Bellaire, Texas, shot by police in front of his home for being suspected of stealing his own car, or a person sending friends e-mail messages containing mean and spiteful attachments attacking Arabs, or neo-conservative organizations committed to denying any basic human right to illegal immigrants. In many instances the perpetrators deny being racists, portraying themselves as the last line of defense for the American way of life. 2,000 years ago, yesterday, or today, this is why the Bible needs to reiterate over and over again, “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The late contemporary Torah commentator, Pinchas Peli, eloquently frames the discussion: “The proper treatment of the stranger which the Bible requires of us does not remain in the realm of lofty ideals paying lip-service to human rights in general. It is spelled out over and over again, in concrete terms. It must be expressed in equality in law and justice (Leviticus 24:22), in equal working conditions and equal pay for labor (Deuteronomy 24:14), an equal share in welfare support (Leviticus 25:35), and above all in respect and love. This last requirement, love, being the hardest, is repeated several times, and reaches its peak in the Code of Holiness (Leviticus 19:33): “And if the stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger. . .shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Peli goes on to note, “Love him like yourself” could very well mean, love him because he is like yourself.” There are bad people in this world, but because some of them are Arab or Muslim does not mean all Arabs and Muslims are innately bad. There are illegal immigrants who have engaged in harmful criminal activity, but this should not cast aspersion on the those who entered this country, without the proper papers, in search of a better life for them and their families. Bigotry and racism have an uncanny way of appearing in the guise of “justice and righteousness.” The Bible emphatically instructs us to beware, never forgetting our responsibility to all humanity, especially the downtrodden. Remember, we “were strangers in Egypt.” We know all too well what it was like.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Va'et'chanan posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/31/09

Torah Portion: Va’et’chanan
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 3:23-7:11
July 31, 2009

“Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad”
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is Our God, the Lord alone (Deut. 6:4)

This single verse is commonly referred to as the most important statement, or prayer, in Jewish life. The Eitz Hayim Chumash commentary writes, “How did the “Shema” become the quintessential Jewish prayer, when technically it is not a prayer at all? (Prayers are addressed to God; the Shema is addressed to the Israelites.) Probably because it contains in just a few lines the basic theological commitments of Judaism: That there is a God; that there is only one God; that God is not only singular but also unique-no other being is like God; that the Jewish people have a specially intimate relationship with God and that we are commanded as Jews to love God wholeheartedly, to study God’s word, and to teach God’s word to our children.”

One midrash (Jewish legend) suggests the origin of this verse came in the final moments of Jacob’s life. His name had been changed from “Jacob” to “Israel.” As death approached, his sons gathered around to assure him they would carry on his traditions and those of their great grandfather Abraham-Listen, our father Israel, we share your belief that The Lord Is Our God, The Lord Alone.

The most important words in this one-line Jewish pledge of allegiance are the first (“Shema/Listen”) and the last “Ehad/The Lord Alone”).

Listen! Prayer is not just about talking to God, but listening to what God has to say. For the Jew, God’s word is the Torah. The late chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Professor Louis Finkelstein, wrote, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study Torah, God speaks to me.” The imminent 20th century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel expanded upon this theme by writing, “Jewish prayer is an act of listening. We do not bring forth our own words. The self is silent; the spirit of the people Israel speaks. In prayer, we listen to what the words convey.”

The Lord Alone! Another profound rabbi, scholar, and theologian of the 20th century, Rabbi Milton Steinberg, had this to say with regard to the “oneness” of God. “What do we mean when we proclaim that God is one? First, we reject the claim that God is none, that there is no God and the world is the product of random chance. Second, we reject the claim that God is two, a god of good and a god of evil. Jewish theology does not explain evil by positing a devil, a force of wickedness as powerful as God. Human misuse of our power to choose causes most of the evil in the world. And third, we reject the claim God is many, that there are many deities, each specializing in one aspect of life or another. Only when God is One can we speak of a single moral law, of behavior being right or wrong in the sight of God.”

And the Jew recites these words every morning and evening. They are the centerpiece of the Shaharit (morning) and Ma’ariv (evening) religious service. They are often the first Hebrew prayer a child learns and the final spoken words prior to death. It is one brief verse whose depth of meaning is limitless; whose place in time infinite.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Devarim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/24/09

Torah Portion: Devarim
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 1:1-3:22

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan” (Deut. 1:1). And, with this introductory statement the final book of the Torah (Deuteronomy) begins. Ostensibly, the book is a collection of final discourses delivered by Moses to the Israelites prior to their entry into the Promised Land. The speeches are a combination of the history of 40-years in the desert and final behavioral/moral instructions for entering the Promised Land. On the surface, a good portion of these discourses can be taken as the words of an angry old man-Moses-who has put up with this stiff-necked people only to be deprived of accompanying them into the Land flowing with milk and honey. In point of fact, the truths Torah teaches are almost never on the surface.

The 18th century Torah scholar Rabbi Simchah Bunem of Prszysucha explains the first verse of Deuteronomy (“These are the words. . .”): “The word that Moses spoke depended on all Israel, to each one according to his or her character and age, his or her understanding and level of perception, each one according to his or her measure.” How could Moses deliver one speech to all Israel? Rabbi Bunem suggests that there exists a significant difference between “speaking” and “hearing.” Moses might have delivered one speech, but it was heard in many different ways. The words were understood according to one’s character, age, experience, and intellect. Moses said what he said, but the people heard what they wanted to hear.

The High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur) are an opportunity for the congregational rabbi to reach more congregants at one time in one place than any other time of the year. Therefore, the rabbi invests considerable time in preparing his/her High Holiday sermons. Ideas are formulated, rough drafts written and then re-written, edited and then re-edited until a final well-crafted sermon is in place. The moment arrives, the words are spoken, and the rabbi takes solace in knowing his/her message has been delivered. Then, the service ends. Having “been there and done that”, it never ceases to amaze me how many different interpretations and understandings are given this one speech. Some of my best sermons were successful not for the spoken message I had intended, but for what was actually heard.

Whether it be in a synagogue, classroom, political rally, or a simple conversation, one parses the spoken word in relation to themselves and their concerns. The vibrancy of Judaism lies in its willingness to celebrate different ideas, interpret different meanings, and respect the diversity in humankind. We are all witnesses to the same symphony of words, yet we each in our own way “march to the beat of a different drummer.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

On Vacation posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/02/09

Rabbi Siegel is on vacation. Weekly Torah postings will return on Friday, July 24, 2009. Until then, please check the archives by clicking on the "Archives" button on the bottom of this page.

Shelach Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/19/09

Torah Portion: Shelach Lecha
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 13:1-15:41
June 19, 2009

“The Lord said to Moses: Send some men to explore the Land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites (Numbers 13:1).”

This week’s Torah portion deals with a fact-finding mission to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the Promised Land. Moses assigns twelve leaders-one from each tribe-to scout out the land and report back. The chosen men perform their task and ten of the twelve report that the Promised Land is not so promising! The rest of the Torah portion presents a challenge to Moses’ leadership and the entire mission. There is much to be said, written, and learned from these chapters in the Book of Numbers. On this particular week, I want to focus on one verse (above), and, within the verse, one word: Explore!

This will be the last Torah posting until the first week in August. On Monday, I set out on my annual trip to the land of my youth: the Pacific Northwest. As a youngster, I remember traveling with my mother and grandparents on long road trips on hot summer days to this place or that. I can still hear myself reciting those time-honored words, “Are we there, yet?” The proverbial “apples do not fall far from the trees”. As an adult, I much prefer the “road” trip to flying. Especially the 5-day journey between Houston and Seattle. There are so many different routes one may take. One can choose to travel from Texas to Denver, through the Rockies to Salt Lake City, through Idaho, and across Washington state. Or, go north through Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming, and western Montana. Maybe you want to cut through Yellowstone or Glacier National Park. The trip might include the famous Independence Pass in the Rockies leading to Aspen, Colorado or from the Grand Tetons in Wyoming to Sun Valley/Ketchum, Idaho. It’s all there, and more. God’s creations and beauty just waiting to be discovered, explored, pondered and meditated. This cannot be achieved from 40,000 feet up, traveling at speeds in excess of 500 miles per hour. It can barely be accomplished at 60 miles per hour, but at least you have the opportunity to pull over, stop and smell the roses!

For the next few weeks I will travel to different towns & cities, visit old friends (in particular, 4 high school buddies in Whitefish, Montana), spend time with children & grandchildren, and be inspired by the wheat fields and mountains, lakes and oceans, and the people who inhabit these places. Coincidentally, this was the same mission directive given my Moses to the 12 scouts.

In a world determined to go places and do things more quickly, sometimes one needs to slow down. Next week I plan to be standing on a mountain, or swimming in a lake, or taking in an ocean sunset from an island in Puget Sound. What better way to seek inspiration and meaning than through exploration of God’s world. Maybe just once, leave the plane at home and take the car!

Have a restful and fulfilling summer.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

B'ha-alot'kha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/13/09

Torah Portion: B’ha-alot’kha
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 8:1-12:16
June 12, 2009

Speaking of “tooting one’s own horn,” chapter 10 of the Book of Numbers begins by stating:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Make for yourself two silver trumpets.”

The Torah goes on to explain that the horns will be sounded to assemble the people, when going to war, and for joyous occasions and holidays. The Eitz Hayim Humash commentary notes, “At God’s command, the trumpets sound and the people assemble in marching formation. The use of the trumpets is Israel’s response to the divine signal of God.”

This really has nothing to do with “tooting one’s own horn;” quite the opposite. The horn is a humanly-created instrument of God. It is sounded not to draw attention to itself or the one sounding it, but to God.

Rabbi Bradley Artson of the American Jewish University writes, “A beautiful trumpet, even in the midst of producing music, doesn’t draw attention to itself. It is the music it produces, not the horn, which people focus on. So too, say the sages, by making ourselves trumpets we focus attention on the God in whose service we delight. Our music is the sacred deeds we perform while still living.”

In keeping with Rabbi Artson’s interpretation, the trumpet becomes a powerful metaphor for life, itself. Life, like the trumpet, is a divine gift God has bestowed upon humankind. It is the Shechina-God’s divine presence-on earth. One exercises the “trumpet of life” by playing it’s divine notes, or mitzvot, the divine score of deeds for a better life and a better world.

The beauty of our notes is exhibited in the way we raise our children, volunteer in our communities, reach out to the needy, the homeless, the disenfranchised. None of this has to do with bringing attention to the individual self, but to the collective body of humanity, all of whom possess the ability to strengthen the orchestra of life by actively participating in it’s symphony.

Rabbi Artson concludes his remarks by writing, “Our goodness is the earthly reflection of God’s divine kindness (hesed). Our performance of mitzvot is our eager gratitude for the gift of life. Our passion for Judaism is our joyous delight in God’s bounty and in the beauty of our heritage. We are the trumpets, but God wrote the score.”

Living life is hardly mundane. It is, in fact, an art form; and a divine one, at that!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Naso posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/05/09

Torah Portion: Naso
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 4:21-7:89
June 5, 2009

"The Lord bless you and protect you. The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you.
The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace."

(Num. 6:24-26)

The above is commonly referred to as the priestly benediction. It has become a centerpiece of prayer for both Jews and Christians. The middle line is of particular interest-"The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you." The message: In spite of our shortcomings we can still hope and pray for God to deal with us kindly and show us grace. It is the word “grace” (“hanun” in Hebrew) that is a source of confusion for many. What is Grace?

For Christians, the concept of Godly Grace has a very different meaning than for Jews. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, in the book Christianity In Jewish Terms, writes, “I think we are dealing with two somewhat different modes of spirituality. The Christian doctrine of grace, defined broadly as divine love or favor offered to us even though we do not merit it. It follows that, as sinners, we deserve nothing. If, then we find God reaching out to us anyway, we must be the recipients of God’s grace, and the proper response cannot be anything but gratitude for a gift we do not merit.”

With regard to Jews, Hoffman writes, “Jews also have the notion of grace, namely, God’s covenantal choosing of Israel, first through Abraham and then with the gift of Torah. In its precovenantel state, Israel did not merit Torah. God gave it as an act of grace, in the same way that for Christians God sent Jesus. But once Torah has been given, Jews enter into a covenant with God.”

In both Christian and Jewish belief, Grace was a gift from God given regardless of merit. For Jews, God’s Grace is the gift of Torah, for Christians it is the gift of Jesus. Christianity further developed the sense of human inadequacy or lack of merit even after Jesus. The sinful nature of humankind became a foundation piece in Christian belief and showing gratitude for God’s kindness toward sinners the mainstay in their liturgy. Rabbi Hoffman notes, “. . For Judaism, the gift of Torah provided the potential for becoming worthy, a state that had been impossible when there were no commandments to perform.” Jewish liturgy is built on the bracha (blessing). Jewish worship is less gratitude to God, then praise for God. Jews praise God for the opportunity (through Torah) to better themselves and those around them.

Understanding God’s gift of Grace is understanding the unique theological differences between Christianity and Judaism. Ultimately, the Divine light of truth gives off more than one ray!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Bemidbar posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/22/09

Torah Portion: Bemidbar
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 1:1-4:20
May 22, 2009

Bemidbar is the beginning of the 4th book of the Torah (Numbers). It opens with the report that “the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai ( Num. 1:1).” After spending an entire year at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites are finally preparing to continue a journey that will take another 38 years!

Most of the lives of those who departed Egypt was spent “in a wilderness.” The aspirations of the Israelites were far greater than the reality they encountered. The result? Countless complaints about not enough food or water, poor leadership, etc. They expected the Garden of Eden; instead they found a “wilderness”.

What is it that elevates a “wilderness” to such a prominent position in Jewish history? According to the Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah (one of the oldest rabbinic books of Torah legend), the ancient rabbis inferred “that the Torah was given to the accompaniment of three things: fire, water, and wilderness. . . . Why was the giving of the Torah marked by these three features? To indicate that as these are free to all humankind, so also are the words of the Torah free [to all humankind].

Rabbi Bradley Artson suggests this Midrash comes to “warn Jews not to mistake this gift as exclusively ours, that the possession of Torah does not make us more worthwhile, more valuable or better than others. To the contrary, our tradition views our relationship with God as distinct not because it confers special privileges, but because it bestows additional responsibilities; responsibilities to all humankind.”

Why, then, does this all take place in a “wilderness”? The Midrash continues by stating, “Anyone who does not throw himself open to all like a “wilderness” cannot acquire wisdom and Torah.” The wilderness is a real-life metaphor for the accessibility of God, not just to Jews but to all people.

It took 40 years of wandering for the Israelites to discover themselves as a people, and it took 40 years of wilderness for this people to discover their responsibility to all humankind!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Emor posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/08/09

Torah Portion: Emor
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 21-24
May 8, 2009

A Friday evening Shabbat meal tradition is the presence of two loaves of Challah (braided-bread) on the dinner table. The origin of this custom is found in this Torah portion where it states: “You shall take choice flour and bake of it twelve loaves. . . Place them on the pure table before the Lord in two rows, six to a row.” (Lev. 24:5-6) Since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 c.e., we have modified the ritual by including only two loaves of Challah on the table-each representing one of the six-loaf rows present in the ancient Temple.

The Babylonian Talmud states, “a great miracle was performed in the Tent of Meeting; the sacred loaves of bread never grew stale.” The contemporary Torah scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch understood the Talmud’s interpretation in figurative rather than literal terms. He said the message the rabbis were conveying was the idea that the ancient Temple was immune to the process of boredom and habit that affect so many religious institutions. Their rituals never grew stale!

Today a growing number of Jews are displaying their displeasure with the boring routine and spiritless worship of the institutional synagogue by voting with their feet. Several decades ago, the late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel described non-Orthodox synagogues as places where “prayers lie still-born on the lips” of worshippers. While serving a congregation in Minneapolis, I invited former Vice-President Walter Mondale to speak during a Shabbat morning service. As the son of a preacher, he was accustomed to arrive prior to the beginning of a religious service, which he did. The service began at 9:30 am, concluding at 12:15 pm. As we reached the final hymn of Adon Olam, Vice-President Mondale leaned over to me saying, “You know, both my wife and I are preachers kids. We have both attended a lot of church services, but I have never been at one this long!”

Every rabbi, priest, minister, or lay leader needs to realize that people are only able to take so much good at one time and then the law of diminishing returns sets in. Sometimes doing less is more. Though, it is not the length of the service that makes for a spiritually-fulfilling experience, but the content contained therein. Peoples souls are touched in different ways, individually and communally. The ancient rabbis understood this. When asked, “what should the practice be with regard to this or that matter?”, the rabbis responded “Puk v’Hasi”- Go out and see what the people are doing. This was good advice then, and remains so today. Religious leaders need to seek direction by first focusing attention on the current needs, concerns, and desires of their congregants. Don’t let the “loaves of Challah” go stale!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/01/09

Torah Portion: Aharei Mot-Kedoshim
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 16:1-20:27
May 2, 2009

The Book of Leviticus, chapter 19:2 states, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” As a kid, the last thing I wanted to be called was “holy.” That meant I spent too much time in the synagogue, recited too many prayers, and participated in too many strange rituals. It also suggested I did not know how to have fun!

At a later stage in life I learned that holiness was the reason for Jewish choseness. The Jewish people were holier than others. As I intellectually matured I began to understand Jews were not “chosen” because they were holy, but were chosen to be holy. The Eitz Hayim Chumash writes, “To be holy is to rise to partake in some measure of the special qualities of God, the source of holiness. Holiness is the highest level of human behavior, human beings at their most.” Those who sought to emulate the moral/ethical qualities of God, in fact raised themselves above the rest of us. One is not “chosen” because they are Jewish, but because he/she chose to seek a higher ethical standard of living.

This all made sense until I recently reviewed the teachings of the 20th century Jewish religious existentialist, Martin Buber. Buber took issue with the notion of anyone being superior to anyone else, either because of birth status or perceived level of spiritual achievement. Buber would argue that God did not create communities, but individuals. As creations of God, we stand as equals. All of humanity is “fashioned in the image of God.” Holiness, therefore, is not the dominion of an elite few, but the possession of the masses. For Martin Buber, holiness is found in relationship. It is discovered when we learn to recognize the divinity of God present in the other person.

There is a common practice that occurs in churches and synagogues-shaking hands. The only difference is when it occurs. At the end of the Sabbath service, it is customary for Jews to greet one another with a “Shabbat Shalom.” We are not instructed to do it, we just do it. . . . Sometimes. . . And with some people, and then we depart. Many churches incorporate a greeting of peace into their religious service. In the midst of prayer, the pastor or priest will instruct the congregation to extend one another a greeting of peace. The service will stop and those present will walk up to friends and strangers with a smile, a handshake, and words of greeting. Encountering this practice for the first time, I felt self-conscious and a bit out of place. The discomfort lasted only a couple of seconds until someone grasped my hand, smiled and conveyed greetings. Then, I did the same. With each new person I encountered I felt more comfortable and began to see this as more than a simple handshake, but an embrace of our common humanity; recognition of our innate Godliness.

To achieve holiness is to see holiness in our friends and even our enemies. We are all fashioned “in the image of God.” We just need to open our eyes.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Yom Ha'Shoah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/24/09

Yom Ha’Shoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day
April 24, 2009

This past Tuesday was the annual commemoration of “Yom Ha’Shoah”-Holocaust Remembrance Day. Over 60 years have passed since the liberation of the Concentration Camps and destruction of the German Nazi regime. Memories are fleeting. Even after the last Holocaust survivor has died, the world will have to continue commemorating Yom Ha’Shoah. Not doing so will guarantee its happening, again. Today, even with the benefit of survivors, eyewitnesses, film, photographs, and a meticulously-written record, there are still those who publicly deny or question there having been a Holocaust. More troubling are the growing number of people who believe them.

Why the Jews? The list of notable anti-Semites (e.g. Voltaire, Wagner, Martin Luther to name a few) could fill the pages of an entire book. There will always be a group of ignorant, uneducated people who hate, in spite. But, when they are joined by intellectuals, scientists, poets, and enlightened theologians, we have reason for concern.

Professor Michael Curtis of Rutgers University offers the following insight: “Everybody has a people that they hate, a group you don’t like, that are threatening to you. But the uniqueness of anti-Semitism lies in the fact that no other people in the world have been charged simultaneously with alienation from society and with cosmopolitanism; with being capitalist exploiters and also revolutionary communists; with having a materialistic mentality or being a people of the book. We are accused of being both militant aggressors and cowardly pacifists; adherents to a superstitious religion and agents of modernism. We uphold a rigid law and are also morally decadent. We have a chosen people mentality and an inferior human nature; we are both arrogant and timid; individualist and communally adherent; we are guilty of both the crucifixion of Jesus to Christians and to others we are held to account for the invention of Christianity. Everything and its opposite becomes an explanation for anti-Semitism.”

It is so difficult to fathom how a people who-in modern times alone-have given the world the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Jonas Salk, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, Emma Lazarus, and Gertrude Stein, could be referred to as a “gutter religion” and condemned to annihilation. I just do not understand. What I do understand is the Jewish people, in spite of misfortune, continue to follow a path dictated by Torah, legislated by the ancient rabbis, and passed down from generation to generation. We continue to work for what we know can be achieved-a better world free of hate and bigotry. Anne Frank, in her famous diary, summed it up when she wrote, “I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Not only do I believe this, but I will effort to make it so.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Shemini posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/17/09

Torah Portion: Shemini
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 9:1-11:47
April 17, 2009

How does one explain an observant Jew’s obsession with the food they eat? This portion of Torah enunciates the distinction between the living creatures that may be eaten and those that are forbidden. “These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has a split hoof and chews its cud-such you may eat (Lev. 11: 2-3).” The Torah goes on to state, “These you may eat of all that live in water: anything in water, whether in the seas or in the streams, that has fins and scales-these you may eat (Lev. 11:9).”

The obsession is not with the eating of food, but the striving for holiness. All the great religions wrestle with the question of “How to become holy?” Some religious traditions answer by having the right feeling or the right belief. Judaism does not disagree with the importance of feelings and beliefs, but that is not where holiness begins. The roots of Holiness are in the action, not the word.

The late Rabbi Samuel Dresner wrote an outstanding introduction to the practice of Kashrut in our day. In his essay he writes, “Judaism would argue that it is precisely with these seeming trivialities, the habitual and apparently inconsequential, that we must commence in order to create the holy person. And what is more common, more ordinary, more seemingly inconsequential than the process of eating? It is precisely here that Judaism would have us begin the task of hallowing the everyday. For how we approach food may be more significant than reflecting on dogma. . . . More important than what one thinks, Judaism teaches, is what one does.”

The simple act of eating a piece of meat requires a Jew to demonstrate a reverence for life, a distain for cruelty to animals, and a respect for all God’s creations. Dresner concludes his essay by stating, “Philosophy and diet, thought and practice, inner attitude and outward observance-this combination has characterized Judaism since earliest times. It is the very essence of the Jewish religion.”

Curbing one’s appetite, disciplining one’s cravings, regimenting one’s most instinctive response are not actions of self-denial but statements of holiness. If we can learn to dignify and sanctify the food that goes in our mouth, how much more so the words and actions that come out?

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Passover posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/03/09

April 3, 2009

The holiday of Passover begins Wednesday evening, April 8, 2009, with the first of two evening Seders. The popularity of Passover among Jews (Hanukkah is the only holiday celebrated by more Jews) is due, in part, to the fact the central location for the celebration is the home. What also makes Passover unique among Jewish celebrations is learning trumps food in the home Seder observance. Still, for many, remembering the tyranny of slavery in Egypt takes a back seat to the tyranny of the Haggadah. For the less well-informed, following the Haggadah from page to page can be a torturous experience!

In the hope of making your Seder more inspirational and educational, I offer the following suggestions to enhance the celebration:

1. Rock & Lotion-The leader begins the “Maggid” (story) section of the Seder by first passing around pieces of rock (symbolizing “Avdut”/slavery) and then packets of hand lotion (symbolizing “Herut”/freedom).

2. The Fifth Question-Are there only 4 questions? Participants are asked to think of a “fifth” question they might ask and the other guests are asked to try to answer it.

3. Beet Instead of Bone-Vegetarians commonly use a roasted beet on the Seder plate in the place of the shank bone.

4. The Afikomen Gifts-Why not take a few moments and purchase some interesting items from the local $ store.

5. Parting the Red Sea-At the appropriate time in the Seder two guests each hold a blue sheet up and the other participants (especially kids, but everyone should join in) pass between the sheets. This can be done at the point in the Seder when the phrase, “We should all see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt” is said.

6. Crossing The Red Sea-Place a small red bowl of water on the floor and ask all present to “cross over” the bowl symbolizing the departure from Egypt.

7. The Persian Scallion Battle-Each person beats another with a green scallion (on the back) during the recitation of “Dayeinu.” This Persian tradition was done to remind us of slavery.

8. Building Pyramids-This is a great activity for toddlers. While the Seder is going on, give them Legos and challenge them to build pyramids as the Israelites did in Egypt.

9. The Cup of Elijah-Leave the cup of Elijah empty until the end of the Seder and then ask each participant to contribute a small portion of their wine to fill the cup. This reminds us that if the Messiah is to come, we must all work together to bring about this day.

10. The Freedom Plate-A Plate is set-aside at the beginning of the “Maggid” (story) section. Participants are asked to place an object on the plate that symbolizes their personal liberation. People are then asked to explain the meaning of their object.

11. Miriam’s Cup-Some place a 2nd cup on the Seder plate filled with water. This cup is designated as “Miriam’s Cup” and reminds us of the important contribution Miriam and the women made to the liberation from Egypt (and today!). In contrast, the Cup of Elijah is the hope for redemption at the end of time, while the Cup of Miriam is a hope for redemption in our present lives.

12. Playing Cards At The Table- Each person at the Seder is given three cards: an “Ask A Question” card; a “Share A Passover Memory” card, and a “Lead a Reading or Song” card (each in a different color). During the Seder, each person is encouraged to use each of the cards and then hand the card to the leader. When someone has handed in the third card, we all cheer. How do we make sure everyone uses his or her cards? Simple: dessert is served only to those people who have no cards left!

Any of these 12 suggestions can make for a livelier, and more meaningful, Passover Seder. Try them. . . . And have a Happy Passover!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayikra posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/27/09

Torah Portion: Vayikra
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 1:1-5:26
March 27, 2009

A contemporary Torah commentator writes, “Leviticus is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation. Its main subject matter-animal offerings and ritual impurity-seems remote from contemporary concerns.” So true!

There are two terms popularly used in describing the levitical rituals: offering & sacrifice. Similarly, in Hebrew there are also two expressions: Zevach & Kor’ban. What is the difference between an “offering” and a “sacrifice”? In modern terms, an offering is usually associated with charitable giving. It is something nice to do. A sacrifice is also an act of charitable giving, but at a recognizable cost to the giver.

The Hebrew word “Kor’ban” literally means, “to bring near.” The animal sacrifice brought by the ancient Jew was for the purpose of bringing himself nearer to God. What made the sacrifice worthwhile was the relationship, the closeness, formed between the ancient Israelite and God. In many ways, the sacrificial cult was a metaphor for the ultimate importance of relationships with family and friends; all who are fashioned “in the image of God.”

For the contemporary person, the word “sacrifice” is a common presence in many conversations. “Look what I have to sacrifice to make this happen,” “I am sacrificing my time on behalf of this cause,” etc. A colleague, Rabbi Aaron Rubinger, writes, “But the critical issue is: what are those sacrifices? Are they appropriate sacrifices? You see, so many people, for the sake of providing their family with more, will sacrifice what? Their time with their loved ones! They'll sacrifice the hours that they spend at home with their kids, or the opportunities of having dinner with their family, all for the sake of more stuff! The book of Leviticus, with its great emphasis on bringing the proper sacrifice, I think would suggest to us that that is absolutely backwards!”

Herein lies the lesson of the Book of Leviticus: Make your sacrifices proper sacrifices. The ancients did not sacrifice God, they sacrificed to God. Their sacrifices were for the sake of creating, enhancing, and savoring a loving relationship. So, too, in our time. Personal sacrifice should be measured against the quality of the time we spend with those whom we love. Sacrificing a few hours of work to spend with family and friends always trumps sacrificing family and friends for work.

Finally, the revolutionary difference between the sacrificial cult of the ancient Israelites and the other Near Eastern religions was human sacrifice. The Israelites forbade it. Sacrificing a human being was considered Hilul Ha’Shem-a profanation of God. In our day, one who makes “things” more important than “people”, is in fact practicing human sacrifice and profaning God’s presence.

My uncle used to say, “You can break material objects and replace them. Losing a friend is irreplaceable.” Who says the Book of Leviticus cannot be read with “reverence and appreciation”!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayakhel/Pekudai posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/20/09

Torah Portion: Vayakhel/Pekudai
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 35:1-40:38
March 20, 2009

One can possess every possible academic degree, experience every possible situation, have bestowed upon him/her the honorific title of “expert”, and still not be capable of providing the necessary leadership to handle a nation in crisis. An effective leader must not only be knowledgeable of the “facts on the ground,” but able to transcend and empathize with the pain in the hearts of those whom he/she leads.

Just last week Moses was confronted by a people whose faith in him and God was so weak that they turned to an idol (“Golden Calf”) for security. After having just experienced God’s theophany on Mt. Sinai, having been told “you shall have no graven image before me,” they fall back on their former pagan beliefs. At this point, the entire future of the Israelite nation-and the Jewish people-rested upon Moses’ response to crisis. He could not be faulted for giving up on this “stiff-necked people”, but he did not. He could not be blamed for lashing out at their lack of faith despite the efforts expended to procure their freedom, but he did not. What Moses does is, “convoke the whole Israelite community” (Exo. 35:1). He does not forget the past events, but he presents them with challenges for the future. He tells them how they, together, will build a sanctuary to God both physically and spiritually. Physically, they will construct a portable place of worship in the desert. Spiritually, they will set aside one complete day each week (the Shabbat) to build for God a sanctuary of holiness in time. Moses has gathered the people together not to scold, but to inspire. In a moment of crisis, he appeals to their pride in one another to realize, in the words of the late Mordechai Kaplan, “Every Jew depends on fellow Jews for the energy, resources, and courage wherewith to be a Jew.” This is the example of good, visionary leadership.

The “Golden Calf” incident was not to be forgotten, nor were the issues arising from transforming slaves into a free people. Moses first goal was to create a people with a cohesive, positive, and forward-looking attitude. Achieving this set the tone for solving existing problems.

The Torah is not so ancient that we cannot learn from it today. Each day the media reminds us of our economic despair. Many refer to it as a Recession. Undoubtedly, those who have lost jobs see this as a Depression. In the absence of a positive vision, it is natural to cast blame rather than seek solution. The current fixation is on the executives of AIG who received bonuses even after contributing to the economic downturn. The next step is to blame government for letting all this happen. Through all this blame and insinuation a pall of doubt is cast on the leadership of the new administration. Last night, the President of the United States appeared on the “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. He became the first sitting president to appear on late night TV. The President understood that he needed to take his message to the people. He attracted a far different (and more varied) viewing audience on the “Tonight Show” than he would speaking from the White House. His message was not one of recrimination, but determination. His goal, like that of Moses thousands of years ago, was to infuse in the American people a spirit of hope and a willingness to work with him in meeting the difficult challenges ahead. Regardless of his intellectual qualities, the President’s ability to empathize with the people, transcend their fears, and lift them up, are qualities of effective leadership. A speech or TV appearance is not going to solve the issues of the day, but it can galvanize a spirit of unity and cooperation. As Moses proved, working together in concert with a common faith and trust, even if it takes 40 years of wandering, we CAN overcome!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Ki Tissa posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/13/09

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 32:1-34:35
March 13, 2009

Michael Walzer, in his book Exodus and Revolution, suggests that Moses is the prototypical revolutionary leader and the exodus from Egypt is a political document. A successful revolution does not conclude with a military victory, a coup, or for that matter “crossing the Red Sea.” It is what comes next that makes the difference.

The seminal moment in the formation of the United States was not the Revolutionary War victory, but the acceptance of a Constitution. For the Israelites, it was not crossing the Red Sea, but accepting the Torah on Mt. Sinai. In both instances a road map for freedom and independence was accepted by a fledgling population. The actual realization of the ideas, and acceptance of the obligations contained within these documents, would take generations to fully appreciate. The United States had to fight a Civil War before being able to appreciate the moral/ethical strength of the Constitution. The Israelites had to build an idol at the foot of Sinai before realizing the spiritual strengths of Torah.

Today’s Torah portion contains the famous account of the “Golden Calf.” Having not yet returned from Mt. Sinai, the Israelites fear that there leader, Moses, has abandoned them in the desert. They know of Torah, and they know of the One God, but their primal fears cause them to fall back on a more familiar source of security-an idol. Moses returns to the people with the tablets of God in hand, sees them worshipping a Golden Calf, and breaks the tablets.

As disappointing as it must have been for Moses to witness the Israelites continued lack of faith in their new-found freedom, why does he compound this by destroying the very reason they left Egypt? A modern commentary, entitled “Meshekh Hokhmah”, responds to this question : “There is nothing intrinsically holy in the world save God, to whom alone reverence, praise and homage is due. The Holy comes into being in response to specific Divine commandments, as for example those calling on us to build God a house of worship. Now we may understand why Moses on perceiving the physical and mental state of the people promptly broke the Tablets. He feared they would deify them as they had done the calf. Had he brought them the Tablets intact, they would have substituted them for the calf and not reformed their ways. But now that he had broken the Tablets, they realized how far they had fallen short of true faith. . . . . and by this, Moses had demonstrated that the Tablets of God, themselves, possessed no intrinsic holiness.”

Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel follows up on this theme by noting, “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time [not space], to be attached to sacred events [not things], to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals!”

Nahum Sarna noted that the ancient place of worship, or even today’s synagogue, “enshrines the concept of the holiness of space; the Sabbath embodies the concept of the holiness of time. The latter always takes precedence over the former.” It is not mere coincidence that the section of Torah immediately preceding the story of the Golden Calf implores the ancient Israelites to observe the Sabbath (Exo. 31:13-18). It is a statement of the importance of seeking holiness in time. The point is driven home when Moses breaks the tablets demonstrating their spiritual emptiness unless, and until, the Israelites are willing to fill them with a holiness discovered in the sanctity of time. This is a discovery that would take time, patience, and forty years of wandering. How far along the road of discovery are you?

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Purim 5769 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/06/09

Purim 5769/2009
March 6, 2009

The holiday of Purim-celebrated this year on Monday evening, March 9-Tuesday, March 10-can not come soon enough! Based on the Book of Esther, a tale dating back to the 6th century BCE, Purim is a day of pure, unadulterated fun & celebration-regardless of the state of the economy!

While there is a serious side to the Book of Esther, it is more like a good Marvel comic with bigger than life heroes and villains. There is the amoral King, the Darth Vadar-type villain, the voluptuous heroine, the handsome (?) hero and, of course, the ever present life-or-death struggle between good & evil. Everyone needs at least one day when they can “blow off steam” and take life a bit less seriously. For Jews, that day is Purim. If it didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it!

Most Jews think of Purim as a “children’s festival.” After all, it is customary to wear costumes and shake noisemakers every time evil Haman’s name is read from the Book of Esther. On the other hand, too many adults have forgotten the joys of childhood that once allowed us to laugh and smile even in the face of adversity. Purim is a return to those days of innocence, to a time of ideals and goodness and hope. Maybe, just maybe, the craziness of the day might re-instill the too long absent attributes of youth. With this in mind, I share some “Purim” Torah sent to me by a good friend:

At the Russian Military Academy, a top General gave a lecture on 'Potential Problems and Military Strategy'.

At the end of the lecture he asked if there are any questions. An officer stood up and asked: 'Will there be a third world war? Will Russia take part in it?' The General answered both questions in the affirmative.

Another officer asked: 'Who will be the enemy? The General: 'All indications point to China.'
All the audience is shocked.

The officer asks: 'General, we are only 150 million, there are 5 Billion Chinese. Can we win at all?' The General: 'Just think about this. In modern warfare, it is not the quantity that matters but the quality. For example, in the Middle East
we have had a few wars recently where 5 million Jews fought against 50 million Arabs, and Israel was always victorious.'

After a small pause the smartest officer asked, 'Do we have enough Jews?'

Have a happy Purim!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Terumah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/27/09

Torah Portion: Terumah
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 25:1-27:19
February 27, 2009

After the excitement of leaving Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, and witnessing God’s revelation on Mt. Sinai, the ancient Israelites are faced with reality: It is time to build a new life. The first project is the construction of a portable place of worship in the desert. Like all good religious building projects, success, in no small part, is dependent on the financial support of the adherents. With regard to the portable sanctuary (Mishkan/Tabernacle), “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exo. 25:1-2)

Not every member of the community was obligated to give to the building of a structure that would be used by the entire community; only those “whose heart” moved them. The portable sanctuary represented God’s presence among the people. It had to be funded by people who reflected God’s values. The actions of these “special” people would not only construct a sanctuary, but serve as an example for others.

This week we were introduced to one such “Holy Exemplar”. Near the conclusion of President Obama’s speech to Congress on Tuesday evening, the President introduced the audience to Leonard Abess, CEO of City National Bank of Florida. He recently sold his bank, City National, for nearly $1 billion. It was privately held, in his name. No stock. He cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus, “and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him. He didn't tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, ''I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. I didn't feel right getting the money myself."

While speaking with colleagues from Florida, I learned that Mr. Abess is an active member and philanthropist in his Jewish community. One colleague reported that in the 80’s his congregation was unable to pay a construction loan and was desperately seeking a mortgage. Leonard Abess personally worked with the congregation and his bank to give them a deal they otherwise would not have been able to secure. Leonard, himself, belonged to another synagogue in the area.

Just having the means to make a difference is nothing without the “heart" felt desire to do so. The present economy is a test to the mettle of the American people. It is not a question of whether or not we’ll survive; we will. The question is “how”? Will we continue to look for someone on whom to place the blame or channel our energies toward finding a solution? In seeking a solution, can we willingly make the necessary sacrifices to help the few for the sake of the many, or selfishly blame others for their own personal financial misfortunes? Can we become the “Holy Exemplars” for our children, grandchildren, friends, and community?

President Obama introduced Leonard Abess, and other similar exemplars, by stating, “. . in my life, I have learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.” This reference is to the same people God refers to in Exodus, those “whose heart so move them!”

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Mishpatim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/20/09

Torah Portion: Mishpatim
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 21:1-24:18
February 20, 2009

For the Jew, the literal word is not the final word in understanding Torah. The Judaism we celebrate today is largely the product of the ancient rabbis of the first centuries CE. In transforming Judaism from a biblical to a modern tradition, they introduced a method for making Torah relevant to generations present and future. Their methodology of Torah study can be simplified into four levels:

P’shat-first understand the “literal meaning” of the verse
Remez-then, look for the interpretative meaning
Drash-discover the homiletical/moral lesson learned from this verse
Sod-pursue the hidden, mystical meaning

By means of these four levels of understanding, the ancient rabbis empowered every generation with the authority to interpret the meaning of Torah in their times. They also made clear that the Torah is a God-inspired document. As mere mortals, we cannot hope to completely understand the reasoning or moral underpinning of every verse (thus, the notion of Sod/hidden meaning).

This week’s Torah portion contains two good examples of rabbinic method. The famous principle of lex talionis/retaliation is stated in Exo. 21:24-25, “. . Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for a hand, foot for a foot, burn for a burn, wound for a wound, bruise for a bruise.” There is no doubt in the context of biblical times these verses were meant to be understood literally. Their origin is attributed to King Hamurabi of Babylonia in the 18th century BCE. However, later rabbinic literature never understood it this way. The Talmud understands "an eye for an eye" as meaning that someone who damage's an eye must pay the value of that eye. An eye's worth for an eye. The Remez (interpretive meaning) and Drash (moral lesson) become as important as the P’shat (literal meaning) in understanding this portion of Torah.

Another example is Exo. 22:17, where it is written “You shall not let a sorceress (witch) live.” This verse, understood literally, became the basis for executing innocent women in 17th century Salem Massachusetts. However, already by the 2nd century CE the ancient rabbis understood this verse to mean “you shall not provide a witch with a livelihood.” Today, the Wiccan religion-the modern religious practice of witchcraft-bears no semblance to the ancient taboos addressed by the Torah. This verse requires a re-interpretation and understanding in our own day.

By placing Torah at the center of Jewish practice, the Jew is recognizing the centrality of God’s presence and the never-ending evolution of God’s word.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Yitro posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/13/09

Torah Portion: Yitro
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 18:1-20:23
February 13, 2009

What are they, the “Ten Commandments”, “Ten Statements”, or “Decalogue”? The Torah does not specify a name for the most famous verses in Bible. The beginning of Chapter 20 of Exodus simply says, “God spoke these (devarim) words, saying. .” Someone mistakenly translated the Hebrew “Aseret Devarim” as “Ten Commandments.” A commandment in Hebrew is “Mitzvah”. In fact, the term “commandment” is not used in the context of this section. The Jewish scholars of ancient Alexandria in Egypt (who authored the Septuagint-Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) referred to this section in Greek as the Deca Logoi. This gave rise to the more accurate English title of “Decalogue.” The ancient rabbis of the early centuries of the common era referred to this passage as the “Aseret Ha’dibrot”-Ten Statements. Regardless of title, their moral/ethical importance is undeniable.

Since this teaching is being offered on the eve of the Sabbath, let’s take a closer look at the 4th commandment (or statement): “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work. .” (Exo. 20:8-10). Jews have understood these words to imply that normal labors of the week cease on the seventh day. The Eitz Hayim Humash notes, “by proscribing work and creativity on the seventh day, and by ordering that nature be kept inviolate one day a week, the Torah places a limit on human autonomy and restores nature to its original state of pure freedom.” Freedom is strengthened by “legislating the inalienable right of every human being” to a day off once a week!

Some Torah scholars challenged the above interpretation. It is written “Six days shall you labor and do all your WORK.” If one loves what they are doing, is it still considered “labor” and “work”? Perhaps these words are meant for those who must labor at jobs they don’t like. All work, with the exception of efforts involved in saving lives, is prohibited on the Sabbath. “Work too often leads to economic competitiveness in which we see other people as rivals, obstacles to our success. Shabbat comes as a truce in those economic struggles.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book The Sabbath writes, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world; on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”

Shabbat Shalom-may we all enjoy a Sabbath of peace!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

B'Shalach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/06/09

Torah Portion: B’Shalach
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 13:17-17:16
February 6, 2009

This portion of Torah marks the departure of the Israelites from Egypt. The reality of their freedom does not settle in until they miraculously cross the Red Sea ahead of the Egyptian army. Then, amidst great exaltation, Moses breaks into song, “The Lord is my strength and might; He is become my deliverance. This is my God and I will enshrine Him.” (Exo. 15:2). As Moses completes his song, his sister Miriam takes up a timbrel and leads the women in dance and song declaring, “Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously” (Exo. 15:21). Indeed, “from every mountainside let freedom ring!”

Being told one’s free and exercising one’s freedom are two different matters. No sooner had the Israelites celebration of freedom from Egypt calmed down, then the complaints began: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death” (Exo. 16:3). It took the ancient Israelites 40 years of wandering in the desert to understand that with freedom comes responsibility to oneself, one’s family, and one’s community. While most reasonable people would eschew slavery as immoral, it can be easier and more comfortable than freedom. If one is willing to accept occasional beatings and degradation, in return for their work they are fed, housed, and cared for. On the other hand, freedom requires the individual to take personal responsibility for his/her life. It is no wonder the ancient Israelites had such difficulty accommodating themselves to their new reality. They had spent several generations as wards of the state. The Israelites path to freedom can be summed up in the words of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote, “How is freedom measured in individuals as in nations? By the resistance that has to be overcome.”

It is one thing to declare a mission to bring freedom and democracy to nations suffering under the rule of dictatorship or corrupt government, it quite another task to accomplish it. As Franklin Roosevelt stated in 1936, “In the truest sense freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved.” It is the result of years of patient learning and practice that a nation or individual is able to declare themselves truly free.

I opposed going to war with Iraq. Many knew then what the US government only learned later: Deposing Sadaam Hussein would result in immediate celebration but, by itself, would not create a free democratic Iraq. I now counsel patience. As it took the Israelites 40 years to adapt to the inherent responsibilities of being a free people, it will take the Iraqis at least a generation to find a path of accommodation for their religious needs and political desires. These tensions, sixty years later, are still a matter of concern even for the State of Israel.

Being a servant for others is easier than being the master of one’s destiny, but it is lacking in the exercise of the human spirit: to challenge and to grow. In conclusion, the French author and philosopher Albert Camus profoundly observed that “freedom is not a gift received from a State or a leader but a possession to be won every day by the effort of each and the union of all.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Va'era posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/23/09

Torah Portion: Va’era
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 6:2-9:35
January 23, 2009

The fear of aging has supplanted the fear of death as the greatest concern of modern-day society. As the baby boomer generation becomes increasingly more grey, the emphasis on “looking young” becomes even more important. Take a look at recent covers of the magazine “Modern Maturity” (published by the American Association of Retired People). It features a sexy photo of Susan Sarandon, Jamie Lee Curtis, or some other icon of beauty who is over 50. The message: You can get old and maintain your good looks!

This Torah portion contains an important insight into aging. Exo. 7:7 reads, "And Moshe was 80 years old, and Aaron 83, when they spoke to Pharaoh." Why does the narrative digress from the high drama, confrontations, plagues and diplomatic maneuverings, to mention the ages of Aaron and Moshe?

The 12th century scholar, Avraham Ibn Ezra, offers an answer: "In all of Scripture, we find no other prophets recorded as having prophesied in their old age, save these two. Because their eminence is far above all the other prophets."

Ibn Ezra points out that Moshe and Aaron supply the core of Jewish revelation; other prophets only remind us of their essential teachings. And they were open to receiving and transmitting these revolutionary religious ideas at the ages of 80 and 83! No wonder the Mishnah teaching in Pirke Avot/ “Ethics of our Ancestors” declares, “80 is the age of greatness!”

Rabbi Shamai Kanter writes, “Not only does advancing age bring wisdom derived from experience. It can also be a time of creativity and growth. You probably remember some of these facts: that Wolfgang Von Goethe wrote his poetic masterpiece, Faust, at 80; that Henrietta Szold founded Hadassah at 60, and founded Youth Aliyah at 70.

But did you know that the great cellist, Pablo Casals, at age 90, continued to practice for six hours a day? When people asked him why, he replied, "Because I am still improving!"

The author of Psalm 92 said it more succinctly: "They shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Planted in the house of the Lord, they shall flourish. . . even in old age they will be fruitful, filled with vigor and strength."

The final words belong to the late General Douglas Macarthur who said, “You are as young as your faith. You are as old as your doubt. You are as young as your hope, as old as your despair. In the central place in your heart there is a recording chamber, and as long as it receives the message of beauty, hope, cheer and courage, so long are you young."

Do the “50’s” have to be the new “30’s” to make one feel worthy and able? I take issue with George Bernard Shaw who said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In fact, youth is a state of mind not determined by the look of one’s hands, but the deeds they continue to produce.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayehi posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/02/09

Torah Portion: Vayehi
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 47:28-50:26
January 2, 2009

Death is probably not the most timely subject to begin a new year. However, the final portion of the Book of Genesis details the death of Jacob and later his son, Joseph. Of special interest are the burial customs of their times.

In preparation for Jacob’s burial, Joseph “ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed [Jacob].” (Gen. 50:2)

The fact there is no protest of Joseph’s decision to embalm his father suggests that it was probably the custom among not just the Egyptians but most of the ancient near eastern tribes. Jewish burial and mourning customs have evolved since biblical times. Normative Jewish practice over the past 2,000 years has forbade the embalming of the dead except where required by law for purposes of transporting the body for burial. One might argue this was the case even in Jacob’s time. Embalming prevents the decay of the body and Joseph wished to return Jacob to his homeland in Canaan for burial. Still, there are several reasons why Jews do not embalm.

First, embalming delays burial. Jewish tradition encourages immediate burial of the dead. This was probably done in ancient times to protect the health of the community, while some commentators trace the practice to the verse in Genesis 3:19- “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

Second, embalming prevents the natural decay of the body and is actually a desecration of the body. The body is a gift on loan that God has provided to protect the sanctity of the soul. As with any item on loan, one does not have the right to change, mutilate or desecrate. Or, in this instance, unnaturally interfere with life’s natural process.

Third, embalming was opposed because it interfered with the mourner’s necessary acceptance of the reality of death. Rabbi Maurice Lamm, author of The Jewish Way In Death & Mourning, notes “the art of the embalmer is the art of complete denial. Embalming seeks to create an illusion, and, to the extent that it succeeds, it only hinders the mourner from recovering from [the grief of loss].” In other words, embalming is an effort to make the dead still alive, and in doing so the mourner is prevented from coming to terms with the finality of death.

As we enter a new calendar year in which we hope for better times and better lives, this is a good place to begin. After all, death should be seen as a re-affirmation of life. We do not pretend that it does not happen, rather death is a reminder of our mortality; another reason to choose life, embrace life, and live life. . now!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Miketz posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/26/08

Torah Portion: Miketz
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 41:1-44:17
December 26, 2008

Dedicated to Mike, Mitch, David & Joel-my “band of brothers”

The remaining Torah portions in the Book of Genesis chronicle the lives, times, and struggles of Jacob’s “favorite” son Joseph and his siblings; a “band of brothers.” Theirs is a relationship strained by jealousy, but in times of crisis bonded together by a common faith and trust in one another. Led by Judah, the brothers take out their frustration with Joseph’s “favorite son” status by casting him into a pit, later to be sold into slavery in Egypt. Assuming Joseph had died, the brothers and their grieving father carry on their lives while Joseph uses his cunning to rise in the political ranks of Egyptian hierarchy. Only the Pharaoh is more powerful. After years apart, the brothers go down to Egypt to seek food during a famine. There, they come before Joseph whom they do not recognize. At a critical moment, Joseph realizes his special bond with this brothers, reveals himself to them, and becomes, again, a “band of brothers.”

In 1969, the popular rock band the “Hollies” recorded a song whose message reflects this biblical account and continues to speak to us:

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when.
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there.
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.

If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another.

It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share.
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’ my brother.

Joseph realized that “it’s a long road from which there is no return,” and reconciled himself with those whom he was meant to be traveling the paths of life. Whether we be blessed by special relationships with siblings, close friends, or both, it is they who give meaning to our lives, purpose to our strivings, and the strength and courage to see it through. At times they carry us and at other times we bear their burden. Our bond is deeper than just friendship, it is brother and sisterhood. Years may separate us, but time cannot waste away the bonds that bind us together. We are a “band of brothers.” Nothing is stronger. Nothing more sacred.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Hanukkah 5769/2009 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/19/08

Hanukkah 5769/2008
December 19, 2008

The 8-day celebration of Hanukkah begins Sunday evening, December 21st. Though a “minor” festival on the Jewish calendar, it is celebrated my more Jews than any other Jewish holiday. Marshall Sklare, credited for being the “father of American Jewish sociology,” noted several reasons for the popularity of Hanukkah: 1) It has a strong children’s component, 2) it requires little knowledge of specific Jewish ritual (all one needs is an 8-branch menorah and Hanukkah candles), 3) it is celebrated in close proximity to a holiday celebration of the majority culture (in this instance, Christmas), and 4) the home is the central location for observance. None of the above have anything to do with the significance and meaning of the celebration and for many this isn’t important. What is, is the connection it creates between the Jew and his/her Judaism.

In fact, the historical background and religious meaning of Hanukkah can be confusing. On one hand, the holiday celebrates the military victory of a small band of Jews-known as the “Maccabees”-against an army of Syrians in 164 B.C.E. On the other hand, it celebrates the re-dedication of the ancient Temple and the miracle of a small amount of oil (enough to light the ancient Temple menorah for one day) that lasts eight days. Then, again, some suggest the “miracle” was the military victory of the “few against the many.”

After the destruction of the ancient Temple and Jerusalem in 70 C.E., followed shortly by the disastrous Jewish revolt against the Romans in 135 C.E., the sages wanted to discourage any possibility of future ill-conceived military campaigns. Rabbi Reuven Hammer notes, “Indeed that fear became enshrined in Jewish law and tradition and resulted in teaching that we should never again try to use human means to restore Jewish independence but must accept the rule of the nations and wait patiently for the Messiah.” For this reason, the rabbis of the 2nd century defined the “miracle” of Hanukkah in relation to the oil and menorah. Even the prophetic passage read on Hanukkah from the Book of Zechariah states: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit said the Lord of hosts.” (Zech. 4:6)

How does one reconcile conflicting historical and religious explanations for the celebration of Hanukkah? Is it military might or ethical right that prevails? Rabbi Hammer explains, “First, there are times when we must fight for our independence and the right to live freely as Jews. Second, we must not allow military might in and of itself to become the goal of our existence. Third, ultimately our success depends not alone on might but on right and on the purity of our cause. And finally, when all is said and done it is God’s spirit and light that prevails in this world and that we are God’s partners in bringing that about. That is no less a miracle than the cruse of oil.”

Happy Hanukkah!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Va'yishlah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/12/08

Torah Portion: Va’yishlah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 32:4-36:43
December 12, 2008

Recently, research appeared in medical journals and media outlets claiming that some forms of breast cancer actually cure themselves without aggressive treatments of radiation or chemotherapy. I asked my physician what he thought of this. He was not happy with the dispersion of this information. He feared many people might make the fatal decision of doing nothing in hope that the condition will cure itself.

For visionary leaders, doing nothing is seldom an option. In this Torah portion, Jacob’s only daughter, Dena, is raped by Shechem ben Hamor, son of a local tribal leader. Jacob’s immediate response is not to offer comfort to his daughter or seek justice for this hideous act, but to remain silent.

“Jacob heard that [Shechem] had defiled his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent. . . Meanwhile Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and angry because [Shechem] had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter.” (Gen. 34:5 & 7)

In the presence of silence and absence of leadership, two of Jacob’s sons take it upon themselves to avenge the rape by killing all the inhabitants of Shechem’s village. In some instances “silence is golden,” but too often it results in disaster.

In the years immediately preceding the beginning of World War II, and in the early stages of the war, there were ominous signs pointing to the destruction of European Jewry. Until 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration took a position opposing US involvement in rescuing the Jews. Being silent and doing nothing was an easier position and more politically expedient. And, in the end, cost millions of lives.

In our own day, a genocide continues in Darfur and an epidemic of Cholera reportedly threatens half the population of Zimbabwe (population: 12 million). International leaders have demonstrated concern, but they continue to do little or nothing. The consequences of ambivalence will be devastating.

What makes Jacob such a compelling biblical figure is his willingness to recognize his shortcomings and change. He does, though not in time to save the villagers from the hands of his sons. Henry Morgentheau, then Treasury Secretary to FDR, and Congress compelled FDR to finally establish the War Refugee Board which ultimately played a major role in rescuing an estimated 200,000 Jews from the Holocaust. Will our leadership today, and that of the other nations of the world, also recognize the necessity to act; this time, before it is too late?

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayeitze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/06/08

Torah Portion: Vayetzei
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 28:10-32:3
December 5, 2008

Having cheated his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing, Jacob is advised by his mother, Rebecca, that it is too dangerous for him to remain at home. She tells him to leave Canaan and flee to her brother Laban’s home. At a young age, Jacob is compelled to involuntarily leave his home to protect himself from the perceived wrath of his brother. Under these circumstances, it is understandable that he might be gripped by fear and anxiety. In moments of grave crisis, who can he turn to? Jacob’s parents are no longer there to assist. It is in the night of Jacob’s life that he discovers God’s presence.

In a vision while sleeping, his life begins to take on a new moral order. “He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him and He said . . . . Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised.” (Gen. 28:12, 13, 15)

Our most profound discoveries of self often occur in the darkness of life. It is when we are in crisis and most vulnerable that we understand what we were never able to before. Infancy is about never having to struggle with higher meaning. Good parenting is about providing for a child’s every need-food, clothing, shelter, affection, and protection. The young child doesn’t think twice about the existence of God. For him/her, the parent is God. The first “night” encountered in growing up is the moment the young adolescent transcends the limits of childhood and confronts adulthood. The psalmist writes, “Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in.” (Psalm 27:10). I am certain the author of this psalm does not believe that parents routinely abandon their children. Rather, it is understandable that young adults might translate the fear of new surroundings and responsibilities as a sign of parental abandonment. It is a part of growing up. For many young people, like Jacob, it is the beginning of spiritual recognition. It is the initial comprehension of a spiritual force in our lives providing support, strength, and protection.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in his book Why Faith Matters, writes, “There are moments in every life when suffering or difficulty opens the way for understanding. Still, the darkness does not only obscure, it also clears a path for the receptive soul.”

It is, in fact, because we walk “in the shadow of the Valley of Death” (Psalm 23:4), that we are open to, and capable of, discovering that “It is you who light my lamp; the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness.” (Psalm 18:29)

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Thanksgiving 2008 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/21/08

Thanksgiving 2008

Most American civil holidays are celebrated as a day off from work or school. The commemoration of the particular day’s actual meaning is usually observed by a small cadre of citizens. Thanksgiving is the exception. A majority of Americans actually gather together for a Thanksgiving meal in honor of the blessings that have been brought to their lives.

In the best and worst of times, America is still the greatest country on the face of the earth. Being the “greatest” doesn’t mean having the strongest military presence or boasting the strongest economy. In better times, America’s greatness has included both of the above. Today we are being increasingly more economically-challenged. Yet, how many other countries in the world have a constitution that proclaims “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” and then tirelessly protect the sanctity of these words. Even in worst of times, an American always believes things will be better. We have good reason. It has happened countless times in our history. When the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” seemed dimmest, an American was there to offer hope for a brighter day. Maybe it was Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King. And maybe it was also Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Historian Louis Gomolak suggested that Lyndon Johnson broke the law to get European Jews into the US during the rise of Nazism in the 30’s. In Prologue: LBJ's Foreign Affairs Background, 1908-1948, he states, "...[D]espite an all-out effort to stop Jewish immigration by Roosevelt's new anti-Semitic assistant secretary of state, Breckinridge Long, Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson secretly began smuggling European Jews into Texas, say dozens of members of the Austin Jewish Community. False passports and one-way visas were obtainable first in Cuba, and when that source dried up then in Mexico." Historian James Smallwood writes, "It is correct that Johnson did not risk his life, but he committed illegal acts to save the Jews. It can be proved that LBJ saved some 42 from the Nazis. Indirect evidence says he probably saved about 400.”

The fact few know of the courageous actions of LBJ is because they were in violation of law. Today hundreds of Jews (maybe thousands if you count the offspring) can give thanks that a brave American congressman realized at times even the law must be violated in the interest of humanity.

There is so much-and so many-to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving. May America continue to be the shining example of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the freedom to just be-and may we give thanks to those who protect and defend these sacred freedoms for all people.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayera posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/14/08

Torah Portion: Vayera
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 18:1-22:24
November 14, 2008

A friend reports to you that last night God came to him in a vision, telling him to take his son to a distant mountain, climb the mountain and take the boy’s life as a sacrifice to God. We have a name for this sort of person: a fundamentalist religious fanatic or, in light of current world events, a terrorist! Except, this is precisely what God asks of Abraham in this week’s Torah portion:

“And [God] said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Gen. 22:2)

Without a word of protest, “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. . . .And the two of them walked on together.” (Gen. 22:6 & 8) In the final moment, as Abraham raises the knife to slaughter his son, a voice comes from heaven saying, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.” (Gen. 22:12) In the end, it was just a test of Abraham’s faith.

There are those who say he passed the test while others suggest he failed. If true faith means accepting “God’s word” without question, then Abraham succeeded. But, if true faith demands a moral/ethical standard against which even God’s word is measured, then he failed.

This single story has prompted Torah scholars of every generation to try to make sense of Abraham’s actions and God’s request. One of the most profound insights comes from the great 19th century Hasidic leader Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger: “A person like Abraham, one who serves out of love, would be naturally drawn to follow God’s will with all his heart and innards. Each of his limbs is drawn by its very nature to fulfill the will of God; their very life is the divine command. But in this case it really wasn’t God’s will that he slaughter Isaac! Abraham’s heart discerning this felt no love or attachment to God in this act, since it was not God’s true will. That was the trial. That is also why Abraham insisted that God try him no more, that God never be far from him again. For Abraham’s path was that of love.”

Rabbi Arthur Green expands on the teaching of the Rebbe of Ger by noting, “Having survived that trial, one in which he felt abandoned by the God of love, Abraham is given the strength to say: “No more!” Never again should I or my children have to choose between love and the divine command. In this story, both man and God are tried, tested, and refined, never to be the same again.”

The lesson of Abraham is clear: Taking lives in the name of God profanes God’s name. God’s place is not with the perpetrator, but with the victim. This is the same Abraham who is the father of monotheism for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. If only his words could be spoken, heard, and discerned by all of us.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Lech Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/07/08

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 12:1-17:27

With this week’s Torah portion the journey of the Jewish people begins. Abraham is commanded by God:

“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1)

A new day dawns for a new people. Change, with all its requisite challenge, becomes the path to a new future embraced by a belief in the One God. This portion has coincided with another event of great historical significance-the election of a new President of the United States. My colleague, Rabbi Bradley Artson of the American Jewish University, offers the following reflection on the juxtaposition of recent events with this week’s Torah portion.

“No surprise that this week’s Torah portion weighs in on the notion of national greatness. Our father Abraham is summoned by a divine lure to leave the conventionality, habit, and limits of his childhood. He is invited to risk all and to gain all by venturing toward the unknown: "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you." Even in the wording of the invitation, God lets Abraham realize that it doesn't have to be the way it always was, that convention does not mandate destiny, that we are all invited to an open-ended journey in which our future is not determined for us. It is chosen by us. God invites Abraham to journey without an assigned destination. Traditionally the text has been read to mean that God (and the reader) can identify the destination in advance, while Abraham is asked to venture forth without knowing where he is headed. But I think the Torah is also indicating that God hasn't yet settled on the destination either: to the land that I will show you, later, as we locate it mutually. God and Abraham will create the future together, as co-creators of an open-ended tomorrow.

As inducement to Abraham to embrace his radical freedom, God entices him with a vision of what such liberty makes possible:

I will make of you a great nation
And I will bless you.
I will make your name great
And you shall be a blessing

With this offering, God asks Abraham (and us) to leave behind our own idolatrous assumptions - the way it has always been, the resignation that it must always be that way. The world has often equated greatness with coercion - the ability to impose one's will on another, the power to force others to accede to our desire. Even some of Abraham's children have distorted this blessing into an endorsement of supremacy, coercion, and oppression.

But such a reading is wrong.

The God of Abraham is not about the imposition of force, about stripping creation of agency, novelty, and choice. Instead, we understand the Holy One as the constant, relentless striving toward innovation, freedom, partnership (the Bible calls it "covenant,") and love. One verse later, God weighs in to clarify our understanding of what it means to be a great nation:

All the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you

A nation is great not by its ability to manipulate and to control, but to the degree that its actions elicit the grateful appreciation of the family of nations. We are Abraham's children to the degree that we are a "light to the nations," as the Prophet Isaiah reminds us -advocates for resolute shalom in a world of brutality and greed, champions for education and dignity in a world of oppression and utility, advocates for freedom and diversity against the smothering blanket of uniformity. Only if the families of the earth see us as a source of blessing are we truly a great nation.

This reality governs human society in the long run, for the God of Israel is the bubbling enzyme of history, the catalyst of freedom, diversity, and mutual care. We need not remain trapped by a mindless, endless, competition for resources in which there must be losers in order for there to be winners. Instead, Abraham (and his children) is invited to leave those old ways, those toxic habits, and to journey into the bracing sunlight of freedom, the oxygenating breathe of possibilities as yet unattempted.

The medieval Torah commentator, Rashi, sums up this blessing quite simply: He hears God tell Abraham "I will make known your character in the world."

My blessing for our new president and for our nation made new - thanks to the wisdom of our founders, our democratic institutions, and our citizenry - is that we, too, will stretch to be a great nation as the Torah understands national greatness: great not in ability to impose, but to inspire. Not in our capacity to hoard and consume, but in our desire to share and to elevate. Not in our selfishness and our narcissism, but in our sense of our expanded belonging and the responsibilities which go with that relating.”

May our great country be like Abraham in his time, “a blessing unto nations.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Noah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/31/08

Torah Portion: Noah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 6:9-11:32
October 31, 2008

“And the Lord said to himself: Never again will I doom the earth because of man. . . Nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.” (Gen. 8:21)

Is it possible anger and disappointment clouded God’s judgment bringing about the great biblical flood? Most biblical commentators concede that seeing his dream of creation corrupting under the influence of humankind, God threw up his metaphorical arms in disgust and, like an artist dismayed by his own work, cast his canvas to the ground. Now, in an act of remorse, God enters a covenant with Noah and all future generations to never again doom the earth and its living beings to destruction. His eternal signature would be the appearance of a rainbow:

“I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.” (Gen. 9:13)

A covenant is an agreement or partnership requiring both parties to adhere to its mandate. In this instance, both God and humankind pledge to never again destroy this earth-the foundation upon which all living beings depend.

In the space of less than a century, our love affair with the comforts afforded by modern technology have brought our very survival on this earth into question. Former Vice President and Nobel laureate Al Gore, in his book “An Inconvenient Truth”, writes, “Many people today assume mistakenly that the Earth is so big that we humans cannot possibly have any major impact on the way our planet's ecological system operates. That may have been true at one time, but it is not the case any more. We have grown so numerous and our technologies have become so powerful that we are now capable of having a significant influence on many parts of the Earth's environment. The most vulnerable part of the Earth's ecological system is the atmosphere. It is vulnerable because it is so thin. Indeed, the Earth's atmosphere is so thin that we have the capacity to dramatically alter the concentration of some of it’s basic molecular components. In particular, we have vastly increased the amount of carbon dioxide--the most important of the so-called greenhouse gases.”

The “good news” is the recent rise in the price of oil has finally awakened the average American to environmental concerns, in general, and discovering alternative sources of energy, in particular. This new enhanced awareness comes at a good time-a national election. How we vote, and who we elect, will greatly determine the level of environmental leadership this country is willing to commit. “Drill, baby, drill” is not the answer, but a denial of the problem. Don’t be fooled by the latest catchword in alternative energy- “clean coal.” There is no such thing as “clean” coal. Since 1900, 104,000 miners in America have died in coal mines, many more have died from black lung disease, and coal is the single, greatest contributor to greenhouse gases. There are other alternatives that will not further threaten the environment. We must demand that the new administration heed this call and deal honestly and forthrightly with this issue.

Each year, as we read the Torah portion of Noah, we are reminded of our promise, commitment, partnership, and covenant with God to “never again” destroy this world. These are no longer just words.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Bereisheet posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/24/08

Torah Portion: Bereisheet
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 1:1-6:8
October 24, 2008

The creation story in the first chapters of Genesis lifts me spiritually higher than God’s revelation on Sinai. Not because it’s true; it isn’t. Almost identical creation stories-though featuring far more mythological creatures-appear in ancient near eastern literature that pre-dates the Torah. The account in Genesis was never meant to be understood literally, but rather as a figurative, symbolic, and philosophical understanding of the works and deeds associated with the “One” God.

Each summer I embark on a road trip from my home in Houston to my hometown in Seattle. I am always asked, “Why?” Why take a week to drive several thousand miles when you can fly there within hours? Why waste precious vacation time driving endless hours through the ranch lands of east & west Texas, the flat plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, or the desert-like terrain of Utah? I do so to fully appreciate the beauty, enormity, and greatness of creation. In doing so, I spiritually encounter places “where heaven and earth touch!”

Driving through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or the mountain ranges of Idaho is always a breath-taking experience. Pausing atop the Columbia River gorge near Vantage, Washington I stand in wonder at the awesome power of the river and the timeless presence of the gorge walls. At these moments I realize that the miles and miles of Kansas wheat fields are probably no less inspiring to the Kansas farmer; that the Utah desert is no less moving to another population of people. The real miracle of God’s creation is a world totally and completely fashioned in goodness and beauty. There are no blemishes in nature except those made by the footprint of humankind.

This Torah portion, read each year as we begin a new cycle of Torah reading, is meant to inspire us to open our eyes to the world of nature, in doing so begin re-discovering the goodness and beauty of God.

The crown of creation is humankind. Fashioned in “the image of God”, we are no less inspiring than the mountains, oceans, fields, and deserts. The only blemishes in our creation is when we try to change who we are to be something else. The late humorist Sam Levinson had five beauty tips for his granddaughter, and for all daughters and sons:

“For attractive lips, speak words of kindness,
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people,
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry,
For beautiful hair, let a child run his fingers through it once a day,
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you will never walk alone.”

Next time you find yourself asking, “Where is God?”, look in the mirror. Next time you find yourself wondering, “What is the essence of God?”, take a road trip!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Sukkot 5769 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/17/08

October 17, 2008

We are in the midst of the 8-day celebration of Sukkot. Sukkot is best described at the “Jewish” thanksgiving. The holiday revolves around a theme of returning to nature and giving thanks for its abundance. The central figure in the holiday is the Sukkah, or booth. Symbolizing the temporary dwellings of the Israelites in the desert, it also comes to remind us of our temporal existence. We depend on nature and the environment to sustain us. Sukkot celebrates the interrelationship of humankind and nature.

Another ritual object associated with the holiday is the Lulav, or palm branch. It is bound together with a myrtle branch on one side and a willow branch on the other. In the celebration of Sukkot, the Lulav is held together with an Etrog, or citron. The significance of these four species (lulav, myrtle, willow, and etrog) has been explained in a number of ways. My colleague, Rabbi David Seidenberg, offers a unique insight underscoring the significance of Sukkot in our day.

“Sukkot is about water. Everyday in ancient Israel the priests poured water on the altar and prayers from the blessings of water were made. The four species of the lulav are all about water too. The lulav itself, the date palm, was the most water-loving plant of the desert; the myrtle (hadas) needs the most water of the mountain plants; the etrog fruit among agricultural trees requires the most rains to grow; and of course the "willow of the brooks" (arvei nachal) are synonymous with abundant water, growing often with their roots right in the streams.”

“Each of these species represents one of the primary habitats of the land of Israel: the desert, the mountain, the lowland (sh'feilah in Hebrew), and the river or riparian habitats. Each of these habitats is distinguished of course by how much rainfall and how much groundwater are found there. Together, the four species make a bioregional map of the land of Israel, and they each hold in greatest abundance the rains that fell in their region from the year that has passed. Bringing these four together, we wave them in all directions around us, up and down, praying that the coming year will again bring enough water for each of these species to grow and thrive, and with them all the species of each habitat. All the other explanations you may have heard for the four lulav species are beautiful midrashim (legends), but this is the ground-level reason for it all. We are praying, fundamentally, for the climate, for the stability and sufficiency of the rain and sun, on which every being living upon the land, plant or animal, depends.”

“How can we make our prayers heard? We can make them heard by hearing them ourselves. All ecosystems are connected, and we cannot harm one without harming the others. When we pray for abundance and sustenance while living in ways that destroy our climate, it is like praying with a dried-out lulav, or worse, praying for health while eating poisons and toxins. Since we must pray for these things, let us also pray for the wisdom and ability to act consistently with our prayers, to change how we live so that we might live sustainably on the earth, as the Torah enjoins us: Uvacharta bachayim! Choose life!”

When asked, “How important are these ancient holidays we celebrate?”, the answer is clear: They are of ultimate importance, no more so than Sukkot!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Ha'azinu posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/10/08

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 32:1-52
October 10, 2008

The dynamics of effective leadership: You are the leader of a project. It’s the end of a difficult period (day, week, month, year, etc.). You faced numerous challenges to the tasks at hand, and even your leadership. In spite of the workers incompetence and insolence, you succeeded. The project is completed. All that remains is bidding adieu to the workforce. Do you thank them for their efforts or remind them if they ever hope to work again they must “clean up their act!” There are three leadership models to choose from- 1) Forget the past and honor them for the work they did. Let them feel good about themselves. After all, you may need to employ them in a future project, 2) thank them for their work while gently encouraging them to improve their skills so you may someday work together in a future project, or 3) simply let the workers know how disappointed you were with their work.

Moses has come to the end of his mission. The excitement and expectation that accompanied the initial exodus from Egypt has long since been forgotten. From the time the Israelites entered the Sinai wilderness until they arrived at the doorstep of the Promised Land, they complained, rebelled, and even built an idol to worship. Now, in his final moments, Moses is called upon to give a final charge to the Israelites. What does he say? This week’s Torah portion contains a poem Moses composed for the occasion.

The poem expresses two themes: 1) The greatness of God:

The Rock! His deeds are perfect,
Yea, all His ways are just;
A faithful God, never false,
True and upright is He.
-Deut. 32:4

2) The stubbornness and unreliability of the Israelites:

Children unworthy of Him-
That crooked, perverse generation-
Their baseness has played Him false.
Do you thus requite the Lord,
O dull and witless people?
Is not he the Father who created you,
Fashioned you and made you endure!
-Deut. 32:5-6

Most of us would probably opt for leadership style 1 or 2. Moses chooses 3! Forty years of dealing with this “stiff-necked people” has taken its toll on the “leader of the band.” His message is not one of encouragement or challenge. Instead, it is the catharsis of an old man who lived his entire life in pursuit of an ideal, only to be disappointed in the end. The Israelites will realize the dream under the leadership of someone else.

In the end, Moses has forgotten his own mission. He was charged with facilitating the creation of a new People in their own land. It was never about “him;” always about “them.” Many years ago, a summer camp director taught me an important lesson: “A good leader is one who when the work is done, his charges say “we did it ourselves!”

Maybe this is why Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land? Food for thought!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Nitzavim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/26/08

Torah Portion: Nitzavim
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 29:9-30:20
September 26, 2008

“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God. .” (Deut. 29:9)

Moses concludes his final instructions to the Israelites prior to entering the Promised Land. In a final ceremony, the gathered mass accepts the covenant with God. It is not a coincidence that this Torah portion is read every year just prior to Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). Just as the Israelites have completed their journey in the Sinai wilderness, so to Jews have completed a year that found us at times wandering in our own personal wilderness. Just as the Israelites are called upon to accept the covenant with God in preparation for entering a new era in the life of the Jewish people, so to are Jews called upon on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to re-accept a covenant with God in preparation for a better, more fulfilling year.

Starting anew is not as simple as it seems. Rosh Hashanah is the time to evaluate the past year; to assess the paths taken, the difficulties encountered, the mistakes made, and the lessons learned. It is also the time for drawing up a “game plan” for the year ahead. What are our personal goals? Are they achievable? If so, how?

The following is one of my favorite parables for this time of year.

There was a poor countrywomen who had many children. They were always begging for food, but she had none to give them. One day she found an egg.

She called her children and said, “Children, children, we’ve nothing to worry about any more; I’ve found an egg. And, being an shrewd woman, I’ll not eat the egg, but shall ask my neighbor for permission to set it under her setting hen, until a chick is hatched. For I am a wise woman! And we’ll not eat the chick, but will set her on eggs, and the eggs will hatch into chickens in their turn will hatch many eggs, and we’ll have many chickens and many eggs. But I’m a sensible woman, I am! I’ll not eat the chickens and not eat their eggs, but shall sell them and buy a heifer. And I’ll not eat the heifer, but shall raise it to a cow, and not eat the cow until it produces calves. And I’ll not eat it then, either, and we’ll have cows and calves. For I am a shrewd woman! And I’ll sell the cows and the calves and buy a field, and we’ll have fields and cows and calves, and we won’t need anything any more!”

The countrywoman continued to speak in this manner as she played with the egg. Suddenly it fell out of her hands and broke.

The parable goes on to say: “That is how we are. When Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrive, every person resolves to begin, again, thinking in his/her heart, “I’ll do this and I’ll do that.” But the days slip by in mere deliberation, and thought doesn’t lead to action, and what is worse, the person who made the resolution may fall even lower.”

In the coming week, all the Jewish people will “stand before God.” We will use words of prayer to express hopes and intentions for the coming year, but unless they are accompanied by deeds and actions, the words will remain stillborn on our lips.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of happiness, health, and peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Ki Tavo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/19/08

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 26:1-29:8
September 19, 2008

For Moses, the end draws near. The journey is completed. The Israelites have been reminded of their obligations to their people, their land, and their God. Now Moses brings closure to 40 years of “people-building” with a ceremony of rewards & punishments. If they follow God’s path of mitzvot, these will be their gains. If they choose not to follow, these will be their losses.

The list of blessings and curses in Ki Tavo is interestingly unbalanced. There are 55 verses of curse and only 14 verses of blessing! What we have is a unique insight into human behavior and further evidence of God’s existence.

Humankind is not born with an innate sense of good. Neither are we born with a natural inclination toward evil. People are simply born! Unlike the animal world which is instinctively wired, humankind develops instincts based on background and environment. An infant is born into an existence of complete selfishness. Everything is done for him/her. As the infant grows into adolescence, the child begins learning responsibility; not just for oneself, but for community, as well. He/she learns how good and wonderful the world can be. This alone does not compel the youngster to abandon his/her narcissistic roots. Therefore, the parent/teacher instructs the child in the consequences of not assuming responsibility.

The Israelites, after 40 years of adolescence, prepare to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. Like many children, they’ve learned their lessons the hard way. Now, in a concluding ceremony, they are reminded if they want the blessings of a good place to live, children, wealth, and peaceful interaction with neighbors and friends, they’d better heed the words of the Torah; not to, could be disastrous.

The Torah portion reminds all of us that the good life is the result of taking obligation, responsibility and commitment seriously.

A colleague of mine was asked, “How do you know God exists?” He responded, “There is no other way to explain why people choose to do good!” Our sense of responsibility, though not innate, is divinely-inspired!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Hurricane Ike posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/12/08

Hurricane Ike
September 12, 2008

For those living in Houston, or along the Texas coastline, we await the unknown. Veterans of Hurricanes Carla (1961), Elisha (1983), or Rita (2005) will tell you that no news report or satellite picture can ever prepare you for the actual reality. It is impossible to appreciate the incredible strength of these forces of nature, nor realize the devastation and destruction they are capable of doing, until you have lived through one. It is also in these moments of crisis that God becomes a presence in so many lives. Rabbi David Wolpe once wrote, “God is discovered in the night of our lives.” So true.

In the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is written, “The great shofar is sounded. A still, small voice is heard.” For us, the “great shofar” is a metaphor for the storm that lies ahead, and God is the “still small voice.” The strength of God’s presence is not in the storm, but in the hope, comfort, and personal strength his/her presence brings to each of us facing the unknown.

A local colleague, Rabbi Ranon Teller of Congregation Brith Shalom, compiled the following excerpts from Jewish literature to aid and comfort those in the proverbial “line of fire.”

Prayers for the home while sheltering from the storm

Hashkeeveinu (“Help Us Lie Down”)
Help us, Oh God, to lie down in peace, and awaken us again to life. Spread over us Your shelter of peace; guide us with Your wisdom. Protect us with Your mercy. Shield us from wind and rain. Shelter us in the shadow of wings, O God, who watches over us and delivers us. Guard our homes and our families. Grant us life and peace, now and always. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace. Praised are You, Oh God, who spreads the shelter of peace over us, over all people, and over Jerusalem.

Gevurot (Strength)
Your might, Oh God, is boundless. Great is Your saving power. Your love sustains us, Your great love gives us life. You support the falling, heal the ailing, free the confined. What power can compare to yours? You are the Source of life and deliverance. Praised are You, Oh God, Source of all.

Psalm 93
Oh God, our God, the Source of all.
You set the earth on a sure foundation. You created a world that stands firm.
The rivers may rise and rage, the waters may pound and pulsate, the floods may swirl and storm.
Yet above the crash of the sea and its mighty breakers is our God, supreme.
Your wisdom and strength never fail.

Blessing upon seeing a storm
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh Ha-olam, she-kocho u-g'vurato malei olam.
Praised are You Our God, Master of the Universe, Source of All, whose power and might fill the world.

Closing Prayer
Even in this time of distress, grant me the privilege of the liberating joy of Shabbat. Fill my heart with gladness. Show me the path of life, the fullness of Your presence, the bliss of feeling close to You. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, Oh God, my Rock and my Redeemer. May the One who brings peace in the upper worlds, bring peace to us, the State of Texas, and to all people. Amen.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Shoftim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/05/08

Torah Portion: Shoftim
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 16:18-21:9

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. . . . Justice, justice shall you pursue!” (Deut. 16:18, 20)

With the conclusion of the two political conventions, and the formal launch of the Presidential campaign, this teaching is quite timely! In the weeks ahead, as in the recent past, we will continue to be barraged with “smoke and mirrors” to cloud our reason and divert our attention from what we should be seeking in a new leader. What does the Jewish tradition suggest are the qualifications to serve as a “magistrate and official”?

There are any number of answers to the above question, but let me limit it to three primary qualities: Hesed (“Kindness & Caring”), Binah (“Understanding”), and Day’ah (“Knowledge”). One who wishes to bear the mantle of leadership must, first and foremost, be a person who is liked and respected by those he/she wishes to lead. “Kindness & Caring” means being able to empathize with the cries of the poor as well as the rich. While a government’s chief concern is for it’s citizenry, a leader’s chief concern must extend to the welfare and well-being of all people who wish to share in the American dream.

An effective leader must be not just an outstanding but an understanding individual. In Kabalistic (mystic) terms, Binah (Understanding) is “processed wisdom,” or deductive learning. A leader must be able to gather all the facts and necessary knowledge, process them, and rationally determine the correct path to follow. However, to achieve understanding a leader must first possess the requisite knowledge, Day'ah, to carry out the responsibilities of office. This is analogous to an automobile. A car requires fuel and an engine to run. For a leader, the fuel-pure energy-is knowledge and the engine-refining the energy-is understanding.

Several political pundits have accused the candidates of being to much about personality and not enough about substance. By implication, the best candidate is the most substantive, regardless of personality. Not true! The leadership model I have presented suggests the most successful candidate is one who possesses a personality of kindness, a sharp intellect, and the constant desire to pursue understanding through knowledge. Amidst the fog and haze of political spin, it is these qualities we should look for in the next President of the United States.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Standing Up! posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/30/08

One Month Until Rosh Hashanah
August 29, 2008

As a child I was taught if you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing. This message resonated in the presence of 80,000 Americans gathered to hear the Democratic nominee for President. Next week, the same message will be on display at the Republican convention in St. Paul, MN. Coincidentally, Sunday and Monday mark the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, which means the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is only one month away. In preparation for Rosh Hashanah, Jews typically spend the next 30 days taking stock of their successes and failures during the past year. It is a time to ask oneself, “What is it I stand for?”

With a hope you will ponder this question in the days and weeks ahead, I am including a rather off-beat poem with a timely message. Enjoy and learn!

The Lesson Of The Moth

I was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt I asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before I could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself on a patent cigar lighter
I do not agree with him
myself I would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time I wish
there was something I wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

-Don Marquis

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Ekev posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/22/08

Torah Portion: Ekev
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 7:12-11:25
August 22, 2008

As I stood in line to board a Southwest Airlines flight, I could hear the pilot behind me discussing the stock market with another passenger. As he approached me, I jokingly commented, “I hope your flying is as good as your investing!” He stopped, pulled out a pair of inch-thick glasses and replied, “Don’t worry, with my new glasses I can finally see the runway for landings!” As the flight landed in Houston, one of the flight attendants began singing over the P.A. system, “The first name of my airline is S-O-U-T-H, the last name of my airline is W-E-S-T. . . .” I thought to myself, “these people really like what they’re doing!” It’s not a coincidence that Southwest is consistently among the best airlines in the industry.

In the Torah portion Ekev, Moses tries to empower the Israelites to continue the process of people/nation building after they enter the “Promised Land.” He says to them:

“Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to occupy; for you are a stiffnecked people.” (Deut. 9:6).

Do statements like this really motivate one? Maybe in biblical times, but in a “post-modern” era attacks on a person’s (or people’s) self-esteem not only produces negative results but can end in a lawsuit!

One of Moses’ greatest attributes is also the source of his greatest weakness: He’s human. As such, he’s given to occasional anger, dismay, and disappointment. After 40 years, he is still not certain this people understand their God, much less their mission in history. He is dismayed and disappointed in not being permitted to finally enter the Land he could only dream of. And, he’s embittered by the fact that this “Stiff-necked people” will enter in his stead. His admonishment of their lack of virtue is understandable, but not acceptable.

In last week’s Torah portion we read, “And you shall love the Lord, your God. “ (Deut. 6:5). Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhaki, better known as “Rashi”, explains this verse to mean, “He who serves his master out of fear, if the master troubles him too much, he will leave and go away.” Moses can be forgiven for being human, but a leader will never inspire through fear and intimidation, and neither will an employer. Only love, compassion and understanding are omnipotent. Just as Rashi understood this, so does Herb Kelleher, owner and president of Southwest Airlines. I thank him for teaching me some Torah!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vacation posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/09/08

Rabbi Siegel is on vacation. His Torah lessons will continue on Friday, August 29, 2008. Until then, check out the archives by clicking below.

Mas'ei posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/01/08

Torah Portion: Mas’ei
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 33:1-36:13
August 1, 2008

If you are a fan of football you recognize the name Brett Favre (pronounced FaRve). He spent the past 16 years as quarterback of the legendary Green Bay Packers. Over these many years, he was seldom blessed with the most outstanding pass receivers, or runners, or offensive line. Nonetheless, every year his team was in contention. His name became synonymous with everything that was good about competitive sports. At the end of last season Brett announced his retirement from football. The Packers and their fans were sad to see him leave, but it was time to move on with a new quarterback and new team leadership. A month ago, Brett Favre announced his desire to come out of retirement and return to the Green Bay Packers. Even though the team would probably have a better chance of winning in the short term with Brett rather than an untested replacement, they knew he was no longer in their plans for the future. At this moment, the Packers seem resolved to move on. Brett continues to have a difficult time “letting go.”

This week’s Torah portion, the final one in the Book of Numbers, marks the end of the Israelites journey through the desert. The time has come for Moses to hand over the reigns of leadership to Joshua, his younger protégé. The legends of the ancient rabbis (Midrash) tell of Moses’ difficulty in letting go. For 40 years, Moses successfully guided a “stiff-necked people” through an untamed wilderness only to be told that Joshua would take over. It would be Joshua who would finally lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. According to the Midrash, Moses pleaded with God to spare his life and let him lead the Israelites forward. He called upon witnesses from among the people to speak on his behalf. In the end, the future of the Israelite nation required new leadership and direction. It required Moses “letting go.”

Among the most difficult tasks in life is “letting go.” Whether it is sending children into the world as young adults or retiring from a job that defined one’s existence for so many years, we all have to eventually “let go.” Everyone says how wonderful it will be to move on in life, begin anew, face new challenges, set out for new horizons. Unfortunately, these are only words. Too often our actions, like those of the biblical giant Moses or the more earthly Brett Favre, betray our words.

Learning to “let go” can be more fulfilling than learning to “accept.” It is something we ought to be prepared for, but never are. It is one of the moments in life that inevitably must happen. Letting go is not about failure or diminished skills, it is about not allowing the past to hold a veto over the future.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Mattot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/25/08

Torah Portion: Mattot
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 30:2-32:41
July 25, 2008

A Zionist is one who longs to live in Israel, the Land of Zion. The roots of biblical Zionism go back to the promise God made to Moses and the Israelites when they were still in Egypt. The modern Zionism of the early 20th century culminated in the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Most American Jews still identify themselves as Zionists even though they have no intention or, for that matter, longing to live in Israel. Can one consider themselves a Zionist and not be living in Israel? What are the boundaries to defining oneself as a Zionist? These questions were no less relevant in the time of Moses.

In this Torah portion, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who own a great number of cattle, approach Moses with the request to settle the lands of Jazer and Gilead on the east side of the Jordan River. They claim these lands are more suitable for cattle-raising than the lands promised them in Canaan. Moses wastes no time in replying, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? (Num. 32:6)” The ancient rabbis suggest these tribes show greater concern for their cattle than for human beings, more attention to their possessions than to their own flesh and blood. After Moses’ stinging reprimand, the two tribes strike a deal with Moses allowing them to settle east of the Jordan River in exchange for their participation in the battle to acquire the Promised Land.

Pinchas Peli recalls the following exchange which took place at the Zionist Executive Committee meeting in Jerusalem during the grave days of the War of Liberation in 1948. “The veteran American leader Rabbi Israel Goldstein declared at that time that the Jews of the United States and the Jews of Israel were partners in the struggle for the Jewish state about to be established. The partnership-said Goldstein-is in the Hebrew word damim, which means both blood and money. We American Jews, he said, put our damim-money-into the partnership. You, Israeli Jews, give your damim-blood.

At this point Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, the leader of the religious Zionists, rose to reply to Rabbi Goldstein: Indeed, he said, we are partners in the word damim, but what an immense difference between the two partners! When an Israeli Jew gives his blood for this people, he gives it to the last drop: Is there an American Jew who would give to his last dollar? Moreover, when Israeli parents send their child into battle-it hurts them very much. Is there an American Jew who would give until it hurts? Then Rabbi Bar-Ilan noted, “Oh yes, there are those who start hurting as soon as they give their first dollar!”

Zionism is not a commitment to a government or political entity; it is an unconditional commitment to a Land and a People. The question is the same for us now as it was for the tribes of Reuben and Gad then, how committed are we?

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Pinchas posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/18/08

Torah Portion: Pinchas
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 25:10-30:1
July 18, 2008

Pinchas-priest and grandson of Aaron-has his “fifteen minutes of fame” at the conclusion of last week’s Torah portion when an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman into the presence of the Israelites. Pinchas, viewing this relationship as an act of desecration, “Stabbed both of them (Num. 25:8).” It would appear from this week’s portion that his extreme zealousness was, in fact, rewarded by Torah. God turns to Moses and tells him, regarding the actions of Pinchas, “I grant him My pact of friendship (Num. 25:12).”

Over the ages there have been biblical commentators and Midrash (Jewish legends) supporting the deadly actions of Pinchas. There are a greater number of Torah scholars troubled by his display of zealotry. In the Babylonian Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin (82a), “Rabbi Hisda said: If the zealot comes to the Bet Din (Jewish court) to receive counsel [regarding whether it is permitted for him to take the lives of the Israelite man and Midianite woman cohabiting together], we do not instruct him to do so [even though it be permitted by Jewish law].” Extremism, even when seemingly warranted, is unacceptable.

We live in a time that tests this teaching. Terrorism and extremism are at war with moderation and diplomacy. This is not a war of ideology or relative positions of good. This is a war of Good vs. Evil, and one we can ill afford to lose. Regardless of how committed one is to the “rightness” of their cause, suicide (or homicide) bombings are “evil.” The tragedy of 9/11 is a monument to the “dark side” of human existence. The wanton destruction of even one human life is a desecration of God’s Divine Presence. In response, retaliation becomes necessary, not so revenge. Retaliation is a measured response to surgically remove the elements responsible for the evil. Revenge is an emotional response often devoid of reason with no regard for the moral/ethical dimension of justice.

It is easy at times like this to adopt the self-righteous and zealous position of Pinchas. It is more difficult to stay the course; to fight the immorality of extremism with weapons of reason, intelligence, and enlightenment. Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “The power to make distinctions is a primary operation of intelligence. We distinguish between white and black, beautiful and ugly, pleasant and unpleasant, gain and loss, good and evil, right and wrong. The fate of humankind depends upon the realization that the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, is superior to all other distinctions.”

The preservation of “good” demands that we not become like them.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Balak posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/12/08

Torah Portion: Balak
Book of Numbers
Numbers 22:2-25:9
July 11, 2008

As the Israelites continue their 40-year journey in the desert they encounter, and successfully defeat, a tribe of Canaanites in the Negev and Amorites in Transjordan. Only the land of Moab separates the Israelites from the “Promised Land.” Balak, the King of Moab, realizes his army is no match militarily for the Israelites. He decides to try another method.

According to rabbinic legend (Midrash), Moses was noted for his oratorical skills, especially with regard to prayer. His prayers were able to move God to act on his concerns. The ancient rabbis suggest that Balak, being aware of this extraordinary skill, decided to employ a professional curser, Balaam, who was also noted for his linguistic talent. He was chosen to place a destructive curse on the Children of Israel. Words would become the weapon of choice in the battle against the Israelites. We know words can be hurtful and helpful, disheartening and inspiring, but is the world a better place because of a victory of words or actions?

Regardless of the efficacy of Moses prayer, Judaism has always been a tradition of “deed over creed.” What you do is ultimately more important than what you believe. As Rabbi Ismar Schorsch notes, “In Judaism behavior takes priority over belief. Faith without deeds will not change the world.”

If one were asked to list terms best defining the Jewish experience, it is likely the list would include ethics, moral behavior, acts of loving-kindness, charity (Tzedakah), etc. Mentions of Jewish ritual are less likely. This does not mean that Jewish ritual is merely perfunctory. On the contrary! Rabbi Schorsch links “deed & creed” by teaching, “The best way to infuse the world with holiness is by harnessing the self. As long as ritual is tethered to that aspiration, it can provide us with the discipline to move beyond ourselves.” Putting faith into action, words into deeds, there is hope for this world we live in.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

The 4th of July posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/04/08

The 4th of July
July 4, 2008

I have just returned from an interesting 10-day car trip through Germany. In the 1960’s, children of the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust began requesting to know what it was their parents were hiding or shoving beneath the carpet of time. It was the children of Nazis who demanded Germany come to terms with its past. As a result of their activism, today every large (and many small) city has a “Judishe Museum” (Jewish museum) detailing the history of the Jews in their particular city. Additionally, there are a number of Holocaust museums chronicling the event from the beginnings of the Nazi movement to the Nuremburg trials that followed the war. One might say the Germans have been as meticulous in explaining the Holocaust as they were in perpetrating it!

From the site of the Wannsee conference (where the “Final Solution” was proposed) on the outskirts of Berlin to the Nazi Documentation Center in Nuremburg to Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” in the Bavarian town of Obersalzburg, a clear pattern of events enfolded leading to the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. In the early 1920’s, Germany was facing a severe economic crisis. Playing on the fears of the public, the National Socialist party created a scapegoat in the Jews, gypsies, and any other group that was non-Aryan or immigrant. In this manner, Hitler was able to gain support and political clout. The next step was to paint these non-Aryans as a clear and present threat to Germany making it necessary to curtail the civil liberties of certain citizens of Germany. In 1935, the Nuremburg laws were put into effect. They defined “Who is A German” (a person with four German grandparents) and “Who is a Jew” (a person with at least three Jewish grandparents). They also prohibited intermarriages and extramarital affairs between Jews and Germans. A second law stripped away the German citizenship of persons not considered of German blood. The Nazis then used their newly-gained power and popularity to enact laws that allowed them to advance their cause. In the end, any semblance of democracy had disappeared. The rest is history.

Today, the 4th of July, we celebrate an experiment in democracy that continues to safeguard the rights and freedoms of its residents. No national constitution has offered more hope and protection to all citizens, minorities, and foreign nationals within our borders than that of the United States. Our continued independence relies on a constant and vigilant defense of the Constitution. To this end, we all need to remember what can happen to the fabric of a society who erodes the foundation upon which they exist. We must be mindful of those who would blame the economic hardships of today on “illegal immigrants.” We must be equally concerned of wholesale efforts to search out and deport these scapegoats of our time. Similarly, we need to be on guard against a government who would erode our civil liberties in the name of “national security.” We have seen this all before. We, as Jews, know better than anyone else where this can lead. We have a special responsibility to stand up against efforts to circumvent the Constitution.

We Americans have much to be thankful for on this Independence Day. Most of all, we should be thankful for those in every generation who rose not only to defend our country in times of war, but those who rose to defend our Constitution even in times of peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

On Vacation posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/17/08

Rabbi Howard Siegel will be on vacation for two weeks. Torah learning will return on Friday, July 4, 2008

B'ha-alot'kha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/14/08

Torah Portion: B’ha-a lot’kha
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 8:1-12:16
June 13, 2008

The art of complaining became a recognizable personality trait of the Israelites in the desert. In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites complained that it would have been better to have remained in Egypt where there was at least food to eat, then suffer hunger in the desert. Later they complained that there was not enough water to drink. And, in this Torah portion, “. . The Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat. We remember we used to eat free in Egypt. . . Now, there is nothing but this manna to look to.” (Num. 11:5-6)

For Moses, the hardest task was not having to respond to the people’s complaints, but having to listen to them! “Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, each person at the entrance of his tent.” Moses expresses his frustration by saying to God, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me?” (Num. 11:10-11)

The following story surfaced during the final days of the former Soviet Union:

“How was life in the country where you come from?” The question was asked of a new immigrant, just arrived in Israel from the USSR.

“I could not complain,” was the answer.

“And how were your living quarters there?”

Again the same answer: “Well, I couldn’t complain.”

“And your standard of living?”

And again: “I couldn’t complain.”

“If everything was so swell, why then did you come here?”

“Oh,” replied the new immigrant, “here, thank God, I can complain!”

A free person has the right and responsibility to speak out against acts of injustice. When water and food were scarce, the Israelites complaints were justified. When later Moses heard the people weeping, murmuring, and whining for no clear reason, he came before God and said, “Enough!”

When a people do not speak out because of fear of retribution, the governing body no longer is held accountable for its actions. A government unaccountable to its people usually becomes repressive Freedom of speech and expression does not mean one can say anything they wish. For example, one cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theatre if there isn’t one. In Canada, the “Hate Laws” prohibit speech that is antagonistic or threatening to an ethnic group. The United States has a more liberal and expansive understanding of this basic human right but still invokes limits to certain types of speech.

Some Biblical commentators interpret the Israelite complaints as indicative of how unappreciative they were for their new-found freedom. I prefer to view their concerns as a positive example of a people-new to freedom-discovering their basic right to stand up for themselves against acts of injustice and cruelty. In learning this lesson, they also learn that free speech has its limits. Whining, for no justifiable reason, is unacceptable (tell that to your children and/or grandchildren)!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Shavuot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/06/08

June 6, 2008

This Sunday evening, June 8, 2008, is the beginning of the holiday of Shavuot. The name Shavuot means “weeks” and is celebrated 7 weeks after Passover. According to the account in the Book of Exodus, the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai 50 days after departing Egypt. There, God revealed the Law (Torah) to Moses and, in accepting it, the Jewish people were born. Each year we celebrate the moment of “receiving Torah” on Sinai by spiritually re-committing ourselves; making that moment a constant in our lives.

Amidst the celebration of all Jewish holidays is a brief moment to remember family and friends, known as Yizkor. As time passes, inevitably the memories of dearly departed also pass. Yizkor is not just regularly-scheduled opportunities to honor their memory, but to allow the memory of how they lived and what they were about to impact our lives.

Over the past quarter century, a number of famous businesses have ceased to exist. In their day, each was known for some contribution it made to the marketplace. Pan Am Airlines, with its spherical logo, was among the first major international airlines. Pan Am closed for good in 1991, but they are still associated with some of the glamour of air travel. Do you remember Woolworth’s? Maybe they didn’t introduce the “5 & Dime” concept of shopping, but they were an important part of the middle class of America in the mid-20th century. Like many businesses, they expanded beyond their financial capability and eventually had to close all their stores. They did re-open under the name “Foot Locker.” There are more recent passings of financial institutions such as Paine Webber (known today as UBS) and the buy-out of E.F. Hutton (who do we listen to now?). These businesses, and so many others like them (American Motors, Eastern Airlines, TWA, Compaq computers to name a few) came and went. Nothing it seems last forever, but the impact they made on the marketplace and pop culture continues.

The sad truth is that in 100 years (or less!), we will have all passed, as well as our children and children’s children. Despite best efforts most of us will be forgotten. Yet the memories we create for our family and friends today can have a positive effect generations from now, even if we are no longer remembered.

Immortality is not about remembering a name, but passing on a tradition; giving future generations the same chance to celebrate the gift of life and, in turn, (borrowing from Hollywood!) “Pay It Forward.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

B'midbar posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/30/08

Torah Portion: B’midbar
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 1:1-4:20
May 30, 2008

The 4th book of the Torah is called in Hebrew B’midbar, meaning “in the wilderness.” This is derived from the 1st verse in the book that reads, “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. .” (Num. 1:1)

What is it about a “wilderness” that makes it an appropriate location for the beginning of the Jewish people? God could have chosen a more elaborate setting for revealing his Law to Moses and the Israelites. Instead, he appeared on Mt. Sinai located amidst an arid wasteland. According to the commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash, “this should remind us that the Torah was given in a wilderness, a place accessible to all, a site that belonged to no one people, and that it was given to a people with no real property and few possessions.” The Talmud states, “One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah”

Eitz Hayim continues, “The wilderness, untouched by human settlement, offered a contrast to Egypt, which was dominated by monuments fashioned by human hands. Thus it was fitting stage for God’s being proclaimed sovereign of the world. We may even see a parallel between the revelation at Sinai (when God imposed moral order in the midst of a wilderness) and the creation of the world (when God imposed natural order on chaos).”

One may choose to view a “wilderness” as a barren wasteland lacking in substance and offering little hope, or one may see the “wilderness” as open space; an opportunity to reach out and explore new realities, embrace new commitments invigorated with new hopes. This is the proverbial “glass half-full or half-empty.” It took 40 years, and a generation born in the Sinai wilderness, to create the foundations of a people capable of seeing their surroundings as non-threatening. Only then were they able to enter a new land with new moral/ethical responsibilities formulated in the openness and acceptance of a wilderness.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Memorial Day 2008 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/23/08

Memorial Day Weekend
May 23, 2008

Memorial day was officially proclaimed in 1868 to honor those who died in the Civil War. Over the years, it has come to commemorate and honor all who have died to protect the liberties and freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. One such freedom enumerated in the Bill of Rights is the 1st Amendment to the Constitution- “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

World War II was a battle for racial domination and the annihilation of an entire people because of their religious identification. Memorial Day remembers the heroic efforts of American soldiers to defeat Nazi Germany and bring an end to the religious genocide.

Sixty years later, the obscene appearance of religious intolerance again appears in the words of a supposed “lover of Israel”-Evangelical Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio. In a sermon delivered in the late 1990’s, Pastor Hagee said the Bible prophesied Hitler’s brutality. “How is God going to bring them back to the land (of Israel)? The answer is fishers and hunters.” Mr. Hagee said, referring to how Jews ended up in the modern state of Israel. “A hunter is someone who comes with a gun and forces you. Hitler was a hunter.” Hagee goes on to say, “That will be offensive to some people. Well, dear heart, be offended. I didn’t write it. Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth and it is the truth.”

Pastor Hagee is correct, his remarks are offensive. He is wrong though when he claims he knows the truth. I cannot believe in a God who would wantonly murder 6,000,000 Jews in an effort to get them to re-locate to Israel. Furthermore, I cannot accept a Bible whose Prophets would make such claims. God did not have 6,000,000 Jews put to death. Hitler was not a tool of God. The Prophet Jeremiah did not prophecy the coming of Hitler. I do not believe Rev. Hagee is an anti-Semite, but his belief and ideology is no less dangerous.

Pastor Hagee, a darling of the Houston Jewish community, has raised over 30 million dollars for Israel. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, stated in a New York Times article, “This is a man who has some profound ambivalence about Jews. On the one hand, he has a love for Israel. But on the other, that was a sermon and he said Jews were punished by God for not going to Israel, that the divine plan that brought Israel into being included the Holocaust and Hitler as God’s instrument.”

All of this emerges from Rev. Hagee’s dispensationalist belief that the Israelites return to the Promised Land is required for the second coming of Jesus. In other words, the Jews are a necessary pawn in Hagee’s religious drama. What makes his remarks so frightening is the fact that had he been in a position of religious leadership during WW II, he probably would have remained silent to Hitler’s atrocities. Even of greater concern is what he might do or who he might support in the future in his efforts to bring all the Jews to Israel.

The founding fathers of the United States had people like Pastor Hagee in mind when they drafted the 1st Amendment. Memorial Day is a time to remember what we, as a nation, are about and what thousands have made the ultimate sacrifice to protect. It is not just “freedom of religion,” but also “freedom from religion” and the religious bigotry that is masked in self-righteousness.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Behar posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/16/08

Torah Portion: Behar
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 25:1-26:2
May 16, 2008

“If your kinsman, falling into poverty, comes under your authority, and you shall strengthen him. . (Lev. 25:35)”

In the mid-90’s, in response to the first major welfare legislation reform in 30 years, Rabbi Elliot Dorff authored a pastoral letter entitled, You Shall Strengthen Him: A Rabbinic Letter on the Poor. Rabbi Dorff noted, “The Jewish tradition is rich in concepts that express the value of every human life. These include saving or guarding human life, the importance of community, compassion, the dignity of being God’s creature, and human aspirations for holiness. Even the Hebrew word Tzedakah, means justice. We care for the poor because it is the “just” and “righteous” thing to do.”

Rabbi Dorff was concerned in1996 for cuts in housing subsidies, food stamps, aid to families with dependent children, and direct cash payments. Changes that would do more to further a “culture of poverty” among the poor than erase it. Our rich biblical and rabbinic tradition implores us to continue striving on behalf of the “have nots” in society.

With regard to the poor, the book of Leviticus tells us not to exact from [the poor] advance or accrued interest. . . Let him live by your side as your kinsman. Do not lend him your money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest (Lev. 25:36-37). The book of Deuteronomy teaches, You shall open your hand [to the poor person] and provide him sufficient for his need whatever it may be (Deut. 15:8).

Basing their teachings on the above verses, the ancient rabbis (2nd century CE) taught that a person’s former status had to be taken into account in assessing his/her need. Families had the responsibility to teach their children a craft so they would be gainfully employed. Maimonides (12th century CE) taught that the highest and best form of assistance is attained by the person who comes to the aid of another before he reaches the stage of actual poverty in the form of a loan, or formation of a business partnership , or assistance in obtaining some employment for him.

Rabbi Dorff concluded, “We are all, Judaism insists, God’s children, created in the divine image. The poor must be afforded the real opportunity of gainful employment, under circumstances that support that employment. Even those who, for the moment, cannot do so, or fail to do so, must be afforded protections that recognize and maintain their dignity, as children of God.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Emor posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/11/08

Torah Portion: Emor
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 21:1-24:23

In referring to the ancient priests, God says, “They shall be Holy (Lev. 21:6).” Pinhas Peli remarks, “Holiness is the Jewish answer to the problem of human existence. Humankind has always sought to ascribe some metaphysical meaning to physical life, suggesting that if a person is not somehow more than human, he is less than human. Thus, attempts to transcend temporal life through art, eros, religion and immortality. Judaism taught that it is holiness that can add this extra dimension to our lives, not by escaping from life, but rather by striving to “be holy” in this world and in this life.”

For the ancient priest, “holiness” required a certain separation in the face of death. Peli points out, “In the face of the fascination with death in ancient (and modern) religions, with people looking to temple and priest for “pie in the sky when you die,” we find the following command: “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person among his people (Lev. 21:1).”

Having experienced the gaudy death rituals of Egypt-with embalming, dressing, and placing the body in a tomb or pyramid to rise to the gods-the Torah strictly forbids the priests from dealing with the dead; from making Judaism into a death cult.

The priests are commanded to maintain themselves in a state of holiness so they may inspire the people to pursue the glory of God in life, rather than death. In doing so, the priests were forbidden to come into contact with a corpse. Many Cohanim today choose not to enter a cemetery, even for a funeral, in respect for this tradition. The Torah had the wisdom, as well, to suggest that this tradition has nothing to do with some demonic attitude toward the dead. In fact, a priest is permitted to enter the cemetery to bury his family members. Peli teaches, “It is not death that defiles the priest, but the shifting of the weight of his duties from the living to the dead.”

In the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, the Jew is emphatically told when faced with the choice between the worship of life or death, “choose life (Deut. 30:19).”

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Israel's 60th Birthday posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/02/08

Yom Ha’atzmaut/Israel’s 60th Birthday
May 2, 2008

Yossi Harel passed away at the age of 90, one week before the State of Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebration. Yossi, born Yosef Hamburger in Jerusalem (1918), represented the sixth generation of his family to be born in Israel. His early years were nondescript. It was reported that he had a troubled youth, and after a series of failed jobs left his family at age 14 to join a Jewish paramilitary organization known as the “Haganah.” Yossi was destined to be more than a young rabble-rouser looking for adventure.

In 1939, Britain, who then controlled the pre-State of Israel land known as Palestine, restricted the number of Jews who could enter to 75,000. The restriction was made at a time when Jews were being deported by the thousands to Nazi death camps. After the war (not unlike before the war), most of the concentration camp survivors had no where to go. With the encouragement of a young, fledgling Zionist movement, many began the long, treacherous trek to Palestine. Yossi Harel commanded the main clandestine effort to bring these war refugees to the future State of Israel. His command included four large boats to transport these Jews through the British blockade and into the port of Haifa.

Of the four boats, Yossi named one of them the Exodus as a reminder of a previous biblical journey from “slavery to freedom.” The Exodus never made it to shore in Palestine, but its crew of former concentration camp prisoners sang aloud “Hatikvah”(the soon-to-be anthem of the State of Israel) as they were turned away from the port of Haifa.

The tale of Yossi Harel and the Exodus became the basis for Leon Uris’ famous book by the same title. In the 1960’s the book was made into the movie Exodus in which the actor Paul Newman portrayed Yossi, using the name Ari Ben Canaan.

The obituary in the New York Times notes after the establishment of the State of Israel, “Mr. Harel was a bodyguard for Chaim Weitzman, Israel’s first president, a top official in Israel’s post-independence navy and then a naval architecture student in the United States.” Yossi would continue to serve the State of Israel in a variety of covert operations.

The United States has come to regard the generation of Americans who fought and endured WWII as our “greatest generation.” For Jews, and the State of Israel, we can proudly refer to that same generation as “our” greatest. You may never have heard of Yossi Harel if I had not chosen to mention his passing. For him, and a significant number of others like him, that would have been just fine. These were people who devoted most of their lives to guaranteeing that “Never, Again!” would Jews be left with no place to turn, and no one to turn to.

Is the current State of Israel the Messianic dream of 2,000 years? Probably not. Then, again, she is only 60 years old, and look how far She/We have come. Happy Birthday, Israel!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

A Passover Thought posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/25/08

Passover 5768
April 25, 2008

The many faces of Passover-Hag Ha’Matzot (the holiday of Matzah), Hag Ha’Pesah (the holiday of the Paschal lamb), and Hag Ha’Aviv (the holiday of the Spring).

Conveniently located in the middle of the Jewish year (between Rosh Hashanah & Rosh Hashanah) Passover has special meaning this year as the “Spring” festival. Spring is the time of rebirth. As the chill of winter passes, new blossoms of hope spring forth. For many, this has been a difficult first half of the year. We need what Passover has to offer.

The new year was ushered in with a financial downturn in the mortgage lending industry signaling the ominous beginning of an economic recession, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan showed no signs of ending, the prospects for a peace between Israel and her neighbors appeared even more distant, and genocide and hunger continued in Darfur. And this was only the first half of the year! Enter Passover.

Amidst a Passover story of liberation and freedom is a thread of hope for the human spirit in the theme of Spring. Just as the barren trees of winter cast a lifeless appearance only to recapture their strength and beauty in the Spring, so to the human spirit also has the capacity for rebirth.

The present economic downturn, while casting a pall over the building industry, does not appear to be dissuading Americans from building hope and pursuing dreams. There is a bipartisan consensus on the need to expeditiously end our involvement in Iraq and focus more attention on the terrorist build-up in Afghanistan. Amidst the firing of missiles on Israel from Gaza, and subsequent retaliation, peace talks continue. With each passing day, more attention is brought to the suffering in Darfur and more pressure is being applied to those nations who can make a difference.

The human spirit, the gift of God, is imbued with limitless strength and courage. Its character is indestructible. Who would have ever thought a lowly collection of slaves could stand up against the might of Pharaoh, and prevail? Who would have ever believed that the “dream” of a Jewish state would actually come true? This is why we have Passover, to remind us of who we are and what we’re made of. Especially, this year.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Aharei Mot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/18/08

Torah Portion: Aharei Mot
Leviticus 16:1-18:30
April 18, 2008

I do not recall another time in my life when being labeled “religious” was considered an insult rather than a badge of honor. In our day, religious fundamentalism has created a “black & white” world. You are either a true believer in the most fundamentalist sense or a non-believer. Religious denominations and movements in the middle are being marginalized. The guiding principle behind today’s religious fundamentalism is the belief that every action and reaction is an act of God. Hurricane Katrina was divine punishment for the sins of New Orleans and 9/11 was divine punishment for America’s denial of Islamic sovereignty in the Middle East.

This Torah portion Aharei Mot (literally, “after the death”) comes after the tragic death of Aaron’s two sons. Nothing could have been more crushing to Aaron than losing both his sons on the day he is formally installed as High Priest. With regard to the event, the Torah simply states, “Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord (Lev. 10:1-2).” For centuries, rabbis and Bible scholars have wrestled with the meaning of this senseless loss. The Torah calls the offering of Nadab and Abihu “alien fire,” but is this sufficient reason for God to take their lives? Is this what the “fear of God” means; fear that God will do some awful harm to us if we don’t follow his/her every word?

Edward Greenstein, professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University, suggests otherwise. Professor Greenstein says, “The death of Aaron’s sons was not the result of a miscue in the prescribed choreography of the Tabernacle. Their fate convey the far deeper and more unsettling truth that no amount of elaborate, awesome, and precisely executed ritual should ever leave us with the illusion that we have brought God under human control. . . The religion of the Torah is not a set of magical techniques to get God to do our bidding, but rather a quest to invest our lives with meaning.” Professor Ismar Schoresh further explains, “early in the Book of Leviticus we are put on notice that all our cultic precautions will not spare us the intractable grief of sudden calamity.”

Tragedy happens. It can strike in the morning, at night, or in the case of Aaron, during a moment of great exaltation. Death is not a weapon of divine punishment, but a reality of being mortal. God is not found in the destructive winds of the hurricane, the impact of a jetliner crashing into a building, or the “alien fire” of well-meaning priests. God is discovered in our response to the disaster.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his monumental work When Bad Things Happen To Good People, writes, “We do not love God because He protects us from all harm and keeps evil things from happening to us. We do not love God because we are afraid of Him, or because He will hurt us if we turn our back to Him. We love God because He is God, because He is the author of all the beauty and the order around us, the source of our strength and the hope and courage within us, and of other people’s strength and hope and courage with which we are helped in our time of need.”

As we approach the beginning of Passover on Saturday evening, April 19, 2008, let me wish you all a happy and fulfilling celebration.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Metzora posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/11/08

Torah Portion: Metzora
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 14:1-15:33
April 11, 2008

The word “Metzora” is literally defined as “Leprosy.” This Torah portion continues a discussion of spiritual “purity” and “impurity.” The ancient generations of the Bible associated skin ailments with Divine punishment. In the Book of Numbers, Miriam, sister of Moses, is suddenly struck with leprosy after speaking ill of her brother behind his back. The ancient rabbis took this example one step further. They interpreted the word “Metzora” as an acronym for “Motzi Shem Rah” or, in English, “slander.”

The late 19th century Eastern European scholar Rabbi Israel Meir Ha’Cohen Kagan devoted his life to teaching and writing about the evils of slander and gossip. He became known by the name of his most famous writing, Hafetz Hayim (he who desires life); a name that comes from the verse in Psalm 34, “Whoso is the man that desires life (Hafetz Hayim)-keep your tongue from speaking evil.” Contemporary Bible scholar, Pinhas Peli, relates the following story: One day, the Hafetz Hayim journeyed from the big city of Warsaw to the small town of Radeen where he lived. On the train he got into a conversation with the man next to him who was also going to Radeen. “I am going,” his fellow traveler announced, “to try to get a blessing from the famous saint, the great scholar, the author of the “Hafetz Hayim.” The Rabbi felt uneasy hearing these flattering words about himself and said, “You are most likely mistaken. The person you are going to is not much of a saint or scholar.” The stranger became enraged at his ignorant and insolent traveling companion and angrily slapped his face. The Hafetz Hayim kept silent and did not react.

How shocked was the enthusiast upon arriving in town and making his way to the house of the Hafetz Hayim to find here the very person whose face he had slapped. He fell to his feet crying and begging for his forgiveness.

The Hafetz Hayim however smiled at him good-heartedly: “You should not have to beg for my forgiveness. On the contrary, it is I who owe you thanks for teaching me a new important lesson on the very same subject with which I have dealt all my life. I learned from you that one should beware not only against slandering others, but should not even slander himself. I made a derogatory statement about myself to you, but was punished on the spot for doing so. Thank you.”

There is nothing wrong with appreciating your own personal greatness. In several weeks, we will read the famous verse from Leviticus: “Love Your Neighbor Like Yourself.” The implication is before you can “love your neighbor,” you need to learn to “love yourself.” Erich Fromm, in his work The Art of Loving, teaches that self-love is a requirement for loving another. In many failed relationships one party becomes dependent on the other for perceived failings within him/herself. In a loving relationship, the two parties already feel good about themselves, and want to share this goodness with each other.

As the Hafetz Hayim teaches, slandering others is never good but usually results from low self-esteem and acts of self-deprecation. All one needs to know is that we are ALL fashioned in the “image of God”; we are, each and every one of us, special.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Tazria posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/04/08

Torah Portion: Tazria
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 12:1-13:59
April 4, 2008

From biblical times through the emergence of rabbinic Judaism in the first centuries of the common era, Jewish laws and customs were legislated by men for women. A reading of this Torah portion suggests the workings of the female body-from menstruation to pregnancy to birth-were a mystery to the ancient rabbis and those who preceded them. Wherever a “cloud of mystery” existed, it was always an indication of God’s unrevealed presence.

With regard to birth, the ancient rabbis wrestled with the status of the unborn fetus. Was it an independent human life or an appendage of the woman? For the purpose of protecting the life of the pregnant mother, the rabbis concurred that life-as we know it-begins at birth. Therefore, if a woman’s life is endangered by the pregnancy, one is required to do all that is possible to save her even if it means destroying the fetus.

Still, the ancient rabbis sought to understand more completely the status of the unborn fetus. The following story is told in the Talmudic tractate of Niddah: “The fetus when it is in its mother’s womb, is folded like a notebook, its head rests on its two temples, its two elbows on its two legs and its two heels against its buttocks. Its head lies between its knees, its mouth is closed and its navel is open, and it eats what its mother eats and drinks what its mother drinks. . . A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other. . . There is no time in which a person enjoys greater happiness than in those days. . . It learns the entire Torah and as it is about to be born, an angel approaches, slaps it on its mouth and causes it to forget all the Torah.” The result of the angel’s action is the indentation in our upper lip!

This cute story suggests there is life before there is life! For the unborn fetus, his/her expulsion from the womb is nothing less than death, itself; only to be greeted by a hearty “Mazal Tov” as a new life is born. So to, for us who have been born. All we know for certain is we are born and will someday die. This doesn’t mean birth is the beginning of life nor death the end. The Jewish mystics of the 11th & 12th century teach that our very soul is like an eternal fetus passing continually from one womb to another; from one life to another.

The task at hand is to “repair this world.” The souls of humankind-God’s presence in the world-will continue to reincarnate themselves until this task is completed.

Spiritual food for thought.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Shemini posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/28/08

Torah Portion: Shemini
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 9:1-11:47
March 28, 2008

The Jewish dietary laws are the source of more conjecture and mystery than any other section of Torah. Why keep Kosher? What is the rationale? The great 11th century Jewish thinker Maimonides suggested the reason for Kashrut was to achieve good health. Going back 2,000 years, the Jewish philosopher Philo found a symbolic meaning in the observance: Permission to eat an animal that chews its cud (like a cow) and has split hoofs teaches us that a person grows in wisdom only if he/she repeats and “chews” over what he/she studies. Another conjecture is that Kashrut exists to separate the Jews from their non-Jewish environment. In effect, its purpose is to bring Jews together.

The common thread that passes through all these suggested meanings is that this Torah portion from Leviticus, which sets the foundation for the dietary laws, is another effort to invoke in the Jew a reverence for life.

The first Torah portion in Genesis teaches that in an ideal world humankind would live a vegetarian life style. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were told to eat only of the fruits and vegetables. In a famous passage from the Book of Isaiah the prophet describes the messianic era as a time when everyone (man and animal) will return to the vegetarian ideal- “And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones will lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox (Isaiah 11:7).” Realizing humankind’s difficulty in curbing their appetite for meat, the Torah (and the later rabbis) ordained the laws of Kashrut as a compromise.

Contemporary Torah commentator Pinchas Peli summarizes the nature of this compromise: “Accordingly, the laws of Kashrut come to teach us that a Jew’s first preference should be a vegetarian meal. If however one cannot control a craving for meat, it should be kosher meat, which would serve as a reminder that the animal being eaten is a creature of God, that the death of such a creature cannot be taken lightly, that hunting for sport is forbidden, that we cannot treat any living thing callously, and that we are responsible for what happens to other beings (human and animal) even if we did not personally come in contact with them.”

The word “Kosher” does not mean holy or blessed by a rabbi. It means “proper” and “fit”. The purpose of Kashrut is to reinforce in the Jew a reverence for every single life. If a calf is confined and force-fed in the interest of providing a veal cutlet, even though it is kosher, it is not kosher. Seal fur and skin used in the fashion industry, but coming from baby seals that have been clubbed to death, are not kosher to be worn.

The ultimate hope derived from observance of the Jewish dietary laws is that by showing grace, care, compassion, and concern for the food we eat, we will discipline ourselves to extend these same attributes to the other aspects of our daily life; on a familial, communal, and global level.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Purim 5768 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/21/08

Torah Portion: Purim
March 21, 2008

Today is the celebration of Purim, a holiday that takes on the trappings of a large costume party replete with food, drink, noisemakers, and loads of fun. At the center of the revelry is the biblical Book of Esther. The book, describing the tenuous nature of Jewish life in a non-Jewish country (Persia), is read aloud in its entirety. It’s a story of a beautiful Jewish woman, Esther, who with the help of her guardian/cousin Mordechai, enters a beauty contest and is selected to be the next Queen of Persia. As Esther prepares for the competition, she is coached by Mordechai not to reveal she is Jewish or a part of the Jewish people. At the same time, the Persian King’s chief advisor, Haman, is told that Mordechai the Jew (as he is referred to throughout the book) refuses to bow down to him when he passes. Enraged by Mordechai’s display of dishonor, coupled with the fact he is a Jew, Haman decides to seek the King’s permission to have him put to death and to go about destroying all the Jews of Persia. In the end, “all’s well that ends well”: Esther reveals her lineage to the King and tells of the threat to her and her people. The King then hangs Haman and turns the tables on those who would do harm to the Jews of Persia.

One of the themes that comes forth from this book is the fact that anti-Semitism (a collective hatred for a people just because they are) continues to exist just beneath the surface of civility. A mere scratch of the surface (Mordechai failing to bow before Haman) brings the ugliness of anti-Semitism to the surface.

Racism is no different. As a nation we have pretended since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that racism is a disappearing feature of the American citizenry. In fact, it still exists just beneath the surface. The case in point is the furor being raised over Barak Obama’s association with Pastor Wright. As Jews, we historically know too well what it feels like to be excluded, oppressed, vilified, and even enslaved. My good friend and colleague, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff served this nation as a Naval Intelligence officer in Viet Nam and later as a Navy Chaplain for over 20 years. He eloquently describes the conundrum we face when he writes, “Even though I know that many (but certainly not all) churches in the African American community take their preaching cues from the hyperbole of what they call "the Old Testament Prophets," condemning leaders and whole peoples for the sake of sounding the alarm and waking up listeners to action and repentance, there is much that [Pastor Wright] said that is impossible for me to defend. I cannot defend a religious leader who says that AIDS may have been invented by Whites to infect Blacks -- but, on the other hand, I cannot imagine what it was like to be part of the Black community when the news came out about experiments our government conducted on African-Americans with diseases like syphilis, infecting black men without their knowledge, and then withholding treatment, to track progress of the disease. I cannot defend the idea that 9/11 was punishment -- deserved punishment for our sins as a nation -- even though I can hear the echoes of prophetic voices who blamed the destruction of the ancient Temple on the hatred among us.”

The experience of Mordechai and Esther in their time and the national debate going on in ours requires us to be more understanding of one people’s frustration with a nation that continues to judge them by the color of their skin. Barak Obama might or might not be a good president, but this needs to be decided on his ability to address an economy that worsens each day and a war that threatens to bankrupt us.

We Jews only have to go back 60 years to know the result of willful hatred. We bear a special responsibility to work for the removal hatred and racism from the national consciousness of this great country.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayikra posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/14/08

Torah Portion: Vayikra
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 1:1-5:26

There is a comfort in knowing what, how, and when to do. The Eitz Hayim Pentateuch commentary notes, “The Modern temper tends to discount prescribed ritual in favor of spontaneous religious expression. Yet something in the human soul responds to ritual, whether it be the formality of a traditional wedding or the rituals of a sporting event or a public meeting. There is something comforting about the familiar, the recognizable, the predictable.”

The Book of Leviticus is a detailed handbook of the rites and rituals that surrounded the ancient sacrificial cult-both in the desert and later in the Temples. Animal sacrifice was a vestige of ancient Near Eastern religions that was adopted by the Israelites and centuries later replaced by prayer. Nonetheless, the basic ritual framework that guided the sacrificial cult-and is the subject matter of the Book of Leviticus-continued as the framework for prayer. In the ancient Temple each day there was a morning (Shaharit) sacrifice; in today’s synagogue each day there is a morning (Shaharit) prayer service. The Temple had an afternoon (Mincha) offering; today’s daily regimen includes an afternoon (Mincha) prayer service. Just as specified Holy Days were celebrated in the ancient Temple, today they find their same celebration, and observances, in our homes and synagogues. Daily Jewish ritual is no less a part of the lives of Jews today than it was thousands of years ago.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch writes, “Ritual is a way of giving voice to ultimate values. Each of us needs a sense of holiness to navigate the relentless secularity of our lives.” Several years ago there was a popular TV program entitled “30 Something.” It was a joyful, and painful, study of the lives of a young couple-one Jewish, the other Christian-struggling with the issues of work, relationship, and parenthood. For most of the year, they were able to deal with their religious differences by being indifferent. They seemed to be guided only by the moral and ethical values of secularism. Then came the Hanukkah/Christmas episode. Suddenly, each felt an existential loneliness for those “unimportant” important moments that once-and maybe still-gave definition to their lives. After realizing the spiritual vacuum and unconnectedness of their lives, Hope (the Christian) is seen lighting a Hanukkah menorah while Michael (the Jew) hauls in a Christmas tree. Whether the solution solves or exacerbates the problem is secondary to an innate desire to find wholeness and meaning in ritual.

In a world that is changing by the moment, there is nothing wrong with seeking an anchor; a way to hold on to the moments in life that give definition to who we are, meaning to our life, and hope in the future. Each weekday morning I rise at 6:15 am to attend a prayer service at 7:00 am. There, I put on my Tallit (prayer shawl) and Tefillin (phylacteries), just as my ancestors have have done, and I pronounce prayers in the same manner they have been said over thousands of years. Not only do I connect with my God, but I connect with who I am and what I am about. Then, as the service concludes at 7:45 am, I get in my car and begin the day.

Spontaneous is good, but as was quoted above, “the human soul responds to ritual.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Pekuday/Shekalim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/07/08

Torah Portion: Pekuday/Shabbat Shekalim
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 38:21-40:38
March 7, 2008

The final portion of the Book of Exodus deals exclusively with a detailed accounting of all the expenditures involved in building the ancient sanctuary in the desert. In a faith-based community, such as that of the Israelites, why is it necessary for Moses to immediately give an accounting? He even produces his financial records without being asked!

The Midrash (ancients legends and commentary) writes, “Some Israelites knew that they would have taken advantage of handling all that gold and silver for their own enrichment. They suspected Moses of being no better than they were. . . The family that prepared the incense for the Temple services would never let their relatives wear perfume, lest some people suspect them of using Temple incense for their personal benefit. The official who supervised the shekel offering would wear a special garment with no pockets and no long sleeves when he did so, so that no one could suspect him of pocketing public funds.” The Midrash teaches that community leaders must be above suspicion. Jewish Law requires governing leaders to act “Leef’nim Me’shoret Ha’din-not just in mere accordance with the law, but on an even higher moral/ethical plane.

In this campaign year, no candidate wants to appear as a “negative” campaigner. In the past, “negative” campaigning has meant personal attacks on a candidate’s character through often embarrassing revelations that had no bearing on the issues and were often, themselves, untrue. In this year’s presidential campaign (to date!), attacking Obama’s political team for a meeting with Canadian governmental officials regarding NAFTA or demanding Hillary Clinton disclose her tax returns and White House papers, has been labeled “negative” campaigning. The Torah suggests the opposite.

A person aspiring to the highest position in government must first acquire the respect of those whom he/she wishes to lead. Only then will the prospective leader be in a position to effectively address the issues. Moses realized this even before the Israelites did. Before anyone could question where their contributions went, he made a full unsolicited accounting of all the expenditures that went into building the ancient sanctuary. Asking Senator Clinton to disclose her tax returns is a legitimate, and arguably important, request to make of one who will be making the same request of the electorate she hopes to lead. Asking Senator Obama to explain the actions of his organization with regard to meeting with a foreign government is also a legitimate and important request to make of one who wishes to represent the electorate to the nations of the world. Effective leadership is by example. The “most” effective leadership is when a candidate (or official) makes the transparency disclosers him/herself without having to be asked.

There has only been one Moses, and maybe none others since. It is legitimate to judge future leadership against the model of Moses; not expecting them to have reached his level, but knowing they are at least aspiring to.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayakhel posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/29/08

Torah Portion: Vayakhel
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 35:1-38:20
February 29, 2008

As we near the conclusion of the Book of Exodus, the portion Vayakhel recapitulates the instructions for building the ancient sanctuary in the desert. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch refers to the Book of Exodus as “an orgy of architectural details.” Thirteen of the final sixteen chapters of Exodus are concerned with the construction of the sanctuary. Why so much attention to this act of building? In the beginning stages of creating a “people”, are there not other details of equal importance?

In fact, in our day how much attention is lavished on building or remodeling the synagogue? When asked the most important moments in a synagogue community’s history, inevitably the times of building, adding on, or re-locating the physical structure are mentioned; and, with good reason. These are the times when a community exhibits its collective pride and proudly expresses its identity.

A legend told in the Talmudic tractate of Berachot says Bezalel, the sanctuary designer and builder, mystically used the very same Hebrew letters to build the ancient sanctuary as were used by God in the creation of the world. The suggestion is that the building of the sanctuary is a microcosm of God’s original act of creation. Jon Levenson, in his book Creation and the Persistence of Evil, says the linking of the creation of the world to the building of the ancient sanctuary “is to underscore the depiction of the sanctuary as a world, that is, an ordered, supportive, and obedient environment, and the depiction of the world as a sanctuary, that is, a place in which the reign of God is visible and unchallenged. . . . To view creation within the precincts of the Temple is to summon up an ideal world that is far from the mundane reality of profane life and its persistent evil.”

Every time we engage in building a new House of Worship we are attempting to re-capture the Divine ideals, that were the foundation of God’s creation, in a Holy space. We celebrate this Divine Space for its potential to touch lives and cause positive God-like changes in the world. Jews in our day have often been heard to say, “the cement never sets on Jewish life.” Until we can make this world worthy of God’s kingdom, we will continue to seek guidance in sanctuaries of faith and inspiration.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Ki Tissa posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/22/08

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 30:11-34:35
February 22, 2008

In a curious juxtaposition, the Book of Exodus concludes the instructions for building a portable sanctuary in the desert (“Just as I have commanded you, they shall do” (Exo. 31:11) with the command to observe the Sabbath (“Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My Sabbaths. .” (Exo. 31:13). The ancient rabbis noted that even something as “holy” as building a sanctuary to God must be halted in observance of the Sabbath. The Eitz Hayim Pentateuch commentary writes, “If there is a conflict between the holiness of space and the holiness of time, the holiness of time takes precedence. Time came first; the first thing that God sanctified was the Shabbat. It is accessible to everyone. One cannot defer it or return to it. If one misses the moment, it is gone forever.”

There is no harm in appreciating the beauties of natural surroundings or finding inspiration in the works of human hands, but it is the preciousness and sanctity of time that too often alludes us. My mother passed away less than a week ago. During the final moments of her life, in preparation for her funeral, and in this week of mourning, we-family & friends-shared countless memories of moments in time. Conversations began with, “Do you remember when. .” and usually concluded with a sigh, smile, or even a tear. In describing my mother’s life to friends who didn’t know her, I inevitably painted a portrait of time. Through all of this, I have come to realize that my mother is not of the flesh, but of the spirit. While her physical presence bore the limitations of mortality, her true essence was measured in moments of time. The more time we had to spend together, the more moments there were to remember and inspire.

The Sabbath is a celebration of moments of time. Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us “it is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.” The Sabbath is a day defined by “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and Thou”; a moment to peer through the window of timeless eternity and glimpse the Messianic era. The Sabbath is a moving away from the daily chores defined by space, and embracing the warmth, compassion, and spiritual significance of time.

In a world of objects, people too often become just another “thing.” The Shabbat is the Jew’s weekly reminder that we are more than just an object; we are defined by more than just physical presence. We exist in moments that touch lives, create memories, and preserve hope and faith in humankind. My mother now exists in time. I am thankful for my moments with her and cherish the memories she has left behind. I am only sorry that I didn’t spend more time appreciating not what she was, but who she was.

May the memory of Dena Kleinman be bound up in the bundle of life eternal and may we all be refreshed with meaning and purpose in the Sabbath that lies ahead. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Terumah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/08/08

Torah Portion: Terumah
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 25:1-27:19
February 8, 2008

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. . . And let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exo. 25:1 & 2, 8)

The act of giving is among the most revered and honored attributes a person may acquire. The fact is “giving” is not natural. On the contrary, we are more instinctively inclined to take, possess, and enrich our self, even at the expense of others. This is not to suggest that humankind is not capable of acts of kindness and compassion. Most of us would consider ourselves basically good. Yet, we search for every possible loophole to save us from paying taxes. What are taxes but ways of providing for the needs of the community. How many philanthropic foundations would there be if there was no tax shelter for charitable giving? How many would give significant sums if there was nothing received in return?

As the ancient Israelites prepare to build a portable sanctuary in the desert, every person is requested to contribute to the cause. There is one caveat. Only those “whose heart so moves him” need participate! In its most pristine state, charitable giving is done regardless of tax benefit. One gives because it is the right thing to do. A commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash states, “One who gives receives something in return-the sense of being generous and making a worthy undertaking possible, the sense of sharing with others in an important venture, the sense of self-worth that comes from knowing that we can give away something of value without feeling diminished.”

The Bible scholar Pinhas Peli suggests that among the ancient Israelites there were probably a number of wealthy families that could have personally underwritten the costs for building the sanctuary, yet the campaign slogan was, “you shall accept gifts for Me from every person. . “ It was important that every Israelite was empowered with a sense of ownership & partnership in this new covenant with the One God. Professor Ismar Schorsch notes, “The lasting lesson of the Tabernacle is the supreme importance of voluntarism in the conduct of the Jewish polity. The twin values of tzedakah (acts of giving) and gemilut hasidim (acts of lovingkindness), combined to make of voluntarism the communal ethos.”

We do not live in the “ideal” world. People give of themselves and their means for various reasons-tax deductions, personal honors, or just because they want to. In the end, the dollar given begrudgingly is of the same value as the one given whole-heartedly. What remains important is the ongoing need to teach and practice the ethic of giving among ourselves, our children and grandchildren.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Mishpatim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/01/08

Torah Portion: Mishpatim
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 21:1-24:18
February 1, 2008

It is not surprising that a woman’s right to an abortion is as important an issue in presidential politics as the ongoing war in Iraq and the failing economy. Over the past eight years, the present Administration has made a person’s position on abortion the litmus test for nomination or appointment to a position in the government and the judiciary. This week’s Torah portion contains the Jewish view on the question as to when life begins:

“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life. . .” (Exo. 21:22-23)

Professor Ismar Schorsch, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, summarizes the meaning of this verse: “We are dealing with a case of inadvertent injury, a pregnant woman caught too close to a brawl. If she loses her baby but is otherwise unharmed, the punishment for the culprit is monetary compensation to the husband. . . If the woman herself should lose her life, the assailant would be executed by the court. What is particularly evident is the lesser punishment exacted in the death of the fetus. . . Clearly the Torah implies that the fetus is not to be regarded as a person. There is no death sentence but only financial restitution in the case of a miscarriage.”

In the early centuries of the common era, the ancient rabbis applied this verse to an actual instance of abortion when they legislated, “If a woman is having difficulty giving birth, it is permitted to cut up the fetus inside her womb and take it out limb by limb, because her life takes precedence. If the greater part of the fetus has emerged from her womb it must not be touched, because one life must not be taken to save another. (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6)” Their understanding is that the fetus does not become a “human life”, with the protections therewith extended, until it has literally been born. Prior to birth, the sanctity of the mother’s life takes precedence.

On the basis of these previous teachings, Rabbi Isaac Klein, a leading decisor of Jewish law, concluded in 1959 that while abortion is morally wrong, it can be performed for therapeutic reasons of a both physical and mental nature. That is, in addition to concern for the woman’s physical life, we must also be concerned for her mental health, as well.

For the Jew, the issue of abortion has no place in the arena of politics and public policy. Abortion is not a “black & white” issue that can be legislated, but one with complexities that require individual kindness, compassion, and understanding.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Bo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/11/08

Torah Portion: Bo
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 10:1-13:16

After seven devastating plagues, a crack in Pharaoh’s armor begins to appear. Moses threatens Egypt with a plague of locusts. Pharaoh’s advisors ask: “How long shall this man be a snare to us. Let the men go (Exo. 10:7)!”

Pharaoh finally heeds the words of his court and tells Moses to “Go and worship your God (Exo. 10:8)!” But, just take the men! Pharaoh is concerned that Moses will not return to Egypt. Moses refuses to leave anyone or anything behind. . . . Enter the plague of locusts followed by the plague of darkness! Again, Pharaoh is ready to deal, but this time he will let Moses take everything with exception of the cattle. Moses argues that everything must be taken to worship God because “We do not know with what we must serve the Lord, until we get there (Exo. 10:26)!”

The late contemporary Torah scholar Pinchas Peli explains, “Those last words, to all appearances uttered by Moses as a factual statement in a diplomatic exchange, express at the same time a profound theological truth. They teach us that when it comes to the worship of God, one should not expect to find ready-made formulas. True worship of God requires ever-new wonder and discovery through painful trial and error, ever-new decision and leaps of faith.”

The story is told of Rabbi Haim of Sandz, one of the great Hassidic masters of the 19th century. Once, he stood at the window of the house of studies as his students were passing by: “Come here”, he called over to one of them, “Tell me, if you would happen to come across a wallet full of money on the Shabbat, when a Jew is not allowed to handle money, what would you do? Would you pick it up?”

“Of course not,” the young hassid rushed to answer. “You fool, you,” the master retorted, as he called over another young student: “And you, what would you do in a similar situation? Will you pick up and take the wallet full of money?”

“Oh, yes!” replied the young hassid, after hearing the reprimand the master bestowed on his friend. “You sinner, you!” the master scolded the second hassid and called over a third one: “And what would you do?” he inquired.

The third hassid, after having listened to the master’s rebuke of the two young hassidim who preceded him, replied hesitantly: “Well, I do not know. At finding the wallet full of money, I would struggle with myself in deciding whether or not to take it. I hope I would be able to make the right decision.” “At last we have the real answer,” Reb Haim turned to his disciples. Truly, “we shall not know how we are to worship God until we get there.”

Lesson: Take everything with you!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Va'era posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/04/08

Torah Portion: Va’era
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 6:2-9:35

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exo. 6:10-12)

Moses first attempt to seek the release of the Israelite slaves failed miserably. Pharaoh was not going to listen to reason or to Moses’ God. Not only were Moses and Aaron immediately dispatched from Pharaoh’s presence, but the taskmasters were ordered to increase the workload of the Israelites. When God tells Moses to try again, his response is “the Israelites don’t listen to me, why should Pharaoh?” Rabbi Harold Kushner notes, “Leaders derive their power and legitimacy from the willingness of people to listen to them.”

Effective leadership is not inherited or bestowed by the power of a few, but is derived from the masses; from those one wishes to lead. As we officially begin to consider a new leader for the United States, it’s the people, not the party or the pundits, who will ultimately decide. For the past several months the American public has been “told” by media and political spin doctors who the leading candidates are. Finally, beginning last night in Iowa, the people had their chance to weigh in. Almost twice as many voters turned out to caucus in Iowa than did in 2004. Most of the newcomers to the Iowa political process were young, between the ages of 17 & 24. They felt they could make a difference, and they did. The message to the candidates-on both sides-is LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE. The successful candidate will be the one who listens and, in turn, delivers a message that is listened to!

Moses had God on his side, but even that was not enough. What his leadership would mean for the people was more convincing than the influence of those who stood with him. Moses responsibility was to make God’s message one that reflected the needs and aspirations of the Israelites.

To the extent the Iowa caucuses reflect the American people, the candidates would do well to heed the words of Rabbi Kushner and the example of Moses.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Shemot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/28/07

Torah Portion: Shemot
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 1:1-6:1
December 28, 2007

In 1956, Cecile B. DeMille released his epic film “The Ten Commandments” starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Ramses, the Pharaoh. The film wove together the story line in the Book of Exodus with ancient legends (Midrash). Moses was portrayed as the “white knight in shining armor,” and Ramses the “evil emperor.” In 1998, Jeffrey Katzenberg produced an animated version of the Exodus story entitled “The Prince of Egypt.” This version combined the story in Exodus with a modern Midrash (legend/interpretation). Katzenberg portrays Moses and Ramses as step-brothers and childhood friends. The animated film suggests that in his youth, Moses assimilated all the cultural traits of Egypt. His best friend was none other than Ramses.

As they grew up, they grew apart. Ramses became the Pharaoh and Moses the leader of a slave people. Rabbi Ismar Schoresh, in his review of “The Prince of Egypt,” notes “[Moses and Ramses] frequent confrontations as national leaders are softened by memory of a time when their individual lives were not yet freighted with such gravity.” There is even a note of sorrow for Ramses, the only Egyptian to survive the Red Sea.

Katzenberg’s creative additions to the Exodus story serve to enhance an important Jewish principle: One does not demonize his enemy, nor rejoice at his downfall. In the Book of Deuteronomy it is taught, “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land (Deut. 23:8).” Though the Israelites suffered through a period of bondage at the hands of the Egyptians, we dare not forget that it was this same people who rescued Jacob and his sons from famine and extended warmth and hospitality to the early Israelites-strangers in their midst! In an act of human decency, even for one who was once an enemy, we extend the olive branch of peace and friendship.

In the weeks ahead, we will read of the plagues brought upon an intransigent Pharaoh and the Egyptian citizenry. As we read these passages, we should not lose sight of the famous Midrash in which God rebukes the angels for celebrating the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea: “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing (Talmud Sanhedrin 39b)?” The Egyptians are no less my people than are the Israelites!

The story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt is another opportunity to remind us that one should never demonize or belittle another, even an enemy. In doing so, we belittle the Divine spark waiting to be discovered in all humankind.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayehi posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/21/07

Torah Portion: Vayehi
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 47:28-50:26
December 21, 2007

Most of my Torah commentaries try to understand the text in an interpretive rather than critical manner. As we reach the end of the book of Genesis, there is an historical reality worth noting.

The trials and tribulations of Jacob occupy more space in Genesis than any other patriarch. For this reason, Jacob’s every move is examined beneath the microscope of spiritual significance for meaning in our lives. Jacob’s early character is defined by acts of selfishness-cheating his brother out of his birthright, fooling his father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. The Torah also makes it clear that of the two twins-Jacob & Esau-Jacob was his mother’s favorite. Even after experiencing a life-changing epiphany, Jacob still insists on loving his wife Rachel more than his other wife Leah, and showing favoritism to Rachel’s sons (Joseph & Benjamin) over his others.

In this week’s Torah portion, as Jacob nears death he calls his children together for words of instruction and blessing. Even here, in his last moments, he is apparently unable to abandon his bad habits. Ancient tradition called upon the father to bestow final blessings on his children in the order of their birth. Jacob’s first born is Reuven, yet his first blessing is given to Joseph. He then proceeds to tell Joseph that his two sons-Manasseh & Ephraim- “who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine no less that Reuvan and Simon (Gen. 48:5).” Later commentators explain this to mean that Joseph’s two sons will have an equal inheritance of their grandfather’s estate along with Jacob’s other sons; an arrangement not made with any of his other children! Jacob was hardly a role model for effective parenting during his life, and now even as he approaches death!

Let’s examine Jacob’s actions in relation to the historical reality of his times. What Jacob is doing here is designating Joseph (not Reuven) as the first born for inheritance purposes. In ancient law, the first born received two shares of inheritance, while the other sons received one. Hence, the two portions to be received by Joseph are given instead to his sons, Manasseh & Ephraim.

The bigger picture is that Jacob designates Joseph as the first born by choosing Rachel’s first born (Joseph) over Leah’s (Reuven, who was born before Joseph). The Torah never expresses a problem with what Jacob is doing, or has done. It would appear to be the custom in ancient times, where husbands had more than one wife, to freely designate which wife he would grant inheritance rights to her first offspring. By the time we get to the book of Deuteronomy, a provision is put in place to restrict the father’s right to make this choice.

Probably in response to the problems that ensued from Jacob’s ill-advised favoritism, the Torah eventually put an end to the practice. But, in the context of his time, Jacob was just doing what was customary! Times change, thank goodness!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayigash posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/14/07

Torah Portion: Vayigash
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 44:18-47:27
December 14, 2007

Mark Twain once observed, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years!” A lot of us can probably empathize with Twain. Many others never completely understand their parents, or learn to accept them for who they are rather than who we’d like them to be.

Jacob, father of 12 sons, committed the ultimate parental sin-he favored one child over the others. Jacob favored the children of his “favorite” wife Rachel-Joseph and Benjamin. He, who was himself the favored child of his mother Rebecca, should have known better. His son, Judah, encouraged his other brothers to take out their anger and jealousy on Joseph by casting him into a pit and later selling him to a group of traders heading for Egypt. Twenty-two years pass and now Canaan and Egypt are in the grip of a famine. Joseph has achieved political power in Egypt and is responsible for giving out food to those in need. His brothers are dispatched to Egypt and, unbeknownst to them, come before their long-lost brother.

Joseph takes the opportunity to repay his brothers for their actions by taking the youngest brother, Benjamin-the other favorite of Jacob-into custody. Judah, still not recognizing Joseph, approaches him to appeal for Benjamin’s release. Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, popularly referred to as the Sefat Emet (Language of Truth), explains the expression, “Then Judah drew near to him (Gen. 47:18)” as meaning “Judah drew near to himself.” The Eitz Hayim Humash suggests, “[Judah] discovered who he really was, not the compromiser who had said “Let us sell [Joseph]. . Not to do away with him ourselves (Gen. 37:27),” causing his father boundless grief, but the advocate for compassion and family harmony. Judah knows that his father still favors one brother, Benjamin, over the other brothers. Such knowledge, however, no longer drives him to jealousy. He understands he cannot change his father; he can only change his reaction to his father’s deeds.”

And, so it is with those still blessed with living parents. They are not always perfect, nor will they necessarily change to become what we hoped they would be. They brought us into this world and did the best they could to provide and nurture us. Some parents had more ability than others, but they all loved us in their own special way. Judah learned this lesson and the Torah reminds us that we can, too.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Hanukah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/07/07

December 7, 2007

Shockingly, in the recent Republican presidential debate, CNN invited a video question from an individual who appeared with a copy of the New Testament in one hand while asking the candidates, “How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book? Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand, do you believe this book?”

The holiday of Hanukah is a universal celebration of religious freedom. In 164 b.c.e, a small band of Jews (known as, “Maccabees”) refused to be coerced into accepting another faith. Instead, they fought back against the forces of assimilation and religious intolerance. Hanukah is a celebration of their victory against all odds. More than that, it celebrates the religious rights of all people.

The Middle East is embroiled in a religious conflict that was “brought home” on 9/11. Americans were frightened and appalled by a terrorist attack in the name of God. We had difficulty understanding how, in the 21st century, one can believe in a religious superiority over another. That is until our government refused federal funding for lifesaving stem cell research on the basis of a particular religious ethic, or until a woman’s reproductive rights became the religious centerpiece for countless legislation and judicial battles. More recently, the Texas state chairperson for the public school science curriculum was fired over an e-mail she sent out announcing the talk of an anti-creationist educator. This comes at a time when the state’s Governor is trying to compel the teaching of “intellectual design” (the religious right’s code word for the story of creation) in science classes as a reasonable option to evolution.

One presidential candidate, a former Baptist minister, has made his religion the center point of his campaign, while his opponent has to take to the airwaves to proclaim himself no less Christian. Where are the Maccabees when we need them?

When we celebrate Hanukah in America, we are also celebrating the establishment clause in the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. This clause not only protects freedom of religion, but freedom from religion.

When we celebrate Hanukah in America, we also celebrate Article VI of the U.S. Constitution that proclaims, The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. No organization, group of voters, or political party has the right to require a “test of faith” in order to represent this country.

Today, Hanukah comes to remind us WE are the modern Maccabees, but we are no longer few in number nor are we without power or authority. The U.S. Constitution is our authority, and a belief in a tolerant and accepting God is our strength.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Va-Yeishev posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/30/07

Torah Portion: Va-Yeishev
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 37:1-40:23
November 30, 2007

Is there a difference between dreams and visions? Is a dreamer a visionary or a visionary a dreamer? The lyrics of a 1970 song proclaim, “Dreams are for those who sleep.” The biblical Book of Joel 3:1 reads, “And afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. . . . The old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions.” The scientific community suggests, “A dream is a construct of our own perception actuated by experiences we receive and partake within. A vision, however, is a reception of a foresight or insight of the future or change.”

Joseph, the favorite son of his father Jacob, is called a “dreamer.” It is his dreams of superiority over his brothers that gets him cast into a pit, sold as a slave in Egypt, and thrown into jail. It is also his dreams that get him out of jail and elevate him to second in power, only exceeded by Pharaoh. The Torah is careful not to refer to him as a visionary, only a dreamer; and a good one, at that!

On the other hand, the ancient Prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc.) are referred to exclusively as “visionaries.” The difference in these two concepts is evident in the roles that dreams and visions play. Joseph’s actions are not the result of an inspiration to right the world, but to be honest to his thoughts and dreams. He has a dream and offers an honest interpretation. Sometimes he benefits by his dream, other times not, but in all cases he remains impartial and honest. In the end, his life’s goals are limited. He just wants the best for his immediate family. Unlike his father Jacob, grandfather Isaac, or great grandfather Abraham, Joseph has no great aspirations for creating a people and possessing a land. The only land he’s interested in is the Egyptian suburb of Goshen to re-locate his family. There is nothing wrong with being a dreamer, but it is quite different than being a visionary.

To paraphrase the words of the late Robert F. Kennedy, the ancient prophets were not people who “looked at things the way they are and asked why?”, but seers who “[visioned] things that never were and asked why not!” [to maintain intellectual honesty, Kennedy’s famous words were a paraphrase of a line from George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Back to Methuselah.”] The words of the prophets were intended to shake up the complacency and moral corruption of Israel’s leadership, to inspire the people to find their strength and hope in the teachings of a living God, and to instruct the world in the words of the Prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God (Micah 6:8).” The visions of the ancient prophets reached beyond their immediate concerns to embrace the hopes and aspirations of all humankind.

One is not better than the other. The world needs more dreamers and visionaries. What distinguishes one is not just the ability to dream or vision, but the willingness to act on them.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Thanksgiving 2007 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/23/07

Friday, November 23, 2007

One American holiday rises above the rest for its continued meaning and significance: Thanksgiving. The concept of giving thanks began when we first learned to speak and our parents taught us the “golden words”: Please & Thank You. We didn’t always use them, but we always knew they were important because each year an entire day on the national calendar was devoted to giving thanks.

At some point in our lives we all find reason to give thanks. Maybe it’s good fortune or good health, but mostly we reserve our thanks for good friends and family. It might be turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie that occupies our mind in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, but it’s the people who sit around our tables and gather in our homes that provide us with the greatest nourishment.

It is difficult to write about Thanksgiving without giving my personal thanks. I am thankful for loving and being loved. I am thankful for parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren.

I am thankful for my teachers and role models; my Rabbi in Jerusalem and my Rabbi in Portland, Oregon.

I am thankful to be blessed with many acquaintances and a few good friends who offer me unconditional acceptance.

And I am most thankful to God for providing me an inquiring mind, a loving heart and a family who mirror the image of God.

What more could one want? What better reason to say “thanks”!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayeitze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/16/07

Torah Portion: Vayeitze
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 28:10-32:3
November 16, 2007

“And Jacob left Beersheva and set out for Haran (Gen. 28:10). After a jealous and tumultuous relationship with his twin brother, Esau, Jacob is urged to leave home to take refuge with his uncle in Haran. The Torah gives two reasons for Jacob’s leaving home: 1) Fear of his brother Esau, and 2) concern that if he were to remain he might marry a native Canaanite, and not one of his clan.

In the ancient Midrash (Jewish legend), Rabbi Hizkiyah suggests, “Jacob did not leave at once. Rather, he went into hiding for fourteen years. He entered the academy of the great sage Eber to solidify his knowledge of Torah, and only then did he set out for Haran.” Why the need to suggest that Jacob actually waited (and studied) for fourteen years before leaving home? Rabbi Hizkiyah is suggesting that Jacob wasn’t properly prepared to leave home when faced with the reality. He needed more time to study Torah.

The study of Torah is more than just a literal reading of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Torah is a system of values and ethics that serve as a moral/ethical compass for human behavior and a blueprint for value-laden parenting. As a parent, how does one prepare a child to leave home?

Rabbi Ismar Schoresh notes, “At some point in our lives, our children also take leave of home. . . And how well have we prepared them for their journey? Have we done as much to hone their values as their skills?”

Anyone who has been blessed to raise children knows that just reaching the age of 18 or 21 does not mean a child is ready to accept the challenges of adulthood. Effective parenting requires thoughtful and calculated planning for a child’s education at every level. It requires a concerted effort to imbue the youngster with a moral conscience and an ethical drive. None of this is innate.

Judaism teaches that at birth one is neither good or bad, but neutral. What we become is much the result of parenting. With regard to Jews, Rabbi Schoresh states, “The untold opportunities afforded Jews in the open society will not turn into a nightmare for Jewish survival as long as we are ready to equip ourselves and our children with the inner resources to sustain our way of life.” For Jacob then, and us now, the inner resources are what we refer to as “Torah.” It makes a difference!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Spending Time in Israel posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/09/07

Rabbi Siegel is presently in Israel. The weekly Torah Learning will return on Friday, November 16, 2007. Until then feel free to check past Torah discussions by clicking on the "Archive Torah Learnings" below.

Vayera posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/26/07

Torah Portion: Vayera
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 18:1-22:24
October 26, 2007

I blame radical Islamic terrorism for instilling in vast numbers of people a fear of strangers. Just today it was reported that Japan will follow the example of the United States in requiring foreign visitors to be fingerprinted and photographed prior to entry. This legitimate concern for homeland security has spilled over into the area of immigration. For years there has been a steady stream of illegal immigrants entering the United States from Cuba and Mexico. Only since 9/11 has this become a concern of top priority. Prior to 9/11 the United States was satisfied to allow the illegal immigrants to work at low wages with no health care or social safety net while paying sales taxes, property taxes, and through purchases contributing to the economy of a number of large cities (such as Houston) and regional areas. Now, suddenly, they are unwanted and a risk to our nation.

This Torah portion begins by reporting, “The Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought to you; bathe your feet and recline under the tree (Gen. 18:1-4).”

The classic Jewish notion of Hachnasat orchim/hospitality to strangers takes its lead from this passage in the Torah. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky notes, “In ancient Israel, hospitality was a moral obligation, reflective of the nomadic life of the Israelite people.” In the Midrash (legend) Abraham was said to have left all four sides of his tent open so that visitors might have easy access at all meals. Rabbi Huna in the Talmud makes the famous statement that has become the formal opening of the Passover Seder, “Kol dichfin yeitei ve’yeichal/All who are hungry come and eat.”

The nomadic nature of the Jew from ancient times to this day has taught us what it means to be a “stranger”; even an illegal immigrant. Following WWII and the Holocaust, many Jews, on foot and by boat, attempted to illegally enter Palestine. They wanted nothing more than survival and the opportunity for a new beginning. The British tried to turn them away, but they persisted. The rest is history.

Most of those risking their lives in broken down boats or walking through the hot Mexican desert want nothing more than a better life and a new beginning. Yes, they enter illegally, but like Abraham, we should at least extend to them acts of human dignity, then work with them to find their place in this great nation.

The 18th century Hasidic leader Rebbe Aaron of Karlin taught that when we turn our attention from God to tend to the needs of people, we do God’s will. Conversely, God is not pleased when we place such a great focus on God that we ignore needy human beings. The tractate Shabbat in the Talmud sums up this discussion when it writes, “Hospitality to strangers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Lech Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/19/07

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 12:1-17:27
October 19, 2007

“Now the Lord said to Abraham, “Get Out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, unto a land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).” With this verse the story of Judaism begins.

The contemporary Bible scholar E.A. Speiser comments: “The story commences with one individual, and extends gradually to his family, then to a people, and later still to a nation. Yet, it is not to be the tale of individuals or a family or a people as such. Rather, it is to be the story of a society in quest of an ideal. Abraham’s call, in short, marks the very beginning of the biblical process.” He goes on to write, “Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was thus no routine expedition of several hundred miles. Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truth, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history.”

Another ancient legend (Midrash) interprets the above verse to mean: “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”

The title “Wandering Jew” was coined to describe the physical reality of the Jew in history; wandering from one country to another. While most commonly understood in a pejorative sense, the term does express a positive metaphysical reality. Like Abraham, the Jew is on a constant spiritual journey in search of the essence of the One God. The Jew’s road map are the “mitzvot”-God’s commandments of moral and ethical behavioral values. The performance of “mitzvot” move the Jew forward along the path of fulfillment and redemption.

Existentially, this is the spiritual journey of each individual, but as Spieser suggests, it is in fact “to be the story of a society in quest of an ideal.” Abraham bravely left everything he knew-his country of origin, his greater family, and his very home-to pursue an ideal. His journey becomes ours: To pursue the paths of peace, explore the mountains of hope, and bathe in the seas of truth and justice. With this Torah reading we begin, again, our effort to make this world livable for all creatures; to discover God’s kingdom on earth. Let’s journey on, together!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Bereishet posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/05/07

Torah Portion: Bereishet
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 1:1-6:8
October 5, 2007

Who says you can’t begin, again? Jews do every year at this time. As we conclude the celebration of the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur) and of Sukkot, the next order of business is to begin a new cycle of Torah learning beginning with the beginning (Bereishet/Genesis/”In The Beginning”).

The first commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash sets the done for what lies ahead: “Time has not diminished the power or the majesty of the familiar biblical account of the creation of the world, nor has familiarity dulled its impact. It still moves us, conveying so much in so few words. What kind of world does the Torah envision God creating? The opening chapters of Genesis are not a scientific account of the origins of the universe. The Torah is a book of morality, not cosmology. Its overriding concern, from the first verse to the last, is our relationship to God, truth about life rather than scientific truths. It describes the world God fashioned as “good,” a statement no scientific account can make.

God’s world is an orderly world, in which land and water each has its own domain, in which each species of plant and animal reproduces itself “after its own kind.” But it is also an unpredictable world, a world capable of growth and change and surprise, of love and pain, of glory and tragedy, not simply replication of what is, because it includes human beings who have the freedom to choose how they will act. And it is an unfinished world, waiting for human beings to complete God’s work of creating.

The Torah assumes the existence and overwhelming power of God. We find here no myth of God’s birth, as we find in other cultures’ accounts of creation, only a description of God’s actions. It seems that the Torah is saying, “This is the premise on which the rest stands. Only if you accept it is everything that follows intelligible.”

May this opportunity for a new beginning strengthen our faith in the existence and overwhelming power of the One God, and may this faith bring us a step closer to the completion of God’s creation.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

* Postscript: It should be noted (or, maybe not!) that the first mention of Baseball occurs in this Torah portion: “In The BIG/INNING

Yom Kippur posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/21/07

Yom Kippur
September 21, 2007

This evening the Jew prepares to stand in the presence of God and to give account for his/her actions, words, and deeds of the past year. It is a daunting task that lies ahead. Who were we before we became who we are? What were our hopes, prayers, and expectations and have they been realized? Do we stand before God with pride or shame? Or, do we even care?

The one certainty is the synagogues will be full on this Day of Atonement. Many will spend time meditating on the questions above. Many more will just spend time, and among these worshippers will be a considerable number who question their very reason for being there. What are we “worshipping?” If there is a God, why isn’t this world a better place? Despite best efforts we continue to find disappointment, failure, despair, and suffering? Where is God?

Maybe it would help to know that among God’s most faithful and loyal are doubters. In a recent stunning revelation, the late Mother Teresa wrote in 1959, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me-of God not being God-of God not existing.” In her final days, she turned to her fellow nuns and said, “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into. If I ever become a saint I will surely be one of “darkness.”

Her silent struggles with faith did not deter her efforts on behalf of the poorest people in the world. Few of us, even the most devout, are willing to leave our entire lives behind to serve the poor.

Mother Teresa exhibited her faith through her actions. She discovered the face of God in the eyes of the downtrodden.

It’s alright to question God’s existence. One might even argue it is a fundamental part of Jewish tradition. From Maimonides to Martin Buber, every Jewish theologian’s philosophy was initially shaped by their doubts. Tonight (or tomorrow) when you enter the synagogue on Yom Kippur do so with a contrite heart, a questioning spirit, but a relentless commitment to realize the best within you; to discover your personal Godliness.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of happiness, health, and peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Rosh Hashanah 5768 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/07/07

Some Thoughts On The New Year
September 7, 2007

Wednesday evening ushers in the celebration of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year). Like January 1st, Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of new beginnings. Unlike January 1st, the Jewish new year is not a time to forget “old acquaintance,” but to remember and improve upon them.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, writes, “In South Wales, there is a species of caterpillar-a “moth with no mouth”-that lays eggs and then changes into a moth that has no digestive system, no way of taking in food, so that it starves to death in a few hours. Nature has designed this moth to reproduce, to lay eggs and pass on the life of the species. Once it has done that, it has no reason to go on living, so it is programmed to die.

“Are we like that moth? Do we live only to produce children, to perpetuate the human race? And having done that, is it our destiny to disappear and make way for the next generation?. . . The need for meaning is not a biological need like the need for food and air. Neither is it a psychological need, like the need for acceptance and self-esteem. It is a religious need, and ultimate thirst of our souls.”

On Rosh Hashanah millions of Jews, most of whom would not use the term “religious” to define themselves, pack synagogues. Even though many give the appearance of discomfort, and even a hint of disdain, they come. They come in handsome suits and expensive dresses for the privilege of standing, sitting, listening to ancient prayer chanted in a foreign tongue, a moral/ethical discourse delivered by a religious leader, and a religious experience lasting four, five or six hours. And, yet, they continue to come. Why? Because what separates us from all of God’s other creations is a need to discover meaning in our lives.

The search for meaning takes us in various directions. Some are driven toward financial wealth. Others pursue career promotions and positions of honor. All these people are represented in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Despite all material and financial gains, at the end of the day, or the end of a year, we still remain in search of that which continues to allude us; a desire to quench the “ultimate thirst of our souls.” And for this we turn to religion; even when we’re not religious.

Rosh Hashanah, the new year, is the time when “The great Shofar is sounded, and a still small voice is heard (from the prayer, Una’tanah To’kef). May the sound of the Shofar speak to the “still small voice” in each of us, compelling us to work for a new year that offers happiness, health, and peace to all. And may our search for meaning find a home in the pursuit of this blessing.

Shana Tova Tikoteivu v’Tay’chotay’mu-May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of meaning and fulfillment.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Ki Tavo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/31/07

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 26:1-29:9
August 31, 2007

The Mitzvah (commandment or obligation) of giving Tzedakah (charity, or acts of righteousness) is derived from the Biblical concept of tithing. This Torah portion comes to remind the ancient Israelites of their obligation to tithe: “When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield-in the third year, the year of the tithe-and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements. . . (Deut. 26:12).”

The ancient Israelite farmer was responsible each year for giving one-tenth of his produce to charity. Operating on a seven-year cycle, in the first, second, fourth, fifth, and seventh year, he gave one portion of the tenth to the local Levites and consume the remainder, himself, in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. The tribe of Levi, unlike the other tribes of Israel, was not apportioned a piece of land in Israel. The Levite’s service was to the Temple and the ritual needs of the community. He depended on the tithes received each year to sustain his family. In the 3rd & 6th year of the cycle, each farmer gave one portion of his tithe to the Levites and the remainder to the poor (“the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow”).

Tzedakah, the act of giving, took on a pre-eminent role in Judaism from the early centuries of the common era through the Middle Ages. During this time in most countries, including all of Europe, Jews were pushed off the land and subsequently became village dwellers. The obligation to set aside a tenth of one’s yield still remained operative. In this case, the tithe was taken from one’s income rather than crops. In the absence of the ancient Temple, there was no longer a need to support the Levites nor was their a place to go each year to consume one’s personal tithe. Now, the entire tenth was given to support communal institutions who, in turn, addressed the needs of the poor and indigent.

The ancient tradition of tithing continues to be observed in the modern Jewish community. Each Jew is still responsible for giving. In this instance, the recipient is the Jewish Federation who, in turn, support the local Jewish educational and communal institutions; programs like the Jewish Family Service which offers aid to the poor, food to the hungry, and jobs to the jobless.

Does each Jew still give a tenth of their income to Tzedakah? Probably not, but it remains the ideal to which one strives. First of all, 10% is a significant sum, and secondly, is it determined before or after taxes? However one figures it, the obligation-passed down over thousands of years-remains the same: To make it possible for all Jews to share in the hope of happiness, health, and peace. This can be achieved by giving.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Ki Tetze posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/24/07

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 21:10-25:19
August 24, 2007

What does one do with a rebellious child? The Torah has a suggestion: “If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. . . . Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death (Deut. 21:18-21).”

This is certainly one way to handle a difficult child! The Torah is underscoring the importance of respect for parents and authority as the cornerstone of a law-abiding society. What makes this teaching revolutionary in its time, despite our revulsion for such punishment, is how the punishment was meted out. In the ancient near east, the head of a household was the absolute authority. Any acts of misbehavior or family insult were dealt with by the father. This included executing one’s own children if they were rebellious and defiant. The Torah wrested this authority from the father and placed it in the hands of the court. The parent could no longer take the law in his own hands, but instead was compelled to bring the difficult child before the “elders of the town.” It was they who were responsible for determining the youngster’s fate.

The ancient rabbis, of the 1st and 2nd century c.e., took this teaching one step further. Rabbi Shimon, a teacher from the 2nd century is quoted in the Talmud as stating, “The case of the stubborn and rebellious son being executed never occurred, neither will it ever occur (Sanhedrin 71a).” The rabbis were not implying there were no “stubborn and rebellious” children, but the severity of their behavior never rose to a level punishable by death. In fact, the rabbis legislated a list of requirements for treating a child’s behavior as a capital offense. The requirements and restrictions made it virtually impossible to execute a child for disobeying a parent!

Most of the listed requirements placed the onus for a child’s action on the parents. Were they fit to be parents? Did they provide an environment that cultivated respect and honor? Were the parents, in fact, capable of creating such an environment? In an article I recently read, a child psychologist suggested good parenting skills are required between the ages of 4-14 and good administrative/managerial skills are necessary between the ages of 14-18.

The Torah had the good sense to take the authority of ultimate punishment out of the hands of the parent and place it under the auspices of the court. The ancient rabbis further distanced a child from capital punishment by emphasizing the preventative responsibility of good parenting. Today we can learn from both the above sources. The Torah reminds us of the importance of honor and respect in maintaining a civil society and the rabbis remind us that honor and respect are not innate, but the product of good and effective parenting.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Shoftim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/17/07

Torah Portion: Shoftim
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 16:18-21:9
August 17, 2007

A Gallup poll taken last month shows 62% of Americans saying the United States made a mistake going to war with Iraq. Compare this figure with a Gallup poll done in 1971 during the Viet Nam war showing 61% of Americans opposed to the war. Even though more Americans oppose the war in Iraq than did in Viet Nam, there is little, if any, civil disobedience in the streets or on the college campuses.

What is the difference between “then & now”? Answer: Today, there is no military draft. When 18, 19 and 20 year olds face military conscription that could cost them their life, they are going to have a vested interest in that particular war. Many argue the best way to end the Iraq conflict is to bring back the draft. College campuses would again be a beehive of protest and political action. Young people, and concerned parents, would be marching in the streets of America and on the mall in Washington, DC.

In ancient times, there was obligatory military service for all males. Chapter 20 in Deuteronomy reviews the Laws of Warfare. Accompanying the requirement to serve in the army is also a list of deferments.

Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to this home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who is engaged but not yet married? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her. . . . Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his (Deut. 20:5-9).”

The last deferment is the most compelling. For the sake of troop morale, it was best to excuse anyone who was “v’rach Ha’layvav,” literally, “soft-hearted,” cowardly. Others suggest this expression be understood as meaning “tenderhearted,” or compassionate and unable to hurt others; a deferment known in our day as “conscientious objector.”

The Torah recognized that war must be a nation’s last option when none others exist, and even then a sovereign country had the obligation to listen with respect, and respond with compassion, to those who remained morally opposed. They were no less patriotic and no less committed to the ideals of ancient Israel than those who favored a particular war. The same is true for the 62% of Americans who see the U.S. involvement in Iraq as a mistake.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Re'eih posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/10/07

Torah Portion: Re’eih
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 11:26-16:17
August 10, 2007

This week’s text is both self-evident and remarkable: “There shall be no needy among you. . . .if, however, there is a needy person among you. . .do not harden your heart and shut your hand to him. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. . . . For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land (Deut. 15: 7-11).”

Within the space of one paragraph, we are told first “there shall be no needy among you” and, then, “for there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” Clearly, the first statement is the sought-after ideal and the second reality. Our job: To make the “real ideal.” The effort to address poverty is referred to in Hebrew as Tzedakah-Acts of Righteousness. Among the most profound insights into giving comes from the great 12th century rabbi, philosopher, scientist, and physician Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (often referred to as Maimonides or his acronym, RamBam).

Maimonides suggested there is an art to giving. He wrote, “Whoever closes his eyes against charity is, like the idol-worshipper, impious. . . Whoever gives to the poor with bad grace and downcast looks, though he give a thousand pieces of gold, all the merit of his action is lost; one must give with grace, gladly, sympathizing with the poor person in distress.” With this he laid out an eight-stage ladder for the art of giving:

1) The highest level of giving is assisting the poor in finding employment or through a loan beginning a business, thus empowering them to help themselves.

2) The next level is giving charity in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to one another.

3) The next rung on the ladder of giving is donating money to a community fund.

4) Below this is when the donor is aware of whom he is giving to, but the recipient does not know who the giver is, or the recipient knows who the donor is but not visa versa.

5) One who gives money to the poor before he is asked

6) One who gives only after being asked.

7) One who gives less than he/she should, but does so with good grace.

8) The bottom rung on the ladder is the one who gives grudgingly.

Before honoring or condemning a person for their position on the ladder, take note that the 8-levels are only in reference to those who actually give. How many others do nothing to help the poor, cloth the naked, or assist the homeless? Maimonides message: We can ALL do a little more!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Ekev posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/03/07

Torah Portion: Ekev
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 7:12-11:25
August 3, 2007

“For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme. . . Who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, FOR YOU WERE STRANGERS IN THE LAND OF EGYPT (Deut. 10:17-19).”

That God “upholds the cause” of society’s underclass is probably not surprising. Even the non-believer assumes that if there is a Supreme Being, he/she would most certainly be a role model for moral/ethical behavior. Still, it is a surprising statement. As Pinhas Peli notes, “As great and mighty as God is, he is not too great or too preoccupied to deal directly with the small man in the street, even the rejects and marginals of society.” How many world leaders pledge to follow the example of God, then go out and befriend the homeless, the hungry, and the disenfranchised? Not many. It’s not happening in Darfur. It didn’t happen in Rwanda. A generation ago nothing was done in Cambodia and two generations ago world leadership was conveniently silent about Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It is not that they didn’t care, they were just too “great and mighty.”

What is even more interesting with regard to the above verse is who it is challenging. “YOU TOO must befriend the stranger,” and why? “Because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” It is not just the leaders who are held accountable, but “YOU” as well. You and I, we are all descendents of strangers who lived in the Land of Egypt. But for the grace of God we might still be suffering the degradation of slavery. Who knows better than us what it means to be left out, discarded, and forgotten? And who bears more responsibility than us for “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked”?

In the democratic nations of this world, WE are the leadership. WE are the “great and mighty.” We have the power to elect those who represent our interests and concerns. We also have the authority to reject those who would deny basic human rights to ALL human beings. We not only possess the authority, but the responsibility to act on that authority. This is what it means to “befriend the stranger.”

In this global village we know who the powerless and underclass are. God will be there for them. Will we?

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Summer Vacation posted by Rabbi Siegel on 07/05/07

Rabbi Siegel's weekly Torah Learning will return on Friday, August 3, 2007. In the meantime check out the Torah Learning Archives by clicking below.

Hukkat posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/22/07

Torah Portion: Hukkat
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 19:1-22:1
June 22, 2007

As the Israelites 40-year journey draws to an end, so to the lives of their leadership-Moses, Aaron and Miriam. The Talmud notes that in the wilderness the Israelites enjoyed the combined leadership of these three exceptional individuals. Each possessed their own talents and associated responsibilities, but exercised them in close collaboration with one another. Moses was responsible for providing the Israelites with food in the desert. Aaron looked after the cloud-covering necessary to protect the Israelites from the sun. Miriam took responsibility for the well of water that was ever present in the camp. The blessings and obligations were split evenly among each of the leaders.

With the death of each leader a temporary vacuum was created. In this week’s portion, we read of the deaths of Aaron and Miriam. Following Miriam’s death, the story line shifts to an uproar over a sudden lack of water. Similarly, Aaron’s death is followed by an unprovoked attack by the King of Arad. Moses is able to finally restore order, but it becomes clear that one man cannot lead alone and new leadership and vision is necessary.

Professor Ismar Schorsch asks, “But what is the deeper meaning of this [Talmudic interpretation]? I choose to read it as a meditation on the nature of good leadership. Despite the towering stature of Moses and his intimate relationship with God, he is denied the power to exercise authority alone. The Midrash exudes skepticism about human nature. The best way to avoid the abuse of power is to divide it.”

The ancient rabbis realized then what we know now. Democracy, with separate but equal branches of government, is the proverbial “path of least resistance.” Of democracy, Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

It would still take the Jewish people another 1200 years to embrace the ideas and ideals taught in the desert. The Israelites would have to appoint kings who would succumb to the seduction of power. They would have to suffer through Roman oppression. Finally, they would wrest authority for Jewish life from the hands of the few and place it in the hands of the people.

We, who have been privileged to live in a democracy, know the importance of preserving it. The lessons of the Sinai wilderness still speak to us. No single person, or branch of government, can be allowed to usurp more authority than its corresponding member. When this occurs, we make ourselves-and our way of life- vulnerable.

Vaclav Havel, the 1st president of the modern Czech Republic, writes, “If democracy is not only to survive but to expand successfully. . . , it must rediscover and renew its own transcendental origins.” Origins, I might add, that go back to Moses.

[Please Note: Rabbi Siegel, and this weekly Torah learning, will be on vacation until the end of July. Have a great summer!]

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Korach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/15/07

Torah Portion: Korach
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 16:1-18:32
June 15, 2007

Members of Moses’ own tribe of Levi arise to challenge his leadership of the Israelite nation. Korach and his gathered rebels, in the presence of the people, rebuke Moses. “You have gone too far! For all the community is holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why [Moses and Aaron] do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation? (Num. 16:3)”

Angered, Moses turns to God and proclaims, “Pay no regard to their sacrifice. I have not taken even the mule of any of them, nor have I wronged any one of them! (Num. 16:15)” This one verse sheds light on the necessary qualification to be an effective leader. An ancient midrashic legend learns from this verse that Moses must have been wealthy. How so? He had no need to require a salary for his leadership-not even a mule. Thus, his financial independence rendered him immune to corruption. He was doing his job because it needed to be done.

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, in his work Torah Temimah, suggests the only indispensable qualification for divine selection is humility. For people of modest means humility is often a natural response to their station in life. When one has little, humility comes easy! It is more difficult for a wealthy person to maintain the same humility. For him or her, arrogance is a more natural response. Take for example, Donald Trump and Warren Buffet. Both men have amassed great fortunes. Buffet has acquired even greater wealth than Trump. Yet, they are very different. Donald Trump is a symbol of arrogance; Buffet of humility. The rule seems to be the more wealth and power one assumes, the less approachable they become. Trying to be the [i[“same person” you once were is increasingly more difficult. This is what makes Warren Buffet so remarkable and this is also what makes him the effective financial leader he is.

The former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Professor Ismar Schorsch, writes, “Actions that come instinctively fail to stretch us. Growth results from reaching beyond ourselves. To walk the path of Jewish living calls for constant self-exertion until we internalize and embody the ideal.” The key strength in Moses leadership was his humility; his willingness to identify and work with all the people regardless of their station in life. This is what made the claims of Korach and his followers so hurtful. Moses life, from the time he was a Prince in Egypt, was devoted to reaching beyond what he had and who he was.

Making a difference requires going beyond what comes natural.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Shelach Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/08/07

Torah Portion: Shelach Lecha
Book of Numbers
Chaps. 13:1-15:41

Simple suggestion: Before setting out on a journey, know where you are going and why you want to be there! Easier said than done.

“The Lord said to Moses: Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites (Num. 13:1).” Moses heeded the order, sent forth a reconnaissance mission to the “Promised Land”, and 10 of 12 spies reported that it was too difficult and too dangerous to proceed. While their report of dangers and difficulties might have been accurate, their mission was not to determine whether it was worth going there altogether. This should have been determined at the outset. The mission was to facilitate a strategy for capturing the Land.

The result of this failed mission was that none of those (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) who left Egypt with Moses would ever enter the Promised Land. This generation of former slaves was lacking in vision and had no passion for the task ahead. The challenge of capturing and creating a presence in the Land of Canaan would have to fall to a generation born into freedom with a commitment to realizing their Divine mission.

Everyone should have a passion in life; a strong desire to realize dreams regardless of how difficult they may be to achieve. Our reach should always exceed our grasp. Once the passion is acquired, the challenges of achieving it-though they be difficult-become worthwhile in the realization of one’s dream.

What makes Tiger Woods the greatest golfer in the world is not just ability, but unfettered desire and willingness to do what is necessary to achieve his goal. When he makes a long putt look so easy it is because he has stood on a practice green hour upon hour making that same putt over and over, again. I have been told that he will continue practicing a particular shot until he is able to hit it 100 times in a row. If he misses, he returns to the beginning!

The Israelites who left Egypt had no real passion for creating a new people in a new land. They just did not want to be slaves any longer. It was not for their sake that God and Moses rescued them from Egypt, but for the sake of their children! We are all children of the children who DID acquire a passion for freedom, a dream of people hood, and desire to realize themselves in a land of their own. We should be no less passionate about our visions, hopes, and desires. . .and the efforts required to achieve them.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Graduation Day posted by Rabbi Siegel on 06/01/07

Graduation Time!
June 1, 2007

This week’s Torah comes from Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. My daughter reminded me of a book she received on the occasion of one of her graduations. She continued the tradition by passing along the book to her siblings on their graduations, and myself. Written by Dr. Seuss, it is entitled “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” Here are a few excerpts from the book:

The book is intended for anyone beginning a new journey in life.

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

New journeys and new beginnings are inevitably accompanied by excitement and great hopes. This is important because we know from the “school of experience” that nothing comes easy. Life is as much about stumbling as it is about climbing. Without faith and hope, the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” would go dark.

I’m sorry to say so
But, sadly, it’s true
That Bang-ups
And Hang-ups
Can happen to you.

You can get all hung up
In a prick-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You’ll be left in the lurch.

Seuss describes the disappointments in life as a “waiting place”; a place where one either waits for the better day, the better opportunity or finds the courage (and faith!) to move on, even against the odds!

You’ll get mixed up, of course,
As you already know.
You’ll get mixed up
With many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
And remember that Life’s
A Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

In the end, everyone has good days and bad. Everyone encounters obstacles in pursuit of life’s treasures. The key is to never underestimate the omnipotent power of the “self.” We are all fashioned in God’s image, with almost limitless potential. Realize this and let it strengthen you in moments of weakness and guide you in moments of strength.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

So. . .
Be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
Or Mordechai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So. . . Get on your way!*

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

* “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss. Available at bookstores or online at amazon.com. Buy several copies. They make outstanding graduation gifts or keep a copy for that moment when a little inspiration might go a long way.

Shavuot: Receiving Torah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/18/07

Shavuot: Receiving Torah
May 18, 2007

The celebration of Shavuot begins on Tuesday evening. The Hebrew word “Shavuot” means “weeks.” Seven weeks after the ancient Israelites departed Egypt (marked by the celebration of Passover), they arrived at Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Torah (marked by the celebration of Shavuot).

We live in existentialist times. In our day, Shavuot has become an annual opportunity for each Jew to experience their own personal Sinai moment. On a spiritual/historical level, God’s revelation on Mt. Sinai was THE transforming moment for the ancient Israelite. By accepting Torah, the Israelite transitioned from a slave to a free people. Jewish peoplehood was born at Sinai. To maintain a loyalty and commitment to this ancient/modern code of ethics requires a message that speaks to “me” in “my day” as well as to generations past.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg in his book “The Eternal Journey” writes, “For lovers the question is almost never, “Did you love me then?”; it is, “Do you love me now?” The same is true of our relationship with God; the crucial question is not about the past but about the present. . . The issue is not whether we once heard the voice of God in the Torah, but whether we hear it and feel the love of God today.”

Each of us can probably lay claim to a “Sinai moment”; a transformative experience that changed our lives forever. Maybe our Walden’s Pond occurred at a summer camp, or in the arms of a loved one. Maybe it was an inspiring teacher or a special moment of prayer. Whatever and whenever, we are different because of it. Then, again, maybe we are still wandering in the desert in search of Sinai?

Shavuot is the annual opportunity for the Jew to again stand at Sinai; again experience the thunder and lightening of God’s revelation, and again discover-in our day and in our terms-the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the Jewish people.

Postscript: The celebration of Shavuot begins Tuesday evening, May 22-Thursday, May 24. Services will be held on each of these days at the local Houston synagogues. For information about the JIC Shavuot “evening of learning” (Tues., May 22, 2007), please check the website: www.jichouston.org.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Behar/Behukotai posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/11/07

Torah Portion: Behar/Behukotai
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 25:1-27:34
May 11, 2007

The final portion in the Book of Leviticus (Behukotai) begins with a list of blessings for those who follow in God’s way. The blessings can be summarized in six categories: 1) Economic prosperity, 2) Security, 3) Peace, 4) Strength, 5) An increase in population, and 6) God’s presence among the people.

Over the ages, Biblical scholars and commentators have questioned the order of the blessings. Wouldn’t you think that the ultimate blessing would be peace? Why, then, is it placed in the middle?

The 10th century French scholar Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki (acronym, “Rashi”) suggests a reason for placing the blessing of peace in the middle of the order. He writes, “Where there is peace, there is everything; no peace, nothing.” Peace is “central.” Without it, there are no other blessings.

The Spanish Torah scholar of the 12th century, Abraham Ibn Ezra, interprets the blessing of peace as referring to peace “among you.” Before any of the other blessings can be realized, first there must be a national unity and camaraderie. We’ve got to get along with ourselves before we can hope to get along with others!

Still other Torah commentators see peace as the byproduct of the other blessings. They teach that peace doesn’t just happen. It requires moral and physical strength to let others know that this nation desires peace but will not “turn the other cheek” if threatened. Peace requires a robust and growing economy that makes the interests of all the population priority one. Peace requires a network of security, not to turn away those who desire to be a part of the “good life,” but those committed to undermining it. Finally, it requires a people who recognize God’s presence through their actions and deeds. When these other blessings are attained, so to will we realize and appreciate the blessing of peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Emor posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/04/07

Torah Portion: Emor
Book of Leviticus
Chap. 21:1-24:23
May 4, 2007

Torah is only an instrument of change if it can speak to us in our day and in our social condition. Therefore, it is not mere coincidence that the Torah makes a strong statement on the treatment of “illegal” or “undocumented” immigrants. In Leviticus 23:22 it is written, “And when you 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 the Lord am your God.”

The ancient Israelite economy was based on agriculture. At the end of a growing season, the farmer was required to leave the corners of his field unharvested and was not permitted to go back to retrieve harvested grains or fruits that had not been collected at the time of harvest. In both cases these food items were left for the poor and the stranger. We know who the poor were. They were members of the citizenry who had fallen on hard times. Who were the strangers?

The strangers were non-citizens and non-residents who were even more vulnerable than the impoverished native. Then, they were called “strangers”, today they are called illegal immigrants. Regardless of status, the Torah makes it clear that those in possession of means have a responsibility to care for the immigrant’s basic needs. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch in his book Canon Without Closure makes the point that “at the very moment when we are overcome with a sense of entitlement, we should bear the plight of others less fortunate in mind.”

The 16th century Italian Bible scholar Ovadiah Seforno notes that “the salt of wealth is charity, that is, to preserve our wealth we need to diminish it through acts of kindness.” Wealth is not determined by what we have, but what we are able to give. Our first responsibility is to humankind; not just some, but all. Throughout the Torah are countless mentions of one’s responsibility for “the poor and the stranger among us.” Judaism is not denying the categorical existence of citizenry, but pointing out that when people are hungry, homeless, sick, or destitute their immediate legal status takes the proverbial “back seat” to their immediate needs. Why? Because all people are fashioned in the image of God and to turn one’s back on the basic needs of humankind is to turn one’s back on God.

The issue of immigrant-status has two sides: The legal and the human. Judaism is not suggesting that borders be abandoned and nations open their doors to anyone and everyone. In an ideal “messianic” world this might be true, but not yet in the world we live. Judaism is saying that beyond the superficial title of citizen, immigrant, or stranger is the reality that he or she is most importantly a human being. To this end, we bear a moral responsibility to the poor and the stranger. As Rabbi Schorsch writes, “Philanthropy springs from faith. God inspires us to reach beyond ourselves.” Can we learn to “reach beyond ourselves” with compassion, dignity, and support for all, even the undocumented immigrant? I hope so.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Aharei Mot/Kedoshim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/27/07

Torah Portion: Aharei Mot/Kedoshim
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 16:1-20:27
April 27, 2007

One of the best known verses in the Torah is Leviticus 19:18- “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”

The famous 2nd century scholar, Rabbi Akiva, suggests that this simple statement is the “totality” of the Torah. One of Akiva’s contemporaries, Ben Azai, disagreed. Ben Azai taught that the most important statement in the Torah was Genesis 5:1-2- “. . . In the day that God created Adam in the likeness of God He made him; male and female created He them.” He reasoned, “if you don’t love yourself, how will you be able to love others?” Answer: By realizing that each human being is fashioned in the image of God. Loving God thus requires one to learn to love fellow humans.

One Torah commentator notes that it is easier to “love the world” than your next-door neighbor whom you live with on a day-to-day basis. In truth, there are people close to us who are easy to feel affection, care, and concern for, while there are others for whom it is difficult to feel any connection. It doesn’t take much effort to love good people. The test of this commandment is one’s ability to show love for those who are not as good or lovable.

Ben Azzai understands the the words “like yourself” to mean love your neighbor like yourself who is fashioned in the image of God. In our day it might seem strange to suggest one “love” another person for other than selfish reasons. In a day and age of “human rights,” who has the right to tell me who I should or should not care for! The Torah teaches that God has that right. Ultimately, we learn to care for other human beings not because we find them likeable but because they, like us, are an image of God. This includes our immediate family, as well as our most vicious enemy. It doesn’t mean “turn the other cheek,” but realize that prospects for true peace rest squarely on the shoulders of mutual care and concern for all humankind.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Shemini posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/13/07

Torah Portion: Shemini
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 9:1-11:47
April 13, 2007

Among the most identifiable features of Judaism are the dietary laws, or Kashrut (Keeping Kosher). The Book of Exodus (34:26) teaches the dietary feature of separating meat and milk. In this week’s Torah portion, chapter 11 of Leviticus goes further in distinguishing between the living creatures one may eat and those one may not.

The details of Kashrut are complex and can be confusing, especially to someone unfamiliar with the practice (this unfortunately includes most Jews!). Among the most common responses to the observance of the Jewish dietary laws are 1) “it costs too much” and 2) “it only serves to separate us from everyone else.”

I am not going to deny either response. In truth, they are both correct. Yes, the observance of Kashrut can be more costly than not, and yes, it does tend to separate those who observe it. In life, one is often willing to pay more for something that is truly life-changing, and with regard to Kashrut one might argue that those who observe it (and understand why!) have chosen to place themselves on a higher moral/ethical plane than others, and by separating themselves have become exemplars of a good and fulfilling life.

Where is the moral/ethical lesson to be found in the process of eating food? Rabbi Wayne Dosick answers this question in his book, Living Judaism, when he writes: “Even though those pork chops look and smell delicious, I do not eat them because God said so. Even though I am famished, I do not eat that ham sandwich because God said so. By observing the ritual laws of Kashrut-not for any particular rational or logical reason, but because this is God’s law for me-I am trained in the human skill of self-discipline.”

“Having developed this sense of self-control through the observance of a ritual law-just as I said “no” to the pork chops and ham sandwich because God said so-I have presumably developed the same skills of discipline and self-control that I can call on when facing an ethical dilemma.”

“With the very same human skills of discipline and self-control developed through ritual behavior, I am able to confront any ethical situation and say “no” when I must-not necessarily because I am not sorely tempted, but because I have learned to obey God’s law.”

“The observance of the ritual of Kashrut helps develop the human skills necessary to uphold ethical principle.”

“For all its elaborate laws and meticulous rules, in the final analysis, Kashrut is far less about eating than it is about behaving.”

As one who keeps Kosher, I could not agree more!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Passover 5767 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/06/07

April 6, 2007

Another name for the holiday of Passover is “Z’man Herutainu-The Time of Our Freedom.” We are familiar with the biblical account of the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt which, in itself, is a euphemism for “exodus from slavery.” Each year the Jew gathers around a Passover Seder table to recite the many stories, songs, and accounts contained in the Haggadah (Passover Seder text). Among these verses is the following statement: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” What does it mean in our day to be free; to see ourselves as having shared in the Egyptian bondage of the ancient Israelites?

The author of the above verse understood that the Israelite’s slavery in Egypt was not a one-time experience. Egypt continues to occur in a collective and individual manner. Is it no wonder that some of the most powerful African-American slave hymns compare their experience to that of the Israelites (“Go Down Moses, ‘way down in Egypt’s land. Tell ol’ Pharaoh, Let my people go”). For the Jew, Passover is the annual reminder that some of us are still confronting a personal Egypt in our own lives. Others of us have or will “go down to Egypt.” It happens to all of us, but Passover comes to teach that we possess the strength to stand up to our personal demons of slavery. We can be free.

Maybe it’s a job, or a personal relationship, or an addiction, or a fear, or a doubt. There is something that is robbing us of the happiness and fulfillment we thought we would one day find. The good news is we don’t have to live in the Egypt of personal crisis and unhappiness. The 20th century Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am wrote, “Freedom is taken, not given.” Freeing oneself from the burden of oppression (whatever it may be) doesn’t just happen. We are not given freedom, we have to be willing to reach out and work for it. Praying for the freedom of the former Soviet Jews was not what opened the doors to emigration, it was Natan Sharansky, and others like him, sitting imprisoned in the cold Gulag but refusing to give up the struggle for freedom. It was also thousands of people gathering on the Washington Mall to protest human rights violations. Similarly, no one has to say, “I feel helpless and unhappy with my lot in life.” We possess the Godly power to meet our personal challenges, learn from them, and move forward toward the light of freedom. It’s not easy, but who said freedom was easy?

The Roman philosopher Horace (1st century c.e.) wrote, “Who, then, is free? The wise who can command their passions, who fear not want, nor death, nor chains, firmly resisting their appetites and despising the honors of the world, who rely wholly on themselves, whose angular points of character have all been rounded off and polished.” Freedom comes at a cost. It requires sacrifice, patience, and driven commitment. A Greek philosopher taught, “No human being is free who is not master of himself.” Passover brings a message of hope: We can be free and the effort it requires is worth everything!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Tzav posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/30/07

Torah Portion: Tzav
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 6:1-8:36
March 30, 2007

In describing the different types of animal sacrifice that took place in ancient times, the Torah notes, “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out (Lev. 6:6).”

The Nobel Prize-winning author, Elie Wiesel, tells of the poet who was asked, “If you could save from your burning home only one thing, what would it be?” “The fire,” the poet answered, for without it life would not be worth living.

Since ancient times, fire has been one of the most powerful metaphors for living a meaningful life. It’s the “burning” desire to make a difference, the inner “fire” that drives one’s passions for good (and, sometimes, not so good!). The Midrash (Jewish legend) points out that shortly after the creation of Adam and Eve, the first Sabbath began; the sun set. Having never before experienced darkness, Adam and Eve grew fearful. God then gave them the intuition to rub two stones together creating the first fire.

The Sabbath begins and ends with the lighting of candles, the kindling of fire, the re-creation of light. The practitioners of Kabbalah associated “light” with “Hesed” (the attribute of kindness and compassion) and “fire” with “G’vurah” (the attribute of strength and courage). In the absence of “Hesed” and “G’vurah” one is left with a bland, meaningless, dispassionate and lonely life. We require fire, and the light of fire, to ignite the human spirit. As the noted folksinger Pete Seeger professed in one of his most popular songs, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!”

Pinhas Peli notes, “Fire and its more modern transfiguration, technology, are there to serve humanity, not to enslave it. Misuse of fire is likely to destroy and bring the world back to Chaos ; the right use of fire which is perpetually kept in the sanctuary [of life] can bring blessing, warmth and light.”

We often hear people say, “I spend my whole day putting out fires.” We need to re-think this cliché. The spirit of humankind and the innovative/creative hopes for the future depend on kindling at least as many inner fires as we try to put out.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayikra posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/23/07

Torah Portion: Vayikra
Book of Leviticus
Chaps. 1:1-5:26
March 23, 2007

This week we begin Leviticus, the 3rd book of the Torah. The book is devoted almost in its entirety to the job description for the ancient priests and a complete description of the sacrificial cult.

Religion and sacrifice go “hand in hand.” The English word “sacrifice” means “to make sacred.” In Hebrew the word is “Korban” meaning “to bring near.” In ancient times, the way one came near to God was by bringing a choice animal from their herd, and offering it as a sacrifice in the Temple. Some medieval commentators suggested that animal sacrifice was an effort to turn the Israelites away from the practices of idol worship and human sacrifice. Though the institution of animal sacrifice came to an abrupt halt with the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE, the religious requirement of sacrificing one’s time and possessions continues. The contemporary Torah scholar Pinhas Peli observed, “When one makes a sacrifice, one must teach himself to give away that which he needs for himself, not only that which is surplus, or can be taken off as an income tax deduction.” In fact, as Peli continues, “God does not want a sacrifice which does not rightfully belong to you personally, or which you do not see as if you yourselves were vicariously offered on the altar.”

Here is a story who’s conclusion is up to you:

A wealthy man died and bequeathed his three sons three precious gifts. The first son received a pair of binoculars through which he could see from one end of the world to the other. The second son received a magic carpet, which could carry its passengers to the end of the world in one instant, and the third son received an apple that upon eating it one could utter any wish and it would be fulfilled.

One day the son with the binoculars looked and saw that somewhere in a far-away country, a beautiful princess was dreadfully sick. As no doctor could cure her, her father (the king) declared that any person who would restore the health of his dearly beloved daughter would be given her hand in marriage and eventually become king. Upon seeing this, he summoned his brothers and the three of them mounted the magic carpet, arriving in an instant in that far-away land. The princess ate the enchanted apple, made her wish to recover and was instantly healed.

Now each one of the three sons came to the king, claiming that he deserved to marry the king’s daughter. Said the first one: “If it were not for the binoculars we would have never known of the princess’s illness and would not have come to heal her. I therefore am the one who deserves to marry the princess.”

Said the second one: “If it were not for my magic carpet, we could have never arrived here in time to save the life of the princess. The binoculars and apple would not have been any good without the carpet.”

Said the third son: “Neither the binoculars nor the carpet would have been any good, were it not for my apple that actually was used to cure her.”

The king, of course, saw the point made by every one of the three sons as each one gave a convincing argument, showing he should be the one chosen. He had to decide, however, which of the three would be the one to marry his only daughter.

Question: What was his decision? Why? This week no answers, just a couple of questions. Let me know what you think.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayyakhel/P'kudei posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/16/07

Torah Portion: Vayyakhel/P’kudei
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 35:1-40:38
March 16, 2007

We have a right to expect more from our leadership than we are getting. To err is human. Everyone makes mistakes. The harm comes when one is unwilling to own up to the truth of their actions. This much we would ask of one another, how much more so of those in positions of leadership!

The final Torah portion in the Book of Exodus (P’kudei) calls upon Moses to give a full accounting of the expenditures for building and furnishing the Tabernacle (portable sanctuary in the desert). The ancient rabbis emphasized in the Midrash that leaders of the community must be above any suspicion of personal aggrandizement. They must account for their actions and deeds on behalf of the community they represent. In the Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah it is written, “The family that prepared the incense for the Temple services would never let their relatives wear perfume, lest some people suspect them of using Temple incense for their personal benefit. The official who supervised the shekel offering would wear a special garment with no pockets and no long sleeves when he did so, so that no one could suspect him of pocketing public funds.” The Israelites had the right and responsibility to hold Moses’ “feet to the fire” with regard to his dealings on their behalf.

Today we should demand no less from our leadership than an honest accounting of how they are carrying out the public trust. This is the basis for the constitutional “checks and balance” system of government. Each branch of government holds the other responsible for fair, honest, and legal dealings. When an error occur, responsibility is accepted, and a correction is made.

The Watergate scandal of the ‘70’s was less about a botched robbery attempt than the ensuing effort to cover it up with a litany of lies. Who can name the robbers? We do remember President Richard Nixon was forced to resign. President Clinton was not impeached because he was involved in an extra-marital affair, but because he lied about it. More recently, vice-presidential advisor Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury not because he leaked the name of a CIA operative to the press, but because he lied about it. Perhaps most devastating in terms of lives lost was not so much the false and misleading justification given to Congress and the American people for waging war against Iraq, but the unwillingness to acknowledge the mistake and assume responsibility for it.

Whether one is the leader of a superpower or a congregation of former slaves, accounting for one’s actions, taking responsibility for one’s mistakes, and then acting to correct them is the foundation upon which effective leadership is built.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Ki Tissa posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/09/07

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 30:11-34:36
March 9, 2007

Regardless of how familiar, or unfamiliar, one is with the Bible, most are at least aware of Moses, Mt. Sinai, and the Ten Commandments. This same population has probably also heard the story of the Golden Calf.

In this Torah portion, Moses returns from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of God only to find that the Israelites have lost patience waiting for his return and replaced him with a Golden Calf. Barely removed from an Egyptian culture of idol worship, it was not difficult to return. According to one rabbinic midrash (legend), Moses was only six hours late in arriving back from Sinai. This “stiff-necked” people had very little patience!

Why, though, in the absence of Moses did the Israelites chose an idol as their new leader and not Moses’ brother, Aaron? A well-known rabbi of the 19th century, Shmuel Moholiver, asks the same question, “Was Aaron not the most natural successor to Moses?” He goes on to explain, “The fact that the Israelites did not appoint Aaron, but turned instead to a Golden Calf, teaches us that people seek someone from the outside, even if he is but a senseless calf, rather than choose one from among themselves with whom they are well-acquainted, even if he is as great and experienced as Aaron, their acclaimed high priest.”

There is an expression that is used to apply to the local rabbi who “gets no respect” from his congregation but is very well received when he visits congregations in other cities-”Ain Navi B’eero-A person is never a prophet in his/her own city.” Maybe it is human nature to believe that what, or whom, we are unfamiliar with must be better than what we have. It’s too easy to take for granted the greatness that stands among us.

What is true on an individual level is also true on a collective one. There was a time when the American people believed in the greatness of themselves. There was “no mountain to high or ocean to deep” to keep us away. Today, in the name of globalization, America has lost faith with itself. The old familiar “made in the USA” is a remnant of the past. The pride in American ingenuity, creativity, and know-how has been supplanted by a belief that other nations probably can produce the better automobile, provide better health care, and build the better mouse trap.

The Israelites started with no faith in themselves and then spent 40 years creating an identity that also encountered challenges through the centuries, but the challenges continue to be met; the Jewish people have only gotten stronger, more confident, and better able to focus on the goal of making this a better world. I would like to believe that Americans will also meet this challenge, and again provide the world with a visionary leadership that comes from a people who believe in their own resolve.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Purim 5767 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/02/07

March 2, 2007

Saturday evening, March 3rd, marks the beginning of the celebration of “Purim.” Everyone needs an occasional “breather” from the tensions and stress of life; even religions do. Purim is a day of laughter, fun, pranks, and costumes all in relation to the biblical Book of Esther.

For the most part, it’s a kids’ festival. There are usually synagogue carnivals and craziness aimed at the “very” young at heart (ages 3-12). After Bar Mitzvah age (13), there is a drop off in Purim attendance and interest. A handful of older adults (usually empty-nesters) still gather on Purim morning to hear the Book of Esther read but, for the most part, Purim becomes a holiday one remembers from their youth, and that’s a shame because the lesson of this holiday has even greater meaning in the adult world.

Why the Book of Esther made it into the Hebrew Bible is a question that continues to be debated. For starters, God’s name is not mentioned in the book even once. This is a book about a Jewish social climber (Mordechai), the lovely daughter (Esther) of his deceased uncle, and a hedonistic beauty contest to select a new queen for the King of Persia. Mordechai would like nothing better than an honored seat at the gate of the king’s palace. To achieve this, he enters Esther in the beauty contest but tells her not to mention that she is a Jew (which, presumably, would disqualify her). Esther enters, wins, becomes queen, and Mordechai lands his cherished seat at the palace gate. Not exactly Jewish role models!

It is at this point the “wicked” Haman, advisor to the king, enters the plot. In passing through the palace gate, Haman notes that Mordechai does not rise and bow to him. This infuriates him. He recognizes Mordechai as a local Jew which makes him even more enraged. He plots revenge. Haman preys on the king’s dangerous naivety and convinces him that the Jews of Persia are plotting an overthrow of his government. The only thing to do is destroy them. The king agrees and gives Haman the necessary authority to carry out his scheme. It is at this point the book teaches an important lesson.

Mordechai learns of the evil intentions of Haman against the Jews and immediately informs Esther. He tells her that she must now reveal her true self to the king, even at the risk of her own life, and beg him to save the Jews. She does. The Jews of Persia are saved. Haman and his family are put to death. The Jews celebrate and the book comes to an end.

A hero is a person who does the right thing at the right time. Regardless of one’s checkered past, a person’s true self is revealed in those few moments in life when everything is on the line and the right action, or inaction, will make the difference. Mordechai and Esther might not have been the moral giants of their age, but in a single moment of crisis, they risked all to do the right thing. They are heroes.

You don’t have to be rich, famous, popular, or powerful to make a difference. You just have to be willing to stand up when the moment arises. Example: The man in New York City who saw a person fall off the subway platform. Without thinking twice, he leaped on top of the person protecting him from the oncoming train.

In the often dangerous world we live in, The Book of Esther is just another reminder that there are heroes among us waiting for a moment of need to reveal themselves. We are them! We can make a difference! Happy Purim.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Terumah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/23/07

Torah Portion: Terumah
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 25:1-27:19
February 23, 2007

In the first verses of the Torah portion it reads, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. . . And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exo. 25:1-2 & 8).

The contemporary Torah scholar Pinhas Peli asks, “Does [God] really need their gold or silver or brass [gifts]?” What possible gifts could the omnipotent and omniscient One require? The ancient rabbis suggest that this was just a test to determine how committed the Israelites actually were. The purpose of the gifts was to build in the desert a portable sanctuary to God.

The request for gifts and contributions also began the process of forging an active relationship between the Israelites and God. No longer could the people remain passive as the events of history passed before them. Now they had to take an active role in constructing their sanctuary and building their future. Peli goes on to explain, “The task of bringing holiness into the world, which is the main obligation of the Jew, has always been seen in the Bible as a partnership, a combined project of humans and God.”

This partnership is present in every aspect of life. Prior to eating a piece of bread, the Jew recites a blessing that praises God “who brings forth bread from the earth.” One might think a blessing of this sort is more appropriate when the wheat is first being harvested. Rather, the blessing does not occur until God (who provides the wheat) interacts with humankind (who forms it into bread). The same is true with regard to the blessing over wine. Before drinking the wine, a blessing is said praising God “who creates the fruit of the vine.” Again, it seems more proper to recite this blessing after picking the grapes. Rather, it only becomes a blessing when God (who provides the grapes) and humankind (who makes them into wine) work together.

The same is true for the ancient wilderness sanctuary. It only becomes worthy of God’s presence after the Israelites give of themselves to help construct it. In a real sense, all of life is about maintaining an active partnership between us and God. When we work together to build a stronger home life, a more involved community, and a better world we become partners in doing God’s work.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Yitro posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/09/07

Torah Portion: Yitro
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 18:1-20:23
February 9, 2007

The 10th commandment reads, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s (Exo. 20:14).” Most interesting!

The 1st Commandment (“I am the Lord your God”) sets the stage for the one’s to follow. Before accepting commands, one must first accept the commander. The 2nd through the 9th commandment legislate behavior and action (“You shall not have any other gods beside me. . . You shall not make idols. . You shall not swear falsely. . . You shall observe the Sabbath. . .You shall not murder. . . You shall not commit adultery. . . You shall not steal. . . You shall not bear false witness”). The 10th commandment stands out. “You shall not covet”-I can understand legislating an action, but how can you legislate a thought? Is it possible to control feelings and thoughts?

The Babylonian Talmud suggests, “This verse prohibits longing only for anything we cannot obtain honestly or legally.” Commentators understood this to mean that often thoughts lead to action and negative thoughts can bring about negative results. Therefore, the Torah is informing one that ethical behavior is not only judged by actions, but by the thoughts that effected them.

The editors of the Eitz Hayim Humash note, “It may be difficult to control our emotions, but we may never excuse our behavior by claiming that our emotions overcame us so that we could not help doing what we did.” It is curious how the more technologically, scientifically, and medically sophisticated we become, the less responsible we are. “I said what I said or did what I did because I was
a) depressed, b) the product of a broken home, c) unloved, d) sexually molested as a child, e) over-medicated, or f) all the above.”
What happened to, “I did it; I shouldn’t have, but I accept responsibility.” Once one begins believing their actions are the result of some external influence, one no longer accepts responsibility for their deeds.

The 10th commandment comes to inform us that we must learn to discipline not just our hands, but our minds. Take responsibility for what you think, and learn to deal with it before it’s too late.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Beshallach posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/02/07

Torah Portion: Beshallach
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 13:17-17:16
February 2, 2007

No sooner had Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt than Pharaoh realized what he had done. “The Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he gave chase to the Israelites. . . As Pharaoh drew near [to them], the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord (Exo. 14:8 & 10).”

The 18th century Hassidic master, known as the “Baal Shem Tov” (master of the good name) commented, “Often in life, we think we can escape our problems by running away, only to find our problems running after us.” It wasn’t just the Egyptians who were running after the Israelites, it was also their deeply-embedded slave mentality. Going from a life of servitude to one of freedom requires more than just “crossing a Red Sea.”

The nations of the world celebrated when the Berlin Wall was dismantled; when the Iron Curtain of communism came down. We were certain that this large population of people who only knew the restrictive life of communism were going to immediately grasp the reigns of freedom and democracy. Instead, we were greeted with an ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia, religious upheaval in parts of Chechnya and other parts of Russia, and lawlessness throughout much of the former communist world. It took the ancient Israelites 40 years to shed their slave mentality. It has been over 15 years since the Berlin wall came down and many of the former communist nations are still wandering in the proverbial desert.

Living in a day when time is measured in thousandths of a second, patience has become not just a virtue but a necessity. Times and events have always changed at a more rapid pace than the people affected by them. Even a slave requires considerable time to be educated and nurtured for entry into freedom. One can run from the past, but not from the imprint it leaves on one’s life.

I spent two days this week participating with a group of rabbis in surveying the on-going hardships of post-Katrina New Orleans. We visited devastated neighborhoods and met with community leaders. There is an obvious need for greater financial attention to New Orleans. A year-and-a-half after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has barely managed to clear away the debris of destruction. The people who have remained want to rebuild their glorious city, but this requires them to re-assess what their city will be. Engineers and scientists have suggested that due to the precarious nature of being a city built below sea level, some destroyed neighborhoods are better off not being re-built. Tell this to a family who have lived on a certain plot of land for generations. Rebuilding New Orleans is also going to require a rebuilding of mind sets. This task is as formidable as trying to acquire the funds necessary to rebuild. In New Orleans, patience is also not just a virtue but a necessity.

The “quick fix” seldom succeeds. It didn’t for the Israelites. They left Egypt only to find freedom an allusive dream. Only education and patience (and God!) are omnipotent.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Va'era posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/19/07

Torah Portion: Vaera
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 6:2-9:35
January 19, 2007

“But Moses appealed to God saying, ‘If the Israelites would not listen to me, why would Pharaoh respond to me, a man of impeded speech?’ (Exo. 6:12)”

This verse has been understood in several ways.

For some, it underscores the fact that one’s disability is only as limiting as one permits. Moses was able to rise above his speech impediment to provide 40 years of strong leadership and example.

For others, it suggests that one person cannot do everything. Moses’ effectiveness was due in no small part to the fact his brother, Aaron, served as his spokesman. Moses understood his weakness in speech and sought assistance. There is yet another interpretation that is even more compelling.

The 19th century Torah scholar Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger wrote in his work Sefat Emet, “If the children of Israel refuse to listen to their leaders, there can be no leaders who are able to speak, who can become a mouth for them, which could be of “impeded speech. . . . As long as there are those who will listen, then there can be those who speak, because the power of the leader issues from the people. For this reason, if the children of Israel listen to Moses, his mouth would be opened, his speech would be fluent, and his words would reach Pharaoh.”

Could be it that Moses’ speech impediment is not the result of a physical disability, but the unwillingness of the Israelites to listen to him? The children of Israel rendered him speechless.

Leadership is not taken; it is given. The preamble of the United States Constitution states, “We, The People. .” The government and its elected officials are an extension of the people. Those in positions of political leadership have been placed there by “The People.” Their mandate to lead is directly linked to the will of the people. They represent our needs, concerns, and desires. When they buck this mandate, they, too, can be rendered speechless.

When Moses returned to Pharaoh, he brought Aaron as his spokesman. With the exodus from Egypt, Moses is able to regain the confidence of the Israelites. Aaron is no longer needed as a spokesman and takes on new responsibilities as the first High Priest. Suddenly, Moses’ earlier speech impediment seems to have disappeared. Effective leadership can do that!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Shmot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/12/07

Torah Portion: Shmot
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 1:1-6:1
January 12, 2007

Some 400 years separate the events of Genesis from the beginning of the Book of Exodus. For unexplained reasons, the Israelites are now slaves to the Egyptians. Worse yet, their population has increased to the point that Pharaoh is compelled to take action. He decrees that from this moment, all males born to Israelites will be put to death. He places the responsibility for this task on the Hebrew midwives who assist in Israelite births:

“The King of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah, saying, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth stool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live. The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live (Exo. 1:15-17).”

At a critical moment in the history of ancient Israel, two simple Hebrew midwives made the courageous and heroic decision to ignore the Pharaoh’s orders. Who were these women? The Torah refers to them as Me’yaldot Ha’ivriyot/Hebrew midwives. Were they in fact Israelites, themselves? Several commentators suggest Shifra and Puah were Egyptians serving as midwives to the Hebrews or Israelites. This understanding makes their response even more remarkable.

One can understand a member of one’s own people trying to protect them, but an Egyptian helping an Israelite? Wow! Torah scholar Pinchas Peli wrote, “They [Shifra & Puah] did not say, “my country, right or wrong.”

Heroism is doing the right thing at the right time. A simple African-American laborer, with two small children in hand, jumps in front of an oncoming subway train in New York to protect a perfect stranger (who happened to be white) who had fallen between the tracks. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

Peace and goodwill only emerge when people understand it is possible to have unity amid diversity; the unity that comes from knowing we are all creations of One God, we all share a common humanity.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayehi posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/05/07

Torah Portion: Vayehi
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 47:28-50:26
January 5, 2007

The end of the Book of Genesis concludes the Patriarchal period (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) in Jewish history. New personalities and challenges lie ahead but gone are those who masterfully laid the foundation for a monotheistic faith and the people who would carry forth the message.

The conclusion of Genesis marks the death of Jacob “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people (Gen. 49: 33).” Jacob began his journey years earlier by “lifting his feet (Gen. 29:1)." The Eitz Hayim Torah Commentary notes, “Jacob is described as “lifting his feet” to begin his journey after his dream of the ladder. His journey will have taken him to three countries. He has loved, he has fought, he has known bereavement. Now, after many years, Jacob can finally stop wandering and struggling. We may see Jacob as perhaps the most fascinating of the Patriarchs. He grows and changes over the years. We can see him as the exemplar of the flawed person who can outgrow his flaws. He seeks contentment and never succeeds in finding it because there is always one more challenge to be overcome. To be a Jew is to be a descendant of Jacob/Israel.”

Jacob is us and we are him. From the time we first “lifted our feet” upon the journey of life we encountered happiness and sadness, success and failure, fulfillment and discouragement. People only “ride off into the sunset” in films. In real life, success is measured quite differently. In baseball, batting .300, or being able to get a hit at least 30% of the times you come to bat, is a sign of greatness. In basketball, scoring on at least 45% of your shots is a sign of excellence. No one scores 100%, not even Abraham and certainly not Jacob!

Jacob teaches that one’s greatest resource is the ability to overcome and rise above personal “flaws.” To be a Jew is to face life’s challenges with a smile, a good word, and a continued effort to make a better life and better world. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “Christianity believes that God incarnated Himself, became flesh, in the person of Jesus and changed the world thereby. Judaism teaches that God incarnates Himself in every one of us, and gives us the power to make Him real, not just an abstract notion in the world, changing the world thereby.”

And so the journey continues. Next week, the Book of Exodus.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Miketz posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/22/06

Torah Portion: Miketz
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 41:1-44:17
December 22, 2006

Much is made of Joseph “The Dreamer”. On one hand, his skills in interpreting dreams almost cost him his life at the hands of his own brothers. On the other hand, the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams save him from prison. From this account one might surmise that dreams play a significant role in Judaism in general, and Biblical literature in particular. Not so!

Nahum Sarna, author of Understanding Genesis, notes, “Despite the fact that Israel shared with its pagan neighbors a belief in the reality of dreams as a medium of divine communication, it never developed, as in Egypt and Mesopotamia, a class of professional interpreters or a dream literature. In the entire Bible, only two Israelites engage in the interpretation of dreams-Joseph and Daniel-and significantly enough, each serves a pagan monarch. . . . . in precisely the lands in which [divination by means of dreams] flourished.”

In the case of Joseph, his dreams of superiority separated him from his family and assimilated him into the pagan world of Egypt. Had there not been a famine in Canaan, requiring his brothers to come down to Egypt for food, Joseph might never have reconciled with them. His dreams would have permanently driven him from his family, his people, and eventually his God. So much for dreams!

The ancient rabbis went one step further when they suggested: “Do not rely on a miracle!” We don’t sit and wait for a “miraculous” event; we make it happen. It is not our dreams that determine the future; it is our actions. God has made humankind a partner in the completion of creation. The realization of God’s “Kingdom on Earth”, or better stated, making this earth worthy of God, is dependent on us to “make” miracles and “fashion” dreams.

The miracle of Hanukkah (December 22nd being the final night) is not that a single vial of oil was sufficient to keep the ancient Temple’s menorah lit for eight days, but that amidst pressures to assimilate and acculturate a small band of Jews (the Maccabees) still cared enough to fight for their identity.

Professor Ismar Schoresh notes, “Dreams and miracles lie in the dustpan of Jewish history.” Even Joseph realized this fact before it was too late.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Va'yetzei posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/02/06

Torah Portion: Va’yetzei
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 28:10-32:3
December 1, 2006

What makes the patriarch Jacob most appealing is the fact he is really no different than you or me. He’s no Abraham or Isaac, but he is Jacob!

After cheating his brother Esau out of his father’s blessing, Rebecca assists her beloved son Jacob in escaping from Esau and his anger. Jacob flees to his mother’s home. He pauses on his journey to rest and there encounters God in a dream. He dreams of a ladder ascending to the heavens with angels going up and down. God is standing beside him telling him “I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you (Gen. 28:15)”; a promise made to Abraham and Isaac before him. Jacob awakes from his dream and realizes his role in life requires that he rise above the shortcomings of his past to accept the responsibilities of his forefathers. Shaken by the reality of this epiphany, Jacob proclaims, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven (Gen. 28:17).”

This would be a good place to end the story, Jacob “riding off into the sunset” successfully bearing the dreams and visions of his father, grandfather, and God. But, he is only young and isn’t idealism the province of youth? Jacob continues on to the home of his uncle Laban. There, his uncle tricks him into working for him for 14 years to acquire his daughter Rachel in marriage. Jacob uses this time to learn the ways of Laban. When he is finally ready to return home he has acquired great wealth. His youthful dream of causes, principles, and ideals is replaced with the dream of greater material wealth. In a final farewell to Laban, Jacob shows he has mastered his uncle’s skills by tricking him out of a considerable number of sheep (the hard currency of their times).

I come from a generation who, in our youth, protested a war in Vietnam, stood up against the hypocrisy of power, and defended the idealism of democracy and then grew up. Today, how many of my cohorts still have the fires from those earlier dreams and visions burning within? Growing up doesn’t mean giving up.

Jacob will once again encounter God and himself. In the words of the contemporary Bible scholar Pinchas Peli, “It is then, when the materialistic dreams are about to take him over, that Jacob realizes what Laban and Labanism had done to him, and that he must act now or he will not have another chance. It is then that he decides to go home, back to the land of the fathers and mothers, where he may yet recapture the old dream. Where Jacob may yet become Israel.”

You are never too old to dream young. “And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions (Joel 3:1).”

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Toldot posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/24/06

Torah Portion: Toldot
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 25:19-28:9
November 24, 2007

Among the secular holidays, Thanksgiving stands out as a time when we tend to focus on the past; memories of Thanksgiving gatherings and family celebrations of our youth. For many, it’s a day to reflectively understand what our parents meant to us. Sure, they made a few mistakes, but who doesn’t? Perhaps at the time they were not everything we wanted them to be, but as we grew older it is amazing how much they learned (with a nod to Mark Twain)! One’s maturity is directly linked to the moment he/she is able to finally reconcile childhood issues of growing up with a love for one’s parents.

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac is expelled from his land by King Avimelech of the Philistines. He settles in Gerar, a former home of his father Abraham. There we are told, “Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them (Gen. 26:18).”

The 19th century Hassidic master Shmuel of Sochochow interprets this verse to mean “There actually are deep waters but they are concealed and hidden in the depths of the earth. A person of understanding is someone who removes whatever conceals them and then draws them up to the surface.” Shmuel teaches the importance of returning to our roots, but this time pursuing a more mature understanding of them. Isaac’s re-digging of Abraham’s wells becomes a metaphor for his understanding and appreciation of who his father was and who he had become.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner further comments, “The middle-aged man looks in the mirror one morning while shaving and realizes that he looks just like his father-as he remembers him at that age. The struggle for Isaac (and for us) is like coming home. Spiritually mature adults realize that their parents are in them. Isaac’s digging is therefore a sacred task.

It took struggles, and even an expulsion, for Isaac to appreciate the significance of his parents to his life. If even Isaac struggled, we have no reason to feel guilty about our parental misgivings. Isaac overcame his, so can we. And for this we give thanks!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Chaye Sarah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/17/06

Torah Portion: Chaye Sarah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 23:1-25:18
November 17, 2006

The most emotionally-painful relationships are those that do not exist-parents and family members who refuse to speak to one another. This very scenario plays itself out in this portion of Torah.

For all the good that Abraham represents, he must still bear the responsibility for deserting Hagar, his slave-wife (handmaid of Sarah) and his son by her, Ishmael. Isaac-born to Abraham & Sarah-and his half-brother Ishmael would not come together again until the Torah informs us, "Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah (Gen. 25: 8-9)."

Abraham possessed great wealth, communal respect, and the honor of being the "father of monotheism." Three great religious traditions-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-connect themselves to the "God of Israel" through Abraham. With all this greatness, how painful it must have been to not be able to maintain a relationship with a son-Ishmael-and to know that your two son's-Isaac & Ishmael-had nothing to do with one another.

The ancient Midrash (legendary stories based on Torah) notes that Abraham breathed his last breath "old and contented." "Might these reconciliations have occurred in Abraham's lifetime and be the reason for the Torah's describing him as "contented" in his old age?" A commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash continues this thought by asking, "Can we see this as a model for family reconciliations, forgiving old hurts? And can it not be a model for the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation?"

The fact Abraham was able to approach death "old and contented" suggests he did take the time to reconcile the most important concern in his (or anyone's) life: His family! Ishmael must have been able to forgive his father for deserting him, Isaac must have found the strength to love his father in spite of almost being sacrificed by him, and Abraham must have been able to say, "I'm sorry!"

I am always amazed at how accepting and understanding people can be toward acquaintances or strangers, while separating themselves from family with walls of anger and enmity. And, tragically, only coming together in times of death. It doesn't have to be this way. Maybe this is what Abraham was teaching even with his last breath.

I remember my grandfather's words, "Blood runs thicker than water." Take some time this weekend to call a parent, child, or sibling, especially one for whom you've said, "I'll never speak with him, again!"

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Vayera posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/10/06

Torah Portion: Vayera
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 18:1-22:24
November 10, 2006

This portion of Torah begins in the heat of the day with Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent recuperating from his circumcision. In the previous chapter, Abraham complied with God's request to circumcise himself and the males in his household as a sign of the covenant between them and God. Abraham was 99 years old when he performed this painful procedure on himself (ouch!).

As he rested in the sun, Abraham looked up and "saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, 'My lords. . . let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on (Gen. 18: 2-5)."

We later learn these three men were in fact messengers of God, but the text does not make clear whether Abraham knew this or not. All we do know is, even in a painful state, he arose to offer hospitality to strangers. The 10th century Biblical commentator known as "Rashi" (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki) suggests that not only did Abraham not know who these strangers were, he had good reason to believe they were nomadic Arabs. Nevertheless, he extended them the same honor and respect he would any person who appeared in need of food, drink, or simple human kindness.

Pinhas Peli notes, "For [Abraham] every person was important enough to leave whatever he was doing and run to welcome the strangers." And what was Abraham doing? According to the Torah, "And the Lord appeared to him (Genesis 18:1)," suggesting he was in conversation with God when the strangers appeared on the horizon. This leads the ancient rabbis to teach in the Talmud (tractate Shabbat 127a), "Being hospitable to a guest ranks higher than receiving God's Divine Presence," or as Peli comments, "God himself apparently would not mind being 'put on hold' on account of a wayfaring stranger. The latter however may not be able to wait, because of hunger or thirst."

The example of Abraham teaches that human beings-regardless of race, color, or religious creed-require human kindness and care. In this day and age of suspicion and distrust, Abraham's actions stand tall. . . as should ours!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Lech Lecha posted by Rabbi Siegel on 11/03/06

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 12:1-17:27
November 3, 2006

This Torah portion is of fundamental significance in understanding the rest of Biblical, and post-Biblical, history. "God said to Abram, 'Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you' (Gen. 12:1)."

This is where the story of the Jewish people begins. Everything that preceded it (Creation and the Noah story) now becomes the background against which the story of Judaism unfolds.

The renowned modern Biblical scholar E.A. Speiser wrote, "The story commences with one individual, and extends gradually to his family, then to a people, and later still to a nation. Yet, it is not to be the tale of individuals or a family or a people as such. Rather, it is to be the story of a society in quest of an ideal." But it all begins with one person, one very brave and courageous soul: Abraham.

Judaism has gone to great lengths to preserve the ultimate sanctity of the moral/ethical ideal over the personality of any one individual. We have been blessed with leaders (like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, etc.) who were exemplars in their own lives, but it is not they whom we worship but values and teachings of a living God. They are our teachers and God is our subject.

Abraham took the first brave step by leaving everything he had known (a pagan world in which his ancestors had found comfort) and setting out on a journey based only on promise and hope. His example would inspire the lives of his children who, in turn, would carry his message to future generations and communities and, finally at Mt. Sinai, the message would be transformed into a people. All because one man was not afraid to take that first step.

Each of us is an Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, or Leah in our own lives. Each of us has, is, or will be confronted with the challenge to take the first step, not certain where it might ultimately lead, but whose hope and promise is for a better day. We can take solace is knowing we are not the first. Others have come before us. Neither do we want to be the last to set forth on the journey to a meaningful and fulfilling life. Rather, we want to become the exemplars of "God's ways" to our children as Abraham was to his. This is where it begins!

Spieser goes on to write, "Abraham's journey to the Promised Land was thus no routine expedition of several hundred miles. Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truth, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history."

Lech Lecha-Go forth!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Noah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/27/06

Torah Portion: Noah
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 6:9-11:32
October 27, 2006

Most are probably aware of that old Bible story about the Tower of Babel. The story originates in this week's Torah portion. It is also the inspiration for a film, starring Brad Pitt & others, by the same name-Babel-or more accurately pronounced "Bavel."

The best way to summarize the biblical story is to quote from the movie's review in the New York Times by A.O. Scott. He writes, "The biblical story of Babel takes up a handful of verses in the 11th chapter of Genesis, and it illustrates, among other things, the terrible consequences of unchecked ambition. As punishment for trying to build a tower that would reach the heavens, the human race was scattered over the face of the earth in a state of confusion-divided, dislocated, and unable to communicate. More or less as we find ourselves today."

This portion from Torah is a morality tale of one people who decides it is more important to make a single name for themselves than realize the strength that comes from unity within diversity. To accomplish this they set about erecting a tower that will reach into the heavens and presumably allow them to literally "storm the gates of heaven and God."

Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests looking beneath this tale of Torah to explore the historical and spiritual circumstances that inspired the story. He calls our attention to the book The Ecology of Eden by Evan Eisenberg. The book is an "anthropological/historical analysis that shows how West-Semitic small hill farmers, shepherds, or hunter/gatherers were resisting in their lives and stories the encroachment of the great Babylonian mono-crop agricultural empire into their world." Waskow goes on to suggest, "We too live in an earthquake of Modernity, of attempts to "globalize" the world."

Is bringing a Starbucks to every country, a McDonald's to every continent the type of world we aspire to live in? Those who labored to build a "tower to the heavens" believed in their impregnable, overwhelming, all-powerful selves and were ready to challenge the Omnipotent One for absolute authority. This kind of tunnel vision believes that this world would be a better place if everyone were like us!

We know what happened to the builders of Bavel-"Thus God scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:8)." In our day, are catch-phrases like "freedom on the march" and "bringing democracy to all nations" just value-laden euphemisms for building another "Tower of Bavel"? And if so, what makes us think the results will be any different? Food for thought.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Bereisheet posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/20/06

Torah Portion: B'reisheet
Book of Genesis
Chaps. 1:1-6:8

"In The Beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth (Gen. 1:1)."

With these famous words from the Torah, our story begins. Professor Jon Levenson of Harvard University suggests that creation, which we often think of as complete, is, in fact, a work still in progress. He writes, "There is abundant evidence in the Bible that the radical transformation [of creation] recounted in Genesis 1:1-2:3 was thought to be reversible. By refusing to respect the boundaries that God has decreed, by indulging in wicked behavior, human beings can undo creation and plunge a fragile reality into chaos again."

One might argue that God never intended for Adam and Eve to remain in the refinement of the Garden of Eden. They would taste of the fruit of completion and perfection but then be exiled to the "real" world where they would be challenged to utilize their experience to complete creation by ridding the world of wickedness and immorality.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his work Five Cities of Refuge, submits that "Closure is a concept foreign to Jewish tradition. It is an overwhelmingly secular, modern, and arrogant idea-that one, by an act of will, manipulation, or aggression can "complete" a disturbing experience. This mythical mechanical completion means triumph over: fate, chance, anger, grief, or injustice, and is achievable only through oblivion or repression."

He goes on to write, "The struggle to deal with an unjust, confusing, incomprehensible world does not impede our life, it is our life." Adam and Eve must acquire the skills necessary to survive outside the Garden of Eden. They now have to worry about providing their family with food, shelter, and well-being. By extension, the family of humankind is challenged in our day to acquire the same skills, to provide the same needs, to all people. Since leaving the Garden of Eden, our task has always been to return. This time it will not be God who provides the Garden, but we who re-create it. This is the task of living. It might not happen in our lifetime, or that of our children, but walking with God means always taking the two steps forward even as we take one step back.

Rabbi Kushner concludes his essay by writing, "Genesis, the very beginning of the Torah, counsels that there is and will be no completion, there is no "closure," and that this lack is not to be decried but, in fact, celebrated." The journey begins!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Simhat Torah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/13/06

Simhat Torah. . . This Is It!
October 13, 2006

The High Holiday season comes to an end on Saturday night and Sunday with the celebration of Simhat Torah.

The holiday, a post-Sukkot event, celebrates the conclusion of another yearly Torah reading cycle. Unlike Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret, Simhat Torah is not mentioned in the Torah. It probably began being celebrated in the years after the completion of the Talmud (6th century c.e.). At that time there were two customs for reading the Torah. In Israel, a triennial cycle was used dividing the Torah into three yearly reading cycles. It took approximately three and a half years to complete a full reading of the Torah. In Babylonia, the tradition was to read the entire Torah in one yearly cycle. When the Babylonian custom became dominant, Simhat Torah was born!

The number one tradition on Simhat Torah (which means the "happiness of Torah") is to have fun and enjoy! On normal Torah reading days, the Torah is paraded around the synagogue one time. On Simhat Torah, we have 7 parades (often accompanied by singing and dancing). On normal Torah reading days, one person carries the Torah around the congregation. On Simhat Torah, everyone is given the opportunity to carry a Torah.

In the evening, after the seven parades, the final verses of Deuteronomy, recording the farewell blessing of Moses, are read. The very last few verses are not read in the evening. They speak of the death of Moses. This message is saved for a more restrained moment on the following morning.

In the morning service there are again seven parades around the synagogue. Again the portion of Moses Farewell is read, but this time we include the announcement of his death. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, in her book The Tapestry of Jewish Time, writes, "We feel the sadness of the ancient Israelites as they watched Moses ascend the mountain, this time never to return. We imagine how alone they must have felt and how frightened, losing the only leader they had ever had. But this, too, is the message of Simhat Torah: that Judaism is greater than any one person or any one moment, that with God and the Torah we are never really alone, and the sadness of today will be woven into our sacred memories and will be joined with the joy of tomorrow."

After reading of the death of Moses, we immediately read from a 2nd Torah the first chapter of Genesis, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." And so we begin, again. The stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the promise of the Land of Israel, the Exodus, Sinai-life is recycled as our stories are retold.

[PLEASE NOTE: This year Simhat Torah is celebrated on Saturday evening, October 14, 2006 and Sunday morning, October 15, 2006. All the local Houston area synagogues are providing services-some with musical accompaniment and all providing food! Everyone is invited to attend the synagogue of your choice. There are no tickets or charge for participation. Saturday evening is an especially good "family" time to participate. For addresses and phone numbers of the local synagogues click on www.jichouston.org/links.php]

Next week, Genesis.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston


Sukkot 5767 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 10/06/06

Sukkot-The Feast of Tabernacles
October 6, 2006

This evening marks the beginning of the eight-day festival of Sukkot. A "Sukkah" is a small structure-often referred to as a "booth"- that in former times was constructed in the fields during the autumn harvest for the farmer to live in while protecting his crops from theft. The holiday is referred to in the Torah where the "Sukkah" has become synonymous with the tents the Israelites lived in during their 40 years of wandering.

In our day, Jewish tradition calls upon Jews to construct a Sukkah outside the comforts of their home. Many eat their meals in the Sukkah during the festival and some even sleep in it. Jewish law is rather precise with regard to how the Sukkah is built. The walls may be constructed of any material. Two complete walls and a part of a third will satisfy the minimum requirements and it should be strong enough to withstand the impact of ordinary winds. It is a temporary structure erected in the open air, under the sky and the ceiling is to be covered branches. The branches on top should be loose enough so that one can see the sky, yet thick enough so that the shadow it casts on the ground exceeds the light thrown by the sun.

Sukkot is the Jewish thanksgiving. As such, it is also traditional to decorate the Sukkah with various fruits and vegetables symbolizing the harvest.

On Yom Kippur, I quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner who suggests a more contemporary understanding of the Sukkah and the holiday of Sukkot (plural of "Sukkah"). Rabbi Kushner sees the temporary, often flimsy, construction of a Sukkah as a way of saying "when part of your world collapses, make due with what you have left!” The holiday of Sukkot teaches us that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for all the blessings we have: Those we take for granted, those we discover in times of crisis, and those that still remain when all else is gone.

What better place to appreciate-at least once a year-what we have than a Sukkah which reflects how little we need when we have God.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Rosh Hashanah 5767 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/22/06

Rosh Hashanah 5767
September 22, 2006

Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of God's creation. We celebrate creation by striving to re-create ourselves in the "image of God." We might not achieve the goal, but the journey can be more important than the destination!

Our lives are a history of journeys and destinations. Robert Frost's famous poem, "The Road Less Traveled By," is a metaphor for the journey of life, and my gift to you on the eve of another year:

The Road Less Traveled By

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel them both
and be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged within a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of happiiness, health, and peace.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Nitzavim/Vayyelech posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/15/06

Torah Portion: Nitzavim/Vayyelech
Book of Deuteronomy
September 15, 2006

What are we about?

It can be summed up in one verse found in the Book of Deuteronomy. As Israel completes a 40-year journey in the Sinai wilderness, Moses summoning his last ounce of strength declares to the people, "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose Life. . . by loving the Lord you God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure. . (Deut. 30:19-20)."

This verse tells us that Judaism is as much about "how to live" as "how to believe." In fact, it teaches that "deed" precedes "creed." First, commit yourself to a life worth living. Amidst this moral/ethical challenge, the presence of God will naturally be discovered.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book "To Life", suggests that these two words "convey an optimistic attitude toward life, investing our energy in living rather than in worrying about dying, asking us to enjoy the pleasures of this life rather than noticing all the things that are wrong with it, emphasizing life in this world rather than pinning our hopes on finding satisfaction in some world to come."

The violent and religiously polarizing condition of today's world tests our mettle as Jews. Can we still maintain a worldview that teaches all humankind are fashioned in the "image of God"; that requires us to do all we can to preserve and honor all human life, in the face of those committed to our destruction? The answer is simple: If we allow ourselves to abandon the religious tenets of Judaism that teach the "sanctity of life," then we become no better than those who preach the divinity of death.

Finally, there is the Talmudic teaching of the ancient rabbis who taught, "in time to come, everyone will have to account for all the good things God created which he/she refused to enjoy." In one week's time, we celebrate another new year, Rosh Hashanah. In the coming year let's not allow ourselves to become so enmeshed in the business of everyday living that we lose sight of a beautiful sunrise, inspiring sunset, or a world of wonderment and glory. Remember what Moses taught, "Choose Life." Now, do it!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

What Really Matters posted by Rabbi Siegel on 09/01/06

September 1, 2006

In 1996, Linda Ellis was working for some top executives of a very large and successful corporation. In her words, "I began to watch how the priorities in many lives there had become, what I considered, misaligned. It seemed to me that the bosses were worrying far too much about that which was inconsequential in the scope of life."

One day during her lunch break, Linda took a few moments to write a simple poem. The poem, entitled "The Dash" (maybe you have already heard it!) has since been performed in an elementary school play, become part of a state supreme court justice's speech, been printed in best-selling novels, appeared in countless hundreds of high school yearbooks, and continues to affect the lives of millions. In honor of Labor Day, a creation of the labor movement and dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers, a brief glimpse into the other side of the 8-hour work day: "The Dash."

I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of his friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
from the beginning to the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth
and spoke of the second with tears,
but he said that what mattered most of all
was the "dash" between those years.

For that dash represents all the time that she spent
alive on the earth,
and now only those who loved her know
what that little line is worth.

For it matters not how much we own;
the cars, the house the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our "dash."

So think about this long and hard,
are there things you'd like to change?
For you never know how much time is left,
You could be at "dash mid-range!"

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what's true and what's real,
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we've never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect,
and more often wear a smile,
remembering that this special dash
might only last a while.

So, when your eulogy is being read
with your life's actions to rehash
Would you be pleased with the things they have to say
about how you spent your "dash?"

Something to ponder as we enjoy this Labor Day Weekend.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

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Shoftim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/27/06

Torah Portion: Shoftim
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 16:18-21:9
August 25, 2006

The unsettling reality of war has become an every day theme in our lives. The arrest of Jon Benet Ramsey's alleged murderer took the news media's attention-albeit, briefly-away from reports of car bombings in Iraq or civilian deaths in Lebanon. Still, no one can escape the escalating violence and warfare in today's dangerous world. Our challenge, as human beings, is how to deal with it and yet remain human.

The Torah portion Shoftim, from the book of Deuteronomy, offers a moral compass to guide one through moments like this. Deut. 20:19 teaches, "When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you in the besieged city?"

Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a former Navy chaplain who was present in Beirut in 1983 when Hezbollah car-bombed the Marine barracks killing 241 US service personnel, writes, "We as Jews and Americans certainly understand that war is not the same as peace, and there are things we do in war that we would not do during a time of peace. But we need to think beyond the war, which is one reason we do our best to spare the fruit trees. Both victor and victim will need to eat once the war ends."

This verse of Torah becomes a metaphor for the moral/ethical behavior that defines us as "human." The trees are not combatants, neither are innocent (and, at times, not so innocent) civilians. We have the obligation to be concerned about blanket bombing missions and missiles targeting civilian population centers. Resnicoff continues by writing, "My love for Judaism is linked to the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel as our symbol of the struggle that comes with faith. Reality must give our decisions foundation, and we must never be so foolhardy as to think there is no evil in the world against which we must stand. But our dreams of what the world might one day be-even the dream of the day when the lion will lie down with the lamb-must at least give our decisions some direction."

In a world that seems more polarized with each passing day, I am reminded of the words of Daniel Moynihan who said, "The world does not need more simplifiers, it needs more complexifiers." There are some things we have to do (when our lives are in mortal danger, we have a responsibility to defend ourselves at all costs), but most of our concerns require difficult decisions involving the very meaning and significance of being "created in God's image." It's in grappling with these difficult matters ("should I or should I not cut down the fruit trees to better wage my war?") that we come face-to-face with our values, or in the words of Rabbi Resnicoff, "that we understand how crucial it is to keep the struggle alive as we seek to preserve not only human life, but the humanity of our lives, as well."

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Re'eh posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/18/06

Torah Portion: Re'eh
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 11:26-16:17
August 18, 2006

Most wars result from economic disparity: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Some of the most cruel despots of the last century (Adolf Hitler and Fidel Castro to name a few) came to power in response to a large economically impoverished underclass. The impoverished are also the most vulnerable target for recruitment by religious fundamentalists.

When a person has nothing, they have nothing to lose. The opportunity to earn a place in the eternal lap of heavenly luxury for you and your family sounds good. All one has to do is strap on a suicide belt. Who is the target? The evil infidels. Who are they? They are the "haves" and you are the "have nots."

The Torah realized the imminent danger of creating a permanent underclass when it taught in Deuteronomy Chapter 15-There shall be no needy among you. . . . . If, however, there is a needy person among. . . you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. . . . For there shall never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

The commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash notes, "Such a condition [of permanent poverty] would be unfair to human beings, fashioned in the image of God, and dangerous to society as a breeding ground for lawlessness and irresponsibility."

At the risk of viewing the present world condition in a naive and simplistic manner, let me suggest a viable solution to the "war on terrorism." Give the Palestinians in Gaza, the majority of whom languish in poverty and unemployment, a reason to want to live rather than pursue a martyrs death, some hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. Convince the "haves" to invest in their own future by investing in peace and creating industry and jobs in the Palestinian territories. Encourage Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to take an active interest in creating an economic infrastructure for the Palestinians. Give them a reason to want to build and protect their lives rather than want to destroy another's.

Wherever a large disparity between wealth and poverty exists, there will always be a negative force ready to fill the void, unless we who "have" act first. In most cases, war is the result of society's failure to afford all its members the simple dignity of being human. No one should have to go to bed hungry or worry where their next meal will come from. As the Torah states, For there shall never cease to be needy ones in your land. This should not be an excuse for inaction but a reminder that our work to make this a "better world" for all peoples is not done, but barely begun.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Eikev posted by Rabbi Siegel on 08/11/06

Torah Portion: Eikev
Book of Deuteronomy
Chaps. 7:12-11:25
August 11, 2006

[God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone (Deut. 8:3).

The 20th century rabbi, Morris Adler, suggests the awareness that "human beings do not live on bread alone" is "the highest objective of all religious enterp