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Books CCAR Press Healing Social Justice Torah

Lessons from Jonah in a Time of Pandemic

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of  The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, available for pre-order from the CCAR Press. In this post, he reflects on this enigmatic prophet in light of today’s crisis. 


These are strange times. Certainly, if ever there were a time for a prophetic voice to call out to the heavens for redemption, it seems like the present. And even though pandemic is on everyone’s mind, the world still turns. Every day allows us another opportunity to make the world a better place and a chance to run towards challenge rather than away from it. For the past several years, before “social distancing” became part of the contemporary vernacular, I have been studying a figure who modeled the term millennia ago. That figure was the Prophet Jonah. It seems more appropriate than ever to study his eponymous book and take away essential lessons of how to weather any storm—metaphorical or literal. 

What is the Book of Jonah? And who is Jonah, anyway? Many of us are familiar with the famous story of “Jonah and the Whale” (actually, a fish, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Yet there is so much more to Jonah than spending three days and three nights in the belly of a great sea beast. In totality, Jonah is one of the most intriguing, frustrating, and ethically ambiguous of the ancient Hebrew prophets. But he’s also the most empathetic, the most like you and me. He is a coward and a saint, a hypocrite and a hero: a walking conundrum. Still, despite any of his shortcomings as witnessed in the text, Jonah’s legacy is one of hope and forgiveness. 

The Book of Jonah is located within the Twelve Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Among the shortest books of the Bible, it seems to take place over the course of only several days: three days in the cavernous isolation of the great leviathan, three days on a journey to Nineveh, and not much else. The story takes place in the large Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, roughly in the eighth or seventh century BCE. 

Like the Homeric works of antiquity, the Book of Jonah explores what happens when people fail to live up to their potential. God instructs Jonah to call upon the population of Nineveh to repent. Rather than charge forward, Jonah flees from his mission, escaping on a ship. While Jonah is aboard, God brings on a mighty storm, shaking the ship’s passengers both physically and spiritually. The sailors, fearing that the divine wrath will take them to their deaths, toss Jonah overboard after he admits that he is the impetus of the storm. God performs a miracle, however, saving Jonah inside the belly of a great fish. For three days and three nights, Jonah prays until he is released. After his sojourn in the fish, Jonah reluctantly fulfills his mission, calling upon the citizens of Nineveh to repent. They do. In the end, God spares the city from destruction. 

Seems like a happy ending. But not so. 

Jonah’s story ends with him in isolation, far from Nineveh. He cries out to God, expressing frustration with God for sending him on an unwanted mission. In order to teach Jonah the meaning of loving-kindness, God grows a plant that provides Jonah with shade from the sun, which God then allows to whither. God explains to Jonah that God cares about the people of Nineveh just as Jonah had cared about the plant, confronting him with the fact that the universal nature of divine love and concern for a large city might well exceed Jonah’s depression over the death of a plant. The book concludes there.  

It seems confusing that this book was included in the historical canon of the Jewish holy scriptures. And maybe that is the case on the surface. But Jonah is such a rich character to study, which, indeed, Jews do every Yom Kippur. Every one of us relates to the need for second chances, both in our daily lives and in our moral and spiritual lives. Jonah is the embodiment of this need. 

The Book of Jonah is written for us, regular people, who live each day and wonder if we can make it through unharmed. We battle everyday leviathans simply to make our lives worthwhile and the world safe for our families and friends. Jonah is no perfect angel, but a perfect representation of humanity’s quest for spiritual excellence. While we may not have to emulate Jonah with every action, we should let his book guide us to spiritual vistas of untapped potential. 


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of the upcoming book, The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, and  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.

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Healing mental health News Torah

The Salted Offering: Grief’s Place on the Altar

Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi wrote this piece to share with colleagues in the Hillel world (and beyond) via Hillel International’s Office of Innovation. 


I’ve been crying a lot these days. Many of you have been, too. From the increasingly distressing news, to the demands of homeschooling our young children, to mourning the loss of the senior year we had dreamed of for so long, much brings us to tears.

I have to admit, I wasn’t very comforted when first I turned to this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Vayikra. Detailing the circumstances and forms of the various sacrifices our people were commanded to bring to the altar of the Temple, the parashah starts right in with details for which animals to bring at which times, how they would be slaughtered, and what type of expiation would be thereby attained. Collective guilt, blood and sinew, the recognition that closeness requires sacrifice: the truths contained in the priestly sacrifices seemed both too distant and too close to home.

In this global crisis, there’s too much blaming, shaming, finger-pointing, and hoarding; and yet, we see also glimpses of collective responsibility, from sewing homemade masks to calling nursing home residents barred from welcoming in-person visitors. The porousness of our bodies confronts us everywhere we look; I could spin into despair, and then I hear my youngest singing, “Happy Birthday to Someone,” each and every time they wash their little hands, and I smile. On the tree-lined sidewalks of my Brooklyn street, as flowering trees begin to blossom, I find myself shuffling away from my neighbors; and then I recall with fear and gratitude the closeness to this disease of my friends and students and colleagues who are healthcare workers.

What a time to read of the sacrifices of our people—and their awe, which we understand so differently now—of our bodily fluids and the precarious barrier between life and death.

And then a particular verse caught my eye:

וְכָל-קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹהֶיךָ מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ עַל כָּל-קָרְבָּנְךָ תַּקְרִיב מֶלַח

 “You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Vayirka 2:13).

Immediately photos of emptied grocery store shelves flashed in my mind. No milk. No flour. No bread. No toilet paper. No disinfectant, or paper towels, or vinegar, or pasta, or frozen vegetables, or medical masks, or latex gloves. Salt in plenty.

A precious preservative, salt represents an everlasting covenant, a relationship between God and the people that stands the test of time, as the Ramban notes. But there is another meaning, and it comes from the story of creation.

In the beginning, all was chaos, and the waters were united. It was not until the second day that God “separated water from water” (B’reishit 1:6‒7).

Imagine how it felt for those waters: united for the eye-blink of an eternity, before there was anything at all, anything but God and the unformed void, there were waters, confusedly one. Suddenly, God begins the great act of creation, and in that act of creation, God made something new for the waters: distance, separation.

In what seemed to some a moment, in what seemed to others an agonizingly slow few weeks as the COVID-19 virus spread across the globe, the human family faced a new and stark separation. We tribal creatures have retreated to separate abodes, water divided from water.

According to the Midrash, the inevitable consequence of this separation was…tears:

אָמַר רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּה

Rabbi Berechyah said: “The waters below did not separate from those above except with weeping” (B’reishit Rabbah 5:4).

Here it is: the salt. According to the wise rabbis of our tradition, the salt we offer at the altar, the salt that accompanies all our sacrifices, has its origins in the tears of separation. The salt of the waters before creation, the waters that became sea and sky, were salty tears of grief.

What does it mean, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to season our offerings with salt? It means we bring our tears to all that we give in this crisis, and that is okay. It means that what connects us to God and to tradition and to the Jewish people, spread out as we are and isolated in our individual homes, is not only the gifts we bring, but our griefs and our disappointments as well.

Indeed, says the great Torah commentator Rashi, when God saw the disappointment and sadness of the lower waters, God decreed that the salt of the sea would forever be offered upon the altar, linking what is below to what is above, what is mundane to what is holy.

It can be this way for us, too. During this crisis, we can maintain our holy and life-giving distance, and we can mourn the loss of closeness, community, and contact. We can sacrifice what is needed, the “fat” of our material resources, and we can season those offerings with our feelings of loss.

Our tradition demands much of us: no longer the precisely rendered fats and juices of bulls and rams and turtle-doves; instead, a daily, rhythmical, cyclical attention to the blessings (quotidian and extraordinary) that surround us, and a scrupulous quest to engage in practices ethical and collectively beneficial. In such times as these, the demands of tradition can ground us. But without the salt of our grief and disappointment, we risk being crushed under their enormity.

Vulnerability is frightening. And it is deeply human. From the Torah and from modern thinkers like Brene Brown, we can gain much from looking at our vulnerability as an offering we can make alongside our resilience, strength, and pragmatism (all of which we need right now).

Ask yourself today: What sacrifices have I made to benefit the public good during this crisis? What sacrifices have I made to preserve my own safety, the safety of those I love, or the safety of my neighbors and community?

Light a candle. Breathe in for a count of four. Focus on a sacrifice you have made. Now breathe out for a count of four. As you watch the flickering flame, as you see its smoke rise, know that your sacrifices are linked to the sacrifices our people have made in the past.

Ask yourself today: What offerings have I withheld from my family, my friends, my community, at this time? How might I safely contribute my gifts?

Have you forgotten what talents and skills you possess? It’s easy, in times of high anxiety and widespread fear, to focus on what we cannot do, on how powerless we might feel. Imagine yourself, picture yourself, at your most skillful and competent. What characterizes you at your best? Make a list of these attributes. Brainstorm one action you might take to use that skill as a gift to others, whether they be folks in your household or in the wider world.

And, finally, ask yourself now: What griefs and disappointments have seemed “too trivial” to voice during this crisis? While it is true that this pandemic affects us differently, with very real and dire unique consequences for the chronically ill, the disabled, the poor (the list is far too long), we may also be holding on to grief unrecognized. I have spoken with wedding couples blessed to have one another, and yet grieving the celebration they have been forced to downsize or cancel. I have heard from students with secure places to live and plenty of food, and yet grieving the commencement ceremony they had pictured for four long years. Your griefs and disappointments are real, and need not be placed on a scale of “worst” or “hardest.”

And so the Torah reminds us: make your sacrifices, for the sake of the whole people, but do not omit the salt from your offerings. Your grief has a place on the altar.


Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, PhD, spent the first years of her rabbinate at New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. She is currently transitioning into freelance and other rabbinic work; learn more at rabbinikki.com

Categories
CCAR Convention Torah

Baltimore Beit Midrash: Learning From the Greatest Scholars of Our Generation at CCAR Convention 2020

I look forward to the CCAR Convention each year. There are many different facets that I enjoy, including the opportunity to study with colleagues that I’ve known for many years and colleagues that I meet for the first time.  In the rabbinic imagination, there are seventy faces to Torah, and inevitably, I come home from Convention each year having learned a new text or a new insight into a familiar text.

This year, our study at Convention will include a remarkable opportunity. We have assembled some of the greatest scholars of our generation—including Andrea Weiss, David Ellenson, Michael Marmur, Lisa Grant, Elsie Stern, Amy Scheinerman, and Joseph Skloot—to lead us in a beit midrash. The beit midrash, or study hall, will begin our day with a foundation of significant learning. The texts and ideas that will be presented will provide us with a lens for the entire day to come.

So many of us have a commitment to lifelong learning as a foundation of our rabbinic leadership. We create opportunities in our home communities for learning, and in order to sustain this, we need to continue our own learning. Our professors, who will each teach a personal passion with topics ranging from sacred texts of the Second Temple era to understanding Jewish identity in modern times, will provide us with intellectual and spiritual renewal.

I believe that most of us can remember our favorite teachers, from whatever part of our educational career. These teachers cared for us deeply, helped us identify and pursue our potential, and provided us with knowledge and skills that continue to sustain us.

Our beit midrash teachers at Convention have approached this opportunity with exactly these high aspirations. They believe in us as rabbis, they hope to share with us in ways that allow us to flourish, and they are prepared to give us knowledge and scholarly insight that will stay with us when we return home from Convention.

It has been a blessing to work on this particular aspect of our Baltimore program. Without fail, each scholar was filled with excitement, and sought to identify topics that would be inspirational, interesting, and engaging.  I look forward to seeing many of you as we turn the halls of the Renaissance Hotel into a timeless beit midrash!


Rabbi Peter Stein is the senior rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York and a member of the 2020 CCAR Convention Committee.

CCAR Convention 2020 will be held in Baltimore, March 22-25, 2020. CCAR members can register here.

Categories
Rabbis Torah

We Are Witnesses – Parashat Va-y’chi

The following is a d’var Torah on the Parashat Va-y’chi given by Meir Bargeron at the 74th annual convention of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis in January 2020.


In Parashat Va-ychi, we find ourselves at the end of B’reishit, a book that covers an immense amount of literary, religious, and physical territory. From the first moments of the universe, to the court of the Egyptian pharaoh, the narrative moves from the tremendously macro-view of space, and time, and earth, to the micro-view of human relationships. And along the way, humanity and God form a relationship that eventually becomes an eternal covenant. B’reishit is vast in its scope, and its author chooses to end the story with a family drama; a drama that propels the children of Israel forward on their—and on our—trajectory to redemption and revelation. And, it is a drama that has much to say to us as rabbis about our holy work.

This moment in the life of Jacob and the lives of his sons is the culmination of decades of family dysfunction and conflict, and the Torah is its witness. This is a parashah about death and dying, about a father’s deep concern about the generations that will follow. About love that is unevenly distributed between a father and his children. About cruelty between brothers and its after-effects. Va-ychi is about truth-telling at the end of life.

Imagine for a moment being in the room with Jacob and his sons at the end of his life, knowing the stories of what all they have been through, and hearing each story from the array of perspectives. Imagine being called on to provide care and comfort to Jacob, to Joseph, and to Ruben, Simeon, and Levi. What challenging pastoral work this would be!

We rabbis are the collectors of people’s stories, and we hold them. Just as the Torah is a witness to the lives of the matriarchs and patriarchs; as rabbis we are witnesses to the lives of the souls under our care—in beautiful and in painful moments. We provide spiritual care and comfort to people as they endure illness and approach death. We listen as they tell us their regrets and hear their Vidui as they seek God’s forgiveness. Sometimes the duty falls upon us to say this confessional prayer for them. We are witnesses to the humanity of these exquisite and excruciating moments. It is our sacred responsibility.

Caring for people through their pain and through their losses is indeed sacred work. And we offer our care at a great personal cost. We do this willingly; it is part of who we are as rabbis. We are called to serve in these sacred moments, and we are almost always the only rabbi in the room.

In these rooms of sacred care, we hold stories of great family pain, and stories of joy and stories of death and life and every mess, every trauma, in between. The relationships we observe and the stories we hear become psychically and spiritually connected to our own stories; particularly to our losses, our sadness, our fears. For a fleeting, soul-searing moment, these stories become our stories. They become etched on the parchment of our own soul’s torah, that is weathered and worn, and achingly beautiful. The torah of our souls must be tended to with loving care, or the ink will smear, the scroll may tear. We rabbis can tear, if we fail to tend to ourselves and each other.

We are indeed often the only rabbi in the room. Yet, we need help to hold these exquisite and excruciating moments of life. We need our professional networks, we need our friends who understand this awesome responsibility, we need our rabbis—we need each other.

Here is my audacious request of you, of each of us: make a call, send a text, reach out to care or to be cared for. On this Shabbat, when you say the Mi Shebeirach for healing, include in your silent prayers a prayer for sacred caregivers, for those who hold the stories of others, for each of us.


Meir Bargeron, MSW is a member of the ordination class of 2020 at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He will enter the rabbinate following a career in clinical social work and non-profit administration. Meir is a rabbinic intern at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. 

Categories
Books Torah

Book Excerpt: “Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot”

In recognition of the new CCAR Press book, Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot, edited by Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, we are honored to share this excerpt from a chapter on the Torah parashot Noach. This new collection follows the classic Voices of Torah, giving insight and inspiration on each Torah parashah, including holiday portions, and is available for purchase from CCAR Press.

נח Noach (Genesis 6:9–11:32)

Rabbi Joshua Minkin, DMin, 2010

Noach ish tzaddik . . . b’dorotav, “Noah was a righteous person . . . in his generation” (Gen. 6:9).

We are all familiar with the Rashi on this verse. The word b’dorotav can be viewed either positively or negatively. First, positively: despite his generation, Noah was righteous—as if there was a righteousness meter and Noah reached the level that any generation would call a tzaddik. Alternatively, Noah could only be considered righteous in his own generation, the generation of the Flood.

Too often we take this dichotomy into our own spiritual lives. How do we know how much we need to do in order to be good? Is there a level of study, tzedakah, or hospital visits we should be doing? Where do these levels come from? Yet, we are also told that we need to spend time with our families, go on vacations, network with colleagues, and even have a social life. The most limited resource for any rabbi is time. Are we doomed to a guilt-ridden life of “If only I had done more?” (I already hear—“Nu, what do you expect, we’re Jews!”) Whether we use subjective or objective measures, will that voice in our heads (mother? superego? conscience?) ever let us be content?

We, as much as our congregants, need to remember Reb Zusya’s lesson: “In the world-to-come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Whether Noah was righteous only in his generation or in any generation is less important than whether Noah was the best Noah he could be. So too for us. As we reflect on each day and each year, let us not forget the wonderful contributions we have made to the lives of so many. Let us remember our own limits and the importance of practicing self-care. To truly do our best is difficult enough. We are so used to saying, Hineini!—Here I am!; let us not forget our tradition also includes, Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor, “You are not required to complete the task” (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2:21).

Rabbi Bill S. Tepper, 2012

Parashat Noach offers one of the first and most powerful illustrations of the role played by water in our tradition. Though a source of life, it is also—as natural disasters have demonstrated—a cause of destruction.

With water, God destroys nearly all of Creation, while simultaneously cleansing the earth in order that Creation—humanity in particular—may begin anew. With water, Abraham generously bathes the feet of God’s messengers. It is near a well that Abraham’s servant encounters Rebekah and that Jacob first sees Rachel. Both are pivotal meetings that ensure the perpetuation of our people. At the Sea of Reeds and at the Jordan River, our ancestors cross through water and undergo their transformation toward nationhood. In our own day, water remains associated with transformation and cleansing. Water is essential for tahorah, tashlich, and mikveh—traditionally understood as purification of body, spirit, and relationship.

The magnificent rivers, lakes, and oceans that define so much of our natural landscape and are sources of indescribable beauty can also bring about suffering, either through human misstep or act of nature. Niagara Falls is breathtaking to observe, but images of Hurricane Katrina conjure up horror and despair.

Only a slender thread separates delight and pain. May we today not retreat to our own arks as we continue to both cherish and fear the water that is fundamental to our lives.

Rabbi Ruth Adar, 2015

Midrash Tanchuma offers details on the Noach narrative that lift it out of the mold of the familiar children’s tale.

The word usually translated as “ark” in the biblical text is teivah, an Egyptian loanword meaning “box.” This particular box kept danger (the Flood) out, but nonetheless it was a box of misery. The midrash tells us that Noach and his sons did not sleep for a year because all the animals needed feeding around the clock. Some of the animals were dangerous; a lion bit Noach so badly that he carried the scars for the rest of his life. Noach’s family was trapped for forty days and forty nights with ravenous, miserable animals. Quoting Ps. 142:8, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks,” the Rabbis tell us that these words refer to Noach’s prayer to be released from the prison the ark had become, because life inside his box had become nothing but misery. The Rabbis pitied Noach, but they also judged him harshly because he accepted God’s orders without asking any questions. In comparison with Abraham, who advocated for his fellow human beings, the Rabbis found Noach wanting.

The Rabbis urge us to compare Noach, who only saved his own, to Avraham, who cared for people he did not know. Had Noach the courage to confront God on behalf of others, might he have saved himself and his family a nightmare? Might he have convinced God to rethink the Flood? What “boxes” do we construct in the name of comfort or safety that ultimately turn out to be prisons?

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, 2017

Finding the world awash in the chaos of evil and corruption, God reverses the order of Creation, releasing the waters held back by the firmament and land. The world is engulfed with water, returning it to watery tohu vavohu. The people, who at first seemed pristine and perfect, showed their true colors while still in the Garden of Eden: imperfect human beings. So God wipes away humanity and begins anew with a new “first family”— Noah’s family.

Jonathan Sacks points out in Essays on Ethics that in the ideal garden, the so-far perfect people needed to know they were created b’tzelem Elohim (Gen. 1:27), but after the Flood, when the extent of the capacity for human evil is evident, people need to know that others are created in God’s image as well (Gen. 9:6). There is a world of difference between focusing on the divine image in one’s self and recognizing it in others. As Sacks points out, the former affirms that all in Creation is good, but the latter emphasizes the necessity of covenant, which introduces moral law into the world: prescriptions to restore “good.” He writes, “So, according to the Torah, a new era began, centered not on the idea of natural goodness, but on the concept of covenant—that is, moral law” (p. 12)—from “I am tzelem Elohim” to “you are tzelem Elohim.”

That lesson, that the other is also tzelem Elohim, remains the lynchpin for morality and the hardest lesson to teach. It must become the litmus test for policies in our local communities, for our national political endeavors, and throughout the world.


Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, earned her doctorate from the Department of Rabbinic Literature at Potsdam University, Germany and is the senior editor at CCAR Press. Rabbi Joshua Minkin, DMin, has been chief Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Canarsie since 2003. Rabbi Bill S. Tepper is the part-time rabbi at Temple  Shalom in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Rabbi Ruth Adar, known as the Coffee Shop Rabbi, teaches through HaMaqom | The Place in Berkeley, California and discusses film on her blog A Rabbi At the Movies. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is the hospice rabbi in Howard County, Maryland, and is the editor of the Torah Commentary column of the CCAR newsletter from which Voices of Torah is collected. These accomplished rabbis have all contributed to the newly released Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Ethics gender equality Mussar Torah

Diversity Not for Its Own Sake: Lessons from One Book

Rabbi Barry H. Block just published his new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life with CCAR Press. His mussar-based anthology offers commentary and analysis of each of the 54 weekly parashot, juxtaposed with one of the mussar middot, and is available for purchase now. An excerpt from The Mussar Torah Commentary is available on Ravblog.

Below, Rabbi Block shares his personal reflections on diversity and the impact that a chorus of unique voices and perspectives has had on this compelling new collection of Jewish perspectives on Torah and mussar.

Distinguished rabbinic colleagues who wrote cover blurbs for my new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary, reference the diversity of the book’s contributors in their kind words about the volume. When I saw one mention of diversity, I was pleased. After all, I had referenced the importance of the contributors’ diversity in the book’s introduction. When I saw that so many of these “cover blurb” writers mentioned diversity that they had to be edited to limit repetition, I decided they might be on to something deeper than I had previously considered.

When I first proposed The Mussar Torah Commentary, submitting my own offering on Parashat Vayeishev, I asked Rabbi Hara Person, Publisher of CCAR Press and now our CCAR Chief Executive, whether I should write the entire book or invite a different author to write on each parashah. She explained CCAR Press’s preference for the latter: As the publishing arm of our Reform rabbinical association, CCAR Press often seeks to include multiple authors in any given volume, amplifying the voices of many CCAR members—and often, contributors from beyond the Reform rabbinate.

From previous conversations with Hara, I knew that the goal of achieving gender diversity among contributors was often a challenging task, not from lack of invitations but because in her experience men are more likely to accept an invitation to contribute than women (I will leave the analysis of this to others to elaborate on elsewhere). I was mindful of this reality when inviting contributors for The Mussar Torah Commentary. If my desired end result would be a book written by as many women as men, and it was, I knew I would need to invite more women than men to contribute. Fully 60% of my initial invitations were to women.

Still, I wasn’t as aware then as I am now of why that diversity, as well as other aspects of the diversity of the book’s contributors, would be important.

Shortly after the first meeting of the book’s Editorial Advisory Committee, Rabbi Pam Wax reached out to me to discuss the way that women have been marginalized in the world of Mussar. I was already aware that our book could be the first in the Mussar world to be written by more women than men. I also knew that women who are far more knowledgeable Mussar students than I, notably including Pam, have not consistently gained deserved recognition as skilled Mussar teachers.

Each member of the diverse Editorial Advisory Committee suggested colleagues who might write for the book. Several of Pam’s suggestions were affiliated with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS). When I wrote to Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, then Executive Director of IJS, to invite her contribution, she informed me that her approach to tikkun middot (soul repair) tends to be based in Chasidic texts, rather than those that emanate from the traditional world of Mussar. She asked if that approach would be welcome in The Mussar Torah Commentary. I assured Lisa that I was eager for the volume to include diverse approaches. Ultimately, I asked her to write an introductory essay, explaining her approach, which is reflected in several commentaries in the book.

On Erev Shabbat Chayei Sarah, I held the actual book in my hands for the first time. Yes, I had the full manuscript in electronic form for a while already, and I had read each commentary multiple times during the editing process. Still, only with the book in hand am I able to see the “forest” that those cover blurb writers saw, rather than the “trees” on which I was focused earlier.

I suspect that only a woman, and probably only one a generation younger than I, could have written the modern midrash that makes Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz’s contribution on Parashat Chayei Sarah so compelling. Only a longtime military chaplain could’ve written about moral injury in the way that Rabbi Bonnie Koppel does in her offering for Parashat Ki Tavo. Pieces by HUC-JIR faculty and administrators—Rabbi David Adelson, DMin; Rabbi Lisa Grant, PhD; and Rabbi Jan Katzew, PhD—reflect their roles as teachers of future rabbis and other Jewish professionals, whether implicitly or explicitly. I purposefully invited cantors, Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot and Cantor Chanin Becker, to write about Parashat B’shalach and Parashat Haazinu, each of which has a shir, i.e., a poem or a song, at its center. I was not disappointed: Their cantorial voices sing in their commentaries. The fact that Rabbi Brett Isserow has recently retired is resonant in his commentary on Parashat Va-y’chi.

Younger and older, male and female, straight contributors and members of the LGBTQ community; Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox; working in congregations and in a variety of other settings; actively employed, retired, and on disability: The diverse authors of The Mussar Torah Commentary have proven that Hara was right, as usual. A book whose voices are many and varied will hold within its covers a wide range of compelling perspectives, offering readers a more complete view of Torah and the world.

The lessons of diversity offered by The Mussar Torah Commentary are not merely about one book, or even all anthologies. As we construct our world—our organizations, our circles of friends, our government, and more—our lives will be richer when we encourage people with a variety of life circumstances and experiences to lead and teach us.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A Houston native and graduate of Amherst College, Rabbi Block was ordained by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 1991after studying at its Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York campuses, and he received his DD, honoris causa, in 2016. Block currently serves as faculty dean at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a role he held for twenty-one years at URJ Greene Family Camp. Block is the editor of the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Mussar Torah

Book Excerpt: “The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life”

In honor of our new publication, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, a new anthology edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block, the CCAR Press proudly presents an excerpt from a chapter written by Rabbi Judith Lazarus Siegal. This new book, which unites more than 50 authors who offer commentary on each of the 54 weekly parashot juxtaposed with the mussar middot, is available for purchase from CCAR Press.

“Yirah—Awe: From Fear to Awe”

Jacob goes through a major life transformation in Parashat Vayishlach, including a wrestling match with God and a change in his name from Jacob to Israel. These changes are reflective of changes in Jacob’s character as well, as he goes from a person filled with fear to one who is full of awe and gratitude. His transformation involves resolving old issues and grappling with feelings of guilt over his stealing the blessing and birthright from his brother—and, in the process, lying to their father, Isaac. As Jacob prepares to see his brother Esau in the morning, he lies restless. The Torah tells us of his state of mind: vayira Yaakov, “Jacob was terrified” (Genesis 32:8).

Later in the parashah, we learn why Jacob is fearful, as he says, “I am afraid of him, lest he advance on me and strike me” (Genesis 32:12), referring to his brother Esau. That night, Jacob takes his family and crosses the Jabbok River, and then he is left alone to wrestle in the night with an unknown man or angel or messenger of God; the Hebrew word used is ish, “man” (Genesis 32:25). Jacob does not let the man go without demanding a blessing. The other says to him, “What is your name?” and he says, “Jacob.” “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel,” says the other, “for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28–29). A verse later in the Torah tells us: “Jacob set up a monument in the sacred site where [God] had spoken to him. . . . Jacob named the place where God had spoken to him Beth El [House of God]” (Genesis 35:14–15).

In Jewish thought, “fear” (yirah) of God is understood to be complementary to “love” or “awe” of God. In fact, the term yirat HaShem, or “fear of God,” is equal to following the Torah and mitzvot, according to Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380–1444, Spain), author of Sefer HaIkarim. In the teachings of Mussar, however, we find a very interesting concept when it comes to the middah of “fear/awe.” Alan Morinis writes, “Though yirah can describe the unified fear/awe experience, the term can also be used for the singular experiences of fear and of awe. . . . The Duties of the Heart makes this very point: ‘The fear of Heaven has two aspects: the fear of tribulations and Divine retribution, and the awe of His Glory, majesty, and awesome power.’” 1

In other words, fear and awe can be two separate traits completely, or they can be merged together. Many Mussar teachers encourage us to “orient ourselves toward the side of fear,” 2 especially of divine retribution for our transgressions. The middah is clearly about fear in the writings of the Mussar masters, as the words that often accompany this concept involve physical manifestations of fear: people shaking, sweating, quaking, and experiencing some kind of terror. Many people resonate to this idea that we should be fearful of God’s retribution for our own wrongdoing and that that fear will keep us on the right path.

However, Jacob is a model of another kind of yirah. Jacob is fearful, and rightly so. Not only has he done wrong in the eyes of God, but he has wronged his brother, who may understandably be hurt and angry with him. Jacob moves beyond his fear, symbolized by the wrestling he does with a man (perhaps his conscience?) throughout the night. When we have wronged someone, we, too, must take that fear of what may become of us, either through divine punishment or the anger of the person we have harmed, and turn it into something more productive.

Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, in his book, The Gates of Light, writes that the experience associated with awe is the higher form of yirah, saying, “It is clear that the awe of God’s majesty is on a more exalted plane than the fear of future accountability.” He teaches that awe must stand on a foundation of fear. So, perhaps, to get to awe, we must first go through the fear of punishment, work through it in some way, to get to the other side of it, much like Jacob crossing the River Jabbok, wrestling with a man, and then and only then being able to feel the awe for God that leads him to build a monument. 


Rabbi Judith Lazarus Siegal has served as a rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida, since her ordination in 2006, becoming the senior rabbi in 2015. She has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas, Austin. She enjoys teaching students of all ages, and Holocaust and Israel are two of her areas of expertise. Siegal is a contributor to the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.


Categories
Torah

True, Whether It Happened or Not

Critics hate the scene. It’s manufactured. It never happened. Fake news.

I’m talking about the episode in The Darkest Hour, when Winston Churchill, brilliantly portrayed by Gary Oldman, abandons his chauffeur-driven car in a traffic jam and takes his maiden voyage on London’s Underground to get to a cabinet meeting on time. There, he interacts with ordinary citizens who buttress the Prime Minister’s faith that surrender is not an option. The British people would rather fight to their own deaths than subjugate themselves to the Nazi monster.

No, Churchill didn’t take the Underground. Still, the encounter is true. Prime Minister Churchill was indeed inspired by the resolve of ordinary British subjects. History’s largest civilian sea evacuation of a military force at Dunkirk — compellingly portrayed in two films this year, both Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour — proves the point. The British people were truly willing to risk their lives to save themselves and their island from tyranny.

I have often taught that “truth” and “historical accuracy” are not the same thing. Torah, rather than contemporary film, has typically been my text. Take, for example, two different midrashim, rabbinic interpretations, of God’s revelation and the Children of Israel’s acceptance of Torah. In one, the Holy One offers Torah to one nation after the other. Each nation asks what’s in it, quickly rejecting Torah because of its prohibition of murder, stealing, and the like. Only Israel welcomes Torah without question. Another midrash, on the other hand, imagines that God lifts Mount Sinai off its foundation, holding the entire mountain over the Israelites’ heads, threatening to bury them under it if they will not accept Torah.

Did either version of these events actually happen? Did the rabbis even imagine that they had? No. The rabbis weren’t writing history. They were teaching religious truths. One midrash argues that there are times when we must proceed on faith alone, following a God Who has earned our trust. The other acknowledges that Torah can be a burden which we may be hard-pressed to observe.

I understand why the reviewers abhor The Darkest Hour’s Underground scene. Truth is under assault in America today. National leaders eagerly purvey falsehoods to reinforce the narratives they want our population to embrace. Our prayer book is among the many Jewish sources that extol truth, insisting that it’s “first and last.”

The Darkest Hour doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. It’s not a history book with footnotes. Instead, it’s a work of art, creatively portraying an historical period to teach timeless truths. We might call it midrash.

As we journey the Book of Exodus, and extending through Passover, we may be repeatedly subjected to arguments about whether the Exodus ever happened. Rabbi David Wolpe, who (in)famously gave a sermon suggesting that it had not, faced a Herculean task in the December 24 New York Times, reviewing a new book that claims that at least some version of the Exodus did happen, The Exodus, by Richard Elliot Friedman.

The Exodus, like Churchill’s descent to the Underground, might never have happened. The story, though, is indisputably true. God is our hope and our salvation, assigning to the Jewish people a Moses-like responsibility to partner with the Holy One to bring liberation to all the world. That’s true, whether it happened or not.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
chaplains spirituality Torah

It’s Alright To Cry – Parashat Vayigash

Those of us of a certain age will remember Rosey Grier, the pro-football player known for his penchant for needlepoint.  His large size and reputation on the field, made him ideal to perform a song on the Free To Be You And Me children’s album entitled:  IT’S ALRIGHT TO CRY.

It’s alright to cry, crying gets the sad out of you

Raindrops from your eyes, it might make you feel better…

Grier’s song gives the listeners (children and adults) permission to cry and to express our emotions

I wish more people would heed these words.  Crying is a natural response to stress, sadness, fear and the like. It provides both a physical and emotional release after which one does tend to feel better!

There is some science behind the notion that shedding tears of emotion is essential health. In Crying: the Mystery of Tears Dr. William H. Frey teaches:  “Emotional tearing may be similar to the other excretory processes, which remove waste products or toxic materials from the body. My formal study of crying began with the theory that emotional tears play a precise and central role in helping restore the chemical balance of the body by excreting substances produced by the body in response to stress. . . . Our studies on the chemical composition of tears have revealed that tears contain higher concentrations of manganese” (William H. Frey, Crying: The Mystery of Tears [Winston Press, 1985], pp.12-13).

Our discomfort with our emotions leads us to hold them in.  According to Dr. Frey, crying is one of the ways our bodies find their equilibrium, making us feel better. Not crying, or denying  to give expression to our feelings, can be injurious to health.

Our ancestor Joseph got this message.  In Parashat Vayiggash, Judah pleads with Joseph to free their brother Benjamin and offers himself up as a replacement.  Joseph is so moved by Judah’s request that he reveals himself to his brothers, forgives them for selling him into slavery, and takes steps to reunite the family in Egypt.

Judah initiates the reconciliation when  “vayigash” he drew near to Joseph.  A midrash notes that Judah drew close both physically and emotionally in that step.  He had grown from the conniving jealous man of his younger days into the mature leader, a voice of compassion and advocate of shalom bayit (Genesis Rabbah).  The text is explicit in describing Joseph’s feelings, ‘his sobs were so loud…’ (Gen 45:2) and ‘he [Joseph] embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept’ (Gen 45:14).

I’ve always been impressed by how Joseph didn’t hold back his tears.  Here he was, one of the most powerful men in Egypt, and he didn’t feel the need to ‘stay strong’.  Instead, he ‘let it all out’, and in doing so, communicated to his brothers that he forgave them for their mistreatment of him. And by Judah drawing near/approaching Joseph as he did, the door for reconciliation was open.

I cry often.  And I frequently make other people cry.  I am not depressed or ill, nor am I known to inflict cruelty upon others.  In my work as the JF&CS community chaplain, I  visit those experiencing illness and decline on a daily basis.  I frequently recite the mishebeirach for healing, after which the patient or a family member is often moved to tears.  I am aware that they may be experiencing pain, fear or sadness, or perhaps are grappling with a horrible diagnosis, or facing an unknown period of treatment.  So the tears make sense.  Lots of folks are embarrassed or apologetic for their outburst, but I see it as a good sign.  They are giving needed expression to pent up emotions, communicating the fullness of their humanity.

Science, the Torah, and Rosey Grier all tell us, “it’s alright to cry.”  May we heed these words.

Rabbi Judith Beiner serves as the Community Chaplain at JF&CS in Atlanta. 

Categories
Books Prayer spirituality Torah

A New Amen

The Talmud asks, what is the meaning of the word ‘amen’? Rabbi Ḥanina responds: “It is an acronym of the words: “God, faithful King.”[i] In fact, the first letters of the Hebrew phrase El Melekh ne’eman spell out ‘amen.’[ii]

Perhaps it is time for a new ‘amen,’ an amen of action.

The Talmud asks: Which is preferable, saying a blessing or answering amen? According to Rabbi Yosei, “the reward of the one who answers amen is greater than the reward of the one who recites the blessing.” But a few lines later, the Gemara notes that Rabbi Yosei’s view is disputed by another teaching. Here, the Talmud leaves the question unresolved. Clearly, however, saying ‘amen’ is a critical part of prayer.[iii]

Another section of the Talmud also discusses the importance of saying amen. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that answering a prayer with a deep and heartfelt ‘amen’ has the power to annul punishment, even traces of idolatry. Reish Lakish says: “One who answers amen with all his strength, opens the gates of the Garden of Eden.”[iv]

Hearing a prayer, it seems, requires a response. Yet we must ask: After major natural disasters, after gun massacres, vehicular slayings and the general rise of hatred, is saying ‘amen’ to a prayer for peace enough to open the gates of Eden?

We are a people of deeds, a people who value the nitty-gritty work of tikkun olam. Our forbearers said ‘Heineini’ – ‘here I am’ – when God called their names. In these times, we need a new ‘amen, an amen of action.

We can start with a new acronym for amen. In Hebrew, amen is spelled ‘aleph,’ ‘mem,’ ‘nun.’ Taking the ‘aleph’ from the first letter of the first word – and the ‘mem’ and ‘nun’ from the first and last letters of the second word – I propose that Ani Muchan, ‘I am ready,’ as the amen that will open the gates of Eden.[v]

We are expected to be God’s partner in perfecting creation. We are expected to use our individual actions and financial blessings to improve the world.

Perhaps our prayers are, in part, a set of questions. Will you work for peace? Will you feed the hungry and cloth the naked? Will you fight injustice and pursue peace?

Ani muchan. I am ready. Thus, ‘amen’ becomes a commitment to take our prayers out of our synagogues and out of our hearts and move them onto the streets and into the world with dedication and love. To answer a prayer with ‘ani muchan’ is to make a pledge that can only be fulfilled when we’re done praying.

Click here to read “To the Streets” by Alden Solovy.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. He has written more than 600 pieces of new liturgy, offering a fresh new Jewish voice, challenging the boundaries between poetry, meditation, personal growth, and prayer. Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, from CCAR Press, now available as an eBook.

CCAR Press has created unique programs for you to host at your congregations, schools, libraries, and Jewish Community Centers. Want to host a Grateful Heart Event? Click for details. Contact us with questions at info@ccarpress.org or (212) 972-3636 x243.

 

[i] Shabbat 119b; Sanhedrin 111a

[ii] The Nehalel Siddurim translates El Melekh ne’eman as ‘God, Loyal Sovereign.”

[iii] Brachot 53b

[iv] Shabbat 119b

[v] Thanks to Asher Arbit for his help with the acronym.