I have written a poetic midrash based on the word “Vayikra…” And God called Moses. You can read on my Times of Israel Blog at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/moses-and-gods-tears-a-poetic-midrash-for-vayikra/
On the face of it, the verses from this week’s Torah portion Vayakehl describe the matter-of-fact building of a movable edifice. But this isn’t merely an architectural plan. It’s a description of the highest aesthetic vision of the ancient Israelites, a standard that would impress itself upon the hearts, minds, and souls of generations of Jews to come…
Not just any craftsman could design and build this sacred structure. Only someone with the right qualities of heart, mind, soul, skill, and communal attitude could do the job, qualities spelled out in the text.
To read the entire d’var Torah, go to https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bezalel-judaisms-first-artist/
This week Jacob, the inveterate victim, meets Pharaoh after discovering that Jacob’s favorite son Joseph is not only alive but had become second in power only to Pharaoh in Egypt. (Parashat Vayigash)
Every Jewish parent I know would be thrilled to experience anything close to this, but read the conversation between these two old men:
“Pharaoh asked Jacob, ‘How many are the years of your life?’ And Jacob answered Pharaoh, ‘The years of my sojourn on earth are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life-spans of my fathers during their sojourns.” (Genesis 47:8-9).
Poor Jacob! No matter what good might have come to him in his life, he defaults to negativity. The rabbis put these words into God’s mouth in response (B’reishit Rabbah 95):
“God said: ‘I saved you from Esau and Laban. I brought Dinah back to you, as well as Joseph – and you complain that your life has been short and evil? I’ll, therefore, count the words of Pharaoh’s question and add that number to the number of words in your response (33 words total) and then shorten your life by exactly that much so that you’ll not live as long as your father Isaac. [Isaac lived to 180, whereas Jacob lived only to the age of 147 – i.e. 33 years less].”
Jacob’s negativity is surprising given all the good he had experienced in his life including twice encountering God. The first time was in his vision of angels ascending and descending a staircase to heaven at Beth El (Genesis 28) and waking to realize that God had been with him all along and he hadn’t known it. The second was in his struggle with a being described as both divine and human at the River Jabok where he emerged with a new name – Yisrael (Genesis 32).
We might expect more gratitude from Jacob instead of his complaining especially since this conversation with Pharaoh occurred at the reunion of Jacob with his cherished son Joseph.
We all know people like this who see the world as if through a negative prism? Are we those people? Do we put greater emphasis on the half-empty glass or the glass that’s half-full? Are we “Debbie Downers?” (ala SNL)
There are so many examples of people who focus on the negative: parents who pay too much attention to their children’s weaknesses and failings – marriages that dissolve because one or both partners refuse to let go of the breeches, the bad times and flaws of the other – our inability to transcend disappointment, frustration, aggravation, and failure.
In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey notes that the most well-balanced, positive and proactive people, those who live happily and well with others at work and at home, tend to balance continually four dimensions of their lives; the physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional.
As we prepare to conclude the secular year 2018, we might take this time to take stock and make adjustments, to tackle one or more of these four aspects of our lives and thereby improve our lot.
We may need mostly to better care for our bodies, eat the right foods, lose weight, get sufficient rest, keep stress at bay, and exercise more.
Perhaps spiritually we may need to find ways to sense more keenly the Ineffable in life’s mysteries, spend more time in communal prayer or by ourselves in meditation, relish the genius of the great artistic masters, spend more time on our own creative process and in the natural world.
Perhaps we’ve allowed our minds to atrophy and our curiosity to languish by learning little that’s new and stimulating.
Perhaps socially and emotionally we could strive to become more empathic, less self-centered and self-referencing, and to serve others more selflessly without a quid pro quo.
There’s one more area that Covey doesn’t mention specifically but includes the physical and mental and is epidemic in our society – depression, a miserable scourge in the lives of millions. If this is your malady or someone near and dear to you suffers from depression, there is redress. Seeking bio-chemical help from qualified physicians is neither shameful nor a sin. To the contrary, doing so is wise and potentially efficacious in addressing the misery that those suffering from depression feel every day and every hour of the day.
The Midrash notes that Jacob’s negativity shaved years off his life. I would hope that each of us not allow ourselves to follow his example and fall into the same trap.
Chayei Sarah is a monumental Torah portion in the Book of Genesis (23:1-25:18) that establishes Hebron as one of our people’s holiest cities in the land of Israel.
The sidra begins by telling the story of Abraham buying burial space in the Cave of Machpelah for his wife Sarah. That site would become holy to Judaism and Islam through the generations, and the city of Hebron, which is overwhelmingly Arab with a small enclave of right-wing Jewish religious extremist settlers, is a hot spot between Israel and the Palestinians today.
The parashah also tells the moving story of Isaac’s and Rebekah’s meeting, betrothal and marriage arranged by Abraham through his servant Eliezer who his master sent to find a wife for his son Isaac.
For the first time in Jewish history we witness the passing of the baton of inheritance and leadership from one generation to the next.
I offer here a poetic Midrash on Isaac’s and Rebekah’s encounter leading to their marriage. It is based loosely on the Torah story as amplified by rabbinic Midrash and is a revisiting of a poem I wrote a few years ago and posted on this blog.
I love this story because Isaac’s and Rebecca’s meeting is simple and sweet. It offers a the hope of what’s possible between individuals and tribes that make up the Jewish people today and the peoples of the Middle East who suffer too much polarization, suspicion, distrust, and hatred of each other.
Imagine the scene – Isaac is alone meditating in an open field and Rebecca and Abraham’s servant Eliezer approach from afar in a camel caravan. I shift voices in the poem between Isaac, Rebekah and Eliezer. I begin with Isaac:
“To be alone amidst shifting wheat and rock, / Beneath the sun and stirred-up clouds / Hearing singing angels audible in the wind.
I’ve secluded myself as my father did / When he went out alone leaving all he knew / For a place he’d never been that God would show him.
I can do nothing else / Because Father broke my heart and crushed my soul / When he betrayed me by nearly offering me to his God / Stealing me away one morning before my mother Sarah awoke.
When my mother learned her soul passed from the world./ O how she loved me! / And filled me up with laughter, love and tears. / Bereft now I’m desolate in this field.
Compassionate One – / Do You hear me from this arid place / Filled with snakes and beasts, / Polluted by hatred and vengeance?”
As if in response from afar / A caravan appears of people and camels, / Led by Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, / With a young girl.
Isaac, burdened in grief neither looks nor sees. / He sits still lasuach basadeh / Meditating and weeping / Beneath the afternoon sun / And swirling clouds / And singing angels / Whom he cannot hear.
Rebekah asks: / “Who is that man crying alone in the field?” / Eliezer says: / “He is my master Isaac, your intended one, / Whose seed you will carry and make the future.”
“Vatipol min hagamal – And she fell from her camel” / Shocked and afraid onto the hard ground.
She veiled her face and bowed her head. / And Rebekah and Isaac entered Sarah’s tent, / And Rebekah comforted him.”
Poem by Rabbi John L. Rosove based on traditional Midrashim
Several years ago I attended a session at the Biennial Conference of the Reform movement (the Union for Reform Judaism) on the visual benefits of projecting the prayer book and the weekly Torah portion onto large screens in place of prayer books. It was at the time a new way to draw a congregation together while freeing the pews of books and papers. Though I understood the benefit of having the text available in plain sight to everyone present, especially in a large congregation, and the ability to add new songs and poetry that are not contained already in prayer books, I was uncomfortable with it and preferred then and still prefer to have an actual prayer book in my hands.
Having said this, at my congregation we use large screens for prayer twice a year, on the mornings of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at our family services with pre-school age through first grade children, their parents and grandparents. All the 700 in attendance need to do do is look forward towards the bimah and there they can read/sing the blessings and view colorful illustrations and photographs. For this particular population, projected prayer works well.
It’s one thing, however, to use projected prayer and illustrations/photographs for small children and their parents, and it’s quite another to use it in place of prayer books at Shabbat services for elementary school-age students, teens, and adults.
In recent days on the private Reform Rabbi List-Serve called RAVKAV where rabbis talk to each other about anything and everything of current concern, there has been a thoughtful discussion about the benefits and deficits of projected prayer in place of using actual siddurim. I found the discussion provocative and engaging, and so I shared some of the posts (I removed the writers’ names to maintain confidentiality) with my fellow clergy in my congregation. I received the following statement from our cantorial soloist and music director, Shelly Fox. Shelly is a 2nd year cantorial student at the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) here in Los Angeles. She is a world class singer and a thoughtful, evocative and sensitive Jew and prayer leader. I share her words with her permission:
“It’s one thing to project the words to prayers and enable people to follow along and lift their faces out of a book and sing together, but once we start talking about projecting imagery and then taking it further and using a large screen LED TV for clear, bright images, now we’re getting into the territory of another screen to watch.
I think that when people see a TV screen they shut off their brains. They get lulled into watching, not doing. I also think that prayer is both communal and personal and to give everyone imagery to watch takes them out of their own heads. It’s my same argument to musical settings of prayers in what I call “interpretive English.” I am not opposed to singing prayers in English but it bothers me when a prayer isn’t a direct translation[i.e. from the Hebrew, Ladino, or Yiddish] but is the songwriter’s impression of the prayer. I want the freedom to interpret a prayer how I feel it, which can change on any given day or at different times in my life. Giving someone a specific image to look at while praying cuts them off from their own inner dialog. …I think this is part of a larger trend of the dumbing down of our society. The less people think for themselves, the less they engage in critical thinking. We will have a nation of people plugged into (lulled by) screens and that leaves them vulnerable to whoever wants to control them, be it for good or for ill.”
I agree with Shelly. After all, we Jews are Am haSefer – The People of the Book. I always prefer holding a book in my hands. I don’t read books on Kindle and though it’s more convenient to download books especially when traveling instead of carrying them in my luggage, I prefer the latter to the former.
A colleague wrote to me after I posted Shelly’s response on RAVKAV. He agreed with her saying: “We are a book culture — which means that we should be able to browse through a book and study it. The last thing we need is to strengthen our addiction to screens.”
The following are my farewell sermons after serving Temple Israel of Hollywood for 30 years. This is my last High Holiday season before my retirement at the end of June, 2019. These are highly personal sermons, but they reflect the greater themes and challenges that Judaism presents us during the High Holidays, and were the best personal reflections on a forty-year rabbinate and thirty years at my home congregation.
For all TIOH Rabbis’ Sermons in 2018, go to
https://www.tioh.org/worship/rabbis/clergystudy These include sermons by Rabbi John Rosove, Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, and Rabbi Jocee Hudson
The following are the sermons I delivered, the final High Holiday sermons I am ever likely to deliver:
Rosh Hashanah 5779 – “Carrying forward the Life of Our People”
Video Direct Link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqcY1nwo0tc
Kol Nidre 5779 – “What I Wish for You”
Video Direct Link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPHP_ui4YQ4
Yom Kippur Yizkor 5779 – “Midrash on the Death of Moses”
“Give ear, O heavens, that I may speak, / Hear, O Earth, the utterance of my mouth. / Let my teaching drip like rain, / Let my words flow like dew, ‘ Like droplets on new growth, / Like showers on grass.” (Deuteronomy 32:1-2)
“Like an eagle protecting its nest / Over its young-birds hovering, / He spread out his wings, he took him, / Bearing him on his pinions.” (Deuteronomy 32:11)
“See now that I, am he / I myself bring-death, bestow-life / I wound and I myself heal, / And there is from my hand no rescuing! / For I lift up my hand to the heavens, / And say: As I live, for the ages.” (Deuteronomy 32:40)
These are among the fifty-two verses in this week’s Torah portion Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32), one of the shortest portions in the annual Torah reading cycle.
Though these verses are magnificent poetry, the Torah isn’t largely a poetic text. Rather, it’s a series of legal texts set in a narrative context. For poetry we have to search elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible – the soaring visions of the prophets, the yearnings of the Psalms, the saga of Job, and the eroticism of the Song of Songs.
Despite the Torah’s narrative and legal style, this portion closes in a burst of poetry as Moses nears the end of his life.
Essentially, Parashat Ha’azinu is a poetic meditation on the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. It’s graphic and written from the prospective of God, not Moses. Its themes dwell not upon the strength of the divine-human bond, but upon its weakness. Israel is characterized not as a covenantal lover, but as a treacherous adversary prepared to smash the covenant and cavort with other gods.
Towards the end of the poem, Moses shifts suddenly from speaking as a third-person narrator into the first person as God’s prophet. We envision an enraged God Who intends to hand Israel over to its most vicious enemies and its ultimate devastation. Fearing Israel’s demise to polytheism and oblivion, God reverses the divine decree, vanquishes Israel’s enemies and renews the covenant.
One scholar suggested that this poem is a CAT scan of God’s mind embracing the totality of divine rage, longing and love. Though God did indeed reverse the divine decree, it wasn’t because of divine compassion; rather, it was the consequence of divine pride.
There is something especially shocking about this poem, and that it’s missing utterly the idea of Teshuvah.
One would think that at the end of the annual Torah reading cycle that coincides each year with the close of the Yamim Noraim that Torah would affirm the covenantal bond between God and Israel as a consequence of Israel’s Teshuvah and return to God. But, the poem ignores the possibility of Israel’s repentance and presents a world devoid of the capacity of the people to alter God’s will through its contrition and Teshuvah.
It’s difficult to imagine living our lives without Teshuvah. Perhaps, that’s the point of the poem, to show us what such a world would be like without the possibility of our return, without the life-sustaining value of hope.
Judaism understands that Teshuvah is so indispensable for human welfare that the Talmudic sage Resh Lakish insisted that God conceived of Teshuvah before creating the world and wove Teshuvah into the fabric of creation itself.
The prophetic and rabbinic concept of repentance is among Judaism’s most ennobling and inspiring affirmations. Judaism rejects a fatalistic world, one in which what was will always be without the possibility of personal and communal evolution. Judaism affirms that we do indeed have a measure of control over our lives, that we can improve ourselves and be better morally and spiritually than we were. Though perfection isn’t the goal of the Yamim Noraim, self-improvement is.
Since our beginnings as a people we Jews have been buoyed by hope and messianic expectancy, all made possible by Teshuvah.
And so, perhaps, Ha’azinu is a warning about what our lives really would be like without the covenant and without our capacity to be better than we were.
Note: Translation of the Hebrew are from “The Schocken Bible: Volume 1 – The Five Books of Moses” with a new translation and Introductions, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox
The central theme of the High Holiday season is t’shuvah (return, turn, response), a process that brings us back to our truest ourselves, our families, friends, community, the Jewish people, Torah, and God. T’shuvah is ultimately an expression of hope that the way we are today need not be who we remain tomorrow.
T’shuvah is a step-by-step process of re-engaging with our highest selves, of turning away from negative and destructive tendencies (i.e. yetzer hara – the evil inclination) and embracing that which is good in our nature (yetzer hatov – the good inclination), such as living according to the virtues of humility, gratitude, generosity, compassion, and loving-kindness.
The t’shuvah process often begins with a sense of despair, hopelessness, and sadness, the feeling that we’re forever stuck where we are and are unable to change the nature, character, or direction of our lives. Judaism, however, rejects stagnation, pessimism, and cynicism, and urges us to transcend those impediments that prevent our personal transformation and the creation of a more hopeful future.
In the story of the prophet Jonah that’s read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the prophet descends into hopelessness and despair and then when all seems its most bleak, he turns his life around. Jonah is an unrealized prophet who runs from himself, from civilization, from moral responsibility, and from God. Every verb associated with his bleak journey into the netherworld uses the language of descent (Hebrew words with a root that includes these three letters: yod-resh-daled). He flees from God’s command to preach to the Ninevites down to the seashore. He boards a ship and goes down into its interior. He lies down and falls into a deep sleep. He’s thrown overboard down into the waters by his terrified ship-mates. He’s swallowed into the belly of a great fish, and there he remains for three days and nights until out of darkness and from desperation Jonah realizes that he wants to live and not die. At last he cries out to God to save him.
God responds by making the fish vomit Jonah out onto dry land and into the light of day. Jonah agrees this time to do God’s bidding and preach to the Ninevites to turn away from their evil ways. While the town’s people don sackcloth and ashes (a sign of their humility and willingness to change), God provides Jonah with shade and protection from the sun’s intolerable heat. Jonah, however, is mortified because he doesn’t believe in change and is convinced that the Ninevites are destined to fail in their penetance. In Jonah’s mind, the Ninevites’ success makes him appear the fool, more evidence that Jonah didn’t understand the first principle of t’shuvah, that change is possible if there is acknowledgment of wrong-doing and a will to fashion a new way of being in one’s life.
T’shuvah is never easy. It’s for those who are strong of mind, heart, and soul, who are willing to suffer failure, but also to get up, own what we’ve done, acknowledge our wrong-doing, apologize unconditionally to those we’ve hurt, and recommit to our struggle for greater enlightenment, step-by-step, patiently, one day at a time, one hour at a time, and even one moment at a time.
When successful, t’shuvah is restorative and utopian, for it enables us to return to our truest selves and overcome the past for the sake of a better future.
May we hold lovingly in our thoughts / those who suffer from tyranny, subjection, cruelty, and injustice / and work every day towards the alleviation of their suffering.
May we recognize our solidarity / with the stranger, outcast, downtrodden, abused, and deprived / that no human being be treated as “other” / that our common humanity weaves us together / in one fabric of mutuality / one garment of destiny.
May we pursue the Biblical prophet’s vision of peace / that we might live harmoniously with each other / and side by side / respecting differences / cherishing diversity / with no one exploiting the weak / each living without fear of the other / each revering Divinity in every human soul.
May we struggle against institutional injustice and governmental corruption / free those from oppression and contempt / act with purity of heart and mind / despising none / defrauding none / hating none / cherishing all / honoring every child of God and every creature of the earth.
May the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and all peoples / know peace in this New Year / and may we nurture kindness and love everywhere.
L’shanah tovah tikateivu
Rabbi John L. Rosove – Temple Israel of Hollywood, Los Angeles
“The world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
So said Rabbi Akiva (2nd century Palestine), who understood that The Song of Songs is an allegory between two lovers, God and Israel.
The Kabbalistic tradition teaches that the love in the Song reflects higher events inside God’s metaphysical structure. It is read each year on the Shabbat during Pesach, and we at Temple Israel of Hollywood will celebrate the Song of Songs and our community’s milestone wedding anniversaries this Friday evening, April 6 at 6:30 PM in our Shabbat services.
Shelly Fox, our Director of Music and Cantorial Soloist, with our quartet and pianist Michael Alfera will present some of the most beautiful musical settings for the Song of Songs. Many of the melodies were composed in pre-statehood Palestine.
Our milestone wedding couples (celebrating 5 to 65 years of marriage will read love poetry.
If you live in Los Angeles, come and celebrate with us.
From the Song of Songs
O for your kiss! For your love / More enticing than wine, / For your scent and sweet name -– / For all this they love you. /
Take me away to your room, / Like a king to his rooms — / We’ll rejoice there with wine. / No wonder they love you! /
Like a mare among stallions, / You lure, I am held /
Your cheeks framed with braids / your neck traced with shells /
I’ll adorn you with gold / And with silver bells“
How fine / you are, my love, / your eyes / like doves’. /
How fine / are you, my lover, / what joy / we have together. /
How green / our bed of leaves, / our rafters of cedars, / our juniper eaves./
Marcia Falk, The Song of Songs – Love Poems from the Bible (New York & London: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1977). Pages 1, 4, 6.