The Sixth Cup?

Exodus 6:6-8 is the basis upon which the rabbis determined that 4 cups of wine are to be consumed during the Passover Seder. Each cup corresponds to one of the 4 verbs that describes how God freed the Israelite slaves from Egyptian bondage:

… I will free you (ho-tzei-ti et’chem) from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you (v’hi-tzal’ti et’chem) from their bondage. I will redeem you (v’ga-al-ti et’chem) with an outstretched arm … And I will take you (v’la-kach’ti et’chem) to be My people, … I will bring you (v’hei-vei-ti et’chem) into the land…”

Wait! There are 5 verbs, not 4, and so we have to wonder why we don’t drink 5 cups of wine.

Some explain that Elijah’s cup is the 5th cup and is the most important of all because it symbolizes the future messianic era when justice, compassion, and peace will characterize all human affairs.

Others say that since the Haggadah is a Diaspora text (the first Seder was held in the middle of the night in Egypt), from the perspective of the Haggadah the 5th verb points to a state of being that has not yet occurred because the people have not as yet entered the land of Israel.

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, some Israelis identify the 5th cup of wine as the “Zionist cup” representing the fulfillment of the Zionist project in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg (President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America – ARZA) suggests that perhaps there ought to be an additional cup of wine, a 6th cup symbolizing the need of every Jew to understand, acknowledge and reconcile the differences that characterize Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, political right-wing and political left-wing Jews, young Jews and old Jews.

A 6th cup of wine can be a reminder that the unity of the Jewish people must be a principle goal for us all. The concluding verses in the Prophetic Book of Malachi,  the Haftarah portion read on this Shabbat Tzav, present both the challenge  and the consequences of failure in stark terms:

“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He [Elijah] shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” (3:23-24)

May your Seders be filled with understanding and light, renewal and optimism, meaning and significance, good food and wine, loving family and friends, joy and hope.

Shabbat shalom and Chag Pesach sameach!

The Real Existential Threat to the State of Israel is Not BDS

The international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is deeply disturbing to Israelis and Jews around the world because it unfairly singles out Israel while ignoring all other nations that commit far greater human rights violations. However, BDS has become a significant distraction from the real existential threat confronting the State of Israel, the occupation of the West Bank and a lack of resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This past month Israel’s Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan brought the BDS fight home for the first time. He has sought to expand his ministry’s recently launched intelligence division that is collecting information on foreign BDS activists by compiling a database of Israelis working with the BDS movement.

The editors of the Israeli daily Haaretz reacted strongly against Erdan’s efforts:

“With frightening speed, Minister for Public Security and Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan is becoming the Israeli heir to notorious U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy.” (

Haaretz also reported that Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Deputy Attorney General Avi Licht have voiced their opposition to Erdan’s efforts and stated that the Public Security Ministry has no legal authority to gather intelligence and maintain a database on Israeli citizens.

The Editorial went on: “The struggle against the Israeli occupation, whether from Israel or abroad, is legitimate, just and moral – and every person of conscience is entitled to participate in it. Moreover, the means of struggle in question, boycotts and nonviolent sanctions, are legitimate in view of the illegal status of the settlements.”

Minister Erdan shot back: “A newspaper that calls on Israelis to oppose the struggle I am waging against the boycott against Israel and the BDS, apparently does not really understand what is happening here…Instead of Haaretz simply admitting that they support a boycott of Israel, they launched an attack on me, …I will continue to act so that those who want to bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish state will pay a price for their actions, and those who get bent out of shape, you already know what will happen to them.”

Haaretz described ominously the significance of Erdan’s attack on sympathizers with BDS: “Databases on political activists have always been a hallmark of the darkest regimes. It is there, under the darkness of tyranny, that authorities gather information on regime opponents and compile blacklists. With his actions, Erdan is aspiring to have this sort of regime in Israel.”

I believe that Haaretz is right. However, lest I am misunderstood, I oppose BDS because too many of the groups that support it are out to delegitimize the State of Israel. I also oppose BDS as it is applied against only West Bank settlements because I don’t believe BDS can be successful as a non-violent political tactic in ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

BDS is a significant challenge, as Don Futterman, the Director of Israel’s Moriah Fund, noted this past week in “The Promised Podcast.” But BDS is not an existential threat to the State of Israel, though it could become one in ten or twenty years when large groups of western young people who have been influenced by the BDS movement come into power and influence in their respective countries.

Focusing too much of our attention on BDS obfuscates the real existential challenge facing Israel – the occupation and the continuation of the status quo that will end Israel as a Jewish and/or a democratic state.

Those who place the settlement movement as more important than Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic nation are the greatest threat to Israel’s future, not BDS.

Note: I speak only for myself and do not necessarily represent the views of my synagogue or any other Jewish organization.


Moses and God’s Tears – A Poetic Midrash for Vayikra

So often God called Moses. / Three times they met; / at the flaming bush, / on Sinai amidst rock and stone, / and before the Tent of Meeting / that Moses might intuit God’s mind / and soothe God’s heart / as a lover comforts his beloved.

Since creation / God yearned to bridge the chasm / when the Creator pulled away / and opened space / to share the universe.

Yet the Almighty remained alone / exiled within the Divine Self / when the vessels shattered / and matter was flung to the far reaches of space.

The upper spheres were divorced from the lower, /  male from female, / the primal Father from the primal Mother, / Tiferet from Malchut, / Hakadosh Baruch Hu from Shechinah, /  Adonai from Knesset Yisrael.

Before time and speech, / God appointed the soul of the Shepherd-Prince Moses / to be prophet / and endowed him with hearing-sight, / wide-ranging wisdom and intuitive knowledge.

No one but Moses / had ever been so chosen or / to come so near to God.

Moses saw with his ears / heard with his eyes / tasted with his mind / and remained whole in the Light.

The prophet descended the mountain aglow, / the primordial Light shielding him behind a veil / bearing on his forehead divine ink-drops / radiating and illuminating the earth’s four corners.

Moses descended upon angel’s wings, / weightless and cradling the lettered-stone / inside the eye of raging winds.

Though a Prince in Egypt / Moses’ destiny was as a lonely shepherd / gathering sheep / and drawing the children of Israel to God.

God needed much from Moses – / to bring the plagues / and show that there is no God but God, / and liberate the people, / and bring them to Sinai, / and inspire with the Word, / and create God’s house / that light might abide within every heart / and restore wholeness in the world.

After all of God’s expectations and demands / we might expect Moses’ strength to be depleted, / to be exhausted to the bone and ready to say; / “Enough! O Redeemer – find a new prophet! / I can no longer bear the burden / and be Your voice and create bridges / You are Almighty God / I am but flesh / My strength is gone / My time expired!”

“Nonsense!” proclaimed the Eternal. / “I am not yet ready for your retirement! / My world remains shattered, / My light obscured, / my heart broken and aching. / I need you to teach My people / and all people / and instill in their hearts / a love that heals My wound / for I cannot do this for Myself.”

Alas, the Creator-Redeemer’s needs were clear / to be close to Moses and the people / that the prophet and Israel together / might wipe away God’s tears / and restore God’s heart to wholeness / and heal God’s Name to Itself / and bring peace.

Poem composed by Rabbi John L. Rosove

Notes about this poetic Midrash:

The first word that appears in this week’s Torah portion Vayikra (vav – yudkuf – resh – aleph – “And God called Moses…”) ends with an unusually small aleph. This anomaly in what is called the k’tiv (written text) gave rise to much rabbinic interpretation over the centuries.

Rashi explained that the small aleph teaches the humility of Moses. Others said that the aleph is an introduction to the Levitical laws of sacrifice, which requires humility. A Midrash suggests that when Moses descended from Mount Sinai carrying the tablets of the law, he emitted a keren or (“a ray of light”) compelling Moses to shield his face with a veil because the people could not look upon him in such a state. The source of that ray of light was divine ink left over when Moses wrote a small aleph instead of one of normal size. The Midrash explains that Moses had sought to lessen his own stature by using a small aleph, but God restored the extra drops of divine ink by placing them upon Moses’ forehead.

The Midrashic literature comments at length about Moses’ experience meeting panim el panim (lit. “face to face” – metaphorically “soul to soul”) with God. Moses was first among God’s prophets. Though each prophet spoke God’s words, there never was another prophet like Moses nor, as the Torah explains, was there ever again a more humble human being on earth than Moses.

I am not normally an envious person. However, I have always envied the experience of the prophet and most especially Moses’ meeting with God on the mountain. It is my unquenchable yearning to know and my fascination with prophecy itself that inspired me to write this Midrash.

For those of you wishing more insight into Biblical prophecy, I recommend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Prophets” – publ. Jewish Publication Society, New York, 1962.

Shabbat shalom. 

A Jubilee Haggadah Marking the 50th Year Since the 1967 War

A new Haggadah has just been published by SISO (“Save Israel – Stop the Occupation”). It is called the Jubilee Haggadah because it marks the 50th year since the 1967 War, a turning point in the history of the modern State of Israel that the writers and editors conjoin with the biblical Jubilee commandment – “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” (Leviticus 25:10) – and with the celebration of Passover, the festival of liberty.

The Haggadah is part of a new initiative begun by prominent Israeli individuals and organizations in partnership with Jewish leaders around the world who believe that the prolonged Israeli military occupation poses a very real threat to Israel’s safety and well-being, and undermines the moral and democratic fabric of Israel and its standing in the community of nations. See SISO’s website –

Critics will argue that this Haggadah does not provide adequate historical context nor, in the words of one of its contributors, Professor of Jewish History at Ben Gurion University Haviva Pedaya, a “political outline of how to bring about a solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dr. Pedaya acknowledges:

“Nor is one party alone guilty for the complex situation. In broad visions, the discussion about the concept of the victim and the subjugator is most complex. But those people who ate potato peels on Seder nights, who recited by heart the Haggadah in the concentration camps, like those people who ate the manna in the desert or those slaves whose children drowned in mortar and were built into the pyramids – those people come to us with the demand: turn the face of the brother to the other and to responsibility.”

So many Jews and lovers of the State of Israel have come to accept what seems to be a historical inevitability, that Israel will forever occupy another people. This Haggadah addresses the moral consequences of failing to advocate for the only solution that can best assure Israel’s Jewish and democratic character – a two-states for two peoples resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

SISO’s editor and publisher describe the Haggadah in these words:

“Thirty authors, artists, and thinkers from throughout the Jewish world have joined together — in commentary, song, and moral outcry — and proposed contemporary interpretations to the Haggadah.

From Amos Oz to Sarah Silverman, Achinoam Nini to Leon Wieseltier, Anat Hoffman to Carol Gilligan, in this fiftieth year, we are proclaiming liberty throughout this land for all its inhabitants.

The Haggadah is edited by Dr. Tomer Persico. The texts are rich, nuanced and diverse, and together with the original artwork and design (by leading Israeli graphic designer Michal Sahar) make this a beautiful work that invites reflection and conversation.

I am honored to be among the thirty contributors (page 4 – item 1). I offer a few commentaries to evoke the spirit of this Haggadah. The entire text that can be downloaded at

“We were not born to be people of masters… We are condemned now to rule people who did not want to be ruled by us… The shorter the occupation lasts, the better for us, because an occupation is inevitably a corrupting occupation, and even a liberal and human occupation. I have fears about the kind of seeds we will sow in the near future in the hearts of the occupied. Even more, I have fears about the seeds that will be implanted in the hearts of the occupiers…” (Amos Oz – Davar, August 22, 1967)

“We must care for each other. We must see each other clearly… as equal under God … We must recognize each other’s humanity, aspirations, rights, emotions … at the end of the day, the only way to be saved by God from whatever ‘Egypt’ is enslaving you, is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Achinoam Nini – Noa – Israeli singer and peace activist)

“Now that we have returned to the land by the grace of God, and are privileged to move through all of the land of Israel and to settle in it, we have to protect ourselves and to safeguard our security – but not to base our existence on life by the sword. We are tested by our ability not to rule another people by ‘force,’ but to live here by ‘My spirit.’ In other words, to build a model society. If in Egypt we became foreigners who were denied all rights to existence, liberty, and the land, and in this lay the root of our subjugation, we must not do to others what we ourselves hate. The Palestinian people that lives among us also needs its land, its existence, and its liberty…. Only through a brave conjoining of all the children of Abraham who dwell in this land will God’s blessing to our forefather Abraham, and ‘all of the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him’ come true for us.” (Rabbi Michael Melchior, Jerusalem thinker, activist and former Israeli government minister)

“Of all people, Jews know the bitterness of being oppressed – and not being in our own country. That’s what makes the occupation so ironic. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between right and wrong, the situation is complicated and scary, but I’m guessing oppression will always prove to be on the wrong side of history.” (Sarah Silverman, comedian, and actress)

“The quarrel between Israel and Palestine has been a bleeding wound for decades, a wound that is hemorrhaging and is full of pus. You can’t keep waving a big stick and beating a bleeding wound again and again so as to scare it and make it finally stop being a wound and finally stop bleeding. A wound has to be healed. And there’s a way to gradually heal this wound.” (Amos Oz, January 2017)

I recommend downloading the entire Haggadah and using whatever commentaries you choose during the course of your own Seder.

An Antidote For These Disturbing Times

I offer this d’var Torah at the end of a week that for me has been exceptionally disturbing in the wake of the President’s dishonesty, self-centered heartlessness and bullying tactics along with the Republican congressional leadership’s efforts to make good on its promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, rather than correct its problems, and thus take health insurance from twenty-four million poor and older Americans over the course of the next decade.

I have found myself these past eighteen months since the presidential campaign began and especially since 11/8 and 1/20 to be in constant need of a mental, emotional, and spiritual corrective to the corrosive spirit that has taken over so much of this country.

Learning Torah has always been for me such a corrective endeavor. And so, I offer here an edited d’var Torah that I posted originally three years ago concerning Betzalel, the master architect and builder of the Tabernacle.

God instructed Moses to choose Betzalel to design and build the Tabernacle that would carry the tablets of the law (Exodus 38:22-39:31). On the face of it, these verses describe a matter-of-fact building of a physical edifice. But this isn’t merely an architectural plan for an ancient structure. It’s a description of the highest aesthetic vision of the ancient Israelites 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 extraordinary qualities of heart, mind, spirit, and skill could do the job.

We learn that Betzalel was endowed with wisdom (chochmah), insight (binah), and understanding (da-at). Rashi suggests that chochmah refers to the wisdom we learn from others; binah is the understanding we acquire from life experience; da-at is mystical intuition.

Though Betzalel was apparently the right choice, God asked Moses if he himself believed that Betzalel was suited to perform this sacred task. Moses replied: “Master of the universe! If You consider him suitable, then surely I do!” Not yet satisfied, God instructed Moses: “Go and ask Israel if they approve of my choice of Betzalel.”

Moses did so and the people replied: “If Betzalel is judged good enough by God and by you, surely he is approved by us, too.”

The rabbis emphasized that Betzalel was not only God’s and Moses’ choice but the people’s choice.

This simple story of Betzalel’s selection teaches that Judaism regards a person’s devotion to God, Torah, and the people of Israel to be the key virtues of a Jewish artist.

Mark Chagall went further when he wrote: “The artist must penetrate into the world, feel the fate of human beings, of peoples, with real love. There is no art for art’s sake. One must be interested in the entire realm of life.”

The story of Betzalel and the commentary that was written over time are reminders that each one of us, the artist and non-artist, ought to train ourselves to continuously direct one of our eyes heavenward and direct the other eye upon human affairs thereby drawing us nearer to one another in love and support and to the cosmic core of the universe.

This is an orientation that can serve each of us well and, I suggest, can help direct the leadership of our country to fulfill the higher purposes towards which American democracy has sought to fulfill.

Shabbat shalom.

What do Nations Need More – The Leadership of a Prophet or a Priest?

President Obama once said that the difference between him and Martin Luther King was that King was an inspirational prophetic leader and he, Obama, was a political leader. In biblical and rabbinic terms the Obama model compares with the functions of the priesthood that lead the earthly institution of the Temple’s sacrificial cult. After the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E., the rabbinic class replaced the priesthood as the institutional and legal authority.

This week’s Torah portion Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10) shines a light on these two modes of leadership and it’s all about Aaron and not Moses. Thirty times Aaron’s name appears. Moses is virtually absent except for three inferences.

Commentators explained Moses’ absence in a number of ways. One Midrash reminds us that God was preparing to destroy the people after the incident of the golden calf.

If God was to be so consumed by righteous rage and indignation to destroy the people, then Moses told God to destroy him too and to remove his name from the “Book.” Moses couldn’t conceive of his life without his people.

Stunned, God asked: “Moses, my beloved prophet, could you really stand to have your name taken out of this Book?”

“Yes,” Moses said “if it means saving my people.”

So God took Moses’ name out of this parashah to test the prophet’s humility and sincerity. Moses passed the test and God forgave the people of their greatest sin.

The parashah shines a light on the differences in two leadership styles as exemplified by Moses and Aaron.

Moses was the charismatic prophet – Aaron the institution-bound High Priest.

Moses needed no special clothing as the leader to reflect his authority – Aaron wore the “sacral vestments” as a visible sign of the dignity of his office.

Moses was willing to challenge God – Aaron would never do so. Instead, Aaron was encumbered by institutional and traditional constraints.

Moses broke new ground, met God on the mountain, forged a new world based upon a vision that was yet to be created – Aaron was contained, measured, conservative, and conventional.

Moses was dramatic and he defied custom – Aaron’s world changed slowly if at all.

Moses created a legal system from scratch – Aaron shunned disorder and chaos choosing instead to follow in detail what had been passed along to him.

Moses’ effect was inspirational revealing a soul that reached for the stars and communed with God. There was no one like him before, then, or since.

The question I’ve been pondering in light of this week’s Torah reading that contains no direct mention of Moses’ name, and in light of the vagaries inherent in the Trump era is this: What do people and nations need more – The prophet or the priest?

If truth be told we need both but in delicate balance.

Without Moses’ prophetic zeal there would be no vision nor any hope for an inspired, just, compassionate, and peaceful world.

Without Aaron, there would be little stability and order. Without law, humankind would succumb to the worst excesses of evil, avarice, greed, and selfishness.

The three times God addresses Moses by inference in this portion offer additional insight into what makes for wise leadership.

The first says: “V’atah t’zaveh et b’nai Yisrael… – You shall command the children of Israel…” (Exodus 27:20)

We need strong leaders to be confident enough to take command when necessary. However, a wise leader does not engage constantly and at every opportunity.

The second says: “V’atah hakrev eleicha et Aharon achicha v’et banav ito mitoch b’nei Yisrael l’chahano li… – You shall bring close to you Aaron your brother and his sons with you into the midst of the children of Israel…” (Exodus 28:1)

We need leaders that understand that they cannot effectively lead alone. A wise leader does tzimzum, contracts within oneself enough to allow others to step forward and lead as partners. Such a leader delegates authority to those who have expertise.

The third says: “V’atah t’dabeir et kol chochmei lev asher mileitiv ruach chocham… – And you shall speak to all those wise in heart and filled with the spirit of wisdom…” (Exodus 28:3).

The wise leader presumes that others too are wise.

Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership styles taken together include the virtues of vision, wisdom, humility, moral rectitude, a love of truth, a love of humanity, and a respect for the dignity of every human being.

The reason that the Trump era is so confusing is because the President is not a prophet because he is incapable of transcending himself and empathizing with the “other.”

Nor is he a priest because he can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, and he is utterly unfamiliar with and not curious about learning the rules of the game and how the government actually works.

So, what do we citizens do?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the civil rights movement of the 1960s gave the American liberal Jewish community its moral voice.

Is this not what is now occurring not only for the Jewish community but for all reasonable people (regardless of political party) of all faiths, cultures, races, national backgrounds, and gender identities?

This engaged moral activism that we are seeing everywhere offers me both comfort and hope. This will have to suffice for now.

Shabbat shalom.

“No human being is illegal!” – Elie Wiesel

In 1987 my wife Barbara was a member of the Board of CARECEN, the Central American Refugee Center in Washington, D.C. CARECEN was a significant activist organization helping to change American foreign policy vis a vis political asylum requests from El Salvadoran refugees fleeing the “Death Squads.” This band of murderers was killing leftists, labor union leaders, intellectuals, and Catholics (recall the murder of the four American nuns found on a road by US Ambassador Bob White under President Jimmy Carter).

President Reagan’s first act upon assuming office was to fire Ambassador White who had called  Roberto D’Aubuisson a “pathological killer.” D’Aubuisson was an El Salvadoran soldier, an extreme right-wing politician and the leader of the death-squads. He was named by the UN-created Truth Commission for El Salvador as having ordered the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero in 1980.

Reagan’s firing of Bob White was not one of Reagan’s most shining moments. Those who remember, Reagan didn’t realize that every country in Central and South America was different!

The Reagan Administration had close ties with the El Salvadoran government and was not interested in publicly acknowledging that massive human rights abuses were being committed and countenanced.

Barbara was asked by the Director of CARECEN (she was the only Jew on the national board) to make contact with Elie Wiesel and try and engage him in this effort on behalf of El Salvadoran asylum seekers. Barbara succeeded in doing so and Wiesel made this now famous statement in the context of the El Salvadoran controversy – “No human being is illegal!”

The saying became the brand of CARACEN’s campaign on behalf of these refugees.

Given Trump’s immigrant ban and antipathy to Muslims, Elie Wiesel’s comment is as current as ever.

A two-state solution: The only pragmatic path forward

Rabbi Josh Weinberg (President of ARZA) and I (National ARZA Chair) published together an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post entitled “A two-state solution: The only pragmatic path forward” (March 6, 2017) in response to President Trump’s apparent backing away from long-held American policy supporting a two-states for two peoples resolution of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

We express our worries as well that Prime Minister Netanyahu also seems to be backing away from the two-state solution.

see –

The “Silver Lining” of Donald Trump

The Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev of Haaretz describes the “positive revolution across America” that has been sparked by Donald Trump in his piece “Ten Ways Donald Trump Has Already Made America – and the World – Great Again.” (March 5 -see link below).

We Jews have always been positive thinkers, and so here is a positive spin on this most disturbing era in our nation’s most recent history.

Shalev opines:

  1. Trump has made people aware just how fragile and vulnerable America’s constitutional freedoms can be. ..
  1. Trump has injected new life into the American left…
  1. Trump has shaken the Jewish community to its core …
  1. Trump is a catalyzer for solidarity and brotherhood/sisterhood among Jews from the right and the left….
  1. Trump has been a miracle worker for the free press and the journalistic profession, …
  1. Trump has revitalized the careers of late night shows, hosts and comedians, including Saturday Night Live, Samantha Bee and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, and saved Stephen Colbert from slowly suffocating in the previously unbearable nothingness of late night puff interviews…
  1. Trump has done wonders to generate new support for the much-maligned Affordable Care Act and renewed respect for its creator, Barack Obama, and rehabilitated the image of past presidents, especially George W Bush…
  1. Trump has exposed the American right wing’s most significant feature: rank hypocrisy…
  1. Trump has cured many people around the world of any inferiority complexes they may have had toward America by proving that the U.S. can be just as stupid, reactionary and retrograde as anyone else…
  1. Trump has sparked a new wave of patriotism across the globe as people come to appreciate what they have at home more than ever before and to renew esteem for international institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.