Thursday, December 28, 2023

In This Moment: How Antisemitism Distorts Our Vision; TBE Milestones: A Signature Mitzvah


In This Moment

How Antisemitism Distorts Our Vision

This Shabbat we conclude the first book of the Torah, Genesis, with a portion describing the deaths of Jacob and Joseph. Next week we begin the epic tale of Exodus, as the descendants of Jacob become slaves in Egypt. Trying to transition from the more genteel family saga of the last chapters of Genesis, where Joseph and his kin are literally treated like royalty by Pharaoh, to the pure evil encountered in the next book, the commentators take great pains to locate hints foreshadowing the calamities to come even in these peaceful pages, even with all the royal treatment. You can read about it in this week's parsha packet, which we'll be discussing on Shabbat morning. 

Click to read the full packet and see the first page below.



The key questions for the commentators revolve around verses 8 and 9, which I've circled above. Why did Pharaoh send horses and chariots to escort Joseph on this long arduous journey back to Canaan to bury his father? And why were the little ones left behind?

The context would suggest that Joseph was being given a royal escort, that he would be protected by Pharaoh's finest. But the commentaries suggest otherwise, that in fact the armed guards were escorting him to ensure that Joseph would return to Egypt, and that his children remained behind as hostages.

If all of this sounds a bit creepy, add to it a literary allusion that is just screaming out at anyone familiar with the Torah and who can read the Hebrew; for in just a few weeks we'll encounter Pharaoh's chariots and horsemen once again, in the same order. in a much more threatening situation but in almost the exact same place. This peaceful scene is foreshadowing one of the most terrifying moments of our national existence, and is also an example of how we are held captive by our fears.

At what might be arguably one of the most heartwarming moments of our early history, where the leader of the civilized world is bending over backward to comfort his right hand man, all the commentators can think about is how lousy things are going to get.

It's a perfect Jewish response. Sort of like Eeyore.... Things can always get worse...

But here we part ways from Pooh's kvetchy friend. Because we respond: Things can always get worse...


There are many things to be concerned about right now in our world, including the stunning rise of antisemitism here in the United States, especially on college campuses.

It's become a lot scarier to be a Jew. There are times when I might be more circumspect when, say, wearing my kippah in public. I should add that nowhere in Jewish law is covering our heads even remotely commanded. It is a custom and demonstrates what we call Yirat Shamayim, the fear of God. There is absolutely no reason to wear it in a situation where one might harbor a legitimate fear. So if I were window shopping in Teheran, I would remove mine.

But really, how often are we confronted with such intimidating situations? Even now?

Last week my home was without power for three days, following the big storm. Fortunately, the temple had power. On the third night, with the thermometer plummeting, I awoke at 2 AM and I walked over to my office at the temple to warm up. I stopped off in the organ loft to get some hot water for tea and as I glanced over my shoulder, I looked into the sanctuary, which was pitch dark except for the eternal light. It was intense, but not scary. I'm used to being alone in the building, though rarely at such an hour and totally alone. But I wasn't preoccupied by imagining muffled voices calling out to me from a burning bush. I wasn't listening for ghosts. What I was thinking about was that the prior weekend, hundreds of bomb threats had been directed against synagogues all over the country, and over the past three months, many have been attacked or defaced.

I wasn't terrified but I confess to having a pang of fear. A mini pang. A pang-let.

Was I tempting fate by being in the building late at night? Perhaps, but ultimately, I was more concerned about tempting fate of getting pneumonia by shivering in my bed, so I went into my office and locked my door. (Mara and the dogs, you should know, are much heartier souls than yours truly).

So yes, there are reasons for us to be scared. But as Eeyore would say, it could alwas be worse. No earthquakes yet.

And no Hamas rockets.

Have you caught yourself looking toward the sky and wondered what it would be like to live like Israelis have had to live? Have you looked into the woods and wondered if a few thousand Hamas genocidal murderers and rapists are preparing to attack?

Yes, antisemitism here is a legitimate concern that must be addressed. But at the same time, our world is not crumbling before our eyes. America remains as welcoming a home as Jews have ever had. We may be more marginalized than we had thought, especially by others who consider themselves to be marginalized. But we do not run the risk of attack every time we walk the streets of New York. There have been incidents, to be sure. But we need not and should not live in fear.

Now is not a time to focus on our own oppression, but to double down on protecting others. First and foremost, that means Israelis, who are living every moment of their lives in harm's way. They face danger every moment, and an existential threat that will remain until deterrence is restored to all their borders.

And, in the middle of that, they still have a real threat to their democracy looming.

In this country, we have real concerns about the intimidation we face on campus, in social media and from mass rallies, but we can get into our cars and drive anywhere and never get pulled over for the "crime" of driving while being Jewish. Most of us have no concerns about going to sleep hungry tonight, or cold (something that I experienced last week and it was not fun - but also not permanent). Most of us are not refugees, not knowing where our next home will be - as so many hundreds of thousands are feeling right now who have fled toward America's borders and from Israel's.

Antisemitism is real and increasing. But we can't allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear. Stash your kippah in the glove compartment, if need be - but don't cover your mezuzahs.

We can't allow the fears of antisemitism, however legitimate, to distort our vision.

Maybe it's time for Joseph to give Pharaoh the benefit of the doubt. he was just trying to help.

Israel's Front Pages

Jerusalem Post


Yediot Ahronot

(If Friday's front page does not appear, try again a little later this evening)

TBE Milestones: 2009 - A Signature Mitzvah

Back in 2009, the world was reeling from the financial meltdown and for the Jewish community especially, the Madoff scandal took an enormous financial and emotional toll. Knowing that from crisis emerges opportunity, on the High Holidays I proposed a reset - and a chance to reimagine the meaning and role of mitzvah in our lives. A number of Conservative congregations were focusing on the theme of mitzvah that year, responding to a challenge from JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen. And for us the Mitzvah Initiative became a year-long theme of adult ed classes, articles and sermons.

In this sermon I suggested that everyone choose a "signature mitzvah" to work on over the holidays, and beyond.  Several on the board shared their signature mitzvot.

At a time when antisemitism is rampant, Jews (and not just young Jews) need to be reminded about what is beautiful and kind and good about our traditions. That's a key reason I chose to share this TBE Milestone now, as I look back at my time here.

You can listen to the sermon (and read more of it) hereExcerpts below:


So what’s your mitzvah? Everyone has a signature mitzvah, a mitzvah that defines us. 

I teach children – therefore I am. 

I feed the hungry, therefore I am.  

I take people to Israel, therefore I am.  

That mitzvah becomes our immortality. Our legacy. Our footprint in the sand. It is, to quote one of this summer’s celebrated heroes, Julia Child, when talking about cooking, “what I dooo.” 

There is a midrash that when a person is asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and they answer, “I fed the hungry,” that person will be told, “This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry…. The same goes for those who reply that they raised orphans, performed acts of tzedakkah, clothed the naked and embraced acts of lovingkindness (Midrash Psalms 118:17).” 

So what will you say when you reach paradise? What will your descendants be saying about you? What do you dooo?”

Once you discover your signature mitzvah, the key is to take that mitzvah, to live it with all your soul and all your might – and to share it. 

Think about it: There are, according to Maimonides’ count, 613 mitzvot in the Torah and we have nearly three times that many people here today. By my calculations, then, if each of us were to take on one mitzvah on behalf of the community, then all together, we would make up three complete Jews! 

Well, in fact some of the 613 mitzvot are no longer in play and others are only meant to be observed in Israel – but the main thing is that most of us actually might want to do MORE than one. We do many mitzvot, after all, and often without knowing it.

But let’s each of us begin with one. Everyone start with one.


And if we bring that one to this community it will bind us as one.

And if we project our mitzvah out from this sanctuary out into the world, its positive impact will have all of us behind it. They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… but what happens here impacts the world. 

So what will your mitzvah be?

To attend morning minyan? To make Beth El greener? To read Torah or to tutor? Or maybe to coordinate letter writing for Israel or to help with our Sukkah or Purim carnival. Maybe it’s to run a support group for those who struggle with addiction. 

This year, Beth El has responded so supportively to the needs of those out of work that job networking has become our collective signature mitzvah. Our neighbors have been thanking us simply because we belong to Beth El. 

Call it Mitzvah by association.  

There are a number of mitzvah heroes here. This one is helping with job networking, and that one is helping with the food drive. This one is paying anonymously for a famous scholar to teach a series on prayer, and that one visits people in the hospital. We’ve got Beth El mitzvah-makers all over the world. This one is teaching Adon Olam to a bunch of schoolchildren in India that one is serving up vitamins to Ethiopian kids in Netanya. And we’ve had congregants volunteer countless hours to realize the dream of the renewed social hall and lobby we are enjoying today. 

The UJC has created a Mitzvah Heroes website and has been asking people to vote among a number of nominees, for people like Anne Heyman who is responsible for a youth village in Rwanda that cares for orphans.  And Sadie Mintz, a Hollywood resident since 1929, who has risen at 4 AM once a week to prepare for her early-morning volunteer shift in at the cancer ward of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

Think about it – if every person here took upon him or herself one mitzvah – one way to bring a little more love and holiness to our community and to the world and just did that, imagine what an impact that would make.

So what is your signature mitzvah? What others can you bring into your life? I asked board members that question and their responses are on our website.

As a rabbi, I consider myself somewhat of a general practitioner, but I’ve also got more than a few signature mitzvot.

One that I embrace is the one listed as #16 on Maimonides’ list of 613; it is a mitzvah for everyone to write a Torah for himself. I see my own writing in that light, as an attempt to bring the Torah to life through the prism of my own experiences. I also like #28, not to harm anyone in speech, though it’s hard and I often fall short. And there’s #39, to care for animals, and the 150’s, which all deal with aspects of Kashrut. And then there’s the 170’s, which all deal in business ethics. I care about those. 

And I can’t forget #114, the mitzvah of making pilgrimage on festivals to the sacred soil of Israel. I’ve come to see that as truly my signature mitzvah.  As you know, we are planning our next TBE trip, and we decided to postpone it from this December to next July in order to give more people this chance to go to Israel with our congregation family. We’ve cut costs to the bone while still providing a five-star trip. I implore you to talk about this over lunch today and consider this amazing opportunity. 

And one more signature mitzvah: #53. Love the stranger. The Torah repeatedly commands us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt. Often, this refers to the Ger Tzedek – the convert. And indeed, we make it our business here to welcome converts and to make the process of becoming a Jew by Choice one of tremendous spiritual growth. But there is another type of stranger found in our sources – theGer Toshav – the person who, while not taking on Judaism as a faith, has elected for whatever reason to reside in our midst, and who, often with a Jewish spouse, has chosen to participate in this grand experiment called Jewish destiny. Maimonides could not imagine a world like ours, but the sentiment expressed in that mitzvah – to love the stranger – has made # 53 it one of Beth El’s signature mitzvot.

For those who are here today who are not Jewish, I embrace you warmly and unconditionally and invite you to share in this crucial work of world repair. No strings attached. We need all the help we can get!

So this is going to be our year of the mitzvah. 

And to start it off, I’d like to ask everyone here to do a mitzvah this week, between now and Yom Kippur, one that you have never done before. And make it a challenging one. No cupcakes! Anyone can put a few coins in a tzedakkah box. How about lighting candles this Friday night? If you do that already, how about separating milk and meat – for a day? For a meal? For a course? I’d be happy to help explain it to you.   

OK, and if you can’t do that because you are blogging your way through Julia Child’s cookbook, how about taking an hour away from all that butter to study the Torah portion?  Or maybe visit a local hospital or nursing home and see people you don’t know. Or, hey, I don’t know, if you’ve never come to shul on the second day of Rosh Hashanah – come here tomorrow to participate in the mitzvah of hearing the shofar – that’s number 132! 

Come to minyan and maybe try on tefillin – that’s #20. If you’ve never built a sukkah, it’s not too late. We’ll help! Or simply have a meal in our temple Sukkah; that’s mitzvah # 142. And even easier, buy a lulav set – # 141. We’re really pushing this one this year, because it’s so much fun and we’ll have a huge lulav parade here on the second day of Sukkot, which falls on a Sunday.

If you return a lost item, you’re doing a mitzvah – # 276. So if someone lent you something years ago and you just came across it, but you weren’t really sure what to do – return it!  If you have one of my books, for instance, I’m declaring an amnesty period until Yom Kippur. No questions asked. 

If you care for an animal, you’re doing a mitzvah. So adopt a dog and name it mitzvah. Throw a yarmulke on it and have a bark mitzvah…. If you’ve been carrying a grudge, end it. #32.  If you’ve been gossiping, stop it (#28); if you are known for angry outbursts (and who isn’t these days!), cool it – #30. If you’ve given tzedakkah, give more – #52. If you’ve never performed a bris… …maybe hold off on that one… but it’s #17.  

Find a mitzvah, do it and do it on behalf of all of us.

Many of the 613 mitzvot are obscure, some have become obsolete, and others are downright objectionable. But the act of struggling with mitzvah in itself connects us to our roots and to one another. Maimonides wasn’t the last word on Torah, which is fortunately a living document. The mitzvah map is changing all the time. There are plenty to choose from, though. So find one that means something to you. 

Then just do it. This week. 

I know of one rabbi who asked his entire adult ed class to go home and light candles that Friday night. The response was amazing. – sort of like the response we had last year when several congregants hosted others for Shabbat @ Home, something we’re planning to do again in a few months.

One student came back and said “My family laughed at me.”

Another said he went upstairs and lit them in the closet. (I don’t recommend that).

And a third told the teacher, “I went home and lit candles last Friday night – and my husband cried.”

You know, it’s interesting that we always use the expression that we practice mitzvot. We’re always practicing. We never get it right! 

In Judaism, Practice never makes perfect. But practice makes something much more important. 

Practice makes purpose.

Practice makes holiness. Practice brings hope. Practice brings bonding. Practice brings people together. Practice brings communities together. 

Practice brings heaven and earth together. So just do it!

Recommended Reading

  • Marc Schulman's Tel Aviv Diary - Events seem to be dangerously escalating in the North. Today, Hezbollah launched repeated attacks on Kiryat Shmona, inflicting further damage on what has now become a ghost town. Previously, the town of Kiryat Shmona was home to 22,000 residents. Of particular concern was the launch of a suicide drone headed southward towards Akko and the “Krayot,” a cluster townships, north of Haifa. The initial drone was successfully intercepted, and subsequently, another drone was shot down over Lebanon. It appears that neither Israel nor Hezbollah desires an all-out war. Nevertheless, both parties are involved in a dangerous game, each under the assumption that the other does not want a war. This situation is fraught with danger, as there is a substantial risk of a misjudgment by either side.

  • Avii Issacharoff argues that Hamas’s leaders have fatally misread Israeli intentions (YNet) - and their hopes of freeing Barghouti and similar figures “lack a firm grip on reality.” The firm stance of Hamas stems from the belief that [it has] a unique opportunity to extract significant concessions from Israel in terms of the duration of the ceasefire and the identity of Palestinian prisoners to be released in exchange for the Israeli hostages. This attitude has been particularly evident since October 7, marked by assertiveness and a lack of grounding in reality. True, many Hamas terrorists have survived [the initial Israeli invasion] and continue to launch attacks on IDF forces. While voices in Israel clamor for an immediate prisoner exchange, signs of impatience are evident regarding the realization of the ground operation’s objectives. Yet [Hamas’s top official in Gaza], Yahya Sinwar, and his cohorts have not fully grasped that the Israeli public will not accept anything less than the dismantling of Hamas’s rule in Gaza. Moreover, the Netanyahu government will not endure a long-term ceasefire without significant military achievements. Thus, whether intentionally or not, Hamas’s refusal to enter negotiations on the hostage issue before the cessation of hostilities only serves Israel's military interests. The IDF continues to achieve significant military gains daily. Even though it is far from a decisive victory or a collapse of Hamas, more and more of its tunnels are damaged, and more and more terrorists are killed.

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