Looking for God in Climate Change posted by Yosef Kanefsky

December 4, 2018

This is personal and self-revelatory. I am sharing it because I think and I hope that it may prove useful.

I am one of those people who has been deeply concerned about climate change since the 1980’s. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the teacher’s lounge in the school at which I was teaching in Elizabeth, NJ in 1987, and asking a fellow faculty member if she’d be willing to give up her car in order to secure an un-climate-changed world for her future grandchildren. She looked at me like I was out of my mind. In a certain way, I guess I was. Yet, here we are.

I have no idea where her grandchildren (if she has any) now live. My grandchild lives in Northern California where, along with millions of other people, she recently breathed “very unhealthful” air for days and days as a result of the tragic and deadly Camp fire. I’m certainly willing to grant that factors other than climate change contributed to the fire, but I’m not willing to grant that climate change was not a significant one. This fire, along with the one that burned just miles from where I live and work, was the latest in a steady global drumbeat of extreme and deadly weather events. Climate change is here.

I have few waking hours these days during which I do not think about this at least once. I am occasionally sad, and I am anxious. Not only about the prospects that await us, but also about the reality that we, the human race, know what’s going on, but are functionally unable to do much about it. Last week’s news that most of the major signatories to the Paris Climate accord are not on track to meet their goals is disappointing, but not really so surprising. (And let’s not even go to the outright denial espoused by our President.)

I am person of religious faith. And a religious “professional” to boot. What do I do now? What do I daven for? How do I act? How do I avoid a state of sad resignation that is both contrary to Jewish faith, and just plain bad for a human living? What are our next steps?

Well, if you are any sort of Maimonidian, you cannot pray that God suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or change the laws of chemistry. God is our beneficent Creator who renews creation daily, but He never changes the underlying rules. You also can’t pray that God compel people to begin to act differently. Free choice is something God doesn’t tamper with. But there are other realms of prayer that we can definitely enter here. The blessings and supplications in our daily davening presume that God does grace human beings with wisdom. And with strength and with courage. Add to this the faith that God is merciful, which is a faith that pervades our prayer, and we have more than enough to start with. We can have the climate change discussion with God.

Davening is a necessary-but-insufficient response though, for any person of religious faith. We always look to back our faith with action. Of course we can and should “green” our personal behavior, our philanthropic behavior, and our political behavior. But there’s something bigger out there to do as well. Something that emerges from the oddly comforting (to me) fact that we are all going to be in this together. All of us. Everybody. And we are all going to need each other in ways that we’ve never needed each other before. Think about the remarkable and inspiring ways in which, over the last 24 months, so many people have expanded their hearts and have gone way out of their way to provide aid and support to hurricane-tossed and fire-singed strangers all over the country.  What we, people of religious faith, need to do now is to actively and intentionally cultivate these bonds of human community and love. For these are the bonds that will mitigate whatever may be coming our way. Opportunities to do this present themselves constantly, really in every human interaction that we have. And they are also out there on much larger scales, available to each one of us, requiring only that we open our eyes to their existence, and have the wisdom, strength and courage, God willing, to energetically pursue them.

There are undoubtedly other ways that people of religious faith can bring the power of that faith to bear on this vast human challenge. This is the moment for all of us who have not yet started, to get going.

I hope this wasn’t “too much information” about my personal emotional state. For whatever it’s worth, just sharing it makes me feel a little better. And it is my hope that, as the old Jewish adage goes, “words that emanate from the heart, enter the heart”.


Be Aware! Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

October 16, 2018

True, it doesn’t come immediately to mind when we think about the qualities we most want to possess. It doesn’t typically top the list of the morally refined character traits that we work to cultivate in ourselves. But let’s not overlook the modest, simple quality of awareness. Because awareness is apparently next to holiness.

The sage Rabbi Hoshaya taught that “at the time that the Holy One created the first human being, the ministering angels erred and sought to say ‘Holy, Holy, Holy….before him (as they do daily before God). So what did the Holy One do? ‘He cast upon him deep sleep’ [Genesis 2:21] and then the angels knew that he was merely human.”  (B’raishit Rabba 8:10)

The internal logic of this teaching is not immediately clear. How would sleepiness demonstrate that the human is less holy than God? The assumption that Rabbi Hoshaya is working with is that holiness is characterized by maximal awareness – awareness of everything that is going on around one, awareness that never flags and is never compromised. God who neither sleeps nor slumbers is therefore holy, and we humans, who have no choice but to surrender to sleep on a periodic basis, are less holy. And it’s not just our sleepiness that hampers our awareness. We each know well from daily experience, that we are highly vulnerable to distractions of all kinds, that we are drawn a little too deeply into the awareness of ourselves and our own needs, and that we’re just plain not very perceptive all the time. Our holiness, Rabbi Hoshaya teaches, is compromised by our lapses of awareness. Thus when first human being falls asleep, the ministering angels are set straight.

But this is clearly not the end of the story. After all, God clearly instructs in Vayikra, “You should be holy, just as I, God, am holy”. This call to holiness is the call to consciously develop, expand, and deepen our awareness of the things and of the people around us. It is a profound call that we can respond to both retrospectively and prospectively. When something has gone wrong on our watch as the result of our having been unaware of the needs of the hour or the needs of the person who was in front of us, we need to resist the temptation to hold ourselves blameless (“after all, I was unaware!”) and to instead realize that our unawareness was probably the outcome of some decision that we had made along the line. God’s call to holiness beckons us to not be defensive in situations like these, to accept critique, and to take a hard look at what it was that we not-so-benignly excluded from our awareness.

And prospectively, God’s call to holiness requires us to actively cultivate our awareness of the people around us, of their needs, their emotions, and their hopes. We do so through making a habit of listening more attentively, through being more curious, through getting outside of ourselves a little more and freeing up energy to be aware of others.

Awareness isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we contemplate the meaning and content of personal holiness. But I’d bet then we think of the people we know who regard as holy, we are thinking about people who are deeply and continuously aware of all that is unfolding around them.

On Taking Down the Sukkah: A Prayer, by Yosef Kanefsky

October 3, 2018

There’s something about taking down the Sukkah. It conjures up that phrase from the book of Yonah: “It appeared overnight, and is gone overnight”.  It is reminiscent of the final scene of “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in which, when the marquee in front of the movie theater is changed, the entire story in which the characters had been living and dreaming disappears as if it never was. Yes, a lot happened in the Sukkah this year. Lots of family, and friends, and even guests whom I was meeting for the first time. A lot of joy and laughter. But when the last bundle of bamboo poles came to rest on the table in the tool shed…… “poof!”

It’s not completely “poof” of course. Memories remain, and all the friendships endure, strengthened and nourished.  Yet something is irretrievably gone, never to return exactly the way it was. A year from now we’ll build the Sukkah again. It will look very familiar to be sure. But it won’t be identical.

Taking down the Sukkah feels to me like it ought to be a time of prayer.

God of our fathers and mothers: As the footprint that had been the Sukkah has returned to being just another corner of the backyard, my wife and I thank you for what our family’s Sukkah held this year. For the first time, it held not just one daughter-in-law, but two. And it held not just three generations, but four, as my father-in-law caressed his first great-grandchild beneath its schach. Our Sukkah this year was truly one of the Clouds of Glory, God. How can I repay all of Your kindnesses?

In the same breath though, I ask that you send healing of the body and spirit to my mother, who for the first time was unable to make the trip to be with us. I know that a person who is ill is exempt from the Sukkah, but that doesn’t mean that her absence isn’t felt.  

God, I do not mean this in a melodramatic way, but as I take down take down the Sukkah I always find myself asking, “Who will return to our Sukkah next year? Which of our children will be in town to help me put the sukkah up, and which of them will be many miles away, hopefully doing wonderful things wherever they are? What will be the state of the world the next time we take shelter beneath Your wings, in our sacred temporary dwelling? What will remain the same, and what will change?

I pose these questions only to You. For it is You who causes the winds of time to blow, and the rains of blessing to fall.

We Can Fix This! By: Yosef Kanefsky

September 4, 2018


As we will repeatedly concede during our tefillot over the coming awesome days, it will be up to God to decide much of what will happen in the coming year. But we should not underestimate for a second how much is up to us to decide.

This past year was characterized by incredibly unpleasant, painful, and alienating discourse, around Shabbat tables, online, and almost anywhere. The landscape of 5778’s waning days is strewn with broken friendships, strained families, communities riven apart, and a civil society that is civil in name only.

5779 though, is in our hands. I have found the following Talmudic discussion to be helpful and encouraging, and I hope you will too:

The Torah records two pretty similar mitzvot, one in Shmot and one in Dvarim. In Shmot we’re commanded to help our enemy unload his animal when we see that animal collapsed beneath its burden. In Dvarim, we’re commanded to help our brother reload his animal when the animal’s burden has fallen.

The Talmud puts the two mitzvot into the blender, and then asks: what if you simultaneously encounter your brother’s animal which is collapsed and in need of unloading, and your enemy’s animal which whose burden has fallen and is in need of reloading? Which takes priority? The Talmud’s answer: The priority is to help your enemy to reload. “But why?” the other voice in the Talmud demands. The collapsed-and-still-loaded animal is suffering, and by Torah law we are directed to prevent the suffering of animals! Shouldn’t the mitzva of unloading automatically take precedence over the reloading? Yes”, the Talmud concedes, this line of reasoning would ordinarily be correct, but not in this instance. In this instance the priority is to unload with your enemy as a means of vanquishing your natural inclination to ignore your enemy’s plight. Vanquishing your own nature is deemed an uber-mitzvah, an activity of transcendent worth.

A question though: Exactly which aspect of his human nature is the person being asked to defeat here? Hatred of his enemy? Not a bad one to work on, but it happens not to be the one the Torah is discussing here.

The word for enemy that the Torah uses here is שונאך (sonacha), which we instinctively translate as “someone whom you hate”. But as Torah Temima points out, the Biblical word for someone whom you hate is שנואך (snoo’acha). שונאך (son’acha) by contrast, is “a person who hates you”. Meaning, that what the Talmud is prioritizing as an uber-mitzvah is not the act of vanquishing your inclination to ignore the plight of someone whom you hate (as admirable as this is.) It is rather the act of vanquishing of an entirely different – and much more significant – negative inclination, that of refusing to come to the aid of someone who hates you, in your belief that no act of kindness on your part will ever change that person’s feeling about you. That no matter what you do, it won’t make any difference; there will be no equal and opposite reaction on the other side. This is the human inclination that threatens to trap all of us forever in enmity and bitter opposition. When we believe that our fellow human beings are incapable of change and that we are helpless in the face of minds that have already been made up, we will also believe that it’s completely futile to try to build bridges, or to extend ourselves with decency and kindness in the spirit of shared humanity.


And it gets worse. For when multiplied outward, it leads us to the ineluctable conclusion that working to effect positive change in the world is the most futile activity imaginable. For if humans can’t change, nothing can change. So why should I even bother? This is why the Talmud identifies this inclination as the one that we have to grab by the throat and subdue. For when we are willing to believe that change is possible, that sharp edges can be softened, that gestures of kindness and civility can elicit response in kind, then we can restore the bonds of our friendships, the wholeness of our communities, and our inspiration to keep working for a better world.  

This is the crisis of faith that we need to overcome today.  Not a crisis of faith in God. The crisis of faith in humanity.

Avot D’Rebbi Natan declares: Who is the mightiest of the mighty? The person who turns someone who hates him, into someone who loves him.” We can do this. We can fix this. One human encounter at a time.

Redemption, Israel, and African Migrants. By Yosef Kanefsky

April 2, 2018

והָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ …וְיֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽה’ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּֽוּ׃

And when you come into the land that God has promised you ….and your children ask you, “what is this service that you are doing?” You shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’”  And the people bowed their heads and prostrated themselves.

Well, not all the people. A few hands went up. “Is there time for questions, Moshe? “So you just said, וּלְקַחְתֶּ֞ם אֲגֻדַּ֣ת אֵז֗וֹב… וְהִגַּעְתֶּ֤ם אֶל־הַמַּשְׁקוֹף֙ וְאֶל־שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֔ת. (Place the blood upon the lintel and the doorposts.) But a few verses ago you said,  וְלָֽקְחוּ֙ מִן־הַדָּ֔ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־שְׁתֵּ֥י הַמְּזוּזֹ֖ת וְעַל־הַמַּשְׁק֑וֹף.  (Place the blood on the doorposts and the lintel.) Does it matter in which order I do it? And if I accidentally do it in the wrong order, do I have to go back and do it again? And with our without a bracha?

According to the Mechilta (an early Halachic work dating from the time of the Mishna), Moshe replied,

יכול אם הקדים מזוזת לתשקוף לא יצא, תלמוד לומר והגעתם אל המשקוף וגו’ הא אם הקדים זה לזה יצא

“you might have thought, based on the earlier verse that the order matters, therefore I started the second verse, to teach that you fulfill the obligation either way.”

And if you wanted to you could also infer from the Mechilta that people asked other questions too. Whether the blood should be on the inside half of the doorframe or the outside half, and whether the stipulation that the Pesach be roasted, not cooked, disqualified meat that was cooked first and afterwards roasted.  You could actually imagine, if you were so inclined, Moshe was there the rest of the afternoon and half the night answering Pesach shailos.

And while we might be tempted to say that this is nothing more than the rabbis retrojecting Talmudic methodology onto the Exodus narrative, we would be missing something huge if we didn’t understand the Mechilta’s larger point. And that is, that in the eyes of our tradition, Redemption, at its core, is not the movement form bondage to non-bondage, it is rather the acquisition and enactment of a corpus of law that dignifies, sanctifies, and elevates our thoughts and actions, both individually and nationally. The real catastrophe of the Egyptian bondage was that is suspended the project initiated by Avraham

 “אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט”

who aspired “to instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is upright and just”.  Living under the thumbs of our taskmasters and of Pharaoh, the project stalled completely. We were deprived of the circumstances necessary for developing a corpus of national law that would embody tzedakah and mishpat, and which would mold us – as a nation –  into its image.  The sudden burst of halachic inquiry imagined by the Mechilta were the first sparks of redemption.

For it wasn’t only ritual Halacha that we were now receiving and engaging as we were becoming redeemed.   Moshe was also giving us law right then about how and when  we are to include the stranger who desires to celebrate the Pesach with us, and how more generally we are to establish “one law and one Torah” for the native born among us as well as for the stranger. For Redemption – at its deepest root – is the taking possession of, and ultimately creating a society based upon, a corpus of righteous law, that embodies the way of God.

And throughout our exiles, even as we continued to practice our ritual laws, we recognized that we were again in a state of unredemption – not simply because we had lost our land, but more so because we had lost our sovereignty, and with it our capacity to actualize an economy, a government, an army, a foreign policy entirely built on the foundations of – and forged in the furnace of – tzedek umishpat. We were living in unredemption because our law was in exile.

And our vision of re-Redemption is no different than that of the original. The days of the Messiah, as Rambam extensively describes them, are not about lions lying down with lambs, or fiery Temples descending from Heaven, or chocolate mousse not having any calories.

אַל יַעֲלֶה עַל הַלֵּב שֶׁבִּימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ יִבָּטֵל דּבָר מִמִּנְהָגוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם. אוֹ יִהְיֶה שָׁם חִדּוּשׁ בְּמַעֲשֵׂה בְּרֵאשִׁית. אֶלָּא עוֹלָם כְּמִנְהָגוֹ נוֹהֵג

It should not occur to you that during the days of the Messiah the world will function differently or that there will be something novel in the Creation. Rather, the world will continue in its customary way



אִם יַעֲמֹד מֶלֶךְ מִבֵּית דָּוִד הוֹגֶה בַּתּוֹרָה וְעוֹסֵק בְּמִצְוֹת כְּדָוִד אָבִיו. כְּפִי תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב וְשֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה. וְיָכֹף כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ וּלְחַזֵּק בִּדְקָהּ. …. הֲרֵי זֶה בְּחֶזְקַת שֶׁהוּא מָשִׁיחַ

If a king should arise from the House of David who studies the Torah and engages in its Commandments … in accordance with both the Written and the Oral Torahs, and he enjoins all of Israel to follow in its ways and encourages them to repair its breaches … then he may be presumed to be the Messiah.

For us, the Jewish people, Redemption was, is, and will always be for us, the emergence from political and legal impotence into the sovereignty necessary to create a national project of our own, which emerges from the womb the spiritual and moral vision as expressed in our Law. This is why we refer to Medinat Yisrael as “the first flowering of our Redemption”, for although Medinat Yisrael isn’t and perhaps shouldn’t ever be a Halachic State in the strict sense of the term, it possess enormous potential to become the full flowering of what Avraham and God together envisioned, וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט

Nowhere has the potential been more on display in recent weeks, than in the serious, difficult, complex conversation about the fate of the thousands of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Yes, there have been some very “unredeemed” comments like those of interior minister Aryeh Deri, which attempt to reduce the issue to a slogan. “עניי עירך קודמים!” – your own poor come before the poor of others”.  But as everyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of how Halachic discussion works knows, the actual process is a dialectical one, in which competing halachic and spiritual values are carefully weighed against one another. And these are the conversations that have been happening in Medinat Yisrael. The Halachic and spiritual value of self-preservation is being weighed against the halachic and spiritual value of not oppressing the stranger. The halachic and spiritual value of giving priority to your own poor, is being weighed against the value of supporting the poor more broadly, consistent with the “ways of peace”. Our historical uber-value of maintaining a Jewish majority in the State, is being weighed against our historical uber-value, obtained through our blood and tears, of shielding and taking in the refugee. And all sides in the debate are now openly acknowledging the fact that unfortunately Israel never established a proper process for Refugee Status Determination, that thousands of the asylum requests have not been reviewed, and that as a consequence no one really knows how many are economic migrants and how many are true refugees.  This conversation –and may it lead soon to a proper and worthy resolution – is the conversation of a redeemed people. A conversation worthy of the “first flowering of our Redemption”

On this Yom Tov of Redemption, we resonate with the sentiment articulated by Rav Avi Gissar, the Rav Hayishuv of Ofra, “a moral and legal challenge like this must be resolved in a way that is “mat’im” fitting for us, worthy of us, reflecting the entirety of our moral and spiritual heritage.  Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will, V’nizkeh l’geulah shleyma.  and may we merit the full Redemption.

The Dietitian’s Davening Challenge, by Yosef Kanefsky

February 18, 2018

So who’s been to cardio-rehab? It’s a hoot, right? I remember the day that I had my mandated get together with the staff dietitian. She was a lovely woman, who I’m sure has no idea that the most impactful thing she said to me had absolutely nothing to do with my diet.

“I see you’re a rabbi”, she said, as she leafed through my records. “I’m sure that means that you spend time daily in spiritual meditative practice. That’s really good for you”. I nodded in enthusiastic agreement, even as I was hoping she’d soon change the subject to something else….like tofu.  I was thinking about what morning minyan is actually like for me – cranking  through several thousand words in the tight space of 28 minutes, while simultaneously mentally composing a D’var Torah that will hopefully be not only interesting but inspiring, AND wondering whether I have enough Ralph’s cards left for the crowd that I can hear gathering outside. I was pretty sure that this didn’t qualify as the sort of meditative spiritual practice she had in mind.

The dietitian’s in-passing comment stuck with me with though, and over time I have come to embrace it as a challenge – the dietitian’s davening challenge.  Because I know that prayer is intended to be something a whole lot more thank it typically is, and that my life is the poorer for not attaining that something more.  And this morning – in the spirit of Parashat Terumah – I’d like to formally extend the dietitian’s davening challenge to every one of us here.

You’re probably thinking, “Parashat Terumah?! Terumah says not a word about the ritual act of prayer.  But that’s precisely my point.  The first step in embracing the challenge comes with the recognition that prayer as a ritual act is not indigenous to the Jewish tradition.

The Mishkan, described in Parashat Terumah,  not conceived, designed, or ordained as a house of ritual prayer. Nor, by the way, was it conceived, designed, or ordained as a place where animals and grains would be offered in sacrifice – though provision for this function was clearly made therein. No, the Mishkan was constructed simply to dramatically shrink the gap between God and people, and in doing so to invite relationship, even intimacy.  Whereas until this point in the Biblical narrative God dwelled only in the heavens, making one cameo appearance on the top of a mountain, with the construction of the Mishkan,  God would become a shachen, a neighbor. I have a memory of Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his Tuesday night parasha shiur at Yeshiva University, likening the Mishkan, with its menorah that remained lit throughout the night, and the loaves (lechem hapanim) always on the table, to the home of a dear friend, whom you can visit at any hour – any hour at which your heart is troubled and you’re in need of company. THIS is our original conception of prayer. Simply the human heart opening and unburdening itself in the soft presence of God. It was what we might call a spiritual, meditative practice.

When King Solomon built the MIshkan’s successor upon the Temple mount several hundred years later, this is how he described the prayer that he hoped would happen there:

כָּל־תְּפִלָּ֣ה כָל־תְּחִנָּ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִֽהְיֶה֙ לְכָל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם …  אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵדְע֗וּן אִ֚ישׁ נֶ֣גַע לְבָב֔וֹ וּפָרַ֥שׂ כַּפָּ֖יו אֶל־הַבַּ֥יִת הַזֶּֽה׃

“[Receive] every prayer or supplication offered by any person —each of whom knows the affliction of his own heart —when he spreads his palms toward this House,

כִּֽי־אַתָּ֤ה יָדַ֙עְתָּ֙ לְבַדְּךָ֔ אֶת־לְבַ֖ב כָּל־בְּנֵ֥י הָאָדָֽם׃

as You alone, You uniquely,  know the hearts of people.

Prayer, at the roots of our tradition, is the act of unburdening, of revealing, of seeking the counsel and assistance of the – יוצר יחד לבם, המבין את כל מעשיהם – the one who designed the human heart, and who understands what churns therein.

And so we turn to the dietitian’s davening challenge: How do turn our ritual act of prayer into this spiritual meditative practice? I think that this involves two steps, two components, neither of which is simple, but both of which are attainable.

The first has to do with developing a different relationship with the words. The larger question as to why our Sages decided to write words for us – even as they were fully aware of the downsides of doing so – will wait for a longer discussion, one which is already on the Summer 2018 Nosh n Drosh calendar. Meanwhile, in terms of finding a new way to relate to the words, I share a wonderful thought from the pen of Rabbi Art Green:

My life as a religious person means that I seek to live in the presence of God always,.[1] [What then is it “to pray?] To pray is to choose a particular time and place to notice that presence, [to] stop everything else I am doing, [to] leave behind all the bustle and activity … , and [to] come to God saying “Here I am.”

And the words of prayer – when at their best – function as a key. They press against the lock or crack the inner shell in just the right way as to let me in, to let me be in here with You. These ancient keys, gifts of my ancestors’ wisdom, I continue to carry in my pocket. I try to keep them polished, working well, free of the rust that comes with age – both their age and mine. To my delight – even surprise – they work pretty often.

He’s describing a relationship with the words that is not mechanical but meditative, not rote but rhythmic.  And this is the first step.

The second is what we’d call pre-meditative. As often as we can, we need to take two minutes – or even one minute – before we begin and ask ourselves:  What is it that I bringing to this prayer, and what am I seeking to achieve by the time my davening is done?

Working personally on this step over these past few years, I have:

  • brought my moral dilemmas to my davening, seeking to achieve clarity.
  • I have brought my frustrations to my davening, seeking to achieve equanimity.
  • I have brought my confusion, while seeking truth;
  • My guilt, while seeking the path toward repair;
  • My love, while seeking better ways to share it;
  • My longing, seeking a way to concretely translate it.

This is the dietitian’s davening challenge. It has made my prayer life much richer and my life much better.  And this morning, I extend the challenge to each of us.

Violating Other People’s Shabbat, by Yosef Kanefsky

January 26, 2018

Several months ago I decided that there was a topic that deserved our attention, and that a thoughtful communal discussion about it could make a positive material difference on the quality of our lives.  I was just waiting for an open Shabbat. So here goes:

We’ll start with a Biblical verse that is so familiar to us, that we couldn’t imagine its being interpreted in any other way.  “Sheshet yamim ta’avod…” for six days you shall work, “v’asita kol m’lachtecha”, and do all manner of work. And on the seventh day etc.  Pretty straightforward. Yet, the Mechilta (20:9), an ancient Midrash Halacha reads the middle phrase a little differently: “Sheshet yamim…” for six days you shall work, “V’asita kol m’lachtecha …” and you shall completely finish all your work. All of it! All done! An interesting read, which leads the Mechilta directly to the question:

וכי איפשר לו לאדם לעשות מלאכתו בששת ימים!?

Is that even possible?! Have you ever met anyone who arrived at candle lighting time on Friday afternoon and said, “Wow! I got everything done. There is nothing at all that I didn’t get too!”??  What does the Torah mean here? Which in turn leads the Mechilta directly to the punchline that it had been wanting to get to from the outset:

אלא שבות כאלו מלאכתך עשויה.

What the Torah is telling us is to rest on Shabbat as if all our work is completed. As if it’s all done. With the phrase “v’asita kol m’lachtecha….” the Torah is describing for us the quality and nature of Shabbat rest. “ שבות ממחשבת עבודה , the Mechilta continues, “don’t even think about work.”  For while it is through refraining from 39 particular acts of melacha that we observe Shabbat technically, it is through completely clearing our minds from our work that we observe Shabbat essentially.   

The Mechilta’s teaching is echoed in a great story on Shabbat 150b:

מעשה בחסיד אחד שנפרצה לו פרץ בתוך שדהו, ונמלך עליה לגודרה, ונזכר ששבת הוא, ונמנע אותו חסיד ולא גדרה. ונעשה לו נס, ועלתה בו צלף וממנה היתה פרנסתו ופרנסת אנשי ביתו

There was one a Hasid, a pious person. At some point during the week a breach opened in the fence surrounding his field. He happened to be walking by there on Shabbat, noticed the breach and thought to himself, “Right after Shabbat I’ll run out to Home Depot and buy that thing, and …..”, and suddenly he thought to himself, “What am I doing? Why am I even thinking about this today? It’s Shabbat!” And he decided right then and there, as a sort of tikkun, that he was never going to fix that breach. And then God intervened, and caused a caper bush to grow in the breach, and the Hasid became the caper berry baron of the Middle East, and his family was supported for generations…. That’s the story.

What’s remarkable here is that just lines earlier the Talmud had concluded that while speaking about work on Shabbat was forbidden, merely thinking about work was technically permissible. And yet, the Talmud decided to give the Hasid and his story the last word – literally.  Why? Because the Hassid understood the essence. His story illustrates what Shabbat is ultimately about.

As does a great animated video that I saw 30- something years ago – and which – God bless YouTube I was able to find again, this past Thursday night. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uICsouiEBqE  The video opens on a Friday morning along a busy, commercial street, and very strikingly all of the characters – instead of having heads, have some oversized work implement sprouting from their necks. One character is calculator-head, another is typewriter head, the car mechanic is wrench-head, the dentist is giant tooth head. The video then pans to an office clock, as it spins toward late Friday afternoon, at which point calculator-head turns to typewriter head and says, “I think we can finish this next week”. And the he says the magical words “Shabbat Shalom”. And instantly both his head and typewriter head’s head become normal human heads. And as he leaves the office and wishes Shabbat Shalom to each of the characters he had encountered on the street earlier in the day, each one of their heads becomes a normal human head. This 30-something year old video has remained lodged in my memory because it’s such a great symbolic representation of what Shabbat is intended to be. One day of the week when we are NOT “what we do”; we are simply “who we are”.  שבות כאלו מלאכתך עשויה – Pretend that all your work is done. So that we can get our actual heads back for a day.

To be clear:  the Jewish tradition has nothing against work. L’hefech, there are actually rabbinic sources which understand the very same phrase “sheshet yamim…” as constituting a mitzva. “Six days you should work!”     “אהוב את המלאכה”, “love your work!”, we’re taught in Pirkei Avot. But we urgently need to take one day every week to not be what we do, but to simply be who we are.

There is, of course an unsettling inference that have no choice but to draw from this. And that is that when we can’t free ourselves, when we fail to fully turn our heads back into our plain human heads, we are failing – on an important conceptual level – to observe Shabbat. We are in fact, being מחלל שבת ;  we are …. violating Shabbat. Which would all by itself qualify as a worthwhile teaching for this morning, except there’s something even more important that I want to say.


We all struggle in our personal performance of certain mitzvot. But even as we are struggling ourselves, the last thing we’d ever want to do is to impair someone else’s ability to perform that mitzvah.  And yet, when it comes to this aspect of Shabbat observance we are guilty of doing exactly this, even sometimes right here in shul.  We actually violate someone else’s Shabbat.  It can very innocent, as we ask a friend whom we haven’t seen in a week how that big project went this week. Sometimes, because we are dealing with a particular issue or matter, we seek out the professional opinion of one of our fellow parishioners, as we both eat chulent at Kiddush. The worst of it though is when we engage our friends who are our children’s teachers, or their school principals, or lay leaders at the school, in conversations about specific things that are going on in our child’s classroom or in the lunchroom, or in the board room. We’re blowing their heads off! We are violating their Shabbat when we do these things.

The saddest thing that I ever hear is a Jewish professional telling me that he or she is not coming to shul anymore, because it’s just not a safe space for their observance of Shabbat. Let’s do better. Let’s be better.

We’ll conclude the Aruch HaShulchan’s codification of these laws (Siman 306)

ולא התירו חכמים ההרהור אלא כשאין לו טרדת הלב ודאגה בהרהור, כגון שעסקיו הולכין בטוב בהצלחה ובלא פיזור הנפש. אבל כשיש לו על ידי ההרהור דאגה וטרדת הלב – אסור, שהרי אין לך ביטול עונג שבת גדול מזה.

ואיתא במכילתא: ‘ששת ימים תעבוד ועשית כל מלאכתך’ – שתהא כל מלאכתך בעיניך עשוי בהגיע שבת קדש, שהרי אין אדם יכול לעשות כל מלאכתו בשבוע אחד, אלא יראה אדם בכל שבת כא(י)לו מלאכתו עשויה, ואין לך עונג גדול מזה

The Sages permitted thinking about our work on Shabbat only when these thoughts do not produce anxiety and heaviness of heart. But otherwise such thoughts are forbidden, for there is no greater negation of “oneg Shabbat”, the delight of Shabbat, than this.

And as the Mechilta teaches, you should feel as if all of your work is done, for there is no delight greater than this.

Let us all delight in our Shabbat. Let us, for a day, be who we are, not what we do. And even more importantly, let us become the keepers of our bothers’ and sisters’ Oneg Shabbat.