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.  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.

Our Tradition,Ourselves: Desire, Power, and Abuse. Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

December 25, 2017

From Kiddushin 81a : Young women whom the community had just redeemed from captivity were brought to spend the night in the upper story of the home of Rav Amram the Pious. When one of them stepped out for just a moment, Rav Amram the Pious grabbed a ladder that ten men together could not lift, and began climbing.   כי מטא לפלגא דרגאן, when he was halfway up the ladder, he locked his knees and cried out: There is a fire in the house of Amram. Upon hearing this, the Sages came and found him in that position.

The urgent and ubiquitous social discussion about sexual misconduct and power differentials, presents us with invaluable opportunities. As people, to ask why are things going so terribly wrong? And as Jews to look with fresh eyes at our own sources, for the guidance that they offer us, and so that we can raise  the important questions that we might need to ask. Of course this is a very large discussion, but let’s start it by suggesting some of the points of departure.

While not the central issue of the stories breaking every day, these stories nonetheless give us the opportunity to think hard about the surprising – even shocking – power of illicit sexual desire. On Kiddushin 81a the story of Rav Amram Chasida is just for starters:

רבי מאיר הוה מתלוצץ בעוברי עבירה יומא חד אידמי ליה שטן כאיתתא בהך גיסא דנהרא לא הוה מברא נקט מצרא וקא עבר כי מטא פלגא מצרא שבקיה אמר אי לאו דקא מכרזי ברקיעא הזהרו בר’ מאיר ותורתו שויתיה לדמך תרתי מעי

Rabbi Meir would ridicule transgressors by saying it is easy to avoid temptation. One day, Satan appeared to him as a woman standing on the other side of the river. Since there was no ferry to cross the river, he took hold of a rope bridge and crossed the river. When he reached halfway across the rope bridge, the evil inclination left him and said to him: Were it not for the fact that they proclaim about you in heaven: Be careful with regard to Rabbi Meir and his Torah, I would have shattered your reputation, and reduced your value to two ma’a.

And then, the same story, this time with Rabbi Akiva!

Rabbi Akiva would likewise ridicule transgressors. One day, Satan appeared to him as a woman at the top of a palm tree. Rabbi Akiva grabbed hold of the palm tree and began climbing. When he got hallway up the tree…

The surprising power of illicit sexual desire.

Bur the Talmud doesn’t tell these stories simply for their shock value. As the best way it knew how to explain the rabbinic injunction of yichud – the prohibition upon placing ourselves in situations in which we are alone with someone of the opposite sex. And laws that limit physical contact, and laws that demand that we examine and take responsibility even for our thoughts. Current events, though primarily about something else, still invite us – indeed urge us! – to think seriously about these halachot.

What current events are primarily about of course, is the exploitation of power differentials.  Which is a theme that is central both to scripture and to halacha. The abusive potential of the power differential between creditor and lender, produces scriptural laws forbidding the taking of interest, preventing creditors from invading the homes of borrowers and seizing collateral – in particular from widows, and even from subjecting the borrower to subtle social humiliations. It produces laws that determines when wages are due and forbids employers from delaying payment, laws that hold employers liable if they cannot produce the work opportunities that they had promised, and even laws that give a slight legal advantage to employees locked in a wage dispute with employees. The concern over the exploitation of power differentials produces laws which guarantee the stranger equality under the law, specifically forbids taking advantage of the stranger’s unfamiliarity with the local commercial practices, and even prohibits – in the strongest terms – verbal bullying of the stranger. The sin for which King David is sentenced to suffer for the rest of his life is the sin of abusing his power in taking the wife of, and then directing the death of Uriah the Hittite. The sin that seals King Achav’s fate is not idolatry, rather the convening of a kangaroo court to sentence a commoner named Navot to death and to then appropriate his vineyard to the crown. And, among the sins that bring the priests Chofni and Pinchas to their untimely ends is their taking advantage of their position to lie with women who had come to offer sacrifices to God.  Intentional abuse of power to bring suffering and ruin upon the weaker, is reckoned in our religion as a direct affront to God, a shameless denial of the sacredness of the human being, a mocking of the image in which all were created.

 ה’ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת׃

God watches over the stranger, encourage the orphan and the widow, and confounds the ways of those who exploit them.

And we also need, at this moment in time, to also acknowledge that when it comes to the power dynamic between men and women, our very same Biblical and rabbinic tradition strikes notes that are unsettling and problematic to the modern ear, notes which can be used – and have been used – to justify dangerous, abusive behavior. We think about the fundamental structures of the marriage and divorce laws, the barring of women from positions of judicial, and religious legal authority even when the matters being deliberated materially affect their welfare. Even the subtle yet deeply affecting matter of who “counts” and who does not. Current events have given us the opportunity, and frankly the responsibility to continue thinking about how – as people faithful to Halacha – we work to mitigate the potential and real abuses of our system.

In this vein, I will leave us with a few quotes (my translations) from a shiur that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l gave 20 years ago. Rav Licthtenstein was reflecting on the punishment the Torah metes out to the rapist, who is required to pay 50 silver shekels to his victim’s father, and offer to marry her.

“The perpetrator is perhaps punished, but the victim’s suffering is not addressed. One must honestly admit that it is difficult to digest this approach…, and that through modern eyes we would certainly take the assault itself much more seriously.

One cannot claim that our disgust at violence arises from reading too many romantic poems or too much 18th century French philosophy. It arises from our cleaving to God and the values of kindness and mercy with which our entire tradition is shot through.

If we were functioning today according to Biblical law, would we apply the laws of rape as they appear in the Torah, or would we say, “this is our eternal Torah, our Torah of truth, but in our present reality in which rape has an entirely other dimension, causing trauma that perhaps didn’t exist in bygone days, we must address the matter differently?”

אני סבור שהתשובה השנייה היא הנכונה

I believe that the second answer is correct.”

This is our eternal Torah, our Torah of truth. And, we must know how to apply and live it so that no one winds up abused by it. There is a fire in the house. It is our opportunity to think deeply about desire, power, and about our religion.


Hanukkah’s Light, and God’s Light, by Yosef Kanefsky

December 19, 2017





Judaism has many lights. The lights that we kindle on Friday night. Yahrzeit lights, the light of Havdalah, and of course the Hanukah lights. All are Judaism’s lights. But none is the one that earns the moniker נר ד’ – God’s light. That designation is reserved for something else.

In a habit as old as time itself, every tribe, every people, seeks to isolate the one or two traits or qualities that define that tribe’s, that people’s essential nature. It is true that the habit has a downside. Over the course of human history it has frequently led nations to the invariably mistaken belief that these noble qualities are not found among others, a belief which then fuels dangerous forms of chauvinism and ultimately legitimizes unconscionable deeds. That having been said, there is also considerable value to this old habit as well. For when a people explicitly identifies its essential qualities, it is implicitly challenging itself, and challenging each of its constituent members to strive hard to embody these qualities. Proclaiming “This is who we are; this is what we are”, is a powerful means for bringing out the best in one’s folks.

We, the Jewish people, have engaged in this too. In several places, the Talmud lists the essential qualities that make us the Jewish people, implicitly charging us to live up to them. What essential Jewish qualities would you guess the Talmud came up with? Wisdom? It’s not a bad guess, as it written, רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה. But that’s not it. Rugged stubbornness? Yes, we are the עורף עם קשה but this too is not the Talmud’s answer. It’s not even the capacity to stand alone against the world – though the verse עם לבדד ישכון praises our ability to so when necessary.

When our Sages looked to define who we are and what we are, this is what they said:

(Yevamot 29a)

שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים

There are three distinguishing marks of this nation, the Jewish people. They are merciful, they are sincerely humble, and they perform acts of kindness.

Rambam codified this statement as Halacha in several places in his Mishna Torah:


(Issurei Biah 19:17)

כֵן כָּל מִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בּוֹ עַזּוּת פָּנִים אוֹ אַכְזָרִיּוּת וְשׂוֹנֵא אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וְאֵינוֹ גּוֹמֵל לָהֶם חֶסֶד חוֹשְׁשִׁין לוֹ בְּיוֹתֵר שֶׁמָּא גִּבְעוֹנִי הוּא. שֶׁסִּימָנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָאֻמָּה הַקְּדוֹשָׁה בַּיְשָׁנִין רַחֲמָנִים וְגוֹמְלֵי חֲסָדִים.

(Gifts to the poor 10:1)

חַיָּבִין אָנוּ לְהִזָּהֵר בְּמִצְוַת צְדָקָה יוֹתֵר מִכָּל מִצְוֹת עֲשֵׂה. שֶׁהַצְּדָקָה סִימָן לַצַּדִּיק זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ “

(Avadim 9:8)

וְאֵין הָאַכְזָרִיּוּת וְהָעַזּוּת מְצוּיָה אֶלָּא בְּעַכּוּ”ם עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה אֲבָל … יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהִשְׁפִּיעַ לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא טוֹבַת הַתּוֹרָה וְצִוָּה אוֹתָם בְּחֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִים רַחְמָנִים הֵם עַל הַכּל. וְכֵן בְּמִדּוֹתָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶּׁצִּוָּנוּ לְהִדָּמוֹת בָּהֶם הוּא אוֹמֵר (תהילים קמה ט) “וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו“..

You have to admire the tactical brilliance of the Talmudic tradition in choosing these as our essential aspirational qualities. The Talmud – in the second and third centuries – is operating against a backdrop of no small amount of anti-Jewish hostility that’s out there in the world. And it presumes that Jewish history will continue to generate within us ample emotional, intellectual and even moral justification to be suspicious of those outside of tribe, indifferent toward their needs, and to focus of all our efforts, energy, and emotional capital inward. And so, it davka insists that the qualities of compassion, humility, and kindness to all of  God’s creations, are the qualities that make us who we are, and that if we were to abandon them, we would cease to be worthy of our name, worthy of our God.

We are lucky and blessed to be living in a time and in a land in which anti-Semitism is not a feature of our daily, personal routine; it isn’t an obstacle that stands in the way of our reaching our best Talmudic Jewish selves. The great head wind today, is something else. It’s the prevailing, pervasive, and pernivious social and political culture “out there”, of denunciation, mockery, and civic warfare. We’ve all been affected by it, and have been changed by it. We’re all more condescending and sarcastic, quicker to go on the attack, slower to listen and to engage. Not by conscious decision, God forbid, just through daily exposure to zeitgeist. And we’re drifting. Drifting from Yahadut, from the qualities of Jewishness that are so basic that we really aren’t Jews without them: instinctive compassion, reflexive humility, indomitable kindness – like Avraham’s.

Yet, there’s every reason to have confidence in our ability to reroot ourselves. Because in the end we are way too stiff-necked a people to be torn from our moorings by prevailing cultural winds. We are way too willing to be a people that dwells alone, that is countercultural, one that champions civility rather than warfare in debate, and which religiously extends kindness to God’s creation. And we are way too wise a people to think that anything good will ultimately come from interminable line-drawing, labeling, and confrontation.

שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים

This is who and what we are, when are truly ourselves.

Judaism has many lights. But only one is identified as the light of God. נר ד’ נשמת אדם. The light of God, is the soul of the human being. The light of God exists neither as particles nor as waves. It is not on the visible spectrum. The light of God is seen and felt in only one way. Through the religiously inspired soul of the human being. The kind of soul which sees the sorrow of another, and runs to bring comfort. Sees the anxiety of another, and offers an ear that listens and a heart that feels. One that senses the potential for strife, and projects the humility that is the trademark of peacemaker. This is how the light of God manifest. Through the compassionate, humble, and kind human soul.

Every Friday night we recite the Mishna that asks, במה מדליקין …..?. It’s a question about materials, about oils and wicks. The same question is of course also asked concerning the lights of Hanukkah. And as important as it is to use the right kind of oils and wicks, the ultimate question we think about as we light is not “which oils and wicks will produce a fitting Chanukah light?”, rather which qualities of the soul will produce the light of God?”  We are blessed with one more night to go.

(Tehillim 18)

כִּֽי־אַ֭תָּה תָּאִ֣יר נֵרִ֑י ה’, אֱ֝לֹקי יַגִּ֥יהַּ חָשְׁכִּֽי׃

It is You who lights my lamp; the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness


For the Friend I Buried Today. By Yosef Kanefsky

February 24, 2016

I buried a friend today. A friend, who four weeks ago was healthy and well, and was living the life of kindness, friendship, community, and family that had endeared her to everyone. A tower of emotional strength and personal determination, a person whose love was both fierce and tender. A friend, who suddenly and without warning tumbled into a coma, then hovered for four weeks between this world and the next, until finally, on Monday night, leaving us completely. At this very moment, as I look at my shoes still covered with cemetery dirt, I – together were an entire synagogue community – am not only pained and saddened, but also shattered and stunned.

I can’t help but also think about the family and friends of David Wichs a”h, a man described as an angel, who lost his life in the blink of an eye about three weeks ago when a huge construction crane hurtled to the ground exactly where he happened to be standing. How surreal and startling, how impossible-seeming it surely sounded to his loving wife, to his co-workers, to his synagogue community. What an unfathomable loss. May his family somehow, at some point, know comfort.

It is at moments like these – and they seem to come with almost numbing regularity these days – that we gently check our notions of individual Divine Providence at the cemetery door. For while the idea that God knows and responds to each of us individually in accordance with our deeds is often both inspiring and spiritually useful, there are just times when we need to place it in a quiet corner for a bit, as we recognize with pain and sorrow, that life, Judaism, and God are just a whole lot more complicated, and a whole lot more inscrutable than that. There are just times when we must hang our theological hats on the teaching of the Talmudic sage Rava, who said that “length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit, but on Mazal.” (Moed Kattan, 28a)

Which is not to say that events like these simply plunge us into a religious vacuum. Really just the opposite. This is when Jewish practice, with its overwhelming and unvarying emphasis on גמילות חסדים (acts of love and kindness) achieves the apex of its religious strength. We are battle-ready and trained. To visit the sick, to comfort the mourner, to cook the meals, to drive the carpools, to hug and embrace our fellow the way we would ourselves want to be hugged and embraced. Yes, in quieter and happier times, we can afford the luxury of the doctrine of individual Divine Providence. But on days like today, we just thrust ourselves headlong into the holy trenches of the hands-on mitzvot.

There’s a peculiar choreographic moment at the end of the daily Tachanun prayer. After petitioning God to forgive us our sins and to save us from bad occurrences, we come to the words “we don’t really know what to do”. We don’t really know the magic formula either for obtaining forgiveness or for securing protection. But remarkably, precisely as we say these words which carry such an air of resignation about them, we ritually rise from our chairs and stand upright. Yes it’s true that we don’t really know. But when confronted with not knowing, with not understanding, we respond by rising to the occasion, by embracing the certitude of goodness and kindness practiced toward those who are suffering the most.

For even Mazal can bend to Chesed.



How Shall We Secure Our Synagogues? by Yosef Kanefsky

January 12, 2016

It was billed as a “synagogue security meeting”, specifically for rabbis. And because we are living in the times we’re living, I drove over to our local Federation building yesterday and sat myself down around the board table. I wondered to myself though, why there needed to be a synagogue security meeting specifically for rabbis. Like so many of my colleagues, I am blessed with conscientious and smart lay-leadership who have been working hard on assessing and enhancing our synagogue’s security measures. And I was actually pretty certain that they had already been in contact with these very same Federation experts. What was it that was going to be rabbi-specific about this meeting, I asked myself. What is the specific rabbinic angle on the security situation?

Without taking anything away from what unfolded over the following hour – the presentation was extremely impressive, and I was grateful for having being invited to hear it – the bottom line was that the meeting didn’t really turn out to be rabbi-specific at all. It offered the same information that had been presented to lay-leaders. Nonetheless, the question about the unique rabbinic angle lingered with me. And the more I thought about it, the more sure I became that there certainly was one, that there must be something specific that I in particular should be focusing on.

My first idea emerged from the “pastoral” file. If people are anxious and worried, I reasoned, this must be affecting their family lives and relationships. And this is something that rabbis can and should engage, and have a unique way of doing so. But with some more contemplation, it occurred to me that the core issue is not pastoral in natural, rather spiritual. For living in a state of existential insecurity, can existentially threaten the life of the spirit.

Judaism, Torah, and Mitzvot all trade on the currency of optimism and faith. The world is a wondrous and miraculous place, we are asked to believe. God’s beneficence is in evidence everywhere, from the rising of the sun to the falling of the dew, from the food we have on our tables, to the basic bodily functioning that we too often take for granted, from the love we feel for our spouse, to the joy we derive from our children. And all of these blessings and wonders and miracles can and will persist and will be the gifts of generations to come, as long as we human beings can fulfill our fundamental charge to create communities and societies that function as effective delivery vehicles for these blessings and wonders. It is because we believe that the world is filled with goodness, that we structure our lives around perpetuating and channeling that goodness.

But what happens to us and our fundamental vision, when the foundations shake, when we begin to suspect that our fundamental optimism and faith are nothing more than naiveté and dangerous stupidity? How does this begin to reshape our personal vision, our communal goals?

We are taught, as a matter of Halacha, to see fellow human beings as noble bearers of the Divine image, whom we are commanded to greet cheerfully, whose material and emotional needs we are asked to engage, and to whom we are required to grant the benefit of the doubt. What happens to our ability to discharge our Halachik responsibilities when we feel no choice but to be fundamentally suspicious, to fear the worst, to see others as people from whom, first and foremost, we need to protect ourselves?

These are hard questions, and the geo-political reality which raises them is very real, and indeed very dangerous. Our worries over our security are very legitimate, and the need to enhance our security is very real. But what is the collateral damage? How will it change us, and change the nature of our Judaism? What we can do to protect ourselves from this threat?

I don’t know. Yet. But these are the rabbinic questions. Which is to say, these are the Jewish questions. And we need to have extraordinary meetings to address this too.


“HaShem and Allah. Who Knew?” posted by Yosef Kanefsky

December 22, 2015

I’m not a huge optimist when it comes to most of the world’s problems. Try as I may, optimism isn’t my default state. Somehow though, I am an incurable optimist when it comes to one thing – the proposition that if people devote time and energy to getting to know and understand one another, they will almost always emerge with mutual respect and admiration, and maybe even mutual affection. It is this optimism which, several years ago, led me to build into our B’nai & B’not Mitzvah program a “home-and home” series with the middle schoolers at our local Islamic Center.  We go and visit them on a Sunday, and soon thereafter, they come and visit us.

This past Sunday was “part one” of this year’s series. The first moments of our visit stood in stark contrast to our visits of previous years, as we were greeted by very visible evidence of heightened security.  We’re all afraid these days. But American Muslims may be the most afraid of all. We have known similar things ourselves of course.  Once we were safely inside however, the script of optimism and hope played out predictably and magically, even now, even today. Nervousness and awkwardness quickly gave way to mutual curiosity, smiles, and laughter. That’s what a good icebreaker, some delicious munchies, and small-group discussions can do, provide a tiny glimmer of what world peace might look like.

But not everything is predictable. Something always happens that you couldn’t have seen coming. Which usually turns out to be the most wonderful thing of all.  Once back in the big circle, the kids had more questions for one another, including about what Halal and Kosher each mean. Halal, we then learned, involves (among other things) the person doing the slaughtering saying bismillah – “in the name of Allah” – before he begins. Which generated the following remarkable exchange (of which I am not embellishing a single detail):

              Who is Allah? A person? A God? Who do you worship?

               Allah is God. The one God who created everything. Allah has 90 names, many of which we’re not supposed to pronounce, so we say “Allah”.

               Oh. And we say Hashem instead of pronouncing God’s actual name. That’s so cool.

               It’s the same God.

Lightbulbs go on around the room. Along with that feeling of intimacy that you get when you suddenly discover that someone you’ve known as an acquaintance is actually your third cousin.  And the small number of adults in the room know that the world has just changed, if only a little bit.

Of course, we went on from there to talk about ISIS and terrorism. Our kids candidly expressing their horror at what Muslim terrorists have perpetrated, and the Muslim kids expressing their anger at what is being done in the name of their religion. It will be their lot to confront this issue.  And it will be ours – the responsibility of our kids – to give them strength and support they need. And here is where it starts.

I’m not an optimist about most things. But in this, I believe in with all my soul.