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

Fixing Sinai: Purim and Jewish Conscience: Barry Gelman

March 8, 2017

The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai. (Shabbat 88a. Thanks to Sefaria for providing the translation –

This account of what happened at Sinai is very different from what we read in the Torah. Besides the question that the Rabbis raise themselves – “ From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah”, this account raises another question.

The great Na’aseh V’Nishma (we will do and we will listen) moment, when Bnei Yisrael accepted the torah unconditionally, is undermined by the Rabbinic version.

Why would the Rabbis offer this alternate account that makes Bnei Yisrael out to be reluctant to accept the Torah? Additionally, how were matters actually remedied on Purim?  Read the rest of this entry »

Interpersonal Commandments by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 2, 2017



Abraham welcoming the three men

Recently I was in a community populated by older people.    After davening I was sitting in the passenger’s seat of a car and moved to the back to accommodate an older man who walked with a cane.   His friend, an older holocaust survivor, who has lived for all of his post war years in Brooklyn, sat in the back with me and commented that he was very impressed that I gave up my seat.  He said it is not common anymore for people to show honor to the elderly.


The next morning as I put on my tifilin I wondered if he would have been as pleasantly surprised that I, an observant Jew, had put on tifilin.  Probably not -and yet these actions, wearing tifilin and standing for the elderly, are both biblical commandments.


Maimonides in his book of law puts it this way:

We must stand up for one who is very elderly, even if the person is not a scholar.  And even a someone who is a scholar must stand for an elderly individual…We also honor an elderly non-Jew and lend them a hand, for the verse, “stand before the elderly,” applies to anyone who is elderly, (Laws of Torah Study 6:9).


Why is it that we expect religious Jews to be punctilious in performing commandments between people and G-d and not between people and other people?  What would observant Jewish life be like if we, like our ancestors, were more careful and paid more attention to the details of interpersonal commandments than those between us and G-d?


Which of these, in fact is more important?   If a ritual and interpersonal commandment are in conflict, which should win out?


It is clear I think, that commandments between us and other people come first, and indeed can trump those between us and G-d.  According to the Talmud we learn this from Avrohom who leaves G-d’s presence to welcome three people who he thinks are idolatrous nomads, walking in the desert.  From here the Talmud concludes, “Greater is the welcoming of guests than receiving the Divine presence.”


If one were in the middle of praying to G-d and a newcomer entered the synagogue that needed to be welcomed should we interrupt our prayer to welcome them?   Indeed, it is said of Rabbi Chaim of Veloshon that he did push aside prayer in order to welcome guests.

Progress to Redemption by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 20, 2017

This Shabbat we begin the second book of the Torah in which we read about the enslavement in Egypt and the subsequent redemption process. On Passover we drink 4 cups of wine to symbolize the four steps of redemption mentioned here. I will take you out, I will save you, I will take you culturally out of Egypt, and I will redeem you. Some even say there’s a 5th cup – and I will bring you to the land of Israel.  

The question is asked why 4 cups of wine to represent the four steps of redemption? Why not four matzos or four pieces of meat?  Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin explains that this was a process the Jews had to go through in order not just to be taken out of Egypt but to actually change from being slaves to becoming to Jewish people.  
Wine is like that. It is a progression. We drink one cup and we feel it a little bit, we drink a 2nd cup and we feel it more and more. it builds on itself and takes us from one place to another if done correctly. 
The point is an important one – that change and redemption does not happen in the blink of an eye, it happens rather through a process. Human beings don’t change easily but they can change. Each of us is more flexible than we realize, though often we are afraid of change.  
And so part of the message of these parshiot and the redemption from Egypt is that God is there with us to help us and that there is a process to undergo. Positive change doesn’t just happen overnight. So too with our own spiritual lives. we have to engage in the process, we have to cry out to God to begin the process, but then God will help us. What process can we begin this Shabbat to help us to progress toward becoming more morally and spiritually developed human beings and Jews?

Parshat Vayeshev – Being a Tzadik, by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 20, 2016


This week’s Torah portion, Va’yeshev, begins by describing the relationship between Joseph and his brothers when Joseph was 17 years old. The Torah tells us that when Joseph was tending sheep with his brothers “…Joseph brought slander about them to his father. Israel loved Joseph more of all the brothers….and they (his brothers) were unable to speak with Joseph peacefully…” Certainly everyone, no matter how righteous, sins at times. But why does the Torah specifically tell us this sin of Joseph’s, that he spoke badly of his brothers to his father? In addition, how could he, Joseph the Tzadik, the righteous one, be guilty of such a crime?
Some commentaries justify Joseph’s actions, proposing that perhaps he saw evil in his brothers and meant to tell their father in order that Jacob would discipline them. Some also judge the brothers favorably explaining that what Joseph saw was not what was actually happening. Still others (the Seforno) blame Jacob for his bad parenting in favoring Joseph over his other children and thereby causing hated among them.
The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, does not apologize for Joseph’s, or his brother’s, or their father’s actions. He says that indeed Joseph was guilty of the sin of slander and that this is the reason he must descend to Egypt. Latter he will become Joseph the Tzazadik, Joseph the Righteous. The job of the tzadik, the righteous Jewish leader, says the Sefat Emet, is to take the good deeds of the Jewish people and bring them before G-d, ignoring the people’s evil deeds. Joseph needed to learn this in order to create unity among his people. This is the lesson he learns in Egypt through the trials and travails, the tests and his time in prison. Only after the experience of Egypt is he complete and ready to be Joseph the Tzadik.

What adversity and what sins do we need to navigate in order to become the tzadikim that can help to facilitate the true end goal of Jewish unity?

Make America Civil Again by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 9, 2016
Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

One of my congregants watched the presidential debates with their 9 year old child. After a few minutes the child stood up and said, “we are not allowed to watch this.” When they inquired why she replied, because it is lashon hara, (Hebrew for evil speech, slander), which the Torah forbids (Leviticus, 19:16).
Judaism teaches us that leaders should be examples of nobility, caring, and humility. It is no coincidence that Moses was, “the most humble man who ever lived.” That God chose him not because Moses had a plan for leading the people, or because he had the skills for leadership, he did not. God chose Moshe because Moshe cared about individuals and was willing to put himself on the line for them. He killed an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, stopped two Jews from fighting and rebuked one for hitting the other, and defended the powerless among the Gentiles when he protected the daughter of Yitro from shepherds who refused to give her access to the local well. These three stories are all we know about Moses the individual before he was elected leader by God.
To Jews who believe that nothing is more powerful than speech, nothing more sacred than our character, and nothing more precious to God than how we care for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner, how should we relate to an era which produces candidates who, a child reminds us, speak words to which it is forbidden to listen because they are so malicious? How should we react to living in an era when ego, not humility, wins the day? When candidates who propose to lead us are being investigated by the authorities? When we cannot allow our children to hear the misogynistic words spoken by the leader of the free world? How do we teach and learn nobility and respect in such a world? How should we respond to living here, to living now?
Finding ourselves in a place whose culture produces bad models for us and our children, Maimonides recommends moving to another society or living alone in a cave (Hilchot Deot 6:1).
I would like to suggest a third approach. As my brother-in-law put it, “Instead of mourning – organize.” I think this means that we can feel empowered to build a society with a more noble vision than the one our leaders paint through their actions. We can use what feels like a time of strife, and for half of America, disappointment and fear, to empower ourselves and others by coming together to make something better. You may not be able to fix Washington but you can impact the world around you, and by extension, America’s acrimonious culture which has dominated the public square these many months.
Here is a suggestion. Make a list of the 3 values you hold most dear, the ones you would like to inculcate in your children. Then make a list of 2 ways you can live out those values. Call someone you know to discuss ways to actualize one of them, maybe each of you in your own way, or by teaching them to people around you, or by joining with people or an organization who are committed to the same value.
Instead of feeling the anger, strife, slander, and suspicion of these many electoral months, become empowered to act. And every day ask yourself: Am I closer to or farther away from the life I think I and my neighbors should lead?

The Seder as a Tikun for the Sin of Joseph and his Brothers -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

May 4, 2016

Our seders are held primarily in homes and involve families discussing the Exodus and eating the symbols associated with it.  Without relating to another, no seder is complete. The child must ask, and the parent must answer. If there is no child, adults must ask each other. Jewish law, in fact, sees dialogue as so intrinsic to the seder that even if one is alone, that person must ask and answer the questions, creating a kind of interrelating even where there is none.

Why all this emphasis at the seder on familial relationships?

Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of Passover itself.   According to the Midrash, the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt due to the sin of Joseph and his brothers. The sale of Joseph eventually resulted in, and some say was a punishment for, the exile in Egypt.

If we look closely at the Passover seder, we see that it is a reenactment not only of slavery and freedom but of the story of Joseph and his brothers that led the Jewish people to Egypt in the first place.

We begin the seder with the strange custom of dipping a vegetable into salt water. This dipping is called karpas. The word karpas means “colored cloth” (Esther 1:6). This recalls Joseph’s colored coat that his brothers dipped in goat’s blood and brought to their father when they sold him into slavery saying that he had been eaten by an animal.

In preparation for the karpas, we wash our hands but without a blessing. This looks like we are washing for bread, but we do not eat bread or matzah; it is a different kind of ritual washing than we are used to. This recalls that the first thing Joseph’s brothers did after they threw him in the pit was sit down to eat bread. They eat bread, but the Torah does not record them washing their hands, so we wash our hands, after which we do not eat bread (or matzah).

We then break the matzah. Generally, the bread one blesses should be whole. On this night, we bless a broken piece.   Perhaps this recalls, in addition to slavery, how that which should have been whole, the Jewish family, was broken.

We drink four cups of wine. The Talmud says that we drink four cups because when Joseph was sold into Egypt and ended up in jail, it was through interpreting the dream of Pharaoh’s wine steward that he was eventually freed from bondage, and in this dream narrative the phrase “cup of wine” is mentioned four times.

We then begin the story part of the Haggadah, which strangely does not include the verses of the story of the Exodus from the book of Exodus but instead a four sentence summary of the story of the Jewish peoples’ descent into Egypt and subsequent redemption as told by the farmer who brings his first fruits to the Tabernacle in the book of Deuteronomy.

This recitation begins, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father, and he (my father) went down to Egypt.” We usually assume this is talking about Laban the Aramean, who tried to overwork Jacob, and Jacob, who many years latter went down to Egypt.

But the word “Arami,” “an Aramean,” can also mean a “deceiver.” There was a person whom “Arameans,” that is, deceivers, tried to destroy, and then he immediately went down to Egypt, namely Joseph whose brothers deceived him and sold him into Egyptian slavery.

Perhaps, in addition to the telling of the story of the slavery and redemption, we are also telling the story of the strife among Joseph and his brothers and hoping that through bringing families and the Jewish people together in a remaking of this encounter we can create peace and ultimately undo the cause for which we went to Egypt in the first place, hatred, which is indeed the cause of all exiles.