Choosing Life?

Kol Nidre 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WIn the Torah portion we read just before the High Holidays, God says: I set before you life and death, choose life. Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Except in the most dire circumstances, we would choose life if we could. So what does the Torah mean when it enjoins us to choose life?

What is life? How would we define it? For Judaism, a core part of the answer lies in what we are doing right this moment. Not praying, not talking, not even studying, but doing any or all of those things together in community. As Robert Putnam, noted in his seminal book entitled Bowling Alone, fewer and fewer Americans are participating in civic and community life. Through an examination of bowling leagues and other forms of group activities, he found a serious change in the pattern of Americans as the role of the individual was elevated and the group demoted.

The internet has only made this issue more complex. Does the enormous virtual community created by social media diminish or increase peoples’ connections to one another? If you have 200 or 500 Face book friends—is that real connection even if it is only virtual, or is it a superficial “friendship,” or no friendship at all? Is it enabling connections you couldn’t possibly have face to face or is it a way of distancing yourself from others and controlling their access to your life?

In our contemporary world, Judaism is counter cultural when it suggests community as an essential aspect of religious life. The intimate act of pouring one’s heart out to God is not done in solitude but rather in the context of a minyan, a prayer quorum. The language of prayer, even the al het the confessional of Yom Kippur, is recited in the plural, though it is clear to most of us that the litany of sins we recite may have little to do with us. Shabbat and holidays are to be celebrated with family and friends.

While some religious traditions encouraged a renouncing of the worldly, Judaism called for an embrace of the world. Tikkun olam—repairing the world—may be a newly coined expression but love your neighbor as yourself has always been an essential teaching of Judaism. We are meant to live life in relation to other people—not in a cave alone, subsisting on a few berries. Don’t gossip, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t oppress the stranger because you were a stranger… all these injunctions found in the Book of Leviticus are about the challenges and opportunities for holiness in the everyday interactions with other people. Yes, we, each of us is created in the divine image/tzelem elohim. The Torah said it first: each human being is created with inalienable rights. Yet, those individual rights are supported and modified in the context of relationships. Caring and supportive relationships lead to community. [Read more…]

Sympathy for Azazel

Yom Kippur 5776 talk by Sam Bagenstos

samuel bagenstosWhen Deb Kraus asked me to give a talk on the scapegoat parsha, I was intrigued and intimidated.  It should be obvious why I was intimidated—this is a deeply learned crowd, and the chances of embarrassing myself by offering some half-baked reaction to one of the most studied portions of Torah were high.

But why was I intrigued?  Well, in part it goes back to my days misbehaving in Hebrew School.  In Fourth Grade or so, all my buddies and I did was try to learn to curse in Hebrew.  I remember one of them leaning over in class, whispering to me what he said was the Hebrew for “Go to Hell!”—I still don’t know whether he was right; we were all just making stuff up—which is the first time I recall hearing the word, “Azazel.”  Yes, even though it was the Seventies, “Go to Hell!” was as transgressive as we got, I’m ashamed to say.

Ever since then, I’ve found the scapegoat story somewhat fascinating.  I mean, we’re Jews—I thought we didn’t have much of an idea of Hell, or a devil, or anything like that.  Yet here we see, right in Leviticus—the most prescriptively legalistic book of the Torah—that Aaron must take the two goats and draw lots, with one goat designated for the Lord and the other “for Azazel.”

This is apparently the only place in the Torah in which the word “Azazel” appears.  And a debate has raged for centuries about what, exactly, the word means.  Some do in fact interpret “Azazel” as referring to a demon, evil demigod, or fallen angel.  (The suffix “-el” often denotes an angel’s name.)  Others interpret “Azazel” as referring to a rough mountain—in other words, it’s the place where the goat is sent.  Note that the Torah does not say anything about what happens to Azazel’s goat once it is set free.  It just says that “the goat shall carry on it all [the Israelites’] iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”  Nonetheless, the Mishnah tells us that the tradition during the time of the Temple was to push the scapegoat off of a hard, rocky cliff.  And “Azazel” may simply have referred to the cliff.smpathy for the devil

But then there’s the third, simplest interpretation.  “Azazel” might refer to the goat itself.  “Ez”—Hebrew for goat—plus “azal”—apparently the Aramaic word for “to go.”  So “Azazel” might simply mean, roughly, “the goat that went away”—just as the English “scapegoat” means “the goat that escaped.”  Obviously, it’s the first of these definitions that inspires my title, Sympathy for Azazel—thanks Mick and Keith!—but I’m actually more interested in the other two, as you’ll see. [Read more…]

Welcome Rabbi Alana Alpert

by Deborah Fisch

Alpert_photoDuring the Aug. 28 Shabbat service, visiting rabbi Alana Alpert explained her route to the rabbinate. While her first love was community organizing in service of social justice, she worried about the high rate of burnout such work entailed. Rabbinical school seemed to her a way to prepare to help those leaders most at risk for burnout. “I never expected to be a rabbi with my own congregation!” She now splits her time as a half-time rabbi for Congregation T’chiyah in Detroit and as a community organizer with Detroit Jews for Justice – and one of our visiting rabbis.

In her Dvar Torah, Rabbi Alpert examined a verse from Parsha Ki Teitzei: “When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof…” She found this verse’s practical application in preventing potential harm to be immediately relevant to her recently purchased fixer-upper, in which she and her partner discovered rotted beams that threatened the stability of a second-floor balcony. While the installation of a roof rail or replacement beams improves physical safety, Rabbi Alpert also inferred a symbolic meaning for the rail: it acts as a limit on pride of ownership of a house – a necessary check on entitlement and privilege in the midst of poverty and homelessness.

We welcome to our congregation Rabbi Alpert and the many other newcomers who attended the service, including a large contingent of U-M Law School students. The usual outstanding potluck dinner followed the service, which this time might appropriately have been titled, “Celebration of the Tomato.”

Morgan Buroker D’var Torah, August 1, 2015, Parshah Ve’ethanan

IMG_0892Hello, shabbat shalom! I am so happy that now I get to tell you about my parshah! My parshah is called Va`ethanan. Va`ethanan is in the book of Deuteronomy chapters 4-7. The whole book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches given by Moses reminding the Jews, who are standing at the shore of the Jordan River, of their history and the rules to follow in the land. Deuteronomy means “second law” because this is the second time the rules have been stated to the Jewish people. (The first time being after the Jews left Egypt).

Va`ethanan means “and I plead.” In the beginning of my parshah, Moses begs (pleads) to God to let him in the land after he is told he could not go. He was not successful. Next, the Ten Commandments are restated and the Shema and V’ahavta are declared. Also in the parshah is a famous verse that inspired the Passover haggadah that says “When in time to come, your children ask you, what mean the rules and laws that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you, you shall say to your children, we were slaves to the pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a helping hand.”

Today I will be talking about the Ten Commandments, from Deuteronomy chapter 5 lines 1-18. Moses is restating the commandments. Almost all people who left Egypt died on the 40 year trip to Israel, so a whole new generation of people who had not heard the Ten Commandments were there to hear them. That is why Moses needed to restate them. Also, the Ten Commandments are important because if you don’t do a commandment, it could sacrifice your chances of living a good life in the promised land.

The big thing that I am focusing on is the commandment “Honor your mother and father.” This commandment is very interesting to me for many reasons. One reason is that God actually had to tell us to honor our parents. God could have made a more important commandment, like “treat animals right.” Animal abuse is a more important problem in this world; not that I’m saying honoring your parents isn`t important. It’s just not as important as some problems in the world. Now why does God actually need to tell us to honor our parents? If God didn’t, does God think that we wouldn’t do it? But the thing is, just because there is a commandment about something doesn’t always mean that people will still follow it, people don’t always honor their parents. [Read more…]

D’varim, Tisha B’Av and the Meaning of Justice

My d’var Torah for Shabbat, July 24, 2015.

Painting: The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans

I want to talk today about what I see as a connection between two things: Tisha b’Av, the fast day that begins Saturday evening, and D’varim, this week’s parsha.

I’ll start with Tisha b’Av, the holiday when, traditionally, Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple and the forced exile of the Jews from Jerusalem.

Here’s a story, a fable, from the Talmud about how it is that that destruction came about:

There was a man who was very good friends with someone named Kamza and did not get along with another person with a similar name, Bar Kamza. This man was preparing to host a large banquet. He told his servant to invite his friend Kamza. But the servant made a mistake and invited Bar Kamza.

The host was very surprised to see his least favorite person, Bar Kamza, at his party, and ordered him to leave. But Bar Kamza did not want to be thrown out; he thought that would be humiliating. So he offered to pay for his portion of food. The host refused. Bar Kamza next offered to pay for half of the expenses of the large party. Still the host refused. Finally, Bar Kamza offered to pay for the entire banquet. In anger, the host grabbed Bar Kamza and physically threw him out. [Read more…]

Aden Angus D’var Torah, June 27, 2015 Parsha Chukkat

Aden Angus Bar Mitzvah picToday I read from chapter 20 in the book of Numbers. In the book of Numbers are stories about the 40 years in the desert and what happens there. The name of the parsha is Chukkat. The Hebrew word Chukkat means a ritual law. In the beginning of this parsha God gives the law of the red heifer. A perfect red heifer is sacrificed and its ashes are then mixed with water to purify anyone who has touched or been in the same room with a dead person. One commentary I read suggested that the word chukka is used for a law that does not make rational sense. In this case, I would agree with that!

The parsha ends with the story of the Israelites attempting to cross through the lands of Arad, Edom, and Bashan. The kings of these lands did not allow the Israelites to pass and there were wars, all of which were won by the Israelites. How was this possible for a group of slaves that fled Egypt with what they could carry and hardly had food to eat?

The portion of Chukkat that I read was when Moses strikes the rock and is punished by God for not following God’s instruction. Many don’t see why Moses was punished; it didn’t make sense. The story of Moses striking the rock is a pivotal and surprising story of the Torah. It is surprising because Moses is punished so severely after not obeying God’s instructions. To truly understand the emotions of the story we must understand the thought process of Moses in the situation. As we know, Moses was one of the great leaders of all time and led the Israelites back from Egypt. He had been a flawless messenger of God up to this point. [Read more…]

Odile Hugonot Haber on Parashat Shemini

Odile Hugonot Haber Bat Mitzvah Words, April 11 2015

We are reading in Leviticus now, and it is a good time to have a Bat Mitzvah, a recommitment, because in Hebrew, the book of Leviticus and its first chapter are named Vayikra,–“and the Lord Called.” I read in Avraham Burg’s Torah commentary, Very Near To You “When the time comes for the book of Leviticus, with all its sacrifices and their spattered blood, I raised my spines like a hedgehog…” We do too, so how do we understand these passages today?

Odile roasting chestnuts in old city of  Jerusalem after a snowstorm in 2014

Odile roasting chestnuts in old city of Jerusalem after a snowstorm, 2014

The Hebrews came out to the desert led by Moses and Aaron, liberated from slavery, from alienated labor and from the whip of Pharaoh, the ruler and employer. They found themselves suddenly in front of the silence–and beauty–of the desert, a simpler life in accordance with the rhythms of nature. Yes, life in the desert can be humbling, very simple, bringing us back to our core. The few sounds in the silence, the plants that grow against the wind, the crackling of the sand, the trails of little animals, all that immensity of sky, earth and cloud. Definitely a new way of life.

The desert can be very intimidating, such a change! It was important to organize that emerging society, give it some structure and community. Rather than leave them in front of each other in distress to fight and divide, it was time to build on their freedom and support a spiritual life that would nourish them and open their minds and hearts. The tribes had to be kept assembled and form a new identity. So the services were created, the priesthood was formed, the people performed, then the laws were given from on high.

But what about the sacrifices of animals, the spilling of blood? How could it possibly mean something to us now? Very few of us are prepared to spill blood, and yet we are living from the continual sacrifices of others. Our nation and its might of military arsenals is continually spilling the blood of some of the poorest people on earth. Many animal species are moving to extinction because humans are gorging ourselves on materialism while the rest of nature is perishing around us.

The second temple has been long destroyed, animal sacrifices have been eradicated, and many of us here are vegetarian. So what are the sacrifices that Adonai wants to get from us at this time? “The building of the temple and the renewal of the sacrificial service are the climax of the Jewish state’s true rebirth and the redemption of the world,” as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook expressed it, “to build the temple and the sacrificial service is the noblest and highest of aspiration.” It certainly beats materialism and shopping. Yet, Isaiah tells us that God does not delight in sacrifices and in rituals. God instead would like us to do the work of Peace and Justice around us. [Read more…]

Caleb’s drash

Mazel tov to Caleb on his becoming Bar Mitzvah! Here is his d’var torah, on Parashat Yitro

Caleb, on the day of his Bar Mitzvah

Caleb, on the day of his Bar Mitzvah

 Welcome, Shabbat shalom.

This week’s Torah portion is called Yitro, Exodus 18 through 20. The Israelites have just left Egypt, and crossed the Red Sea, and they are in the wilderness. In the first part of the portion, Moses meets up with his father-in-law Jethro (His Hebrew name is Yitro, thus the name of the portion). Jethro notices that Moses is carrying too much responsibility by solving everyone’s little arguments and disputes. Jethro suggests that Moses should have other people solve the Israelites’ minor disputes and bring only the big problems to Moses. Moses follows Jethro’s advice.

Meanwhile, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites to prepare for God to come down to Mount Sinai to talk to the people. The people follow God’s wishes and wait for God to come down. When God comes down in a theatrical show of thunder, lighting and the trembling of the mountain, God makes a set of rules that are now known as the ten commandments.

I will read the ten commandments in my Torah portion today. [Read more…]

Mazel Tov, Avi!

Avi became Bar Mitzvah on Saturday, December 6.  Here’s his thoughtful d’var torah, on Jacob and Esau and their reconciliation.


Avi, at his Bar Mitzvah

Shabbat Shalom!

My parshah is VaYishlach (and he went), set in the book of Genesis. And he went refers to Jacob leaving Laban’s house to slowly work his way home again after “being paid” and accruing a lot of wetalth, including loads of goats and sheep from Laban, two wives, a large family, and lots of slaves.

The Parshah is about the Jacob and has three small stories within it:

First, Jacob wrestling with the being, where Jacob bumps into some being in the night and wrestles it. As the day is breaking, the being asks to be let go, and Jacob says he will let it go only if it will give him a blessing. He gets the blessing and the name Israel.  By the way my haftorah, Hosea 11-12 references this moment, connecting it to my parshah.

The middle of the parashah describes how Jacob, on his way home after running from Esau twenty years earlier, realizes that he will now have to confront his brother.

The end of the parashah tells the story of the possible rape of Dinah. I am not going to discuss this in my D’rash today, but if you don’t know about it then you should read it yourself. It is interesting and important.

Let us begin with the story of the wrestling. [Read more…]

A D’var Torah about the Akedah

by Margo Schlanger

ShofarThe traditional Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is about the birth of Isaac and the near-death of Ishmael, Abraham’s son by a woman whose name we never find out – Hagar, the name given in the Torah, means “foreigner.”  Ishmael, of course, is the father of the Ishmaelites.  In the Muslim tradition, he is the Muslim patriarch, ancestor of Muhammed, and more generally of the Arab Muslims.

It’s the relationship between that first day’s parsha and the parsha for today, Rosh Hashanah’s second day, that I want to talk about.  Today’s parsha is Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  As we all know, it’s a difficult portion.  If the project of our Torah reading is to find inspiration and edification, that’s a tough undertaking from a story that seems to portray just about everyone behaving badly.

How can we reconcile ourselves to a God who says to Abraham “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you”?  And if the answer to that question is, it’s a test, then that raises another question:  How can we admire an Abraham who is so bold, so compassionate, as to argue with God over strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah, but not bold enough and compassionate enough to argue with God about the command to murder his own child?  If it’s a test, didn’t Abraham fail, when he set so silently to obey?

These are not new questions.  [Read more…]