Today is March 30, 2020 -
Joy and learning on Westchester's Sound Shore
2111 Boston Post Road, Larchmont, NY 10538
Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski
Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski was raised in Argentina, earned his law degree at the University of Buenos Aires Law School (1986) and was ordained as a rabbi at the Seminario Latinoamericano (1991). He received an MA in rabbinic literature and a doctorate in Jewish Philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1997), where he taught for over a decade. He also earned an MSW from the Adelphi Graduate School of Social Work.
Rabbi Borodowski also studied at the Hebrew University Institute for Advanced Studies and is a graduate of Senior Educators program at the Melton Center for Education in the Diaspora – Hebrew University (1989-1990). In 1989 he was invited to spend a semester at the Hebrew Union College-Cincinnati as the first Conservative rabbinical student from the Seminario Rabbinical School. He is a graduate of the Metivta Institute for Contemplative Judaism (2000-2001) and is certified as an administrator and interpreter of the Myers Briggs personality type instrument specializing in organizational leadership and spirituality. He is a graduate of the Kellogg School of Management for Jewish Leaders (2009).
Rabbi Alfredo also served for 5 years as the Executive Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute for North America.
Revealing the Secret: Why the Messiah Will Only Celebrate Purim (3/7/20)
It is with great excitement that we count the days until Monday, March 9th, at 6:30pm, when we will gather to celebrate the most bizarre holiday on the calendar – Purim. In what seems unimaginable, the rabbis encourage cross-dressing, drunkenness, and plenty of noise. However, Purim enjoys a very special status, mostly unknown. The rabbis and many influential later authorities explain that during Messianic times when all our needs will be satisfied, all Prophetic writings and festivals will be abolished. But as usual in our tradition, there is always an exception – in this instance, Purim. The Messianic era will not know of matzah, blintzes, or latkes. Our festive diet will only consist of hamentashen. Millions of copies of the Song of Songs, the Passover Haggadah, and Ruth will be shelved, while the Book of Esther will remain active. This is extremely puzzling. What is so special about Purim that it will stand alone while all other Holidays will cease to exist?
Why such a distinction? One answer is found in the very same Scroll of Esther. Close to the end of the story, we read: “These days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews” (Esther 9:28). The writer of the Scroll of Esther was the first great marketer of Jewish history by placing a clause in the very book dictating that the book cannot be forgotten. Certainly a brilliant tactic. The writer had a compelling reason for keeping this book alive. In Esther, we are smart and strong, defeating evil with our power. We take destiny into our own hands. That’s a lesson to endure perpetually. However, there is another beautiful reason for Purim’s survival. As Maimonides explains, although the Messianic era will bring great prosperity, hunger will never cease to exist. It is at this point that Purim finds its place in eternity.
One of the central commandments of Purim is matanot la evionim, “gifts to the indigent.” More than any other Holiday, Purim invites us to create a better world. Yes, during Purim, we are invited to play with chaos. But Jewish Law reminds us that as we enjoy the Holy Day, a multitude of people on the streets live in chaos. The Messiah needs our help to bring life to those in existential peril. Donating tzedakah is in the DNA of Purim, and even when Messianic times arrive, goodness among people will remain at the heart of humanity. This Purim, give a tzedakah gift, no matter how small. The act is the essence of the holiday. And please, now that you know that Purim will still exist during Messianic times, don’t wait that long. Come and join us on Monday.
Exodus-Torah Portion Terumah-Chapter 25, Verses 31-32 (2/29/20)
“You shall make a Menorah of pure gold…six branches shall issue from its sides.”
Why was olive oil the only type of oil allowed for the lighting of the menorah? The prophet Jeremiah explains that this was in honor of the people of Israel who resembled an olive. But how? A group of sages interpreted that in the same manner as an olive must be pressed and beaten to produce its purest oil, the misfortunes, deprivation, and expulsion the Israelites endured brought out of them the purest and most pious heart. This approach was wonderfully expressed by medieval philosopher Hasdai Cresca: “Light is perceived only out of the darkness.” A different group of sages maintained that as the oil of the menorah would bring light to many, the duty of the Israelites is to share their wisdom with the world. This view was coined by a group of sages in the Talmud (Shabbat, 122a) as “a light for one is a light for a hundred.” We are left with two very different approaches. One based on suffering and the other on a warm and illuminating light. I believe that these two views do not represent mutually exclusive positions, but are both valid experiences on our journeys. We have all been beaten like an olive in the mortar of life. Pain has injured our souls. However, we have transformed the dark experience into the finest learning. On other occasions, we have been blessed with the precious feeling that we can make a difference in the world. We feel a flame of optimism and endless energy to do good deeds in this universe, craving for much kindness. This kaleidoscope of life, with its existential contrasts, is our menorah. The Hasidic masters teach that we all possess a spark of life in the soul. That spark can’t be extinguished. It is part of the light used by God on the first day of creation to defeat chaos. The original menorah has been destroyed. However, it still glows each time we fall and come back or help somebody else to love life. Trust me; close your eyes and go deep into self-searching for a point in the self that feels warm. Yes, it is wonderful.
May you have a wonderful week.
“Lord, may it be Thy will to place us on the side of light.” Rab Hannuna, Berakhot, 17a.
Exodus-Chapter 16, Verse 4 (2/22/20)
“And God said to Moses: I will rain down bread from the sky.”
Eating matzah was by no means the ancient South Beach Diet. Forty years of Matzah would have resulted in a national physiological devastation. The Israelites desperately pleaded for a substitute, and the “Cosmic Chef” responded by changing the menu. A new dish, manna, was introduced. This heavenly delicacy resembled a “coriander seed, white, and tasted like wafers in honey.” Yes, we owned the original IHOP franchise. We certainly had an enormous captive clientele. Still, despite this wonderful culinary arrangement, the Israelites cried for Egyptian fish, cucumber and watermelon. Why? Wasn’t manna the perfect meal? My dearest friend, Javier Tenenbaum, who was murdered by the Hezbollah in Argentina, once visited the Soviet Union. Upon his return, he told me: “Alfredo, I went to the government ice-cream parlor and asked for a strawberry cone. Instead, the lady handed me vanilla. I pointed out the strawberry box and in broken English, she mandated, ‘we will not open the strawberry box until the vanilla is finished.’” Similarly, the Israelites enjoyed the wonderful manna. However, despite their food security, the Israelites understood that they were chained to one flavor. From this perspective, our simple choice between “salad and pizza” acquires great relevance. Our freedom is the accumulation of seemingly small choices. We should never put our journeys on autopilot. We must be conscious of our privilege to choose. But freedom is also our capacity to resist. Choosing the pizza may be experienced as freedom. However, if we are dieting that freedom is illusory. Eating that pizza is to be enslaved to our impulses. Wise choices are not to be taken for granted. They must be practiced. That’s why in Judaism we bless upon seeing the rainbow, eating a fruit or bread. The blessing is a contemplative method to see the world through wonder. Attention is the root of choice and appreciation. I invite you this week to stop a few times and acknowledge your basic choices. Choose to choose. Resist negative freedom. In their infinite wisdom, the Rabbis explained that the manna tasted according to the wishes of each person. Some tasted lamb, others fish, and some, who knew…strawberry ice cream. This transformed the manna from infantilizing nourishment into the food of the free. Choosing the taste was the flavor of freedom. I just wonder, how did we mutate from pancakes to lox?
Exodus-Torah Portion Yitro-Chapter 20, Verse 2 (2/15/20)
“I’m your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,”…and why Plato, Rabbi Akiba, and Harry Potter knew how to pray.
Instead of beginning the Ten Commandments with a rule, God precedes them with a strange reminder; “I’m the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.” God seems to imply that the only reason He can command is that He has proven His love for Israel. The liberation from slavery serves as the grounding for Divine authority. Love thus precedes law. Authority must be rooted in affection. If Divine devotedness ceases, God’s kinship collapses. In many ways, our challenge in modernity is not so much the fulfillment of commandments, but our soul’s dispassion for God’s millennial love. When rationalism abandoned faith for cold science and postmodernity fragmented reality, the Divine concern for us was eclipsed by spiritual shadows. Love, not tradition, is our challenge. For centuries, humanity imagined another realm from which we were spiritually and intellectually nourished. Plato called it the World of Ideas. The Jewish Mystics, the Heavenly Palace. And the rabbis, the Celestial Jerusalem. All of them were unified by the wonderful invitation to take a celestial journey beyond the terrestrial boundaries. That parallel existence nurtured them and inspired them to soar into mysterious domains. From those journeys, they brought us precious gifts such as music and poetry. None of those gifts would have been conceivable in the purely material realm. If we lose that dimension, we will become existentially impoverished. Like the great scholar from the University of Chicago, Prof. Michael Fishbein, affirms, “Old Plato and his heaven soaring chariots of ideas have taken a nosedive.” Unfortunately, I add that most of the spiritual world lies at the edge of a meaningless black hole. People tell me, “Rabbi, I feel nothing while praying.” The response for me is clear: “We foreclosed the world of the above and our prayers have nowhere to ascend.” As Rabbi Heschel taught, prayer cannot be a soliloquy; a monologue. Certainly, pray for the love of community, the music, or the poetry. But try to initiate your journey with the possibility that there is “something” beyond the here and now. Reflect upon who or what has taken you out of your personal Egypt. The smashing success of Harry Potter (first volume now in Yiddish) and Lord of the Rings unmasks our craving for the mysterious. God, even God, needed the Exodus to be allowed to command. Divine love, emanating from the heavens is eternal. If the beyond with its everlasting love, sacredness, mystery, is lost, the spirit that elevates us beyond the self will be crushed into the cold dusty ground. This Shabbat taking the Torah out of the ark will be emotional. Linked to Jews in synagogues for two thousand years, we will mimic the revelation at Sinai. It seems to me that despite all our travails, Divine love has prevailed.
Exodus-Torah Portion Beshalach-Chapter 15, Verse 3 (2/8/20)
“God is a man of war; God is His name.”
“God…….God is His name.” This is truly bizarre. If the first statement uses the name of “God,” why is the Torah immediately introducing that same name as unknown? We just used it! The key to solving this mystery lies in the context in which this verse is recited. It appears in the powerful “Song of the Sea,” sung by the Israelites upon the miraculous crossing of the Sea of Reeds. The song crudely details the demise of Pharaoh’s army. The puzzling phrase seems to declare that while God was fighting, God simultaneously maintained God’s name. What does this mean? Biblical commentators explain that God was able to do both, battle and continue God’s general gift of nourishing the world with kindness and love. The first mention of God referred to the battle and the second, “God is His name,” to God’s rule over creation. The particular and universal are thus entangled in a perfect dance. This verse teaches us the fundamental virtue of complexity. We can measure the maturity of a civilization on a complexity scale. The capacity to reside in dissonant opposite views with curiosity and objectivity secures a society of dialogue and depth. The dangers of unilateral and narrow views, of any ideological or political colors, are toxic. God leads the way as God was simultaneously a warrior and a nourisher. God maintained an equilibrium between two seemingly irreconcilable poles. In the same manner, each one has the potential of self-contradiction for the sake of growth. Nobody has the right to hinder our sacred complexities. Nobody has the right to demand from us internal coherence. Each time I read a profound book I experience a transformation. My views shift and contradict much of what I have previously sustained. Am I deceitful, naive or insecure? Absolutely not. There is no cosmic law compelling us to existential consistency. Those who do not understand that we are engaged in a magnificent journey of learning are blindly standing by the side of the road to enlightenment. Imposed intellectual uniformity engenders a savage tyranny against expression and creativity. I don’t care what you believe! But exercise the courage to contemplate the opposite critical view on it. We endowed the world with the longest and most sophisticated sacred argumentation; the Talmud. We are obliged to continue in the footsteps of our sages. After years of deeply studying the Torah, the greatest lesson I have learned is that God evolves. God is a learner. That’s the essential lesson; that to learn is sacred. We must resist a society based on clichés, sound bites, and TV shows of infantile rhetoric that try by all means to simplify our minds and reduce us to puppets. Be free; dwell in your doubts, moments of clarity, and doubts again. We will be warriors of life; nourishers and lovers all at once and we will grow beyond intolerance.
“Without helpful doubts…the human family cannot advance.”
I.M. Wise, “Wandering Jews,” 1877, Selected Writings, p. 182.
Exodus-Torah Portion Bo-Chapter 10, Verse 26 (2/1/20)
“We shall not know with what we are to worship God until we arrive there.”
Pharaoh finally accedes to allowing the Israelites to leave the city to celebrate a festival. However, in a last move for control, he demands a detailed list of Moses’ needs. Moses responds that only on the ground, at the time of celebration, could he assess the needs. We long to control the future by planning. It is instinctive; an impulse. Lack of certainty and control of our lives is one of the most uncomfortable feelings we can experience. Moses teaches us that sometimes we must trust the process and have faith that at the right moment clarity will emerge. We need to lower our natural anxiety and learn “to arrive there.” When we relinquish the struggle to control life, we will experience a profound sense of liberation. In fact, we will become more centered and effective in our journey. A rigid approach to life will be replaced with a universe of possibilities. Today, I woke up to learn about the tragic death of Kobe Bryant (41) and his daughter (13) in a helicopter crash. It shook me to my core. They were the incarnation of the American dream. They had it all. But life is a risk; a beautiful risk. We live because despite pain, disappointments, and reversals, the flame of hope burns within us. Yes, some planning is necessary, but learn to focus on the moment. The more you dwell in the here and now, the more your anxiety will diminish. There are no reassurances in life, but the fact that we exist just for an instant is one of the most wonderful mysteries of the universe. We trust, like Maimonides teaches, that in the cosmic order good surpasses evil. I pray that when you arrive to your “there,” all your expectations will be fulfilled. But know that the journey is as meaningful as the destination.
“The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to fear at all.” -Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav
Exodus-Torah Portion Vayera-Chapter 10, Verses 9-10 (1/25/20)
Pharaoh said, “Go, worship the Lord your God! Who are the ones to go?” Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord’s festival.”
This week a prominent church shocked the spiritual world. The Cottage Grove Church in Des Moines, IA, announced that members 60 years old and above were “invited” to leave the church and asked to pray for two years at a different location. The reason? They wanted to attract new young families and the aging population was a “non-attractive component.” Organized religion in America is in trouble and sociologists unfortunately predict more desperate survival measures. I just can’t imagine the pain of those asked to leave their sacred home because their very existence is a burden. This is why I rejoice by Moses’s words, centuries ago, in the verse above. He demands Pharaoh allow the Israelites to travel three days away from Egypt to celebrate a festival. Pharaoh asks who would go, and Moses answers with words of sacred inclusion: “The young and the old.” When it comes to community, age does not matter. When the Israelites left Egypt, Moses had many rational excuses to leave the frail behind: a ferocious army was just miles away, they needed to be fast, and the elderly would need tremendous help to walk through the sand. But Moses was uncompromising, “all of us or nobody.” This simple verse entailed the wonderful beginning of something endearing to Jews – peoplehood. We have built homes for the elderly, brought food to the home-bound, paid the rent of those in desperate straits. All these righteous acts flourished from this infinitely compassionate verse. The sages teach, “You shall stand before the elderly.” That’s a core moral principle of our tradition. Age for us entails experience and wisdom. Sulam is a proud descendant of Moses. In our spiritual home, age is represented by the most active and committed people.
Exodus-Torah Portion Shemot (1/18/20)
Verse: “He (Moses) turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian (who was mistreating the Hebrews) and hid him in the sand.
Many commentators explain that the looking to both sides meant that Moses felt that he was the only one present and nobody else but him would defend the slaves.
Moses was presented with a dilemma; either I take care of this very difficult situation or nobody will. He is not alone. How many of you have by yourself taken care of a sick loved one? How many of you have assumed financial obligations while others suddenly disappear? Sometimes we receive no help from others, but we don’t quit. We stand strong. We do above and beyond our share because we know that love for others, and our responsibility are sacred. If you are one of them, you have Moses’s DNA. We are commemorating the life of Martin Luther King. From his speeches, it is clear that the story of Exodus was his main inspiration. How fitting to begin with Exodus this Shabbat in his honor. He stood so many times alone when nobody dared to speak. As we journey toward shabbat, may all the lonely soldiers of life be blessed.