Today is August 9, 2020 -
Joy and learning on Westchester's Sound Shore
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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.
The Living Archive Project (5/18/20)
In a few days, a prominent rabbi and the head of a distinguished seminary will debate how religion and the world will change after the plague. In a gesture of absolute chutzpah, I will tell you the answer now: very little. Aristotle was right in calling us “habitual animals.” Humans establish a sense of security and comfort through habits. Routine is the path to a sense of security. As the plague subsides, we will immediately return to our prior lives. Some rabbis fear that the Zoom video will replace the sanctuary. That’s a tremendous misunderstanding of human nature. The convenience of Zoom cannot replace a hug, looking directly at one another’s eyes, listening to live voices, and sitting at kiddush to just chat and enjoy our lox and challah. Yes, some Zoom will remain, but mainly as a secondary method. Just imagine being able to speak without having to unmute yourself!
Unfortunately, the ugly will also reappear. The most disgusting stores will continue selling anything that flies, swims, or walks. Our meatpacking plants will remain a bloody horror show. It will take just one wrong chicken to resist the ton of pumped in antibiotics, and overnight we will become the greatest exporter of death to the world. Once again, the world, in disbelief, will claim: “But we did not know!”
Freud and his followers discovered that the mind is immensely self-protective. The psyche relegates trauma to the recesses of the mind. Humanity, likewise, will suppress the memory of the plague, looking to move ahead at the speed of light to regain the time and money lost. Your mind, and its defense mechanisms, will also forget. In his Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury imagines a future in which books are illegal. A group of intellectual warriors commits itself to save humanity’s literature by learning the books by heart. Similarly, you are a “living archive” of this virus experience. You must keep a mental or written diary, and make a specific effort to retain what you felt and experienced during this trial. Your experience is a vital record in a world that forgets. Philo, the great Jewish philosopher of first-century Alexandria, taught, “It is well in wealth to remember your poverty; in distinction, your insignificance…in peace, the dangers of war; on land, the storms of the sea; in cities, the life of loneliness.” Our tradition has survived by the power of its narrative. All will be repeated, unless people own the story.
Each one of us is a living human archive. Remember!
The Virus’s Secret Weapon: America’s Impatience (5/11/20)
Americans are losing patience and beginning to play Russian roulette with each other. Once again, our abused opinions of “it is my right,” or this is a “free country,” jeopardize the very welfare of society. In disbelief, we witness how hair salons seem to be more critical than life to some. Since day one, we knew that patience would be the test of our society facing the plague. Patience, or lack of it, divides a community between mutual care and impulsive individual desires. The great medieval Spanish poet Ibn Gabirol wisely teaches, “Through patience men can avert still greater trouble.” It seems as if Gabirol was living among us. He added, “Misfortune may become fortune through patience.” He is right — in being patient lies the power to turn things around. I have a special place in my heart for Kafka. Always incisive, Kafka advises, “There are two main human sins from which all others derive: impatience and indolence.” Faced with a highly contagious deadly disease, patience is the measurement of responsibility and compassion. Gathering at a restaurant or having a party amid an invisible ruthless enemy amounts to communal tragedy. So much has been achieved in our struggle that to revert to early stages just because we can’t control ourselves, is no less than societal suicide. And please, be perfectly aware that as I write this message, politics, as always, are absent from my heart and mind. I write concerned as a religious leader and citizen, whose understanding of the Torah and Prophets calls him to raise a voice of caution and mutual love and care. Ecclesiastes warns us that there are set times for what we do. Is this the time for substantial loosening of restrictions? Can we make responsible decisions guided by a “curve” that resembles a yo-yo? We must retain our initial stamina and consciousness until we are confident that lives are not the sacrifice of our impatience.
Yes, we must design a cautious plan of normalization. That plan must prioritize the millions who are desperately suffering without work. The problem, in this specific instance, is not a lack of patience or violated rights, but ensuring there is food for the hungry. With compassion and support, research and data must lead the way. Patience is moral strength and wisdom. Let’s help each other traverse times of anxiety, uncertainty, vulnerability, insecurity, and boredom, spreading patience and care for one another. Like Kafka taught, lack of patience results in the absence of empathy, turning the heart into stone. The Jewish people who have given the world the idea that each life is of infinite value must stand patiently, making sure that this monster is defeated.
Sigmund Freud, Kobe Bryant and the Nurse from Nairobi (5/4/20)
Sigmund Freud noticed that his patients were falling in love with him. This was bizarre as, by many accounts, he was not a handsome man. He called this phenomenon “transference.” The Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker explains that people transfer to fight their fear of death. Death uncovers our fragility and confronts us with our finitude. As a palliative to fear of death, most individuals adore famous people with the longing to partake in their seemingly larger than average life. They attach themselves to what these stars represent, trying to acquire a touch of their power and fame vicariously.
That’s why I was not shocked at the reaction to the tragic death of basketball star Kobe Bryant. L.A. experienced a profound mourning. Thousands gathered at the Lakers’ sports arena for a memorial service. Murals, with Bryant’s face, appeared throughout L.A. People who had never met him referred to Bryant like a brother with whom they had a couple of beers the night before the accident. Whole families cried at his death with the intensity of having lost a close relative. Millions, who barely knew his private life, talked about him as the incarnation of all virtues. We were witnessing a massive transference. The pain and mourning had little to do with the real Bryant. Death, in a tragic helicopter crash, had taken away somebody whose enormous success and fame had provided others with the dream of being more than themselves. Death had won.
But then…coronavirus arrived, giving emergence to a healthier transference. Nurses, doctors, first responders, and ambulance drivers became our new “heroes.” The attachment to baseball players, singers or actors, was substituted with a nurse from Nairobi or the Dominican Republic who, day and night, cared for our loved ones. Suddenly, the transference to the unreal and illusionary was replaced by people who, in their simplicity and humanity, embody the best values.
My question is: What will happen when the virus is hopefully controlled? Is society going to return to its childish transferences? Are fame and wealth once again to be placed at the center of our universe? Are our nurses and first responders to be pushed back into invisibility? Has this painful experience permanently moved us into a cultural, spiritual, and psychological maturity?
Nurses don’t act out somebody else’s script. They place their body in actual danger for the love of the stranger. They don’t walk on the red carpet, but all night long, they run from room to room.
As the rabbis teach, “Whoever acknowledges idolatry disavows the whole Torah, and whoever disavows idolatry acknowledges the whole Torah.” (Sifre Deuteronomy, 28).
Sulam Yaakov: The Spiritual “Starbucks”! (4/27/20)
Driving back from the kosher butcher on Central Avenue, an endless line of cars caught my attention. “Oh, no! A gas shortage,” I lamented to myself. But then I realized that the caravan passed by the gas station. What were they waiting for? What was so important? And then my jaw dropped. They were waiting for the Starbucks drive-through. My instinctive reaction was puzzlement. Is coffee so indispensable? But then, it all made sense to me. Coffee is much more than a beverage. At the very moment of craving that steaming or iced cup, we experience control, normalcy, regularity, and sociability. Drinking coffee is one of our most potent societal rituals. It is an important cultural marker. Coffee makes us feel better. It embodies all the comfort we can fit in a cup. Future anthropologists will analyze the technical language developed around the simple ordering of coffee. As I was looking at the cars, I experienced an insight. In its natural state, coffee is unattractively dark and bitter. It is amazing how the original taste and color metamorphose into deliciousness upon adding some milk, cream, caramel, or sugar. A small amount of a sweet substance and the coffee bean becomes a delight. I believe that coffee may serve as a metaphor for life. We are overwhelmed with preoccupations and anxiety. Life nowadays resembles a dark coffee. Fortunately, as with coffee, the secret to optimism is not a radical change but to add small particles of the positive. Drops of hope have a powerful impact. Ten minutes of meditation, reading, exercising, talking to a friend, can have tremendous power. In the realm of the mind and soul, a little goodness can dispel a great sorrow. Thinking about leaving a legacy to his grandchildren, French author Edmund Fleg wrote in his wonderful book Why I Am a Jew, “I’m a Jew because, in every age when the cry of despair is heard, the Jew hopes.” Learning, and prayer have been our loyal spoons of sugar. Sulam Yaakov is our spiritual Starbucks. Every Friday at 5:30 PM, we meet via Zoom to celebrate Shabbat. On Monday at 7:30 PM, we engage in an interactive study session. Many of you have told me that those two hours significantly enhance your week. To that, we celebrate Dayeinu! Personally, those encounters are for me the most delicious cups of coffee of the week. In my case, as a good South American, I take it black. And don’t worry…no lines!
Because We Killed the Gods (4/20/20)
As we commemorate Yom Ha-Shoah with its painful and dark memories, I share these reflections.
For centuries, most Western cultures have believed that there was a Being or Force transcending the world. People longed to model their lives inspired by those cosmic realities. The belief in the transcendental provided them with a dignified place for the unknown and the mysterious. That reality beyond reach taught them the most important lesson; they were not infinite. Something was more than them. Yes, human initiative must propel us forward. However, the underlying assumption must remain that we do not rule the universe. We must harness our impulses or succumb to the tyranny of unsuitable desires. The rabbis were wise when they taught, “the strong is the one who controls his impulses.”
But then, with the eighteenth-century enlightenment, a revolution shook the order of existence. Human reason and not belief became the sole judge of all there is. The mysterious was viewed as an illusion and even a disease of the mind. Admittedly, a world ruled by reason brought unparalleled progress. Cities flourished, and knowledge opened new horizons. But where now was the beyond? The beyond was evicted from the heavens and absorbed within us. We became the new Gods of bones and flesh. We stopped facing the heavens and looked in an existential mirror. Imagine how powerful that felt!
The planet became our playground. Ultimately we become its consumers much more than its guardians, arriving almost to the point of extinction. Once we became the center of the universe, we ceased asking the great questions, which had served to temper our grandeur and thereby raised our character and defined our most virtuous values, such as “Why are we on this planet?” “What is the essence of being human?” “What is the limit of human power?”
This virus is a tragedy. Philosophically, it belongs to the category of the “absurd.” Something which has no inherent meaning. Still, I believe that the uncertainty we experience must call us to reflect that the ancients and their Gods may not have been so primitive. In their time, they understood that humans were precisely that: humans. Our seemingly inexhaustible power has been tested, and our limitations unmasked. As long as we decline our spiritual being, we will keep injuring ourselves. Bill Gates predicted a virus in 2015. He prophesied that if the earth’s climate increases a few degrees, a battalion of devastating viruses will emerge. Holocaust, disease, and climate change all share the same root: humans crossing the line between being creatures and absolute masters. It is now, precisely now, as we endure this disease, that a window into our creatureliness has been opened. It may be smart to look outside and see if the Beyond is still there.
You Are a Warrior (4/6/20)
I can painfully affirm that this year Passover will be different. It may, unfortunately, be one of the most profound Ma Nishtana’s (how different is this night) of our lives. I was just remembering my complaining a year ago as I climbed up to the attic to bring down the extra chairs. Instead, this week, many of us will look at each other with space to spare and few voices to hear. Seder equals family, and this devastating virus has cast over us the plague of isolation. There is ample justification for lamenting. And lamenting is, in some ways, comforting. Pouring our hearts out to a friendly listener is an effective form of catharsis. More than ever today, we must love and take care of each other. Writing this message in quarantine from my basement, endlessly waiting for the results of my test, I have gained a new perspective on my freedom or better, its absence. Yes, I’m scared. However, I have discovered an alternative to feeling anxious. I’m reminded that I belong to a people that arose from the depth of the darkest hours. Our collective narrative teaches us about overcoming insurmountable obstacles. We are strong. We are warriors of history. Our roots empower us. We will sit around the table, noticing how different our Seder is. But one thing will not change. We will tell the story of our ancestors breaking their backs for 400 years to struggle into freedom to receive the greatest wisdom and proudly walk to the Promised Land. Pesach is the perfect gift for today’s uncertainty. When, this year, we read about the dangers that stood in our way proclaiming who we are and who our God is, we will understand the meaning of the Haggadah even more profoundly. We must never forget that we belong to a strong, enduring people. We incessantly wandered around the globe in devastating conditions, and we prospered and learned and became a force for good in every society. Remember, that power flows through your veins.
We are fighting a formidable invisible enemy. We must be warriors. We must strictly adhere to the authorities’ guidelines to defeat this monster. Torah is life, and those guidelines are Torah. Every morning, we recite a short prayer of the greatest magnitude, “Praised are You, oh God, who has not made me a slave.” (Rabbi Aha B. Yaakov, Talmud Mnechot, 43.b). We are not slaves. We are sensitive beings who must be equally strong; we are warriors! Chag Kasher v’samech.
A Surprising Call from the Prophet Jeremiah (3/30/20)
The phone rang and rang more than ten times. It was the relic landline, which narrowed the callers down to the chimney cleaning guy or the White Plains mayor’s recorded message. “Hello?” I said, and like lightning, a sweet velvet voice invited me to converse. In the most respectful tone, and with a Spanish mixed with a rhythmic Brazilian accent, she asked, “Como esta?” After a few more pleasantries, she offered to share a Scriptural verse with me. My internal defenses immediately went up. “But I’m a rabbi,” I replied. I then asked her, “to which group do you belong?” “Jehovah’s Witnesses. Rabbi, don’t worry,” she assured me, “I will not quote a verse from the gospels.” And in an eternal instant, that velvet voice gave me the gift of the prophet Jeremiah. No money was mentioned. She performed a mitzvah for the sake of a mitzvah, the highest level. And then she just left to touch the next soul.
I immediately wrote to the Conservative rabbis and suggested that we train groups of congregants to call unaffiliated Jews to see how they were and offer a verse. I received just two responses: Rabbi 1: “Jews don’t use Scriptures that way,” and Rabbi 2: “I will do it myself as none of my congregants will volunteer to make such a call.” I called Rebecca, our communications officer, but regrettably, I learned that we do not have the telephone numbers of our past visitors.
You may rightly observe that one of the many hospitals Jews have founded to heal the sick is worth endless verses. You may correctly point out that we have mastered high profile diplomacy, traveling around the world and being respected by presidents and ministers. Yes, we are superbly smart and accomplished. We have written books and conducted research that has changed the course of humanity. But at some point in this amazing journey, we have given away ownership of the Scriptures.
Most Jewish thinkers chose a favorite verse. It anchored and defined their quest. The great philosopher Martin Buber loved Genesis 17:1: God mandates Abraham, “walk before me and be whole.” Buber, who cherished free will, loved a verse in which Abraham leads the way while God walks behind. My Rabbi Marshall Mayer chose from Isaiah, “you are my witnesses.” This became a prophecy when later, fighting the dictatorship and risking his life, he became a witness when most remained silent. I also have mine: “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.” (Genesis 4:14). Instead of providing an ark, God commands Noah to build it. That is my theology. Religion is to do God’s work without waiting for the Divine to provide what is our responsibility.
We spend millions of dollars on Jewish adult education. What about a simple, cheap, and life-changing national campaign, “own a verse.” So empowering! So connecting! So relevant! That would be a verse people would study, carry in their wallet, share, comment upon, keep on their night table, bring to the hospital, teach to their grandchildren, pray from, and share with their world as their unique spiritual gift. How different would Judaism be? And then, sure, if the verse is so good, why not read the rest of the book?
If to offer a verse from the scriptures as a blessing to another person is a form of fundamentalism, well, count me in.
I commit to each one of you to together find your verse. Invite your extended family, friends, and neighbors. We must build that ark one log at a time, one verse at a time.
The Human Pendulum (3/23/20)
One of my favorite philosophers, Baruch Spinoza, wrote about fear: “There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope” (Ethics, 1967, III. Def 13, Explanation.) In times of uncertainty, we have an internal pendulum moving from hope to fear. Almost by the hour, we shift from optimism to despair. Spinoza reassures us that this dance between light and darkness is natural and expected. Even more, instead of fighting it, we must embrace it. As confusing as our changes of mood and perspectives are, they are a sign that we are alive. They are a testimony of being grounded in a challenging reality and reflect the condition of an unpredictable change. In fear, there is a spark of hope and, in faith, a spark of fear. Many thinkers advise on how to suppress anxiety. I instead find inspiration in another Jewish philosopher, Lazalle, who teaches: “Only in danger’s hour do we humans learn all that a person could be.” In the depth of fear, the irrational in us emerges to the surface. In that discomfort, we have a golden opportunity to learn so much about what otherwise remains concealed by the rational. What do we fear, and why? What becomes essential when we can lose so much? What is of genuine value in our journeys? The great Zionist thinker Marx Nordeau taught: “It is well to be alone. It fertilizes the creative impulse.” Yes, there is some creative impulse in a time of solitude. That creativity may manifest itself in reading a long-awaited book, or playing chess online. Drawing, creating that business plan for a new exciting endeavor, or just sitting outside with a delicious coffee looking at the beautiful grass, are the gifts given to us even through an imposed quarantine. And yes, our minds will wander from hope to fear and back a thousand times. I once took a ferry from Greece to Italy. A terrifying ship filled with chickens, sheep, and dogs. A floating zoo. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a terrible storm erupted. The boat was moving like a roller coaster. I became extremely sick. Nothing would stop my headache and disorientation. Suddenly I had an insight, let’s go up to the deck. In the open-air, I let my body be taken from one extreme to the other by the motion of the sea. I was a human pendulum. Soon my discomfort subsided. In our times, the world is on a see-saw motion from fear to hope. Both are valid feelings. Don’t fight it. Move from one to the other naturally and with curiosity. Give yourself space to feel the moment. And on each extreme, learn about yourself as much as you can because, in moments like this, your soul and mind are open books.
Killing the Virus with Silence (3/16/20)
God’s first act was to dominate the most deadly cosmic virus: chaos. His vaccine was separating the chaos into order by using language. God mentioned “light…” “plants…” and “animals,…” and the amorphous substance reshaped itself into beautiful nature. Today, thousands of years later, we fight the coronavirus with the same tools. Quarantines, gloves, and social distancing are forms of controlling the disease by separation, like the days of creation. Language, used by God as its cosmic carving tool, can produce either order or anxiety.
A prestigious rabbi recently wrote: “Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.” I reply: can you just imagine 40 expressions of “warm concern” a day! That constant reminder is a certain recipe for anxiety. Love, respect, and control over chaos means giving each other a minute of calm and peace away from this virus. A moment of separation is the real gift. Silence is precious. I firmly believe that at moments of uncertainty, we apply what in Jewish law is called Sh’mirat ha-Lashon, “guarding the tongue.” The less we say, the higher the chance of avoiding nonsense in a time of nonsense.
I have lost my thumbprint to the delete button. The virus has an alter ego, the virus of social media. But what is behind millions of emails? When we indiscriminately send an email with an article by a so-called “expert” that the recipients do not know, the sender has de facto appointed himself as the expert. Who determines the expertise of the expert who wrote the article? The sender! If so, I politely ask, are we really such experts on pandemics, economy, politics, or vaccines to responsibly propagate the content of the article to 200 non-solicited recipients? Psychology has a clear answer. Each time we send those massive emails, we affirm our egos. We become some kind of official representative of the expert writer. After all, we believe ourselves to be valuable enough to shape hundreds of opinions. How bad could this be? Chaos, as you already know, is equal to a lack of order. Misinformation is chaos disguised as expertise.
A famous rabbinic teaching says that standing by the Sea of Reeds, Moses began to pray. God mandated him, “Why do you pray! Just get into the water and keep going.” We are all anxious, and anxiety manifests itself in talking as a manner of releasing tension. These are times to speak to your close friends, family, professionals, or rabbi. But you must abstain from transforming others into your ground wire. I must say to you candidly that some of the statements I have heard from very intelligent people in the last two weeks are alarming. Crisis clearly engenders irrationality. Like Moses we must talk less and do more. We must follow the precautions requested by the official authorities. Those are the legitimate containers of chaos.
What do you suggest, rabbi? Simply, as much silence as possible. That silence avoids propagating anxiety. That silence suppresses the ego. That silence prevents miscommunication. That silence controls chaos.
“Be clever, and keep silence.” Talmud, Tractate of Yebamot, 7a.
May you be safe and protected.
Exodus-Torah Portion Ki Tissa-Chapter 30, Verses 26-28 (3/14/20)
“With oil consecrate the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Pact, the table and all its utensils….
I miss the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Its cavernous ceilings, mysterious darkness, medieval paintings, and profound silence captured my soul. However, what I most long for are the friars spreading aromatic incense. It was the smell of heaven. They were a vivid glimpse of Aaron, the High Priest, and the Tabernacle we are currently reading about in the Torah. I wonder how we journeyed from the intense Tabernacle sacredness to the modern synagogue in which ritualistic pageantry is almost absent. As the great thinker, Rabbi A.J. Heschel sorrowed, we have “sanitized” the synagogue from the sacred ritual. Congregants tell me about their difficulty praying. I understand them. Not much in the modern synagogue awakens our soul. Think about how Yom Kippur ignites our spirits. Its holiness is rooted in the array of sacred rituals, including some ornate, not so modern but profoundly effective liturgy. Since its foundation, Sulam has committed itself to reinsert the sacred in Judaism. My dream as your rabbi is to open the gates of the sublime jointly. Our inclusion of chanting at services is a good beginning. My Rabbi, Marshal Mayer, who founded the South American Conservative Movement, and B’nei Jeshurun in Manhattan, called services “sacred drama.” He understood that services must have a strong emotional component. His success was unparalleled. Instead, the modern American synagogue has transformed itself mostly into a social center. That’s not wholly wrong. However, we have buried faith under monopolizing peoplehood. When I visited synagogues across the country as a scholar in residence, I never understood how the procession of the Torah became prime time to talk or say hello. Where were the awe and the respect of “the Torah is walking among us!” The art of the sacred must be re-learned—meaningful silence, wordless melodies, and relevant learning must once again take center stage in the sanctuaries of liberal Jews. I’m not naïve. I understand that most of you reading this message are not regulars at services. Still, if the soul of Judaism dries up, all of us will feel it. Our collective soul is in potentia within each of us. Good ritual suspends the rational and activates the mysterious. We Jews love to study, and we are great at it. However, it is time to be humble, give a break to the endless race for achievement and make space for the sacred. Synagogues must re-connect to the Tabernacle because sometimes the old is also precious.
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.