Friday, March 10, 2023 / 17 Adar 5783
When I was young and naïve—last week in fact—I recalled how, when I was even younger and more naïve, one of the things that chiefly occupied my time was anger. I was either actually being angry at something or other, or I was consumed with trying to control or dissolve my anger once unloosed.
Years and years ago, I succeeded in making some steady progress toward uprooting anger from my soul, from my behavior, from my psyche…but I hold no illusion: I never actually snuffed it out completely from my being, and that little glowing wick of anger occasionally bursts into a flame.
And so I was concerned on the occasion, last week, that reminded me of my old self, and of my theory back then that anger is a behavior that is learned—and as such can be unlearned. The occasion was seeing my own child lose their temper. I worried: Despite my efforts to the contrary, did this child learn that anger from me? Am I the one who taught – infected – this child with “anger”?
Friday, March 3, 2023 / 10 Adar 5783
It is not a coincidence that International Women’s Day falls next Wednesday (March 8), immediately after “The Fast of Esther” on Monday, and Purim on Tuesday:
There is much to celebrate about the role and achievements of women in Jewish history and world history…and still a great need to highlight these specifically in order to continue the advance of women for full and equal participation in global development and for the freedom of women to choose and to create their own individual destinies.
[The Jewish socialist Theresa Malkiel’s launching of a National Women’s Day in 1909 catalyzed the idea for establishing International Women’s Day in 1911.]
The Purim story in particular offers us a helpful way to consider issues of agency and independence, authority and autonomy, that many women experience today in our society.
We can ask: Is Esther a feminist hero for saving the Jewish people with her bravery to confront the king without an invitation to do so?
And with her cleverness that took down Haman?
And her wisdom for establishing the parameters of an entirely new Jewish holiday – Purim – which we still celebrate to this day?
Friday, February 24, 2023 / 3 Adar 5783
The Voyager I spacecraft sent a photo back to earth in 1990 from more than 4 billion miles away. In it, the earth appears as a point of light, a crescent 0.12 pixels in size. It is barely noticeable.
The noted astronomer and host of the old “Cosmos” television series, Carl Sagan, wrote the following about that “pale blue dot” in the photo:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
From such a perspective, it is easy to feel insignificant, meaningless. Our Torah portion this week, Teruma, serves as a kind of protest against despairing of the transiency and minuteness of life.
Friday, February 17, 2023 / 26 Shevet 5783
Many of us would find this week’s Torah portion kind of…tedious. It contains over 50 laws and ordinances, and it reads sometimes as a long list of rules. Each of these ordinances requires focus to understand – and deep reflection to grasp – its deeper meaning and profound ramifications for your personal life, for human society generally, and for the building of a functional and moral universe.
You might be inclined to skim through all these rules, or skip parashat Mishpatim entirely. But just imagine: What if the world, what if our nation, what if our community did not have laws and standards at all? Imagine living in the ‘wild west’ or in total anarchy. The law of the jungle would soon prevail. For much of world history, it was the local bully, the rich and well-connected, the area warlord, and/or the nearby dictator who seized power and wielded it for their own gain and ruthless interest. Sadly, it still happens in our world today.
Friday, February 3, 2023 / 12 Shevet 5783
Something similar may have happened to you:
On the way home from Hebrew School, a parent asked their child what she had learned that day. “Nothing special” replied the child. “Oh, come on, you must have learned about something – tell me!” invited the parent.
“Ok”, said the child. “When we, the children of Israel, escaped slavery in Egypt we were getting chased by the Egyptians. We got to the beach and there was nowhere to go. We were trapped! Now, as slaves we had built a lot of stuff for Pharaoh, so we used our skills to quickly build a bridge and escape. Pretty smart of us, huh? What-goes-around-comes-around, right?”
“Hmmm. Are you sure that’s what they taught you? That’s not how I remember the story…”
The child said, “Look, if I told you the truth you wouldn’t believe it!”
This old joke reminds us that we are all boundlessly credulous and incredulous at the same time, full of both doubt and of faith.
We humans have a spiritual and intellectual craving for Truth. We consider Truth so important that it is even one of the names we give to God.
Friday, January 27, 2023 / 5 Shevet 5783
Profound as always, Henry David Thoreau noted that “the youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.”
‘Bridge-to-the-moon’ aspirations are precisely what echo in the Chinese lunar calendar new year celebration, which was earlier this week. The new year greeting in Cantonese is Kung Hei Fat Choi, which is a wish for happiness and financial prosperity. Would that this aspiration be achieved!
Interestingly, both the Jewish and Chinese calendars add an extra month during 7 out of every 19 years. These adjustments in the lunar calendar keep the months in synch with the solar calendar. The Islamic lunar calendar, for example, does not make this adjustment, and so you may have noted that the month of Ramadan can occur at any season of the year. The intercalation between the lunar months and the solar year in the Jewish calendar keeps Passover in the spring and Sukkot in the autumn.
Friday, January 20, 2023 / 27 Tevet 5783
Earlier this week, a trove of never-before-seen photographs was shared by POLIN: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The photos, taken surreptitiously by then-23 year old Polish firefighter Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski, documents the aftermath of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.
The uprising was the first successful major revolt against the Nazis in Europe. Some 700 ill-equipped and starving Jews used guerilla tactics to fight for nearly a month, delaying the Nazi plan to ‘liquidate’ the Ghetto and deporting all the inhabitants to extermination at Treblinka. The Nazis burned most of the Ghetto, and the Polish fire brigade was used to prevent the fires from spreading beyond the Ghetto into the remainder of Warsaw.
Friday, January 13, 2023 / 20 Tevet 5783
An old friend visited recently. We had first met in 1994 while applying to rabbinical school, nervously waiting in the office lobby together for our separate interviews. Because of the interviews, it was one of those days that you know will impact the course of your life and help determine your destiny. Naturally, now more than a quarter century later, we looked back at our spiritual and professional journeys from that day until now.
What surprised us both as we looked back on the paths are lives have taken from then in our early twenties until now, is how we could never have predicted, looked forward to, or even imagined or guessed at the routes we ended up traversing in life. At the same time, tracing those paths backward from now, it seems so obvious to both of us how one thing naturally led to another, step-by-step, as if it had been planned more-or-less precisely all along.
Friday, January 6, 2023 / 13 Tevet 5783
Many of us can identify pivotal moments and events in our lives that seem to direct our destiny. For some aspects of ourselves, though, the essential sources are mysterious: maybe we were unaware of their significance at the time, or they’ve been lost or buried in memory. Or perhaps they’ve naturally become covered from consciousness even as they help form the superstructure of our lives– like studs in a wall upholding our house.
In my case, from the time of my teens, one of the things that drove me to engage my Jewish identity was wanting to give my children a blessing on Friday nights. But I did not grow up with this tradition in my house, and I cannot point to when the idea grabbed me, nor why exactly. Did I become enamored of such blessings from seeing it done in Fiddler on the Roof? Did I read about this or see it in the movie The Chosen? Some other book? Did I see a photo of Rembrandt’s painting? A memory from a past life?
Friday, December 30, 2022 / 6 Tevet 5783
I hope that many of you are loyal readers of “Torah from Sinai” each week. I try to share some practical insight, bit of wisdom, or profound teaching that is relevant to people’s lives and connected to what is going on in our world.
This week is the last of our calendar year. Much of what concerned our lives last year will carry over into next year, on both the macro level (the politics here in the US and with great intensity in Israel, the rising threat of antisemitism, climate change, crises for refugees and conflicts throughout the world, homelessness, etc.) and on the micro level (issues of our health, relationships, livelihood, the challenges and opportunities and struggles we encounter on the way to becoming our best selves, etc.).
Sometimes it feels like anything one could say which is not directly focused on these immediate issues-of-the-day will necessarily be a non-sequitur.