From the Heart with Rabbi Liebowitz


The Eternal said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of
the Eternal, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Eternal, but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
(I Kings 19: 11)

Dear Friends,

You may remember the play and then movie “Same Time Next Year,” starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. Admittedly risqué, it revealed the rewards and difficulties inherent in relationships, especially those built on tenuous grounds. It occurs that the title could serve well as a description of the High Holidays. (Yes, the dates of the High Holy Days do drift in the Western Calendar from year to year, early to mid autumn, but from the Hebrew point of view they always begin on the 1st of Tishri and end on the 10th of Tishri. But they are not as much risqué as they are risky. Many traditions devote their practice to looking within and solemnizing them with ritual as in the Catholic confessional. But not so many communally, champion a ten-day period of remembering and repenting. Certainly, not an easy thing to do. Though Plato commented that the “unexamined life is not worth living,” our ever-defending egos work against efforts. Who among us easily says contritely “I am sorry!” Change in our lives is inevitable as we grow older. That is natural, but self-imposed change is more daunting.

As tradition bids us to start preparing for the Holy Days one month before, we do well to be mindful of the Hebrew concept of Hitbodedut, literally means to draw within. It connotes communion with God and ambiguously champions the view that as we withdraw we are reaching outward. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted that when the soul is stirred, God responds or as the prophet Elijah experienced when he head the Kol d’mama daka, a soft murmuring sound “or a small still voice.” (I Kings 19: 12)

The mystical tradition further insists that when we perform a commandment it is evidence of God’s soft still voice or murmuring being transformed into a good deed i.e. mitzvah.

I wish one and all as autumn beckons a time of peace and new awareness.

Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, D.D.

It’s Not All About Us: Redemption, Revelation, and the Land of Israel



Man views a mountain sunsetBeing human means dangling simultaneously between two core realities. At one and the same time, on one hand you matter a great deal — it’s all about us! — and on the other hand, you’re not the only thing that matters. We are nothing. It’s not about us at all. Indeed in the end, all of us are human and mortal. We will return to dust.

These diametrically opposed truths are often difficult to hold simultaneously and even more difficult — even impossible — to reconcile. A Chasidic master famously expressed this dual reality in a simple instruction: “A person should always carry two notes, one in each pocket. In one pocket the note should read: ‘For you the whole world was created (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5). And in the other pocket the note should read: ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Gen.18:27).1

This juxtaposition of the sense that we are everything and we are nothing is central to the human condition. It’s a core element of who we are as people and who we are as Jews. We are everything and nothing at the same time. This dialectic is especially emphasized in Parashat Eikev, in Deuteronomy, chapters 8-11, as the Israelites approach a climactic moment in human history. Will redemption and Revelation really allow for the possibility of creating an ideal society?

Lest the Israelites become too haughty or too self-righteous, God and Moses warn them repeatedly of all the differences and all the consequences of their new environment and their new role in the world. The Israelites are first reminded of the difficult road they have traveled to “remember the long way that the Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, in order to test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts …” (Deut. 8:2). And at the same time they are constantly reminded of the uniqueness of their survival: you were fed manna, your clothes didn’t wear out, your feet didn’t even swell … and the land you are about to enter is an exceedingly good land … where you will lack nothing … (Deut. 8:4-9). The narrator seems to understand the questions implicit in the narrative at this moment: What did we do to deserve such goodness? Will we always deserve the gift of the Land? Will we always be deserving of such love and protection? Yes and no. It depends. We have no inherent goodness, but we do have the possibility of goodness.

Something of the possibility of creating a good society in this particular Land is in our shared history. We descend from a people who had a close relationship with God and the Land. But will we? It depends on how we use the blessings that we have received. Who we are and what we become is not an inherent reality but rather something earned through actions and opportunities.

We might misread the text and think there is something inherently powerful and worthy about us, descendants of the ancient Israelites. But we actually have no power and might. We are actually not necessarily worthy at all. We are capable of enormous mistakes and misdeeds. What makes us different is our experience of God in the reality in which we live. What makes us humble and not haughty is a constant awareness that we don’t own anything. But rather we are being loaned the Land and the resources and the possibilities by God so that we might make something of human civilization. What makes this possible is our unique sensibility that ultimately it all comes from God (Nachmanides on Deut. 8:18). If we continue to recognize God’s greatness we will likely continue to be protected, but if not we will likely be devoured, either by God’s fire or the Land itself. It is, after all, a land that vomits its inhabitants. Rather we can only continue to merit the gift of the Land made to our ancestors if we behave appropriately (Deut. 10:12-17).

The text quickly reminds us that it isn’t all about us. We might not always deserve such goodness. We were clearly an unworthy group in many ways, as the narration of our failures throughout the desert journey is repeated. Of greatest concern is that we didn’t really believe in God or in ourselves. We repeatedly failed to believe. We weren’t even ready to be monotheists and Moses had to intervene to give us a second chance at Revelation and receiving the gift of the two tablets with the Ten Commandments (Deut. 10:1-11).

But with redemption a memory, and Revelation an uncertain gift, the Israelites prepared to enter into a completely different land with a very different status in the eyes of God. This Land will be tremendous, but they will have to take care of it differently than they took care of the land in Egypt (See Rashi, Gersonides and Bekhor Shor on Deut. 11:9-11). Like them, we must recommit every day to our relationship with God and with the peoples who dwell there in order to continue to exist in it.

We don’t simply deserve redemption, Revelation, and such a precious Land because of something in our essence. It wasn’t created for us to dwell in just because of who we are, rather we have the opportunities to create an ideal society because of some much more important reasons:

  1. Because we’ve maintained our relationship with God through our ancestors,
  2. Because we maintained our relationship with the Jewish people, we will enter into it together and share its resources and the responsibilities for its defense, and
  3. Because of what we do; because of our ethical behavior. In fact, a very unusual statement is made about the relationship between our living in the Land and God’s special concern for our existence there: God’s eyes are watching us and what we do in the Land of Israel in a very different way. “It is a land which the Eternal your God looks after, on which the Eternal your God always keeps an eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Deut. 11:12).

In other words, unlike our covenantal relationship with God which, in the grand historical scheme of things is largely unconditional, our relationship with the Land is conditional. It depends on our relationship with the sacred blessings we’ve received. Do we become arrogant and think we deserve them no matter what, for eternity? Or do we recognize how small we are and that we were only given such blessings in order to become great? We are meant to do greatness not only for ourselves, but also for the world as a whole, from a specific place. This is what Abraham first heard in Gen.12, about being connected to God and particular Land: “And you shall be a blessing.” We can only be a blessing with our God and our Land if we are a blessing to others. In order to do great things and be worthy of the blessing of the Land we must walk in God’s ways, “As God is compassionate, so must you be compassionate; as God does acts of kindness so must you do acts of kindness” (Rashi on Deut.11:22).

We will continue to be able to dwell in it only if we, in all our imperfections, are capable of building a society worthy of God’s attention, worthy of such blessing.

1. Attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters (NY: Schocken Books, 1948), pp. 249–250

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President’s Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel, and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.


What It Means To Be a Mensch


A woman holds a senior's hand“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Eternal’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good” (Deut. 10:12-13).

During the summer I work as the Jewish Educator at an overnight camp. This summer I have been teaching our core values through an escape room activity that uses the Holiness Code (Lev. 19) to solve puzzles and unlock a secret box. When the activity is over, we discuss that one of the ways we show we are created in God’s image is to be good people, to treat others with kindness, empathy, and respect, and to live in and way that would make God proud.

I conclude by asking the campers for the Jewish word for a “good person.” Then I explain that the literal meaning of the word, “mensch,” is simply a “man,” which we can describe more broadly as, “a person.” I ask why the word for a good person in Judaism is just person. We talk about the fact that to be a person, to be a human being, means to treat others with kindness, empathy, and respect, and to live in a way that would make God proud. And, as one thoughtful camper pointed out, every person has the capacity to be good, we just have to choose to do so.

In remarking on Deut. 10:13 above, many commentators, including Rashi and Nachmanides, point out that God is not asking for reverence and love, or for us to follow the divine path for God’s sake, but rather for our own. It is for our good. It is not something God needs, but something we need.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is difficult for many as it intimates that those who follow God’s commandments will be rewarded and those who do not will be punished. We all live with the reality that sometimes good people suffer, while some who are unkind and unsavory not only move through life unscathed, but even prosper. We don’t have control over everything, but we do have control over some things, and by choosing to love and revere God, by choosing to be a good person, we take control over what we can, and we make our lives better. It is for our good.

“The Maggid of Mezeritz said: ‘Our good deeds go up to God. Do you know what God does with them? God is a gardener, using our good deeds as seeds. God plants them in the Garden of Eden, and out of them, trees grow. Thus we each create our own Paradise…’ ”1

For our own good, may we plant many seeds creating a beautiful Paradise of which we can be proud.

  1. Rabbi Chaim Stern, ed., Day by Day – Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought (NY: CCAR Press, 1998), p. 309

Rabbi Shoshana Nyer, RJE, is the director of lifelong learning at Suburban Temple – Kol Ami in Beachwood, OH. During the summer, she is the Jewish educator at Camp Wise in Chardon, OH. 


Learning About Life by Learning Torah



Torah yad points at the scroll


“You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them … ” (Deuteronomy 6:7)

While we don’t agree on much, over time and space we religiously minded Jews do seem to agree on one central thing: the supreme importance of the study of Torah. From the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai to the first public reading of the Torah in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah to the study of Talmud in Babylonia and then Europe — and today, especially in Israel and North America — ongoing spiritual and intellectual investigation of our ancient scriptures is at the core of Jewish life and culture.

But what is Torah study? And why should we still study such an ancient text? Since the birth of the modern era, what constitutes “Torah study” has widened substantially to include historical, linguistic, and ethical concerns. A newfound openness to secular sciences, the increasingly busy lifestyle, and the proliferation of diverse intellectual pursuits means the value of Torah study can no longer be taken for granted. As modern movements in Judaism emerged, the methodologies and types of questions asked of the texts shifted dramatically. The Torah, while understood to be sacred, was not necessarily seen as being of divine origin, and thus its commandments were not automatically acknowledged as absolutely obligatory. Given the historicist concerns (Is the Bible true?) regarding the religious question of its source, the question arose: Why learn Torah? The necessity, the meaning, and the nature of Torah study is indeed a real question for many Jews today.

Several answers can be given to this question from within our tradition. They can, I believe, be categorized under four primary models.

1.mah ahavti.jpg

“O how I love Your teaching. It is my study all day long (Psalms 119:97).

Torah as an encounter/conversation with God is the first model. Here, Torah study needs no rationale; it is simply inspired by one’s natural desire for the word of God. Torah, for the psalmist, is an object of love, of constant engagement, absorbing the learner and filling her entire being. Unfortunately, this spontaneous outburst of love for Torah is a foreign notion to most modern Jews.


“You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them …” (Deuteronomy 6:7).

This second model, championed in this week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan, is followed by many Jews today. This mode views Torah study as part of a basic, rudimentary Jewish education. Torah (here I use the term in the wider sense of all classical Jewish texts) becomes the source of one’s foundational knowledge of Judaism, its central stories, holidays, and values. A great deal of resources are thus invested in teaching Torah to primary- and middle-school-age children, ensuring that every Jew starts out her or his life with the basic facts and figures of Judaism. For many in the non-Orthodox Jewish world, Torah study ends here, and is about as relevant to adult life as eighth-grade geometry.

3.Vekara bo_0.jpg

“… Let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching…” (Deuteronomy 17:19).

In the third model (reflected upon in a later Torah portion) the Torah serves as a source of religious authority; learning it is a way of perfecting one’s religious practice. Adherents of this model, mainly observant Jews, consult the Torah whenever they have a question relating to Jewish law and ritual: What is the ethical way of giving money? How should one get married? What are the laws of Shabbat? When should one pray? Torah, according to this model, remains relevant throughout one’s life, but as no more than a technical guide, rather like a useful phone book or road map.

4.Lo yamush_small.jpg

“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it, for then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8).

The fourth model also regards the Torah as a source text, though in a much wider sense. Far beyond a mere handbook of Jewish law, the Torah is seen as a wellspring of wisdom on virtually every aspect of one’s life. Whether it is a question of religious practice or ethical conduct, political ideology or economic policy, metaphysical conviction or aesthetic creed — followers of this model, a precious few, seek the Torah’s guidance at every turn.

While all four models provide tenable answers to the question — Why learn Torah? — it is this last model that I believe ought to be promoted in the modern Jewish world and in the Reform Movement in particular. We must strive to educate our children, our communities, our families, and ourselves to regard the Torah as a vital, dynamic text, as relevant to our lives today as it was 2000 years ago. We must come to be so engaged in the ideas and questions of Torah that it becomes a source of insight into our daily existence. Together, its ancient forms and modern commentaries can expand our understanding of the world around us, challenge our beliefs and preconceived notions, and inspire us to become more of who we want to be. It is only once we allow Torah to enter our lives, to permeate every aspect of our being, that we may someday come to exclaim with the psalmist, “O how I love Your teaching. It is my study all day long.”

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President’s Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.


The Exile of Tishah B’Av: What Is It We’re Mourning?

Woman's hand on the Western Wall next to notes in a crevice

Exile is one of the preeminent themes of the Torah. From the outset of Genesis, Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden. Abraham is called by God to “the land I will show you” but famine forces him to seek refuge in Egypt. Joseph is sold off to Egypt, where, at the end of his life, he makes his family promise, “When God has taken notice of you, carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). The remainder of the Torah – all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – charts Israel’s pursuit of a path back home.

Jewish history works in similar cycles of dispersion and return. David and Solomon established a kingdom and a Temple in Jerusalem, but these were demolished in 586 B.C.E. and the survivors of Judah were deported eastward. They longed for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. A generation later, a remnant returned and rebuilt the kingdom and its Temple in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and again the Jews became a people in exile. For centuries, Jews built Diaspora communities even as stragglers returned to the Land, to pray or to die there. The advent of Zionism in the 19th century marked our most dramatic effort since the days of the Bible to return home.

We have known different kinds of exile. There is political exile – distance from our physical home – and there is spiritual exile – distance from our spiritual Source. Zionism sought to put an end to the political state of exile, but spiritual exile continues to be our existential reality everywhere, including in the Land of Israel.

The fast of the 9th of Av – “Tishah B’Av” – is devoted to reflection on what it means to live in exile. The shorthand is that it is the date when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.

But Tishah B’Av isn’t only about history, just as Passover and Hanukkah are not “only” about history. The genius of the rabbis who shaped Judaism is in the way they spiritualized history and filled it with religious meaning for subsequent generations.

Thus, the events of Tishah B’Av aren’t simply understood as historical calamities. After all, catastrophes have befallen the Jewish people on every day of the calendar year. But they are signposts for a religious condition:

  1. Exile from the homeland
  2. Exile from God
  3. Exile from one another

This is the great secret of Tishah B’Av: The last two are really one. Because in Judaism’s religious humanism (or humanistic religion?), distance from other people necessarily results in distance from God:

Why was the First Temple destroyed?
Because of three things: idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed….
But the Second Temple – when people were occupied with Torah, mitzvot, and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness) –
Why was it destroyed?
Because of senseless hatred (sinat chinam).
(Talmud, Yoma 9b)

Consider the theological outlook the Talmud is teaching. The First Temple stood at a time of rampant perversion and hypocrisy, so naturally (in the rabbinic mindset) it was lost. But the Second Temple stood during centuries that were recalled for Torah and adherence to mitzvot (commandments). Why would God allow it to be destroyed?

The answer, says the Talmud, is because of rampant hatred that existed among the Jews – even as they were living according to the letter of the Law. Service to God in the Temple was not meant to be performed with hate in their hearts.

The Temple was designed to be a place of intimacy – between God and the People, and between and among the people who gathered there. As people became estranged from one another – when they could no longer see the image of God in the face of the person opposite them – then their worship and the Temple itself became hollow. An institution based on lies and hypocrisies cannot stand. Made as inconsequential as a piece of tissue paper, it is as if God thoughtlessly crumpled it up and tossed it aside – because, spiritually speaking, it was already destroyed. The assault of the Romans was just a final punctuation mark.

The astonishing lesson of the Torah is that only one creation is made “in the image of God” – human beings. To treat other people with contempt or disgust or hate is to treat God’s only image that way. As a result, estrangement from one another and estrangement from God are intertwined.

The Tishah B’Av fast marks a sad reality: this is the world in which we live, each in our own isolated cones with our own preoccupations and nursing our own hurts. This scenario illustrates what it means to live in exile; exile is the metaphysical sense of being alone, and it is our own doing.

If we find it hard to mourn the loss of “The Temple” on Tishah B’Av, no matter; mourn for something else.

Mourn for our distance from God.

Mourn for our distance from each other.