A Gentle translation for Barbara Streisand’s Avinu Malkeinu

B’H Years ago Barbara Streisand sang a rendition of Avinu Malkeinu. I listen to it every year and every year I am moved to tears. This year I decided to give my own translation to the words of this powerful piece.  The amazing beauty and power of Hebrew is that, since it is a root language, we may find the deeper and broader meanings that flows through the letters into our hearts. What follows is the text in transliteration and my translation of the Avinu Malkeinu.


Avinu malkeinu sh’ma kolenu
Avinu malkeinu chatanu l’faneycha
Avinu malkeinu chamol aleynu
Ve’al olaleynu vetapeinu

Avinu malkeinu
Kaleh dever
vecherev vera’av mealeynu
Avinu malkeinu
kaleh chol tsar
Umastin mealeynu

Avinu malkeinu
Avinu malkeinu
Kat’veinu besefer chayim tovim
Avinu malkeinu chadesh aleynu
Chadesh aleynu shanah tovah

Sh’ma kolenu
Sh’ma kolenu
Sh’ma kolenu

Avinu malkeinu

Avinu malkeinu
Chadesh aleynu shanah tovah

Avinu malkeinu
Sh’ma kolenu
Sh’ma kolenu
Sh’ma kolenu
Sh’ma kolenu

Our Source, our Council

Our Source, our Council, listen for our voice
Our Source, our Council, we have missed the mark before you
Our Source, our Council, Let your compassion flow in us
and in our children

Our Source, our Council
empty the world of the pestilence,
war and famine that weighs on us
Our Source our Council,
Empty us of all the trouble
And the hostility that surrounds us

Our Source, our Council,
Our Source, our Council,
Write us in, in the book of good life
Our Source, our Council, renew us
Renew us for a year of good changes.

Listen to our call
Understand our acceptance
Hear our voice

Our Source, our Council,

Our Source, our Council,
Renew us for a year of good changes

Our Source, our Council,
Listen to our cry
Understand our call
Hear our voice
Oh hear our cry

Mystical Musings about our Shofar

No matter what your relationship to the Yamim Noraim, these high and holy days, everyone feels the power of the Shofar. The Shofar with its many rites and rules and meanings, touches our hearts and souls. As we know, there are four blasts of the Shofar. There are also 3 categories for these clarion calls.

There have been many commentaries on the 3 categories. As we are entering into these Awesome days, I would like to add my own.

We begin with Zichronot, with memories. We each have memories that drag us down and memories that elevate us. When I look back over the past year, I am weighed down by opportunities missed, time wasted, calls not returned, words that hurt instead of helped. These memories weigh me down. Sometimes, as I try to sleep these missteps, missed marks, mistakes keep me up. When I least expect it, on a hike, while reading or praying, my hard drive spews out memories of the past year that weigh me down. How can I raise myself up again? I need something to buoy me up. And I know that I cannot do it by myself. I need help. I need to be in council.

That is Malchuyot. Not only does it mean kingship but also council. G is “Melech HaOlam”, our Eternal Council. Malchuyot calls us to council. In council I find comfort. In council I find healing. The Shofar blasts remind me that I have a standing appointment with Melech HaOlam, my Eternal Council. I merely have to seek out that Eternal Council. Sometimes, while davening, traditional worship, I can direct my soul into my ‘councilling’ session. At other times, I have found myself in the right frame of mind, during a hike through the mountains or while reading something meaningful or listening to music and the door opens. I even find my council while creating a wonderful (well I like it) dinner for my family. In the ‘councilling’ session, I begin to find balance and more. I find cleansing.

Shofarot is so much more than the Rams horn that we blow. The root of the word contains the Remez meaning; Cleansing. What a blessing, what a promise. We remember, we seek council and in the end, our souls are cleansed and made whole again for the changes that are continually coming into our lives.

Nitzavim: Becoming the Archeologist of the Soul

In Parashat Nitzavim, the Prarasha before the Head of the Year, we read: Deuteronomy 30:11 כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא׃
This sacred connection that I plug into you this day, it is not too hard for you, it is not too far off.
30:12 לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃
It is not in the heavens, that you might whine: ‘Who shall go up to the heavens for us (astronauts), and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’
30:13 וְלֹֽא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃
And it is not beyond the sea, that you whine: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us (sailors and pilots and adventurers), and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’
30:14 כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃
But the word/things are so close to you, they are already in your mouth, and in your heart, for you to do.
What an amazing passage. We don’t have to search heaven and earth to find the amazing connections that we all share, each in hir own way. They are already within us, on our hard drive. We only need to know how to locate them and to use our personal program to access them. For some, that program is faith, religions, Chritstianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism and so many more. For some it is found in art or music. Others access the connection through nature or community and for many of us, we use some combination. But the connection is already within each of us. And the challenge of this part of the Parsha is twofold. We need to discover the right program for us to access the mitzvah connection. And then we need to activate it through our actions and actualize it in our lives.
May this be a Shanah Tovah for us all, a year of good changes.

Giving G a thank you Fruit Basket

Our Torah portion this week begins with a marvelous Mitzvah (sacred connection); the Mitzvah of bringing thank you gifts to G for guiding us into Israel. We give G a fruit basket as a thank you for all of the miracles G has performed on our behalf.

On the one hand we have a symbolic gesture, a ‘sacrifice’ to G. Along with that gesture comes a lovely statement that we say aloud; so lovely that we read it every year on Pesah every in remembrance. It is a historical mantra of joy and gratitude. It commences with our commencement as wandering strangers. It ascends with our entrance into Egypt and descends into degradation and forced labor. Then this beautiful tale continues with our cries of distress to the Holy, Wholly One of Being who answers with wonders and signs and our long trek to freedom. The tale ends with our arrival in our homeland, a land “flowing with milk and honey.” And therefore, it continues, we bring our first fruits as a thank you gift to the Source of our freedom. And yet, one might ask, is the One G really desirous of our fruits and vegetables and livestock? The answer comes with the next verse (Deuteronomy 26:11). In order for us to show our gratitude to G, we must take what we have been given and share it with others, those in need.

That is an incredible statement. Our offering, our tax is for the feeding of the Levites, but also for the poor, the disadvantaged, the stranger in our midst. What a concept. We are commanded to pay a tax of gratitude and it is to be used to help those in need.

When we listen to some of the rhetoric today, this Mitzvah stands out among the xenophobic, hate-filled remarks that we hear from political leaders and political “wanna-bes”. While many wish to erase that beautiful poem at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty, written by the Jewish Poet Emma Lazarus, we were commanded to live up to it; to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for the stranger.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Rational Mystic Musings on Life in the World to Come Part Shtayim

“Rebahir, the essay you recently posted reminded me of a question I’ve been wondering about for a while (and which is also touched upon in the essay that you sent me on afterlife). Effectively, it’s this – do you think that goodness during life is judged on your actions relative to your position in the world? Basically, is the President “graded” on a harsher scale than Reb Zusha in your essay?

In your essay on the afterlife, the versions that I gravitate towards the most are ones which indicate that you’re effectively measured by your impact and experiences in life. They make sense to me. I think there’s absolutely truth to the idea of anonymous immortality – to me, that manifests itself as your imprint in the world passing on indefinitely, albeit in a more diluted form for subsequent generations. (As an aside, I once watched a documentary on the origin of General Tsao’s chicken that dealt with this point.) I think that is what you are saying as well in this idea of the pool of soul. For what it’s worth, though, in my imagination, the pool probably grows as well so that it no longer fits in one cup. Or perhaps it becomes more concentrated?

The problem with these interpretations for me are that 1) they don’t resolve what happens to my consciousness after I die (though I realize that some of the other interpretations you’ve shared do address that question, and I need to think about them further) and 2) addressing my question above, they seem to favor people who have more opportunity for impact. At the most basic level, an adult who lives to old age and has kids would seem to have a more tangible impact than an orphan who dies young. That’s putting aside thornier considerations like race, gender, wealth, etc. So I guess that’s back to my question for you – are we judged on a sliding scale? I suspect your answer might be that the answer doesn’t really matter, and we should all do our best to be good regardless, but I’m curious for your thoughts nonetheless.”
B’H You offer a fine set of questions.

In a world with a set of scales held by G, I would hope that we would be graded on a curve. As a matter of fact we have stories of that sliding scale. The most memorable story is that of Moshe (Moses) not being allowed into Eretz Yisrael (the Holy Land) because of a seemingly minor offence. The story goes that Moshe was told to speak to a rock and G would make water flow from it to quench the thirst of a bunch of whiny Israelites. Instead, he strikes the rock and says (paraphrasing here): “Do I have to do everything for you!?!?!” For that he was forbidden entrance into the Land of Israel. Yet the Israelites did far worse and still were allowed into Israel. This would intimate that there is a sliding scale. Your question and comparison of President to Reb Zusha begs another question. Do you think that the President of some country is held to a higher standard than a great Rebbe?

And while we are on stories of Zusha…

When he was dying, Reb Zusha began to weep in front of his students. His students began to console him and asked: “why are you weeping, Rebbe?” He responded: “I know that I am dying and I know that when I appear before the Beit Din Shel Ma’alah (the Heavenly court), I will not be asked why I was not like Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses). I know that I will not be asked why I was not more like David HaMelech (King David). But I weep because I know that I will be asked: ‘Zusha, why were you not more like Zusha.?’ Oh how will I answer that??” He was, in my opinion, agreeing with your question. There is a sliding scale. At the same time, that sliding scale is of little comfort to me. There is a story told of W.C. Fields on his death bed. His friends came to visit him and were shocked to see the famous atheist reading a bible. They laughed and challenged him asking what he thought he was doing. Without missing a beat the raconteur responded: “Looking for loopholes!” Reb Zusha’s story does not console W. C. or me or any of us who are ‘looking for loopholes.’ For, even though tradition offers us a sliding scale, a bell curve, the question remains the same. Why was I not more like my authentic self?

I too gravitate to the Pool of Soul concept. As part and parcel of that, the idea of anonymous immortality fits smoothly. As to it growing or not, I feel that since souls are infinite they do not grow or shrink, they simply fit. But in an expanding universe that is infinite, why not have an ever-expanding Pool of Soul.

Your third paragraph is most interesting and it touches on more than life after death. It touches upon the worth of life itself. First let me address the consciousness issue. How do you do, consciousness issue? (sorry, I am being a little silly). But seriously folks…

There are many “World to Come” concepts that grapple with whether or not there is consciousness after death. We have all wondered if our loved ones are looking down on us and looking out for us. There was a book, that I read when the world was young called “Stranger in a Stranger Land.” That book intimated that there was consciousness after death but that it faded with time. There is a similar theory in Judaism. In this theory within Judaism, there is not heaven and hell, there is, for a limited time, memory. For some set period of time after we die, we remember only the bad, the misdeeds and mistakes that we have made in life. Then there is a set period of time in which we remember only the good that we have done. Can you imagine how long that first period of memory and guilt would be for and evil person and how quick and sad would be the second half of hir memory period? On the other hand, for the ‘Dudley Do-Rights’ of the world, the whole experience could be relatively pleasant. And after both sets of ‘time’ have expired, consciousness fades. That concept is rather palatable to me.

I have saved the most trying for last. What impact do we have on the world. I recall my father (zt’l) telling of a man who was going off to war. As he was walking to join his outfit he was hit by the first bullet of the first battle of the war. And if anyone had noticed, that would have been his epitaph. But what no one knew was that this man on his way to his untimely death met a sad young girl weeping by the road. Her father had gone off to war and she was scared and worried. He sat with her and comforted her and gave her hope, even though he knew that her father was fighting for the other side. If they would see each other they would try to kill each other. Yet he sat and consoled her and helped her look to the future with optimism. What was the worth of this man’s life; this man who died from the first bullet of the first battle? And what of a child (G forbid) who passes away.

In New Age philosophies all people are born good. In Christianity all are born in sin. In Judaism we are born innocent. How we will turn out depends upon us and our environment. So if a child passes on (G forbid) he is innocent. This in no way mitigates, in my mind, the tragedy, but for the purposes of your question s/he will have no negative repercussions after death. But I cannot end our discussion with the death of a child.

Let me end with a story by I.L. Peretz of an orphan (again this is me paraphrasing and summarizing. You should find and read the story. It is beautiful:”Bontsha the Silent”). His name was Bontsha. Bontsha lived a life of silence. He was born in silence into an unloving family. In silence he was thrown out of the family. He struggled in poverty in silence. Even when he had a job, eked out a wage that would not even feed him, and he was silent. Then one day a majestic coach careened around a corner out of control. Bontsha, again in silence, leapt out to save the opulent coach and its occupants. The rich owner was so grateful that he hired Bontsha as his coachman. And Bontsha was silent. He was silent when the rich man married him to a woman of the rich man’s household. He was silent when the rich man supplied Bontsha with a child, through Bontsha’s wife. Bontsha remained silent when the rich man went bankrupt and neglected to pay Bontsha for all his work. And again he was silent when his wife left him and the infant whom Bontsha raised. And when the infant became a strong young man, he threw Bontsha out and yet Bontsha was silent. Then one day that same rich then bankrupt and then rich again man was riding recklessly in his carriage and ran over Bontsha, who died in silence.

Now Bontsha is hearing his life story retold in the Beit Din Shel Ma’alah, the heavenly court. He does not even look up. The defense attorney goes into great detail on the travails of Bontsha’s life. He demonstrates no wrong doing on Bontsha’s part. And finally he finishes and sits down. The ‘district’ attorney no less than the accuser, Satan (pronounced SahTahn) stands as Bontsha trembles. The accuser points to Bontsha and says: “All of his life Bontsha has been silent. Now it is my turn to be silent!” And with that he sits down. Now the Judge of judges looks down on Bontsha and speaks, saying: “In the world of what is, you were silent. You were not understood. You suffered. But here, we understand and you are to be rewarded with anything that would please you.” Bontsha looks around and for the first time speaks. “If, sir, it is not too much trouble, may I please have, every morning, a hot roll with butter?” And now the entire Court fell…silent.

Rational Mystic musings on Life in the World to Come

A friend has started a wonderful conversation with me and I thought that I would share it here. This is part one and I hope that people will respond with your ideas and feelings and thoughts.

You asked me about the Jewish view of life after death. My short answer is that we believe in them all and in none. By that I mean that we have a plethora of views and each one ends with the statement that we know nothing of “the World to Come.” We have faith that this is not the only realm. We believe that there must be something after. In ancient times, the TaNaCh spoke of Sheol which was where we all went after death. It was never clear what happened there, merely that we were collected. I imagine that it was similar to the Catholic concept of Purgatory. It’s just a nice place to hangout for eternity. Of course it could also have been similar to the realm of Hades as the Greeks interpreted it. I don’t know about you, but that is unsatisfying to me. Many concepts have slipped into our belief system including a variation on the Christian heaven and hell. But ours was based on deed more than the acceptance of a belief system. When Eichmann was awaiting execution in Israel (the only execution ever in the State of Israel), a group of Christian ministers asked to meet with him. There purpose was to convert him, to teach him the “Jesus Path.” A curious Israeli authority asked them what would happen if Eichmann accepted Jesus. Would all his sins be forgiven and would he go to the Christian heaven. They answered in the affirmative. This baffled the authority as it does me. Our view is more akin to the Mashal (teaching parable) of the man who was given the gift of being allowed to visit Heaven and Hell. First he was taken to Hell. He was surprised to find a long table filled with a wonderful feast. Then he noticed that the silverware was over a yard long. Each knife and fork was made as if for a giant. In addition each fork and knife was attached to each person at the feast at the wrist and above the elbow. The result was that no person could feed himself and was in a perpetual state of starvation while seated before this amazing repast. The man turned to his angel guide and pronounced that it was certainly a huge punishment for those poor souls in Hell. Then he was transported to Heaven. In Heaven he was surprised to see the exact same arrangement. There was the table, the abundance of delicious food and the extremely long utensils attached as they were in Hell to the ‘guests’ at the feast. There was only one difference. In Heaven each person was feeding the person across from him/her. Everyone was satisfied and happy.

In Liberal Judaism there is not much discussion of the afterlife, viewing this as the main venue and whatever happens after is in the hands of G. There is much talk of the concept of living on after our death in the deeds that we do. There is a very good summary of the Liberal view by Rabbi Evan Moffic a Reform Rabbi.
“Faith begins in mystery. Among the greatest mysteries we face is the afterlife. What happens when we die? Do we see our loved ones? Do we know them? Do they know us? The questions are endless. Jewish wisdom offers no definitive answer. We can identify, however, several core teachings.
“There is an afterlife: Texts from every era in Jewish life identify a world where people go when they die. In the Bible it’s an underworld called Sheol. In the rabbinic tradition it’s known by a number of names, including the yeshiva shel mallah, the school on high. The Hebrew word for skies, shamayim, also came to refer to heaven.
“Heaven has open door policy: Heaven is not a gated community. The righteous of any people and any faith have a place in it. Our actions, not our specific beliefs, determine our fate. No concept of Hell exists in Judaism. The closest we get is the fate of apostate (a person who renounces God, faith and morality in this world), who is said to be “cut off from his kin.”
“The afterlife can take many forms: Professor A.J. Levine expresses this truth most eloquently, “Jewish beliefs in the afterlife are as diverse as Judaism itself, from the traditional view expecting the unity of flesh and spirit in a resurrected body, to the idea that we live on in our children and grandchildren, to a sense of heaven (perhaps with lox and bagels rather than harps and haloes).”
“The afterlife is here on earth: One strand of Jewish thought sees heaven as a transitory place where souls reside after death. They reside there until they reunite with their physical bodies at the time when messiah comes. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates this view in his early book, The Wolf Shall Lie with the Lamb. This approach differs from reincarnation since the return to life happens only in the messianic era, not as a regular occurrence, as in Hinduism.
“We live on through others: The Reform Jewish prayerbook expresses this idea through the metaphor of a leaf and a tree. A leaf drops to the ground, but it nourishes the soil so more plants and trees spring up. The same is true in our lives. We nourish the future through the influence we have on those who follow us. It can happen in unimaginable ways.”
The more traditional view is that the soul returns to G. Some say that this is a temporary state and that eventually it is reunited with the body that is rejuvenated (or is it reJewvenated), when the Mashiah comes. Then there is a certain amount of time when we live “Heavenly days on earth.” But that too will end and we will return to that soulful existence without the body, in the end of days. I think that this view is eisegesis, that is, trying to make the disparate texts fit together using one’s own ideas. Another belief that I have heard in traditional circles is the idea that in the “World to Come” souls are given the chance to return (similar to reincarnation) in order to fulfill the Mitzvot that they hadn’t in a previous lifetime. The cycle continues until the soul becomes perfectly righteous and need not return. Of course there are some souls who so wish to return (according to some Yiddish mythology) that they enter bodies and cause mischief. They are called dybuks and cause problems in life.
There are many other variations on these attitudes. I would like to share just a couple more with you. The first comes from my father, zt’l, Rabbi Maurice Davis. He would often speak of ‘anonymous immortality.’ If I tell you a story that touches you, you might decide to share that story. The person with whom you share it might continue the process of sharing. Somewhere along the line, my name, as the author of the story is forgotten, but the story or teaching remains. Here is a good example. Last week I took part in a gathering celebrating the wedding of a young friend of mine. The celebration included Havdalah. At the point in the ceremony when they were to ‘use’ the Havdalah candle, my friend said to his wife; “I use this candle to look into your eyes, as you have taught me.” She responded; “I love this teaching but I thought that you taught it to me.” I smiled to myself as I am the one who created and shared that teaching with him when he lived with us: Anonymous immortality.
Lastly, let me share my own view. There is in the realm of G a “Pool of Soul.” When a human is born, some of the Pool of Soul is poured into the person. For as long as s/he lives that soul grows from every experience that happens in life. When the person passes, the soul which has been separated from the “Pool of Soul,” returns to the pool becoming one with the pool. It is like taking a spoonful of water from a bowl and pouring it into a glass. No matter how the glass is moved or shaken, when the water returns to the bowl it becomes one with the water in that bowl. In that way the “Pool of Soul” becomes, in a spiritual sense, greater for each encounter with the limitations of human life.

Ekev: The challenge of the Promise

The Challenge of the Promise.

How do we view this week’s Parasha with the promises and threats voiced by Moshe Rabbeinu? If we obey G, we will be healthy and wealthy and wise. Our enemies will run from us, our crops will be abundant; our children will be many and satisfied. But if we do not, then we will be scattered to the wind and punished for our disobedience. How then do we handle the question put forth by Rabbi Harold Kushner: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” We have been tossed on the winds of faith. Are we so disobedient that we have deserved pogroms and Inquisitions and the Holocaust and modern Anti-Semitism? Can we not call out to G: Oh Holy One of Being, have we not been punished enough? What of the great Tzadikim who are among us? Do they not balance the scales, even a little?”

I must admit that I have trouble with passages such as this; on the one hand they promise us such abundance and on the other threaten us with such horrors. I have trouble seeing the tragedies created by inhumanity, visited on humanity as G’s punishment to a stiff-necked people.

I believe that we tend to use The Wholly One of Being as a scapegoat for the evil that humans heap upon each other.

So how can I read the parts of this passage that promise and threaten?

With Stories…

There was a righteous man who, one night was visited by the Prophet Eliyahu. Eliyahu proclaimed to the man that since he had been living such a righteous life, the Heavenly court had decided that he should have a hint of his reward right here on earth. Eliyahu asked: “What would you like as your special gift?” The man thought for a while and responded: “I would like to see Gan Eden and Gehinom, I would like to see the reward of the righteous and the penalty of the wicked. In other words, I wish to see what is called Heaven and Hell.” And immediately they were transported to Hell to see the punishment awaiting those who have sinned without redemption. And there, sitting at an infinitely long table were the offenders. And on that table was food. A magnificent banquet with every delicacy one could imagine. Food was piled high on beautiful serving plates. Succulent dishes with powerfully subtle aromas lay before these malefactors. The man was shocked until he noticed that each person was attached to very long knives and forks at two places on their arms, one above the elbow and the other below. The result was that the evildoers could not eat and they remained in a perpetual state of starvation. They moaned and wept and cursed, but they could not taste the succulent dishes just inches from them.

The man standing by Eliyahu nodded in awareness. Yes this must certainly be hell. And at that moment they were instantly transported to Heaven. To the man’s total shock, it was exactly like hell. He stared in wide-eyed amazement, no, in shock at the same infinitely long table, the same elegant repast AND THE SAME BOUND CUTLERY. The man, who had lived such a righteous life could hardly believe what he was seeing. Was there no difference in the world to come for the righteous and the wicked? But then he heard the people at the table recite the blessing before the meal and they cut the food and each person fed the one across from hir (hir is how I deal with the challenge of not being gender specific). It was a merry sight to see. There was laughter as they fed each other, some awkwardly, some with experience. There was lively dinner conversation, discussing Torah teachings and their applications to the lives of these righteous people. The man nodded in silence for he had been given a great gift, one that humbled him. The difference between heaven and hell is not what awaits us, but how we will respond to it.

There is a more classic story that comes to mind. It speaks to a personal understanding of our Parasha. There are truths in Torah but we must delve into the scroll of Torah and the scroll of our heart to discover them.

Reb Zusha was a great Rebbe, a learned Rebbe and a very poor man. How would he answer the challenge of the beginning of this passage?

We are told that a man once came to the Rebbe Dovber, the “Maggid of Mezeritch,” with a question.

“The Talmud teaches,” the man began, “that ‘A person is supposed to bless G for the bad just as he blesses G for the good.’ How can this be done? If our sages said that we are to accept stoically, without complaint or bitterness whatever is ordained from Heaven, I could understand that. I can even accept that, ultimately, everything will be for the good, and that everything, in the end, will be a blessing. Of course we are to praise and thank G even though at first glance it appears to be negative. But how can a human being possibly react to what he experiences as bad in exactly the same way he responds to what he experiences as good? How can a person be as grateful for his troubles as he is for his joys?”

Rabbi Dovber replied: “Truly this is a difficult question. To find an answer to your question, you must go and see my disciple, Reb Zusha of Anipoli. Only he can help you in this matter.”

Reb Zusha received his guest warmly as he did with all who crossed his threshold, and invited him to make himself at home. The visitor decided to observe Reb Zusha’s conduct before posing his question. Before long, he concluded that his host truly exemplified the Talmudic dictum which so puzzled him. He couldn’t think of anyone who suffered more hardship in his life than did Reb Zusha: a frightful pauper, there was never enough to eat in Reb Zusha’s home, and his family was beset with all sorts of afflictions and illnesses. Yet Reb Zusha was always good-humored and cheerful, and constantly expressing his gratitude to the Wholly One of Blessing for all G’s kindness.

But what was is his secret? How did he do it? The visitor finally could not contain himself any longer and blurted out his question.

“I wish to ask you something; I need to ask you something. In fact, this is the purpose of my visit to you–our Rebbe advised me that you can provide the answer.”

“What is your question?” asked Reb Zusha.

The visitor repeated what he had asked of the Maggid. “You raise a good point,” said Reb Zusha, after thinking the matter through. “But I find it curious that our Rebbe sent you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering…”

One more quickie: I heard a story of the tribal folk of this land. A man woke up and noticed that his lawn needed mowing. He took his hand mower and pushed it up and down his yard until it was mowed. Sweating, he sat down on the porch, with a sense of accomplishment. His son came out with some lemonade for his father. As the two of them sat together quenching their thirst, the son pointed to and commented on their neighbor’s unkempt yard. The father said not a word. He simply got up and took his hand mower and mowed his neighbor’s yard. A stranger visiting the reservation asked the man why he had mowed his neighbor’s yard. The man answered: “It needed mowing.”

My Rebbe (זצ’ל) was fond of the blessing: “May you live heavenly days on earth.” I believe that he meant that we should be as those souls in heaven and as Reb Zushia on earth. We should help each other and find joy in the simple act of living.

HaShem, The Wholly One of Being, will not change what is, even if we pray: “Dear G please let me show you that winning the lottery won’t change me.” But G is constantly implanting within us the ability to elevate the challenges that we face. Could this be the answer to the question that we feel when we read the promises and threats in the words of our Sacred Text, our Sacred Guide? Is this not truly living a life that fulfills the blessing: May we live heavenly days on earth.

VaEthanan: Climbing the Torah Tree


Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Reading Torah is a unique experience.  We begin on the earth, grounded as it were with the simple understanding of the words.  Then we flow mentally and mystically through the roots of the words. If we are very fortunate, we find ourselves playing in the branches of our sacred tree (“It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it”עץ חיים”  “למחזיקים בו).

Many have struggled with the question of why Moshe Rabbeinu, the Holiest of humans was not allowed to cross over into the promised land.  Here is yet another interpretation.

כג  וָאֶתְחַנַּן, אֶל-יְהוָה, בָּעֵת הַהִוא, לֵאמֹר.

23 And I besought the LORD at that time, saying:

My Translation/Interpretation: At that time, I needed G to cover, comfort, wrap me in G’s grace. I gave expression to my need:

כד  אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, אַתָּה הַחִלּוֹתָ לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת-עַבְדְּךָ, אֶת-גָּדְלְךָ, וְאֶת-יָדְךָ הַחֲזָקָה–אֲשֶׁר מִי-אֵל בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה כְמַעֲשֶׂיךָ וְכִגְבוּרֹתֶךָ.

24 ‘O Lord GOD, Thou hast begun to show Thy servant Thy greatness, and Thy strong hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth, that can do according to Thy works, and according to Thy mighty acts?

My Translation/Interpretation: “Oh Wholly One of Being, My Council, You have begun the process of showing me, teaching your follower, how You thread everything together and Your strong direction. Who else can do as You have done so splendidly with heaven and earth?

כה  אֶעְבְּרָה-נָּא, וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה, אֲשֶׁר, בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן:  הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה, וְהַלְּבָנֹן.

25 Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon.’

My Translation/Interpretation: Let me cross over, or let me at least see that good land that is across the Jordan: This good mountain and Lebanon.”

כו  וַיִּתְעַבֵּר יְהוָה בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי; וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֵלַי, רַב-לָךְ–אַל-תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד, בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה.

26 But the LORD was wroth with me for your sakes, and hearkened not unto me; and the LORD said unto me: ‘Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto Me of this matter.

My Translation/Interpretation: And G crossed over with me (in my soul), but for your sake did not focus on me.  And G emanated to me: “It is already a great thing (that you have done); do not try to add to this matter with more word/things.”

כז  עֲלֵה רֹאשׁ הַפִּסְגָּה, וְשָׂא עֵינֶיךָ יָמָּה וְצָפֹנָה וְתֵימָנָה וּמִזְרָחָה–וּרְאֵה בְעֵינֶיךָ:  כִּי-לֹא תַעֲבֹר, אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה.

27 Get thee up into the top of Pisgah, and lift up thine eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold with thine eyes; for thou shalt not go over this Jordan.

My Translation/Interpretation: “Go up to the top of Pisgah and turn your eyes to the sea, to the south and the east. Let your eyes see, because you will not cross this Jordan.”

There is so much to unpack in this Parasha.  In it we find the first paragraph of the Shema.  This paragraph councils us, with compassion and humor, to focus and to love and even offers deep teachings on the ‘how’. It begins with the challenge to believe in the Oneness that is the source of all creation.  And immediately guides us to a path of love.  We are commanded to love. We ask in our hearts: “How?” The answer comes; “heartfully, soulfully, fully!” Again we ask how. And the answer wafts from the black fire on white fire: “Keep these teachings close to your heart.” And like a young child, we ask again: “How?” And HaShem with patience and compassion answers us. The key to remembering is to share these teachings with our children.  And because HaShem is such a good teacher of us, G’s children, there is humor added to the mix. We are to speak of this powerful teaching only two times in a day, when we are standing up and when we are not standing up.  And for those of us who still don’t get the joke it is repeated. We only have to focus on the power of love when we are at home and when we are not at home. And to help us remember the sacred power of love, the power of holy focusing on the source of love, we are to wrap these words on our arm and wear them as jewels on our heads.  They are our strength and our crown.  And more, we are to write them as reminders on our doors and gates. And even when we are doing well, we must remember the power and purpose of love and the source from whence it and all things flow.

Parashat Va’Etchanan is always read on the Shabbat after Tasha B’Av, the day of great sadness, and is known as Shabbat Nahamu, taking its name from the opening words of comfort in its special haftarah.

The concept of binding love on our arms and wearing the love as a crown on our heads has come down to us as a memory device called Tfillin.  So powerful is Tfillin that the Sages of the Talmud teach that the Wholly one of blessing, dons Tfillin every day (BT Brachot 6a); they suggest that in the boxes of G’s Tfillin are verses paralleling the boxes worn by Jews.  In G’s Tfillin are the teachings of love for all humanity, for our planet and for out process.

There is ‘Nahamu’/comfort in the spiritual image of laying Tfillin with the Wholly One of Being, the Source of all being, our Holy Council

The Sacred and Hope filled Tears of Tisha B’Av

The Sacred and Hope filled Tears of Tisha B’Av

Tradition teaches us that Tisha B’Av is a time of mourning. We mourn the destruction of the first and Second Temple. Over time we have added expulsions, inquisitions, the Holocaust and some have even tried to make a connection with 9/11. The mental gymnastics involved in some of these equations are strenuous to say the least. Yet I would propose that we do not need to struggle with a Pilpulish effort to make the event meet the date on our calendar. Rather, let us simply accept that on a warm summer day, we take a break from our busy lives and allow ourselves to acknowledge that there is sorrow in the world. There has always been sorrow in the world and that until the Messianic age (and maybe after) there will be sorrow in the world.

And there is sorrow and hardship in our own lives. Without allowing that sorrow to dominate our lives, should we not recognize and reflect and even weep for the sadness that is in our world, in our tribe and in ourselves?

I weep for our world and the careless destruction that we heap upon it. My tears flow for lost loved ones and friends and my Rebbe for whom I ache. I look heavenward tearfully and silently wail for the struggles of friends and family and even strangers, I cry out at missed and squandered opportunities. I am dismayed over my loss of strength and physical abilities and memory and mental acuity. I take a day to let go, not to control my emotions, not to smile in the face of adversity. I say to myself: “There are times when I must be strong. This is not one of them.

The 9th of Av usually falls around my birthday giving that day a bittersweet quality.

And yet…

I need this day of mourning to help me refocus. I need this day of mourning because I do not want this annual event to spiral down into a daily occurrence. I need this day to inspire me to rebuild what has been destroyed. After this day of mourning must come a day of building. After this day of mourning I can once more enjoy the warm summer days and be touched by the cool, crisp fall air and prepare for the cold and wondrous winter.

There is a story told or Rabbi Akiba (and I paraphrase) who stood on a hill overlooking the ruins of the Temple with other Rabbis. They saw foxes running through the destruction.

Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiba saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. The others started weeping; Rabbi Akiba laughed.

Said they to him: “Why are you laughing?”

And he said to them: “Why are you weeping?”

They cried: “This is such a sacred place and now foxes traverse it, it is a time for weeping.”

He responded: “That is why I laugh. Just as Uriah the Prophet foretold of this day, Zechariah foretold of the rebuilding of the Temple. Could the latter happen without the former?”

For me, Tisha B’Av is a time of weeping over the destruction. But I know that a new day will break and I must roll up my sleeves for the joyous task of rebuilding.

Rocky Mountain Hai

The Secret Light of Hanukah


There are many deep meanings to this so called minor holiday.

The historical Hanukah is harrowing and miraculous in its own light (pardon the pun). A small group of dedicated people fight for religious freedom. The Maccabean war was not fought to make others follow our path. It was a struggle for our people’s right to worship our way. It might be the only war in history fought ONLY for religious freedom.

For some, the holiday of lights is simply the awareness of the winter solstice by an ancient people.

For traditional Jews, the miracle of the sanctified oil which burned bright for eight days is a miracle of G. It is a call to faith.

In my heart, the religious aspects of the holiday are powerful and personal. The miracle of the oil redirects us away from battle and blood. It directs us toward a deep spiritual light.

The story of oil lasting eight days is a mighty metaphor for our power to be part of the Godding process of creating light.

On the first day, G created light, not the visible light that requires a physical source, the sun and moon and stars. The light that G created before the heavenly sources of light were brought into being was a hidden light. The Baal Shem Tov said: “Light (אור) is the numerical equivalent of secret (רז). Whoever knows the secret can bring illumination” The Hanukah candles (נרות) are a hint, a key to that secret light. The Chinese have a proverb that we all have heard. But clichés are clichés for a reason. “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness!”

Our Hanukah ritual of light speaks to our interpretation of that proverb. Every year we light our Hanukiyot in joy, in hope, in faith. We look back at the history of Hanukah in faith. We look forward in hope and we light with those close to us in the joy of family and friends and those who light up our lives.

Sometimes the hidden light is found in plain sight. Our candles shed light into the darkness and enlighten our lives with sweet memories. And that light touches our souls. In proverbs (20:27) we are taught: “the candle of G is the soul of man.”

Hanukah lights

And so when we hold a child’s hand and guide hir to light, when we sing the songs together and seat our children on our laps and tell the stories, the light glows brighter. When newlyweds light the one Hanukiyah and dream of lighting more with children to be, when elders look into the light of old Hanukiyot and memories dance in the flames, the flames burn brighter.

The historical Hanukah, the religious stories of Hanukah, all are the candles that provide the fuel for the lighting of the sacred light of our lives. When we retell the stories with our friends, with children on our laps are the matches that have the potential of lighting the eternal light, the original light of creation.

The memories that we recall and the memories that we create are the flames that we ignite for our people, our families and our souls.
“Kindle your own candle, ignite your soul, Hanukah is your story” (Likutay Halachot).


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