This Time I Will Offer Thanks

The reasons that lie behind the names given to the sons of Jacob by their mothers, Rachel and Leah are fascinating. What’s striking about Leah’s choices is that they seem tragic and self-serving. She chooses the name Simeon “because the Lord heard that I was unloved,” the name Naftali because she won a “fateful contest with her sister and prevailed,” and the name Levi “so my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons.”

These names express Leah’s despondency that she is not loved, even hated, by her husband Jacob.  The pattern of tragic self-expression through her children’s names is broken when Judah is born.  The origin of the word Jewish, Judah is chosen for reasons that are not self-absorbed at all. Leah names her fourth son Judah as an expression of gratitude for those things that are above and beyond what she felt she had a right to expect in life. When Leah gives birth to Judah, she says “ha-pa’am odeh et Adonai…this time I will thank God” (Genesis 29:35). Why did Leah feel the need to thank God when Judah was born?  On this verse, the Midrash comments that Leah chose the name Judah “because I have assumed more than my share, from now on I should praise God.”  Because he was her fourth child, and she had assumed that each of Jacob’s four wives would be entitled to bear three sons who would become one of the ancestors of the twelve tribes. Judah was extra, more than she felt she was entitled to have, so she felt compelled to offer thanks to God.

I don’t consider this interpretation of Leah’s motivation for choosing the name Judah to be a satisfying explanation of the idea of gratitude.  Yes, we can all expect certain basic entitlements in life.  Americans have come to expect a safe place to live, food to eat, healthcare and education for ourselves and our children.  These are among the basic privileges offered to the people of a decent society, and we have come to expect them.  Beyond expecting them for ourselves, we are called to fight for the underprivileged among us who do not receive an adequate share of these minimum rights and benefits, if they have them at all.  But true gratitude asks us to be thankful for life itself and for each of the blessings we enjoy each day.  Nothing we have should be taken for granted or assumed to be owed to us.  That is why a Jew is asked to express gratitude as the first utterance upon waking in the morning, why we pause to say thanks for every morsel of food we eat before sitting down to a meal, and why we offer our gratitude for the clothing we wear.

Before we establish what think we are entitled to have and only express thanks for what we are given beyond that, we ought to consider that much of the rest of the world lives in poverty and destitution.  When we consider the material blessings that what we have each day of our lives, and the blessings of freedom afforded by our country, we might amend “this time I will thank God” to “I will thank God every time.”

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I encourage you to offer the following prayer when you gather to share a meal with family and friends.

A Thanksgiving Prayer

(By Rabbi Naomi Levy)

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these.  Amen.



There’s Nothing Like Being There

Not much distinguishes Isaac as one of the three great patriarchs of our people.  Though we recite his name every time we pray the Amidah, there isn’t anything particularly dramatic about his life story.

Abraham is a pioneer, the one to promote a revolutionary idea to the world.  His faith is complex and challenging.  His family relationships are equally so.

Jacob lives a turbulent life on his own terms.  He knows he will inherit the weighty mantle of leadership, but we are not sure he possesses the moral certainty carry on his family’s tradition.  He is a person of questionable character who inspires scrutiny and admiration for his behavior toward others.

But the most that can be said of Isaac is that he is the necessary link between the generations.  He is a passive figure, bound to the altar by his father in the role of victim, not trailblazer.

True, there are times to be a trailblazer and there are times to maintain the status quo.  Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his book Biblical Images writes that, “It is known that the sons of great fathers, talented and significant as they may be in their own right, have to contend with the parental glory and from the beginning feel themselves as inadequate, burdened with a lesser or with greater degrees of helplessness.”  Frankly, who remembers the child of a revolutionary?  The point Rabbi Steinsaltz makes is that the generation to follow a revolutionary often must quietly maintain what was achieved.

On the surface, Isaac’s story is not unique and inspiring.  But the rabbinic sages credit him with one achievement in particular—he remained in the Land of Israel.  In chapter 26 of Genesis, we read that God tells him to stay in the land and that he will prosper by staying.

One might think that never leaving one’s homeland is hardly an impressive accomplishment.  But the sages credit Isaac with reinforcing the idea that a Jew must be closely connected to the Land of Israel not only spiritually but also physically.  For them, the land was a crucial aspect of Jewish identity.  They viewed the land as not an abstract promise made to Abraham but the place in which communal and cultural identity was formed and strengthened.  Simply put, they affirmed that Jews are not only a religion but also a nation.  We have in common not only values, folkways, history and customs, but also a shared connection to a certain place.

What was true for the Talmudic sages should be true for us.  Jews are not only members of a religion, but also a nation.  Our connection to the Land of Israel has been maintained from all the generations from Abraham to our day.  Our religious identity is expressed not only in prayer, study, holiday celebration and cultural experience.  It ought to be expressed through connection to the Land of Israel as well.

In that spirit, I share with you two opportunities to visit Israel with me.

  • The first opportunity is Oheb Shalom Congregation’s Family Israel Adventure, a 10-day tour from August 19-29, 2018. These dates come after summer camp sessions have ended.  Together, we will travel to places in Israel both historic and modern, seeing for ourselves how this remarkable and beautiful nation has grown over 70 years of statehood.  Each day will be packed with experiences and memorable moments that we will share together.  Oheb Shalom members and their extended family members are welcome to join.  The itinerary and registration form for Oheb Shalom’s Family Israel Adventure are both online.
  • The second opportunity is a Community Mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. From October 14-22, 2018, hundreds of people from our community will travel together to Israel for a remarkable and memorable visit.  The cost is $1,999 (land only) for the first 400 registrants, and $3,499 (land only) for subsequent registrants.  I plan to be there, and we are hoping for a substantial representation from Oheb Shalom on this mission!

Isaac did not capture the headlines that his father or son did.  But he is known by our tradition for his close connection to the Land of Israel.  Let’s emulate his example.

Shabbat Shalom,


Old- and Current- Attitudes Toward Women

The stories in the Torah often seem subordinating of women.  One of the two creation stories in Genesis describes Eve as being created from Adam’s rib because he needed a “helper.”  Sarah is depicted as a mostly passive character.  Her voice isn’t heard in the chilling story of the attempted sacrifice of her son Isaac, and her husband Abraham profits materially from his urging her to spend the night with another man.  Isaac does the same to his wife.  Decisions seemed to be made and directions determined largely by men.

That shouldn’t be too surprising.  We’re often tempted to judge the content of Bible stories through the lens of our own times and values, but that would be a mistake.  Ancient Israelite society was male dominated.  Women, for the most part, weren’t granted public or legal standing.  The Jewish law, upheld today by strict observers of Halakha, that women may not serve as witnesses for the completion of a Jewish legal document such as a Ketubah (wedding contract) or Get (divorce contract) is rooted in an obsolete assumption that women shouldn’t have a role in public matters.  Even the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony commonly practiced today is based on a law in the Mishna stipulating that a woman is “acquired” by a man, a sort of property concerning which a man had rights (many non-Orthodox Jews are choosing to make the ceremony more egalitarian).  It’s true that a balanced view of Talmudic laws regarding marriage and divorce would require us to acknowledge that women also had rights and were afforded protection from abuse enshrined in law.  But it’s indisputable that Jewish society from the past was male dominated.

We can object to these historic realities, though we shouldn’t express too much shock about how women were depicted and treated in Bible stories and in the times following the period of the Bible.  The fact is that here in America it wasn’t until 1920 that women were given the right to vote.  And the glass ceiling that prevents women from earning equal pay for equal work still hasn’t been broken.  Attitudes about women from the past that led to the subordination and subjugation of women very much exist today in our world and our nation.

Thus, we shouldn’t be shocked or surprised at the countless #MeToo stories of sexual harassment and abuse finally being shared by women who have quietly suffered at the hands of men who seem to think that their impulses and perverse needs can be fulfilled at their whim at the expense of women.  We need to listen with sensitivity and empathy to their stories of abuse, suffering and coercion, hold perpetrators accountable, and begin to create a culture in which men do not feel a license to dominate and abuse women.

And we need to be sure to emphasize, especially to children, those parts of the Torah that do depict women as smart, decisive and in control of their own lives, their families and their people.  One such character, whom we meet in this week’s Parasha, is Rebecca.  She is consulted before her marriage to Isaac is finalized.  And her character is described as someone in charge and who steers her husband toward an outcome that she thinks is best for her family, even if she can’t count on him to support her.  Rebecca stands out from most other females in the Bible as someone who is a leader.  We need to make sure that her story is told as an example of an empowered female.

We shouldn’t judge too harshly stories from the Bible, as they were written in a time long ago.  But, sadly, some of those ancient attitudes toward women persist today and we must do what needs to be done to make a change in our own times and stop subordination and abuse of women.

Shabbat Shalom,


An Ethical Life

Note: At the end of this post is a reminder about our Adult B’nai Mitzvah service that will take place this Saturday, November 4.

I shared these words with our congregation in The Review, our bi-monthly printed newsletter.  I offer them here as well, along with my hope that many of you will take the opportunity to learn with me.

What is the essence of Judaism?  Is it prayer and worship, perhaps so because we wish to come closer to God?  Is it study and learning, perhaps so because we wish to discover faith?  Is it repair of the world, for there can be nothing more urgent than using our strength and resources to help the suffering?  Indeed, each of these practices has its place.  Yet, the strongest argument may be that the essence of Judaism is to live a life devoted to goodness, to being a good person in our actions and our thoughts.  All of Jewish life is a preparation for the ultimate human condition—to develop our lives into a symphony of goodness.

The study of ethics is a priority in Judaism.  A Jewish examination of ethics considers the values of Torah and the wisdom of the Talmudic sages and their intellectual and spiritual heirs.  The study of ethics from a Jewish perspective examines critical, current issues from a Jewish lens.

The Jewish Theological Seminary has produced a truly outstanding curriculum for adults to engage in the study of ethics from a Jewish perspective.  Here’s how the course is described:

From political and financial scandals to rapid progress in biomedical science and technology, the complex issues of modern society are, at their core, issues of ethical and moral concern. Now more than ever, we require a solid understanding of how Jewish ethics can inform our discussions and decisions about the critical questions of the day. Judaism has a long history of wrestling with moral questions, responding to them in a way that considers all sides of an issue. 

The course includes video presentations by JTS faculty members, as well as short videos featuring people who grapple with ethical challenges in their professional work.  Participants will be able to access all course materials, including videos, online.  Eight sessions of “The Ethical Life” will be offered, four on a Monday night and four on a Shabbat morning from November through March.  The Monday night sessions will be streamed online for those who cannot be physically present at the synagogue.  The Shabbat morning sessions will take place shortly after the start of the Kiddush luncheon (videos will be shown at the Monday sessions but not on Shabbat).

The topics are varied and interesting, and are presented independent of each other so that participants can attend sessions selectively.  Participants will chose which topics will be studied.

Ethical issues that will be offered for study include: food production; fracking; mass incarceration; modern-day slavery; torture and war; end-of-Life care; disabilities and inclusion; physical enhancement; and lying.

Monday dates: November 20, December 18, January 8, January 22 (8:00-9:30 PM)

Shabbat dates: December 2, February 3, March 3, March 17 (shortly after the start of the kiddush lunch)

I do hope that you will join me for what promises to be a stimulating and important time of learning and discussion.

Adult B’nai Mitzvah celebration- THIS SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 4

I hope that you will attend Shabbat morning services this week as we celebrate with five adults who are becoming B’nai Mitzvah.  Rick Gilman, Adele Nagelberg, Debra Ginsberg, Susan Waters and Harriet Siegerman have been studying with me for nearly a year and have prepared to participate in the service.  For each of these people, becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah as adults means something different.  Their personal journeys are unique.  For all of them, becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a moment of affirmation of their Jewish identity and their place in the Jewish community.   I hope that you will be present to celebrate with them and their families.