D’var Torah: Parashat Tzav

This week, our D’var Torah has been written by Daphne Logan, Director of the Hebrew School Project. It is a modified version of the letter she sent to HSP families after she returned from a two-week trip to Israel in February.

The Jewish people go by many names: Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel), the Israelites, and the People of the Book, to name a few. This last epithet provides a special insight into the story of the Jewish people. Our story is one of survival and resilience throughout the ages, and our unbroken ability to adapt and thrive is rooted in our storytelling.

In their research on children and families after the attacks of September 11, Drs. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush found that having a strong family narrative is the key to cultivating resilience. They identified a particular type of narrative—the oscillating family narrative—as the backbone of resilience. In the oscillating narrative, we recount our family’s story as a succession of ups and downs. We acknowledge that our story does not have a “happily ever after” ending; rather, we recount each of the times that we have been able to overcome obstacles and rebuild. By framing our family narrative as such, children learn to expect that crises are a part of life. When faced with catastrophe, they are prepared—they know that just as in the past, they will get through it, and they will be okay, because that is the story of their family.

When I came upon the writing of Drs. Duke and Fivush, I was reminded of the lyrics to Vehi Sheamda, a song that is found in the Passover Haggadah, which we will be reading again very soon.

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵיֽנוּ וְלָנֽוּ. שֶׁלֹא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד, עָמַד עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, עוֹמְדִים עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם.

And this is that which sustained our ancestors and us, that it is not one alone that stood up against us to destroy us, but that in each generation there are those standing up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One saves us from their hand.

This is the story of our family, the Jewish people—a story of overcoming hardship, a story of perseverance, and a story of triumph. We know that we have faced adversity before, and we know that we will come out the other side when we face it again, and that we will thrive.

It has been nearly a month since I returned from Israel, where I was blessed to spend several days with family and friends, and to participate in an 8-day intensive program for leaders in North American Jewish educational institutions. Our group sought to examine Israel post-October 7, which has become a flashbulb memory in the collective Jewish consciousness, and to begin to explore how education should adapt to reflect not only a changed Israel, but a changed Jewish world.

Here are some of the experiences I participated in as a member of this cohort:

  • Visiting the Nova Music Festival grounds, the site of the initial massacre by Hamas on October 7
  • Learning from Adv. Ayelet Razin Bet Or about the gender-based violence that took place on October 7, and that has continued since
  • Visiting the town of Ofakim, which was attacked on October 7, and meeting with school principals, teachers, and high school students – the high schoolers led a tour of the neighborhoods that were attacked, and told the stories of their community heroes
  • Meeting with members of kibbutzim who have been evacuated from the Gaza Envelope, including Kibbutz Nir Am, with whom we shared a hotel in Tel Aviv
  • Visiting a temporary school that has been set up for evacuated children, some of whom were formerly held hostage in Gaza
  • Visiting and volunteering with an Israeli Bedouin community
  • Learning from Mohammed Darawshe about the relationship between Jewish and Muslim Israelis, and the reality of Muslim Israelis today
  • Spending time at Hostage Square and meeting with family members of hostages
  • Visiting the recently dug graves of soldiers at Har Herzl (Israel’s military cemetery), and meeting with Sarit Zussman, the mother of Ben Zussman z”l, a recently fallen soldier (you can read Ben’s final letter to his family here).

Though Israelis are intimately familiar with collective loss and trauma, every individual in Israel is now grappling with a uniquely excruciating sense of loss, shock, and betrayal. There are enduring communal wounds left from the brutal attacks and destruction that took place on October 7, and there is also the searing pain of the ongoing fighting, of the soldiers and civilians who have died in Gaza and throughout Israel, and of the hostages who are still in captivity. At the same time, the Israel that I saw on this trip is as beautiful, creative, unified, resilient, and tireless as before, and this nation prevails.

Even while we hold onto and respond to the array of legitimate reactions that are coming up at this moment—pain, anger, sadness, betrayal, perhaps even utter confusion or disgust—there is one permeating message that I have carried with me. A Jewish identity defined by opposition to others is not only unsustainable, but untransferable. This kind of Judaism will not enrich our lives, nor can it survive the passage from one generation to the next. We need to hold onto and elevate all of the ways that our Jewishness provides a sense of belonging, informs our ethics, nourishes our souls, and cultivates love and unity.

And even in this challenging moment—especially in this challenging moment—we must lead with love and hope. We must continue to tell our family narrative as one in which we rise to the occasion, support each other, and continue to celebrate Jewish life. As I return to life in Tribeca, I feel affirmed in our community’s continued commitment to instilling our learners with a Judaism founded in positive values, and to helping our learners draw strength and resilience from their Jewish identities.

I pray that all of the remaining hostages are returned home immediately, and that peace is speedily restored to the land of Israel and to all of its inhabitants.

Shabbat shalom.

Daphne Logan, HSP Director

Reflection on the JCP Solidarity Mission to Israel

This week, our D’var Torah has been written by Jane Grossman Rich, an ECC parent and participant in the JCP Solidarity Mission to Israel.

Throughout my life, I’ve strongly embraced my identity as a Jewish New Yorker, a heritage that I once assumed was ordinary. Raised in a family whose roots trace back to immigrant great-grandparents who fled persecution during pogroms and the early days of the Holocaust, I understood the significance of our Jewishness. My grandparents, all first-generation Americans, instilled in me a deep sense of pride in our cultural and religious traditions. My parents introduced a love of extended family (and their family, and their family, and friends that are like family), the honor of growing up in a culturally Jewish home, and the importance of Israel and the gift of tzedakah and tikkun olam.

I wore my religion and my state as badges of honor, reveling in what felt like a charmed life. The tales of survival passed down from generation to generation seemed remote, distant echoes of a bygone era. As a proud Jewish New Yorker, I felt insulated from the traumas that marked my family’s history and the enduring narrative of our people spanning over 3,500 years.

The morning of October 7th was earth-shattering. The images, the horror, the fear. And little did we know it was only just beginning. At first there was shock. Where is the outrage? The expectation that the world would stand with the people of Israel as the terrorist group governing their neighbor attacked civilians in their homes and at a music festival felt obvious. The quick realization of mass murder, gang rape, and the taking of hostages as young as 10 months and well into their 90’s felt like a bad dream. I knew all of their names. Their stories. Their families. I was obsessed. Why wasn’t the world?

For many weeks it felt like I was drowning. Every time I got my head above water I was hit back down by a wave of antisemitism. A Jewish man murdered at a protest in LA. An airport stormed in Russia. Glued to the news, I felt hopeless and overwhelmed. How could people hold so much hate for such a beautiful minority? And why was it unfolding at a time globally when Israel was in need of our help? The only time I felt secure was when I was helping Jews, talking about Jewish people, or giving back to Israel. I was relentless, posting on Instagram 24/7, depleting resources, finding ways to help strangers in need in our beautiful war-torn country. A beautiful day trip with JCP to D.C. among 300K Jews and allies felt like home but still nothing was enough.

When JCP announced its mission to Israel, a clear set of obstacles presented themselves. As a parent to a three-year-old, juggling a full-time job, and facing the logistical challenges of distance and cost, the decision seemed daunting. The prospect of venturing into a war zone, with no familiar faces and all the global attention, added layers of fear and anxiety. Yet, despite these formidable barriers, there was no alternative: I needed to be there.

I went to Israel with one question: What can I do to help?

Up until the minute I got on the plane I wasn’t sure if I had the courage to follow through. When I landed at Ben Gurion, everything changed. The electricity that pulses through the tapestry of Israeli culture, along with its deep-rooted history, filled my veins with pride and energy. But immediately, a reminder of why we were there: the ramp to customs now covered in familiar faces, 134 hostages still in Gaza 150 days later.

I have not yet been able to fully process a lot of the trip. When I close my eyes, I feel the eeriness and sadness of Kibbutz Nir Oz and the site of Nova. The juxtaposition of the beauty of the locations and the sheer horror of October 7th and the ricochet layers continue to echo. The reality of the events I had been following so closely in real-time were almost too much to handle. Kfir and Ariel Bibas’ high chairs and toys, left unplayed with, will haunt me forever. So what I choose to share is my greatest lesson.

Even in the darkest of times, you can find the helpers and in that you can find the light.

In a country as small as Israel, the lines between individuals blur, creating a sense of crossover where everyone is interconnected. This interconnectedness fosters a culture of compassion and solidarity, where the love and support of one’s fellow citizens know no bounds. It is this sense of collective need to preserve and lift each other that strengthens the fabric of Israeli society, forging bonds that withstand even the most trying of times.

We met Shelly Shem Tov, mother of hostage Omer, who 24 hours after October 7th managed to gather 300+ family members of those assumed hostage to figure out what the next steps were to fight for their loved ones. Her motherly love and strength continues to serve as the foundation for the Hostage Family Forum #bringthemhome, which is a viral global movement. Her strength & resilience in a time of complete heartbreak and agony moved the needle for hundreds of families in her position. Together, they are stronger than one. 

We heard the story of Aner, a fearless attendee at the Nova festival who took it upon himself to guard the entrance to a bomb shelter filled with 30 scared youth. He personally saved the lives of many by grabbing over 8 grenades thrown with intention to kill anyone hidden in this tiny cement box and throwing them back out. He chose courage over fear. Oneness over self. 

We learned stories of the Bedouins, who without trepidation got in their cars and drove towards an active terror attack and managed to save Nova festival attendees trying to flee. Proving once again, the fabric of the Israeli people is so beautiful because it is diverse.

The stories of these helpers resonate with a profound sense of hope and resilience.These acts serve as powerful reminders of the indomitable spirit that thrives within the Israeli community. In the midst of turmoil and uncertainty, these stories stand as beacons of light, illuminating the path forward and inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.  

What’s next:

I have always known, but have never understood as intimately as I do now the delicate dichotomy that exists in our world as Jews: when Israel is not safe, none of us are.

Israel is not just a country, but a Jewish project – a collective effort to preserve our culture, our ancestral homeland, but most importantly our people. As Jews around the world, it is our responsibility to stand in solidarity with Israel, to support and defend its right to exist, for the future of our global Jewish community depends on it. The ruach, or spirit, of Israel is one of strength and perseverance, inspiring us all to never give up, no matter the challenges we may face.

As I reflect on my experiences, I am reminded of the importance of coming together as a community, supporting one another through both the good times and the bad. In the midst of tragedy and turmoil, it is our collective humanity that sustains us, offering hope where there is despair and light where there is darkness. In Israel, the goodness of the people shines brightly, serving as a beacon of hope for us all. The spirit of survival is in our bones. 

Although our JCP mission to Israel has come to a close, it is clear that our work at home and our true “mission” is only beginning. It is our birthright to protect and yell our pride in our Jewishness to anyone that will listen. To share our spirit of community and our ruach with the world and to continue to be the light in the absolute darkest of times. To stand with our community both in New York and globally to amplify the good. To be fearless. To be the helpers. I look forward to standing beside you.

Shabbat shalom.

I Carry You in my Heart: First Reflections from the JCP Solidarity Mission to Israel

As we close the Book of Shemot (Exodus) with Parashat Pekudei this week, we read about the consecration of the Mishkan, the public place where the Israelites will pray, and the role of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest who will lead worship. 

As he prays, the Kohen Gadol wears elaborate garments, the centerpiece of which is the Choshen Mishpat, the Breastplate of Judgement. This Breastplate contains twelve precious stones, one representing each of the twelve Israelite tribes. These stones remind the Kohen Gadol that he approaches God not on his own behalf, but on behalf of all of his people. The symbolism of the Choshen always reminds me of the first few lines of the famous E.E. Cummings poem: 

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling)

The Kohen Gadol carries the heart of the people as he encounters the Divine.

As I journeyed with the incredible cohort of the JCP Solidarity Mission to Israel, I felt as though each person I met, each story I heard, was a precious stone—like the one on the Breastplate of the Kohen Gadol—that I will carry in my heart forever. 

The stones on the Breastplate were diverse in color and character. The stones that I gathered, the people we met and the experiences we had, were equally varied, and comprised the rich religious, political, and cultural diversity of Israeli society. Yet they all came together to create a resilient, strong, and robust collective

I want to share some of their stories with you: 

Hostage Square in Tel Aviv

JCP Mission Participants at Hostage Square

On our first evening, we visited the Headquarters of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum to meet with Shelly Shem Tov, mother of Omer Shem Tov (21), who is still being held as a hostage in Gaza. Shelly shared the heartbreaking story of watching Omer’s phone location move into Gaza on October 7. Shelly maintains her strength, even after more than 140 days of her beloved son in captivity. She heard from one of Omer’s friends, who was in captivity with Omer and later released, that Omer tries to keep Shabbat even in Gaza and that he has faith in God. His faith bolsters hers, from afar. Her requests to us? To spread the stories of the hostages, and to keep their plight on the forefront of our minds and hearts so that the world won’t forget them. 

Kibbutz Nir Oz

Kibbutz Nir Oz

Kibbutz Nir Oz

The next day we visited Kibbutz Nir Oz and were guided on a tour by Yiftach Cohen, who grew up on the kibbutz. We walked from house to house, learning the individual stories of devastation and heroism that took place on October 7. We visited the home of Liat and Aviv Atzili, cousins of JCP community member Ilana Fischer. Liat was kidnapped on October 7 and has thankfully been released, while Aviv was tragically killed during the attack. Liat recently wrote a beautiful and moving essay in the New York Times; her courageous perspective is uplifting. While the pain is overwhelming, I was inspired by the community’s desire to rebuild their beautiful sanctuary. The road will be long and uncertain, but they are determined. And we will be there to help. 

While on Kibbutz Nir Oz and the site of the Nova Festival in Re’im, we were only about a mile away from the Gaza border. The devastation wrought upon the communities and cities within Israel that dot the Gaza border was overwhelming to behold. Peace-seeking homes and villages, idyllic places to live and raise families only a few months ago, were now hollow skeletons of houses and piles of wood and ash. While many Israelis we met had different answers about how to ensure that an attack like this will never reoccur (should it be through military means? diplomatic or political ones? some combination?), it was a stark reminder of the impossibility of living with the threat of Hamas terrorism on Israel’s border. And yet, as the earth shook and my heart jumped with the sounds of artillery being launched into Gaza, it was also impossible to escape the knowledge of the fear, hunger, and loss of innocent life that Palestinian civilians have now been facing for so many months. Being so close to the violence was a sobering reminder of the humanitarian and spiritual toll of this dark time in human history.

JCP Mission Participants with Mohammad Darawshe, Director of Strategy at Givat Haviva  

We also met Orly Erez-Likhovski, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). Orly and her team are committed to making Israel a place where all people—no matter their religion, observance level, or marital or immigration status—are treated with dignity. Though the lives of all Israelis have been impacted by the war, IRAC’s work remains vital in shaping Israeli society and determining what Israel’s character will be after the war is over. 

Rabbi Deena and Orly Erez-Likhovski, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center

These are just a few of the precious stones—stories, people, and places—that I am bringing back with me from Israel, that I carry in my heart. I hope you will talk with more JCP Mission participants—they each have their own stories and experiences that they have brought home. I know they will inspire you. 

Cummings ends his poem with the following lines. To me, it is a powerful prayer: 

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

I hold the people of Israel close to my heart as I pray for a speedy return of the hostages, for a swift end to the crisis in Gaza, and for resilience, strength, and love to grow higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide. 

Shabbat shalom, 


JCP Mission Participants at the Kotel

Creating Holiness

This week, I found myself searching and searching for something meaningful to say about the Torah portion, parashat Vayakhel, which details the building of the ancient Tabernacle. How I wished to be inspired by the description of the artistry involved in building a space for God, by the lampstand made of pure gold, by planks of acacia wood, by the cloths of goat hair! Despite the detail, I found it difficult to imagine—much less be inspired by—this place of offering to God. 

Rabbi Rachel Adler explains why the Torah goes, repeatedly, into such painstaking detail about the Tabernacle (a structure whose existence many scholars debate): “How the temple is designed and furnished and where objects are positioned express symbolically what its builders believe about the nature of the cosmos.” 

In other words, when our ancestors designed their sacred space for God, they sought to reflect the glory of the universe. No wonder they furnished it with pure gold, beautiful wood, and luxurious fabrics. How many of us do something similar when creating our own homes, our own personal sanctuaries, evoking elegance and comfort? 

Furthermore, the Torah tells us over and over again that everyone was moved to participate. Women and men donated jewelry, the most talented artisans stepped up to design and decorate —so many things were offered for the building of the sanctuary that Moses eventually had to tell the people to stop bringing gifts: they had brought enough! 

Yet one difference between the Tabernacle and our own homes is that the Tabernacle was meant to be portable: deconstructed and reconstructed as the Israelites camped in new places in the desert. So much effort went into designing and constructing a structure that would only be taken down and recreated. No wonder we need such detailed descriptions!

Another difference between the Tabernacle and our own living spaces, however, is greater than portability. Our homes are personal and private, while the Tabernacle is a space shared by the entire community. The tabernacle is meant to be a place used by all the people: from beloved friends to the irritating nemesis, family members who are sometimes lovely and other times overbearing, the person who always speaks for too long, and so on. 

The Torah portion this week begins with the word Vayakhel, meaning “gather” or “convoke.” The whole community is brought together for a sacred purpose. But what is that sacred purpose? It is defined by its wholeness, its radical inclusion. We are reminded repeatedly in this Torah portion that everyone participated in the building of the Tabernacle, that our sacred spaces are for each of us. 

This Shabbat, whether we are focusing on our own homes or the wider JCP community, we have the opportunity to consider: what can I lovingly bring? How can my words or actions create a space of welcome, inclusion, and holiness?

Shabbat shalom, 


The Seemingly Impossible

This week’s Torah portion contains the account of the Golden Calf: the Israelites, fresh out of Egypt and wandering the desert, build a golden calf to worship instead of God. For this great mistake, many lose their lives. It’s an intense story of action and punishment, or of action and consequence, if you prefer. But in reading it this week, I found a different message. 

Instead of the story of a “stiffnecked people” (a phrase repeated multiple times in this Torah portion) punished by God, I found a story of a people afraid, who make a big mistake, and a process toward healing and wholeness. Let’s dive into it. 

First of all, the Israelites don’t make a golden calf because they are bored and vain. They make a golden calf because they want a god to accompany them through the desert: “The people saw that Moses took so long coming down from the mountain [where he was talking to God], they congregated before Aaron and said, ‘Come, let us make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses — who brought us out of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him!’” (Exodus 32:1). Rashi, a medieval commentator, explains that the Israelites think that Moses is dead, and they need a god to lead the way. What could be more logical than replacing a dead leader with a new guide? Through this lens, their action makes perfect sense!

Next, God (the omniscient), sees that the people have begun to make a golden calf. He tells Moses: “Leave me alone, so that I might destroy them in my anger!” (Exodus 32:10). But Moses advocates on the peoples’ behalf, pleading with God to be compassionate. “Think of what people will say!” Moses appeals to God—it won’t look good if you rescued us from Egypt only to destroy us in the desert. “Remember our ancestors, and the promises you made to them,” Moses adds, and God relents (Exodus 32:14). 

But the story doesn’t end here. When Moses sees the people worshiping the golden calf, he himself becomes incensed. He sees that they have become “out of control” and sends the priests to regain control. Some 3,000 people are killed, and then God sends a plague. But this harsh punishment isn’t the end of the story. 

No, the story ends with God taking some time to cool off and reconsider the next steps. Moses intercedes on behalf of the people—but this time, in full view of the people. They won’t again fear losing him. 

Moses says: “If I have truly gained Your favor [O God], pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.” God responds, compassionately: “I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden.” (Exodus 33:13-14). Wow—what a shift! Once God and Moses have both calmed down, they both seem eager to reunite. Moses says: “Unless You lead us, do not make us leave this place.” 

What an incredible resolution—both sides proclaiming their desire to continue on together. I would have thought that the story of the Israelites could have ended with the golden calf, so angry were both Moses and God! Instead, they tried every tool in their arsenals: calming one another down; then acting from anger; calming down yet again, and finally, refocusing on the bigger picture. 

Perhaps this story of purposeful resolution, despite seemingly impossible odds, can offer us hope—both individually and as we consider the continuation of the painful war in Israel and Gaza—as we look to the days ahead. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rabbi Sam 

A Generous Heart

This week’s Torah portion is all about gifts. When we meet our Israelites, they’ve escaped Egypt and are in the wilderness. They’re figuring out the groove of their new life, and God gives them a task. God says to Moses: 

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

“Speak to the Israelites, telling them to bring me gifts. From each person whose heart is so moved, bring gifts to me.” 

And then God describes the gifts that God wants: gold, silver, fine linens, and oils… God has expensive taste!  These are the types of gifts that we save up for, and give on big occasions, or that we account for as we write our wills. 

God wants these gifts in order to create a mikdash, a sanctuary. The mikdash is a place of supreme holiness, Rashi tells us. This holy place will be God’s house.  

It’s both hard and easy to imagine giving this type of gift.  Giving can be easy when a friend or family member is raising money for cancer research, or engaging in social action, or some cause that is meaningful to us. Or giving can be easy because we simply like the person who asked us. In other words, when we feel connected to one another, and a larger sacred mission, our hearts are moved, and we open our hands to give.  

Yet this feeling of connection is not a given, and even when we do feel connected, it doesn’t always mean that giving is easy. Sometimes, we know that it’s the right thing to give, and yet it can be painful to part ways with our hard-earned money, or with precious items.  

Our sage Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) writes about what we do with our money. Kohelet teaches that hoarding money is “l’ra’ato” – for our own misfortune. Not only that, he says the money that we own here and now – is just in the here and now.  “A person must depart just as they came, – as one comes out of their mother’s womb, so must we depart, naked as they came…”  While Kohelet doesn’t specify that we should give all our money or wealth away, he does indicate that we don’t have to deny ourselves the pleasure of enjoying it.  

Perhaps, the greatest pleasures are those which are shared. God doesn’t want to dwell in the mishkan because it’s a beautiful space, but because it was constructed from the offerings of our hearts. And while the mishkan is “God’s house,” it’s also where the Israelites would gather. This is what the Bridge to the Future campaign at JCP is all about: when we give from our hearts, we cultivate our generosity as a community. We create beauty – not only in the physical spaces where we gather, but also in our souls.  

Let’s practice this generosity together, giving the gifts that come from our hearts.

Shabbat shalom,


To Obey and Understand

In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, the Israelites received the Ten Commandments. In a booming voice, surrounded by thunder, lightning, and fire, God speaks directly to the people, giving them the first laws of the Torah upon which they will build their holy society. 

But this direct encounter with God is too overwhelming for the Israelites, and they ask Moses to serve as the intermediary between themselves and God. They want to receive the laws, but they fear that they will die if they hear God’s voice again. So in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim (mishpatim means “rules”), Moses shares many of the laws that God commands the Israelites to follow. 

This parasha is simultaneously one of the most beautiful and challenging in the entire Torah. 

On the one hand, it contains some of the most noble laws of our sacred texts; ideals to which any society should aspire. We are instructed to be fair in our economic dealings, to return lost property, to be impartial in a court of law. We are commanded not to take bribes, not to spread false rumors, and—the commandment repeated most often in the Torah—not to oppress the widow, the stranger and the orphan (the most vulnerable members of society), because we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. These laws are timeless and should guide our own actions and communities with as much force as they did for our ancestors. 

On the other hand, it also contains some of the most abhorrent and immoral laws of the Torah; it can be hard to believe that these are included in our most sacred text. We learn about the institution of slavery in Israelite society…this is after the Israelites escaped from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt. We also learn about the act of selling women as brides and the violent conquest of other peoples. 

And there are laws in this Torah portion whose morality is still being debated in our modern society. The verse of the Torah from which many Jewish thinkers, both ancient and modern, derive permission for people to terminate pregnancies comes from this parasha. And though we learn about the importance of respecting our parents, a noble law indeed, the Torah teaches that disrespecting one’s parents leads to the death penalty. Abortion and capital punishment: two topics from this parasha that are hotly debated in our public sphere. 

Modern readers of the Torah are in a unique position. How do we read and honor our sacred text while also adhering to our contemporary values? We have to read carefully to decide which pieces are timeless wisdom and which are products of a particular time and place, and need to be changed or updated. 

But this challenge did not originate in the modern age. The ancient Rabbis underwent this same process of discernment. For example, this Torah portion teaches us the concept of “an eye for an eye.” But the Rabbis of the Talmud (in 500 CE) believe this is unjust, and interpret this expression to mean a requirement of monetary restitution, as opposed to bodily retribution, for an injury. 

At the end of this Torah portion, the Israelites accept all of these laws, saying “Na’aseh V’Nishma — We will obey and we will understand.” It’s not enough for the Israelites to follow these commandments. They also need to study them, to critically engage with them, and to interpret them in a way that will lead to justice. This principle has shaped Judaism throughout the millennia, encouraging us to debate and ask questions “for the sake of heaven” in order to create positive outcomes and improve our world. 

May we continue this sacred legacy. 

Shabbat shalom, 


Working Together

Parashat Yitro contains one of my favorite lessons in the Torah, and it’s definitely not a glamorous one. In Parashat Yitro, we meet Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (or, in Hebrew, Yitro). He is the father of Tzipporah, and a Midianite (a non-Israelite religion) priest. Yet after hearing about how the Israelites were treated by Pharoah, he chooses to bring his family to meet Moses and join them on their journey. 

Initially I am struck by his loving acceptance of his extended family, despite their different religious practices. Though his traditions are different, and though he is a leader in his own tradition, his love for and connection to family is the value that drives his decisions. Furthermore, as we will soon see, he manages to toe the line between overstepping and offering unwelcome advice and providing essential support to his family. 

We meet the Israelites in a moment of challenge. (Don’t we always? — but then again, if there wasn’t something to be learned from the challenge, our ancestors probably wouldn’t have written the story in the Torah.) The Israelites are finally out of Egypt, but they are struggling to organize themselves: freedom, in other words, is complicated. Whenever two people, or two groups, have a dispute or a question for God, they bring it to Moses who hears both sides and renders a decision. And since there are thousands of people who have left Egypt, this job of listening and rendering judgment is significant. 

Moses is struggling to manage it all when Jethro steps in. After a day of observing Moses’ behavior, Jethro asks Moses, “What are you doing? Why are you managing this burden on your own?” When Moses explains his role as judge, Jethro replies simply: “Lo tov hadavar asher atah oseh” – The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself, and these people out. You cannot do this work alone.” The commentator Rashi expands: “If you do this, you will wither like a leaf.” 

What happens next is stunning: Moses does not respond with incredulity, or turn away. When his father-in-law offers to help, and suggests that Moses train a group of leaders to support him, Moses follows his advice. Moses is known as the most humble of our leaders for a reason—perhaps for this very moment. Moses is able to receive this unsolicited advice because there is a true benefit in following it—both for him, and for his community. Not only will he be able to more effectively help more people, he also sets up a community in which wisdom is not monopolized by only one person, but is shared. 

This past week, at the HSP Parent-Teacher Cocktail Party, I took a moment to look around the room and take it all in: the teachers and administrators and parents all together. I thought about what it took to create that evening: from the planning by the fabulous Parent Organization volunteers, to everyone who chose to be there in person, to the teachers and administrators and JCP community leaders who make HSP run. None of us can help create the vibrant, joyful, resilient future of Judaism on our own. Our community certainly looks different from Moses’ group of (all male) leaders, helping adjudicate and decide what’s next, but in many ways when we reach out to each other, we are continuing this legacy. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rabbi Sam 

Seeing Miracles Then and Now

This week’s Torah portion, B’shalach, is one of the most famous: the Israelites finally escape Egypt through the sea to freedom! It’s one of our best stories, and for good reason: what greater evidence is there of a God who cares about us so much that God will bring about miracles to save us? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about our Israelites lately, what it took for them to leave their homes and follow Moses out of Egypt. Even with the promise of the miracle of freedom, leaving the only place you’ve known as home is a big ask. And while Egypt may have been a place of enslavement and oppression, it was also the place where their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were born and buried. Freedom, no matter how good it sounded, also came with great risks. 

With that lens, it’s no surprise to learn that after the Israelites leave Egypt, they begin to despair. With the Egyptians pursuing them, they begin to cry out to Moses, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you brought us here to die in the desert?” Moses reassures them and tells them not to fear, that God will be with them. Then God splits the sea, and they make it to freedom: the first miracle, come to life. 

Yet this miracle isn’t enough. Soon after they make it to safety and dry ground, they realize that they are thirsty, and that the water is undrinkably bitter. They speak to Moses, who speaks to God, and then brings them to the springs of Elim. 

And yet that next miracle isn’t enough either. Soon after, they realize that the matzah that they brought with them isn’t going to cut it. Once again, they speak to Moses, who again speaks to God, who then sends manna for them to eat. 

This is well and good, but we don’t live in a world where manna rains from the sky and seas are split to ensure human safety. We do live in a world filled with the pains of antisemitism and the need for Jewish safety and freedom. So what lesson do we take from the Torah this week? 

Often, Moses describes the Israelites as “stiff-necked,” stubborn, and complaining. Yet in this part of our story, the Israelites don’t get what they need until they give it voice. Speaking out is an important step toward safety, food, and water. Perhaps we can learn from our Israelites the importance of advocating for ourselves and our own needs. 

And maybe, just maybe, the power of naming what we need can still lead to miracles. Telling a friend we’re struggling to juggle things could lead to an offer of help, or a check in later. Sharing our perspective with people who have different views than we do, speaking out proudly as Jews, for justice and wholeness, can lead to finding common ground with others. While these interventions might not look like biblical miracles, being on the receiving end can indeed feel miraculous. By opening ourselves up in this way, perhaps we also open ourselves to the miracle we are truly seeking.

Shabbat Shalom,


Through the Darkness

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Bo, is a story of extremes. First, we read of extreme triumph: God finally rescues the Israelites from Pharaoh’s tyranny and Egyptian slavery; and then, extreme darkness: God sends the final plagues, bringing wanton death and destruction.  

When the Israelites finally leave Egypt, they are not leaving the same place of abundance that once saved prior generations from famine, but a country torn apart by plagues: the river turned to blood, cattle disease, climate destruction from hail, and finally, the death of every firstborn son. Interestingly, as we will read in next week’s Torah portion, some of the Egyptians choose to leave alongside the Israelites. What could motivate someone to leave their homeland to go with the very people whose God has brought such destruction? But that’s a question for another week. 

Back to our Israelites. Moses and Aaron have been speaking to the Pharaoh, asking him for their people’s freedom. They simply want to worship their own God and to observe their own festivals. They want freedom of religion—the freedom to be who they are. But the Pharaoh refuses, his heart hardening with every ask. And with every “no” from Pharaoh, God sends a new plague. 

I have always been struck by the final two plagues. The tenth plague—the death of the firstborn son—is particularly powerful. When the Pharaoh’s own home is affected, he finally lets the Israelites go. But the ninth plague, the plague of darkness, is also terrifying. The Torah describes it as a choshech afelah—a darkness with a physical quality, through which a person cannot see their sibling. The Ramban (Spain, 1194-1270) teaches that the darkness is so thick that light cannot shine through. 

This raises hard questions for us today, reading this ancient story and thinking of the current war in Israel. Of course, the God of the Torah is right to defend the Israelites from the tyranny of the Pharaoh, and to send Pharaoh a strong message. Of course, modern-day Israel must defend itself from the terror of Hamas and ensure the safety of its borders and all of its inhabitants. 

And, many of us have been concerned about the innocent people suffering in Gaza from famine and disease that come as a result of this war. Many contemporary readers are similarly concerned about the innocent Egyptians who are killed in the tenth and final plague. Certainly, some of those first born sons must have been young children. The pain of these losses is almost too much to bear. 

There are no easy answers to this question. Shouldn’t God do all God can do to save innocent lives, particularly those of children? Yet the God in our story, the God who will triumph, must go to extreme measures to send a message to the brutal and ruthless Pharaoh—the same Pharaoh who, almost as soon as he permits the Israelites to be freed, changes his mind and sends his army after them. When we must respond to ruthless cruelty and brutality perpetrated against us, how do we also hold on to our humanity and gentleness?

Sometimes we read Torah because it inspires us and helps us dream of a world of wholeness and hope. Sometimes we read Torah because it reflects the challenging situations that we experience today. Perhaps reading our ancient story, and being reminded that we’ve made it through the darkness before, can give us the strength to light the path anew.

Shabbat shalom, 

Rabbi Sam