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

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 

A Blessing for the End of the Year

In this week’s Torah portion, Vay’chi, our patriarch Jacob reaches the end of his life. In his final days, he is surrounded by his sons and grandsons, offering each of them a unique blessing. Afterward, he passes away. 

At the outset it seems like a beautiful idea and moment: What could be a more meaningful final goodbye than to receive good wishes from a parental figure? 

The blessings, however, are … a bit strange. While some seem positive: “You, Judah: your brothers shall heap praise on you…” (49:8), “Zebulun shall dwell at the seashore, he will be a harbor for ships,” (49:13), others are distinctly negative: “Simeon and Levi are partners; instruments of violence are their plan. Let me not enter their council…” (49:5-6). 

Perhaps “a deep hope or wish” is not the way to understand these blessings. Perhaps the power of these blessings is that Jacob, despite his physical blindness, is able to truly see the character of each of his sons. His words speak to who they are, what they have lived through and done—not who they could be if things were different. 

Perhaps his words are a different type of blessing: a way to elevate the moment by naming what is. Think not of the Priestly Blessing, which expresses a wish for us to experience safety and peace, but of the blessings we said when lighting Hanukkah candles: a way to make the moment special. 

When Jacob describes each of his sons as they are, he recognizes them. His last words aren’t a suggestion that they all be kind and good—something they might not be able to live up to. Instead, his last words reflect the time they shared together. 

As we prepare to “close the book” on 2023, perhaps we can learn from Jacob. Let us not spend time being wistful about the peace we did not see. Instead, let us look back at what was: moments of family celebrations and personal joys alongside our collective sorrow. Let us name it, and let that blessing be enough. Next week, next year, we begin again. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rabbi Sam 

Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Cloud

As many of you know, last week JCP hosted Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, our partner rabbi in Israel. Rabbi Galit is the founder and spiritual leader of Congregation Kodesh v’Chol in Holon, located near Tel Aviv. She and I met when I was living in Israel and working as an intern in her congregation and school. Since then, she has been my rabbi, teacher, and dear friend. With its grassroots origins, passionate community, and goal of making Judaism vibrant and engaging for people of all backgrounds, Kodesh v’Chol and JCP are very similar, and we are excited to grow the connections between our communities. 

Since October 7, Rabbi Galit has been doing the enormously challenging and deeply inspiring work of supporting her community and her country as they manage through the war. Yet as she does this crucial work, she also sees her partnerships in the United States as central. So for these past few weeks, she has been visiting congregations across America, sharing her experiences over these last months and hearing about ours. 

We have been in close touch since October 7, but there was nothing like seeing her in person last Wednesday. My eyes filled with tears as I gave her a big hug and welcomed her to New York and to JCP. Jewish tradition teaches us the central mitzvah of being there for our friends when they need us. In this moment of crisis for the Jewish people in Israel and in the States, it felt so meaningful that we could show up in person for each other. 

We had a packed day at JCP, with Rabbi Galit teaching Women’s Torah Study, holding an info session about our joint B’nai Mitzvah in Israel Program (which we established a few years ago to give JCP families the opportunity to celebrate this milestone in Israel), lighting Hanukkah candles with our HSP learners and families, and holding a discussion about her experiences over these past few excruciating months. 

She taught us so much that day, but for those of you who did not have the opportunity to meet her, I want to share some of her wisdom that has stayed with me over this past week, teachings that I know will guide my thinking as we continue to navigate this painful time. 

In the Book of Exodus, the second book of the Torah which we will begin reading in a few weeks, we learn that God leads the ancient Israelites through the desert in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The fire makes sense: In the utter darkness of the desert night, the fire allowed people to see where they were going. But the medieval commentators were puzzled by the cloud: How can a cloud—which confuses people with its fog—guide the way, and show people the direction in which they should travel? If you’ve ever been on an airplane flying through a patch of cloud, you know that clouds do the opposite of guiding people in the right direction. It feels so strange to be suspended in the fog, not knowing where you are.

But it is no accident that the Torah uses the paradoxical image of an illuminating fire alongside a disorienting cloud to chart the path forward. 

As we face increased antisemitism here in the United States, we have heard the call for moral clarity. And it is a crucial one. There are so many people who use this war to claim that Israel has no right to exist, or that sexual assault against Israelis is acceptable, or that Jewish students should tolerate hatred or harassment on campuses. The proliferation of these voices is shocking and appalling, and we need to stand strong and speak out when we hear them. This moral clarity is the pillar of fire, the powerful, certain light that we need to move forward in the darkness. 

Rabbi Galit stressed the importance of this moral clarity. And she also reminded us that alongside our moral clarity, alongside the pillar of fire, the Torah also teaches that we find God in the pillar of cloud. The pillar of cloud allows us to ask questions, and permits us not to be certain about everything. This war, she reminded us, has forced Israeli society to reflect on all that needs to change and be done differently in order to build a better future. And it forces all Jews who love Israel to ask difficult questions, including those about what kind of State of Israel we want to see—and help to build—after this war is over. 

One story will stay with me forever. I had read about it in the news, but Rabbi Galit’s telling of it was striking. On October 7, Hamas terrorists invaded the home of Rachel Edri, who lived in the town of Ofakim. When she saw how agitated and aggressive these terrorists were, she offered them cookies and water, and joked and chatted with them for hours until help could arrive. Countering all conventional wisdom, and trying something different, is what saved her life. 

The pillar of fire ensures that we remain steadfast in our values and maintain our moral clarity. It calls us to end our responses with periods when we face those who call into question the importance of Jewish nationhood and safety. The pillar of cloud ensures that we ask questions and try new tactics in the hopes of building a better, more peaceful future. It invites us to engage in respectful disagreement, to challenge the status quo, and to end our sentences with question marks when we are exploring something new. 

The ancient Israelites needed both the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud. And so do we. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rabbi Deena 

Taking a Stand

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, opens with a recurring theme in biblical literature as Rebekah, one of the our matriarchs, struggles with infertility. When she does eventually conceive twins, she experiences a very painful pregnancy. The Torah tells us: “The children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” (Genesis 25:22). 

Many ancient Rabbis and medieval commentators have inquired about the meaning of her question. But if we read the plain text of the Hebrew, Rebekah’s words, lama zeh anochi, are very simple. “Why me?” 

These days, many of us have a similar question, a similar cry: Lamah zeh anachnu? Why us? Why are we faced with this hardship? Why are the Jewish people—who have suffered so much throughout our history—suffering yet again? After having been expelled from our homeland by the Roman Empire, Jews have lived under governments that discriminated against our people for two thousand years, always fearing for safety and longing to return to the Land of Israel. And yet, even with the achievement of the dream of a Jewish State, we continue to suffer. Though Jews in Israel have long faced challenges and violence, the attack on October 7 was unparallelled in its brutality. And now, expressions of hatred toward Israel, as well as incidents of antisemitism, continue to increase. 

Rebekah embraces her son, Jacob. During her pregnancy, God shared a prophecy that her older son (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). So Rebekah does all she can to ensure Jacob’s safety and well-being. She even helps Jacob steal the special blessing—reserved for the older son—from Esau, dressing him in a disguise to trick his father. 

Today, we embrace our cause and take a stand. We have stood by our Israeli siblings, supporting them with phone calls, supplies, donations, and prayers, and reminding them that they are not alone. We continue to demand the return of the hostages, and we will not stop until they are safely back home. We fight against antisemitism and anti-Zionism. We study and teach our history. We support one another in our anguish and pain. And we continue living  proudly as Jews, experiencing the rhythms of Shabbat, holidays, and learning. We have rejoiced as young people are called to the Torah as B’nai Mitzvah, ready to begin taking on the challenges of our broken world. We have celebrated wedding couples who stand under the chuppah and commit to building a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael, a faithful and strong house within the Jewish community. In this hard time for our community, we remember what a blessing it is to be part of Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, and what a gift it is to live a joyful Jewish life. 

The story of Rebekah has more to teach us. While she supported Jacob, the pain in Rebekah’s life made her heart shrink—there was no room within it for her other child, Esau. As she sought to protect Jacob, she could not see Esau’s needs, pain, or humanity. But as Jews, we are taught that all people are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. To me, living this value during such a time of devastation means mourning the loss of innocent Palestinian lives, and acknowledging and hearing the pain of civilians as their lives are upended forever. And it means speaking out against extremists in Israel, who, already emboldened before October 7, use this war as an excuse and an opportunity to dehumanize and attack Palestinians living in the West Bank. 

Why us? No one has answers to this question. I wish it were one we did not have to ask. But Jews have always responded to difficult times with action. May we continue to act in support of Israel and the Jewish people in our hour of need, and may we live up to our highest ideals, taking a stand and embracing humanity during this time of darkness. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Deena 

Summer Series: Cycles of Life, Part 3: Healing

One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of my rabbinic training was participating in a course called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). During CPE, I worked as a hospital chaplain, going from room to room to listen to, pray with, and be present for patients and hospital staff alike. In addition to providing support, chaplains in CPE are guided in self-reflection in order to better understand ourselves as givers and recipients of care. Needless to say, I learned a great deal that summer—about our healthcare system, about pain and healing, and about myself. 

I was lucky enough to be taught by an incredible chaplain, Rabbi Jo Hirschmann, who was there to guide me as I went through this intense experience. She, along with another of my rabbinic  school professors, Rabbi Nancy Wiener, wrote a book that we studied that summer, entitled Maps and Meaning: Levitical Models for Contemporary Care. In it, they explore how the Torah’s handling of tzara’at, a biblical skin disease, can help us think about how we navigate illness, caregiving, and healing. Its lessons have stayed with me to this day. 

According to the Torah (Leviticus 13), tzara’at was a skin condition that necessitated a period of quarantine. Any Israelite with symptoms of tzara’at had to call out: Tamei! Tamei! – “Unclean! Unclean!” and was required to isolate outside the Israelite camp until the symptoms subsided. When the time period of the quarantine was complete, the priest (the religious leader who also served as a medical professional) examined the patient, led them in a sacrificial ritual, and brought them back into the camp, where they had to quarantine outside of their homes for an additional week. 

Since learning from Rabbis Hirschmann and Wiener, I have been struck by the brilliance of the Torah’s steps for bringing a person out of a period of quarantine and back into the camp. Instead of throwing a person right back into a routine after an experience of physical isolation and emotional disruption, the person re-enters the camp in stages. First, they mark the end of their quarantine through a ritual, giving thanks that this ordeal is behind them. Then, they can rejoin society, but they do it slowly. They take an extra week to acclimate before returning to their homes and their regular lives. 

In a recording of their book launch, Rabbi Weiner says the following: 

One of the things that we found really fascinating was that there were very clear ideas of what could help both a person who suffered from tzara’at and the priest who visited as they journeyed out and as they came back. There was no assumption that either would be able to quickly move from one place…or mental space easily and come back…We were thinking about some of the contemporary corollaries. What is it for us to have people who are spending time in hospitals or in nursing homes [or military service]?…They’re leaving the places that they know best and… where they feel most rooted…What [do] we do and what we don’t we do today to enable people to make those transitions easily.

The authors of this book could not have predicted the relevance of their work during the pandemic. Lockdown was a time when the biblical narrative of the tzara’at seemed to come to life: We all had to navigate life outside of the camp, far from the familiar routines and rhythms of our lives, and then find our way back in. And so many people in our society functioned as “priests,” leaving isolation to work in our hospitals, grocery stores, and schools, making their way into and out of the camp during a time when those transitions were truly treacherous. 

At some point in life, almost all of us find ourselves experiencing a tough time, outside the camp. In those moments, may we be inspired by the rituals in our Torah, which teach us to be gentle with ourselves as we navigate our way back toward healing and wholeness, and to serve as priests—as sacred guides—for each other.