Shabbat Talmud Study: President George H.W. Bush and Joseph in Egypt–What is the Single Most Essential Quality of a Great Leader of a Nation?

Tomorrow morning we are going to look at an underexplored part of the Joseph story: How he feeds the Egyptian people during the period of severe famine. Thankfully we have not experienced famine and so do not really get its destructive and horrible power. We are going to read some excerpts from Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick about the famine in North Korea. Famine kills. And it kills slowly, painfully, cruelly.

Joseph saved the Egyptian people from this slow, painful famine-induced death, for which they are grateful and for which they thank him.

And yet.

As Rabbi Shai Held observes, the Torah suggests a critique of Joseph’s life-saving policies. Indeed, what Joseph will do to the Egyptians-make them slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt, avadim l’pharoh-the Egyptians will do to Joseph’s descendants.

This analysis of Joseph will yield a simple metric by which we can judge all of our leaders and which can explain why President Bush, though super successful in international relations (end of Apartheid on his watch, fall of the Soviet Union on his watch, creation of a truly international coalition to get Iraq out of Kuwait, the successful prosecution of the war, restraint in not going to Bagdad), was denied a second term.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukkah,

Shabbat Talmud Study: A Simple Move That Will Change the Tone of Your Life and of Our Time

Have you received an angry email that gave you indigestion?
Have you sent such an angry email to somebody else?

Is there somebody at your Thanksgiving table that you dread talking to because you see the world so differently, and if you go there, your blood pressure will rise, and if you don’t go there, there is an elephant in the room?

Last week I read something from a colleague that is simple, hidden in plain sight. It is deeply rooted in Jewish texts and values, from Pirkei Avot, to the Babylonian Talmud, to our portion this week (Parshat Vayishlach). It is wise. It is helpful. It is already making a difference for me. You can do it too. After you start doing it, you may wonder, as I have, why did I not do this before? On Shabbat we will explore a simple move that can change the tone of your life and of our time.

Happy Thanksgiving, Shabbat shalom,
and see you on Shabbat at 8:30.


Shabbat Talmud Study: What is Your Daily Offering?

In response to Pittsburgh, now in response to Thousand Oaks, and in response to this fraught moment in which we find ourselves, we have been thinking about how we fulfill the teaching of Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” How do we become a source of light and love?

Last week we encountered the idea, in Stephen Covey’s classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, of attending your own funeral. You will hear a family member, a friend, a business colleague, and member of your faith or service community speak about you. What would you want them to say? Are you now living a life that would get them to say it? If not, what tweaks might you make?

In tomorrow’s class, we are going to continue the conversation by adding an important value concept from the Torah: the daily offering. We read about the daily offering yesterday and today, as it is the focal point of the Rosh Hodesh Torah reading.

Tomorrow morning we are going to talk about not the big moments, ShowUpForShabbat where we had 1,200 people, but the daily, private, small moments. What granular stuff can you do? You will leave tomorrow morning with three questions that go to your daily offering, three things to think about as you try to become a source of light and love.

See you tomorrow at 8:30!

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: How Can We Be Better After Pittsburgh?–A Spiritual Response to the Massacre at Tree of Life

Most of the conversations after Pittsburgh have been hard, sad, and necessary. How much security should there be? Can the Holocaust happen here? Is America going to be like Europe for Jews? Then there is the politics. The violence and murder, coming in a deeply divided red or blue society, so close to the pivotal mid-term elections, has our nation, our community, and individual souls, at a boiling point.

Tomorrow morning I want to ask a different question and frame a different conversation. I want us to move from a negative energy to a positive energy conversation. How can we be better after Pittsburgh? What would a sane, sustainable, healthy spiritual response to the Tree of Life massacre look like? How can your life be better, deeper, more impactful after, and because of, Pittsburgh?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: A Moral Issue Where There is a Right and Wrong Answer

Last Shabbat we explored the question of how certain should we feel about the rightness of our convictions? Should we be cocksure that we are right? Or should we be humble and open to the possibility of nuance, texture, ambiguity, important things we might not understand?

We explored the prophetic voice: I am right. I am truth. I have truth. I speak for God. You, who disagree with me, are wrong.

And the rabbinic voice: humility and an openness to a multiplicity of truths.

In general, the rabbinic voice is more helpful and true. Prophets’ very certainty and arrogance turn people off, then and now.

But life is so very interesting. We are in that very rare zone where a prophetic voice is the right voice.

Tomorrow morning, we will explore an urgent moral issue in the upcoming election on November 6 where there is a right vote and a wrong vote. There is a vote which is consistent with Jewish values, and there is a vote that is a wrenching violation of Jewish values.

Life and human dignity are at stake. You have a hand in preserving life and promoting human dignity based on how you vote on November 6.

Aliza and I will co-teach these sources. See you tomorrow morning at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: What Does Moral Courage Look Like Today?

It is much easier to identify moral courage in a historical piece than in today’s headlines. Moral courage is much cleaner and clearer when you are talking about 1939 than when you are talking about 2018. Consider two pieces that made the news this week.

In this piece, Rabbi David Wolpe tells the story of a Japanese man named Chiune Sugihara who worked in the Japanese consulate in Lithuania in 1939. He knew that Jews in German-occupied Poland were desperate and could not get out. No country would take them. The Japanese government ordered him: do not give visas to Jews. He violated the explicit order of his own government and wrote out 6,000 visas. Rabbi Wolpe writes: “Day and night he wrote visas. He issued as many visas in a day as would normally be issued in a month….It has been estimated that over 40,000 people are alive today because of this one man.” Most of us would look at the story of Chiune Sugihara and conclude that he is a moral hero.

How then shall we understand the story reported in this link?

What does moral courage look like today? If we admire Chiune Sugihara saying yes
to desperate people, in violation of his government’s orders, how ought we to see
desperate people today, and our fellow citizens who have the very hard job of doing
border control and law enforcement?

On Shabbat we are going to look at a great set of texts assembled and taught by Yehuda Kurtzer at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem called “Moral Courage in Jewish Tradition.” We will see what the prophets had to say about moral courage; the rabbinic critique of the prophetic voice; and a bridge position which will give us language and categories as we think about our complicated world and how to be moral actors in it.

History is hard. Headlines make finding our moral voice even harder.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: What Does Excellent Rabbinic Leadership Look Like in This Charged Political Climate? A Case Study

He did it. He went there.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, before his entire congregation, Rabbi Ed Feinstein (one of the truly outstanding rabbis of our generation), at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California (one of the truly outstanding congregations in America today) talked about President Trump and our current fraught political situation. The sermon is entitled “An America of Hope and Fear.”

Please click and read it before class on Shabbat morning.

Rabbi Feinstein has guts. Moral courage. You will note that there is plenty in his sermon to offend everybody. Whatever your politics, wherever on the spectrum you may be, there is something in here that could so tick you off you would leave the sermon in the middle on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Feinstein knew this when he prepared it and delivered it, and he delivered it in the face of some congregants choosing to walk out. But there is also something undeniably powerful and true about these words. While some congregants did walk out, others gave the rabbi an ovation, applauding his courage and his wisdom.

Rabbi Feinstein pulled no punches.

For example: “To be very clear, I support many of the policies of this Administration. I believe many of these policies are necessary, even courageous. Many of the Administration’s policies have advanced our prosperity and our security.”


“Bob Woodward’s new book is titled, “Fear” because in an interview early in the Presidency, the President told Woodward, “real power is fear.” Donald Trump is a creature of fear. He lives in constant state of fear. And he is an artist at the politics of fear. It’s always — Us against Them. At his rallies, he explodes into a frenzy at all those who are coming to take away our prosperity, our safety, our guns, our homes, our faith, our future. The catalog of demons grows with each iteration – Mexican immigrants, Central American gang members, Muslims, the Chinese, the Democrats in Congress, the FBI, the NFL, the New York Times, CNN, Canada, Jeff Sessions, NATO, …the crowd screams and cheers and the adrenaline rises as the rage burns and fears are brought to a boil.

And we wonder, what’s happening to us? Who are we? Where will this lead to? Unfortunately, we know. We Jews, we know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two. We know what happens when fear comes to dominate a political culture. We know what happens when it is no longer aberrant and bizarre and unprecedented, but becomes the new normal. We know what happens when a narrative of fear finally and completely overcomes the narrative of hope.”

Here is my question. Is Rabbi Feinstein’s sermon an example of what to do, or what not to do? Should Temple Emanuel be a sanctuary from the world (no politics please), or a sanctuary for the world (talk about real issues so our members can be emboldened to go out and make a difference in ways that advance their convictions)?

Our nation has never been more divided in our life time. The Civil War was before any of our life time. But Thomas Friedman’s column last week, Civil War, Part II, is too true and heartbreaking.

What does excellent rabbinic leadership look like, what is an excellent synagogue’s role, in a time such as this?

See you on Shabbat!

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: When is the Time for Moral Purity? When is the Time for Moral Compromise?

What a fraught and complicated week.

A helpful response to the emotional intensity of this moment is a lecture
given at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem by Tal Becker, one of its brightest stars. His lecture and sources are entitled: “Moral Purity vs. Moral Compromise: Derech Eretz and Public Policy.”

The rule, and he has sources to back it up, is moral compromise.
We live in an imperfect world. Hot mess is part of that world and is how God created it. Usually we just have to live with, and make our peace with, imperfection. In 610 out of 613 cases, be prepared for moral compromise.

It is a very tiny exception, 3 out of 613 cases, when we would insist on moral purity.

We will examine those 3 cases where we insist on moral purity and ask what is the resonance of those exceptional cases for our world today?

See you on Shabbat!

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Processing the Senate Hearings

We have to talk.

When the world feels complicated, a good Jewish response is to learn Torah for the light it can shed.

Tomorrow morning I am going to teach Genesis 34, the rape of Dinah. What does that teach us about our world today? I will take half the time.

Aliza will take the second half of our time to teach Genesis 19, the story of Lot being prepared to sacrifice his own daughters to advance his ideas and ideals.

Perhaps studying these sacred, hard texts together can help us as we navigate a very complicated time.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: The Confessional’s Biggest Problem is Among Our Hardest Problems

“We have sinned against You by the way we talk.”

Tuesday night, and yesterday, we recited this line over and over again. By far the biggest cluster of sin and transgression in the confessional concerns how we talk to one another.

Getting this question right is exceptionally complicated.

Suppose somebody says something to you, or about you, that is untrue, unkind, unfair. What, if anything, are you supposed to say, and how are you supposed to say it?

If you engage their baseless claim, does that give it credence?

If you are silent in the face of their baseless claim, is that acquiescence?

While this issue feels particularly urgent given our riven politics, it is also ancient. On Shabbat we are going to examine the sources from a fabulous lecture at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem this past summer delivered by Elana Stein Hain entitled: “In a Manner of Speaking: How to Answer a Fool.” We will see that the Bible and the Talmud both face this issue, and both sources evince profound ambivalence.

You will leave class not with an answer, but with a set of questions and considerations to take with you in this new year.

Acknowledging the challenge of speech in the confessional is easy. Getting it right in life is hard. With Yom Kippur over, now the real work begins.

See you on Shabbat!
G’mar tov,