Last week, a group of seven people from Temple Emanuel left Pittsburgh for the URJ Biennial in even colder Chicago.
“The URJ Biennial offers an opportunity to compare notes with similar congregations, learn best practices from around the movement, connect with colleagues and friends, and grow even more excited about the future of progressive Jewish life in America,” Rabbi Aaron Meyer says. “All Biennials feature amazing scholars, great educational sessions, moving worship opportunities, and more. The 2019 Biennial focused on issues of inclusion. Our communities, our religion is stronger when it makes intentional space for all.”
Kathy Ginsberg, a member of Temple Emanuel’s Board of Trustees and Worship Chair, attended for the first time. She heard about Biennial before she even became Jewish. Some of her Jewish friends had gone and reported what a remarkable experience it was. “This year, with my taking on a larger leadership role at Temple, I felt the time was right,” she says.
Ginsberg knew it was the largest gathering of Jews in North America, but she was unprepared for the number of folks roaming around. “It was amazing to sit in the plenary sessions and Shabbat services with 5,000 other Reform Jews!” she recalls. “Talk about the power of community!”
Tracy Barnett was also a first-time attendee. She says she decided to go for a couple of reasons. She’d also heard from prior attendees what a wonderful experience it was. Then, when she reviewed the schedule, she saw how many classes applied to her position on the Temple Board as co-treasurer and hoped to learn new things to help her be a better board member. She mainly took classes regarding governance and temple finances, since those are her areas of interest.
“I learned new approaches for fundraising and governance approaches,” Barnett says. “I wish the breakout sessions had been longer to be able to hear more about what other congregations were doing. But I do feel that we at Temple are ahead of the game in the way we get input from the whole congregation in major decisions (rabbinic transition and mission/vision).”
Ginsberg enjoyed a session by Ariel Burger, an Orthodox rabbi who was Elie Wiesel’s teaching assistant for many years. Other sessions she attended were on worship, social justice issues like climate justice and gun violence prevention, and helping to integrate both Jewish adjacent members and members with disabilities into temple life. “I was very impressed by the number of young people there who were doing important social justice work while still in college,” she says, calling it very inspiring.
This was Temple President David Weisberg’s second Biennial. He says it was great connecting with other presidents, of whom there were 250 in attendance. “We were able to share ideas and common issues,” he says. “Best practices can be brought back and potentially utilized at Temple.”
In fact, two other synagogue presidents reached out to Weisberg after they heard about the success of our interim and settled rabbinic searches. Both congregations have long-tenured rabbis soon to be retiring and asked about our processes. Temple’s Tashlich & Tacos was also recognized as a top innovative program. “Many other congregations loved the idea and would consider a version of it for their own synagogue,” reports Weisberg.
High school junior Anna Schwartz, NFTY-PAR VP of Programming, also attended. She spent her time with other NFTY teens and NFTY programming, but participated in the general Biennial programs as well. She called it an amazing experience.
When asked how this Biennial compares to others, Rabbi Jessica Locketz says every Biennial has its moments – the ones that make their impact and inspire her. This one was no different. “To name a few…hearing about the interfaith efforts in Omaha, NE was a powerful reminder of the importance of building a larger religious community that includes all faiths and all peoples,” she says. “When President Rick Jacobs spoke about ‘widening our tent’ to include Jews of color, Jews on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, Jews with disabilities, etc…it made me feel good about all we have accomplished and ready to take on all the work we still have to do to make a diverse Jewish community a reality.”
Rabbi Locketz was able to network with educational colleagues about innovations in their schools and talk to vendors about new curricular resources that she hopes to share with the Torah Center Advisory Board as they navigate changes to the Torah Center program. “I am excited about what is in store for our students and their families!” she says.
She most enjoyed seeing colleagues and friends, as well as spending time with the lay leaders that attended as part of the Temple delegation. “Attending sessions and sharing meals together gives us the rare opportunity to deepen relationships and engage in conversations about Temple’s future,” she says.
Rabbi Aaron agrees. “The Biennial is designed to expose lay leadership to the best and brightest in the Reform Movement,” he says. “While I enjoyed seeing friends, connecting with congregants from previous cities, and some personal growth opportunities, the highlight by far was traveling with our great delegation from Temple, comparing notes after provocative and inspiring sessions, and thinking about the future of Temple Emanuel.”
Likewise, this was the most important thing that Ginsberg feels she got out of attending Biennial. Executive Director Leslie Hoffman also enjoyed the introspection. “For me, one of the best parts of attending the Biennial is having the opportunity to step away from day-to-day operations and take the time to reflect on why we (Temple) do what we do,” she says. “A recurring theme in the sessions that I attended was the importance of making sure that everything that we do aligns with our mission and vision. As we are in the midst of reshaping our congregational mission and vision right now, I am excited to work with our rabbis and lay leadership to shape our future.”
The next URJ Biennial is December 8-11, 2021 in Washington, DC (National Harbor).
I’m not great at math, but even I know that 12-11 leaves one left over. You’ll need to know this when you read this week’s torah portion, Vayishlach. Our math problem is hidden in chapter 32 verse 23, “[Jacob]… taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok [river].” At this time in his story, Jacob already had 12 children. His son Benjamin was born later, but Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Dina were traveling with him. 12-11… Who is missing?
Rashi tells us that is is Dina who is absent. Where was she? Rashi explains “[Jacob] had placed her in a chest and locked her in so that Esau should not desire to marry her.” Now just in case you’re thinking Rashi must be crazy – other commentators tell the same story. They explain that is was because of this action that Jacob would later be punished through his daughter. Genesis Rabbah imagines God telling Jacob, “Had you married [Dina] to [Esau] she would not have sinned.”
This midrash reminds me how easy is is to place blame when bad things happen to us and to those we love. Too often we hear that a victim is at fault because their choices put them in harm’s way. Too often we hear that tragedy is the result of someone else’s misdeeds.The greater challenge, the one we must rise to, is to ensure that victims are supported and never blamed. Dina’s story is not her fault, nor is it the result of her father’s actions. We honor her name and her story when we carry this message with us.
Sometimes it takes a change in perspective to see things more clearly. Doing something, anything, different. For Jacob, in this week’s Torah portion, that meant using a rock as a pillow. Different, right?
And sometimes it takes something unusual, something unexpected, a surprise to make us see things more clearly. For Jacob, it this week’s Torah portion, it was a surprising dream: a ladder stretching to heaven, with angels going up and down. Up and down. Up first, as they inhabited the world with him, and then down. Unexpected. Enough to change his perspective.
He had no idea of the reality before him — nothing less than the presence of God before him, actually — and it took something unexpected to see it, a change in perspective to see things more clearly.
“Yesh Adonai B’makom Hazeh v’Anochi Lo Yadati: Surely God is in this place and I didn’t know it.”
That’s what he was missing. What are we missing, and how do we find it?
Maybe, like Jacob, we need a bit of physical distance.
Maybe, like Jacob, we need to see the bigger picture. Running away from his brother, from his parents, from the only home he had ever known, Jacob forgot about God’s promise. When we get stuck, we too lose sight of the forest.
And maybe, like Jacob, we need to reclaim our agency. His mother scripted his every move. His brother drove him from his home in fear. His father bestowed on him a blessing. Until this point, Jacob was a bystander in his own life. He now becomes an actor. Okay, so maybe he doesn’t always get those actions right — in fact, he very rarely gets those actions right — but they become his to make. How easy it is for us to blame others, too…we often need to reclaim our agency just like Jacob did.
Each of these things helps us to change our perspective. Each opens our eyes to a new world of possibilities. Each keeps us from missing the thing right before our eyes. Get some space. Realize the bigger picture. Reclaim your agency. May something as majestic as God’s very presence is waiting for you, too.
(Special guest appearance by Rabbi Emily Meyer!)
What were they thinking? Why didn’t they say anything? Are their words important? Just as every word in Torah is significant, so too are the moments when characters are silent.
This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins with a prayer. Isaac beseeches God to grant a child to his wife, Rebecca, but Rebecca herself does not speak. “Isaac prayed to Adonai opposite his wife because she was barren. Adonai accepted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived.”
You wouldn’t be the first to wonder, “Why isn’t it Rebecca praying?”
Some commentators look at the word “opposite” to shed light on this question. Perhaps it means they were praying opposite one another, one in each corner, as Rashi says. Or perhaps it means Isaac was focused on Rebecca during this prayer, as David Kimhi explains: “‘Facing his wife,’ to keep his thoughts focused on her.” Others suggest that it had to do with embarrassment. Either not embarrassing Rebecca because of her infertility or Isaac not being embarrassed himself for his infertility.
Modern scholars have seen Rebecca’s silence as an opportunity to imagine what she might have been thinking. Perhaps she had changed her mind about having children or perhaps her feelings about her husband had changed. Perhaps, imagines Dr. Ellen Frankel in her midrash, “The Five Books of Miriam,” she was simply powerless to speak.
The silences in our text raise questions, and they can inspire empathy as we imagine the thoughts and feelings of those whose voices we cannot hear. Focusing on the silences in our text also forces us to focus upon silences perceived in the modern world. Whose voices are we missing, and what can we do to ensure those voices are heard and valued?
Va’yih’yu chayei Sarah mei’ah shanah, v’esrim shanah, v’sheva shanim, sh’nei chayei Sarah. Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years. Many translations say Sarah was 127 years old, but such a simplistic translation does violence to the tradition.
Why the laborious manner of listing each time period separately?
The midrash (Yalkut Shim’oni) compares each stage to the last: “At one hundred she was as beautiful as a girl of twenty; at twenty she was, was regards sin, as innocent as a child of seven.”
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik has an even more poignant interpretation: “She was always a one-hundred-year-old adult, a twenty-year-old woman, and a seven-year-old child. In the realm of chemical processes, there is no way to retain biological youth in a middle-aged person, nor can the pattern of the middle-age be preserved in old age. In the realm of the unfolding of the spirit, however, it is possible to see youth and ripe old age, or even childhood and youth, as simultaneous experiences. The young are sometimes characterized by cautious wisdom and sober judgement, and an older person may be wonderfully childlike, with a dreamer’s naiveté and excitement.”
I love the idea that we can simultaneously possess an old soul and youthful exuberance, awe and wonder and pragmatism at the same time. In what ways are you wise beyond your years? In what ways do you retain the joy of youth? May you be eighty and seven years, or forty and ten years, all the days of your life!
What was the sin of the Sodomites?
From the Biblical Text:
“Adultery and false dealing. They encourage evildoers so that no one turns back from his wickedness. To Me they are all like Sodom…” (Jeremiah 23:14 )
“This was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)
“Moab shall become like Sodom…that is what they shall get for their haughtiness.” (Zephaniah 2:9, 10)
And From Early Jewish Literature:
“The men of Sodom said…why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth. Come, let us abolish the practice of traveling.” (Sanhedrin 109a)
“Rabbi Judah said: They made a proclamation in Sodom – everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor or the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt.” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 25)
“The Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust towards men, and impious towards God…they hated strangers.” (Josephus, Antiquities 11:1)
Of the 39 references to Sodom in the Hebrew bible, none are related to sexual practices. Even when used in the Christian bible, Sodom is used only as an example of inhospitality. Yes, Jude condemns the sexual practices of the Sodomites – but only that they wanted to sleep with angels. Philo, informed by stoicism and not rabbinic literature, was perhaps the first to interpret the story as a condemnation of homosexuality, a misinterpretation later made popular by Augustine.
Join us at 9:00am in the WRJ room each week as we uncover uniquely Jewish understandings of our sacred text.
In April, the congregations of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light put out a call for artwork to wrap the chain-link fence surrounding the building. Cara Drook’s painting was selected as one of 101 pieces for the display. Click here to see Cara’s interview on WQED about her piece.
Cara has also designed and painted two beautiful murals at Temple, one at the entrance to the Torah Center hallway and one outside the WRJ room. Be sure to take a look the next time you are at Temple.
Which was more difficult for Abraham, leaving Haran or offering Isaac as a sacrifice? The symmetry of Torah and the commentaries of our sages connect the two in fascinating ways.
In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham is commanded to Lech Lecha, to go forth. In the Akidah, the binding of Isaac, Abraham is again commanded to Lech Lecha, go forth…the only other time it occurs in the text.
In this week’s Torah portion the destiny is shrouded in mystery, as Abraham is commanded to go to the “land that I will show you.” In the Akeidah? To the “mountain that I will show you.”
In this week’s Torah portion we get a threefold repetition of what was being sacrificed, each more difficult than the last in the commentary of Nachmanides: Leaving your country is easier than leaving your birthplace, which is easier than leaving your parents’ house. In the Akeidah, the same threefold repetition. Take your son, then your only son, and only then is Isaac named.
In Midrash, Rabbi Levi raises these commonalities. “Lech Lecha is written twice, (this whole narrative frame is used twice), and we do not know which was more precious to God.” The rest of his comment is unfortunately lost to history. We don’t know why Abraham was twice tested, nor which was more important to him or to God. What we do know is that life is often filled with difficult moments of transition, and we pray that they each work out as well for us as they did for Abraham.
Where did they put the phoenix on Noah’s Ark? That’s the question you had while reading again Parashat Noah, right? Where did the imaginary animals fit in? Or what about those too big to hitch a ride, like the wild ox? And how on earth did Noah keep all of those animals from responding to their, well, instincts to create other animals while in the tight confines of the Ark?
The great rabbinic sages of our tradition spent a surprising amount of time answering these questions.
Animals overeager to perpetuate their DNA were only allowed on with their pre-existing mates:
Talmud Sanhedrin 108b: “Of every clean animal you shall take seven pairs, males and their wives [OT:$i):w $yi)]” (Genesis 7:2). Is there marriage between animals? Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani says that Rabbi Yonatan says: The reference is to those animals with which the transgression of relations with another species was not performed. Therefore, the Torah underscores that the animals that entered the ark were husband and wife.
Animals that were too big either boarded when they were pups, or were tied up to run or swim behind the boat:
Genesis Rabbah 31:13: The wild ox did not enter the ark, but his whelps did. Rabbi Nehemiah said: Neither he nor his whelps, but Noah tied them to the ark and they ran behind.
And the phoenix? About the phoenix is the best story of all:
Talmud Sanhedrin 108b: With regard to the phoenix, my father found it lying in its compartment on the side of the ark. He said to the bird: Do you not want food? The bird said to him: I saw that you were busy, and I said I would not trouble you. Noah replied to the bird: May it be God’s will that you shall not die and the blessing was realized.
What are we to make of these tales, other than a rabbinic rejoinder to their Jewish mothers? If our tradition is willing to take such great care with the fantastic and the seemingly superfluous, how much the more so with important matters!
Join us next Saturday morning for Torah Study at 9:00am in the WRJ Room.
by Sara Wulff
Now that my girls are a bit older, I have been searching out age appropriate and meaningful ways in which we can contribute to our community. Rabbi Locketz and I met at the beginning of the school year to discuss various ways that we may be able to bring mitzvah opportunities to Torah Center students. After our brainstorming session, I contacted SHIM (South Hills Interfaith Movement) to discuss potential off-site activities.
The greater Pittsburgh community offered several opportunities this past weekend to commemorate the anniversary of the tragedy at the Tree of Life congregation. I loved the idea of offering a mitzvah project right here at Temple Emanuel as an extension of this effort.
On Sunday, October 27, several families gathered after Sunday’s Torah Center classes to work together in order to better our community in honor of the victims. Our project was to portion out 150 pounds of bulk rice so that SHIM’s food pantry can disperse them to families in need in the South Hills. Approximately 20 volunteers tackled this endeavor and finished in less than an hour! It was amazing to watch the Torah Center students hard at work and to see their sense of pride in knowing that they accomplished this mitzvah.
Overall, I would say that this mitzvah project was a great success! Look for more social action projects in the future!