Friday, February 23, 2024

An Ever-Present Void


Graves at Har Herzl. Israel’s military cemetary.

Moses is not mentioned in Parshat Tetzaveh, the only such instance in the last four books of the Torah. This point, first mentioned by the Baal HaTurim, is a favorite of elementary school teachers looking for fun facts, and pulpit rabbis looking for sermon topics.

On its own, this observation is purely an exercise in poetry; in reality, multiple factors determined the division of Torah readings, and the fact that one short Parsha ended up without Moses’ name is not all that strange.


What does matter is not whether Moses is “missing” from the Parsha, but our perception of it. The fact that this question is constantly repeated says a great deal about the reader; Moses is not mentioned, and it’s noticed.


Even when Moses is gone, he leaves behind an ever-present void.


Many of those who comment on Moses' absence relate it to his date of death, which according to the Talmud (Kiddushin 38a,) was on the seventh of Adar; and most years, Tetzaveh and the seventh of Adar are on the same week. (This year they are a week apart.)


The seventh of Adar is included on a list of fast days compiled by the Baal Halakhot Gedolot, an 8th-century work. While these fasts have long fallen out of practice (Rabbi Yoseph Karo writes they had already been discontinued by the 15th century), the fast of the seventh of Adar continued to be practiced by burial societies (Chevrei Kadisha). They would assemble together for morning services, and recite special selichot prayers about the tasks of a Chevra Kadisha. At night, they would join together for a special meal in honor of their service to the community.


The connection between Chevrei Kadisha and Moses is twofold. First, Moses was buried in an unmarked grave by God Himself. In each burial, the Chevra Kadisha follows in God’s footsteps, and does a true act of kindness. (Because Moses' grave is unknown, the Israeli rabbinate designated the seventh of Adar as the memorial day for soldiers whose burial places are unknown.)


The second reason is that Moses is a role model for Chevrei Kadisha. As the Jews left Egypt, Moses made certain to take with him Joseph's bones for burial in Israel. Even 400 years later, Joseph's bones were not seen as a funerary relic of the distant past; he was seen as family. And this is the very mission that every Chevra Kadisha is tasked with: to ensure that those who are gone are never forgotten, and receive a proper burial.


It is a profoundly holy task. On our missions to Israel, we visited the Shurah Army Base, where the bodies of the 1200 people murdered on October 7th were processed for burial. The scenes that played out there in the first few days of the war were gut-wrenching. Rabbi Benzi Mann, who has been serving at Shurah since October 7th, spoke about how every refrigerated truck in the country, including dairy transports covered with advertisements for chocolate milk and yogurt, were conscripted to transport bodies; to this day he feels uneasy seeing dairy trucks on the highway. When Benzi would open the trucks’ doors, there were so many bodies piled up that blood would come pouring out.


But despite the traumatic circumstances, these incredible reservists worked day and night to ensure the dead got a proper burial, and that their families had a chance to wish their loved ones farewell. The dedicated Chevra Kadisha at Shurah did everything possible to treat the dead, and their families, with love.


Rabbi Mann related a conversation between Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of England, and President Isaac Herzog of Israel. Rabbi Mirvis told President Herzog he had visited Shurah. President Herzog replied that it was an awful place, “the gates of hell”; the very imprint of Hamas’ depraved crimes was on the body of every person murdered.


Rabbi Mirvis responded that on the contrary, Shurah was the “gates of heaven,” and a place of awe; it was a place where holy volunteers had heroically restored dignity to the deceased and their families.


The task of the Chevra Kadisha is to ensure the body is treated with respect. In preparation for burial, they do what is called a taharah where they do what they can to clean the body and purify it, and recite prayers for the soul of the deceased. (In the case of those murdered on October 7th, many of the usual procedures were suspended; murder victims are meant to be buried in their clothes. However, the prayers and the arrangement of the bodies in the coffin remain the same.) Other societies may cremate remains, or toss them away; Tibetans practice a “sky-burial,” in which bodies are placed on the mountaintop to be eaten by vultures. Judaism’s perspective is different and views treating the body with respect as the highest priority.


The Chatam Sofer explains (Teshuvot 2:328) that the taharah procedures are in place to show respect for man, who is created in the “image of God.” Even the dead body continues to carry a reflection of the divine image. The Chatam Sofer reminds us that by offering proper respect for the dead body, one offers respect for the living.


Jewish funerary and mourning rituals are not about closure and putting the death behind us. On the contrary, they are about preserving our connection to those who have passed away. We want to build a bridge from this world to the next, and to continue to keep our loved ones in our hearts.


This is what Avishai Margalit has called “the ethics of memory.” While the philosophical basis of this idea is complex, it is very much a part of the Jewish tradition. The ritual of Shiva and the prayers of Yizkor and Kaddish all articulate the same idea: we must continue to remember those whom we love. We remember because to love someone is to love someone forever; we remember because we could never forgive ourselves for forgetting.


On the last day of our most recent mission, we visited Har Herzl, Israel's military cemetery. Two sections have been designated for this war’s fallen soldiers. We went on a rainy day and it seemed like the stones were crying. All around us were the graves of people in their twenties and thirties, who once had a bright future ahead of them. A young widow, married for just two months, was sitting next to her husband’s grave; he was 23 years old. Our guide Michal spoke about the soldiers she knew in the section, who were friends from her neighborhood and school. Michal is far too young to know such tragedy; but now she does. Like every Israeli, she has gone to shiva after shiva, comforting and bereaved all at once.


On Har Herzl this overwhelming sense of loss, this endless void, is most profound. There is no grief like the grief of losing a young child at the height of their potential.


But at the same time, there is a recognition that within this absence those who have died will be ever-present. Virtually every grave was decorated by the families in tribute to their loved ones. Bottles of scotch, Israeli flags, soccer flags, photographs, letters, and miniature Torah scrolls all embrace the memory of those who are still loved. They are declarations that the fallen will never be forgotten. At every simcha, every Seder, every family get-together, they will be remembered. There may be a gaping void in the mourners’ hearts, but within that void, the memories of their loved ones are ever-present.


The Bible says, “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death.” (Song of Songs 8:6) These bereaved families have declared that their love is forever, tied to the heart with an eternal bond. Nothing, not even death, can take their love away.


They will always remember their loved ones. And so will we.


May their memory be for a blessing.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024



Our group, in front of the Asma’s Restaurant.

(Credit: Gil Golan)

(Sermon given at The Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, Parshat Terumah, February 17, 2024)

There is a Hasidic tradition that every Torah reading contains hints regarding the events and news of that week. The Lubavitcher Rebbe referred to this idea frequently, and it can be found in Rabbinic writings as early as the 1600’s.  

This morning we read Parshat Terumah, and I would like to share my personal connection to this week’s Torah reading.

I am in Israel as part of a mission of nearly 50 people from Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. After spending a week here, it was obvious that this verse at the beginning of the Torah reading reflected our experience:

Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering. From everyone who gives it willingly from their heart, you shall take My offering.

Now is a time of great distress and difficulty; the agony of the October 7th massacre is compounded by the continuing tragedy of a painful, grinding war.

Yet against this bleak, dark background, there are a myriad of points of light, beautiful acts of courage and kindness. So many have stepped forward and are giving from the heart. 

There is a balagan of courage and kindness. We met a soldier in his 30’s who was living with his family in India, and operated several businesses there. He flew back immediately to join the battle against Hamas and was seriously injured in battle. Yet he was proud of having fought for his country, and spoke passionately about a communal project in Israel he was planning.

In the Galilee we met Asma, a Druze woman whose late husband was an IDF soldier who fell in battle. After the war started, she turned her restaurant Kosher so she could supply Jewish soldiers with meals. She often gives soldiers meals for free, paying for the costs out of her own pocket. 

These acts of kindness are bringing very different people closer together. At Hatzalah, we heard about Yossi, a Chassidic volunteer who, along with two friends, rushed out of synagogue on October 7th and drove an ambulance down to the Nova Festival. After completing several hospital transfers, they were transporting a young woman, who complained that she was very cold in the ambulance. Yossi and his team had already used up all the ambulance’s blankets, so Yossi reached into the front seat, took his Tallit and covered the young woman with it. The Nova Festival is worlds apart from Yossi’s Hasidic shteibel; but on that day they were united as one. 

Never before has a Tallit accomplished such a holy task. 

Despite all the distress and difficulty around us, we were buoyed by the remarkable kindness we saw; and as I reread Parshat Terumah last week, I understood it differently. 

What stood out to me this year was the chronology of the donations mentioned at the beginning of the Parsha; the newly freed slaves offered these gifts just a short time after the Exodus. Moses didn’t need to call for voluntary donations in order to gather the requisite resources for building the sanctuary; the far simpler method of making an assessment, in which each person is taxed, could have accomplished the same thing. (This method would eventually be used with the half-shekel levy in the following Parsha.) 

I would argue that the voluntary donations served a larger purpose. Giving is a critical step on the road to freedom, and these donations were instituted to retrain the former slaves. 

Several Rabbis have made a similar observation about the Passover Haggadah. The Haggadah begins with ha lachma anya, a section that symbolically invites in guests. Why is this the starting point of the Haggadah? Both Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explain that slaves don’t invite guests. Rabbi Soloveitchik simply notes that slaves can’t give to others because they have no property of their own; whatever they have belongs to their master. Rabbi Sacks explains that slaves are self absorbed, overwhelmed by their day-to-day needs. “Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. Someone who fears tomorrow does not offer their bread to others.” Giving is a milestone of freedom, a clear sign that one is no longer an anxious slave. 

I would take this connection in a different direction, and say that generosity is not just an outcome of freedom; it actually creates the mindset of freedom. A slave is a slave so long that they think like a victim; and a victim cannot figure out how to help themselves, let alone help others. Altruism changes one’s self-image; to help others is heroic behavior. Generosity, no matter what the circumstances, allows one to grab hold of their own destiny.

On our mission, one of the most powerful meetings we had was with Lahav, a special forces veteran who was at the Nova festival with his younger brother. During that day, Lahav nearly lost his life multiple times; his brother was injured. Finally, they managed to escape and get home. The next day, while still in shock, Lahav received a message that he was being called up.

Lahav certainly didn’t have to report for duty; but he did anyway. Lahav told us that he realized he needed to flip the narrative; instead of being the victim, he was going to grab hold of his destiny and serve his country.

The next day Lahav was in Kfar Aza, fighting Hamas. 

Flipping the narrative is precisely why charity is a critical step on the road to freedom; one becomes a giver, and no longer sees themselves as helpless and needy. That is why this act of communal generosity in Parshat Terumah was so critical for the former slaves.

And today, the charity we saw in Israel speaks of a Jewish spirit that refuses to play the victim.

But this verse also hints at a second insight: charity can teach us a great deal about authentic strength and power.

The Torah portion speaks of the nediv lev, one who is giving of their heart; they have a heart that is virtually dripping with goodness. This stands in contrast with Pharaoh’s heart, one which is kaved, hard, and chazak, strong.  

Which heart should triumph? One might think the heartless, like Pharaoh, hold the advantage. Actually, the opposite is true. Strength without solidarity fails in the long term. 

One of the most difficult visits our group made was to the Shurah army base, which had the grim task, of preparing for burial, the bodies of the 1,200 people murdered on October 7th. Here, dedicated volunteers from the Chevra Kaddisha have restored dignity to the dead and offered comfort to their families. Their actions have sanctified this base, which is truly the gates of heaven.  

Noa, the head of the women’s Chevra Kaddisha explained that “I am also fighting Hamas. When we do good we fight Hamas.” 

In this short phrase, Noa offered a powerful insight into this parsha: a giving heart is stronger than a heavy, hardened heart. Hardened hatreds can cause a great deal of destruction in explosive bursts of violence; but long-lasting communities require trust, solidarity, and compassion. The nediv lev will always outlast the hard-hearted.

This will be true of this war as well. Yahya Sinwar hides, (or hid,) in tunnels, safe from the very war he set in motion; he uses his people as human shields, and cares very little for them. What we saw in Israel was the opposite. People putting others first. People giving from the heart. People standing up for each other. 

In Israel we saw that there is nothing as strong as a people united for each other.

And that is the power of the nediv lev.

Friday, February 02, 2024



An illustration from a published 1723 in Amsterdam, Jan and Kaspar Luiken

No moment in the Bible is more magnificent, no event more central. At the revelation on Mount Sinai, the veil between the mundane and the divine was torn away, and all assembled could see God directly.

The encounter at Mount Sinai carries great theological significance. Nachmanides says there is a daily commandment to never forget the encounter at Mount Sinai; Yehuda Halevi explains that this nationwide revelation is the foundation of the Torah. All of Judaism is a footnote to that day, an ongoing exploration of this intense spiritual singularity.

Words fail to describe that day. The Torah, in Parshat Yitro, describes something akin to a simultaneous hurricane and volcanic eruption, in which “...there were thunderings and lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the Shofar was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled … Mount Sinai was completely covered in smoke ... Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.” (Exodus 19:16-18.)


Midrashim further dramatize this depiction. Rabbi Akiva says that the Jews saw the voice that spoke on Mount Sinai, something that is otherwise physically impossible. Other Midrashim say that all those who were blind and deaf were healed that day, and able to take part in the revelation. Another Midrash says that the call of Sinai was heard throughout the world, and all of humanity, in a sense, stood at the foot of Mount Sinai.


Taken together, these texts emphasize that the encounter at Mount Sinai was unparalleled and transcendent, an event that will never be repeated or equaled.


So where does that leave those of us who were born too late to stand at Mount Sinai? This question is particularly difficult for those with deeply religious souls. They search for God and long to hear His voice. They wait patiently for a divine calling. But sadly, there are no new Mount Sinais available, no casual daily revelations.


Most people of faith find ways to accommodate this gaping lack of inspiration. Sometimes, even an occasional glimpse of transcendence can satisfy years of spiritual cravings. But at times, we need to turn in a different direction to discover the divine.


Rav Simcha Bunim of Przysucha can help direct us. Rav Simcha Bunim was the “Un-Rebbe,” a radical Hassidic leader who diminished the importance of his own position, and urged his followers to find their own path. He would illustrate his view of the Rebbe’s role with the following parable:


Isaac from Krakow was a poor tailor, who was plagued by a recurring dream. In the dream, he had a vision of a large bounty of gold which was hidden under a bridge outside the imperial palace in Prague. Night after night, this dream would repeat itself, until finally, Isaac decided he had to make the ten-day journey to Prague to find this treasure. He explained to his wife why he had to go, and started his journey.


In Prague, Isaac arrived and found the bridge just as it appeared in his dream. But he couldn’t dig for the treasure, because it was always under heavy guard; the bridge was right outside the palace, after all. For three nights, Isaac studied the guards’ rotations, hoping to find a pause long enough to allow him to start his search. On the third night, one of the guards grabbed him and arrested him. The guard shouted at Isaac, “You spy, I recognize you! You’ve been here three nights in a row, plotting against the king.” Isaac, in shock, began to sputter how he was an innocent man who was there because he had had a dream about some gold hidden under the bridge. Recognizing the simple sincerity of Isaac’s words, the guard released Isaac, and with a laugh, said: “You fool, you stood there for three nights straight just because of a dream! Last night I had a dream that there’s a treasure buried in the backyard of Isaac, the tailor in Krakow. Do you think I’m going to travel all the way to Krakow just because of a silly dream?”


Isaac immediately returned home. When he entered his house, his wife asked him: “Where’s the treasure?”


Isaac responded: “Give me a shovel and I’ll show you.”


Isaac went outside and dug up the gold. The Prague treasure had been hidden right in his backyard all along.


Rav Simcha Bunim used this tale as a parable about spirituality and wisdom. People chase spiritual gurus and great rabbis in the hope of achieving spiritual heights. But in the end, what we are looking for is hiding in our own backyard, buried under a lot of nonsense. 


For those in search of great revelations, Rav Simcha Bunim’s parable reminds us that before looking elsewhere, we need to turn inward and find the treasures buried in our own hearts.


This is true of the encounter at Sinai as well. The Talmud (Niddah 30b) relates that every child is instructed the entire Torah in their mother’s womb, only to have an angel force the child to forget what they learned at birth. This text is a bit of a riddle; why teach the fetus Torah, if it is meant to ultimately forget it a few weeks later?


Rav Simcha Bunim’s parable explains this text well. The Torah once studied may be forgotten, but its imprint remains. What makes revelation compelling is that our hearts are already attuned to what is being said. There are debates among philosophers as to whether all of the commandments can be understood intellectually; but they are certainly understood by the soul, which immediately attaches itself to the divine. And that a priori appreciation of revelation, that knowledge before knowledge, is a treasure we carry in our own hearts. Even when we stand far away from Sinai, there is another source of inspiration, right at our side.


Since October 7th, I have heard story after story of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. When they tell others about what happened, they share one refrain: “I never imagined that I could have done this.” Yet in a time of crisis, these heroes found remarkable inner strength. Ordinary Israelis took on the battle from day one, rushing to the front lines before being called up. A soldier sacrificed his own life by falling on a grenade to save his comrades’ lives. Rescuers entered the Nova Festival under heavy fire and saved the lives of hundreds of participants. Dedicated parents, brothers, sisters, and children, have traveled everywhere demanding that the world bring the relatives home from captivity. A young mom built a large distribution center for evacuees in just a few days. Academicians have become ad hoc military suppliers, providing much-needed protective gear to soldiers. Bereaved parents have spoken to group after group, offering strength and comfort to others even while their own hearts are broken. Amidst all the darkness and destruction, these accidental heroes heard a small, still voice of inspiration, and answered the call.


For years, I wondered if I could ever experience something like the encounter at Sinai; when would I feel the ground tremble with divine inspiration?


Now I have an answer. We stand at Sinai once again when we meet one of these heroes. They are spiritual treasures, right here in our own backyard. Listen to them, listen to their stories. What they have done is amazing.


And the world trembles before their greatness.

Friday, January 26, 2024



Herzl's sketch of his proposal for the flag of the Zionist movement.

A country must have a flag. In 1896, Theodore Herzl wrote, “We have no flag, and we need one.” Herzl offered a somewhat pedestrian suggestion of “a white flag, with seven golden stars. The white field symbolizes our pure new life; the stars are the seven golden hours of our working day.” (However, Herzl carefully arranged the stars so that together, the seventh star is a Magen David.)

Flags have always played a role in statecraft. In the book of Numbers, flags organize the Jews as they travel through the desert; in later Jewish history, impromptu flags, often used on Simchat Torah, were symbols of Jewish solidarity. In the ancient world, flags, ensigns, and banners played a critical role in warfare, where they took on extraordinary importance; capturing the enemy’s flag was an act of heroic valor, and a humiliation for the opponent. The Romans treated their ensigns as an object of worship; Josephus writes that the Romans considered it “a terrible thing… and a great shame, if they were stolen away.” In modern times, flags are primarily a national symbol.

To Herzl, having a national flag was critical. He wrote, “If we desire to lead many men, we must raise a symbol above their heads.” To him, the flag was another way of transforming the humble Jewish masses into a nation. He would later write in his diary (June 1, 1901) that he hoped to be remembered by history as “an impecunious Jewish journalist, (who) amid the deepest degradation of the Jewish people and at a time of the most disgusting anti-Semitism, made a flag out of a rag and a people out of a decadent rabble, and was able to rally this people around such a flag.” The leader, and their flag, are what makes the people a people.

Herzl, along with his flag, lead the huddled masses to their promised land. However, what would ultimately become the flag of Israel represents a very different vision.

Four biblical commentators from medieval France mention flags in their commentaries on Parshat Beshalach, during a battle scene towards the end of the Parsha. The newly freed slaves are ruthlessly attacked in the desert by Amalek, who “surprised (the Jews) on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” (Deuteronomy 25:18.) The Jews have to fight back.

What ensues during this is quite unusual. Joshua is sent to lead the Jews in battle; at the same time, the Torah tells us:

And Moses said to Joshua…Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.… Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. (Exodus 17:9-12)


With Moses’ hands held high, Joshua wins the war.

Every commentary grapples with the same question: What is Moses doing with his hands? The most obvious answer, offered by Rabbi Abraham Ben HaRambam and Shadal, is that Moses raises his hands in prayer and miraculously protects the Jewish soldiers.

Others find this explanation unsatisfying; if this was meant to be a time of miracles, why did Moses send the soldiers to begin with?

Four commentaries from Northern France, Bechor Shor, Rashbam, Hizzkuni, and Joseph Kara, offer a very different interpretation. Moses held his staff high (in his hands,) which functioned as a military flag. (It is fascinating that the commentaries offer three different vernacular words for flags: banniere, confanon, and pendon.) Holding the flag high strengthens the morale of the troops; Moses’ staff and his hands function like a flag.

These two explanations are polar opposites. One sees Moses’ hand-raising as the prerequisite for a miraculous intervention; the other sees Moses’ staff as playing a mundane role, a rudimentary flag that rallies the troops on the ground.

The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) offers a middle ground; the hands of Moses functioned as a spiritual flag. It says that when Moses held his hands aloft, “the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven; then they prevailed. But if not, they fell in battle.”

For the Mishnah, the result of the war is miraculous, but the miracle doesn’t belong to Moses; it belongs to the people. Moses' hands held aloft, metaphorically the first flag of the Jewish people, is not about the leader; it is about the people. It reminds the soldiers to focus on their divine connection and reflect on their mission.

The Mishnah offers a very different vision of what a flag is: it represents the shared values of the community. Its worth comes from what people project onto it and how people connect to it. Unlike Herzl, the Mishnah sees the value of the flag as depending on what people invest in it.

Herzl’s vision for a flag was rejected. Instead, a proposal by David Wolffsohn, a close associate of Herzl and his successor as President of the Zionist Organization, is accepted. Wolffsohn writes that at the first Zionist conference, the following inspiration came to him:

At the behest of our leader Herzl, I came to Basel to make preparations for the Zionist Congress. Among many other problems that occupied me then was one which contained something of the essence of the Jewish problem. What flag would we hang in the Congress Hall? Then an idea struck me. We have a flag — and it is blue and white. The talith (prayer shawl) with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this Talith from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations. So I ordered a blue and white flag with the Shield of David painted upon it. That is how the national flag, that flew over Congress Hall, came into being.

Wolffsohn creates a flag that reflects every man; and it also reflects the everyman, the Tallit worn on the backs of tailors and wagon drivers, the ordinary folk who understood Zionism well before the rest of the world did. It is not a top-down flag, one brought by the leader to transform a hopeless rabble; instead, it is a people’s flag, one that draws its meaning from the hopes and dreams of its followers.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik argues that the people’s attachment to the Israeli flag transforms it into a sacred object. In a Yiddish lecture given at a Mizrachi convention in the 1960s, Rabbi Soloveitchik remarked that he generally doesn’t understand the magical attraction of flags or other objects like it. However, the Israeli flag is different. The Shulchan Aruch says that a Jew who is murdered must be buried in the clothes he was wearing when he was killed. Soloveitchik says this law teaches us that clothing “acquires a certain sanctity when spattered with the blood of a martyr. How much more is this so of the blue and white flag, which has been immersed in the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in battle defending the country and its population. The Israeli flag has a spark of sanctity that flows from devotion and self-sacrifice.”

The people’s flag carries more than the hearts and souls of a nation; it represents the sacrifices that so many young people have made to build the State of Israel.

Today, our young men and women have to go into battle; far too many will not come home again. It is grueling to continue to fight against a fanatical, bloodthirsty foe. The ongoing losses are too large to bear. As the war continues, we too, like Moses, find that our hands grow weary.

What continues to hold the flag high are the people, who are filled with dedication. In the end, Moses can no longer hold up the flag; his hands need to be held aloft by Aaron and Hur. This moment offers a critical lesson: flags don’t belong to leaders, not even Moses. They belong to the entire people.

Today in Israel, it is the ordinary Israeli, and only the ordinary Israeli, who has held the country together. Previously unknown heroes have rushed to the front lines, organized volunteers, and taken care of a country in crisis. These ordinary people have consecrated the flag with the sacrifices they have made, sacrifices too great to count.

Israel’s flag is their flag. And they are holding it up high, despite everything.

Friday, January 19, 2024



Passover, Arthur Szyk, 1948


By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Bitter herbs are a culinary misfit. One can fulfill the obligation to eat the bitter herbs (maror) at the Seder with many different sour and spicy vegetables, including horseradish, romaine lettuce, and chicory. But what is very strange about maror is that we eat these vegetables on their own at the Seder; as the Mah Nishtanah  exclaims, on any other night, no one would eat a bitter spoonful of horseradish straight up.

Maror was misunderstood from the very beginning. There is no clear indication in the Biblical text as to why it is included in the Seder. The Torah in Parashat Bo says the Passover sacrifice should be eaten “roasted in fire, with unleavened bread, and with bitter herbs….” While the Passover sacrifice has a direct connection to the night of the Exodus, and Matzah is connected to the haste in which the Jews left Egypt, the reader is left to imagine what purpose maror might have.


Several commentaries see maror as a way to enhance the meat of the Passover sacrifice. The Ohr HaChaim says that “it is the way of those who eat roasted meat to do so with something sharp, for this makes it tastier, and entices people to eat more.” Ibn Ezra and Ibn Kaspi offer similar interpretations. This perspective is found in the Talmud (Chullin 132b), as well. It asserts that certain offerings of meat must be eaten in “the manner of royalty”; and it explains that the manner of royalty is to eat meat “roasted and served with mustard.” 


This interpretation is closest to the simple reading of the text. The Torah wants the Passover sacrifice to represent the joy of freedom, and be eaten in a royal fashion; to do so requires that it be served with an appropriate condiment.


But the Mishnah and Passover Haggadah offer a very different perspective on maror; Rabban Gamliel says: “The reason for bitter herbs is because the Egyptians embittered our forefathers’ lives in Egypt…” Maror is interpreted as a symbol of slavery, not royalty.


David Henshke argues that Rabban Gamliel’s explanation reflects a shift that took place after the destruction of the Temple. There was no longer a Passover sacrifice; one needed a new rationale to include the bitter herbs at the Seder. Rabban Gamliel found a different symbolism in the maror, one that related to the actual suffering during slavery.


But this new understanding of maror seems strange. An evening of redemption should be filled with joy and sweetness. The point of Passover is to escape the horrors of slavery; to place bitterness at the center of the Seder plate seems to undermine Passover’s message.


Most often, answers given to this question embrace the positive side of bitterness; or to put it a bit more cynically, that “suffering is good for us.” Maror is a reminder that slavery has shaped the Jewish soul just as much as freedom.


Undoubtedly, suffering can improve us as people. Professors Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “post-traumatic growth” after observing that many of their trauma patients had reinvented themselves in the aftermath of a major tragedy. They had grown in terms of their strength of character, relationships with others, perspective on life, appreciation for life, and spirituality. Their suffering had changed them for the better.


Even before post-traumatic growth was discovered by psychologists, it was evident to philosophers and theologians. Nietzsche wrote that “to those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities…,” because Nietzsche recognized that character is forged in the crucible of adversity. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for a “test of suffering,” nisayon, is the same as the Hebrew word for “raising up,” nissa, because a test raises one up; the bitterness of suffering is itself the silver lining that carries other blessings.


The Sefat Emet makes a direct connection between this idea and maror. He says that “the bitterness of slavery was a preparation for redemption, and this (bitterness) remains with us during the times of redemption.” Maror reminds us that bitterness begets character, and is itself a gateway to redemption.


As I get older, I get more uncomfortable with these types of explanations. I don’t contest their truth. Yes, suffering can spur spiritual growth. And one who suffers will find the pursuit of meaning to be the best way to live with suffering; as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote, “Judaism teaches us that the sufferer commits a grave sin if he allows his troubles to go to waste and remain without meaning or purpose.” Spiritual quests are how the soul copes with tragedy.


But what I find deeply disturbing are articles and sermons that use this difficult truth to romanticize suffering. They depict the personal growth achieved in the face of suffering as some sort of Hollywood ending that makes it all worthwhile. But it doesn’t.


The Talmud discusses an idea called “afflictions of love,” which claims that the righteous suffer unnecessarily in order to receive a greater reward in the future. After a discussion of the great reward involved, it tells real-life stories about suffering. In one, Rabbi Yochanan suffers from an illness. His colleague Rabbi Chanina visits, and asks: “Is your suffering dear to you?”; perhaps Rabbi Yochanan appreciated the spiritual glory of suffering, and wanted to continue with his afflictions. Rabbi Yochanan offered a terse response: “Neither the sufferings nor their reward.”


After a lengthy discussion of theory, the Talmud shares the real-life verdict on suffering: all the growth in the world is not worth the suffering.  Marror is always bitter, and may it stay far, far away from us, always.


So how else can one see Maror? The past few months have given me a new reflection on the passage of Rabban Gamliel. I now believe that maror reminds us that even when we can proudly sing “this year in Jerusalem,” there will still be maror on the Seder plate. Despite returning to our homeland and building a remarkable state, we cannot banish the bitter herbs. Life will always have a side portion of maror.


But the maror at the Seder is not there to sober us up and offer us cynical realism. Instead, it reminds us that maror is never the final chapter. Bitter herbs may be ever-present, but so is redemption. We simply have to get through this portion of maror and start over again. We have overcome, we can overcome, and we will overcome.


In the worst of times, Jews never gave up on redemption; and now that we have experienced a taste of redemption, we certainly cannot give up on redemption, no matter how bitter things are. 


This message was powerfully articulated in a heroic eulogy that a bereaved mother, Sarit Zussman, gave for her son, Ben, a fallen soldier. After speaking about her remarkable son and the profound love he shared with his family, she ended by speaking to the people of Israel:


"And now to you, to all of you, to all of us, to the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. As a storyteller, I tell you: that our story has a happy ending. We are going to win. We have no other choice. We are a people who want to live, unlike our enemies, lowly and miserable, cowards, Nazis and their accomplices, who sanctify death. We will live, and thrive, and build...Do you hear, people of Israel? World, do you hear? Do you hear, lowly enemies who desire death and evil? Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish people live, forever and ever and for all eternity, standing tall and with our heads held high…”


These moving words remind us that the true lesson of maror is that we must hold on to hope, even when it seems impossible. The Seder ends with joy, despite the maror. No matter how difficult it gets, we must hold our heads high and proudly declare: Am Yisrael Chai!

Friday, January 12, 2024

We Must Never Forget Them


The Israelites' Cruel Bondage in Egypt, Illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection

One could call this the Gettysburg Address of the Exodus. At the beginning of Parshat Vaera, God speaks to Moses and assures him that slavery is about to come to an end:


Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage... (Exodus 6:6-8.)


In just a few sentences, the Torah gives us an overview of the full process of redemption; not just an escape from slavery, but the creation of a new nation with a homeland of their own. The Talmud refers to the first four verbs in this section (bring out, rescue, redeem, and take) as the “four languages of redemption”; And to this day, the four cups of wine at Passover Seder are in celebration of these words.


The parsha begins with this speech, most probably in order to begin on a high point. But it also begins mid-conversation, which strips it of context. God’s words are actually a response to an angry challenge by Moses; after his initial petition to Pharaoh backfires, and causes even greater pain to the slaves, Moses turns to God and says: “Lord, why have you done such evil to this nation? Why is it that You have sent me?”


Moses’ words border on the sacrilegious. Indeed, several commentaries criticize Moses for this. Rashi says that God, in his response, subtly rebukes Moses for his complaint; one Midrash says Moses was later punished for challenging God, and not allowed to enter Israel.  


Yet the simple reading of God’s response is that He takes Moses' challenge seriously; that is why God offers such a thorough and detailed reply. Moses is speaking on behalf of those who are oppressed and downtrodden, and even if he speaks with chutzpah, he does so out of love for his Jewish brothers and sisters.


Another Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 5:22) amplifies Moses' complaint. Moses knows the Jews will eventually be rescued, but he cannot tolerate the delay. A future redemption, Moses says, will not “help the Jews who are now being thrown under the building.” This curious phrase refers to a shocking image found in rabbinic literature (Midrash Zuta Kohelet 7:7, Rashi Sanhedrin 111a) that in the Egyptian construction projects of Pithom and Raamses, Jews were used as bricks, and squeezed into the gaps of walls. A similar Midrash (2:24) asserts Pharaoh sought to heal himself of leprosy by bathing in the blood of 150 murdered Jewish children each morning and evening.


These midrashic images amplify the biblical text, which talks at length about Pharaoh's attempts to kill Jewish children. But they are not here just to vilify Pharaoh; they come to expose the inner workings of his regime.


Some acts of hatred are utilitarian; one feels threatened, and therefore needs to fight an enemy. But other times, hatred stands at the very foundation of a society. The historian Saul Friedlander coined the term “redemptive antisemitism,” to describe the Nazi hatred of Jews. The Nazis saw Jews as a virus that weakens and undermines humanity; the destruction of the Jews would bring goodness to the rest of the world.


These midrashim are articulating something similar. In one, the murder of Jewish children is seen as therapeutic, a way for Pharaoh to recover his health. In the other, dead Jews are the foundation of Egyptian development. For Pharaoh, killing is no longer the means of maintaining power, but the very purpose of power itself. Violence against Jews is the scaffolding that holds his regime together.


Unfortunately, these Midrashim are prescient, offering a clear description of Hamas. There are no limits to Hamas’ “100-year war.” It engaged in a premeditated mass murder in the most horrible, depraved fashion, all proudly recorded by terrorists on their body cameras. Even more shocking is Hamas’ overt contempt for the very people they claim to represent. Palestinians were Hamas’ first victims, as this autocratic regime has regularly murdered its opponents. Today, Palestinians are enduring great suffering because Hamas cynically uses civilians as human shields, and calculates the strategic value of their deaths. Hamas will have the Palestinians fight to the death in Gaza while many of its leaders sit comfortably in Doha.


Supporters of Israel are sometimes reluctant to speak about the tragedy of Palestinian civilians because it has been weaponized by Hamas and its enablers; as I write these words, the International Court of Justice is presiding over a South African claim that Israel has engaged in “genocide.” But even so, we must mourn for the deaths of those caught in the crossfire. Every human being is created in the image of God.


Hamas has built its regime with the blood of both Palestinians and Israelis. Its great construction project, the Gaza tunnels, is built for death, and by death. Hamas’ wanton violence may shock us; but the Midrash predicted this type of hatred hundreds of years ago.


Like Moses, we are anguished over the innocent babies who were massacred, and mourn for those who were brutally murdered. Israel has had to send its best and brightest out to take up the fight; and too many of them have fallen in battle. For all of these tragedies, we cry.


Every death is a profound loss; but the death of a young person is all the more painful because it is so unexpected. In the ordinary way of the world, children bury their parents, not the other way around. My father died in a car accident, predeceasing my grandfather by nearly 40 years. My grandfather was a jovial man, who always had a smile on his face; that is, except when he spoke about my father. Then the smile left his face; even decades later, the grief would quickly return. No suffering is greater than that of losing a child.


A Hebrew expression, which is first found in Isaiah (38:10), best describes a young death: nektaph b’mei chayav, “cut off in the middle of their days.” It emphasizes that a young death is actually a double tragedy; one loses not just the person, but also what the person could have been.


Each of these deaths are painful for our entire community. News reports out of Israel recount the entire biography of those who have died; the entire Jewish world repeats their names and their stories. And inevitably, we find that we are one or two degrees of separation from these tragedies.


Hamas sees our response as a weakness. Yahya Sinwar sees the Israeli concern for each hostage and each soldier to be a weakness; he considers his ability to write off the lives of thousands of Palestinians to be a strength. He ridicules Israel’s willingness to call a ceasefire in order to release a handful of hostages. Like Pharaoh, Sinwar is ready to build pyramids with the bodies of babies.


Sinwar is correct that brutality holds strategic value; ignoring the suffering of one’s own people means that one can fight on without any limitations. But it is morally untenable. Moses cried for the babies Pharaoh was murdering, and we must follow his example. Even if it seems foolish, we must advocate for each hostage, and cry for every soldier.


We must never forget them. And we must challenge God to remember them, and put an end to the suffering now.