Shabbat Nakhamu: Consolation?

This Shabbat, called Nakhamu after the first word of the Haftarah, meant to be a Shabbat of consolation. The first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, that time of terrible destruction once long ago and now a time to face the equally terrifying consequences of our actions in our own days, is meant to reassure us that, after all the suffering and loss, consolation is possible.

But on this day it is difficult to feel consoled.

A Jew in Jerusalem – called the City of Peace! – attacks fellow Jews marching in the Gay Pride parade with a knife. Other Jews set fire to a Palestinian home and murder a child. Both in the name of religious faith.

Jews in our own community attack each other. Not with weapons, not yet – G-d forbid – but the Rabbis of the Talmud taught that the tongue is as sharp as the sword, and a person can be attacked just as viciously with words as with weapons. All in the name of faith.

According to those Rabbis, our Jerusalem Temple was destroyed as an echo of the destruction we were visiting upon each other. No Jewish organization can exist without the acts which uphold it – which literally hold it up – study of Torah, Avodah – mindfulness, and Gemilut Hasadim – loving kindness. The Temple was destroyed because we pulled its foundational supports out from under it, in acts of commission and omission.

There are many ways to express the foundational structure of organized Jewish life; they all have in common a search for meaning and purpose guided by learning, mindfulness, and acts of loving kindness toward others. They are all variations of one structure: the Jerusalem Temple, symbolized by all the good we are meant to do and taught to do.

And there are as many ways to destroy the Temple and all it symbolizes. The self-destruction we bring down on our own sacred community increases with each act of violence, each religious hypocrisy, each arrogant, “noble” political stand.

It’s no wonder that many Jews are turned away from the Jewish community, as daily we fail to practice the ethics we speak. Where we will find the consolation promised by the Prophet Isaiah in this week’s haftarah?

א  נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

Comfort, be comforted, My people, says your God.

ב  דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, proclaim to her, that her time of service is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of the hand of ‘ה double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)

Our time of service is clearly not yet accomplished. As it was put in an old makhzor, “our sins are confessed in the daily papers.” What will each of us do, in our own small way, to stand against the anger, and fear, and despair of our own day, lest we contribute to the undermining of the three pillars of our spiritual existence as Jews? What are you doing to help hold up the beacon of hope that Jerusalem is supposed to be? 

We cannot hope to act for good in the larger world until we stabilize what should be the source of our inspiration. We must be learning all that strengthens us, each of us, as a Jew; we must be mindful always; and we must act knowing that our every act of loving kindness does, in a small but real way, repair the world. 

Begin now; continue now; redouble your efforts now, that we might yet come to a place of consolation in our days.

Shabbat Noakh: Sometimes It Floods

Sometimes life comes at you faster than you can thoughtfully respond. In our parashat hashavua one person, Noakh, suddenly discovers that his world is going to end in a great flood of water that will cover the earth as far as he knows it to exist. He builds a giant boat as he is directed by G-d, and he and his family are saved from the death that meets the rest of humankind, and also many animals. Our tradition finds fault with him, based upon a close reading of Genesis 6.9: “Noakh was righteous in his generation.” The Rabbis asked of this verse, what kind of compliment is that? His generation is so wicked that G-d blots them out….They point to Abraham, who, when G-d announced the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, insisted that G-d distinguish between guilty and innocent. Noakh, on the other hand, when news of the flood reaches him, does not ask and does not argue.

But what else is different, if we compare Abraham and Noakh? Abraham is G-d’s chosen, protected and guided toward a blessed future in a land promised to his descendants. Noakh has no such support, at least not as described in the Torah. He lives in a world which is literally going to hell, and he is experiencing the incredible stress of social breakdown, hatred acted upon in ways that empty out all notions of ethics and decency….and he is, after all, only human.

I am in Israel this week, visiting family and in particular meeting my new cousin, Ofri, who was born on Purim. From here the view is strikingly different from that which we experience from our safely distant perspective in the U.S. Here, we heard about Wednesday’s attack in the local hourly news that comes over the radio, and details emerged over the local internet hour by hour. At the same time, Israelis join right now in mourning young people who were taking vacation from their army service, hiking in Nepal, and were killed by a sudden snowstorm and avalanche. And oh, yes, the latest news about the so-called Islamic State conveys information about what is happening not so far from here – although here in the village it is so quiet that it is almost impossible to believe that such upheaval is actually occurring.

Just now the latest news bulletin on the hour came through as we prepare for Shabbat; two young Israeli adults on holiday in Nepal were killed when the bus they were traveling on plunged into a ravine. My cousin Eli got very quiet for a moment, but there was nothing much to say other than what we already know we are thinking: so sad, so very sad. If you had pushed us further, we might have continued with: and so pointless. Oh, and there is news that tension is increasing in Jerusalem: rocks are being thrown, tires and light-rail stations set on fire.

It feels like a flood of terribly bad, sad news, and within it the different kinds of bad news come together in a way that blurs distinctions. Perhaps this is what Noakh was feeling when G-d announced the great flood. Maybe he was so beaten down by one sad experience after another, one horror following upon the next, that in all the attendant stress he simply lost his ability to act according to his highest human potential. It does happen that we can be so brutalized by experience that we are no longer really ourselves.

Whatever we in our faraway quiet America feel justified to judge about life here in Israel, let’s remember to apply the ancient Jewish ethical principle l’khaf zekhut, “benefit of the doubt”. Perhaps people really are doing the best they can in some very stressful, brutalizing circumstances.

Please join me this Shabbat in praying for the peace of Jerusalem, and all places – a Jewish kind of prayer which presupposes action to bring it about.

Shabbat Pinhas: Peace in the Midst of Violence?

This week’s parashah is startlingly appropriate to our current situation. We are all aghast at the violence that has broken out in Israel – although the fact that Israel remained relatively quiet as the region seethed struck many as a miracle that could not last – and our hearts are broken for the suffering and death, not only in Israel but in Gaza, Syria, Iraq and throughout.

When I work with those who consider converting to Judaism, I always remind them that Judaism includes a people and a land. For some of us, Israel is a distant and difficult reality which feels far from any sense of the Jewish ethical life we strive to live. But life is complicated, and to be a Jew is to be connected to Israel, for better and for worse.

How to approach this difficulty? This week two of my colleagues in Israel shed light for us by offering learning. Please join me in considering their words carefully.

We need to be very careful about how we, as Jews, might learn, and consider, and thoughtfully to react to this difficult challenge. We are Jews, we have a significant relationship as American Jews to the Land of Israel, and we have the right and the responsibility to own it and to act within it according to our ethical sense – but knowledgeably, and carefully, and compassionately toward all. That, after all, is who we want to be, and the challenge is to remain reliably ourselves even as we meet the challenges of our lives.

Light is seen only in contrast to darkness, and according to our creation story light comes from darkness (darkness precedes it). Perhaps peace can only come from violence. If this be true, let us learn what we have to learn from it, and bring peace.

The following messages are reposted in their entirety:

This war hurts all of us who are caught in the crossfire and our hearts go out to the innocent people on both sides who are suffering.  

The ability to balance passiveness and action is the theme of this week’s parashah. As an Israelite and a Midianite flagrantly sin in front of all of Israel, and law and order break down, one man–Pinhas–acts decisively, killing them both.

The complexity of the moral issues is not wasted on the rabbis. They refer to a biblical verse which implies the language of justice in the heavenly court:

Then Pinchas stood up and executed judgment, and so the plague was stayed. This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come. (Psalms 106:30)

According to the rabbis, the angels wish to condemn Pinchas, but he defends his violent response, on the basis that 24,000 people had already died; it was necessary for him to act boldly in order to prevent more deaths. While vindicating Pinchas’s zealoutry, God rewards him with a Covenant of Peace. (Sanhedrin 82b) He was right to take action in the moment, but ultimately, he must pursue peace.

We share the vision of the angels; a world which is filled with peace and tranquility. This is the messianic ideal that: “Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

Sometimes, it is necessary for nations to respond with force. Israel, like all sovereign nations, has the right to defend itself from targeted attacks on its civilians—a basic violation of human rights. Even in this violent moment, though, we need to keep asking and searching for a path to bring about a brit shalom—a covenant of peace.

Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester, Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel  (

Shalom Friends,

I hope that you are all well. Here in Israel it is one of those periods in which the news is happening so quickly that it seems impossible to keep up. We are now under rocket attack by Hamas terrorists from Gaza and pray that the IDF will win a decisive victory over them with minimal casualties on our side so that we can resume “normal life” (which of course doesn’t exactly exist here). During the shiva for our three murdered boys we were also shocked to the core to discover that the vicious murderers of the Arab boy from East Jerusalem were in fact Jewish. In certain ways this was more shattering than the murder of our own boys. When I discussed this horrific profanation of God’s Name with the Komarner Rebbe shlit”a he quoted Golda Meir that “we can forgive the Arabs for killing us but not for forcing us to kill”. In light of this I want to share three pertinent sources with brief translations.  I think they speak for themselves. May we be blessed to sanctify God’s Name in our daily lives and with true peace.

Shabbat Shalom, Rav Zvi Leshem

תנא דבי אליהו רבא פ’ כח

ולא נתנה התורה אלא על מנת לקדש שמו הגדול. מכאן אמרו ירחיק אדם את עצמו מן הגזל בין מן הישראל בין מן העכו”ם ולא עוד אלא משום שכל הגונב מן העכו”ם לסוף הוא גונב מן הישראל ואם הוא נשבע לעכו”ם לסוף הוא נשבע לישראל ואם הוא מכחש לעכו”ם לסוף הוא מכחש לישראל ואם הוא שופך דמים לעכו”ם לסוף הוא שופך דמים לישראל ולא נתנה התורה אלא לקדש שמו הגדול שנאמר (ישעיה סו) ושמתי בהם אות ושלחתי מהם פליטים מהו אומר בסוף הענין והגידו את כבודי בגוים.

Tania d’be Eliyahu Raba 28: The Torah was given to sanctify God’s Name…one who sheds the blood of a gentile will in the end shed the blood of Jews. The Torah was only give to sanctify God’s Name…so that My [God’s] Name will be honored among the Gentiles.

רמב”ם תשובה א:ד

במה דברים אמורים בשלא חילל את השם בשעה שעבר אבל המחלל את השם אע”פ שעשה תשובה והגיע יום הכפורים והוא עומד בתשובתו ובאו עליו יסורין אינו מתכפר לו כפרה גמורה עד שימות אלא תשובה יום הכפורים ויסורין שלשתן תולין ומיתה מכפרת שנאמר ונגלה באזני ה’ צבאות וגו’ אם יכופר העון הזה לכם עד תמותון:

Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 1:4: One who profanes God’s Name, even though he repented and Yom Kippur comes and he is still repentant and has suffered, he does not achieve full atonement until he dies.

משך חכמה משפטים ד”ה ויתכן

ויתכן משום דישראל שהרג בן נח איכא מלבד חטא הרציחה עוד עון דחילול השם ית’ וכמו שהפליגו בירושלמי אלו מציאות (ה”ה) ניחא ליה לשמוע בריך אלדדון דיהודאי מן כל אגר עלמא, כ”ש ברציחת גופו החלול השם, ובזה אמרו (יומא פו) אין יוהכ”פ ותשובה ויסורים כו’ רק מיתה ממרקת כו’ אם יכופר לכם העון עד תמותון, נמצא דיש עונש מיתה על חילול השם ואיך יכופר לו ע”י מיתה חטא הרציחה ועל כרחין דינו מסור לשמים ודו”ק.

Meshech Chochmah Mishpatim s.v. Vayitachen: When a Jew kills a gentile, there is, in addition to the sin of murder also the sin of profaning God’s Name…and for this there is a [Divine] death penalty.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem – and may we work for the peace of all the world because the peace of Jerusalem is not separate but central to it.

Shabbat VaYishlakh: A Personal Aliyah Moment

This week’s parashah is VaYishlakh, “he sent”. In it we find ourselves deep into the story of Jacob, the third of the Patriarchs. He has just survived a night struggle with an angel, and then a long-delayed anxious meeting with his brother Esau. In the verses just before we begin (since we are reading the 2nd third of the parashah this year according to our Triennial Cycle), Jacob has promised Esau he will come visit, and then immediately hurried in the opposite direction. 


This reunion of the twin brothers after twenty years must have caused them both a certain amount of emotional upheaval, yet we don’t hear about any effect on Jacob afterward, at least not directly. Rather, the three verses with which we start are peaceful:


יח  וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, בְּבֹאוֹ, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיִּחַן, אֶת-פְּנֵי הָעִיר.


18 Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city.

יט  וַיִּקֶן אֶת-חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר נָטָה-שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ, מִיַּד בְּנֵי-חֲמוֹר, אֲבִי שְׁכֶם–בְּמֵאָה, קְשִׂיטָה.

19 He bought the parcel of ground, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money.

כ  וַיַּצֶּב-שָׁם, מִזְבֵּחַ; וַיִּקְרָא-לוֹ–אֵל, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  {ס}

20 He established an altar there, and called it El-elohe-Israel. 

Directly after these few words, Jacob’s life will again be full of upheaval, anger and tragedy. As he will tell Pharaoh many years from now, his years are short and full of pain. But here, in these three verses, we have a sense of serenity. Just like Abraham, he traveled from the East and bought a bit of ground upon which to pitch his tent. And just like both Abraham and Isaac, he built an altar. In effect, Jacob has just made aliyah: he has “gone up” to Israel from Paddam Aram.


In Jewish tradition, three verses are the minimum length of an aliyah, the ritual Torah reading which is preceded and followed by the Torah blessings. And here is the small insight that comes from this quiet moment in Jacob’s stressful, sad life: a moment of blessing is always possible. Our lives may feel as if we are reeling from shock to disappointment to urgency to hassle to, finally, sadness and stress. But if you can find a moment, one small moment during which you can stop and take a breath, it need not be very long – just long enough to feel the blessings that surround you despite the difficulties.


Try giving yourself this spiritual aliyah moment: three deep breaths. With the first, think of coming in peace – what is your wholeness? With the second, consider the grounding of your tent – where do you dwell? With the third, connect to your sense of the holy – what do you revere? 


And in that way, may you feel the blessing that precedes you and follows you, and keeps your soul safe in the world.