Apr 2 2023

Criticism of Israel

by Rabbi David Zaslow

The problem with criticism of Israel is not the criticism, per se. The problem is lack of contextualization, inaccurate comparisons, and exaggerated or misused language. In any authentic democracy, the responsibility of informed citizens is to support, debate, or protest policies or actions by its government. What we’ve seen in Israel over the last weeks is an extraordinary example of a vital democracy in action. So, when I criticize Israeli governmental policies, and I have much to criticize, I am obliged to do it with all the passion that is called for AND place that criticism in its proper context. That context is within the Middle East— where there are no other democracies that insure its citizens the right to assemble and protest. 

Personally, I am deeply worried about the right wing shift of Israel’s government. I am concerned that Netanyahu’s proposal of “reforms” are a smoke screen that would likely lead to an erosion of democracy. I am deeply troubled by the growing power of both the nationalists and the religious right eroding more and more rights of liberal Jewish religious denominations. I am angry at Netanyahu’s betrayal of an agreement he once signed onto with the Women of the Wall. But my protestations need to be placed in their proper perspective. 

When I put my criticism, anger, and complaints about this or that Israeli policy in context to the rest of the Middle East, I clearly see that Israel is exhibiting the struggles of any vital democracy. We know that Israel is the only pluralistic democracy of its kind in the Middle East.  Especially as a rabbi, I would never simply criticize Israel without honoring its democracy, and the vital role Israel plays in inspiring democratic movements throughout the Middle East. Nor would I fail to mention the very undemocratic Palestinian governments (the PA and Hamas). At the same time, I would never blindly support “Israel, right or wrong” without my obligation as a Zionist to criticize and protest policies I disagree with or even find appalling. 

Exaggerated language is the other issue that concerns me, especially for those of us who are Jewish leaders. The use of words like apartheid, racist, authoritarian, colonial, or fascist to describe Israel are simply (and dangerously) wrong, and mislead or confuse those in our communities whom we hope to educate about what is happening in Israel today. Because we see racism in Israel does not make the entire nation racist. Israeli policies may anger and upset me (and many of them do in the current government) but I believe it is incumbent upon me not to make public statements without putting my criticisms in proper context, and watching my own tendency toward exaggerated language, rooted in my personal frustration. Israel is a wonderful, inspiring, startup nation, and a democracy. It not only needs our criticism now, more than ever, but also our love and support. The two (love and criticism) can be written about and spoken about in the same statement. 


Dec 29 2020

Now I See

by David Zaslow

The light of you bent back,
reflected from a far star
years away has reached
my eyes today seen only
in the darkness of the night tonight.

I swear that what I see is now
but know that what I see
is light bent back
from far off long ago.

And now my light
reflected from this star here,
our sun, will travel far
to meet your eyes someday
in the darkness of the night
somewhere, somehow.
To you it will be now
in years to come you’ll swear.
When I say “I recall” and you say,
“Now I see!”

This I’ve learned: my past is your tomorrow,
as yours is my today.
And now I see what was so long ago
to you, to me is now.
And so I say, “In the darkness
of my life, now, I see!”

Nov 11 2020


by Rabbi David Zaslow

When I see the light
that shines on you,
what I see now
is stored in me as memory.
Someday (a long time off please God)
one of us will say kaddish for the other
retrieving that light within memory
and leaving the realm
of the here and now in space
and entering the realm
of the there and then in time.

Kaddish – a time machine
whose wheels and wings are words
that take us back to souls
that once were here
and now are there
coming back to here
in the light of our remembrance
as we say those now familiar words:
Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemay rabbah

Kaddish brings their souls
back from there to here,
to here and now
for just a moment
to guide us, love us,
and bless us now
where time meets space
within us now and then
and we say “Amen.”

by Rabbi David Zaslow with help from Devorah Zaslow

In the Kaballah, the force of expansion is represented by Hesed, and personified by the angel Michael. In the diagram of the Kabalistic tree of life, Hesed, meaning “kindness and “mercy,” resides in the right side of the body – the side from which most of us greet each other and shake hands (before Covid 19). The contrasting force of contraction is represented by Gevurah and personified by the angel Gabriel. Gevurah, meaning “strength, discernment, and boundaries,” resides on the left side of the body from which most of us protect ourselves by fending off incoming attack.

When Hesed and Gevurah are in balance, the energy of the equilibrium awakens Tiferet, which means “beauty.” Today, no matter where we stand in our political beliefs most of us would agree that our nation is terribly out of balance. Important issues like immigration reform, climate change, and racial equity have polarized many of us within our communities, and even within our families. I believe that Tiferet is calling us to regain our equilibrium. In the language of our sages, the Shechinah is in exile as long as we are out of balance.

Now that the election is over it is time for all of us to do our part in making our way toward the balance that will ultimately express itself in beauty. If we look at politics kabalistically, we see the the qualities of Gevurah represented by the need for boundaries, and support for our military and police. On the other hand, the qualities of Hesed are expressed in our compassion for the poor, immigration reform, and police reform. Obviously, neither political party is completely one way or the other, just as each of us is a mixture of Hesed and Gevurah. No matter which side of the political spectrum we align with, the other side will not, indeed cannot, disappear. If we see it from the perspective of Kabbalah, Gevurah and Hesed are built-in to the hard drive of creation and will always be seeking equilibrium and balance.

At this moment, after the election, it doesn’t matter which political point of view you support, or which policies you want to see enacted. In the Executive branch of the government the die is cast for the next four years. What matters now, as President-Elect Biden spoke about in his acceptance speech, is not allowing ourselves to see those we disagree with as our enemies. Hesed and Gevurah need each other. Kindness must have healthy boundaries and limitations. Strength must be mitigated by compassion. Both Hesed and Gevurah seek justice, the justice at the root of Tiferet, beauty.

Tiferet is represented by the archangel Raphael who brings healing into our lives personally, communally, nationally, and on a planetary level. How do we evoke this ideal of justice and beauty? The answer lies in what rabbinic Judaism calls a machloket l’shem shamayim – “a dispute for the sake of heaven.” When disputes are made “for the sake of heaven,” a proponent of a particular political policy will not debase her/himself to the level of exaggeration, lying, bullying, racism, or bigotry. In other words, we engage in civil discourse with curiosity and empathy for views of the other even as we vigorously advocate for our own positions and beliefs.

Who will guide us toward such a Utopian vision of balance between opposites? We have an angel for that too, whose name is Uriel – the angel of light, the angel we can envision to guide us toward a better future. Now that the election is over, I pray that all of us can follow the lead of our better angels who want us to debate, who depend upon our passionate advocacy, but who caution us against mockery and demonetization of the “other.”

Sometimes the hardest mitzvah to fulfill is v’ahvata l’rayacha kamocha “loving your neighbor as yourself.” Such a mitzvah does not arise out of legislation from any branch of government or ruling from any court. The siddur directs us to make the promise to fulfill this mitzvah every day in our morning prayers. Then we can imagine the light of the angel Uriel guiding us to implement it in our interactions every day. Loving our neighbor, especially those we disagree with, must begin with me, with you, with each of us, now.

May the Holy One bless our nation on its way to healing and beauty. If you agree please say “Amen!” Awareness of the opposing forces of Kabbalah can help us engage in healthy discourse, leading us to build a brighter future together. May we see the light of Tiferet, the holy balance of beauty, speedily in our days.

by Rabbi David Zaslow

כִּי עֲנַן יְהוָה עַל-הַמִּשְׁכָּן יוֹמָם וְאֵשׁ תִּהְיֶה לַיְלָה בּוֹ לְעֵינֵי כָל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל מַסְעֵיהֶם 

For the cloud of the YHVH was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.

In Hebrew the same word is used to mean both “eye” and “well” (עַיִן ayin). Which meaning came first? That’s hard to tell, but the metaphor embedded between the difference in meaning between these two words travels both ways. An “eye” is the “well” of a person’s face, and, a “well” is the “eye” of the earth.” For centuries scholars have considered the possible connection between the Hebrew words for “cloud” עֲנַן and “sight” עֵינִי (as in Exodus 40:38 above). Although their etymological relationship probably cannot be proven, they certainly seem like lost cousins when the words are reduced to the two-letter root ע•ן ayin and nun. Just as in English, the Hebrew word for “cloud” is been used to mean both a physical “cloud” and the metaphorical “cloud” meaning “obscure” or “unclear.” We say we have “cloudy vision” both English and Hebrew, or when two people understand each other they are said to see “eye to eye.”1 and there is no reason to think that the Biblical writers did not see this association the two words that have very similar spellings except for the very soft consonant י yod, which is comparable to the English letter “y.” In Hebrew prayer books two יְיָ yods are used to represent God’s name. So, on a poetic level we can say that when we insert God’s name into a “cloud” we have “sight.”

According to the speculative two-letter root studies of Fabre d’Olivet the words for “eye” and “cloud” do have a common linguistic ancestor. In addition, according to d’Olivet, one of the Hebrew words for “sin” also shared this root.2 The word עָווֹן avone is a “sin” that can “cloud” our “eye” from properly seeing. The word עָוֹן avone  is often translated as “iniquity,” and literally means “twisted, perverse, bent, and deviated.” Arising out of a twisted and distorted view of reality an avone is an immoral sin arising from out of control emotions or lust. An avone is often committed out of a weakness in character, and not necessarily in conscious defiance of God. This type of sin is associated with many addictions. The person committing this ind of sin is often self-deluded, and may even believe that he or she has good reason for the behavior. For example, vengeful thoughts and most forms of gossip fall into this category of sin.

The Gesenius Lexicon reminds us that עָנָן anan meaning “cloud” was also used in the Bible to mean “divination.” Was this kind of soothsaying classified as an avone kind of sin by the Hebrews? Or, were the shape of clouds used as a means of divination in Biblical times? It is possible, although Dr. Ernest Klein says that “most” scholars have given up this latter association. However, Dr. Klein then goes on to associate the word for “cloud” to anna, an Arabic word for “appearance” which once again brings in the possibility that the sight of an “eye” is associated to both “cloud” and “divination.”

With a bit of poetic license we can give at the above verse from Torah (Exodus 40:38) a unique interpretation. Here is an example: “when that which obscured the vision of the the people ascended, they could move journey (lit. “pull up their tent stakes”). But when their sight was obscured by cloudy uncertainty, they remained at the same camp.” Besides the moon what brings sight to people during the night? A good fire, torch, or lantern. So even at night the Israelites were permitted to see what was ahead of them. What is the underlying principle of movement and rest during the Exodus? First, the cloud (uncertainty, doubt, obscurity sight) must ascend so that we can move forward. Then at night, we are given a vision of tomorrow by the light God’s holy camp fire. This is what guided the Israelites for all forty-two journeys during all forty years in the wilderness. The Israelites learned how to read the clouds, just as today we are learning how to “read” our emotions. We are learning how to “read” that which obscures us from making clear-sighted decisions as we move forward in our lives.

The Paradox of Clouds

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

                                                                               by Joni Mitchell

In popular American culture we extend the meaning of clouds to situations that are sometimes negative and sometimes positive. We speak of someone’s thoughts being cloudy (meaning “unclear” or “obscure”). Just look at the idiomatic expressions about clouds that have a somewhat negative connotation. We say that “every cloud has a silver lining” as if the cloud were a entity symbolic of painful situations. We tell someone, “get your head out of the clouds” as if clouds were a symbol of unrealistic thinking. We say that someone is “under a cloud of suspicion,” implying that the opaque nature of clouds is represents a way of hiding guilt.

On the other hand, when someone is happy we say that they are “on cloud nine” or “walking on clouds.” So, what it is? Happiness or obscurity? Although Biblical Hebrew also had this same duel notion in the extended meaning of the word “cloud,” the Torah speaks of clouds in their protective capacity. For example, “And the YHWH went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; that they might go by day and by night (Exodus 13:21).” The cloud protected the Israelites in the desert from the heat of the day, just as the pillar of fire warmed them in the cold nights in the Arabian Peninsula. An an equally positive quality of clouds is seen when Moses is told, “Behold, the Glory of the YHWH appeared in the cloud (Exodus 16:10).” In its protective capacity the cloud is identified as a kind of protective covering, or roofing, in the sacred meeting place. The Torah declares, “And the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the Glory of YHWH filled the tabernacle. Exodus 40:44.”

On the other hand, in the great vision of the prophet Ezekiel, just before he beholds the mystical chariot, he describes a cloud that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan teaches about. Rabbi Kaplan writes that in the Zohar the cloud Ezekiel saw was emblematic of obscurity. The prophet reports, “And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, so that a brightness was round about it; and out of the midst thereof as the color of electrum, out of the midst of the fire (Ezekiel 1:4).” Rabbi Kaplan writes,3 “The Zohar teaches that the ‘stormy wind,’ the ‘great cloud,’ and the ‘flashing fire’ refer to the three levels of the husk that it is root of all evil. These confuse the mind, and serve as barriers to one who would ascend into the spiritual domain.” He continues that the great cloud “…is an opaqueness of the mind, where nothing can be seen or experienced, and it will discourage the prophet if he does not have the will to proceed further…he must work and strive to penetrate the cloud.…While the cloud is an obliteration of sensation, the fire is an overabundance of sensation, which threatens and repels the prophet. The cloud shows the prophet that one who is not worthy will see nothing, while the fire indicates that there can be great danger as well.”

Although in the Book of Lamentations the prophet Jeremiah cries to God that “You have covered Yourself with a cloud so that our prayer should not pass through (Lamentations 3:44)” the prophet Isaiah celebrates the cloud when God proclaims that “Like a thick cloud I have blotted out your transgressions, and your sins return to me as a cloud for I have redeemed you (Isaiah 44:22).” So, we clearly get the the Bible shows us the two sides of the symbolism of clouds. On the one hand it is protective, and creates a covering for the Tabernacle. On the other hand, the cloud represents that which cannot be penetrated, obscuring sight.

Pardon the paraphrase Joni, but I have looked at clouds from both sides now… and it is cloud illusions that I am recalling here. And, I must admit that I too don’t know clouds at all. But I do know paradox, and I think the answer (עָנָה anah) to the secret of the cloud (עָנָן anan) may be hidden in the mystery. Have you ever walked in a misty, foggy field or forest with a friend? Do you remember how quietly your friend could speak and her voice was audible a hundred feet away? Fog, as we know, is a excellent carrier and transmitter of sound. Even our whispers are carried long distances when we enter a fog. Yet, as sound is carried, sight is limited in the midst of a fog. We say “we are in a fog” when we can’t think very clearly. In nature, fog decreases the sense of sight but amplifies the sense of hearing. In the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4) Moses doesn’t say to the Hebrews, “See O Israel,” but rather, “Hear, O Israel” as if sound were the preferred sense through which to experience the Divine. There is a mystery in limiting sight in order to increase hearing, and so we close our eyes when chanting the Shema.

The mystery seems to have to do with what we perceive as being near and far. Just as the fog conducts sound and obscures sight, so sound seems to brings close that which is actually far. Try listening to someone you care for speaking with your eyes are open. The words you hear may be inspiring or beautiful, but sight creates a sense of the “reality” of your separation from that which is outside of you. When you listen with your eyes open you have what Martin Buber would call an I-It relationship with the person speaking. Now try listening to that same person speaking with your eyes closed. Something mysterious happens to your depth perception. It is more difficult to discern how far away the person is to you without your eyesight. In fact, if you have ever been led in a guided meditation by someone you trust and who has a soothing voice, it can seem as if the words are coming from inside of you rather than from someone else. On a allegorical level Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that this is the reason we involuntarily close our eyes when we kiss someone we love. It’s as if our whole being is saying, “You’re part of me, I’m part of you. We are one. I love you!”

A cloud is a protective barrier in the desert – it is often a welcome sign holding the promise or rain in dry lands. It’s no wonder that the extended meanings of the word “cloud” in the Hebrew mind had to do with “cover” and protection, and did not have the same kind of negative connotation as it does in English. As we said, God appears in a cloud, and the cloud is indicative of the resting place of God’s Presence. Metaphorically, we can say that God appears within obscurity. When we clear we become rational and are a bit separate from the divine in our lives. When we are a bit lost, and unclear there is a greater opportunity for us to sense the Presence of divinity. We think we need God less when there is clarity in our lives, but when something obscures our vision we are drawn closer to the Divine.

A related paradox regarding sight is that we see farthest at night. We think that light permits us to see, and on one level it does, but light only illuminates that which is close to us. In fact, light actually prevents us from seeing the farthest distances. When can we see stars? At night, when there is only darkness between our eyes and each star. As fog conducts sound, so darkness conducts sight. At night we can see stars that are light years away. During the day the sunlight prevents us from seeing those great distances. The light of the sun obliterates any possibility of seeing the stars. Light permits us to see that which is close to us. As the prophet Joni taught, “It’s cloud illusions I recall.” And in the end I must admit, “I really don’t know clouds at all.”

1 In Isaiah 52:8 the watchman are said to see ְּעַיִן בְּעַיִן eye to eye concerning Jerusalem.
2 Most etymologists agree associations between all words sharing the ע•ן Ayin-Nun root are not necessarily cognates. Whereas the Hebrew words for “eye” and “well” are cognates, the association between “cloud” and “eye” is speculative.
3 From Meditation and the Bible by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Samuel Weiser, Inc., p. 39-40. Rabbi Kaplan is citing Zohar 2:81a, 2:203a, 3:123a, 3:227a, and Pardes Rimonim 25.7.

The Way Moses and Rev. King Faced Pharaoh
by Rabbi David Zaslow

Adapted from an essay in Reimagining Exodus: A Freedom Story

Listen to any of Rev. Martin Luther King’s speeches and you hear the voice of Moses and echoes of the Exodus. His prophetic sermon, often referred to as the Mountaintop Speech, was delivered on April 3, 1968 at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis just hours before his assassination the next day:

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

Rev. King, like Moses before him, knew that the oppressed could never be free from the effects of racism until the oppressor was also free from being racist. Moses worked for the redemption of Egypt from its oppressiveness just as King worked for the redemption of White America from its racism. On many occasions King let his listeners know that he was also praying for White American, that they too needed to be liberated.

This same principle is taught by the Dalai Lama and other visionary Tibetans – that the Tibetan people can never be free from the oppression of the Chinese until the Chinese themselves are free from being oppressors. Visionary Israelis and Palestinians also understand this principle in regard to Middle East peace – that Israel will never be free from acts of terror, and that Palestinians will never achieve statehood, until groups like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah are liberated from the hatred that cause them to commit these acts of terror. Israel and the Jewish people must uphold this vision of the prophets and loudly proclaim it’s interdependence with the children of Ishmael, our cousins. When we are angry and think only in binary terms this principle of interdependence is difficult to comprehend. In the mid-1950’s Rev. King taught:

Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.

Pharaoh’s National Repentance Movement
by Rabbi David Zaslow

from Reimagining Exodus: A Freedom Story

Exodus 9:27–28: “Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said to them,
‘This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.
Pray to the Lord! Enough of God’s thunder and hail! I will let you go…'”

When Pharaoh finally sees the error of his ways, it feels like a miracle. But no sooner has he let the Israelites go than he changes his mind. The Torah says, “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned once more and hardened his heart … and he would not let the Israelites go” (Exod. 9:34, 35). Many of us, like Pharaoh, have learned the hard way that repentance is not a straight path from sin to atonement. More often it’s two steps forward and one step back.

Rameses II was raised to believe he was the incarnation of the sun god Ra, with power and wealth beyond anything we can imagine. When his ego is challenged by his stepbrother Moses, he must be thinking: who is this Moses that I once foolishly called my brother? A Hebrew from an enslaved people! Not even a real, true-blooded Egyptian! For Rameses’s heart to open again, something tragic will have to happen.

It is only after the tenth plague, when he feels the heartbreak of his own firstborn son’s death, that Rameses yields to the God of Israel and liberates the Hebrews. Yet within a week of their emancipation, he regrets his decision and sends his top charioteers after them. Two steps forward, one step back. He is clearly in the throes of inner turmoil. As we know, the sea parts for Moses, the children of Israel cross in safety, and the Egyptian soldiers drown.

One Midrash suggests that Pharaoh was actually the lone survivor of the charioteers. The famous “Song at the Sea,” chanted with Moses leading the men and Miriam leading the women, includes the words “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness?” (Exod. 15:11). A Midrash proposes that Moses chanted, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods,” but it is Rameses who responds with the second part of the verse, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness?” This is a transformative moment for Pharaoh as he repents for his arrogance right there. In his emotional torment, still mourning the deaths of his son and soldiers, he calls out to God, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness?” He finally recognizes the God of his brother, the God of Israel, as the true Deity. In this Midrash, there is liberation for the oppressed and the oppressor.

If we accept the possibility of Pharaoh’s survival, the question arises: if he did live, why does the Torah never mention him again? A second fascinating Midrash suggests that after the incident at the Red Sea, Pharaoh flees Egypt to later become king of Nineveh, the Assyrian city God would later be sending Jonah to. Dr. Raphael Zarum teaches: “When the prophet Jonah showed up, Pharaoh immediately led a national repentance movement….Thus Pharaoh becomes the paradigm of change that we read about and learn from every Yom Kippur.”

Unlike Amalek, a character whom the rabbis deem as the archetype of unredeemable evil, Pharaoh is considered the model of a bad person who is capable of change. In his moments of passion and emotional wavering throughout the Exodus story, he reveals an inner torment that is recognizably human. The Midrashim of his atonement tell a parallel tale of metamorphoses from tyrant to liberator, and ultimately to leading a national redemption movement. These interpretations, as farfetched as they may seem, reflect back to us the remarkable possibilities of rising above our own limitations.

The Seder As a Template
by Rabbi David Zaslow

Excepted from Reimagining Exodus: A Freedom Story

On Friday, December 30, 1994, I drove to Canterbury, a beautiful 48-acre Episcopal retreat center in Oviedo, Florida, to what promised to be a historic gathering between Jews and Christians inspired by my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. It was just months before my rabbinic ordination, so I was especially eager to observe my mentor interacting with Christians in an intimate, weekend-long retreat. Reb Zalman was co-leading with his wife Eve Ilsen and Father Edward G. Zogby, who was vice president of Fordham University in New York City. The retreat was called “Dance around the Midnight Pole; Happy Birthday, Jesus”—a title typical of the wry humor and fearless innovation that Reb Zalman always brought to his work.

On the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran calendars, January 1 is a special holiday called the Feast of the Circumcision. Count eight days from December 25, the day Jesus’s birthday is celebrated, and you arrive at January 1, the date Christian tradition assigns to Jesus’s ritual circumcision (brit milah). The day we celebrate the secular New Year is actually a commemoration for Christians of Jesus’s first religious ritual as a Jew. Reb Zalman had proposed this Sabbath retreat many months before, planning to use the sacred technology of the Passover seder to enhance the celebration of the New Year at midnight on Saturday. He believed a commemoration of Jesus’s brit milah on New Year’s Eve would offset the secular tradition of a party based on merriment and drinking.

The plan was that on Saturday afternoon the Jews would teach the Christians the structure of the Passover seder: the four questions, the telling of the Exodus story, four glasses of wine, a festive meal, and lots of singing. In this retreat, though, the story told would be about the birth of Jesus, and how the Gospels helped change the world. The four questions would relate to Jesus’s life, and the four cups of wine and festive meal would be integrated into a formal Catholic Mass commemorating the body, heart, mind, and the spirit of Jesus indwelling in every Christian. The Mass itself would begin at midnight, followed by an all-night study, prayer, and meditation vigil in the manner of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The vigil would culminate with a traditional Jewish morning worship service at sunrise led by Reb Zalman.

There were approximately two hundred participants— Jews, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists. After welcoming the Sabbath with traditional blessings over the candles, wine, and bread, Friday evening was spent chanting and singing songs from the Psalms in Hebrew, Latin, and English led by Reb Zalman and Father Zogby. It was magnificent. But after a long day of traveling we retired early knowing that they next day would be mysterious, long, and filled with surprises. We would not be disappointed.

After a morning service of Jewish prayers and Catholic chants, Reb Zalman read from the Torah portion that describes Moses’s intimate encounter with God at the burning bush. This was followed by deep teachings from Reb Zalman and Father Zogby on the Jewishness of Jesus and the birth of Christianity. We were then asked to take some time alone to contemplate how we might overlay the template of the Passover seder onto the story of Jesus’s birth in a way that was authentic and respectful of the key differences in each of our religions. We all sensed the historic nature of the weekend. This was clearly not just a meeting with brothers and sisters of another faith, but an unexpected encounter between ourselves and God.

When we gathered again in the afternoon it was time for the Jews to teach the Christians about the structure of the seder and how we blend rituals and symbols into the telling of the Exodus story. Then the Christians would collaborate with us on how to incorporate the story of Jesus into their own Haggadah (a booklet that tells the story) that would be read that night as part of the Midnight Mass. Of course, the sacred task of creating an authentic Christian seder took many hours. We had a light dinner together and retired to our own rooms for rest, knowing our Midnight Mass with seder would last until sunrise.

When we came together at 11:30 pm it was with a sense of anticipation and awe. We knew that in the 2,000 -year history of the church and the synagogue, no rabbi or priest had dared to create this kind of ceremony. This was not a hybrid or fusion, but rather a “new thing” like the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had spoken about, lending one religion’s template to the telling of another religion’s sacred story.

We started slowly, easing into the ritual with Hebrew songs from the Psalms, as we had the night before. At midnight Father Zogby, who by that time we were addressing affectionately as Father Ed, began leading the mass. Our role as Jews was not to participate, but to be sacred witnesses to the ceremony of our Christian friends. At Reb Zalman’s request the Mass was chanted in Latin with line-by-line English translations.

Father Ed: In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Christians: Amen.

The Mass continued with the doxology known as Gloria in excelsis Deo, a powerful ceremony of confession, and then we reached the canon.

Father Ed: Dominus vobiscum. May the Lord be with you.
Christians: Et cum spiritu tuo. And also with you.
Father Ed: Sursum corda. Lift up your hearts.
Christians. Habemus ad Dominum. We lift them up to the Lord.
Father Ed: Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
Christians: Dignum et iustum est. It is right to give thanks and praise.

Then Father Ed fell silent. He had been leading the service in Latin from memory with no missal (prayer book) in his hands. The silence grew until everyone knew something was wrong; the priest didn’t know what came next. There was a kind of collective bewilderment as we waited for him to recover. It occurred to me since he was now an administrative priest at Fordham, he wasn’t leading Mass on a daily, or even a weekly, basis. This could be a long pause.

Suddenly another voice rang out, “Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum. May the peace of the Lord be always with you.” We all stared as Reb Zalman, sitting next to Father Zogby, smoothly supplied the next line. The Catholics chanted back, “Et cum spiritu tuo. And also with you.” It was as if the whole room let out a breath of relief, and then we all laughed at the wild wonder of this moment.

The evening continued with the reading of the new Haggadah the Christians had created to tell their story. It was glorious and unforgettable, but what stood out most in all our minds was the miraculous instant when the rabbi sang out the Mass to help his friend, the priest.

Later that night, I leaned over to Reb Zalman and asked, “How did you know what to say?” He explained that decades earlier he’d memorized large portions of the Mass in Latin as a tribute to his deep respect for Catholicism beginning in the 1950s and his personal friendship with Thomas Merton, with whom he used to take summer retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in the 1960s. With a twinkle in his eye he leaned in and whispered, “Baruch Hashem! Blessed is God! It sure came in handy tonight!” I laughed, feeling grateful again to have this courageous, once-in-a -generation rabbi as my teacher. The weekend ended with a sunrise service in Hebrew, and as we left on January 1, we said goodbye to each other with “Shana tova, Happy New Year.”

Responding to Anti-Semitism
By Rabbi David Zaslow

Anti-Semitism, like all prejudices, is an equal opportunity yetzer ha-ra, “ evil inclination.” Today it afflicts people on the far left as well as the far right. This has, in fact, been the historical pattern of prejudice against Jews. Before World War II Stalin and the Communists claimed that the Jews were capitalists trying to take over the world. Hitler and the Nazis claimed that the Jews were communists trying to take over the world. The language is a little different today but the beliefs coming from both extremes of the political spectrum are the same.

Two years ago our synagogue put in an alarm system and cameras surrounding the building because of threats we perceived to be coming from anti-Israel activists in our town. For the past 15+ years I have seen an uptick in anti-Semitic attitudes arising from the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanction) movement that we’ve heard so much about especially on college campuses throughout the country.  Threats from the radical left really doubled in 2015, mostly as threats to the safety of Jewish students on college campuses. According to AMCHA, nationally there were 467 anti-semitic incidents in 2015, and 618 in the election year of 2016. In 2017 so far 97 incidents have been reported. From news reports in recent days it seems that another 200+ threats and incidents have yet to be recorded for this new year. There has been a clear increase in the number of incidents of threats, grafitti and cemetery desecrations in the last few months. And there was a clear underreporting of incidents in recent years because the incidents were focused on Israel rather than directly on Jews and Judaism, as we are witnessing today.

As a rabbi I don’t care where the prejudices are coming from –  hatred is hatred, and hatred breeds more hatred. Yet it’s important to understand the roots of anti-Semitism. As Easter is approaching many of us recognize that the Passion story told on Good Friday in almost all churches squarely puts the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on the Jewish people – the New Testament clearly says of the Jewish people that Jesus’s “…blood is upon us and our children.” The scapegoating of Jews can be traced farther back to the story of Esther that we’ll read about on Purim. Haman was upset by immigrant Jews who were living in the Persian Empire.

In the book of Exodus Moses was being trained by God to realize that the emancipation of the slaves from oppression was not enough. More than seven times God expresses concern to Moses about the liberation of the Egyptians from their oppressiveness. The liberation of the oppressor and the liberation of the oppressed go hand-in-hand. This is the very same teaching that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. adopted in the civil rights movement. He taught that it wasn’t enough for African-Americans to be freed from oppression, but that white Americans needed to be also freed from being oppressive.

On May 17, 1956 in NYC at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City Rev. King declared:

“Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love. Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.”

In a wonderful book written for Christians called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the authors offer these wise words:

“Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.”

I can’t begin to tell you how inspiring these words are to me. We must act on behalf of of the immigrant who wants to come to the United States to be part of a democratic society. We must act on behalf of minorities who are mistreated; on behalf of the LGBT community; on behalf of transgender youth; on behalf of our police who risk their lives to serve us; on behalf of African-American young men; on behalf of women’s safety and rights; on behalf of our environment; and on behalf of our own Jewish community that is now being threatened much more than in the recent past. But let’s not settle for easy scapegoats. Let us analyze the situation today with nuanced analysis rather than simplistic, easy answers that we get from the internet.

In the past three months I’ve been chanting the words from King David to a melody by Rabbi Menachem Creditor – olam hesed yibaneh, “the world is built from love.” Olam hesed yibaneh does not mean that we are not to be activists, but it means that our activism must be informed by prayer; must be informed by kindness; must be informed by compassion and love. This is what Moses taught. This is what Martin Luther King taught. This is what the Dalai Lama teaches. And this is what I am trying to practice myself.

by Rabbi David Zaslow

The cultural shift from shepherding to private property, farming, and ranching had immense ramifications for the rest of the world, and all this is all hinted at in the allegory of Cain and Abel. How do we know the Cain and Abel story is based on history rather than being a literal chronicle of a single historical event? The etymologies of their names give us a hint that this story may never have been intended to be taken as an historical account. Cain’s name in Hebrew is קַיִן Kayan (Strongs # 7014) comes from קָנָה (Strongs # 7069) kanah, meaning “possessing” or “acquiring.” Eve explicitly bases Cain’s  name upon the notion of acquiring: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired1 (קָנִיתִי kaniti) a man from the Holy One.” In order to farm or ranch Cain needs to “acquire” tools, animals, and the land itself – a new concept in history.

Although Cain’s name has the primary meaning of “acquire,” the word that his name comes from (קָנָה kanah) also means “to erect, to found,” and “to create.” In Genesis 14:19 we see various translations describe God as either the “Possessor of heaven and earth” (King James Bible, New American Standard Bible, Webster‘s Bible Translation), or “Creator of heaven and earth (New Living Transation, New International Version). Both words “Posessor” and “Creator” are translations of the same word קֹנֵה konay, a cognate of Cain’s name Kayin. So, besides being the “acquiring” brother, Cain might also be thought of as the brother who “creates.” Abel is satisfied to experience the world as it is, whereas Cain wants to build, create, and change the world around him.

We can see anecdotal evidence of Cain’s ability to create after he is cast out of the Garden. The Torah tells us (Genesis 4:17) that Cain marries, then builds a city named after his son חֲנוֹךְ Hanoch (or Enoch in English). Enoch’s name is derived from the word חָנַךְ hanakh which means “dedication” (as in the Festival of Hanukkah), or “education.” Can we infer from this that when Cain named both his son and his city “Dedication,” he is rededicating himself to God? Or was he thinking that he would name his son and the city “Education,” to imply that God had offered him profound education after he killed his brother?

A fascinating aside is that almost two thousand years ago in the Talmud, the word קַיָּן kayan is descriptive of one who has “large testicles.” Using today’s vernacular we might say that Cain had “a lot of balls” because of his acquisitiveness and capacity to create. An entirely different interpretation is offered by Melissa Carpenter, who points out that Cain’s name might also be a cognate to the word קִינָה kinah, meaning “dirge” or “lamentation.” She writes: “After Cain kills his brother, his life is like a very long dirge. He is mourning the loss of his own innocent desire to make an offering to God, and the loss of his home and farming enterprise, as well as the unexpected death of his brother – which affects him all the more because he was responsible for it.”

Abel is הֶבֶל Hevel (Strongs # 1893) in Hebrew, and his name is derived from a root meaning “breath.” It has the associative meaning of “gentle breeze.” The Gesenius lexicon says it is “commonly used of anything transitory, evanescent, frail.” It may be used to mean “vapor,” implying that which is ethereal and impossible to grasp. The same word, hevel, embodies the central theme of Ecclesiastes, where we read about King Solomon’s aching desire to understand God’s purpose in his life. He writes, “הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים hevel havaleem…” which is commonly translated as “vanity of vanities.” This, however, is only one translational possibility in the multi-leveled language of Biblical Hebrew. An alternative translation could be “vapor of vapors” or “breath of breaths.” A richer translation might try to show that the our experiences in the physical world are impossible for the mind to fully comprehend, and that any attempt to do so leads to frustration, absurdity, meaningless assumptions, and some degree of ego-driven vanity. I prefer rendering King Solomon’s words into modern English as “Ethereal, the most ethereal…” or even “Transitory, oh so very transitory…”

Abel, Hevel, seems to represent that which is evanescent, frail, vaporous, ethereal, and transitory.  He has no conceit, but he is very vulnerable, someone who permits himself to be in a position where he will be taken advantage of. He is also, as the saying goes, “behind the times.” Abel represents the old economy of shepherds and foragers who were being pressured by the institution of land acquisition to step aside.  Abel’s world follows the natural rhythms of grazing sheep, rather than the more predictable cycles of planting and harvest. He lives in the old realm of kairos – a Greek word for non-linear thinking, holy time, with its concomitant spontaneous approach to life. Cain represents the invention of chronos – the ancient Greek way of describing the sequential, orderly, and precise measurement of time (another historical first). In our era, some have called this Industrial Time as opposed to Indigenous Time.2 Cain represents quantity, whereas Abel represents quality. Cain represents product, whereas Abel represents process. Cain represents doing, whereas Abel represents being. Cain wants to acquire and possess, whereas his ethereal, “spaced out” brother simply wants to be in the moment.

It seems clear that the Cain and Abel story can be reasonably interpreted as representing the two extant economies that historically did co-exist together in the Fertile Crescent for thousands of years during the early stages of civilization. But why does God accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s offering?

The Torah says that “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain was a tiller of the ground.” Cain brought “of the fruit of the ground” as an offering to God, whereas Abel “brought of the firstborn of his flock and of the fat thereof.” What is the difference? The Torah is ambiguous, but it seems that Abel brought the best of his sheep. The word בְּכוֹרָה b’khorah, “firstborn,” symbolized the primogeniture birth-right, and therefore probably represented the best of his herd. Cain simply brought something he harvested, but not the first, or preferred, crops.3 This seems to be the reason that the Holy One did not accept Cain’s offering. Cain’s offering is like someone making a donation today only after he/she has calculated the tax deduction. God might accept that kind of donation from most people today, but regarding Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, God does not accept an offering that calculates personal benefit.

Abel, on the other hand, is innocent, pure, and guileless, and when he brings an offering to God only the best will do. Abel is not trying to possess land, or grasp at “the” ultimate truth. Abel is Hevel, an “evanescent, gentle breeze” of a man, and it is he who gets murdered. The story seems to imply that God favors the old way. Or, if God does not favor the old way, then God is cautioning humanity to proceed into the world of power and proprietary ownership with a good measure of caution.

Cain represents humanity’s first experiment at cultural advancement through the conquest of nature and the private ownership of land. The experiment didn’t go well for Abel. But by telling the story, we hand on an ancient object lesson about the importance of human responsibility and interdependence. Abel represents humanity in a more sublime, humble, and primitive state. He is a symbol for the earlier economy that did have a sense of land ownership, or the control nature. Tragically, he becomes the victim of his own naivety, and the story has been playing itself out with the genocidal decimation of indigenous peoples all around the planet over the past four thousand years.  Humanity is still trying to achieve the sense of brotherly, sisterly, and neighborly obligation implied by this story. Is Cain still asking God if he is his brother’s keeper? It certainly seems so. Does not Abel’s blood cry out from the ground today too? It certainly seems so.

God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering and rejection of Cain’s offering seems to tell us to hold onto what is emotionally and spiritually functional from the past, and not sacrifice our ethereal (spiritual) view of the world for one of acquisition (materialism) alone. Knowing that Cain and Abel are brothers, the Torah may also be teaching us that these two men are actually two ways of viewing reality (the material and the spiritual, or the acquisitive and the ethereal), and that they are forever “brothers,” interdependent upon one another from birth. Psychologically, Cain and Abel are two complementary approaches to life that seem to be hard-wired within each of us, and within every culture.
1 Also translated as “gotten.”
2 For centuries before the beginning of the common era, Jews tried to hold onto their indigenous Hebraic sense of time, in contrast to what has been called Hellenistic Time. They did this by refusing to discard their “old time” lunar calendar for the more accurate solar calendar that the Romans were perfecting. Measuring time and religious festivals by the moon more closely matched emotional and creative cycles for the Jews.
3 Some Christians retain the erroneous belief that Cain’s vegetable offering was of a lower order than the blood sacrifice that Abel brought.  This is inaccurate. There was no hierarchy in the order of Temple offerings. Atonement was procured through many mediums besides blood sacrifices. Additionally, even in the Temple system, it was the intent of the offerer that God judged, and not the value of the offering itself. This also seems to be the case regarding God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering.

Coming soon– Reimagining Exodus: A Story of Freedom