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Sunday, August 28, 2011


Dvar Torah For Parshat Reeh, 5771.

Do you remember the story of chicken little? According to Wikipedia, “There are several Western versions of the story, of which the best-known concerns a chick that believes the sky is falling when an acorn falls on its head. The chick decides to tell the King and on its journey meets other animals which join it in the quest. After this point, there are many endings. In the most familiar, a fox invites them to its lair and there eats them all.” The story is actually listed in one of the folklore indexes in the category of world-wide folktales –in this case a fable- that make fun of paranoia and mass hysteria .

I have been thinking about Chicken Little as I’ve read Parshat Reeh, in particular its warnings about false prophets. Let’s read what Deuteronomy has to say about them, Humash Etz Hayyim, pages 1068-1069:

If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or portent, saying, “Let us follow and worship another god” whom you have not experienced; even if the sign or portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream diviner. For the Lord your God is testing you to see whether you really love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. Follow none but the Lord your God and revere none but Him; observe his commandments alone, and heed only his orders; worship none but him and hold fast to Him.

Far from merely warning us away from disloyalty to God, the Torah is also warning us not to engage in chicken-little style behavior: that state of being instantly smitten with something, some idea or someone we encounter, even something, some idea, or someone whose pronouncements about truth are so impressive as to seem absolutely definitive. We need to guided by what the great Torah commentator, Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, refers to as shikul ha-daat, the patient, sober use of reason and good, common sense. Even if a prophet calling us to worship another god produces the promised sign or portent as proof of his legitimacy, we should still not be fooled into believing him, because his claim is still at odds with what we know about God and truth.

This prohibition that Moses gives to the Israelites is true to the form and content of Deuteronomy: it emphasizes absolute loyalty to the one, universal God, even when the faithful person is faced with seemingly compelling evidence to the contrary from a charismatic figure who can back up his or her claims with miracles. Deuteronomy spends a great deal of energy appealing to the people’s good sense and reason, constantly reminding them that they personally experienced God’s redemptive power during the Exodus from Egypt, as well as God’s appearance to them to give them the Torah at Mount Sinai. Signs and portents that support the idolatrous claims of a prophet or diviner might be wondrously seductive, but they are merely tests by God to determine the people’s fidelity to God.

This last argument at first glance feels like a bit of circular reasoning: follow God only, not a false prophet; how do I know he’s a false prophet? He tells you to worship gods besides the God of Israel; but he’s given me signs and wonders that prove his point that I should follow other gods; no, his proof is really a test by the one true God to determine your loyalty; but how do I know it’s merely a test from God, and not a real sign from that prophet? Because that prophet is telling you that you should worship other gods, besides the one true God, so he must not be telling the truth, and his signs must be God’s test, not real signs.

However, we should not be fooled by what appears to be mere circular reasoning. What this passage of the Torah is warning us not to do is mistake the bells and whistles of charisma for the not always popular appeal of reason, and loyalty to the sober boundaries of Torah as determined by the ongoing process of interpretation of a living faith community. Dynamic personalities and emotional appeal can make a huge difference in our lives by inspiring us and giving us meaningful narratives by which to live. However, they are no replacement for truth arrived at through the use of reason, the discovery of fact, and the rule of law. It is far too easy for a demagogue to use all kinds of verbal and emotional sleights of hand –what the Torah referred to as signs and portents- to make an impressive point that convinces people to follow him or her, despite the extremism of his or her claims. The balancing of personal faith with personal reason is a very difficult challenge, but it is the only way to keep faith from degenerating into spiritual fascism and self-destruction, and to keep reason from degenerating into soul-deadening, inhumane rigidity.

How do these teachings apply to us? The presidential election is a little over a year away, and already a whole group of prophet-wanna-be’s are crowding the presidential candidate playing field, each of them hawking his or her form of signs and portents. Each will campaign in poetry and govern in prose, a conceit which we are used to, and which we largely accept as the price to be paid for a free electoral process and a complex system of checks and balances. Each will make near-prophetic claims about what ails America and the world, then make sweeping pronouncements about what he or she will do to solve our problems. To paraphrase our Torah portion: warning, America, we are being tested: can we resist the apparatus of America’s false prophecy arsenal-- the prettily packaged promises, the telegenic shots of baby-kissing shape shifters who keep crafting their messages to the latest voting bases, and the shameless use of obscene wealth to crush opponents in elections? Can we see past the false prophecies of jingoistic fear mongering, of race baiting? Can we curb our own idolatrous impulse to set aside the sober search for truth and fact out of a desperate need to be coddled by the soothing words of people who tell us what we want to hear, and not what we need to hear? Can listen past the smoke-and-mirrors to discover the ideas and leaderships qualities that will make a great leader for the future?

These are frightening days for America and the world, and as Chicken Little would have said, it feels at times like the sky is falling. Precisely when things feel this way is when the Torah raises its warning to us about false prophets, reminding us that it will take all of our moral, spiritual, and intellectual courage not be taken in by their impressive signs and portents. We will need to ask tough, thoughtful questions about the claims of those who rise up among us, and who might speak charismatically in the name of truth, yet whose claims turn out to be nothing more than calls to us to worship false gods of hysteria or complacency that cannot save us. The Torah of the one true God reminds us: follow none but the Lord your God. Pursue the truth and the values that make us Jews worthy of being God’s people, and that make us Americans worthy of our nation’s legacy.


In Torah portion Ekev, as we go more deeply into Moses’ second speech to the Israelites prior to their entering Canaan, look carefully at how he explains to the people the meaning of their having wandered in the desert for forty years. In Deuteronomy, chapter 8, Moses makes clear what God’s intent was: to test the people’s faith by simultaneously subjecting them to hardships and supporting them. God, Moses tells them, was like a parent disciplining his child, constantly refining their spiritual resilience and clarifying their consciousness of the true source of their blessings. Some of my students and I were stunned when we recently studied this portion in comparison with Numbers, chapter 14. There, God berates the Israelites for their faithlessness and their attempt to return to Egypt, due to their fear-filled refusal to try to conquer the promised land. God declares explicitly that the generation of former slaves would die in the desert, while their free-born children would possess the promised land after the whole slave generation had died out over a period of forty years of wandering.

Look at the contrast between these two explanations of the same event. God declares that the forty year wandering was decreed by God out of anger, as punishment for Israelite intransigence. Moses later reads the history of the forty year wandering in a radically different way: it was a form of spiritual discipline imposed by a loving God upon this people that needed to grow up spiritually and emotionally. Interestingly enough, Moses explanation is followed by his command to them that when they enter the land and enjoy it to the fullest, they will thank and bless God for all of it: an even more emphatic way of saying that their wanderings were a teaching tool for developing in them a sense of appreciation and gratitude.

Which version explaining the forty year wandering of the people is correct? From the Israelites’ back-looking perspective, perhaps both. God did punish the people for their rebellious intransigence, but God also wanted to refine the people’s understanding of where their support and blessings truly come from. Moses seems to be telling the people and us that we read our lives in many different ways. The goal of a cultivated spiritual perspective on life is twofold: to look with maturity at the reality of the hardships we experience, without pretending them away. At the same time, we try to interpret those hardships and challenges in ways that help us to form a meaningful appreciation of our experiences, what we learn from them, and how we grow in compassion as a result of them.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Dvar Torah For Parshat Dvarim//Shabbat Hazon 5771.
אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל כל ישראל

“These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel…”

Thus begins this morning’s Torah portion, the Book of Deuteronomy, and the great, eloquent speech that Moses presents to the people just as they are about to leave the desert and their past lives as slaves, in preparation for entry into the promised land. In her introduction, Rabbi Kieval pointed out the significance of Moses opening Deuteronomy with his speech, for we have known him throughout the Torah as a stutterer, who is slow of speech, and in need of his brother, Aaron, to be his mouthpiece. Moses has grown over the forty years of Israelite wandering, and the Torah emphasizes this as he is preparing to die.

What is also significant is that Moses –not God- is the focal point of this opening verse of Deuteronomy. Moses, the humblest man upon the earth, whose burial site is not even known and who is never even mentioned in the Haggadah that retells the Passover story, is at the center of Deuteronomy’s drama of entering Canaan, and as a preacher no less! The opening sermon in Deuteronomy Rabbah, an early collection of rabbinic homilies on this book of the Torah, also makes Moses the focus of Deuteronomy for a very important reason. After explaining some rules concerning whether or not a Torah scroll may be written in translation, the rabbi giving the dvar Torah weaves together an intricate set of proof verses and word associations to prove that the words of Torah can cure speech impediments, and that in fact they cured Moses’ problems with speech. How do we know, the homilist asks? Before receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, when he stood before God at the burning bush, Moses begged off his mission to Pharaoh by telling God, “I am not a man of word…I am slow of speech.” Here, on the borders of the promised land, forty years after receiving and teaching the Torah, Moses the law giver has also become Moses the eloquent speaker who prepares the people before his death.

In this opening passage of Deuteronomy Rabbah, we find God personally testifying that God’s gift of Torah is so precious because it cures the tongue of its maladies. Our sages were referring specifically to the actual disorders of speech, such as that of Moses who was miraculously healed and turned into a great public speaker. However, I cannot help hearing the other morally weighty meaning of these words that they would have intended: engagement with Torah heals us of the sickness of Lashon Harah, the evil speech of gossip and slander that destroys people, relationships, and communities. It is obvious that Torah does this by teaching us the rules of civility and moral self restraint, by forcing us to focus our words and speech on holy matters, and not garbage, and by allowing us to learn the value of carefully measured, well thought out words. Certainly, the sages of the Talmud understood that the life of Torah study could actually result in dangerous uses of speech, because heated debate over matters of Torah sometimes has a way of degenerating into name calling and public humiliation. However, they more often exemplified in their lives the value of Torah as a path to healing and peace through its harnessing of human speech for good purposes.

How significant, then, that evil speech is at the center of the most famous story about why Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, a tragic event that occurred on the ninth day of Av, which we will commemorate on Monday night and Tuesday. An enemy of one of the notables of Jerusalem was mistakenly invited to the man’s home for a party. The host roundly humiliated the man who had shown up, thinking that they were to be reconciled. As he threw the man out of his home, the rabbis of the community who were at the party passively watched the scene and did nothing to stop it. Wounded by such despicable behavior on the part of his enemies and the rabbis, the man went to the Roman authorities and slandered them, claiming that they were plotting a rebellion. The emperor marched on Jerusalem and destroyed our holy Temple. As actual history, the story has little merit. As a moral object lesson it is brilliant. In his book analyzing great rabbinic stories, my colleague, Professor Jeffrey Rubenstein, argues that this story is a good example of rabbinic self-criticism. The sages of a later time are criticizing their own class for failure to heed the words of Torah by doing the right thing: defending a humiliated person who has been wounded by words and working decisively to stave off disaster. I also see in this passage its more obvious message: words used in acts of senseless hatred have genuine ripple-effect potential to destroy an entire community. Like a caustic chemical, they corrode the life of our community from the inside, so that enemies from without have only to show up at our doors and easily finish us off. This is a moral message that we learn in the Torah, and it is a truth that underlies a good deal of ancient and contemporary history.

The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote: A word is dead//When it is said//Some say.//I say it just//Begins to live//That day. She was talking about the power of poetry, but she likely also was referring to the power of words in general. On this Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, let’s allow ourselves some quiet moments to think about how words come alive in our own lives, from our own mouths, as forces for healing and destruction. Let’s also recommit ourselves in the midst of this period of deep sadness to a life engaged with the words of Torah, words that can heal our tongues and harness our speech for good and holy purposes.

Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Short Fiction By Dan Ornstein


Some swore that the building was haunted by ghosts, for the relentless creaking of the wooden beams in its roof would make you shiver and wonder if you were hearing davveners long gone. Bernie, the old hazzan who had been pushed by the congregation into retirement, didn’t have to wonder; he listened to them with aching familiarity. Each morning, before his cool, young replacement breezed into the synagogue office, Bernie shuffled around the darkened sanctuary, where his voice had built a bridge of prayerful melody between God and people for decades. All those spirits of his glorious cantorial past floated by and with him: the bar and bat mitzvah students proceeding haltingly, then confidently, with their parts of the Shabbat service; the tearful, thankful parents at their sons' brises and their daughters’ namings; his late wife, Roberta’s, soprano lilt when she sang in the choir; his own tenor loveliness when he chanted Kol Nidre, and helped everyone achieve God’s remittance of their hasty vows and promises for the coming year, at the beginning of Yom Kippur.

One Sunday before Yom Kippur, he stood alone in that cavernous space that the board members had recently stopped calling a sanctuary. “Too old, stuffy, and alienating,” they had declared. “From now on, we refer to it as our beit kesher, the spiritual connection center.” He chuckled bitterly, thinking about their latest ridiculous attempt to replace religion with religious hipsterism, which was right up there with the open-toed-sandaled rabbi, and with Bernie’s baby faced, guitar playing successor. He stepped onto the bimah and saw himself chanting Kol Nidre the previous year, his final time before the people he had served faithfully betrayed him. Roberta’s voiceless face had appeared before him then, making his old voice creak worse than the roof, and his eyes flood with tears. He had lost his place in the Mahzor, standing in front of the open ark and before a thousand dead-silent congregants.

After the board refused to renew his contract and his lawyer persuaded him that suing them on grounds of ageism was futile, Bernie’s friends tried to convince him to continue tutoring students. He taught wonderfully, so they thought it would be the perfect post-retirement job for him, but he declared that he would never again work for the congregation. The Religious School was in session that Sunday, so the chapel just across the lobby from the sanctuary was filled with students practicing prayers. Angry but unable to curb his hunger for his memories, Bernie snuck outside the chapel door to eavesdrop. A muffled chant wafted into the hall from inside. At first, he assumed it was just the perpetual ringing in his ears, but when it would not stop plaguing him he forced himself to open the door and walk in.

Around a table, his junior colleague struggled to engage twenty bored, restless seventh graders. Near them lay their iPads, iPods, and iPhones, the gleaming armaments of modernity that they reluctantly shed when they entered that holy ground. The young cleric stood in the middle, pressing the clunky REWIND and PLAY buttons of an old tape recorder, and desperately attempting to keep them interested in the retro-toy. Bernie recognized the tape of Kol Nidre he had made years ago for a nursing home resident too frail to attend services. As the kids’ attention wandered to their queer looking old guest, their teacher looked up at him in nervous surprise and said, “Cantor, welcome. We found your old recording in the music library.”

Bernie listened and wondered:

Sh’vikin, sh’vitin, b’teilin u-m’vutalin, lo sh’ririn v’lo kayamin.

“All vows—null and void, no longer valid and binding.”

Should he move towards the table?

(c)2011 By Dan Ornstein



Short Fiction By Dan Ornstein

Peter Katz sits in Dr. Roberts’ office, his eyes puffy from crying through the weekly therapy session.

“I feel almost paralyzed by these ongoing anxieties of mine about whether Linda wants to stay with me. Last night and this morning…I swear, Doctor Roberts, they were about the worst I’ve ever lived through in the four years since she and I got married.”

“Mmm…,” Roberts hums with professional empathy. “Well, what happened?”
Katz pauses to compose himself. “We made love last night with this incredible intensity, but when we were done, she just…went to sleep. No ‘I love you’, no acknowledgement of how she felt about me…about us. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I was up half the night as a result.”

“Maybe she was just tired,” the therapist suggests.

Katz thinks about this and says, “Maybe. I slept so fitfully, but at one point I had this vivid dream, one that made me feel peaceful about our relationship.”

“Go with that,” Roberts says to him.

“In the dream I was looking at an old Far Side cartoon by Garry Larsen. Two romantically involved alley cats are sitting on a fence looking out at a full moon. In the caption, one says to the other, ‘If I had two dead rats, I’d give you one!’”

“How did the scene feel to you as you dreamed it?”

“Well, I could sense that the female cat was the one talking, and that I was the male cat. I get it that Linda and I are the two cats in the dream, which is why I awoke feeling more secure.”

Roberts asks him slowly, “So, then, what happened this morning?”

Katz pauses again, a soft, expanding water balloon waiting to burst. “At breakfast this morning, she wouldn’t look up from her paper and coffee when I kissed her. Five minutes later, she burst out laughing, almost guffawing! When I asked her what was so funny, she told me, ‘It’s the joke- of- the- week in the comics section. What has four legs and chases cats?’ I wasn’t in a joking mood so I just said, ‘I dunno. What?’ Then she gave me the punch line: ‘Mrs. Katz and her lawyer!’”

Katz begins to cry uncontrollably. The psychologist suppresses his urge to laugh while also feeling tears come to his eyes. He sits with his client in silence, as he absentmindedly strokes a stuffed toy tabby, the ragged artifact of a romantic day at a county fair -and a love betrayed- long ago.

© 2011 By Dan Ornstein


To everyone and anyone reading my blog:

My regrets and apologies for such a long hiatus in posting new essays to my blog site. I have been distracted by many things over the past several months, and I am finally getting back to posting new materials on a regular basis. Below is my sermon from yesterday morning's Shabbat service that I was unable to deliver, due to time constraints. I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to sending out more writings soon, including two short stories that I have not been able to get published. All the best,


(Below is my dvar Torah For Parshat Korach, 5771.)

We modern, Western Jews have been deeply influenced by medieval Jewish philosophy, particularly Maimonides, when it comes to imagining Who God is and how God acts. In the first chapter of his classic Code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides begins not with a discussion of law, but a philosophical discussion of Jewish theology, specifically defining the nature of God and God’s interactions with the universe. He writes that, “Once we have established that God has no body, it becomes clear that God cannot be subject to those things that happen to or define the body…including anger, laughter, happiness, sadness, silenced and speech.” (MT 1:11.)

I always chuckle when I read passages such as this one. Even though Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers do a magnificent job of explaining away metaphorically descriptions of God’s emotions found throughout the Torah, those same descriptions remain there, staring back at us in all of their discomfiting post-modern glory. They defy our quest for sanitized, comfortable depictions of God by forcing us to contemplate God’s very human feelings and emotions, particularly God’s intense anger, that the Torah describes all the time.

I cannot survey and analyze with you all such examples in one d’var Torah. However, we will let two distinctly different scenarios of Moses’ appeasement of God suffice for this morning. One is found in last week’s parashah, Shlach L’kha. After ten of the twelve scouts sent into the promised land come back to warn the people not to enter the land out of fear of danger, God threatens to destroy the entire people, who have become rebellious and are attempting to appoint a chief to lead them back to Egypt. Moses, who always intervenes with God when God angrily threatens such things, appeals –as it were- to the divine ego. (See HEH, p. 846, Numbers 14:15-16) “If You then slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, ‘It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’” Moses then asks God to remember God’s own self-description as a compassionate God Who is slow to anger. (This description, I remind you, was given to Moses by God after God threatened to destroy the people because of the Golden Calf incident.) God then relents but makes clear to Moses that the slave generation will never enter Canaan, only their free, desert-born children will.

The second scenario is found in this morning’s parashah, Korach. Angered beyond control by the brazen attempts of Korach and his select group of leaders to grasp priestly and political power that is not theirs, God threatens again not only to destroy them, but the entire people of Israel. Whereupon, both Moses and Aaron plead with God (HEH, p. 863, Numbers 16:22), “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” God once again relents and instructs the two leaders to warn the Israelites to separate from Korach and his friends, whereupon God is able to wreak justice upon these perpetrators alone. Moses’ and Aaron’s reasoning almost echoes Abraham’s reasoning with God when he convinces God to separate the innocent from the guilty before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?” In our parashah, Moses and Aaron criticize God for the way that God wants to act on divine anger by reminding God of the imperative of divine justice. In fact, later Torah commentators are of two opinions as to exactly what they are saying in this one verse. Some of the commentators assert that Moses is telling God, “You know better: You have the wisdom to tell the difference between good and evil people, so use Your divine intelligence and do the right thing!” Others assert that Moses is telling God, “You know better: You know that destroying innocent people along with those who are evil is wrong, so why are You threatening to do this now?” Whichever opinion about this verse one accepts, it is clear that they are taking God to task for potentially not acting justly.

Two different modalities for reasoning with our angry, passionate God emerge from this brief analysis. The first appeals, again –as it were-, to divine ego. Moses appeases God almost laughably by appealing to God’s desire to maintain a good reputation with the nations of the world. The second appeals to the imperatives of divine justice. Moses demands of God courageously, but almost matter-of-factly, that God behave… well… like a mensch. This latter modality presents us with a wildly paradoxical picture of the biblical God being held to a high human standard of justice that has its source in God’s commandments, is not always achievable by human beings, and at least here, is almost not achieved by God, God-Self, Who basically needs a human being to remind God about how to act. Is God testing Moses’ political and moral acumen? This is a nice thought, but it is not borne out by the text. More likely, the commentators on the Torah are on the mark: God, who is our source of justice and morality, at times needs superlative human beings to appease God and to demand good behavior of God. Maimonides’ very static, impassive picture of God is a far departure from the Bible’s descriptions, even if one assumes that the Torah’s narratives are meant only to be taken allegorically or metaphorically.

What does all of this scandalous thinking about God’s relationship with Moses –and by extension with human beings- teach us about this relationship? First, it reminds us that, as we have seen before in the Torah, God grows, along with our thinking about God, and along with us as growing, fluid individuals. As my friend, Rabbi Brad Artson teaches, our relationship with God is never static, because we and God are never static. Second, our Torah passages point out to us an important foundation of moral and spiritual life that is at the heart of the Torah. As Rabbi David Hartman teaches us in his book by the same name, a living covenant with God is one in which we might at times appease the Master of the universe. More likely, however, it is one in which we stand, howbeit respectfully, before God and demand that the Judge of all the earth act justly, just as God demands of us. If we and God can rightly demand this of each other, is it not the most enduring model of what we should demand of ourselves and each other in daily life, as well? Shabbat shalom.