Divre Harav – December/2021

Note: I am republishing, with permission, a beautiful piece by my friend and colleague Rabbi Shefa Gold entitled, “The Inner Practice of Chanukah.”

Chanukah celebrates the re-dedication of the ancient Holy Temple, the place where the infinite meets the finite, where the spark of God bursts into flame within us. Each year we recall the “great miracle that happened there.”  And that same miracle is happening inside as we heal the desecrations we have suffered and re-dedicate our lives to Holiness.

 The Temple of our Soul is desecrated when we endure a sense of separation from God, and from each other. The Temple of our Soul is desecrated when we become cynical, when we feel unworthy or afraid, when we stop trusting the essential goodness of Life. On Chanukah we have an opportunity to clear away the debris that has accumulated in our inner Temple, and then kindle the flame of our renewed intention to stay connected to the Mystery at the center of all Life. That connection to God is our lifeline. That remembrance of God gives us our Freedom. When we forget God, that expansive mystery at our core, we risk becoming enslaved to the illusions of our most narrow perceptions.

Each day we remember and celebrate the foundational story of our journey to Freedom. God has brought us out of Egypt, the place of narrow perception, for one reason –“to be Your God” – to exist in holy relationship. For this is the key to our Freedom. Conscious connection to the reality that lies beneath the surface of things frees us from the bonds of the material world and allows us to expand beyond the arbitrary limits of a particular conditioned perspective. Yet Freedom is elusive. When we left Egypt in search of it, we were blocked by the great impossible sea. When we crossed the sea and fled to the wilderness we encountered within us the enslaving attitudes and habits of rebellion and complaint. And even after we stood at Sinai and received that moment of clarity, we still fell back into the habits of busy mind and cluttered heart. 

And so God says to us, “Make for me a holy place so that I can dwell inside you. Yes it is possible to stay connected with me at all times in all places, even as you engage in the life of the world.” When we make a place for God to dwell in our lives, then we will never be caught in the illusion of separateness. God will be available and accessible to us in the innermost chamber of the heart and in the inner dimension of all Creation.

Spiritual practice is about making our lives into a Mishkan, a dwelling place for Divine Presence. About one third of the Book of Exodus consists of the detailed instructions for building the Mishkan, (the portable sanctuary that we carry through our wilderness journeys). The purpose of the Mishkan is to send us to the space within where we can receive the Mystery of Presence. Just as a great poem points us towards a truth that is beyond mere words, so the beauty that shines from the Mishkan of our lives illuminates the beyond that is within us.

As Judaism evolves, the function of the Mishkan (the place of connection with God) is represented by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple is destroyed, the place of our connection to God moves inside. Prayer takes the place of sacrifice and the altar of sacrifice is hidden in the dark recesses of our own hearts.

The story of Chanukah reminds us that even the holiest place within us can become desecrated. We must enter the darkness of our own wounded hearts, survey the damage, clear away the rubble, and then light a candle to rededicate ourselves to holiness, to our own wholeness and connection to the cosmos. It is truly miraculous that a single spark of hope can ignite the radiant fires of passion that illuminate our way forward, even on the darkest night.

As the days grow short and the night darkness long, we are invited to enter into the darkness of our own hearts. There, buried beneath the rubble of our disappointments, we find the miraculous spark of our Divinity, the awesome knowledge that we are each created in the image of God. This is the spark that kindles our Festival of Lights.  Each night of Chanukah, we light another candle. Each night the light grows brighter, shining its radiance into our own hidden places. 

The “Great Miracle” of healing is happening right here within us when we call light into our own places of Darkness, when we bring the healing light of compassion into hidden crevices of shame or fear.

As we light the flames of Chanukah, may we kindle the flame within that will shine the light of awareness across the true expanse of Soul.

Divre Harav – November/2021

Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism

Thousands of years after Abraham and Sarah set off on their Biblical journey, we, their descendants, are the inheritors of a Judaism which contains the four elements of Peoplehood, Practice, Faith, and Ethics. I want to invite you to spend time this year digging into this Judaism that we have inherited and chosen. I want to unpack the meaning of our rituals and practices, our sense of peoplehood, our faith, and our ethics.

Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism is a curriculum designed by the Shalom Hartman Institute, a highly regarded institute of Jewish thought and education serving Israel and North America. The curriculum is pluralistic and rigorous and thoughtful. The goal is to engage you and provoke you to think seriously about the big questions at the heart of Jewish tradition. Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism presents our customs in a way which will invite you to make considered choices for yourself.

Each lesson will be self-contained, so you can come in at any time and there is no commitment to participate in the entire series of classes. Dip your toe in and try it out. You can pick and choose from the topics that intrigue you. It’s a new year, a time to focus on new projects, invest in renewing yourself. Abraham and Sarah changed themselves and changed the world. I guarantee that when you immerse yourself in the richness of Jewish Peoplehood, Jewish Practice, Jewish Faith, and Jewish Ethics, you will change yourself and the way you think. You will live a richer life. And maybe you, too, will change the world, or at least your small piece of it.

Class dates and times

  • Sundays, 9:10 – 10:00 a.m. at Temple Emanuel (go down the school hallway to the second room from the end on the left side)
  • Thursday afternoons, 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. at Ahavas Israel (meeting room)
  • Thursday evenings, third Thursday of the month, 7:00 p.m. at Ahavas Israel (meeting room)

Class topics (subject to change)

There are Source packets for each of the topics. Please contact Rabbi Krishef if you would like to download the pdf file in advance.

Sundays, 9:10 – 10:00 a.m. at Temple Emanuel

November 7 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Pathways to Faith

November 14 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Faith, Trust, and Risk

November 21 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Faith and Knowledge 

December 5 BELIEF AND ACTION –Understanding Mitzvah

December 12 BELIEF AND ACTION – Sincerity and Ritual

Thursday afternoons, 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. at Ahavas Israel

November 4 UNDERSTANDING JEWISH PEOPLEHOOD – Peoplehood in the Hierarchy of Values 

November 11 UNDERSTANDING JEWISH PEOPLEHOOD – Particularism and Universalism

November 18 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Pathways to Faith

December 2 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Faith, Trust, and Risk

December 9 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Faith and Knowledge

December 16 BELIEF AND ACTION –Understanding Mitzvah

December 23 BELIEF AND ACTION – Sincerity and Ritual

December 30 BELIEF AND ACTION – Obligation and Autonomy

Thursday evenings, third Thursday of the month, 7:00 p.m. at Ahavas Israel

December 16 – UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Pathways to Faith

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Yahadut – Judaism
  • Mahshevet Yisrael – Jewish Studies
  • Emunah – Faith

Divre Harav – October/2021

Jewish Prayer 103 – Framing the Shema

Jewish prayer 101 and 102 covered the Shema (November, 2020) and the Amidah (March, 2021). You can find the articles on my blog, EmbodiedTorah.org or on AhavasIsraelGR.org by searching or scrolling down to the older articles.

Once you are comfortable with the words of the Shema (English or Hebrew), the next step is to enrich the Shema with some context by adding framing prayers. The frame places the Shema in the context of a daily prayer practice and forms a bridge between engaging with God and Torah through study (the Shema) and engaging with God directly through prayer (the Amidah).

Gratitude is central to a prayer practice. The quality of thankfulness doesn’t necessarily come naturally. It is something which needs to be practiced, day in and day out, to remind ourselves to be grateful. The morning and evening Shema provide two touchpoints in the rhythm of our day to practice gratitude. We are grateful for creation, we are grateful for God’s love, we are grateful for Torah and mitzvot, leading to tikkun (repair) and redemption, and we are grateful for peace and security. The outline of the entire Shema unit is as follows:

  • Blessing of creation – Yotzer or  (morning) or Ma’ariv Aravim  (evening).
  • Blessing of God’s love towards us – Ahavah rabah or Ahavat olam.
  • | Three paragraphs of the Shema:
  • | Shema/Ve’ahavta – Command of our love for God/Tefillin/Mezuzah.
  • | Vehaya im shamoa – Theodicy/Tefillin/Mezuzah.
  • | Vayomer – Tzitzit/Mitzvot
  • Blessing of Redemption – Ge’ulah.
  • Blessing of peace and protection – Hashkivanu.

As you build your own prayer practice, you might draw upon the words of the Siddur to offer some words of gratitude to focus your thoughts before the Shema and to reinforce the message of the Shema afterwards. Leading into the recitation of the Shema are two blessings. The first connects us with nature. The version preceding the morning Shema focuses on the light of the rising sun. The version before the evening Shema, as we watch the sun set, focuses on the darkness.

Praised are you, Adonai our God, King of the universe, creating light and fashioning darkness, ordaining the order of all creation. You illumine the world and its creatures with mercy; in Your goodness, day after day You renew Creation. …. The good light God created reflects God’s splendor; radiant lights surround God’s throne. … Praise shall be Yours, Adonai our God, for Your wondrous works, for the lights You have fashioned, the sun and the moon which reflect Your glory …. Praised are You, Adonai, Creator of lights.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, King of the Universe, who word brings on evening, who alternates the seasons, and arranges the stars… God creates day and night, rolling the light away from before darkness, and darkness from before light …. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who brings on evening.

The second blessing before the Shema  is based on the central idea of the Shema, the instruction “You shall love Adonai your God ….” The blessing just prior to this passage asserts that the loving relationship is mutual, that it is because of God’s love for us that God gave us Torah and mitzvot.

Deep is Your love for us, Adonai our God, boundless Your tender compassion … Praised are You, Adonai who loves God’s people Israel.

Following the Shema is a blessing connecting the mitzvot embedded in the Shema to redemption. In the morning there is no break between blessing God the Redeemer and engaging with God in prayer. In the evening, as the day is ending, there is an additional blessing for peace and protection.

Your teaching is true and enduring. Your words are established forever. Awesome and revered are they, eternally right; well ordered are they, always acceptable. They are sweet and pleasant and precious, good and beautiful and beloved …. Praised are You, Adonai, Redeemer of the people Israel.

Lie us down, Adonai our God, in peace; and raise us up again, our Ruler, in life …. Shield us; remove from us every enemy, pestilence, sword, famine, and sorrow …. Blessed are You, Adonai, who guards the people Israel forever.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Yotzer Or – Creator of light
  • Ma’ariv Aravim – the One who makes the evening 
  • Ahavah Rabbah – A great love
  • Ge’ulah – Redemption
  • Shomer – Guardian

Divre Harav – September, 2021

Now is the time to begin thinking about what you want to get out of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at Ahavas Israel and how the synagogue can add to your life in the year that follows.

Because you are reading these words, probably a member of the synagogue or considering membership, I’m guessing that some level of Jewish content in your life is important to you. You may have Holocaust survivors or victims in your family tree and are affirming a Jewish connection because of that. You might enjoy Jewish community and culture, Jewish music or literature. You might feel connected to specific Jewish practices. You might be moved by a sense of God and even feel a sense of commandedness with respect to mitzvot.

My job is to enable you to deepen your connection to traditional Jewish practice, to convince you that there is something about prayer, Shabbat, the Jewish calendar and the system of Torah and Jewish ethics that is worth your time. The mission of the synagogue is to deepen your connection, to see you become more fully Jewish, that over the course of your lifetime, you are engaged in a continual journey of Jewish discovery.

What’s the benefit to you? I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t believe that my life is better because of Shabbat, because of the time I spend in prayer, and because the time I spend in Torah helps me to be a better person and make better choices.

That is why beginning this year, I will be offering you a program designed by the Shalom Hartman Institute called “Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism.” It is:

●  A sophisticated introduction to foundational concepts of Judaism and Jewish life,

●  An invitation for learners to join Judaism’s interpretive conversation, and

●  A curriculum designed specifically to be accessible for adult learners taking their first steps into Jewish thought.


It’s basic aims are:

●  To explore and make accessible the most compelling and deepest questions in Jewish thought,

●  To demonstrate the principles and debates that underlie our Jewish heritage, and

●  To reject the assumption that every learner is on track toward practicing Judaism in a specified way.

Whether a Sunday morning conversation, an afternoon study group, or evening class, please make time to:

●  Explore the role of peoplehood in Judaism,

●  Wrestle with the complexity of faith in our tradition,

●  Debate the meaning of mitzvot, and

●  Engage in conversations about Jewish ethics.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Am – People
  • Emunah – Faith
  • Avodah – Practice
  • Musar – Ethics

Divre Harav – Summer, 2021

The Talmud consists of 38 volumes of disputes. As such, it has much to teach us about how to engage in discussion and, even more important, how to disagree agreeably. What happens after a group reaches a non-unanimous decision? 

In one tragic model, Rabbi Eliezer was the sole voice in a decision that was decided against him. He took the disagreement personally and kept arguing long after the vote was over. The sages took his intransigence personally and excommunicated him. Rabbi Akiva tried to soften the blow, but Rabbi Eliezer was distraught. Tears and waves of anger, as described in the Talmud, threatened to destroy the world. His wife, Imma Shalom, wouldn’t let him say certain prayers lest his fury do more damage. She left him alone for a few moments, however, and his unsupervised prayer led to the death of her brother Rabban Gamliel, the leader of the Sages who had voted for his excommunication.

Ill feelings might not literally destroy the world, but when we are unwilling or unable to let go of anger and resentment when something doesn’t go our way, a disagreement can become a rift that seriously damages a community. The losing side needs to know when it is time to stop fighting and start adjusting to the new reality. The winning side should behave with sensitivity and not gloat over its victory, understanding that the other side had good reasons for their passionate arguments. 

The better model is that of Hillel and Shammai, who fundamentally disagreed about the nature of Jewish Law. Yet even though they disagreed about fundamentals of marriage and divorce in ways that might cast doubt on the validity of the children’s status, their respective students continued to marry each other’s children. The respect that each side had for the other’s position prevented the dispute from fracturing the Jewish people into two different religions.

Our United Jewish School model includes language in our governance documents that asks us to work towards consensus decision-making. Neither congregation can take action alone – significant decisions require a majority from each side. Virtually every decision we’ve made in the past 15 years has been consensus. But this is an unusual situation. More often, our decision making bodies do occasionally reach a point where a principled disagreement requires a vote. Organizations cannot allow an inability to reach consensus to paralyze them into inaction. At those times, we turn to the Talmudic model, reaching for “disagreement for the sake of heaven” in which both sides listen deeply to what the other is saying, discuss ideas rather than attack ad hominem, argue with reason rather than fear, and strive to reach for truth rather than for victory.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mahloket – disagreement
  • Vikuah – debate
  • Ta’anah – argument
  • Riv – dispute
  • Sikhsukh – feud