Talmud this Shabbat: Is There a Legitimately Hopeful, Positive, Upbeat Way to View This Thanksgiving?

We all know that this Thanksgiving is unlike any other Thanksgiving. The default energy for a small, isolated, socially distanced Thanksgiving
where we don’t see the people we usually see, where we don’t do what we usually do, might be negative, sad, off.

Is there some other way to see this Thanksgiving that is legitimately hopeful, positive, upbeat?


The texts are attached here.

See you on Shabbat at 8:30.

Talmud this Shabbat: Not About the Steak

One of the rarest gifts in the world of Torah is a true chidush—a new thought, an utterly original insight, that no commentator, in thousands of years, has ever offered before.

Even more rare is a chidush that is true not only of the biblical character, but for all of us—when this insight is universally true.

This Shabbat we are going to encounter just such a chidush.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, may he rest in peace, asks a question about this verse: “Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game.” Genesis 25:28. Can it really be that our forefather Isaac, one of the founders of the Jewish people, preferred Esau over Jacob because Isaac loved steak? The Hebrew expression, tzayid b’fiv, literally means that the trappings of the hunt were in Isaac’s mouth. Surely it has to be about more than a taste for steak.

Rabbi Sacks offers a sensitive psychological profile of Isaac. But not only Isaac. All of us.

If we can deeply get and internalize the humanity and wisdom of Rabbi Sacks’ Torah, we will become better at loving the people in our life. That is the best chidush of all.

Rabbi Sacks’ commentary, and the biblical texts that support it, are attached here.

See you on Shabbat at 8:30.

Gann Chapel Livestream 

Talmud this Shabbat: The Late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the Soft Tone and Harsh Tone of Leadership

On this first Shabbat after his passing, we are going to dedicate our Talmud class to the incredible Torah of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. We have a unique angle.

One of our members, Paul Greenberg, was blessed to have had a series of email exchanges with Rabbi Sacks based on his various teachings. One particularly evocative exchange had to do with the tone of leadership. What is the optimal tone? After watching Rabbi Sacks’ TED talk, Paul observes: “I especially noted that the tone seemed hopeful, gentlemanly, moderate.” Then Paul asked the Rabbi his question:

I have always thought that the tone of protest ought to be loud, forceful, and jarring. So my question is how to reconcile the soft tone of your TED talk with the harsh tone of protest.

Rabbi Sacks’ answer was as wise as it is beautiful and inspiring. His answer is what our world needs now. His answer, and the biblical story on which he bases it, will be the subject of our study on Shabbat morning. The texts are attached here.

May Rabbi Sacks rest in peace. May his Torah improve our tone. May our better tone improve our world.

Talmud this Shabbat: Texts That Help With Our Trauma

A house divided.

In Sutton, MA, the Times reported the tally as 3,042 to 3,041. In Webster, MA,
4,003 to 4,002.

That is not heartland red vs. coastal blue. Those are towns within Massachusetts.

A house divided is traumatic. Everybody I talk to is eating too much, drinking too much, worrying too much, and sleeping too little.

On Shabbat morning, Michelle, Elias, Dan and I will each teach a text that can help us through this trauma. The texts are attached here.

When all else fails, learn Torah.

Talmud this Shabbat: Singing While the World Burns-the Disturbing Message of the Singing Serafs

What do we make of that moment in the prayers when the angels, safe in
heaven, are singing sweet and happy praises to God? We encounter this motif both in the prayers before the morning shema, and in the kedusha in the Amidah.

We revere and hallow You on earth as Your name is hallowed in heaven,
where it is sung by celestial choirs, as in Your prophet’s vision.
The angels called one to another:

Holy, holy, holy Adonai Tz’vaot;
the grandeur of the world is God’s glory.
(The Kedushah for Musaf on Shabbat)

There are a couple of challenges with this prayerful moment. First, it’s not us. The angels are in heaven, singing sweetly together. They make music. We are on earth, divided, arguing, talking past one another. We make cacophony.

But there is a deeper problem. If you read the sources from which this moment comes, as we will on Shabbat, the world is in the middle of a meltdown. There is a political crisis. A health crisis. A natural disaster (earthquake) crisis. Confidence in leadership is gone. The dead are piling up. The destruction is massive. I am not making this stuff up. It is explicitly in the sources we will encounter.

It is in this context of death, destruction and dislocation (Get used to it, God tells Isaiah. 90% of you will die. Only 10% will remain. The tree dies. Only the stump remains.), that the angels sing their sweet, untroubled song.

If the world is burning, why are they singing?

If the world is burning, why is God listening to it?

If the world was burning, why do we make this troubling motif—clueless angels singing to a distant God while people suffer and die—why do we pray this today, every day?


Talmud this Shabbat: Can We Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time?

“Rabbi, why don’t you ever talk about this?”

Nowadays I get two genres of emails that start like that.

One sends me horrifying stories about the left: the Jew-hatred and Israel-bashing that come from progressive circles, e.g., Alexandria Ocasio Cortez backing out of an event to honor Yitzchak Rabin. Please see this important article by Bari Weiss here.

The other sends me horrifying stories about the right: voter suppression, voter intimidation, voter exclusion, the dying of our democracy. Please see this important article about Pennsylvania and the election here.

Both sides are 100% correct.

What Bari Weiss says is absolutely correct: anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing from the left must be named, called out, and resisted with all our heart, all our might, all our soul. The future of the Jewish people depends on this.

What the article says about voter suppression from the right is absolutely correct: voter suppression, voter intimidation, voter exclusion must be named, called out, and resisted with all our heart, all our might, all our soul. The future of American democracy depends on this.

Here is my question, as I shared last week in Talmud. Why does the same person never send me both articles? The people who send me the first never send me the second. The people who send me the second never send me the first.

Can we walk and chew gum at the same time? Can we resist anti-Semitism and the killing of our democracy by voter suppression at the same time?

On Shabbat we are going to explore a prayer that we always say and never think about: aleinu, which is all about the tension between particularism (I care about anti-Semitism) and universalism (I care about preserving our democracy). Aleinu has two paragraphs. They cut in very opposite directions. Can they be part of the same prayer? Can they be part of the same heart and soul (ours)? Here is the link to three different versions of this very complex prayer.

See you on Shabbat at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud This Shabbat: Is There An Elegant, Unifying Hypothesis to Explain Our Broken Country and Our Broken World?

The litany of woes befalling our country and our world is heartbreaking and familiar, against the backdrop of a political system so toxic and divided that we cannot even communicate civilly about, let alone solve, our problems.

Is there some elegant, unifying hypothesis that can explain what went wrong and what we might do to fix it?

The answer is yes. In twenty pages, Jonathan Sacks does just that. Attached is his introduction to his new book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, entitled “Cultural Climate Change.” In brilliant and lucid prose, he gets at what ails our country and our world.

What is his core insight?

Do you agree with it?

What claim does it make on you?

On Shabbat morning, Michelle, Elias, Aliza, Dan and I will discuss his diagnosis and prescription—and what it means for how we lead our lives.

Is his wisdom what the world needs now?



Talmud This Shabbat: Has America’s Idealism Drained its Jews of Their Resilience?

Every once in a while, a thought piece comes along that stops you dead in your tracks. That holds up a mirror. That initiates deep thinking and conversation about us and our world.

Such a piece came out today in Mosaic, an article by Daniel Gordis entitled: How America’s idealism Drained its Jews of Their Resilience. A copy of the article is attached here. You can love it (as I do). Or hate it (as many undoubtedly will). Please just don’t ignore it. It is too good, too thoughtful, too wise, to be ignored.

Here is his point: When Israeli Jews, and Orthodox American Jews, experienced violence, terrorism, anti-Semitism, they made it a point to get back up and to get back to business as soon as possible. Among other examples, he cites Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem, the site of a terrorist attack that killed 15 and wounded more than 130. The inside of the restaurant was utterly destroyed. Construction crews worked around the clock to get it reopened, and in two months, it was back in business. Patrons who were there on the day of the homicide bomber made it a point to sit exactly where they were sitting on the day of the attack, and to resume their meal.

Contrast that, Gordis points out, to Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue which, two years later, is still not back in operation.

Why is that?

Gordis has a definite point of view here. My colleagues and I will discuss his take. It leaves me, personally, in an uncomfortable position. I don’t want to agree with him. Instinctively, I want to chafe at and resist his conclusions. I just cannot find one that is off.

He has one particularly lyrical and evocative statement. Noting that progressive American Jewish communities rewrite liturgy (you will see how Siddur Lev Shalem has done just that), he observes “they are finding that a rewritten liturgy is now rewriting them.”

Here are the prayers, tachanun and av harachamim, that he discusses in this stunning essay.

See you on Shabbat on the Gann Chapel Livestream.

Moadim L’simcha,

Talmud this Shabbat: Holy Roller Coaster

How shall we understand the hot mess that is our beloved country right now?

Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer, a rabbi at the Kitchen in San Francisco, makes an utterly brilliant and original point about the difference between the fast of Tisha B’av and the fast of Isaiah that we read on Yom Kippur.

The fast of Tisha B’av is: we are doomed and defeated and deserted. There is nothing to do but mourn.

The fast of Isaiah is: things are bad, but we can, and we have to, take action to fix things. Rabbi Meyer points to the plethora of action verbs in Isaiah: unlock, untie, let the oppressed go free, break off yoke, share, take into your home.

The fast of Tisha B’av is about mourning defeat. The fast of Isaiah is about igniting the desire to fix brokenness.

She brought this home in the most poignant way. She said she has a Canadian passport. Many of her friends and family members are urging her to renew her Canadian passport. But she says that is the wrong move. That is the fast of Tisha B’av. Rather, the fast of Isaiah is the right move, which is to renew not a foreign passport, but to renew our own country.

Which brings us to Sukkot. Two months separate Tisha B’av (we are doomed) from Isaiah/Yom Kippur (we take action to fix). Four days separate Yom Kippur from Sukkot, where the agenda is joy. “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” Leviticus 23:40.

How does joy fit into this trajectory? How do we move from Isaiah’s charge of fixing our broken world to rejoicing in a mere four days?

When you put Tisha B’av, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot together, what is the message, and what is the message to us now?

The texts are here.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameakh,


Talmud this Shabbat: Machzor Full of Tears–What Does the Proliferation of Tears in our High Holiday Stories Say to Us Now?

Weeping is the leitmotif of our machzor, and that is a good thing because it speaks to our moment. Our beloved land is full of emotion. Our prayers and stories are full of emotion. Our own hearts are full of emotion. What do we learn from the Bible’s tears? And why is the machzor constructed to highlight those tears? You can’t make this up.

Hagar: “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.

Hannah: “Every time she went up to the House of Adonai, the other [her rival Peninnah] would taunt her, so that she wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad?”

“In her wretchedness, she [Hannah] prayed to Adonai, weeping all the while.”

Rachel: Thus said Adonai
A cry is heard in Ramah—
wailing, bitter weeping—
Rachel weeping for her children
She refuses to be comforted
for her children, who are gone.

These texts are from Rosh Hashanah. Our Yom Kippur Haftarah begins and climaxes with crying. Isaiah begins, first verse out of the box:
Cry with full throat, without restraint;
raise your voice like a ram’s horn!

He then offers the heart of his prophecy and says that if the Israelites get what he says, and does what he says:

Then, when you call, Adonai will answer;
when you cry, [God] will say: Here I am [hineni].

Click here for all texts.

See you on Shabbat morning at 8:30