The Glorious Evolution of Yom Kippur

As the summer passes its midway point rabbis begin to think seriously about the coming Days of Awe. We know that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provide us the largest congregations we are likely to see during the year.

It is a humbling and daunting task to attempt to craft messages that will resonate with those who come to worship.

Our hopes are high. We spend hours preparing what we hope might be life changing messages.

And yet, realistically, we know that the meaning the season of repentance will have for individual Jews depends more on what each of us is willing to do than on what even the most eloquent rabbi will say.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (and the entire month that precedes them) call on us to engage in serious reflection. If we take the season seriously it is an intense process of self-analysis and acknowledgment of our shortcomings and failures fueled by an earnest desire to change our actions for the better.

But it was not always that way.

In biblical times (Leviticus 23:24-25) Rosh Hashanah was simply a time to sound the shofar on the first day of the seventh month. Some scholars, notably the Norwegian Protestant theologian Sigmund Mowinckel (1884-1965), plausibly suggest that it was the beginning of a Festival of Enthronement. The Festival culminated on Sukkot with God triumphing over pretender gods and establishing the Divine reign for the coming year.

In the midst of this month long festival, Yom Kippur featured the ritual of the “scapegoat.” (Leviticus 16) The high priest selected two goats, one for a sacrifice on the altar and the other to symbolically carry the sins of the Children of Israel away into the wilderness.

As the Torah says: ‘And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel … putting them on the head of the goat … and he shall send the goat off into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)

Rabbinic literature attests that the person led the goat to a mountain peak and pushed the goat down. “Before it reached halfway down the hill it was dashed to pieces (B. Yoma 67a).”

Our modern sensibilities recoil at the notion that our wrongdoings can—even symbolically—transfer themselves onto an innocent goat whose death in the wilderness atones for our transgressions.

Today we are responsible for our own atonement.

We observe Yom Kippur by—if and only if our health permits—abstaining from food and drink. We then spend the day in serious contemplation of our wrongdoings and in prayer asking God to forgive our sins.

Our tradition (Mishnah Yoma 8:9) insists that before we can expect God to answer our prayers for forgiveness we must first go to those we have wronged in the past year and try to appease them.

My Hebrew teacher in Israel, the late Sarah Rothbard, whom I revered, said: “It is not just a credit to the Jewish people that we invented a day like Yom Kippur. It is a credit to all humanity.”

What a wonderful concept for all of us to embrace! We humans can examine our actions, repent our wrongdoings and change for the better!


Another Eulogy for Miriam

When the Children of Israel complain—yet again—because they have no water, Moses loses it completely (Numbers 20). Many think he lost control because he was grieving the loss of his sister Miriam.

Miriam had saved his life when he was a baby (Exodus 2) and was his confidante throughout his life.

The Sages taught (based on Numbers 21.17-18) that because of Miriam, a well accompanied Israel that disappeared when Miriam died. (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4 :12, section 3). Another Midrash suggests that Miriam’s well was one of ten sacred things  God created at twilight, just before the first Shabbat (Pirke Avot 5 :8). Rav Hiyya taught that Miriam’s well became an eternal memorial to her, embedded in the sea of Galilee and visible from the top of Mt. Carmel. (B. Shabbat 3a ; Yerushalmi, Kilaim 9 :4, p. 32C)

These midrashim represent the Sages’ desire to give Miriam the credit she deserves but which Scripture denies her.

We see the Bible’s discrimination most clearly in the story (Numbers 12) in which both Aaron and Miriam criticize Moses for marrying a Cushite (dark-skinned) woman. Aaron gets off with a lecture but God afflicts Miriam with leprosy. Moses prays for his sister’s immediate recovery, but God does not relent, and she must remain outside the camp for seven days.

Today in some quarters of the Jewish world, Miriam rises to the status of Moses’ equal. Indeed, Dr. Ellen Frankel, former Editor in Chief of the Jewish Publication Society of America, wrote a commentary on the Torah entitled, The Five Books of Miriam.

Even if it is an over correction, it is a worthy attempt to mitigate the slight of Miriam and so many other biblical women.


Another comment on Parashat Hukat, (Numbers 19 :1-22 :1)


Miriam’s Enduring Influence

“And Miriam died … (Numbers 20:1)”

At the end of the same chapter Aaron also dies, but we read of his death in greater detail because the Torah’s final editors were descendants of Aaron’s hereditary priestly line.

I would argue, though, that Miriam’s legacy is more significant.

Our enduring memory of Aaron is as the one who weakly capitulated to the Israelites demand to make the golden calf. (Exodus, 32)

But our picture of Miriam is one of strength. The Torah identifies her as a prophet (Exodus 15:20), and she is the only female the Torah does not identify as someone’s wife or mother.

Rabbi Hama bar Hanina taught: “The righteous are more powerful after their death than during their life. (B. Hullin 7b)”

That teaching underlies a rabbinic tradition that the deaths of righteous individuals can effect atonement for an individual’s sins.

Anna Urowitz-Freudenstein notes (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 932) that this is a troubling idea. To clarify she cites Rabbi Menachem Ben Solomon Meiri (13th c.) who taught: The deaths of righteous individuals “often move the living toward introspection and private acknowledgment of wrongdoing, which then result in personal prayer for repentance.”

Surely Miriam is a person whose righteousness inspires us.

  • She saved Moses from the waters of the Nile.
  • She led the rejoicing of our people at the waters of the sea
  • She inspired God to have a well of water accompany the Israelites in the desert. (Rashi, comment on Numbers 20:2)

Yes, Aaron receives a more grandiose burial, but Miriam’s legacy moves us to ask ourselves: How can we be more like her? Is our goal honor and glory today? Or will we care more that people remember our righteousness in years to come


Comment on Torah portion Chukat, (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

A Test for the Nation

I do not like Hillary Clinton. I never have. Her Wall Street speeches, the texts of which she won’t reveal, top my list of things about her that I find distasteful. Her business dealings over the years have more than raised eyebrows.

But (and this but is huge)

Her debits pale compared to those of Donald Trump. For months we have seen this bombastic, self-centered misogynist pandering to the fears of America’s working class.

But his record speaks for itself. Time and time again he has exploited people—especially workers– ruthlessly for his own gain.

Sadly for me this election is a choice between the lesser of two evils.

That said it is a no brainer.

Ms Clinton’s background, and her experience as first lady, Senator, and Secretary of State have groomed her for the office she has hoped all her life to attain.

Yes, she is willing to say whatever her team thinks will gain her the most votes.

But compared to Mr. Trump, she is a combination of Mother Theresa and Margaret Thatcher. Compared to Mr. Trump, she is a saint.

The fraud that was Trump University and his ravaging of Atlantic City are prime examples of his venality. His anti-Semitic tinged smear of Hillary Clinton was unconscionable.

There have been more than 3500 lawsuits filed against Trump for unethical or fraudulent practices.

Then there is the case of Andrew Tesoro.

Mr. Tesoro is the architect hired to design the Club House of Trump’s Gold course in Westchester, NY.

When he submitted his bill Trump didn’t want to pay. In a meeting Trump claimed, as Emily Chan recently wrote: “I really don’t think I should pay any more because I spent too much on this building.” He offered to pay $25,000 instead of the $50,000 (or $140,000) that had been billed.

Trump’s attorney had some advice for Tesoro:

“Mr. Trump’s attorney said if I were to sue the Trump Organization, I would probably get that money,” Tesoro says. “But it was his job to make sure that it took me so long and so much money that I was probably wise to accept this very meager sum of money, which I did. I decided that I didn’t want to fight the fight.”

For a company like the Trump Organization, $140,000 is not a particularly large bill. But for Tesoro and his firm, that money—or lack thereof—mattered. “It almost put me out of business,” Tesoro says. “We had to max out the credit lines to keep the little ship afloat and pay the rent. And I made virtually zero money for a couple of years and lived on meager savings that were supposed to be for my son to go to school to keep from folding.”

No, I really don’t like Hillary Clinton although Donald Trump makes me wish I did.

This election is not about policies or programs. It is nothing less than a test of the character of our nation.

Will we choose a candidate with a wealth of relevant experience over a ruthless cheat and fraud who panders to the worst fears of the American electorate?

It is a simple pass/fail test of our character, and the future of the United States is at stake.




Questions With No Answer


On July 9 in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Police officer Jeronimo Yaniz fired four shots that killed Philando Castile. Mr. Castile’s fiancé captured the incident on her cell phone.

Anyone who has seen the tape is an eyewitness that the shooting was unnecessary.

The officer pulled Castile’s car over for a broken tail light. He was reaching for his license and registration when Officer Yaniz killed him. The officer claimed he feared the gun for which Mr. Castile had a legal permit.

What happened in Falcon Heights, Minnesota in 2016 brought back to me the memory what happened in Belgium in 1914. My father was one and a half years old, and his father Hirsch Wolf Fuchs was 36. He was in Belgium when a German police officer stopped him and demanded identification. My grandfather reached into his pocket for his passport, but the policeman feared he was reaching for a gun and shot him dead.

As a result my father grew up without a father.

In both of these cases that occurred more than a century apart, hasty and unnecessary police action ripped families apart.

In the intervening years such tragedies have occurred countless times.

We have made so much progress in the technical and scientific arena in the last century. Our weapons, in particular, are so much more lethal than they were then.

Why then have we not made more progress in human understanding? Why do law officer so frequently overstep the bounds of reasonable force?

In particular, how can a policeman consider a man sitting in a car with his hands on the steering wheel a lethal threat to him when he is standing outside the car with his weapon drawn?

How is it possible that in so many cases where it is clear that officers overstepped, grand juries, and/or internal affairs investigators clear them of wrongdoing?

And why is it that police training does not take into account the impact of an officer whose finger was too quick to pull a trigger not just on an immediate family, but on generations to come as well.




Injustice Begets Injustice

There is no justification for the wanton assassination of five police officers in Dallas. None whatsoever!

While I write these words unequivocally, there must be understanding.

For two years now we have seen graphic images of black men shot or beaten by white police officers. The camera does not lie. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that officers are using excessive force. It does not take a genius to know that a person does not deserve to die because he had a broken taillight or was selling cigarettes or videotapes without authorization.

 The Talmud warns us: “Justice delayed is justice denied. (Pirke Avot 5:7)

In the recent cases there has been no justice! There has been no resolution for the families of loved ones killed for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Rage has boiled over, and it struck—so very sadly—the innocent families of innocent police officers in Dallas. It is an unspeakable tragedy, and I hope the justice system will bring the perpetrators to justice quickly.

But it is a tragedy in response to horrific acts of malfeasance and abuse by police officers.

 Eyewitnesses videoed these actions, and all of us who do not close our eyes are also eyewitnesses to them. No region of our nation is without its horror story of police excessive use of force to recount.

 I cry for the families of the men in blue who died doing their sworn duty to protect and to serve. But their blood stains the hands of their fellow officers who shot without cause and snuffed out the lives of men who did not deserve to die.

When Dissent Causes Dissension

This weeks Torah portion, Korach, is an “Anti-Semite’s Delight. ”  They cite it as proof that the God of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible is a vengeful, angry Deity who opens the earth to swallow those who challenge the authority of Moses.

Was God really so angry?

Although it seems that the Torah portion says so, this story is really not about Moses. It is about the authority of Aaron and the hereditary priestly class who had taken control of life in ancient Hebrew society. It is they who wished to silence dissent.

By the time the Torah comes to us in its present form (in the middle of the fifth pre-Christian century) Moses is a revered historical figure, whose like we shall never see again. But he is just that, history.

The Aaronides (hereditary descendants of Aaron) were in charge then and what better way to put the divine imprimatur on their authority than the story of Korach and his followers. The Eternal One opens the earth to swallow them up as a message to any who would challenge priestly rule.

But how does this Torah portion speak to our lives today?

The story of Korach is a wonderful warning against self-aggrandizement. It reminds us to ask ourselves before we protest against those in authority. Do we really have a legitimate grievance or—after others have done all the work—do we just want to bring glory and attention to ourselves?

The God that I worship welcomes honest dissent and disagreement as we seek to make the world a better place! Peaceful dissent and the ring of honest disagreements are always in society’s best interest.

It is unfortunate that the ancient priests have given those with disdain for Judaism biblical warrant to assail the true nature of The Eternal One.