Friday, December 31, 2010

(Un) Circumcised Lips: Parashat Va-era

We all know about the importance of circumcision, more commonly known as a bris, in Jewish tradition. However, we generally think of circumcision in terms of one well-known body part. We do not know or think about the other types of circumcision discussed in the Torah. The Jewish people (in the physical case, men) are challenged not only to have an external circumcision, but also an internal one, a circumcision of the heart. This language is often used to signal the importance of humility and submission to the will of God and Law.

This week's portion, Va-era, not only talks about the aforementioned types of circumcision, but also speaks about the circumcision of the lips. When God tells Moses to come before Pharaoh, Moses responds:

ל וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה: הֵן אֲנִי, עֲרַל שְׂפָתַיִם, וְאֵיךְ, יִשְׁמַע אֵלַי פַּרְעֹה. 30 And Moses said before the LORD: 'Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh listen to me?
The commentators ask, "what does uncircumcised lips mean?" Some of the early commentators, connecting this verse to Moses' earlier refusal to speak at the burning bush, assert that this means that Moses had a stutter. Others claim that he was not skilled in the art of rhetoric.

However, the Zohar, the core mystical text of the Jewish tradition, provides an unique reading. Moses' voice and his ability to communicate meaning were in exile while the people Israel were in exile. When Moses was reunited with the people Israel, he regained his voice קול. When he, along with the people Israel, approached Mount Sinai he gained the ability to convey meaning דיבור.

Without Torah and community, Moses's lips were obstructed. His impediment was not physical, but spiritual. Only when living in the context of a community bound together through mitzvot, could he find the strength, skill, and words to speak eloquently and effectively.

Many individuals in this world are skilled orators. However, after the thrill of listening to such individuals address their audiences, the listeners are often left feeling empty. When one conveys a message that is substantive, inspired, truthful, authentic, and humble, her voice and meaning are united. Her ability to communicate is no longer exiled or obstructed, but rather can emerge unencumbered and at home with her.

Often humility is positioned in opposition to effective speaking. However, the Torah teaches us that without humility, our message can never be effective in bringing about change. This is one of the greatest challenges of human life and leadership. As we begin the secular new year, let us aspire to achieve the balance that Moses did at the foot of Mount Sinai -- connecting speech, meaning, and self for the sake of communal success and redemption.

Shabbat Shalom from Tel Aviv.

**And in the spirit of humility, thanks to Yeshivat Har Tzion for the inspiration and texts for these words of Torah. You can access the Hebrew article here.

Conservative Movement Response to Yeshiva Stipends

Our sister movement, the Masorti movement in Israel, just put out the following ads on Israeli buses. This ad responds to the current Israeli government policy which provides stipends for ultra-Orthodox Jews to avoid army service and refuse work in order to study at yeshivot (study houses.) The advertisement quotes the ancient Jewish text Pirkei Avot about the importance of working while one studies:

"All Torah that is not accompanied by work will end in its nullification and will lead to sin."


Friday, December 24, 2010

Remembering the Good: Parashat Shemot

In this week's portion, Parashat Shemot, we learn about the beginnings of Jewish enslavement in Egypt: In Exodus 1:6-10 we are told:

ו וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף וְכָל-אֶחָיו, וְכֹל הַדּוֹר הַהוּא.6 And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation.
ז וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ--בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם. {פ}7 And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.
ח וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף.8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.
ט וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-עַמּוֹ: הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל--רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ.9 And he said unto his people: 'Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us;
י הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה, לוֹ: פֶּן-יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי-תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם-הוּא עַל-שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם-בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן-הָאָרֶץ.
10 come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.'

It is at this point that the Jews' trouble begins. Joseph gave so much to the people of Egypt and prevented their downfall, but within a generation, all was forgotten. It is easy in life to have a "what have you done for me lately" attitude, remembering only those events and favors which have happened in the recent past.

However, sometimes those in our lives cannot be there for us in every moment at their highest capacity. Often the people we rely on the most get tired, worn out, and might actually need to receive help from us. Had the Egyptians kept in mind all that Joseph and his brethren did for the Egyptians, a productive and respectful relationship could have continued and developed further.

When we remember the Exodus, we remember the distant past as if we were there in real time. Just as we remember the heroism of Moses, Miriam, the people Israel, and God in the distant past, we should also remember the great contributions and small kindnesses shown to us a while back. This type of remembering is what keeps relationships healthy, holy, and balanced.

A Happy December 25th and a Shabbat Shalom from Tel Aviv!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dignity and Disease: Parashat Vayachi

This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayachi, a portion filled with stories of a family striving for healing after several betrayals and years of distance. When reading this portion, a small detail in the opening verses attracted my attention: An anonymous person announces to Jacob that his son Joseph has arrived

א וַיְהִי, אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיֹּאמֶר לְיוֹסֵף, הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה; וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי בָנָיו, עִמּוֹ--אֶת-מְנַשֶּׁה, וְאֶת-אֶפְרָיִם. 1 And it came to pass after these things, that one said to Joseph: 'Behold, your father is sick.' And he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.
ב וַיַּגֵּד לְיַעֲקֹב--וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַזֵּק, יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּשֶׁב, עַל-הַמִּטָּה. 2 And one told Jacob, and said: 'Behold, your son Joseph has come to you.' And Israel strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.

Despite Joseph’s power and Jacob’s weakness, it is still important that Joseph and his sons are announced. The announcement provides Jacob with the ability to prepare himself and present himself as he would like in front of his son and grandsons.

The Etz Hayyim commentary comments on this verse by teaching us, “One should never enter the room of a sick or elderly person unannounced, lest they be embarrassed, indisposed, or not fit to receive visitors.”

If any of us have either been in a hospital or visited a loved one in a hospital, we know that part of what it means to be sick in a modern hospital is that strangers walk in and out your room without announcement or asking permission. It is a time when it is so easy for a patient to lose his dignity. Often he is without his favorite clothes, having every action of his life defined by others, and is lacking the basic control over his life and his fate – he is deprived of a certain type of dignity.

Dignity (in Hebrew kavod ) is the result of freedom and control over how one lives one’s life. We need to be able to use our rational capabilities in order to craft and modify our environment as we see necessary. Never is our dignity more at risk than when we are sick. The physically weaker we are, the more possible it is that those around us can deprive us of our privacy and our ability to make our own decisions.

However, part of being a Jew, and in particular a Jew committed to the halachic system, is about developing the discipline and consequent awareness necessary to always remember the divinity, worth, and dignity in the people around us. The rituals and traditions of our people remind us of the importance of how our actions in seemingly inconsequential moments have the power to create holiness and affirm the dignity of the people in our lives.

As our tradition teaches us in Mishnah Avot 2:13 : "Eli’ezar says: May the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own."  This week let us focus on the ways in which we can affirm the dignity of others in our lives through honesty, consideration, and respect for their freedom. Shavua Tov.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

To the End of the Land

In the next book group held on January 27th we will be reading David Grossman's critically acclaimed book: To the End of the Land.

A long and moving article on the book is here in the New Yorker.

I have been looking forward to reading this book for a while and am excited to begin reading it on my trip to Israel.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Letting it Go...

This week's portion, parashat Vayigash, is filled with highly emotional moments. One of those moments is when Jacob gets word from his sons that Joseph is still alive. However, Jacob is not fully convinced that Joseph has survived until he sees the wagons that Joseph has sent for him (Genesis 45:26-27)

כו וַיַּגִּדוּ לוֹ לֵאמֹר, עוֹד יוֹסֵף חַי, וְכִי-הוּא מֹשֵׁל, בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם; וַיָּפָג לִבּוֹ, כִּי לֹא-הֶאֱמִין לָהֶם.

And they told him, saying: 'Joseph is yet alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.' And his heart fainted, for he believed them not.

כז וַיְדַבְּרוּ אֵלָיו, אֵת כָּל-דִּבְרֵי יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵהֶם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-הָעֲגָלוֹת, אֲשֶׁר-שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ; וַתְּחִי, רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם.

And they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said unto them; and when he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob their father revived.

The question that the commentators ask is: why does the sight of the wagons convince Jacob that Joseph is still alive? Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, a Talmud professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote an amazing davar Torah on this topic: To read it in full, click here.

In short, he cites a midrash that explains why this was a convincing sign to Jacob. According to this rabbinic story, the last bit of Torah that Joseph and Jacob studied together was the laws of the eglah arufah, a ritual described in Deuteronomy that explains how a community can be absolved of guilt in the case of a murder whose perpetrator is unknown. The word eglah sounds like agalah which is the Hebrew word for wagon. Joseph was at once sending a code to his father based upon their last tender experience, but also sending a message to his father about how to proceed with his life. Joseph says to his father through this act, "Do not ask the details of what happened to me or who is to blame. You may suspect my brothers of foul play, but this is not a matter worth pursuing."

Sometimes we express love by telling the whole truth. Other times, we express our love by holding back and letting it go. There is no use for Joseph to destroy his father's relationships with his other sons in his old age. Joseph is not interested in dwelling on the past when he has reached such great heights in Egypt. Rather, he is interested in bringing comfort to his father and providing a safe and meaningful reunion. He might want to unburden himself by relaying his brothers sins and his own faults, but this would not serve his father or his relationship with him. As Rabbi Diamond concludes his davar Torah: " Sometimes what we owe the ones we love is to bear the unbearable knowledge of our own sins. Our penance comes not through confession but through changing the direction in our lives."

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, December 6, 2010

Meaning and God in a Secular Age

A small topic, right? There was an article today in the NY Times by a Harvard professor on the quest for meaning in a world where, to quote Nietzsche, "God is dead." The author of this article defines God as a singular standard of Truth that precludes pluralistic approaches to happiness and fulfillment. I do not agree with the basic assertions of the author or of Nietzsche, but I find the piece thought provoking. You can access it: here.

The author also quotes the work of David Foster Wallace whose work I (and many rabbinical students) love. While his famous commencement address at Kenyon College is no longer online (it is in a book now), there is an abbreviated version on the Wall Street Journal website: here. Wallace's life ended tragically, but he brought discussions of faith to a more mainstream audience in an important, eloquent, and valiant way.

All too often we are afraid to talk about God and meaning explicitly, but I think it is a necessary component of a substantive religious community. I look forward to having discussions of this kind in future visits. Also, always feel free to email me with thoughts, questions, comments, or suggestions regarding these issues and our collective exploration of them:

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Access Texts! Joseph, the Maccabees, and Jewish Identity

What do Joseph and the Maccabees (a) have in common and (b) have to teach us about Jewish identity in the modern age? This source sheet brings selections from the apocryphal stories of Joseph and his wife Aesnath as well as the tales of the Maccabees which reflect different approaches to Jewish identity and relations with non-Jewish neighbors. It also includes two later sources on what Jewish identity meant to two Jewish women in modern Germany. What do all of these texts teach us about Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world? Look at the discussion questions at the bottom of the sheet for further direction on how to think about these texts.

Click Here to Access the Source Sheet

Friday, December 3, 2010

Forest Fires in Israel: We Must Help

As many of you may have heard, Israel is now suffering from the worst forest fire in its 60 year history. Dozens have been killed, some villages have been completely destroyed, the dorms at the University of Haifa (where I studied for two summers) have been evacuated, and the entire city of Haifa is at risk. Israel needs help desperately. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for a day of mourning despite the Hanukkah Holiday. You can see updates on the current situation at the Magen David Adom (Israeli Emergency Services) website:

Updates on the Forest Fire

You can donate to help these communities and rebuild the forests in Israel's North through the Jewish National Fund:

Click Here to Make an Essential Donation

Israel's North is a unique place where Arabs and Jews live together and cherish the same forests and natural beauties of the land. It is essential that we help out our brothers, sisters, and cousins in Israel to help them get this fire under control and rebuild their lives.

For more information visit : the Haaretz website

Blood, Guts, and Girls! The Real Storie(s) of Hanukkah

Missed the presentation on the "real" stories of Hanukkah, replete with women's leadership, religious fanaticism, and light?

Click Here to Check it Out!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

...And more cheezy Hanukkah Music

From the Maccabeats, Candlelight :

Extreme Makeover: Temple Edition

There is little more that I love than Shalom Sesame. Here is a hilarious video about the Maccabees. It is very cute.

Click Here for Video

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Happy Hanukkah!!

This is a holiday that celebrates miracles, might, and national pride. Even though it is a relatively minor holiday, I think it is worthwhile to take joy in these values, at least once a year. So...Hag Urim Sameach Have a Happy Festival of Lights!

If possible, share the Hanukkah light that you kindle with neighbors, family, and friends. Making this mitzvah public is how we fulfill the commandment of Pirsumei HaNisah , publicizing the miracle.

Looking forward to lighting candles with everyone tomorrow!

Hanukkah: A Grand Disappointment?

That is the assertion of Howard Jacobson, author of the Finkler Question -- which we will be reading in our book group tomorrow. I take issue with some of his assertions and his tone, but both provide greater insight into the motivations and content of his book.

Click Here to read the NY Times editorial

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Schedule for Upcoming December Visit!

Thursday, December 2, 2010 6:15pm-7:45pm (contact me for location) –

Book Discussion: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Read the New York Times Review

Read the NPR Review which includes excerpts

Thursday, December 2, 2010 8:00 pm (Colby College Pugh Center)

Blood, Guts, and Girls: The Real Stories of Hanukkah

Come and explore the many traditional, tawdry, and titillating traditions of Hanukkah and the Maccabees with Rabbi Isaacs.

Friday, December 3, 2010: 9:00 am (Hillel Lounge at Colby College)

Friday morning minyan.

Friday, December 3, 2010: 7:00 pm (Beth Israel Congregation)

Friday night services that will include song, prayer, and learning. To be followed by a dessert oneg.

Saturday, December 4, 2010: 6:00 pm (Beth Israel Congregation)

HANUKKAH PARTY!!! Will include activities for kids of all ages.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Yom Hodu Sameach!

Happy Thanksgiving to All! In Hebrew "Hodu" means "turkey" and "thanks," making it the best term to celebrate this holiday. May this day be full of blessings for all!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Jews Come from All Corners of the Earth

A fascinating story about the Jewish community in Indonesia. I would have never expected this! From the New York Times:

"In a Sliver of Indonesia, Public Embrace of Judaism"

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Great Chanukkah Music: Ma'oz Tzur

This is a beautiful modern Israeli rendition of the Chanukkah classic Ma'oz Tzur, better known as "Rock of Ages." By Dov Rosenblatt, Deena Goodman & Rosi Golan--via shemspeed.

Click Here to Download


Maoz tzur y'shuati l'cha naeh l'shabeach

Tikon beit t'filati v'sham todah n'zabeach.

L'eit tachin matbeach mitzar hamnabeach

Az egmor b'shir mizmor chanukat hamizbeach.

Rock of Ages let our song,
Praise thy saving power;
Thou amidst the raging foes,
Wast our shelt'rng tower.

Furious they assailed us,
But Thine arm availed us,
And Thy word broke their sword,
When our own strength failed us.
And Thy word broke their sword,
When our own strength failed us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What's Love Got to Do With it?

Generally we do not look to the Torah for guidance about love and relationships...and sometimes with good reason. However, in the case of our parasha this week, Parashat Vayishlach, we are provided with great food for thought about what love means and how it functions in our lives. The Torah text tells us that Schehem, the man who violated Dina, "loved" her after "taking her and...humbling her."

Genesis 34:2-3

ב וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר, הַחִוִּי--נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ. 2 And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay with her, and humbled her.
ג וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ, בְּדִינָה בַּת-יַעֲקֹב; וַיֶּאֱהַב, אֶת-הַנַּעֲרָ, וַיְדַבֵּר, עַל-לֵב הַנַּעֲרָ. 3 And his soul did cleave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spoke comfortingly unto the damsel.

What does it mean that Shechem "loved" Dina? Does the Torah misunderstand love? Is it the best word that the Author could find with a limited Hebrew lexicon? To contend that maybe Schehem actually did love Dina in a legitimate way would make most of us furious. Nevertheless, we need to think about what the Torah is trying to communicate. What is good love and what is bad love? How do we apply this knowledge to our lives?

How does this love compare to that of Jacob who loved Rachel after seeing her only? How does this compare to the love that Abraham has for Isaac, the son he is willing to put on the altar? How does this love compare to that of Jonathan and David whose love was described thusly in 2 Samuel 1:23-26

כג שָׁאוּל וִיהוֹנָתָן, הַנֶּאֱהָבִים וְהַנְּעִימִם בְּחַיֵּיהֶם, וּבְמוֹתָם, לֹא נִפְרָדוּ; מִנְּשָׁרִים קַלּוּ, מֵאֲרָיוֹת גָּבֵרוּ. 23 Saul and Jonathan, the lovely and the pleasant in their lives, even in their death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
כד בְּנוֹת, יִשְׂרָאֵל--אֶל-שָׁאוּל, בְּכֶינָה; הַמַּלְבִּשְׁכֶם שָׁנִי, עִם-עֲדָנִים, הַמַּעֲלֶה עֲדִי זָהָב, עַל לְבוּשְׁכֶן. 24 Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights, who put ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
כה אֵיךְ נָפְלוּ גִבֹּרִים, בְּתוֹךְ הַמִּלְחָמָה--יְהוֹנָתָן, עַל-בָּמוֹתֶיךָ חָלָל. 25 How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan upon thy high places is slain!
כו צַר-לִי עָלֶיךָ, אָחִי יְהוֹנָתָן--נָעַמְתָּ לִּי, מְאֹד; נִפְלְאַתָה אַהֲבָתְךָ לִי, מֵאַהֲבַת נָשִׁים. 26 I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant hast thou been unto me; wonderful was thy love to me, passing the love of women.

This Torah story provides us with more questions than answers, but they are questions we need to ask ourselves and discuss with those we care about, especially our children. We should talk about healthy and unhealthy love, how to know the difference, and develop safe and fruitful relationships.

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Schedule for December Visit: December 2-5, 2010

Thursday, December 2, 2010 6:15pm-7:45pm (contact me for location) –

Book Discussion: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Read the New York Times Review

Read the NPR Review which includes excerpts

Thursday, December 2, 2010 8:00 pm (Colby College Pugh Center)

Blood, Guts, and Girls: The Real Stories of Hanukkah

Come and explore the many traditional, tawdry, and titillating traditions of Hanukkah and the Maccabees with Rabbi Isaacs.

Friday, December 3, 2010: 9:00 am (Hillel Lounge at Colby College)

Friday morning minyan.

Friday, December 3, 2010: 7:00 pm (Beth Israel Congregation)

Friday night services that will include song, prayer, and learning. To be followed by a dessert oneg.

Saturday, December 4, 2010: 6:00 pm (Beth Israel Congregation)

HANUKKAH PARTY!!! Will include activities for kids of all ages.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jews Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Here is a fascinating article in the New York Times about a famous hip hop artist that found Judaism in the States and is now living in Jerusalem. Click here to read the article.

My Senior Sermon

Here is my senior sermon, based largely on my experiences in Waterville. It was a great success!

Click Here for my Senior Sermon

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Thursday Night Dinner Location

Thursday night dinner with Rabbi Isaacs will be in the Bullock Dining Area in the Dana Dining Hall. All are invited and I'm excited to see you there!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Public Service Announcement

From an amazing Jewish organization that I have worked for and support! Somewhat risque, but hilarious and for a great cause.

A PSA from the American Jewish World Service

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Shalom Sesame Returns!

Some of my earliest Jewish memories revolve around watching Shalom Sesame tapes (VHS) -- they were a Hanukkah gift from my mom. I still have those videos and love them. Now there is a new generation of Shalom Sesame and you can get a sneak peak. Through the hard work of one of my classmates, Charlie Schwartz, there is a wonderful website called Media Midrash that provides access to hundreds of videos with curricular content. I encourage all of you to enjoy!

Click Here for some clips from the New Shalom Sesame!

Access Texts!

Couldn't make it to one of my teachings or want to look back at something we learned together?

Visit this site to look at my previous text studies and presentations.

Always feel free to email me at with further questions or comments.

Planning Ahead: Dates for December Visit

I will be in Waterville December 2-5th. My visit will be full of Hanukkah related events for people of all ages. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Schedule for November Visit: Nov 4-7

My next visit is coming up soon!

Thursday, November 4, 2010, 6:30 pm

Dinner with Rabbi Isaacs at Colby College, Dana Dining Hall

Friday, November 5, 2010, 9:00 am

Friday Morning Minyan in the Colby Hillel Office

Friday November 5, 2010, 6:00 pm

Potluck Dinner at Beth Israel Congregation

Friday, November 5, 2010, 7:00 pm

Friday Night Services at Beth Israel Congregation

Saturday, November 6, 2010, 10:00 am

Saturday Morning Service

If you're interested in meeting with me privately or suggesting other programming, always feel free to be in contact at or

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Special Love Story: Thoughts on Chayyai Sarah

Often when we think of love stories in the Bible, we assume that marriages were arranged, loveless, and purely commercial and reproductive. However, the love story of Rebecca and Isaac defies the stereotypes. While Abraham's servant does find Rebecca for Isaac, she consents freely to follow him for the sake of marrying Isaac. Moreover, there is a gorgeous scene at the end of the portion that highlights the humanity of their relationship. According to the midrash, not only did Isaac lose his mother Sarah, but Rebecca had also lost her father. We know this, the rabbis say, because only her mother and brother consented to her leaving and blessed her upon her exit. Isaac and Rebecca completed each other in a very profound way. Through their love, they do not replace their parents, but they help each other in the process of healing and creating a new family to call home. Even though it is rare that the Bible tells us about the emotions and inner thoughts of characters, the portion ends with this line:

סז וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק, הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי-לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה, וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ; וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ.

"And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebecca, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted after/for his mother." Genesis 24:67

We can never replace another human being. However, our relationships always have the potential to be sources of comfort, healing, and vitality. This week, let us think about how we can play these roles for one another. We can and must seek to complete each other through love and compassion for stronger families and communities. It is a beautiful lesson from our sacred text and an example we should strive to follow.

Israeli Song of the Week: Through Foreign Eyes

Often as the days become shorter and the year gets under way, we need a little encouragement. The song, Eineim Zarot by Rona Kenan has always provided me with solace. One of the lines in the chorus is ani lo afsik leirtzot I will not stop desiring. This is a great song to keep us going when we are ready to run out of gas. And it is gorgeous.

Through Foreign Eyes

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Schedule for October Visit -- October 21-24

Thursday, October 21st 6:30 pm
Book Group
We will be discussing the classic book As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. It is a tale about a young rabbi torn between his love of Greek literature and Jewish law. It is one of my favorite books of all time. Contact the synagogue office for location and further details.

Thursday, October 21, 8:00 pm

Queer Spirituality: Judaism and Gay and Lesbian Issues

Integrating contemporary news and classical texts, Rabbi Isaacs will be discussing gay and lesbian issues in the context of Jewish law, literature, and culture. Location: The Pugh Atrium at Colby College

Friday, October 22, 9:00 am

Morning Minyan in the Hillel Office

Please join Rabbi Isaacs to learn about weekday prayer and daven (pray) Shaharit (the morning service.) Services will be followed by some learning with Rabbi Isaacs and breakfast in the spa.

Friday, October 22nd 5:30 pm

Candle Lighting

Come for Candle lighting on the Bridge in the Pugh Center. In addition to Shabbat blessings, we will be singing and doing some learning.

Friday, October 22nd, 6:00 pm

Pot luck dinner at Beth Israel Congregation

Friday, October 22nd, 7:00 pm

Shabbat Evening Services

Saturday, October 23rd, 10:00 am

Shabbat Morning Services

Sunday, October 24th

Hillel's Annual Parent's Weekend Bagel Brunch Location and Time TBD.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Finding Light in Dark Places

Many of us have heard about the recent tragedy of a Rutgers student who killed himself after being outed online. One in three teen suicides is committed by a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered kid. It is essential that as a Jewish community, we provide support and guidance for all of our teens, and especially those struggling with their identity. Moreover, whenever we witness bullying, we must step in and protect our kids. Too long we have allowed this kind of abuse either because we do not take it seriously or because our homophobia prevents us from taking appropriate action. This week's portion is about making light for ourselves and those we love during our darkest, stormiest, and most isolated times. I encourage our community to sign this pledge with Keshet, a Boston-based organization committed to creating a more inclusive and just Jewish community.

Sign Here and Learn More About How We can Create an Inclusive Community

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Israeli Song for the Season

Ivri Lider, one of the biggest names in Israeli music, covered a song called "Bo" ("Come") for the movie Yossi and Jagger. It is a song about coming out of the shadows and into a space of honesty, light, and happiness. When thinking of a something meaningful to share for this time of year, this iconic song came to my mind.

Click Here for Music Video

Making Light for Ourselves

This past weekend, summer instantly disappeared. The weather dropped twenty degrees over night and the sky darkened dramatically. It seems appropriate that we read Parashat Noah this time of year. A rich and perplexing verse is found in this portion. God tells Noah, "A LIGHT (ZOHAR) YOU SHALL MAKE FOR THE ARK." When trying to figure out what the word "Zohar" meant, the rabbis had the following discussion in Genesis Rabbah , a compilation of sacred stories about the Torah:

R. Hunia and R. Phinehas, R. Hanan and R. Hoshaia could not explain [the meaning of ZOHAR]; R. Abba b. Kahana and R. Levi did explain it. R. Abba b. Kahana said: It means a skylight; R. Levi said: A precious stone. R. Phinehas said in R. Levi's name: During the whole twelve months that Noah was in the Ark he did not require the light of the sun by day or the light of the moon by night, but he had a polished gem which he hung up: when it was dim he knew that it was day, and when it shone he knew that it was night. R. Huna said: Once we were taking refuge from [Roman] troops in the caves of Tiberias. We had lamps with us: when they were dim we knew that it was day, and when they shone brightly we knew that it was night.

In order to make it through long journeys, we must all make lights for ourselves. We cannot always rely on others to provide us with this illumination. Rather, we need to prepare ourselves before we endeavor in the dark. We need to find the skylights, precious stones, and torches in our lives to give us the direction and comfort necessary to weather the storm.

Taking Joy in Torah

My past visit to Waterville was full of richness and joy. On Thursday morning, Cantor Deb led us in beautiful and moving song for our observance of Shemini Atzeret, praying for Israel and remembering those we love who have passed on. We had a blast on Thursday night making caramel apples, enjoying chocolate from Israel, reading stories, dancing, singing, and learning more about the Torah. Finally, on Friday night candle lighting at Colby College drew in a great crowd. Friday night at Beth Israel Congregation also was filled with great homemade food and moving prayer. It was inspiring to see so much energy in both Waterville Jewish communities and I'm looking forward to my next visit October 21-24th.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

What are these holidays anyway? Good question! In the case of Shemini Atzeret, no one really knows what the Torah intended it to be or how we should celebrate it. Jewish tradition, however, has transformed it into a festival that focuses our attention to (1) water for Israel (which includes the prayer "geshem" for rain), (2) a time to remember those we love that have died (through the Yizkor service), and (3) a day to savor the last moments of Sukkot.

Simchat Torah, we all know more about. It is a day to rejoice in the teachings and guidance of Torah with song, dancing, and most importantly, candy. To learn more about these holidays, vist My Jewish Learning: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
This website is a great resource for those times when you have the questions: how do we do this holiday, what does it mean, and how can I make the best meal possible!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Upcoming Events!

Thursday September 30th - 10 am - Shemini Atzeret Service with Yizkor (Beth Israel)

A time to learn about Shemini Atzeret and its importance in our lives and in the future of the Land of Israel. We also remember those we love who no longer dwell on this earth with us. Please join us in this communal commemoration of those who we have lost and celebration of sustenance and plenty in Israel.

Thursday September 30th - 5:15 pm -Candy Apples and Story for Children (Beth Israel)

Fun activities for kids and adults of all ages to make candy apples and learn more about Simchat Torah. Check out this link to make your own flag Download a Free Flag

Thursday September 30th - 6:00 pm Simchat Torah Service

Come and celebrate the role of Torah, joy and community in our lives.

Friday October 1 - 6:00 pm - Potluck Dinner and Service (Beth Israel.)

Come enjoy a homecooked meal and great company at Congregation Beth Israel in Waterville. Dinner will be followed by services and interactive learning with Rabbi Isaacs.

Saturday night - Havdallah and Social Event at (Colby College)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Help with Siddur Hebrew!

A great resource from the Reform movement which has mp3s for major prayers and blessings. This is great resource to gain greater comfort with Hebrew prayer. Put it on your ipod or make a cd for the car! It really helps!

Click Here for mp3s

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Contemplative Music for the Season

From one of my favorite artists in Israel, Evyatar Banai:

Until Tomorrow

Schedule for Upcoming Visit

Thursday September 30th - 10 am - Shemini Atzeret Service with Yizkor (Beth Israel)

A time to learn about Shemini Atzeret and its importance in our lives and in the future of the Land of Israel. We also remember those we love who no longer dwell on this earth with us. Please join us in this communal commemoration of those who we have lost and celebration of sustenance and plenty in Israel.

Thursday September 30th - 5:15 pm -Candy Apples and Story for Children (Beth Israel)

Fun activities for kids and adults of all ages to make candy apples and learn more about Simchat Torah. Check out this link to make your own flag Download a Free Flag

Thursday September 30th - 6:00 pm Simchat Torah Service

Come and celebrate the role of Torah, joy and community in our lives.

Friday October 1 - 6:00 pm - Potluck Dinner and Service (Beth Israel.)

Come enjoy a homecooked meal and great company at Congregation Beth Israel in Waterville. Dinner will be followed by services and interactive learning with Rabbi Isaacs.

Saturday night - Havdallah and Social Event at (Colby College)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

There's More to This Story Than You May Think

The History of Jews in Maine! We're here, we've been here, and David Freidenreich, Professor of Jewish Studies at Colby, and his students have gathered quite of bit of information about our glorious history. Visit Jews in Maine for more information.

A Life Not Fully a Great Life

What? Isn't a fulfilling life one with goals that are completed and aspirations that are met? Whether or not such a life would be fulfilling, it is not a human life. Part of human existence is knowing that we will always have goals we cannot meet, but nonetheless aspiring to be better all the time. The life of Moses, which ends in the Book of Deuteronomy, is an example of a fulfilling life that is amazing and human precisely because Moses does not achieve everything he has set out to do. Franz Kafka and Martin Luther King, one Jewish writer and a Christian minister, both use the example of Moses on the mountain to illustrate their own life experiences:

Kafka wrote this:

The essence of wandering in the wilderness. A person, who as leader of his people goes this way, with a remnant (more is unthinkable) of consciousness about what is happening. He is on the trail of Canaan for his entire life; that he should see the land only just before his death is incredible. This last prospect could only have the purpose of demonstrating how incomplete a moment human life is, incomplete because this kind of life could go on endlessly and yet would result in nothing other than a moment. Not because his life was too short does Moses not reach Canaan, but because it was a human life.

And King delivered these words before his death:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now—because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live . . . but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. 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. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Both of these men understood the limits of a human life, but acknowledge and cherish those boundaries. They are what make us human and turn moments into miracles. They are also what bring us to work in concert with others to fulfill goals greater than ourselves -- goals that make our lives meaningful and worth living.

As we approach Yom Kippur, let us remember our limits. On one hand we should apologize for what we have done wrong, for missing the mark, and for promising that which we could not deliver. On the other hand, let this time of contemplation be an opportunity to work with others and appreciate the limited, miraculous time we have together.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah (May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Even When You're not Here

Greetings from Israel! Often we think that when we are not at synagogue we are not "Jewish," or that if we have not come to services we are no longer part of the community. This week's parasha, Nitzavim, contradicts that assumption. The portion begins, " You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day." This blog is designed to keep a Jewish connection with the entire community, whether we are physically present with each other or not. I look forward to starting this year, keeping in contact even when I am away and maintaining learning in the community, even when we are not together in the synagogue building. Whether we come to synagogue consistently or not, have been away from the community or consistently involved, we are all part of the covenant and share in its responsibilities and privileges. In this new year, let's make new efforts to come together physically, spiritually, and intellectually for a fulfilling and fun year. Shabbat Shalom and Shannah Tovah u'mitukah! (A Happy and Sweet New Year!)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Simchat Torah

I will be in Waterville next September 29-October 2nd.

On Thursday Night, September 30th, there will be a Simchat Torah celebration at Congregation Beth Israel. If you have young children or are a kid at heart, take some time before the celebration to make a Simchat Torah flag:

Download a Free Flag

Print it out and follow directions in order to make a great, personal flag!

Some words of Torah and videos will come later this week!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Upcoming Events

Friday, August 27, 2010

Affirmation and Glory: What does it mean to be a Holy People?

Rabbi Isaacs will discuss what this week’s Torah portion can tell us about Israel’s relationship to God. In this portion, “Ki Tavo”, the Israelites are told that if they follow God’s laws, they will be the recipients of great blessings, and that if they do not, they will be afflicted with terrible curses. As Jews today, we all are faced with certain questions: What does it mean to be part of a Covenant? Can it be broken? Is God’s love conditional? What role does Jewish law play in our lives today? With these questions in mind, how should we build Jewish communities in the modern era? While not all of these questions will be answered, we will explore together how these texts speak to our lives, our relationships, and our congregation.

Saturday morning, August 28, 2010

The Stranger in Your Midst

The most repeated mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is “do not afflict the stranger,” since you were a stranger in the land of Egypt. When one considers the fact that these words were written in the ancient Near East, she realizes that this message was revolutionary. The Israelites are commanded by God to be a people that provides and cares for those who do not have full citizenship. At the same time, however, one of the curses we encounter is also related to the stranger. If we do not follow God’s law, the stranger will be our master and creditor. When we juxtapose these two facts, what can we learn about the role of the stranger? Looking at our contemporary context, how do we relate to the gerim (a word both for convert and stranger) in our communities?

Saturday afternoon, August 28, 2010

A Complete Life: A Blessing or a Curse? A Conversation about Moses’ Journey and Our Lives.

While I do not want to give away the ending of this great story, Moses does not make it to the Land of Israel. Moreover, the Jewish people do not inherit The Land until the Book of Joshua, after the Five Books of Moses have come to an end. Does this mean that the Torah is incomplete? Do we always want to achieve all of our goals in our lifetimes? Are some things better left undone? We will explore classical and contemporary texts related to these questions.



This blog is designed to connect Jewish communities in Waterville and let folks know about what is available in town. Rabbi Isaacs will post her schedule for Waterville visits (at Congregation Beth Israel and Colby College), weekly writings on Torah and upcoming holidays, and stories of interest from Israel and Jewish communities around the world. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email Rabbi Isaacs at