Sunday, January 29, 2012

It's Not the Heat, It's the Humidity

A song in honor of the season :-) A completely instrumental piece from Israeli artist, Yair Yona:

Can We Really Run Away?

A thought on this week's portion, Parashat B'Shallach:

As the Israelites were running away from the Egyptians, they caught a glimpse of their foes pursuing them from behind. The Chasidic Rebbe, the Ba'al Shem Tov interprets this verse:

"Often in life, we think we can escape our problems by running away, only to find our problems running after us." (Etz Hayim Commentary)

Turning inward or running away rarely provides an escape. Once we have the strength and freedom we need, it is always best to face our fears directly in order to truly overcome them.

More thoughts from the parasha this upcoming Shabbat!

See you then.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hardened Hearts and Humility: Complicated Lessons from Parashat Bo

In my brief career as a teacher, I often struggle with when to harden my heart. Over the course of a semester, I forge personal bonds with each student and desperately want them to succeed. However, times arise when I need to demand better performance on homework or give a grade that I wish they did not deserve. In these cases, I need to flex my emotional muscles to brace for the feelings of guilt, disappointment, or sadness.

In my case, I chose to harden my own heart in order to do the difficult, but necessary thing. However, one of the greatest mysteries in the Biblical narrative is why God hardens Pharaoh's heart in the Exodus narrative. Don't all humans have free will? Wouldn't God want the Israelites to be freed as soon as possible with the least possible blood shed? According to Exodus 10:1-2, God hardens Pharaoh's heart:

א. וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ

ב. וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן בִּנְךָ אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם וְאֶת אֹתֹתַי אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בָם וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָ־ה:

1. ... in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst,

2. and in order that you tell into the ears of your son and your son's son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and [that you tell of] My signs that I placed in them, and you will know that I am the Lord."

Is it something that God does just to make a point? Does God want to create a dramatic affair to cement his legacy among the generations? Or maybe there is more to the story than appears in the first two verses of the parasha.

According to 10:3, God is so angry at pharaoh because he refuses to "humble himself before the Lord." Pharaoh has exhibited deep evil which requires drastic measures from the Divine. According to Moses Hayyim Luzzato in his work Misilat Yesharim, God needed to make His own heart hard in order to distance Himself from evil. A moral philosopher, Luzzato claims that our obligation to the other is usually infinite, and that the other's face demands that we do all we can for his or her benefit. However, when we encounter someone who intends to make us servile or do evil, we need to harden our faces to protect ourselves and prevent ourselves from doing evil. He writes, "But toward the other who would have us serve his or her evil, we must learn to harden our faces, just as the Torah depicts God hardening Pharaoh's heart -- which indicates God's own heart hardening -- and the similar image of God's hiding the divine face when confronting Israel's sin." (p.80)

Sometimes it is necessary to harden our hearts to protect our bodies and our souls.

However, most of the time, I think we do not need to harden our hearts. Rather, our fear convinces us that we always need to be in this protective mode. When we harden our hearts at every turn, in the face of every entreaty, our world becomes less kind, less giving, and less righteous. Too many times when we are confronted with need or suffering, we harden our hearts and distance ourselves from those struggling. We claim that such pain is inevitable, deserved, or unrelated to our own lives. This approach toward the poor and the vulnerable has led to a status quo in our country that should be a source of shame for us all. We harden our hearts not to protect ourselves from evil, but to guard ourselves from guilt. When we fall into this pattern, we protect our own egos and let the most vulnerable suffer further.

Sometimes we do need to harden ourselves, but most of the time we need to to humble our hearts and soften our countenances. When we make ourselves infinitely available to the other, we become profoundly vulnerable, but we also move further away from becoming pharaohs ourselves. As Jews, we should always strive to liberate those in bondage and not oppress them further with shame or patronizing. Our tradition guides us toward this goal and our struggling country demands it of us more now than ever.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Like" Beth Israel Congregation on Facebook!

If you haven't already, "Like" Beth Israel on facebook for updates on Beth Israel events and happenings. There is a box on the lower, right-hand side of this blog where you can show your love for our congregation!

Monday, January 16, 2012

From the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

I was deeply honored today to give the benediction at Waterville Martin Luther King Day celebration. Here are the remarks that I delivered:

We have all come together today to honor the memory of a great man, a reverend, a teacher, a leader– someone who ultimately sacrificed his life for the cause of social justice. In the face of bigotry and callousness, he stood tall, affirmed the dignity of those held low, and with a steady voice, exposed the ills of his society for the sake of healing, equality, and freedom for all.

One of the clergy who stood with Dr. King was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. When he marched with King at Selma, a reporter asked him, “isn’t it the job of rabbis to lead prayers at the synagogue?” Rabbi Heschel famously responded, “I am praying with my feet.” A survivor of the Holocaust, Heschel fully recognized the face of evil, and was well aware how a government can perpetrate great injustices if not confronted by the passionate cry of its concerned citizens. Both King and Heschel, inspired by their common textual heritage, channeled the message of the Hebrew prophets and the firm command in the Book of Deuteronomy, “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof,” Justice, Justice you shall surely pursue.

In his work, Strength to Love, King adjured all people of faith that "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority."

Regardless of the name we ascribe to the Almighty, whether our faith brings us to an organized religion or not, we must always keep King’s message at the forefront of our minds. Just as God takes special care of “ger, yatom, almanah,” the stranger, the orphan, the widow, so too do we need to be the committed custodians of our weakest and most vulnerable citizens. On this hallowed day, let us recommit ourselves to imitate God’s loving care and commitment to justice: clothing the naked, feeding the poor, helping those held low to stand upright, freeing those held hostage to prejudice based on race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, providing heat to the shivering, and healing to the afflicted. Ken Yihi Ratzon, May it be God’s will, and let us say, Amen.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Prepared for Prophecy: Lessons from Shemot

What were the times in your life when you felt most primed to encounter holiness? Were you feeling unusually peaceful? Were you out in nature? Were you feeling passionate? Or maybe it was when you were most set in a routine that you could paradoxically feel something new? All of us experience holiness in different ways, in different times, in different states of mind.

However, the example of Moses in this week's Torah portion tells us something essential about experiencing the Divine in our lives. It takes work. When Moses encounters the burning bush, he can see a miracle, but he cannot encounter God fully.

Genesis 3:2-4 tell us about this miracle:

ב וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה אֵלָיו, בְּלַבַּת-אֵשׁ--מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ, וְהַסְּנֶה, אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל

2. And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה--אָסֻרָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, אֶת-הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה: מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה 3
And Moses said: 'I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.'

ד וַיַּרְא יְהוָה, כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁה--וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. 4 And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said: 'Moses, Moses.' And he said: 'Here am I.'

Why is it that in verse 2 Moses encounters and angel, and it is only in verse 4 that he encounters God? What has changed? How did his experience deepen from one scene to the next?

The Biblical commentator Ramban writes this:

Our sages intended to say that from the beginning, [both the angel] Michael and the Divine Presence (K’vod haShechinah) appeared to him, but Moses didn’t see the Divine Presence because he hadn’t prepared his heart for prophecy. When he inclined his heart and turned to see, the appearance of the Divine was revealed to him and God called to him from the midst of the bush.

Often we think that we can attain a spiritual experience just by letting go and being ourselves. When that does not work, often we find excuses for why we have not experienced Divine encounter. For Jews, often we complain that Hebrew is too difficult, synagogue attendance is too inconvenient, or that the presence of others serves as an impediment to spirituality.

However, like Moses, we need to prepare ourselves for prophecy. Learning Hebrew is hard, becoming accustomed to new tunes makes us uncomfortable, and going to synagogue may require missing a soccer game, a social event, or just having down time. However, learning, prayer, and consistency allow us to experience the synagogue as a place of spirituality, a place of home, a place where God dwells, ever waiting for us to arrive. Clergy can play a role in leading a congregation closer to this experience, but ultimately, we all need to take accountability for getting ourselves closer to that state of being. Just as we need to stretch before playing a game, so too do we need to condition ourselves spiritually for encounter. Daily prayer, awareness of what we eat, pursuing social justice, and yes, even learning Hebrew, are how we prime ourselves for a deep experience that is strongly rooted in our sacred tradition.

This week let us all think about how we can better attain a connection to the Divine. How can we put in the work to make synagogue and Jewish life what we want it to be? In what ways can I draw stronger connections between Torah wisdom and my every day life? When we prepare ourselves for prophecy, the opportunities for holiness and depth increase exponentially.

Shabbat Shalom

Access Texts: Parashat Yayechi and Karen Heck's benediction

This past week was full of excitement. Mel delivered her first davar Torah at Beth Israel Congregation for Parashat Vayichi, the last portion in the Book of Genesis. You can access her words here.

Many of you also wanted to see the benediction that I gave at Mayor Karen Heck's inauguration. You can access it here.

Shavua Tov!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Proud Moment for the Conservative Movement

This inspirational speech was delivered by the new International President of USY, Daniel Kaplan. If this is the future of Conservative leadership, I feel hopeful about the fate of our movement:

Monday, January 2, 2012

Upcoming January Events at Beth Israel Congregation!

January 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm at Selah Tea Café – Talmud Class, “Can We Ever Truly Pay Someone Back/ Is Compensation Possible for Damages? An Introduction to Rabbinic Civil Law”

January 16, 2012 at 5:30 pm: Beth Israel Movie Night. It's a federal holiday! Please join us at Beth Israel for pizza and a movie. We will be watching the Israeli film, "Turn Left at the end of the World." If interested in pizza, please RSVP to Rabbi Isaacs: A $10 donation is request to cover the cost of food.

January 20, 2012: Dinner and Guest speaker:
Guest Speaker: Dr. Linda Maizels on Jewish voices in the debate over multiculturalism.

We will be joined by Rabbi Isaacs' Jewish Theology class from Colby.

Dinner will be provided with meat and vegan options, please RSVP to Rabbi Isaacs at A $10 donation is requested to help cover the cost of food.

Shabbat Services:

Shabbat Services will be held on the first and third Shabbatot of each month: (Please note that Friday night programming will now begin every week at 6 pm during the winter months.)

January 6, 2012 -- Potluck at 6 pm and services at 7 pm
January 7, 2012 -- Shabbat services at 10 am

January 20, 2012 -- Shabbat Services at 6:00 pm with catered meal to follow.
January 21, 2012 -- Shabbat Services at 10:00 am

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Waterville iball on January 7, 2012

Mayor Karen Heck invites us all to attend the 2012 iball, supporting Hardy Girls and the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter:

Inaugural Ball (iBall) scheduled for Saturday, January 7th, 2012!

There are lots of volunteers working on gathering items for the silent auction, appetizers from local restaurants and hosts for the event. Charlie Giguere has donated the space at Champions. Eric Thomas, Director of Jazz and Wind Ensembles at Colby has assembled musicians, my Republican opponent Andrew Roy is going to DJ and MaineGeneral is our first corporate underwriter. And, we already have 15 hosts at $100 toward our goal of 50.

Volunteers from the Mid Maine Homeless Shelter will be soliciting donations for the silent auction, appetizers, hosts and corporate sponsors. If you are interested in supporting the event, please feel free to get in touch with me. All of the proceeds will go to supporting the good work of the Mid Maine Homeless Shelter ( and Hardy Girls Healthy Women (

Tickets can be purchased online now at or beginning Tuesday, December 27th at Hardy Girls Healthy Women, 14 Common St and Joseph's Fireside Steakhouse, West River Road.

To learn more about the iBall, visit my website: