Monday, July 30, 2012

Upcoming Talmud Class: Divorce in the Talmud

Are you planning on coming to Talmud class this Thursday at Selah Tea Cafe at 6:30 pm?  If so, you might want to check out the text in advance -- we've got 2 sugyot to get through and that's not even the tip of the iceberg!  Click here to look over the text we'll be studying together.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

When You Can't be the Judge: Parashat Dvarim

           We all have people in our lives that do things that make us crazy.  Often when someone has an annoying habit, it is 10 times more difficult to deal with when we love them than when they are a stranger.  The more history that we have with a person, the more intimate our relationship is, often the more difficult it is to communicate how devastating their behavior is.  This dynamic is what makes human relationships and communication so difficult -- the more we have invested in a relationship with someone we love, the more difficult it is to share judgments with them.  Our hesitation to criticize the people we love sometimes hurts the relationship, but sometimes it also leads us to be more prudent and sensitive.  The world needs judgments and judges because bad behavior must be identified and confronted.  However,  not all people are equally good or appropriate messengers of those criticisms.
            Moses deals with this difficulty in the beginning of Parashat Devarim.  This week's portion begins with God and Moses reminiscing about their greatest challenges and successes.  In Deuteronomy 1:8-10, we read this exchange between Moses and God:

ח  רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לִפְנֵיכֶם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ; בֹּאוּ, וּרְשׁוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לָתֵת לָהֶם, וּלְזַרְעָם אַחֲרֵיהֶם. 8 Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them.'
ט  וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם, בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר:  לֹא-אוּכַל לְבַדִּי, שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם. 9 And I spoke unto you at that time, saying: 'I am not able to bear you myself alone;
י  יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הִרְבָּה אֶתְכֶם; וְהִנְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב. 10 the LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.
Moses recounts a difficult exchange he had with the Israelites.  He cannot handle the Israelites alone -- they are too difficult to deal with.  God responded that he had multiplied the Israelites in order to help Moses.
            This is a difficult exchange to understand.  What in particular was so hard for Moses?  And how did multiplying them make life easier for Moses?  In the famous midrash collection, The Yalkut Shimoni, the authors claim that the Moses' difficult was that he could not judge a people he loved so much and for whom he had done so much. (You can read the original Hebrew text by clicking here.)  He could not bear to judge the people who he had taken out of Egypt, the people for whom he parted the Sea of Reeds, the people he fed with manna from heaven.  Therefore, God multiplied the potential judges of Israel to help him in this one task that he could not complete.
            Moses was not a failure as a leader because he could not judge the people Israel.  His inability to judge them was the result of a very human, natural love for the people he led.  Moses certainly had opinions about his flock, many of which were quite harsh.  However, God knew that he could not be the judge and the shepherd at the same time.  He needed to request the voices and the aid of others to fully serve the people Israel.  He knew his own limits, God acknowledged them, and others in the community stepped up to ensure the spiritual health and longevity of the people.
              Judgment is essential for a functional and ethical society.  People who claim not to judge are usually lying -- we all judge and we all should do so.  Rather there are times when we do not judge openly because we are afraid of the social, political, and emotional consequences.  Sometimes that fear is merely cowardice, and at other times it is a signal that we are not the appropriate people to judge.  How can we distinguish cowardice from necessary caution?  If you feel like Moses and cannot judge because of love or intimacy, it is a time to ask for help from others in addressing the problems you see in your loved ones.  If your reticence does not stem from love, but merely a concern for yourself, then it is time to garner the courage to channel your prophetic voice.
Shabbat Shalom

Monday, July 23, 2012

Redeeming the Captives: Text for Next Talmud Class

Our next Talmud class will focus on the ethics of redeeming captives.  How much is too much to pay for someone taken hostage?  What are the effects on the individual, his or her family, and the greater Jewish community?  Unfortunately, this text is as relevant as ever with Israeli soldiers being abducted regularly.  How much should be sacrifice for one life?

You can access the core texts of our class by clicking here.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Three Sisters Movie Event!

Monday. July 23, 2012: Three Sisters Movie Event.  

Come and learn about the founding of our amazing synagogue, how to plan a family reunion, and the role of the Levine family in Jewish Waterville. 

 5:00 pm at Beth Israel Congregation (Kelsey St. Entrance.)  Please RSVP to Rabbi Isaacs 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Whose Fault is It?: Parashat Mattot-Massei

            When my brother and I were younger, we would go to great lengths to prove that the broken, late, spoiled______________ (fill in the blank) was not our fault.  "It's not my fault" may be one of the phrases my mom and dad heard most when we were growing up.  Somehow, I have a feeling that the regularity of this response was not unique to the Isaacs household.  We all have a natural inclination to assign blame to others or to downplay the gravity of a sin that we have committed.  Increasingly we live in a culture where we are told to "forgive ourselves" or "let it go" when we have a difficult time dealing with our guilt.  However, the Torah does not let us off the hook so easily.  If anything, the Scripture does exactly the opposite.
           In this week's portion, Matot-Massei, we learn about the responsibility related to taking vows.  On the whole, the Torah is not a fan of vows because making pledges is a serious matter.  It is a grave sin to break a promise, and as a result, the Book of Ecclesiastes adjures against making vows in the first place. 
          In Matot-Massei, we learn who is responsible for a woman who makes a vow.  On one hand, it is extremely sexist that a woman's male relatives are held to account for her words.  At the same time, there is a larger lesson that can be learned from Numbers 13:16.  If a woman's husband hears her vow, upholds it temporarily, and then revokes it, he becomes responsible for the damage of her words.  Endorsing her error makes the husband culpable for her sin.  Rashi expands on the Torah's words, "...if someone causes his fellow to stumble, he bears his punishments in his place."

16. If he revokes them after having heard [them], he shall bear her iniquity.טז. וְאִם הָפֵר יָפֵר אֹתָם אַחֲרֵי שָׁמְעוֹ וְנָשָׂא אֶת עֲוֹנָהּ:

he shall bear her iniquity: He takes her place. We learn from here that if someone causes his fellow to stumble, he bears his punishments in his place. — [Sifrei Mattoth 30]ונשא את עונה: הוא נכנס תחתיה. למדנו מכאן שהגורם תקלה לחבירו הוא נכנס 

           When we endorse or encourage someone else to err, the sin becomes our own.  The Torah has no patience for fancy or elaborate defenses.  Rather, it puts forth an approach to life that demands mutual accountability in order to create a just society.  When we enable and excuse the sins of others, we create a wretched world with them, and the guilt is shared.   One of the features that should distinguish a child from an adult, a Torah Jew from someone who lives a life of self-gratification, is the ability to accept responsibility for her influence on others, and the willingness to accept blame gracefully.  
          This week let us focus on our power to influence others, for the positive and the negative.  Let us measure our words carefully, and use them only to lead people to lives of greater righteousness.  Excusing ourselves from the sins of our society may feel good, but it is a direct affront to God's teaching.  Let us know when to accept blame, and be vigilant in preventing others from stumbling down the wrong path.

Shabbat Shalom!

Midrash Series: Text for Class 2

Our next class will focus on the unique phenomenon of rabbis who took brides for a day when away at school or work.  What was this like for the rabbis and for the women who they chose to marry for temporary companionship?  I have attached the small, laconic text from the Talmud (Yevamot 37b) with personal midrash and commentary from acclaimed Talmud scholar, Dr. Ruth Calderon.

You can access the text by clicking here!



July 20, 2012: Friday night services and oneg. 7:00 pm. SPECIAL PROGRAM:
 An exploration into the history of Beth Israel Congregation through books and artifacts.  We have cleaned and organized the Beth Israel book room and have unearthed JEWELS hidden within our building. (Teaser: A Tale of Two Cities in Yiddish?, The Song of Songs hand-crafted Megillah, personal letters in Yiddish from pre-state Israel)  


July 21, 2012: 
Saturday Morning Hike at Quarry Road at 10:00 am.  Meet at the Parking Lot. After the amazing success of our past Shabbat hike, please come and join us again.  If you have any poetry related to spirituality or nature, please bring them along!! (Bug spray suggested)

July 23, 2012 (Monday night):  Three Sisters Movie Event 5:00 pm at Beth Israel Congregation (Kelsey St. Entrance.). Come and learn about the founding of our amazing synagogue, how to plan a family reunion, and the role of the Levine family in Jewish Waterville.   Please RSVP to

July 25, 2012 (Wednesday at noon): Midrash Class at Thai Bistro. Check the blog: for our next text.

July 26, 2012 (Thursday evening at 6:30): Talmud Class at Selah Tea.  "Freeing the Captives: How Much is Human Freedom Worth?"

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Documenting Maine Jewry

Honoring the Jewish tradition of remembrance, the Documenting Maine Jewry project seeks to tell the story of the Maine Jews and their communities. Its goal is to collect short histories of the many people and organizations that have contributed to the lives of Maine Jewry since the 1880s. On, one can listen to Maine Jewish oral histories; contribute your own family and community history; and find documents and news articles about old family members and friends. Documenting Maine Jewry is the Maine branch of the International Association  of Jewish Genealogical Societies.   
On the Greater Waterville home page ( one can explore biographies, cemetery records, and photographs of families which have a strong tie to the Greater Waterville area. Currently there are records on 889 individual Jews with strong ties to Greater Waterville of which 63 records show the origin of first generation immigrants; 159 records of burial in Jewish cemeteries for which there are 107 headstone images; 58 organizations important to the Greater Waterville area Jewish community of which 31 are Jewish community institutions and 23 are businesses important to the Greater Waterville area Jewish community; 227 bibliographic citations and sources pertaining to Greater Waterville of which 86 are photographs and 19 are oral histories.
DMJ will welcome additional contributions of documents and photographs from your family and from organizations based in and around Greater Waterville.   To contribute to the history or to subscribe to a free monthly online newsletter, contact MaineJews@gmail.comDocumenting Maine Jewry is largely an all-volunteer organization.  We welcome new volunteers and financial support.   Financial contributions can be designated to honor one's own Maine immigrant family or to inspire and inform the next generation of Maine Jews. Contribution can be sent to Temple Beth El (marked for DMJ) , 400 Deering Ave,  Portland, Maine 04103.
Thank you for your assistance and support.
Harris Gleckman
Project Shammas
Documenting Maine Jewry

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Shabbat Shalom from Neve Shalom: Parashat Balak

A Shabbat message posted a little bit late.  Enjoy!