Category Archives: Rabbi Tom’s Messages

Rabbi Tom’s Message: Finding our Lech Lecha Moment

Rabbi Tom Samuels

The traditional American synagogue model is showing signs of age. Over the past two decades, membership has declined across the United States, forcing many synagogues to merge or to close. And yet, most research shows that American Jews are desperately seeking community, spirituality, meaning, and purpose in their lives.

The traditional American synagogue model is showing signs of age. Over the past two decades, membership has declined across the United States, forcing many synagogues to merge or to close. And yet, most research shows that American Jews are desperately seeking community, spirituality, meaning, and purpose in their lives.

How can we reconcile this contradiction? If, as the research concludes, Jews are indeed seeking both spirituality and transcendence … if they feel that they cannot lead a meaningful life without this … then why are they not joining synagogues whose core mission has been to provide these very same ideals of community, spirituality, meaning, and purpose?

What I believe we are in fact witnessing is not a social cognitive dissonance, but rather a paradigm shift from an “institutional” to a “personal” understanding of spirituality. In other words, Jews, and in particular, young Jews, are not finding what they are looking for in the existing buildings and institutions that have defined Jewish life for generations of American Jews. They are looking for and finding it elsewhere. And in an increasingly secular America, all sorts of activities and subcultures provide the meaning that in the past religious communities provided. (Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurstonand’s 2018 Harvard Divinity School Study, “How We Gather”)

My message is, first and foremost, do not fret! We, as a people, have been down this path many times before. We are not the first generation of Jews, nor will we be the last, to contend with meshing tradition and modernity, the old with the new, the past with the present. In fact, transitions, radical change, an ethos of iconoclasm, is at the very core of the Jewish experience and of our peoplehood. (Douglas Ruskoff’s 2004 book, Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism)

In the Torah portion Lech Lecha, near the beginning of the Book of Genesis, Abraham hears a call:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. “Go to yourself, leave your land, your father’s house, and go to a land that I will show you … and you will be a source of blessing.” 

The language used here is, at first glance, odd and inconsistent with the biblical text’s style up to this point. Abraham is literally told to “go into himself,” rather than to “go out there,” – beyond the familiar, away from your family, and towards somewhere out “there.” The indeterminacy of the journey. (Rabbi Irwin Kula’s 2007 book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life)

The great medieval Rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides, suggests that Abraham wandered from place to place until he finally discovered “his” place. Abraham leaves for the desert – a harbinger for the path of the people that will come from him, whose journey from the known to the untamed, unpredictable wilderness is where he and they both encounter God.

The Hebrew word for wilderness is מִדְבָּר, Midbar, from the root .ד.ב.ר, or d-b-r, to speak. The connection between the wilderness and speech, Divine speech, is thus made: When we leave the comfortable, the familiar, when we head into the elemental terrain of the wilderness, we can encounter the voice of God, the Divine within. This is more than geographic or external. This is deeply soul-engaging and experiential. That locale where the Shechina, the Divine Presence, dwells. The “go into” with which God summons Abraham. (Rabbi Danny Gordis’ 1997 book, God Was Not in the Fire: A Search for a Spiritual Judaism)

In truth, Abraham’s final destination isn’t really all that relevant. It is the act of leave-taking itself – that painful, terrifying moment when Abraham leaves behind the known and the predictable for nothing more than a promise.

The Torah of our time is straining in a world where identity and affiliation are voluntary expressions shaped by choice rather than heritage. Communal boundaries are increasingly porous in our flat, networked society defined by access and collaboration, in which religious hierarchies make less and less sense. Individuals personally curate their own Jewish lives, drawing from an array of cultural, intellectual, social, political, ethnic, spiritual, sexual, and gender affiliations within and beyond the Jewish community. Diverse sources of authority and inspiration abound, shaping multifaceted, multi-vocal Jewish expressions in the global conversation about meaning, connection, and faith. (Rabbi Jay Michaelson’s 2007 Forward article, “DIY Judaism”)

Many shudder at the thought of “shattering” any part of the Torah, or at least, the traditions that they are used to, in which they seek comfort.

But we must remember the biblical story of Moses breaking the Torah at the sight of the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf. At the end of this story, after Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai and brings down with him a second set of Torah tablets, the Torah tells us that the shards of the tablets Moses broke were kept in the Holy Ark, right beside the new, intact ones.

Among those shards lie such historic decisions as embracing matrilineal descent, banning polygamy, and requiring a wife’s consent to divorce, as well as more recent “fractures” of tradition initiated for the sake of Jewish peoplehood, like allowing converts to marry Kohanim, seminaries to ordain women, communities to enfranchise LGBTQ Jews, and Jewish cemeteries to bury non-Jewish spouses. (Rabbi Jay Michaelson’s 2004 Forward article, “The Myth of Jewish Authenticity”)

The disassembling and reassembling of Torah in every generation is part of the sacred narrative and destiny of the Jewish people. It’s the source of our continuity, not our dissolution.

The irony is that this is and has always been at the heart of the Jewish Way. It is where we come together, determined to support each other, challenge each other, argue with each other, and compromise for each other. We come together and create a Visionary Community with a Sacred Purpose that infuses all aspects of our lives. (Professor Steve Cohen’s 2010 study, “Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary”)

This is the Judaism that Jews crave and that we all desire. This is a Judaism that engages, integrates, and inspires the whole person. It is the world we inhabit and the world we would like to build.

Our Torah is called the Book of Life, Sefer Ha’Chayim. Judaism is something with which you get intimately involved. It is a relationship, a meeting place. It is where we meet Holiness in our everyday lives. It remains so, once and if we are ready to be serious about Judaism.

With this theology and this history in mind, what are we prepared to dismantle and reconfigure to help more Jews feel at home in Judaism and the Jewish community? To motivate young Jews to stay and to contribute to a shared vision of the future?How will each of us leave the familiarity of our “homes”?Challenge our complacency? Stretch our comfort levels, and thereby find, unravel the Nistar, that hidden strength to dive into the re-patternings, the realignments from which can arise new beginnings, creativity, self-actualization, towards God?

What is our generation’s Lech Lecha moment going to look like?

I leave us all with more questions than answers. After all, this is the Jewish Way.


Rabbi Tom, MCJC

A Message from Rabbi Tom: Havdalah at MCJC

January – February 2019 – Kislev/Tevet/Sh’vat
Volume 5780

Rabbi Tom Samuels

On November 17, the MCJC community gathered on a Saturday evening for a Havdalah program. We sang, prayed the mystical Havdalah service, ate and schmoozed (of course), and kids of all ages made Hanukkah menorahs out of pizza dough. We all experienced tremendous amounts of fun and joy.

Building on this great experience, we are planning a monthly Havdalah program throughout the year. Please watch our weekly e-nouncements for upcoming dates, logistics, and themes. 

With this in mind, I want to share some thoughts on Havdalah, and specifically on how we can find holiness in our everyday lives in a Jewish way.

Elie Wiesel, may his soul rest in peace, tells of the poet who was asked what thing he would save from his burning home – but only one thing. What would it be? The poet answered that he would save the fire itself, for without the fire, life would not be worth living. 

Fire plays an integral role throughout the Torah. The first act of Creation, creating light, leads to the creation of all sources of energy including fire. Soon afterward came the crowning event of Creation, Shabbat. And when the first Shabbat was over, Adam watched as the sun went down. An ever-deepening gloom unfolded, and Adam’s heart was filled with terror, lost in the absolute darkness. God gave Adam the intuition to rub two stones together to discover fire, upon which Adam exclaimed, “Blessed be the Creator of the lights of fire.” Thus the light of the first Shabbat was like the primordial light of the first day of Creation, in which it was possible to see from one end of the universe to the other, for on both days the light lasted and the darkness was held back. (From Howard Schwartz’s Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism)

This story is in stark contrast to the Creation myths of other cultures. In the Greek myth of Prometheus, Prometheus steals fire from the jealous gods and secretly shares it with the humans. For this he is chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.

In the Jewish tradition, the fire is neither stolen nor denied to humanity. It is a gift from God as part of a symbiotic relationship, whereby both God, the eternal, and man–the infinite and the finite — co-create and collaborate on the ongoing quest to make and improve the world. 

The Creation story is re-enacted every week on Shabbat. For six days there is an invigorating and intense creation process in the physical realm. We usher in Shabbat with light, the candles. On this seventh day, we cease activity in order to make room for the life of the soul. We welcome in our Neshama Yeteira, our additional soul. And then at the end of the Shabbat, we welcome back into our lives the Chol, the ever-potentially-holy everyday, with fire. (From Rabbi Pinchas Peli’s Torah Today)

The word Havdalah means to differentiate, or to distinguish. The entire ceremony is to distinguish between the Shabbat that we have just experienced, and the week that we are about to enter. 

We say three blessings: first over the wine, a symbol of joy. We take pleasure in what we have accomplished, and hope that it will continue to grow into the week. Then we say a blessing over the spices, whose fragrance we inhale to comfort our soul at the loss of Shabbat. Finally is the prayer over the flame, which symbolizes light and darkness and the ability to see the difference in a very deep way. 

The greatest tool we have for appreciating anything is the ability to distinguish and differentiate. When we see things as rare and unique, they stand out as special and somehow have their own place in the world. Yet all too often we have a hard time utilizing this tool and seeing things for their own uniqueness. Masses of people just become ordinary beings. Beautiful sunsets all start to look the same. Our challenge is to discern and see the minute differences that exist in the world, in order to appreciate their rare and unique qualities and thus take pleasure in their existence. (From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Covenant & Conversations: Exodus)

In the Havdalah ceremony, we set a braided candle aflame, and hold up our fingers to see the light and shadows dancing upon them. Shabbat is over. We mark its end with Havdalah and recognize the beginning of the week. For the week is not Shabbat. If we have used the Shabbat properly, however, we may be able to infuse some of it into our new week.

Rabbi Tom, MCJC

A Message From Rabbi Tom: Conflict As A Sign Of Trust

November/December 2018 – Cheshvan/Kislev/Tevet
Volume 5779

Rabbi Tom SamuelsOver the past two years since I assumed the role of spiritual leader at MCJC, so much has happened. Many of our members have found their Jewish voices and their Jewish community at MCJC. On
the flip side, others felt like their community had the rug pulled from underneath them. This makes me both sad and hopeful. Sad for the hurt, and hopeful for the momentum of imagination and aspiration.

I am relatively new, and still a “greenhorn” to the MCJC community. But I do know, respect, and value that it is trust that is at the core of all thriving relationships, let alone one as complex and intimate as a spiritual community.

What this means in practical terms is that time is everything because trust can only compound with time. People that work together, get better, and get stronger. Because it takes time to develop the trust, you need real candor and openness. And with this comes conflict, and a sort of determinant for when people feel safe and committed.

As Margaret Heffernan says in her viral TED Talk, “Conflict is frequent because candor is safe. And that’s how good ideas turn into great ideas. Because no idea is born fully formed. It emerges as a child is born: kind of messy and confused, but full of possibilities.”

This is at the heart of the Jewish Way: where a whole bunch of people come together, determined to support each other, challenge each other, argue with each other, and compromise for each other. We come together and create a visionary community with a sacred purpose that infuses all aspects of the synagogue, and where the
whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Where Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasadim are intertwined throughout synagogue life. Where meaningful engagement is achieved through repeated inspirational experiences that infuse people’s lives with meaning. And where there is a disposition for innovation, marked by a search for diversity and alternatives, and most importantly, a high tolerance for possible failure (Professor Steve Cohen).

Ayn Hadash Tachat HaShemesh, There is nothing new under the sun, wrote the author of Ecclesiastes. We as a People have been down this road many times.

An old Hassidic tale from the mid 19th century tells of Reb Yissachar who traveled to see his rebbe, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, the Chozeh of Lublin. Arriving at his rebbe’s study, he said, “Show me one general way that all of us might serve God.” “One way?” the Seer said. “What makes you think there is one way? Are people all the same that a single practice would suit them all?” “Then how am I to teach people to find God?” Rebbe Yissachar Dov asked. “It is impossible to tell people how they should serve. For one, the way is the way of study; for another, the way is the way of prayer; for another, the way is the way of fasting or feasting; for another, the way is the way of service to one’s neighbor.” “Then what shall I tell those who ask me for guidance in this area?” “Tell them this,” the Chozeh said. “Carefully observe the way of your own heart, see what stirs your passion for God and godliness, and then do that with all your heart and all your strength” (Rabbi Rami Shapiro).

Judaism, the Chozeh of Lublin is teaching through this story, is a message of iconoclasm. Never about complacency. Never about a kitsch-like nostalgia. Never about some amorphous sense of obligation. Never about a list of rules and beliefs set in stone. Never about the maintenance of rituals and behaviors from a particular moment in history. And never about Jewish continuity as an end unto itself (Douglas Rushkoff).

Jews must consciously decide whether and how to identify as Jews. We must ask ourselves, each and every day, Why be Jewish? Do we have an obligation to remain part of the Jewish people? Where does that obligation come from? Who (or what) makes that obligation real? If I choose not to be Jewish, what do I lose? Would our lives be significantly impoverished if we choose not to make Jewish connection a central part of life? And perhaps even more fundamentally, we must ask, What does Judaism offer that I cannot find in secular society?

Rabbi Danny Gordis teaches that the word for “crisis” in Hebrew is mashber, a word also used for “birthstone,” a seat upon which a woman in ancient times sat as she gave birth. “The Hebrew language, Gordis writes, “recognizes that while crises are often
frightening, they are also filled with potential. Adversity, our tradition suggests, needs to be turned into opportunity.” These questions and this process, as with all transitions, can be a daunting process. And so, we do this as a community. Not alone.

I look forward to continuing on the beautiful, sacred journey together, with all of you.

Rabbi Tom

A Message From Rabbi Tom: Breaking The Torah

September/October 2018 – Elul/Tishrei/Cheshvan
Volume 5778-5779

Rabbi Tom SamuelsRabbi Harold Schulweis, may his memory be a blessing, tells a beautiful story of a 19th century Chassidic rabbi by the name of Rabbi Mordecai.

Rabbi Mordechai was the poor rabbi of a very poor village. Before Sukkot, the Holiday of the Booths, the villagers gathered together some money for their rabbi to purchase an etrog, a ritual lemon used on Sukkot. Rabbi Mordecai set out of the village to purchase an etrog at the market in the adjacent main town.

Along the way, he came across a wagoner, who was on his knees, sobbing. “My horse is dead!” cried out the wagoner,“ I have nothing. Who will pull my wagon?” Rabbi Mordecai, without hesitation, gave the man the money his villagers had given him to purchase the etrog, turned around, and returned to his village empty-handed.

The townspeople were aghast. What shall we do? How will we fulfill the commandment of lulav (the frond of a date palm tree also used on Sukkot) and etrog on Sukkot? We have no more money to purchase one.

Rabbi Mordecai paskened a din, made a rabbinic legal decision, that the villagers would instead bench etrog (say the blessing over the etrog) over a dead horse. The etrog is a symbol for our hearts, or symbol for our compassion. Rabbi Mordecai substituted the purpose of the symbol for the symbol itself. “To do otherwise,” Rabbi Schulweis teaches, “to make the symbol an end unto itself, to replace compassion and loving kindness for an etrog, to ascribe inherent holiness to this object, would be making a ritual into a kind of idolatry. This is not the Jewish way.”

This is not the Jewish understanding of what is holy, kadosh. Our Torah teaches that holiness is available to us in every moment, in every place. It is the continuous, ongoing acts of mindfulness, consciousness, and creativity which originates in all of Creation. The opposite of holy in Hebrew is chol, which does not translate into “profane,” but rather as “empty” or better yet, “not yet filled.”

In the Talmud (Gittin 45b) we learn that a Torah scroll written by a heretic is to be burned. Imagine that. Place two identical Torah scrolls in front of yourself. One is written by a pious scribe, a sofer in Hebrew, the other by an atheist. One is to be sanctified, the other to be burned. In other words, “holiness is not a property of objects. It is a property of human acts and intentions,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “There is no such thing,” he continues, “as ontological holiness or intrinsic sanctity.”

The great 20th century Torah commentary, the Meshech Chochmah, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, Latvia, was famous for throwing a wrench into assumed understandings of even the most basic Torah text. He re-imagines the story of Moses breaking the first set of tablets, the ones written by the Hand of God, when he returns with them from the mountain and witnesses the Episode of the Golden Calf. We assume that Moses sinned, and that he lost his temper and broke the tablets.

The Meshech Chochmah flips the narrative on its back and teaches that Moses did not in fact lose his temper. He did not sin. Rather, upon seeing the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses realized that the Israelites built the Golden Calf, not as a thing to be worshipped in itself but as an object of holiness that might summon the Divine down upon it. Moses fears that they could just as easily worship the tablets, even Moses himself. The Meshech Chomah imagines Moses scolding the Israelites: “Did you think that I (Moses) had any holiness without God’s command, so that when my presence was gone, you made this calf? I am just a man like you! Do not think that the Sanctuary or the Tabernacle themselves are holy things, God forbid. These things are mere vessels. And even more so, the tablets, with the writing of God – these too have no holiness in themselves, but only for your sake.”

“Moses did not break the tablets out of mere rage, but in order to  teach the people a profound spiritual lesson: that religion itself can become an object of idolatry,” writes Rabbi David Kasher. Moses broke the Torah, God’s Torah, in order to make a nuanced point about the purpose of Torah: that sometimes we have to challenge and even shatter our assumptions, our learned understandings of what is Torah, what is Judaism, and what is our purpose in life.

“You can’t make a Torah, it seems,” Rabbi Kasher concludes, “without breaking some tablets.”

Rabbi Tom

A Message From Rabbi Tom: A Judaism That Touches Our Souls

July/August 2018 ~ Tammuz/Av/Elul ~ Volume 5778

Rabbi Tom SamuelsAt the very beginning of the Torah’s Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, the Israelite nation is commanded by God to take a military census as preparation for their upcoming war to conquer the Promised Land. And yet previously, in the Book of Exodus, Shemot, God warns the Israelites that census-taking, even for the purpose of war, can result in the death by plague of the participants and of the takers themselves.

Which is it then? Is taking a census permissible or not? Our ancient Sages look to the case study of King David to help resolve this textual contradiction. In the Book of Samuel II (and in parallel, Chronicles I), King David and the entire nation are punished with a horrible plague for having taken a census. What’s so wrong with taking a census, the Sages asked? They conclude that, at least in the case of David, the sin of counting was that he reduced human beings to objects, resources to satiate his feeling of being in absolute control. (I can imagine King David surveying his kingdom from his palace’s turret and exclaiming “All of this is MINE!”)

The ancient rabbis understood that human nature tends toward formulating the allusion, the story, and that we are the sum of that which we own. Our very existence is dependent on our power over others. David’s sin was relating to his people as surrogates to serve his own ego. But David and all of us are here to serve each other. Communal systems cannot flourish where their only narrative is numbers and rules. For true vibrancy, communities require human stories – of suffering and triumph, conflict and euphoria, humor and love – to ensure that a community understands its own depth and complexity (Rabbi Sacks).

The similarities to our current Jewish public conversation concerning policies and numbers is salient. In the institutional American Jewish world over the past half-century, there has been what scholars call a Theology of Demographics: How many people registered for your Shabbat program? How many households are members of your synagogue? How many young families participated in your Purim carnival? What is your temple’s post-Bnai Mitzvah attrition rate? This has become the bulk of the conversation, the Halacha of American Jewish life.

But here’s the problem with this conversation: While it certainly comes from a good place, an existential concern for the continuation of American Jewry, in our zeal to ensure the Jewish future, we forgot to articulate why it matters for Judaism to continue. The challenge isn’t about demographics. Rather it is about creating communities of meaning.

In America, where Jews can choose their religious and cultural identities from a smorgasbord of a seemingly endless array of offerings, where Jews are free to leave the Jewish community without joining any other religious community, where old ties to Jewish life have eroded and most Jews have no plausible explanation to justify trying to preserve them (Rabbi Gordis), the conversations that we need to have must start at the very fundamentals of our personal and collective Jewish identities. Why be Jewish? Do we have an obligation to remain part of the Jewish people? Where does that obligation come from? Who (or what) makes that obligation real? If I choose not to be Jewish, what do I lose? Would our lives be significantly impoverished if we chose not to make Jewish connection a central part of life? What does Judaism offer that I cannot find in secular society (Rabbi Gordis)?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously stated at the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly in 1964 that “…it is time to retire surveys and survival.” We must teach each other how a commitment to Jewish life will revive our spirit, rekindle our passion for living, and
infuse our lives with joy and with meaning (Jay Michaelson). We must foster a Jewish life which merits the attention of modern Jews by virtue of its potential role in our lives as a compelling, meaningful, and enriching enterprise that helps define precisely who and what we are (Rabbi Gordis). To express our humanity. To satisfy our need to touch the transcendent in the world.

Rabbi Tom

A Message from Rabbi Tom

MCJC Connections
May/June 2018 ~ Iyar/Sivan/Tamuz ~ Volume 5778

Rabbi Tom Samuels

Leadership guru Jim Collins describes a great leader as “an individual who blends extreme personal humility with an intense professional will.” Collins points out that such a combination is a rarity and needs to be recognized and appreciated. “Leaders,” Collins writes, “who possess this paradoxical combination of traits are catalysts for the statistically rare event of transforming a good company into a great one.”

MCJC and I have been blessed to have such leaders at our helm: outgoing president, Jack Fishman, and outgoing vice-president, Rob Perbohner. From my personal experience over the past two years that I have served as MCJC’s spiritual leader, Jack and Rob have weathered the storms that inevitably come with transitions and changes. They have done so with grace, respect, and as true mensches, readily willing to learn, to let go, and most important, to trust. They both truly exemplify the best of a reflective leadership and governance style marked by a careful examination of alternatives, a commitment to overarching purpose, attention to relationships, and a mastery of both big picture and detail. I will miss them both dearly.

Our Torah gives us a model for a healthy transition of leadership in the narrative of Moses presenting his successor, Joshua, to the Israelites: “And Moses went and spoke these words unto all Israel. And he said to them ‘I am a hundred and twenty years-old this day. I can no more go out and come in. And the Lord said to me, ‘You shall not go over the Jordan. The Lord, your God, He will go over before you and Joshua,’ he will go over before you.” (Deuteronomy 31:1-3)

But the narrative leaves the reader in a state of not knowing: How would Moses feel in the end? Might he act on feelings of jealousy? And, how would the Israelites react? Would they embrace Joshua? After all, they had spent the past forty tumultuous years with Moses, through the ups and downs that are at the foundation of any deeply-rooted, intimate relationship formation process. Would they be able to let go of Moses and accept his young assistant, Joshua? And finally, would Joshua, so used to being second-in-command to Moses, be able to assume the mantle of prime leadership? Would he be overwhelmed by this new responsibility, the very fate of his people burdened on his shoulders alone? (Rabbi

Let us return to the first three words cited in the Torah passage above, “And Moses went.” Where, in fact, did Moses go? The great medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) writes that Moses went from tribe to tribe, tent to tent, comforting his people and encouraging them to embrace the closure of his leadership, while at the same time the continuation of the leadership of God, and the new leadership of Joshua. No one leader, not even Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, the only human to have seen the face of God, is indispensable, irreplaceable. The organization, is far larger than any one person.

All transitions, our Torah is teaching us, leave us with questions, doubts, and fear of the unknown. However, while those times of transitions might feel daunting, it is precisely these in-between phases, before the old is entirely gone and the new entirely settled, which allow for innovation, radically honest self-reflection, and consequently individual, relational, and collective actualization.

As Jack and Rob’s board terms come to an end this May, and as they tirelessly continue to dedicate their time and energy to ensuring a smooth transition to a new MCJC board, they exemplify and inspire the Talmudic dictum: “This is what the Holy One said to Israel: My
children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you have the love for one another, honor one another, and that you have awe and reverence for one another.” (Tanna de Bei Eliyahu Rabbah)

I will miss having Jack and Rob as our board leaders. At the same time, I look forward to working with our new board and new energy. In the end, the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land and thrived. And so shall MCJC.

Rabbi Tom

A Message From Rabbi Tom: Sharing and Exchanging the World of Ideas

MCJC Connections
March/April 2018 * Adar/Nissan/Iyar * Volume 5778

An ancient legend teaches that when our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai, God said to them, “Before I give you my Torah, you must give me something precious that proves that you are devoted to it.” The Israelites thought long and hard. They offered their jewelry. But God did not accept it.

Then they thought harder about what was most precious, and offered the patriarchs and matriarchs – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob, Rachel, and Leah – as proof. But God refused that offer, too.

Finally, the Israelites said, “Our children and all generations of children after them are what is most precious. We will teach them to love and honor God’s commandments.” (Song of Songs Rabbah)

We are commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God, tribal heads, elders, officials, all of the men of Israel, children, women, even the stranger within your camp, from wood chopper to water drawer.” (29: 9-10) That every single one of us, from the prince to the water drawer, adult to child, is literally standing before God to create a Judaism of meaning, depth, and seriousness.

And the Jewish way, the Jewish path towards this, is through education. “You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, veshinantam levanecha, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise
up.” (Deuteronomy 6:7)

Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, points out that at the very brink of the Israelites’ walk to freedom from their Egyptian slave-masters, Moses, their leader, gathers them together and talks about their duty to pass on the memory of the Exodus to their children and to future generations. “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall… explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt…’” (Exodus 12-13)

Rabbi Sacks asks, why this obsession with education that has stayed with the Jewish people throughout the millennia? And he answers, “Because to defend a country you need an army. But to defend a civilization you need schools. You need education as the conversation between the generations. Whatever the society, the culture or the faith, we need to teach our children, and they theirs, what we aspire to and the ideals we were bequeathed by those who came before us. We need to teach our children the story of which we and they are a part, and we need to trust them to go further than we did, when they come to write their own chapter.”

The Hebrew word for education is chinuch. The Talmud associates this word with the word chen, grace. That education, in the Jewish tradition, is the act of drawing-out, revealing the unique inner beauty, the chen, of each and every student.

And the Torah is called the Book of Life, Sefer ha’Chayim. That is something you get intimately involved with. It is a relationship. A meeting place. An organic process that weaves life and learning together. Where we meet God.

And so, at its core, Jewish education, and Judaism itself, from its very beginning, is based on the the exchange of a world of ideas. To seek that which speaks to our very souls.

Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us through His commandments, and commanded us to be immersed in the words and in a life of Torah.

Rabbi Tom

A Message from Rabbi Tom: Finding God in the Everyday

MCJC Connections
January/February 2018 ~ Tevet/Shevat/Adar ~ Vol. 5778

By Rabbi Tom

Rabbi Tom Samuels

Rabbi Rami Shapiro tells a story: Reb Yaakov Shimshon of Kosov loved to share with his students the stories of the great Rebbes and their Hassidim.

It once happened after morning prayer that the Rebbe began to tell one story after another without stopping. He and his Hasidim were lifted to such a state of divine rapture that they stepped out of time. The day passed, and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that the Rebbe told his final tale. Slowly, Reb Yaakov and his disciples returned to the needs of the everyday world, and realized that they had eaten neither breakfast nor lunch.

One of the students stood up and honored his Rebbe, saying, “Until this moment, Rebbe, I did not really understand Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our sacred teacher, when he said that while on Mount Sinai he ate no bread and drank no water. Now I know what it is like to be filled with the very Presence of God, and to feel no further need to eat or drink.”

Reb Yaakov nodded his appreciation to his student and said, “Your interpretation is a worthy one, my son, but perhaps Moshe was not celebrating his transcendence of food and drink, but regretting it? We know that everything in this world contains a spark of the Divine and that only when a thing is used properly is this spark uplifted and repaired to God, from Whom it came. This is no less true of food and drink than it is of books and tools.”

Moshe realized that in those forty days on Mount Sinai he neither ate nor drank, and thus failed to uplift the divine sparks in his bread and water. “In the World to Come, these sparks will complain to the Holy One that Moshe did them a grave disservice by putting his own love of God before their liberation.”

Imagine that. Even Moses, the only human being to come face to face with HaShem, the Divine, needed to focus on the ordinary.

Rabbi Rami tells us of the great Kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534–1572) who taught that all things contain a spark of the Divine, and that the deepest spiritual work is to release those sparks and return them to God by using the things of this world in a righteous and honorable manner. More often than not, the greatest mysteries in life, we (hopefully) discover, are the simplest ones, the ones that we confront every day.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “We tend to read the Bible looking for mighty acts that God does, and not seeing that all the way through the Bible God is waiting for human beings to act.”

He went on and quoted from the Prophet Elijah, “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, kol demamah dakkah, the sound of delicate silence.” (1 Kings 19)

God, Rabbi Heschel was teaching us, as was Reb Yaakov in the Hassidic story above, is found in the ordinariness, the everyday, the seemingly most mundane aspects of our lives. That is where God resides.

B’Shalom, Rabbi Tom

The Essence of Jewish Education

MCJC Connections
January/February 2018 ~ Tevet/Shevat/Adar ~ Vol. 5778

By Rabbi Tom

The Hebrew word for education is chinuch. The Talmud associates this word with the word chen, grace. That education, in the Jewish tradition, is the act of drawing-out, revealing the unique inner beauty of each and every student.

The Torah is called the Book of Life, sefer ha’chayim – not the Book of Knowledge. Judaism is not something you study; it is something you get intimately involved with. It is a relationship. A meeting place where we meet God.

This is so very relevant to today when knowledge is available
on every Internet-connected device, where what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.

The determinant for a successful educational program must first and foremost be measured by how well it is able to engage, to integrate, and to inspire the whole child. That is the world they inhabit, and the world they would like to build. Education is, after all, an organic process that when most effective, weaves life and learning together, naturally and seamlessly.

And so, at its core, Jewish education cannot and should not be reduced to disseminating information. Rather, Jewish education is about sharing a world of ideas. It is aspirational, and never about arrival.

Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us through His commandments, and commanded us to be immersed
in the words and in a life of Torah.

A Message from Rabbi Tom: Finding Warmth from Within

MCJC Connections
November/December 2017 ~ Cheshvan/Kislev/Tevet ~ Vol. 5778

As winter encroaches, my thoughts and dreams transition to finding warmth and hope, to finding those fleeting moments of light, in the mystical. And towards this, I turn to the great mystic, scholar, and
social reformer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, May His Memory Be A Blessing. Heschel so brilliantly can help us to understand the nature of the world in which we live, and the role that the Jewish tradition has assigned to us within this world.

Heschel challenges us to imagine the universe prior to Creation, where all that existed was God. And in order to create the world, God performed an intentional act of Tzim-Tzum, self-contraction. God literally contracted Him/Herself, thereby allowing the space for our world to be created. Then God placed the Shechinah, God’s indwelling, the Divine presence, within this world, which ultimately proved unable to contain the GodSelf. The world, the first Creation, burst, and in a cataclysmic moment, those sparks of God were hurled together to form our current world.

From the standpoint of this metaphor, the universe is broken, and God, in the very act of creating the world, chose to limit Divine perfection. God, therefore, needs human beings to repair our world, to gather up the sparks of Divine Holiness that are scattered throughout creation, a Tikkun Olam.

This audacious myth, Heschel points out throughout his writings, asserts that God is in need of each of us if holiness is to be achieved in the world. That our human actions have cosmic import. That the very presence of God in the world is dependent upon how you and I act in our everyday lives. That at the very core of the Jewish tradition is the notion that there is holiness in the world and that we are all responsible, accountable to God, for having such holiness realized.

Heschel taught that we tend to read the Torah looking for mighty acts that God does. All the while, we are not seeing that God is waiting for human beings to take action, that God needs His children to take care of each other. “Zeus loves women; God loves widows,” he wrote. Do you want to love me? God asks, then love the way I love. Love who I love. Love those who are the hardest to love… the stranger, the vulnerable, those who are different, those who just don’t fit in. The ultimate moral test of a community is to include those who have been downtrodden and forbidden to speak, to give them, and therefore all of us, a voice, dignity.

At the same time, Heschel understood and presented with radical honesty that there is so much healing that is beyond our reach, even if we’re commanded to try and achieve it. And so, he reminded us of our great Sages from the Talmud. Through them, a wisdom tradition formulated over two thousand years ago; we are embraced, assured, and protected. Our lives, they tell us from across the generations, are too short. The day is long and the work is great, and we’re not commanded to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to desist from it. “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel
mimena” – “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Rabbi Tarfon,Pirkei Avot 2:21)

Rabbi Tom