Are We Not Brothers and Sisters?

ImageThis may be a stretch, but go with me for a moment.

There seems to be important connections between today’s Talmud portion and the Twin Cities Pride celebration.

At the most basic level, the message of GLBTQ pride is one of radical equality. It is based on the the idea that we are all human and all entitled to the same human rights: to love, to be loved, to be safe, and to be respected.

In the Talmud section [see below] for today (Taanit 18) we have a powerful prayer that was said by Yehuda ben Shammua and his colleagues, protesting restrictive laws placed on the Jewish community by Roman authorities.

They cried out:

Are we not brothers? Are we not children of one father? Are we not children of one mother? How are we different from any other peoples and languages that we are singled out for oppressive laws?

What a powerful argument to universal principals of equality.

Is this why Jewish communities have been such strong advocates for human rights? Did the rabbis of the Talmud provide a clear argument for marriage equality? Is it just a coincidence that the Twin Cities held their parade on the same day as that section of the Talmud is studied? (Ok, that last one is a bit of a stretch.)

What do you think, connection or coincidence?

(Also, I will share more thoughts from the Daf Yomi via twitter where you can follow me @RabbiAlanSL.


The Daily Talmud portion I’m referring to is part of the Daf Yomi daily study program of the entire Talmud. This one page at time learning is coordinated world-wide, and takes seven an a half years to complete. We are currently examining fast days and the way they intersect with different holidays, and different parts of the ancient Jewish community. If you are interested in jumping in, I recommend the podcast Daily Daf Differently. For a great English/Hebrew text, see the Noé Edition of the Koren Talmud.

Welcome to Alef

All learning begins with Alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in The Book of Letters writes about the letter Alef:

Image“It has no sound. Only the sound you make when you begin to make every sound. Open your mouth and begin to make a sound. STOP! That is Alef.”

Rabbi Kushner also tells the story of the revelation at Mt. Sinai and the special role of the Alef: “Rabbi Elazar bar Abina said in Rabbi Aha’s name: For 26 generations the Alef complained before G-d: I am the first of the letters yet You didn’t create Your world with me! Don’t worry, said G-d, the world and all its fullness was created for the Torah alone. Tomorrow when I come to give My Torah at Sinai the first word I say will begin with you.”

Rabbi Kushner continues:

“The name of the first Jew also began with Alef, Avraham Ahveenu, Abraham our Father. Alef is the letter of fire, Aysh. A fire which flames but does not destroy. That is how the Holy One gets your attention. He [sic] shows you primordial fire.

And the very first letter of the first word of the first commandment begins with the first letter which has no sound: Alef, Anochi, I. “I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery.

It is no accident that all these words begin with Alef. The most basic words there are begin with the most primal sound there is. The almost sound you make before you can make any sound.”

To this day, all learning begins with Alef, the sound which precedes every other, the sound of the moment before speech; caused by the intake of breath. It is a moment free of the past with infinite possibility for the future.

But there is more.

When we take the time to learn together, miracles, like that moment at Sinai, are still possible. If the participants are willing, if the text is open, and if the Divine Presence attends, we find the spark of true wisdom. In that space, as we take a breath to speak, we may realize that our long and arduous journey has returned us to the beginning. To a place where we can only start to understand the first breath of connection at Sinai. Yet we are satisfied. And still, we yearn for more.

New Class: Dilemmas of Faith

Join us as we ask the big questions.

Faith2I will be teaching a new class this summer, and everyone is invited.

Each session, I will facilitate a lively discussion of traditional Jewish texts focused on an aspect of faith, alongside video presentations from the world renowned faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel.

Together we will engage in a broad and deep analysis of some of the many challenges that faith in the modern world raises. Based on classical Jewish tradition and contemporary Jewish thought and life, we will addresses the big questions raised by the intersection of faith and reason, faith and history, faith and politics, and the faith experience.

Just The Facts:

  • 10 Weeks
  • July 13th to September 14th
  • 10 am to noon
  • At Coffee Bené, 53 Cleveland Ave (at Grand) in the Private Meeting Room.
  • $136 for the entire series or $14 per session

RSVP: or visit the registration page

You can download a flier with details and a list of subjects, by date.

Living a Marathon Life

The Boston marathon ended this year, with an inspiring win and thousands of participants, as it has since 1897. But  this year was different. This was the first year after the bombing that took three lives, caused 264 injuries, impacted hundreds of runners near the finish and reverberated with thousands of us who run marathons, and shocked the entire nation.

Running shoes left at the makeshift memorial following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings are displayed in an exhibit titled "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial" at the Boston Public Library in Boston, Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Running shoes left at the makeshift memorial following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings are displayed in an exhibit titled “Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial” at the Boston Public Library in Boston, Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Each year Boston has it’s challenges. There is a demanding qualifying time, and a course with a long downhill at mile 20 & 1/2 known as Heartbreak Hill. It takes a certain strength to run any marathon. All the more so with Boston this year.

That strength is characterized by the ability to endure over time and distance. It is a persistent strength, perhaps one that defies common sense, and one that travels despite the difficultly of the path or the number of miles left.

The same is true for a religiously committed life, one that seeks a deeper connection with the world around us, and holds us to a higher standard in our relationships with others. A religiously engaged life demands a strength that is firmly planted enough to survive diversity and flexible enough to adapt to changes in the terrain. In Jewish terms, it takes koach.

Jews use the word koach most frequently when congratulating someone on a job well done. We say Yasher Koach, as a way of affirming the good actions they just performed (often after taking an alyia to the Torah) and wishing them strength in all their endeavors. The literal translation is “May your strength be firm.” It is an image of strength that is deeply rooted, and which grows straight in a single direction. It is like the laser focus on a goal that admits no diversions or hesitation.

The key to this kind of strength is that it is only found in shared spaces at common times when engaged in activities or rituals that require real effort. You don’t say Yasher Koach to yourself, and no one says it to you for tying your shoes or reading a paragraph. But if those shoes are for a marathon, or the paragraph is from Torah; and when the actions are done in community, then the effort we expend is deserving of a Yasher Koach.

May we all find the ability to run that extra mile together.

The Freedom to Serve

As Jews around the world approach Passover, we prepare to celebrate our freedom. Each year, we recall the story of ancient Israelites, who, through a combination of Divine guidance and human audacity, achieved freedom from slavery. Yearly we remind ourselves that their story is our story. We owe our freedom from narrowness and restrictions, to their actions. We are no longer slaves.


Haggadah Illustration by Rabbi Matt Berkowitz.

Yet we still serve.

The freedom we achieve for Passover is not so much the freedom from but the freedom to. While we no longer serve Pharaoh, but we continue to serve. Tradition (specifically Rashi on Exodus 20:2)  makes is clear that the purpose of our freedom from Egypt is so we can serve God.

While the same language of enslavement is used, the difference is profound. In Egypt we served a person, interested in building edifices dedicated to ego with the goal of pitting people against one another. After Egypt we serve God, building cathedrals in time rather than space, and work to bring unity and peace to communities.

As we celebrate our freedom, let us remember that we still serve, but it is a servitude freely chosen and for a higher, uniting, purpose.

The Hidden Amen


Of the many gems in the prayerbook, I find the hidden words the most interesting for the lessons  they are there to teach.

One such verse is found just preceding the Shema. It teaches us that actions are more important than words.

At this part of our service, we are to tangibly demonstrate aconnection to God by standing together in prayer, rather than just saying the words in front of us.

First, a bit of background. The words of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), which forms the central declaration of radical monotheism that is at the core of Judaism, are preceded by three simple words of praise: אל מלך נאמן  El Melech Ne’eman, God is the faithful King. (See page 112 of the Shabbat prayerbook Siddur Sim Shalom for example.) According to some rabbinic traditions, these three words are the source and meaning of the word amen (אמן), formed from the first three letters in Hebrew (aleph, mem, nun).

Throughout the prayerbook we say amen as a communal response and reaffirmation of someone else’s prayer. In this way we offer our praise in agreement with another.  We can’t say amen unless we have full minyan of ten adult Jews. So the phrase El Melech Ne’eman, printed above the Shema is only added when we are alone, when there is not minyan present. When there is a minyan, we skip these words praising God. But the action of gathering together is more important than the words alone, so we forgo extra words of praise in order to take an action.

In a book that uses words to connect us to God, the preference is that we gather with others. We see that doing is better than saying. Even outside of prayer, our goal should be towards action, rather than simply focus on words.

Conversation Starter: Torah

1185635_10151917461096264_322857539_nCentral to Jewish practice is the discipline of studying Torah. This daily commitment helps connect us with ancient traditions, provides wisdom on modern struggles, and inspires us to actions which bring balance and connection to our world.

Below are selections from two modern rabbis on the topic of Torah study. It is my hope that these brief selections will inspire conversations on the value of exploring wisdom and texts together.

Constant Growth

Some of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s thoughts are gathered in the book Pebbles of Wisdom. In this selection (from page 140) on the topic of Torah, he begins by noticing the grammar of the blessing over study:

The blessing that is recited on the occasion of reading from the Torah scrolls, “Blessed art Thou . . . who gives us the Torah,” is in the present tense, “gives,” not the past, “gave.”

The Torah itself is always forming and expanding.

It is a constant growth. The event at Mount Sinai is an ongoing revelation that repeats itself whenever one studies Torah.

One may not be aware of standing before the holy mountain, but God is still uttering the Ten Commandments.

Even if one does not hear them, the standing itself, in awe and terror, is enough to establish the correct relationship to the Torah. The realization of this is, in turn, something acquired by study.

Listening to Text

During a wide ranging interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, we discover how he listens to the ongoing conversation at the root of revelation. In answer to the question, “How do you decide each week’s topic?” he says:

The first thing you do is you’ve got a problem. The second thing you have to do is listen. You really have to listen very carefully to the text. I always let the text speak to me before I start reading mefarshim [commentators]. You begin to see things that you never saw before because you never had that particular slant, that particular starting point. I don’t know how to explain it except by saying it’s a form of deep listening. Whenever something in the Torah is not quite smooth, not quite obvious, I’m listening and I will not stop until I understand why the Torah has taken this slightly strange or unexpected way of saying things.

Join the conversation. What daily disciplines help you connect with the past to act in the present?