Shabbat HaGadol 5774 Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

April 18th, 2014 by

Shabbat HaGadol 5774

Rabbi Fryer Bodzin



Pesach is a challenge. We all know that. The preparation is hard on some. The eating restrictions and additions are  hard for some of us. Some of us travel.  Some of us live in homes with various degrees of kashrut observance. If you have been there, that is never easy. Some of us are getting older and changing over dishes has become too much of a burden. Some of us have kids who just don’t care.

 But one challenge that we all share, if we are aware of it or not,  is the way in which we celebrate our Pesach Sedarim, as presented in the Haggadah, whether scholarly or Sammy the Spider. 

We have inherited a tradition that includes:

a)    a festival about preserving memory

b)     rituals that are about imagination.

How are we supposed to remember the story? What happens when ritual becomes destructive? What happens when the ritual overtakes the memory? Lots of Jewish families get together for a meal sometime in April that is indistinguishable from Thanksgiving. There is no talk of Moses, Sea of Reeds, God or miracles. 

What is it that we remember on Pesach? We are supposed to remember the Exodus from Egypt. But how does Chad Gadya tell the story of the Exodus? How does Zayda’s wine stained Haggadah help us remember that we were once slaves? Have you ever stopped to wonder: what is the connection between sponge cake and the miracles?

On Pesach we tell a story in order to preserve it. In fact, our central anxiety around Pesach is not whether or not we can eat legumes for this special week, (that is a relatively new phenomenon), but rather the central anxiety of Pesach is the fear of forgetting.

 So we have created an abundance of rituals that enable us to remember.

But with that, comes the concern that we will not remember why we are doing what we are doing. It is, according to Dr. Yehudah Kurtzer, an unhealthy obsession that we all have. We try to remember the historical event with play acting and storytelling and getting kids involved. But sometimes, we end up being too far distanced from the historical event of Yetziat mitzrayim.

When such a radical imagination is incorporated into the ritual we know as the Passover Seder, are we still remembering the story?

I think the answer is yes. We just need tools to remember. Just like we need a sefer Torah and chumashim to remember the words of the Torah, we need a Haggadah to remember the story of Pesach. There are too many of us, spread out around the world, thank God, to maintain an oral tradition. And to keep it interesting, fun stuff was added to it.

But we always use tools to remember.  We have alarms and Microsoft Outlook, and Lett’s pocket diaries, and Franklin Covey organizers, and red rubber bands, and calendars and photographs and phonebooks and post it notes.  We use multiple sensory mechanisms to remember. We are only human, why shouldn’t we use tools to help us remember the story of Passover, when our ancestors left Egypt?

 In the second chapter of the book of Exodus we read the following:

 A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under their bondage and cried out. And their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.  God heard their moaning and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them.

Even God needed a sensory act in order to remember. Therefore, when we use memory tools on Pesach, be it the frog song, or reciting the Maggid section word for word, we are acting b’tzelem Elokim. When we sit at the Seder table, with all of the silly and serious memory mechanisms that are artfully weaved into the Haggadah, we are acting in the image of God.

 If the God that you believe in is completely omniscient, then let me offer another well known example of God needing a little something to jog God’s memory.

Exdous 12: 13

And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you; when I see the blood, I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

God needed the sign? God did not just know?  According to the verse, the red blood helped God remember on a night when there was a lot on God’s agenda to do. If doors with red blood were spotted, then it would make God’s job easier. Red door-don’t smite, move on. 

In the introduction to the New American Haggadah of 2012, Jonathan Safran Foer writes that the Haggadah is not a work of history or philosophy, not a prayer book, user’s manual, timeline, poem or palimpsest-and yet it is all of these things. The Torah is the foundational text for Jewish laws, but the Haggadah is our book of living memory. 

We need a Haggadah and a couple Seders to remember, just like God needed the blood on the doors.

Living memory to me means we begin each Seder with both a communal and a very personal set of memories. Every time we sit down at a Seder table, we bring with us not only our understanding of what happened in Egypt, but we bring with us every Seder experience we ever had-as children standing on chairs asking the four questions, and sad memories of the years when our parents were too frail and Seder move to our homes, the year too many dishes broke, the year the oven decided not to work, the years of snow, rain and heat. We bring with us the memory of a Pesach that was too early and a Pesach that came too late. We think back to those first Seders with our children’s girlfriends and boyfriends who we now love like our own children. We bring with us memories of afikoman hiding spots and we look around the table and desperately miss those people who are not with us anymore. 

When we sit down for Seder, we bring with us a chaotic symphony of personal memories, but fortunately the Haggadah always guides us back to remembering our ancestors’ experience, our collective memory of Avadim Hayinu l’Paroah B’mitzrayim. 

Therefore, on this Shabbat haGadol, just days before we once again sit at our Seder tables, let us all remember:

Slaves, that is what we were-slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. And wrested free, were we, by the Lord God-of-Us, lifted out of that place in the mighty hand of an outstretched arm.

And if the Holy One, blessed is He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then what of us? We, and our children, and our children’s children would be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.

Were it that we are all learned and enlightened, all of us rich with the wisdom of old age and well versed in the Torah, still the obligation to tell of the Exodus from Egypt would rest upon us.

We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.  Now we are free people. 

Shabbat shalom

Shemini Sermon 5774 Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

April 18th, 2014 by

Shemini Sermon 5774

Remembering Kiev

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin




Chapter 10 of our parsha sets forth various regulations regarding appropriate priestly conduct.  To emphasize the need for precision, our parsha includes the sad tale of the untimely death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.  The sons who were poised to inherit the Priesthood, offer a “strange fire” which God had not told them to offer.  We read that they die at the instance of the Lord.


Commentators offer a multitude of reasons for  both why Nadav and Avihu did what they did and why they receive the punishment that they did.


One answer is that randomness exists.  Or in other words, “bad things happen to good people” for no apparent reason.  When I witness the apparent randomness of bad things happening to good people-in whatever form it is, and as a rabbi I see it too frequently, I see us having one singular task: to comfort those who suffer. It is not our place to account for the reason for their suffering.


This community rose to the occasion last week. More than $1000 was raised by you for Matanot laEvyonim, to help the Jewish communities in Ukraine. Originally I stated that I would match the funds, but this brief campaign was so successful that I was not able to do so without compromising our local needs. But rest be sure, a $1500 check was placed in the mail on Tuesday. You surpassed any fundraising goal I envisioned in my head.


One of our members who made a most generous donation asked me to share more about this Jewish community. This way you will know who it was you donated to, and perhaps inspire you to reach out to others to give.


Ukraine has a general population of  45.3 million. The estimated Jewish population is 350-500,000, depending on who you ask.  According to the statistics I received last year, nearly 50,000 of the poorest Jews in Ukraine depend on JDC’s debit food cards to purchase their basic monthly staples in local supermarkets. For those of you who are unaware,  the Joint Distribution Committee, also known as JDC, or just “The Joint” provides aid to Jews and Jewish communities around the world through a network of social and community assistance programs, as well as contributing millions of dollars in disaster relief to non-Jewish communities. The JDC was established in 1914 and is active in more than 70 countries.


 I don’t have many statistics about the Jews in Crimea. What I learned from the website Jewish Virtual Library is that following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea became part of the newly independent Ukraine. In the 1990s, many Jews from Crimea immigrated to Israel and the West. In the 1980’s and ‘90’s over one million Jews left the Soviet Union and came to Israel, transforming the country in many ways.  As one person told my group last year, just about every Israeli startup consists of one native Israeli who is the salesman, and one guy from Russia who is the computer engineer who designs the program. 


 Jewish Virtual Library writes that the Jews in Crimea numbered 15,000 out of a total population of 2 million. That number contradicts the number 4000 which I read this week on Israeli news source Arutz Sheva. So I am not sure what the actual Jewish population of Crimea is today.


Most of the information I have about Jewish Ukraine is about the community in Kiev.  I thank the JDC for providing me with background information before I left on my rabbinic mission to Kiev last year.


Jews have been in Kiev for about 1,300 years. Over the centuries, the city’s Jews have faced periodic expulsions and endured harassment and frequent pogroms at the hands of their neighbors of other faiths.  Despite these hardships, a vibrant Jewish community emerged in the late 19th century.  For example, Kiev is the birthplace of Golda Meir and it also served as the home of renowned author Shalom Aleichem. Monuments have been erected in the city in honor and memory of both of them.


In the early 1900s, a wave of Jewish refugees fleeing from pogroms in Poland and western Ukraine resettled in Kiev. By 1923, one-third of the city’s population was Jewish. Although during the first years of the Soviet regime, Kiev served as a center of Yiddish culture, later crackdowns closed these cultural institutions. The few signs of Jewish life that remained were destroyed in the Holocaust.


Nearly all of the city’s 175,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust.  37,771 of them were executed in two days at the notorious ravine of Babi Yar, the largest single massacre of the Holocaust. An additional 40,000-90,000 Jews were murdered at Babi Yar in the weeks that followed. I visited the site last year and am still haunted by it. 


After the war, Jewish refugees from across Ukraine streamed into Kiev, trying to rebuild their shattered lives. They could not, however, rebuild Kiev’s Jewish life, as the Soviet regime forbade religious expression. Jews began to shed their Jewish identities. They became Soviets! Despite severe restrictions, in the 1970s and ’80s, Kiev became a center of the Refusenik movement, fostering an underground Jewish culture and pro-Aliyah advocacy.


With the fall of the Soviet Union, Jewish life in Kiev emerged from the shadows and the community began to slowly rebuild. JDC began working in the city in 1992, establishing a Hesed welfare center and numerous Jewish renewal projects.


Part of my rabbinic mission last winter focused on what happened to those who stayed behind and their grandchildren, the individuals and the offspring of those who could not, or did not make aliyah. 


 Twenty five years ago we thought those who remained and who for whatever reason had chosen not to emigrate were lost to the Jewish world.  But now in Kiev, young Jews are discovering their Jewish connections and are interested in seeking a path back to Judaism.  They are involved in Hillel, Jewish Agency for Israel programmes and they participate in Moishe House activities.


One of my first experiences of Jewish life in Ukraine took place as our group was divided into teams to make home visits.  We were assigned to meet Lev, a 98 year old shut-in. I don’t know if he is still alive. He, on his own, opened the door with a wide smile and invites us into to his very small, 2 room, 450 square foot apartment.  We sat in his room, and he on his bed.  We delivered a package of food into his kitchen, and spent some time listening to his story.


Lev was born in 1915 in the Vinnitsa region. His father was a carpenter. There were 5 children in Lev`s family. In 1930 the family moved to Kiev and Lev entered a technical school. In 1933 Lev started to work at a plant that dealt with airplance manufacturing.. In 1938 Lev was drafted into the army and returned back to Kiev and work in the plant in 1940.  When World War II started Lev, together with the entire factory was evacuated to the Novosibirsk region and was there until 1947. In 1943 Lev married a woman who already had a son. In 1947 Lev and his family returned to Kiev and he joined the staff of a factory specializing in manufacturing aeronautic products.   Lev worked there until he retired in 1992.


Lev suffers from urological diseases and has poor hearing. Lev has been a Hesed client since 1996. He benefits from the Food Card program, Home Care program, Winter Relief Program.


Lev spent most of his life under communist rule, so Judaism and Yiddishkeit were a novelty to him.  There were no visible signs of Jewish life in his compact apartment, but when we discussed the social program, called Hesed, which is organized by the JDC, his smile brightened, his eyes lit up, and he simply told us Hesed was his Judaism, Hesed was his community, Hesed was his family.  


As  mentioned last week, many of the Jews living in Kiev live at or below the poverty line, meaning by week three of the month, many elderly  people have to begin rationing their medicine, their food, and even essential comforts like diapers for incontinence.  And now, with the economy tanking, it is even worse. Hesed is the life saver, literally for these Jews in need.  


 The effort to help these Jews we’re told is having a positive but challenging consequence.  The care these people receive increases their life expectancy.  The longer and healthier their lives are the more long-term assistance they will continue to need.  In a world of supportive resources stabilizing at best, the present and future concerns for care are real.

In our parsha, when Aaron is told that his two sons were taken from him, that they were killed,  we do not read about him wailing, or that he sat shiva or that he tore his garment out of grief. Rather the Hebrew term is Vayidom Aharon. Aaron was silent.  Perhaps that was his only option. We don’t know.

We live in a time where because of the internet and the 24 hour news cycle and cell phone cameras we know what is going on in the rest of the world.

Sitting here in Queens, we scratch our heads about the missing plane, just like people are doing in India, Mozambique and Argentina. We can’t do anything about that. We are Aaron in that instance. We are paralyzed by the ability to do anything.

But with regard to the already poor Jewish community of Ukraine, we can and we have done something. They need money. We, with our limited funds did something to help them.

We will never know what the strange fire was that Nadav and Avihu offered. We don’t know if they were secretly evil and would have eventually overthrown or contaminated the Priesthood. We don’t know if their punishment was a biblical example of   “Bad things happen to good people” for no apparent reason. 

There are a lot of good people in Kiev and Crimea and throughout the Ukraine and everywhere in this world who suffer. We don’t know why they suffer and as compassionate people, it is not our place to be concerned about the why. Our  concern is the how—how can we help those who suffer. 

I honor this community for helping and enabling at least some of the Jews of Ukraine that they will be able to celebrate Passover this year. And when they sit at their Seder tables, no matter what it looks like, perhaps they will be able to feel like free people.

Shabbat shalom


Vayikra Sermon 5774 Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

March 12th, 2014 by

Prayer as Sacrifice

Vayikra Sermon 5774

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin


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During our recent Israel trip, we were blessed to be led by a wonderful tour guide named Ronny Netzer. He guided and spoke to us a lot. One idea he shared with is that Israel has four holy cities. We had the opportunity to visit the (ארבע ערי הקודש), the collective term for Jerusalem, Hevron, Sfat and Tiberias

Jerusalem has been our most holy city for more than 3000 years, since King David decided to build the Beit HaMikdash there. 

Hevron is the burial place of our patriarhcs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah.  Rachel is buried elsewhere in Beit Lechem.  These six are said to be buried in M’arat Hamachpelah. We read about Avraham purchasing it in parshat Chayei Sarah. As our first monotheistic ancestors were buried there, it has been deemed a holy place by those that came before us.

Way up north in the mountains, Sfat gained its holiness after many Jews settled there, following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. It became known as the center of kabalistic scholarship. 

The fourth city, Tiberias or Tveria, located on the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee is significant in Jewish history for a few reasons. The most prominent reason is that it is the place where the Yerushalmi –the Jerusalem Talmud was composed.

We visited these four cities and important places in each of them.


What surprised me was that in the places that thought I would be moved, I was not. And in the places that I did not expect to be moved, I was.


Let’s work backwards. Tiberias nowadays is not the most modern or cosmopolitan city. On our original schedule, we were only supposed to have few hours for dinner on our own in the city. I must have asked our guide at least ten times if the group could stop at Maimonides/Rambam’s grave for 5 minutes before dinner. I see myself as a student of Maimonides and it is not uncommon for me to quote him on Shabbat mornings, or really any time. I love his rational thinking and his clarity. I wanted to go. I thought it would be of value.


Walking toward his grave, I did not know what to expect. I did not go into it, expecting a life altering spiritual experience. Yet, I had one.


The area is gender segregated and the actual tomb is half in the women’s section and half in the men’s section. I entered the area alone, without my colleagues or any of the women on the trip, and I davened a quick Maariv.


 In general I am a rational person, hence I love Rambam. Esoteric stuff rarely works for me. But while I was there, I thought I would try to “ask for a blessing.” Instead, I started to break down. As I mentioned, the setting was gender separated. It was just me and a bunch of ultra Orthodox women. They looked at my name tag, and one said to me in Hebrew: you are a rabbi? I was not sure in which direction they were going to take that, but it did not matter, I just broke down and cried.


They were not sure what to do. I shared my woes in Hebrew.  My eyes were like a fountain that could not stop. These two strangers looked at me with so much love and compassion and said in Hebrew something along the lines of God will provide, just have faith.  I must have been in the frame of mind to hear it. 


My heart, my brain and my soul were focused only on the bracha, the blessing at the time. I get tingly recalling the experience.


Sfat, I associate with artists and a candle factory. While we visited the shuls of Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, and haAri, an essential mystic, I thought the shuls were nice. There were great shades of blue, but I did not have a “holy” experience. The only hole was the one made in my wallet. I was rushing. I wanted to buy Havdallah candles and art. Sfat is gorgeous and special, but I had other things on my mind.


When we went to Hevron, I desperately wanted to have a moving life altering experience. I had never been to the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, never been to Hevron, and I first learned about the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs as a little school girl. But when we finally got in, after a serious military presence and security, the whole area felt crowded to me. There were yeshiva boys, and cheder boys and a school trip of first graders. I placed my head next to the door where Avraham, the first Jew, supposedly is buried, but I could not tune out my surroundings. All I heard was a primary school teacher reprimanding her students for running around. Here I was physically near Avraham, and I felt nothing.


And then there is Jerusalem. Due to personal reasons, I just can’t bring myself to daven at the traditional Kotel anymore. The gender segregated outer retaining wall brings up last year’s sad experience. And that makes me sad.


 When we went under the Kotel, in the tunnel tours, I sat down across from the supposed Holy of Holies. I wanted so bad to be moved, for God to talk to me. Instead, I just sat down, and said Shema, no different than I could do in this room.  


However, when I led mincha at Robinson’s Arch, the pluralistic Kotel, that was a moving experience for me. I felt myself growing closer to God.


I felt myself growing closer to God. Close. Karov in Hebrew. This word Karov shares a root with Korban, sacrifice. We read about five different sacrifices, korbanot this morning: olah, mincha, zevah shlamim, chatat and asham.


People brought sacrifices, korbanot, in the time of the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash to get close, karov, to God.


Did it always work? Did the people always feel close after? Did the re’ach ni’choach, the pleasing aroma do something for them?


We know that the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash and sacrifices are long gone, but we still have our hearts, our souls and our prophetic voices.


To quote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice. Prayer is sacrifice.”


When prayer is genuine, we abandon everything else.


Prayer becomes a sacrifice in that moment. In Sfat and at the Kotel and in Hevron I was hyper aware of my surroundings and prejudices. I was unable to sacrifice them, ignore them and extricate them from my being. At Rambam’s grave and at the pluralistic Kotel I let go of everything else. It was just me and the women in Tiberias. And at the pluralistic Kotel, I embraced being a shlichat tzibbur, the prayer leader and felt like I was bringing everyone along with me.  


Prayer is sacrifice. Heschel was right. When we pray, we are supposed to let go of everything else at that moment. Forget the lint on the floor, the tag sticking out of someone’s shirt ahead of you, the climate in the room and the plaques on the wall. When we daven, when we pray, when we talk to God, we should not be multitasking.


The word Korban, sacrifice, is also related to the Hebrew word likrov, which means to draw close, to draw nearer to God. When we pray and really feel close to God, or find ourselves in a situation when we know without a doubt that God is present that is when korban, drawing close is at its highest.

When prayer fails and we don’t feel close to God, what are we supposed to do? The best answer is, “Keep on praying.” But what happens when you can’t let go of everything around you?


One answer to this age old dilemma can be found in the Talmud, [Berachot 32b]: Let your distress-filled heart be comforted with the knowledge that it has been close to God.


Perhaps parshat Vayikra and the many upcoming verses and chapters that detail sacrifices have a deeper meaning. Vayikra is the third book of the Torah. We’ve followed the family and community stories of Breishit and Shemot. Perhaps, since we have been with Torah for a while, now we are supposed to look deeper, past the pshat (simple understanding) and into the drash (deeper meanings) of the text.


If so many Biblical verses and chapters outline how to properly do sacrifices, it was probably because it never was easy for the people to do perform the sacrifice/korban. The physical and spiritual components  were difficult for the Children of Israel.

It is the same for tefillah today. Davening is not easy. The words are tough, the meanings of the words are challenging, and the ability to draw to close to God by saying the words is not easy either.


The Four Holy Cities in Israel might be considered holy because of something that happened there, once upon a time. But we have the right to deem any space holy, based on our willingness to let God in and everything else out.

If being in Jerusalem, Tiberias, Hevron or Sfat was ever a holy experience for you, then yasher koach. I envy your connection to God.


But if this room on Yom Kippur during Neilah, or a hospital birthing room, or a parent’s grave or a favorite hike, or Petra is considered holy to you because you can block out everything out and feel close to God and feel God’s presence, that you have figured out how to make a sacrifice. That is what we can learn from Parshat Vayikra.  

Tetzaveh Sermon 5774 Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

March 12th, 2014 by

It’s all about What you Wear

Tetzaveh 5774

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin


In honor of New York Fashion Week which is currently occurring in Manhattan, this morning is a great time to talk about clothing or apparel, or whatever you call that industry. It is a massive industry.  Designers create clothing for countless occasions: outer ware, ski ware, lounge ware, suits, cruise ware, beach ware, formal ware, workout ware. For those of us who are fashion conscious, different times call for different clothing.


And it has been the way for a long, long time.


“The apparel oft proclaims the man,” Polonius said in Hamlet, but I don’t think God cared much about the Fashion Police since the first man and woman “were naked.” (Genesis 2:25). After the incident with the serpent and the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve became aware that they were walking around au naturel. As a punishment for disobeying God, “God made skin garments for them and clothed them” right before they were expelled from the Garden. So we can learn that unlike the rest of the world, the Garden of Eden was “clothing optional” community. And, fig leaves for the first fad.


Once we left the Garden of Eden, clothing took a daily role in the lives of our ancestors. People wore clothes. And an individual’s apparel popped up here and there in the Torah.


o   We know that Noah wore clothing, as his nakedness was uncovered.  


o   We also know that clothing choices were used to make people stand out. I refer to the multi colored coat that Jacob gave Joseph because he was the favorite.  


We also learn some of the earliest ambiguous halachot of clothing.

o   In Leviticus, the Torah prohibits the blending of wool and linen together in a garment, which is called Shatnez, which means mixing of different kinds.


o   In Deuteronomy, men were forbidden from wearing women’s clothes and vice versa. However no clear definition of men’s clothing and women’s clothing were offered.  While we can learn that men and women did dress differently, we know that fashion trends turn on a dime, so who knows what was worn in Mesopotamia, back then.


o   Also, most famously, the Israelites were required to put tzizit on their four cornered garments as a reminder to do mitzvot.


That is basically all the Torah informs us about the clothing people wore, with one massive exception, which was in this week’s parsha. More than 40 verses are devoted to the outfits that the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol wore.  The Kohen Gadol’s professional garb was elaborate, colorful and full of symbolism. But on Yom Kippur, the only day each year that he would enter the Holy of Holies, he wore white linen. The color white even back then was a sign of modesty and humility, like a bride.  


Clothing and what was worn on the outside, did not take center stage in rabbinic literature, with the exception of having special Yom Tov and Shabbat clothes and of course, being modest in dress.


In the current era, there are articles of clothing that can be described as Jewish. Although most Jews wear what we want.


o   The origins of the Kipah, the most universal type of Jewish clothes are unclear, although the Talmud in Tractate Brachot does refer to head coverings.


o   A Kittle is the white robe that some people wear during High Holy Day services, and/or during the Passover Seder, or when getting married.


o   And then we have the garb worn mostly my Chasidic men only, the shtreimel, the fur hat typically made of fox, sable, or stone marten. It is worn on Shabbat, festivals, and family and community celebrations. Its weekday counterpart is the Black hat. And lower down on the body is the Rekel or the bekeshe, the long black silk or polyester coat.

That is an overview of Jews and clothes (Not Jewish designers, which are for another day). Now let’s return to the specifics found in our parsha. 

 We read in Exodus 28:2. 

Make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for dignity and splendor.

L’chavod ul’tifaret; these same words are used in the final blessing after the Haftorah which describes Shabbat, as a day of dignity and splendor. 

How do we interpret this verse? What makes clothes holy? What is dignity and splendor?

The 19th century commentator, Malbim, teaches that the Kohen must remember his mission and the clothes help him do this.  These royal garments are supposed to inspire royal character.  Beautiful attire on a person with a not-so-beautiful character misses the point of holiness.  In the Malbim’s words, “God commanded Moses to make these holy garments; i.e., to instruct them in the improvement of their souls and their characters so that their inner selves should be clothed in majesty and splendor.”

Moving in a different direction, the Ramban notes that the mitzvah to dress the Kohen Gadol in garments for glory (kavod) and splendor (tiferet), and all of the details involved, also enhances the glory of God. Ramban notes that in our mystical tradition, kavod and tiferet are Kabalistic terms for emanations of God.  Through these super specific types of garments worn by the Priest, God is not only connecting with the people, but God’s presence amongst the people is further demonstrated. In other words, the spark of God that resides in all of us is brought out of the Kohen into his clothing.

When Queen Elizabeth is hanging out in her own room, she might be in silk pajamas. But when she is on the throne, she has her Royal garb on. There is a time and a place. Sometimes the clothing one wears elevates the entire experience. When you are at a black tie affair, wearing a tuxedo or the jewelry you keep in the safe, you feel different than when you are in your shamattes dusting. 

I think Shakespeare agrees with the Torah.  “The apparel oft proclaims the man,”   or at least the role in which the person is serving. Aaron, when engaged in work that is holy, needed is to be suitably dressed in holy garments; clothes that add dignity and splendor to the work.

It was for him and it was for the people. 

Through dressing in special garments, the Kohen is constantly reminded of his special role, and the sanctity of his calling. He is elevated. It is a symbol, a reminder. But, Bigdei Kodesh–holy clothes–are only holy when they cover an Ish Kodesh–a holy person.

I don’t think Aaron was a holy person because he was the Kohen Gadol.  The outfit worked for that time he was the Kohen Gadol. I think he was an Ish Kodesh, a holy person for a completely different reason. Aaron is known as an Ohev shalom and a rodeph shalom, a lover and pursuer of peace. He loved his fellow creatures and m ‘korban laTorah. He drew them near to the lessons of Torah. 

Aaron’s personality had something to do with it. He was the kind of leader who brought people closer to Torah.  That emanated from his insides. But the people, dealing with the stress of leaving Egypt, and still processing Sinai, they needed Aaron to look different. And so he did. The people needed him, as their spiritual leader to be full of splendor and glory.

And so we are lucky that Aaron was chosen as our Kohen Gadol, because his insides were just as golden and bright and shiny and special as his insides.

Shabbat shalom. 

And if you ever score two tickets to a show at New York’s Fashion Week. Remember your rabbi. She would love to go.

Yito Sermon 5774 Rabbi Fryer Bodzin

March 12th, 2014 by

 Thoughts about Ploughshares

Yitro Sermon 5774

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin



It is a busy Parsha. We start with a well intentioned meddling father in law and then we have Revelation-the sound and light show accompanied by the Ten Commandments. It is amazing stuff.  With all that, I want to take some time to look at one obscure verse at the end of our parsha.

God said to Moses, beginning in 20:19, you saw what happened. We had our divine conversation. Don’t give Me any gods with a lower case G of silver or gold. Instead, build and altar and start the sacrificing of animals.  But then God says in verse 22: 

וְאִם-מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה-לִּי, לֹא-תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית:  כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ, וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ

And if you make for me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones: for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.


Or, as Richard Elliott Friedman translates:

And if you’ll make an altar of stones for me, you shall not make them cut. When you have elevated your sword over it, then you have desecrated it.


Or, as Robert Alter translates the verse:

And should you make Me an altar of stones, you shall not build upon them of hewn stones, for your sword you would brandish over it and profane it.


Or, as you can read in an Artscroll publication:

 and when you make for Me and Altar of stones, do not build them hewn, for you will have raised your sword over it and desecrated it.

This is the essence of the verse: God tells Moses to remind the people that they shall make no graven images. Instead, they shall make an altar and offer sacrifices upon it. If the altar is made of stone, its stone shall not be cut with metal tools. 

Ramban has a beautiful commentary for this verse. Back in the 12th century he wrote: 

This forbids the use of iron tools on altar stones, as in Deuteronomy 27.

Iron is referred to literally as “your sword”, an expression for any iron tool with cutting edges. It is also used to mean daggers in Judges 3:16, knife in Ezek 5:1 and ax as in Ezek 26:9, as well as a cutting tool for stone (here). The point of the commandment, in the word of our Sages, is that one should not wield the thing that shortens life over the things that lengthen it…I say that the tool is called a sword here because iron is used destructively, as a weapon. The power of the sword succeeds under the influence of Mar and the astrological signs of bloodshed, and hence it must not be brought into the House of the Lord….

Metal implements represent the sword, which shortens life; the altar represents the lengthening of life.   Sword and life shortening weapons are no good. God does not want them. God does not want weaponry. This notion is repeated over and over again in the Tanach.

Isaiah 2:4

And He shall judge among the nations, and arbitrate for many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, they shall never again know war.

Micah 4:3

And He will judge among the many people, and arbitrate for the multitude of nations, however distant, they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, they shall never again know war. 

 “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” This is such a radical idea that the prophets Micah and Isaiah both describe it. This expression and the desire behind it has proven to be timeless.  It was even incorporated into our Tu B’Shevat seder earlier this week.

According to our friends on the internet, an interpretation of this concept can be seen on a bronze statue in the United Nations garden called Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares, which was a gift from the Soviet Union sculpted by Evgeniy Vuchetich. It represents the figure of a man hammering a sword into the shape of a plowshare.

This idea of getting rid of swords and turning them into ploughshare is common in popular culture as well. This is kind of embarrassing—but in Michael Jackson’s 1991 song, Heal the World he sings:

Together we’ll cry happy tears

See the nations turn

Their swords into plowshares


And in the finale of Les Miserables, a much better example of popular culture, we hear:


They will live again in freedom

In the garden of the Lord.

They will walk behind the ploughshare,

They will put away the sword.

The chain will be broken

And all men will have their reward.


How does one take a sword and turn it into a plow share? How does one take the thing that does violence and reshape it into a tool that gives life?

I am not sure, but I am going to learn tomorrow, when I join in celebrating and honoring the non-violent legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan. According to everything that I have read, I will be present and watch an artist literally forge a gun (our modern day sword) into a farm tool. The modern day plowshare will then be presented to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office.

God does not want weapons. So why do we have them? Why do they exist? Where do they come from?

The biblical answer regarding the roots of weaponry can be found in Genesis 4. Adam’s great grandchild Tuval Kayin “sharpened everything which cuts copper and iron.” Rashi said his Tuval Kayin was given that name because he refined the craft of Kayin (aka Cain the murderer). The word Tuval, Rashi says is related to the word Tavlin (spices). And Tuval Kayin enhanced and refined the craft of Kayin, to produce the weapons of murderers.  The midrash in Genesis Rabbah 23:3 originates this idea, stating that Cain slew, yet lacked the weapons for slaying, whereas he (Tuval Kayin) was the forger of every cutting instrument.

Weapons have been around for a long time. And they keep getting more and more sophisticated and commonplace. They have become so common place that they are taken to movie houses in Tampa.

If God does not want them in His house, and we are supposed to be like God, then we should not have weapons in our house.  To be sure, all metal household items could be considered dangerous if misused. We need sechel. We need to use our brains properly, for good and not for harming others.

If we can’t turn our swords into ploughshares, then we must get rid of our swords. To quote David Broza, my beloved Israeli singer: I believe that one day the children of Abraham will lay down their sword forever in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, Newtown, New Orleans, Colarado, Brooklyn. Iran.  Everywhere.

The Hebrew root shalom, which means peace, appears nearly 900 times in the Tanach. By contrast, the Hebrew root lacham in the sense of warfare appears no more than 576 times. This shows that Shalom is the highest value in the Torah, the ultimate good.

As we take pause this weekend to remember the legacy of Dr. King, I leave you with his words on this topic:

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

Weapons—swords, guns, chemical, biological are evil. Don’t be passive. When you can, do something.  I am not sure how they can all be turned into ploughshares, but after tomorrow, I will have some idea.

Yehudah Amichai, Israel’s greatest modern poet takes the idiom one step further. He says:

Don’t stop after beating the swords into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.

This verse

וְאִם-מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה-לִּי, לֹא-תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית:  כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ, וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ

And if you make for me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones: for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.

is placed immediately after the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Figure out on your own how much significance God places on it.

Bo Sermon 5774 Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzi

January 14th, 2014 by


The Penultimate Plague

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin     Israel Center of Conservative Judaism

Bo Sermon


Q. How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?

A. None, “I’ll just sit here in the dark.”

Why is that joke funny? It brings in the stereotype of the Jewish mother guilt, because sitting in the dark is the last thing a Jewish mother wants to

We know from darkness. The world we live in emerged from darkness. At the beginning of Genesis we read “the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep . . . (ve-ha’aretz hayta tohu va-vohu, ve-hoshekh al p’nai t’hom . . . )” “And God separated the light from the darkness (va-yavdayl Eloheem bayn ha’or u-vayn ha’hoshekh).” God never destroyed darkness; rather, it was pulled back, separated to expose the light and the dark, each in its own time and place.

Our Jewish tradition provides many experiences for light to shine.

  • We light candles on Shabbat and on Chanukah.
  • On Purim, in the megillah we read “There was light and joy, gladness and honor for the Jewish people.”
  • That same verse is used at the end of Shabbat during Havdalah, with the addition of So may we be blessed.
  • There was a menorah for light in the Temple.
  • Most of our holidays take place in the middle of the lunar month, when the moonlight is at its peak.

Light is central to our existence as a people.

That is why the penultimate plague, darkness was so horrible. When we are unable to see, either literally or metaphorically, we lose some of our humanity.

Let’s first explore darkness in its literal sense.

Last week, in Parshat Vaera we read about the first seven plagues brought onto Egypt. Now in Parshat Bo, we cover the last three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the first-born. These three plagues all share the element of darkness.

The locusts were to descend in such great numbers that “they shall cover the surface of the land, so that lo yuchal lirot et haaretz no one will be able to see the land.”

The plague of darkness which followed, further limited what the Egyptians could see, making it impossible for them to see anything or anyone around them. As for the plague of the first-born, this blow took place “toward midnight.”

Let’s try to understand the actual plague of darkness better.

Ibn Ezra offers a realistic explanation: a very heavy fog befell Egypt, such as one finds on islands at sea. Ibn Ezra, who was a frequent traveler attests that he once encountered fog so thick that one could see absolutely nothing. That is how it could have naturally occurred even in the daytime.

In his commentary, Ramban agrees with Ibn Ezra and also suggests that the darkness was composed of such a thick, foglike substance. He writes that this fog was so heavy it extinguished all of the lamps. He also writes that it was more than just that daylight was absent. Actual darkness was sent, as if it was physical.

Whether the darkness was natural or divine, the question remains as to what it signified.

The effect of the darkness, was that “people could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was” (Ex. 10:23). The darkness prevented all movement among the Egyptians. The Egyptians, who had enslaved the Israelites, refusing to allow them to go three days’ journey into the wilderness (Ex. 5:3), were smitten with a plague that imprisoned them in their homes, preventing them from going anywhere.

When reviewing this parsha, I kept reminding myself that there is a difference between what I can’t see and what I don’t see, between the plague of literal darkness and metaphoric darkness.

My colleague and friend Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz published an article this week titled: Fancy Diners: Do You Even See Me? Before I even read the article, which was great, the title led it made me think about what we choose not to see, when we put ourselves in the metaphoric dark.

When I save money and budget in order to dine at special occasion restaurants in Manhattan, I don’t think about the people washing dishes, as I don’t see them. There are structures in place to ensure I don’t see them. I am basically in the dark about who they are, what they look like, where they live and if they are treated well. If I assume they are brown skinned, or Hispanic, I will probably be right.

We choose to “be in the dark” about others because we don’t like feeling uncomfortable when we see or learn about their situation.

Gated communities in Florida or Los Angeles or elsewhere provide the metaphoric darkness. When you choose to live in a gated community, you might as well put a sign on your door that says: we keep our kind in and your kind stays out. I don’t need to know about you. I would rather be in the dark about you.

But our parsha reminds us that being in the dark is not good. The Torah reminds us that the Israelites were afflicted with avodah kasha, hard labor. During that time, the Egyptians did not see the despair of the people of Israel. They never looked into the eyes of their fellow human beings and acknowledge their pain.

During the ninth plague, the Egyptians stumbled about in the darkness, tripping over the opportunities to save others as they too were in the dark.  ”No one could see the other. And no one could rise from his or her place for three days (Lo ra’u ish et ahiv. V’lo kamu ish mitachtav shloshet yamim)” (Exod. 10:23).

In the commentary to this parashah, the Etz Hayim Humash states, “the person who cannot see his neighbor is incapable of spiritual growth, incapable of rising from where he is.” When we cannot see those around us, we become callous and indifferent to them.  We must, to the best of our ability effect positive change by being an “or l’goyim,” a light to the nations.

In the Torah, the Egyptians were plagued with physical darkness, but we plague ourselves by choosing not to see what is around us. In the Proverbs we learn, “ner Adonai nishmat adam“—”the lamp of God is the soul of the individual” (20:27). Each of us carries God’s spark. May we have the wisdom to illuminate the dark, shining light on the blessings we have to offer the world.


Vaera Sermon 5774 Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

January 14th, 2014 by

On the Need for Water

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin       Israel Center of Conservative Judaism

Vaera Sermon


Take a moment and think about all the activity that occurred before you arrived to shul this morning.

Some of you took a shower. What was involved? Hot water, soap, shampoo, clean towels.

I would hope that all of us brushed our teeth. What was involved? Owning a tooth brush, toothpaste and running water.

Some of you, hopefully most of you, ate breakfast or at least sipped a drink. What was involved? A fridge, glasses or bowls, food.

All of you woke up, in a clean bed and did not freeze overnight—unless that is a personal deliberate thermostat choice.

Food, clothing, shelter, heat, water.  Too often we take those human basic needs for granted.

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about basic needs this last month, as the wonderful contractor I hired to work on my kitchen injured himself, and my kitchen is currently an empty room consisting of four walls, a fridge and stove.   All dairy and meat dishes and dry food remain in boxes in the dining room. This lack of running water and a functional kitchen is a nuisance, but it is 2013 and I have created mechanisms to get around the inconvenience. So what if there is a crock pot and a toaster oven on the living room floor? It is just temporary. It is annoying, but temporary.

Many people in this room can remember a time when we did not have all of these “basic needs.” Our collective Sandy experience was not fun. No power, half power, no internet, no phone.

My family and friends and over 400 000 other homes and businesses lost power this past week in the Greater Toronto Area following an unprecedented ice storm. Hotels were booked solid and my empty nester parents filled up their children’s bedrooms with displaced nieces.

In the big picture, our experience with Superstorm Sandy and this Toronto ice storm were temporary setbacks.  Things will get back to normal eventually. Probably, even soon. We have infrastructure. It is not always great and does not always works as efficiently as we would like, but it exists.

But what if we lived in a different era and our typical lives were disrupted by Mother Nature or God (depending on your theology)?

Let’s imagine for a moment that we are the Egyptians. Yes, we usually encounter them as the enemy and slave drivers in the Torah, but let’s put ourselves in their shoes. Let’s forget for a moment the brutality our ancestors experienced at their hands. When the plagues hit, the Egyptians lost one of their basic needs. Their entire water source was contaminated.

There was an article this week in Daily Finance with the title 10 American Cities With the Worst Drinking Water. I learned from that article that a surprising number of American cities have drinking water with unhealthy levels of chemicals and contaminants. In case you are wondering, Pensacola, Florida has the worst water quality in the country.  In their water, one can find: radium-228 and -228, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, alpha particles, benzene, lead, cyanide and chloroform.  Sounds horrible, right?

All of this was found using scientific methodologies.  Pensacolans have options- they can use Britta filters and buy bottled water at Costco. The Egyptians were not able to do that after the plagues. What was their life like after the blood plague or after the frogs died in the Nile? The river was full of dead fish, crustaceans, frogs and sticky bloody sand. How did they live without a viable water source?

At the seders, we take out pinkie and we say dam, tzfardea etc. And then we move on, with knowledge that a rich meal is on horizon. If we use them, we put away our ”plague kits” and all we are left with are a few spills on the Pesach table cloth, and that does not even happen every year. The biblical plagues did not end just because they stopped, there were a myriad of after effects. Even now in the Rockaways, so close to us, people are still living in filth and getting sick form mold.

In chapter 7, verse 24 we read: And all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile. Our classic commentators are oddly silent about this verse.  I opened book after book and only the medieval Ibn Ezra has anything to say about the verse, and his comment is a little soft. In the Torah we read that the Egyptians did not have access to something as basic and essential as water, and yet not a single Jewish commentator cared enough to share with us how they imagined that the Egyptians were able to survive.

I found this one midrash from Exodus Rabbah 9:10, but the author did not have empathy for the Egyptians.

If an Egyptian and an Israelite were in one house where there was a barrel full of water, and the Egyptian went to fill a pitcher from it, he would discover that it contained blood, but the Israelite would drink water from the same barrel. When the Egyptian said to him: ‘Give me some water with your own hand,’ and he gave it to him, it still became blood. Even if he said to him: ‘Let us both drink from one vessel,’ the Israelite would drink water, but the Egyptian blood.

Water is a huge metaphor in our tradition. There are numerous texts comparing Torah to water — both being essential to life.

Genesis Rabbah 13:3

Three things are of equal importance: earth, humans, and rain…each word [in Hebrew] has three letters to teach us that without earth, there is no rain, and without rain, the earth cannot endure, and  without either, humanity cannot exist.

This excerpt from Song of Songs Rabbah, I am certain we have learned together before:

The words of Torah are likened to water, as it is written, O all who thirst, come for water, (Is. 55:1)

Just as water is a life source, so is Torah a source of life; Just as water is free to all, so is Torah a free commodity;  Just as water comes from heaven, so too is the Torah’s origin in heaven;  Just as water cleanses the body from impurity, so does Torah cleanse the soul;

In our tradition, we refer to have a Torah Chayim, Etz Chayim and the mikveh- Mayim Chayim.  Water is clearly essential. It is our Life –chayim-source—and yet our commentators chose not to comment on And all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile.

I think they were embarrassed. After all, their job was never to make the Israelites look bad. These are the same rabbis who practically give King David sainthood. As each letter, word and verse is important in the Torah, I am embarrassed for our commentators who ignore this verse. The Egyptians life source was contaminated, and there was no way of fixing it.

This first plague was bad, I think it was the worst. Damaged water is serious and a detriment to people’s home. It can affect anyone at any time.  Really nobody is immune. Something can happen to our water, we just don’t know. Accessibility to money, education and health care does not leave us immune.

Usually we try to emulate God, and be like God. But we must never try to be vengeful like God is this week and next in the showdown between God and Pharaoh.

We should empower ourselves to care for our water and never let it turn into that Pensacolan water, or worse, like the first plague. Today, every 20 seconds, a child dies cause they lack access to clean water and sanitation.

The simplest thing we can do is ensure not to waste water.
• Turn off the tap while you brush your teeth, shave, or wash your hands, as this can waste up to 5 litres of water per minute.

AS 2013 turns into 2014, find time during tefillah, whether a Shabbat or weekday minyan to really thank God for covering your basic needs. Food, clothing, shelter, heat and water. Take some time to imagine how your life would differ if just one was taken from you.  Figure out which one be the biggest obstacle to your daily ilife. Then, thank God again for providing you with it.

Once you have completed that exercise, take out your check book or go online, and write a check to an organization or agency that is associated with the need you chose. You know you will make a difference.

Feel free to discuss during kiddush.

Shabbat shalom.

Shemot Sermon 5774 Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bozin

January 14th, 2014 by

When Faced with a Boycott Against Israel

Rabbi Fryer Bodzin             Israel Center of Conservative Judaism

Parshat Shemot


The following is an excerpt from an official letter sent out earlier this week.


Dear ASA Member,

The members of the American Studies Association have endorsed the Association’s participation in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In an election that attracted 1252 voters, the largest number of participants in the organization’s history, 66.05% of voters endorsed the resolution…

One year ago the ASA Executive Committee was asked to consider a resolution from the Academic and Community Activism Caucus of the Association. The EC then forwarded the resolution to the National Council and, following a lengthy period of careful deliberations, the Council unanimously voted to draft a revised resolution and to recommend members endorse it.

The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians. The ASA’s endorsement of the academic boycott emerges from the context of US military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and finally, the support of such a resolution by a majority of ASA members.

The Council’s final resolution acknowledged that the US plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Members asked for clarification about how the resolution would affect the ability of ASA members to engage with colleagues in Israel, and the Council developed guidelines specifying that collaboration on research and publications between individual scholars does not fall under the ASA boycott…

The ASA National Council thanks all who took seriously the task of debating and discussing the resolution…The Association’s mission includes the ongoing study and discussion of pressing issues faced by the US and the world.


The ASA National Council


The letter was followed by a number of endorsements, including:


Eric Cheyfitz, Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters, Cornell University

I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands. It is from these personal and professional positions that I applaud the decision of the NC to support the Academic boycott of Israel, which I support, and urge ASA members to affirm that support with their votes.

Angela Y. Davis, Distinguished Professor Emerita, UC Santa Cruz

The similarities between historical Jim Crow practices and contemporary regimes of segregation in Occupied Palestine make this resolution an ethical imperative for the ASA. If we have learned the most important lesson promulgated by Dr. Martin Luther King — that justice is always indivisible — it should be clear that a mass movement in solidarity with Palestinian freedom is long overdue.

As an aside, the ASA might have missed an interesting piece of trivia. , Dr. Mais Ali Saleh, an OB-GYN recently graduated No. 1 in her class at the Technion, one of the country’s top medical schools. While Dr. Ali Saleh was at the Technion, three others from her hometown village were also students there. “The Technion medical school has about 35 percent Israeli-Arab students,” she was quoted as saying.

Another piece of trivia: Mahmoud Abbas, while in South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral said publicly: “We do not support the boycott of Israel,” and “We have relations with Israel.”

Founded in 1951 and now counting about 5,000 members, the Washington, DC-based ASA is America’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, according to its website. After their announcement this week, Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg no longer affiliate with them.

Leon Wieselthier wrote a piece in the New Republic this week, with the title The Academic Boycott of Israel Is a Travesty. He wrote that Israel is being used as an example, and quotes Curtis Marez, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego, and a member of the ASA who said “One has to start somewhere.”

Quoting Leon Wieselthier: A few hours away from Palestine six million people are refugees in their own country, where they are being bombed by their government, and starving in the snow, and fighting polio; but never mind them, they are not Israel’s victims, and it is the turpitude of the Jewish state, not the actually existing misery in the region and the world, that offends the ASA.

This academic boycott of Israel is a triumph for the BDS campaign—who ask for the boycott of , divestment from and sanctions against Israel. Israel is being boycotted-not Syria, not Iraq, not Zimbabwe or China or Korea.

Where is the Torah in this? Besides being timely, as the ASA letter only went out this week, why does it need to be brought up on Shabbat morning? It needs to be brought up on this Shabbat morning, because we just read about something so eerily similar happening in the Torah.

8 A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. 10 Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.

This new king did not know Joseph. This new king did not know the back-story of why all of the Israelites were there. He did not know how they got there. He did not care. All he saw was a threat to his power, his people, his dominance, his gods, his ego, his kingdom.

But we know how the Israelites got to Egypt, because we come to shul week after week and month after month and year after year. We know our central story, our central narrative. I am not ignorant; this “we” that I am referring to is not the entire Jewish people. It is really “some of us.”

Most of us are reminded of some of out story at Pesach. However, not everyone knows the whole narrative. Too many were taught they tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat. The back story is important. The last four weeks worth of Torah reading tell us what got us to Egypt in the first place

Unfortunately, not enough people know about it. Maybe the ASA does not read historical documents outside of American studies.

Our story not as juicy as in 1948 the Jews kicked the Palestinians out of their land, which a) is false and b) is a very watered down claim of the BDS movement, and the basis of the Palestinian-Arab narrative.

BDS does keep me up at night and makes me want to vomit due to their loud voices and false claims. UN Resolution 181, which recommended partition of land west of the Jordan, specifically refers to an “Arab state” and a “Jewish state” more than 20 times. A ‘Palestinian state’ is never mentioned. The newfound “Palestinian” identity for Arabs in Palestine is a modern term which only emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century.

In the Torah, Pharaoh oppressed the Israelites with hard manual slave labor. Now, in 2013, the ASA is oppressing Israelis by not permitting them to shine or be included. How different is this than Pharaoh? Perhaps the Muslim world sees Israel as a threat. The only democracy, so many Nobel Prize winners, equality for women, for gays and lesbians, the technological capital of the Middle East. Israel does not have wealthy Sheiks and oil, but as we know she does have a lot going for her.

The following is in the Haggadah, based on Deuteronomy 26: My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7 We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.

The Hebrew Vayreihu Otanu Hamitzrim “the Egyptians dealt harshly with us” can better be translated as they made us out to be bad. This is what the BDS movement is doing. They are creating a narrative which makes Israel look horrible and making us out to be bad.

And, they have louder voices and PR campaigns than we do.

We have a narrative. We have a story. We just need to learn it better so we can combat the ugly anti-Semitism that is the BDS movement

If Mahmoud Abbas does not support the boycott of Israel, why in the world does the American Studies Association?

Shemot chapter two ends with: God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them. I am not asking for that, but perhaps if the rest of the world could look at Israel the way we see her, and not as the BDS propaganda campaign does, that too would be a miracle. If like Rashi said, the world could not turn their eyes to the good Israel does, then these ridiculous boycotts could end already.


Vayeshev Sermon November 23, 2013 Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

December 11th, 2013 by

Parshat Vayeshev 5774


Today’s Dvar Torah is in honor of

Shmuel Asher Uzziel ben haRav Michael Aharon v’haRav Pesah Esther

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

Political assassinations are an odd phenomenon. Some of us go through the regular stages of grief and others don’t. But most of the time people do experience initial shock. I recall that I definitely did when Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated 18 years ago.

Obviously I was not alive 50 years ago when President John F. Kennedy was shot. But I have a vivid Kennedy assassination related memory. I had recently transferred to a brand new public high school for tenth grade. For some reason, my dad was in the school building with me. We walked up a huge stair case and my dad said to me “whenever I walk up a staircase like this I am reminded of Kennedy’s assassination.” He must have been in school and heard it on the PA system—in Toronto. But it always reminds him of the assassination.

 In that same high school I chose an elective class called American History, thinking it was important to know about our neighbors to the south. It was then, pre YouTube that I first saw the famous Walter Cronkite clip, when he shared with the world that the president was gone.  Taking off his glasses he said “we just have a report in from Dan Rather, our correspondent in Dallas, that he has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead.” Then again he stated, “From Dallas Texas, the flash official, President Kennedy died at 1 PM Central Standard Time. He pauses. 2 PM Eastern Standard Time as his voice shakes, some 38 minutes ago. He pauses again and then somehow speaks about Lyndon B Johnson who will shortly assume the office. As much as a professional as Cronkite was, we can’t help but be moved by his quivering lip and look of sadness and disappointment.

Shock, disbelief and disappointment. Everyone felt it, even if they never met the president personally. People cried for the life that would not continue. This man who said: Those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future would not have a future.

These feelings of shock, disbelief and disappointment were all raised to the surface for me and thousands more last week. For a year and a half, 520 days to be exact, I had been following the blog of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer who live in the greater Chicagoland area. I have never met them, although Rabbi Phyllis Summer and I interact on Twitter. The two of them have been blogging on  

Their first entry was dated June 14, 2012. At the conclusion of that first post they wrote: 

Sam has cancer.
Acute myeloid leukemia.
And our lives will never be the same.


By frequently reading their blog, I learned that Phyllis and Michael are wonderful parents and wonderful rabbis. Their son Sam, who loves everything Superman, has spent most of the last year and half at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and the Ronald McDonald House nearby. On November 8, two weeks ago, when Sam was 73 days post bone marrow treatment, a blog entry was given the title Little Things – BMT +73. Phyllis wrote:

“Today is Sam’s birthday….

Just a little morning with donuts at the Sommer house.
Just a little birthday.
Just a little thing.
So little I can barely breathe.
Eight is great.
May there be so many more….

Blessed are You, our God, who has enabled us to reach today.

I was thrilled for this family. They could go back to some semblance of normalcy. But then last week, Phyllis wrote the following

520 Days Later

“Time is all we have. You may find one day that you have less than you think.”  ~ Randy Pausch

We are so desperately heartbroken and filled with sadness.

Sam has relapsed.

His ninja leukemia is so very strong.
It has reared its head in his bone marrow and in some extramedullary spots on his jaw and head.

There is no cure.
There is no treatment.

I won’t read the whole blog post because I can’t do it without crying. And I don’t know anybody else who has read this without tearing up either.

I felt like Walter Cronkite when I read that email; emotions of shock, disbelief and disappointment enveloped me, even though I never met Sam or his parents. I had only read about him and seen pictures—sort of like the relationship most Americans have with the President.  I sat on the couch and cried for the life that won’t continue living.

We just never know what will happen- and we have never have.  

We began the Joseph saga in our parsha this week. His father loved him more than any of his other children—and there were many. Jacob loved Joseph so much that he made him a special colored tunic. Joseph made Jacob feel young again; being that he was the ben Zkunim-child of his old age.

Joseph dreamed his two egocentric and arrogant dreams which made his brothers angry. Later, Joseph’s brothers made an historic mistake that changed the course of Jewish history. In chapter 37, verse 19 the brothers said to one another “Here comes the dreamer. Come now let us kill him and throw him into a one of the pits, and we can say a savage beast devoured him.” When Jacob heard the news that his son was gone, he encountered that same shock, disbelief and disappointment. He rent his clothing and put on sackcloth. The dreams and hopes he might have had for his own son were shattered.  

What President Kennedy and little Superman Sam and Joseph have in common is that they were all dreamers.

We all know that Joseph was in the dream business. He dreamt wild dreams and he was able to decipher the dreams of others as well.  

President Kennedy too was a man with a dream. He had a vision for a new America. He famously said “things do not happen. Things are made to happen.” And, “mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.” Take a moment to think about the state of this country had Kennedy not been shot. We will never know.

Take a moment to think about our people had Joseph stayed with the other brothers and never became the Number Two to Pharaoh in Egypt. How different would our central story be? Again, we will never know as the Torah is not a choose your own adventure book.

Take a moment to think about the Sommer family. Two parents, three siblings and three grandparents are losing Sam.  Sam is a dreamer too. His first responses last week when his parents told him what was happening were:

I don’t want to die!

I want to grow up and marry someone!
I want to learn to drive!
I want to have a Bar Mitzvah!
I want to see David be President!
I want to see Dad get old and wear diapers!

Phyllis wrote: How do you tell your child that he’s going to die? My heart is broken into a million billion pieces.

I don’t know the Sommers family. But Sam and his family have been so close to my heart, especially in the last few weeks. I read that when Sam was told that his leukemia had returned, one of the first things he also said, “I will never go to Israel.”

One of Sam’s dreams is to go to Israel. It is on his bucket list. And now the family is there. Am Shalom, the Temple where Phyllis works arranged to send Sam, his three siblings, parents and grandparents to Israel.  Outside their hotel was a huge banner with the words Welcome Sam and Family on it. As Phyllis wrote, Sam is on a trip-of-a-brief-lifetime. It has not been an easy week, but Sam got to Israel. Some of Sam’s dreams will come true before his brief life ends. I admire his parents’ strength.

Humans are multi dimensional. Last week during Ask the Rabbi on Shabbat morning, one of our children asked why is it is that we need to have holidays to remember sad things, and how come all holidays aren’t happy?

 I responded that in order to be a full person we need to have parts that are happy and sad inside of us.

We need to find inspirations and be aspirational. We need to attend funerals and simchas.  We need not hope for miracles, but see the miracles around us. We need to dream

With the season of miracles about to begin this week, I want to look at President Kennedy and Jacob and Joseph and little Sam in a slightly different way. They all had miracles in their lives. The fact that Kennedy was able to win by a small margin and then wake up a nation, especially young people was a miracle. That Jacob was able to live to an old age and we will read in a few weeks be reunited with Joseph was a miracle. And that little eight year old Superman Sam has captured the hearts of thousands; across various lines which would usually divide us is miracle too.

 On Wednesday night, when we recite the words of the second Chanukah blessing and say Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in the days of old and at this season, take a moment to count the miracles in your life.  







Shabbat shalom





Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin Vayera Sermon 5774

October 28th, 2013 by

Parshat Vayera 5774- October 19. 2013

What Does it Mean to be Jewish?

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

In the nineties, I was a student at Yeshiva University. No, I did not go to the rabbinical school there. That would be impossible. Rather, I obtained my Masters degree in Social Work at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Always the mutlitasker, I completed a Certificate in Jewish Communal Service during my time there as well. One of the required classes was entitled Organizational Structure of the American Jewish Community. But we all called that class Alphabet Soup. In a formal university class, I spent Tuesday and Thursday mornings learning about all of the different Jewish organizations and what they do. The ADL, the JDC, the AJC, the JTS, the UJA, etc. etc.


It was then that I first was exposed to CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership Founded in 1974, Clal is a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center and it is deeply pluralistic. Their current landmark initiative is called Rabbis Without Borders. This program helps rabbis make Jewish thought and practice more available for improving people’s lives. I am honored to be a member of its fifth cohort. It really is a privilege, as more than 100 applicants competed for 21 spots this year. Our cohort met for the first time on Monday and Tuesday, in Manhattan. Most rabbis travelled by air and train to participate.  I took the express bus into the city.

We will gather in Manhattan four times over this academic year, with sessions focusing on current trends in America today. The intersection between religion, politics, technology, identity and meaning making will all be explored in depth. My head was spinning with all of the information that came my way earlier this week. And for the most part, I am still processing the brilliance of Clal’s Rabbi Irwin Kula and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield and our guest speaker, Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, who is the Senior Religion Editor for the Huffington Post. 

While the most recent Pew Research Center’s report on American Jewry was not supposed to be our focus, it was impossible for us not to discuss this deeply flawed report and its implications and ramifications.  There is so much going on in this Pew Report, called a Portrait of American Jewry, which is easily accessible online. A number of us here took the time to look at a summary of it over the last two weeks during Seudah Shlishit.

One of its seemingly positive claims is that 94% of Jews are proud to be Jewish. What does that even mean? One wonders: Do you need a rabbi for Jewish pride? Did you need to come to shul this morning to be proud to be Jewish? Or could you have slept in and read the newspaper and still been proud to be Jewish?  

As the rabbi of this shul, not only am I your religious decisor, your mara d’atra, but I am the lead teacher of this community. It is part of my job to impart to you the wisdom of our tradition. But those two main aspects of my job are not actually important to Jews, according to the Pew report. Halacha is far down the line of importance. According to the report, this is how the question what does it mean to be Jewish was answered.

 Remembering Holocaust 73 %

Leading ethical/moral life 69 %

Working for justice/equality 56 %

Being intellectually curious 49 %

Caring about Israel 43 %

Having good sense of humor 42%

Being part of a Jewish Community 28%

Observing Jewish law 19%

Eating traditional Jewish Foods even less %

 According to this sample of less than 4000 individuals, to be Jewish primarily means to remember the Holocaust and to lead an ethical and moral life—which may or may not be understood as doing mitzvot.

The survey respondents were not even offered a box to tick off like “go to synagogue on Shabbat and pray to God and learn the wisdom of our Torah.”  

One of the biggest takeaways from the two day conference with Rabbis without Borders came from Rabbi Hirshfield. He said something so simple. If a multiple choice question is asked, and you don’t fit perfectly into any of the options, then your reality cannot be captured.

So had the question what does it mean to be Jewish included a box for “going to shul on Shabbat,” what percentage would the respondents give for that?

 Based on anecdotal and empirical data, I would suggest that it would be low.  Why isn’t our entire membership in shul this morning? We just read the most important theological dilemma of the entire Torah. Why isn’t everyone here like they were for Rosh Hashanah? Why isn’t it standing room only today? I think the answer is because most Jews don’t know and probably don’t care about the wisdom found in the Torah.  For many people’s Judaism, filling the empty seat next to you on Shabbat morning is not as important to them as it is for you. Yet 94 percent of American Jews are proud to be Jewish. 

You might have known that today’s seventh aliyah was about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. You might have known that since last week we read Lech Lecha, and then this week we read Vayera- which includes the Akedah.  Or maybe you didn’t. But for most of you, whether you practiced it your entire life, or whether you are new to it: coming to shul on Shabbat is part of what it means to be Jewish. You are here because it is important for you to be here, to talk to God, to be engaged, or to be moved by Torah.  We all have different reasons for being here today. But WE are here.

So in essence I am preaching to the choir. For every one of you that is here today, it is important on some level to come to shul. And if you are in shul on a Shabbat morning, then you are doing something so intrinsically Jewish, even if it does not fit in a box that you could tick off for the Pew Report. 

Look at the closest empty seat to you. It is important to know that the empty seats are not an ICCJ problem or even a Jewish problem. Just this week, Steve McSwain published an article with the catchy title of Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. We can so easily substitute synagogue for the word church. 

He writes that according to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, more than 40 percent of Americans “say” they go to church weekly. As it turns out, however, less than 20 percent are actually in church. In other words, more than 80 percent of Americans are finding more fulfilling things to do on weekends. And if we get a little sad when we read about synagogue mergers, he also alerts us to the fact that somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors every year.

Churches and synagogues are not dying. We are in transition. What is working for you and brought you here this morning is not working for millions of Jews.  I see that as an opportunity for innovation. Irwin Kula taught me that a tradition is simply an innovation that works. We need to come up with new innovations that will become traditions; that will awaken the souls of those who are not here. I feel blessed that the officers of this synagogue provide me frequent opportunities to try new things—that either becomes a new tradition or fail. But we do try. 

In his article, McSwain highlights seven changing trends that are impacting house of worship-going in America.  He wrote church, but they all are relevant for synagogues too.

1. The demographic remapping of America.

This is our reality. The demographic makeup of this neighborhood is not the same as it was 40 years ago. People of Asian descent and Jews who prefer a mechitza constitute the majority of this neighborhood. ICCJ is not where they choose to worship.  But our building is here. We can’t pick up and move so easily.

2. Technology.

Because we follow Halacha, this is less relevant for us. But teens and kids would rather be texting than davening.

3. Leadership Crisis

If you open the Forward or JTA or the Jewish Week, you will read that rabbis are pedophiles, tax evaders, vigilantes and cheats. As for leaders of organizations, I have two words. Met Council.  (I don’t get it)If I was not involved in Jewish organizations or synagogue life, this would not be the best time to start. It is hard to trust Jewish leaders these days.

4. Competition

People have more choices on Friday nights and Shabbat mornings than simply going to shul. And people don’t feel guilty for not davening with a community when they can be doing something else they deem important. 

5. Religious Pluralism

Again, people have more choices today. We don’t live in the shtetl. Some people’s spiritual needs are being met by other expressions that they are exposed to. And there is also the opportunity to say I am Jewish but I don’t practice. And people don’t feel bad for saying that.

6. The “Contemporary” Worship Experience

Even for those that do come to shul, people want less.  9-12 on Shabbat morning is too long. 8:30-1 on Yom Tov is impossible. This, too, has contributed to the decline of the worship experience.  People want something, some meaning-but it is not always what classic, traditional shuls are offering.

7. Phony Advertising

We say that we are a family, but yet, not everyone here thinks to welcome newcomers or people who enter the building once.

 I don’t want to leave this on a negative note because it is not all negative. Whatever sociological trends are coming and going, we can ride them. Judaism is constantly evolving and people are constantly evolving. We are different that in Abraham’s time, Moshe’s time and our grandparents’ time.

What is important is that our Torah remains eternal and enduring. There is no limit to the amount of good that Torah can do. We just need to provide more opportunities for people to access it. And none of us can denigrate those who might choose to access Torah in a different way than we do.

When Rabbi Asher Lopatin was installed as president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, he explained that Torah must not be contained, we must take it out into the world.  He shares: This week, we see how Avraham not only leaves his tent to welcome the strangers to join him for a meal, but he actually runs out to catch them before they disappear. Avraham’s running to the angels teaches us that we can’t just wait passively for people to come to our shuls, our Shabbat tables or our classes and schools; we have to run after them, actively welcome them, and share our tradition.As a Rabbis Without Borders fellow, I hope to gain the skills to do just that this year.