Category Archives: 5773

Suffering’s Reward

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Naso

Suffering’s Reward

Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller

The Torah makes a straightforward connection between doing good and receiving God’s reward and blessing, and doing bad and receiving divine punishment and suffering. Only a few thousand years later do we see rabbinic literature deal with more theologically challenging concepts of sinners who receive reward and righteous who are punished.

Ibn Ezra jumps into this discussion with yet another possibility in the divine ledger-keeping and that is reward as compensation for suffering.

Amongst the strangest rituals described in the Bible is that of the Sotah. It is the process whereby a woman suspected of adultery, who denies any wrongdoing, is publicly degraded and forced to drink a unique concoction called the “bitter waters”. During the times of the Sanctuary and the Temple these bitter waters apparently had the power to determine a woman’s infidelity. If the woman had been untrue, the waters would cause her to die a gruesome death including the rapid swelling of her stomach and the falling off of body parts. However, if she was innocent, the result would be the birth of a healthy baby boy.

Ibn Ezra on Numbers 5:28 suggests that the resultant birth of a child is a gift, a reward from God to the mother for the blameless suffering she was subjected to. Her being accused by her husband of adultery and the subsequent public degradation despite her repeated, vehement and true affirmations of innocence need to be compensated.

This is when God steps in and rewards the mother with one of the most precious gifts possible: a healthy child.

May all our sufferings lead to sweet rewards.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Rabbi Menachem Burstein (originally from Uruguay) and Machon Puah who helps so many families achieve the special gift of a child.

And Mazal Tov to my colleagues in Montevideo, Rabbi Eliyahu and Natalie Galil on the birth of their fourth child!

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Life of the Party

September 2, 2013

Life of the Party

I had five “l’chaims” today and one funeral. Thankfully, one of the l’chaims for today (the sixth) was rescheduled. Each group and organization had their own distinct celebration where my involvement ranged from negligible to central, usually with little or no warning as to what my expected role would be. I warmed up with the office l’chaim with a small intimate crowd of employees and directors, the majority of whom I knew or recognized. I said a few words after the President and ran off to the funeral.

I returned to another l’chaim of which I had written on my calendar was for the social worker volunteers of the community. I came to a hall with about fifty people sitting and waiting for me. I quickly understood and confirmed that instead of the volunteers, the room was filled with the actual beneficiaries of the community social assistance. I had to quickly change the speech I had prepared regarding working for a charitable cause (don’t worry – it served me well in two other l’chaims). I said the blessing over a glass of wine and blew the shofar for the crowd. The warm-up act was an adorable group of 3rd grade school girls who performed an Israeli dance, and I was followed by a keyboarder who played Jewish music.

I walked into the ballroom for the third l’chaim. There were about sixty middle-aged and elderly women seated at tables in a large hall. At the far end of the hall, in the middle of the head table remained one empty chair with a tall silver wine cup next to a large Challah. I made a beeline to the chair, with my large shofar in hand and spoke about Rosh Hashana, with my previously mentally rehearsed speech of the importance of personal involvement in charitable organizations besides just giving money. I said the blessing over the wine, said the blessing over the Challah, blew the shofar and ran off to my next appointment.

The fourth l’chaim was in a building I hadn’t been to before. For some reason, due to a previous related l’chaim from the week before, I was actually expecting this one to be of the small intimate variety where I wouldn’t have to do or say much. The first hint that I was mistaken was the heavy security outside the building. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised anymore when the security people don’t bother stopping me but rather escort me in. The second hint that my assumption was wrong was the number of people milling in the hallway and the person at the desk in front of the hall checking people in. Mind you, I noticed all these things out of the corner of my eye as I’m running through the hallway, intent on getting wherever I’m supposed to.

I walk into a ballroom with over 300 people sitting at round tables akin to a wedding. I kept walking, not letting myself be taken aback by the size of the audience and just let my forward momentum keep me going. The organizer motions for me to come to the microphone at the front center of the hall next to the keyboarder who I now recognize from the second l’chaim (we should have given them a package deal or something). I was about to address the beneficiaries of another charitable institution that hosts an annual pre-Rosh Hashana dinner for the needier members of the community.

I had a few seconds as the hostess introduced me to think of something appropriate to say to the individuals and families enjoying their meal. I said something that seemed to hold their attention, spoke about faith and hope and Israel and blessings for a better year. Did the wine and the challah and ran off for the next engagement.

The last one for the day was at a board meeting of one of the Jewish organizations. It was actually very interesting to be present during their discussions and it gave me more time to think of what to say to this smaller group. Speech, blessing, wine, challah and shofar.

Somehow I feel like I should now be exempt from Rosh Hoshana given the amount of speeches and blessings I’ve given, the amount of wine I’ve consumed, the amount of sweet round raisin-filled Challah I’ve eaten (which I like) and the number of times I’ve blown the shofar (which keeps getting better). But all of this is just a small preview for the main event…

Beware the Four Horsemen

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: ]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Haazinu

Beware the Four Horsemen

“I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” -Woody Allen

Death chases us all down like an implacable horseman; it is merely the time and the manner of the dying that is a variable. The famed Four Horsemen of Apocalypse or of Death are drawn from the verses of The New Testament, but there are earlier echoes of the concept in our Torah.

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 32:24 draws our attention to what he calls the four agents of death: Famine, Plague, Wild Beasts and the Sword.

God sends these as a direct consequence for our wrongdoings, not to destroy the world, but as both personal and communal punishments for choosing the wrong path.

To be spared from these terrible endings the Torah suggests a very simple solution: Follow God’s commandments. Let’s take the opportunity of this Rosh Hashana to review the commandments we should be working on and reestablish that God is the boss.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,



To the end of the year 5773 and to the beginning of 5774. May the new year be filled with all the wonderful blessings we hope for.


“That could never happen to me”

[First posted on The Times of Israel at:]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Nitzavim

“That could never happen to me”

“A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.” –Demosthenes

There is a macabre curiosity in the suffering of others. The most vivid example is the traffic jams that occur on the opposite lane of a car accident. People slow down, not necessarily to see if they could help, but out of a deep desire to witness the misfortune of the other guy.

We feel a brief pang of empathy for the victims of the tragedy, remind ourselves to perhaps fasten our seatbelt or drive slower or more carefully, and then cruise on at the same speed, saying to ourselves that we would never be so careless or so unfortunate as the person being wheeled into the ambulance.

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 29:18 says that man does the same mental calculation upon hearing the curses and punishments that God will bring upon those that don’t follow His commandments. The foolhardy man will bless himself saying “that curse, that punishment, won’t fall upon me.” And he will believe his self-blessing to be true and effective though he may be obliviously careening into the approaching misfortune with his name written all over it.

May we wake up to reality from our self-delusions and get back onto safer and more honest roads.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Ana Duschitz on her incredible hosting of the Women’s Weekly shiur of Montevideo. May it continue strongly in the coming year and grow.



Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly…

Tuesday, August 28, 2013

‘Tis the Season to be Jolly…

Overnight I have become perhaps the most sought after Jew in Montevideo. It isn’t for anything that I’ve done. It isn’t even for anything I’ve said. It is simply because I exist and because I have the word “Gran” in front of my title of “Rabino”.

I have just finished two days of giving lectures throughout the day and into the night and this is just a warm up. Apparently the Jewish population of Uruguay takes its preparations for Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) very seriously. I have been invited by a multiplicity of Jewish organizations, groups and school classes to give a pre-Rosh Hashana lecture and/or “L’chaim” (a toast – literally “to life”). I’m already booked six times for Monday – so if anybody else out there is keen on Monday, let me know soon.

It’s great fun, I’m always warmly received and I generally have a captive audience – what more can a Rabbi ask for?

While I’m finally in writing mode after a brief hiatus I thought I’d share a few items. Plans for Rosh Hashana are coming along. In just a few weeks I’ve gone from never having gotten a sound out of a shofar to doing a passable job of sounding like the guys who do it in the synagogue – there’s nothing like desperation to motivate you.

We’ve managed to change internally some of the views of the High Holidays service and have started an ad series that is reflecting what I hope is a fresh, modern, more attractive perspective that we hope will attract more people. We’ll find out soon enough.

Classically there has been a panel discussion in the synagogue the afternoon of Yom Kippur, which I’ve been told have been poorly attended. I’ve proposed what I think may be an interesting and timely discussion topic for this year: “The Jewish view on the legalization of Marijuana.” We have a contact that is a legal distributor of marijuana implements who we may invite to join the panel, together with other related professionals. We may get a slightly different crowd for the discussion than in previous years.

Having had many years of conducting Jewish informal education I am fairly comfortable in class settings and then spontaneously doing something out of the box. In most cases I avoid direct frontal lectures, but rather try to engage the audience. I’m having a lot of fun using a bagful of tricks. Yesterday I played broken telephone to illustrate the challenges of transmission (very effective). Today, students packed the back of the hall, leaving the front completely empty. I called upon the tale of the Aleinu prayer (always at the end of the prayer service) that complained to God that it’s at the end when people are already leaving the synagogue. To make up for its slighted feelings God then inserted Aleinu in the very center of the High Holiday prayers. I also mentioned the end of the Leha Dodi prayer of Friday nights when the entire congregation turns around and the back row becomes the front row for a few moments. In that spirit I forced all the students to turn their chairs around and I lectured (if one were to call it that) from the back of the hall. I think some of the kids of the back row (now in front of me) squirmed at the sudden proximity to the lecturer, but they seemed attentive enough and even participated. That is one of the benefits of being a free guest lecturer. You can have fun, do things a salaried teacher couldn’t necessarily try or risk, and if it doesn’t go well they can’t fire you or not pay you. I am invited back to give another lecture tomorrow so I guess I can keep experimenting…

My original thought when planning these multiple lectures was to give the same basic themes over and over again. It was different audiences each time, so why not? However, in many of the cases, some of the same teachers were around for the second or third lecture and I felt some pity for them to have to hear the same thing again. Then I realized that I didn’t want to say or hear the same thing again either as it would be boring for me. So I’ve ended up giving almost completely different lectures every single time (with some overlap of themes). So besides the standard themes of repentance, kingship of God, reward and punishment, God’s mercy versus justice, Judgment Day, introspection, asking forgiveness, ritual commandments versus social ones, blessings and curses, stages of repentance, levels of expiation of sin (repentance, suffering, Yom Kippur, death), second chances and more, I’ve also tackled the centrality of the Belief in God, the creation of the world and the age of the universe, the dynamics of the Divine justice system, the challenges of the Israeli Rabbinate, pre-nuptial agreements, concerns of chemical attacks upon Israel and more.

One other thing I’ve learned, and this goes against what many Rabbis say and are told is the topic of stories. I’ve been told that people love stories. Always insert a story. I’m discovering, at least with a small vocal group of people, is that they are sick and tired of stories. Stories are overused, abused, misused. They’ve heard the stories already. They don’t want to hear any more stories. A small personal intimate anecdote perhaps, but a boilerplate Hasidic story? Forget about it. They’ve been saturated with stories. They’re already tuning them out the second you say “Once upon a time.”

Jokes still work though. Not out of style yet. Anyway, time to get some sleep during this short calm before the High Holiday storm.

Secret Sins

[First posted on The Times of Israel at:]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Ki Tavo

Secret Sins

“The secret thoughts of a man run over all things, holy, profane, clean, obscene, grave, and light, without shame or blame.” -Thomas Hobbes

There is a special place in Jewish theology for the secret sinner. He is cursed like few others are cursed. Moses commands the people of Israel to perform an unusual ceremony once they cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

Half the tribes of Israel are to stand on one mountain and half on the opposite mountain as they scream at each other curses into the air. The selection and content of the curses is unusual. For example: Cursed is the one who makes a secret idol. Cursed is the one who hits his parents. Cursed is the one who is intimate with a relative. Cursed is the one who confuses the blind on the road. (See the full list in Deuteronomy 27:15-26).

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 27:14 explains that the common denominator between all the curses is that they are cursing those who perform sins in secret. One may be a respected, righteous figure on the outside and none know of the secret sin, (not that it’s better to start sinning publicly!) – but this saintly figure starts living a dual existence. A monstrous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the secret sin eroding and poisoning the persona from the inside.

Only by breaking free of the secret sin can a person hope to be whole again.

Good luck to all of us.

Shabbat Shalom,



To all of us contemplating repentance of our sins, whether secret or less so. We are all invited to synagogue for the High Holidays.

Foundations for Life

[First posted on The Times of Israel at:]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Ki Tetze

Foundations for Life

“If we do not maintain Justice, Justice will not maintain us.” -Francis Bacon

In the period approaching the New Year and Yom Kippur, one may wonder as to the preponderance of concern with Divine Justice. If as we believe, God is also merciful, then why the excessive concern with the aspect of justice? Can’t He just go easy with us and understand that man (whom He created) inevitably sins? How can He demand that everyone behave with integrity, how can He expect everyone to uphold justice in a world filled with deceit and injustice?

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 25:15 explains that justice is not only a Divine attribute but that it is also a requirement of the human condition. Man cannot live long or well without the aspect of justice, of fairness, of evenhandedness as a basic element of his existence.

Ibn Ezra compares justice in man to the foundations of a building. If we chip away at the foundations, the building will eventually collapse. If man erodes his sense of justice, of integrity, of honesty, Ibn Ezra alludes that eventually such a person will also collapse and perhaps that his existence will even end earlier than it might have.

May we stand on guard for the erosion of our principles, may we reinforce the elements of integrity and fairness in our lives and may we prepare ourselves for the upcoming High Holidays so that the structure of our lives may endure and prosper.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the communications team of the Kehila for their heroic and ongoing efforts in preparation of the High Holidays.

In memory of Ivan Porzecanski (Natan ben Rachel ve Rafael), a boy of three, for whom I had the heartbreaking duty of burying. May his family be consoled amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.