Finding your own sanctuary – Cantor’s article from Hakol

One of the most profound quotes from our Torah comes from Vayeitzei, in Genesis. Jacob awakes from his dream and says “ Truly,  God is in this place, and I did not know it. He was awestruck, and said, “How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” Genesis 28:16-17. I serve Temple Shirat Shalom, a new congregation in the valley only three years old. We have religious school at the JCC, services at the Swain School and sometimes in people’s homes. We have to find our spirituality in ourselves. The beautiful edifices are not there to aid us in our learning or worship. Oftentimes, on a Friday night I refer to the room we worship in as our sanctuary.   I have asked congregants whether they feel that the room we worship in is a sanctuary, they all say yes.  This made me think about the nature of prayer and community.

We have celebrated many of our congregant’s life cycle events on a Friday night. For our size I cannot believe how many times people wish to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, as well as all the regulars ufrufs, baby namings, yahrsteits and of course B’nai mitzvahs at our services. It is the desire to share their lives in a Jewish context with their fellow congregants that compels them. Obviously, the being together brings God into our midst. It is not the trappings that are needed it is amcha, the people of Israel that is needed.

A few weeks ago I officiated at a b’nai mitzvah that took place in their home. There were many logistical issues but once we began I felt something very special. The Jacob quote was in my mind. It was a beautiful service filled with love and pride, for the young adults, God and the Jewish people. The sun was shining through the windows and the twins were surrounded by everyone and everything they love. The intimacy of the service was lovely. I think everyone who attended was surprised how moving it was. We are used to services in large sanctuaries with many people participating. This was just the basics and that was more than enough.  Everything was included, our tradition was able to shine through with nothing between us and the Presence of God.

When I was in seminary, we would joke that we should guard against an edifice complex. It certainly is moving to enter a lovely space, however, as I have learned over these past three years what is lasting and important is what you walk in with. Religious experiences can be anywhere. As Jacob realized God can dwell in a place where you use a rock for a pillow.

Ruth and the Choices We Make, by Karyn Goldner

May 30, 2014

I’ve chosen the story of Ruth, found in the Ketuvim, which means simply “Writings,” in the third section of the Tanakh, There is nothing simple about these “writings” which are rich with meaning, poetry and lessons about life that are still relevant today.  Ruth is one such story.
As you all know, Ruth uttered the famous words to her mother-in-law, “whither you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”  Obviously, Ruth had a Mother-in-law much like mine.

For I will follow my Mother-in-law anywhere!


Seriously, Ruth is an interesting woman.  After losing her husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law, all the men in her family, she chooses to leave her own family and religion behind and follow her Mother-in-law back to Bethlehem.  The choice for her seems forthright.  However, she does not know what lies ahead in her future.  All she does know is the life her Husband’s family has shown to her.  And she chooses this life.  Quite notably, her sister-in-law does not.


As a Jew by choice, this story has deep meaning for me.  People always ask me why I chose to convert to Judaism.  There would be no children to bring into my marriage to Dave.  No reason to provide a Jewish home, other than the fact that I longed to live in a Jewish home.  The culture and the religion spoke to me.  So I made a choice in favor of conversion.


In life we make thousands of choices.  Some impact us greatly, like our religious beliefs, or where to go to College, what to study, where to live, whom to marry, and how many children to have. Other choices are more mundane like what’s for dinner?


Like Ruth, who makes the choice to stay with her Mother-in-law, not knowing if this choice will lead to a life as a widow, sometimes we are faced with making choices not knowing if our choice will have a positive outcome.  That type of choice takes courage.



I’d like to speak on a third spectrum of choices that we all have in our capacity and sometimes forget.  These are the choices that take courage but also they define us.  I’m referring to the choice to be kind, moral, forgiving, loving and charitable of spirit.   Easy?  No, I don’t think so.



If someone we love does us harm and we have the opportunity to gain revenge, what do we choose to do?  Do we forgive this person?  Can we offer this person a charitable heart if they needed help?  Can we still love this person?


Believe it or not, this choice is completely under our control.  Hard as it may be, the choice to be kind, not always easy, is still a choice.  Our actions in difficult situations speak to the very nature of our soul.   As the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sarte, so aptly put it, “We are our choices.”


Taking the higher ground is often the road less traveled.  In Ruth’s choice to join her Mother-in-law back to Bethlehem, she knows she will be the stranger in this new land and it will be hard to find her place.  Her sister-in-law did not have the courage to make that choice.  Ruth did. Her courage and commitment to both her Mother-in-law and her religion shows us her integrity and her charitable spirit.  Did she do it out of love or longing?  No matter what or why, she forges her destiny by this courageous choice.


Another favorite quote of mine found in Dr. Shad Helmstetter’s Book entitled, “Choices,” is “The end result of your life here on earth will always be the sum total of the choices you made while you were here.”


I feel as though the choice I made 8 years ago to convert to Judaism has changed my life dramatically.  “Choosing to be Jewish is just not eating lox and bagels” … that is another famous quote from our very own Cantor Sussman.  Choosing Judaism means that you define yourself by living a Jewish life and doing Jewish acts, like attending Torah Study, Shabbat Services, participating in the High Holy days and other days of Jewish observance.  Bringing Judaism into my life has given me a new perspective.  Tikun Olam, being at the very center of Judaism, can act as our guide when we are confused about the choices we make.  As a Jew, you are given many choices to express your faith.  However you choose to define yourself as Jewish, Tikun Olam should be at the foundation of your faith.


If we look back at the story of Ruth, her choice to follow her Mother-in-law, not only defines her as a committed and courageous woman, it also leads her to her destiny to marry again, have a son and become the ancestor of King David.


So I leave you with this thought.  And another quote from the author Ka – “Life is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.”  So let’s try and make these choices reveal our true beings.  We are Jews, either by birth or by choice.  We can choose to live a Jewish life by becoming involved with our religion in whatever way we feel comfortable.  We can show our neighbors and our community how we choose kindness and forgiveness, how we can show love to all of our neighbors and how we can be courageous in doing so. Let’s take the road less traveled.

Movies and the Torah – Sermon by Michael Nelson 5/9/2014

This may come as a shock to most of you, but I love the movies! I love how they bring the past, present, and future to life in the most minute detail on a big screen. Did you ever wonder how screenwriters come up with their endless story lines? Does life imitate art or does art imitate life?

What constitutes a great movie? The answer to this may be subjective but one can make the case that you can find all of the underlying themes for different movie genres in the Tanakh. In fact, I submit to you that going to the movies is a religious experience. Do you like movies because of their special effects like “The Transformers” and “Avatar”? Well I would put the parting of the Red Sea, a pillar of fire, making the sun stand still, and the 10 plagues at the top of any special effects. Revenge movies like “Death Wish”, “The Outlaw Josie Wales”, ”The Count of Monte Cristo”, or “Gladiator”?  Sorry, but this theme was previously related in the Torah with the story of the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dina, and the subsequent revenge murders by her brothers as well as the story of the slaughter of the Midianites that was ordered by Moses. Perhaps your taste runs to Disaster movies where entire civilizations are destroyed such as “War of the Worlds”, “Independence Day”, “Earthquake”, “Pompei”, “Atlantis, The Lost Continent” and even ”Gone With The Wind” ? Nothing new here –I reference Noah and the great flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah.   How about fantasy movies like “Pinocchio” when he was swallowed by a great whale? Did someone say Jonah? Did anyone see the Jim Carrey movie “Liar, liar” where as a result of his son’s birthday wish, he is unable to tell a lie for 24 hours? I think that the story of Balaam came first. Do you prefer movies about overcoming insurmountable odds like “Braveheart”, “Star Wars”. “The 300”, or “The Last Samurai”? Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal? They don’t hold a candle to the David and Goliath story or to Samson killing 1,000 men with the jawbone of an ass.

The Tanakh is thousands of years old and in that time period, customs have changed, laws have changed, borders have changed, but not the essence of men and women. Not what makes us tick. As Simon and Garfunkel related to us in “The Boxer”, “…after changes upon changes we are more or less the same.” If one were to distill the Tanakh down to its most basic elements, it is really a continuing story about relationships… the power struggles within those relationships and the consequences of those power struggles. And these power struggles form the basis for great movie making. Start with the relationship and power struggle between God and man – remember the scene at the end of Cool Hand Luke when Paul Newman is cornered in a church and asks God , “…what do I do now? I guess I’m pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case.” And when George Kennedy’s Dragline character suddenly appears, Luke looks up to heaven and says, “Is that Your answer, Old Man? I guess You’re a hard case, too.” Or how about Lieutenant Dan Taylor in Forrest Gump sitting in the crow’s nest on the shrimp boat in the middle of Hurricane Carmen and screaming to God, “Come on! You call this a storm? It’s time for a showdown! You and me! I’m right here! Come and get me! You’ll never sink this boat!” Do you remember “Lethal Weapon” when Danny Glover despairs that he has been partnered with Mel Gibson? He laments, “God Hates Me” to which Mel Gibson replies, “Hate Him back. It works for me.”

As we watch the gradual degradation of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” or Anakin Skywalker in “Star Wars”, we are reminded of the degradation of King Saul thousands of years earlier. The story of Cain and Abel and the rift between Jacob and Esau can both serve as the basis of the James Dean movie, “East of Eden”.

The story of David and Bathsheba is a story of lust and infidelity which serves as the underlying theme for movies such as “Fatal Attraction”, and “Dial M for Murder”.

But let us not forget that there are consequences for our actions. Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden, the death of the Israelites who worshiped the golden calf at the base of Mt. Sinai. And by the way, why was Aaron spared? After all, he fashioned the golden calf. Nepotism, perhaps?   In the movie, “Silverado”, each bad guy suffers the consequence of getting killed by the hero that he mistreated.

The Torah is also filled with hypocrisy and contradictions.

  1. Hypocrisy – What does God look like? Is he invisible like The Force in Star Wars? But wait a minute.   In Genesis, we are told that God made man in his own image. Artists through the centuries have depicted God as a bearded, handsome, muscular man (with a full head of hair, I may add.) But maybe they were wrong. Maybe he looks like George Burns in the movie, “Oh God” or Morgan Freeman in the movie, “Bruce Almighty”? And if God made man in his own image, why is man forbidden from looking upon the face of God? In prison movies, new inmates are always warned never to make eye contact with another inmate because it implies a threat and disrespect. Does God feel threatened in the same way?


  1. Contradiction – The Ten Commandments clearly tell us “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. But in the Tanakh, God has killed –reference the 10th plague as just one of many such instances.   How many wars depicted in the movies have been fought in the name of God? “Cromwell” starring Richard Harris and “The Kingdom of Heaven” with Orlando Bloom come to mind.   Another commandment says, “Thou shalt Not Covet”, yet throughout the Torah, God covets those who do not worship him – pure jealousy. If man was made in God’s image, God’s actions are clear contradictions of the 10 Commandments.   Man has committed horrific crimes through the centuries. How can God have allowed this to happen? Our sages have explained that it is because God gave man free will. Why did he give us free will which enables bad things to happen? Debi and I raised our children to question everything and not just accept things at face value. Unfortunately, many times they have reached different conclusions than what we hoped for. Is it the same way for God? In the movie, “Jason and the Argonauts”, there are scenes depicting Zeus and Hera playing a board game which places and removes obstacles and challenges for Jason down on earth. Does God relish watching men struggle and overcome?


But the Torah is also a continuing story of faith – Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Hannah’s willingness to give her child to the service of God if she could become pregnant (with the future prophet, Samuel). Well, faith is a prime theme in the movies. Remember in the movie, “Miracle on 34th Street” when Fred Gailey says, “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.”

However, let us not forget that we can also lose faith when bad things happen or when we are afraid. Think of the times in the Old Testament when the Israelites lost faith in God and instead started to pray to idols like the golden calf or Baal. In the movies, we have seen Simba lose faith in “the Lion King” and Gene Hackman’s priest lose faith in “The Poseidon Adventure”.

I would like to conclude with the fact that the Tanakh also includes stories of redemption and the recommitment to God. A perfect example is Samson. Now flash forward to Russell Crowe in “The Quick and the Dead”.

I would like to end with the same question I posed at the beginning of this sermon. Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? What do you think?

May the force be with you…..No, may God be with you.


Shabbat Shalom.

“Honey, do I look fat in this dress?” Sermon by Don Belmont

In today’s sermon, I hope to address the correct answer to the age-old question, “Honey, do I look fat in this dress?”


When my grandparents came to America 105 years ago, the life expectancy in this country was 47 years. People died because of pneumonia, influenza, TB, gastrointestinal infections (dysentery) and heart disease. This was soon after Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister made us aware of germs and the field of infectious disease was in its infancy, and certainly before antibiotics were discovered. One hundred years ago, we were just beginning to understand why people got sick and why they died.


Take it back a few thousand years to Biblical times, and things were really in the dark in terms of illness. There were physicians in ancient Egypt, perhaps the most prominent of whom was Imhotep, who lived approximately 2600 BCE. (The full list of his titles is:  Chancellor of the King of Egypt, Doctor, First in line after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief. As a potter myself, the last title really impresses me!) He was one of only a few commoners ever to be accorded divine status after death, and perhaps he was the first and certainly not the last physician to think he was god!


Compared to what we know now about Medicine, doctors in Biblical times were just starting to develop a concept of disease causality. People were thought to get sick because of demons and spirits which inhabited them, and it was a time of superstition and spirits and omens, and lucky charms and talismans. Not like today, where people are not at all superstitious, except we still put hamsas up in our homes and say “kenahora, pu pu pu” to ward off the evil eye, and say “gesundheit” after someone sneezes. (For the most part, the various sneeze responses originated from ancient superstitions. Some people believed that a sneeze causes the soul to escape the body through the nose. Saying “bless you” would stop the devil from claiming the person’s freed soul. Others believed the opposite: that evil spirits use the sneeze as an opportunity to enter a person’s body. There was also the misconception that the heart momentarily stops during a sneeze (it doesn’t), and that saying “bless you” was a way of welcoming the person back to life.)

Treatments that were available in biblical times included –  herbs, prayer, oils, baths and compresses, wine, diet, isolation, and parts of animals (such as shells, bones, urine, blood, milk, hair), all of which are mentioned in the bible.


With this background in mind, we can think about this week’s torah portion. It deals with issues of leprosy, menstrual discharges, semen, rashes, and what to do about it and who to call and how to purify yourself and your home physically and spiritually. The disease that is called ‘leprosy’ in this torah portion is a translation of ‘tzara’at,’ and has nothing in common with the contagious skin disease leprosy as we know it today. Some interpretations of the torah portion consider tzara’at to be a spiritual-based disease. It was considered punishment for speaking badly (Loshon Hara).  When a person would gossip about his contemporaries, and assorted other social illnesses such as stinginess and conceitedness, he would one day find a green or red blotch spreading on his body or on the wall of his house. He had to call the Kohen to proclaim it clean or unclean.


What is speaking badly, that would bring on these spiritual blemishes? It is saying anything negative or derogatory about another person ― even when it’s true!

Little children speak the truth, but this can certainly be hurtful, as in “Mommy, that man is fat and smells bad.”

Teenagers have honed their tongues into daggers, and are experts in using language as a weapon, by preying upon our inconsistencies or insecurities.

As adults, we expect more and better from our speech. After all, we can’t take words back, once they are spoken. Think of the metaphor of a bag of seeds. When we speak badly of others, we are casting the seeds about. Even if we apologize and feel remorseful, it’s impossible to collect the seeds again because they were cast widely, and some seeds might even have taken root.


Here is a brief overview of some of the laws of speech and behavior, compiled approximately 100 years ago:

1)      You may not call a person by a derogatory nickname, or by any other embarrassing name, even if he is used to it.

2)      You may not ask an uneducated person for an opinion on a scholarly matter (that would draw attention to his lack of knowledge or education).

3)      You may not ask a merchant how much he would sell something for if you have no intention of buying.

4)      You may not refer someone to another person for assistance when you know the other person cannot help (in other words, it’s a violation of Jewish law to give someone the run-around!).

5)      You may not deceive a person, even if no harm is done by the deception; for example, you may not sell non-kosher meat to a non-Jew telling him that it is kosher, even though no harm is done to the non-Jew by this deception.

6)      You may not sell a person damaged goods without identifying the damage, even if the price you give is fair for the goods in their damaged condition.

7)      You may not offer a person a gift or invite a person to dinner if you know that the person will not accept.

8)      You may not compliment a person if you do not mean it.

9)      It is forbidden to speak negatively about someone else, even if it is true.

10)  It is also forbidden to repeat anything about another, even if it is not a negative thing.

11)  It is also forbidden to listen to lashon hara. One should either reprimand the speaker, or, if that is not possible, one should extricate oneself from that situation.

12)  In certain circumstances, such as to protect someone from harm, it is permissible or even obligatory to share negative information. As there are many details to this law, one should consult a competent rabbi to learn what may be shared in any particular situation.  So the answer to the question, “Honey, do you think I look fat in this dress?” is … “Go ask the rabbi!”


In my family when I was growing up, we distilled these many laws of speech into two simple phrases. I repeatedly heard the refrain, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.” If someone was really unpleasant and distasteful, Mom would merely say, “She’s not my favorite person.” No need for character assassination.

The other phrase used around my household was handed down from my grandparents, and addressed the issue of cutting off someone when they began to speak badly of someone else. When Grandpa started to bad-mouth someone or was indiscreet, Grandma would interject, “Dear, have a piece of candy.” It was their cut-off phrase that enough had already been said. It was a kinder, gentler version of Archie Bunker’s famous phrase…”Edith, Stifle!”


Let us try for the next year, or week, or tomorrow, or just for the oneg tonight to follow these simple rules. If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all. And when someone else begins to speak ill of others, offer them a piece of candy.  In the coming week, let’s all strive to communicate kindly, and banish spiritual leprosy from our lives!