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Torah On the Grow, a weekly blog by Rav Shai Cherry

01/31/2020 12:00:46 PM


Not everyone has the luxury, or patience, to learn Torah every week. Torah on the Grow is for that audience. The goal is to bring a Jewish perspective to topics that surround us in our non-Jewish environment. The hope is to grow in our Jewish knowledge, in our appreciation of Jewish wisdom, and in our desire to learn more.  –Rav Shai Cherry

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The Blessings of Torah

11/21/2019 12:00:08 PM


When one studies Torah, one comes to know the mind of God, as it says, “Then you will understand the fear of the Lord and attain knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:5).
-- Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:1 (3rd c.)

There is, to be blunt, no understanding the Rabbinic Revolution without understanding this midrash.

Assume for the moment that you could know the mind of God. What else could compete? The prerequisites to knowing the mind of God don’t depend on being of priestly descent. Nor does knowing the mind of God require wealth. The revolutionaries removed the bouncers from the entrance to the Beit Midrash (study hall); Torah study was accessible to all, even (theoretically) women. No wonder Torah was compared to drugs — with such access to the divine mind, how could anyone not become addicted?

The weapon of the Rabbinic Revolution was midrash, the process of removing biblical words from their context and transplanting them into another context. In the biblical verse cited above from Proverbs, knowledge of God meant knowing something about God. Within the new Rabbinic context, our midrash cites the verse to prove that studying Torah allows us to attain knowledge of God, i.e., God’s own knowledge! Thus by studying Torah one comes to know the mind of God.

That’s the allure of studying Torah, and it was on full display last week in AJ’s Beit Midrash. Bruce Lipton suggested, on the basis of this midrash, that when we study Torah it frightens God because of the insights we glean into the divine mind. The fear of the Lord is not the fear that we have of the Lord, but the fear that the Lord has of our human potential for good and evil and our fallibility in putting that knowledge to use. The blessing of Torah is that the more we study together, the more likely we will be to assuage God’s fears.

Be a Bosom Buddy

11/14/2019 12:04:51 PM


For what may have been my earliest talent show, I sang a song from “Mame” that was then on my Mom’s playlist: “Bosom Buddies.” As an eight-year-old, I’m not sure I even knew what a bosom was. But Lucy and Maude (Lucille Ball and Bea Arthur) made whatever it was funny. Here’s the crescendo: 

  Just turn to your bosom buddy
For aid and affection
For help and direction
For loyalty, love, and for sooth!
Remember that who else
but a bosom buddy
Will sit down and level
And give you the devil
Will sit down and tell you the truth!

My tribal pride hopes that Jerry Herman, the composer and lyricist, learned this lesson in Torah School. First comes loyalty, then sooth. In Abraham’s confrontation with the King of Gerar, the King asks Abraham to swear an oath of loyalty (chesed) to establish a peace pact between the two peoples. Abraham swears (Gen. 21:21). Literally, the Torah’s very next word is one of rebuke. Only when Abraham and the King enjoy a relationship based on mutual commitment can Abraham “sit down and level” with the King that his royal servants had misappropriated what rightly belonged to Abraham. First loyalty, then sooth.

What “Mame” (and Abe) taught me is that to be a bosom buddy means to be able to give and take constructive criticism. What Torah commands us is to actually give and take constructive criticism. True friends do not let others stray from being their best selves. “Do not hate [the deeds of] your buddy in your bosom-criticize constructively!” (Lev. 19:17)

Noah and Kristallnacht

11/07/2019 01:13:29 PM


In the space of a week, we have elections, impeachment hearings, Veterans Day, and the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht. And, lest we forget, there is the ongoing wrangling to form a government coalition after the second Israeli elections this year. Let’s return to simpler times.

According to the Rabbis, the first thing Noah did once he got God’s call to build the ark was to plant cedar trees. He spent the next 120 years waiting for those cedar trees to grow to the proper dimensions for the ark. During those 120 years, Noah spread the word, sounded the alarm, and wrote on the wall. Not one soul heeded the warnings. Then the animals came aboard. Didn’t anyone find it strange to see all those creatures crawl, lumber, trot, and fly onto the barge? Still, no one asked to join them on the ark. Too uncomfortable, I suppose.

In 1932, Germany held two national elections. After the second, in order to cobble together a government coalition, Hitler was offered the Chancellorship. In the aftermath of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, Hitler legally suspended civil liberties for all Germans. The cedar seeds were planted. Anti-Jewish legislation then marched on unimpeded. By November of 1938, German Jews had experienced what historians call “social death” as a result of their banishment from non-Jewish German society. Kristallnacht was the next stage, the clear-cutting of the cedar forest. For a variety of understandable reasons, roughly a third of 1932’s German Jews remained even after Kristallnacht and were murdered.

As we honor the veterans who risked the ultimate sacrifice to protect our lives and lifestyles, let us pledge to risk discomfort to defend our values and principles. How many warnings do we need?

Torah is Poetry

10/31/2019 01:20:11 PM


“Autumnal” feels almost onomatopoetic. I can see the leaves tumbling through the air as I say the word.

The opening words of Genesis are alliterative — b’reshit barah — and the description of the world before God began ordering it is an ancient onomatopoeia — tohu vavohu. To say the words, you need to mimic the divine wind howling through the chaos of pre-creation. Before it rained for forty days, NoaH had found grace (HeN) in God’s eyes. (Remember, the Torah has no vowels.) The anagram presages the newly ordered world reverting to tohu vavohu.

The Greeks mocked anyone who couldn’t speak their language as a “barbarian.” If it wasn’t Greek, to them it sounded like “bar, bar, bar.”  We were less ethnocentric. After God confused (balal) the language of all the people who tried to build the Tower of Babel, every person considered the language of the other “babble.”

It’s impossible to fully appreciate the Torah without knowing Hebrew. It’s equally impossible to fully appreciate the Torah if we read it as prose or as science or as history. The Torah is poetry. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) was the head of the storied Volozhin Yeshiva for nearly 40 years. He taught his students that the Torah, even in its narrative and legal sections, is poetry; and like poetry, the Torah resists any single interpretation.  

A key metaphor for our sages was: “Why is Torah compared to a breast? Just as a nursling who returns to the breast continues to find milk, so does the person who meditates on Torah continue to find new meaning therein.”

Twenty-First Century Questions

10/24/2019 01:20:19 PM


Dr. Jessica Meir took a spacewalk this week. She identifies as Jewish and has been up in space for a month. So, I’ve been wondering: How can you “walk” in space? More importantly, did she hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah? Did she fast on Yom Kippur? Did she circle her spacecraft seven times for Sukkot? And how does she know when Shabbat comes in without a sunset?

Dr. Meir shared that she brought up a picture drawn by Rona Ramon. The picture was of a phoenix, and Rona Ramon is the widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who died in the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle tragedy. Dr. Meir’s mission, like a phoenix, has emerged from the ashes of the Columbia that disintegrated upon re-entry into our atmosphere.

The symbolism of the phoenix is one of rebirth. Christ is the symbol of individual rebirth for Christians. Judaism is a communal religion, so the rebirth we envision, and have been blessed to experience, is national. The State of Israel was not caused, to be clear, by the Shoah/Holocaust, but Israel did emerge in the aftermath of European Jewry being burned to ashes. Alas, there has also been a rebirth and resurgence of antisemitism, and this Shabbat we mark the anniversary of last year’s massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

More twenty-first century questions: Why do they still think that murdering us will further their agenda? How can we be experiencing antisemitism, yet again, from both the left and the right?  How should we respond to ignorance and hatred?

One response is to “Show Up For Shabbat.” Our non-Jewish allies will show up this Shabbat to synagogues and temples across the country to crowd out intolerance and violence with compassion and solidarity. Join us. Let the next question be how we finally killed the phoenix of antisemitism.


10/17/2019 01:29:57 PM


Mordecai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionist Judaism, wrote that the concept of the chosen people smacks of an inferiority complex and promotes arrogance.

Although I reject the conceit that God chooses any people, there is a flip side that merits preserving. The Israelites were chosen, so the idea goes, to serve humanity as a priestly nation. That service is on full display during Sukkot as the Israelite priests sacrificed seventy bulls, one for each of the biblically recognized seventy nations. And for what were the bulls   sacrificed? Rain.

Rain does not respect political boundaries. Enlightened self-interest might motivate the Israelites to pray for a good climate for all countries in the world — but since the Israelites believed they could actually cause positive climatic conditions through their sacrifices, they did so. Were there to be a severe drought amongst Israel’s neighboring countries, Israel would surely suffer the consequences.

We no longer believe in the efficacy of animal sacrifices. But sacrificing animal consumption, specifically beef, will have a positive impact on our environment. Scientists agree that cattle contribute five times as much greenhouse gases compared to poultry for the same nutritional benefit. 

Our Israelite ancestors believed they could lead the way toward a sustainable climate, a precondition for peace, by sacrificing a large number of bulls. They made those sacrifices. It is now incumbent upon us, their heirs, to lead the way by making sacrifices of our own for the welfare of our planet. The Torah commands us to choose life. Let us lead that effort and radically reduce our beef consumption.

From Small Talk to Petty Words

10/03/2019 01:34:02 PM


The most recent Jewish legal commentary to gain wide acceptance in the observant world was composed by Israel Meir Ha-Cohen (1839-1933) of Lithuania. It is a commentary on one part of Josef Caro’s legal code, the Shulchan Arukh (1488-1575). But the name that crowns Rabbi Israel Meir is not that of his commentary on a code, the Mishnah Brurah, but that of his pioneering work on the laws of libel and gossip (lashon hara), the Hafetz Hayim.

It is amazing that lashon hara was not part of Jewish law/halakhah until the Hafetz Hayim was written in 1873. The subjects do not appear in Caro’s comprehensive code. Rabbi Israel Meir transformed the ethical aspirations of our non-legal literature into black letter law. More amazingly, it was accepted. Until the Hafetz Hayim, it was common sense and common courtesy not to spread nasty rumors; after the Hafetz Hayim, it became halakhah.

The Hafetz Hayim prohibited neutral communications about third parties, as well. Perhaps he was concerned that we would fill our time with trivial gossip. He even forbade sharing positive news about others. A complimentary comment might lure the listener into saying something derogatory to balance out the praise. Even if not explicit, an insinuation could cloud the compliment and sow seeds of suspicion.

The Hafetz Hayim prefers we engage in constructive communication on subjects of significance, ideally Torah. Small talk is often necessary to introduce matters of substance; but small talk can easily slide into petty words. As we approach Yom Kippur, the day when we hope to be sealed in the Book of Life, let’s remember that our deeds and words, whether spoken or posted, are weighed on the divine scales.

Who is the person who desires life/hafetz hayim?
Guard your tongue from evil/lashon hara,
and your lips from speaking misleadingly;
Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.

                        — Psalm 34:13-15

The Need for Impeachment

09/26/2019 01:43:12 PM


Judaism knows nothing of impeachment from office. For Jews, power does not reside in an office (be it the president or a priest); for Jews, power resides with the person. When a previously influential person is perceived as no longer worthy of their influence, their power naturally diminishes. 

Judaism does not impeach, but it does excommunicate or shun. Elisha ben Abuya was the most famous Talmudic sage to be excommunicated. His transgression was heresy, and the sages’ concern was that he would influence others to follow him beyond the Jewish path. He had to be excommunicated, from the Rabbis’ point of view, precisely because they could not deprive him of his powers of persuasion. His punishment was not to lose his office, as in impeachment, but to be shunned by his community to ensure a safe distance between Elisha’s heretical ideas and open minds malleable to his logic.

The rabbis fantasized about how to prevent kings, who could not be excommunicated, from becoming corrupt. They imagined the king’s throne situated between two high-backed chairs of gold, one for the High Priest and the other for the Deputy High Priest. Every time the king would climb each of the six steps to his throne, a herald would proclaim a regal restriction from the Torah to remind the king of the King of kings. In the middle of his ascent, the herald would proclaim, “Do not bend the law” (Dt. 16:19). The next warning, from the same verse, is “do not recognize a face.” Should the king approach the limit lines of those restrictions, the priestly guardians of Torah are there to keep him on the path of justice. A society whose leaders “recognize faces,” who bend the law based on the identity of the parties, is a leadership susceptible to corruption. Such societies require the remedy of impeachment.

"A New King Arose Over Egypt Who Did Not Know Joseph" - Exodus 1:8

09/19/2019 01:48:54 PM


Could a king could be so ignorant as to not know his country’s own recent history?

One of our medieval commentators, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167), anticipated an historically informed answer based on the word “arose.”  According to him, “arose” implies that the new king was not related to the old king. There was regime change, and the new king doesn’t “recognize” Joseph’s legitimacy. Joseph had become identified with the ancien regime which the new pharaoh knew all too well. Hence, this new pharaoh enslaved Joseph’s family.

Alternatively, Rebbe Shmuel Taub (1905–1984) points out that had the new pharaoh known Joseph, he would not have mistreated him or his clan. After all, Joseph was one blessed Hebrew. Look at what happened to that Pharaoh as a result of his not knowing: Egypt’s food supply was ruined, the Egyptians were stripped of their gold and silver, their first born were killed, Pharaoh’s finest chariots and charioteers were drowned, and Pharaoh’s work force was decimated. Not only did the Hebrews break free, but the mixed multitude busted out, too.

In our country, a new leader has arisen. In Israel, after two elections a new leader is likely to arise. In 2020, we will vote on the longevity of our new leader. Both of our homelands are bitterly divided. It’s important to know our history; but it’s more important to rehearse our values. The King of Israel had to read from Torah “every day of his life” (Deuteronomy 17:19). Since we elect our leaders, it is our responsibility to learn Torah every day of our lives. To avoid pharaoh’s fate, we must know Joseph, know the bitter family divisions that landed him in Egypt, and know the Torah’s teachings and values that emerged in the
aftermath of our redemption.

Apologies Without Borders

09/12/2019 01:54:06 PM


When we err, an all too predictable defense mechanism is to cut ourselves slack and rationalize our misbehavior. Jean Paul Sartre suggested that our capacity for rationalization is infinite. Given that the best defense is offense, our capacity for self-righteous indignation might be infinite, too. No wonder it’s so tough to admit we’re wrong and apologize!

Jesus and Rabbi Akiva made famous the Torah’s verse about loving your neighbor as yourself. The verse, however, is as opaque as it is popular. What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? (Similarly, what does it mean to love the stranger or to love God? For that matter, how do I love myself?) One way to understand this command is to cut your neighbor as much slack as you cut for yourself. Cut slack unto others as you would have others cut slack unto you.

The problem arises on the other side of the rope. You’re the one who needs slack from the person you’ve offended, but you’re only feeling their tug of resistance. Your instinct is to meet their tug with equal and opposite force. That’s when the rope frays.

An apology’s function is to appease the one who has been offended. The Mishnah makes no concessions if your victim happens to be extra difficult to appease. Your self-righteous indignation won’t apologize; it can’t. Only your humble and flawed self can apologize without invoking mitigating circumstances. Any sort of apology might appease; only an unalloyed apology can heal.

Fri, May 7 2021 25 Iyyar 5781