Thursday, December 27, 2012

The New Year and the Lesson of Egypt

Interestingly, the last Shabbat of 2012 is also the last Shabbat we read from the book of Genesis this year. This coincidence does give us a lens through which to view the year coming to a close, and consider our purpose in the year ahead. This past year has been one with seemingly more than its fair share of uncertainty and sorrow. Our economy, political discord, natural disasters and man-made evil, violence in Israel and pain and suffering around the world seemed to have dominated the news if not also the hearts and minds of so many in this last year. What, if anything can we make of it? What should we do? This last parshah in Genesis picks up the story of the Jewish People with Jacob, Joseph, and all of their family now living in Egypt. Regardless of what the historic Egypt may have been like, when we encounter Egypt in the Torah, and most certainly in later Jewish tradition, Egypt is a place of great sin and suffering; a place you don't want to end up in and if you've left, you don't want to return. Yet here, at the end of Genesis, our ancestors are living there. Why? As we well know, redemption of the Jews from slavery, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Exodus and the Return to the Promised Land all were predicated on the Jews being in Egypt in the first place. And here is the lesson - it was only by descending into Egypt, to that difficult place, that the Jewish people could, with God's help, bring about all those miracles. I would suggest to you, that if we look around, and we find that the world is looking kind of "Egyptian," then perhaps we should also check if we are not the Jacobs and Josephs who need to go to work in such a difficult place to bring about a better future. May God bless the work of your hands in the coming secular year. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Reflections on the Connecticut School Attack

Within this past week all of us became mourners for those brutally murdered in the evil attack on an elementary school in Connecticut. As has been said many times already, every parent in our nation no doubt felt with particular agony the loss of so many young children, but I imagine that the humanity of each and every one of us was touched, too. There can be no simple answers, there is nothing special that I can say. Our tradition advises us to act as God's agents to provide comfort to those who mourn. You can find on our website,, links to a number of organizations that are working to support the survivors of the attack. Our tradition also suggests that we grant an additional measure of eternal life to those who die by choosing to live lives inspired by them. Thus, their words and deeds continue to echo in those which we say and do in their memory. Among numerous other ways, let us not hesitate to show our love and affection for those about whom we care, most particularly young people. And let us also express our gratitude to those whose calling in life it is to help to educate the next generation for the passion and devotion that motivates them. And finally let me say this. Judaism is not a political party, it is a religion. And while it should inform Jews as to how they operate in the political sphere, it is not, itself, so little as to be a political philosophy only, it is an entire way of life and a moral scheme for living. On those terms, it can advise us regarding one more matter touching upon this horrific event. Judaism teaches us, just as Jewish history teaches us, that evil exists in this world. And furthermore that evil frequently find a home in strikingly mundane places; while it produces monsters, those monster rarely look the part. Judaism then should remind us that in striving as a nation to see that such an attack never happen again, our goal should be to undo evil, to see it rendered as powerless to harm as possible. The means towards achieving that goal should not be confused with the goal itself. It will be a complex and long process to make permanent, effective strides towards combating evil, but then again, Judaism is not about making things easy, it is about making things right. And I think in this case, it is worth the effort. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hanukkah - Shedding Light on What Might Be

While I wouldn't say that I love alternate history stories, you know, where you consider another outcome to some big, famous, event - "what if Washington hadn't crossed the Delaware?", "what if Lincoln hadn't been shot?", "what if Julian the Apostate hadn't been killed during his retreat from Ctesiphon?" - you know, stuff like that that everyone thinks about - I do think considering such "what if's" can be useful in reminding us that things didn't have to turn out like this, and that maybe other options, other paths, are still available. Hanukkah is a holiday very much like this to me. Even more, really, because Hanukkah represents an alternative in Jewish religious development that need not be an alternative, but can truly be part of how we understand Judaism today. On Hanukkah, as you may have noticed by now, we say some blessings before we light the candles, blessings that in part tell us we are doing so because God commanded us to fulfill his commandments. All well and good until you consider: God's commandments are found in the Torah. That's what we got on Mt. Sinai. Hanukkah was not part of that deal. So how is it God is commanding us to perform a commandment of Hanukkah? Either we understand it as a unique exception of some sort (one that goes for Purim, too) or else we must accept it as evidence that, at least at one point in time, the Rabbis felt that God's will was continuously revealed and that they, the Rabbis, human beings, could legitimately declare that something not originally in the Torah could still nevertheless be "commanded from God." While I completely understand why later generations of Jewish sages saw fit not to allow for such a rule to be applied often and everywhere, it does suggest that Judaism holds within itself a potential for accepting and endorsing changes and developments not as just as "fads" or "phases" but potentially as expressions of God's ongoing communication with us. This is not the venue to outline how and why and when and where such innovations might be enacted, but it is worth considering this somewhat hidden message, this nearly forgotten alternative in Judaism, which the Festival of Lights illuminates for us. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How Wandering in a Field can Lead to (Lessons in) Remption

After a discussion about the weekly Torah reading, one in which we'd looked at what a number of different rabbis had said about what a passage means, I once had a congregant ask with exasperation, "but what is the right answer about what it means?" It's a good question, in that it points out something that I think confuses a lot of people about the Bible, and about how to understand it. The Torah and all the Bible, while they contain a lot history, and history might be something where you can sometimes find the answer (after all it's not December 5th, or 6th, or Something Around There a Date Which Will Live in Infamy!), that is not the only thing the Torah is going for. There is always meant to be a more important, more important and more varied set of lessons that the Torah tells us in any passage. This week's portion gives a great example. One of my favorite scenes in the Torah is that of Joseph, having been told to go to his brothers by Jacob, wandering around in a field, presumably having run out of energy to fulfill his father's request; a real depiction of just how much teenagers haven't changed in three thousand years. Then a man appears and tells Joseph where to go and that of course sets into motion the entirety of the rest of the Torah! But for such an important scene, the Torah is very quiet about who this stranger is. Now if this were history, it would be one of those mysteries like who fired first at Lexington or what happened to the Roanoke colony - but it's not that. By being vague, the Torah forces us to consider a bunch of possibilities. Our rabbis lay these out - it was an angel, it was just some guy, it was some guy, but he was acting on orders from God, and etc. By considering each of these we in fact consider all sorts of things about how God reveals himself in this world, about how we should interact with strangers, about how significant the little things we might do to help others (like giving directions) can actually be quite momentous in the lives of those we help (ultimately becoming viceroy of Egypt). We would be sorely lacking if we did not consider all at once these and many more lessons just this one incident teaches. And that is the beauty of Torah. It must be read for what it is, a book of religious guidance and inspiration for living a holy life. While some of its lessons draw on historical events or events that read as being true to real-life, to only look for "just the facts, ma'am" would miss the whole point. We must wrestle with the Torah's meaning so as to be worthy of our title of The People of the Book. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Good Decision Making Lessons

A colleague made an observation about this week's Torah portion with regards to how to best make decisions - I'd like to share it with you. I'm sure just about all of you have had the conversation that goes something like, "where would you like to eat?" "I don't care, I'm open to whatever you like." And then chaos ensues. What's wrong here? We may think we are being helpful by "being open" to our friend's interests, but are we? Here is where Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard's observation comes in: In the parshah this week, Jacob is very insistent about giving some gifts to his brother Esau, as part of their reunion. Esau however, isn't so interested in them, but Jacob presses him. Now normally, you'd think giving gifts is a good thing, right? And yet here, is Jacob giving Esau gifts because he is a caring and loving brother, giving Esau things he really needs or would like? Or is Jacob's motivation something else? Might he be more concerned about what meeting the brother you deceived twice and who now meets you after twenty years with an army might be planning to do to you? Might you really only be thinking about yourself? The dinner example is the same thing, though more close at hand. If we're with a good friend, spouse or someone we "know" - we may realize that this person sometimes, or frequently, or maybe just today, will be best helped by our actually picking a place. Throwing back on someone, who has maybe had a really tough, stressful day, or someone who is usually indecisive, yet another choice - that may be the worst thing you can do. Being truly attentive to those around us, and how even seemingly small things might impact them, that is a key lesson about decision-making we see in this week's parshah. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Veterans Day

In the Haftarah this week, we read about the end of the life of King David, the various troubles he encountered, the plans he tried to make for the future, and the help he was offered by those who truly cared that his legacy endure. Now what is it that King David was most known for? What did he do? Well, he did do a lot, but primarily his reputation was as a man of warfare. He secured Israel's borders, and while his violent pursuits meant he was not suitable to build God's Temple, if it hadn't done what he did, there would have been no security for his son, King Solomon, to build the Temple. We should take note of the story in this Haftarah, as this weekend is also Veterans Day. We owe, to our servicemen and women, the same support and help that was given to King David. Just like him, our veterans have given in order that we should be able to enjoy our peace and security. Let us remember our veterans, and offer our thanks to them for all they have done. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Introducing You to Introduction to Judaism

We are taught that the person who studies the Torah one hundred times is great, but the person who studies it one hundred and one times gains tremendously more than the first person. What's the meaning of this lesson? I don't think it is saying literally that at 101 times through Torah you become some sort of master scholar in a way the person a page behind you can't fathom. No, I think what it is really saying is that even if you know a lot already (and this applies about everything) continuing to study something important, something you love, that there is no end to the rewards found in that. I mention all this because on Wednesday, November 7th, at 6:30pm, I will begin teaching again at Beth Meier the East Valley satellite division of the American Jewish University's Miller Introduction to Judaism program. While this is a class that one can take for purposes of conversion, that's not the only reason you should take it. The Miller program is a great resource for any person who wants to really learn about Judaism on an adult, meaningful, level. If your Hebrew school years weren't the best, if you grew up learning about Judaism one way, but need new insights into it for your life today, if you would just like to spend another couple hours with me every week because who wouldn't want that - then sign up for this class. To enroll, contact the Miller program office at 310--440-1273 or visit their website at Hope I'll see you next Wednesday! Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Come on Over! - Lech Lecha 2012

The focus on the story of Abraham begins with this week's Torah Portion, Lech Lecha. We learn about Abraham, the first Jew, that he was a master of hospitality it was what he did best. This is touted as being a big deal, but is it really? Let's think about it for a moment. Judaism is all about building relationships. Religions in general are about this, the word "religion" is itself related to the word "ligament" and so connection are part of the definition of what religion does. In Judaism we understand that we are most fulfilling God's wishes for us when we are able to offer concern and care to others in our actions, and be able to do so in a way that is not tainted by any egotism or any other unhealthy motivations, but to do it with a whole heart, in a way that enriches us as much as it helps the other. Hospitality, then, at its best, is a mitzvah that is all about this. What else are you doing but taking on the needs of some other person when you show them hospitality? That Abraham was so good at this should only stand to reason. It was a reflection of who he was in all his relationships, with other people as well as with God. We would do well to learn from Abraham's example, whether or not we have guests over! Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Noah the Balanced

Noah, about whom we read in this week's Torah Portion, is famously described as being "righteous in his generation". The Rabbis wonder whether we are meant to understand this to mean that in the morally corrupt generation in which Noah lived he was good, but he would not have been considered much if he had lived in a different time. Or, the Rabbis also consider, is this meant in a more general sense, that yes, Noah, was a good man and would have been good no matter when or where he lived. There is no way to know for sure, but that's okay. Wrestling with both answers teaches us something we wouldn't learn from just one. It can be very easy to think that you're great if you are surrounded (or surround yourself with) people who are not as good as you are at some skill. When I was in high school, I was probably the number one biggest fan of Gilbert and Sullivan at Oswego High School. But did that really make me an aficionado, or simply someone who knew just a bit more about a crazy topic than my classmates? This probably doesn't matter a lot when we are talking about light opera, but in real life it can make a difference. It can lead us to be lazy and uninspired, or worse, to be tyrannical and abusive, if we find ourselves in such a position. The beauty, then, of these two teachings about Noah, is that together they teach us to both cultivate and proud of the skills and talents we have and in which we seem to excel, but also we are taught to be thoughtful and even humble about them at the same time. Maybe this was the case for Noah. Maybe he both aspired to be a truly good man, but was limited by his surroundings in how righteous he could become. If so, this recipe for a balanced approach is a good one - for Noah it allowed him to save the world. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dust of the Ground

In the story of Creation, which we read this week as we turn back to the beginning of Genesis, the Torah tells us that Adam was formed "from the dust of the ground." The Rabbis suggest that some of this dust came from all the corners of the earth, and that some of it was even from the future site of the Temple in Jerusalem. The lesson of the dust is clear. Each of us is in part, according to this lesson, partially the House of the Lord (as the Temple was). Each of us should also be intimately connected to the world around us. Our religious lives have at their very core a link to the physical world. Work to make yourself an embodiment of God's will in the world just as you are, through His will, an embodiment of God's world. Rabbi Benson

Thursday, October 4, 2012

In the Shade of the Sukkah of Peace

In our regular prayers in the evenings, we make reference to God protecting us in his "sukkah of peace", a metaphorical term that draws upon the imagery of Sukkot, this week's holiday. Though unlike the sukkot built by humans, flimsy and temporary constructions (though the one the Men's Club put up is pretty good!)God's sukkah is meant to provide peace and wholeness to us. I have been thinking a great deal lately about the purpose of the synagogue. And one thing I feel that must be a part of what a synagogue does has to be helping to make improvements in the local community. I have spoken a few times now about this and want to mention it again. At Beth Meier, we do collect food for SOVA, the food pantry,and we are pretty good about that. We filled five barrels during the holidays and our regular barrel is filled a couple times of month. But I would like us to do more. I would like people in Studio City and the surrounding areas to know Beth Meier for having contributed something positive and meaningful to the community. And I would like the members of Beth Meier to feel good and proud about what their synagogue does. And most importantly, I want us to help spread the shade of God's sukkah of peace, by being God's agents and helping some number of those in need. An example of what I mean comes from another Conservative synagogue in Maryland. There they helped to build a playground in an underprivileged neighborhood and did it all in one day! I'm not saying we need to exactly that, but wouldn't it be nice to be able to know that because of our synagogue, something of that sort could happen for people? If you have ideas, and would like to really roll up your sleeves and be involved, please let me know. I wish you all a Chag Sameach, a Happy Sukkot, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, September 6, 2012

For this High Holidays at Beth Meier...

The High Holidays are right around the corner and this year I am hoping to try something a little different. I want to share a discussion with you, on the night of Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sunday evening the 16th and on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, Tuesday the 18th. So in order for you to be ready, I wanted to share the topics for these talks: On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I'm very interested in hearing why Beth Meier matters to you. Let's see if we can figure out if there are some themes, some common points, that define, that motivate us as a community. On the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, I'm interested in continuing the conversation by asking you what you can do for Beth Meier. If we can establish that the synagogue is important to us in unique, compelling ways, then getting involved, making the synagogue stronger, and being strengthened by it, should only stand to reason. Working together, we can make Beth Meier our House of Light for many years to come. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Web We Weave

A quick thought for this week from the recent pages of the daf yomi study.  The rabbis were arguing and one commented regarding a decision of a colleague he thought the others too ready to accept without question, "must we all weave from the same web?"  I was struck by the image as well as the meaning.  In this period of elections upcoming in America, in our lives in general, it is worthwhile to remember that the tapestry of life is strongest and most beautiful when many patterns are a part of it.   Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Parshat Shoftim - It Takes Two (or Three)

See how well this goes from the Mets game... This week's portion focuses on how to build a community and the difficulties inherent to any group composed of, well, any more than one person! One striking passage deals with the rules of testimony in a court case. We are told that a person cannot be convicted but on the testimony of two or even three witnesses. Today, this speaks to us as advice for whenever we encounter a difficult or delicate social interaction. Very often two heads are better than one. In that instance in which we might not appreciate all points of view or issues, a second or third person may very well help us to keep to the right track. So we see in this one rule a microcosm for all activities in a community and how the Torah helps us guard against our own potential for being human when it comes to how we interact with other human beings. Shabbat Shalom from Flushing! Rabbi Benson

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dine Out on That - Thoughts from Parshat Re'eh

What happens to you when you get the check for a meal out?  Or finish getting your hair cut, or at any of those other times when a tip is customary?  Back in high school or college, meals with my friends were paid for by everyone putting money into a crumpled pile on the table.  In those situations, I'm not so sure that leaving a generous tip was foremost in our minds (just covering the bill was often challenging enough).  But life has shown me that the negative effects on all involved when an expected, deserved, gratuity is omitted or short-changed are no small matter. 

We learn about just how serious an issue this should be to us in our Torah portion, Re'eh, this Shabbat.  In it we learn of the rules for setting free a Jewish indentured servant.  It says (Dt. 15:13-14), " shall not send him away empty-handed; adorn him generously..."     

The Torah commentary, Sefer Ha-Chinuch counts two mitzvot here, #481 - not to send away the Hebrew servant empty-handed and #482 - to give a bonus to him when he goes, explaining the second one:

“...It is our splendor and glory that we should have compassion on a person who served us, and we should give him of what we own as an act of loving-kindness, apart from what we stipulated with him to give him as his wages. It is something understandable by intelligence and there is no need to continue at length about it...”
When I first encountered this I was really struck.  Applying the words, "splendor and glory" to what I'm doing when I leave a tip was transformative for me.  Me, a person who can often feel, not so much cheap, but just always worried about expenses, this broke open for me a new way of relating to the person who had helped me out.  I don't say that anyone who gets my table is going to find a gold coin waiting for them, but they are way more likely now to get that 20% from me than I would have been as likely to give before.

And this is a lesson with broader application, too.  It's not just that leaving a tip is, kind of literally, a mitzvah, but that through the language of mitzvah the notion of leaving a tip was transformed into something really meaningful for me.  And that should be the goal of religious life generally.  It's not to become worried over crazy details, its to recognize in the mundane, in the simple, the potential for holiness.

Go dine out on that!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Love & Hate - Parshat Ekev

Less than a week and I am still current with the Daf Yomi, daily Talmud study.  Only about 2705 pages left to go!  It has been a wonderful experience as every page offers sparks of wisdom and inspiration.  

Take for example the recent story about roosters.  Roosters, we're told, can give away through their behavior (by standing on one leg when their crests seem to lose their color), the times when God is angry with the world.  Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was constantly assaulted by a certain heretic who constantly questioned and insulted him.  Finally, to get even, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi thought he'd get a rooster, watch it for when it showed that God was angry, and at that moment pronounce a curse on his enemy, which would surely doom him.  But - he fell asleep.  The rabbi concluded from this, "it is not proper conduct to curse people, even if they are wicked, for 'God's mercy (chesed) is over all his creations.'" 

Would that our world understood what Rabbi Joshua ben Levi understood, that even that person who just bothers you to know end, let along the person who is truly bad, is still one of God's creations.  And that if God extends His mercy to such people, then we should, too.  

In fact, as we learn in this week's Torah Portion, remembering what it means for us that we enjoy God's love, and that we should emulate it - that's pretty much what it's all about.  Our portion puts it like this, "If you observe these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep His covenant of loving-mercy (et ha-brit ve-et ha-chesed) with you, as He swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers."

Sadly this week, we live in a world that has yet one more example of what happens when this fundamental teaching is not understood.  Our prayers should be with Sikh community of Oak Creek, Wisconsin who suffered great loss at the hands of an evil man who let his fears and hatred of the unknown other lead him to such terrible actions.  That crime should remind us just how much work we have to do to make God's covenant of love, of mercy, alive in this world.

This week, when we wish each other a Shabbat Shalom, let it be a prayer that all God's Creations can enjoy God's Loving Mercy, and God's Peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron Benson

Thursday, August 2, 2012

It Can All Count - Parshat Va'etchanan

It has been an exciting week in the world of Jewish learning.  The first volume of the new edition of the Talmud by Koren Publications with commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is on bookshelves now (and if you don't know what those are, an iPad app is soon to be released,  And this is just in time, because this week is also the start of a new seven year cycle of the study of one page of Talmud a day called the Daf Yomi.  

The first volume of the Talmud is Berachot, Blessings.  It begins with a discussion of the rules for reciting the Shema prayer.  In yet another convenient coming together of things on the Jewish calendar, this week's Torah Portion, Va'etchanan includes the Shema.

The Shema, in which we declare our belief in the unity of God, and in its following paragraphs we speak of how we will make our actions reflect our belief in God, is the quintessential Jewish prayer, precisely because it sets up that connection - that what we feel in our hearts must guide our hands.  That the spirit as well as the body equally serve God.

And what is even more compelling is something we learn in a comment about one line of this prayer.  We famously pray that we will love God with "all our heart".  One understanding of this (which Daf Yomi students should get to in about two months as it is on Berachot page 61b) is that we must serve God with both our evil or selfish inclination (yetzer ha-ra) as well as with our good or giving inclination (yetzer ha-tov).

I take this to mean that for us as Jews, what is more important, what is most important, is not so much judging if something is bad or something is good, or judging if everything about me is so great or not, but whether or not we can put it to use in the service of God.  If we can find in it some spark of the Holy.  

Bad things happen to you?  They may not, as I hate to hear people say, have happened "for a reason" but that doesn't mean you still can't find meaning or inspiration in them.  Are there bad things about you?  Turn those traits towards God's ends.  Feel stressed out and anxious all the time?  Let that be what motivates you to say your daily prayers.  It can be meditative, and it's what God wants of you.  And the list of course goes on.

So take some of the pressure off yourself.  Don't worry that not everything in your life is great.  And don't worry if everything about you is great - worry about how you can take all of it, and put to God's uses.

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron Benson

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Confronting Reality - Thoughts on Tisha b'Av


How do we respond today to a holiday that is a full day fast, that marks events that happened 2000 years ago, and that current opinions and events seem to somewhat have rendered obsolete?    

These are the challenges we confront in observing the holiday of Tisha b'Av, the Fast of the 9th of Av, which we will observe this Saturday night.  It is a holiday marking the destruction of the First Temple in 586BCE and the Second in 70CE and it is also a holiday that commemorates the many other disasters that have befallen the Jewish people over the years.    

Some in Conservative Judaism raise objections to the holiday.  Some say that with the establishment of the modern state of Israel, it is no longer necessary to mark a holiday that has at it's core the remembrance of our dispersal from Israel, neglecting the many other catastrophes that we also remember, and neglecting that as Jews we have survived precisely because we remember our past; even when we are comfortable and protected we remember that often times we have not been.  Then there are others who simply object to a fast day and all its attendant rituals as being out of step with the modern world, ignoring what I've mentioned before, that it is not a bad thing in our lives of too much to be without for a little while.

We should reject these challenges as at the same time we embrace the observance of this difficult holiday.  Not only for the reasons I have mentioned already, namely that as Jews we have an obligation to remember our past, relive it, and also remember that life is meant to be meaningful, not easy.  But we should also observe the holiday for another reason as well.      

Maimonides quotes Lamentations, which we read on this day, "It is not from the mouth of the Most High that good and evil comes" to remind us that evil is part of our world, and holidays like Tisha b'Av remind us that we have an obligation to confront it.  That doing so is difficult yet that it has been a challenge the Jewish People have had to face numerous times.  So may we do this year and always.
Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbi Benson