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Congregation Brothers of Israel

L'dor Vador—From Generation to Generation since 1883
לדור ודור


Chaired by Dr. Ellier Russ with the assistance of the Rabbi, this committee coordinates programs and classes to engage members in lifelong learning. Events include our yearly Scholar in Residence program, Talmud Study, Mah Nishtanah: What’s Different About Today’s Judaism, The Observant Life Book Series and more. Guest speakers, online webinars and Shabbat morning discussions additionally provide congregants with opportunities to expand their knowledge of Judaism and living a Jewish life.

Connecting Heaven and Earth

Vav – a special letter
You probably know that there is a correspondence between Hebrew letters and numbers. Number 6 corresponds to the letter “vav”. “Vav” is shaped like a hook holding two things together (ו); normally, “Vav” is translated as “and”. This letter is also referred to as “vav of connection” therefore, “the Sixth Day”—Yom HaShishi (Yom Vav)—connects the spiritual and physical; heaven and earth, six days of Creation and Shabbat. 

The day of connection
We can see a wonderful confirmation in today’s Jewish life. Anyone who has experienced Shabbat in Israel knows that Friday, Yom Shishi, is a really special day of the week, since it is the beginning of Shabbat. As such, it connects and holds together the six days of the week and the most important day of the Jewish week, Shabbat (Saturday). 

Discover the nuances of the Bible
The importance of this day is clearly emphasized in Judaism: the day we celebrate as the Jewish New Year, is not actually the anniversary of Creation, it is the anniversary of the sixth day of Creation—Yom Hashishi. According to Jewish understanding, Creation became meaningful when man was created: the Sixth Day connected heaven and earth, and God was proclaimed King! Enroll in our live online Biblical Hebrew course and Hebrew will reveal the nuances of the Scripture!  

SHMOT 5780
Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)
January 17, 2020  |  by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING!  These past few weeks we have seen a truly frightening rise in violent antisemitic attacks, including nine (NINE!) attacks in the Greater New York area alone. Incredibly, these attacks closely followed the despicable murders at the kosher market in Jersey City just weeks before. 2019 closed with well over two hundred antisemitic incidents in New York, according to the New York Police Department.

Just this past week, I received the following message from a random reader, "Please remove me from your list, I have discovered the Kalergi Plan and want nothing to with Jews ever again."

The vile piece of hatred called The Kalergi Plan was written in 2005 by the Neo-Nazi Gerd Honsik. It purports that there was a secret plan to mix white Europeans with other races. Somehow, the fact that Honsik was sentenced to five years in prison for Holocaust denial and other Nazi activities and is basically a total nut job, is apparently lost on many gullible people.

That such lies persist in the 21st century, a time of unprecedented access to knowledge and information gifted to us by the advent of technology, is simply stunning. How can anyone ignore all evidence and persist in their denial? The only explanation that I find plausible is that people will believe what they want to believe - regardless of the truth. Yet, why do people choose to believe ideas that all the available evidence establishes as false?

Perhaps we need to start at the beginning. Who was the first antisemite? This week's Torah portion gives us the answer. "A new king arose in Egypt…he said to his people, 'Behold the Children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we. Come let us act wisely…'" (Exodus 1:8-10).

Pharaoh was the first person to identify the descendants of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a nation. Incredibly, IN THE VERY SAME BREATH he characterizes them as being "a problem." Thus we became the "Jewish Problem"; a label that has stuck and tragically followed us through three millennia of existence.

Pharaoh's solution, as we know, was to enslave the Jews; the first of a horrible trend of extermination and expulsion suffered by the Jews for thousands of years, culminating with the "Final Solution" to this "problem" put forth by the evil Adolph Hitler - may his name be eternally blotted out.

In order to understand this issue a little deeper we must examine how the Torah characterizes it. This week's Torah reading includes a fascinating insight; "And they (the Egyptians) were disgusted because of the Children of Israel" (ibid. 1:12).

About a thousand years ago the most famous Bible commentator in Jewish history, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, explained this verse: "They (the Egyptians) were disgusted with their lives." He goes on to explain that the Hebrew word for "disgusted" comes from the Hebrew word "thorn" and the Talmud explains that the Children of Israel were like thorns in their eyes (Talmud Sota 11a).

On the face of it, these seem to be unrelated issues. Obviously having a thorn in one's eye is painful, but what does this have to do with being disgusted?

From here we see an incredible insight, one from which we may derive the true root cause of antisemitism. What frustrated the Egyptians about the Jews? That the more they oppressed them the greater the Jews grew in number and in strength (ibid. 1:12).

Watching the Jews ascend to greater heights, no matter how poorly they were being treated, was supremely painful to them; akin to having a "thorn in one's eyes." Why was it so painful to them? Because seeing the Jewish people flourish even under the most difficult circumstances made them "disgusted with their own lives."

The real reason that Jews have been tortured, exiled, and exterminated for thousands of years is because our successes in each and every place we have been has made the local population feel terrible about themselves and highlighted their own inadequacies. But working on oneself to grow and achieve is hard work. Instead of trying to improve themselves they opted to remove the constant reminder of their own failures.

In 2005, I was on a very special trip known as "The March of the Living," which included tours of the concentration camps in Poland and Germany. What made the trip particularly special was the survivors of these camps who accompanied us and gave us a firsthand description of their experiences there.

From the survivors I learned a fascinating fact; in their experience, the biggest anti-Semites - the ones who were most malevolent and brutal - were the Ukrainians and the Poles. By contrast, the Germans, while far from being kind or humane, treated the whole affair as an impersonal business matter. The Jews simply needed to be exterminated. But the Ukrainians and Poles were on a mission of hatred.

Two years ago, I drove through Poland and Ukraine. Outside of the larger cities, people were living the same way they did a thousand years ago, in hovels with a well in the front lawn for water and a single cow and some chickens for basic nutrition.

I then understood why in that part of the world antisemitism is "mother's milk" - what everyone is raised upon. Any success the Jews achieved was a constant reminder of their own miserable lives - because the Jews there had somehow managed to transcend the very same living conditions. Their solution? Let's get rid of the people that make us feel badly about ourselves.

My brother, Rabbi Akiva Zweig, delivered a brilliant and groundbreaking lecture on antisemitism when he was asked to give the keynote address at a symposium on antisemitism at Oxford University in London. His complete lecture can be found here.

He posed the following simple, yet illuminating question: The Oxford English Dictionary defines a Semite as a member of any of the peoples who speak or spoke a Semitic language, including in particular Jews and Arabs. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, specifically names the Semites as number of peoples originating in southwestern Asia. These include Akkadians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs.

Yet the VERY SAME dictionary defines antisemitism to be specifically referring to hostility or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group, to the exclusion of all others. How do we explain this phenomenon? On the one hand, a Semite is any member of many different peoples, but being an anti-Semite is defined as having a specifically anti-Jewish agenda?!? What gives?

His solution is perhaps the finest explanation of antisemitism that I have ever read or heard. Unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this edition - but if you follow the link above you can read it for yourself!

I will leave you with a parting thought on the subject. As we know everything that happen in this world is ultimately decreed by God. Rabbi Kalman Packouz of blessed memory used to approach everything that happened in his life with the following question, "What is God trying to tell me?" We too must ask, what is God trying to teach us by all these recent incidents of antisemitism?

Consider how when a nation gets attacked by an outside force it draws the people to form a unified bond (think of the patriotism following 9/11). I believe the message that we have to internalize is that we must stop the petty infighting between ourselves, our communities, and our people. Because if we don't create a unified nation, God will surely send us an enemy that will inexorably unite us and that will likely have harsh consequences.

So let's make the effort on our own to end all the petty arguments and divisiveness, and usher in God's ultimate redemption of the Jewish people and the entire world.



Torah Portion of the week

Shmot, Exodus 1:1- 6:1

This week's portion tells a story often repeated throughout history: The Jews become prominent and numerous. There arises a new king in Egypt "who did not know Joseph" (meaning he chose not to know Joseph or recognize any debt of gratitude). He proclaims slavery for the Jewish people "lest they may increase so much, that if there is war, they will join our enemies and fight against us, driving (us) from the land." (Anti-Semitism can thrive on any excuse; it need not be logical or real - check out our online seminar "Why the Jews?" at It's spectacular!)

Moshe (Moses) is born and immediately hidden because of the decree to kill all male Jewish babies. Moses is saved by Pharaoh's daughter, grows up in the royal household, goes out to see the plight of his fellow Jews. He kills an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, escapes to Midian when the deed becomes known, becomes a shepherd, and then is commanded by God at the Burning Bush to "bring My people out of Egypt." Moses returns to Egypt, confronts Pharaoh who refuses to give permission for the Israelites to leave. And then God says, "Now you will begin to see what I will do to Pharaoh!"

* * *

Quote of the Week
In spite of everything,
I still believe that
people are really good at heart.

--Anne Frank


On-Line Learning

Rabbi Gaber lead several Adult Education programs using ZOOM Web conferencing technology.  "You don’t have to leave the warmth and comfort of your home to have a discussion on confronting Antisemitism and Hate or the Human Genome or to discuss how to bring Judaism into the 21st century. I will be leading an online class.  You will not  only be able to hear me and see me, you will also see your friends in the same virtual classroom. There was an interesting line up of  webinars this past winter. Our final CBOI Online learning program this season has a dedicated link:     All you need do is enter this link into your favorite browser and follow the instructions.  If you get stuck, please let me know and I will help you get on line."  

*Don't worry, if you can't make the discussion at the appointed time, you'll still be able to learn about each topic:
See the CBOI On-line Learning page in Learn Navigation bar to see all the previous  On Line Zoom Learning sessions.


 In fulfilling the following commandments one enjoys the yield in this world while the principal remains for a eternity, honoring father and mother, performing deeds of loving kindness, punctually attending the house of study morning and evening, showing hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, helping the needy bride, attending dead, praying .with devotion, and making peace between individuals. And the merit of Torah study is equal to all of these. Talmud Shabbat 12 e


Parashat Shemot
January 18, 2020 | 21 Tevet 5780
 | Exodus 1:1:28 - 6:1 (Etz Hayim p.317-341; Hertz p. 205-224)
Triennial  | ​​​​​​ Bereshit  1:1 - 2:25; (Etz Hayim p. 317 - 326; Hertz p. 205 - 213)
Haftarah | Isaiah 27:6-28:13;29:22-23 (Etz Hayim p.342-346; Hertz p.225-228)


D’var Torah: We the [Jewish]  People
Rabbi Marci Jacobs, Conservative Yeshiva Alum and Jewish Studies Faculty at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD

One of the conversations from my youth spent in a Jewish Day School that sticks most in my memory is the debate we had about whether Judaism was a religion or a nationality. Middle-schoolers on all sides of the issue passionately spoke up for their particular viewpoint. “We’re am yisrael – we must be a nation!” “What about Shabbat, holidays, believing in God?! We’re a religion!” Attempting to find an argument that would both sound sophisticated and win the debate, we never came up with a clear answer. As a college student, I learned about Mordecai Kaplan’s concept of folkways, his idea that individuals could choose religious and cultural practices as a way into the tradition, as markers of identity and connection with Judaism and the Jewish people. Kaplan’s ideas provided another lens through which to view Judaism, that of a civilization.
The essential question of what it means to be Jewish has cropped up with great controversy of late, and it is also deeply woven through the fabric of Parashat Shemot. In the eyes of the Torah, b’nei yisrael are unmistakably a nation, but what that means takes different shapes at various points in the parashah. At the start of the parashah, the term b’nei yisrael refers to the literal children of Israel, Jacob’s sons and their families, who went to Egypt in search of food and stayed. We quickly jump ahead in time – there is a new Pharaoh, whose view of b’nei yisrael is quite different. “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.” (Exodus 1:9) Here, b’nei yisrael are not just a family of refugee Hebrews, but am b’nei yisrael, the Israelite nation, and they are a threat.Later, as Moshe encounters God and then takes the Divine command to Pharaoh, we have another description of the nation: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let My people [ami] go.’” (Exodus 5:1) In this rendering, we are ami, God’s people. Not other – intimately connected to the Eternal. 
Family. Outside threat. God’s cherished possession. Each of these is a part of the Torah’s view of Jewish peoplehood.
Family – Each of those named in the opening verses of the parashah was a part of the family of Jacob, the small group of people who traveled to Egypt during a crisis. Sforno’s (Italian, 15th century) commentary to Exodus 1:1 emphasizes that each of these people was noteworthy, each a luminary, keeping the rest of the people from assimilating to the culture that surrounded them. Part of belonging to a family is knowing the names and the stories of the people who came before you, acknowledging their influence and their part in shaping who you are today. 
Outside threat – The Or HaHayyim, (Morocco/Israel, 17th century) explains that there were four reasons underlying b’nei yisrael’s demonization and ultimate enslavement: the deaths of Joseph, his brothers, and the entire generation of refugee Hebrews, and their extreme fertility. The first generation in Egypt, he explains, was welcomed as honored guests. After they were no more, at least in Pharaoh’s eyes, the people no longer had the same special character. Instead, b’nei yisrael became known for unusually high fertility, which was seen as a threat. These denotations of nationhood were imposed from the outside, by Pharaoh and the Egyptians. When others, particularly those in power, determine our character as a nation, we lose our agency as a people.
God’s cherished possession – Midrash Shemot Rabbah (5:14) imagines the scene when Moshe and Aharon go to Pharaoh. When they explain that they represent God, Pharaoh says he’s never heard of this god, and goes to look in his book detailing nations and their gods. As if to refute their demand, Pharaoh explains that he found no mention of God in his book. Moshe and Aharon respond in kind, saying: “Fool!...Those other gods you mentioned, they are dead; but our God is a living God.” To be so intimately connected with God is to tap into that which is eternal and beyond the limits of time, to be a part of that which lives and that which also gives life. When the Torah calls the Israelites ami, My people, God’s people, it is reminding us that a core feature of b’nei yisrael as a people is our connection to God through life. 
However we view the essential nature of being Jewish – nation, religion, or something else entirely – we can apply the Torah’s instructions for how to understand ourselves. We must honor our history, the stories and influences of those who came before us. We must be mindful of our right to self-determination and avoid handing that right over to others. And we must assiduously pursue the power of life, remaining aware of the unbreakable link between ourselves and the Creator of all life.


D'Var Haftorah: Sound the Great Shofar
Rabbi Mordecai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

For Isaiah, who prophesied during the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, exile was a living experience. His fellow countrymen, the ten [lost] tribes, were forcibly transferred out of the country, never to return to their homeland. Those not transferred avoided the onslaught by taking refuge in Egypt. These events made an enormous impression on him and prompted his yearning for God to right this tragedy: “And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar will be sounded (yitaka b’shofar gadol), and those who were lost in the land of Assyria shall come, and those who were dispersed in the land of Egypt; and they shall worship on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” (27:13)   
God was to sound the shofar as a clarion call for all of the exiles, both from the north and the south, to return home. This inspirational prophecy rang true not just for those in his own generation but some six hundred years later became the foundation for the beginning of the tenth blessing of the weekday Amidah – the rabbinically ordained silent prayer recited thrice daily: “Sound the great shofar (tika b’shofar gadol) for our freedom; raise a banner to gather our exiles, and bring us together from the four corners of the earth into our land. Blessed are You Lord, who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel.”
In one midrash from around the 9th century, two important transformational events involving the shofar – the giving of the Torah and the future redemption – were linked with another foundational story, the Akedah (the binding of Isaac): “Rabbi Zechariah says: The very same ram which was created at twilight [on the sixth day of creation] came forth to be sacrificed in place of Isaac… and became caught by it horns amongst the trees… what did the ram do? It put forth its paws to reach Avraham’s garment. Avraham looked and saw the ram and took it and released it [from the trees] and offered it in place of Isaac… Its two horns were shofarot. From the left one was heard the Holy One Blessed be He at Mount Sinai and the right one, which was larger than the left, will in the future be used to sound the blast for the ingathering of the exiles, as it says: And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar will be sounded.” (adapted from Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 31 end)
Linking Creation and the Akedah with the giving of the Torah and the ultimate redemption establishes an interdependence among many of the major theological events which shape Jewish existence. It turns the redemption into an integral part of the “Jewish” natural order, thereby making it tangible and realistic and less fantastic – something not just prayed for but also attainable. We can only hope.



Mon, January 20 2020 23 Tevet 5780