Parshas Yisro – Planning Ahead

Tucked into our action-packed Torah portion of Beha’alos’cha, we find Moshe pleading with his father-in-law, Yisro/ Jethro, to stay with the Jewish People. Aside from bucking the stereotypical father-in-law-son-in-law relationship, the even larger question is the significance of this short passage. To better understand why we need to know that Yisro left, we need to better understand who Yisro is. 

We are first introduced to Yisro when his daughters are saved by a mysterious Egyptian man (who is actually Moshe). The girls thank him and go back home, but Yisro sees some greater potential, invites Moshe into the house and eventually has Moshe marry one of his daughters. Later, Yisro hears about all the miracles that took place in Egypt and decides to join the Jewish People. The final episode involving Yisro, and perhaps the most telling one, is when he sees Moshe addressing all the questions the Jewish People have and suggests to his son-in-law that he needed a better system. Without a full-fledged judicial system of higher and lower courts, Moshe and the Jewish People would lose patience with the slow pace of judgment. 

The common thread in all these narratives is an individual with a proactive nature. Where others see a good deed, he sees a potential spouse. Where others hear great stories coming from Egypt, he draws conclusions for how that should affect his life. And whereas Moshe is reactionary in regards to the questions posed to him, Yisro is proactive and visionary in setting up a long-lasting judicial system. 

This is why Moshe is so intent on keeping Yisro with the Jewish People. He is, as Moshe puts it, “the eyes” of the congregation. He can “see” things that others cannot. Quite tellingly, immediately after Yisro leaves the Jewish People, everything seems to fall apart. The rest of the Torah portion describes setback after setback as the Jewish People fail and Moshe is helpless in leading them. 

We have all been in reactionary mode for the past three months – how could we not be? We were faced with an unprecedented crisis, groping along with conflicting information and ever-changing restrictions. It has been a challenging three months. 

There is now a light at the end of the tunnel. Baltimore County is already in phase two of reopening and Baltimore City is not far behind. As a shul we are starting to plan ahead for reopening our beloved shul. There are many new requirements and we are trying to be as prepared as possible for a smooth transition back indoors.  

Shul is not the only experience we need to be preparing for. There are many activities that we have been on hold, many relationships that have been altered due to this pandemic. Now is the time to prepare ourselves for what they could look like. Will we just go back to what was? Will we just be the same person we were before this all began? Will we just pick up where we left off? 

Yisro teaches us the great importance of being proactive and planful. There are times in life where having a vision is not possible because we are so overwhelmed by the circumstances. Now, as the fog of the coronavirus is lifting, we have the opportunity to develop a vision for what we want our future to look like. Our future could look different than our past but only if we have a vision to follow. 

What lessons can we take with us from these past three months? What activities do we want to continue to do in the future? What do we not want to go back to? In what way can we take advantage of this new and fresh beginning and reimagine who we are?

May God bless us with “eyes” to see the potential that exists within us and the courage to follow through. 

Imagine: A Jewish Perspective on Peace

Possibly one of the most famous protest songs is Imagine in which John Lennon, the former Beatle, describes a utopian world of absolute harmony. Personally, and I’ve shared this with you before, I really do not like the song. The tune is alright, it is the words that trouble me. Aside from the fact that he imagines a world with no religion, Lennon describes a world in which there are no differences at all; a world with no countries and nothing to die for.

Lennon’s “dream” shares a fundamental belief with many religions and ideologies, namely, that in their vision of an end of days, everyone will be the same. If you merit or survive until the end, everyone will either be of the same socioeconomic status (Marxism) or of the same beliefs (Christianity, Islam). While Judaism does believe in an end of days, this universal sameness is rejected. In Judaism’s vision of the Messianic Era, there will still be Jews and those who are not Jews. Even within the Jewish People, there will continue to exist a distinction between the varying tribes.

 To better understand the philosophy behind our unique vision, allow me to share with you a simple anecdote. Not too long after Hindy and I got married, a gentleman blessed us that we never get into any disagreements. A very wise rabbi standing nearby overhead this and stepped in to say that this was a terrible blessing. He explained that it is in disagreeing, when each party shares a view unnatural to the other, that the real growth takes place. One’s worldview can only expand when it comes not contact with another, and one is forced to grapple with that differing view. Disagreement is the friction that ignites a fire, in this case the fire of a passionate love and the light of self-development.

This week’s parsha speaks to the idea of peace in numerous places. The Talmud, commenting on the ceremony of the Sotah states, “Great is peace! For God allows His Name to be erased to maintain peace between two parties.” And further in the Parsha we have the priestly blessings that climax with the blessing of peace. It is important though to recognize that peace does not mean sameness. Sameness is a diminishment of our unique reflection of God’s image. Rather, peace is the harmony found in different voices clashing with one another with deep respect.

Earlier this week, I had sent you a personal reflection on the national protests which I had also posted to my personal Facebook page. Over the course of the week, as to be expected, strong questions were posed and different viewpoints were shared by members of our shul on my Facebook post. A friend of mine, not a member of our community, who was observing these online discussions reached out to me and said, “I have never seen something like this!” I had no idea what he was talking about. 


He explained: “As we speak, all around the world people are fighting vehemently over different ideals and values. Conversations escalate within a matter of seconds into personal attacks or worse. In the entire thread on your post, and there were many strong emotions expressed, nonetheless the members of Ner Tamid maintained respect for one another and engaged in serious and thoughtful dialogue.” 


Isn’t that amazing? I’m fairly confident that we are one of the most diverse shuls around. We consist of a wide variety of ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, and certainly the spectrum of political views. And yet, we all talk to one another. Yes, the arguments in the pews may get heated, but at the end of the day (or service), we all go out into the social hall and join one another for some hot kugel! It is not something to take for granted! 

It is a challenging time as individuals and a frightening time for our country. We need to grapple with questions of great magnitude. But for a quick moment, I hope you can join me in appreciating what we have here in our special community; a model of what peace should look like. I hope that we can serve as a model for others in healthy dialogue and in promoting the great value of peace. 


Wishing you a peaceful Shabbos and looking forward to when we could debate in person once again!  


Yisrael Motzen


Reflections on Race

I don’t fear the clamor, the chants, or the rallies,
Nor force, or clashes, (though I do fear fatalities.)
I don’t fear debate, fiercer than fire,
The cause is too noble to suggest it be quieter.
What I do fear is that racism (like anti-semitism) has no good solution.
That lives will be lost and still no revolution.
That storefronts will be rebuilt but bloody soil’s exposed,
Until it happens again and the anger explodes.
What I fear is not protests, and riots, and rage.
What I fear is when it’s over that the world will not change.
What I fear is (R)Tweets and likes that fill us with pride,
In the safety of our skin while others must fight –
Prejudice and platitudes equally painful,
Not recognizing our bias is in some ways most shameful.
But perhaps all my feelings are a seed **I** must sow,
On a field **I** must toil over for true change to grow,
If I open myself to your pain like the rain,
Then maybe just maybe I’ll harvest some change.

The Birds are Getting Louder – Shavuos Yizkor

“No honey, the birds are not louder than before.”

My daughter, like many others, was wondering why the chirping of the birds seemed so loud these days. I explained to her how the birds were not getting any louder, it was the world that was getting quieter. Fewer cars on the streets, fewer planes overhead, creating a quieter soundscape in which the otherwise subtle chirping of the birds can be heard quite distinctly.

It is not only the birds that we hear more clearly these days. Many of us are experiencing our thoughts and feelings far more intensely than usual. The New York Times had an article on the topic of world leaders crying in public, a common occurrence these past two months. Of course, a global pandemic is a good reason to be more scared, anxious, and even more angry than usual. But it is not only the negative emotions that have been intensified. Feelings of hope, love, and inspiration have been amplified as well.

The novelist and poet, Jason Reynolds, once quipped that ‘People always love people more when they’re dead.’ It is a cynical statement with a kernel of truth. The emotions we feel towards our loved ones when they are no longer living is far more powerful than when they are. It could be because our minds play tricks on us and we only remember the positive memories. But I would like to suggest another reason that I will call raw ratzon.

Ratzon is Hebrew for desire or will. The mystics see our desires as the highest part of our existence; what we want to do or who we want to be is who we really are. But we Jews are a practical people and we are asked to constantly express our will into action. It is not enough to respect our parents; we are asked to feed and clothe them. It is not enough to love our fellow Jew; we are asked to lend him money and return his lost object. It is not enough to love God; we are asked to do the Mitzvot to express that love. The purpose of these actions is to make our feelings more concrete by expressing them in the physical world. However, something gets lost in the process. Like when you try to share a powerful feeling or experience to a friend and the friend cannot fully grasp the depth of what you are trying to convey, so too your actions are never full expressions of your thoughts. They always fall short. And so, paradoxically, actions are needed to make our feelings more real and yet, in transforming our feelings into action they are diminished.

There are times when we cannot transform our feelings into actions, such as expressing our love to one who is no longer with the living. We wish we could hug them, kiss them, and spend time together, but we cannot. In such a case all we have is the powerful feelings that well up inside, their intensity intact, undiminished by our feeble actions. The reason we seem to love even more in death is because our desire to love, our ratzon, like a pressure cooker is building up inside.

Perhaps this is why we are all experiencing life in such high intensity right now. There is so much we want to do – so much ratzon – but it cannot be expressed. We want to hug our friends and loved ones, we want to go to our houses of worship; we desire to do so much, but it is just building up inside without being transformed into deeds. We are all experiencing the intensity of unbridled raw desire.

We are living through challenging times, but it is also an opportunity to understand ourselves and grow like never before. Who we are, our wishes and desires, are more accessible to us than ever. Like the chirping of the birds in a world with less noise, our identity, not drowned out by our actions, is bare before us.

Shavuos is a holiday that celebrates the Jewish People proclaiming, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will listen. It was only a wish, a desire, but it was enough. Because it was at that moment of clarity when our ancestors said with deep conviction that all they desired was to live a better life, a Godly life, a life of Torah, that we became a people.

Many of us will be at home for Shavuos unable to say Yizkor like it is normally said. Take a moment to touch and feel the intensity of feelings towards your loved one. Many of us will be eating alone unable to celebrate the holiday with friends and family. Take a moment to appreciate how deeply you feel for your family. Many of us will be praying or studying alone. Take a moment to appreciate what community means to you. Relish this unique experience and feel the intensity of your unbridled and raw ratzon.

May we experience very soon the opportunity to express the many deep feelings welling up inside. In the meantime, may we use the quiet to better understand ourselves, to change ourselves, and to grow.

Bamidbar – A Journey of Growth

Bamidbar, literally, the wilderness. Bamidbar is the fourth book of the Torah and describes the Jewish People’s journey through the barren wilderness. It’s mostly a tragic tale. The Jewish People complain a lot, they die a lot through Divinely ordained plagues and punishments, they rebel against Moshe’s leadership and against G-d, and almost all of them die in this wilderness. 

But while we’re focusing on all these setbacks we miss the most important theme of the book. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) in his introduction to Bamidbar describes it as a book of transitions. The most important transition is how this book begins with the Jewish People not that far from Egypt and concludes with them at the banks of the Jordan. While they were complaining, rebelling, and even dying, they were also taking steps forward to their ultimate goal until they got there. 

The analogy is straightforward. We are all travelling through an uncharted wilderness with loss and setbacks at every juncture. But we’re also making progress. Not only have we transitioned to Phase 1 in many states around the country, but I’d venture to say that for all the personal setbacks, we’ve also grown tremendously. We didn’t really have a choice, did we? Existential questions that our fear, anxiety, and boredom forced us to grapple with. Multi-tasking as we ran schools, playgroups and our businesses from our living room watching our patience unravel thread by thread. Relationship issues that shelter-in-place prevented us from avoiding. 

We so often look for resolution to the spiritual challenges we face thinking that it is only when we ‘pass’ the test that we have accomplished anything. That’s a depressing outlook. Who can honestly say that they have resolved any of their inner conflicts? Perhaps the Book of Bamidbar can remind us that as we struggle, or more accurately because we struggle, we are actually moving forward, closer and closer to our goal. 

How have you grown from this pandemic? 

I know that for all my personal setbacks – and there were many – I feel like I have taken many steps closer to my Holy Land. I hope you too can look beyond the failures and appreciate the growth that you have certainly made. 

A sweet and peaceful Shabbos to you all. 

Yisrael Motzen

Dear Vayikra

Dear Vayikra, 

Let me begin by just putting it all out there. We both know it to be true, but I never had the audacity to say it out loud – I have been ignoring you my whole life. Yes, I’ve given you a nod from time to time, but for the most part, I have never given you the attention that you truly deserve. 

Instead of grappling with the applicability of Korbanos in the modern era on Parshas Vayikra, I lazily defaulted to talking about the upcoming Yom Tov of Pesach. On Parshas Tzav and Shmini, I pretended there was no parsha at all! I used Shabbos HaGadol to talk about whatever was on my mind, thinking that no one, myself included, could relate to the inauguration of the Mishkan. In doing so, I failed to mine these texts for their lessons on intentionality and preparedness. 

I’m embarrassed to talk about Tazria-Metzora. Of course, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut would be so much more relevant than “arcane” laws of a mysterious and highly contagious infection understood by few and that necessitated a two-week quarantine. I get it now. No need to say anything at all. 

Acharei Mos and Kedoshim weren’t even that hard to discuss. Family purity and the sanctity of marriage are clearly paramount in Judaism. We even read you on Yom Kippur! As a society, we are clearly falling short of the Torah’s expectations. But you know how long it takes to research the latest on love and relationships? And then, to delicately craft a message on these themes?! It was so much simpler to talk about Rabbi Akiva’s students and the need for greater tolerance and understanding. 

Lag B’omer with its bonfires and mystique were far more appealing than Parshas Emor and a strained discussion on why the Torah disqualifies Kohanim with disabilities. The laws of Shmita and Yovel or the drama of the Six-Day War? I’m sorry, Behar-Behcukosai, you didn’t stand a chance. And then, what I was really waiting for, Chazak chazak v’nis’chazeik! Finally! 

And now, to say, Chazak?! With no Sefer Torah, all alone, reading mournfully from my Chumash?! Chalash, chalash, would be more fitting! I readily admit, I deserved it. I ignored you and you ignored me back. I’ve learned my lesson and now I miss you dearly. 

Please believe me when I say, I have changed!  I yearn to better understand you, and to give you the attention you deserve; to kiss your parchment, your letters, and to hold you near to my heart. Vayikra, I beg you, please take me back. 

With humility and deep yearning, I remain,  

The Rabbi