Answers for the People of Chelm and Any Other Curious Souls - Year 2007


December 2007

1. Forty years ago, bagels were nowhere near as popular as they are today. The bagel did not start moving out of its niche as an Ashkenazi Jewish ethnic food until the latter decades of the 20 th century. New York City , and Montreal and a handful other cities developed bagel making with the influx of Eastern European Jews in late nineteenth century. New York even had its own union, Bagel Bakers Local #338. Two inventions in the 1960s – the frozen bagel and the Thompson bagel-making machine – paved the way for bagels to enter the mainstream of breakfast foods in America . And then came the franchises. Just two years after the addition of bagels to their menu in 1996, Dunkin' Donuts had become the largest retailer of bagels in America . (Incidentally, this chain was started by a Boston area Jewish man, Bill Rosenberg, a friend of my wife's uncle.). The Wikipedia entry asserts that the first bagel was developed in Central Europe, possibly in the medieval city of Kracow , Poland as early as 1610. There is also a legend that bagels were created by Viennese Jewish bakers to commemorate the 1683 victory over the Turks in the siege of Vienna .

2. Up through Roman times, Ethiopia (or Abyssinia or Axum as it has been known in earlier times) was very much involved in Eastern Mediterranean commerce and life. Then for more than a thousand years, regular contact was cut off, allowing Ethiopian cultures to develop separately. During this period, all the important texts of the Ethiopian Judeo-Christian religions were preserved in Ge'ez, an ancient language of this region. Ge'ez is in same Semitic language family as Hebrew. This kinship with Israel was maintained in one of the honorifics of the Ethiopian Emperor, who was known as the “Lion of Judah”. But until recently the rest of the Jewish world was not even aware of Ethiopia 's sizable Jewish community. Largely isolated in the northern highlands, many thousands had faithfully clung to the traditions of their Jewish ancestors. In the past few decades, more than a hundred thousand have fled to Israeli. Social activist and author Len Lyons has documented the larger-than-life story of these exceptional people and their difficult exodus from Ethiopia into modern Israel . For more information, please visit his web site at .

3. On November 2 nd 1917, the British Government issued the Balfour Declaration. Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour wrote that “His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”. Towards the close of World War I, the British and French were then closing in to finish off the once-great Ottoman Empire . The Ottomans were German allies in this war and had ruled Turkey , parts of the Balkans, and much of the Middle East for over five hundred years. What was then called Palestine (today's Jordan and Israel ) fell under the British sphere of influence, so British recognition of Jewish national aspirations was crucial. Within weeks of this declaration, the British General Allenby marched victoriously into Jerusalem , on the first day of Chanukah! This is but one of many significant moments in the creation of the modern state of Israel . Attend one of the upcoming Adult Education seminars and our Rabbi can explain much, much more.


November 2007

1. The common Jewish custom of placing stones on a grave may very likely have very ancient roots. It may well go back to the times when grave monuments were mounds of stones.  Visitors added stones to "the mound" to help mark the grave site. As very practical matter, this act allows visitors to do something concrete and physical for the loved one who is buried there. Many also feel this custom shows honor for the deceased person by marking the fact that his or her grave had been visited.

2. Their Hebrew names do indeed say much about the purpose of our most important Jewish texts. At the foundation is the “Torah”, which means teaching or instruction in Hebrew. The Zohar, the central work of Jewish mysticism written in the 16 th century CE, translates to “radiance”, a reflection on its many brilliant insights. The Jewish Law Code, the Mishnah, means “repetition”; the Mishnah was the written recording of earlier generations repeating the oral law over and over, passing it from teacher to disciple. The last of three great sections of the Bible – after the Torah and Nevi'im (prophets) – is called the Ketuvi'im or “writings” in Hebrew. The writings consisted of an assorted set of 13 books from Psalms on through Ruth and Daniel and concluding with Chronicles. Our familiar prayerbook, the Siddur, defines the sequence or “order” of prayers in the service. Both the Siddur and the Passover Seder are derived from the Hebrew root for “order”. Incidentally, the Hebrew expression for "OK" is "B'Seder" meaning. [everything's] "in order".  The Talmud contains interpretations and commentaries on the Mishnah, intricate discussions by sages of many generations and viewpoints. This enormous collection has been the preoccupation of scholars for centuries, so it is very fitting that the Hebrew root of Talmud is “study”. A related Hebrew word is "talmid" or "student".

3. The Hebrew word “kadosh” – holy – is first used in Genesis 2:3 in reference to Shabbat, the Sabbath. “And God blessed the seventh day and called it holy ….”. So the first application of “kadosh” is invoked by God, but not to describe God's uniqueness. Nor is this first reference to any person, place, or thing; examples of all these will come later. The first holy entity named in the Bible is a time, the special time of Shabbat. You may also recall the words “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh”, which we say during services. This refrain comes from the prophet Isaiah in chapter 6:3, when he beholds God in a vision.


October 2007

1. Yiddish is a magnificently expressive language. As one journalist once observed, “I speak ten languages – all of them in Yiddish”. It certainly has an especially rich set of ways to describe various sorts of scoundrels, many of which have been adopted by today's American English. For example, a shikker is a drunk, not to be confused with a schnorrer, who is a moocher and chiseler. And the schlemiel is a bungling, gauche sort of person, while the schlimazel can be concisely described as a born loser. It is written ”a schlemiel is one who always spills his soup, the schlimazel is the one upon whom it always lands”. Their cousin is the schnook - a timid, gullible soul, a real patsy. Of course, schmos also know what it is like to be hapless fall guys, which they are. At least they are better than your everyday schtunks, who are the mean and nasty kind of folks who sneer when they cut you off in traffic. Of this entire list, only “shayner Yid” is complimentary - and very much so. This is somebody who is admirable in character and virtue; it is a wonderful tribute to say one is a shayner Yid, literally a “beautiful Jew”.

2. There were twenty-one kings of the House of David. Starting with David himself, this dynasty ruled first the combined Israelite state and then the kingdom Judah for almost five hundred years. The Second Book of Kings minces no words about its assessment of successor kings, most of whom it despises. Hezekiah, the monarch who built the ancient water tunnel under Jerusalem to withstand the Assyrian siege, was very highly esteemed. His son Manasseh, though, was reviled for many practices in his fifty-five year reign, especially for reinstating pagan worship. The very highest praise was reserved for Manasseh's grandson, King Josiah, a great religious reformer. The kingdom's spiritual fortunes recovered under Josiah, who commanded the ritual cleaning of the Temple . But then Judah reverted to a downward course toward punishment and exile when Josiah's son Jehoakim became king. Ignoring the prophet Jeremiah's warnings, Jehoakim led an unsuccessful revolt against his Babylonian overlord King Nebuchadnezzar and was banished. Not long after, Judah was crushed, Jerusalem sacked, and the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians.

3. The Jewish year – like the civil year – has twelve months, but the Jewish months are lunar months, always beginning on a new moon. But twelve lunar months are shorter by several days than a solar year, so a “duplicate” month – second Adar – is inserted periodically (in seven out of every nineteen years) to keep the seasons from wandering. With this adjustment, the Jewish and civil calendars progress through the years quite harmoniously. And we can look at the moon to fix the most important holidays. Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first of Tishri when the moon is new, as small as it can get. Ten days later, on the tenth when Yom Kippur falls, it is still getting larger each night; it's swelling or waxing. And the fifteenth of Tishri, Sukkot, will always occur when the moon is at its fulfillment – the full moon - the best time to sleep outside with the abundant moonlight. And as the moon of Tishri wanes, there is the holiday Simchat Torah, marking the beginning of the rainy season in Israel and the new Torah reading cycle everywhere, on the twenty-third day of the month. So for holiday time, don't look at your watch but at the moon on a clear night!


September 2007

1.1. For Rosh Hashanah, the only positive commandment is that the shofar be heard. The first verse of Numbers 29 repeats the injunction of Leviticus 23:24-25 against normal work on this day, and then commands “you shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded”. Thank you to all the shofar blowers on the bimah at Beth Elohim and elsewhere all around the world for allowing the rest of us to observe this mitzvah. But there is one important exception; shofar blowing is not performed when Rosh Hashanah occurs on a Sabbath.

2. The Babylonian Talmud was composed in what is now Iraq from the third through seventh centuries of the Common Era. Also called Talmud Bavli, it is the more authoritative of the two versions of the Talmud. This work was f o r untold generations the highest legal authority for Jews throughout the world. Though it was not created in the city itself, the spread of Talmud emanated from Baghdad for many centuries thereafter. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, Jewish life and culture prospered here under Islamic rule. The writer Eliezer Segal notes that by the 10th century all the major Babylonian Jewish institutions, including the great Talmudic yeshivas of Sura and Pumbedita, had all relocated to Baghdad , at that time the most powerful capital in the western world. The city remained an important (if not the most important) center of Jewish life and learning until the Mongol invasions of the early 13th century of the Common Era.

3. The Yom Kippur morning haftarah encourages us to overcome our discomfort and look at fasting in a constructive way. Isaiah maintains that fasting and inward self-mortification are by themselves of no value, but that the fasts the Lord desires are “to let the oppressed go free…share your bread with the hungry…clothe the naked…do not ignore your own kin”. We fast so we can understand the hunger of others …and then hopefully do something about it. As Arthur Waskow paraphrases this passage, it is this “outward help to others that God demands and recognizes as the deed that brings atonement. The notion of a “third Isaiah” comes from the observation that there are at least three distinctly different styles in the single book of Isaiah. The first extends through the first 39 chapters and focuses on events around the time of the prophet Isaiah in the eighth century BCE. The “second Isaiah” – chapters 40 through 55 – is composed of poems and prophetic speeches, and appears to have been written much later, towards the end of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE. The chapters from 56 through 66, the close of the book, are referred to as “Third Isaiah” and seem to have been written later still.


August 2007

1.When one performs an act of true lovingkindness, there is no expectation that the doer will be recognized or even thanked. Jews have thought long and hard about questions like this. In the twelfth century CE, the great Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, went so far as to develop an eightfold classification of acts of charity. Although each one is worthy of our respect and emulation, an act of true lovingkindness is especially notable because of the selflessness of the giver.

2. Moses Mendelsohn lived from 1729 to 1786. He was highly educated man and an observant Jew, but one ahead of his time when he urged his fellow German Jews all of these new, then foreign and radical, ideas:
•  The importance of the individual & inherent rights of each person
•  A scientific reason could be found for everything
•  The earth did not revolve around the sun
•  Monarchy was no longer considered divinely inspired
•  Civil law was predominant over religious law

Mendelsohn strove to educate and integrate his religious compatriots in the larger German society. He translated the Torah into German, opening the way to the German language and culture to his Yiddish-speaking fellows. His disciples developed the first great modernizing movement, the Haskalah (enlightenment), which spread throughout Germany , then later to France , Poland , and Russia . Though a very small and a hunchback, he was an intellectual giant. To his greatest admirers, he was a third Moses – the Biblical Moses, then the great Moses Maimonides of the Middle Ages, and finally Moses Mendelsohn.

3. The kindly old tour guide at the Touro Synagogue beams with pride when he tells visitors that George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy have also been guests there. Though the Newport congregation has origins going back to 1658, the synagogue was not built until 1763 just before the American Revolution, when Newport was the fifth largest city in colonies. So it was important event when George Washington, then General of the American Army, attended a town meeting at the synagogue 1781. Several years later then President Washington exchanged cordial letters with “the Hebrew Congregation in Newport , Rhode Island ” in which he states that the United States have “given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy…For happily the Government of the United States …gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”.


June 2007

1. There is not complete scholarly agreement on the origins of the synagogue, the most central religious institution of Judaism. However, of the answers given, the best approximation is that the first proto-synagogues began develop either during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE. The Jews there clearly maintained their religious practices and scriptures. On his migration to Israel , the great teacher Ezra brought the sacred books and introduced their public reading. Some see a reference to Babylonian synagogues in this passage from Ezekiel 11:16 when God says “…I have become to them a small sanctuary in the countries to which they have gone”. The Talmud also speaks of hundreds of synagogues in Jerusalem BEFORE the destruction of the Second Temple . By then they were commonplace in adjacent locales like Alexandria , Cyprus , and Turkey . And there is solid evidence of a synagogue in Egypt in the third century BCE. Though it has always been the focus of religious activity, during the Middle Ages the synagogue developed its central role in all aspects of Jewish life – as school, study, social center, assembly hall. Clearly by the time of the Roman repression and expulsion from Israel , there was in place an alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem , and thus Judaism was able to survive and even prosper during the enforced exile from its homeland.

2. A mitzvah is a commandment or obligation (not a "good deed") found in the Torah. The mitzvot are not enumerated in the Bible but the Talmud gives the number as 613. Many are simply not applicable to us today. The agricultural commandments apply only within the borders of the Biblical Land of Israel, for example. Also, we will have a hard time following any mitzvot dealing with the treatment of slaves or sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem . Modern sages have proposed that somewhere less than 300 seem appropriate to our circumstances. Of the 613 mitzvot, 365 are prohibitions - a very easy remembered item. And the remaining 248 are positive ("do") commandments, such as the requirement to pay a day laborer "before the sun sets".

3 As many Gimel students know, all of these events provide an opportunity to say the brakhah of the Shehecheyanu , ("Who has kept us alive") the name given to the blessing recited over something new or special in time. The English translation and spelling of the blessing itself vary but the sense is always very close to this. "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive [She-hecheyanu], sustained us, and brought us to this time”. The events range from lighting a candle on the Hannukiah to eating the first fruits of a season and celebrating holidays; the Shehecheyanu always marks the special moment in time. The tractate in the Mishnah dealing with blessings, Berakot, prescribes several situations when this blessing is to be recited, such as moving into a new house or getting new kitchen utensils. Given that the Mishnah was codified almost two thousand years ago, this brakhah is woven very deeply into the fabric of Judaism, and that is indeed a blessing.


May 2007

1. To most historians, David Ben-Gurion is the Israeli George Washington, and more. As the country's first Prime Minister, he declared independence for the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. A few days later, under attack by five neighbors for this declaration, he ordered the formation of the Israeli Defense Forces. As an early immigrant to Israel , he had literally worked the land, in orange groves, vineyards, and wine cellars. Under his vision and leadership, the country developed democratic majority rule from diverse groups, most of whom had never experienced any form of self-rule. And many others were important in establishing and protecting Israel . Moshe Dayan skillfully led the Israel defenses in the Six-Day War of June 1967. Golda Meir, a one-time Milwaukee housewife, was Prime Minister during the surprise 1973 Yom Kippur war. Not long after, Prime Minister Menachem Begin negotiated the Camp David Accords, leading to first peace with Egypt . Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was an early Zionist who is credited with almost single-handedly reviving Hebrew as the language of the land of Israel . Yitzhak Rabin came much later. After jointly winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for the Oslo Accords, this beloved Prime Minister was assassinated a year later by a right-wing radical.

2. According to the Talmud, the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai occurred on Shavout. The Bible itself gives no such specific date, but many very religious Jews accept the Talmudic view. And the importance of this act establishes the primary importance of this day. What could be more central to Judaism than this, receiving the core of the Torah? Consequently, many observant Jews stay up all night studying and reading Torah and other key texts of Judaism. In Jerusalem now, great numbers come to the Western Wall at daybreak after observing this custom, known as tikkun. And several of your fellow congregants will also be staying up for a late night study session at Beth Elohim!

3. Those who attended this past Yom Ha-Shoah observance were privileged to see a film, projected right onto the sanctuary walls, about the little understood period from May through October 1945. Holocaust survivors were “liberated” but had no place to go and continued to starve to death and die from disease. The film documented the improbable story of how two American soldiers, and mere privates at that, forced an inattentive military occupation army to put a stop to a major humanitarian crisis. One of these two was a buck private named Bob Hilliard from Wilmington , Delaware . At Sal's invitation, he came to Beth Elohim to facilitate discussion on the film and explain first hand how he and his army buddy, the wily Pvt. Ed Herman, through an underground publicity campaign and other means, brought the plight of the survivors to light. Their cause ultimately came to the attention of President Truman, who ordered an inquiry, resulting in an end to this "genocide by neglect". Bob Hilliard is now in his early 80s, alert as ever, and works as a Professor at Emerson College . Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Bob Hilliard taught us how everyday people can change history when they stand up for what is right. Maybe others of us can do it again in Darfur .


April 2007

1. The legend of the lamed-vavniks is one of the most appealing in all of Jewish culture. This folk tale, found in the tract Sanhedrin of the Talmud, holds that there are always 36 righteous people on earth, on whom the world's existence depends. However, their identity is known only to God. The waitress might be a lamed-vavnik, or perhaps the fellow who repairs your shoes. These people go about their business quietly, doing good deeds, making the world a better place. When one of them dies, another is replaced right away, for if ever there is a time when there are fewer than 36 lamed-vavniks in the world, then the world itself will perish. This beautiful legend teaches us to value each and every person. For who knows, he or she might be a lamed-vavnik! The name itself comes directly from the number 36. Each Hebrew letter has a corresponding numeric value, starting with “aleph”, which is one. “Lamed” is thirty and “vav” is six. And, of course, 36 is twice 18 and 18 is chai – life.

2. The roots of Yiddish are in medieval Germany . Although it is written using the Hebrew alphabet, the grammar and phonetics are German. Starting in the 1100 and 1200's many Jews emigrated eastward to Poland from Germany , taking their language with them. Poland at that time had a very stratified society - the nobility, the clergy, and the peasants. The Jews came at the invitation of the nobility to become the middle class, serving as civil servants, managers, and traders. Their German language, written in Hebrew, formed the core of the language that spread eastward with them to Lithuania , Russia , and the Ukraine . From the native tongues of these lands as well as from Hebrew, Yiddish acquired many loan words and the mixture that resulted gives the language its uniquely expressive character. Like Max, our former Me'ah teacher Eliyana Adler profoundly loved this language. She noted that the eastern variants of Yiddish absorbed not only words from the surrounding Slavic languages but also phrases and even syntax. She also adds that all Yiddish dialects contain elements from Hebrew and Aramaic, especially in ritual contexts.

3 . Torah study with Rabbi Mintz is truly a treat. Almost every question he or a participant poses has many “right” answers and can be addressed on multiple levels. The question of why Jacob picked Beersheba to celebrate a major sacrifice indeed has several possible answers. The most obvious and compelling one, at least to our group, was that the Beersheba represents an extreme border of Israel . Isaac was marking the departure from his homeland. “From Dan to Beersheba ” is the proverbial expression of the full extent of Israel . Dan is the tribal land of the far north, while Beersheba marks the far southern end of cultivated land. It was also a holy place. Earlier chapters describe the special connections that Jacob's forefathers, Abraham and Isaac, had with this place. Both patriarchs took oaths at this place; in fact Beersheba means “well of the oath”.


March 2007

1. Jewish tradition holds that the wedding party should proceed before the funeral train. As much as we respect those who have died, celebration of life is paramount. In fact, preservation of life is the first principle of Judaism, for as we are taught almost any mitzvah can be broken if doing so preserves life; for example, an emergency surgery on the Sabbath is entirely consistent with Jewish law.

2. According to music historians like Professor Melnick, Al Jolson was the icon of early 20 th century American music. Billed as the 'World's Greatest Entertainer", Jolson was the first musical artist to sell over ten million records . He was born in 1886 as Asa Yoelson in Lithuania . His mother and father, a Rabbi, immigrated to the US when Al was very young. His live performances were apparently absolutely electric and everyone in the audience felt he were singing directly just to him or her. He is perhaps best known for the song "Mammy" in the film “ The Jazz Singer”, which owes its roots more to vaudeville than the new jazz sound being developed by American blacks right after the turn of the century. Professor Melnick's 1999 book A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song” documents the Jolson phenomena and related American musical history from this era.

3. Pesach is indeed a wonderful holiday. It captures a timeless message of liberty for all of us. Each year we ourselves, not some remote ancestor, are the ones escaping from Egypt and slavery. So when was the first Passover celebrated? After a little reflection, you may remember that day got its name when the avenging hand of the Lord passed over the homes of the Israelites. As instructed, they had smeared their doorposts with lamb's blood to avoid the consequences of the tenth plague, the death of the first-born. Chapter twelve of Exodus recounts all this and also includes the details of how the Passover lamb is to be selected and prepared. Then in verse 11, the community is commanded to “eat it hurriedly: it is a Passover offering to the Lord”. So the first Passover occurred in Egypt , on the night before the Israelites fled from Egypt . If we accept the historicity of this event and the scholars' best guesses on dates, this first Pesach occurred sometime before the end of the reign Pharaoh Rameses II in 1225 BCE, over thirty-two centuries ago.


February 2007

1. On November 2 nd 1917, the British Government issued the Balfour Declaration. Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour wrote that “His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”. Towards the close of World War I, the British and French were then closing in to finish off the once-great Ottoman Empire . The Ottomans were German allies in this war and had ruled Turkey , parts of the Balkans, and much of the Middle East for over five hundred years. What was then called Palestine (today's Jordan and Israel ) fell under the British sphere of influence, so British recognition of Jewish national aspirations was crucial. Within weeks of this declaration, the British General Allenby marched victoriously into Jerusalem , on the first day of Chanukah! This is but one of many significant moments in the creation of Israel . Your rabbi can explain much, much more.

2. Leo Trepp's The Complete Book of Jewish Observance inspired this question. He explains the logic that guided the rabbis of old in interpreting the key commandment to abstain from work on the Sabbath. The 39 prohibitions and 7 major categories covered very well the situations and options available several centuries ago. In most cases, their thinking applies quite directly to conditions a very observant Jew could encounter today – like those mentioned in this question. No, it is not strictly acceptable to open an umbrella - even while walking to the synagogue – because that is “building shelter” and too much like work. Yes, it is fine to let that pot simmer on the stove, just as long as you turned on the stove (“lit a fire”) before Shabbat began. Sorry, in the most meticulous practice, one should not carry anything outside the home on the day of rest, even a Tallit bag. That's work. If, however, you wear the Tallit, that is acceptable since it is then a garment. (To be more precise, the prohibition applies to carrying items from one “domain” to another. That is why orthodox Jews often construct an “eruv”, which creates a single domain out of a neighborhood and thus allows people to “carry” on the Sabbath.) The rabbis would always advise you to read a letter from your mother, provided it is not about business; but make sure the letter is already opened. There is one principle governs all situations is that any mitzvah may be broken if a life is in danger. That would seem to cover giving medicine. Trepp closes this section with a discussion that is respectful of all the various traditions of Judaism. Most do not advise or insist upon the scrupulousness of observance suggested above, but all are “united in the emphatic affirmation of the Sabbath as the cornerstone of Judaism”.

3. The Five Books of Moses, the Torah, are at the center of the Jewish faith, so naturally the names of these Books have been a center of attention throughout the ages. The English names are familiar enough, but not - at least to most of us - the original Hebrew names. As noted in the initial question, the Hebrew name is usually taken from the first significant word in the text of that Book. Genesis begins with the word B'reishit, which is its Hebrew name meaning "in the beginning". Exodus opens with a listing of the names of Jacob's sons, and so is known as Sh'mot, Hebrew for 'the names' as in its initial passage "These are the names of the sons of Israel …". The Hebrew name of the priestly Book of Leviticus is its first word, Va-yikra, or 'he called'. In the initial verse of this book, the Lord calls to Moses giving him instructions on proper sacrifice. The Book of Numbers is a chronicle of Israel 's journey through the desert. Its Hebrew name, B'midbar, means "in the wilderness, the deserts of Judea and Sinai. In the opening passages, the Lord speaks to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, telling him to take a census (i.e. determine the 'numbers') of the whole Israelite community. The Book of Deuteronomy is one long speech by Moses just before his death. The Hebrew name D'varim, meaning "these are the words", comes directly from the first lines, "These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan …". A rose by any other name may indeed smell as sweet, but it's hard to conceive of the Torah without these names.


January 2007

1.The Joseph story begins with Chapter 37 and concludes at Chapter 50, the final one of the Book of Genesis. Rabbi Mintz's Torah study group cited three “downs” in the life of Joseph - 1) when he was thrown into the well by his envious brothers as recounted in Genesis 37:23, 2) when he was taken “down” to Egypt by the traders 37:28, and 3) when he was thrown down into prison because of the accusations of Potiphar's wife 39:20. The “ups” of Joseph's amazing career included 1) when he was put in charge of Potiphar's household 39:5, 2) when he was put in charge of Pharaoh's court 41:40, and 3) when he asked that his bones be carried “up” from Egypt to Canaan in Genesis 50:25. Waky notes that "Aliyah" carries this sense of “up”. The more familiar meaning is to go “up” to the bimah to read Torah, but it also it means moving to Israel . Both meanings involve going to a higher place.

2. Amos was one of the true prophets. Describing himself as a simple shepherd and tender of fig trees, he is called away and told by the Lord "Go prophesy to My people Israel (Amos 7:15)". Though he was from the town of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah, most of his prophesies are set in the northern kingdom of Israel, especially in the shrine at Bethel, not too far north of Jerusalem. There he confronted Amaziah, the priest of Bethel , predicting the fall and exile of the sinful kingdom. A few decades later the Assyrians did in fact plunder the northern kingdom and send its population into exile. Speaking through Amos, the Lord found no comfort in the sacrifices and rituals offered in his name. In Amos 5:22-23, He says "I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings. Spare Me the sound of your hymns….". The God of Israel demands justice above all; through Amos, he addresses the House of Israel in 5:10-12 as "You takers of bribes, you who subvert in the gate the cause of the needy". Amos derides the empty rituals of the Temple and has only scorn for those who oppress the poor. He remains perhaps the earliest, and most forceful, spokesmen for social justice.

3. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty welcomed millions of Jews fleeing Russian persecution to these shores in the decades around the turn of the last century. The American Jewish poetess Emma Lazarus was acutely aware of this persecution and, during the early 1880s, wrote extensively about the Jewish people's suffering in Eastern Europe . She died too young in 1887, years before her words were inscribed in bronze at the base of the great statue in 1903. For so many Jews at that time, the path to freedom she described led through Ellis Island to the Lower East Side . In 1910, 540,000 Jews were crammed into its one and half square miles. This estimate comes from Paul Johnson's highly readable “History of the Jews”. He further notes that in the tenements of the Tenth Ward the density reached just over 700 people per acre, more than 100 times that of a normal suburban setting.