For two weeks this summer, I was a visiting educator at Ramah Sports Academy. My responsibilities were fairly typical for a visiting rabbi at camp: leading classes for campers and staff, supporting a particular edah (age group). But I also had an opportunity to assist the summer mashgiah in assessing and repairing the eruv before Shabbat. The camp’s eruv—a ritual legal enclosure fixed for the purpose of allowing activities such as carrying from one domain to another on Shabbat—was constructed using some of the natural boundaries around camp. To identify the sightline of the trees at the far end of a field or a stream of water that connects one part of camp to another as part of the created boundary, string and small wooden posts (lehim) were affixed along parts of the camp periphery.
When it was my turn to get in the golfcart and check the eruv, I was expecting some fun along with a minimum of physical labor. Yet securing the eruv, and thereby providing others the opportunity to navigate a dimension of Shabbat, offered an occasion to think about the responsibility we hold toward others in our Jewish community. When the work was complete and Shabbat arrived, I had a newfound appreciation for the purposes of eruvin and understanding of kol yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh: “all of Israel are responsible for each other.” Creating a ritual opportunity and peace of mind for an entire community is a sacred task and, having previously discussed these ancient words with campers, I now had a more personal connection to these safeguards.
The following is posted with my son's permission following his Bar Mitzvah celebrated last week - Shabbat Parashat Naso. What a weekend and what a week it's been since that time! Michele and I remain proud and in some awe of the strength and skill with which he delivered his remarks and did everything else throughout the weekend. I was so happy when he said that I could share his Torah on this site for others to enjoy.
(Picture from rehearsal...he did not wear a t-shirt on his bar mitvah!)
Written by Ben Cohen for the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah | May 22, 2021
This past Chanukkah, I volunteered to do the Chanukah Torah reading/ for school. I was talking with Cantor Stevens about it /and she said that the readings for the Chanukah Torah readings /come from Naso, which happened/ to be my bar mitzvah parsha! In the end, even though I was prepared/, I couldn’t do the Chanukah Torah reading /because I needed to quarantine. However, that did give me a jump in preparation for today and this morning I will read the first, sixth, seventh and maftir aliyot. What I want to talk about is the fact that the sixth and seventh aliyot repeat the same trope /AND WORDS over and over again. That certainly made it easier/ for me to learn the 6th and 7th Aliyot
These pesukim/ describe the sacrifices given by each tribe and presented by each leader to God. Because all the tribes and leaders were “equal” the trope and the words were exactly the same each day (except for the names and the different tribes) . as I said This made it much easier to learn the aliyot
The reason each leader had the same thing was because they were supposed to be equal in their offerings. The offerings were an honor after all and each leader deserved to be recognized but no one more than the other to prevent jealousy. There was however one leader Nachshon who’s title wasn’t listed when he presented his offering to God. I wondered If each leader's offering was supposed to be equal, why his title was not stated. The French commentator Chizkuni reasons that because he was presenting his offering first he should not have his title listed as to prevent him from feeling entitled. Being recognized for something first and important can often lead to becoming arrogant and therefore nachshon’s title isn't listed because he's first. Being the first to do something important and holy such as this can be enough recognition and it's also really big.
Sometimes it’s good to be recognized for doing something good or important and to have a special moment. Other times being singled out can be embarrassing or negative; for instance being singled out in a school environment for doing something wrong can be especially embarrassing. But even if it's for a good thing, if someone is modest, it can be hard to be the center of attention.
Clearly this was not the case here. Each leader was singled out and recognized as an honor. This ceremony of presenting the offerings to God is much like Siddur and Humash assemblies at the Leffell school. Each child is given their chance to have a special moment in the spotlight but no one kid is more “important” than another. Each of us gets to go up, receive the Siddur or Humash, pose with the headmaster, and be congratulated. It’s nice to hear the clapping and receive recognition for your hard work. You are valued for who you are alone and not just as a group of kids who just did something.
I don’t always need the clapping, though. For Example I like to draw and when I draw I work hard on it and then often feel a sense of relief when I finish. Although I Sometimes show my parents what I draw, the art is mostly for me to appreciate. I like recognition for my accomplishments but I don’t need it all of the time. Art for me is one of those times where I am often just happy to feel my own sense of accomplishment without the “applause”.
There are many times when people don’t get the recognition they deserve. At those moments, I wish they did get recognition and applause. Recently I read an article about black baseball players in the Negro Leagues who weren’t inducted into the Hall of Fame when they should have been as they were amazing baseball players. Minority groups have often had a hard time gaining the recognition they deserve in the past and even today. One big issue is the problem of voting rights where minority groups and other types of people have not had their ideals accurately represented and recognized. We continue to see efforts to limit the rights of minorities in spite of the law of the land that stresses equality for all people regardless of who they are or what they look like.
The commentator Chizkuni said one more thing about the gifts of the leaders. The reason each leader had his own day and was each singled out was so that the offerings would take longer and there would be a long celebration to keep the Israelites happy. My Bar Mitzvah is like this. It’s very drawn out! There’s a service Friday night, Saturday morning services and a lunch celebration with my family. There's also a Saturday night Zoom and a Sunday get together with my friends ! This is obviously more recognition than the princes got as they only had one day whereas I have a weekend!
I’m glad that in spite of the pandemic I still get to be with much of my family and be recognized for my hard work.
I wrote this for JTS Community Learning parashat Vayehi 5781. I hope that you'll please check out the full commentary and more on the site here.
Just about anyone who has moved homes will agree that sometimes one place will take on outsize influence in our lives. Indeed, even environments in which we’ve only briefly resided can have a resounding impact on our upbringing and outlook.
I was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and lived there until I was nine years old, at which point my family moved to West Palm Beach, Florida. After three years in Florida, we moved to Overland Park, Kansas, where I had my bar mitzvah and completed middle school and high school. Following high school, I moved again to go to college in Boston. Ask someone who knows me well where I’m from and they will likely answer Kansas. To this day, I root for Kansas City sports teams and maintain an affinity for all things Midwest. Though the number of years I lived in Kansas City is less than my time in Charleston or in my current home, New York, my Kansas experiences and connections shaped me in ways that my other homes did not.
Parashat Vayehi opens with an invitation to recognize that Jacob’s sojourn in Egypt was not insignificant, even if he lived in Egypt for only a small fraction of his entire lifespan. “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years” (Gen. 47:28). What is the text trying to impart to us with the distinction between the 17 years he lived in Egypt and the total 147?
Vayehi begins in a way that is unique among the weekly parshiyot: between every two other parshiyot in the Torah we can see a break—either a parashah petuhah, an “open” line break, or a parashah setumah, a “closed” extended mid-line space. Vayehi is the exception: it begins without any clear demarcation of the end of the parashah that comes before it, Vayiggash. Rashi’s very first comment on Vayehi addresses this, explaining that the difficulties of the Israelite slavery began when Jacob passed away. Rashi points out that the totally closed nature of the text, with no extra space, shows that “the hearts and eyes of Israel were closed because of the misery of the bondage which [Egypt] began to impose upon them.” Rashi wants us to take note of the continuation of the story of the people of Israel even in Jacob’s death. I’m reminded of my wife’s late bubbie who was fond of saying: “I try to live every day with my eyes wide open.” It’s as if Rashi wants us to read the text with our eyes wide open, finding meaning in every detail, despite the closing of the hearts and eyes of the people of Israel.
Hizkuni (Hezekiah bar Manoah), a 13th-century French rabbi and Bible commentator, gives further reasoning for understanding Vayehi as inextricably interwoven with what preceded it in Vayiggash. Jacob’s provisional move to Egypt due to economic pressure and famine turned out to be anything but temporary. Once Jacob arrived in Egypt and was re-united with Joseph, the previous anguish and trouble of his life were closed.
Therefore, the later commentator Keli Yakar notes, immediately after telling us that Jacob lived in Egypt for seventeen years the text says, “The years of Jacob’s life were 147” (Gen. 47:28). It is almost as if these final years were so good to Jacob and his family that the past was forgotten and it was as if his whole life had been enjoyable. He may have intended his time in Egypt to be short-lived, but in the end it was more than a blip of his life. Jacob’s family took root in the land and prospered.
Hizkuni further suggests that “all the years of Jacob until he settled in Egypt could not truly be described as חיים— life”—seeing that they were all clouded by different kinds of anguish. “It was only during his last 17 years in Egypt that his mind was at rest and not beset by worries of one kind or another. According to Hizkuni, this verse was inserted in the Torah as a compliment to Joseph, who was the cause of Jacob’s last years being happy ones. During those years he repaid his father who had sustained him for the first 17 years of his life, by providing for him during the last 17 years of Jacob’s life.
As someone who has moved around, there are times when I am nostalgic for past experiences. I am at times compelled to try to piece things together and see how one place I lived, or one life experience, can directly link to another. I see the merit of each place and aspire to enjoy it to the fullest. Part of moving and settling in new places means determining what to keep with you and to leave behind. It means remembering your background while also paying attention to the present and the future.
As such, my Midwestern association contributes to who I am as a person and as a rabbi. When I first lived in New York following college, I would periodically visit my parents in Kansas, and on my return flight to NYC I used to feel a little anxious about the pace of life I would reencounter. Nowadays, more than ten years later, while my time in Kansas City has had a lasting impact on me, I am accustomed to the New York way of life.
Jacob’s story shows us that life is fluid, and it can change course at any time. How we manage the changes and the people around us is one way to determine a life well-lived. The “closed opening” of Vayehi reminds us of the need to pay attention because, as the saying goes, “life is in the details.”
(This is a transcript (more or less) of the story I shared at the Riverdale Y pre-Shavuot Story Slam)
My first summer at Ramah Darom was the camp's inaugural summer - 1997. An eager junior counselor excited to join the venture of a new summer camp, I arrived at the hotel DoubleTree for staff week because much of the camp was an active construction site. During our preparation and training, we heard about mud roads, scaffolding on some of the primary buildings, and unfinished cabins that needed their ceiling fans and dryers. When we arrived to camp, the campgrounds were replete with natural beauty and the facilities - filling with campers and staff - were full of promise and possibility.
During that first summer at camp, I got to know the omanut lady – the camp art director or artist-in-residence. One of my campers was her nephew and, during a subsequent summer when I was a rosh edah - division head - another one of her nephews was in my edah. I must have made a lasting impression on them because, at the conclusion of that summer as rosh, Dafna (omanut lady) gave me a yad - a Torah pointer. To this day, the yad is one of my favorite pieces of Judaica. Constructed entirely from wood - coccobollo and olive wood to be specific - the yad was delivered in a box with a maple lid and Australian mahogany in the base. The note with the yad said it requires no further care other than for me to read from and study Torah for many years to come with it.
Inscribed on the box is a verse from Pirkei Avot that for many years now has been one of my favorite teachings and comes to mind when I think about my Jewish vision. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." (Ben Bag Bag) “Hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba…” The notion of returning and constantly engaging in something with meaning and purpose was a big part of why I attended Ramah for many summers beyond that as a camper and into my young adult years to most recently as a parent and rabbi/educator. The verse and the yad together are what I love about Jewish living, and I derive great benefit from Torah study - reading and writing when I give myself the chance.
Albeit a gift from someone else, the yad represents the gifts that I strive to give to others through Torah study. More than pointing at words on a page (or scroll), I enjoy the nuance and additional meaning that exists in the space between the words - the ambiguity even - of some texts. The yad symbolizes my quest for meaning and has instilled in me the value of learning a text again and again - Hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba…”
Some summers after those initial ones at Ramah Darom, I returned with my family for a Family Camp. Within minutes of getting out of the car, I watched my son (probably two or three years old at the time) begin to gently kick rocks in the parking lot seeing what would happen. Maybe he thought he was testing gravity and we thought he was testing our patience, yet I reflect on the time that he experimented in a new space - just as we tried to do - wondering what he was doing there, who he might see and, of course what he would bring home with him. He may not have recognized at his young age the magic of camp. I knew then and appreciate even more today, the mountains of possibility when we immerse ourselves in a community dedicated to Jewish learning, Jewish living, and Jewish experimentation.
With the recent celebration of Shavuot, I looked back on these camp experiences and felt like I've been here before; that somehow I am, as I was then, working remotely toward something waiting for it to happen. I am on the outside looking in, like so many of us, beginning to see summer stare us in the face and wondering what will happen. Just as I trained and planned for camp at the Double Tree hotel during the summer of 1997, I am again living in one reality preparing (hoping maybe) for another. However this summer will be different, I believe that we'll have opportunities to kick rocks and explore new spaces. With my yad as my inspiration to keep studying and Shavuot as a reminder of the mountain of possibilities when we "turn it and turn it" in study, I anticipate a summer that may not be worth repeating but will instill in all of us something new that we can take with us as we move forward out of this pandemic.
When I was a kid, my family moved to Kansas City so my father could be the new senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. There are indeed Jews in Kansas and, when it comes to professional football, most root for the Kansas City Chiefs. I have fond memories of attending many games with my father thanks in large part to the generosity of some of his congregants. Many of these individuals became lifelong family friends and I enjoyed kosher tailgating (BBQ and more!) with some of them on more than one occasion. During one Chiefs game my father and I had the privilege of visiting the Chiefs press box and meeting HOF QB Len Dawson and former radio play by play announcer Kevin Harlan who now works for Fox and will likely be part of today's telecast. On another occasion, we dined at Royals stadium restaurant followed by a MNF Chiefs game next door.
One of my most memorable experiences occurred off the field when I attended a local radio station's meet and greet with Chiefs' players and personnel. I got a football autographed by Dave Krieg, Willie Davis, Dale Carter, Tim Barnett, Dan Saleamua, GM Carl Peterson, and more. I share this not to brag, rather to illustrate how a love of KC sports was instilled in me as a young man. Needless to say, I became a huge KC fan. While some of the autographs are illegible or faded, my love for the Chiefs is quite apparent.
My enthusiasm for the teams - instilled in me in different ways - is why I easily and often share my love of KC teams with my family. It does help that the Chiefs are coached by Andy Reid who used to coach the Eagles, the team my wife grew up cheering. In our family, we have Chiefs pennants, hats, and shirts. I also have socks and a coffee mug, and one of our boys received a Chiefs fleece throw blanket as a birthday present from some of his friends.
To see the KC Chiefs reach Super Bowl LIV is just emotionally uplifting While I will be watching on TV with my family and friends instead of attending live, I expect it will be as exciting as ever. The Chiefs play with an energy and spirit that I find unique, and I applaud the way they play together and believe in themselves when others might not. Just like any sports team, they have overcome adversity, and have found ways to win when at times it seemed unlikely. More than anything, these players have demonstrated a commitment to the greater KC area and causes bigger than themselves with as much tenacity as they give to the game itself.
Regardless of the game's outcome, this is already a big win for me, the city where I grew up, and the entire kingdom of Chiefs fans.
is director of admissions for the Rabbinical & H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A parent, partner, teacher and coffee enthusiast, Rabbi Rafi Cohen enjoys helping individual students and families find Jewish meaning in their lives.