Monthly archives "January 2018"



By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

At a time when I supplemented my Developmental Drama training by studying – and practicing — Community Organization and Development, one of the essential skills taught was to recognize and understand different leadership styles. In particular, we were taught to recognize our individual styles on a sliding scale – dependent on circumstances — that ranged from authoritarian through democratic to laissez-faire (or vice versa), or combinations thereof. We were taught not only “what” to use but also “when” to use it. It was an eye-opening course.

In our Torah portion this week, appropriately named Yitro, we are introduced to Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, who is an esteemed Midianite priest (his daughter, Zipporah, is Moses’ wife). Like a good Dad-in-law, Jethro has come, accompanied by Zipporah and the two children she has borne to Moses, to see how his long-absent son-in-law is faring now that he has led the Exodus of enslaved Hebrews from Egypt into the wilderness. In Jethro’s experienced estimation, Moses is doing far too much, wearing himself out and growing harried in the task. So in a memorable text, Jethro gently gives Moses some advice based on his own experience as a Midianite leader. Spread the work around, let others share in it, he tells Moses, who claims that the people come to him ceaselessly to settle disputes and to “interpret the laws and teachings of God”:

“The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden for you. If you do this – and God so commands you – you will be able to bear up; and all the people too will go home unwearied” (Exodus 18:17-23).

A tired Moses is open to learning from Jethro that leadership does not have to be exercised alone. Alone is NOT GOOD.  As my favorite commentator, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, God only uses the words “not good” in one other place in the Torah, in the phrase, “It is not good [lo tov] for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18)”[1].

Up until now, responding to the urgent needs of the Exodus, Moses has exercised authoritarian rule. Now, listening to Yitro’s wise and experienced counsel, he will institute a shared system of government. It will still be top-down, hierarchical leadership, true, but on the sliding scale of leadership, it will represent a giant step towards early biblical governance: by the tribes, then by the priests, by judgeship, kingship, by prophetic warnings of disaster, and by the commitment to rebuild again and again. Thousands of years later, when there is a Jewish government once again in the Promised Land, it will be a democracy that has survived exile, tyranny, and horrific persecution.  Even then, it will remain a democracy still necessarily alert, sometimes militarily, to continued hostile threats from without and within, a democracy still demanding strong but wise leadership.

After Jethro’s advice on leadership in the parsha, though, the text takes us by surprise: As the serious conversation about temporal government shifts to moral government on a higher plane, we find Aseret Ha-Devarim, the Ten Utterances. In English, we more commonly call them the Ten Commandments. Since the time of Moses, these utterances have been the highest form of government for the Jewish people. In abiding by these utterances, we Jews – and those of other religions who have integrated these same commandments, these same utterances, into their own belief systems — have tried through the centuries to lead our lives by moral precepts. We have done this despite repeated attempts throughout recorded history to take us in a different direction from the morality these utterances demand. We have done this no matter what place a current temporal leader in any country may occupy on the sliding scale of good governance.

As the brilliant medieval rabbi, Ibn Ezra, explains, “[W]hat you cannot decide, you will bring before God”[2].

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Justice or Peace (Yitro 5777),” Covenant and Conversation, 13 Feb. 2017.

[2] Ibn Ezra, “Exodus,” The Commentators’ Bible: The Rubin JPS Miqra’’ot Gedolot, ed. Michael Carasik (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005) 144.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

Be-shallah: Pack a Timbrel in Your Survival Kit (13:17 – 17:15)

Be-shallah: Pack a Timbrel in Your Survival Kit (13:17 – 17:15)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

For twenty-seven years, my father was progressively incapacitated by a large pituitary tumor that strangled the hypothalamus in his brain.  During many of those years, he was in a private nursing home where my mother, who had looked after him at home for the first nine years, now visited him every day. On Sunday mornings, I would leave my four children at home with their Dad and join my mother, an accomplished pianist, there. While my mother played the songs of their youth that the residents of “the confused floor” loved, I would use my drama skills to engage them in circle dancing and singing. I have always felt that, despite the circumstances, these were richly Jewish moments. As Cantor Jonathan Friedmann teaches, music has been deeply embedded in our tradition from the earliest times of Judaism [1]. It has the ability to touch the deepest recesses of the soul even when memory is gone.

Perhaps the Hebrew (Habiru) women fleeing from Egypt at the time of the Exodus understood instinctively that human beings need more than bread alone and hastily packed musical instruments in their survival kits along with the unleavened dough. Then, in the moment of the Hebrews’ victory, Moses’ sister, Miriam, knew instinctively that music is the very “sound of the soul,” as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it [2].(Jonathan Sacks, Be-shallah 5777). In fact, as she takes out her timbrel and summons the women to join her in dancing and singing, we are informed that she is a prophetess (something that will prove to be important later, “when she and Aaron will speak against Moses”[3].

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:20).

According to the Jewish Study Bible, Miriam’s actions were “[i]n keeping with the custom of women celebrating the victor after a battle (Judges 11:34; 1 Samuel 18.6). So it is quite conceivable that the women brought their timbrels in expectation, or at least hope, of a victory.  And then Miriam led them in what is considered to be the earliest text in the Hebrew Bible, the Song of the Sea (Shirat Hayam), often called the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15: 1-21).

The medieval rabbis tend to be of the opinion that the men sang first and the women sang later, but the 16th century rabbi, Sforno, explains “time frame of the song which Moses and the Children of Israel sang” in this way: “When Pharaoh’s horses and his chariots and horsemen came into the sea and were drowned there, at that same time Israelites were walking on dry land (Exodus 14:9), and it was then …that they began to sing” [4]. He does not differentiate gender. Today’s biblical scholars believe that Miriam sang first, and the women chanted what she sang in response. In other words, the Song of the Sea, was chanted in a call and response pattern.

Dancing, too, was an important part of ancient Israeli culture. Nor, as Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut explains, was this expression of emotion confined to women. “There are, in fact, no fewer than eleven Hebrew words denoting dance, suggesting that ritual choreography was extensive and highly sophisticated” [5]. (Plaut, 452).

Thus the oldest passage in the Bible, “the Song of Miriam, or Song of the Sea, expressed in poetry and song and dance, is the earliest reaction we have by an ancient writer to the culmination of the exodus story: the Red Sea calamity”….People likely “sang it within maybe a hundred years, maybe a year, of the event.” [6]. (Friedman, Exodus, Kindle, Loc. 736). And that is how this Red Sea adventure became “an early and decisive element of Israel’s story” [7].

Surprisingly, the great 12th century rabbi, Maimonides, known for his rationalism, provides a literary – and visual — analysis of the Song of the Sea, as it is written in Hebrew in the Torah scroll. No translation can compete with the power of the Hebrew language or poetic imagery that calls to mind the bricks the enslaved Hebrews were forced to make for the Egyptian Pharaoh:

“Short brick over long brick, long brick over short brick….The song has to be written in thirty lines. The first line is regular. The following lines alternate: one line is broken by one space in the middle, another is broken by two spaces, thus containing three units. Thus the lines alternate between two spaces and two written units” [8].

[1] Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ed., 20th Century Synagogue Music: Essential Readings (Los Angeles: Isaac Nathan Publishing Co., 2010).

[2] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Beshellah 5777,  Received, Jan., 2018.

[3] Richard Elliott Friedman, Exodus (HarperCollins: New York, 2017), Kindle ed., 220.

[4] Rabbis Nosson Scherman and  Meir Zlotowitz, Gen. Eds., Sforno, trans. Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1993), 320.

[5] Rabbi Gunther W. Plaut, General Ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. 452 (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2006 )

[6] Friedman, op.cit., Kindle, Loc. 736.

[7] Ibid., Kindle, 221.

[8] See Friedman, opcit.;; Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, op.cit.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Parashat Bo: A Drama of Cosmic Proportions (Exodus 10:1-11:1)

Parashat Bo: A Drama of Cosmic Proportions (Exodus 10:1-11:1)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

In recent months, I have listened late into the night to television commentators describing the incidence and aftermath of natural disasters across the globe. In California where I live, howling winds, unprecedented fires, and floods have been followed by mudslides because the burned-out earth cannot hold the water resulting from prayed-for rain. All these disasters have resulted in loss of life. I have spent many early morning hours contemplating the devastation that nature can predictably – or unpredictably – wreak as a result of the warming temperatures caused by climate change. Is this nature’s revenge, all too reminiscent of biblical plagues, for human inattention? Biblically, we humans are supposed to be stewards of the earth, to take care of it.

In Parshat Bo, the biblical Torah portion (Exodus 10:1-11:10) describes how the Divine hand invokes nature’s retribution for the Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Hebrews from bondage. In this passage, some of the plagues have already been enacted, and the consequences for Egypt have been daunting. Those to come, each one more severe than the other, have already been foretold to the Pharaoh through the human agency of Moses and his brother, Aaron. Still, Pharaoh will not bend.

But now, as the Bible portrays, God will actually harden Pharaoh’s heart so that the severity of the punishment will be increased. Why? We contemporaries cannot help wondering if this is merely an ancient show of power (sometimes compared to God’s actions in the Book of Job), so that people will turn to God instead of the pagan deities of Egypt, foremost among them Pharaoh himself. As God clearly tells Moses, “I have hardened his [Pharaoh’s]heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons (which Jews have done ever since at Passover) how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am the Lord”(Exodus 10:1-2).

However, it is important to understand that the visitation of the next four plagues represent far more than a contest of power between the Eternal God of the Hebrews and the supreme power of the Pharaoh. What is remarkable is that the Pharaoh cannot bring himself to yield to God through these horrific experiences, even though he has been forewarned that even worse consequences are on their way. “[H]e shows disdain, anxiety, shrewdness, and even confesses to error…..[but only] when his own son is dead does  he give in, defeated both as a Pharaoh and a father,” writes Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut (The Torah, a Modern Commentary, 419).

For Plaut, the Pharaoh remains “an intelligible human being, acting as one would expect a man of his tradition and position to act. Later Jewish tradition depicted him as unusually evil, but this position does not conform with the biblical tale itself, which recounts the release of Israel as a drama of cosmic proportions occurring at the same time in the framework of expectable human behavior.”

In our contemporary society, many of us react to unpleasant realities in the same unthinking way, instead of adjusting our behavior to accommodate a new framework of knowledge.  Fortunately, at least part of the world seems to be coming to its senses, and, even as citizens were sandbagging their coastal or vulnerable homes in California, a climate control resolution (not yet a solution) was agreed upon by many countries. Still, there are those – many of them otherwise intelligent human beings — who will not yield to the possibility of human responsibility in aggravating, if not creating, a potential natural disaster. The position of the U.S. government at the moment is unclear.

In the mystical tradition of absorbing the Torah portions and applying their lessons to our own behavior – to applying them to our deepest selves, as Rabbi Mordecai Finley teaches — we can realize that each of us has an inner Pharaoh, with unconscious motivations that are part of being human beings, whether or not we hold the power that Pharaoh does. At least we hold power over ourselves, our behavior, and our decisions. Yet even as educated and normally compassionate human beings in a Western context, we may find it difficult to adjust to new knowledge, to necessary but unfamiliar ways of conducting our lives. In order to do so, we have to allow ourselves to feel. We cannot afford to let our hearts harden.

As I mentioned in my D’var Torah last week, I particularly like Rabbi J.B. Sacks’ translation of the Hebrew word usually translated “harden” in Parshat Bo. The root of the word, however, is k-v-d, which can also be translated as “weighted,” he wrote in a D’var Torah (“Weighting the Heart, “AJRCA,  2013).) God weighted the callous Pharaoh’s heart, made him heavy-hearted, so that he could feel the ultimate punishment, so that he would feel the loss of his son as a human being and not just as a Pharaoh. “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived,’ elaborated the great Rabbi A.J. Heschel. “…Our certainty is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning (quoted by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary, 399).” Perhaps it was to make that point for all time that God sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians.

Equally appealing to me is an alternate understanding of the Hebrew word, “Bo,” the title word of this parasha. God addresses Moses with this simple, directive word, giving us an important clue as to the the intention of the parasha. In Hebrew, “Bo” can mean either “Come” or “Go.” In the JPS translation I own, it is rendered as “Go.” But the command to Moses is not the same as “Lech l’cha”, “Go forth,” the command given to his ancestor, Abraham. Later in the parasha, the Pharaoh’s imperative to Moses and Aaron and their followers is “L’chu,” meaning “GO!” in the plural. So, in my opinion, the “Bo” that opens the parasha is best translated as “Come!” It suggests a compassionate God extending a hand to Moses, a connector between God and mankind.  “Come with me! You are not alone. I will be at your side in facing this challenge.” Even though Moses was apparently 80 years old (not nearly as old as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who continues in the role of U.S. Supreme Court justice) and well experienced in the world at the time he confronted the Pharaoh, he was initially reluctant to undertake the task. It’s nice to have a helping hand at any age.

As this 21st century progresses, may God hold out his hand to all of us, young and old alike, helping us to face each day with courage – and surmounting together the challenges of the future.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Parshat Va’era: Keep Calm and Carry On (Exodus 6:1-9:35)

Update: Protecting Our Freedom

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

We fortunate ones who live in the U.S. or Canada are blessed with the hard-won freedoms we take for granted today. However, as history has demonstrated, liberties can be all too easily lost if we are not vigilant enough to protect them.

With this thought in mind, here’s a midrashic addendum to the D’var Torah I have already posted for this week (see below): As the midrash warns, “Pharaoh, deceived them [the Hebrews] first with words and made them slaves before they realized their new status” [1]. Amidst all the political infighting today, it’s a good idea to take heed of this warning that entrapment can begin with the spoken or written word. When there is bad faith, words can be deceptive. Still, no matter what befalls us in any century, we – all of us, not only Jews — must remain hopeful.

Except for festivals or bar/bat mitzvahs, progressive synagogues today do not usually place much emphasis on the Haftarah (the complementary selections from the prophets that accompany the Torah portions), but we should pay more attention to them. Often they contain warnings too. They also offer encouraging words of regeneration.

In the Haftarah (Isaiah 27:6) that accompanies this first chapter of Exodus, for example, there is “a promise that the nation will again strike roots in its homeland and blossom gloriously.” Furthermore “two oracles of promise…speak of a national ingathering from Assyria and Egypt”[2]. Always there is the promise; always there is the national – and universal — hope.

It has become part of the protective armor, the collective memory, of being a Jew.

[1] Rabbi Gunther Plaut, General Ed. “Gleanings: Israel in Egypt,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised edition (New York: Union for Reform Judaism), 368.

[2] Michael Fishbane, ed. The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002), 80.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

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Parshat Va’era: Keep Calm and Carry On

(Exodus 6:1-9:35)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

My grandson, Joshua, is now a second-year university student. It’s hard to believe that only a couple of years ago, he was just submitting his university application essays.  Josh is not only a brilliant, gifted student, but he is also a good-natured person who extends himself to everyone. As part of a national high school debating society, he was active in mock debates, in which he excelled in debating different points of view and generally sharing his knowledge with his peers. However, in his college applications, perhaps he took his natural good will a little too far. He ended his essays by wishing good luck to his fellow applicants and expressed the hope that they would all get places in these very competitive colleges. You see, Joshua is a mensch.

“Josh,” I said to my grandson, the mensch, “This is not a ‘shake your hand and may the best fellow win’ situation. You are competing for a place in one of the top universities. And you have to be very, very good  — better than most — to be considered.”

Then I thought better of what I was saying. What a shame it is that we teach our young people to work in teams, to share their knowledge with one another – especially in the Jewish world where we ideally study in pairs, in chevruta —  and in general, we teach our youngsters that cooperative behavior is best. But then when they get out into the world, they find that competitive behavior is the rule whether they undertake studies, business activities, or a profession. So while humility, modesty, is indeed a Jewish value – indeed, all our lives we try to find a balance between humility and ego — being humble on our college  applications may not be in our best interest.

So what does all this have to do with our Torah portion today, Va-era (Exodus 6:1- 9:35)? When God asks Moses to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt, Moses reacts very modestly, very humbly indeed, maybe too humbly, according to Rabbi Beth Kalisch in an article I saved, “How Humble Is Too Humble?” [1]. You see, Moses does not feel worthy of the task – and he makes excuses. Even the Israelites don’t listen to him, so how will Pharaoh? He has a speech impediment, he says – “See, I am of impeded speech; how then should Pharaoh heed me?” (Exodus 6:30) Most likely he stutters or stammers.  Maybe he is fearful. In any case, he clearly does not feel that he’s the best choice as a communicator.

So God directs his brother Aaron, who, by contrast, has the gift of a more fluent tongue, to help Moses communicate God’s message to the unfeeling, powerful ruler of Egypt. In a time before press secretaries came into vogue, Moses will represent God’s word, and Aaron will be his communicator. For the rest of the text of Va’era, God addresses both Moses and Aaron, and they carry out his will together. It’s probably a very good idea, because Moses is already 80 years old at this time of crisis, and Aaron is 83. (This week I will be 82, so in reading this portion it’s nice to know that I am in compatible company, at least age-wise, as I read this portion once again.)

Yes, we are being taught a lesson here: People do have to help one another in order to accomplish a goal, to work together for best effect, at any age. We all have different talents, and where one person may be lacking, someone else can compensate. Va-era is a wonderful demonstration of team leadership. And while humility, as I learned in my very first year of rabbinic school is definitely a valuable attribute, somehow we have to find the strength to carry out the task demanded of us.

During World War II, I was only a little girl. Yet I remember that “Keep calm and carry on” was the British watchword during the blitz.  No matter what the circumstances, people were exhorted to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with the job.

In effect, I think this is what Rabbi Kalisch is saying  — this is what we all have to do in difficult times: we have to steel ourselves and find resources within ourselves that we didn’t know we had, and get the job done and, in the case of this parsha, Va-era, and for Jews generally, in God’s service.

The difficulty with getting on with the job is also remembering to be a mensch. If only Pharaoh had agreed to be a mensch and release the Jewish slaves, he would not have been subjected to the sequential divine afflictions that God heaped upon Pharaoh and his people. But strangely, according to the English translation of the text, God deliberately did not allow Pharaoh to be a mensch. God says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart.

In fact, what has troubled many commentators about this sequence is why God says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart. Then, in Bo, the next parsha, God tells Moses that indeed he has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. A done deal. Why? we ask. Is it so that God can show that he is much stronger than Pharaoh, who also believes himself divine, that God is stronger that any magicians the pagan Pharaoh can muster? Does God really harden Pharaoh’s heart to put on a demonstration of God’s far greater powers, to show that God is supreme? Apparently so. As God explains in the text: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst” (Exodus 7:3-6).

Various contemporary rabbis have offered explanations of why God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Rabbi Mordecai Finley, for example, likes to apply the lessons of the Torah to our own selves, to our own inner consciousness. We all have an inner Pharaoh, he teaches, and for our consciousness to ascend, we first have to taste the bitterness of the depths. According to this view, Pharaoh’s consciousness was blocked, so it was the Divine will for Pharaoh to taste the bitterness of his deep grief before he could rise to be become a better human being, for his consciousness to be liberated.  This, of course, is a psycho-spiritual way of interpreting the parsha, one favored by the Torah scholar, Aviva Zornberg.

Over the years, there has been a good deal of creative controversy over the years about the true meaning of the word “hardens” as it concerns Pharaoh’s heart. Some commentators think that “harden” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew text, that there are more subtle nuances. For example, in his book The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter notes that “three different[Hebrew] verbs are used in the story…Hisquah, ‘to harden’, hizeq, ‘to toughen,’…and kaved, literally ‘to be heavy’…. The force of all three idioms is to be stubborn, unfeeling, arrogantly inflexible” [2].

Personally, I really like Rabbi J.B. Sack’s interpretation of the word “harden,” based on the Hebrew root of kaved (k-v-d)  [3]. (“Weighting One’s Heart,” AJRCA website, 2013). A better translation than “harden,” Sacks says, would be “weight.” God weights Pharaoh’s heart, makes it heavy, so that he can feel the enormity of the plagues inflicted on his people. When we are heavy-hearted, we feel pain, we are sad, we grieve. Only when Pharaoh’s own son is killed, does he feel the pain of personal loss, and understands what his own decrees have inflicted on others.

Of course, Pharaoh never had to write college application essays. He came to his ruling position by inheritance, by royal privilege, and he had total authority. He never had to think about whether the best man should ideally win. But finally he, too, had to come to grips with God’s superior power. In the life and death instance Pharaoh’s decrees represented, God could not be modest. He had to show the strength of his divine power to the max.  Sadly, there are times when we must fight to win.

Only when his own son was a casualty of this divine intervention, did Pharaoh finally release his iron grip, at least temporarily, on the Hebrews slaves. At least temporarily (even though later he reverted), he became a mensch. And when the Hebrew slaves led by Moses and Aaron left Egypt as free people, our great Jewish liberation theology — the wonderful values that my grandson espouses, the freeing of our collective consciousness to become, not slaves, but the best people we can be – those values came into being.

[1] Union of Reform Judaism, “Shemot,” Jan. 2, 2016.

[2] The Five Books of Moses, (NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004), 345.

[3] “Weighting One’s Heart,” AJRCA website, 2013.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2016, 2018. All rights reserved.

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By Rabbi Corinne Copnick







in percussion.


and light



in reborn,





who loved

a child


the sea.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2009, 2017. All rights reserved.