By Date

Dear Friends,

A beautiful tradition teaches that between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot we should study a chapter from the small Talmudic Tractate known as Pirke Avot–Ethics of the Fathers. Pirke Avot is a series of teachings from the early rabbis that offer powerful insight into their religious, ethical, and spiritual perspectives and by doing so help establish their moral authority.

It is in Pirke Avot that we find the famous maxim,

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
(Pirke Avot 1:14)

In the first two lines, Hillel, to whom this statement is attributed, states that concern for ourselves, our families and our communities is important, if not essential, to our well-being and survival. But, at the same time he warns that such inward focus cannot be at the expense of concern for others. The opposite is also true. We cannot be so overly focused on the needs of others that we lose sight of our responsibilities to our community.  Instead, a balance between the two is essential for a community such as ours.

The third line of this teaching is perhaps the most important, as it reminds us that at any given time circumstances may require the balance between the two to skew in one direction or the other. Thus, the balance between concern for self and concern for others must be dynamic in order to address the most urgent issues of the moment.

Two other teachings remind us of the importance of Jewish learning. The first states,

Do not say, “when I will be free I will learn [Torah],” for perhaps you will not become free.
(Pirke Avot 2:5)

While the second teaches,

Make your Torah (study time) fixed.
(Pirke Avot 1:15)

May is Jewish Heritage Month. This is a month for us to celebrate the many contributions our Jewish community has made to society. And there is no better time to renew our commitment to Jewish learning. For by making time to study we not only enrich our own lives, but we help strengthen our communal bonds.

Throughout this month my colleagues and I will be sharing some of the Jewish books that have most shaped, impacted, and moved us. I hope that over the course of the month, you find a few books that capture your interest enough to be put on your summer reading list.

Cantor Moses:
Kantika by Elizabeth Graver

A kaleidoscopic portrait of one family’s displacement across four countries, the award-winning novel Kantika—“song” in Ladino—follows the joys and losses of Rebecca Cohen, feisty daughter of the Sephardic elite of early 20th-century Istanbul.

I love books that highlight the diversity of our Jewish community while, at the same time, show how similar we are. There are so many different versions of the Jewish experience!

Rabbi Klein:
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

A modern midrash (creative interpretation) of the story of the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, in the book of Genesis. Diamant’s version of the story returns Dinah’s voice and her agency, both of which are woefully absent from the traditional biblical narrative.

I read this book when I was preparing for rabbinical school, and I am still inspired by the way it “flips the script” to make room for women’s voices in an often male-dominated textual tradition. A must read!

My Pick:
Honey From the Rock by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

A powerful yet accessible introduction to Jewish mysticism, Honey From the Rock explores the ten gates of Jewish mysticism and how they can apply to daily life.

I first read this book the summer after my second year as a rabbinic student. Its profound insights into Jewish mysticism opened the door to a dimension of Jewish thought that has shaped my understanding of Judaism and my own spiritual identity.

Each of these books addresses a different aspect of the richness of Jewish life. Taken together, they are a reminder that regardless of our interests or perspectives, Judaism has something to offer us all.

Check them out and let us know what you think. And if there is a Jewish book that has been particularly impactful for you, please share it and a few sentences about why you find it significant with me. I’ll include some of your contributions in future Shabbat messages.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen