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From the Rabbi's Study


Fire and Ice


Oseh shalom bimromov, Hu ya'aseh shalom alenu...

[God] who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us...

Found at the end of the silent Amidah and is also the final line of the kaddish, this prayer is one of the best known and most widely sung in our siddur. But what does it mean? Why would God need to make peace in the heavens? What kind of conflict exists in heaven?

Our tradition offers us a mystical explanation and interpretation. According to a midrash (Rabbinic lore), the angel Gabriel is made of snow and ice, while the angel Michael is formed of fire. Though fire and ice cannot coexist, God ensures that the snow and ice, which is Gabriel does not extinguish the fire, which is Michael and Michael's fire does not destroy Gabriel's ice. Hence, God, standing between, them makes peace in heaven.

This esoteric, mystical tradition came to mind with the weather forecast of an early season snow storm. While we in the east are facing the first snow and ice event of the season with apprehension, the people in California are facing raging fires, that have killed many, with hundreds still missing, and brought an unprecedented level of destruction. The irony is augmented with horror as we see the pictures and hear the stories of survivors who escaped, some literally running through flames. With a feeling of helplessness, we wonder how can this be happening? Would that we could transport our snow and ice to California and extinguish its fires, but, alas, we cannot. The snow is coming and the fires continue to burn.

In our midrash, the separation of fire and ice is the work of God. In our present situation, the separation of ice and fire seems a cruel hoax. What our mystical midrash is teaching us is that some realities are unexplainable and out of our hands. With all the scientific and technological advances our society has made, we still find ourselves powerless to stop the forces of nature, but we are not totally powerless. We have the power to help those in need.

While most of the stories from California are horrific, we are beginning to hear stories of hope and help. Parking lots which are out of range of the fires, have been turned into distribution centers for donated clothes, supplies, and food for those who have fled their homes. People have driven hours to help provide for those who ran from their homes. Stories such as these not only offer us encouragement but remind us what we, as humans can do. We can help people who are broken by the fires, become whole through the help of their neighbors. There are many ways to help, but if you would like to send donations directly to those in need in California, the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles has created a special wildfire relief fund. (Click here to access.)

The Hebrew word shalom, is usually translated as peace, but derives from the word "shalem" and really means "wholeness." When we pray to God who brings shalom to the heavens, we are praying to God who brings a wholeness to the universe, and who teaches us to help bring wholeness to our world, especially in times such as these.

As we offer each other Shabbat Shalom, we are reminded that we are called to be agents of shalom, wholeness, to those who are in need, at this time, the citizens of California.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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A Prayer for Our Country

Almost 2000 years ago, our sages gathered in the upper floor of a house in the city of Lod in the Land of Israel, to debate the theoretical argument, which is greater, study or action.   The argument didn't end that day and has stretched through the centuries. While the Rabbis of the Talmud were focused on study versus action, there has always been a third element, which completes our Jewish triad - prayer.

One of the oldest teachings of our sages is the oft-quoted teaching of Shimon Ha-Tzaddik, Simon the Righteous, who taught that the world rests on three things - study of Torah, prayer, and deeds of loving-kindness. Our lives as Jews are meant to be lived balancing these three values in our daily actions. This week, I found a new meaning in this ancient teaching.

Every Shabbat, our congregation joins together in the Prayer for Our Country. Throughout my entire life, I have heard and said this prayer, or some version of it, every Shabbat. Growing up, I could almost recite the prayer found in the older Conservative prayer books by heart. Our newer prayer book updates the English, but keeps the essential prayer intact. We pray for our country, its government and leaders and "all who exercise just and rightful authority." We pray that God blesses "all the inhabitants of our country" and that our nation be an "influence for good throughout the world."

While we say this prayer every Shabbat, on this past Shabbat it had a special urgency. Like congregations throughout the country, we at MJC came together for a Solidarity Shabbat in solidarity with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. In addition to our congregation, we had special guests from the Convent of the Sisters of Life, our next door neighbors. Mother Agnes Mary offered words of support for us and the entire Jewish world. As we prayed the words of the Prayer for our Country, I realized how special it was to be able to offer this prayer in the United States, a country that has welcomed us with neighbors who accept us.

With the events of the memory of the past two Shabbatot fresh in my mind, on Tuesday I was able to act, as I cast my ballot as is my right and responsibility as an American citizen. I vote every election, but this year, with the memory of the attack in Pittsburgh and the support the Jewish community there and throughout the country received from our fellow citizens, I felt more than any other year, that my act of voting was more than an action of citizenship; it was a mitzvah.

Today, I am following the terrible news of another shooting outside Los Angeles. While the motivation of this shooter is yet to be determined, we should be cognizant that another community has been victimized by gun violence. We will offer our prayers, but we know we must follow up with action.

Each Shabbat we will continue to offer our Prayer for our Country, but we should always remember that Judaism calls on us to act in addition to offering our prayers.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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In 1885, the leading Reform rabbis in America gathered for a conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to create the tenets of their new movement. The result of the conference became known as the Pittsburgh Platform, and it served as the foundational document of the Reform Movement and its guiding principle for the next fifty years.   The history of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh is long and storied, but now, after last Shabbat, the history of the Jewish community of Pittsburgh will include the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in our nation's history.

Last Shabbat seems like a year ago. As we gathered at MJC for prayer and celebration, evil was attacking the community of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I am still trying to comprehend how this happened anywhere, let alone in America. Growing up, there was never a debate about the American Jewish experience. The American Jewish community was the most successful and secure Jewish community in the history of our diaspora. While studying Jewish history and pogroms and persecutions, the general feeling was that America was different; it could never happen here. Yet last Shabbat it did happen and, I fear that nothing will be the same. 

The hatred that spurred this shooter to attack the Tree of Life synagogue is nothing new. For centuries, no, for millennia, we have been the targets of anti-Semitic hate. As a people, we have known crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, blood libels, and the holocaust, all because of the simple fact that we are Jewish. Somehow, I, and many others, had thought that America was different. Were we wrong?

It is beyond ironic, that the online rantings of this shooter targeted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), before he targeted the Jews of the Tree of Life synagogue. HIAS was founded in 1881, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to help the thousands of Jews, who were fleeing the anti-Semitic attacks in Eastern Europe and seeking refuge in America. Over the years, HIAS has helped thousands, if not millions of Jews, from those early refugees of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Jews seeking freedom as the Iron Curtain began to open. Many of our members thank HIAS for helping them, their parents, or grandparents settle in this country.

Our member, Arnie Kronick wrote to me this week, "I am a Jewish American.  I am of the first generation thanks to my grandparent's decision to flee Eastern Europe due to pogroms, war and anti-Jewish activities in the places where they lived.  I bless their memory for allowing me to be born and raised here and I thank goodness for HIAS who helped bring them and my cousins who fled the Soviet Union here.  I have not felt the sting of anti-Jewish behavior mostly because I was born and raised and educated in New York."

Most of our members, if not all, have a similar story. HIAS helped us come here; HIAS helped us settle here. The shooter in Pittsburgh, by ranting against HIAS, was ranting against our right to be here, our right to be Americans. His attack was an attack of nationalists against Jews, who are Americans, no matter how long we have been here. His hatred culminated in the murder of 11 Jews, who came to shul to daven on Shabbat.

This type of anti-Semitism, this type of hatred, is not new, but it shouldn't be expected in America and it cannot be tolerated in America. Our reaction must be to take back our right as American Jews. To be proud of our heritage and history as Jews in America. To fight bigotry and intolerance by our words and actions and by standing for love and understanding.

The president of HIAS, Mark Hetfield, recently said about HIAS, "We used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish, Today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish." In his simple statement, he reminds all of us that, as Jews, our job on earth is not only to help each other, but to help all.

This Shabbat. Jews around the world will be gathering in synagogues for a "Solidarity Shabbat" as we stand with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. The Jewish world will #ShowUpForShabbat and throughout the country, people will come to shul to show we are not alone and we are not afraid.

At Montebello Jewish Center, we will be gathering for Shabbat Services at 6:00PM on Friday night and beginning at 9:00AM on Shabbat morning. Our services will be filled with powerful moments of reflection, prayer and song. We will remember those who perished, we will contemplate what happened, and we will begin to heal, surrounded by our MJC family, our friends, and our community.

Every Shabbat, when we return the Torah to the Ark, we sing, "Etz Hayim He...". "It is a Tree of Life," referring to our Torah, our Tree of Life. This Shabbat, we can all look forward to joining together as we offer this prayer of hope and healing for ourselves, our community and all who hold fast to the Tree of Life. Hazak veEmatz - Be Strong and take courage. Together we are stronger.


Shabbat Shalom and Am Yisrael Chai,


Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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