Friday, January 29, 2021

Who am I?


Who am I?

At Jewish Newport

January 23, 2021

By Aaron Ginsburg

Thank you to Rabbi Marc Mandel, edited by Vicki Kaplan

Also at

God speaking to Moses from
the burning bush 
Schlapperitzin, Konrad abt 1445 

Rabbi Marc Mandel of Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island writes,

One of the recurring themes in the early part of the Book of Shemot is the reluctance of Moses to serve as spokesperson to Pharaoh for the Jewish people. At least five times, Moses asks God to replace him with someone else - someone who can speak better than he. The Torah is not explicit, but apparently Moses had a speech defect which made him very insecure. 

“Why did God choose someone with a speech defect to represent the Jewish people? The Dreshot Haran says that, ‘Moses was chosen so that it would not be thought that it was his eloquence which made Israel and its leaders his followers. For men with glib tongues have been known to attract multitudes and to have their lies taken for truth. The very opposite, however, is the case with one whose speech is impaired. Even the truth he speaks will not be accepted unless it is absolutely transparent.’"

“What a great lesson for our age!”

It is striking how much effort God put into convincing Moses to become His messenger. Was God’s power not so total? Or was it that it would be preferable if people did His bidding because they believed in what they were doing, rather than because He commanded it?

To get Moses’ attention, God used a cheap trick, the burning bush. Sure enough Moses approached the bush to see what was going on. At God’s command, Moses took off his sandals. Nowadays, God would ask people to keep their shoes on to avoid stinky feet! After commiserating with Moses about the hardships the Children of Israel were experiencing in Egypt, God popped the question, “Moses, will you go to Pharaoh and give him my message?” Moses demurred, saying, “Who am I?”

Like a child, Moses continued to come up with excuses, finally playing the “I stutter” card. God said, “Don’t worry, I will be with you.” When that didn’t work, God lost his temper and said that Moses' brother Aaron could do the talking. And Aaron hasn’t stopped talking since!

The comedic approach was repeated. Pharaoh wouldn’t listen, so the God-Moses team pulled out every trick in the book, ten (plagues) in fact. One can imagine God and Moses trying having fun thinking of things disgusting enough to get Pharaoh's attention. If a river of blood doesn’t work, let's try locusts; if locusts don’t work, lice; if lice don't work; darkness...and so on. As Leo A Connorton Jr. told us in seventh grade English at Thompson Junior High School before he jumped onto his desk, “If at first you don’t fricassee, fry, fry again.” Mr. Connorton knew how to get our attention!

Mrs. Namel Chadash asks,

 “So Rabbi Mandel, (Oy, do I love that sweet name, Mandel.), did God have the same conversation with Joe Biden?”

Rabbi Mandel silently smiled.

So how did the God to Joe Biden conversation go?

G: “Joe, I’d like you to do some networking for me.”

Joe tried every trick in the book to avoid accepting the task.

J: “God, I want to be upfront with you. There is something you should know that will make it impossible for me to be your messenger.”

G: “Nu? That’s hard to imagine. Surprise me!”

J: “You won’t like this. I’m Catholic”

The heavenly choir laughed, a deep belly laugh. Even God smiled. 

G: “Joe, look closely at me. Don’t you see that in addition to a Magen David, I have a crescent and a cross. You need a better excuse than that.”

Joe: “Sigh! There is something even worse. I’m a democrat.”

A murmur went up from the heavenly choir.

G: “Joe, we don’t discuss politics up here. A few years ago we formed a heavenly commission. After a long debate and consulting an outside expert, we decided politics were divisive and would interfere with our work.”

J: “Who was the outside expert?

G: “We went to the obvious choice, Rabbi Marc Mandel! The closest he ever came to politics was a discussion about avoiding it. Maybe you know him?”

J: “Isn’t Rabbi Mandel a young rabbi at an old Shul?  Anyhow, I stutter. A spokesman with a speech impediment would not be a good spokesman. You deserve the best.”

The heavenly choir breathed a sigh of relief. God muttered under his breath, “Whew, that’s a safe topic”

G: “No problem, Joe. I don’t want you to sound too slick. I do want you to think carefully about what you say and make each word count.”

Joe: “I will do my best to represent your interests.”

G: “Who knows? Someday, maybe you will become a modern day Moses. Wait a minute. That’s going a little bit too far. How about the President of the United States. Trust me, Joe. If you make it that far, people won't worry about a speech impediment.”

The rest is history.

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!

Friday, January 15, 2021

What's in a Name?

 What's in a Name?

At Jewish Newport

January 9, 2021

By Aaron Ginsburg

Thank you to Rabbi Marc Mandel, edited by Vicki Kaplan

Also at

Rabbi Marc Mandel of Newport, Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue, had some words for Jewish Newport,

“We recently started reading the second book of the Pentateuch. Many people refer to this as the Book of Exodus.

“But, a more traditional name for it is Shmot, or names. Indeed, the book begins with a listing of the names of the people that were living in Egypt at that time. While we all understand that the Exodus from Egypt is a central theme of this Book, names are also very important, because it gives us a sense of who the people were and their families. Without these people, and their names, there would be no Exodus. 

“Today, this of course has become very popular. Genealogy is bursting at the seams, especially with the help of the internet. It's refreshing to learn how the internet is being used in positive ways, rather than some of the negative ways we have been reading about lately. Happy searching!”

The Hebrew Bible is obsessed with genealogy. There might be several reasons. 

As understood by the ancients, a people is a family that must have started with a man and a woman. Humanity consists of many related families, which themselves must have common ancestors. This takes us back to Eden.

A lot of our Torah is about Priests and Kings. They might be interested in family history to back up their claim to their positions, which were inherited. 

The rabbis who created Judaism, of the Mishnah and Talmud, were more concerned with ideas. They used the same information as the ancients,  priests and kings  to bear witness to receiving Torah at Sinai. “Our ancestors were at Sinai,” they assert. “They were there when Moshe came down from the cloud with two tablets that contained  עשרת הדיברות‎ (transliterated aseret ha-dibrot) also known as The Ten Commandments or the Decalogue. Translating from the Hebrew, it means ten words or ten statements. If you look for ten commandments, you will be disappointed. 

Chazal (all Jewish sages of the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud eras) seemed to make “we were there,” the important thing. Then they proceeded to interpret Torah as they saw fit, giving their interpretations detailed genealogies by citing verses from the Tanakh as well as the opinions, real or imagined, of their predecessors.

One wonders if the rabbis, priests, kings and ancients took those biblical genealogies seriously. Perhaps it was just part of the game.

In 2018, Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D. wrote an article for Psychology Today, “The Meaning and Meaninglessness of Genealogy.” It’s a good read. Professor Lents enjoys learning about his genealogy, but does it really matter? And how accurate is it? He points out that as we go back in history there are not a lot of records, and a lot of assumptions are made about which records to use. Another complication is that births are often misattributed. We know this from the genetic record. And many adoptions were secret even if they were done within a family. 

Besides, he writes, does it really matter who your ancestors are? Isn’t it your cultural heritage that matters? 

He points out that although Jews have a Levantine genetic history, in each place where they live, part of their genetics is similar to the non-jewish population. Despite the genetic diversity, Jews share a distinct cultural heritage.

For African-Americans, there is another wrinkle. Many can trace their descent to a white slave master and an often unwilling slave. So they are descended from both slaves and masters. As an example, Professor Lents points out that Dick Cheney and Barack Obama both descend from a French Huguenot immigrant slave owner, Mareen Duvall, who arrived in Maryland in 1650. However, their cultural heritage is very different. 

Well it was fun writing this article. But I think it is time for me to get back to researching my genealogy.

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!