A Tribute to Daniel Somers

Pinchas, the son of Elazar, was a religious zealot. The book of Numbers, chapter 25 verses 1-9, describes his act of vigilante justice, thrusting a spear through an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, thus staying the plague which had afflicted the Israelites and killed 24,000 people.
Living as we do at a time when murder in the name of religious passion is a wretched plague, Pinchas’ action is wildly uncomfortable. What makes it even more unfathomable, is that God rewards Pinchas, in verse 12, with “briti shalom,” “My covenant of peace,” and an eternal role as a religious leader. We struggle to understand how religious violence can be rewarded.
Religious leadership and untamed violence? We struggle with it in the Torah and we struggle with it in our world. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Judah Berlin (19th century) offers this perspective: The covenant of peace with which Pinchas was blessed refers to an internal sense of peace, making peace with the violence that was necessary in that moment- necessary but nonetheless tragic. God’s blessing of peace allowed Pinchas to build a life that was not defined solely by his zealous action.
Today’s wounded warriors face that same struggle- how to make peace with the violence they have undertaken and the many lives lost in the process. Sadly, tragically, we do too little to arm them with a moral foundation for warfare, and less to ease them into a covenant of peace when they return from battle. The covenant of peace is broken.
Judaism is not a non-violent tradition. The Torah mandates capital punishment for a variety of offenses, and war is an accepted reality. The Psalmist promises that “God will give strength to the people, God will bless the people with peace,” (Psalm 29:11) Peace is understood to be built on a foundation of strength, at least until the Messianic age when swords may safely be beaten into plowshares. But how do the warriors attain a sense of peace with their participation in warfare?
The Torah understood that warriors cannot return from battle and immediately integrate back into the community. The Book of Numbers (31:19) provides for a week of de-mobilization where combatants remain outside the camp for a time of transition. The insight of this ancient wisdom is too often ignored. In 2005/2006, at the suggestion of the Chief of Chaplains, I drafted a “Ritual of Transition” for use by re-deploying troops returning from Afghanistan. In this prayer, I attempted to give voice to the pain of injuries invisible to the naked eye and the scars born by the soul. I wrote of “hearts. . torn with grief for all our losses, for all the pain we have experienced,” and asked of God “that You would touch us with Your merciful hand, and allow us to move forward in our lives in wholeness. Help us to be worthy children to our parents, generous spouses to our husbands and wives, caring friends and loving parents. Allow us to leave behind what needs to remain behind, and emerge from this deployment with peaceful hearts.”
This prayer was not realized for Daniel Somers, zichrono l’vracha, may his memory be for blessing. I remember Daniel as a shy, quirky, brilliant young Bar Mitzvah student. He was a sweet, sweet child with great intellectual depth. He went on to a career with the Joint Special Operations Command and service in the U.S. Army as an Arab linguist. Daniel ended his own life on June 10, 2013, a life he described in his suicide note as “nothing short of torture.” He writes of his struggle over a decade to come to that “brit shalom,” that covenant of peace, and how no medical intervention could save him from the knowledge that “there are some things that a person simply cannot come back from.”
Daniel sought every outlet- a healing documentary he was working on, “replacing destruction with creation,” but nothing could release him from “every day a screaming agony.” In the end, in his painfully eloquent note, he describes his suicide as a “mercy killing,” which he follows with an indictment of the war and of the medical establishment that failed him so profoundly.
As the 4th of July approaches, I am proud to be an American and proud to be a Soldier. And, I am deeply ashamed at how I could not be there for Daniel Somers and how we, as a community, continue to not be there for our wounded warriors.
As the story of Pinchas is recounted in the Torah, tradition mandates that the word “shalom,” “peace,” be written with the letter “vav” broken. Pinchas receives the gift of peace, but it is not a whole peace. Our peace is not whole when we neglect the spiritual care of those who give their lives and souls in service to our nation.

Reflections on the Fourth of July

This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle at Gettysburgh, PA. In the Gettysburg address, President Abraham Lincoln described the United States of America as “conceived in liberty.” Birth is a bloody and painful process under the best of circumstances, and that conception doesn’t always go according to plan. What is true of individuals is true of nations, and we remind ourselves of this reality annually as we celebrate the conception and birth of our country.

We need only reflect on our own history as Jews- the ten plagues, the death and destruction, which preceded our escape from Egyptian slavery, and the forty years of wandering which were necessary in order to raise a generation to understand the beauty and responsibility entailed in being free people. Events in Egypt this week conspire to reinforce this message, as the battle to bring forth nations conceived in liberty continues to be waged.

The Fourth of July is a celebration of the beginning, Memorial Day is a remembrance of the cost, but any celebration of freedom inevitably evokes the recognition of the price we have paid and continue to pay for the blessings we enjoy.

The United States of America has afforded the Jewish community greater opportunity for liberty and religious expression than any society in which we have lived throughout our beleaguered history. As American Jews, we owe a debt of gratitude to this country, and we ought to acknowledge that debt on the important dates in the civic calendar.

“If you appreciate your freedom”, it has been said, “thank a soldier”. While we long for, pray for and work for a universal time of peace, envisioned as a messianic age, the sad reality is that in order to protect the freedom we enjoy, we must be ready to defend it, even at the cost of our lives. There is no one who prays for peace with greater fervor than the soldier who stands ready to pay this ultimate price.

Those who have lived in places where freedom is not a primary value, have a unique perspective on which we reflect on the Fourth of July. Diana Sowards writes- “Freedom is not having to report to the military that you have a houseguest overnight. Freedom is studying what you are interested in at the university and not what the Education Board orders you to major in. Freedom is traveling anywhere you want without asking permission from four different government agencies. Freedom is not hearing that a friend has disappeared and is thought to be held by the police but no one knows for sure. Freedom is not being beaten for appearing in public without a male escort.” How blessed we are to live in a country which devotes itself to the struggle for freedom.

The book of Genesis describes the process by which Adam and Eve become fully human, even as they are expelled from paradise. The essence of that process is that most uniquely human of attributes, the ability to choose. While acknowledging that our country is deeply flawed, as are we all, it is appropriate to pause on this day and express our gratitude for the gift of living in a nation where we strive to respect the notion of individual freedom of expression.

As we celebrate the Fourth of July, we can truly pray, in President Abraham Lincoln’s words, “That government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Days of Remembrance

Days of Remembrance- April 2013, CH (COL) Bonnie Koppell

Count by ones to six million, the number of Jews killed during what has come to be known as the Holocaust, a number each second, and you will be here for months- not even naming names, each person a number. Six million Jews and five million other children of God- the disabled, the gypsies, political enemies, the unwanted, and those few who dared to speak out against the madness- were led to the gas chambers and the crematoria. We come together this morning to honor their memory.
We cannot truly understand what happened during the Shoah- “that whirlwind of destruction in . . . Hitler’s Germany. . . solely by learning historical facts and figures. . . Facts, figures and explanations are necessary. But we must also touch and feel and taste the dark days and burning nights. Our hearts must constrict in terror and grief. Our minds must expand to make room for the incredible. . . Darkness pervaded every street of every town, city and country occupied by Nazi Germany. The innermost circle of this geography of hell was the concentration camp. Once inside this circle, humanity moved from the light of day to the valley of the shadow of death. . . And so we must enter the past. But what passport will gain us entry into hell? Recognizing the fact that the world we are about to enter is utterly alien to the world we know, how can we expand the horizons of our awareness so that hell and the experience of it become real?”
Begin with the testimony of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate who describes his experiences in the wrenching text of his book Night, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed by faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
When Wiesel was asked, what is it that we can learn from the Holocaust, he offered this ominous reply, “That you can get away with it.” We come together to remember, painful as it is to confront this horror, because we know that the first step towards allowing such genocide to reoccur is to forget the lessons of history. As members of the military community, we take special pride in our role as the guardians of democracy and the defenders of those who are threatened wherever tyranny raises its ugly head. “We have learned,” Wiesel concludes, “not to be neutral in times of crisis, for neutrality always helps the aggressor, never the victim. We have learned that silence is never the answer. We have learned that the opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.” Today we vow never to be indifferent. Today we VOW never to be indifferent.
Following its defeat in World War I, Germany sought an explanation for its economic hardship, and found a scapegoat in the Jews. “It began”, writes historian Raul Hilberg, “with job dismissals and pressures on Jewish business enterprises. Later (came) forced sales of companies, discriminatory property taxes, blocking of bank deposits, compulsory labor, reduced wages, special income taxes, lowered rations, confiscation of personal property, pensions and claims. . . Later (came) a series of housing restrictions, movement limitations and identification measures. The Jews of Germany were forced to undergo document stamping, name changes and the marking of their clothing with a star.”
All of which is to say that Hitler did not rise to power and immediately begin rounding up and exterminating the Jewish population. He began slowly, testing the waters, waiting for the outcry of the German people and the international community. When there was none, he escalated his program of genocide, what the Nazis called, “the final solution” to the Jewish problem, with impunity, secure in the knowledge that he could do as he wished with his victims and no objection would be raised. Anyone with one Jewish grandparent was targeted for death.
The large-scale murder of Eastern European Jews began with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units, systematically collected the Jews in each community, forced them to dig mass graves, stripped and shot them. Two million lost their lives in this way. When this method proved inefficient, mobile gas vans were created. This, too, proved problematic- death was slow and the side effects gruesome. Ultimately, large-scale gas chambers were constructed, utilizing poison gas as the killing agent. At the height of its operation, 10,000 people per day were executed.
As new arrivals were brought to these camps, they were immediately separated- men to the left, women to the right- the first selection. The very old and the very young were sent directly to the crematoria, the others hustled off to forced labor. First came the confiscation of all valuables. Dehumanization continued with the shaving of heads and the removal of all body hair. Forced to strip off their clothing, the prisoners were made to run naked through the frigid air. “Within a few seconds”, a survivor notes, “ we had ceased to be men.”
Sam Halpern describes his experience thus, “After being awakened at 5:30 in the morning, we were given two minutes to dress. If someone was not ready, we were badly beaten. They gave us a piece of bread whose flour had been mixed with sawdust, often so hard and moldy that it could hardly be eaten. Since this was our entire food ration for the day, some people saved the bread. After this meager meal, thousands of camp inmates were made to stand outside in the yard from six to eight in the morning. It did not matter if the brilliant sun was shining, or the deathly winds of winter were blowing. It was the second phase of torture routinely worked into every day. We worked seven days a week, from eight in the morning until seven in the evening. Considering these conditions, it’s a miracle any of us survived. Most did not. I begged God for the opportunity to tell the world what the German people did to us.”
Yet the will to live sustained them under unimaginable conditions, and, in a situation where merely to survive was an act of triumphant resistance, the prisoners managed to subvert the system at every turn- stealing bread, substituting corpses for the individuals condemned by the Nazis, smuggling clothing, and maintaining a religious life. Such acts of heroism are a testimony to the depth and majesty of the human spirit. Viktor Frankl wrote of his experiences in a concentration camp in a remarkable book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning. He writes that, “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last pieces of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer a sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of his freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way to die.”
One of the most famous victims of the Nazis was Anne Frank, a young girl in Amsterdam, Holland who perished in Bergen Belsen concentration camp at the age of sixteen. Her diary, which has become an international bestseller, survives as a historical reproach- “It’s really a wonder”, she writes, “that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death. I hear the approaching thunder, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out right one of these days, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals, for perhaps the day will come when I shall be able to carry them out.
With all due respect to Anne Frank and her legacy, I disagree in one important aspect with the naïve teenager. I don’t believe that “people are basically good.” I believe, rather, that we are all born with the capacity for good as well as the capacity for enormous evil. The choices we make on a daily basis create our character and prepare us for moments of ultimate temptation. When we study the Holocaust, it is not simply to wring our hands over the events of a half-century ago. It is to confront our own evil instinct and the reality of evil in our world and to understand our responsibility to repair this broken-ness.
At Yad Vashem, Israel’s museum of the Holocaust, there is a special grove at the entrance called the “Avenue of the Righteous.” Trees are planted there in memory of the righteous gentiles who risked their lives to help the victims of the Nazis, proving that it is possible to rise above the cruelty which surrounds us. Maria von Maltzan was one of the rescuers. Her story is told in the book, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust. “As a schoolgirl, I read Mein Kampf, and from the beginning I despised Hitler. I was heartsick at what he was doing to my country. Beginning in 1936, I helped any Nazi opponent hide to avoid being thrown in prison. I escorted many Jews out of Berlin. Once the SS came to my flat and Hans was hiding in the couch. I had fixed the couch so that it was impossible to open, and covered his hiding place with a thin material. The soldier asked, ‘How do we know nobody is hiding in there?’ I said, ‘If you’re sure someone is in there, shoot. But before you do that, I want a written signed paper from you that you will pay for new material and the work to have the couch recovered after you put holes in it.’ Of course he didn’t do a thing! He left! I always said, no matter what came along, ‘I prefer to be in a tough situation than to go to bed with a bad conscience.’”
The country of Denmark deserves special recognition, as the entire population refused to obey an order to round up the Jewish population. King Christian X himself put on a yellow badge to indicate his solidarity with his Jewish subjects, leaving an enduring legacy of moral heroism. Of the approximately 7400 Jews in Denmark, only 180 were caught by the Nazis. Miraculously, 100 of them survived, due to the persistent intervention of the king. The story of the rescuers must be told, lest we sink into total despair, and diminish the greatness of those who truly lived and sometimes died by their faith.
Pastor Martin Niemoller was among those who lived to regret his inaction in the face of the breakdown of civilization during the Nazi era. His words are a haunting reminder to us, lest we forget- “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me- and there was no one left to speak for me.” If we do not speak out against evil, who will be left to speak for us?
In the final months of the war, the Allied Forces came face to face with the unspeakable and unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. Although rumors of the Nazi atrocities were widely circulated, nothing could prepare the troops for their first sight of the concentration camps. “I have just seen the most terrible place on the face of the earth”, one soldier reported on August 27, 1944. On April 4, 1945, the Fourth Armored Division’s Combat Command A of the American Third Army liberated Ohrdurf. A week later, other units of the Third Army liberated Buchenwald. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the European Theater, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and General Omar Bradley visited General George Patton on April 12, and together they toured Ohrdurf. Eisenhower, in a letter to Chief of Staff George Marshall, wrote, “The things I saw beggar description. . . The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where there were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda’.” We who humbly stand as the heirs to this proud military history face an awesome responsibility to unmask the lie of those who seek to deny the reality of the Holocaust.
To remember is painful. To forget is perilous. Nothing can bring back the six million Jews killed by the Nazi machine, the five million other murdered children of God, or the brave soldiers and citizens who died in the war against evil. We must remember- we are their refuge against oblivion. If we fail to honor their memory, they die a second death.
Thank you for taking the time to recall this dark chapter in human history. May our time together inspire us with the commitment to remember the terrible price of silence and indifferent, and may we rededicate ourselves to confront oppression wherever it raises its ugly head.

©Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
Temple Chai
4645 E. Marilyn Road
Phoenix, AZ 85032

Shabbat and Dilbert

Does the number 5:14 mean anything to you? That is the precise time, according to the calendar, that Shabbat candles were to have been lit tonight- at least in Mesa- I didn’t check the Temple Chai zip code. I grew up in a Conservative Jewish household. That meant that my mom did not abide by the official candle-lighting time; candle-lighting was whenever we sat down at the table for Shabbat dinner.
I thought about this when I read the Dilbert cartoon earlier this week- let me share it with you:
First Frame- Have you seen Wally? He’s been in the Men’s Room for two days
Second Frame- He used to leave when he was done reading the paper. But he switched to an iPad and now he doesn’t know when he’s finished.
Final Frame- He has to come out to eat. I have a pizza for the third stall.
I still read the physical newspaper each morning- hence this physical cartoon in my hand- but I also look at various news sources online and I think we can all relate to that line- “Now he doesn’t know when he’s finished.” That’s what life is like in the contemporary world- we are able to be so connected all the time that we don’t know when we’re finished.
And that’s why Shabbat is perhaps more relevant than ever. Whether we light Shabbat candles at 5:14 or whatever is the exact candle-lighting time, or whether we light them at 6:15 with our Temple Chai community, or whether we light them at 9:00 when we are finally able to make Shabbas at home after a long week, the simple act of lighting these candles tells us that we’re finished, we’re done, we can finally disconnect for a few moments of Shabbat Shalom, or blessed Sabbath peacefulness.

Tohar ha-Neshek/Purity of Arms

War is an ugly but tragically necessary aspect of human interaction. Within the first few chapters of Genesis, we encounter war between Abraham and the 5 kings. The Torah works to militate against the dehumanizing aspects of warfare by prescribing constraints on the behavior of combatants, and creating a ritual of transition for demobilizing troops as they return to the civilian community.

Judaism is not a pacifist tradition. The Talmud tells us in Berachot 62b that if someone is pursuing us with intent to kill, we should “rise up earlier and kill them first.” We retain the right, and some might argue, the obligation of self-defense. Rabbi Hillel was not teaching military strategy when he wrote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”- but he well might have been! (Pirke Avot 1:14)

Yet, Hillel immediately follows with the words- “If I am only for myself, what am I?” He reminds us that if we lose our humanity in the way we conduct war, we will, perhaps, have paid too high a price for military victory. Therefore, the Israeli military has adopted principle of “tohar haneshek,” purity of arms. Fundamentally, tohar haneshek mandates that military operations be conducted in accordance with ethical standards.

Principles of tohar haneshek include:
1. Preventing misuse of weapons
2. Using minimum force against combatants
3. Preventing casualties to civilians
4. Appropriate care of prisoners
5. Resisting dehumanization and demonization of enemy citizenry
6. Dealing with Criminal Orders
7. Equalizing the burden of military service on the whole of the population

Our impulse may be to bring the full force of military might to bear against our enemies. Our tradition counsels that Jewish values apply even in the conduct of war. We can all be incredibly proud of the commitment of the IDF to the Jewish value of life and recognizing the image of God even in the faces of our enemies.


For the past month or two, Psalm 92, the psalm for Shabbat, somehow slipped out of our Kabbalat Shabbat davvening. I asked around about this and discovered that it was not out of some great strategic initiative, it had kind of just happened- please turn from page ____ to page ____. So last night, we were treated to the beautiful voice of Emily Kaye Geraci chanting, “Tov l’hodot L’Adonai- it is good to give thanks to God.” And I turned to Rabbi Chernow and said, “We should have saved that for next week!” She smiled indulgently at me . . . as she often does, and then she laughed—-yes- it IS good to give thanks, and how nice that we have a whole holiday when our entire country is focused on this essential mitzvah of “hakarat ha-tov,” that is, acknowledging the good.
It is good to give thanks, and it is especially good for us to be thankful. Thanksgiving is a quintessentially Jewish activity- after all, does not our tradition require that we say 100 blessings each day? Think about it. . . One hundred times a day we are to stop for just the briefest of moments and thank God for the smallest of blessings- the sweet smell of a beautiful flower, a thunderstorm, the clothing we wear and the food we eat. How much richer our lives would be if we really incorporated this practice in our daily lives? Imagine for a moment what life would be like if we could massively shift the balance of our conversation from whining, however innocuous, to reminding ourselves of the pervasive blessings we enjoy with no acknowledgement and which we totally take for granted. Imagine if we stopped to notice all the gifts showered on us, in the words of our siddur, morning, noon, and night. We would walk around in an ecstatic state of awe.
As a rabbi, I’m in the pain and suffering business. Week after week, I am really overwhelmed at the immense challenges faced by the heroic members of Temple Chai. I am not standing here naively preaching, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Week after week I am astonished at the triumph of the human spirit bearing burdens that could easily crush mind, body, and soul.
But I was inspired and challenged by a small little book I read recently by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, entitled, simply, Thank You. Pliskin recommends that the more we act grateful, the more we will be grateful. He suggests this mantra- “I am a grateful person with a lot to be grateful for.” The more we look for things to appreciate, the more we will find them. He challenges us with this question- “For what am I grateful RIGHT NOW?” Even in the most difficult times, with a little effort we can find something for which we might say thank you.
May we be blessed each day to find something for which we can be thankful, and in this way every day can be for us a day of Thanksgiving.

Army Values and Jewish Values- Yom Kippur 5773

One hundred fifty years ago, almost to the day, the first Rabbi was commissioned as a chaplain in the United States Army.  Last year, a memorial was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery to the 13 Jewish chaplains who have died during active duty service to our beloved country.  Their sacrifice is a tribute to the seven Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.  I have had the amazing privilege of serving as an Army Reserve chaplain for over thirty-four years and am inspired by my colleague’s commitment to live these values every day.  On these High Holidays, when we renew our own devotion to living lives of holiness, the Army values offer guidance along the way.

During these Days of Awe, we imagine God as the ultimate Commander in Chief, evaluating us and our efforts in the past year.  According to our prayers, God “writes and seals, inscribes and takes account.”  Like a shepherd caring for the flock, God “passes and records, counts and visits every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature’s life and decreeing its destiny.”

Each year, my military commander prepares an OER, an Officer Evaluation Report.  The DA Form 67-8 includes a description of duties, an evaluation of professional competence, specific aspects of performance as well as potential.  It also contains a section that assesses whether or not I am meeting the standard(s) regarding loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.

1.  Honor– The first quality listed is Honor, which is defined as adherence to the Army’s publicly declared code of values.  We can translate this into more familiar terms- have we lived lives of Kiddush HaShem?  Do our actions bring honor to the Jewish people?  In the 10 Commandments, there is only one commandment which the Torah says is unforgiveable.  You’d think that it would be the prohibition of murder, or stealing.  Surprisingly, we read that God will not forgive those who carry God’s name in vain.  If we claim to be religious people, then we need to remember at all times that people will judge Judaism by our behavior.  This should be an incentive for us to behave in ways that will bring honor to God and the Jewish people.

The Talmud relates that Shimon ben Shetach once purchased a donkey. The original owner had neglected to check the saddlebag before he made the sale, and inadvertently left diamonds in the bag. When they discovered the treasure, Shimon ben Shetach’s students were exuberant, for now, they were certain, their teacher would be able to teach Torah without the constant financial worries that had been plaguing him. Shimon ben Shetach did not join in their excitement though. “Do you think I am a barbarian?” he exclaimed “I bought a donkey, not diamonds!” He promptly returned the diamonds. When the owner received them he cried out, “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shetach!”  Shimon ben Shetach exemplified the principle of Kiddush HaShem, bringing honor to God’s name by his actions.

2.Integrity– Next is a word we don’t hear enough these days- integrity, defined as possessing high moral standards and being honest in word and deed.  Simply put, integrity means doing the right thing even when no one else is watching.  Even when you could get away with doing the wrong thing and no one would ever know.  Integrity means being consistent- saying the same thing to anyone who asks.  It means saying, “I don’t know” when you don’t, not trying to guess or fake it.   Integrity means applying the code of ethics by which you live in school, at work, with your family, in the synagogue- being faithful to your own ultimate values.

Integrity is an essential component of leadership.  Effective leadership is dependent upon trust and respect.  Without faith in each other’s integrity we cannot rely on the information we receive and crucial decisions may be undermined.

In Hebrew the word “Shalom- Peace” comes from a root meaning “Shalem- to be whole.”  When we have integrity we feel a sense of complete-ness and we are able to be at peace.  This thought is beautifully expressed in this prayer, “Grant us the peace that comes from honest dealing, so that no fear of discovery will haunt our sleep. . . May we so live that we can face the whole world with serenity.”

This new year brings us the opportunity to begin again, to return to that bedrock of integrity which makes us proud of who we are.

3. Courage– Third is courage.  To have courage does not mean to be reckless or careless.  The book of Proverbs teaches us that the beginning of wisdom is fear of God.  Fear is important and healthy in certain contexts.  But in the moral realm, we must fearlessly do what is right, even when it is not popular and even, in a military environment, if it conflicts with an illegal order.

The root of the word courage is “cor,” meaning heart.  The original meaning of courage had to do with speaking the truth from the heart.  When we choose to speak and act courageously, we inspire others to do the same- as Napoleon put it, “Morale is to courage as ten is to one.”  This is why the generation of the spies needed to die off in the wilderness- their negative attitude- “we looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we must have appeared to them”- was demoralizing to the community. We all need to find the courage to cling to the path of righteousness and to uphold the values we affirm together as a community.

A controversial note on courage and forgiveness- last week, the Phoenix community was shaken by the tragic loss of Andrew Murphy, who was shot and killed at Marivue Park protecting his 14 year old sister.  The AZ Republic lauded his courage in an editorial a few days ago, appropriately noting his extraordinary courage.  The newspaper continued by quoting the words of Andrew’s father to his children, “We must not only forgive the young man who took Andrew’s life, we must love him, too.”[1]  With all due respect to the grieving father and his religious beliefs, I would never advocate preemptive love and forgiveness for a murderer and I do not find this courageous.

4.Loyalty– Andrew certainly exhibited exceptional loyalty, the fourth quality.  Our loyalties are excellent indications of who we are on the deepest level.  Loyalty means affirming our commitments even in times of trial and temptation.  The loyalty of which we speak is that of our Biblical ancestor Joseph, whose loyalty to his employer and to his own code of ethics, enabled him to resist the seductive overtures of his employer’s wife, and remain loyal to the ethical principles with which he was raised.

Loyalty to our loved ones is primary.  There is a very moving story in Chicken Soup for the Soul, about an earthquake in Armenia in 1989.  Over 30,000 people were killed in less than 4 minutes.  As one dad rushed to the rubble that had been his son’s school, bystanders told him that all the students had died.  “Go home, face reality,” they told him.  The father dug at the rubble for 38 hours before he heard his son respond to his call, “Dad?  It’s me, Dad.  I told the other kids not to worry.  I told ‘em that if you were alive, you’d save me and when you saved me, they’d be saved.  You promised, “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!”  You did it, Dad!”  The son then allowed the 14 other survivors to be rescued first, because he knew that “No matter what, you’ll always be there for me!”

Are we loyal to our family?  Our community?  Our synagogue?  Our country?  To what do we pledge our allegiance?  On whom can we depend? These are the hard questions we must ask ourselves today.

5.Respect– The Army defines respect as promoting dignity, consideration, and fairness.  The Torah begins with the creation of one person, a reminder that each of us is made in the image of God and therefore deserving of the highest respect.  The famous Mishna speaks of the uniqueness of each person, evoking the principle that if we destroy one person, it is as if we destroyed the whole world.[2]  Destruction does not necessarily imply physical harm. Our words can leave scars which are carried for a lifetime.  How many of the sins we confess on Yom Kippur have to do with the misuse of speech and the ways that we use our words to destroy?

The ability to control what we say, especially when we are angry, is a prerequisite for lasting and loving relationships.  “Before bandying about words that can destroy another person’s reputation,” Rabbi JosephTelushkin warns, “be as careful as if you were holding a loaded gun.”  His conclusion?  “Unless you, or someone dear to you, have been the victims of terrible physical violence, chances are the worst pains you have suffered in life have come from words used cruelly- from ego-destroying criticism, excessive anger, sarcasm, public and private humiliation, hurtful nicknames, betrayal of secrets, rumors and malicious gossip.”[3]

Our tradition teaches us that, “The honor of each person should be as dear to you as your own honor.”[4] We show respect for others by listening with our whole hearts.  Respect for parents is a special aspect of this value.

6.Selfless Service– We live in a culture of individualism and looking out for number one- the idea of selflessness does not come naturally.  Yet, part of growing up and maturing is learning to set aside our own needs for those of another.  Selflessness, the sixth criterion on our OER, means not reverting to the premise of “What’s in it for me?,” but being able to see things from a different perspective.

As Jews we are responsible to care for each other and to support the community, even when we disagree.  There is a higher goal than our own happiness and fulfillment, a common good toward which we all strive.  If each individual operates from a place of selflessness it inspires us all to work together.  Imagine an army trying to complete a mission with each person looking out only for themselves.  Only by acting as a unit can we achieve.

Selflessness doesn’t always mean risking your life.  Sometimes it’s the little ways in which we extend ourselves for others- checking the kid’s homework when we’d rather be reading, attending a minyan so that someone else can say kaddish.  To live in a community means that we can’t always have it our way.  However, as we learn in Pirke Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”[5] If we each give a little we can achieve great things together.

7.  Duty– Finally, we come to duty.  Once our unit was at annual training at Ft. Lewis.  On the last day in our office space, we were all anxious to get home, so we decided to begin breaking down the equipment and packing it away.  Imagine the chagrin of our commander when he walked in to show off his space to his boss, only to find it in various stages of disarray.  What impressed me incredibly was a young captain who faced the Colonel and said, “I was the highest ranking person in the building when this decision was made; I take responsibility.”  To see this young man stand up and do his duty was remarkable.   What made his action even more admirable was that he did not confess after being caught- he openly and readily acknowledged his role.

On this holiest day of the year, we too are called upon to answer for our actions, to respond, to take responsibility for our sins and wrongdoings.  No more mitigating circumstances, no pointing the finger at others or blaming our misfortunes for our wrong choices.  We read in the machzor, “For we are neither so arrogant nor so stubborn as to declare before You, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, ‘we are righteous and we have not sinned,’ but we have sinned.”

Our tradition teaches that we each have the freedom to choose our own actions, to do our duty or to ignore it.    “If God decreed,” asks Maimonides, “that a person should be righteous or wicked, or if there was a force in nature which irresistibly drew him to a particular course. . . What room would there be for the whole of the Torah?  By what right or justice could God punish the wicked or reward the righteous?”[6]  Because we have the ability to choose, we are responsible for our choices.

Today is the day when we must set pretense aside, stand up and be accountable for our actions.  “A weakened sense of responsibility,” it has been said,  “does not weaken the fact of responsibility.”[7] May our observance of this day strengthen our sense of duty.

Our commitment to live an honorable life is tested daily.  With every choice we make, we create personal habits, and these patterns will emerge whenever we face a tough decision.  If we wish to be more honest, more just, more charitable, more courageous, then we must discipline ourselves so that these virtues become our way of life.

Yom Kippur is a day on which we confess our wrongs.  We examine the ways we’ve missed the mark, the times we haven’t lived up to our moral standards, to our vision of who we want to be.  “We have trespassed, we have spoken slander, we have done wrong, we have spoken falsehood, we have gone astray and we have led others astray.”  We acknowledge that God knows our deepest secrets and our hidden flaws.

Yet, the message of the holiday is one of hope.  We can do teshuva, we can repent, we can change our ways, we can chart a new course and re-direct ourselves on a higher path.  As we fast and pray and study together during these 24 hours, may we seize this opportunity to influence our evaluation in a positive direction.  “If you won’t be better tomorrow than you were today,” asks Reb Nachman of Bratslav, “what need do you have for tomorrow?”  This is the ultimate question we each must ask ourselves during the course of this holiest day.

In anticipation of our annual evaluation in the Army, each officer is required to submit a DA Form 67-8-1, Officer Evaluation Support Form.  This form asks for our significant duties and responsibilities, our major performance objectives, and our significant contributions.  Our tradition provides us with our duties and responsibilities; we determine our objectives and contributions.  I encourage you to contemplate your metaphysical 67-8-1, and hope and pray that we will all receive top-block evaluations!

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Temple Chai

Phoenix, AZ





[1] AZ Republic, Sept. 18, 2012

[2] Sanhedrin 37a

[3]Telushkin, Joseph,  Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible

[4] Pirke Avot, 2:15

[5] Pirke Avot, 2:5

[6] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 5:4

[7] William Bennett, The Book of Virtues, NY:  Simon and Schuster, 1993, p. 186

For the Love of Yiddish- Rosh HaShana, 5773

May all your teeth fall out except one, so you can still have a toothache. May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground. If you can’t say anything nice, say it in Yiddish.
My dad’s parents, Jessie and Harold, were born, respectively, in Lynn, MA and Bloomfield, CT. My mom’s father, Hyman, was born in Brooklyn, her mom, Grandma Ruth, arrived from Vilna at the age of 2. Consequently, I grew up deprived of Yiddish. I have discovered, however, that simply by virtue of growing up in that certain time and place, I absorbed a basic vocabulary of wonderful, enriching, delicious Yiddish phrases.
A few months ago, I was standing at the nosh, (nosh, by the way, is a perfectly legitimate Yiddish word itself- you can follow along all the vocabulary I reference on your handout), and someone mentioned that they had just returned from a wedding or a Bar Mitzva or some such happy occasion. I responded in Yiddish- “af simchas,” which I understand to mean isn’t it great to travel to a simcha- a happy occasion, and one would hope to travel “nur af simchas,” only for happy occasions. The person looked at me with a blank stare, and I realized that we can’t take for granted this notion of a basic, working knowledge of the mamaloshen, the mother tongue.
So I thought I’d take this opportunity to kvetch about the potential demise of Yiddish, and to offer a little lesson on important Yiddish phrases to know and use, and what they say about Jewish values, though I am certainly no mayvin! I know that this is chutzpah on my part, assuming that you may not know all of these expressions and that you might even be interested. But, we are all landsmen here so I appeal to your Yiddishe kopf. You may think this is just narrishkeit- nonsense- but I’m here to tell you that the richness of Yiddish will add to the richness of your life.
We’ll begin with the mishpocheh- the family. Our families form, ideally, when we meet our beshert- the one intended for us. Beshert, by the way, can also be used generically for anything that just feels like it was meant to be.
Very often when we have batei din for conversion, the person who is choosing Judaism talks about how they were attracted to Judaism based on their experience of the warmth and closeness of the Jewish family. Now, Jewish mothers sometimes get a bad rap- we have a reputation for being, perhaps, slightly overwhelming and maybe excessively involved with the kinderlach, the children. But, the reality is that we should appreciate the fact that our families are involved in our lives and care about what happens to us- this is not something to be taken for granted. Despite the mishugas, the craziness, the mishpocheh is a wonderful aspect of Jewish life.
There IS a lot of pressure on Jewish kinder to excel- Jewish children have been referred to as nachas-machines for their parents, not to mention their Bubbes and Zeydes. Every parent wants to kvell, that is to have that special sense of pride in seeing our children excel. That’s why we resonate with this story- a young mother points with pride to her two children- one walking next to the stroller and one in the carriage. “The doctor,” she says, “is two, the lawyer is four.” No wonder Woody Allen joked that every Jew is either in therapy, just finished therapy, or is a therapist! Or this one- Mrs. Brownstein is talking to Mrs. Goldberg. “So tell me about your daughter?” asks Mrs. Brownstein. “Well,” Mrs. Goldberg replied, “When she was 18, she married a pediatrician and they had a little boy, but after a couple years they got divorced. Then, she married a prosperous dentist and they had twins, but again things didn’t work out and they got divorced. After that, she met a big lawyer and they got married and had a little girl, but that one just lasted three years, too. Now she’s engaged a fourth time, to the President of a bank.” “Oy!” said Mrs. Brownstein. “So much nachas from one child!”
But nachas just means that we value education, and here in the goldene medina, the United States- land of opportunity- Jews have, for the most part, been very successful precisely because we value learning for its own sake, and asking questions is an important cultural phenomenon. In addition to education it’s also good to have some sechel as well, some basic common sense. Otherwise, the term chacham could be applied to you in a slightly sarcastic manner, and you wouldn’t want to be THAT kind of chochem!
There’s the story of one young chochem who tells his Bubbe he is going to become a Doctor of Philosophy. “Nu,” says Bubbe, “that’s wonderful. But what kind of disease is philosophy?”
Family is so fundamental in Jewish life that Yiddish has words for relationships that we can’t really describe in English. Meet the machetunim! In English, it takes a long, convoluted phrase to introduce the parents of your child’s spouse, your child’s in-laws. In Yiddish, these essential folks are known as your mechuten and your machetennister- together, your machetunim! Too easy. Since you will be vying with them for the rest of your life as to where the kids, and, more importantly, the grandkids, will be spending the holidays, it’s good to have a shorthand way to refer to them. By the way, we know that there are two days of yontif due to the exigencies of the Hebrew calendar, but doesn’t it work out great as well to solve these potential conflicts among the mishpocheh?
Apropos of family, my daughters will not forgive me if I don’t include one of their favorite Yiddish words- fershtunkeneh, which literally means stinky but can be used more expansively to deride a plethora of moments- “I’d love to see you, mom, but I have to finish my fershtunkeneh homework.”
I mentioned the grandchildren, poo poo poo. Keyn ayin hara! The evil eye shouldn’t fall on them! As a people, the Jews are well acquainted with tzooris, with troubles and woes of every variety, and we know that you need to have a lot of mazal in life. Mazal, of course, is part of that well-known phrase, mazal tov, which we use as if it meant good luck or congratulations. Literally, mazal is a constellation, so when we wish someone mazal tov we are expressing the hope that all the stars will line up just right for them, that they will be blessed with mazal and not tzooris. The evil eye lurks everywhere, so we must be ever-vigilant- keyn ayin hara! Without a little mazal, gornisht helfen- nothing helps.
A Jewish patriarch was on the witness stand. “How old are you?” asked the District Attorney. “I am, kein ayin hora, 81”
“What was that?” “I said I am kein ayin hora 81.” “Just answer the question!” said the D.A. sharply. “Nothing else! Now, how old are you?” “Kein ayin hora, 81,” said the old man. Now the judge said, “The witness will answer the question and only the question without additional comment or be held in contempt of court.” Up rose the counsel for the defense. “Your Honor, may I ask the question?” He turned to the old man and said, “Kein ayin hora, how old are you?” Said the man, “81.”
You’ve gotta have mazal, because, as is well-known, “Mann trocht, und Gott lacht- Man plans and God laughs.” Things can have a way of not working out, especially if you are a shlimiel or a shlimazal. For the schlimiel and the schlimazel, we have rachmones, compassion.
So who are these poor unfortunates? The schlemiel is the person who never quite gets it right. If something CAN go wrong for the schlemiel, it WILL go wrong. The schlimazel, as the name implies, has no mazal- no luck. The classic distinction- the schlemiel is the one who spills the soup, the schlimazel is the one he spills it on! The shlimiel, the soup-spiller, might, in addition to being a shlimiel, also be a klutz.
So, you gotta have rachmones. The Jewish people are described in the Talmud as compassionate ones, the children of compassionate ones. While we are not above poking fun at our landsmen, fundamentally we are to have compassion. When God’s nature is revealed to Moses as Moses hides in the shelter of a rock, the first quality ascribed to the Holy One is El Rachum, a compassionate God. Rachamim is derived etymologically from the word rechem, meaning womb. It is an image of total nurturance and caring. Having rachmones for others is a beautiful value and one we should cultivate in our own lives.
So, here we are in shul at Temple Chai. Congregation, synagogue, temple- all nice words to describe our religious home, but I prefer, most of all, shul. Leon Wieseltheir writes that, “”Shul” is a warm word, a Jewish word. I have always found it to be the friendliest of Jewish words, even when I have spurned its friendship.”. I feel that! Shul is also the place where the machers, the big shots, get the appropriate kavod, honor, which they deserve.
Temple Chai, our shul, Chai, meaning, life. A place whose friendship is available to us whenever we choose. There is no more fundamental value than chayim, life, in Jewish tradition. As we read the story of creation in the Torah, each day we read- and God saw that it was good. Life- chayim- is what it’s all about, and thus we toast, “l’chayim- to life.” Chayim is the root of “mechaye,” a hard to translate word that can be ascribed to anything that we find life-affirming and that brings us joy. A glass of water on a hot day- a mechaye! A long talk with a good friend- a mechaye! Mechaye is an important word- it reminds us to be grateful for all the little things that make our lives worthwhile, to appreciate every moment as a gift. We may love to kvetch, but ultimately we know that we should focus on that which is a mechayeh.
Being in shul for the High Holidays is such a mechayeh, it reminds us of the ultimate, transcendent Jewish value, which is, to be a mensch. To be a mensch is the highest compliment we bestow upon each other. What more could any of want when we leave this earth than to be remembered as menschen- as kind, decent, honest, compassionate, caring human beings. The power of the High Holidays lies in the opportunity to remind ourselves of our highest aspirations, and to forgive ourselves and each other when we don’t quite make it. One of my favorite Yiddish words is- fargin, a hard to translate word that implies taking happiness in another’s happiness and allowing ourselves a little indulgence too. On the High Holidays we should fargin ourselves and our friends.
It is a shande that I don’t have more time for this conversation. I know I omitted many, many wonderful Yiddish words and phrases, but I have rachmones and don’t want to keep you here all day!
May all your prayers on these High Holy Days be answered, and you should zei gesund- be well. In the words of the famous Yiddish expression, we understand that God will provide- we only wish He would provide until He provides! May all of your needs go directly fun dein moyl in Got’s oi’eren arein!, from your mouth to God’s ears.



– you may listen to this talk at this link



Power of Community

Originally published in Jewish News of Greater Phoenix Online. September 21, 2012.


Vayelech, Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30

Moses’ life is drawing to a close. With his final breath, he encourages Joshua and the people to be strong and fearless, and to maintain their awe of the Holy One. What is the source of this communal power? In Deuteronomy 31:12, Moses establishes a ritual. The whole community comes together to share words of Torah – men and women, children and strangers. The power of the community is the foundation of Jewish life.

At this season of the year, we each, individually, contemplate our legacy. We imagine ourselves in Moses’ situation, we imagine that our lives could end at any moment (as, indeed, they could), and we reflect on the values for which we would hope to be remembered. We engage in this process in the context of community. These holidays are wryly known as the “Hi” holidays – we say “hi” to people we love and renew the important relationships in our lives.

I was having dinner with friends, and a woman who works from home commented that when she wants to take a break from work and have a moment of human connection, she turns to Facebook. Another diner at the table was appalled – “THAT’S not a human connection!” While Facebook is a great vehicle for staying in touch and sharing updates on the goings-on in our lives, it is, in fact, not a substitute for the human touch and the caring concern of friends, family and community. Jane Howard puts it this way, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”

During these days of awe we pray for forgiveness, we beg God – slach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu  – forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. The word m’chal comes from the root meaning mechol, a circle. When we are hurt, the circle of our lives is broken. Forgiveness repairs that breach so that we once again have a sense of wholeness. No wonder we form our challah into circular shapes, as we return on this Sabbath of Return to reconnect with our essential selves and with our beloved community.

We need each other to create a safe, caring and just world for ourselves and our families. We need each other to pass our values on to our children. We need the strength that comes from a spiritual community.

Every Jew has a place in the Jewish community. In every mitzvah we perform, we are in relationship – with God, with each other. The story is told of a young Chasid who complained to his rebbe that he was depressed. He felt alone, there was illness and a business setback in his family, and he was afraid that God didn’t care about him. The man was sitting with the rebbe in front of the fireplace, and the fire was just about to go out. There were only scattered embers in the fireplace. The rebbe took the poker and stoked the embers into a heap. There was a burst of flame, and new warmth emerged from the fire. “You see?” the rebbe asked as he gently stoked the fire. “Do you see what happened when I gathered the embers closer together? The fire came back to life. But when the embers were scattered and separated from each other, they weakened and almost died out. It’s the same with people, you know,” the rebbe continued. “When we are alone and separated or disconnected from each other, our spirits are in danger of dying out. But when we huddle together, we receive warmth and comfort from one another, and our hope is renewed.”

Living a Jewish life is about service and commitment. It is about binding ourselves voluntarily to Torah ideals and actions. “What we do as individuals,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is a trivial episode. What we attain as Israel causes us to become a part of eternity.”

Book Contribution

I’m very proud to share my contribution to a new book, On Sacred Ground:  Jewish and Christian Clergy Reflect on Transformative Passages From The Five Books of Moses, edited by Jeff Bernhardt and published by Blackbird Books.

“And it shall be, when you come close to war, the priest shall approach and speak to the people.”- Deuteronomy 20:2

Having served as a Chaplain in the United States Army Reserve for over 32 years, this verse has always been near and dear to my heart.  I appreciate the recognition, even thousands of years ago, that Soldiers preparing to go into battle need and deserve religious support.  Chaplains today, just like priests in the Tanach, offer comfort, encouragement, a listening ear and a caring presence.

Judaism is not a pacifist tradition. We believe not only in the right, but the obligation to self-defense. If someone is seeking to kill you, we read in the Talmud, “rise up earlier and kill him first” (Sanhdedrin 72a).  We hope and pray and work for a Messianic age, a time of universal peace and well-being, but, until that blessed day arrives, we must also recognize the importance of a well-trained Army to defend our people and our way of life.

We are adjured in Psalms (34:14) to seek peace and pursue it, and prayers for peace are a major focus of our liturgy.  It was King Solomon, whose very name comes from the root shalom, meaning peace, who built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem ; this honor was denied to King David, the triumphant warrior.

While war may at times be necessary, as Jews we are taught never to rejoice in the suffering of our enemies. At the Passover Seder, we spill a drop of wine from our cups, symbol of rejoicing, as we recall the 10 plagues. The plagues were a necessary part of our journey towards liberation, yet our celebration is muted.

Chaplains are non-combatants-  we do not carry weapons, we are not trained to fight. We are there to minister to the religious needs of the troops, and, as such, we are an essential part of the military force. No one likes war; no one wants war. No one prays for peace with more fervor than the Soldier who stands ready to lay down his or her life for our country. Yet I am not a pacifist. I believe that there are times when war is justified. War is always a horrible tragedy, but it is not necessarily immoral.

I am proud to consider among my many identities as wife, as mother, as rabbi, as teacher, as friend, yet another as an American Soldier. When our country determines that the time has come to take up arms and go to war, our Jewish Soldiers need to have rabbis who are trained and ready to deploy alongside them, to be there to offer spiritual direction. I am proud to be among those who have the incredible honor and privilege to be with them on their journey- when we come close to war, I pray that my words will inspire and comfort those to whom I speak.

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