Setting the Tone

Setting the Tone 

by Rabbi David Weizman


On the way back from drop off in the morning, a black SUV was being chased by a pickup truck. They cut through the lanes closely in front of cars like mine, but came to a halt at a stop light. As I approached the line, I could see the pickup driver speaking to the other driver in an animated way, and as he was turning left, saluting with the middle finger of his right hand. I felt fortunate that no crash occurred and that he only pulled out his finger and not a weapon. But it was a disquieting episode which interrupted an otherwise peaceful drive, listening to the BBC World News Happy Hour.  Fast forward to the end of the day, another auto moment, turning left out of the subdivision towards Hebrew School. A motorcycle approached from the East. Coming into view was a man in a black leather suit, no helmet, and he too was saluting me with that single finger I had seen in the morning. I am not sure how I merited that great honor, but glad I was that our six year old was looking the other way. Road rage is nothing new. The fact that any size human sits on the power of two hundred horses and is enclosed in steel armor could give anyone a sense of confidence. But what occurred to me that day, was how easy it is to become angry, and also, how easy it is to be swept up in the feeling.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of real violence, and if you follow the news, you might think that’s all that goes on in the world. That exposure could contribute to atmosphere of aggression, impatience, and intolerance. Now, more than ever, we need positive role models who speak in the language of mutual respect and cooperation, voices that will encourage us to be generous of heart, understanding of the other, and communal in our world view of humanity and the ecology we belong to. These attributes are the ones that the Torah speaks, and that is why our sages directed us to recite passages that remind us of these values every morning as we begin our day.

After the recitation of the blessing for Torah study, the siddur includes three passages to fulfill the commandment. The first one is from the Torah, Birkat Kohanim; the threefold Priestly Blessing. Just as we desire God’s grace and light to shine upon us, showing us the path of peace, we are reminded to be the agents of that grace.

The second passage is taken from the Mishna, teachings from the Oral Torah from the first two centuries of the Common Era, extrapolations on the laws from the Torah. We are instructed to make sure that those in need have food to eat, to support our religious institutions, in those days, the Temple, and to engage in acts of loving kindness, and to study Torah. For these things there is no prescribed measure, therefore we give according to our ability; giving graciously.

The third passage is taken from the Talmud which teaches us that each act of hessed is like making a payment to our investment fund. The interest from which we live on, but the principal is left for our ultimate retirement. Here is the short list: honoring your parents, acts of kindness, being punctual, providing hospitality, visiting the sick, helping the needy bride, attending to the dead, delving into prayer, and being a peace maker. This teaching ends with the statement that the study of Torah is equal to all of the others. Why? Because study brings these mitzvot into consciousness.

This morning, several cars around mine, in three lanes of solid traffic, maneuvered around to let someone turn left onto a side street. A good way to start the day.


“Soakin’ It Up”

“Soakin’ It Up”

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

On our first day of studies at the Seminary, one of the professors adjured us to make the most of our experience and to study as much as possible while we had this glorious uninterrupted opportunity. To remind us of this advice, he addressed the group with the following blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ לַעֲסוֹק בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה


Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam,  Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvotav V’Tziva’nu  La’asok B’divrei Torah.


Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the Universe, Who has commanded us to be involved with words of Torah.

La’asok is typically translated as “to occupy, to involve, or be busy with”.  But the professor’s twist on the classic translation made a deeper impression. He explained to us that when we say “la’asok b’divrei Torah,” each morning in prayer, it is a reminder to “soak it all up” – not only words of Torah, but the whole experience of a vibrant Jewish life. When we soak it up, the feeling of Torah permeates all of our activities, our actions and interactions.  The words become part of us and part of all that we do.

The plea to “soak it up” has resonated with me throughout the years.  But, I found this blessing is more than just a play on words.  Most of the time, when we recite a blessing for a commanded activity, the blessing is immediately followed by the action associated with it. For instance, lighting the Hanukkah candles, waiving the Lulav and Etrog, or partaking in a meal. The blessing and tandem action are in close proximity in order to sustain the continuity of intention (kavanah).  However, the blessing for Torah study is unique in this regard. One can recite the blessing early in the morning and literally not attend to a single word of text until late at night. Yet, the blessing still holds for that entire time.  An explanation is offered:

The reason for this is that our activities during the day are not actually a distraction.  If a busy physician goes to synagogue in the morning, rushes home, sees patients, and then finally in the evening, sits down and learns Torah, ten hours might have lapsed between the blessing and the Torah study. But there was really no interruption at all, because healing the sick is a commandment in the Torah. Similarly, the blessing is valid for a business person who rushes from prayer in the morning to work all day and only sits down to study Torah in the evening. The purpose of making money is to support one’s family and to give to the poor…. Whatever your profession is, it is somehow connected to Torah. There is never an interruption. … All of our activities should ideally be directed toward one goal: following the teachings (i.e., being involved with the words of the Torah. (Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth, Guide to Jewish Prayer, 30-31)

The goal of involving oneself with Torah is not limited to the attainment of book knowledge. The goal is to absorb and to elevate all of our actions (even our distractions) to the level of Torah. The Hebrew word Torah literally means “light” or “direction”. So when we thank God for the commandment to “soak it up”, we are directing our hearts to soak up the light and direction where ever we find it and where ever we create it. We pray that everything we do – our vocations, avocations, even our down time, will serve as meaningful and purposeful expressions of the light, wisdom and good we have absorbed through our study.

Enwrapped By The Divine Presence


By Rabbi David Weizman

Imagine a pastoral scene in the rolling hills of Rumania, sometime in the early 1930’s. It is late spring and little Yankle is taking the sheep out to pasture. He has one of the lambs tethered behind him for safe keeping. The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and the smell of new grass and wildflowers fill the air.  Suddenly he feels a tug. The lamb has just nibbled off one of the four fringes of his tallit katan. Yankle realizes his predicament and, with as much force as he can muster, yells Gevalt! Over and over again. You see, he learned in the Mishnah Berurah (8:1), that one is not permitted to walk more than four cubits (approximately six feet) without the arbah kanfos, the four fringes. Now he had only three. He was trapped in his own dalet amos up there on the hill.

Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, known as Tzitz Eliezer after his book on Jewish law, rules that one must wear a tallit kattan even in extreme heat. I had a camper on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park one time, the only boy among eight girls, who paddled the canoe without a shirt, but left on the arbah kanfos to uphold this ruling by the Tzitz Eliezer.

The commandment for wearing the tzizit is derived from the Torah, Numbers 15:37-41, the passage we read as the third paragraph of the Shemah. It is specific to a four cornered garment, which in antiquity, was a common article of clothing. However, since we do not wear such clothing for many years, the prayer shawl became the instrument through which to fulfil the ­mitzvah of tzizit. The purpose of the fringes, as explained in the Torah passage, is to remind us of all of the commandments, and to live a life of holiness. Therefore, the custom of wearing a small tallit emerged so that one could wear the tzitit all day long. If you do so, and are planning to wear a tallit gadol for prayer, you need only to recite the blessing for the latter. As a meditation before donning the tallit we recite the opening verses from psalm 104: 1-2

My soul, bless Adonai, Adonai, my God, You are so greatly exalted.                                       

With beauty and splendor You are clothed, Enwrapped in light like a garment, You spread out the heavens like a curtain

 בָּֽרֲכִ֥י נַפְשִׁ֗י אֶת־יְה֫וָ֥ה יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱ֭לֹהַי גָּדַ֣לְתָּ מְּאֹ֑ד ה֖וֹד וְהָדָ֣ר לָבָֽשְׁתָּ: עֹ֣טֶה א֭וֹר כַּשַּׂלְמָ֑ה נוֹטֶ֣ה שָׁ֝מַ֗יִם כַּיְרִיעָֽה

Before putting on the tallit, the fringes are examined so that they are not tangled and that their length is at least one handbreath. The attarah, or the band that is placed either on your forehead or around the back of your neck is held facing you while the blessing is recited.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God and Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to enwrap ourselves with tzitzit.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ לְהִתְעַטֵּף בַּצִּיצִת

Then the following intention is recited:

May it be Your will Adonai, my God and God of my ancestors,

To consider my fulfillment of the commandment of tzitzit before You,

As though I had fulfilled it in every detail, accurately and with full intent,

And the 613 commandments that it represents as well.

The numerical value of the Hebrew word, tzitzit equals 600. Add the eight threads and the five knots and you have 613, the number of commandments in the Torah.

The tallit, weather large or small, is wrapped around the head for a moment to meditate on the symbolism of the tzitzit, and to feel enwrapped by the wings of the Divine Presence. Then the tallit is hung into place over the shoulders.

In our congregation, we do not consider the tallit to be begged ish (men’s clothing) and that the mitzvah is applicable to both men and women who are of the age of majority. Therefore we encourage all to embrace this mitzvah, to acquire techielet, the blue thread, and to tie your own tzitzit with them, to wear them during tefilah, and even if it is not your tradition, to wear a tallit upon taking an aliyah l’Torah.

“Living in Our Element”: Connecting Body and Soul

“Living in Our Element”:  Connecting Body and Soul

Rabbi Danielle Upbin


In college, a favorite past time among my group of friends was drumming and singing Native American chants. I recall one in particular – “The Element Chant”: Earth my body, water my blood, air by breath and fire my spirit/ We are a circle with no beginning and never ending.


While the lyrics aren’t exactly plucked out of the Jewish tradition, they absolutely resonate with

a Jewish ideology that celebrates the blessing of both a healthy body and spirit.  Our tradition does not ask us to choose one over the other. It recognizes the value of a working body in tandem with an attuned soul. Actually, drumming and chanting together create a beautiful expression of this balance because they require an integrated engagement of body and spirit. But even without a drum, one can readily make the connection. In our morning prayers, the Siddur scripts an offering of gratitude.


The prayer, Asher Yatzar, found at the beginning of most prayer books, recognizes and celebrates the creaturely part of our existence – our “earth and water”. Some people lovingly refer to this prayer as “The Bathroom Prayer” because it references the glory of “unclogged pipes”. Some readers get a chuckle out of the mention of the “Throne of Glory” as well….  The prayer reminds us not to take our health for granted.  Every orifice and organ is there for a reason, so the prayer goes. Our tradition encourages us to pause during our morning personal rituals to reflect on the miracle of the body. Here is the prayer:


בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה, וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים, חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדֽוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶֽךָ, שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵֽחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶֽיךָ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת.


Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Me’lech Ha’olam, asher ya’tzar et a’adam b’chochma u’vara vo nekavim, nekavim, chalulim, chalulim, galu’i v’yadu’a lifnei kisei k’vodecha, she’im ye’fa’te’ach echad me’hem o ye’sa’tem echad me’hem, ee-efshar l’hitkayem la’amod le’fa’necha. Baruch Ata Adonai, Rof’ai kol basar u’maf’lee la’asot. 


Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who fashioned humans with wisdom, and created within them many openings and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if even one of them were to be opened (that is supposed to be closed) or if even one of them were to be blocked (that is supposed to be open), it would be impossible to be sustained and stand before You. Blessed are You, God, Who heals all bodies and acts wondrously.


The tandem prayer, “Elohai Neshama” – gives thanks for our pure soul – the “air and fire” animating our being. “My God, the soul You have given me is pure.”  Our breath is our soul-connection traced back to the Divine breath shared with Adam Ha’Rishon, the first human (Genesis 2:7) into whose being God first breathed life.


A word play in the Hebrew language makes this connection evident: In Hebrew, Neshama means Soul/Neshima means Breath.  Each morning, we affirm our appreciation of the gift of this SoulBreath and for ability to tap into the Divine spark within us. The prayer makes it clear that the soul is our essential, but only on loan for our limited run.  We are reminded that as long as we have this life sustaining energy within us, it is our duty to praise and thank the Spirit’s Creator.  Here are the words of the prayer:


אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא. אַתָּה בְרָאתָהּ, אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ, אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי, וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי, וְאַתָּה עָתִיד לִטְּלָהּ מִמֶּֽנִּי, וּלְהַחֲזִירָהּ בִּי לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא. כָּל זְמַן שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמָה בְקִרְבִּי, מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהַי וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתַי, רִבּוֹן כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים, אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּחֲזִיר נְשָׁמוֹת לִפְגָרִים מֵתִים.

Elohai Neshama she’natata bee, tehora hee.

Ata b’rata, Ata yetzarta, Ata nefachta bee,

v’Ata m’shamra b’kirbee,

v’Ata atid l’tila mi’meni,

u’l’hachzira bee l’atid la’vo.

Kol z’man she’han’shama b’kirbi,

modeh ani l’fane’cha,

Adonai Elohai avo’tai, Ri’bon kol ha’ma’asim,

Adon kol haneshamot.

Baruch ata Adonai, h’amechazir neshamot lifgarim me’tim.


My God, the soul you have given me is pure. You made it, You created it, You placed it within me, and in the future, You will take it from me in order to return in to me in the time to come. All the time that my soul resides in me, I offer praise to You, my God and God of my ancestors, Ruler of all creation, Master of the souls. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who returns souls to lifeless bodies.


The power of this prayer hit me one morning when I happened upon a group of Jewish day school children in morning prayers, chanting first line over and over with fervent gusto –  clapping, dancing, and full of joy. It reminded me of those drum circles from my past. Proudly, I joined in, clearly in my “element” singing with all my kishkes –  body, soul, breath and spirit.


As we welcome each new day, may we be blessed with a healthy cognizance of our Whole Body/SoulBody connection. Let us commit to honoring the value of our health and the limitless of our spirit.

Holy Vessel

Nitilat Ya’dayim: “Holy Vessel”

By Rabbi David Weizman


Before Air B ‘n B, we had a house guest who was a chaplain in the Israel Defense Forces. In the morning he was surprised and pleased to find a becher by the kitchen sink. That is Yiddish for the hand washing cup that has two handles.

In Hebrew, the word for this cup is nat’lah, and the blessing that we recite over the ritual washing of the hands is called nitielat ya’dayim. We usually associate this ritual practice as something which we do before we eat a meal that begins with bread and the blessing of Ha’motze. However, this ritual washing is done at other times as well, like when you leave the cemetery, or before the Kohanim bless the congregation during prayer. The words of the blessing, nitielat ya’dayim, literally mean to raise the hands; symbolically, to higher state of holiness. So why do we perform this ritual in the morning?

Our Talmud teacher, Rabbi Ed Girshfield who hailed from Winnipeg, explained it in the following way. During the night, our predecessors believed that we experience a sort of partial death. And because of that, the shadim, the shadowy spirits would come and cover you like a willowy shroud. But with the first bit of light from the dawn and a slight stirring of the body, they would make their escape by way of the extremities, the hands and the fingers being the points of last departure. They would however, leave a bit of residue on the fingernails. And so was conceived the practice of keeping neggel wasser at the bedside, to wash of the nails as soon as possible upon waking. Those more brave souls make a break for the kitchen sink before you can say the word, go. The cup is taken in the left hand and the water poured over the right, once on the top and then the palm, then the left hand. Some repeat this process three times. The hands are dried with a towel and the blessing is recited.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech Ha’olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu al nitielat ya’dayim.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, instilling holiness within us through the performance of Your commandments, who has directed us to raise up our hands.

You may have noticed that the prayer, Modeh Ani, does not contain the name of God. Before we utter the Name, we make ourselves a holy vessel, and this is the real kavanah, the intention of the washing ritual. Through this purification, we become that cup, ready to be filled with the presence of God.

The Talmud teaches: kol berchah sh’ain bah hazkarat HaShem, ainah berchah (Berachot 12a). Every blessing must contain the Name of God. As we recite these blessings throughout the day, we bring the Presence into this world through our consciousness, so that everything we do is infused with holiness: my work I do in holiness, I talk to my friends b’kdushah, in holiness; I eat my food b’kedushah. Everything I do is meant to raise me up as an agent, and a conduit for the Divine Presence. Not only are we the vessel, but it’s as though we are the water as well.



Waking Up

Modeh Ani: “Waking Up on the Right Side of the Bed”

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

For some, waking up is the first challenge of the day. When you have late-night binge watched on Netflix or stayed up late (again) working on a project, how are you supposed to “rise and shine”? In Jewish terms, “One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning for the service of his Creator.” (Mishnah Brurah 1:1) Sounds great! But then add the reality of awakening to the cell-phone-fumble, getting screen-blinded, pressing snooze a hundred times, begging our technology for “one more GPS minute” – it isn’t easy.

According to our tradition, however, no matter when, how or where we wake up in the morning, we are soul-directed to re-orient our thoughts to loftier words than the ones we might want to say at day break – Instead, we utter “Modeh Ani”– the quintessence of gratitude.


Modeh Ani L’fanecha

Melech chai v’kayam

She’he’che’zarta bi nishmati

Rabbah Emunatecha


מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם, שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ

Thankful, I am before You

Living and enduring King,

for returning my soul to me,

how great is Your faith.

Yes, the translation sounds like“Yoda back from the dead”, but that is just the nature of translation. The full force of the prayer comes from the wisdom that “gratitude” – not “ego” – is our raison d’etre. The rabbis who composed this prayer believed that sleep was a mini-death. To awaken from sleep was to be given another shot at life. To die another day, as it were.  But the prayer also has a wider application for the modern riser:

The first conscious thought of our day is “Thank You”.  Not just for another day, but for all that the day entails, all the wonderful people in it, all of the new opportunities awaiting us.  Without these words, our body wants to say – “five more minutes” or “bathroom please”, or  “need caffeine now”.  But, our soul won’t have it. Those creaturely habits can wait a second while we direct our consciousness toward the amazing fact of the New Day and having the wherewithal to express gratitude.

The second element of this prayer is the clincher. Usually when we think about faith, we tune into our faith in God. However, this prayer stipulates that God has faith in us. Rabba Emunatecha – How Great is Your Faith.

A teacher of mine in Sefad, Rabbi Gedalia Gurfein, once taught about this: It is obvious, he said, that God has faith in you – because you are here to tell the tale.  The real question is – do YOU have faith in you?  Do you believe in your own ability, your own power, your own purpose?  Those are the essential questions accompanying our first conscious breath of the day.

May each of us strive to greet the day again and again with the positive power of faith – in God, in humanity, in ourselves. May this faith energize us to power through our many gifted days.