Dvar Torah for Matot-Masei 5782

This week we close out the book of Bamidbar with a double parshah, Matot, meaning “Tribes”, and Masei, meaning “Travels” or “Trips” – this is the same word found in the name of our congregational religious school that we call Masa B’Yachad, or “Journey Together”.

This is a pretty technical parsha, and while there are some action scenes, there’s also a lot of material that doesn’t really support the narrative structure. Matot opens with some legal discussion about vows (specifically by women, and when they do and don’t count); and it proceeds to a Netflix-worthy scene of the Israelites’ slaughter of their enemies. But then it goes into this extremely detailed accounting of the spoils of the battle, how much was allocated to each tribe, and exactly what percentage was levied off to support the Levi’im. This is the parsha that makes you ask, “what would 675,000 sheep actually look like, and how would you possibly go about counting them all??” …lest we forget that we are, after all, nearing the end of the book of Numbers.

And a lot of Masei, as you might expect, is literally a long list of all the places the Israelites encamped in their sojourn in the desert. But one of the things that was interesting to me about this reading is that it’s full of callbacks to other recent parshiyot. We hear about the death of the prophet Bilaam, who gets put to the sword during that slaughter of Israel’s enemies. It turns out that his blessing of Israel in Parshat Balak two weeks ago was not enough to excuse him for helping corrupt the Israelites at Ba’al Peor a few pages later. We hear about Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, the priestly zealot and the hero of Ba’al Peor, who had the cliffhanger ending at the end of Balak and then got his own parsha last week. And we get the wrap-up to the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad, whose inheritance was discussed last week at the end of Parshat Pinchas. So there’s a complicated intertwining of all of these stories that behaves almost like that Netflix drama you’re going to sit down and binge-watch. (In case you can’t tell, I watched all of Stranger Things 4 this week.)

And even within today’s double parsha, we get this self-referential quality, because once we get through the list of the Travels, Parshat Masei is even more occupied with the tribes and their concerns than the parsha actually called Matot. The middle of Masei explains all the chieftainships assigned to the different tribes. And the final chapter of Masei, that we’ll read today, uses the word Matot or Mateh, “tribes” or “tribe”, 15 times within 10 verses, because the case of the daughters of Tzelofchad is highly significant to the interests of the tribes and the tribal system. So it’s like Matot is the kernel, the heart, of the book of Masei, and Masei is a kind of tribal scrapbook of their journeys along the way. 

Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman* offers a teaching about Masei in the name of Rabbi Art Green, that the long list of locations is the shorthand for a lot of stories: some that are pleasant to recall, and some not so pleasant. “But at the end of the journey, there is a certain value to remembering all the trips, to knowing that they all, however misguided and stupid they may seem in retrospect, went into one’s life, and together constitute a source for a certain kind of wisdom.” Personally, I know I find this in my own life; there are certainly episodes that I wouldn’t do the same way again, but at the same time I can’t exactly regret them because every step is part of the journey that brought me to this time and this place. 

Life really is about the journey, for good or ill, and that is why we have to remember where we’ve been. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek – may we all be strengthened by the memories of our steps along the way. And may we all make it to the Promised Land, even if it takes us til next season to get there. Shabbat shalom!

Tu BiShvat and the Kabbalistic Four Worlds

(No, it’s not a new Harry Potter knockoff series, although couldn’t you just see that?)

tl;dr It’s the New Year of the Trees, so join me tonight at 6pm CST / 7pm EST for a virtual Tu B’Shvat seder with the Tremont St. Shul. Email or PM me for the Zoom info. BYOF – Bring Your Own Fruit!

Some 20 years ago, I was running the 20s&30s young adult group at my synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom of Cambridge (MA), a.k.a. the Tremont Street Shul. I believe the first time we ran a formal Tu B’Shvat seder was in 2001, because I stayed up all night cobbling together a seder packet, which you can still download today from my website. It was a popular event year after year, with fruit platters, red and white wine, candles and eucalyptus branches on the tables. I’ve always had a fondness since then for Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees.

In 2020 and 2021, as we all became Zoom-based lifeforms in the wake of the Covid pandemic, synagogues (like most organizations) began searching for ways to build virtual community. In the spring of 2021, TBS had the great idea to run a virtual Tu Bishvat program and send out fruit baskets to their members, and they asked me to run an abridged version of the seder. It was really an honor to participate and a joy to see so many of my old chevre.

It went over well enough that they’re doing it again for 2022, tonight at 7pm EST (6pm CST). It’s free and open to the public, so contact me if you’d like the Zoom information, or sign up here.

Below are my notes from last year, since I had my script mostly written out. This year we’ll try to make it a little more focused and in-depth, but this is good background for anyone.


Tu B’Shvat, the 15th of the month of Shvat, is mentioned in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah as one of four “New Years”, the New Year of the Trees. But it didn’t start out as a holiday with ethical messages, special celebrations, or rituals. Originally it was a legal tool for counting the age of a tree, which was important for two reasons: orlah and ma’aser.

  • Ma’aser is the tithe, meaning one-tenth of a given year’s produce went to support the cohanim and levi’im, the priestly castes, who could not own land.
  • Orlah is the fruit produced during a tree’s first three years. According to Jewish law, this fruit may not be eaten or sold; it is set aside, left alone, as a reminder that all food comes from G-d. The question is, how do we know how old a tree is for purposes of counting orlah? Rather than remembering the age of each individual tree. Jewish law established 15 Shvat as the birthday of all fruit-bearing trees. As of 15 Shvat, every tree is considered one year older. So you might call it “the fiscal year-end of the trees”.

The Kabbalists noted that this teaching in the Mishnah actually says “the tree,” ilan, rather than the plural “trees,” ilanot. Why? They said that this refers to the cosmic Tree of Life, which was one of their central metaphors for reality. The roots of the Tree of Life are in heaven; the sap of Divine vitality and life flows downward through its trunk and branches to renew and energize the world at every moment.

The Kabbalists invented the idea of a seder to celebrate Tu BiShvat. As part of their seder, they placed pitchers of both white and red wine on the table. For them, white represented hibernation, the waning of life’s power during the winter months of shrinking sunlight. Red represented the reawakening and gradual strengthening of nature’s life force. Through the seder, as we will see, they acted out and fostered the ascendance of this life force. With the triumph of the red, spring would not be far behind.

The Kabbalah speaks of four worlds. Each lower world is farther from the Infinite One; it receives its life and vitality from the world above it. Each higher world infuses the world below it as its essence. Each lower world is a “garment” or a shell for the world above it. So in order from highest to lowest, the worlds are:

  • Atzilut, nearness to G-d or Emanation directly from G-d.
  • Beriah, Creation – at the Divine level;
  • Yetzirah, Formation – the world of the angels;
  • Asiyah, Action or Completion – our own material world.

The mystic goal is to reach G-d at the center of reality. We’re going to start in our own material world of Asiyah and work inwards and upwards toward the Divine emanation. Here’s how we do it:

In the Tu BiShvat seder, we classify fruits and nuts into four categories that represent the four worlds. The analogy is based on the word kelippa, “shell”, which in Kabbalah signifies a negative force that conceals G-dliness. The categories are based on the physical structures of the fruits.


The world of Asiyah is the level of material existence at its most basic. The fruits we eat are the most weighed down by their physicality.

The first cup of wine is completely white. It symbolizes the white of winter, the sleeping earth. The growth of the past year is completed; the potential for next year’s growth lies dormant until the time is ripe.

Asiyah is represented by fruits and nuts with an edible inside but an inedible outer shell or peel, because in this world, the path to the center is blocked from the start.

  • citrus, coconut, tree nuts: borei pri ha-eitz
  • bananas: borei pri ha-adamah


Yetzirah is the world of Formation – the process of creating Something out of Something else at hand.

Yetzirah represents birth and renewal. So the second cup of wine symbolizes spring, the time of rebirth. It is white just touched with red, the color of the swelling blossoms on the tree which will eventually become the fruit.

Yetzirah is represented by fruits with a soft, edible outside but a hard inner pit, because in this world, we are closer to G-d, but the center is still blocked.

  • dates, olives, mangoes, stone fruit: borei pri ha-eitz


Beriah is the level of Divine Creation – of causing Something to arise from Nothingness, as only the Holy One can create: purely by means of linguistic movement.

The third cup of wine consists of equal parts red and white. This “balance of powers” gives it the brightest hue of red, as it shines with more light than red wine alone. It blazes like the moon in its fullness or the sun at its zenith. It symbolizes summer: the time of luxuriant growth, of nature in full bloom.

Beriah is represented by fruits that are totally soft and edible, with no interfering husk, shell or pit- because this world is nearer to G-d so that there is no obstacle to our communion with G-d. These fruits are the closest to pure emanation, and are both the most vulnerable and the most accessible to us. The more vulnerable and accessible we are, the closer we can come to G-d and the purity of creation.

  • strawberries, raspberries: borei pri ha-adamah
  • grapes, blueberries, apples, pears, figs: borei pri ha-eitz


Atzilut is the world of Divine Emanation directly from the Ein-Sof, the Limitless One. Contained in these emanations is the potential for all possibilities. This is the world of silence, of nothingness, of pre-creation.

The fourth and last cup of wine, symbolizing autumn, is the deepest shade of red. It is the color of life’s blood spilled, of leaves at their most brilliant before they fall to the ground. It is the color of fruits fully ripened which are now ready for harvest, ready to pass on their life essence to nourish and sustain. It is the last color of the setting of the sun – and also, the first color of its rising.

The world of Atzilut cannot be symbolized by a fruit’s physical characteristics. However, it can be suggested by the scent of a fragrant fruit. The Rabbis taught that a pleasant scent delights and benefits the soul, rather than the body.

It turns out that there is a special halachic category for fruits that are enjoyed for fragrance rather than flavor. Members of this rarefied category include etrog and quince (both good for making into jelly, but not eating out of hand). So on these there is a special blessing, for smelling rather than eating them:

  • etrog, quince: ha-notein reiach tov ba-peirot, “Who gives a good fragrance to fruits.”

We’ve also included some special tree products in this category that aren’t fruit, but are used as spices.

  • cinnamon, bay, juniper: borei atzei besamim


To wind up the seder, we broke out into small groups, and I offered the following discussion questions. (For the 2022 seder, I’m planning to incorporate these more centrally into the seder format.)

  • World 1: What does it feel like when our intention is blocked from the outside?
  • World 2: What does it feel like when our intention is blocked from the inside?
  • World 3: What does it feel like when our intention moves freely through us?
  • World 4: What does it feel like when our experience transcends our intention?

Tu B’Shevat Sameach, everyone!

The Jewish Advocate interviews me

My writer friend Michael A. Burstein sometimes writes for The Jewish Advocate, which is the local Jewish community newspaper in Boston. He is also a regular attendee of Arisia, so he pitched an article to the Advocate regarding the Friday night davening and the new siddur, and he interviewed me for it.

Observant Jews ‘daven’ long, prosper at area sci-fi con

The article made the front page of this week’s paper (!), but like all their digital content, it’s behind a paywall. (Boston locals please note: If you’re not an Advocate subscriber, you can still pick up an individual copy at the Israel Book Shop in Brookline… if the snow emergency ever ends!) So rather than the article itself, I give you the (slightly edited) text of my interview answers instead.

Continue reading

Free Printable Friday Night Prayerbook (Condensed Edition)

This past weekend was the Arisia science fiction convention, which is put on each January by several hundred of my closest friends in Boston, MA. I attended almost every Arisia from 1999 to 2014 (after which I moved back to the Midwest). In 2006, since all my geeky shul friends were attending the convention anyway, I started organizing a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service at the convention hotel. Those of us who were on the synagogue board borrowed a large (and heavy!) crate of assorted prayerbooks from Temple Beth Shalom of Cambridge every year to make the service happen.

This service, I am happy to say, is still going on, organized by Terri Ash (of Geek Calligraphy) and her family. But for 2017, Terri wanted a pamphlet-style siddur containing only the prayers for Friday night, that could be stored from year to year just for Arisia. But we weren’t aware of any existing siddur that fit our needs, so, what do we do? Build our own (based on the extensive resources available at the groundbreaking OpenSiddur.org website). She asked “Who wants to help make this happen?” and of course I said “Here I am!”  Continue reading

New art piece: To Everything There Is A Season

Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul (which means only one month to Rosh Hashanah). In honor of the new Hebrew month, I’m debuting a new art piece!

As a young teenager, I was deeply into the music of the 1960s, and I still remember getting goosebumps the first time I heard the Byrds’ 1965 hit recording of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)”.

I knew it was taken from a passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes, though I didn’t know much more about it than that. Much later, I experienced Ecclesiastes as the Hebrew scroll of Kohelet, which is traditionally ascribed (like the book of Proverbs, or Mishlei ) to King Solomon, and in many Jewish communities is read aloud in its entirety at Shabbat synagogue services during the fall holiday of Sukkot.

A couple of years ago, at a friend’s house, I saw a framed calligraphy piece based on this same passage, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. That inspired me to want to do a version of my own.

The primary motif I had in mind was to set the English phrases as a sine wave or a helix, winding around the structure of the Hebrew. The above-and-below undulation would convey the duality in each of the pairings. Each Hebrew phrase is color-matched with its English equivalent to create a visual connection between the two levels. I chose to invert the Hebrew in these layers so that the text flow of both languages could run in the same clockwise direction — another way to echo the “wheel of time” feeling of the passage.

Ultimately, I arranged the text in a mandala of four nesting circles. The outermost circle is formed from the opening verse, which provides the conceptual frame for the whole passage. The second layer contains eight pairings, the third layer five pairings, and the last pairing forms the final circle with “peace” at its center… driving the whole composition, like Pete Seeger’s adaptation, toward an optimistic goal at its core.

One note on the translation: The well-known King James Version translates the second half of verse 1 as “and a time to every purpose under the heaven”. The Hebrew word used there, however, is cheifetz, which in other contexts is always rendered as “please” or “enjoy”. (Compare to Psalm 115:3, V’elokeinu ba-shamayim; kol asher chafetz asah. “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”) Thus, some English translations give it as “to every delight” or “pleasure under the heavens”. Many other translations simply say “event”, “matter” or “activity”. I wanted to find a word that conveyed the semantic direction of “pleasing” without categorizing killing and destroying as “delights”, and settled on “to every impulse under the heavens.” I also tried to preserve the distinctions in the Hebrew between “a time to [verb]” and “a time of [noun]”.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I created Version I using the classical Roman-style font Trajan for all of the English text, for a smooth and formal look. However, then I wanted to try to bring out the (literal) texture of the passage with a little more contrast, so I experimented with applying a calligraphic italic hand (a font called Aquiline) to accent the changing keywords in each English phrase. This resulted in Version II.

Both pieces are now available in my Etsy shop, along with a hi-res PDF download that includes both versions in case you prefer to print your own.

Which version do you think works best? Let me know in comments.

Chodesh tov!

Because this is still a design blog: Who By Fire

I’ve occasionally tried my hand at creating holiday cards, but never anything particularly inspired, somehow.

Then during Rosh Hashanah services this year, I managed to remember that the Thing I Do is play around with text, especially Biblical or liturgical text… and there’s no shortage of great material in the High Holiday liturgy. Which excited me, even if it results in a bit of a departure from your basic apples-and-honey “good and sweet year” greeting card motif.

So here’s the first one:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed...

This famous liturgical passage is from the central U’netaneh Tokef section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer service. Click to enlarge.

I have a few more passages still in mind to work up. Next year I intend to actually get some of them printed up in time to use for the holiday… so I made sure to use up the last few mundane ones in my stash this year.

Edited to add (2015): Buy it on Zazzle!

Ketivah v’chatimah tovah: May you all be written and sealed for a good year.

Where you can find me for the High Holidays

One of my fellow members at Town & Village Synagogue in downtown Manhattan is Rabbi Judith Hauptman, who is on the faculty at JTS. I first met her over Rosh Hashanah lunch this time last year. For the past several years, Rabbi Hauptman has run a free, public community young adult High Holiday congregation under the name of Ohel Ayalah (“the tent of Ayalah,” named for her mother z”l, the inspiration for this hospitable service). Ohel Ayalah also runs a community young adult Passover seder, which I happened to attend this past April when I needed a place for 2nd-night seder, and I was impressed how they managed to do what felt like a full and complete traditional seder liturgy, blend in enough time for socializing, and still get us out of there at the stroke of 10pm.

One week earlier this summer, I attended T&V’s regular Friday night service, which as a rule is incredibly rich with powerful singing (thanks largely to the amazing Cantor Shayna Postman, and whichever of my fellow choirmates happen to be in the congregation on any given week). After the service, Rabbi Hauptman came up to me and said “How would you like to come daven with me for the High Holidays?”

“Um,” I said, “I’m not sure how useful I can really be to you on that!” I’m not, in truth, very well versed in actual liturgy for anything beyond the Friday night service, Torah service, and occasional Shabbat Musaf. But she has (as I knew) a regular cantor, Josh Gorfinkle, who does the liturgical heavy lifting, and a couple of additional/backup service leaders. In particular, she said, she was basically just looking for someone to reinforce the singing up front on a microphone and thereby add to the overall ruach of the service. That, I said, is something I can do. Even if it means I have to negotiate splitting my time with the choir at T&V, where I would otherwise be spending all of the holidays.

The upshot is that I’ll be with Ohel Ayalah’s Manhattan service for the first evening and day of Rosh Hashanah and for Kol Nidrei. And in addition to harmonizing throughout the services, and reading the Haftarah (the story of Chana, which is my Hebrew name, so that’s awesome), she asked me to sing one of the three repetitions of the Kol Nidrei prayer. I am deeply honored… and only a little terrified. It turns out that I have at least some version of Kol Nidrei internalized from the many years I spent in the professional High Holiday backup choir in Swampscott/Marblehead (starting in 1997 at Temple Israel, which eventually became Congregation Shirat HaYam). Of course, the arrangement in my head is a choral monstrosity for cantor, four-part choir, and possibly organ… but if I sing through some combination of the lines I remember, with enough conviction and kavannah, it seems to hang together well enough.

Rabbi Hauptman offered to lend me a kittel, since she wants all of us to wear them on the bimah. But the Sunday before last, I went up to West Side Judaica on 88th & Broadway and bought one of my own. Amusingly, the nice lady at the register wished me mazal tov… because these are—like the tallit—traditionally considered a men’s garment, and worn particularly for weddings, as well as High Holidays and Passover seders. So, y’know, what else does it mean when a woman of marriageable age is buying one? (Granted, the last time I bought one, that was what it was for, but that’s another story.) Happily, the gentleman who assisted me in finding one had not batted an eyelash when I asserted that it was for myself and patiently helped me sort through and try on all the sizes of the three or four styles they had. I purposely picked out the very most girly-looking one: all pintucks and lace edges. It’s like the world’s prettiest lab coat. I am excited.

I think it’s going to be a good year.

And if you want to come and daven with me, they’re still accepting walk-ins at the Prince George Ballroom (15 E 27 St., between 5th and Madison), tomorrow night at 6:45pm and Thursday morning at 9am. L’shanah tovah u’metukah!