Author Archives: Rabbi Charles Savenor

Rabbi Charles Savenor

About Rabbi Charles Savenor

Rabbi Charles E. Savenor is the Director of Kehella (Congregational) Enrichment for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Why Words Can Hurt

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Every child knows this popular aphorism, but the sad truth is that words do matter and they can hurt. When we feel stressed, angry and frustrated, many of us speak without thinking first. Words can become daggers that wound others as well as ourselves.

In this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, Moses is asked to provide water for the Israelites. Just before the water flows from a rock, Moses, apparently worn out by the demands of leadership, loses his temper. Moses calls his people, “You rebels,” and in exasperation, strikes the rock twice. In light of this shocking behavior, God immediately decides that new leadership is needed to bring the people into the Land of Israel.

This painful biblical episode shows how all people need to be careful with their words, especially when they occupy a position of authority. Harsh words can cut a little deeper and last a little longer when they come from someone we respect, trust, and love. That is precisely why adults need to see themselves as role models in not just what they do, but also what they say. Just as words can push people apart, so too can they bring us closer. By taking the time to think before we speak, we have a better chance of finding the right words in every situation.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about the effect of their words on others.


· What can we do to make sure that we think before we speak?

· How do we respond when someone hurts our feelings with words?

· When has someone’s words of encouragement helped you?

· Water can keep us alive or drown us, and fire can warm us or destroy us. How are words similar to water and fire?


Honor Your Parents

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

Words have power. Just as our words can lift someone’s spirit, so too can they can cause damage. Words can sometimes be smokescreens for what is truly taking place, defense mechanisms to shield us from shame and pain. Seeking approval and love, children frequently want to please their parents. However, when accidents, mistakes, and errors in judgment arise, children will go to great lengths, including lying, to shield themselves from punishment and embarrassment in the eyes of those they love most. What most kids don’t realize is that words of truth and transparency are building blocks of loving, secure relationships.

The story of Joseph and his brothers can be seen as a cautionary tale of parenting and brotherhood. All Jacob’s sons desire is their father’s affection, the same kind of attention that Joseph receives. Yet the more Jacob favors Joseph, the more his other sons resent their brother with the multi-colored coat. We may wonder whether Jacob was aware of how his special attention to Joseph affected his other children. In our Torah potion the brothers act out in anger against Joseph by selling him as a slave, thereby sending him far, far away. Upon realizing the foolishness of their actions, they betray their father’s trust by leading Jacob to believe that Joseph has been eaten by a wild animal. Instead of owning up to their mistakes, Jacob’s sons attempt to save face. Rather than speaking openly about their needs, the brothers end up breaking their father’s heart. How many of us have told a lie or withheld the truth to protect ourselves?

Our children don’t always know how to express their needs, including their desire for our time and affection. They may even tell tall tales or act out in order to get our attention. It is important that our children know that we love them not only when they excel, but also when they have made a mistake. As parents, we can teach our children that the best way to honor their parents is by being honest and using words to create clarity and stronger relationships.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about telling the truth and being honest about their needs.


· Have you ever withheld the truth to avoid getting into trouble?

· Is there a difference between telling a lie and withholding information?

· Did you ever tell a tall tale to get your parent’s attention?

· Do you have a way of telling your parents that you need them?

Living Up to Our Names

In 1989, during the flight to my junior year abroad experience in Israel, I chatted with the El Al flight attendants at the rear of the airplane. When asked my name, I made the conscious decision to introduce myself using my Hebrew name, Simcha. As these women of Sephardic descent heard my name, they roared out in laughter. “Simcha, you cannot be Simcha. Simcha is a girl’s name.” They explained that in modern Israeli society, especially in sephardic circles, only girls went by the name Simcha.

Before this encounter, I had never given much thought to my Hebrew name, which I received in memory of my great-grandmother, Celia. In truth, I had always just accepted my Hebrew name and found it somewhat amusing that my name meant happiness. While I heeded the advice of my new friends and used my English name, Charlie, for the remainder of the year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, this encounter raised my awareness about the power and meaning of names.

Singled Out By Name

Silver, Gold, and Copper for the Mishkan

The materials that Bezalel used in
building the Mishkan.
Silver, gold, and copper.

In this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced for the second time to Bezalel, the architect and builder of the Mishkan, who possesses a unique Hebrew name. The text in Exodus 35 reads as follows:

And Moses said to the Israelites: ‘See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting to carve wood — to work in every kind of designer’s craft – and to give directions (Etz Hayim 35:30-34).

Of particular interest to us is the manner in which Moses announces God’s appointment of Bezalel. It is not hard to imagine a more direct introduction, such as “The main builder and head craftsman will be Bezalel.” The second item of interest that attracts our attention is how the Torah’s peculiar phrasing creates the impression that we have been introduced to Bezalel before.

These questions necessitate our turning to our initial encounter with Bezalel in Parashat Ki Tissa. “Re’ay karati veshem Bezalel,” which translates to “See, I have singled out by name of Bezalel” (Etz Hayim, Exodus 31:2). Interestingly enough, we find a similarly perplexing formulation of the text, but this time God is the one who makes the proclamation. What also makes this first pronouncement sound peculiar is that it suggests that even in our first introduction to Bezalel that his name was already given by God.

Rashi, the 11th-century Biblical commentator, asserts that this strange statement in the Torah means no more than “I have designated Bezalel for these holy tasks.” Rashi’s words create a reasonable understanding of the text, yet they simply smooth over the problem of God’s introduction being couched in the past tense.

The midrash offers a beautiful interpretation for the phrase “See, I have singled out by name of Bezalel.” The midrash relates that when Moses is on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, God shows Moses Sefer Hahayim, the book of life. This book, of which we are most aware during the High Holidays, catalogs the names of every Jew in every generation from Creation until the ultimate Redemption. In the midst of this encounter, God informs Moses that “I (God) have predetermined the creation of all people, and this includes Bezalel, who will construct the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.”

We learn from Midrash Rabbah not only that God created every human being before the world itself was actually complete, but also that our leaders occupy a prominent place in this blueprint. Thus, Bezalel had been named by God from before time began since he would play a starring role in the future of the Jewish people.

At this point in our exploration we have tried to understand our Exodus passage only in terms of the distinctive formulation of the announcement. In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud writes: “A human being’s name is a principal component of his person, perhaps a piece of his soul.” Freud’s assertion leads us to an analysis of Bezalel’s name itself, so that we may find a message waiting to be discovered.

In the Shadow of God

The Zohar offers an explanation of Bezalel’s name that contradicts the one in the midrash. The Zohar claims that Bezalel, which literally translates to “in the shadow of God,” is not a name the head craftsman receives at the beginning of time, but rather a title that he earns upon completion of his commissioned project. Applying the Zohar’s explanation to the introduction of Bezalel, we would read the verse as “Behold, I have designated that the name of the person to work in this holy endeavor should at completion be called Bezalel — in the shadow of God.”

The end of Bezalel’s job description gives us a clue as to how this artist and builder achieves the status of living “in the shadow of God.” The Torah tells us that Bezalel is responsible for not only directing the construction, but also teaching his crew. We may wonder what role teaching plays in the naming of an artisan.

In the words of Robert Maynard Hutchins, the former head of the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.” Bezalel is called upon to serve as a teacher so that the Israelites can learn as much about the artisan’s craftsmanship as the leader’s responsibility to his community. By inspiring his or her constituents to live up to their own names by reaching their potential, Bezalel earns the designation of working “in the shadow of God.”

The circumstances surrounding the introduction of Bezalel remain shrouded in some confusion, yet his name truly articulates the mission of a leader. While Bezalel merits living up to his name by working “in the shadow of God,” his true mission was to teach others how to find the shelter of God’s presence by living up to their own names. Today by striving to reach our potential and live up to our names as Jews, each one of us can enter into the shadow of God.

Anne Bernays asserts in The Language of Names that “our name is our passport to wherever it is we need to go.” Thinking back to my conversation on the plane to Israel, I realize now that my Hebrew name, Simcha, happiness, has always represented the ultimate destination.

Joseph’s Moment of Truth

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

The moment of truth has arrived. With Benjamin framed for stealing and sentenced to enslavement, Joseph waits to see how Jacob‘s other sons will respond. Joseph believes that his well-orchestrated ruse will finally expose his brothers’ true colors.

Judah’s Appeal

This week’s parsahah opens with Judah appealing to his brother Joseph, the Egyptian viceroy, to free Benjamin and to enslave Judah in his place. Judah’s eloquent petition recounts his brothers’ interaction with this Egyptian official as well as the familial circumstances of Jacob’s household. Benjamin, the youngest son in the family, occupies a valued place in their father’s eyes, Judah says, because he is the last living remnant of Jacob’s deceased wife, Rachel. In conclusion, Judah asserts that if he were to return home to Canaan without Benjamin, he could not bear to see his father’s immediate and long-term pain and suffering.

Judah’s words arouse Joseph’s soul, as the Torah tells us that “V’lo yachol Yosef lehitapek. . .”–“and Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers” (Etz Hayim, Genesis 45:1).

Witnessing Joseph’s intense reaction to Judah’s appeal, we wonder what exactly pushes Joseph to his emotional limit? What does Judah say or do that compels Joseph to reveal himself at this moment?

Our most trusted biblical commentator, Rashi, surmises that since Joseph’s emotional outburst is juxtaposed with evacuating his Egyptian servants, Judah’s self-incrimination embarrasses Joseph. The viceroy of Egypt fears that when these alleged spies are introduced as his brothers, the family’s reputation, and his by association, will already be tarnished in Egypt and in Pharaoh’s court.

Rashi’s analysis helps us to understand the momentary reality, yet other interpretations exist, which incorporate the larger context of Joseph’s dreams and the patriarchal covenant. As soon as Joseph “unmasks” himself, he urges his brothers not to be upset about their having sold him into slavery many years before: “Kee lemeheeyah shelahani Elohim lefnayhem“–“(for) it was to save life that God sent me here ahead of you” (Etz Hayim, Genesis 45:5). Joseph believes fervently that God’s preordained plan for him involves maintaining life for his entire family and the civilized world. Thus, Joseph stores food for Egypt for times of feast and famine, and secures safe passage to a new land for his family.

Actualizing the Covenant

The outcome of Joseph’s story not only affirms his childhood dreams, but also actualizes the first part of God’s covenant with the patriarchs and matriarchs. As Jacob’s family settles in Egypt, Act I of the epic of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob comes to a close. With such an immense epiphany–that his dreams are realized and the future of his people secured–how could we expect Joseph to contain his emotions?

Additionally, sustaining brotherhood, one could argue, is humanity’s first ongoing challenge, upon being escorted from Eden. After slaughtering his brother, Cain utters the timeless question, “Hashomer ahi anohi“–“Am I my brother’s keeper” (Etz Hayim, Genesis 4:9)? Nahum Sarna asserts in the JPS Torah Commentary of Genesis that “the sevenfold stress in this chapter on the obvious fraternal relationship of Cain and Abel emphatically teaches that man is indeed his brother’s keeper.”

By repeating the Hebrew word for brother, “ah,” in Genesis 45, Joseph responds as much to Judah’s words and actions as to the first disastrous confrontation between the first siblings in the Torah. In other words, Joseph’s emotional outburst stems from hearing Judah’s passionate plea beyond their own family’s story, in a larger context that affects all of the children of Adam and Eve.

The overarching challenge of being one’s brother’s keeper, however, continues throughout Genesis. Sadly, the partnership efforts of generation after generation become impeded and frustrated by jealousy, competition, and greed.

At the beginning of his amazing odyssey, for example, Joseph ventures to talk to his brothers on his father’s behalf. Having lost his way, Joseph speaks to a stranger, who asks Joseph what he wants. “I am seeking my brothers” (Etz Hayim, Genesis 37:16), he says, which sounds like a straightforward request for his brothers’ physical location, but constitutes, in actuality, a deep-seated desire to be in concert and live in harmony with his brothers. Furthermore, Joseph’s words can be understood as his personal response, in the affirmative, to the question Cain posed generations before him–this is how he perceives one should be his brother’s keeper.

In our story this week, Joseph is overwhelmed by Judah’s compassion for his father, and for his brother, Benjamin. It is not only that Judah is willing to take the place of his brother, but that he does not want to contribute to his father’s pain. Judah has learned from the loss of his own two sons what loss can do to one’s soul. Aviva Zornberg expounds in Genesis: The Beginning of Desire: “Initiated into the fellowship of pain, Judah becomes capable of investing the whole force of his personhood into preventing its recurrence.” With his compassion and courage, Judah demonstrates before Joseph’s very eyes what it means to be a brother.

In the end, the significance of what Joseph learns surpasses even his wildest dreams. He loses control of his emotions because not only will his brothers be reunited, but also humanity has finally proven that it can shoulder the responsibility of brotherhood.

May our generation be blessed with compassion, mutual respect, and patience so that we can actualize the prophetic dream of mending our world into a global community replete with peace, love, prosperity, understanding, and most importantly, sisterhood and brotherhood.