Author Archives: Rabbi Phil Miller

Rabbi Phil Miller

About Rabbi Phil Miller

Rabbi Phil Miller is the vice president of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore. He attended Yeshiva University in New York City and previously was the director of the 92nd Street Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.

A Home Of Our Own: From Soweto To The Suburbs

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I bought a new home recently. A major acquisition such as this has caused me to reflect on the meaning of having a home.

Two summers ago, visiting South Africa, I spent time in Soweto, the sprawling black city outside of Johannesburg. I visited with families in makeshift tin shacks with dirt floors and no electricity or running water. The South African government has been building new homes at a great pace, but it lags far behind the need. Families will wait years to receive a new home.

What struck me more than anything was the size of these new homes being built. They are row after row of dark, tightly packed one- or two-bedroom homes, which often house several families. The South African dream of homeownership was a shadow of the most humble home in which I’ve ever lived.

How can someone possess so nice a home when so many in the world settle for so much less? And how can the citizens of Soweto feel any satisfaction from the tiny homes they will acquire one day?

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim teaches the prohibition of hasagat gevul, encroaching on a neighbor’s land.

"You shall not move your countrymen’s landmarks set up by previous generations in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess."

Rashi, the 11th-century French master commentator, says regarding this:

"This prohibition occurs when a person moves his boundary marker into his neighbor’s property in order to broaden his own territory."

Rashi goes on to explain that such behavior is also a violation of the basic prohibition against theft. Other commentators explain that even moving the marker a finger’s breadth violates this prohibition.

Ramban (a 13th-century Spanish commentator) explains the psychology behind this prohibition.

"A person should not think, ‘My property which I have been given is less than that of my neighbor’s.’"

Ramban implies that by itself, the mental attitude of feeling that your property is inferior to your neighbors violates this prohibition, even before a person has actually moved their boundary markers.

The Talmud records a discussion that takes a similar perspective on the "boundaries" between businesses (Baba Bathra 21B).

Rabbi Huna: If a resident of an alley sets up a hand mill and another resident of the alley wants to set up one next to him, the first has the right to stop him, because he can say to him, "You are interfering with my livelihood."

Rabbi Huna ben Joshua said: It is quite clear to me that the resident of one town can [only] prevent the resident of another town from establishing a competing outlet in his town . . . only if [the latter person does not] pay taxes to that town, and that the resident of an alley can not prevent another resident of the same alley from establishing a competing outlet in his alley."

Rabbi Huna is interested also in protecting boundaries and warning a business owner of encroaching on the territory of another. The Talmud sides with the less restrictive opinion of Rabbi Huna ben Joshua. However, many later authorities argue that in cases of ruinous competition, the law is like the more protective opinion of Rabbi Huna.

These different texts present two fundamental Jewish principles on owning a home and property. Expanding your territory can not come at the expense of another. Yet these texts also seem to respect and even honor an individual’s right to have a home.

The prophet Micah goes even further. Having one’s own place is the greatest of blessings. In describing his vision for the utopian end of days, Micah proclaims;

"And they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations shall not take up sword against nations; they shall never again know war; but every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him."

Essential to creating this redeemed world, argues Micah, is each person having their own grapevine or fig tree. Utopia is not the anarchists’ dream of property-less society. Rather it is a world in which each person has their own special place where they can not be disturbed.

Perhaps on a deeper level, Micah is teaching something else also. In an unredeemed world, there are still opportunities for tasting what that better world can one day be. Having one’s own home is such a taste of redemption. The more a person’s home protects them from the disturbances of the outside world, the greater the taste.

Micah tells us that my home and the humblest of new homes being built in Soweto both provide the taste of that redemption. However, for me, the dissonance between the world inside my home and the world without is so much greater. For all of us for whom this is true, the obligation to work for that redeemed world, with the blessings of safety and home for all, is also much greater.

The beauty of your new home, teaches the prophet Micah, must not only give you the comfort you deserve; it also must compel you to go back out into the world and see that all of its inhabitants can one day share this joy under their own grapevine and fig tree.

Standing Guard

The following article is reprinted with permission from

Over the years I have had many friends committed to breaking the law.

Do not question the company I keep. They are not common criminals. They have only broken laws, through acts of civil disobedience, that they believe to be unjust.

What fascinates me about some of them is how they relate to laws that they believe to be just. They obey them; all of them. I know a man who has been arrested many times for civil disobedience in support of nuclear disarmament. He stops and waits at every crosswalk for the light to turn green. He never jaywalks, litters, double-parks or uses someone else’s software. His commitment to these laws is as strong as his opposition to those he sees as unjust. Even those who disagree with his opinions on disarmament, are forced to agree that this is a man of great principle and character. Respect for him is universal.

This week we begin reading the Book of B’midbar (Numbers). It contains dramatic narratives and teaches important ethical and spiritual obligations still relevant today. However, it also spends a considerable amount of time describing the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the camp of the Jewish people that surrounded it in the desert. How would the Mishkan be transported? What was the position of each of the tribes within the camp? These aspects of daily life in the desert are described in great detail.

Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, the great 13th century scholar, community leader and mystic explains that all these details teach us a profound obligation. The Mishkan was a place of infinite sanctity. It symbolized the ethical and spiritual core of Judaism. Such a place must have shomrim, guardians or keepers watching over and caring for it. The priests who administered the Mishkan and the tribes who surrounded it served that purpose. This need for guarding was not for protection from some enemy. It was for the purpose of giving kavod, glory and honor to this special place.

Rambam, or Maimonides, a contemporary of Ramban, argues that this obligation extended to the permanent temple built in Jerusalem. Each night 24 teams of priests would act as shomrim, guarding and keeping watch over the temple. These priests would stay awake throughout their watch. When their watch ended, writes Rambam, they would remove their priestly garments, don their "street clothes" and sleep humbly on the ground. "This was like all guardians of a king’s palace who never take the luxury of sleeping on beds."

These shomrim were not only giving honor to God. When people saw how the Mishkan or temple was cherished, says one commentator, "their hearts would be softened" to return to the values which that place represented.

Many of us see ourselves as shomrim today. Some of us see ourselves as shomrim of the environment, others of human rights or of workers in garment factories in developing countries. My friend, trespassing on property, owned by developers of nuclear weapons, saw himself as a shomer of all humanity. Some of us see ourselves simply as shomrim, keepers, of our brothers, sisters and neighbors.

The Torah in the Book of B’midbar, or known in English as Numbers, is teaching each of us how to be a proper shomer. We cannot content ourselves with protecting that which we care about from its enemies. We must live our lives in a way that gives kavod, honor and glory, to our causes and which softens the hearts of all those who see us.

Table For Two

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New York of the mid-1980s was a beautiful place to be. Gentrification brought cafes, bistros and bookstores up and down the Upper West Side, Columbus Avenue and Broadway. Spring saw this neighborhood at its finest. Cafes would bring tables out on the sidewalk and every block was filled with diners.

But at the end of each café’s sidewalk umbrella, a much crueler story was unfolding. The homeless population was exploding in size. Streets were filled with men and women asking for money and food if they were sober enough to do so. If not, they slept ten feet from your sidewalk table for two.

I knew a man named Timmy, a graduate student at Columbia who was not much of a café goer, but whose heart broke for the people living on the street. He rebelled against the sidewalk café tables by taking his own table, a supermarket cart, into the streets. Every night, Tim would cook a 50-gallon vat of soup and slap together a box of sandwiches and walk the streets of the upper West Side, offering street people to join him in a decent supper.

I was 19 and I thought Timmy was the greatest person I had ever met. Certainly, he was greater than many of my professors, sitting at Café Boccaccio, with their backs turned to the street.

The Story of Mar Ukba

In later years, as I became a student of the Talmud, I found the story of a woman much like Timmy, who welcomed street people at her table. The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Ketubot 67b) tells the story of Mar Ukba, a third-century rabbi and his wife. They were in the habit of secretly donating money to a poor man in their neighborhood.

One day, to protect their anonymity, they fled from the poor man and jumped into a furnace (where else?) which had just been extinguished. Mar Ukba’s feet immediately began to burn, but not his wife’s. She received spiritual protection unavailable to him. "Your gifts are too private," she explained. "I am always at home and poor street people come to see me. I invite them in and we sit at the table together." Mar Ukba’s wife was a third-century Timmy.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, tells the story of Moses and the children of Israel building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) in the desert and all the vessels and structures it required. For centuries, the Mishkan and later the Beit ha-Mikdash (the Temple which stood in Jerusalem) served as the spiritual center of the Jewish people. It was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., rebuilt, and destroyed again in 70 C.E. In its absence, rabbis, prophets, mothers and shoemakers have dreamt of its return and the spiritual sustenance it brought.

Ezekiel the Dreamer

One such dreamer was Ezekiel, a prophet of 2500 years ago. Living in Babylon after the destruction of the first temple, he dreamt of a Mikdash rebuilt (see Ezekiel chapters 40-48).

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Tractate B’rachot 55a) found an inconsistency in one verse of Ezekiel’s dream. He dreamt of the altar in the temple, but refers to it as a shulchan, a table. Why does he call the altar a table? asked the Rabbis. Rabbi Yochanan, a third-century Rabbi in Israel, offers an interpretation. When the Mikdash stood in Jerusalem, the altar offered atonement and allowed us to return to God, lacking the Mikdash, "it is our tables in our homes that offer us atonement and closeness."

Rabbi Yochanan gives us insight into the spiritual power behind the story of Timmy’s table and that of Mar Ukba’s wife. As one mystical commentary explains, there is a yichud, a oneness that is achieved in the world when the poor are brought to our tables. To see them on the street reminds us of the world’s brokenness. To sit with them at our tables, create relationship with them, begins our collective journey back to repair and wholeness.

Most of us may not be ready for the courage shown by Timmy or Mar Ukba’s wife. Yet, there is much we can do to reach out to those at the periphery of our communities and give them a seat at our tables. In doing so, we return a oneness to the world–one for which we all long.

Down From The Mountaintop

The following article is reprinted with permission from

It was a perfect setting. After hours of climbing, my friend and I had reached the summit of one peak in the New Hampshire White Mountains. Our bodies were exhausted and cooled off in the mountain top breeze. We leaned against a big boulder and took in the panorama of peaks and valleys, blue sky, rivers and lakes stretched out before us.

Wrung out, I was content to sit and rest. My friend, however, reached for his siddur (prayerbook) and read aloud a passage from Chapter 104 of Tehillim (Psalms) which we read each Rosh Chodesh–the beginning of a new Jewish month. "Bless the Lord, O my soul…How abundant are Your works, God, with wisdom you have made them all…"

This chapter of Psalms captured the spiritual, emotional essence of the moment and of this week’s Torah portion, Bereshit. Reading the Torah’s description of Creation taught the Psalmist of Chapter 104–as well my friend and me–that God’s nurturing, vital presence is no place greater felt than in close intimate contact with God’s creation.

The Talmud goes even further, arguing that the Psalmist, in crying out, "Bless the Lord, O my soul" is teaching: "Just as the Holy One Blessed be He fills the whole earth, so too, the soul fills the entire body."

In going out to nature, we not only find God in that external world, but we open up our own inner spiritual wells, and are completely nourished by them.

I was in a euphoric state listening to my friend read and awaken the spirit of the moment. He then read the psalm’s final verse, "Let sinners cease out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul, Halleluyah!"

An Abrupt Transition

An army of ants in my lunch or the gathering of a dark summer storm cloud could not have disturbed me more. I was connecting with God and my soul on this beautiful mountaintop. Why was the Psalmist bugging me about sinners and the wicked? I had left those worries behind in New York City.

Indeed, as I was to discover later on, Psalms is filled with such abrupt transitions from spiritual euphoria to calls for justice (see chapters 8 and 97 for examples). That day on my New Hampshire mountain, I had no explanation for the Psalmist’s concern for sinners and evil. But when I returned home, I encountered the commentary of Metsudat David on the last verse of Chapter 104:

"…that sin should be no more; that is to say that people will conquer their destructive desire and will no longer sin; if so there will no longer be destructive doers of evil in the world."

This, says Metsudat David, is the ultimate prayer of the Psalmist who has found God in nature. Metsudat David sees this psalm as offering crucial, if sobering, advice.

Spiritual euphoria inspired by nature can be deceiving–it may lead you to think that all that matters is your experience on the mountaintop, encountering God. This spirituality misses the point. Nature’s beauty can be inspiring, but it must also teach you that much of the world is not this perfect, that there is great destruction and deep brokenness in need of repair and healing.

The mountaintop must compel you to pray–and work–for a better world.

We might quibble with Metsudat David’s formula for tikkun, or repair: the need for people to conquer their evil inclination. Our own prayers might include different methods for achieving tikkun. But as we each read of God’s creation this week and bring to mind our own mountaintop experiences, let those warm memories remind us that God wants us–needs us–to again and again come down from the mountain, inspired and strengthened, and get to work creating a more perfect world.