Monday, October 15, 2018

Lech Lecha (You Must Go)

For this year’s e-Torah, I will be looking at each week’s portion through the lens of a song.  The music will serve as a kind of midrash, a commentary on the sacred words.

God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. . .” Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.  Abram took his wife, Sarai, and his brother’s son, Lot. . . and they set out for the land of Canaan.           
            -Genesis 12

On pilgrimage the traveler is a foreigner in several ways: a stranger to the companions she meets along the way, a stranger to places visited, and a stranger to the inward journey of meaning and transformation.  On some level, pilgrimage always connotes a life-changing journey. . . What is consistent across cultures and religions is that the path of a pilgrim is a challenging one
            -Dr. Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook, Pilgrimage: The Sacred Art

You must go and you must ramble
Through every briar and bramble
Till your life is in a shambles
Maybe then you will know
You were born to blunder
Born to wander, born to wonder
Even when you’re six feet under
There’s a place that you must go
            -John Hiatt, You Must Go

This week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, begins with God’s call to Abraham: “Go!  Leave behind everything familiar and journey to the land of Canaan.” 

Abraham—and Sarah—set out on what proves to be a lengthy and arduous course of voyages.  Their travels take them through a series of hardships that the Talmudic sages describe as the Ten Trials, beginning with this command to forsake their ancestral home. Ensuing challenges include famine, war, physical and emotional trauma, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and, ultimately, the binding of Isaac on the sacrificial altar.

Sometimes Abraham and Sarah face these trials with grace and wisdom, while at other times they stumble and fail.  But in the end, their journey—which lasts their lifetimes—proves to be transformative.  Their travels—successes and failures alike—re-make them from Mesopotamian shepherds into the father and mother of the Jewish people.

Another name for this kind of transformational voyage is pilgrimage.  This is very different from tourism or business travel, which are, essentially, utilitarian endeavors.  Pilgrimage is about changing your life.  As Professor Huston Smith notes: “You target a distant place—your Mecca, your Jerusalem, your Mount Meru—and set out.  Obstacles enough will erupt.  But by attending to them now—openness, attentiveness, and responsiveness are the essence of pilgrimage—you will be able to surmount them by yielding to them in the way that life always requires that we yield to it.”

The Hebrew Bible is full of pilgrimage journeys: Jacob’s night visions and wrestling, Joseph’s descent into Egypt, young David’s flight from Saul and, of course, our collective forty year voyage through the wilderness.  All of these journeys follow the pattern set by Abraham and Sarah: a physical passage accompanied by inward transformation that requires the traveler to leave her/his comfort zone, overcome significant hardships, and live with openness to learning from the unexpected.  TS Eliot describes this ethos beautifully in his poem, “Little Gidding”: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Or as John Hiatt sings, in his perfectly-suited, well-worn traveler’s voice:

When that howling wind
Comes to carry you again
Just like your next of kin
You must go
To a faraway place
Where you don’t recognize one face
Don’t unpack your old suitcase
Cause you must go

You must go and you must ramble
Through every briar and bramble
Till your life is in a shambles
Maybe then you will know
You were born to blunder
Born to wander, born to wonder

That’s how it begins—for our forebears, for John Hiatt, for each and every one of us.  Whether we long for it or not, the call always, eventually, comes:

You must go. 

And so we ramble through the briars and brambles, back and forth between victories and defeats, , and somehow emerge anew.

To be a Jew—a child of Abraham and Sarah—is to be born to wander and to wonder.

To hear John Hiatt’s You Must Go, from his superb album, Walk On:

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Noach: God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign

For this year’s e-Torah, I will be looking at each week’s portion through the lens of a song.  The music will serve as a kind of midrash, a commentary on the sacred words.

“[God said to Noah]: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  (Genesis 9:11)

God gave Noah the rainbow sign: No more water but the fire next time.

We tend to tell the Noah story as a children’s fable, complete with stuffed animals and cute songs
 (. . . they came on in two-sies, two-sies, elephants and kangaroo-sies).  This has always struck me as odd, for the Flood narrative is the most brutal tale in the entire Hebrew Bible.  The plot is pretty simple: God destroys every living thing except for Noah’s family and the creatures they’ve gathered in the ark.  Genocide is hardly child’s play.

Of course the hopeful note in this otherwise brutal story comes at the end, when God promises never to flood the earth again.  We arrive at that passage and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking, “Well, that was horrible, but thank God, we’re safe.”  But are we?

Midrash teaches that as Abraham witnessed the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he confronted God: “You promised never again to destroy the world in a deluge.  Surely You did not mean that you might still send a flood fire?”  And God was silent.  Or, as the old southern spiritual puts it: God gave Noah the rainbow sign: No more water but the fire next time.

Folklorists suggest that these words originated as coded communication among African-Americans living in slavery and under Jim Crow.  They allowed the community to comment clandestinely on the wickedness of their oppressors while, on the surface, just singing wholesome Bible stories.  Understood in this manner, the spiritual’s premise is clear: there are still hosts of wicked people in the world to be punished “next time.”

James Baldwin drew on this history for the title of his landmark 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, a fierce, prophetic examination of race relations in America.  For Baldwin, the song offers both a warning and a call to hope in the darkest of times.  He describes the full fury of the conflagration of racism, yet still holds forth hope for reconciliation rather than vengeance and destruction: “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”

The fire next time—the words of the spiritual and James Baldwin’s elaboration of them echo, for me, the portentous language of Unetaneh Tokef, which we read last month for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Who by fire and who by water?  We Jews, too, recall the Flood’s devastation, and the terrifying possibility of a repeat occurrence, by way of conflagration rather than deluge—not to cow us into submission but, rather, to turn our hearts and hands to the work of tefillah, teshuvah, and tzedakah—spiritual renewal, repentance, and liberation.

In a world ablaze with injustice, on an earth where rising temperatures are melting polar ice caps, spawning massive storms, and unleashing wildfires across our own region, let us listen and learn from the Noah story.  These times cry out for both its warning and its hope.   With courage and persistence, we might yet avert the fire next time.

--> Here’s a great 1929 recording of the Carter Family performing God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign: 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Bereshit: Furr


For this year’s e-Torah, I will be looking at each week’s portion through the lens of a song.  The music will serve as a kind of midrash, a commentary on the sacred words.

Our masters taught: six attributes are ascribed to human beings.  In regard to three, they are like ministering angels; in regard to three others, like animals.  Three like ministering angels: they have understanding like the ministering angels, they walk erect like the ministering angels, they can use the sacred tongue like the ministering angels.  Three like animals: they eat and drink like animals, they procreate like animals, and they defecate like animals.   (Talmud, Chagigah 16a)

And now my fur has turned to skin
And I've been quickly ushered in
To a world that I confess I do not know
But I still dream of running careless through the snow
And through the howlin' winds that blow
Across the ancient distant flow
And fill our bodies up like water till we know
            (Blitzen Trapper, Furr)

It is hard and confusing to be human.

We are, on the one hand, animals.  As the Rabbis recognize, we eat and drink, procreate and excrete like any other creatures.  And we know that many of our actions are determined in the lizard brain rather than in our uniquely human prefrontal cortex.  Yet we are also separated from the rest of the beasts by virtue of our language, intellect and technology.   While these human distinctions bring many benefits, they can also leave us lonely, isolated from the rest of God’s creation.  We deny our animal selves at great cost, for as writer David Abram notes: “Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds and shapes of an animate earth. . . To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities is to rob our own senses of their integrity and to rob our minds of their coherence.  We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”

In this week’s portion, Bereshit, which opens the Torah, we read of how our split human-animal nature is built into our DNA from the beginning. In the creation narrative, nascent humanity is told in the same breath to proliferate like the beasts—be fruitful and multiply—and to rule over all other living things.  As Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg puts it in her commentary on Genesis, “Here is an essential paradox of the human, as God conceives, blesses, and commands [us]: he is to live on the horizontal and vertical plane at once.  He is to transform himself into a creature preoccupied with swarming, proliferation, incorporating the strength of the animal world.  He is at the same time to rule, to conquer.”

The Portland band Blitzen Trapper beautifully captures this paradox at the heart of human nature in their song, “Furr.”  It describes a young man wandering in the woods until he is willingly taken in by a pack of wolves:

Howling endlessly and shrilly at the dawn
I lost the taste for judging right from wrong
For my flesh had turned to fur
And my thoughts they surely were
Turned to instinct and obedience to God.

On his 23rd birthday, the young man/wolf meets a woman his own age and abandons his canine life to return to civilization with her.  He grows up, loses his innocence, and becomes human.

So I took her by the arm
We settled down upon a farm
And raised our children up as gently as you please

And yet. . . though he willingly chooses human life, he still longs for the simpler animal existence he leaves behind:

And now my fur has turned to skin
And I’ve been quickly ushered in
To a world that I confess I do not know
But I still dream of running careless through the snow
Through the howling winds that blow
Across the ancient distant flow
And fill our bodies up like water till we know.

His plight is ours.  We’re grateful for our humanity—and also a little perplexed and troubled by it.  Our big, complicated brains bestow wonderful gifts.  They can also leave us troubled and ill at ease with our environment, which we are destroying to our great peril and that of all around us.

Between angel and animal. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Yom Kippur Morning 5779: No New Normal


Let us begin with two stories, from two renowned—and very different—twentieth century rabbis.

The chief rabbi of pre-war Palestine, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook offers his tale in a commentary on the book of Genesis, so let me set the scene.  After twenty years of working for his unscrupulous uncle, Laban, Jacob decides the time has come to go his own way.  He gathers his wives—and Laban’s daughters—Rachel and Leah from the fields and tells them:

Ro-eh anochi et p’nay avichen, ki aynenu eylai ki-t’mol shilshom
It is time to take our leave of this place—
for your father’s face is not the same to me as it used to be

What does this mean?  Most of our Sages read the reference to Laban’s face as an insight into his shifting attitude: once he looked upon Jacob with favor, now he eyes him with hostility and envy. 

Simple and straightforward—but there’s one problem with this reading: there’s no indication that Laban ever viewed or treated Jacob kindly.  At least in the plain sense of the Torah text, Laban was cruel and cunning from the get go.  Thus Rav Kook offers an intriguing alternative explanation.  He teaches that Jacob told his family:

We have to get out of this place because when I first came here, I looked at Laban and saw the truth of how he lived.  I was keenly aware of his deception.  I was repelled by his ethics and loathed the way that he did business.  But now that I have been here for two decades, I have gotten used to him.  I have reached the point where I’m starting to think that what he does is what you are supposed to do, that it is normal and proper to deal deviously.  When I look at Laban today, I am no longer shocked or offended. His face is not the same to me as it used to be.  Therefore, we’d better leave quickly—because if we stay, I fear I will get so accustomed to him and his ways that I will become like him.


Rabbi Stephen Wise was a leading social activist, Reform Zionist, and personal advisor to Franklin Roosevelt.  He illustrated the impetus behind his activism with a story about the first time he visited China:

When I arrived, I realized that the only available means of transportation within the cities was by rickshaw.  Most of these rickshaws were hauled by impoverished, feeble people, who would cough and groan as they dragged their wagons through the streets.  At first, I couldn’t stand the sound of their hacking and moaning; it riled my conscience every time I reluctantly hired a driver to take me around.  But after I’d been in China for awhile, I realized a shocking thing: I had grown so habituated to their groans that I no longer heard them. 

That’s when I knew I had to leave.


Avraham Yitzchak Kook and Stephen S. Wise came from vastly different worlds. Kook was an ultra-Orthodox messianic Jerusalem mystic; Wise a classical Reform American activist.  And yet, as my colleague Jack Riemer notes, these two rabbis shared a critical Jewish sensibility—rooted in our sacred texts and learned, again and again, over the long course of our people’s history—that we must not, dare not, ever get so hardened, so callous, so accustomed to evil that we take it for granted and think that’s the way it is, the way it was and the way it always will be.  Because when that happens, we are spiritually dead.

Rabbis Kook and Wise remind us that it is precisely when we realize we are acclimating to evil—when the constant daily affronts to basic human decency cease to bother us—then we must rouse ourselves out of our moral torpor and change course before it’s too late.

Such moral numbing is an age-old phenomenon.  In our personal lives, at work, school and home, each of us knows, all too well, how to inure ourselves against unpleasant realities.  Who among us has never consciously or unconsciously turned a blind eye to unethical conduct?

But my friends, while the practice is ancient, our current hour is urgent.

The constant barrage of bullying public policy and crass attacks emanating from our nation’s highest corridors  sorely test our ethical attention spans.  In her final Facebook post before she was murdered by white supremacists in Charlottesville just over a year ago, Heather Heyer famously wrote, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”  She’s right, of course—and yet it’s extraordinarily hard to stay focused when surrounded by so much bad behavior.  And sometimes it seems we’re paying too much attention—to the wrong things, which only harden our hearts in unconscious increments, like the frog placed in tepid water only to be slowly boiled alive.

One culprit is the 24/7 news cycle.  As writer Aaron Ragsdsale reminds us, “What was once compressed down to an hour of the most pressing issues one would need before facing the day, has mutated into a never ending farce of desensitized violence and talking heads. . .  Viewers become much more attracted to sensationalized media that can attract the most shares based off a shock value.”
Every minute of every day, folks tell us that the sky is falling.  But if the sky is always falling, then no one will be paying any attention when it actually collapses.

This media bombardment is bad enough on its own, but it is now aided, abetted and played by politicians that strategically employ compassion fatigue to deflect attention from their own egregious ethical failings.  Outrageous tweets and crass rants are calculated to distract us, to wear us down, to further lower the bar and dull our responses to the dismantling of the ideals upon which our nation was founded. 

Alas, the so-called normalization of aberrant behavior seems to be working.


So. . . how do we resist this incremental atrophying of our moral sensibilities?   Can we—like Jacob—recognize the loathsome place we’ve come to accept—and find a way out?

I believe that our tradition offers us an ethical path forward, grounded in three principles: communal solidarity, Torah teaching, and the rest and renewal of Shabbat.

First, community.

A few months ago, author and professor Roxane Gay received a letter from a reader, who wrote:

Dear Roxane,

Back in January, I emailed a group of friends asking if they planned to attend the Women’s March in New York City.  A progressive black woman like myself replied: “Can’t make it.  Completely swamped this weekend.” 

My first reaction was irritation. . . but in the months since then, I’ve slowly realized, with considerable shame, that I am no better.  I have what seem like good excuses: having a baby, illness and death in my family, a challenging job, etc, but the truth is, these mask my underlying condition of paralysis.  I continue to be outraged . . . but I’m struggling to summon a response.  Do you have words of wisdom to help me understand and perhaps overcome my feelings of apathy?

Apathetic Idealist

Dr. Gay’s response speaks to the enduring power of community.  She replies:

Dear Apathetic Idealist,

I have no doubt that many people can relate to your letter.  I can relate to it.  It’s hard to know what to pay attention to and what to respond to and how.  It is damn hard to expand the limits of our empathy when our emotional attention is already stretched too thin in a world run through with inequity, strife and suffering.  It’s not just overwhelming, it is exhausting. . .

I don’t have any easy answer for you, but I think many of us get overwhelmed because we think we have to care about everything all the time, as if that’s even possible.  We get mired in solipsism and delude ourselves into thinking the proverbial struggle cannot go on without us.  This is rarely the case.  The grand thing about collective effort is that we can generally trust that someone is out in the world, doing important social justice work when we are too tired or burned out to join in.  Your friend didn’t go to the women’s march, but hundreds of thousands of other people did.  Every day, everywhere, people are doing the work of resisting oppression and tyranny in ways great and small.

Life is hard.  The burden is heavy.  Our world is badly broken and the work of repair is indeed daunting.  The heft of the load can crush our souls—but only if we insist on carrying it by ourselves. 

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov offers a poignant parable for our time, the tale of a king who summoned his prime minister to deliver some impossibly difficult news:

I see in the stars that every ear of grain in our kingdom is afflicted with terrible blight: whoever eats of it will go mad.  What is your advice?

The prime minister replied, “You and I must somehow find a way to bring in just enough grain from outside so that the two of us can avoid partaking of the local harvest.”

The king objected: “But then we will be the only ones who are sane; everyone else will be mad—therefore, they will think that we are the crazy ones.”

They sat in silence, pondering their fate.  Finally the king decided, “It is impossible to set aside sufficient outside grain for everyone.  Thus we, too, must eat of this year’s store.  But you and I will each first make a mark on our foreheads, so that when we see one another, we, at least, will know that we are mad.”

Like the king and prime minister, we cannot entirely escape the madness of our world.  But if we hang together and support one another, we will at least remember that we are mad—and thereby keep alive our hope of ameliorating the madness.


The second source of sanity in our culture run amuck is the moral compass of Torah.

When we start to stray into apathy and inattention, Torah calls us back to what matters most and restores an ethical perspective. 

To learn Torah is to remember what should and still might be.  As the Baal Shem Tov reminds us:  Forgetfulness leads to exile; memory is the key to redemption.

When we remember that God saw all the work of creation and called it very good,then we remember that willful inaction in the face of human-caused climate change is a sin against the Creator and a betrayal of future generations.

When we remember that God created humanity in God’s image, male and female, then we remember that racism, misogyny and homophobia debase both the human and the Divine.

When we remember God’s proclamation in this morning’s haftarah portion, Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain. . . to share your bread with the hungry. . when you see the naked to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin—when we remember this clarion call, then we remember what a shande it is that the world’s most powerful nation has by far the world’s highest rate of imprisonment, with gross racial disparity and with funding for incarceration growing three times faster than that for public education.  And we remember that homelessness in a land as wealthy as ours is not normal; it is unacceptable.

When we remember God’s call to seek peace and pursue it, to beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, then we remember that our failure to pass any significant form of gun control in the face of horrific violence in our schools and cities is a moral abomination.

And when we remember—as we are commanded in Torah, no less than thirty six times, to remember that we were strangers—refugees—in the land of Egypt, then we remember that calling people illegal aliens, separating children from their parents, threatening America’s Dreamers, imposing travel bans, imprisoning immigrants and turning away tens of thousands of desperate asylum seekers is un-Jewish and un-American.

When evil and apathy lulls us incrementally into their embrace, Torah is our wake up call, goading us to remember and to act.


Torah and community preserve our souls.  So does Shabbat.

Over two hundred years ago, the poet William Wordsworth wrote:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

What was true for Wordsworth is even truer now.  The world is, indeed, too much with us.  If we wish to preserve our moral sanity, we must regularly take the opportunity step away and turn it off.

Rosanne Gay speaks to this in her reply to Apathetic Idealist.  She tells her readers:

Lately, I’ve stopped watching cable news because the 24-hour news cycle has become an incoherent mess. . .

I recognize that I don’t have all the answers [but] what you describe in your letter is not apathy.  You aren’t indifferent to the current state of the world.  You are human, a woman trying to balance your own needs with doing good in the world. 

Take the time you need.  There is no shame in that so long as you remember to extend your empathy as far as you can when your emotional stores have replenished.

My friends, Shabbat is how and when we Jews unplug—to replenish our emotional stores and re-set our moral compass.  

What a blessing we have!—a day for rest and rejuvenation, to hear and remember the voice of Torah, enfolded in the loving embrace of our community!

Each week we have the opportunity to take our leave, like our father Jacob and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, just in the nick of time.

There is a special Hebrew word for this sacred endeavor: Va-yinafash.

Many of you know the term from V’Shamru, which we sing every Friday night and Saturday morning.  It’s straight out of the Torah, from Exodus 31: 

U-va-yom ha-sh’vi’i shavat va-yinafash—
         On the seventh day, God rested and was refreshed

But va-yinafash doesn’t really mean either “rested” or “refreshed.”  Its Hebrew root, nefesh, refers to soul, breath, or life-force.  So the verb, va-yinafash, is, literally, to be re-souled.  As Rashi says in his commentary on the passage, “God restored God’s own soul by taking a calming break from the burden of the labor.”

And we, created in God’s image, are called to do the same: to restore our souls, each and every week, by turning away from the work of the world for just long enough to return to that sacred labor rested, with open eyes and caring hearts. 

For ethical numbness and compassion fatigue are real and inevitable—unless we learn to take the time to rejuvenate our weary spirits.


On this most sacred morning of Yom Kippur, the Holy One calls us all to the ultimate accounting:

I set before you life or death, the blessing or the curse—
         Choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.

In this new year, each of us will face that choice:

The spiritual death that comes as the inevitable end of incremental ethical atrophy—

or the fullness of intentional life that we regain through a commitment to justice anchored in our Jewish ideals of communal solidarity, Torah teaching, and Shabbat rest and renewal.

This is the hour to rouse our spirits, to open our eyes, to offer up our hearts and minds, to speak and act to save our souls and the soul of our beloved nation.

My friends, let us choose life.