Sunday, January 10, 2021

Portion Vaera: Faith/Emunah

During my rabbinical school years, I attended a fascinating debate between two faculty members—one a devout believer, the other a staunch atheist.  They disagreed about almost everything, and as the conversation wore on, each of them grew frustrated.  Finally, the atheist exclaimed: “You keep asking me why I don’t believe, based on the Torah!  Well, if I had seen firsthand the miracles described there—the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the thunderous voice upon Mt Sinai—then I, too, would have faith in your God.”  To which the believer responded: “No—if you had been there, you’d have turned to me and asked, ‘What’s this ruckus all about?’”

In this week’s Torah portion, we see the truth of this argument: miracles never make believers out of skeptics.  Pharaoh repeatedly fails to take to heart the lesson of the plagues; for him, seeing is not necessarily believing.  Alas, as the story of our liberation unfolds, it becomes painfully clear that the Israelites are equally unconvinced by God’s marvels.  Miracles do not move us any more than they do Pharaoh.  Much as his heart is hardened, our spirits are crushed.  Thus, when Moses first performs portents and proposes to bring us out of Egypt, we refuse to listen.  Immediately after our miraculous passage through the Red Sea, we complain about the bitter water.  Our response to the revelation at Mt Sinai is to ask Aaron to make us a golden calf.  Indeed, in the entire Hebrew Bible, there is not a single case of a miracle inspiring sustained faith in God for anyone.  My teacher, Rabbi Herbert Brichto, z”l, argued that this is, in fact, the core lesson of miracles: Torah comes to teach that they are no grounds for spiritual living.  We don’t believe on account of what we see; we see on the basis of what we believe.

So if miracles inevitably fall flat, what does constitute a firm foundation for a faithful life?  David Foster Wallace tells the story of two young fish who are swimming along when they meet an older fish coming from the opposite direction.  “Morning, boys,” he says, “How’s the water?”  The two young fish continue along silently until eventually one of them looks at the other and asks, “What is water?”

Wallace’s point is simple: the only way to open our hearts—and therefore also our eyes—is to live mindfully.  What blinds the young fish—and Pharaoh and our own biblical ancestors and, of course, ourselves—is our tendency to operate wholly unconsciously, to take things for granted rather than making our choices consciously.  Our challenge is, as Wallace notes, to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.”  It all begins with mindfulness.  Full consciousness is the real miracle.  


The Hebrew noun for faith—emunah—refers to a kind of trust and reliability.  It is less a matter of belief and more a case of mindful conviction.  When we commit to true attentiveness, we see that there is always more than meets the eye, whether or not we choose to call it God.  As Alan Morinis notes, “in Mussar, faith is not so much something held as pursued.  How could it be otherwise when relating to divinity that is not only hidden, but that has hidden that very hiddenness?”

Mussar Practice for this Week 

This week, begin and end each day with the words of the Shema:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad

Pay attention, children of Israel, the Holy One is our God, the Holy One is One.

As you speak or sing the words, be mindful of your breath—and of the beauty in the people and world around you.  For a moment, at least, trust in the God/the Universe.

Friday, January 8, 2021

This Is America (Portion Shemot 5781)

In a dark and troubled time, how and when does the healing start?

When hatred and violence constrict our world so tightly that it’s hard to breath, what marks the beginning of our liberation?

At the end of this tumultuous week, these questions stand at the heart of both our national discourse and our Torah portion, Shemot, which opens the book of Exodus, with its epic narrative of bondage and redemption.

First, then, the here and now, in the aftermath of an unprecedented insurrection fomented by a sociopathic president raging through the bitter end of his tenure.  On Wednesday evening, President-Elect Biden gave a brief speech designed to reassure our shell-shocked nation.  As I listened, I felt grateful for his calm, collected demeanor and magnanimous words.  But uneasiness set in when he insisted, “This is not America.  This is not who we are.”

I have heard variations of this statement for decades, including here in Boise.  After every anti-Semitic or racist or xenophobic action—including, just a month ago, the defacement of the Anne Frank Memorial—our political leaders invariably say, "This is not Idaho." 

Alas, friends, in January of 2021, I believe it is imperative that we reflect upon the heinous fury we’ve witnessed in Washington, DC and here at home and acknowledge: 

This is America.

This is Idaho.  

Now to be clear, it's not the entirety of America or Idaho. There is much that is good and beautiful in our beloved country, state and city.  But the hatred and violence are not incidental. They are part of who we are, and have been from the start, since Europeans arrived on this continent, slaughtered its indigenous inhabitants and started buying and selling black Africans as chattel.  As David Brooks noted in a column yesterday, “There are dark specters running through our nation — beasts with shaggy manes and feral teeth. They have the stench of Know-Nothingism, the hot blood of the lynchers, and they ride the winds of nihilistic fury.”  This shadow side of our national story has long been painfully obvious to people of color, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and other minorities.  To insist that this is not America is to deny their—our—lived experience here.  We need to hear and honor the opening words of Langston Hughes’s powerful poem:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain.
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America was never America to me.)


How and when does the healing start?  What marks the beginning of our liberation?

Our Torah portion offers a quiet, and perhaps unexpected answer, taking us back months before the plagues and our ultimate exodus.  We read: 

After many, many days, the King of Egypt died.  The children of Israel groaned from under the labor and cried out in protest.  Their cry for help from their bondage rose up to God and God heard. . . 

Why is different in that moment, after we had already endured over two centuries of slavery?  The Gerer Rebbe taught: “Our sigh, our groan, our crying out was the first step of our redemption.  For as long as we did not cry against our exile, we were not ready to experience liberation.”  In other words, the journey toward the Promised Land cannot commence until we muster the courage to take stock of who and where we truly are, for good and for bad alike.  Only then might we catch a glimpse of who we seek to collectively become.

On a personal level, we relearn this lesson every fall as the Days of Awe approach.  Year after year, we engage in the sacred labor of teshuvah, of getting our lives back on their proper path from which we inevitably stray.  Our Sages remind us that genuine teshuvah always requires at least four steps: we must make an honest accounting of our souls, admit our failings, express our remorse and, to the best of our ability, make amends to those we’ve hurt.


So, too, on a national level, this is a time of reckoning.  America cannot move forward until we acknowledge the dark side of our past and our present.  We need to recognize that Donald Trump is less the cause of our current state than a symptom of it.  As Professor of African-American Studies Eddie Glaude reminds us: “He is a manifestation of the ugliness that is in us.”  It is long past time to let go of the arrogance of American exceptionalism and understand that we all carry some complicity and bear some responsibility for the kind of ugliness so prominently on display this week.  This is an hour of reckoning.  Let us listen to the voices that have too long gone unheard; let us hear the groans and the cries and bear witness to the affliction.  For these experiences are undeniably a prominent part of who we are.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his visionary essay on religion and race: In a free society, some are guilty.  All are responsible.

This is America.  This is Idaho.


But just as we must stop denying our very real shortcomings, so, too, must we remember our highest ideals and truly extraordinary accomplishments.  While too many on the right side of the political spectrum willfully ignore the ugly side of our nation’s history, too many on the left seem to see only the warts and none of the beauty.  To dwell only in the darkness is, by definition, to be without vision—and a nation with no vision cannot endure.  As civil rights activist and law professor Bryan Stevenson reminds us: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.  So, too, on a national level.  If the American experience was nothing but racism, genocide, and oppression, it would not be worth our while to continue the endeavor.  Thankfully, despite its authorship by slaveowners, our constitution’s highest ideals, as interpreted over the course of our history, remain a guiding light to us, and to much of the rest of the world as well.

F. Scott Fitzgerald taught: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  Thankfully, the Jewish people have honed this skill over centuries.  Our tradition is not one of “either/or” but “both/and.”  We are Hillel and Shammai, who differ on every essential question—even as both speak the words of the living God.  And to return to our book of Exodus, the most well-known symbol of our journey from degradation to praise is matzah, which is simultaneously lachma anya, the bread of affliction, and the centerpiece of the meal that marks our liberation.

This is precisely the task before us in this urgent hour, as the fate of our democracy hangs in the balance.  We must learn to see that America is a land wracked by racism and xenophobia—and a nation where we just witnessed, in the heart of the deep South, the election to the US Senate of a black preacher from MLK’s church and a young Jewish journalist.  We are both children kept in cages on the Mexican border and the words of the Sephardi Jewish poet Emma Lazarus emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .   We are both slavery and abolition, vigilante violence and restorative justice, fear and hope, demagoguery and democracy. We are the insurrectionists desecrating the Capitol and we are the activists honoring the memory of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and so many, many more.  We are the vandals who pasted swastikas on our Anne Frank Memorial, and we are the scores of citizens who filled that same sacred space with cascades of flowers and well-wishes.

In this moment of reckoning, This is America.  This is Idaho.

So let us look into our individual and collective souls.  Let us acknowledge and make amends for the monumental failures and celebrate the magnificent achievements.  The path to the Promised Land is long and arduous.  It’s a journey, accomplished not in a day or a week or a month but over forty years or more.  We can’t foresee what lies around the bend.  But we do know it’s better when we travel together.  Then and only then might we make real the end of Langston Hughes’s prophetic poem:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Portion Vayigash: Repentance/Teshuvah

Maimonides famously taught that the true penitent is one who finds him or herself with the opportunity to commit the same transgression they did in their past, without fear of being caught or punished, yet refrains from doing so.  Our biblical ancestor Judah embodies this teaching in our weekly parashah, Vayigash.

In one of the longest and most heroic speeches in the Torah, Judah sacrifices himself for the sake of his father Jacob and his younger brother Benjamin.  Decades after his complicity in selling Joseph into slavery, Judah is a changed man.  He has suffered enormously, losing two sons.  He has also transgressed—and publicly acknowledged his failings.  Judah transforms his personal pain and shortcomings into profound spiritual growth.  As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein notes: “This is the measure of Judah's greatness: his tragedy becomes the soil for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He was the one to step forward when the hour demanded it because he was the one who knew that to redeem himself out of his own past mistakes and accumulated grief, he had to extend himself for the redemption of others.”

The Rabbis refer to Joseph as HaTzadik, “the righteous one.”  He is a powerful and important figure in our tradition.  But his almost too-pious righteousness renders him a little remote and distant.  It is hard to relate to, and engage with, Joseph.  Most of us connect more easily with Judah, the deeply-flawed man who wrestles with his moral choices and grows from his struggles.  The midrash recognizes his greatness by pointing out that his name, Yehudah, contains all four letters of God’s Name, (yud-hey-vav-hey)—and is the origin of our collective name, yehudim, Jews.  Judah is also the progenitor of King David and, by extension, the messiah.  The messianic hope for an age of peace, justice, and compassion can only be realized if we, collectively and individually, commit ourselves to the kind of self-reflection and spiritual growth that we learn from Judah.


This week’s midah/character trait is self-transformation, or repentance—in the Hebrew, teshuvah. The Hebrew term literally means “turning” or returning to our proper path, from which we all inevitably stray over time.  Many of us are familiar with this midah from the month of Elul and the Days of Awe, but teshuvah is not just for the High Holy Days.  As our Sages teach, the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gate of repentance is always open.  At any moment of any day, we can begin to change ourselves, to be the people we are truly called to become.  

Mussar Practice for this Week 

Jewish tradition points to a few important steps toward teshuvah.  First, we must recognize the attitudes and behaviors that we want to change.  Next, we confess our pertinent shortcomings, which creates an added layer of accountability.  Finally, we desist from the behavior and make amends to those we have hurt. 

This week, go through this process, looking at one area where you would like to improve.  

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Portion Miketz: Responsibility/Acharayut

In dreams begin responsibilities

When we first meet Joseph, as a teenage boy, he is blessed with visionary dreams yet he is profoundly lacking in wisdom.  He foolishly flaunts his reveries at his brothers’ expense, thereby earning their enmity.  His dreams of dominion are, in fact, accurate—but he does not yet know what to do with them.  He speaks when he should be silent.  Joseph’s prophetic gifts run deep—but they blind him to the needs and feelings of others.  He is brilliant but insensitive, rich in vision but impoverished in empathy and action.  He fails to take responsibility for the consequences of his ill-timed and chosen words. 

Decades later, in this week’s portion, Miketz, Joseph grows up.  Pain and adversity teach him compassion.  Enslavement and imprisonment open his eyes to the suffering of others.   Joseph learns how to listen, how to see into the hearts of those around him.  This wisdom enables him to develop his prophetic potential into powerful action.

Pharaoh calls upon Joseph to interpret two parallel dreams.  Joseph does this—but does not stop there.  He goes on to offer policy advice based on his interpretation: Pharaoh should set up a detailed system over all of Egypt to collect and store up food during the seven years of plenty, so that there will be provisions when the seven years of famine strike.  Here, Joseph moves from words to acts.  He acknowledges that in interpreting dreams, he is a mere vessel, channeling God.  But the choice to translate those interpretations into a course of action is his alone.  As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes: “From being a dreamer of dreams, Joseph became the person of the dream... a man who experienced the dream... as a burden and a responsibility and a course of action from which there could be no digression.  We may not all have the gift to accurately interpret our dreams.  But we can assume responsibility for them.  That is, after all, just assuming responsibility for ourselves.”


This week’s midah/character trait is responsibility—in the Hebrew, acharayut. The contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis notes that there are two possible Hebrew roots for this midah.  The first, achar, means “after,” suggesting that responsibility entails being mindful of the aftereffects, or consequences, of our choices.  The second possibility, acher, meaning “other,” reminds us to consider the effects of our choices upon others around us.  Joseph comes to understand both of these meanings of acharayut.  By the time he meets his long-estranged brothers in next week’s portion, he is very much a changed man.

The Jewish writer Delmore Schwartz wrote story whose title is adapted from a poem by W.B. Yeats: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.  Indeed.   As we grow older—and hopefully, wiser and more compassionate—our challenge is to translate our dreams and visions into well-chosen actions.  During this week, which celebrates light and miracles, let’s think about how to live up to the responsibilities imposed by our dreams.

Mussar Practice for this Week (from The Mussar Torah Commentary)

During this week, identify a societal issue that you share with others with whom you are in the “same boat.”  Take a step, however small, to assume a piece of that responsibility.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Portion Vayishlach: Courage/Ometz Lev

In our tradition, to pray is to examine our deeds and intentions.  The Hebrew word for praying—l’hitpalel—is a reflexive form of the verb “to judge.”  For the Jewish people, prayer involves intense conversation with both the Divine and our innermost selves—which are sometimes one and the same.

Jacob rises to that challenge in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach.  Encamped alone on the far bank of the Jabbok river, he grapples all night with a mysterious being.  As morning breaks, this adversary blesses Jacob with a new name, Israel—One Who Wrestles with the Divine.  But who is Jacob’s enigmatic opponent?  Most of our commentaries suggest that it was the guardian angel of his estranged brother Esau.  But the twelfth-century sage Rashbam suggests that the angel is an embodiment of Jacob’s own inner nature, sent by God.  Rashbam teaches:  The Holy One answers a person’s prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his [or her] own opponent.

For Rashbam, this sacred encounter recognizes the essential nature of prayer as painstaking self-examination.  At its best, religious expression pushes us to grow.  Our Sages suggest that we use the words of the siddur as shovels to dig deep into our own souls and transform ourselves.  For us, as for Jacob, serious prayer demands that we see ourselves as we really are—and as we hope yet to become. This requires significant courage.

In the 2008 documentary Examined Life, writer and philosopher Cornel West muses upon the spiritual audacity inherent in this sort of self-reflective life: 

It takes tremendous discipline, it takes tremendous courage to think for yourself, to examine yourself. The Socratic imperative of examining yourself requires courage. William Butler Yeats used to say that it takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield. Courage to think critically. Courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher, for any human being I think in the end. Courage to think, courage to love, courage to hope.


This week’s midah/character trait is courage—in the Hebrew, ometz lev, meaning “strength of heart.”  Time and again in Torah, God girds us with the words chazak v’amatz—be strong and of steadfast courage. This does not mean living free of fear; instead, it guides us to move forward through the fear.  Clear-eyed self-examination is almost always scary, but if our hearts are strong, we can muster the courage to look inward and grow outward.


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

On an index card—or on your phone or other portable electronic device—write down Alan Morinis’s beautiful mantra for gratitude: Forward and upward, strong heart.

Ask some hard questions of yourself, that might lead you to do better work at home and in the world. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Portion Vayetze: Gratitude/Hakarat ha-Tov

For many of us, gratitude will be complicated this Thanksgiving.  The failure of our state officials to take significant action in the face of a catastrophic pandemic breaks the heart.  Sickness, and the fear of it, cast a pall over the usual seasonal joys.  Our holiday tables, often surrounded by beloved family and friends, will be filled with empty chairs.  It is dark and lonely out there.

So, as Thanksgiving approaches in this challenging year, how might we give thanks?  

Fortunately, this week’s portion, Vayetze, offers a powerful lesson for Thanksgiving and beyond.  We do well to look to the example of our matriarch, Leah, who one Talmudic sage describes as the first person in the history of the world to express gratitude to God.  How can this be?  Generations before Leah, many others, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca all offered thanks to the Holy One.  But Leah’s gratitude is unique—because it is so hard-won.

All of her life, she is unloved by her husband, Jacob, who devotes himself to her prettier younger sister, Rachel.  For years, Leah laments this reality, naming her first three sons in a manner that expresses her pain and disappointment.  But when her fourth child is born, she calls him Judah, meaning, “This time, I will give thanks to God.”  (That beautiful name is the root of the word “Jew.”  We are called to be a people who are grateful.)

What has happened here?  How does Leah, previously so lovelorn and despairing, turn her life around and learn to express gratitude rather than longing?  In his brilliant book, The Heart of Torah, Rabbi Shai Held notes: 

Leah has somehow found the courage to accept that her life is not going to turn out as she had hoped.  Something inside of her shifts, and rather than sinking in the sorrow of what she does not have, she is able to embrace the beauty and fullness of what she does.  It is crucial to emphasize that Leah's gratitude does not magically set everything aright and banish every other feeling she has.  Her disappointment is real, and deep. But she is also grateful, for despite the intensity of her pain, she, too, has her blessings.  With the birth of Judah, Leah has discovered the awesome capacity to feel grateful even amidst her sorrows.

In other words, disappointment and gratitude are not exclusive.  In this life, we can’t always get what we want; indeed, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to the contrary, we sometimes don’t even get what we need.  Disappointment is inevitable.  But it should not blot out the possibility of gratitude.  As Rabbi Held concludes, Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other, but rather makes space for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience.  Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness? 


This week’s midah/character trait is gratitude—in the Hebrew, hakarat ha-tov, which literally means “recognizing the good.”  Gratitude lies at the heart of so many of our regular Jewish practices, especially saying blessings.  Our tradition offers blessings—brachot—for so many activities, from eating (with different blessings depending upon the source of the food), performing mitzvot/commandments, and witnessing natural wonders and phenomenon, like mountains, rivers, rainbows and shooting stars.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously noted, “Just to be is a blessing.”  And the Chasidic teacher Rebbe Nachman of Breslov reminded us that gratitude roots out arrogance and resentment, proclaiming: Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party.  Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

On an index card—or on your phone or other portable electronic device—write down Alan Morinis’s beautiful mantra for gratitude: Awake to the good and give thanks.

During this Thanksgiving week, repeat and meditate upon that phrases regularly.

Try to find something good in every situation, and acknowledge it as good. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Portion Toldot: Savlanut/Patience

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

This quote, from E.M. Forster, speaks to a paradox at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Toldot.  As it opens, God tells Rebecca, who is struggling with a painful pregnancy: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will descend from you; one kingdom will become mightier than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.  Soon thereafter, she delivers twins, with Esau emerging first, followed by his brother, Jacob.

Perhaps because of what she knows from this God-given prophecy, Rebecca favors the younger boy from the start, while Isaac prefers his more macho first-born.  It’s a painfully dysfunctional dynamic, which divides the family throughout the twins’ childhood. It finally comes to a head as they reach adulthood, when Rebecca conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac (who is now blind) into giving him the blessing he intends for Esau.  The plan involves a brilliant deception: she covers Jacob’s arms with sheepskins, so that when Isaac feels him, he thinks he is his much shaggier older brother.  Although Isaac initially responds with some suspicion, in the end, the plot succeeds.

But all of this raises a question: If God has already told Rebecca of Jacob’s eventual primacy before the boys were even born, why is she so desperate to force the matter with all of this deception?  Does Rebecca’s eagerness to seize the blessing for Isaac betray an underlying lack of patience?

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Diane Sharon argues accordingly: “What if, by urging Jacob to steal the blessing meant for his brother, Rebecca is not acting in harmony with the will of God? The outcome of Rebecca’s story may, perhaps, teach us to allow the divine process to unfold for a while before we decide to act on God’s behalf.”

For us, as for Rebecca, it can be very difficult to “let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”  We strive mightily to seize our fate, to shape every detail of the course of our lives on our own timetable. My first inclination is almost always to try to assert control over my circumstances.  But as I grow older, I continue to learn that sometimes I can only gain what I desire by learning to let it go—to muster the patience to let God’s intentions blossom in their own time.  


This week’s midah/character trait is patience.  In Hebrew, it is savlanut, which contains the root sabal, meaning “a porter.”  What is the relationship between patience and porters?  Mussar teacher Shlomo Wolbe (as cited in Alan Morinis’s book Every Day, Holy Day) offers this insightful connection: The patient person is exactly like someone who is carrying a heavy package.  Even though it weighs upon him, he continues to go on his way, and doesn’t take a break from carrying it. The same is true in all the relationships that are between people: we see and hear many things that aren’t according to our will, and still we continue to be friends.

It’s hard to wait, especially under trying circumstances, which are all-too-common these days.  But as 2020 draws toward its end, we are going to need to muster all the patience we can get.  Healing our divided nation and restoring hope in the face of this pandemic will not be either quick or easy work.  But the weight will be lighter if we bear it patiently—together.


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Mussar Torah Commentary)

This week, set an intention to notice the moments during the day when you feel challenged to exhibit patience. Pay attention to the quality of your feelings (irritation, anger, anxiety, boredom, or something else) at these moments.  At the end of each day, record your observations.  What learning emerges about the nature of your relationship with the midah of patience?  In what way does the mere act of noticing these moments and then reflecting upon them affect your capacity to practice savlanut?