Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lighting the Dark (portion Vayeshev)

Sometimes hope emerges in unexpected times and places, if we remain open to the possibility of light emerging out of darkness.

Our Torah portion for this week, Vayeshev is filled with loss and despair.  Jacob mourns bitterly for his beloved son Joseph, whom he believes is dead.  Meanwhile, Joseph (who has, in fact, been sold into slavery by his brothers) is carried into exile in Egypt, where he will languish for many years in Pharaoh’s prison.  As the portion ends, despite Joseph’s gift for dreaming and dream interpretation, he is essentially forgotten.  In the darkest depths of the dungeon, all hope seems lost.

It is no coincidence that we often read this parashah around the beginning of Chanukah (this year, the Festival of Lights begins on Saturday night).  Chanukah arrives at the darkest season of the year, at the new moon closest to the winter solstice.  The situation of the Maccabees, pitted against the mighty Assyrian empire, also seems hopeless.   Like Joseph, they face a dark night of the soul.  The old, familiar, comfortable paths are all closed off to them.  They face overwhelming odds, with little sustenance and profoundly limited options.

And yet Joseph ultimately rises and the Maccabees prevail.  Each of these incredible underdogs defies the probabilities—and each begins by nurturing a tiny spark of light.  Joseph always holds the memory of his youthful dreams, and the possibility that they might yet come true.  The Maccabees muster the faith and courage to kindle light.  In both cases, there are no guarantees that the flames of hope will flourish.  But Joseph and the Maccabees share the wisdom that in dark times, we must ignite our own little lights and hope that others—including God—will sustain them.  We must take the first steps to banish darkness, and believe that when we do, our efforts will spread and inspire others to help illuminate the world.

The poet Rumi wrote:

Night comes so people can sleep like fish
in black water.  Then day.

Some people pick up their tools.
Others become the making itself.

In this season, let our lives be the lights the reawaken hope and compassion.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Dinah speaks! (Portion Vayishlach)

Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the region. When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the region, saw her, he seized her and lay with her by force. And his soul was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl to be my wife.”

After three thousand years of enduring in silence, perhaps Dinah’s day is dawning at last.

Her story—or, more accurately, her male relatives’ version of her story—sits squarely at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach.  When Dinah goes out to visit the women of the land, Shechem, the son of a local chieftain, rapes her and then asks his father, Hamor, to acquire her for him as a wife.  Jacob’s sons consent to the request—but only on the condition that Hamor and Shechem and their entire tribe agree to circumcise themselves.  The men of Shechem keep up their end of the bargain, but while they are still weak from their wounds, Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi attack the town, slaughter all of the men and plunder the women and children.  When Jacob condemns his sons for their violence, they respond, “Shall he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?”

Over the years, most of our traditional (male) commentators have criticized Dinah, some even going so far as to suggest that she brings the tragic consequences on herself by “going out” in an inappropriate manner.  Tellingly, Dinah—whose name means “judgment”—does not say a word in the entire episode.  Torah tells us nothing of her feelings, her words, her reactions to everything that happens to her.  In The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, author Ellen Frankel conjures Dinah’s voice: “Because from the moment of my birth, I was fated to remain silent.  When I was born, my name, unlike my brothers’, was announced without interpretation.  When I was raped, my cries went unrecorded.  When my brothers negotiated with Hamor for my hand, my wishes were not considered.  And when my father, Jacob, bestowed his blessings upon his children, I received none.  That was why I visited the Canaanite women.  Utterly invisible at home, I craved attention and went out looking for it.  Only too late did I learn that neglect is not the only injury a woman can suffer.”

Since Dinah, of course, countless myriads of women have suffered sexual harassment and violence at the hands of men.  Indeed, as the #metoo movement has illustrated, virtually no women have escaped the experience to some degree or another.  And like Dinah, most have kept silent, understandably fearing the reprisal and shaming that have typically dogged those with the courage to come forward. 

But today, at least in America, for the moment, that fear finally seems to be diminishing.  As Seattle Times writer Mindy Cameron notes in a recent op-ed: “All this could be a watershed moment. . . a reckoning and a clear warning to all men who presume they have the privilege and power to harass and abuse.”

This is, of course, just a beginning.  We men must take responsibility for our actions and speak—and act—out against all kinds of denigration and exploitation of women.  The rules of the past no longer apply—nor should they.  This is the time for us to listen.  Dinah and her sisters have been waiting a long time to have their say.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Leading the Way (Portion Noach)

While this week’s Torah portion, Noach, describes its protagonist as a “righteous man,” most Jewish commentators, past and present, tend to slightly disagree.  They note the qualifier that immediately follows this claim, b’dorotav, “in his generation” and argue that by implication, Noah was only relatively meritorious, compared to the very low standards set by his contemporaries. Unlike Abraham or Moses, Noah does not argue on behalf of his condemned fellow men and women. Anyone who is content to do nothing while all of creation is destroyed cannot be all that righteous.  Or, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, drawing on the Hasidic tradition, puts it, Noah was a tzaddik im pelz, a holy man in a fur coat.  In a world gone cold, you have two choices.  You put on a coat and warm yourself, or you build a fire, which warms both yourself and others.  Noah, alas, prefers the first, more selfish option.

Similarly, the text teaches: “Noah walked with God.”  This seems like a good thing—except a few chapters later, God says to Abraham, “Walk before me.”  As Rashi puts it, Noah leans on God for support, while Abraham brings God into the world through the strength of his own righteousness.

To be a Jew in these troubled times is to be called to lead. 

Walk before Me, says the Holy One.

This week, consider: How can you help to lead the way ?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Even the Losers (Tom Petty and Simchat Torah)

As a public-schooled, flannel-shirted Yankee at an uber-aristocratic southern university ruled by the prep-schooled scions of Jeb Stuart and Robert E. Lee, I played the grooves out of Tom Petty’s 1979 breakthrough album, Damn the Torpedoes.  From my first listen, I completely identified with Petty’s grainy voice and scrappy cast of characters, who were always a little down but determinedly not quite out.  Petty was the balladeer of folks who consistently come up a little short: the American girl, raised on promises, who “couldn’t help thinking there was a little more to life somewhere else”; the free-fallin’ good girls and bad boys lurking in the shadows behind the fancy shops on Ventura Boulevard; every dogged dreamer who “ain’t got wings” but is nonetheless learning to fly and inevitably discovering that “comin’ down is the hardest thing.”  I’ve loved Tom Petty for four decades, because more than any other rock star, he spoke up for those who the powers that be dismissed as losers.  As TP put it—against the gorgeous background of the Heartbreakers’ surging organ swells and twelve-string jangle—Even the losers get lucky sometimes.  Even the losers keep a little bit of pride.

Tom Petty’s embrace of losing as a badge of pride is profoundly counter-cultural in today’s America.  Our president throws out the word “loser” with utmost scorn; for Donald Trump, there is nothing worse.  But the Torah is with Tom Petty.  Our sacred text is full of noble losers; virtually no one in its pages gets all of what they want.  This week, as the Jewish community celebrates Simchat Torah, we will conclude the book of Deuteronomy and begin again with the story of Creation.  Both passages pay homage to sacred losers: Moses dies after failing to convince God to let him enter the Promised Land, then humanity is evicted from Eden after eating the forbidden fruit.  From the first to the last, Torah reads like a Tom Petty playlist, with account after account of men and women who fall short but muster the grit to get back up and, against all odds, keep on trying.

Donald Trump doesn’t like losers, amongst whom he numbers the free press, football players taking a knee, half of his own party, and, essentially, anyone who disagrees with him.  But God and Torah love the losers, because the losers are us. 

So did Tom Petty. 

Rest in peace, TP. 

And chag sameach, all.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Rest (Yom Kippur morning)

My friends, today we celebrate the holiest time of our Jewish year.  This sacred day is the foundation of our calendar.  It is the wellspring of our spirituality and the lifeblood of the Jewish people; without it, we could not endure.

But that is not why most of you are here this morning. 

You have come for Yom Kippur.

And Yom Kippur is an important event, a momentous gathering for our community.  But despite the crowd it draws, here in Boise and across the Jewish world, Yom Kippur is not our tradition’s most essential festival.   The holiest celebration of the Jewish year returns weekly, starting at sunset every Friday evening.

The most sacred day of the Jewish year is Shabbat.


Don’t get me wrong.  I’m glad you’re here for Yom Kippur.  When we take it seriously, the Day of Atonement offers genuine reconciliation, an opportunity to forgive others and ourselves.  But Shabbat is the only holiday to make the Ten Commandments and its existence precedes the Jewish people.  Yom Kippur is a turning point in Jewish time; Shabbat is built into the very creation of the world, a gift to every living thing.  So this morning, on Yom Kippur—and throughout the year to come—I am asking us to work together to restore Shabbat to its proper place as the greatest of our people’s treasures.


Over the course of these Days of Awe, I’ve spoken a great deal about teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, our Jewish obligations to turn, pray, and liberate.  As our liturgy for this season teaches, these are the holy deeds with the power to mitigate harsh fate, to transform ourselves and our world.

But turning, prayer, and liberation are as exhausting as they are essential.  In order to do this sacred labor well, we frail human beings also need to rest—especially in these current trying times.


A few days ago, I received an email from my friend, Rev. Vincent Lachina, the longtime chaplain for the northwest regional affiliates of Planned Parenthood.  I met him years ago when I was president of our local chapter.  In his home city of Seattle and around the Pacific Northwest, Vincent is an exceptional social justice activist.  He’s an ordained Southern Baptist minister who turns, prays, and liberates with extraordinary passion and integrity.  With that in mind, consider what he wrote me and other clergy and lay leader friends during this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

Hello friends,

I had a difficult time writing this message.

Not because I don’t look forward to checking in with you every couple of weeks, and not because sharing some words of encouragement isn’t something that matters deeply to me—it’s because I haven’t had those words. This week I think I finally felt the weight of the past few months; all the protests and pushing back, of opposing travel bans and healthcare bills and racists’ marches; of the family arguments and social media battles and church conflicts.

I think my body and my heart finally said, “Enough” and I think I’m not alone. Rather than holding off until I can share a buoyant, inspiring, “rah-rah” message with you, I wanted to share this one with you:

It’s okay to be exhausted

It’s alright to be weary and frustrated and burned out; to admit when you’re tired of it all and you need to step away and pause and breathe.

Today, maybe give yourself the gift of logging out, of shutting down, of not fighting; of taking some time to paint, take your dog to the park, or lay in the grass and watch the clouds. It isn’t irresponsible—it’s caring for your soul and yourself and those around you, so that you’ll be here for a long time.

Sometimes you need to change the world—and sometimes you need to take a nap. I’m going to do the latter.


Shabbat is our indispensable Jewish injunction to take a nap.  And that mandate is more crucial now than ever, because turning, praying, and liberating are wearying work—and because our seemingly endless slate of far more mundane affairs is doubly draining.  We need Shabbat because we are all way too busy with trivialities, because our sense of time and priorities is badly warped by our culture of technology run amuck.

North Carolina pastor John Pavlovitz eloquently explains our predicament:

[We have a] relentless fixation on activity, a persistent compulsion to feel as though we are productive. It is the perpetual drive to more and greater and faster and better that propels us through the furious blur of our everyday—and causes us to miss a good deal of it.

We run and sweat and strive and chase our seconds away, always arriving at any given spot breathless, frazzled, and eyeing the next spot off somewhere in the distance we think we need to sprint toward. Most of us have spent so much time in this hyper-urgency that we’ve forgotten that this is not normal, that it isn’t supposed to be like this.

Our speed is literally making us sick and yet we adore it, we aspire to it, we worship it like an ever-distant God who would deign to bless us if only our velocity could increase slightly and we could do and be enough to deserve it. We run through our days, not with the lightness of one who has joy simply in running, but as one desperate to catch something they believe will give them life.

This frantic pace is not deserving of our allegiance.
It is not worthy of our devotion.

And so, we live wearily.
And so, our bodies and souls are exhausted.
You my friend, are tired.

And because you’re tired you need to give yourself a priceless gift: You need to give yourself permission to stop; to consent to a stilling that will bring rest and peace and save you from drowning in the stirring sea of your own making.


Permission to stop. 


But permission to stop is inadequate to the task. 

I know. 

I have more than my share of those Shabbat afternoons when I return from shul, collapsing from fatigue.  I shuffle through the door, take off my work clothes, slip into bed, pull out a good book or, better yet, close my eyes to nap.

And then my phone—that hand-held machine more powerful than the vast banks of computers that during my childhood guided the Apollo spaceships to the moon and back—that marvelous, monstrous smartphone pings.

And I, with the addict’s unmistakable, unconscious compulsion, reach out to check for that incoming email or text or Facebook “like” that brings the constantly craved dopamine jolt.

That’s why we require more than permission to stop.  What we need is an obligation to cease and desist. 

A mitzvah. 

Six days you should labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is Shabbat.

More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.

Shabbat is a remarkable gift.  But we are so reluctant to accept it, God had to make it a command.

We need to come home and turn our screens off. 


All week long, we labor to heal what’s broken in the world.  This is critical work.  But alas for us if we do not take a day to marvel at the world as it is, to revel and rejoice in its beauty that endures despite everything.

The poet Marcia Falk writes:

Three generations back
my family had only

to light a candle
and the world parted.

Today, Friday afternoon,
I disconnect clocks and phones. 

When night fills my house
with passages,

I begin saving
my life.


Fortunately, this command, this mitzvah of Shabbat is not an all-or-nothing proposal. I am not likely to ever become Shomer Shabbos in an Orthodox sense and, I suspect, neither are most of you.  Yet we can commit, together as a community, to recovering the blessings of this weekly festival, step by step.  Steadily, over time, we can restore Shabbat to its central place as a day of rest and renewal, wholeness and holiness.  Let us find ways to slow down, to turn off.  Leave the car in the garage and ride your bike.  Instead of shopping, take a walk.  Your soul will rejoice in occasionally saying “no” to consumerism.  Set the calendar, the planner, the endless list of errands aside.  And take the time with family or friends, because Shabbat is better when we celebrate together.

Let’s start with Friday night Shabbat dinners.

Our Sages teach that every Shabbat table is an altar, no less hallowed than the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.   At their best, our Shabbos tables are places of learning, healing, and joyous community.  Shabbat dinner is a time for friends and family and welcome guests to share stories, bridge divides, laugh and sing, debate and delight.  The dinner need not be elegant and if there are kids, they don’t have to be perfectly behaved.  But we have to reach out and invite one another to join our celebrations.  Because when we come together for Shabbat, we can become what a synagogue is at its best: a large, extended family, forged over candles, Kiddush, and conversation.  When we open our homes and our hearts to each other, Shabbat conjures a miracle, transforming the isolation and loneliness of contemporary America into kinship and community.

Later this fall and early winter, we will be launching a synagogue-wide Shabbat dinner initiative.  The ultimate goal is straightforward: every Friday night, every CABI individual and family that wishes to enjoy a Shabbat dinner will have a place to go.  At the start, once a month we will continue to have Shabbat dinner at the synagogue. Once a month we will continue to have Early Bird Shabbat with an early Oneg. And once a month, we will help coordinate hosts and guests so that everyone has a place to go for dinner after early Kabbalat Shabbat. To facilitate this, we will shift our usual 7:30 service to 5:45.  If you show up at shul alone, you can leave with friends, old or new.  Or you can skip shul and go straight to dinner at someone’s home, where young and old will celebrate across the generations, our senior members and our families with young children, together.  Even before we get started, in coming weeks, we’ll begin to lay the infrastructure we need to support and sustain this effort.  Haya Kinberg and I will be leading Wednesday night adult learning programs on how to enrich home-based Shabbat observances.  The children in our Jewish Journeys program will bring home food from their cooking adventures for Shabbat dinner, and ideas and activities for Shabbat discussion. Thanks to a generous grant from the Groves Foundation, CABI will recruit and hire a Shabbat Coordinator to match and work with hosts and guests.  We’ll line up and train a company of Shabbat “Angels” to be present at dinners across the community and mentor attendees through the rituals and blessings that enrich the occasion.  Someone could come to your home to help you say the blessings, or sing a song. We’ll put out Torah Table Talk guides for each week’s discussion, and easy recipes and workshops for making challah and other traditional foods.  And we’ll provide funds to assist those for whom hosting a Shabbat dinner might otherwise constitute a financial hardship.   Stay tuned for more, coming soon—and if you want to volunteer, please call or email me after the fall holy days have passed!


I know it’s a little tough to ponder dinner on Yom Kippur, as morning turns to afternoon and our stomachs start to rumble. 

But in a matter of hours, this Day of Atonement will be over, not to return until the passing of another year.

Meanwhile, Shabbat will be back next week.  And the week after that.  And so on, without fail, for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond—blessing and sustaining the Jewish people.

So as these Days of Awe draw toward an end, let us prepare to do our holy work in the world.  The task is formidable and the time is urgent.

Let us turn.

Let us pray.

And let us liberate.

But at the end of each rigorous week of turning, praying, and liberating, let us not forget to rest, to renew ourselves, our community and the Jewish people. 

In that spirit, I end with words by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, set to music by one of the great contemporary Jewish songwriters, Dan Nichols:

A thought has blown the market place away
There is a song in the wind and joy in the trees.
Shabbat has arrived in the world
Scattering a song in the silence of the night.
And Eternity utters a day. .  .