Thursday, September 29, 2022

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5783/2022: Not Every World Is Meant to Be

Ha-yom harat olam—today the world was born!  So we proclaim upon sounding the shofar, which recalls the cry of labor pains.  Last night I spoke of Rosh Hashanah as a celebration of that creation.

But this morning, I want to affix an asterisk to that claim, for long ago our Sages suggested that this universe wasn’t God’s first effort at world-building.  They arrive at this surprisingly contemporary cosmological twist through a close reading of the biblical text.  As a bit of background, it is helpful to know that the Rabbis believed God creates life using Hebrew letters.  So what happens when they apply that assumption to the Torah’s opening word, b’reshitIn the beginning?  They’re puzzled because given their premise, Torah should start with the letter aleph, the first in the Hebrew alphabet.  Yet b’reshit begins with bet, the second letter.  Why did God seem to skip the aleph and commence creation with the letter bet?

In the Zohar, the magnum opus of Jewish mysticism, our Sages offer an ingenious answer grounded in one of their favorite practices—wordplay.  Zohar notes that the Hebrew for the number one thousand—eleph—is very closely related to the letter name, aleph.  From this they glean that the Holy One’s work of creation did, in fact, actually begin with aleph—for God formed and destroyed one thousand worlds before finally turning to the bet of bereshit to fashion the one we know and inhabit.  This naturally leads to a classic Talmudic debate, where one side argued that the Holy One actually created and then demolished all of those worlds, while the other insisted that She merely contemplated then terminated them long before they were born.

I recognize that their medieval science is archaic and the intricacies of rabbinic hermeneutics aren’t for everyone, but our Sages’ notion of prior worlds that were not meant to be raises a host of interesting and important questions that remain strikingly germane in our time and place.  In pursuit of insight and empathy we might imagine ourselves in God’s place: What were those unique universes like and how close did they come to fruition?  Why did God decide to destroy them?  And how did God feel through the long and trying labor of conceiving and aborting so many potential worlds?


There are, of course, no definitive answers to these questions.  Our responses are a kind of modern-day midrash, the sacred and essential Jewish work of building creative bridges between ancient texts and current contexts.  Like all of our tradition’s conjectures about ultimate things, they reveal far more about us than they do about the Holy One, who remains a deep mystery.  That’s something to celebrate, because every encounter with God becomes a powerful mirror into ourselves and the human condition.  With that in mind, how do we imagine the drama around a thousand worlds created and destroyed?  


The Kabbalists envisioned these hidden worlds as ubarim—embryos God might have birthed but ultimately aborted.  I imagine each of these pregnancies came with its own unique circumstances.  I picture some as deeply desired and long in the making, beloved to the Holy One, yet for some mysterious reason, unknowable even to her, not destined to be.  I see her weeping for their loss, for their promise and potential tragically unfulfilled.  Perhaps others were beautiful but not quite right, lacking some essential quality they needed to endure.  Some of those myriad worlds may have been doomed by bad timing—on a slightly different occasion, each could have been the one, but the moment wasn’t ripe.  I can also imagine instances where the potential world might well have worked just fine—but God Herself wasn’t ready, was not yet prepared to meet the ceaseless demands of a magnificent but also deeply needy universe that would require constant attention, nourishment, patience, and love.  Perhaps God needed to mature a little more before taking on that awesome responsibility—to grow, as it were, into the terrifying role of being a Creator and Sustainer of life.

Or maybe each of those destroyed worlds simply couldn’t come to be because this one—our own deeply imperfect but precious world—always lay in wait, and if another had been born, we and all we know would not be here.


Which brings me back to here and now and, at long last, to the moral significance I make of the ancient rabbinic tale I’m telling—namely, the spiritual imperative of reproductive justice for all women and non-binary folks capable of bringing children into the world that we inhabit.  With no thanks to the US Supreme Court and the overwhelming majority of our Idaho lawmakers, the intensely personal matter of abortion has become an oppressive partisan political debacle.  I’ve spoken and written about the politics and legalities around reproductive rights many times over the last three decades, from this pulpit and in my column for the Idaho Statesman.  I have oft-noted that in our tradition, human life unequivocally begins at birth rather than conception, and therefore the mother’s health and welfare take precedence over that of the fetus she is carrying.  Abortion bans are, therefore, not only inhumane; they are also substantial violations of Jewish women’s religious freedom, because they impose conservative Catholic and evangelical Christian values even when they directly contradict our own.

But on this sacred morning, I want to shift, now, from the political realm to faith and ethics, and why reproductive justice is a core Jewish spiritual practice.  We began with Rosh Hashanah’s defining liturgical proclamation—Ha-yom harat olam—which I have heretofore translated, according to the words of our machzor, as “Today the world was born!”  But that’s not the true definition of the verb harat, which actually refers not to birth but conception and pregnancy.  The more accurate translation, then, is “Today the world was conceived—today God is pregnant with our universe!”  And as we now know, this is hardly her first pregnancy!

So what spiritual commitments follow from this understanding?  To determine this, we should note our foundational Jewish obligation to imitate God.  In the Holiness code that sits in the geographic and moral center of the Torah, God tells us: “Kedoshim t’hiyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai elohaychemYou shall be holy, because I, Adonai your God am Holy.”  To which the Rabbis add: “Just as the Eternal One is compassionate and gracious, so must we act with compassion and grace.”  This is our guiding ethical principle: we are to follow God’s example in our own lives.  And as our Sages duly note, that privilege empowers us to be co-creators with the Divine—shutafim la Kadosh Baruch Hu b’ma’aseh v’reishit—partners in the ongoing work of creation.

For God, that sacred labor began with the abortion of a thousand worlds before the birth of this one.  From this we learn that not every world is meant to be.  As God’s partners, we too, are invested with the awesome power of choosing when to birth new life.  Like God, women should be empowered to weigh their options with appropriate deliberation and humility and, ask the hard questions—sometimes alone, at other times in consultation with their loved ones : Am I prepared to provide for this potential child for the rest of my life?  Do I have the spiritual, psychological and material resources, and the support of a caring community, that I will need to raise a son or daughter at this moment in time?  Will carrying this pregnancy to delivery be safe for my own physical and mental health? 

If the answer to any of these questions, or others like them, is no—if the pregnancy is untenable and/or undesired—in both extreme cases like rape and incest or more commonly in other more ordinary adverse circumstances, everyone carrying life within her has an inalienable ethical right to determine whether the world she bears is meant to be.  She may weep for the lost worlds, as we do with infertility, miscarriage, and other heartbreaking losses—but God’s ordeal in creating and destroying worlds teaches us that in a just and compassionate society, every child is wanted and loved.


Ha-yom harat olam—today God conceived the world—this beloved world, Her one thousand and first, which she chose to deliver into life.  My friends, may we offer our profound gratitude for that blessing, for the privilege of being the one She chose, and may we honor Her choice by affirming that power for women everywhere.

Rosh Hashanah Evening 5783/2022: Let the Earth Teach You Torah

Tomorrow, as on every Rosh Hashanah, Jews everywhere will proclaim, “Ha-yom harat olam—Today the world was born!”  We will celebrate with apples and honey and the sounding of the shofar.  Yet one guest will be conspicuously absent from the party—the birthday girl herself.  Instead of feting the earth that houses and sustains us, we confine our New Year concerns to our Jewish lives—missing the mark and making teshuvah, what we’ve done and failed to do.  While these matters are, indeed, important, our narrow focus on ourselves is deeply problematic.  After all, the world is 4.5 billion years old and home to an estimated 8.7 million species of flora and fauna, not to mention the countless seas and sands, peaks and plains.  Our human existence amounts to the blink of an eye.  And from the perspective of the mountains, to which the psalmist raised his eyes for help, our vaunted Jewish history is but a watch in the night.  


How and why have we come to this place, where our Rosh Hashanah rituals largely ignore the holy Creation they purport to acclaim?  

It wasn’t always this way.  In the beginning, and for most of our history, we lived in intimate reciprocal relationship with the More-than-Human World.  Our planet was enchanted, a living ecosystem of plants and animals, rocks and rivers, inseparably bound with one another. Our biblical ancestors conversed with snakes and stones, marked time by the circle of the seasons, and reveled in mountains and brooks that sing for joy and leap like young rams. Of course there were also devastating storms, deadly disease and dangerous predators—but they, too, were part of the animistic earth we all shared together.

With the rise of Greek philosophy, this changed.  Hellenism gave us many gifts, from the foundations of modern science to the Passover seder.  But its disenchantment of nature came at a high cost.  Aristotle reconfigured our mutual relationship with our environment into a hierarchical Great Chain of Being, with humans on top, manipulating the lower-tiered animals, plants, and minerals.

With the scientific revolution, the Western world grew even more alienated from the Creation.  While most indigenous cultures maintained the old ways, Europe abandoned them.  Rene Descartes conducted torturous experiments on animals, who he insisted were unthinking and unfeeling automatons.  Newtonians drew a strict distinction between mind and matter, with us as actors and the rest of the world inert stuff to be acted upon.  Hence the perspective that dominates our culture to this day, which envisions nature as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects.  

For the most part, the Jewish world followed this path.  We turned away from rabbinic and kabbalistic texts that celebrated other beings as embodied souls or nefashot, fashioned, like us, in the image of God.  While our greatest sage, Moses Maimonides, insisted that the Holy One did not form the world for humanity’s sake, we nevertheless enthroned ourselves as kings and queens over a diminished Creation.

And so here we are today, lost and lonely residents of a planet brought to its knees by our unsustainable lifestyles.  Our estrangement from the natural world is sickening both ourselves and our environment.  Author Richard Louv defined our modern malady as “nature-deficit disorder.”  And here’s how native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko diagnoses the Western worldview in her book Ceremony:

They see no life.  When they look

They see only objects.

The world is a dead thing for them. . . 

The deer and bear are objects.

They see no life.

They fear.

They fear the world.

They destroy what they fear.

They fear themselves. 

Living this way, it’s no wonder we fail to invite the world to her own birthday party.


But all is not lost.  Slowly but surely, a new paradigm is emerging that marries a stunning, cutting-edge approach to the life sciences with the rich and ancient spiritual vision of an animistic earth.  Twenty-five years ago, eco-philosopher David Abram published his pathbreaking book The Spell of the Sensuous, which teaches that our humanity is inexorably formed in concert with the More-than-Human world. Abram notes:

Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth—our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese.  To shut ourselves off from these other voices. . . is to rob our 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.

Scores of recent scientific discoveries corroborate this insight.  Thanks to ecologist Suzanne Simard and her students, we now know that trees and grasses communicate constantly with one another, sharing information and resources through vast underground fungal networks that many now refer to as the “wood wide web.”  Genetic research reminds us of the kinship of origins and substance that we share with all living beings.  Rigorous medical studies show that our bodies, minds and moods benefit significantly from time outdoors, interacting with the More-than-Human World.  As the eminent biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her best-selling book Braiding Sweetgrass:

We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity: plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying.  Water knows this, clouds know this.  Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth. . . all flourishing is mutual.  The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken.

Or, to put this in philosophical terms, we are moving from Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” to the South African wisdom known as Ubuntu: “I am because we are.”


Over the past year, this paradigm shift inspired me to become a forest therapy guide.  But there’s no training required to re-orient relationship with our living planet and the beings with whom we share it.  You need not be a scientist, philosopher, or naturalist to affirm that all flourishing is, indeed, mutual.  There are many practices that lead toward that end.  As the poet Rumi taught: There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Leave your phone behind and walk a forest trail.  Or wander, wherever the woods and wild places take you, for to wander is to re-kindle wonder, which is the beginning of awe.  Have a conversation with a spruce or sagebrush, a rock or a river—you need not go beyond your own backyard to discover what Shakespeare named as tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.  Take off your watch and shoes and sit outdoors in silent solitude.  Drive a little out of town, turn off your lights, and enjoy the glory of the dark night sky.  Watch birds—or fish or frogs or any other of the countless miraculous creations that surround us every moment of every day.  Such experiences are a form of teshuvah, returning and re-enchanting us, as they fundamentally shift the way we see the world and our place in it.

The paths and possibilities are limitless—you can choose one that’s well-trodden or blaze your own.  As Mary Oliver so eloquently put it in her short poem, “Instructions for Living a Life”:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.


As for individuals, so, too, for the Jewish people as a whole, with whom we gather across the globe on this joyous day—the seeds of our return to right relationship with the More-than-Human-World are already sown within the sacred wisdom of our tradition.  Our collective calling in this decisive hour is to cultivate those seeds anew.

At every Jewish funeral, we pray that the soul of the deceased be woven into the web of life—v’yitzror b’tzror ha-chayyim et nishmatam.  That prayer powerfully affirms our commonality with all of the Creation; our challenge is to not just die but live by this truth for all our days.

How might we start?  Perhaps by making Shabbat a bigger part of your week, to take a break from the technology that so frequently forms a barrier between ourselves and the natural world.  Come Sukkot, build a sukkah and eat out under its canopy.  Plant trees for Tu B’Shevat and parsley for Pesach.  Nurture gratitude by reciting blessings over rainbows, rivers, and shooting stars—and the food that sustains you.  Follow in Solomon’s footsteps and learn the language of birds—crows and ravens communicate in astonishingly sophisticated ways.  Join us in Kathryn Albertson Park for tashlich later this afternoon. Or just step outdoors and breathe, because to breathe is to praise the Holy One and the Creation.  As Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: 

The name of God, YHVH, for which we usually substitute the term Adonai, is actually the sound of breathing.  We breathe and the trees breathe.  We breathe in what the trees breathe out.  And so we breathe each other into existence. . . 

Long ago, God urged Job, “Let the earth teach you Torah”—it’s time we return to this wisdom.  Let us now listen and learn.


Which brings us back to today, Rosh Hashanah—Ha-yom harat olam—the birthday of the world.  At first pass, our liturgy for this occasion doesn’t much feel like a celebration of the Creation’s miracles.  How many shall pass on and how many will be born; who shall live and who shall die—it’s not exactly candles and cake.

But these prayers, and others like them, can, indeed, express a heartfelt commitment to our covenant of reciprocity with the wild world—because they address not only Jews or humanity but all beings.  To recite these weighty words is to affirm that we are all bound up with one another, for the answer to the question they ask—who shall live and who shall die—is all of us—plants and insects and animals, mountains and rivers, the whole of Creation.  We’re all born, we all die—and after we die, we’ll live again, for we are all stardust, ever re-imagined and re-formed, inseparably woven into the web of life.  As Walt Whitman told his readers:

If you want me again, look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good help for you nevertheless.

Today, with reflection, reciprocity, and deep humility, we call ourselves into being, together with the More-than Human world. For even as we speak, our shared earth is being born as it ever will be, again and again.  It is delivered through the unending song we sing in concert with all of God’s Creation. We hear that music today in the sound of the great shofar, in the still, small voice that follows, and everything in between.

So let us join the joyful chorus of all beings with whom we share this precious earth:

Zeh hayom asah Adonai nagilah v’nis’michah bo—

This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!


Sunday, August 21, 2022

Answering the Alarm

A renowned 18th century Jewish storyteller known as the Dubner Magid told the tale of a rustic villager’s first visit to the big city.  Upon waking in the middle of the night to the loud beating of drums, the villager asked a resident what the fuss was all about.  The city dweller replied that a fire had broken out and the drumming was the fire alarm.

When the villager returned to his home, he told the local elders what he had learned: “They have an amazing system in the city—whenever a building catches fire, the people beat their drums and by morning, the fire is out.”

Hearing this, the elders distributed drums to each citizen of the village.   A few weeks later, when a fire broke out, there was a deafening explosion of beating drums—and as the people waited for the blaze to die out, numerous homes and businesses burned to the ground.

The next morning, a visitor from the city questioned the local residents: “What were you thinking?  Do you believe that beating the drums will put out a fire?  The drums just sound the alarm—then it’s up to you to get busy extinguishing the flames!”

I offer this parable because the alarms are going off urgently, all around us.  

Democracy, diversity and decency are existentially imperiled by radical reactionary extremists across our state and nation.  Idaho’s abortion ban is a moral monstrosity, exposing the utter hypocrisy of our elected officials who blather about freedom yet deny Idaho women their most basic human rights and religious liberties.  Judaism not only allows for but actively mandates abortion for women whose pregnancies endanger their health; our state’s new law effectively prohibits my community from living by the dictates of our faith tradition.  

Meanwhile, our governor and legislature continue to actively endorse bigotry against LGBTQ Idahoans, and curry favor from racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim militias who brandish assault rifles with the express intent of intimidating their opponents.  Despite unprecedented budget surpluses, we nonetheless shortchange the education of our children, and we consistently fail to act or even recognize the reality of catastrophic human-caused climate change, even as Idaho burns in record-breaking summer heat.  Worst of all, these regressive and deeply destructive policies are offered up under the mantle of white Christian nationalism, which insists—contrary to the wishes and writings of our country’s founders—that America is a conservative Christian state.

We are running out of time to turn back this assault on justice and compassion. As the Talmud teaches, the day is short and the task is great—and though no one of us can finish this sacred work of preserving our democracy from authoritarian hooliganism, we are all obligated to do our part.  We need to join together—Democrats, Independents and moderate Republicans, young and old, male and female and non-binary, rich and poor, people of every color and ethnicity, folks of all faiths and of none—to respond to the alarms, lest our state and nation burn to the ground while we dither. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

An Open Letter on Reproductive Justice and the Dobbs Decision

Dear Friends—

 I am reaching out to you on this devastating day for the soul of our nation, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision rescinding Roe v. Wade.   I want to be clear—I do not speak now for the CABI staff or board, but personally, as your rabbi of twenty-eight years.  My heart grieves to witness, for the first time in American history, the court actually taking away a fundamental human right.

 This decision is a direct assault on American women, and thus by definition, an attack on over half of our CABI community.  It is also, without question, an anti-Semitic attack on religious freedom, because it imposes conservative Catholic and evangelical Christian standards on Jews and many others.  Our tradition is very clear: human life begins at birth rather than conception, and in many cases Jewish law mandates the termination of a harmful pregnancy.  The court’s horrific decision denies Jewish women the right to live by the Jewish values that guide many of us.  For more on this, see:

 What do we do?  Today, mostly, we allow time for grief and anger.  But in the coming days, I hope and pray that our community will organize and take action.  Abortion will be illegal in Idaho within one month.  As Rabbi Tarfon taught: “The day is short and the task is great.  It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

 Many years ago, when I was president of the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, I attended a national conference that featured older clergy who had run underground abortion networks to assist women in the days before Roe.  I was deeply impressed with their courage—and now, I believe we will all need to muster our own.  I hope and pray that we at CABI, as an inclusive and egalitarian Jewish community, will find ways—legal, and if necessary, illegal too—to help women who need abortions and secure, again, reproductive rights for all Idahoans and Americans.


Shabbat shalom-


Rabbi Dan

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Portion Naso: Bringing Heaven [Back] to Earth

In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, Moses concludes the long labor of building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will thereafter serve as an abode for the Divine Presence throughout the forty-year wilderness journey.  The opening of the seventh chapter of Numbers acknowledges this occasion: It came to pass on the day that Moses finished setting up the tabernacle. . . . In its plain sense, the text is simply announcing the completion of a sacred construction project. 

But the Rabbis offer a very different—and beautifully creative—understanding of the verse.  Noting that the Hebrew word usually translated as “finished”—kallot—can also be rendered as “bride,” they interpret the passage as: It came to pass on the bridal day that Moses brought the Divine Abode back to earth.  In this reading, the day of the tabernacle’s dedication marks a miraculous occasion that had never before happened in human history: God’s Presence descended from heaven and took up residence in this world—thanks to the labor of Moses.  Or, to stick with the metaphor, God and humanity are united in a kind of holy marriage.

The midrash describes the scene as a drama of cosmic restoration.  It begins with the Creation, when God fills the world, continues through a series of human failures that exile the Divine Presence, and concludes with seven leaders whose righteous deeds “re-marry” that Presence to the earthly realm:

At the beginning of time, the root of the Presence was fixed in the regions of the earth below.  After Adam sinned, the Presence withdrew to the first heaven.  After Cain, the Presence withdrew from the first heaven to the second.  The sin of the generation of Enosh drove the Presence from the second to the third.  The generation of the flood arose and sinned; the Presence withdrew from the third heaven to the fourth.  The generation of the dispersion of Babel arose and sinned; the Presence withdrew from the fourth heaven to the fifth.  The generation of Sodom and Gomorrah made the Presence withdraw from the fifth to the sixth.  The generation of Egypt in the days of Moses arose; the Presence withdrew from the sixth to the seventh.

Corresponding to these wicked, seven righteous arose and brought the Presence back to the earth.  Our father Abraham arose and by his merit it would later draw from the seventh to the sixth.  Isaac’s merit brought it from the sixth heaven to the fifth.  Jacob arose and his merit would bring the Presence from the fifth to the fourth.  Levi arose: from the fourth to the third.  Kohath arose: from the third heaven back to the second.  Amram (Moses’ father) arose: the merit he earned brought the presence back from the second heaven to the first.  Moses arose: he brought the Presence back to the earth.

With one significant revision—which would be to expand the list of righteous to include women and non-binary people—this ancient story might serve as a powerful metaphor for the labor of our own lifetimes.  In a world that feels badly broken—where the Holy One often seems very far away—it is our calling to restore the Divine Presence through deeds of justice, compassion and love.

Conversation Question: What might you do this week to help make the world a more “godly”place?

Monday, May 23, 2022

Idaho Statesman Column May 2022: Combatting the Hateful Ideology of "The Great Replacement"

An African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina

Synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Poway, California

Two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand

A Walmart patronized by Latino immigrants in El Paso, Texas

And a supermarket in a black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York

What do these diverse sites share in common?

They’ve all been the targets of homicidal gunmen espousing a white supremacist ideology known as “The Great Replacement.”  That loathsome conspiracy holds that liberal elites—usually identified as Jews and their allies—are systematically plotting to destroy white Christian nations by “replacing” the dominant population with non-white immigrants, Muslims, and other people of color.  This xenophobic, racist, and antisemitic poison permeates the manifestos that the killers commonly cite as motivation for their murderous crimes.

So how should people of conscience respond to this deadly and despicable creed?  That’s a difficult question that I suspect we’ll be wrestling with for quite some time to come. Tonight, I’d like to offer just two brief suggestions.

First, we should hold politicians and the media responsible for the consequences of their public pronouncements—for let there be no doubt, words can and do kill. As Proverbs 18:21 teaches: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” History confirms this truth.  For four centuries the language of colonialist ideology fueled the genocide of indigenous peoples and the mass enslavement of black Africans.  And less than a hundred years ago, the words of demagogues like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao led directly to the deaths of tens of millions.  Today, the language of white supremacy is indisputably fueling murder—and one need not be a liberal to recognize that the lethal rhetoric is not limited to Klansmen and neo-Nazis.  To quote Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, “GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and antisemitism.  History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse.”

It is long past time to call to account mainstream purveyors of The Great Replacement theory such as Tucker Carlson and Fox News, Donald Trump, Elise Stefanik, JD Vance, and far too many Idaho leaders and legislators including, but alas not limited to, Janice McGeachin, Priscilla Giddings, Heather Scott, and the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

And second, let us learn to set aside any and all of our own petty grievances with one another and the rest of our potential allies in defense of simple decency.  Now is the time to unite, to be upstanders, to strengthen and support each other. For while the racists’ bizarre ravings are wrong about almost everything, the one grain of truth they contain is that we who are committed to equity and inclusion are, indeed, inextricably bound together.  Our fates are, for better or worse, intricately interwoven in a web of common cause—not, as the haters would have it, as co-conspirators nefariously plotting to replace white Americans but rather as co-workers in the sacred labor of securing liberty and justice for all.

As Hillel taught: If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?  If we are only for ourselves, what are we?  And if not now, when?

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Portion Emor: How the Light Gets In

The opening chapter of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, contains a long list of physical handicaps that disqualify a biblical kohen/priest from offering sacrifices.  As Leviticus 21:17 commands: “No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God.”  

This passage should trouble us.  Why should blindness or broken bones or any of the other “imperfections” enumerated in our text exclude one from fulfilling their priestly duties?  Most of our commentators suggest that handicapped priests might distract the worshippers from concentrating on the ritual and distort the image of the sanctuary as a flawless place reflecting God’s own perfection.  But no priest—indeed, no human being—is faultless or unblemished.  The standards in our portion seem more reflective of human prejudices than divine ideals.

Thankfully, this did not become the Jewish norm.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner notes: “In later texts, in the Psalms and the prophets, the Bible emphasizes that the broken in body and spirit, because they have been cured of the sin of arrogance, are especially welcome before God.  True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; Holy One, you will not despite a contrite and crushed heart (Psalm 51:19)

Indeed, the very name of our portion—Emor—which means “Speak!”—reminds us that Moses himself is handicapped in just this area, describing himself as slow of speech and tongue.  The path to healing begins with the recognition that we are all broken.  As Leonard Cohen famously put it in his song, “Anthem”: There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Conversation Question:

In his musical interpretation of the traditional morning blessing giving thanks for our bodies, Dan Nichols writes: I’m perfect the way I am, and a little broken, too.

How might we express gratitude for the way we are, while also acknowledging our brokenness?