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.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

RH Evening Sermon 5779: Looking Back, Thinking Ahead, Learning and Listening Together

Well along their way to Jerusalem, a band of pilgrims arrived at a labyrinthine junction in the heart of a dark forest.  A dense tangle of trails spun off with no apparent sign of destination or direction.  The confounded travelers wandered about, looking for a clue on how to proceed, until, at last, they found a broken signpost half-buried in a nettle patch.  It was placarded with arrows, each pointing toward a different terminus—B’nai Brak, Tiberius, Sefat, Tzippori, Yavneh, Lod, Beersheba, Jerusalem—but alas, laying collapsed on the briary earth, it offered the pilgrims no real assistance.  Weary and frustrated, they debated how to proceed.

One group clamored to turn back.  “It’s the only way we know,” they insisted, “and besides, everything was better there—abundant food, clear water and smooth trail.  Alas, we didn’t appreciate how sweet it was! Now we can return and really enjoy it.”

“No,” argued a second faction, “we must not fall back.  It’s true, we don’t know which path leads to Jerusalem, but it doesn’t really matter.  As long as we’re going forward, into the future, the destination isn’t important.  Let’s just choose a road and take it, come what may.”

“Forward or back—none of you have a plan,” interjected the third group.  “We set out to find Jerusalem and that’s what we’re going to do.  The best course is to split into pairs, two on each trail.  A couple of us are bound to make it to Jerusalem; they can circle back and gather up the rest.”

And so they bickered, on and on, until the most reticent of all the pilgrims—the only one yet to utter a single word—quietly but firmly interrupted the quarreling.  “I know the way,” she said, picking up the fallen sign and confidently righting it so that the arrow marked “Jerusalem” pointed unambiguously down one of the trails.

The others laughed, scornfully: “You fool, this means nothing.  How do you know you’re holding that marker in its proper place?  Just a tiny turn in either direction and everything would change!”

“True,” replied the lone pilgrim, “yet I am certain this is the way, because I know from whence we came and placed the sign accordingly.  That’s the journey’s lesson: When we reflect on where we’ve been, remember where we’re going, and keep our commitment to traveling together, the way reveals itself.  Now let’s go forth, to Jerusalem.”


This tale recalls an ancient piece of Jewish wisdom from the the book of Lamentations.  From there, it made its way into our liturgy, where we sing it every time we return the Torah to the ark.  It is also a recurring motif of this sacred season:

Hashiveynu Adonai eylechah v’nashuvah; chadesh yameynu k’kedem

Return us to You, Holy One, and we shall return.  Renew our days, as of old.

At first encounter, this verse might seem deeply problematic—a nostalgic idyll at best and, at worst, a retreat from the responsibilities of our own place and time, suspiciously reminiscent of “Make America Great Again.”  When we plea, “Renew our days, as of old” are we just asking God to “Make the Jews Great Again”?  Are we really so regressive, hard-hearted, and willfully naïve as to turn away from our current challenges and hearken back to an idealized past that never was? But if so, why would the passage play such a central role in our liturgy?

Thankfully, a more careful, nuanced reading of the verse paints a radically different picture.  The Hebrew word k’kedem—usually translated as of old—can also mean “to anticipate” or “to be in front of.”  Thus, as Rabbi Ron Wolfson notes, while the superficial meaning of the text is a longing for a bygone, seemingly better age, a more accurate understanding takes it as a call to future action: “Renew our days so we might anticipate and prepare for times to come.” 

During the Days of Awe, that’s our focus.  We remember that our lives hang in the balance, individually and as a synagogue community.  Our tradition reminds us that to remain ever the same person—or congregation—is to die a slow spiritual death.  To live is to grow, to never cease becoming, like the God in whose image we are created, whose name is Eheyeh asher eheyehI am what I will become.  The words of the wise traveler and the Hashiveynu offer us a three-step roadmap toward renewal: we pause to review where we’ve been, reckoning with both our successes and our failures; we formulate a clear-eyed vision for where we’re headed; and we commit to making that journey collectively, listening, going and growing together, despite our differences.  In other words, the pilgrim’s way to the Promised Land is REFLECTIVE, PROACTIVE, and COLLABORATIVE. 


We begin with reflectionhashiveynu, help us turn back—with an honest accounting that gleans wisdom from our past without romanticizing it.

This is easier said than done.  Our culture’s ever-accelerating pace leaves little occasion for review.  We run pell-mell from one thing to the next, frantically and usually futilely trying to keep up. Thus we spin, like hamsters, each on our own wheel, expending enormous effort and energy, going nowhere fast.

Here, too, at CABI—our staff and board and volunteers are consumed with tasks—creating programs, arranging lifecycle events, attending meetings, writing and teaching, budgeting and managing, tending the grounds, maintaining our building, scrambling to keep up to date on emails, phone calls, and paperwork—so that all too often we’re functioning on a well-intentioned but ad hoc basis.  We lurch from one event to the next without pause to consider what’s working or why we’re doing what we do.

Getting off those hamster wheels requires a conscious, disciplined effort to carve out opportunities for reflection. Fortunately, our tradition recognizes this, commanding weekly rest each Shabbat and an annual spiritual accounting of our deeds during these Days of Awe. We dearly need this mandate to examine our lives, to acknowledge our shortcomings with self-compassion and to celebrate our successes without resting on our laurels.  Intentional, constructive change starts here, when we pause to honestly assess our choices, good, bad, and ambivalent. As CEO and storyteller Courtney Spence reminds us: “Life lessons don’t happen in the moment—they happen when we take the time to reflect on that moment.”


On our journey toward the Promised Land, reflection is necessary but not sufficient.  The next step in both our personal and congregational odysseys is to be proactive, to translate the lessons gleaned from our accounting into a thoughtful course of action, driven by purpose, vision, and mission.  We move from hashiveynu, turn us backto k’kedem, forward to the future.

The book of Proverbs teaches: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Absent a sense of purpose, life becomes a slog; when we are mission-driven, we constantly reaffirm our ability to make a difference in the world.

To paraphrase bestselling author Simon Sinek, vision starts with why.  Why are we here, as human beings, as Jews, as a synagogue community?  In today’s Jewish world, these queries are as pressing as they have ever been.

For most of Jewish history, the question of why was thought-provoking but not existential.  Jews could, and did, argue over all sorts of beliefs and practices, yet whether or not to identify as Jewish was not a matter of choice.  You may have lived in Poland or Germany or Turkey but you were not a Pole or a German or a Turk; you were a Jew, because the anti-Semitic dominant culture defined you as such.

Thankfully, those days are gone.  While anti-Semitism endures, here in America, our non-Jewish neighbors no longer negatively determine our identity.  Such acceptance is a blessing—but also a profound challenge.  In this cultural landscape, where Jews can and do opt out in large numbers, why has become an existential question.  Look around you: Even during these Days of Awe, when synagogue attendance mushrooms, the majority of American Jews still stay home. Their absence deepens my gratitude to all of you who have chosen to be here with our community tonight—and heightens my awareness that that we are the exception, not the rule.  The hard and holy work of renewal starts with us, and it turns on our ability to set forth a compelling vision.  Without an inspiring why, progressive Jewish institutions like CABI will not survive—but I believe, with all of my heart, that with it, we will thrive.

Creating a vision to guide CABI through this transitional time is, by nature, a shared project.  It will take board and staff, outside advisors and—especially—the entire synagogue community, sharing our dreams and differences, too.  I’d like to offer a few of my own thoughts on this matter, not because I possess any definitive answers but because I feel a calling, as CABI’s rabbi, to open the process, to invite you to participate in the holy work that awaits us in this new year 5779.

In a nutshell: I envision CABI as a center for Jewish spiritual sustenance and lifelong learning that inspires just and compassionate action in our personal lives, our community, and beyond.

Let me elaborate briefly, piece by piece.

I believe that in our impersonal, materialistic world, we long for community.  Jewish spiritual practices address this human need.  They remind us that we are not alone; we are part of an ancient, embodied tradition that finds holiness in ordinary things like food and family.  I believe that music and nature have special roles to play in nourishing our community’s spiritual life, touching our heartstrings and reminding us that we are, paradoxically, both infinitesimally small and inexhaustibly expansive, tiny and yet essential workings of the vast grandeur that some call God.

I believe that Jewish wisdom—from Torah and Talmud through the transformative teachings of today’s best Jewish minds—can guide and enrich our choices—if we are mindful to make time to learn.  This means re-thinking Jewish education as a lifelong endeavor.  When we drop our youth at Hebrew school, we teach them to grow up to drop their kids at Hebrew school; when we study together, across the generations, we teach our posterity to value the tradition as the sacred gift that it is meant to be.

And I believe that to prove worthy of their mettle, our spiritual practice and Jewish wisdom must inspire us to pursue justice and compassion in and beyond our synagogue community.  As Talmud teaches: One whose wisdom exceeds his deeds is like a tree with shallow roots, easily upended by the passing breeze, but one whose deeds exceed her wisdom is like a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many—even if all the winds of the world blow upon it, they cannot move it from its place.  This is the true test of our labor: How does our learning move us to care for one another in seasons of sickness and health, light and darkness, mourning and celebration?  How do our spiritual practices prompt us to speak—and act—on the most pressing social issues of our age?  Our work falls fatally short if it does not lead to moral and merciful deeds.  Here at CABI we must not endorse partisan political candidates, but I believe that we make a mockery of our progressive Jewish values if we shy away from the public sphere, especially in this time of unprecedented corruption spilling out of our nation’s highest corridors of power.  As our prophets reiterated again and again in their visions for the Jewish people, the value of our tradition is measured by the just work it sustains in the world.

This is the start of my vision.  Over the course of the new year, I urge you to share yours, for this is how we turn, forward, toward our future. 


Hashiveynu—we look back, to reflect upon our past.

K’kedem—We turn ahead, toward the future we envision.

But if our travels are to take us to the Promised Land, we must walk in community. Our journey will succeed only if it is reflective, proactive, and collaborative.  And so we say Chadesh yameynu—renew our days, together.

Here, too, we face significant challenges.  We live in a profoundly polarized age, in which we struggle to converse civilly across political divides.  In the current atmosphere, political adversaries have all too often devolved into mortal enemies. Alas, the American Jewish community is not immune to this demonization of difference.
Yet we Jews have the tools to do better.  We have a heritage of working well together despite—or even because of—our discord.  Judaism is not a religion of consensus; out of roughly five thousand major debates in the Talmud, only fifty or so are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Our tradition doesn’t teach us how to agree; instead it offers lessons in how to argue respectfully and live peaceably with our disagreements.  The key is to keep our disputes l’shem shamayyim, for the sake of heaven.  We do this by focusing on the issues at hand rather than attacking those who raise them, and assuming the good intentions of those with whom we differ.  Rabbi Brad Artson describes our obligation as one of arguing to learn instead of arguing to win.  It’s a crucial distinction, for no one wins all the time, but we can always learn.  Indeed, our challenge, as Malcolm Gladwell so felicitously turns the phrase, is to learn how to learn from those who offend us.
As we work together to create a guiding vision for CABI, we hope to listen to, and learn from, every member willing to share your diverse views on the proper course for our community.  There are no guarantees that you’ll concur with every step of the roadmap we ultimately follow; as Jewish educator Issa Aron notes: “While collaborative leadership involves listening. . . it would be impossible to agree with everyone and equally impossible to implement every suggestion, no matter how creative and persuasive it is.” The ability to compromise is an essential prerequisite for being in community.  But I am confident that, together, we can pursue the kind of bold action that our Jewish future demands. We need all of you to join in the journey by participating in the conversation and we’ll do everything in our power to ensure that your perspective counts. If we are to grow as a congregation, everyone’s voice should be heard and considered, and our vision will only carry us forward if we are faithful to that credo.
And so we journey into the New Year 5779:
Looking back.  Thinking ahead.  Learning and listening together.
My friends, I have been a rabbi for three decades now, and this sacred season begins my 25th year with you at CABI.  We’ve traveled side by side for a quarter century, through celebrations and sorrows, births and deaths, achievements and challenges—and it has been one of my life’s greatest privileges to experience the journey with you.  On this sacred pilgrimage that we are taking together, considerably more of the road lies at our backs than ahead. I’m proud of the paths that we have pursued, and even this far along our passage, I am confident that we can continue to learn by looking back and reflecting on the turns we’ve taken, the missteps and the many milestones, too. 
And I believe with all my heart that our greatest adventures still await us, as our city grows, and with it our Jewish community, in both size and spirit.  On the threshold of this New Year, I joyfully anticipate walking that wild, beautiful way toward the Promised Land with you.  Let us go, together, with renewed vision and shared, sacred purpose.  The best is yet to be, my friends, the best is yet to be.