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?  

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Portion Chaye Sarah: Equanimity/M'nuchat Ha-Nefesh

This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter.  The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.  Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition.  As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.

While the name of this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah means “the life of Sarah,” the reading actually commences with Sarah’s death and Abraham’s effort to procure her burial place. Through this ironic juxtaposition of life and death, Torah invites us to ponder the makings of a good life.  

The portion begins: “This is Sarah’s lifetime: one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.”  Rashi notes the awkward, long-winded phrasing here, and comments that it constitutes a subtle appraisal of Sarah’s life.  Why doesn’t Torah just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years?”  Rashi answers: “The wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were equally good.”

But how can this be?  Can anyone really experience all their years as equally good?  On the surface, this seems patently false for Sarah. She celebrates ecstatic successes and suffers terrible losses. To cite just one example: Sarah miraculously bears a son at ninety, then many years later finds out, after the fact, that her husband has come perilously close to sacrificing him.  Sarah’s life seems more like a roller coaster than the smooth and steady ride depicted by Rashi.  

The Hasidic teacher, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger recognizes this difficulty with Rashi’s commentary.  He teaches: “There must be differences, variations, and changes during a person’s lifetime.  There are special times during a person’s youth and special times during a person’s old age.  But the ones who are truly righteous find fulfillment in all their days. . . Fulfillment, wholeness, completion—these can be found in every place and at every time.  Thus, ‘They were all equally good.’”

As the renowned rebbe of Ger notes, each of us encounters triumph, tragedy, and everything in between.  Our challenge is to find meaning in all of these experiences—good and bad, sacred and mundane, thrilling and tedious, pleasurable and painful.  Some years and days and hours are surely better than others.  But as learning opportunities, all are, in a sense, “equally good.”  To live consciously and conscientiously is to get the most out of every moment.  

In the Mussar tradition, this involves the midah/character trait of equanimity—in Hebrew, m’nuchat ha-nefesh, or calmness of the soul.  As Alan Morinis describes it in his book Everyday Holiness

Equanimity does not spell the end of our struggles, but rather is an inner quality we can cultivate to equip ourselves to handle the inevitable ups and downs of life.  The Mussar teachers want us to be a calm soul who is like a surfer who rides the waves on an even keel, regardless of what is happening within and around him.  Even as the waves are rising and falling, the calm soul rides the crest, staying upright, balanced, and moving in the direction the rider chooses.  It isn’t a kind of numbness.  You still register the ups and downs of the feelings but you stay awake to the experience from an undisturbed place.

Our challenge is to be like our mother Sarah, finding meaning and purpose in every moment, riding the waves with grace.


Mussar Practice for this Week:

Reflect, whenever possible, upon the phrase, “Rise above the good and the bad.”   When your emotions are triggered, recall that ultimate outcomes can’t be predicted or (very much) controlled, and return your mind and heart to an even keel.  Like Sarah, find meaning in every moment.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Portion Vayera: Chesed/Lovingkindness

This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter.  The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.  Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition.  As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.

Like most Americans, I am heading into this week with a great deal of trepidation.  In over forty years as a voter, I have never seen an election that provoked such division and vituperation.  No matter what happens on Tuesday night (and, perhaps, well beyond), the fear of violence is very real; indeed, it has already started, as a caravan of Trump supporters tried to run a Biden-Harris campaign bus off the road.

Any hopes of healing this fractured nation will require what our tradition calls hachnasat-orchim—audacious hospitality that welcomes strangers and breaks down the barriers that divide us.  

For a model of this, consider our Torah portion for this week, Vayera.

First a review.  In last week’s portion, Abraham and Sarah, like countless immigrants over the ensuing centuries, left their familiar home (in their case, Mesopotamia) for a distant Promised Land.  Over the course of their journey, they met with numerous hardships along the way: unfriendly neighbors, war and strife, famine and hunger.

Abraham and Sarah’s struggles could have hardened their hearts.  But in the beginning of our parsha, we learn that, quite to the contrary, their suffering deepens their compassion.

Abraham is sitting outside the family tent in the heat of a sweltering desert day when he spies three strangers in the distance.  He runs out to greet them, bows respectfully, and declares: “Do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.  Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” Then he and Sarah jointly prepare a lavish feast for their guests, waiting on them with extraordinary generosity.  Later, these strangers turn out to be angels.  But Abraham and Sarah do not recognize this at the time; as far as they know, they are simply extending their hospitality to fellow refugees in need of lovingkindness.  Having been homeless sojourners themselves, their hearts—and their deeds—go out to those who now share that plight.


The soul trait/midah that undergirds the mitzvah of radical hospital is chesed—enduring lovingkindness.  It is not so much about attitudes as actions that provide for others, or what Alan Morinis calls “generous sustaining benevolence.”  Abraham and Sarah embody chesed—a virtue that we dearly need in this challenging moment.  The way to start is with small acts that make a difference, even—or especially—when you are not feeling particularly loving.  As Morinis notes in his book Every Day, Holy Day: “Our most valuable deeds of lovingkindness take place when we overcome an inner resistance and do the benevolent thing anyway.  It has long been understood that the heart follows the deed—do good for people, and in time your own heart is transformed into a vessel of unalloyed kindness.  The other benefits and so do we!”

Mussar Practice for this Week:

Reflect, whenever possible, upon the phrase, “My world on selfless caring stands.”   Then seek out opportunities to extend active support and audacious hospitality to others, in any way that might be helpful.  How, in this fateful week, can you be more like Abraham and Sarah?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Portion Lech L'chah: Emunah/Faith

This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter.  The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.  Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition.  As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.

Faith is often contrasted with doubt.  In this understanding, faith means absolute certainty, usually around the existence and lovingkindness of God, while doubt is defined by skepticism about those things.  In truth, however, many people of deep faith live with a great deal of doubt.    For instance, Mother Teresa’s private writings reveal that she struggled mightily to find the faith that she embodied for so many of her followers: “I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one.  Alone.  Where is my faith?  Even deep down, there is nothing.”  Thankfully, our Jewish tradition does not depict faith in this manner. For us, faith and doubt can go hand in hand.  As Rabbi Daniel Gordis notes: “Uncertainty is not the enemy of religious and spiritual growth.  Doubt is what fuels the journey.”

For us, the opposite of faith is not doubt.  The opposite of faith is fear.


A Jewish understanding of faith—in Hebrew, emunah—as moving forward despite our fear, stands at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah.  The parshah opens with God’s challenging call to Abraham:

The Eternal said to Avram: “Go forth from your native land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. . .”  Avram went as the Eternal had commanded him, and Lot went with him.  Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

Abraham’s journey demands an enormous amount of courage and trust.  God tells him to go, on short notice, with no map or clear destination.  And though he undoubtedly felt a great deal of trepidation around leaving his homeland and kin, Abraham complies.

Sarah’s departure demands even more faith, because she agrees to embark upon the same journey--without the benefit of Divine reassurance. Sarah only hears God’s call secondhand, through her husband. Yet she goes, too.


We can learn a great deal from Abraham and Sarah, for most of our major life decisions involve this same sort of faith.  No matter how much preparation and research we may do, we are never really aware of what we’re getting into when we first leave home, or get married, take a new job, move to a different city, or decide to have children.  These journeys always begin with a leap of faith.  Like Abraham and Sarah, we move forward despite our fear, trusting that things will somehow work out.  

And it’s not just the big transitions; most of our ordinary actions are also, ultimately, based on trust.  One of my favorite descriptions of this reality comes from the poet Tomas Transtromer: 

How much we have to trust, simply to live each day without

      sinking through the earth!

Trust the piled snow clinging to the mountain slope above the village.

Trust the promises of silence and the smile of understanding, trust

      that the emergency telegram isn't for us and that the sudden

      axe-blow from within won't come.


In the Mussar tradition, emunah—faith in the face of fear—is a very important midah, which we develop through years of dedicated practice.  This is a good week to concentrate on trusting the Holy One, or, if you prefer, the Universe.  Consider some of the things that you take on trust, consciously or unconsciously.  Notice the earth, firm beneath your feet.  And, as Mussar teacher Alan Morinis suggests, “Stretch into the territory of risk, not recklessly, but with trust.”

Mussar Practice for this Week:

Write yourself a note with the phrase, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you.”   Taken from Psalms 56:13, the “you” traditionally refers to God, but feel free to redefine the grounding for your faith however works best for you.   Carry the note around and read it regularly over the course of each day.  What does the practice of emunah/faith look like for you in your work and/or family life?

Monday, October 19, 2020

Portion Noach: Anavah/Humility

This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter.  The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.  Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition.  As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.

This week’s portion, Noach, concludes with the succinct tale of the Tower of Babel.  When the narrative commences, with Genesis 11, “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.”  By its conclusion, just a few verses later, humanity is dispersed all over the world, with each nation speaking its own language, unable to understand its neighbors.

What is the human failing that carries such profound consequences?  Overweening haughtiness.  God scatters humanity and confounds our speech in response to our conceit, as expressed in our desire to erect a tower in the center of a large city, with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves. The building is a tangible symbol of our arrogance.


Humility—in Hebrew, anavah—plays a central role in the Mussar tradition. Among the midot, it is foundational because a person who lacks humility—who thinks they are better than others—cannot really learn and grow.  It is no coincidence that humility is the only character trait that Torah directly attributes to Moses, describing him as “the humblest person on the face of the earth.”  Our Sages add that a person who is too full of him (or her) self does not leave room for God to dwell.

But it is important to avoid confusing humility with humiliation, which is all too common a mistake.  Being humble does not mean being a self-debasing nobody; real humility is, instead, grounded in healthy self-esteem.  As with most midot, the goal is to maintain a proper balance between arrogance and self-loathing.  Humility is about occupying the proper amount of space in one’s life: stepping up when called upon to do so, while also leaving room for others.  As the contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis puts it in his beautiful book, Everyday Holiness: “No more than my space, no less than my place.”


After God scatters the generation of the Tower of Babel, our portion ends with a long genealogy listing the ten generations from Noah to Shem to Abraham.  Most of the people in that list are long-forgotten, but their legacies live on in the enduring story of the Jewish people.  Each of them had a role to play, a time to step forward, a space to occupy. So, too, for each of us: when we live with humility, we do not always see the fruits of our labors, but this does not make them any less real.

Mussar Practice for this Week:

Write yourself a note with the phrase, “No more than my space, no less than my place” and carry it around with you, reading it regularly over the course of the day.  

What does the practice of humility look like in your work and/or family life?

Bereishit 5781

Portion B’reishit: Acharayut/Responsibility

This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter.  The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.  Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition.  As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.

This week’s portion, B’reishit, opens the Torah; it is also a perfect place to introduce the mission of Mussar.  While the portion begins with the creation story, I would like to start a few chapters later, with Cain and Abel.

When each of the world’s first brothers brings a good will offering, God inexplicably accepts Abel’s gift but rejects Cain’s.  This understandably sends Cain into a jealous rage.  God takes note and warns Cain not to give in to his violent impulses, saying: “Surely if you do right, there is uplift.  But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door.  Its urge is toward you, yet you can master it.”

Cain hears God’s words, but he doesn’t listen.  He recognizes that it’s wrong to kill his brother, yet he does it anyway.

Why does Cain fail to heed God’s warning?  Why would he—and why do we—choose to act unethically, knowing full well that we are in the wrong?


This story takes me back to my years as a student of philosophy.  As an undergraduate and in rabbinical school, I expended a great deal of time and effort studying ethics.  I learned a lot but the philosophers’ writings always left me rather dissatisfied, because their core inquiry felt far removed from my own ethical concerns.  They focused on moral reason, parsing out how we know the good and what would constitute the right course of action in all sorts of complicated hypothetical situations.  I found this intellectually interesting, but when I honestly considered my own misdeeds and poor choices, they invariably felt like failures of will rather than knowledge.  When I asked friends and family to reflect upon their own mistakes, they confirmed my hunch.  Four decades later, I am ever more convinced that in the vast majority of cases, we know the right thing to do.  The problem is that we so often fail to muster the will and master the tools that would enable us to actually do it.

That’s why I was drawn to Mussar.  As Rabbi Ira Stone notes in his book, A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar, this Jewish discipline starts by asking, “What prevents me from doing what is good?  If I know what is right, if I espouse a set of values that describe the good, why is it so difficult to act on that knowledge and those values?”  There are, of course, a host of answers to these questions, but at its heart, Mussar offers us a set of tools to help us not only know what’s right but actually live it.  To improve our souls, we examine our unique array of personal traits, duly consider where we are out of balance, and commit to spiritual practices that strengthen our capacity to choose the good. 


Viewed through this lens, God’s words to Cain in our parshah falls woefully short.  God delivers admonition when Cain needs a toolkit.   A good Mussar teacher might have offered Cain a short course on anger management, with concrete strategies on how to overcome his evil impulse rather than a vague and ineffective warning against it.


Mussar empowers us to take responsibility for our actions by giving us tools to scrutinize and correct them.  Over the coming weeks, we’ll be looking to each week’s portion as a source for those tools, and for examples—good and bad—of their application.

I look forward to sharing the journey with you.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Pesach 2020: All Who Are Hungry

As we prepare for our Passover seders in this very challenging year, I would like to share two teachings from our tradition that strike me as more relevant than ever in our current circumstances.

The first comes from the description of the original Pesach, in Exodus 12, where Moses relays God’s instructions to the Israelite community:

Go pick out lambs for your families and slaughter the Passover offering.  Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts.  None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. . . Thus the Holy One will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter your home.

The eve of the Exodus is a sacred time, but it is also fraught with death and danger.  While the death of the first born is supposed to afflict only the Egyptians, Moses knows that if the Israelites wish to be spared, they must take proper precautions and stay at home, lest the Destroyer strike them down indiscriminately, together with their taskmasters.  The implication is clear: during a plague, the Angel of Death potentially spares no one.

I decidedly do not see the COVID 19 pandemic as a vehicle for God’s wrath.  Still, there is a lesson for our in the original Pesach story: Stay home!  This must be a sacred obligation, for it is truly the best way to preserve life and health for both ourselves and others.  Distance physically, while reaching out electronically.  Check in on one another but do not go out.  And express your deep gratitude toward those who do not have this luxury of staying in, like health care workers and those running the businesses that provide essential services (including cashiers, those delivering goods, and many other lowly-paid workers).  Tip even more generously than usual.  Support the hospitals.   And if you truly must go out yourself, be sure to wear a mask!

The second Pesach teaching for this unusual time comes from the Haggadah itself, where, toward the beginning of the Seder, we break the matzah and recite over it:

Ha Lachma Anya
This is the bread of affliction, the poor bread,
which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in want, share the hope of Passover.
As we celebrate here, we join with our people everywhere.
This year we celebrate here.
Next year in the land of Israel.
Now we are still in bonds.
Next year may we all be free.

Now, more than ever, it is incumbent upon those of us blessed with abundance to share it with those who are not.  In the midst of this virus, the number of vulnerable people in our community is expanding exponentially.  With the illness raging and the economy grinding to a halt, hunger and homelessness threaten so many!

Hence the obligation upon those of us who are secure to extend our support to those who are not.  If you are able, please donate generously—including your forthcoming government stimulus check—to care for those facing deep financial insecurity.  In particular, for this Pesach, I want to urge you to give to two local organizations.  Jesse Tree works in partnership with the city of Boise to prevent folks from falling into homelessness, by providing emergency rental assistance and relevant social services.  You can support them here

The Jewish Assistance Fund of Idaho (JAFI) cares for those in need within our own community.  That number is growing and we anticipate unprecedented pressing need in the coming weeks.  You can support them here:

Let all who are in want share the hope of Passover.

Next year in Jerusalem!  Next year may we all be free of hunger and illness and need!

A safe and meaningful Pesach, all.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Liberation and the COVID 19 Virus

This season, from the opening of the month of Nisan through the forthcoming Pesach holiday, is known in our tradition as z’man cheiruteynu—the time of our liberation.  As the natural world blooms with the rebirth of spring, we prepare for the sacred journey out of Egypt toward freedom and the Promised Land.

As many have noted, the Hebrew word for Egypt—Mitzrayim—means “a narrow place.”  In our current strange and challenging circumstances, as we continue our physical distancing due to the COVID 19 virus, many of us feel that sense of confinement viscerally.  We worry for our loved ones, and for ourselves.  We see pain and suffering, and sometimes feel powerless to avert it.

I have no easy answers.  At CABI, we are learning together, as we go.  We are exploring new ways to reach out to one another.  And we are very open to your ideas and suggestions.  Let us know how we can help.  I’m proud of how our community has responded over the last two weeks.  I have seen an outpouring of generosity, a hunger for real connection, and an extraordinary resilience.  I believe that when life eventually returns to whatever the new “normal” will be, our community will be profoundly strengthened by what we learn.  We are growing, together, and will continue to do so in the days and weeks to come.

In the meantime, though, let us recognize that the pain and suffering is not distributed evenly.  Life is, as always, unfair; indeed, the inequity is, if anything, magnified by the crisis.

I am, therefore, reaching out to you with a request relating to the recently-approved federal stimulus package.  Many of us who will receive a significant check from the government—including me and my family—are privileged not to need it.  I am grateful to have enough.  For others, however, that subsidy will be far too little, a pittance for those left without work, struggling to pay for food, rent, and basic services.  And for some, like most of the homeless and those who are not US citizens, there will be no money at all.

I am, therefore, urging our CABI family to work together to create more justice in this crisis.  If you do not need your subsidy money, I am asking you to donate it to support those who need it dearly.  I’d like to suggest four possibilities.
Create Common Good and Life’s Kitchen are working with our own Jodi Peterson-Stigers to provide food for our community’s homeless through Interfaith Sanctuary during this crisis.  You can support them here:

Jesse Tree works in partnership with the City of Boise to prevent our must vulnerable tenants from falling into homelessness. You can support them here:

Last but decidedly not least, the Jewish Assistance Fund of Idaho (JAFI) provides for those in need within our own Jewish community—and in the current circumstances, we expect that need to be considerable.  You can support JAFI here:

I believe with all of my heart and soul that when this crisis has passed, we will be judged by how we treated the most vulnerable among us.  May we rise to the occasion as the Jewish people have, time and again, throughout our long history.

May this week bring strength and healing to us all.


Rabbi Dan

Monday, March 16, 2020

Vayakhel-Pekude: Gather the People

Moses gathered together the entire Israelite community. . .
                                                -Exodus 35:1

This week’s double portion, Vayakhel-Pekude, begins with Moses convoking all of the children of Israel at God’s behest.  The root of the opening word, vayakhel/to gather, is also the source of the word kehillah—Jewish community.  Our Jewish calling is to be a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.  As Rabbi Ron Wolfson notes in his powerful book, Relational Judaism:

Our obligation to each other is rooted in the biblical notion that every human being is made in the image of God. The image of God is within, but the presence of God is found "in the between," in our relationships. . . . Covenants form the foundation of "community"—a group of people bound together in relationships based on reciprocal responsibilities.

It is rather ironic that we encounter this portion grounded in gathering during a week when, across the globe, we are quarantining ourselves; it’s also timely, because in this season of fear and anxiety our sacred challenge is to find ways to remain in community with one another, in spite of the COVID 19 virus.  Indeed, now, more than ever, we need community.  This is why I reject the phrase “social distancing.”  For the sake of public health, especially for the most vulnerable among us, physical distancing is necessary and entirely in keeping with our core Jewish value of pikuach nefesh—saving life.  But we need social connection.  One cannot live a rich Jewish life without community, even—or especially—in this strange and difficult time. 

In this spirit, we at CABI will be busy working from our homes to find fresh ways to connect with each of you.  As we do, please give us feedback.  We are all learning as we go.  Text or email us.  Call us.  And reach out through some of the new platforms that we will be using.  This past weekend, we livestreamed our Shabbat services for the first time.  We plan to continue that practice, and hope to add opportunities that allow for more dialogue, in real time, between us.

Fittingly, the portion ends with the final chapter of Exodus—and therefore after reading it, we proclaim the words that our tradition prescribes for the conclusion of each book of Torah: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek—Let us be strong!  Let us be strong!  And let us strengthen and draw strength from one another!


Davar Acher—An Additional Interpretation: COVID19 is a potent reminder of just how globalized our world has become.  The virus testifies to the utter artificiality of national boundaries. 

Facing this reality is, in some ways fearful and painful but it also points the way to a brighter future, for just as borders are inconsequential to a pandemic, so, too, in the matter of climate change.  Long after the coronavirus has come and gone, we will continue to reckon with existential ecological concerns.  Let us hope and pray and labor to bring our fractured world together in responding to COVID 19—and in so doing, generate new paths of hope and cooperation on climate.