Sunday, June 13, 2021

Portion Chukat: Equanimity/Menuchat ha-Nefesh


This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, continues a theme that runs through the entire book of Numbers: discontent and anger.  Once again, weary of their desert wanderings, the people quarrel with their leaders.  They repeat their whiny wilderness refrain: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt into this wretched place?”  This time—pushed beyond the limits of his patience—Moses explodes in anger.  After God asks him to verbally command a rock to produce water for the thirsty mob, Moses instead strikes the rock two times with his rod, and proclaims, “Listen rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?!”  This outburst of rage carries a steep cost, as God then punishes Moses by decreeing that he will die before the Israelites enter the Promised Land.

The harshness of this sentence, which seems disproportionate for a single temper tantrum [and even that only after years of ingratitude and abuse at the hands of those he is asked to lead], prompts a great deal of commentary.  Many commentators suggest that Moses’ sin lies in striking the rock not once but twice. In other words, it is natural and reasonable to get angry; the problem is Moses’ failure to control his temper after expressing his initial surge of ire with the first strike.

In his book, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points to three paths toward anger management: humility, compassion, and charity.  Humility reminds us that rage is often motivated by narcissism: we tend to get angry when we do not get our way.  Compassion can generate empathy for those who provoke us and, in the process, diminish our fury toward them.  As Rabbi Telushkin notes, “Pity and rage do not go together.  You cannot be angry at someone for whom you feel sorry.”  Finally, as the late medieval Jewish ethical treatise Reishit Chochmah suggests, “If you are trying to achieve greater control over your anger, you should decide on a sum of money that you will give to charity if you lose your temper unfairly.”

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When we seek to master our anger, we might focus on this week’s midah/character trait—menuchat ha-nefesh, or equanimity.  This is not to suggest that we should peacefully accept the world’s weight of suffering and injustice.  Righteous anger can lead us to essential activism in the service of tikkun olam.  But we are better able to accomplish this work when we can maintain a calm and centered soul.  As Alan Morinis notes: “Seeking equanimity means achieving an inner equilibrium that is not upset by the ups and downs that are part of every life.  We can’t insulate ourselves from life’s trials, but we can prepare for them, and fostering a calm soul readies us to be the kind of people who can and will pass their life tests.”

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

When your emotions are triggered, recall that ultimate outcomes can’t be predicted or controlled, and return your mind and heart to an even keel.

Closing Note: 

This will be my final e-Torah for the 5781 cycle.  I’ll pick up again in the fall after the Days of Awe, when we return to the book of Genesis.  

For anyone who is interested in continuing to learn Mussar, I highly recommend checking out the work of Alan Morinis and the Mussar Institute.  You can learn more here: https://mussarinstitute.org/

I look forward to seeing you all when I am back in the office in August and we begin meeting again in person!

L’Shalom—

Rabbi Dan


Sunday, June 6, 2021

Portion Korach: Enthusiasm/Zerizut




The sacred work of healing the world and creating caring community is never done.  

In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the worst of several mutinies against Moses and his leadership.  The leader of the rebels, Korach, is ultimately swallowed up by the earth, along with his followers—and he remains a symbol of greed and lust for power.

Yet, at least on the surface, Korach’s message seems to raise legitimate concerns.  He confronts Moses and Aaron, saying: “You have gone too far!  For all the community is holy, all of them, (kulam k’doshim) and the Eternal is in their midst.”  Isn’t this in keeping with God’s charge to us earlier: “K’doshim t’hiyu—you, the Jewish people, shall be holy, as I, your God am holy”?  What is wrong with Korach’s assertion that holiness extends far beyond the leadership triumvirate of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam?

A modern commentator, the iconoclastic philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, points to a subtle flaw made manifest in the wording of Korach’s complaint.  The problem is Korach’s assertion that the Israelites are holy rather than on the road to becoming holy.  In other words, Korach’s demagoguery is his message to the community that they have achieved their goal and nothing more is demanded of them.  By contrast, Leibowitz notes, Torah consistently challenges us to become holy.  Holiness is a future goal, not a present boast.  

While we should enjoy our successes, this life does not allow us to rest on our laurels.  There is always more work to do in repairing the world, making teshuvah, observing mitzvot, learning Torah, strengthening community, transforming our cultures and ourselves.  In our individual lives, and as part of the Jewish people, we need the goal of the metaphorical Promised Land—but we also need to realize that we never really arrive there.  It constantly beckons, even as it recedes around each new bend in the road.

The founder of the Mussar movement, the 19th century Rabbi Israel Salanter taught: 
“A person is like a bird.  A bird can fly very high as long as it keeps flapping its wings.  If it stops flapping its wings, it will fall.  So, too, with us.  The moment we believe that we have reached such a high spiritual and ethical level that we no longer need to work on ourselves, we are likely to fail.”

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This week’s midah/character trait is zerizut, which is often translated as enthusiasm or zeal.  It is, essentially, the opposite of cynicism and world-weary acceptance of a deeply flawed status quo.  To act with zerizut is to waken each day with a renewed sense of possibility, to believe that no matter how tired and frustrated we may be,  each of us still has important work to do in the world, and that we are eminently capable of doing our part.  As Pirkei Avot teaches, the day is short, the task is great—and while we are not obligated to finish the ongoing work, neither are we free to desist from it.  

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

Every day, tackle one of the things that has been languishing at the bottom of your to-do list.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Portion Beha'alotechah: Humility/Anavah

From the time of his birth, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, until his death at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is the Torah’s pre-eminent character.  His relationship with both God and the people of Israel, throughout his forty years of leadership, is unparalleled.  Thus he is known as Moshe Rabbeynu, Moses, our Teacher.   Torah tells us that his prophetic wisdom and vision will never be equaled.

What was the source of Moses’ greatness?  Of all his many virtues, this week’s portion, B’ha-alotecha, suggests that the most important is his humility.  Thus the text teaches: “Moses was the most humble man on earth.” (Numbers 12:3)

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner comments on the correlation between Moses’ extraordinary humility and his spiritual mastery.  In his book, I’m God, You’re Not, Rabbi Kushner notes: “The goal of spiritual life is to get your ego out of the way.  Silence the incessant planning, organizing, running, manipulating, possessing, and processing that are the ineluctable redoubts of the ego.  Not because these activities are bad or wrong or even narcissistic. . . but because they preclude an awareness of the Divine.  To paraphrase the Talmud, God says, ‘There ain’t enough room in this world for your ego and Me.  You pick.’”

In other words, humility is at the heart of Moses’ greatness because it is an essential pre-requisite for our moral and spiritual development.  When we become too full of ourselves, we forfeit our connection to God, wisdom, and authentic relationships [which may, in the end, all be synonymous].  If we wish to grow as people and as Jews, we must free ourselves from our inflated self-importance and insistence that we are constantly “right.”

Two hundred years ago, the English poet John Keats expressed this same notion in his theory of “negative capability”, which he described as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Keats points to Shakespeare and Coleridge as masters of this art, but we, as Jews, might look back farther, to Moses, as our guide.

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Humility—in Hebrew, anavah—plays a central role in the Mussar tradition. Among the midot, it is foundational because as Rabbi Kushner notes, above, a person who lacks humility—who thinks they are better than others—cannot really learn and grow.  

But the Mussar masters remind us that it is critical 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.  Moses’s extraordinary humility does not preclude his assuming bold leadership; indeed, an essential part of it.  As the contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis puts it in his beautiful book, Everyday Holiness: “No more than my space, no less than my space.”

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Mussar Practice for this Week:

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

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


Saturday, May 15, 2021

Portion Naso: Generosity/Nedivut



If you are poor, more money will usually increase your happiness.  It is cruel to live without adequate shelter, access to good food, a solid education and other basic necessities.  But studies consistently show once you have those things, an ever-expanding income does not translate into a more joyous life.  Yet all too often we spend our life accumulating things rather than giving them away.   The notion that we can achieve contentment by accruing a bunch of stuff is perhaps the most damning and destructive lie at the heart of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism.  As Ecclesiastes realized three thousand years ago, amassing anything—wealth, fame, power and even knowledge—is, in the end, pure vanity.  The Rabbis put it succinctly: “Who is happy?  Those who rejoice in their own portion.”  Or in Sheryl Crow’s insightful take on this wisdom: “It’s not getting what you want—it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

In this week’s portion, Naso—the longest in the Torah—we find another version of this lesson.  Numbers 5:8-9 teaches: “Any gift among the sacred donations that the Israelites offer shall be the priest’s.  And each shall retain his sacred donations: what a person gives to the priest shall be his.”  By the standard reading, “his” is a reference to the priest, who receives the gift.  But the Talmud (Brachot 63a) offers an alternative interpretation, in which “his” refers to the donor.  In other words, as the commentary in Etz Hayyim notes, it is only when we give something away that the gift, and the good deed that it represents, becomes permanently ours.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner captures the essence of this paradox in his path-breaking book, Honey from the Rock.  He writes of our central human challenge: “To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you.  That I get more when others give to others.  That if I hoard it, I lose it.  That if I give it away, I get it back.”

In other words, the things that matter most—love, kindness, wisdom—do not follow the rules of the “dismal science” of economics.  Paradoxically, it is only when we share what we have that we can gain and grow.

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Our midah/character trait for this week is generosity—in Hebrew, nedivut.  Alan Morinis describes this path beautifully in his book Everyday Holiness:

God wants your heart.  Real generosity means not only giving something practical that will be of help to someone; it also means changing something in yourself.  Will your gift be just a thing, or will it be accompanied by joy, or empathy, or commitment, or love, or any of the other soul-traits that you cultivate in yourself?  When you undertake to give your heart as well, you change an element of yourself.  Each such act of generosity makes you into a more giving (or joyful, or empathic, or committed, or loving, or. . . ) person.  And when you change yourself, you change the world. 

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

Do a different kind of generous act every day—one day with money, one day with time, one day with caring, one day with possessions, and the like.


Sunday, May 9, 2021

Portion Bemidbar: Silence/Sh'tikah



To experience the Divine, we must learn to embrace silence.

This coming Sunday night we will celebrate Shavuot, which our Rabbis called z’man matan Torahteynu—the time of the giving of the Torah.  The festival marks the high point of our sacred origin story, when we stood together to hear Holy One’s word at Mount Sinai.

In some ways, it’s a unique moment in our mythic history—yet the Talmud suggests that revelation did not end there.  The Rabbis insist that God still speaks to us: “Each and every day the Divine Voice issues forth from Sinai” (Avot 6:2)

So if the Holy One continues to be in dynamic relationship with us, what was so special about the events commemorated by Shavuot?   A passage from the Midrash notes that the difference was the utter silence which preceded God’s Ten Utterances:

R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Yohannan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox bellowed, not one of the angels said, “Holy, holy, holy!”  The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak—the whole world was hushed into breathless silence; it was then that the voice went forth: “I am the Eternal your God.”

In other words, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “The reason Sinai is so special and the reason why we are unable to hear Torah all the time is because the noise and static of this world drown out the sound of God’s voice.  Only at the time of the ‘giving of the Torah’ did God ‘silence the roar.’ At Sinai we could hear what had been there (and continues to be here) all along.” 

Often, as we imagine the giving of the Torah, we think of the pyrotechnics: thunder and lightning and fire.  But the key ingredient for hearing the Divine is, in fact, silence.  Elijah learns this when the Holy One pays him a visit in a cave where he is hiding on Mt. Carmel.  

As it is written, “God passed by and a mighty wind split the mountains—but God was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake—but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire—but God was not in the fire.  And after the fire, a still, small voice.” 

In today’s high tech, 24/7 culture with its endless distractions, Shavuot offers a timely reminder that Holiness does not dwell amidst the sound and the fury; it reveals itself subtly in the calm that follows, when the noise dies down.  The still, small voice continues to speak to us, everywhere and always.  But most of the time, we do not hear it because our world is too loud and we are moving too quickly. 

Perhaps that is why the watchword of our faith is Shema—Listen!  This is our Jewish mission: to be still, to listen to one another, to our own better angels, and to hear in them the whispering voice of the Holy One.  The Psalmist declares, “Be still and know that I am God.”  The corollary to his teaching is both obvious and difficult: until we learn to embrace the silence, God remains out of reach.

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Our midah/character trait for this week is silence—in Hebrew, shtikah.  While some people are naturally inclined to quietude, most of us find it different to still both our tongues and our minds.  Yet this is essential to learning.  As the great medieval Spanish Jewish poet Shlomo Ibn Gabirol taught: In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence, the second listening, the third remembering, the fourth practicing, and the fifth teaching others. 

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

Find at least ten minutes every day when you will be silent and seek inner stillness.


Monday, May 3, 2021

Portion Behar-Bechukotai: Emet/Truth



Self-deception is the root of much ill.

This week’s double portion, Behar-Bechukotai, completes the book of Leviticus.  Much of it is devoted to the sabbatical and jubilee years, which provide the land—and those who work it—with a prolonged rest period and serve as a reminder that, in the end, the earth belongs to God, rather than us.  It is in this context that we find a verse admonishing against shady real estate deals: “Do not deceive one another but revere your God, for I, the Eternal, am your God.” (Leviticus 25:17)

But the Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Przysucha shifts the focus of this verse with a brilliantly incisive bit of commentary.  He taught: “Do not deceive anyone—not even yourself.”

Rabbi Bunem points to a profound psychological truth here, for of all the multifarious forms of deception in which we engage, none are so harmful as the ways we deliberately mislead ourselves.  

Why do we do this?  Often, to avoid pain.  It can be terribly difficult to face the truth about poor choices that we have made and in which we have become invested and enmeshed.  Even worse, we deceive ourselves in order to rationalize our doing things that, deep down, we recognize are wrong.  I have always believed that almost all of our moral shortcomings are failures of willpower rather than knowledge.  We know when we are transgressing.  Yet we engage in self-deception to justify our misdeeds.  We make excuses and conjure up mitigating circumstances—and, more damaging yet, eventually can come to believe our rationalizations.  Our Rabbis called this unfortunate propensity for self-deception the yetzer ha-ra, the Evil Inclination.  It is a huge barrier to transformative insight and personal growth.

If we wish to become better, wiser, more compassionate people, we must begin by being brutally honest with ourselves.  This sort of clear-eyed appraisal is arduous, indeed—but it is the only way forward.

“Do not deceive anyone.”  Even—or especially—yourself.

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Truth—in Hebrew, emet—is our midah/character trait for this week.  The word begins with the letter alef, and ends with taf—the first and last letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  For our Rabbis, this teaches that the world begins and ends with truth.  In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis reminds us that we are all capable of seeing past deception, citing the words of Mussar teacher Eliyahu Dressler: 

Even after the desire of one’s own heart have persuaded one to accept the false way as true, they still know in their heart of heart that the truth path is “truer” than the other one. . . . Every human being us has the faculty of determining in their own heart where the real truth lies.

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

Set an intention to notice every time your instinct is to distort the truth in some way.  When you notice that instinct arising, take a moment to ask yourself if there is an element of hidden truth that is yearning to be noticed.


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Portion Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: M'chilah/Forgiveness



This week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, marks the halfway point of the Torah cycle, and it stands at the center of the text both geographically and metaphorically.  The nineteenth chapter of Leviticus contains many of the best-known moral imperatives from our tradition.  It commands us to strive for holiness, keep Shabbat, care for the poor, and honor the stranger in our midst.  It is also the source of the famous teaching: “Love your neighbor as yourself (v’ahavta l’rayechah camochah).


The words immediately preceding that “Golden Rule” are less widely recognized but of equal importance: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.”  This implies that in order to love our neighbor, we must be willing to forgive their wrongdoings and not dwell on past hurts.  Of course, this is much easier said than done.  We tend to remember every time people hurt or slight us, much more vividly than we recall their acts of lovingkindness on our behalf.  This propensity to dwell on old injuries and injustices can easily lead to an obsession with victimhood that destroys our ability to move forward in our lives.

Recognizing this difficulty, Maimonides notes: “The desire for revenge is a very bad trait and we must do our best to relinquish it.  One way is to realize that many things that prompt our wrath are vanity and emptiness and are not worth seeking revenge for.”  To which the late, great contemporary teacher Rabbi Abraham Twerski adds: “Carrying resentments is like letting someone whom you don’t like live inside your head rent-free.  Why would anybody allow that?”

It is no accident that we read Kedoshim, with its injunction against grudge-bearing and vengeance, in this season of spring.  The omnipresent rebirth in the natural world reminds us that we, too, can start anew in our personal relationships.  And the journey from Pesach to Shavuot encourages us to leave behind the narrow places of heart and spirit that are our Egypts, our Mitzrayim.  Our path to Mount Sinai—and true freedom—starts with getting those destructive, rent-free tenants out of our heads.

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Mussar Practice for this Week 

This week’s midah/character trait is forgiveness, or m’chilah.  

It is customary to offer forgiveness every night before going to sleep.  The traditional bedtime prayers include this passage:

Source of the Universe:
I hereby forgive whoever has hurt me
And whoever has done me any wrong,
Whether it was deliberately or by accident,
Whether it was done by word or by deed
May no one be punished on my account

For the rest of this week, make this prayer part of your nightly routine.  Use it as an opportunity to make an examination of your conscience for the day.  You might do this following the practice of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who taught: 

Check your relationships and make an act of forgiveness.
 
Recalling whatever frustration and hurt was experienced during the day, at the hands of others, visualize them written on slips of paper.  Rip these up one by one, fully forgiving those who hurt you as you say the words of the prayer.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Portion Tazria-Metzora: Lovingkindness/Chesed

Sometimes the questions we ask are more important than the answers we give.  

This is why Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) is considered the greatest of our traditional commentators.  Many of the sages who followed him strongly disagree with the explanations he offers to resolve difficult Torah passages—yet all recognize his genius in knowing the perfect questions to pose about them.

So what is the proper question to consider with this week’s double portion from the Torah, Tazria-Metzora?  The text focuses on tzora’at, a leprosy-like skin affliction.  Most of the Rabbis ask: “Why?”  They struggle to explain the etiology of this mysterious affliction.  The subtext of their inquiry is: “What causes people come down with tzora’at?”  Almost all of them answer: God afflicts people with this disorder as punishment for speaking ill of others.  Midrash Leviticus Rabbah even adds some additional failings that might bring on this disease, noting: “Seven types of behavior are punished with tzara-at: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood in secret, a mind that hatches evil, feet quick to do wrong, a witness who testifies falsely, and one who incites brothers to quarrel.”   

But I believe that for all of their wisdom, in this case, the classic commentaries ask the wrong question.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches: “Our Sages often could not resist the temptation to ask, ‘What moral or spiritual failing may have caused this illness?’ Today we recognize that it is medically inaccurate and psychologically cruel to tell someone that he or she is afflicted with illness as a punishment for bad behavior.” Even when there are partially accurate “why” answers—“He got lung cancer because he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day”—they are neither helpful nor humane.

In the face of suffering, the real questions are not concerned with “why?”  They are, instead: What do we do now?  How can I help?  Which is the path of compassion?  Where are the possibilities of healing and love?

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that blessing is not found in asking why; it emerges out of deeds of lovingkindness.  We do well to heed his words:

When you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

How do we know when, in the presence of suffering, we are asking the right questions?  When the answers call us to compassionate action.

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Our character trait to develop this week is lovingkindness, which is defined in Hebrew as chesed.  In the Talmud, Rabbi Simlai teaches that this trait is the very heart of Torah.  He notes: “Torah begins with an act of lovingkindness and ends with an act of lovingkindness, as it says: God made garments for Adam and Eve and clothed them.  It ends with an act of lovingkindness, as it says, God buried Moses in the valley. . . .”

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

Make a visit, a phone call, or send a card every day this week, as an act of lovingkindness


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Portion Shemini: Mindfulness/Muda'ut


Sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy; neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moves upon the earth.
  (Leviticus 11:44-5)

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, is devoted in large part to the laws of kashrut.  The eleventh chapter of Leviticus is, essentially, a long list of permitted and forbidden foods.  For mammals and sea creatures, the criteria are clear: we can eat only animals with cloven hoofs that chew their cud, and fish that possess both fins and scales.  Reptiles and amphibians are prohibited, as are all insects except locusts.  Birds are handled on an individual basis, without any specific criteria, though birds of prey are generally prohibited.  Chicken is in; hawks, eagles, and owls are out.  

Interestingly, the Torah gives no rationale for any of this.  But long after the fact, countless sages and scholars have offered explanations for our tradition’s dietary laws.  These conjectures include health/hygiene, spiritual discipline, the preservation of Jewish identity, and a reminder that all of life is holy and eating the flesh of any once-living creature is a form of moral compromise.

I find varying degrees of merit in all of these conjectures but for me, the most compelling reason to keep kosher to some degree or another is that it can be a powerful practice of mindfulness.  When we pay full attention to what we eat—including where it came from and how it was produced—we transform a universal animalistic necessity into a sacred act.  

Mindful eating practices include traditional kosher laws, ethical considerations around the treatment of animals and human food service workers, and production and consumption choices that minimize our carbon footprint and counter catastrophic climate change.  By eating with intention and awareness—as Torah urges us to do—we increase the holiness in our lives and help to heal our broken world.

In the end, of course, we all make our own choices, and we should be careful not to be harshly judgmental of others. It is essential to recognize that on our collective Jewish journey, one’s chosen path is often not the same as one’s neighbors’.  But the choices that we make should be informed and well-considered. As Rabbi Kushner concludes; “I don’t know if God cares about what I eat, but I know that I feel closer to God when I care about what I eat.”

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The Hebrew term from mindfulness—muda’ut—is a contemporary word based upon the ancient biblical term for knowingla-da’at.  To know something truly and deeply is to play close attention over a significant period of time.  To gulf down a hamburger from a fast food restaurant is the antithesis of such knowing; mindfulness in eating asks us to consider the sources of our food and to savor its flavor. 

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Mussar Practice for this Week  

Pay real attention to what you eat.  Add a level of kosher and/or ethical awareness to your normal food consumption.  Offer a blessing or acknowledgment before or after eating.

Slow down and savor every bite.


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Portion Tzav: Generosity/Nedivut



How do we live a life of gratitude?

This week’s Torah reading, Tzav, raises this question in an indirect but important manner.  The portion continues last week’s lengthy and detailed description of the sacrifices offered up by our Israelite ancestors.  Our focus this Shabbat is on a class of offerings known as shlamim—offerings of well-being.  In this list, the todah—the sacrifice of gratitude—stands out in one significant way.  Whereas other sacrifices of well-being may be eaten until the third day, "the flesh of [the] thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until the morning" (Leviticus 7:15). Whatever is left over until the following morning must be destroyed.

What does the Torah have against leftovers?   Drawing on the commentator Isaac Abravanel, Rabbi Shai Held suggests that by requiring celebrants to finish the thanksgiving offering in one sitting, our portion encourages them to share the meal with friends and family.  He writes: 

The nature of gratitude is such that it is inherently outward-looking. When we are moved to the depths of our being by having been given something, we seek to become givers ourselves. A grateful heart overflows. The simple requirement that there not be any leftovers from the thanksgiving offering thus teaches us a fundamental theological and spiritual lesson. We are not meant to rest content with being recipients of God's gifts but are asked to becoming givers ourselves. God's gifts are meant to flow through us and not merely to us.

In other words, gratitude and hoarding are completely incompatible.  As one of my favorite prayers in our Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefilah adds: Teach us, O God, to give thanks for what we have by sharing it with others.

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The Hebrew term from gratitude—hakarat ha-tov—translates as “recognizing the good.”  We experience myriad small acts of kindness every day, but we quickly tend to take them for granted.  We forget that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “just to be is a blessing.”  The trait of gratitude calls us to pay close attention to the gifts in our life, even—or especially—when we also experience difficulties.      

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Ha-Gadol, the Shabbat before Pesach.  It’s fitting that we read about the gratitude offering, as Pesach asks that we open our homes and our hearts to others. “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”  Indeed.  To be grateful is to share.

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

This week, make a special effort to thank every person who does even the slightest thing that is helpful or beneficial to you.


Sunday, March 14, 2021

Portion Vayikra: Humility/Anavah



Every person should hold two truths, one in each pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment.  One should say, “The world was created for my sake” and the other should say, “I am dust and ashes.”

        -R. Simcha Bunam


I have always loved this teaching but over the years, I have also come to realize that it is, like most Jewish wisdom, more complicated than it first appears.   The challenge is that the “need of the moment” is not always obvious and may, in fact, be paradoxical.  Someone who seems to be acting arrogantly—and therefore in need of the “dust and ashes” truth—may, in fact, be overcompensating for a deeply-rooted insecurity that actually calls for “the world was created for my sake.”  And sometimes when we find ourselves in the throes of depression, an awareness of our mortality—“dust and ashes”—can offer a perspective that is comforting, much like listening to the blues.  Knowing which truth to pull out at any given time is a fine—and essential—art.

This week’s Torah portion, which begins the book of Leviticus, opens with the word that bestows its name, Vayikra—God called.  It starts with the Holy One calling to Moses to teach him the laws that he will transmit to the Jewish people.  But there is an interesting anomaly in the way the word Vayikra is written in the Torah scroll.  The last letter, aleph, is inscribed in a small, undersized script, as if it were a sort of afterthought.

The Rabbis offer an abundance of commentary on this phenomenon but my favorite connects that aleph with the ego, as it is the first letter in the word anochi—“I” or “self.”  Like R. Simcha Bunam’s teaching, this reminds us that our ability to hear and respond to the call of the Divine depends on having our ego in proper proportion.  If we have too much ego, we are so full of ourselves that we leave no room for God (or anyone else).  If we have too little ego, we assume ourselves unworthy of being called in the first place, and shy away from the encounter.  We can only harken if we possess a strong sense of self that is balanced by compassion and genuine curiosity about others.  

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The Mussar understanding of the trait of humility—anavah—echoes Simcha Bunam’s insight that when it comes to ego, either too much or too little is problematic.  As we noted when we covered this midah earlier, in the context of the story of Noah, it is important to avoid confusing humility with humiliation, which is all too common a mistake.  Being humble does not entail self-debasement; real humility is, instead, grounded in healthy self-esteem.  As with most midot, the goal is to maintain a proper equilibrium 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 space.”  If we wish to harken to the call of the Holy One and embrace the sacred mission it demands of us, we must find that balance between dust and divinity.    

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

This week, carry Rabbi Simcha Bunam’s two notes in your pocket: I am dust and ashes and the world was created for my sake.  As he suggests, take them out according to the need of the moment—and reflect carefully on which you choose each time, and why.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Portion Vayakhel-Pekude: Strength/Gevurah



According to all that the ETERNAL had commanded Moses, so the children of Israel did all the work.  Then Moses looked over all the work, and indeed they had done it; as the ETERNAL had commanded, just so they had done it. And Moses blessed them.


Countless commentators, both ancient and contemporary, have noted the literary links between the completion of the mishkan, the Israelites’ portable sanctuary-tent, described in the second part of this week’s double portion, Pekude, and the creation narrative in Genesis.  The mishkan is a microcosm, a world in miniature—a modest human echo of God’s grand design.

There is, however, a significant difference between the model and the thing itself.  With the mishkan, everything falls perfectly into place, exactly according to plan.  Later, even in the worst of times, when the Israelites rebel and fall and fail, this space remains a beautiful, safe, and secure shelter for the Divine Presence.   Would that this were true for the wider world!  As Rabbi Shai Held notes: “In reality - and according to the Torah itself - the world as we find it falls far short of God's hopes and expectations. Instead of a world in which human dignity is real, we live in a world in which barbarism and cruelty all too often rule the day, in which unspeakable suffering pervades every corner of the globe. . .”

So what do we make of the mishkan in a world so often gone awry?  Perhaps it is meant as a powerful and essential reminder of the way things were meant to be—and might yet become if we can learn to work together to create justice, compassion, and peace. As Professor Jon Levenson notes, the world is supposed to be just like the mishkan: "A place in which God’s holiness is palpable, unthreatened, and pervasive." 

It is hard work to repair what is broken in the world—and in ourselves as well.  Sometimes we need to take time to renew our vision of what we are working toward.  We seek havens—sanctuaries—that remind us what we are laboring to achieve and why it matters.  Our experience of God and sacredness in brief moments and small spaces can restore our dedication to the larger effort when our faith and courage might otherwise falter.

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We turn—or return—to our chosen sanctuaries in space and time when we need to renew our spiritual batteries.  They help us replenish our midah of strength, known in Hebrew as gevurah. Time and again, psychological studies have demonstrated that we grow best when we focus on developing our strengths rather than repairing our weaknesses.  As Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz recognized a century ago, “Woe to those who are not aware of their defects, and who do not know what they must correct.  But much worse off are those who do not know their strengths, and who are therefore unaware of the tools they must work with to advance themselves spiritually.”
This week, consider: What are your strengths? When and where do you find sanctuaries in space and time that replenish those strengths when they are drawn down?  And how do you best employ those strengths to help bring the world as it is closer to the vision of what it might yet become?

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Mussar Practice for this Week  (from The Mussar Torah Commentary)
Identify people and situations where your unique strengths will bring others both help and an added measure of wholeness.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Portion Terumah: Generosity/Nedivut



Make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell within you.     (Exodus 25:8)

Research in the field of positive psychology over the last two decades that it truly is better to give than to receive.  In a study published in the journal Science, psychologist Elisabeth Dunn gave envelopes containing money to her students at the University of British Columbia and told them that by day’s end, they had to either spend the money on something they wanted or purchase a gift for someone else.  When Dunn interviewed the students later, the results were clear: those who gifted others were significantly happier than those who kept the money for themselves.

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, God asks the Israelites to donate materials for the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that they will carry through the desert for the next forty years.  God tells Moses: “Accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.”  The people respond with extraordinary generosity, bringing forth beautiful fabrics, tanned skins, fine wood, oil for lighting, precious stones and, above all, gold, which will be used to cast the sacred vessels.

Why does God request such offerings?  Lest one think that the Holy One needs a luxurious dwelling place, the Rabbis point to the wording of Exodus 25:8: “Let them make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell among them.”  God does not ask for a sanctuary in order to dwell in it; instead, God suggests that through the building process—which invokes the people’s generosity—God will dwell among them.

In other words, God asks for our gifts because God knows that the very act of giving opens the heart of the giver and thus creates the possibility of intimacy.  When we share what we have with others, we raise ourselves in holiness, for the name of the portion, Terumah—meaning “a donation”—comes from a Hebrew root for “to lift up.”  Through giving, we draw upon our own higher angels and invite the Divine into our lives.

In other words, it really is better—healthier and holier—to give than to receive.

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The character trait of generosity is known in Hebrew as nedivut, which refers to an openness of heart that moves us to share what we have with others.  The cultivation of this quality is an essential Mussar practice.  The founder of the movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter taught that “the spiritual is higher than the physical, but the physical needs of another are an obligation of my spiritual life.”  We heal our own souls by bearing the burden of others and sharing what we have with those who are in need.  As Alan Morinis notes in Every Day, Holy Day:

The heart gives freely when it realizes that it is not a separate and isolated entity, but rather belongs to larger wholes.  Giving comes easily to such a heart because it experiences no rupture between the one who gives and the one who receives.  Generosity by its nature draws closer the giver and the receiver, until ultimately there is neither “me” nor “you,” but only love.

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

Begin each morning with the phrase: The generous heart gives freely

Then try to do three generous acts per day: one with your money, one with your time, one with your caring.


Sunday, February 7, 2021

Portion Mishpatim: Order/Seder




These are the rules that you shall set before them.  
                (Exodus 21:1)

Jewish wisdom does not follow a partisan political platform.  While my personal politics incline (mostly) toward progressivism, I recognize that our tradition offers its share of teachings and opinions that echo the ideology of classic conservatism. Judaism is too old and vast to follow any single party line; look closely and within our sacred texts you can find a vast array of views that include radicalism, moderation, socialism, capitalism, and almost everything in between.  

There is, however, one perspective that is noteworthy in its absence: anarchy. This attitude, which asserts that the best government is, essentially, no government at all, is often where the far left and far right meet. We don’t see it in our Jewish tradition because it is anathema to the very foundation of our culture.  Jewish life is built upon the rule of law—a system of mitzvot, of legal and ethical obligations. Long before Thomas Hobbes described life without government as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” our Sages taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government—for without proper respect for governmental authority, people would swallow one another alive.”  It is worth noting that the government under which the Rabbis lived was hardly benign. They endured brutally oppressive Roman rule—yet they still saw this as a better alternative than anarchy.  Our Sages would have been deeply shaken—as we all should be—by the anarchic (and not coincidentally anti-Semitic) takeover of the US Capitol just a few weeks ago.

For Jews, law makes life possible, and, at its best, it raises us up as individuals and communities.  At every level—from families to neighborhoods to synagogues to nations—just laws create and maintain just societies.  In our culture, we insist that belief follows behavior.  To change your beliefs and suppositions, you start by changing what you do in the world.  And the best way to change behavior is to change the law.  To offer an example dear to my heart: If we want to create justice for our state’s LGBTQ community, you don’t say: “We’ll add the words after we teach everyone to love one another.”  Instead, we slowly, imperfectly—but inexorably—teach love by making it the law, even for those who don’t (yet) love.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is at heart a collection of laws dealing with an eclectic assortment of topics, civil and criminal and ritual, holy and mundane.  At first, it seems a far cry from the spiritual heights of last week’s parshah, where God speaks to the Israelites from Mount Sinai.  But since, for the Jewish people, law is love and life, these legal matters are of utmost spiritual significance.  

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In the Mussar tradition, the opposite of anarchy and chaos is the midah of seder, meaning spiritual order.  The significance of this character trait can be gleaned from the Hebrew word, which lends its name to both the order of the Passover meal and the siddur, the prayer book that contains the “order” of our daily and holiday liturgy.  As Alan Morinis notes in Everyday Holiness, Mussar is a practical discipline that draws upon this trait, and sees it as essential to both functional daily life and divine service.  Chaos is an impediment to a meaningful, intentional life; order helps make this path possible.  Morinis concludes: “Order helps create an inner sense that the things that matter have been properly arranged and tended to and, as a result, that the details of life are under control. Calm and unworried, at that point the channels to the divine will are open and unencumbered as they can get, and the possibility of serving—and happiness---will have become real for you."

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Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)
Begin each morning with the phrase: First things first and last things later
Then try to set one thing in order every day this week.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Portion Beshallach: Honor/Kavod



Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Holy One—They said: “I will sing to the Holy One, who has triumphed gloriously! God has hurled horse and driver into the sea!”
(Exodus 15:1)

At the time (of the destruction of the Egyptian at the Sea of Reeds) the ministering angels desired to recite a song before God.  But the Holy One said to them: My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me? Apparently, God is not gladdened by the downfall of the wicked. Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina says: God does not rejoice in their downfall, but God does allow others to express joy.                                    (Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           
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How do we respond to the demise of our enemies?  

This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, raises this ever-relevant question and refrains from offering simplistic answers.

Many of us know the midrash where God rebukes the angels for singing as the Egyptians drown in the Red Sea; it is featured in many of our Pesach seders, cited as we take ten drops of wine from our cup to remember each of the plagues, a reminder that our joy at liberation should be diminished by the suffering of others.  But this is only half of the story—for while God does silence the angels, God does not object to the Israelites’ victory song, which revels in the death of our oppressors.  Indeed, God seems to take pleasure as we chant triumphantly, “They went down into the depths like a stone!”  Liberal Jews tend to focus on the angels’ silence much more than our ancestors’ song.  The idea of rejoicing in the death of our enemies embarrasses us, because it feels primitive and violent.  Yet I believe it is wrong to completely ignore or deny the joy we feel when our adversaries fall.  

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In the Musssar Torah Commentary, Rabbi Nancy Wechlser ponders the events at the Red Sea as a reflection upon the midah of honor, which is known in Hebrew as kavod.  She writes: “It seems that our tradition is of two minds when it comes to kavod.  On the one hand, we are commanded to celebrate our redemption from our enemies, which we might call “kavod to self.”  At the same time, we are commanded to feel empathy for other human beings—including our enemies—and lift them up with kavod, too, that is “honoring others.”  We live with this dichotomy.  If we are not happy that evil has been punished, then we do not care enough; but if we are not sad at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened.”  To rejoice is to honor our own commitments and high ideals.  To temper our rejoicing is to honor every human being as intrinsically due a sense of dignity.

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In the chapters on honor in his book Every Day, Holy Day, Alan Morinis offers the key phrase/affirmation: Each one, holy soul.  It would be nice if the phrase read, Each good one, holy soul.  But as Morinis notes, every human being is created in the image of God and therefore worthy of some measure of honor—including our adversaries.  Indeed, this is the real challenge with kavod.  It’s relatively easy to honor people that we love and respect; the true test lies in learning to honor those whose actions cause us grief.  We should fight hard for our own highest ideals, and we are not required to our enemies—for we are not angels—but we should strive to remember that they, too, are children of the Holy One, and honor them accordingly.

Mussar Practice for this Week  (from The Mussar Torah Commentary)
Give kavod/honor to someone without expectation to receive in return.  Give honor to a person with whom you do not have an easy relationship.  Notice what happens.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Portion Vaera: Faith/Emunah



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

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

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

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

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

Mussar Practice for this Week 

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

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad

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

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


Friday, January 8, 2021

This Is America (Portion Shemot 5781)


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

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

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

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

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

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

This is America.

This is Idaho.  

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

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

(America was never America to me.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is America.  This is Idaho.

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

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

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

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

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

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