Sunday, December 19, 2021

Shemot: The Obstacles Reveal the Desire

Moses said to the Holy One: “O God, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and heavy of tongue.”  Then God said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Holy One? -Exodus 4:10-11

When God calls Moses to leadership, he responds with a torrent of self-doubt, focusing on the part of himself which makes him feel most ashamed: his tongue. Again and again, Moses insists that he is not up to the task of addressing Pharaoh because of a speech defect that would expose his weakness.

To which God effectively responds: “Who do you think determined the way that you talk?” In other words, God has created the challenge, which Moses will have to wrestle with as an ultimate source of holiness.  

Rabbi Yael Shy asks:  What if this was true for the obstacles in our own life? What if the things we perceive as standing in the way of our success and our callings – like Moshe and his speech difficulties – were actually the clues and the signs that indicate what we are meant to do in this world?  If we pause and “turn our head,” as Moshe did, and look at these obstacles in a different way, a new possibility begins to emerge. 

“The desire does not reveal the obstacle,” psychologist Adam Phillips writes, “the obstacle reveals the desire.” In other words, you don’t discover your obstacles on the way to achieving your desire, you discover you desire by coming face-to-face with the obstacles. You can touch the deepest longings, the most powerful yearnings of your heart, and you can understand what you were put on this earth to do, by examining what it is that’s getting in your way.

Moses’s challenge lies with his speech.  He insists that his brother Aaron serve as his spokesperson before Pharaoh.  Yet forty years later, when the people finally arrive at the brink of the Promised Land, Moses delivers an extraordinarily eloquent oration that will come to constitute the book of Deuteronomy.  His “obstacle” ultimately helps transform him into the greatest teacher and prophet the Jewish people have ever known.  His life’s journey is a model for us all. 

Conversation Questions:  Consider some of the significant obstacles that you have encountered on your life’s path. What might they teach about your hopes, fears, and longings—and, perhaps, your essential role in helping to bring healing to the world?  How might this “lens” change the way that you see those obstacles?

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Vayechi: Facing the Future--Fear and Hope

Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.  Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob; listen (sh'ma) to Israel your father. . .  When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.                                       -Genesis 49:1-2; 33

Toward the end of this week’s portion, Vayechi, which concludes the book of Genesis, Jacob addresses his sons from his deathbed.  It’s a fraught scene: as the patriarch contemplates dying in Egyptian exile, he fears that his descendants will abandon the covenant that began with Abraham and Sarah.  They are, after all, now solidly ensconced in foreign land with very different customs and beliefs.  Like any parent, Jacob frets over what the future might bring to his family after he has departed this world.

Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah re-imagines that scene as the origin of our people’s central declaration of faith, the Sh’ma. As the Rabbis read the story, Jacob says to his sons: “I worry that when I die, you and your offspring will turn to foreign gods and practices.”  In one voice, they respond: Sh’ma Yisrael—in this case, meaning “Listen, Jacob (who is also known as Israel)—Adonai is our God, and Adonai alone.  With great relief, Jacob uses his final breath to respond: “Baruch Shem k’vodo l’olam va-ed—Thank God, now and forever!”

As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes, this legend transforms the Sh’ma into a living drama, as the latest generation of Jews promise their forebears that they will carry on the tradition bequeathed to them. Jacob dies in peace—and even now we, the Jewish people, continue to affirm the covenant, wrestling with the Holy One as he did.

Conversation Questions: 

What are your fears for the next generation?  What might bring you reassurance?  What do we owe the generations who preceded us?  What do we ask of the generations following us?

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Vayigash: Growing from our Failures

Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy [Benjamin] to my father, saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.”  Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers, for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.         -Judah pleading before Joseph in Genesis 44

From the start, our Torah is overwhelmingly a chronicle of failure.  Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden.  Cain kills Abel.  God destroys the world in the flood.  Generation after generation of patriarchs and matriarchs favor one child over another, spawning family dysfunction.  And the Israelites wander the wilderness for forty years, locked in a cycle of failure and complaint.  Even Moses fails, lashing out at the rebellious Israelites and thereby losing the right to enter the Promised Land.  

So much failure!  Why, then, do we, return to these stories year after year? I believe the timeless appeal of the Torah’s tales lies in our ancestors’ dogged persistence in the face of their failures, their willingness to learn from their mistakes and to fail in new and better ways.  

For all of us, personal growth depends upon our ability to understand our mistakes as opportunities for growth.  While no one goes out in search of failure, it inevitably finds us.  As Winston Churchill famously noted: Success is not final and failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.  If we face our shortcomings honestly and directly, we can use them to become better people.  Thus the Talmud teaches that one who sins and truly repents stands in a higher place than a totally righteous person. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yigash, Judah shows that he is prepared to sacrifice his own life for his younger brother Benjamin.   This represents a remarkable transformation—the same brother who earlier sealed the deal to sell Joseph into slavery comes to embody the possibility of teshuvah—of real and enduring renewal.  What has changed?  In the intervening years, Judah has suffered and failed repeatedly, and in a moment of reckoning with his daughter-in-law Tamara, finally admits: “She—not I—is in the right.” As Cantor Kay Greenwald notes: “We are yehudim, the spiritual descendants of Judah.  Each of us has the power to learn and grow from our mistakes and our life experiences.  Each of us has the power to forgive and to be forgiven.”

In other words, we Jews are, by name and character, a people who, rather than being defined by our failures, see them as opportunities for growth.

Conversation Questions:

Are there parts of your identity and experiences from your past that you are actively trying to forget or erase?  How and when might you be ready to approach those difficult places with self-compassion and forgiveness?

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Miketz: Remembering Ourselves, Reaching Out to Others

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, Joseph is second in command over all of Egypt.  As such, he is extraordinarily wealthy and powerful, with access to nearly unlimited resources.  So why doesn’t he take the opportunity to reach out to his aged father Jacob, to let him know he is alive?  The commentator Nachmanides notes that dwelling in Hebron, Jacob is only a six days journey away.  Surely Joseph could at least have written him a reassuring letter!

Rabbi Yael Shy offers a psychologically-astute response to this question that speaks to the challenges of our own time.  She writes: 

Joseph's behavior is directly in line with most trauma victims, who repress large swaths of memory in order to numb the raw, un-integrated, and overwhelming traumatic experiences from their past. Joseph is doing his best to dissociate, consciously and unconsciously, in order to move forward with his life. He is building a new life, complete with new job, wife and children. His trauma, however, is still locked within him, untouched and unprocessed.

For Joseph to heal, for him to be able to forgive his brothers, he must first remember who he is. By the time Joseph's brothers appear before him in Egypt, Joseph has reconciled himself with himself. He has opened the door of his heart to the totality of his painful past, placing his trauma in a much larger framework. He tells his brothers: “I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But now, do not be pained, and do not let upset be in your eyes that you sold me here! For it was to save life that God sent me on before you...So-now, it was not you that sent me here, but God.” Joseph sees his journey - every shameful and painful part of it, as part of his path and God's unfolding.

Conversation Questions:

Are there parts of your identity and experiences from your past that you are actively trying to forget or erase?  How and when might you be ready to approach those difficult places with self-compassion and forgiveness?

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Vayeshev: A Time to Speak and a Time to be Silent

When we first meet Joseph, in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion Vayishlach, he is a gifted and arrogant seventeen-year-old.  We see his brilliance in his capacity to envision the future by interpreting his dreams.  His egotism is evident in the way he speaks to his older brothers.

We read: “Once Joseph had a dream, which he told to his brothers. . . He said to them, ‘Hear this dream that I have dreamed.  There we were, binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright.  Then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.’” 

It doesn’t take a trained analyst to grasp the intention here; the text continues: “His brothers answered, ‘Do you mean to reign over us?  Do you mean to rule over all of us?’  And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.”

Joseph’s dream isn’t wrong; it is, indeed, predictive of events that will unfold over the following chapters, in which he eventually becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man and his brothers unwittingly find themselves begging him for food.  The problem isn’t the vision—it’s Joseph’s youthful insufferable insistence on sharing it.  As the Italian commentator Sforno notes, “Not only did he tell them his dream in passing; instead, he insisted on their hearing it, which could not fail to intensify their animosity.”

In other words, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak.

The challenge, of course, is to recognize which is the proper course in any given moment.  Eventually, Joseph will learn to be more circumspect when needed, and his brothers will also grow in their ability to speak with respect.  That is the work of a lifetime.

Conversation Question:

Reflect on times when you mistakenly chose to speak rather than to listen.  What role did your ego play in your insistence on sharing what you might have better kept to yourself?  How do you better distinguish between times for speech and silence?

Monday, November 15, 2021

Vayishlach: Heels and Godwrestlers

In Torah, a change of name usually indicates an irreversible change of fate. Avram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Jewish people.  Hoshea ben Nun becomes Joshua, who will deliver us into the Promised Land.  Upon his rise to power, Joseph assumes the Egyptian name of Zaphenat-Paneah, by which he will always be known to the Pharaoh who makes him his right-hand man.  

In this week’s portion, Vayishlach, Jacob follows in this line.  After he prevails in a night-long struggle with a divine being, he is blessed with the new name Israel—the “Godwrestler.”  The patriarch whose original moniker means “heel” or “supplanter” becomes the rightful heir of the covenant and assumes his place as a mighty spiritual forefather.

Except. . . just a few lines after he becomes Israel, Torah again refers to him as Jacob—and continues to do so for the rest of his life. 

Unlike Abraham and Sarah, who change their identity and never look back, Jacob/Israel vacillates between his two selves until his dying day.  He is both the man transformed into a heroic Godwrestler and the unreconstructed Heel/Deceiver, a deeply human mix of hope and failure, sacred and profane.

As such, Jacob is us.   Our Jewish tradition affirms the possibility of teshuvah—of real change—but also recognizes this sort of conversion is incremental and imperfect.  We take two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes we embody Israel, fulfilling our higher destiny.  And sometimes, even many years after undertaking personal transformation, we lapse back into Jacob, the old self that we had hoped to leave behind.

So we bear our two names—bayt Ya’akov, the house of Jacob, and b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel.  We are earthly connivers and wrestlers with the divine, fallen and angelic, striving for holiness and sometimes settling for a great deal less. In other words, we are humans, doing our best to grow.

Conversation Question:
Who is your inner “Jacob” that you seek to grow beyond?  The “Israel” that you hope to become?  And how do you navigate between those two senses of self, between the vision toward which you aspire and the current human reality?

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Vayetze: To Know the Dark

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.

Unto God let praise be brought
For the wonders God has wrought
At the solemn hour of midnight. . . 

Toward the end of the Ashkenazi Passover Haggadah, we find a medieval liturgical poem entitled B’Chatzi Ha-lailahAnd It Came to Pass at Midnight.  In it, the poet, Yannai, recounts an array of miracles and redemptive acts that occurred in the middle of the night, including the exodus from Egypt, which is a harbinger of ultimate liberation for all of humankind.  The message is clear: hope is often born of adversity, under the cloak of darkness.

This is certainly true in the life of the patriarch Jacob, who stands at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze.  Almost all of the defining events of his life take place under the veil of darkness.  He uses his father Isaac’s blindness to secure the blessing intended for his twin brother Esau, then encounters the Holy One on two fateful nights, first in his dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, and later in a nocturnal wrestling match that earns him the new name of Israel—One who struggles with God.  In order to fulfill his destiny, Jacob must embrace the darkness as the vehicle for his transformation.

We tend to associate the dark with danger, fear, and suffering.  Yet our portion reminds us that darkness is also the space where new life and unexpected possibilities most often incubate.  As we settle into the coming winter, with its grey days and long nights, it is good to remember the promise of Jacob’s path, which the contemporary poet Wendell Barry eloquently describes in his poem, “To Know the Dark”:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

Conversation Question:

What paths of growth might you anticipate in entering, or dwelling in, the darkness?

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Toldot: New Life in Old Wells

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.

American culture puts a premium on innovation, and this often serves us well, as individuals and as a nation.  But sometimes reaffirming and renewing old wisdom is every bit as essential as creative invention.  As a timely example, consider the public health measures we currently employ to protect ourselves and our communities from COVID.  Our best strategy combines the cutting-edge miracle of m-RNA vaccines with the time-tested tactics of masking and social distancing.  

In the Torah’s tales of our patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob are the revolutionary innovators.  Abraham is the first Jew, embarking on an audacious pilgrimage into the unknown, in the service of an unprecedented monotheistic God.  Jacob is the radical who dares to wrestle with beings human and divine.

Isaac, by contrast, is a conservator.  In this week’s portion, Toldot, we read that one of his greatest accomplishments is that he “dug anew the wells that had been dug in the days of his father which the Philistines had stopped up. . . and gave them the same names that his Abraham had given them.” He is not a bold pioneer like both his father and his son—yet Isaac is every bit as important an actor in defining the Jewish people.  Our personal and communal lives sometimes call for intrepid creativity; at other times, we need patience, persistence and preservation.  

Conversation Question:

What do you most need in your life’s journey right now—innovation or renewal or both?

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Chayei Sarah: What's Love Got to Do With It?

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.

Isaac took Rebekah as his wife. He loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.

                        -Genesis 24:67

The first time that Torah speaks of one person loving another is in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah.  We’ve seen numerous partnerships and relationships in previous passages, but none are described as loving.  Perhaps it is no accident that the description is accorded to Isaac and Rebecca, the only monogamous couple among our patriarchs and matriarchs.  

As with every couple, both before and after them, their relationship is sometimes rocky.  Rebecca and Isaac struggle over infertility, and when they finally have twins, they have very significant differences in how they relate to their boys, Jacob and Esau.  In some key moments, they are not entirely truthful with one another, and at others, they fail to communicate clearly.  

And yet, we read, they alone amongst almost all of the Torah’s characters forged a relationship defined, from the start, by love.

In the Talmudic collection Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, we learn: All love that is conditional upon something—when that thing perishes, the love perishes.  But love that is not conditional does not ever perish.

Isaac and Rebecca’s love is not easy or perfect, but it does endure.  

Conversation Question:

Reflect on your most significant relationships—romantic, parental, friendship.  What small steps or adjustments might enhance the love you bring to those partnerships and make it more enduring and less conditional?

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Vayera: The Wisdom to Know the Difference

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.

"A time to be silent and a time to speak" (Ecclesiastes 3:7)

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, begins with Abraham vocally challenging God and concludes with his silent acquiescence. When the Holy One tells him about the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham repeatedly argues: “Will You sweep away the innocent and the guilty?  Far be it from You!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”  Yet just four chapters later, when God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham responds with obedient silence.

Why doesn’t Abraham stand up for his own family as he did for the strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah?  We don’t know.  His passivity is problematic for most of us, as it was for many of our Sages two thousand years ago.  But like Ecclesiastes, he seems to believe that there is a time for speech and a time for silence.  The trick, of course, is to recognize which is appropriate in any given instance.

Our circumstances are less extreme than Abraham’s, but we, too, wrestle with this question.  When do we protest and when do we go along?  When should we be silent and when should we speak out?

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr addresses this challenge in what we now know as the Serenity Prayer.  I prefer Niebuhr’s earlier formulation, which asks: “Give us the courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”  

Conversation Question:

Reflect on occasions when you spoke out and challenged the status quo, and times when you held your tongue.  What principles might guide us in deciding which times call for silence and which for speech?

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Lech L'chah--Life's Journey

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.


The Holy One said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

Over many years of long-distance hiking and paddling, I have learned that those who make it to trail or river’s end are not necessarily either the most skilled or best conditioned adventurers.  I’ve seen many physically-powerful people falter, while those with far fewer natural advantages succeed.  Why?  Because the hardest part of any journey is in our own heads and hearts.  It’s not about who can walk thirty-five miles in a day—it’s about who musters the will to put on their wet socks and set out on the cold, rainy morning when they would rather remain in camp.  As Father Henri Nouwen taught: The farther the outward journey takes you, the deeper the inward journey must be.

This week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, marks the beginning of Abraham’s lifelong journey, as God asks him to abandon his native country and navigate by faith alone toward the Promised Land.  The physical hardships are considerable but our Rabbis remind us that for Abraham, too, the inner, spiritual journey is of the essence.  Noting that the Hebrew, lech l’chah, can be read literally as go to yourself, they teach that the real work of our lifetimes is an inward exploration.

Conversation Question:

Where are you on the arc of your own life’s journey—physically, and spiritually?  Are you on course, or is it time to explore in a new direction?  What do you need to keep moving forward when times are difficult?

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Noach: Reconciliation

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.


I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  (Genesis 9:11-15)

After the flood, there is vast repair work to be done. The ravaged land will slowly heal and the rescued pairs of animals will reproduce and replenish the earth.  But for Noah and his family, the psychological damage is devastating.  Their relationship with the Holy One is surely strained to the breaking point by the destruction they witnessed and the despair they bore through the raging storm.

How does God begin to heal that breach?  With the sign of the rainbow, a tangible symbol of the Divine promise to never again destroy life on earth.  But why a rainbow?

Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) suggests that it is an inverted war bow.  He explains that in the ancient world, where battles were fought with bows and arrows, when one side was ready to surrender, they would lift an inverted bow, much as today they might wave a white flag.  Thus, the Ramban notes, the inverted bow in the skies represents God’s gesture of appeasement.  It is, in short, a divine peace offering.

Conversation Question:
In this still-new year, can you identify a conflict in your own life that you would like to resolve?  What kind of gesture might you make toward that end?

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Bereshit: Endings and Beginnings

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.

This week we conclude the Torah, and immediately begin anew.

Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses, for whom the people grieved for thirty days.  We read that never again did there arise a prophet like him, “who God knew, face to face.”  Then, without missing a beat, we open Genesis and affirm: “In the beginning, God created. . .”

What is the connection between these most famous of endings and beginnings?  Ecclesiastes teaches that “there is a time for birth and a time for death.”  But more often than not, those times overlap significantly.  All new beginnings include loss, the letting go of what was.  Each birth is also a little death.  Each death makes room for new life.

Moses dies—and then the world is born again.

Conversation Question:

In this season so full of losses, what are you mourning?  What opportunities do you see for new life?  Or, if the grief is too immediate and intense, what sustains you from moment to moment?

Friday, September 17, 2021

Yom Kippur Morning 5782: We Become Our Choices

The liturgy for these Days of Awe can be hard on the ears and heavy on the heart; the onslaught of language around sin and judgment can be overwhelming.  Sometimes we need to find different and more accessible ways to read the ancient words.  I think this is especially true of passages that seem to focus on Divine reprimand and retribution.  Here we might note that while we often speak of punishment and consequences interchangeably, there are significant differences between the two.  Punishment is fear-based, employing physical or emotional pain to coerce behavior.  Consequences flow naturally out of our choices, whether positive or negative.  Discipline grounded in consequences helps us recognize the relationship between our actions and their outcomes.  This awareness enables us to learn and grow.  

Understanding this distinction between punishment and consequences can significantly shift our approach to these High Holy Days.  Upon first consideration, the season’s readings are saturated with fearful imagery of an all-knowing Judge who exacts retribution for our transgressions.  In Avinu Malkeinu, we plead for Divine mercy, despite the unworthiness of our deeds.  And in Unetaneh Tokef, the paradigmatic prayer for these holy days, we proclaim: “In truth you are the Arbiter, Prosecutor and Expert Witness who writes and seals the fate of every living being.”  

For some Jews, a straightforward reading of these passages works just fine.  If the doctrine of reward and punishment suits you, gey gezunterheyt, no problem.  But for me—and I suspect for many of you, too—this theology does not work.  I cannot worship a God who demands fealty through fear.  Such power comes at too high a spiritual, emotional, and psychological cost, darkening the light of our better angels and isolating us from one another. Lest you think this a radical position born of secular modernity, note that a millennium ago, Rashi wrote that it is significantly better to serve God out of love than out of dread. [Rashi on Deuteronomy 6:5]

So what might it look like to read this season’s sacred texts through a lens of consequences rather than punishment?  Can we cultivate a theology of accountability that draws upon hope instead of fear?  Might we yet envision a God who disavows coercion and, instead, runs the world as a kind of classroom that rewards wisdom gained through experience and reflection?  The subtle moral universe in this scenario evades the easy algorithm of tit for tat.  Yet it affirms an elegant ethical calculus that the poet Jane Hirschfield describes beautifully in her poem, “Rebus”:

You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after. . . 

As water given sugar sweetness, given salt grows salty,
we become our choices.
Each yes, each no continues. . . 

If we reconsider Unetaneh Tokef from this very different perspective, we might understand the text not as a threat designed to scare us into submission but as a reminder of how much our own choices determine our fate.  The God in this re-reading doesn’t author the Book of Life; instead, She metaphorically holds it to our eyes to show us the story we’ve written for ourselves:

Va-tiftach et sefer ha-zichronot u’m’aylahv yikarei v’chotem yad kol adam bo—You open the Scroll of Recollections which reads itself aloud, for the seal of every person’s hand is in it.


When we approach our own lives this way, we shift responsibility from a supernatural God to our ourselves and our communities.  In the magnum opus of Jewish medieval philosophy, the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides leads us in this direction, suggesting that 
much—though not all—the suffering for which we blame the Creator is actually an outcome of our own poor decision-making.  As he notes: People lament over their misfortunes, yet more often than not, we are afflicted due to our misguided actions.  Were he alive today, Maimonides would undoubtedly see the worsening pandemic for what it is: less an act of God and more the result of human folly that keeps half our population unvaccinated and unmasked, thus promoting the spread of the virus and the proliferation of new variants.

Or as our Torah portion for this morning asserts, we all decide, every day, between life and death, good and evil—then deal with the consequences of our choices, which affect both ourselves and those around us. Choose blessing and life, God urges us, so that you and your descendants may endure on the good land I am giving you.  Our sacred calling is to do everything in our power to embrace the blessing rather than the curse—and to learn and grow from the times when we fall short and choose poorly.  


In this spirit, I’d like to conclude by turning to a passage we read earlier this morning.  For some of you, it may be unfamiliar, though it is an ancient Torah text that comprises the second of the traditional three paragraphs of the Shema.  You won’t find it in Reform siddurim, because the progressive rabbis and teachers who edited those prayer books could not stomach the literal message, in which, following the translation in the Conservative Siddur Lev Shalem, God proclaims:  

V’haya im shamoa—If you heard and obey my commandments. . . I will grant seasonal rain for your land, each autumn and spring.  I will provide grass for your herds and you shall eat and be satisfied. . . But if your hearts stray and you do not listen, God will close up the sky so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce and you will quickly disappear from the good land that God is giving you.

I can empathize with my Reform rabbinic forebears that chose to omit these verses because they read them as an anachronistic theology of reward and punishment that is not borne out in the world we inhabit.  Yet I believe the time has come to reconsider their decision, because if we re-read the text through the lens of consequences, its message has never been timelier.  Here is Richard Levy’s translation from our machzor, On Wings of Awe:

If we can hear the words form Sinai. . .If we can serve all that is holy, we shall be doing all that humans can to help the rains to flow, the grasses to be green, the grains to grow up golden like the sun, and the rivers to be filled with life once more.   And all the children of God shall eat and there will be enough.

But if we turn from Sinai’s words. . . then the holiness of life will contract for us.  Our world will grow inhospitable to rains from heaven, and the produce of the earth will not be ours.  Or worse, it will be ours unjustly, and our acts shall isolate us from the flowing waves of green and gold. . .  Let us therefore teach these words to our children, listening to our children teaching us—that our generation may be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the dust of the earth, as faithful as the living waters that unite them all.

With this reading, Torah directly addresses the existential question of our age—catastrophic, human-caused climate change.  The choice couldn’t be clearer, or more urgent: if we heed our better angels, future generations might yet survive and thrive.  If we turn away, they will face one disaster after another, imperiling all life as we know it.

This is not about punishment; it’s nothing more—or less—than the high stakes consequences of our decisions.  And let there be no doubt—our children and grandchildren will surely see this critical moment in that light.  If we bequeath them a dark, diminished world perpetually battered by fire, flood, and famine, they won’t fret that God is punishing them for their sins; they will, instead, angrily note that we, their forebears, knew the cost of our actions—and inactions—and nonetheless failed to change.

Our time for teshuvah is quickly ticking away and our opportunity to preserve the earth’s beauty and security for future generations is drawing to a close.  Yet if we muster the collective courage and will, we can still act on their behalf, and on behalf of all of God’s creation.

As Hillel taught: If not now, when?

My friends, this is the hour to let go of the archaic language of Divine wrath, of reward and punishment, which diminish our powers and weary our hearts.  It’s all about consequences—where the choice is still our own, and we might yet learn and grow.  The future is in our hands.  Let us hearken and choose life, for ourselves and our posterity, so that they might long endure on the good land gifted to us.

Ken y’hi ratzon

Kol Nidre 5782: The Face of Freedom Wears a Mask

On this most sacred day, I’d like to reflect on a classic Talmudic question, namely: what is our tradition’s most essential teaching?  For centuries, the Rabbis debated this matter, each making a case for a passage they identified as k’lal gadol ba-Torah—Torah’s guiding principle, which encompasses everything that follows.

One answer comes from the preeminent Jewish philosopher and legal scholar Moses Maimonides, who proposed a verse from the portion we will read at tomorrow morning’s service:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil—choose life. . . 

Maimonides selected this passage because he considers free will “the very pillar of the Torah and its precepts”; without it, he insists, all the moral demands that God asks of us would be meaningless.  Since there is no virtue in doing that which is compelled, where we could not possibly choose otherwise, human freedom underlies everything.

In this argument for free choice as Judaism’s foundational ethic, Maimonides certainly has ample precedent.  The Jewish people’s formative experience, which we still re-enact every spring at Pesach, is the Exodus journey from bondage to liberation.  As the Haggadah reminds us: “In every generation, it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as if we, too, went out of Egypt.”  

Avadim hayyinu, atah b’nai chorin—we were slaves, now we are free.

And yet. . . . 

However fundamental freedom may be, it is not an intrinsically good end in its own right.  We imperil ourselves when we forget that freedom is ultimately a utilitarian virtue, which is to say, its moral worth depends entirely upon how and when we apply it.  In the challenging times we’re living through, it is all too obvious that personal autonomy, for all of its importance, is easily abused—and therefore must sometimes be constrained for the sake of the common good.  This is why it is critical to read our “choose life” verse in its proper context, where Moses is addressing the entire community: You stand this day, all of you, to enter together into God’s covenant.  He directs his charge not to individual Israelites but to the Jewish people as a whole.

Since that time, our tradition has always balanced personal freedom with communal responsibility.  I could cite countless examples but this evening, will offer just a few.

For starters, Judaism strictly limits property rights.  For instance, I am not permitted to plant a tree anyplace in my own yard where its roots will eventually spread and damage a cistern on my neighbor’s land.  Similarly, anyone seeking to establish a tannery business can only do so at least fifty cubits outside city limits, lest the malodorous pollution inherent in that enterprise diminish other citizens’ quality of life.  As Talmud teaches: Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh—All Jews are responsible for one another—partners in the brit, our enduring covenant with the Holy One (Shevuot 39a). 

That’s why throughout this Yom Kippur we will, as always, confess our failings in the plural:

Al cheyt sh’chatanu—For the transgressions that we have committed.

In both our successes and our shortcomings, we stand together.

This dynamic is evident in the Hebrew term for freedom, cherut.  The root of the word means to engrave, as in Torah’s description of the Ten Commandments as charut al ha-luchot—engraved by God upon the tablets.  Thus the Midrash teaches: “Read this as the real source of freedom, for no one is truly free except the one who lives the way of Torah.”   As Rabbi David Hoffman understands this passage: 

Relationships limit our freedom.  Lovers, friends, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons—every human relationship that we freely enter into. . . limits our choices and inevitably comes with responsibilities.  And yet we choose to voluntarily enter into these relationships, because ultimately, we believe that a life lived in relationship, deeply connected and responsible to someone, is more meaningful than a life lived where we may possess the unconstrained freedom to act.


Why does our tradition lean so strongly into communitarian ethics that balance personal autonomy with collective obligation?  Because after three thousand years, we’re all too aware of the alternative.  The Rabbis spoke with wisdom born of experience when they taught: Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, people would devour one another alive (Avot 3:2).  They knew that freedom without responsibility inevitably descends into anarchy, where life is, in Thomas Hobbes’ memorable description, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  For a biblical glimpse of such a merciless society, one need only peruse the book of Judges, with its terrible tales of rape, murder, and civil war, since, in the absence of laws to protect the populace, everyone did what was right in their own eyes.

In a world without significant limitations on individual freedom we are all like the passengers on the proverbial boat where a man sees it as his prerogative to drill a hole beneath his own seat, thereby sinking the entire ship.  If we fail to constrain absolute autonomy for the sake of the common good, we will all go down together.  Judaism recognizes and respects this reality.


For most of its history, albeit imperfectly, America did, too.  

Founding Father Thomas Paine decreed, “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression, for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously recognized that free speech does not grant one the right to cry fire in a crowded theater, and legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee noted that “your right to swing your first ends where my nose begins.”

We, too, have zoning ordinances that constrain individual actions that diminish the neighbors’ welfare.

And the United States has a proud history of citizens who have made significant sacrifices for the public good.  Just a month before I was born, President John F Kennedy spoke to that ethos in his inaugural address, where he urged his fellow Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Alas, these sentiments now feel like quaint remnants of a bygone era. Our disastrously failed response to the pandemic reveals that America is profoundly sick, and not only with COVID, which is a terrible symptom of the larger, moral malaise of hyper-individualism and unmoored freedom that trump and trample the common good.  Our once beautiful national ideal of liberty is reduced to the equivalent of a toddler in a tantrum whining, “You’re not the boss of me.”

Nowhere is this sad state of affairs as evident as here in Idaho, where even as we speak, half the population is effectively boring holes in our collective boat, and those politically-empowered to lead cower from their most elemental calling to secure the well-being of their constituents.  

This state of our nation, and even more, our state, is insanity.  As Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “There may be something uplifting in ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ as a slogan.  ‘Give me liberty and give them death,’ not so much.”

As Appiah notes, this myth of unfettered freedom is a monstrous delusion.  Pointing to the open road as the iconic image of American liberty, he asks: 

But what does it take to roll on down the highway?  Well, a highway for starters.  The federal government built the interstate highway system, using its constitutional prerogative of eminent domain hundreds of thousands of times to keep it straight, while collecting taxes to pay for its construction and maintenance.  And then you can only speed down your lane because you know that the other cars are moving in the same direction. Governmental power, exercised through a veritable trailer-load of law, is what makes it possible to keep truckin’ on.  

The right rules are a condition of liberty.  Just as the blissful freedom of the road requires measures to pave those roads, sensible public health measures—like mask-wearing rules, which protect both the individual and the commonweal—don’t compromise liberty; they advance it.  The uncontrolled spread of infectious diseases gets in the way of fulfilling your goals and managing your life without interference. Bluntly put, there’s precious little freedom in the sick ward, and still less in the graveyard. . . . That’s why, in many places today, the true face of freedom wears a mask.

The true face of freedom wears a mask.  

Indeed.  For left unchecked, our infantile notions of autonomy unbound by communal responsibility will destroy civil society as we know it.  It’s not just COVID; racism, misogyny, hunger and homelessness, xenophobia, antisemitism, gross economic inequity and, above all, cataclysmic human-caused climate change all demand collective action.  We cannot solve any of these social ills until we, as a nation and as a world, come to see that the welfare of each and every one of us is inextricably bound to that of our neighbors, and that of the strangers on the other side of the globe as well.   As Dr. Martin Luther King eloquently summed it up: None of us is free until we are all free.


We might begin to turn toward this monumental task is by recognizing that the problem, like its solution, is bigger than any individual.  As Jamelle Bouie wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

Consider the larger cultural and political context of the United States.  We still live in the shadow of the Reagan revolution and its successful attack on America’s traditions of solidarity and social responsibility. . . This is the society we have built, where individuals are left to carry the burdens of life into the market and hope they survive.  This so-called freedom is ill-suited to human flourishing. . . . Recently, much has been made of the anger and frustration many people feel toward vaccine holdouts.  I share this frustration, as well as the anger at the lies and misinformation that fuel a good deal of the anti-vaccine sentiment.  But I also know that anger toward individuals is ultimately misplaced.  

When you structure a society so that every person must be an island, you cannot blame people when inevitably they act as if they are.  If we want a country that takes solidarity seriously, we will actually have to build one.


To construct that state, that country, that world, we will need a guiding principle.  Which brings me back to where I began, with the rabbinic debate over Torah’s most foundational teaching.  While Maimonides opted for “choose life,” the ultimate consensus view was first proposed by Rabbi Akiva.  His selection also appears in a Torah portion that we will read tomorrow, this time in the afternoon service, from the book of Leviticus.  We all know it:

V’ahavta l’rayecha kamochah—Love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s it.  Simple to say, hard to live.  

But friends, our lives depend upon it, and if our civilization is to endure beyond our own generation, we will have to learn to better fulfill this mitzvah.

Love your neighbors.  Act with their welfare in mind, together with your own.

Love yourself and love this precious world that God has given us.

Holy One, forgive us our failings and guide us toward the pursuit of genuine freedom in 5782.

Give us the courage to love and care for our neighbors as ourselves.

Ken y’hi ratzon

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.”


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.”


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:

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


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.”


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.  


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.