Sunday, December 4, 2022

Avot 1:11--Words that Hurt




Avot 1:11: Avtalyon says: Sages, be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of toxic water.  The students who follow you there may drink and die, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.

For generations, American children have learned the mantra, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  The point is clear—while physical violence may injure us, verbal attacks need not do us any harm.

This idiom strikes me as nonsense, and decidedly not Jewish.  In our tradition, the power of words, to harm or to heal, is unparalleled.  The Talmud teaches: “Anyone who insults or humiliates another in public—it is as though they were spilling blood.”  Hate speech is murderous.  As one of our most well-known folk parables recognizes, cruel and callous words can never be fully retracted; once spoken, they scatter through the world like wind-driven feathers.  Today, with social media’s capacity to amplify the spread of words by unfathomable magnitudes, we are collectively drowning in the toxic tide of insult and insinuation.

Avtalyon directs his warning toward his peers, the rabbinic sages and scholars of his generation.  They bear the responsibility of leading by example, for as Avtalyon notes, students are strongly drawn to follow their teachers.  In our own age, when we are all effectively armed with a booming high-tech megaphone, we share the leader’s privilege and burden of modeling kind and compassionate speech.  The next generation is watching, listening, and learning from us.



Sunday, November 27, 2022

Avot 1:10--Love Work, Shun Power



Avot 1:10Sh’mayah says: Love work, despise positions of authority, and do not become overly comfortable with the authorities.

What is the relationship between Sh’mayah’s first statement—love work—and his subsequent warnings against cozying up to wealth and power?

Perhaps he was concerned about sycophancy as a cheap and misguided shortcut to what is conventionally seen as success.  It is all too easy to turn to money and influence as a substitute for meaningful work.  To follow that path is to lose one’s moral compass—as so many seeking to gain or maintain political leadership have sadly done in recent years.

Sh’mayah’s juxtaposition serves to clarify the true purpose of work—m’lachah—which is to repair a reasonable portion of the world’s brokenness. We obviously need to earn sufficiently to put bread on our tables, but integrity demands that in one way or another, our endeavors bring more healing than hurt.  If we find ourselves focused on the accumulation of capital and influence for selfish purposes, it is time to reconsider our path.  With some significant exceptions, the wealthy and powerful are heavily vested in maintaining the status quo, because that’s what helped enable their prosperity and prestige.  If we are committed to doing our part in changing the world for the better, it is generally advisable to not get too comfortable with the individuals and institutions that have the most to gain by keeping things as they currently are.  Holy labor is that which recognizes the world as it is, but never stops striving toward the vision of what it should be.


Sunday, November 20, 2022

Avot 1:7--Avoiding Bad Influences and Virtue As Its Own Reward



Matai of Arbel says: “Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; do not associate with a wicked person; and do not despair of retribution.

In last week’s mishnah, Yehoshua ben P’rachyah taught the importance of drawing close to people to forge friendships and learning relationships.  This week’s passage, by contrast, teaches that there are times when we are obligated to distance ourselves from others. 

Matai of Arbel recognizes the significance of negative peer pressure, which affects us all.  If we associate with unethical people, we are far more likely to act unethically ourselves.  While we can’t always separate ourselves from bad influences—sometimes they are our bosses, co-workers, and even family members—we can minimize the time we spend with them.

But what is the relationship between this warning and the last part of Matai’s teaching: “Do not despair of retribution?”  In his social justice commentary on Avot, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz writes: Some fear that they will miss out if they don’t join the liars and cheaters who seem to be winning.  The mishnah reminds us that the honest and faithful will win, both in this world and in the world-to-come.

I’m skeptical of this, at least at face value.  I am completely agnostic about the existence of a world to come, and the premise that the honest and faithful will necessarily win in this world seems dubious at best.  I believe life is all too often unfair; as quite a few of the Rabbis recognize, sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.  While a part of us wishes that everyone would ultimately get their just desserts—which is to say proper retribution—when it comes to material benefits, it just isn’t so.

Still, virtue can be its own reward.  By associating with good companions and shunning bad influences, we are far more likely to do the right thing in our lives—and the satisfaction of making the world a little better for our having been here often must suffice.  It may not make us rich or popular or powerful, but when we choose to associate with ethical people, we at least have the satisfaction of knowing we are doing our best to live up to God’s calling to be holy, honoring the Divine Image in which we are created.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Judge Others Favorably (E-Torah November 13; Avot 1:6)



For this year’s e-Torah, I will be featuring passages from the Talmudic tractate Avot, a compilation of the ethical, spiritual, and political teachings of second-century Rabbis.  I’ll be approaching this venerable text through the lens of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.

Avot 1:6—Yehoshua ben P’rachyah says: Get yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably (i.e. with the presumption of innocence).

Given the importance our tradition assigns to learning and community, the first two parts of this passage are not surprising.  In order to grow in wisdom, we need good teachers; solid friendships are the foundation of sustainable, caring community.  But what is the relationship between these teachings and the last one, enjoining that we assess others with the benefit of the doubt?

The Italian Renaissance commentator Ovadiah Sforno writes: “Judge everyone fairly—because without this trait friendship will not endure.  For the majority of statements, the listener can judge a speaker in a negative light.  And this attitude will unquestionably annul all friendship.”

In other words, friendship depends upon trust.  If we go through life assuming bad intentions on the part of others, we cannot maintain friendships.  To be a friend is to have someone’s back, and know that they have ours.  

It is much the same in the teacher-student relationship.  The learner must trust that the teacher is wise, honest, and has her or his best interests at heart.  And so it is in almost all significant relationships—if we approach the other with guarded suspicion, things will not end well.  

We need not agree with one another. Students can grow by challenging their teachers; friends can and should offer loving criticism when it is merited; and Torah defines the role of our partners as ezer k’negdo—those who help us through life by guiding us toward new ways of thinking.  

Disagreement is very Jewish—but only when it is accompanied by genuine trust.  To judge others favorably—and know that they are affording us that same privilege—is to pave the way toward the kind of vulnerability that undergirds all deep reciprocal relationships, between teachers and students, friends and lovers, and sustaining members of compassionate Jewish communities. 


Sunday, October 23, 2022

E-Torah October 23 (Avot 1:2)--The Head, the Heart, and the Hand

For this year’s e-Torah, I will be featuring passages from the Talmudic tractate Avot, a compilation of the ethical, spiritual, and political teachings of second-century Rabbis.  I’ll be approaching this venerable text through the lens of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.

Avot 1:2—Shimon the Just was among the survivors of the Great Assembly.  He used to say: The world stands on three things—on Torah, on spiritual service, and on kind deeds.

The second lesson in Pirkei Avot is familiar to many of us as the song Al Shlosha D’varim.  

It teaches that Torah study, spiritual growth (Avodah), and acts of lovingkindness (G’milut Chasadim) constitute a kind of three-legged stool.  As Rabbi Yanklowitz notes, in this understanding, each leg is not merely one-third of the whole stool’s support; each is, instead, absolutely essential—lacking just one, the entire structure collapses.  

Why are these particular three things the pillars of the Jewish world?  To answer this, I turn to the wisest graduation speech I have ever heard, delivered by Miss Patti, the director of the Montessori House for Children, at my daughter Tanya’s kindergarten graduation.  Her topic was: “The Head, the Heart, and the Hand.”  

Use your heads,” she advised her young charges and their parents.  “Think about your choices and their consequences.  This is how we change and grow.”

Cherish your hearts,” she added.  “Nurture compassion.  Acknowledge your full range of feelings and emotions.  This is how we open ourselves to one another and to the countless gifts the world offers every day.”

And put your hands to good work,” she concluded.  Turn your thoughts and feelings into positive actions.  Make a difference.  Help others.  Repair what is broken.  Fix what is unfair.  Create beauty.”

Miss Patti—a proud Basque Catholic—didn’t know Talmud, but her categories of head, heart, and hand correspond perfectly with Shimon the Just’s three imperatives.  Learning—Torah— is all about the head, the radical notion that through knowledge of self and others, we can improve ourselves and our communities.  Spiritual service—Avodah—is the language of the heart, the path of love, compassion, and emotional awareness that gives the spirit wings.  And kind deeds—G’milut Chasadim—are the work of the hand, the way we put ethics and emotion into action, sowing seeds of peace and liberation in our broken world.  Each is indispensable; all three are inextricably bound together.

Head.  Hands.  Heart.

Torah, Avodah, G’milut Chasadim.

This is our sacred Jewish calling.


Sunday, October 16, 2022

E-Torah October 16--Avot 1:1

For this year’s e-Torah, I will be featuring passages from the Talmudic tractate Avot, a compilation of the ethical, spiritual, and political teachings of second-century Rabbis.  I’ll be approaching this venerable text through the lens of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.

Avot 1:1—Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.

Pirkei Avot begins by establishing a line of Torah transmission that begins with Moses and will continue through all of the Sages quoted in the forthcoming chapters.  That chain—in which we, our children and grandchildren are the latest links—embraces both commitment to tradition and creative innovation.  Each generation pays homage to their teachers and reinterprets their wisdom to meet the needs of changing times and circumstances.

The story is told of a congregant who asks the new rabbi why she sometimes modifies or departs from the practices of the previous rabbi—her father.  She replies: “In fact, I diligently follow my father’s example—just as he honored his own rabbinic father by finding his own way, so do I.”

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught: “The old must be made new, and the new must be made holy.”

How can we creatively honor and renew our own familial and communal traditions?


Friday, October 7, 2022

Kol Nidre 5783: In Hopelessness, Hope



A podcast interview from a couple months ago poised a challenge I’ve been wrestling with in anticipation of these Days of Awe.  The speaker—English poet, playwright and hip-hop artist Kae Tempest—lamented: 

Sometimes I feel like hope is the most antagonistic, violent concept.  Sometimes I hate the thought of it.  It feels so untrue and unreal, so far away from the reality of what it’s like to persevere.

Her words took me aback. For most of my life, I’ve considered hope one of a very few unalloyed virtues that still hold across cultural divides—a vestige of sacredness in our fractured world.  Hope obviously undergirds most faith traditions, but I’ve also witnessed its powerful pull on atheists, agnostics and, especially, sports fans of every persuasion.   What loyal booster of a habitually losing team hasn’t proffered the enduring credo, “Wait till next year!”  And even the most cynical of professions—politics—routinely traffics in the rhetoric of hope, from Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill” to Shepard Fairy’s iconic poster of Barack Obama.  

As a rabbi, I have been asked to offer hope to dejected health care workers and exasperated activists weary of losing battles in our state legislature.  These good folks sought me out as a representative of the Jewish people, who have endured millennia of suffering yet still proudly sing our national anthem, HaTikvah—the Hope.  While I’m no expert on maintaining hope in hard times, I have done my best to respond with an open ear and empathetic heart.

Then along comes Kae Tempest, with a passionate counter-cultural plea that upends many of my fundamental assumptions.  So where did I turn?  I posted Tempest’s words on Facebook and asked you to share your responses, which were powerful, helpful and, not surprisingly, multi-vocal.  I learned from all of you—and also from a collection of books whose titles included Hope Without Optimism; Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking; and, for scatological skeptics, Everything is ****** (expletive deleted).  I also gleaned insight through conversations with colleagues and family members, especially my daughter Rachel who had much to offer on the subject.

As I read and listened, I came to appreciate those books’ negative take on my often-clichéd understandings of hope.  I revisited High Holy Day sermons I’ve delivered over the last few years, and upon reflection, recognized that my optimism—which was never really my strong suit to start with—frequently faltered.  I tried to offer the rabbinical equivalent of “Wait till next year—l’shanah ha-ba’ah b’Yerushalayim—only to see each “next year” serve up diminishing democracy, staggering gun violence, rising bigotry, dangerous conspiracy theories, lingering pandemic, and stunning apathy in the face of existential climate catastrophe. As I prepared for this fall, I realized I couldn’t in good faith offer more of the same.  Like Kae Tempest, I’m feeling that hope as I’ve hitherto known and preached it, really does feel “so untrue and unreal, so far away from the reality of what it’s like to persevere.”  I’ve discovered that for many people, false hope can breed the kind of complacency that keeps us mired in troubled relationships, noxious workplaces, and all sorts of dark and dangerous circumstances. We convince ourselves that if we just wait it out, things will get better. Writer Wendy Olson explains: 

When we hope for something that isn’t likely going to happen, we resist moving on towards anything else.  Hope will torture you, will constantly remind you of the world you do not inhabit, of the one that is just at the tip of your fingers yet always eluding you. If hope is a tether keeping you attached to misery in the name of romanticism or wishing, then it is time to cut that tether for good

For unmoored hope can easily collapse into crushing disappointment. As a long-suffering English football fan tells the over-exuberant American coach Ted Lasso, “It’s the hope that kills you.” 

******

As in the personal realm, so, too, in the political sphere, hope can be toxic.  As Dr. Miguel de la Torre writes in Embracing Hopelessness

Hope, as an illusion, is responsible for maintaining oppressive structures.  When all is hopeless, when there exists no chance of establishing justice, the only choice left for the oppressed is to “screw” with the structure. . . By upsetting the norm, an opportunity might arise that can lead to a more just situation. . . Hopelessness is what leads to liberatory action.

Our foundational Jewish redemption narrative concurs.  As most commentators reckon, we were slaves in Egypt for over four hundred years.  Generations of Israelites quietly yearned for liberation but found none.  Only when they surrendered all hope as they’d known it and desperately groaned under their servitude—only then did God take notice, remember the covenant, and launch the course of events that led to our deliverance.

******

In hindsight, none of this skepticism should have surprised me, for Judaism has never been overly sanguine about either personal or communal hope.  So much of the Torah is a chronicle of failure.  Consider the book of Genesis, which opens with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, and the Tower of Babel—which is to say exile, fratricide, genocide, and exile again.  From that inauspicious start, we move on to our patriarchs and matriarchs, whose stories revolve around dysfunctional marriages, terrible parenting, and murderous sibling rivalries.  As my teacher Rabbi Chanan Brichto pointed out, there isn’t a single family there you’d want to emulate.  And so it goes. . . through most of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. As soon as we leave Egypt, we complain we want to go back.  For the next forty years, we wander and whine, and when we finally reach the Promised Land, Moses, who shouldered the burden of all that kvetching is barred from entry, denied the realization of his whole life’s labor.  One frustration follows another. Later, in the Prophets, we see that even God’s fervent hopes are often foiled.  Isaiah notes: “The Holy One hoped for justice--mishpat, but behold, injustice--mishpach; for equity—tzedakah but behold, outrage—tza’akah.”   The brilliant Hebrew wordplay hammers home how fine the line that separates the prophetic dream from the harsh reality.  

******

So where does that leave us?  How do we face the future in our own troubled times?  Dante imagined the gate to Hell emblazoned with the grim words, “Abandon hope, all who enter here.”  Is that our tragic fate?

No.  Our Jewish heritage is not naïve, but neither is it nihilistic.  It rejects trite understandings of hope, but also implores us to choose life, to persist through darkness and despair, or, to return to Kae Tempest, to persevere.  Which brings me to the profound paradox at the heart of this matter: it is precisely by acknowledging our hopelessness that we conceive new incarnations of tougher, truer hope.

The twentieth century poet, professor, and preacher Amos Wilder expressed this eloquently in his dictum: the zero hour breeds new algebra.  When we hit the nadir of possibility—that’s when our capacity for renewal and reinvention is born.  Or as my lifelong rabbi, Bob Dylan, famously put it, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

For those working their way through twelve step programs, this paradox is at the heart of recovery.  As two friends on that challenging, lifelong road related to me: Hopelessness saved my life.  Hitting rock bottom is sometimes what it takes to change everything. . . . The best thing I did is give it up and accept reality.  That’s when I found joy.

So, too, on a global scale, I believe it was the decades of hopelessness crystalized in the senseless murder of Mahsa Amini that ignited the courageous protests of Iranian women that may yet change the moral and political order of that nation.  

The zero hour breeds new algebra, indeed.

******

A profound Jewish expression of this principle has its origins in a rather unlikely place—the Talmudic tractate Baba Metzia, a lengthy discourse on the laws of lost and found property.  The central focus in that discussion is the concept of ye’ush, which literally means “to give up on.”  One who finds a lost object must make every effort to return it to its owner, so long as the owner has not yet made ye’ush—has not given up on recovering the item. But once the owner can be presumed to have done ye’ush, to have concluded their search for the object because it is of little value or has no distinguishing marks, the item becomes free for the taking.  Rabbi Adam Greenwald notes:

In its original context, ye’ush referred only to lost physical property but its spiritual power extends far beyond that definition. There can be a letting go of disappointments, of hopes and desires.  This can be sad, because it means surrendering the hope that what was lost might someday be restored, that what is broken might ever be repaired.  But ye’ush can also be a source of liberation, an invitation to honor loss and then get on with the rest of life. 

This is, of course, easier said than done.  Ye’ush is a last resort, a rabbinic dispensation for despair. Yet it can ultimately be an act of grace and healing.  Surrendering to sadness can be the beginning of joy and heretofore unknown possibilities.

******

Earlier I mentioned HaTikvah—“The Hope”—Israel’s national anthem.  Perhaps its most famous line is this: Od lo avdah tikvateynu, ha-tikvah bat sh’not alpayimOur hope of the last two thousand years is not lost—to be a free people in our own land.  These words are, obviously a kind of straightforward hymn to hope.

But history tells a more complex and ambiguous tale.  For centuries, traditional Jews did hold fast to their hope of returning to Zion—but that’s not what got the job done; indeed, in the end their faith proved an obstacle.  Their piety was too passive, waiting for the Holy One to bring the messiah and gather in our exiles; they dismissed the notion that we might humanly hasten the task as a sacrilegious negation of God’s plan.  That why the land of Israel was largely built by secular pioneers who rebelled against the old ways, abandoned the faith of their parents, and took matters into their own hands.  Theirs was the chutzpah of hope surrendered and reborn.

******

If ye’ush is the Hebrew embodiment of that spirit, Yiddish offers another word for hope born of hopelessness—tzebrokhnkayt—which translates roughly as “the quality of broken-heartedness that confers strength in healing.”  In a June 2022 Slate magazine article, journalist Dahlia Lithwick turns tzebrokhnkayt into a manifesto for our age: “Let’s not be OK. Let’s find power in not being OK. Let’s honor our brokenness—and the brokenness of our country—by finding the collective strength to fight for change.”

******

My friends, on this Yom Kippur, tzebrokhnkayt is the order of the day.  We live in a badly broken world.  As Jews, as Americans, as global citizens, too many of our fondest hopes and dreams lie torn and tattered at our feet.  But that’s not the last word.  Listen to the wisdom Canadian writer Kate Bower shares in her “Blessing for When Faith Breaks Your Heart”:

Blessed are you standing among the ruins of a faith 

that once felt so sturdy,

now turned to dust under your feet. 

The certainty you once had, gone. 

The community you loved, dissipated.

The hope you held dear, hard to find. 

Instead, what’s taken up residence 

is the very stuff that seems counter 

to what you imagined:

Disappointment. Doubt. Disillusionment. Despair. 

In this new landscape, may you practice the courage to find the others

who make space for your questions without easy answers,

who celebrate doubt when it makes room for more faith,

who search high and low for a defiant hope born amidst despair. 

Bless you, dear one. You who don’t give up wrestling,

who have eyes to see something new being rebuilt on top of what was. 

Blessed are you who walk away wounded, yes. But changed.

******

I leave you with a story, a classic bit of Jewish humor that contains both laughter and truth, as our best jokes always do:

God’s voice rings forth from the heavens proclaiming that in one month, a second deluge will wipe out the entire world, with no possibility for repentance.  The die is cast.  The floodwaters are coming.

What to do?  Leaders of all the world’s religions gather their communities and implore them to help avert the decree.  

The Pope calls for Catholics to pray the rosary.

The Buddhist Roshi advises her people to meditate on suffering.

The Imam tells Muslims to submit to the will of Allah.

And the Protestant preachers implore their congregations to faithfully read the Good Book.

But what does the Rabbi do?

She gathers the Jews and declares: “All hope for this world is lost.  Let us weep and say Kaddish for life as we have known it.  And then, let’s get to work, because we’ve only got thirty days to learn how to live under water.”

Friends, on this sacred day, in this new year, let us learn together.

Ken y’hi ratzon


Thursday, September 29, 2022

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



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

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


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

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

******

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

******

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

******

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They see no life.  When they look

They see only objects.

The world is a dead thing for them. . . 

The deer and bear are objects.

They see no life.

They fear.

They fear the world.

They destroy what they fear.

They fear themselves. 

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

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

Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth—our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese.  To shut ourselves off from these other voices. . . is to rob our senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence.  We are human only in contact and conviviality with what is not human.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I shall be good help for you nevertheless.

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

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

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

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

   


Sunday, August 21, 2022

Answering the Alarm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

An Open Letter on Reproductive Justice and the Dobbs Decision

Dear Friends—

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

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

 https://womensrabbinicnetwork.org/?fbclid=IwAR2kWSBowQ1R-Tg46gB5ZObvTa7fWK5uUkVsnfO2HieJjnPRZo3iT3WbUOg

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

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

 

Shabbat shalom-

 

Rabbi Dan

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Portion Naso: Bringing Heaven [Back] to Earth



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, May 23, 2022

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



An African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina

Synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Poway, California

Two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand

A Walmart patronized by Latino immigrants in El Paso, Texas

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

What do these diverse sites share in common?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, May 8, 2022

Portion Emor: How the Light Gets In

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

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

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

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

Conversation Question:

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

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


Sunday, April 17, 2022


In our liturgy, Pesach is known as z’man cheiruteinu, the time of our freedom.  We celebrate our liberation from bondage in Mitzrayim, our places of narrowness, constriction and pain.  But what are we really talking about when we talk about freedom?

In her new book, Freedom: An Unruly History, historian Annelien De Deijn notes that in far right-wing America, the word has become a kind of catchphrase for the so-called “rights” of individuals to do just about whatever they want: own and openly carry assault rifles, ignore public health mandates, refuse to accept the results of a free and fair election, and brazenly bully teachers, healthcare providers and government workers.  This understanding shamelessly ignores the second half of the traditional American pledge of “liberty and justice for all,” reducing freedom to selfish individual indulgence that almost always privileges the powerful over the people.

This perspective is insidious, perilous and ultimately nonsensical, because absolute freedom for some always comes at the expense of others.  To live in genuine community with our neighbors is, by definition, to consider their concerns and limit our own desires for the sake of the common good.  Those who flaunt their personal freedom over public health concerns are, in fact, curtailing the freedom of their neighbors.  Organizations that tout themselves as promoting “freedom” in education are, instead, purveyors of an academic and ethical ignorance that diminishes us all.

In Jewish tradition, freedom is never an absolute right; it is, instead, a necessary pre-requisite for the exercise of moral responsibility.  For us, there is no liberty without justice.  This is why, beginning on the second night of Pesach and counting forty-nine days until the festival of Shavuot, we count the omer, numbering each day from the time of our liberation until the moment we receive the Torah on Mount Sinai.  That gift of Torah is the whole point of our freedom—God breaks the shackles of Egyptian bondage so that we might take upon our ourselves—and thereby teach the rest of the world—the centrality of a binding covenant that defines what it means to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

I write this on the very first day of the counting of the omer.  I pray that as we journey toward Sinai, together, we might recommit ourselves to our tradition’s understanding of freedom as an ethical obligation to care for one another and bring healing to our broken world.

Moadim L’Simchah—a continued joyous and meaningful Pesach.

 Conversation Question:

How might you best exercise your freedom as we move from Pesach toward Shavuot?


Sunday, April 10, 2022

Pesach: Affliction and Liberation

I am fascinated by contronyms—words that are both synonyms and homonyms.  By way of example, the phrase “to dust” can mean either to sprinkle with fine particles—think, “a dusting of snow”—or to remove such particles.  An “apology” can be both an admission of guilt or a defense of one’s actions.  And to “cleave” is either to join closely or to split apart.  There’s something fascinating about a word that contains such opposing understandings.

Symbolically, matzah—the central symbol of the forthcoming holiday of Pesach—is also a kind of contronym.  In Exodus 12:39, Torah teaches that we eat matzah because, upon leaving Egypt, our ancestors moved so hastily they did not have time for their dough to rise.  Yet, in fact, those same ancestors actually consumed matzah before leaving Egypt, on the night of the Passover itself, at the first seder (see Exodus 12:8).   In other words, matzah represents both slavery and freedom.  We affirm this duality at our own seders, where we describe the matzah as both lachma anya—the bread of affliction—and the symbol of our liberation.

This paradox serves as a reminder that life is complicated.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

As we approach Passover, known by our tradition as z’man cheyruteynu, the season of our liberation, we feel this challenge intensely.  News services, social media, and often our own life experiences constantly remind us that the world is filled with brokenness, injustice, brutality and pain.  Yet spring calls us to hope, nonetheless—which compels us to do our small but significant part to bring healing. May we soon experience our bread of affliction as a feast of freedom.

Chag samayach v’kasher—a joyous and kosher celebration.  

Conversation Question:

What experiences of affliction and hope will you bring to this year’s seder?


Saturday, February 26, 2022

Portion Pekudey: From Servitude to Service

Superficially, Exodus ends much as it begins, with the Israelites collectively toiling to build a magnificent structure at someone else’s behest.  At the start, we are slaves, constructing garrison cities for Pharaoh.  As the book concludes, with this week’s portion, Pekude, we work to build the mishkan, a portable sanctuary for the God who liberated us.

This shift happens in less than six months.  What difference does that time make?  What is the distinction between being a slave to Pharaoh and a servant of God?  What is the point of the Exodus journey if we end up laboring in the construction business either way?

Rabbi Shai Held notes: “As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites work without respite against their will.  When they build the mishkan in this week's parashah, in stark contrast, Moses asks for voluntary contributions.  Finally freed from slavery, the Israelites are slowly being taught that there is a form of service radically different from slavery, one that honors and nurtures one's sense of agency rather than degrading it and whittling it away.”

What differentiates divine service from slavery?  Mostly, Shabbat. It is no coincidence that when Moses lays out instructions for how to build the tabernacle, he begins with Shabbat: "On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest holy to the Lord..." (35:2).  In Torah, both meaningful work and restorative rest are each made holy by the presence and possibility of the other.  Without rest, even the holiest labor eventually becomes drudgery.  And without significant work, even sacred rest settles into boredom.  Just as in music, we need both notes and rests to create a beautiful score, a well-lived life is defined by both purposeful labor and the regular pauses that differentiate service from servitude.

As we conclude Exodus and begin the book of Leviticus next week, let us mark the passage with the words of our tradition for just this occasion: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek—Let us be strong, let us be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Conversation Question:  

How is your balance of work and rest, of sacred labor and holy renewal?  What might you consider adjusting this week?


Saturday, February 19, 2022

Portion Vayakhel: The Restorative Power of Shabbat

The bulk of this week’s Torah portion elaborates on the theme that dominates the last third of the book of Exodus—the building of the portable sanctuary, with its vessels and vestments.  Yet before it takes a deep dive into the details of this ancient construction project, Vayakhel opens with an injunction to observe Shabbat: On six days, work may be done, but on the seventh day, you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal One.

Why does a portion so focused on sacred labor begin with a reminder to rest?

Torah recognizes that it is all too easy to get so caught up in our work that we lose perspective on what really matters most—family, friends, relationships.  If the Holy One tells us to rest even in the midst of building a dwelling place for the Divine, all the more so should this apply in our ordinary occupations and projects.  If God’s designated architect, Bezalel can take a break, surely so can most of us.

South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein writes beautifully about the importance of Shabbat in our frantically-paced world, so full of distractions: 

There’s an amazing passage in the Talmud that says when we rush around during the week, we lose part of our eyesight, which is then restored on Friday night when we gaze at the Shabbat candles.  Obviously, it’s not that our physical eyesight is impaired then restored.  It’s that when we slow things down, we can see more clearly, we have more perspective on our lives, we notice the people around us, and we are able to truly connect to them in the most profound way.  We also reconnect with ourselves. . . The beauty of Shabbat is that it allows us to savor life’s basic pleasures; the simple joys of hearty eating and sound sleeping, of nice clothes and good company, of walking and talking and connecting. We can only fully appreciate these when we slow things down.

Conversation Question:   This coming Shabbat, choose one small thing that you can do to more fully celebrate the day as one of rest and renewal.  Try it.  How does it feel?


Sunday, February 6, 2022

Portion Tetzaveh: When the Heart Delights--For Others and Ourselves


Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment over his heart when he goes into the holy place, for a remembrance of the Holy One at all times.   (Exodus 28:29)

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, offers a detailed description of the garments worn by Aaron, his sons, and their descendants, the priestly class known as cohanim.  Among those vestments, much attention is devoted to the breastplate, an elaborate ornament bearing twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  While the breastplate is no longer worn by Jewish leaders, it prominently adorns our Torah scrolls.  

Why does Torah specify that High Priest wear this garment over his heart?  

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai connects this commandment with another passage that refers significantly to Aaron’s heart.  He notes that when God first calls Moses at the Burning Bush, Moses responds by asking that his brother, Aaron, stand by his side as his spokesperson.  God grants this request and tells Moses: Now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy in his heart to see you.

Weaving these two passages together, Shimon bar Yochai teaches: The heart that was happy for his brother’s important role, will ultimately be happy in his own role as the priest bearing the breastplate.

In other words, a significant step toward finding meaning and happiness in our own lives entails learning to rejoice in the gifts and accomplishments of others, especially those dearest to us.  Because Aaron generously celebrates Moses’s leadership, he is able to thrive in his own.

Conversation Question:  This week, focus on rejoicing in the gifts of those around you—and reflect on how this practice helps you to be more generous and comfortable sharing yours.


Sunday, January 30, 2022

Portion Terumah: Shine Your Light



Our Jewish tradition calls us to raise up both our world and our selves by casting light into dark places.

This week’s Torah portion begins with God’s command to Moses and the Israelites: “Bring me an offering—let every person whose heart moves them make an offering to me.”  The Hebrew word for “offering”—terumah—which gives the portion its name, literally means “uplifting.”  Thus the interpretation of this verse by the Hasidic commentary No’am Elimelech: “Strive to enjoy the light of My divine presence in your life. . . This verse tells you to draw the Blessed Creator to you and rejoice in the Divine Presence.”

This sacred calling can push us into difficult places, both within and without.  For instance, the Talmudic sages once debated whether or not Jews should be permitted to attend the Roman gladiatorial games, which were brutally violent and rife with gratuitous carnage.  Rabbi Meir understandably forbid it, arguing that one who goes to the stadium to watch was complicit in the bloodshed.  But Rabbi Natan argued that Jews could attend—in order to cry out for mercy and potentially save someone.

Rabbi Natan believed it a mistake to pretend that we could above the fray.  For him, our challenge is to step down into the darkness and add to the light that might lift it away.  He asks us to engage in the world, with all of its ugliness, for we cannot possibly help to heal it from a pure but aloof distance.

Right now, the world can feel pretty dark: anger, division, fear, rising antisemitism and, of course, two years of pandemic that continues to drag on, leaving us lonely and weary to the bone.  It is tempting to just tune it all out and retreat into our own fortresses of solitude.  

But our Jewish calling is to engage, despite everything, to find ways to raise one another up, to cast our light into the darkness and help illuminate the way, for ourselves and for our neighbors.

In this month of Adar, the Talmud commands us to rejoice.  The Psalmist declares: “Ivdu Adonai b’simchah—serve the Holy One with gladness.”  This is our collective challenge.

Conversation Question:

This week, can you find one thing, each day, that is a source of joy?  Write it down, or share it with a friend or family member.


Sunday, January 23, 2022

Portion Mishpatim: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry



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

We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance.  In spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry.  (Jack Kornfield)

At first glance, our Torah portion, Mishpatim, is the epitome of anti-climax.  Last week, we marveled at the drama of hearing God’s voice at Mount Sinai.  This Shabbat. . . paragraph after paragraph of the fine points of biblical tort law.  We move from transcendent ideals to legal intricacies, from extraordinary spiritual drama to quotidian banality.

And yet, in some ways, the details of Mishpatim speak more truly to what defines the vast preponderance of our lifetimes.  We all experience peak moments when the adrenaline rush sweeps us away.  These can occur in either triumphant or tragic times, but they are almost always intensely spiritual experiences that, as they are happening, feel profoundly life-changing.   Upon surviving a heart attack or having a baby, we swear our lives will never be the same and vow that from that point on, we will do things differently, get our priorities straight, give our focused attention to what really matters most.  Sometimes we stay the course—but more often, after a bit of time passes, we lapse back into our old ways.  We make our resolutions sincerely—yet we struggle when the peak moments recede into memory.  

Jack Kornfield describes this experience beautifully in his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry:

Cycles of awakening and openness are followed by periods of fear and contraction. Times of profound peace and newfound love are often overtaken by periods of loss, by closing up, fear, or the discovery of betrayal, only to be followed again by equanimity or joy. In mysterious ways the heart reveals itself to be like a flower that opens and closes. This is our nature.

Enlightenment is only the beginning, is only a step of the journey. You can't cling to that as a new identity or you're in immediate trouble. You have to get back down into the messy business of life, to engage with life for years afterward. Only then can you integrate what you have learned. Only then can you learn perfect trust.

That’s where Mishpatim begins.  It is all about the rest of the journey, what happens in the days, weeks, months, and years after enlightenment: laws on marriage, employment, lost property, and finance.  We go, in short, from the awesome to the ordinary—as indeed, we always must.  Weddings and births are big occasions, but the real work lies in sustaining marriages and raising children, and it is done through thousands of little ordinary choices and small feats of endurance.  God is truly in the details.  We ignore them at our peril.

Conversation Question:  Consider one small but significant area or action in your daily routine where you might consciously be more mindful this week.  Practice that mindfulness. 


Sunday, January 9, 2022

Beshallach: Stuck at the Edge of the Sea (inspired by Rabbi Yael Shy's commentary)



As this week’s portion Beshallach opens, we stand at the edge of Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army closing in from our rear flank. We’re terrified, with no place to go.  Completely stuck, paralyzed by what Avivah Zornberg calls radical doubt, bitterly bemoaning Moses: Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert?  

This is a classic response to incapacitating fear—our panic leads to anger, blame (sometimes of ourselves, sometimes of others) and a reactionary desire to turn backwards—even when that is not a real option.
We might, then, learn from Moses’s response, as he radically reframes the situation: Don’t be afraid!  Stand firm, for with patience you will witness God’s liberation. The manner in which you now see the Egyptians will shift; you will not experience them this way for eternity.  The Eternal will fight for you, but you shall remain silent.

In this fraught moment, Moses reminds the people that life is dynamic. In doing so, he offers a new perspective—a widening of vision and scope that is the direct antidote to their distress. As Zornberg writes, fear is born of a way of seeing; a changed way of seeing will change their feeling and thinking. 

So, too, in our own most anxious times.  Our challenge is to find ways to still our minds and bodies, to resist panic and despair. We must learn to trust that the distorted and fearful views that grip us in our seasons of pain and struggle are, in fact, fleeting. We have to stay in the not-knowing longer than is comfortable in order to allow our path to emerge.

Conversation Questions
At what point in the journey out of narrowness and into freedom do you currently you find yourself?  How can you shift your perspective in ways that will enable you to navigate that journey successfully?