Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Kol Nidre 5784: Singing Our Way to the Promised Land

Late summer, 1970.  I’m nine years old, lying in bed, lamenting that my baseball team, the perpetually terrible Washington Senators, have lost yet again.  My low-fi transistor radio is hidden beneath my pillow, its bulbous white earpiece furtively wired up to my right ear.  As the postgame show winds down, I start to doze, too sleepy to turn off the radio.  And then, like a bolt of lightning, I’m wide awake, enraptured by the strange and breathtaking music crackling through the headphone: Oh, Mama, can this really be the end, to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again?

That was the first time I heard Bob Dylan, and it changed my life.  “Stuck in Inside of Mobile” is a surreal seven-minute journey populated by mythical and historical characters: the Senator, Preacher, Shakespeare, Rag Man, Rain Man, Neon Madmen, and a recently deceased grandfather who “built a fire on Main Street and shot it full of holes.”  As I listened that long ago night, I had no clue what the words were about, and though I’ve been an amateur Dylanologist my entire adult life, I mostly still don’t.  But it didn’t matter, because the music was so remarkable—an uncanny mix of electric guitar, organ, and harmonica that Dylan later described as “that thin wild mercury sound, metallic and bright gold”— the closest he ever came to capturing on vinyl the tones he heard in his own head.   I was mesmerized, transported to a brighter, weirder world, unbound by laws, where the possibilities felt limitless.  All I understood was that I wanted more.  What I felt was awe.


Awe is my theme for this sacred season, the Yamim Nora’im—Days of Awe.  In his new book on the subject, Dacher Keltner identifies several realms where we experience deep wonder.  On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about two: nature and moral beauty.  Tonight, I turn to another: music.  After all, it is a melody—Kol Nidre—that gives this holiest evening of the Jewish year its name. The story of that song says a lot about how and why music moves us.

While one can trace the origins of this legalistic annulment of vows, we know that, from its first appearance, in 8th century Babylon, most of the leading Sages opposed its inclusion in our liturgy.  In 879 CE, the editor of the first siddur, Rav Amram Gaon, called it minhag shtus, a foolish custom.  Since then, many venerated rabbinic authorities have argued against Kol Nidre, dismissing it as a misguided practice that makes light of pledges and promises.  

And yet, despite centuries of vehement opposition from leading scholars, Kol Nidre endured—because the passion of its music trumped the rabbis’ reasoned resistance to its words.  The melody is the message.  It opens with a fall, a descending minor tone, which continues for two full phrases—then breaks away to a determined rise.  It acknowledges our pain and heartbreak, then lifts us with a heroic—even defiant— echo of endurance, crescendoing into hard-earned triumph.  As Rabbi Reuven Hammer teaches, “the emotional experience of Kol Nidre overwhelms any individual attempt to understand what is being said.”  It’s all about awe.


On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, our great Jewish theologian of awe, who was deeply committed to natural wonder and social activism.  Heschel also wrote movingly about the power of music.  Given that his wife, Sylvia Strauss Heschel, was an accomplished concert pianist, this experience was near and dear to him. In his essay, “The Vocation of the Cantor,” he reflects:

The only language that seems to be compatible with the mystery of being is the language of music.  It is a reaching out. . . beyond the reach of verbal propositions.  I define myself as a person who has been smitten by music.


What is it about music that evokes such awe?  Why does it so universally and uniquely stir us? 

I believe the magic starts in our flesh and bones.  Much of our lived experience unfolds in our heads, but that’s not where wonder and wildness flourish.  The cerebral cortex is optimized to categorize, rationalize, and order the world.  While this is often helpful, even essential, we want more—beyond the operating instructions, we need the poetry, the muse, the unabashedly physically felt-emotion of music.  Philosopher Susan Sontag observed: “I listen with my body, and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in the music.”  Like the Beach Boys Brian Wilson, we all want to keep those good vibrations happening.

This is why music both literally and metaphorically moves us.  As individuals, we respond to music by tapping our feet and clapping our hands. If we’re bold, we may even twist and shout.  En masse, music fuels communal change—it’s no accident they’re called social movements, because music has been rousing us to action since Moses and Miriam sang our ancestors through the Red Sea to freedom’s shore.  America has a rich heritage of potent protest songs, many of which were written by Jews, from Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” to Dylan’s civil rights and anti-war anthems to the feminist riot grrrl rock of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein.  Sometimes the lyrics carry the message; other times all it takes to rouse the believers is a killer beat—consider some of the artists that propelled the quest for LTBGQ equality: Madonna, Queen, George Michael, Dianna Ross, Lady Gaga, and the Village People.  All affirm the worldview of the American-Jewish immigrant activist Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”  


If one aspect of musical awe is primal physicality, another is elegant complexity.   Many of us love music because of its unique capacity to cross and confound simple boundaries.  Influences blend across time and space; discord and harmony wrestle and resolve; melodies and lyrics contain wildly different emotions.  It’s complicated, in the very best sense.  Listen to Bach—the beauty lies in the intricate variations, two and three and four parts, impeccably woven together. Or, for a very different example, consider Jimi Hendrix’s electrifying version of the Star-Spangled Banner.  It’s simultaneously nationalistic and subversive, traditional and radical—a young black guitar virtuoso’s protest as patriotism that both honors and challenges Francis Scott Key, and with him, all American history. 

Music also blurs the often-arbitrary barriers between sacred and secular.  That’s why you can be devoutly religious and still love classic rock, or ardently atheistic and take profound comfort in Gregorian chant.  When Taylor Swift belts out her gospel-influenced electro-pop hit “Don’t Blame Me”, the packed stadium crowds regularly respond: “Take me to church!”  For while the lyrics address human love and obsession in a media age, the light show and music and iconic imagery transport the audience to a kind of heaven on earth. This blend of holy and profane runs deep in Jewish music, too—that’s why we chant Shema to Viennese waltzes and Adon Olam to everything from medieval French drinking songs to. . . well, Taylor Swift.  As Joey Weisenberg concludes in his book, The Torah of Music

When we sing, sound merges with silence, sadness with joy, slavery with freedom, poor with rich, night with day, war with peace. . .  Song emerges from the reconciliation of different ideas, when we hear each others’ experiences and prayers.  

Or, as Walt Whitman would have put it, music contains multitudes.


Music is awe-inspiring because it is physical and complex—and, perhaps above all, because it is communal.   While my first transformative musical experience with “Stuck Inside of Mobile” was solitary, almost all that have followed were shared in the good company of fellow music lovers: 

Long, late, lyrical teenage nights listening to Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, and Bonnie Raitt with buddies in my best friend’s basement.  

Almost fifty years of stellar shows, from Jackson Browne premiering “Running on Empty” at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in 1977 to Esme Patterson owning the main stage at Treefort. 

And, of course, playing with so many avid musicians: blowing harmonica on tunes by The Who and Howlin’ Wolf with my high school band; jamming on “Sweet Home Chicago” in a blues bar in Kathmandu; Simchat Torah banjo-picking Ein Adir with the Red Sea Ramblers.  It’s been a wild, wonderful, truly awe-filled ride.


We know that language too often divides us, as Torah teaches with the Tower of Babel.  In a world awash in different tongues, most of humanity cannot converse with one another.  And even among those lucky enough to share a common language, words may create barriers as much as bridges.  Speech so easily lapses into un-constructive criticism and rigid dogma, dichotomies of right and wrong, us and them.  Words frequently harden into walls that keep us apart.  

Music tears down those walls.  People unable to speak together can sing and dance in beautiful harmony.  As the great 20th century troubadour Pete Seeger explained, “Music leaps over barriers of language, religion, and politics.”  Seeger drew on lived experience.  During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted for nearly a decade.  But this did not silence his song.  Pete Seeger continued to play for peace and justice well into the next millennium.  When he died in 2014, at the age of 94, President Obama eulogized him, lauding his steadfast belief in music’s capacity to create community.  Speaking for so many Americans, and people around the globe, Obama concluded: “He always invited us to sing along.”


Indeed, musical community even transcends humankind.  While written language is limited to humanity, music fills the natural world.  Creation is a magnificent ongoing yet ever-changing song of chirping insects, whistling birds, rustling leaves, drumming rains and so much more.  Just listen to the psalms in our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy, where seas thunder and rivers clap hands, fields exult, mountains dance, and trees of the forest sing with joy.  No wonder the great spiritual master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, prayed each day: 

May it be my custom to go outdoors among all growing things to talk with the One to whom I belong. May the foliage of the field - all grasses, trees, and plants - awake at my coming, to send the powers of their song into the words of my supplication. . .

Rebbe Nachman’s vision of prayer here is pure, unalloyed awe—the overwhelming joy of being a tiny yet meaningful voice in an unimaginably vast cosmic choir, to hum along with the celestial spheres.  This is music’s greatest gift, situating us within the living, breathing, singing congregation that is our universe.  As the psalmist proclaimed: Kol ha-neshama t’hallel Yah—the Soul of All Creation chants praise to the Holy One.


I opened with my first musical hero, Bob Dylan.  As I draw toward my final chorus, I turn to another inspiration, Bruce Springsteen, who, for me, embodies the spirit of musical community.  I first saw the Boss in 1980—he opened with “Prove It All Night” and proceeded to do just that, taking us on an epic journey from the despair of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to the unbridled exhilaration of “Born to Run.”  I’ve been to four shows since, mostly recently last February, and every one has been a profound spiritual experience.  Here’s how he describes his mission:

I want to go on a pilgrimage! I want to find that river, that river of life! I want to go on a pilgrimage to that river of love, that river of faith, and that river of hope. That's where I want to go tonight, to that river of joy and happiness. . .  And what I want to know now is, are you ready to go with me? Because I need to go with you. You can't get to those things by yourself. That's why we're here tonight, and that's why tonight I want to throw a rock and roll baptism! A rock and roll exorcism! A rock and roll bar mitzvah! We're gonna wash ourselves in those waters and set ourselves free! 


Tonight, I confess: my ultimate goal as a rabbi and ba’al tefillah, a conductor of prayer, is to officiate a service with even a semblance of the spiritual power of a Springsteen concert.  This may be an impossibly high bar, and I realize I have so much to learn.  But there’s one thing I know for certain: music is the way.

My dear colleague and paddling partner, Rabbi David Fine, has taught me that every person and congregation has its own super power.  Friends, here at CABI, ours is music.  We are, thankfully, a synagogue that sings, loud and proud.  That’s no small part of why I have stayed here for three decades, for it has been an extraordinary privilege to make music with you.  We’ve got Red Sea Ramblers and Moody Jews and Hila Lenz and Joel Brotman and a proud history of late greats from Joel Stone to Dan Stern to John Barnet.  And most of all, we have you, the Jews in the Pews—our equivalent of the heart-stopping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking E Street Band—out here raising a joyful noise, serving the Holy One with gladness and song!

In nine months, I’ll be stepping back from center stage, but I have endless hope and rock-solid faith that you will keep on keeping on, singing a new song, and some old ones, too—all those holy awe-inspiring melodies that lead the way to the Promised Land.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5784: Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

My first appointment on my first day as CABI’s rabbi arrived promptly and well-prepared; I soon discovered this was Leslie Drake’s standard operating procedure. Our new office furniture was still in boxes, so we sat around a half-sized classroom table, where Leslie briefed me on the pressing Idaho issue of the day: Proposition 1, a vicious anti-gay ballot initiative. She explained that the local LGBT community and their straight allies had organized to oppose this measure leading up to the November election and emphasized the important role played by progressive faith communities. Leslie looked me in the eye and said: “Rabbi, I have just one question: Are you ready to be an activist? We need your voice.”

In that moment, I thought of my rabbinic hero, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was both a deeply pious Jew and an ardent advocate for justice.  In June of 1963, he sent President Kennedy a telegram urging action on civil rights:

Please demand personal involvement, not just solemn declaration. . . Ask religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. . . I propose that you declare a state of moral emergency.  The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Leslie and I were hardly Kennedy and Heschel, yet in her request, I heard an echo of that sacred calling.  She taught me that in our own way, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, too, aspired to moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.  Three decades later, I believe we still do.


Last night, I spoke about awe and the wild world.   The immensity of God’s creation certainly invites humility and reverence.  But nature isn’t the only place where we experience these virtues.  In his new book Awe, Dacher Keltner describes eight different paths toward everyday wonder and notes that by far the most common is other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming.  Above all else, we stand in awe of moral beauty, the vision of a more just society.

That’s what we seek here among our CABI community.  Our biblical prophets remind us that the true measure of a culture is how its citizens treat one another, especially the most vulnerable.  The heart of our congregation’s mission is right relationships.

How do we pursue that goal? In fiscal matters, we recognize that the way we collect and spend money is every bit as important as how much we raise.  We strive to address our financial needs equitably, and approach employment as a partnership grounded in fair wages and generous working conditions.  When choosing leaders, we honor Jewish engagement over wealth or status, and aspire to maintain a governing board that looks like our dynamic congregation: young and old; queer and straight, Jews by birth and Jews by choice, pious and secular, from across the growing ethnic and ideological spectrum of the progressive Jewish community. We recognize the ongoing need to improve our physical facility, to provide better access for people with disabilities, and gender-neutral bathrooms that affirm the life experiences of our transgender and non-binary congregants.  In this time of climate crisis, we take seriously the moral imperative to lessen our carbon footprint and make our operation more sustainable, to creatively reconsider our energy sources, as well as the food and materials we consume.  And above all, our sacred calling obligates us to listen to and learn from one another, including those with whom we profoundly disagree.  We Jews have a precious legacy of holy debate, dating back to Abraham arguing with God.  In our painfully polarized world, we can lead by example, showing that differences of opinion can generate respect rather than enmity.  Being far from perfect, we have a long way to go in all these endeavors, but I believe that we stand united in our commitment to CABI as a kehillah kedoshah, a holy, just, and inclusive community.  


Long ago, our Rabbis recognized that there is wonder in this vision.  In the Talmud, they offer a prayer for anyone who sees a multitude of Jews gathered in one place: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melech ha-olam, chacham ha-razimPraised are You, Holy One, who knows the secret hearts of all these whose minds and faces are so unlike one another.  

This blessing celebrates our diverse origins, experiences, and opinions as a miraculous strength.  To stand together, in support of one another, despite our vast differences, knowing that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image—that is a truly awesome gift and responsibility.


For some rabbis and congregations, our collective pursuit of justice ends here—within our own Jewish communities.  A few years ago, Rabbi David Wolpe offered a strong critique of wider social justice agendas in his editorial “Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit” he wrote: “Can we not come to shul for something different [than politics]?  I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not Pence and Pelosi.”  

Rabbi Wolpe is a gifted colleague and an accomplished scholar.  I acknowledge the dangers that he warns against and recognize that some of you share his views.  You’re in good company.  I know from experience that taking a stand on contemporary social issues can be messy.  But you won’t be surprised to hear, in this, my final Rosh Hashanah sermon as CABI’s rabbi, that I respectfully disagree.   

I believe our mission extends far beyond tending our own flock; as Isaiah reminds us, the Holy One asks the Jewish people to bear witness in the struggle for justice, compassion, and peace for all Creation.  Caring for the Other is an essential part of our Jewish DNA.

In her editorial response to Rabbi Wolpe, titled “What You Call Politics, We Call Torah,” Rabbi Sharon Brous writes:

Our sacred scroll recounts the story of a band of slaves rising up before the most powerful and iconic ruler of the ancient world and demanding freedom and dignity. Is that not a political message? We read these sacred narratives to discern what it means to be Moses, Aaron and Miriam in a world of Pharaohs. How to hold grief and anguish, like Hannah; how to fight back against injustice like Abraham, even when you are but dust and ashes. Religion means nothing if not a response to the greatest moral crises and challenges of our day. Demanding that politics be kept out of shul is like demanding that Torah be kept out of shul.


When we steer away from the pressing issues of our age, we render ourselves at best irrelevant and at worst, complicitous.  Dr. King made that very clear in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, a searing response to white Southern clergy who considered political advocacy at odds with faithful community. Writing from his prison cell in 1963, King rebuked moderate rabbis, priests, and ministers for being “more cautious than courageous.”  He lamented:

I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.  In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say, those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern. . . . 

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. 


In July of 1994, Leslie Drake did not warn me to stay out of the fray.  Instead, like Rabbi Heschel, she recognized, with great moral clarity, that in tumultuous times, neutrality aids and abets evil.   To this day, I am profoundly grateful that Leslie invited me—and by extension, the entire CABI community—to muster our courage and pursue justice, with all our heart and soul and might.  I’m proud that we accepted her offer and helped defeat Proposition 1.  Three decades later, I am even more convinced of the imperative for full engagement.  Today, more than ever, we need moral grandeur and spiritual audacity—and I am confident that Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel is up to the task.  

My friends, the hour is urgent.  Here in Idaho, representative democracy is in existential danger.  When I arrived thirty years ago, there was a bipartisan consensus condemning right-wing extremists like the Aryan Nations.  Liberals and conservatives alike publicly proclaimed Idaho too great for hate, foremost among them, Republican Governor Phil Batt, an ardent champion of human rights.  Today, the GOP party chair openly woos radical reactionaries, whose agenda often animates our state legislature.  Bigots run amuck beneath the capitol dome, trampling the rights of gay and transgender Idahoans, immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, and women. And make no mistake, when elected officials who know better cowardly cave to these bullies, they bear responsibility for the consequences. Idaho is concurrently attracting white supremacists in search of an ethno-state and losing teachers, librarians, and young, creative people of color and queer folks who are tired of living in fear.  We’re also bleeding doctors and health care providers, thanks to the most oppressive anti-abortion statute in the nation.  

This affront to human decency poses a peril to our Jewish community.  White Christian nationalism threatens our security and mocks our highest ideals.  It is time to stand up for ourselves and our allies, to protest and vote and mobilize others to do the same. Our social action committee is leading the way, developing initiatives on reproductive rights and climate justice, combatting hunger and food insecurity, and turning back the rising tide of antisemitism.  That necessarily also entails fighting racism, nativism, and homophobia, because bigotry directed at any vulnerable group invariably injures us all.  As Dr. King recognized, we are “tied in a single garment of destiny.”   I encourage you to join our efforts—if not now, when?


I recognize this is no small request.  I am effectively urging us to commit to a course that will extend well past my own retirement next July, even as it began long before I appeared on the scene.   I know, too, that choosing to be upstanders comes with risk.  Public engagement can alienate people who disagree with our stance, both within our congregation and beyond its borders, including friends and family.  It also raises legitimate security concerns in a time of heightening threats against the Jewish people.  In a region rife with ubiquitous, unregulated firearms, the sense of danger is real. We must we be vigilant about our safety, working closely with allies and authorities to keep ourselves and our neighbors out of harm’s way.

But inaction is even more perilous.  Hiding will not keep us safe.  Let us heed the hard-won wisdom that Nazi German refugee Hannah Arendt shared in her brief 1942 essay, “Jewish Politics”:

Disdain for democracy and the worship of dictatorial forms of organization are especially fatal for small, oppressed peoples. . .  In the midst of the monstrous turmoil the world now finds itself in, those who are unwilling to take any risks are certain to lose everything.

This is not the time to delay, to parse the fine print.  Let us, instead, learn from our ancestors at Sinai, who chose bold action over paralysis, answering the Divine Call in one collective voice: “Na’aseh v’nishmah—we will do, and in the doing, come to understand.”


Remember, yirah—awe—always contains a measure of vulnerability.  Last night, in speaking about awe and nature, I quoted Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  It is no coincidence that Thoreau also wrote the groundbreaking essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,”—for he experienced awe in both his cabin at Walden Pond and the nearby Concord jail, where he was imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes to a government that allowed for slavery.  So, too, Rabbi Heschel, whose writings marvel at the magnificence of the natural world, marched arm in arm with Dr. King in Selma—and when asked about the experience, replied, “I felt my feet were praying.”   Justice, like nature, conjures reverence, resolution, and awe.


I conclude with two challenges we face in healing our broken world.  First, I urge us to delve deeper into the Jewish roots of our social justice work.  Critics have argued that tikkun olam is not really a Jewish idea at all, just liberal politics masquerading as Jewish values.  This charge is historically inaccurate, for the concept of tikkun olam dates back to the beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism.  But like many mostly misplaced criticisms, this one contains a grain of truth, for we have too often grounded our positions in secular politics rather than serious Jewish sources.  We rabbis need to do a better job teaching the sacred wisdom—both ancient and contemporary—that forms the foundation of our moral commitments.  We speak and act with greater power when we draw from those wellsprings, when we better understand where and why Judaism commands us to feed the hungry, treat everyone with dignity, and prioritize the life and health of a mother over that of a fetus.  When our pursuit of justice grows from the rich soil of Jewish learning, it is more likely to endure. 

To which I hasten to add: this isn’t just—or even primarily—the work of the rabbi.  As I look back in the spirit of this season of reflection, my greatest regret as an activist is having placed myself front and center as CABI’s social justice spokesperson for too long, when I could have been doing more to develop a wider cadre of advocates to speak and act on behalf of our congregation.  At our best, we rabbis are not meant to be prophetic voices crying in the wilderness; our higher calling is to rally our communities to act collectively. Thankfully, as I now step back in this, the autumn of my rabbinic career, a new, multigenerational leadership team is not waiting for my successor but guiding us forward with passion and grace.  We are in good hands.


Our second challenge harkens back to the vision that I shared earlier, of CABI as kehillah kedoshah, a holy and inclusive community.  I acknowledge this aspiration can be at odds with the kind of engagement that I am espousing.  It’s a fine balancing act, to pursue an unequivocally progressive mission and fully embrace those within the community who take issue with all or part of it.  That isn’t easy—but it is essential work that demands trust, transparency, and unwavering attention.

I have often described this vision as stand up and reach out. Not surprisingly, I’ve met with skeptics on both sides who said it couldn’t be done.   Some activists question why reach out to those whose politics fall outside the liberal Jewish mainstream?  A few conservatives have shared their understandable discomfort being part of a congregation with a social justice agenda they often oppose.  But I maintain that our equal commitment to both parts of this covenant—standing up and reaching out—defines our CABI community.  For this is, in my eyes, the Jewish way: after passionate debate, we learn and pray and break bread together.  We care for one another when we are sick, grieve our losses, celebrate our simchas, and share both daily strengths and stumbling blocks across political boundaries.  In these divided times, that is no small miracle. 


My friends, Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Decision.  Today we begin a new year, and with it a season of transition for us all.  We will wrestle with significant changes in the wider world, in our congregation, and in each of our own hearts and souls.  But I am confident that our journeys, like those of our forebears, Abraham and Sarah, will be sources of enduring blessing.  Let us be bold, in standing up and reaching out, with love and courage, in the same generous spirit that has animated us over the last three decades.   As we travel, separately and together, toward the Promised Land, may the awe that inspires moral grandeur and spiritual audacity be our guiding star.  And when my successors show up, first the interim and then the new settled rabbi, I pray that each and every one of you may take your turn as the next generation’s Leslie Drakes, sounding the call and leading the way.

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784: Let the Earth Teach You Torah

We begin in the spring of 1983, with my Hebrew Union College admissions interview.  For most of my undergrad career, I planned to go on to study law so when I unexpectedly shifted course and applied to rabbinical school, I was left with a significant hole in my resume: while I’d grown up in a very Jewish household, the son and grandson of Reform rabbinic alumni, over the past four years I’d taken an extended sabbatical from Judaism, failing to attend even a single Hillel seder or bagel brunch.

To address that glaring gap, my application essay highlighted the powerful spirituality I experienced in the natural world, a religiosity born on childhood Shabbat walks in the woods with my father and nurtured during my college years backpacking and canoeing in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I wrote about finding a place in Creation that opened my heart and nourished my soul.  My words weren’t eloquent, or even entirely adequate, but they were honest.

Which is why I didn’t expect the belligerent leadoff question from the committee chair who admonished: “What does all of that nature crap have to do with Judaism?”

I was speechless.  While I must have eventually offered some response, given that they ultimately accepted me, “nature nonsense” and all, to this day, I can’t recall a word of my reply.

But the challenge never left me.  Intended as a rebuke, it grew into an unexpected blessing, a touchstone of my career.  I have leaned into that question throughout the last forty years—my rabbinic lifetime of wandering in the wilderness.


Shortly after ordination, I explored the relationship between Judaism and nature in my first book, whose title I drew from God’s advice to Job: Let the Earth teach You Torah.  Since then, I’ve refined, reframed, and sometimes significantly rethought my views in academic articles, popular essays, poems, and countless sermons along the way.  

Wherever my journeys have taken me, I’ve tried to listen and learn:

As a newly minted rabbi walking a thousand miles on the southern half of the Appalachian Trail.

On sabbaticals hiking around Mt. Meron in the Upper Galilee; trekking in the Himalayas; climbing glaciers in Patagonia; paddling over my ancestral Lithuanian waterways.

I’ve wrestled with the meaning of that “nature nonsense” on raging rivers and alpine lakes, red rock deserts and granite peaks—and under the cool, protective shade of the blue spruce just outside my bedroom window.

I have been lucky to share many of these adventures with dear family members; for others, I’ve been on my own.  But I’ve never really traveled alone—wherever I’ve gone, I’ve enjoyed the constant company of the More-than-Human world, the magnificent menagerie of birds and beasts, of trees and stones and streams that share this glorious planet with us.   I’m learning, still, to understand their unique tales and tongues, most recently in my work as a forest therapy guide.  To this day, my love of Judaism and nature continues to grow.  Now, more than ever, I seek solace and sacredness in wild spaces. 

And it is my great joy to listen with you, my beloved congregation, and recall the twenty-nine years that we have traveled together: on retreats in McCall; backpacking with generations of CABI teens in the Sawtooth and Boulder-Whiteclouds; floating down the Colorado River outside Moab; gathering for summer Shabbat services beneath the pines at Kathryn Albertson Park; working in our community garden and, of course, celebrating the Days of Awe under this shared tent.  

So what have I—have we—discovered along the way?  What does nature have to do with Jewish life? 


In good rabbinic fashion, let me respond by way of a story: 

Reb Yaakov Yitzhak HaLevi—later known as the Seer of Lublin—grew up near a forest.  Every afternoon, he would go off into the woods.  His parents could see that he drew strength from the practice and trusted his judgment.  Still, they sometimes worried, so one day they asked where and why he went.

“It’s simple,” he said, “I go to the forest to find God.”

“That’s lovely,” his parents replied, “but you should know that you can do that right here at home—as we say in Sh’ma, God is One and the same everywhere.”

“Well,” noted Reb Yaakov, “God may be the same everywhere, but I’m not.   I’m different in the woods, and that changes everything.”

Friends, that is why I—and I suspect many of you—seek spiritual sustenance in the natural world—because we are different there: less driven and distracted, more generous, reflective, and open.  And I believe the heart of that difference—the profound shift in perspective we experience amidst the vastness of Creation—is first and foremost about awe.


In his book, God in Search of Man, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel points to awe as the foundation of Jewish life, a sense of wonder that underlies all our mitzvot, prayers, and practices.  He notes:

The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation. . .  Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.

Nature inspires awe.  It makes us feel simultaneously small and expansive, bit players in an almost infinite universe, yet also blessed to know that we are part of something grand and miraculous.  Proverbs describes awe as the beginning of wisdom; our forefather Jacob acknowledged this when he awakened from his dream of a ladder joining heaven and earth and proclaimed: Mah nora ha-makom ha-zeh—How awesome is this place. . . this is the gate of Heaven!

Awe is where the Holy One dwells. 


For Henry David Thoreau, awe is synonymous with wildness, which he described as the preservation of the world.  Thoreau recognized that for all our vaunted civilization, in the end, our aspirations of control are mostly illusory.  To know wildness is to remember—and paradoxically celebrate—that we are not always on top of the food chain.  

This aspect of awe is even more explicit in the Hebrew, where the word for it—yirah—can also mean fear. But while both meanings point to our relative powerlessness, fear causes us to shrink from the object that inspires it whereas awe draws us near.  The multivocal root yirah also means to see and be seen.  Awe is about seeing—and being seen by—something larger than ourselves.

A bit over a month ago, I paddled the North Fork of the Flathead River along the western border of Glacier National Park.  It’s grizzly country, so before setting up camp each night, we’d inspect the potential site for scat, paw prints, and any other evidence of bears.  It was both scary and invigorating, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner recognizes in a chapter from his book, Invisible Lines of Connection.  He writes:

The first time my wife and I were up in the mountains of Montana, we were awed and even a little frightened by the scale and power of the wilderness. . . Everywhere, signs warned of bears. 
Karen and I drove up to the end of the road at Two Medicine Lake, where there is a log cabin, general store and a little boat which can ferry you to the trailhead on the far shore. Inside, having a cup of coffee, I met Charlie Slocum, who spends his summers working for the National Park Service. In the pristine Eden air, I understood why he had returned now for a score of summers. But I was also more than casually concerned about being eaten by a grizzly.

“Get many bears up here, do you?” I asked.

 “Sometimes we get quite a few.”

“How about on that easy trail around the lake over there? Any chance of running into any this morning—so near the store…?”

 He paused long enough to hear the question behind the question and took a slow sip of his coffee. “If I could tell you for sure there wouldn’t be any bears, it wouldn’t be a wilderness, now, would it?”

I thanked him for his candor, and we went on our hike. Maybe that is all it ever comes down to: You can walk where things are predictable—or you can enter the wilderness. Without the wilderness, there can be neither reverence nor revelation.

That’s it, in a nutshell. 

For much of our lives, like it or not, we all wander in the wilderness.  It’s scary—and there is no other path to the Promised Land. Without awe—there is no reverence or revelation.  

No Sinai, no Torah.

Without wildness—without nature—there is no Judaism.


In the tamed, technological civilization we inhabit most of the time, it is easy to forget this truth, to deceive ourselves into believing that we humans are the masters of the universe.  That arrogant illusion has led us down the road to disaster.  Today’s catastrophic climate change is rooted in our pursuit of material comforts and conveniences at the expense of future generations and all of God’s creation.  This crisis is, at heart, a spiritual one, and our only real hope lies in recovering our sense of awe, re-orienting our relationship with the natural world toward reciprocity and respect.  

That is the essential project of these holy days, which is why we call them Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe.  Perhaps the best-known prayer of the season, recited like a mantra from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, reiterates that message again and again: 

Avinu Malkeinu, chaneinu v’aneinu, ki ein banu ma’asim—Holy One, be gracious to us, for our deeds are as nothing before You

To pray—to plead—for grace is the ultimate expression of awe, of surrender.  It is to put our own deeds into perspective, to acknowledge that life really does unfold under vast horizons, unimaginably greater than us.  This is essential spiritual wisdom for our Anthropocene age, and our experiences of wild nature remind us of its ancient truth.  And while we’re not all going out to wander in the wilderness with grizzlies, everyone can find sanctuaries of wildness, in wind and weather, dawn and dusk, in animal companions, starry skies, neighborhood parks and backyard gardens. Like Torah, awe is neither far away in the heavens nor beyond the sea—it is in our mouths, to praise, and in our hearts, to embrace.


What does Judaism have to do with nature?   Everything, which is why we are here tonight.

You can learn a lot about a culture from the way it measures time.  Christians number years anno domini, from the birth of their lord.  The Islamic calendar begins with Mohammed’s move from Mecca to Medina.  While there are several Buddhist new year’s, celebrated by different regional traditions, they all celebrate the Buddha’s journey of enlightenment.   So, too, Hindu, and Chinese and many other new year’s mark significant occasions, mythological and historical, in the annals of their own particular communities.  

But we Jews reckon time beginning long before there was a Jewish people, with the creation of the world.  Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we proclaim: HaYom harat olam—today, the entire, breathtaking universe was born!  Never mind the Rabbis’ timetable being off by give or take 13.7 billion years—that’s just logistics.  The point is, our tradition is anchored in story of the whole, glorious, unimaginably vast and ever-expanding universe that we are each privileged to experience for the hopelessly brief yet brilliantly beautiful moment we are here.  If that’s not awe, what is?


HaYom harat olam.  As we sing these words that celebrate the world’s birth, we sound the shofar.  Its call is rough and raucous, an essential wild shock to our routine-dulled systems.  As the prophet Amos rhetorically asked nearly three thousand years ago: Can the shofar be blown in the city and the people not tremble?

And so friends, let us listen and tremble together, in awe and inspiration, and so begin the sacred labor of healing and hope that might guide us through this new year 5784.  It has been my deepest pleasure and privilege to wander the wilderness with you all and I look forward to sharing many milestones this last go-round.