Climb Every Mountain – Shabbat Toldot 5781 (2020)

Sing along if you know it!

The bear went over the mountain (3x), And what do you think she saw?

She saw another mountain (3x), And what do you think she did?

She climbed the other mountain (3x), And what do you think she saw?

She saw another mountain (3x), And so on and so on…

A teaching of the Piaseczner Rabbi (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Warsaw, 1889-1943) summoned up that childhood lyric for me this week. Writing about the need for preparation in the performance of mitzvot, the Piaseczner offers a parable:

“A person climbs a tall mountain. Do we only say that she went up the mountain when she arrives at the peak? (No!) We can say (she went up the mountain) with each and every step she takes. Even when she is only halfway up the mountain, she has already ascended the mountain, above all the people who are (still standing) at ground-level. If the mountain were not so high, she would have already reached the peak. You could say that she has already ascended the mountain, but now she has further to go on a second mountain, which is found above the mountain she has already scaled.” (translation, Rabbi Yael Saidoff) 

[Michal Parzuchowski]

Just as each step of climbing a mountain is climbing the mountain itself, so too each element of preparation for performing a mitzvah is itself a mitzvah, as long as one focuses one’s energy on that mitzvah at each step along the way. With the ‘right’ awareness, the first step is itself a complete journey, even as it leads to the next step and the next, and so on and so on…Indeed, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 

[Paul Gaugin ‘Tahitian Mountains’ (1893)]

For the Piaseczner, our Ancestor Isaac is the great exemplar of this kind of spiritual awareness. Isaac, whose adult story is told in Parashat Toldot, journeys along the same path already traveled by his father Abraham. He’s the second batter making his way around the same bases already traversed by the lead off hitter! And Isaac’s son Jacob will undertake some of the same travels in the next generation. All of the matriarchs and patriarchs, and especially Rebekah and Isaac, climb mountains, aware that their ascent – significant and sacred in its own right – is also a lead up to the next ascent and eventually to an ultimate ascent.

Keep climbing! One holy step at a time. One of these days, we may actually get ‘there’!

Shabbat Shalom.  

Troubled Thoughts – Shabbat Lekh L’kha 5781 (2020)

In this week of painful anniversaries and equally painful local and national happenings, I’ve had an old Paul Simon lyric echoing in my head and heart. 

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered

I don’t have a friend who feels at ease

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

or driven to its knees…

A lifetime ago, Simon’s ‘American Tune’ captured a moment that he called ‘the age’s most uncertain hour.’ Today his words feel prescient and fresh. 

The ancient rabbis had a word for that kind of uncertainty and feeling of unease. Hirhurim – qualms or troubled thoughts – is the word employed by the Midrash to describe our ancestor Abraham at a number of critical moments in his life’s journey. In his troubled state, Abraham asks questions, hard and deep and fundamental questions, mainly of God. Where are we headed? What does it all mean? How do I remain faithful and hopeful through the present, exhausting turmoil? 

Ephraim Moses Lilien, ‘Abraham’ (1908)

We of battered souls and shattered dreams have many of the same kinds of questions in this age’s most uncertain hour. 

Beautifully and poetically, Aviva Zornberg expands our understanding of hirhurim, “a term that expresses the imaginative, passionate level of consciousness” with which Abraham is credited. Hirhurim connotes “vagueness, the inchoate dream state that precedes gestation.” It is “a heated, fluid state in which many things are implicit” but not yet “crystallized.” 

One Midrash (Tanhuma, Lekh L’kha 2) describes Abraham (and us I think) as one who “sewed the whole world together in the presence of God” AND as “a person who tears apart and sews together.” Sewing together, tearing apart, sewing together, over and over again. That’s the state of consciousness that the rabbis call hirhurim. That’s us in the autumn of 2020. 

This week’s anniversaries – of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the Tree of Life massacre in 2018 – summon up all of those hard questions and more. Have we overcome our internal divisions and sinat hinam (gratuitous hatred) or are we just as divided and hate filled in 2020 as we were a quarter of century ago? Have we done enough to protect ourselves, our places of worship, our communities in the two years since that terrible Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh? Have we made progress in rooting out violent anti-Semitism from American society and life? Where are we headed? How do we remain hopeful through the turmoil?


Rembrant van Rijn, “Abraham Entertaining the Angels” (1646)

The current turmoil only magnifies the “anarchic range of consciousness” (Zornberg again) that is hirhurim. The continuing and worsening pandemic, the looming election, and the tragic police shooting and protests and looting that have followed in our city all serve to deepen and amplify our shared unease and troubled thoughts. ‘Most uncertain hour’ indeed.

Where is hope to be found? Zornberg’s unpacking of the image of sewing, tearing, sewing again yields a spectacular insight. “In the current generated between the two poles of ‘rending and rendering one’ there is intensified life!” On these painful anniversaries, and in the midst of our current turmoil we reside precisely, if uncomfortably, between those very poles. Much like our ancestor Abraham, we “desire to reintegrate (our) own world with God.” May we, following his example, come to deeper “understand and resolution” which might open the way to the uncovering of “further mysteries” and more and more “invitations to love.” 

As a popular saying has it: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Beloved is Humanity – Shabbat Noah 5781 (2020)

“Beloved are human beings, in that they were created in the Image (b’tzelem) (of God).” So begins a well-known teaching from Pirkei Avot, shared in Rabbi Akiva’s name. So far, so good. Now things get ‘complicated by an opaque follow-up’ to borrow my teacher Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s words.  

“Even more beloved, in that it was made known to them that they had been created in the Image (of God), as it is said: ‘For in the divine image did God create humankind’ (Genesis 9:6).” Tucker’s solution? “The knowledge of this essential aspect of ourselves is something we are meant to live up to, and thus to be accountable to.” 

So, God created us (and all human beings) in the divine image which makes us (and all human beings) beloved. Plus, since we’re aware that we’ve been created in the divine image, we are even more beloved, and even more accountable for our actions. 

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, detail

Yair Lorberbaum, Israeli law professor and scholar, puts the pieces together beautifully in his groundbreaking book “In God’s Image”. 

“R Akiva’s observation is as much concerned with God’s love for humanity and the reason for that love, as it is with the beloved status of human beings. According to this analysis, not only is man beloved by God; he is, or should be, beloved by his fellow man, for all human beings resemble one another: all of them are made from the same stamp.”

Perhaps Bob Marley said it best: “One Love, One Heart, let’s get together and feel alright.” Shabbat Shalom.

Back to the Garden – Shabbat B’reishit 5781 (2020)

Shabbat Breishit is here (!) and with it an invitation to us to ‘step into’ the Garden of Eden. Real place? Mythic locale? Symbol? 

The Zohar stands squarely in the symbol and myth camp. “’A river issues from Eden to water the garden’ (Genesis 2:10)….That river flowing forth is called the world that is coming – coming constantly and never ceasing. This is delight of the righteous, to attain this world that is coming, constantly watering the garden and never ceasing.” [Zohar (Idra Zuta) 3:290b, translation Daniel Matt] 

My teacher, Melila Hellner-Eshed, suggests that the river symbolizes (among other things) ‘the dynamic state of reality’, ‘quest’, and ‘unceasing human creativity’, while the garden is ‘human consciousness’. The garden of Eden and its rivers (there are four of them) then, can be wherever we happen to be. 

And yet, the temptation to locate and depict Eden has been long with us as the images below attest. Enjoy this year’s visit to the garden!

Shabbat Shalom.

Jan Breughel & Peter Paul Rubens, ‘Garden of Eden’, 1615

map by Pierre Mortier, 1700
Adi Holzer, ‘The Garden of Eden’, 2012

mosaic in  mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, 5th century

Biblia, das ist, die gantze Heilige Schrifft Deudsch [Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1536] British Library

World map from Beatus of Liebana, In Apocalypsin [Monastry of san Domingo de Silos, 1109] British Library

Tied Together – Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah 5781 (2020)

I spend a fair amount of time worrying about ‘the Jewish people’ — ‘our’ (dis)unity, ‘our’ (dis)connectedness, ‘our’ (un)shared destiny. And my worry meter has been in the red for a while now. Among the things that divide us, politics looms largest (and loudest) in the current moment. It’s been painful, bewildering, and disheartening to watch and to experience. 

I’m far from the first rabbi to worry out loud about the ‘oneness’ of the people of Israel. The ancient rabbis hit upon a number of beautiful metaphors with which they offered their pleas for Jewish unity. “‘Israel are as scattered sheep’ says the prophet Jeremiah, and just as a ewe feels pain in all parts of its body when one part is hurt, so does all Israel feel it when one Jew is hurt.” [Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon b Yohai, Yitro, Exodus 19:6]. 

Or, when all the tribes of Israel ‘form one unified group (aguda ahat)’ then God reigns fully on earth and in heaven. “A parable: A man brought two ships, tied them to anchor and iron weights, stationed them in the middle of the sea, and built a palace upon them. As long as the two ships are tied to each other, the palace stands firm. Once the ships are separated, the palace cannot stand.” [Sifre Devarim #346]

And, famously, as well as seasonally fitting, the four species that constitute the luvav and etrog each symbolize a different sort of Jew. One has Torah and good deeds; one has Torah and lacks good deeds; one lacks Torah and has good deeds; one lacks both Torah and good deeds. “When they are connected to one another as one unified group, they can atone for one another. And if they do that, then I (God) am exalted.” [Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 30:12]

Nearly 90 years ago, another challenging and tumultuous time, R Abraham Isaac Kook offered us similarly heartfelt pleas for Jewish togetherness. “Let us be known by the general name of the people of Israel, not by the name of a party or a camp. Let us know that in each camp there is much to be mended, and much light and good that one can receive from the other.” And “lay aside anger, learn to look at each other, party to party, with the eyes of compassionate brothers cast together into great trouble, willing to unite for one sacred goal: the common good, its dignity and sacred service…”

Novelist Marilynn Robinson, writing in today’s New York Times about American (dis)unity, captures the emotion underneath Rav Kook’s words. “Deeper, though, is a feeling like a love of family, a hope that whoever by whatever accident or choice falls under the definition of family will thrive and will experience even a difficult life as a blessing because his or her worth is a fact without conditions.” That’s the stuff of our unity as a people. We’re deeply in need of a serious dose of it right about now. 

Shabbat Shalom & Hag Sameah!

Sukkot 5781 (2020) — Spread the Sukkah of Wholeness

Sefat Emet, the 19th century Hasidic master, asks a beautiful question. “Why should Israel be selected among all creatures to be God’s own possession?” Working off of the multiple meanings of the Hebrew word pores (peh, resh, samekh) he goes to offer a powerful claim about the festival of Sukkot and the meaning of the sukkah in which we’ll dwell for the next week. 

“God,” he writes, “is wholeness itself. Why then did God choose a fragment of something? Scripture answers: ‘I dwell with the lowly and those of humble spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). The Zohar adds that a person with a broken heart is indeed whole. This in fact is to be said in God’s praise: wherever God dwells there is wholeness; God make a whole out of the half.” 

The people of Israel are the fragment, the half, of which the Sefat Emet speaks; a (small) portion of all of humanity, all of which is created in God’s image. Why would God choose us, then, to be God’s people? Here comes our teacher’s quite moving answer: 

“This is the real meaning of ‘who spreads a sukkah of peace’ (words from the evening prayer service). The inner point that is everywhere is wholeness; Israel represents this among God’s creatures. On Sukkot seventy bullocks are offered for the seventy nations. The water libation (an ancient Sukkot observance) is also interpreted by the Talmud to mean that Israel should pray for God’s kingdom to spread over all Creation!” 

My teacher, Rabbi Art Green, explains that “the point is that Israel are chosen to serve God for the sake of all humanity and all Creation. If they think only of their own good and their own needs, they are like the faithless servant, the one concerned only with reward.” 

We’ve made it through Yom Kippur together and, though broken-hearted, in one piece. Time now to set our sights on “the survival and maintenance of all existence.” (Green, again). Time, in other words, for us to join with God in spreading the divine sukkah of peace over the world. 

Shabbat Shalom & Hag Sameah! 

RBG z”l Quotes for Yamim Nora’im 5781(2020)

The other main theme is captured by the statement from Deuteronomy: Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof (‘Justice, Justice, Thou Shalt Pursue’) … I have portrayals of that message in lithographs, in glass sculpture, the words are all over my chambers. The notion, ‘Justice, Justice, Thou Shalt Pursue,’…well, that is my work…to pursue justice.

‘The Glorious Notorius RBG’
by Joan Baez (2017)

“Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

“Yet what greater defeat could we suffer than to come to resemble the forces we oppose in their disrespect for human dignity?”

“the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. Brandeis”

“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

“So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.”

JR: What is your advice to those young people about how they can best advance the cause of justice?

RBG: Not alone, but in alliance with like-minded people. I was impressed and heartened by the Women’s March in DC, which has now been repeated in many places all over the country. Young people should appreciate the values on which our nation is based and how precious they are, and if they don’t become part of the crowd that seek to uphold them — recall some Judge Learned Hand said: If the spirit of liberty dies in the hearts of people, no court is capable of restoring it. But I can see the spirit of my grandchildren and their friends, and I have faith in this generation just coming into adulthood. [Jeffrey Rosen, Conversations with RBG, pp. 200-201]

Yom Kippur 5781(2020) – Inside Story

An old Peter, Paul & Mary song — 

Let’s say you’re at a pie contest, let’s say that you’re the judge

And there’s lemon, lime and watermelon rind

And one that looks like fudge

You can’t tell which pie you like the best

If you only eat the crust

In order to complete the test a bite of filling is a must

Inside, Inside, that’s the most important part

Inside, Inside, that’s the place you’ve got to start

Inside, Inside, that’s where you’ll find the heart of the matter.

The Piasezcner Rebbe, the Hasidic rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, teaches about the inner chambers (in which) God weeps in Divine distress, as it were, over the pain of the Jews.  [So, it is possible that at a time of hester panim (concealment of the Divine Face), which is to say, when God hides the Divine Self within the inner chambers, a Jew may also enter and be alone with God there, each Jew at her/his own level. There within the inner chambers, Torah and worship is revealed to each person who enters.]

‘There are times when a person wonders about her/himself, thinking, “I am broken, I am ready to burst into tears at any moment, and in fact I break down in tears from time to time. How can I possibly learn Torah? What can I do to find the strength not just to learn Torah, but to discover new Torah and hasidut (piety/devotion)?” 

And then s/he answers him/herself, “But I am so broken. I have cried so much, my whole life is fraught with grief and dejection.” S/he is lost inside his/her introspective, self-analytical confusion. But as we have said above, it is the Holy Blessed One who is crying within the inner chambers, and whoever presses close to God through Torah is able to weep there together with God, and also to learn Torah with God.

This is the difference. The pain and grief one suffers over one’s own situation, alone, in isolation, can break a person. S/he may even fall so far that s/he becomes immobilized by it. But the crying that a person does together with God makes him/her strong. S/he cries and takes strength. S/he is shattered, and is then emboldened to study and to worship. 

If one is bold, if one stretches out one’s head to touch the Torah and worship, that one gains access to those innermost chambers where God is. There s/he laments and ululates with God, as it were, alone with God. Then, even in the midst of pain, s/he can learn Torah and worship God’s blessed devotions.

Physically ALONE; Spiritually CONNECTED/ALIVE…

High Holy Day Bible people share a similar experience of physical aloneness and simultaneous spiritual connection — Hagar in the wilderness; Hannah at Shilo; Kohen Gadol in Holy of Holies/ Designated person (ish iti) (any person who is marginal to society, like a women, a leper, or a criminal) with the goat dispatched to Azazel.

And then there’s Jonah — deep in the hold of ship; in the belly of BIG FISH

  • The Zohar reads Jonah as the story of the journey of an individual soul — ‘Here we find an allusion to the actions of a human being in this world. Jonah, descending into the ship, is the human soul descending into this world to enter a human body…’ ‘The belly of the fish is the belly of Sheol’ [An earlier Midrash describes Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish as a tour of the underworld (PdRE) – where he encounters the even sh’tiyah (Foundation Stone) under the Temple – which turns out to be the place where he, finally, prays!] 

Physically ALONE; spiritually CONNECTED. 

Jonah Fleeing from Jaffa, David Sharir (1968)
  • Aviva Zornberg, in her brilliant reflection on Jonah, connects his ordeal to that of the author of  Psalm 139.

אֽוֹדְךָ֗ עַ֤ל כִּ֥י נוֹרָא֗וֹת נִ֫פְלֵ֥יתִי נִפְלָאִ֥ים מַעֲשֶׂ֑יךָ וְ֝נַפְשִׁ֗י יֹדַ֥עַת מְאֹֽד׃

I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made;

Your work is wonderful; I know it very well…

How weighty Your thoughts seem to me, O God, 

How great their number!

I count them — they exceed the grains of sand;

I awake — but am still with You…

[Psalm 139:14,17-18]

Via rich, powerful prayer experiences, an individual is actually able to access the CORE — the filling!

Ibn Ezra suggests that “this Psalm is very weighty in the ways of the Lord…Its meaning can be penetrated only to the extent of one’s understanding of the ways of God and the ways of the soul.” Embedded in his commentary is an elegant description of the moment of religious experience and spiritual insight: when I think with my heart to know Your thoughts it is like a vision of God: the body is recumbent and the soul of man clings to the highest soul. There it sees marvelous forms. Therefore, ‘I awaken and am still with You,’ for this is not like all (ordinary) dreams.

Ibn Ezra’s fellow 12th century Spanish Jewish giant, Yehuda ha-Levi, deepens the discussion: 

וְלִבִּי רָאֲךָ וַיַּאֲמֵן בָּךְ / כְּאִלּוּ מָעֳמָד הָיָה בְּסִינָי

דְּרַשְתִּיךָ בְחֶזְיוֹנַי וְעָבַר / כְּבוֹדְךָ בִּי וְיָרַד בַּעֲנָנָי

My heart beheld You and was sure of You,

As if I stood myself at Sinai mountain.

I sought You in my dreams; Your glory passed

Before my face, on clouds descending, landing.

[translation, Raymond Scheindlin]

Rav Nahman turns solitude – hit’bodedut – into the centerpiece of his own spiritual practice:

Meditation (hitbodedut) is the highest level of worship, and is best of all. You should set aside an hour or more to meditate in a room or in the fields, expressing your thoughts before God. Make use of arguments and persuasion, with words of grace, longing and petition, supplicating God and asking that He draw you near so that you will be able to serve Him in truth. 

Such prayer should be in the language that you normally speak … in the language that you normally use in conversation, it is much easier to express yourself, and more likely that you will experience true heartbreak. The heart is drawn after your native language, since you are accustomed to it… regret and repentance for the past, or requests and supplications to come truly close to God from this day forward. Every person can express his own thoughts, each one according to his level.

Physically ALONE; Spiritually CONNECTED

Solitude, Marc Chagall (1933)

Professor Vered Noam, this year’s Israel Prize laureate in Talmud, the first woman ever to be so recognized, recently wrote an updated ‘confession’ for Yom Kippur, that’s become my personal hit’bodedut prayer. Here it is in the singular:

אהבתי, בניתי, גידלתי, דאגתי, השתדלתי, והצלחתי חלקית 

I loved, I built, I grew, I worried, I tried hard and succeeded in part. 

זייפתי לפעמים

I faked it sometimes. 

חטאתי, טעיתי, יצאתי מזה איכשהו

I missed the mark, I erred, I somehow went astray. 

כאבתי, למדתי, מעדתי, ניסיתי

I ached, I learned, I stumbled, I tested. 

סלחתי מעט מדי לעצמי ולאחרים 

I forgave myself and others too little. 

עשיתי משהו בכל זאת

I accomplished something despite this. 


I provided.

צדקתי לעתים רחוקות 

I was occasionally right. 

קיבלתי הרבה, רציתי הרבה מדי

I received much, I desired too much. 

שמחתי פחות ממה שהיה אפשר וצריך

I celebrated less than I should, and could, have. 

תודה על הכל

Thank you for all of it. 

Franz Rosenzweig teaches that ‘In his prayers he is alone, a solitary human…But as he offers thanks, he goes forward to the whole world.’

On this Yom Kippur morning, the prophet Isaiah offers us a forceful statement of a similar dynamic. As the haftarah begins, Isaiah quotes God: “Build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of My people!” 

 סֹֽלּוּ־סֹ֖לּוּ פַּנּוּ־דָ֑רֶךְ הָרִ֥ימוּ מִכְשׁ֖וֹל מִדֶּ֥רֶךְ עַמִּֽי׃

Remove all obstacles!  Rashi sees those obstacles as boulders on the path, an image of the yetzer ha’ra that slows all of us down. Perhaps an actual road, Isaiah’s highway is the unique life path that we each travel. 

The prophet proceeds to condemn those who fast as a matter of form but whose behavior remains unaffected and unchanged. They get the filling but they’re missing the crust! 

“Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.” 

What then does God want from us? 

Here’s Isaiah’s stunning answer: “No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of lawlessness, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. “

הֲל֣וֹא זֶה֮ צ֣וֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ֒ פַּתֵּ֙חַ֙ חַרְצֻבּ֣וֹת רֶ֔שַׁע הַתֵּ֖ר אֲגֻדּ֣וֹת מוֹטָ֑ה וְשַׁלַּ֤ח רְצוּצִים֙ חָפְשִׁ֔ים וְכָל־מוֹטָ֖ה תְּנַתֵּֽקוּ׃ 

And he goes further: 

הֲל֨וֹא פָרֹ֤ס לָֽרָעֵב֙ לַחְמֶ֔ךָ וַעֲנִיִּ֥ים מְרוּדִ֖ים תָּ֣בִיא בָ֑יִת כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֤ה עָרֹם֙ וְכִסִּית֔וֹ וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תִתְעַלָּֽם׃ 

Share your bread with the hungry. Take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, clothe him, Do not ignore your own kin.

To the ears of a Hebrew speaker, the verbs, in rapid succession and in command form, tell Isaiah’s story. Pateach, hater, shalach unlock, untie, set free – that’s the message of Yom Kippur. 

To be sure, Isaiah means for us to set our own souls free, to complete the long climb from despair to wholeness. In Isaiah’s vision, the lush brightness of the journey’s culmination will overwhelm the arid darkness of its beginning. The prophet’s promise to us declares “you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail.” 

But I think he also means for us, maybe even primarily, to break the yokes that oppress others. As the ancient Aramaic translation, the Targum, has it, “cast away all perversions of justice.” That’s Yom Kippur’s goal and aspiration for us.

Let me conclude with a contemporary take on yetzer ha’ra from seeker and theologian Annie Dillard— 

‘There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. (In other words, to stay inside, feasting on the filling) It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.’

Today, this YK, we’re inside – encountering the filling, taking it in deeply. But the second we get to thank you, we’re called upon, obligated, to ‘go forward to the whole world’. And does that world ever need our commitment, our compassion, our hard work. 

Today we fast and pray; pray hard, pray well, pray deeply. Get to the core. 

Tomorrow we get started on unlocking, untying, and setting free. A truly wild, dangerous, bitter, extravagant, and bright world awaits and beckons. 

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu

Kol Nidre 5781(2020) – Let the Light Shine

Mother is calling me. From a distance I see her eyes gleaming, her hands moving quietly as though preparing to embrace someone. She tells me to hold the skeins of thread before the large wax candles that will burn in the shul at the cantor’s reading stand. She pulls out the first thread. 

“For my beloved husband, for Shmul Noah may he be healthy and live to his hundred-and-twentieth year.” She draws out the thread, slowly weaves a benediction into it,sprinkles it with her tears, and passes a big piece of wax over it, as though trying to rub it full of good wishes. 

“Hold fast to the end of the thread, Bashke,” mother says to me. 

“For my dear son, for Itchke may he be healthy and live in happiness and joy till his hundred-and- twentieth year!” She draws out the second thread and rubs it too with wax.  “For my oldest daughter, for Hannah.”

Names are slowly intoned, threads are drawn, now yellow with wax and tears. I can hardly hold all the ends that remain free of wax. They slip from the tips of my fingers. I hold them with all my strength. 

Mother prays a long time for each child, each relative. I no longer know what she is saying. With every name a tear drops on the thread and at once is imbedded in the wax like a little pearl. One heavy candle is now ready. Mother tackles the others. 

These moving words come from Bella Chagall’s memoir ‘Burning Lights’. After crafting a candle for each living member of her family, the author moves on to shaping a candle for now dead relatives, “members of closely and distantly connected families, (who) come as on a visit to us. For each one mother sheds a tear; it is like sending a greeting to every one of them. I no longer hear their names; I might be walking around an unfamiliar graveyard. I see only stones, I see only threads.” 

I am glad when at last the shames, who is waiting for the candles, carries them to the shul. Exhausted, I go to bed. 

[Bella Chagall ‘Burning Lights’ pp. 84-87]

For a thousand years, and maybe more, it’s been Jewish practice to light candles on the eve of Yom Kippur, candles lit sometimes at home, and also at the synagogue. Bella Chagall’s rich description details an old Eastern European practice that prevailed in the world from my great grandparents and their great grandparents came from. In the days before Yom Kippur, the women of the community would gather at the synagogue to lay out wicks and to shape candles that would then burn for the 25 hours of the fast day. There were two kinds of candles – a larger ner ha’bari  (a light of health) dedicated to living family members and a smaller ner n’shama (a light of the soul) which summoned up the memory of relatives no longer alive. 

As they crafted each candle, and as they brought the candles to the shul, and as they lit the candles, the women of the community recited prayers in Yiddish known as t’khines, supplications that tied each candle to a relative and also to the Bible’s matriarchs and patriarch, all the way back to Eve and Adam.

“May it be your will that today, on the eve of YK, we may be remembered for good as we bring the candles into the synagogue, for this mitzvah that we perform. May we be worthy to bring candles to the Temple as it was of old. May the prayers said by these light be with great devotion and great awe (mit grois kavonnah un mit grois forcht)…May the Attribute of Justice become the Attribute of Mercy, may they be unified…” 

Tonight we’ve kindled lights together; we’ve invited you to make your own, just as our foremothers did. Together we’ve brought light in abundance into this house; and I hope into your home as well. 

Who are you inviting to ‘come as on a visit’ this Yom Kippur? Whose health are you concerned about and praying for? With whose soul do you wish to converse and commune over the next 24 hours? 

I have a 40 year old memory of going to the cemetery with my Bubbeh who wished to visit her parents’ graves between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I was a new driver and jumped at the chance to take her to one of New York City’s old Jewish cemeteries. A full conversation in Yiddish proceeded. Only because I recognized the names of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren did I come to realize that she was catching her parents up on a full years’ worth of news and happenings, as if they had come on a visit. Then, I thought it and she were crazy. Now I know that my Bubbeh was on to something really big and really important. She understood the wisdom of what one contemporary rabbi and teacher calls ‘invisible lines of connection’ — threads that tie generations to one another, all the way back to Odom und Khave in the language of that t’khine which my Bubbeh and her Bubbeh no doubt knew. 

All that light reflects what’s in our hearts  — among other things, a deep desire to connect generations to one another; ourselves with those who came before, our children and our grandchildren with their grandparents and great grandparents, all of us with one another. 

A pair of lines from Ashrei (Psalm 145) tells a piece of that story:

דּ֣וֹר לְ֭דוֹר יְשַׁבַּ֣ח מַעֲשֶׂ֑יךָ וּגְב֖וּרֹתֶ֣יךָ יַגִּֽידוּ׃ 

One generation shall laud Your works to another and declare Your mighty acts. 

הֲ֭דַר כְּב֣וֹד הוֹדֶ֑ךָ וְדִבְרֵ֖י נִפְלְאוֹתֶ֣יךָ אָשִֽׂיחָה׃ 

The glorious majesty of Your splendor and Your wondrous acts will I recite. 

[Psalms 145:4-5]

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra reads those lines as a cross generational dialogue in which “the departing generation tells the coming generation” and as a result two generations ‘will declare Your might deeds.’ The (earlier) generations will tell of Your might and I will speak from my heart, (adding) words of Your wondrous acts that the (earlier) generations didn’t know or understand!” 

Rabbi Aviva Richman, in a beautiful reflection on the tradition of lighting candles in the shul at Kol Nidre, raises a pair of penetrating questions. “How can we help each other do teshuva? How can we come together to mend what has fallen apart and create a more redeemed world?” Yom Kippur, she adds, is “a day when we all pray for each other across all boundaries!”

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, Maurycy Gottlieb (1878)

Words above the ark in our sacred space, taken from Psalm 36,  are these: b’or’kha nireh or — in Your light, we see light.

What’s the light? What does it mean? Stand for? Signify?

Our tradition provides a full kaleidoscope of answers. For the Zohar it is or ha-ganuz, the Divine light leftover from Creation, while Rabbi Isaac Luria sees it as or ha-makkif/or ha-p’nimi (enveloping light/inner light) birthed by the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Maimonides describes it as Divine shefa, or overflow of blessing and goodness, while for Rav Nahman it is the light of awareness. 

The prophet Isaiah, whose powerful words we’ll hear chanted tomorrow morning, promises that God’s light can also become ours: “Then shall your light burst through like the dawn And your healing spring up quickly; Your Vindicator shall march before you, The Presence of the LORD shall be your rear guard.”

Sha’arei Zion, a 16th century kabbalistic prayer book, includes this meditation: Creator of beginnings, as You created Your world on this day, uniting fragments into a universe, so may it be Your will to help unite my fragmented heart and the heart of all Your people Israel (t’yaheid l’vavi u’l’vav kol am’kha beit yisrael) to love and revere You. Illumine our lives with the light of Your Torah, for in Your light do we see light. 

Leah Goldberg, centrally important 20th century Hebrew poet, powerfully personalizes light in general and the lights that we have kindled together on this Kol Nidre night.  

את כל הכוכבים טמן    All the hidden stars  

את הסהר עטף בשחור Crescent moon draped in black

מצפון ועד תימן From north to south

אין קרן אור Not a ray of light.

והבוקר אלמן נאמן Morning is a reliable widower

שק אפור על מותניו יחגור sack of grey wrapped around its waist

מצפון ועד תימן From north to south

אין קרן אור Not a ray of light.

הדליקה נא נר לבן Light a white flame, please!

באוהל לבי השחור in the black tent of my heart

מצפון ועד תימן From north to south

יזרח האור Let the light shine.

Light a white flame, please; and this Yom Kippur, this year, right now, let the light shine. 

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teikhateimu.

May we each be inscribed and  sealed for a year filled with light.  

Rosh Hashanah 2 5781(2020) Today the World Stands as at Birth

Several centuries ago, the Pope decided that all the Jews had to leave Italy. Naturally there was a big uproar in the Jewish community, so the Pope agreed to debate. If the Jew won, they could stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would leave.

Knowing they had no choice, they picked an older Rabbi to represent them. His Latin wasn’t very good, but he was a man of great faith and well respected. He accepted, on condition that it would be a silent debate. The Pope agreed. After all, what could be easier than a silent debate?

On the day of the great debate, the Rabbi and the Pope sat opposite each other.

After a minute the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. The Rabbi looked back and raised one finger.

The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. The Rabbi pointed to the ground.

The Pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. The Rabbi pulled out an apple.

The Pope stood up and said, “I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.”

As the puzzled cardinals clustered around the Pope, he explained: “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He held up one finger to remind me that one God is common to both our religions. When I waved my finger around me to show that God was all around us, he pointed down to show that God is also right here with us. When I showed him the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins, he showed me an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?”

Meanwhile, the Jews had crowded around the Rabbi. “What happened?” they asked. “Well,” said the Rabbi, “He says to me, ‘You Jews have three days to leave.’ So I said: ‘One!'” Then he tells me the whole city would be cleared of Jews. So I said to him, ‘Listen here, Pope, the Jews … we stay right here.” “And then?” asked a woman. “Who knows?” said the Rabbi. “He took out his lunch so I took out mine.”

The same words and gestures, yield up very different meanings. 

Famously, the shofar and its blasts convey different meanings. 

Saadya Gaon, the 9th century Babylonian Sage offers ten different ones. 

  • anniversary of Creation and of God’s sovereignty
  • start of ten days of teshuva
  • reminder of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai
  • reminder of the ‘words of the prophets’
  • reminder of hurban ha-bayit (the destruction of the Templ)
  • reminder of akeidat yitzhak (the binding of Isaac)
  • elicit ‘fear and trembling’
  • day of judgment
  • ingathering of exiles
  • t’hiyat ha-meitim (resurrection of the dead)

One jolted me this year. This summer the Hartman Institute ran a remarkable, online, festival of Jewish learning. In one of the courses that I took, we encountered a teaching attributed to Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great 16th century Safed kabbalist. The Ari z”l teaches that the  shofar is a womb which births a cosmic unity – male & female all together; the enveloping light (or hamaqif) that ‘surrounds’ the lower 7 sefirot; a protected ‘empty’ space that shelters THE inner light (or ha-penimi); the journey from narrowness to capaciousness (min ha-meitzar karati Yah).

The blowing of the shofar as the Ari, and the kabbalists who followed him, understood it, stands for the possibility of unity, the possibility of goodness and blessing, the possibility of light – outer and inner – in our lives and in the world. It’s not A womb, but rather THE womb, and it births the things we human beings need most, especially at a time of brokenness and division: unity, goodness, and light.

Yesterday we joined in a blessing for new beginnings, welcoming new arrivals and celebrating new beginnings of all kinds. Today we blow shofar and together bring the world into being again. And what a wonderful world it could be! A place of togetherness, of luminous experience, of breadth and abundance.


Marc Chagall, ‘Shofar’

Irish poet, and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney has more to say about birthing – 

History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles

And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain

Or lightning and storm

And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing

The outcry and the birth-cry

Of new life at its term. 

Shofar as birth canal matches up with the Torah and haftarah readings of these days of Rosh Hashanah – each one a family story of progeny and generations: Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac in the Torah, Hanna, Elkanah, Eli, Samuel in yesterday’s haftarah, Rachel Imeinu and we, her children, in today’s. Indeed, a similar message is the capstone to our scriptural readings, the uplifting words of the prophet Jeremiah (often a forecaster of doom and gloom by the way) yesh tikvhah l’ahariteikh – despite it all, there is hope for your future! In each of those stories ‘someone is hearing the outcry and the birth-cry of new life at its term.’ 

Even more, shofar as womb matches up with one of the notable piyyutim of the mahzor, repeated thrice during musaf (hayom harat ‘olam) – 

Today the world stands as at birth. Today all creation is called to judgment, whether as Your children or as Your servants. If as Your children, be compassionate with us as a parent is compassionate with children. If as Your servants, we look to You expectantly, waiting for You to be gracious to us and, as day emerges from night, to bring forth a favorable judgment on our behalf, awe-inspiring and Holy One. 

Today the world stands as at birth – hayom harat ‘olam. 

My teacher, mentor and friend Rabbi Gordon Tucker, in a truly brilliant pair of Hartman sessions, offered four distinct understandings of that phrase, each reflecting a central theme of the Days of Awe. 

 – our anxieties about judgment and self-judgment – ‘today is our annual review’

 – our need for hope in our lives – ‘bearing a child’ or ‘giving birth’ 

I’d like to dwell on this one for a bit. Rabbi Tucker shared with us a sermon delivered  in 1963, just weeks after the famous March on Washington by  Rabbi Norman Lamm z”l: “Either we can opt for Jeremiah’s harat olam, remaining forever with our greatest human treasures locked up within our hearts and never brought to fruition…or we can joyously proclaim hayom harat olam, that today we shall express those capacities into reality, for today we shall fulfill ourselves by giving birth to a new and fascinating world.”

 – our sense that there is an eternity of which we are a part – ‘today is pregnant with eternity’

 – the hurts and the joys that come with familial love – ‘today God’s womb births us’

Just what do we hope to give birth to on this day? What do we pray will come into being on Rosh Hashanah 5781?

Here’s at least one possibility. In the words of scholar Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow which was published a decade ago, writing on MLK weekend this past year: “The centuries-long struggle to birth a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy – a nation in which every voice and every life truly matters – did not begin with us. The struggle is as old as the nation itself and the birth process has been painful, to say the least. My hope and prayer is that we will serve as faithful midwives in our lifetimes and do what we can to make America, finally, what it must become”.

Today we blow the shofar. Today we help to birth a world. Today we stand in judgment. Today we sense the eternity of which we are a part. Today God births us. Today we aspire to restore unity, goodness, blessing, and light to our broken and still unredeemed world. 

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu – May we be inscribed and sealed for a year marked by unity, goodness, blessing, and light. Shana Tova