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

Rosh Hashanah 1 – 5781(2020) New Fertilization & Glorious Blooming

Broken lines, broken strings,

Broken threads, broken springs,

Broken idols, broken heads,

People sleeping in broken beds

Ain’t no use jiving

Ain’t no use joking

Everything is broken

Broken bottles, broken plates,

Broken switches, broken gates,

Broken dishes, broken parts,

Streets are filled with broken hearts

Broken words never meant to be spoken,

Everything is broken

Bob Dylan wrote and sang these words more than 30 years ago; they feel pretty timely. “Seem like every time you stop and turn around something else just hit the ground” — indeed. 

The losses and sense of loss of this past year are truly overwhelming. So too is our grief, collective and individual. Some of us have lost loved ones to COVID-19; our country has lost nearly 200,000 lives, nearly a million world wide. Add wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the South to the macro losses of this moment. And add the general unease and worry around our politics, and racial injustice, and the legitimacy, or not, of the upcoming election. It’s quite a brew. 

And the more micro losses are equally profound and challenging – our ability to gather together to celebrate, to mourn, to bury our dead, to dance at our weddings, to go to summer camp, to go to school, to travel, to see our children and grandchildren, to meet one another for a cup of coffee, to enjoy a meal out, to sit together in shul, and more and more. 

So much loss, so much pain, so much grief. It’s difficult to bear. 

And so here we are, at a RH ‘like no other’, among the many phrases you and I have heard, ad infinitum, to describe this moment in our lives, in our country, in the world. 

But not entirely ‘like no other’ — there have been Rosh Hashanahs in times of crisis and in other moments of division and disruption. A full century ago was one such time – the years of the First World War and its immediate aftermath, yes, including the flu pandemic of 1918. In advance of such a Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, living in London at the time, wrote in his journal of the “disintegration of the conventional concepts of holiness and faith.”

It’s pretty scary when ‘things fall apart’ – disorienting, unsettling, destabilizing. And there’s much to grieve over in a time of widespread loss. Rav Kook knew those feelings well, just as we know them today. He also saw in those moments enormous opportunity for growth and abundant potential for renewal. It is, he wrote, “like the decay that comes before the growth from the seed, for a new fertilization that yields abundantly.” And it happens, he suggested, on two levels all at once. First, “decay frees the life-force that was hidden” giving life to “glorious blooming.” Second, the disintegration of what Kook calls the ‘previous external form’ is the very thing that makes space for the “innovation of a new, more perfect form.”

I want to focus in on those hidden life-forces and more perfect forms with you this morning. Some have already become part of our lives, even in the midst of pandemic and quarantine. This beautiful community quickly found a way to gather and to connect, meaningfully and with spirit and joy; we ‘built’ what we took to calling our ‘zoom shul’, our ‘virtual mishkan’. We learned that we needed to see and hear each other, to be ‘together’ to davven, to learn, to talk, to cook, to speak Hebrew, to knit, to sing, to hear music, to laugh, to grieve the loss of loved ones, to celebrate – and together we found a way to make that happen. 

I know that we all miss being together in our beautiful, sun drenched, sacred space this morning. I deeply miss being with you there. And yet, miraculously if imperfectly, we are ‘here’ and we are ‘together’ beginning this new year as one holy community. I believe with perfect faith that we will get to hug and greet one another here again, hopefully soon. I hope you do too. 

Indeed, the ‘silver linings’ abound – renewed connections with old friends, truly international Pesah seders, local tutoring and outreach projects, even my own siblings coming to shul on a regular basis (!), all now possible precisely because we’ve lost our ‘normal’ rhythms and patterns of life. And all reflective of enormous resilience and creativity on your parts, on our part. 

There’s a long tradition of just such resilience and creativity in Jewish life. We as a community, each of us as individuals, are part of that rich tradition. Rav Kook’s mystically tinged language stands in that line, and so I’d like to borrow his words to ask this — What new fertilization, what glorious blooming, might emerge from the disintegration and decay that we’re all feeling at this challenging time? 

Over time we’ll get to answer that question together. But I think we already know some of it – we’ll continue to develop new and different ways of gathering; we’ll continue to deepen our connections with one another across what used to be impossible distances — I’ve spent more time ‘in Israel’ these past six months than any time that I remember; we’ll continue to cook for, and bring meals to, and drop off challot for, and shop for one another in moments of need and crisis.   

At the key moment in this morning’s Torah reading, the difficult and painful story of Hagar and Ishmael, God hears Ishmael’s unvoiced cry. “God,” says one beautiful Hasidic teaching, “can hear the silent cries of the anguished heart, even when no words are uttered.” And then God turns to Hagar and says: mah lakh Hagar – ‘what troubles you Hagar?’, modeling for us the compassionate, engaged listening that we’re called to right here and right now.  

The results, at least in the Torah’s telling, are stunning and immediate. In the very next moment – vayifkah elohim et eineha va-teireh b’eir mayim – God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. Was is there all along?


Starry Night over the Rhone (Vincent van Gogh, 1888)

Contemporary Israeli poet Yehezkel Rahamim captures that moment, which is both Hagar’s and ours, in five short brilliant lines. 

נפלתי על ברכי כדי לקושש

.פסות של אפק מנתץ לרסיסים

רק אז נשאתי את ראשי

לשאף עמק אל שקת לבבי

.את כל חפת הכוכבים

I fell to my knees to gather
shards of a horizon shattered to bits. 

Only then did I lift my head
to inhale into the depths of my heart 

the entire canopy of the stars 

Rav Nahman teaches:

אם אתה מאמין שיכולין לקלקל, תאמין שיכולין לתקן…

If you believe that you are able to destroy, believe as well that you are able to repair. 

You are able. We are able. Even as our horizon feels shattered to bits, the entire canopy of stars – huppat ha-kokhavim – is up there, out there, in here, ready and waiting for us to inhale hope into our hearts. A new year begins now. As we gather the shards, let’s also lift our heads together. We are able to repair. Even as we mourn, grieve and weep together. Let’s get started.

L’shana tova tikateivu – May be inscribed for a sweet, good, healthy, year; a year of deep and compassionate listening and sharing; a year of new fertilization and glorious blooming; a year of renewal and repair. 

Whose Story am I Missing? Thinking about Hagar on the day after Yom Kippur…

Disintegration of the conventional concepts of holiness and faith, as they were conventionally understood in the past, bring about renewal of goodness in the world…This…is like the decay that comes before the growth from the seed, for a new fertilization that yields abundantly…(which) gives life to glorious blooming.

[R Abraham Isaac Kook, Shmoneh K’vatzim 8:206]


One of the truly broken features of our lives as Americans is our ability and willingness to hear one another, to engage others not like ourselves. To recognize that, sometimes, the same words actually mean very different things to diverse ears and hearts.  

A few decades ago, which is to say, back in June, I participated in a prayer vigil and march in Norristown. A diverse group of clergy from all over Montgomery County came together to protest remarks made by one of our county commissioners. We came to say that racist hate had no place in our community’s public discourse, period. 

Before we marched, we prayed together, and I had the honor of ‘sharing a word’ at that pre-march gathering. The parasha that week was Shlah L’kha which tells the story of 12 scouts sent by Moses to travel through, and check out, the land of Canaan. Ten of the scouts report that the people of the land were giants and that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison. What’s more, said the ten, that’s how we looked to them. A beautiful piece of Midrash wonders how the ten scouts knew how they appeared to others. ‘Perhaps you appeared to the people of the land as angels.’ 

The moment I shared those words, the gathering of clergy – mainly Christian, mainly African American – started shouting and applauding. It took me totally by surprise. As we walked together toward the center of Norristown I learned from a number of colleagues that Joshua and Caleb – the two ‘other’ scouts, whose report is filled with confidence and faith – are the focus of a great deal of attention in the Black church tradition, seen as heroes and exemplars, symbols of the ongoing struggle for dignity. I had no idea. 

I’ve had similar moments before, mainly in church, and I’ve known for a long time that there is a rich tradition of Biblical storytelling and interpretation among African-Americans. I studied American history in college, with a focus on late 19th and early 20th century Black history, even wrote a thesis about African American women in the decades after the Civil War, so I knew. But that morning, talking Torah on a street in Norristown, I suddenly realized how much I didn’t know, how unaware and uninformed I really was and continue to be. 

This summer, I sought to educate – or re-educate, or more deeply educate, myself. You’ve all seen, and many of you have taken on, extensive reading lists. It’s a good start…My list included a number of volumes that explore the traditions and history of ‘African Americans and the Bible’ as the title of one such book has it. I have a lot to learn. 

My reading hasn’t been limited to academic studies of Biblical exegesis however. 

Most eye-opening and heart-opening for me was Yaa Gyasi’s lyrical and wrenching novel ‘Homegoing’ which recounts the stories of two branches of one African family, one unfolding – through British colonization and the struggle for independence – in Ghana, and one unfolding – through slavery and Jim Crow – in America. 

One of Gyasi’s fascinating characters is a man named Yaw Agyekum, a teacher in an elite boys’ school in Ghana, disfigured by a terrible scar since childhood. He teaches history, and each year he begins his class in the same way. 

‘History is Storytelling. Who would like to tell the story of how I got my scar?’

Responses come from around the room, from the fanciful to the jocular, the mystical to the deadly serious. After hearing a handful, our teacher shares this:

‘This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on. But now we come upon the problem of conflicting stories. Kojo Nyarko says that when the warriors came to his village their coats were red, but Kwame Adu says that they were blue. Whose story do we believe, then?’

Mr Agyekum, as his students call him, answers his own question, but before I share his response with you, I want us to ask ourselves ‘whose story do we believe?’ Especially when the stories are in conflict with one another…Here’s Yaw Agyekum’s answer: 

‘We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.’

And so, again, I’d like for us to ask ourselves, ‘whose story am I missing?’ Whose suppressed voice have I not yet heard?

Which leads me to Hagar and Ishmael, the key characters in the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Theirs, I now understand, is the story I’ve missed all these years. 

Hagar is Sarah’s maidservant. Her name means ‘the stranger’. She’s an Egyptian, from someplace else, ‘Other’. Ishmael is Hagar’s son. His name means ‘God will hear’. Although he is Abraham’s son, he will not inherit; only Isaac, Sarah and Abraham’s son, will. Hagar and Ishmael, at Sarah’s insistence, are driven out of Abraham’s household. 

Theologian Delores Williams makes the connection explicit: Hagar’s story is the story of the African American experience, in particular that of African American women. It is “the story of a female slave of African descent who was forced to be a surrogate mother, reproducing a child by her slave master because the slave master’s wife was barren. For more than a hundred years Hagar – the African slave of the Hebrew woman Sarah – has appeared in the deposits of African American culture. Sculptors, writers, poets, scholars, preachers and just plain folks have passed along the biblical figure Hagar to generation after generation of black folks.” 

Mary Edmonia Lewis, ‘Forever Free’ – 1867 [Howard University Art Gallery]

At the key moment in the Torah’s story of Hagar and Ishmael, God hears Ishmael’s unvoiced cry. “God,” says one beautiful Hasidic teaching, “can hear the silent cries of the anguished heart, even when no words are uttered.” And then God turns to Hagar and says: mah lakh Hagar – ‘what troubles you Hagar?’, modeling for us the compassionate, engaged listening that we’re called to right here and right now.  

The results, at least in the Torah’s telling, are stunning and immediate. In the very next moment – vayifkah elohim et eineha va-teireh b’eir mayim – ‘God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.’ For African Americans, Hagar’s ‘errand into the wilderness’, serves as a potent symbol and metaphor for their own painful experience over the course of many generations. And all these years, I’ve missed it. 

Hearing that story, from our African American neighbors and friends, I suggest, can and needs to be, a significant part of the new fertilization and glorious blooming that may hopefully emerge from this moment of disintegration and decay in our lives and in our country. 

My ears, finally, are open. So too my heart. May all of our ears and hearts be open as well. 

Shanah Tovah. G’mar hatimah tovah.