On the Mountain – Shabbat Ki Tisa 5779 (2019)

A single spot can tell many stories. This week, I stood at the corner of Dexter Avenue and South Decatur Street in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. I’m still absorbing, and trying to make sense of, the various threads that come together at that intersection.

On the southwest corner of Dexter and Decatur sits Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which, in 1954, welcomed a young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to his first full time pulpit. A year later, Dr. King helped to organize and lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott from the church’s basement, an event seen as the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in America. The bus stop from which Rosa Parks boarded a municipal bus and refused to relinquish her seat in 1955 is a short, three block, walk down the hill.




The southeast corner of Dexter and Decatur features a granite monument, dedicated in 1942, that marks Dexter Avenue as the route of Jefferson Davis’s inaugural parade in 1861. The first Confederate White House still stands, around the corner from the marker, just to the side of the Alabama Capitol building which served as the capitol of the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War.


Across the avenue, on the northeast corner of the intersection of Dexter and Decatur, one encounters a matching granite monument, this one commemorating the 1965 march for voting rights that began at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma and concluded with a large rally on the capitol’s front steps in Montgomery. Just two years prior, Governor George Wallace delivered his (in)famous ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’ speech from the same steps.



The crosswalk connecting the two sides of Dexter Avenue, painted white, is filled with footsteps all pointing in the direction of the capitol building at the top of the hill. Whose footsteps are depicted? The answer may depend on one’s starting point; on which side of the street one opts to stand. Not terribly much separates freedom from oppression, hate from love, degradation from dignity.




One spot, multiple stories, many threads, same hilltop. Just a small piece of what I learned this week in Montgomery.

Parashat Ki Tisa features a similar dynamic. The one spot is Sinai. It’s the place where Moses encounter the burning bush, the locale of the giving of Torah to the people of Israel, the site of the building and worship of the golden calf, and the setting centuries later of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God. One hilltop holds all of those stories, their contradictions and counter-narratives included. That last Sinai story, Elijah’s moment of discovery, features these famous words: “And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound.” 

Mighty winds, earthquakes, fires, and more have crossed the intersection of Dexter and Decatur in downtown Montgomery. What remains for a visitor to ponder is that soft murmuring sound, the still, small voice of divinity that continues to echo. I now understand that I went to Montgomery in search of that voice. A voice that holds many stories – some horrifying and terrifying, some uplifting and inspiring – vibrating for all willing to stop, look, and listen.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Work of Our Hands – Shabbat Tetzaveh 5779 (2019)

Ma’asei yadeinu – deeds done with our hands – are very much on my mind as Shabbat Tetzaveh approaches. I’ve spent today (Thursday) walking in Memphis, much of it at the site of the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and now the National Civil Rights Museum. In 1968, the Lorraine served Memphis’s large African American community, sitting a block off of Main Street, then the bustling central artery of a vibrant neighborhood. A half century later, signs of gentrification abound; Main Street now boasts art galleries, coffeehouses, hotels in waiting, and a number of museums, all of them dedicated to aspects of the African American experience. 


The museum at the Lorraine tells the four hundred year story of that experience with a special emphasis on the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King’s leadership. The exhibit is exhaustive, powerful, and extraordinarily moving. Visit, if you haven’t already; it is worth the journey. In great detail, the National Civil Rights Museum makes clear that the African American struggle for equality and liberty, an effort that began with the enslavement of the first Africans in North America in 1619, has always been the work of many hands. Dr. King never operated alone. He led a movement whose workers were many; the hands of many produced the advances of the King years of 1955-1968. The famous photo of Dr. King’s aides and advisors pointing out the spot from which the bullet that killed him had come poignantly illustrates the point.


Across the street, in a building that was once the boarding house in which James Earl Ray, King’s assassin, took a room in April of 1968, the museum’s exhibit continues. Standing by the windows that directly faced room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, I thought a lot about the work of that one man’s hands, the criminal, murderous, painfully destructive, history altering work of one man’s hands.


We make our offerings, for good or for ill, with our hands. The Torah’s description of the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests includes a lovely detail. The fat parts of the ram of ordination, the sacrificial offering that marks the sacred occasion, along with the animal’s right thigh, are gathered together along with “one flat loaf of bread, one cake of oil bread, and one wafer” in order to be placed “on the palms of Aaron and his sons.” The ram is presented as an elevation offering – tenufa – according to a rather precise procedure. “Take them from their hands and turn them into smoke upon the altar with the burnt offering, as a pleasing odor before the Lord; it is an offering by fire to the Lord.” A proper elevation offering requires that the offerer present the sacrifice with her/his own hands. Life changing work can’t be outsourced, an insight not unique to the Torah and Israelite religion. Witness an ancient Egyptian and a 16th century Aztec version of the same idea. 



Literary theorist Jacques Derrida describes the work of one’s hands as a “singular and immemorial archive.”  Each of us makes a unique contribution. Every offering is singular. And every offering leaves its mark. The Psalmist’s plaintive prayer resonates still. “May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands (ma’asei yadeinu) prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!” [Psalms 90:17]

Upright Writing – Shabbat Terumah 5779 (2019)

The auditorium at Temple Emanuel in New York City was filled to the brim this past Tuesday evening for a gathering of 70 Torah scrolls. The scrolls, all originally from Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech Republic, were gathered by the Nazis during the Shoah, and then warehoused near Prague. In 1964, a London based group called the Memorial Scrolls Trust became the ‘owners’ of more than 1500 Czech Holocaust Torah scrolls, and in the decades that followed, the trust placed most of the scrolls in Jewish communities around the world on permanent loan. Congregation Beth Am Israel is blessed to serve as guardian of MST #780, a 220+ year old Torah, classified as an ‘orphan’ as its community of origin is unknown. #780 participated in this week’s gathering in New York, joyfully accompanied by a full minyan of Beth Am Israel folk.


It was extraordinarily moving to be in the presence of 70 Shoah Torahs, to see them held and carried with such love, to rise along with 700 people to honor these survivors of our people’s worst horror. Elliot Cole carried #780 with humility and with great joy. 


‘Our’ Torah turns out to be remarkable and fascinating even beyond its Holocaust history. A sofer (Torah scribe) present at the event dates our scroll to ‘before 1800’ based on some of its lettering and the way in which the panels of parchment are sewn together. And some of that lettering reflects centuries old kabbalistic practices. In particular, our Torah’s sofer periodically drew the letter ‘peh’ in an especially beautiful way. This style of ‘peh’, known as ‘peh m’lufaf’ – a wrapped or enveloped ‘peh’ – looks like the letter ‘peh’ inside the letter ‘peh’. One passerby on Tuesday evening, a young woman who had chanted from one of the Shoah scrolls at her bat mitzvah, called it a ‘pregnant peh’. They’re all over the place in MST #780.


Here’s a sampling from Parashat Kedoshim, Leviticus 19: 13-19. Every time I open our scroll, I find more and more beautiful and intriguing scribal flourishes. The word m’lufaf – wrapped or enveloped – strikes me as the word of the day. Each scroll in the hall on Tuesday was enveloped with love, wrapped with honor. All of it reminiscent of a beautiful midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:12) that describes the original gift of Torah presented to Moses on Sinai. Said Resh Lakish (R Shimon b Lakish): “The Torah was given to Moshe, with skin of white fire and written with black fire, sealed in fire, and wrapped with fire (m’lupefet b’eish)…” Wrapped with fire indeed. Truly the story of these Shoah scrolls.

The writing of the Torah has long been a topic of interest and speculation. The early rabbis wondered about the Torah’s ‘original’ language and its ‘original’ lettering. The Hebrew characters that have been in use for the past two thousand years are known by the rabbis as ktav ashurit – Assyrian writing. A delicious teaching (Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:7) suggests that that name conveys the ‘uprightness’ of the letters themselves. Upright = m’ushar; ashur (same letters and root) = Assyrian. Upright and, claims the Tosefta, eternal. The proof? Words from this week’s parasha. The hooks that attach to the vertical boards which form the courtyard of the mishkan (tabernacle) are called vavei ha’amudim. A vav is a hook. It’s also the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, shaped liked a hook. The letters themselves, teach the rabbis, stand up straight, proud, and eternal.

Seventy Shoah Torah scrolls gathered in New York this week. Straight, proud, and eternal. They’re housed in Jewish communities of all stripes and of varying beliefs and viewpoints. The Torah – her words and letters – are the very thing that unites us. Our job is to continue to wrap and envelope Torah with love, with joy, with fire that warms and illuminates and protects.

Shabbat Shalom. 

Holy Moses on the Mountain – Shabbat Mishpatim 5779 (2019)

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a four day, largely silent, meditation and spirituality retreat. A program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS), the retreat gathered 60 or so hazzanim and rabbanim, all of us graduates of IJS’s clergy leadership program. We IJS alumni refer to ourselves as hevraya, Aramaic for fellowship and the term used by the Zohar to describe the group of 2nd century sages who wander the Galilee in search of mystical experiences and wisdom. Our  hevraya gathers, on retreat, to meditate, do yoga, worship, eat mindfully, slow down, and wander a bit in a particularly beautiful canyon in southern California, together. It’s a powerful experience, one that I very much looked forward to joining in this year.

This year’s retreat featured non-stop rain – 6 inches over the course of 4 days to be precise – which put a bit of a damper on things. Despite the wet, I was determined to climb the canyon, part of an exercise known as a hitbodedut walk. Hitbodedut means solitude. The early Hasidim, Nahman of Bratslav most notably, promoted a solitude practice which involved walking alone in the forest in order to pour one’s heart out to God. One walked and talked to God in complete solitude. And ‘talking’ could take the form of shouting, screaming, and crying. No holds barred.

So, on the least rainy of our days on retreat, I took a walk in the canyon, talking up a storm along the way. I climbed the mountain, slowly, carefully, but with determination. About two thirds of the way up, I realized that there was no clear path down. Sliding down on my rear end for significant stretches turned out to be the best approach. I had a lot to say to God in those moments, most of it unprintable here! And did I mention that after three straight days of rain the canyon’s hillside while beautifully green was also beautifully muddy? It was the best hour and a half in a week filled with powerful experiences and profound learning.


Moses’ mountain climbing marks the concluding passage of Parashat Mishpatim. It’s the last piece of ma’amad har Sinai – our people’s gathering at Mount Sinai. The Sefat Emet – the great 19th century Hasidic master – narrates Moses’s hitbodedut walk this way: “Now it says: ‘Come up to Me upon the mountain and be there…’ (Exodus 24:12) – this means that Moses was transformed into a new being, like one of the ministering angels. Our sages taught that he entered the cloud and was garbed in cloud, to make him like one of the angels. That is why he was there for forty days…” Making no claims on angelic status, Sefat Emet’s narrative aptly describes my scamper up and slide down that muddy mountain in California. It felt transforming, and more than a bit like stepping into a cloud. Luckily for Moses, he wasn’t at Sinai during the rainy season. And, he a clear path back down!

Shabbat Shalom.