Monday, September 16, 2013

#HighHolyDays 5774: Reflections

Here are the words I shared with my community over these High Holy Days.....I hope they offer some additional reflection as we move through Sukkot and beyond.

Wishing you all a year of learning and growth, challenge and change.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Sticks, Stones, and Words: #AntoinetteTuff and #Elul

Sticks, Stones, and Words
Shabbat Drash, August 23, 2013 (17 Elul 5773)

It was a scene that has, in the past couple of years, become far too routine. A man came to the McNair Discovery Learning Center in Atlanta's DeKalb County armed with a semi--automatic rifle and 500 bullets. He came to the school with the intent to emulate the depravity and destruction perpetrated on school children in places like Sandy Hook and Columbine.
But this week’s story was different. This week’s story ended not with mass destruction and grief—but also not with an in-depth, post-mortem obsession with a killer: with his story, his mental health, or his motives. Rather, this week’s story ended with a sigh of relief, and—if not redemption—than a remarkable story of faith and the power of words.

Antoinette Tuff is not an NRA spokeswoman; she is not a gun-control advocate. She is not a pastor, a psychologist, nor a trained hostage negotiator. She is a school clerk, and she is a woman of faith. For 24 minutes, Tuff negotiated between the police and Michael Brandon Hill, diffusing a scenario that far too often ends differently. Petula Dvorak, writing of the scene in the Washington Post, records:

She calmed him. She told him that he wasn’t alone in having troubles. Her husband walked out on her after 33 years, she said, and she has a “multiple-disabled” son. She soothed that man holding an assault rifle by telling him, “We all go through something in life.”
“I’m sitting here with you and talking to you about it,” she told him when he mumbled something about no one wanting to listen to him.
As she persuaded the young man to surrender, she said: “We not going to hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up, so we’re not going to hate you.”
She offered to act as his human shield, to walk outside the school with him so police wouldn’t shoot.
She even told him she loved him, cared about him and was proud of him as he began to stand down.

Clearly, the time for real change on gun control and gun culture in America is past; we are behind in that conversation. Even with her poise, her faith, and even her love, this situation could have ended differently for Antoinette and the students. But the riveting 24 minutes of that tape are a reminder to us, to all of us, that amidst policy conversations and blame games, there is the space—the necessity—for real conversations, for words that can penetrate even the darkest places.
As children growing up, we all learned the words: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me. 
As adults, we look at our scars—internal and external—and wonder if that is actually true. Our physical scars fade, our broken bones mend—but those words—spoken and received—can stay with us. They burrow deep, the take root….and they come to the surface, to help and harm us, when we least expect it. A brushed-off compliment comes to mind when we are facing a task we think perhaps we cannot do. A long-forgotten insult bares its ugly head just when we are already feeling down. While not as tangible as a broken arm, the power of words is undeniable.
With words, God creates the world. With words, God opens up the covenant at Sinai. And in this week’s parasha, words offer us blessing and curse.
As is often the case in Torah, the blessings are given in generalities, succinctly. The curses, on the other hand, are numerous and detailed. They far outnumber the blessings, and they are far more explicit. But, why is it that tradition has us recite these words, the scary curses, sotto voce. Why do we read the blessings in full voice, but keep the curses under our breath? The answers are all superstitious, but in particular strikes me powerfully. It is, the tradition suggests, about making a vision manifest. Life coaches, therapists, and yoga instructors often suggest that setting an intention, vocalizing a vision, living as if something were already true are all paths to making it so. Perhaps, our tradition feels the same way, and if we speak the curses too loudly, they will come to be.
Psychologically, perhaps there is something to be said about hearing these curses deep in the month of Elul, as we reflect on our behavior, and begin to envision the year to come. Perhaps there is something to considering what it is that we want to make manifest, to speak out loud, and what it is that we want to avoid—sotto voce.
And, as the litany of curses drones on and on, I cannot help but flash ahead to Yom Kippur.  In the course of 25 hours, as we stand for Vidui, we will confess 44 sins—failures of love, failures of justice, failures of truth. Of those 44, more than half involve what comes out of our mouths—gossip, idle chatter, offensive speech. We are asked to own up to things we wish had not come out of our mouths, the things we said that we regret, the words we wish we could take back. What does it mean to speak these aloud, to make our wrongdoings, or at least our missed marks, manifest—to bring them into the   world?

Last year, I spoke on Yom Kippur on the sins of what we don’t say, the times we wish we had spoken up. This week, inspired by Antoinette Tuff, I want to encourage us to focus not only on the times we missed the mark—but also on the times we hit it. Was there a time this year that you were fully present, able to speak words of comfort? Was there a time this year when you were able to look beyond your own fears, your own anxieties—and speak to someone else’s humanity? Was there a time this year when you dug deeply enough to say I love you when it didn’t come easily? If Elul is about looking back and looking ahead, why not make manifest the blessings, knowing that—come Yom Kippur--we have to make the curses manifest as well?
In one of the most heartbreaking moments in the 24 minute tape, you hear Antoinette Tuff talking to the gunman. You cannot hear his words, but you hear her tell him: It sounds like she loves you very much. In that brief moment, in those few words, you can hear a lifetime of the sins of omission and commission that we all fall prey to in our words, or lack thereof. And Ms. Tuff, with no training or preparation, is able to say different words; for whatever the reason, they were the words he needed to hear in that moment. My colleague, Rabbi Michael Bernstein, is a rabbi in the Atlanta area, and he wrote the following: She appealed to the humanity of a person who showed every sign of having lost all traces of it. In doing so, she gave him—and us—a remarkable gift.
God-willing, none of us will have to show the courage and grace of Antoinette Tuff in a terrifying situation. God-willing, each of us will have the courage and grace of Antoinette Tuff as we face our own scary situations. We may not always—or ever—know the right thing to say, but we should not let it stop us from saying at all. But may all of us be blessed with the ability, and the courage and grace, to see the humanity in ourselves and in others, and to speak with and to that humanity. May we always remember the power in our words.  Always remember that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words CAN harm us…..and save us.
Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I Am the Egg (Wo)Man: Reflections on #RoshChodeshAv

As many of you know, I joined Nashot HaKotel/Women of the Wall for their Rosh Chodesh Av prayers. Here are my reflections, a bit fuller than was quoted in Ha'Aretz. I'll come back and add hyperlinks when I am not on a mobile device!

"Jerusalem has greatly sinned, therefore she is become a mockery. All who admired her despise her, for they have seen her disgraced; and she can only sigh and shrink back."
--Eicha (Lamentations) 1:8

The first 9 days of Av are seen in traditional Judaism as days of, if not mourning, then solemnity. We do not feast, we do not celebrate; we are once again living through the days leading up to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And, as many have already noted, one of the most significant statements the rabbis make about that destruction is that the blame cannot be placed on Roman shoulders. Why, they ask, was the Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam--baseless hatred. And so Monday morning, as I looked at the faces of the Haredim crowding the Kotel plaza, as I looked at the faces of these men and women who are supposed to be my kinsmen (and women), I felt not anger and not hatred, but deep, deep sadness.

It seems that the same cannot be said from the other side. It is not sadness that compels one Jew--one human being!--to call another Jew a Nazi. It is not sadness that sent a hard-boiled egg flying through the air as a projectile, landing solidly (and not comfortably) on my neck. And it is not sadness that raised male voices to drown ours out. 

Talking with a mentor last night, I asked. I asked about the deep anger, and hatred. I said: I just can't understand. Why? Why such deep anger and hatred? And she, who comes from a far more traditional world than I do, said two things. First, the part I know but hate to acknowledge. There are people--and I refuse to paint the entire Haredi world with one brush, just as I wish they would not paint all liberal Jews with one--in that world who truly believe, to the depths of their soul, that I come to Jerusalem, I come to the Wall, I come to the world, to destroy Judaism. 

But, she said something else that, rather than enrage me, gave me some hope. She said that their anger came from a place of fear. That these men and women are looking around and seeing a changing world. They are seeing a world that is increasingly adapt or die, and they choose--time and again--not to adapt. And so I thought back over the faces I saw in that space. And I thought to myself--maybe there is one girl, or one boy, there who looked at us and saw not rodfim, those who seek to do harm to Judaism and the Jewish people, but who saw something new. Maybe there was one boy--or one girl--who looked up and saw in my face, or the face of someone standing next to me, something familiar. Maybe there was one girl--or one boy--who heard in my prayers something exciting. Maybe someone there looked up and saw new possibilities, a different way to live, a living and breathing Judaism. 

I happened to be standing next to one of my mentors during the tefillot, and she later shared with me the conversation she had with a little girl standing near her--a rabbi's daughter. This little girl asked the simplest--and of course most difficult--question to answer. Why, she, asked, were the men on the other side of the barricade trying to drown out our prayers? "The women sing so beautifully," she said. "Why would they do that?" 

The men on the other side of the barricades alternated between screaming and blowing whistles to disrupt us, or simply trying to pray louder. I preferred the latter. Because there was a moment, maybe just before the egg jolted me back to reality, where I was able to live in a different reality--a vision of a Jerusalem that is truly ha-banuyah (rebuilt). In that moment, the voices of women were raised in prayer and song, and the voices of the men were raised as well. And I imagined--just for those moments--that together the voices of Israel, the voices of the Jewish people, reached straight up to heaven. 

There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, over the erasure of women's voices and women's bodies from the public sphere in Israel, over what seems to be a campaign by the Haredi community to silence women. There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, over the role of the Haredi community and the rabbanut in controlling religious life in Israel. There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, that even despite a clear court ruling, we were barred from the Kotel itself for the first time in 25 years. Others have and will say it better than I can. Because on Monday, for me, anger was not the predominant emotion coursing through my veins. Hatred was not the overriding feeling of the day. Sadness was.

But, that being said, I have to point out the feeling is NOT mutual. Only one side has interest in listening to the other, only one side speaks of "cohabitation," and only one side uses vehement hate speech and physical violence to stake its claim. And the government, despite the progress in court, continues to cater to only the one side, the loudest side. And with all of my idealism, all of my hope--I simply don't know what to do with that. I don't know where that can go. 

As a Reform Jew, I have long struggled with the meaning and ritual of Tisha B'Av. I have learned and studied over the years; this week at the Hartman Institute, we wrestled with the notions of and texts on communal mourning. I do not wish to see the Temple rebuilt speedily in my day, and so what do I do with this holiday? 

Yesterday might have given me an answer. I mourn not for what was, but for what could be and isn't. I mourn for the fact that I, by virtue of biology, am denied full access to the Kotel. I mourn for the fact that this land that I love, this place whose vision was to be a home for the Jewish people, cannot get itself past a single definition of Judaism--even as its people define themselves in all shades of grey. And I mourn, perhaps most of all, for those voices, male and female, that could be rising up to heaven (or wherever I believe the Divine resides) together, indistinguishable by gender or religious definition, simply united in hope and in comfort, in petition and in praise, in sadness and in joy. 

The next Rosh Chodesh we will usher in will be Elul, the month of penitence and preparation for the High Holy Days. I will be back in the United States, though my prayers and heart will be with Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall. And as they--and we--pray the words of Psalm 27:

Only this do I ask of God,
Only this do I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of Adonai, to frequent God's  Temple.

I will be praying that that house, that beauty, is wide and rich and imaginative enough to hold all of us---male, female, Haredi, Reform, and everywhere in between--in one room, with one voice and one vision. 

For the sake of Jerusalem I will not, I cannot, I must not be silent. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

"And These Women": #Pride #Shabbat and the Daughters of Zelophechad

I am guessing that many a rabbi spoke on a similar topic last night. Here are the words I shared.

Happy Pride, y'all!!!

Marilyn Monroe.

Anne Boleyn.

Eleanor Roosevelt.

Wondering what these three women have in common?

All are credited with the well-known, if often misquoted, statement that “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

This week, we proudly add a few more.

Tomorrow morning, we open our sacred text to read the story of 5 women, the daughters of Zelophechad. Dying without sons, his land holdings are set to be absorbed into the communal pot. Their father, who had not taken part in Korach’s rebellion, was in danger of losing not only his land—but his legacy. And so, our text reads:

The names of the daughters were Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting....and they said:…Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.

Torah: A Women’s Commentary notes that the language here is bold. There is no polite petitionary language, no please. It is a commanding imperative: Give us.

Their case sought equal application of a right long granted to others, was appealed to the Highest Authority, and ultimately was determined to further the cause of justice. Perhaps these women too were not so well-behaved—and they did make history.
This was a week for wise women, for bold women, for women who are badly-behaved in the best sense—women who would not sit down and shut up. I felt privileged to watch—via livestream, as State Senator Wendy Davis stood—literally stood-- for over 12 hours straight to filibuster a bill that would have closed all but 5 abortion providers in Texas.

I cheered along with the thousands of supporters when, in the final moments of that session, State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (who had just returned from burying her own father), looked at the chairman and said: At what point must a female senator raise her hand, or her voice, to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room.


Photo by Ariel Levy (

And I cheered, I cried, I celebrated on Wednesday morning when 5 of our nation’s highest judges said that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment; when Edie Windsor—and her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan—was told that, indeed, her marriage was as valid in the eyes of the federal government as anyone else’s.

On March 27, as Roberta Kaplan stood before the Supreme Court to argue Windsor vs. the United States, Chief Justice John Roberts engaged her in a conversation about the dramatic change in American popular opinion on GLBTQ issues. In a piece published today—part of the words she will be sharing tonight, on Pride Shabbat—she wrote:

My answer then and my answer today is the same — what truly has driven the change we have all experienced is not the so-called political power of gay people, but instead “a moral understanding today that gay people are no different, and that gay married couples’ relationships are not significantly different from the relationships of straight married people.” That is the kind of change, the kind of tikkun olam, or repair of the world, that lies at the heart of our tradition. It is, I believe, what God commands of every individual, every community, even of the law, even of God.

It’s been quite a week for bold women.

The rabbis of the Talmud teach that the daughters of Zelophechad were exegetes, they were virtuous, and they were wise. How we know that they were wise, they ask? Because they spoke at an opportune moment.  Edie Windsor, when asked on Wednesday, said she didn’t think she was a hero, that the timing was an accident of history.

And perhaps it was, perhaps it is as Edie said, simply that: “I think what happened is at some point somebody came out and said ‘I’m gay.’ And this gave other people the guts to do it.” An article in Vanity Fair spoke of the courage of Edie and of Roberta, of others who came before them.

It’s important to not lose sight of the fact that it’s not time that’s made the difference, although time has made the real opportunity possible. It’s the coalition of allies that this time has allowed gay men and women to muster. Forty years of coming out, of getting in arguments, of shocking, of convincing, of cajoling, of marrying, of parenting, and of merely being around—that’s what led us to where we are today. Forty years of living and dying and loving and fighting.

But the daughters of Zelophechad were not just an accident of history. Their time and their place and their courage all collided, and they changed their world….they changed the world. It speaks to the power of the voice, about what speaking up means for you and the people around you. And it speaks to the power that speaking out has to create a groundswell, to create allies, to create change.

I know that I am not the only rabbi who rejoiced when I realized that this week, this incredible week, would be the week that we read of the daughters of Zelophechad. As a colleague said, though, there are no coincidences. The Torah is like a mirror... most of the time, we can see our lives and the life of the world reflected in the text.

Rabbi Silvina Chemen, the first woman rabbi serving in South America, wrote a beautiful piece for Torah: A Women’s Commentary. She writes about the daughters of Zelophechad, and the lessons we are to learn:

Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands, to move from the place that the others have given us–or that we have decided to keep because we feel immobile-and to walk, even to the most holy center, to where nobody seems to be able to go. After all, nothing is more sacred than life itself and the fight for what we believe is worthy. Thus, this parashah inspires us to discover that we too have the ability to know what is right for ourselves and what our rights ought to be. When we believe in our capacity to shape our history, to the point of being able to change even a law that came from the Revelation at Sinai, then we pay a tribute to Zelophehad’s daughters.

As the cheers erupted in the Texas Senate late on Tuesday night, a wise woman named Amadi Lovelace posted the following on Twitter. Others were as moved as I was; it was retweeted over 100 times. She wrote:

And when the walls fall, scream until the very earth quakes under their feet. Make noise. Raise your voice and don't stop. Never stop.

And, of course, we can’t stop. 

It’s been quite a week for bold women (and men, of course—we can’t forget the lawyers who argued Prop 8!). Then again, is it ever not? Is there ever not a time to speak up, to speak truth to power, to demand liberty and justice? 

We can’t stop, because we are not there yet. Just hours after Wendy Davis took her courageous stand, Governor Rick Perry announced that—at great cost to the taxpayers—he is calling a special legislative session in an attempt to ram this terrible bill through the Senate. We can’t stop, because we are not there yet. Amidst the cheers and celebrations this week, we cannot forget that an enormous blow was struck to the civil rights; the Supreme Court invalidating significant pieces of the Voting Rights Act, legislation that too many people gave their lives to win. 

And we can’t stop, because this morning, I had to sign up—for my own safety—to join Women of the Wall in a special bus on the morning of Rosh Chodesh Av. We, women and men, need to be bold, we need to be loud, we need to be badly-behaved.

We have a long way to go before we truly celebrate liberty and justice for all. We celebrated raucously on Wednesday in the shadow of true defeat and sadness on Tuesday. But we Jews know what it is to celebrate amidst losss; we know what it means to move from joy to sorrow, and back again. And so, yes, there is much work to be done. But as I heard someone say this week: Measuring the emptiness of the glass in this moment without celebrating its fullness makes no sense to me.

So in a just a moment, we will raise the kos Kiddush, the cup sanctifying this sacred day of Shabbat. In it, let us see the fullness of a week that, despite its defeats, still brought us closer to the vision of a world redeemed. In it, let us see the faces and hear the voices of the men and women who helped us get here. In it, let us see the path we must walk now, the fights we must fight, to bring about the world we imagine, the world that we are called to create. And let us say: Amen.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Hitting the Snooze Button: #Shavuot Yizkor 5773

A little belated, but here are the words I shared for Yizkor on Shavuot.

Hitting the Snooze Button:
Shavuot Yizkor 5773

I am a snoozer. There are days, on occasion, on which I pop out of bed ready to face the day, but most days find me putting off the inevitable in 9-minute increments. It’s not that I am not a morning person, or that I am not getting enough sleep. For me, it is the delicious knowledge that it is not time yet, that there is more, that I can step out of the urgency for a moment. And so I do. For 9 minutes at a time, burrowed in the covers, blissful in the knowledge that there is more time.

Before the advent of coffee-and hence the advent of the Tikkun Leil Shavuot--it seems that the Israelites, camping at Sinai, loved their sleep as much as I do. The rabbis of the Zohar teach that as the moment of revelation drew near, the people of Israel slept soundly. So soundly, in fact, that they almost missed revelation. Forget the blaring of shofars, the crashing of thunder, the flashing of lightning--the Israelites slept right through it. At the very last moment, the midrash continues, Moses woke each and every Israelite, ensuring that they would not miss God’s words. There was no snooze button; one more minute and they might have missed it all!

Jonathan Franzen, the author, wrote of his challenging relationship with his mother. Spending time with her was difficult, and so even as she was dying, he kept his visits to no more than 3 days—his limit before she drove him crazy. And he writes:
“She, for her part, was accustomed to my leavings and didn’t complain too much. But she still felt about me what she’d always felt, which was what I wouldn’t really feel about her until after she was gone. ‘I hate it when daylight-saving time starts while you’re here,’ she told me while we were driving to the airport, ‘because it means I have an hour less with you’.”[1]  

Would that we had that sort of personal alarm clock, an innate sense of what moments in life--and in the lives of our loved ones--that we cannot miss. We know we are to be there for births and for funerals, for weddings and conversions and bnai mitzvah. But, of course, those aren’t--by and large--the moments that we miss.

You’ve all seen, I am sure, the vacation pictures of someone “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or the beach trick of “holding the sun.” Tricks of perspectives, all of them, but I think they have something to teach us. There is a Hasidic teaching on perspective, that I heard someone share once at a funeral for their spouse. The teaching reminds us that: If you hold your hand up in front of your eyes, your small hand is enough to cover up a mountain.  On this holiday of mountains, of grandeur and glory, it is a good reminder that the same is true of life. If we go through constantly focused on the big stuff, we miss the beauty and majesty of every day.

Joan Walters wrote the following of her adult children:

My 20-something son and daughter now just roll their eyes when I send news snippets about grape tomatoes recalled due to salmonella, or a bicyclist across the ocean dead in an accident without a helmet. My son answered his phone one day recently at a Toronto intersection and before I could speak, said: “Mom, I’ve taken my vitamins, I’m eating an apple, I’ve already had two bottles of water, I’ve washed my hands three times today and I’m waiting for the walk sign to say go. Happy?”

Can Joan’s son have any idea how much he will miss the articles he dismisses with a laugh? Can her daughter imagine not getting the worried phone call?

How are we to know that a quick phone call, rushing between appointments, will feel like a gaping hole when we can no longer make it. How are we to know that it’s not until we stop receiving those annoying forwards that we’ll miss them--and the person who always sent them. How are we to know that while our loved ones are noticeably absent in the big moments, it is often the small moments, the everyday interactions, that bring our losses into stark relief. . We think to ourselves: Oh, I have to call and tell her what just happened. We pick up the phone only to remember that she isn’t there to answer.

If only someone could come along and say--in the midst of that phone call, while writing that email, over coffee or bagels, in the midst of everyday life--WAKE UP! If only we could always remember that, unlike my everyday life, there is no snooze button. There is no button we can press, no words we can say, nothing we can do to have those 2 more years, those 5 more months, those 9 more minutes.

Ted Kooser, an American poet, has written extensively on death and mourning. In his poem “Father,” he writes:

I miss you every day – the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.
(quoted by Rabbi Janet Marder, Shavuot 2012)

These are the precious moments, the moments that we will miss, the moments we cannot recreate. As much as the high and lows of life and its cycles, these moments--the everyday, the quotidien--these are the moments to celebrate. For when they are gone, it is at times an unfathomable loss.

Shavuot is, among other things, a holiday of awareness, of presence.  It is a reminder to wake up, to look up, to listen for the words around you. Shavuot, with its moment of revelation, reminds us of the urgency of time—the endless march that we are all powerless to stop.

In our liturgy, we call Shavuot zman matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah. Why the giving of the Torah, the Divine act, rather than the time of receiving Torah—our human response? Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk teaches that Shavuot is called the time of giving of Torah because the giving was a single moment, the revelation at Mt. Sinai. It was a time, long past. The receiving of Torah, however, is constant, he says. It happens in each and every moment when we encounter the Divine, when we study Torah, when we engage in acts of lovingkindness. Just as Shavuot is a holiday of presence, then, it is a holiday of relationship. And so, the Kotsker Rebbe’s teaching is just as true for us and for our loved ones.

The moments we had with our loved ones might have been just those—moments. Transient, ephemeral, fixed in time. But what we received, the legacy, the love, the memory—those are constant, they are eternal. And perhaps that is one of the reasons that Yizkor is a part of the Shavuot commemoration. It does not evoke the sense memories of Passover; it is not wrapped up with the High Holy Day season like Shmini Atzeret. But on this day, as Moses moves to rouse the Israelites, to awaken them to presence—we get a snooze button.

For these moments of Yizkor, we get to have our loved ones with us, for just a few more moments. For these moments of Yizkor, we feel their presence. For these moments of Yizkor, we get what we cannot have in life—just a little bit more time.

Yizkor—we remember.

[1] Jonathan Franzen, “My Bird Problem” The New Yorker, August 8 and 15, 2005

Sunday, April 21, 2013

After the deaths, you shall be holy: Reflections on #Boston

Here are the words I shared with my congregation on Friday night, April 19, 2013. As I said to a colleague, it felt simple--maybe too simple? But as I wrote, and as I spoke, I realized they were the words I needed to hear--and maybe you as well. 


In Israel, Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, is marked not with barbecues and massive sales, but with silence and sirens. For 24 hours, names play continuously on Israeli televisions. The siren sounds, and an entire country stands still.

Amidst all of the pictures from the Boston Marathon—the blood and the chaos, the terror and the heroism—one picture stuck out. Thousands upon thousands of runners, literally stopped in their tracks, being held by Boston police officers. I can only imagine the emotions of the runners, the feelings as the news spread through the crowd. An entire community---standing still. I saw on Twitter that one woman, writing from Boston on Friday, wrote the following about her morning. She said:  The incongruous world outside our window: helicopters, then birdsong, then sirens, then silence.

Just a couple of days ago, this sanctuary was filled with New Yorkers, many by way of Israel, celebrating Israel’s 65th Birthday under the auspices of the Israeli consulate. And as people filed in, we were treated to the hits of the last century by way of Israeli music. They’re all songs I love, and one in particular has stayed in my head throughout the events of this entire week.

Al kol elehh, al kol eleh
Shmor na li eli ha-tov
Al hadvash ve'al ha'okets
Al ha-mar vehamatok
Over all these, Over all these
God please watch over them for me,
Over the honey and the stinger
Over the bitter and the sweet

Over the honey and the stinger, over the bitter and the sweet—on the joy and on the sorrow, over death and over life. In any given year, this paradox is the experience of the week of Yom HaAtzmaut. This week, all the more so. We went from Yom HaZikaron right into the bombing in Boston; my newsfeed changed from heartbreaking pictures in Israeli cemeteries to heartbreaking pictures from Boylston Street. And in just hours, we moved into Yom HaAtzmaut, the celebration of a truly miraculous 65 years….just as we read miraculous stories of heroism and bravery, of first responders and ordinary citizens. Over the honey and the stinger, over the bitter and the sweet—we held sorrow and joy in our hearts and in our hands.

Tomorrow morning, we’ll open Torah to the double portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. For centuries, our rabbis have tried to connect these two parshiot; one with its focus on sexual ethics and forbidden relationship, one with its focus on building holy community—by linking one behavior with the other. How we behave in our most intimate relationships, say our sages, guides us in our behavior with the rest of the world.

But tonight, this week, I want to look no further than the very words that open these two parshiot: Acharei mot…kedoshim tihiyhu. Taken at their most literal: After death, you shall be holy. What a lesson, what an imperative, to hold with us this week. After death—after witnessing terror and tragedy, loss and grief, you shall be holy; you shall be your highest self, your best impulses. An ancient teaching, made new again this week, as taught by Rabbi David Ingber: after death, after witnessing life cut short, unexpectedly, without warning or preparation, ‘holy ones’, rededicate yourselves to holiness, to making the world a more meaningful, more loving, more compassionate place to be.

In a 2009 series on Leadership and Crisis, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman said the following, which seems prescient today.  How do we experience crisis and grow from it? How do we experience crisis and not become depressed, not become frozen, not become debilitated? Crisis becomes a catalyst for us to investigate who we are and to raise new principles of ethics and decency to the forefront of our consciousness both individually and collectively.

In a well-known Talmudic teaching (Sotah 14a), the rabbis ask what it means to, in the words of Deuteronomy, walk in God’s ways. How can we, they ask, walk in the ways of a Being we cannot see, or feel, or touch. Their answer: “Just as God clothes the naked, so should you; just as God visited the sick, so should you; just as God comforted the mourners, so should you; and just as God buried the dead, so should you.” Acharei mot, kedoshim tihiyu….

In a beautiful article about first responders, Rabbi Shai Held wrote the following:

Notice something about the Talmud’s list. The naked are vulnerable, but their situation is reversible; the sick are vulnerable, but at least sometimes they can heal. Mourners have sustained an immense loss; nothing can bring back their loved ones. And the dead are… dead, and never coming back. Their situation is the very paradigm of irreversibility. Each situation the Talmud invokes is more irreversible than the one before, and hence, I think, also more frightening. Yes, the Talmud appears to be saying, these people’s circumstances are scary. Stay with them instead of fleeing.
Faced with a situation that makes us stare the depth and extent of out vulnerability in the face, most of us want to flee. Here, then, is Judaism’s message: You want to serve God? Run towards the very people and places you most want to run away from. You want to be religious? Learn to be present for other people when they are in pain. All the rest is commentary.
Laura Wellington posted the following story on Facebook; within a day or two, it had gone viral:
As some of you know, I was 1/2 mile from the finish line when the explosion went off. I had no idea what was going on until I finally stopped and asked someone. Knowing that my family was at the finish line waiting for me, I started panicking, trying to call them. Diverted away from the finish line, I started walking down Mass Ave towards Symphony Hall still not knowing where my family was. Right before the intersection of Huntington, I was able to get in touch with Bryan and found out he was with my family and they were safe. I was just so happy to hear his voice that I sat down and started crying. Just couldn't hold it back.
At that moment, a couple walking by stopped. The woman took the space tent off her husband, who had finished the marathon, and wrapped it around me. She asked me if I was okay, if I knew where my family was. I reassured her I knew where they were and I would be ok. The man then asked me if I finished to which I nodded "no." He then proceeded to take the medal off from around his neck and placed it around mine. He told me "you are a finisher in my eyes." I was barely able to choke out a "thank you" between my tears.
I don’t think—though who knows!—that Brent Cunningham of Sitka, Alaska is a religious Jew. But on Monday, he certainly walked in God’s ways.
As they always are, the stories out of Boston following the attacks were beautiful— the runners who finished the race and ran back to help and comfort the injured, marathoners running off the course to go give blood, thousands of strangers opening their homes—and more.
I was talking to a dear friend--one of my rabbis-- this week, wondering what words we could share tonight that would bring some comfort, that would allow us to be angry and sad, but also move us forward. She reminded me that life is really scary, precarious and uncertain and these situations bring that everyday reality a little to close and a little too real. She’s right, of course. We know in our own lives, in our own private stories, that life can change in an instant. And moments like these, these national tragedies, bring that home—writ large. We see our fears played out on the big screen, in living color and high-def details. So, what do we do?

Kathleen Treanor’s daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, 18 years ago today. She wrote a public piece for the family of Martin Richard, the 8 year old boy killed in Monday’s attack. His mother and sister remain in critical condition, and so she wrote that she would eventually reach out to them personally, but they are too far in grief and disbelief. And so instead, she directed her words toward all of us. She wrote:

What I want to tell them is that they didn’t do anything wrong. They were living their life without fear, and they have to continue to live their life without fear in honor of their boy. That’s the way you move forward. You’ll get angry. You’ll go through all the phases of grief, but eventually you’ll get to acceptance. And acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve let go of the person you lost, but you understand where you are now.

And so, just as Yom HaZikaron gives way to Yom HaAtzmaut, and just as next Patriot’s Day thousands will again line up to run the Boston Marathon—we will move forward, just as we each do in our own lives and our own griefs. We will move forward, as the song says, holding on to the honey and the stinger, the bitter and the sweet.

But, Kathleen Treanor goes on to add something important, something that—consciously and unconsciously—we all came for tonight. She writes about what she learned in the aftermath of her loss, a loss that changed our society. She writes:

We need each other. That’s why we live together. Do not pretend that you’re disconnected, because you’re not. That’s why we choose to live in communities like we do. We need to be there for each other. Don’t assume that your neighbor is coping. They’re probably not. That’s what we learned in Oklahoma 18 years ago. That we’re stronger in numbers.

As we always do, in the honey and the stinger, in the bitter and the sweet-we come together. We share the words of our liturgy, that we go to bed tonight in peace—and wake up in the morning to a world that is a little brighter, a little better, a little more hopeful. We wish Shabbat Shalom to a stranger, we hug a loved one a little closer. We walk in the world with a little more empathy, a little more compassion, a little more kindness.  We try to walk in God’s ways.

And then, acharei mot--kedoshim n'hiyu: after the deaths….we will be holy.

Ken Yehi Ratzon--may it be so.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Each of Us Has a Name: #YomHaShoah Reflection 5773

Each year, the synagogues of the Upper West Side, organized by the JCC of Manhattan, gather to read the names of those murdered by the Nazis. The reading begins at 10PM, and goes all the way through until 6PM the next day.

 Each year, the rabbis of Upper West Side synagogues and organizations begin the reading. This year, we read names from the Jewish community of Lithuania.

Each year, I am struck by the familiarity of the names. And this year, I was struck by the number of spaces in which there was only a last name, a void, someone forever missing from a family--but not from our memory.

(Image from 5772)

Each of Us Has A Name
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.
~ Zelda ~
(Trans. by Marcia Lee Falk in
Beloved on the Earth, ed. by
J. Perman, D. Cooper, M. Hart, and P. Mittlefehldt)

Each year, we read about 14, 000 names. We're going to be reading for a long time to come. 

Never forget.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Turning #Knesset into a Beit Midrash: Ruth Calderon and Remembering David Hartman

'The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it as we create the realities of our lives."
-Dr. Ruth Calderon, MK

Years ago, long before I fell in love with Talmud and Talmud study, I had the chance to study with Ruth Calderon. Dr. Calderon, who fell in love with rabbinic texts and study as an adult, is the founder of Israel's first "secular" yeshiva. In founding Alma College, Dr. Calderon created a space where men and women, observant and non-observant Israelis could come together and study Judaism's classic texts. In a recent op-ed in HaAretz, Vered Kellner writes that: "the idea that the Jewish "bookshelf," which had been the property of Orthodox Jews, could be made available to Jews of all backgrounds was to a great extent Calderon's idea."

This year, Ruth Calderon was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament as part of the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party. In her first speech to Knesset, this non-Orthodox, Jewishly educated, passionate, liberal, committed Israeli woman stood and taught Talmud. She turned the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, into a Beit Midrash--a house of study. The video, in Hebrew, is here. The English translation, was just published by The Jewish Week. I confess, I have watched and read it a number of times since yesterday; I am so deeply moved by not only her words, but the very fact of what she did and who she is.

She was an inspiring teacher--passionate, learned, engaging. Long before I knew what I would love to teach, I knew I would hope to teach like her. And I have to confess that just as her speech brought tears to my eyes, so did the email from a dear friend, including the link and the words: Saw this and thought so much of you. 

This week, we mourn the loss of a true gadol, a giant of Jewish thought. I cannot possibly do justice to life, thought, and work of Dr. David Hartman, but I know that I--and I think anyone who engages in Jewish thought, practice, ritual, and the Jewish future--would not be who and what I am without him. I never learned with him, but I owe a great debt to his ongoing commitment to helping Jews--all Jews-- find deep meaning in our tradition, to creating a meaningful Judaism for ourselves. 

Dr. Calderon cites Rabbi Hartman as well, calling him a mentor and a guide, someone who opened the doors of his beit midrash, inviting her in to study and grow. I am no David Hartman, not even close, nor am I a Ruth Calderon. But I can only hope that each day, in some way, I am able to open the doors of the beit midrash--the tradition of Jewish text and learning--to someone, allowing them to learn and grow and begin to shape their Judaism. I hope each day to help people receive the gift of Torah, and to help it shape our lives.

Ken yehi ratzon--may it be so.