At Home and On the Road

I'm in Buffalo, New York, for a few days, visiting family.  I haven't been here since my grandmother's funeral in late 2002, which is way too long.  Although I never lived here, it's a kind of second home to me.  Both of my parents grew up here, and as a child, I spent lots of time here with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins--my whole extended family, really.  I'm staying with my Aunt Toby and Uncle John in their beautiful contemporary home that my uncle--a very accomplished architect--designed, and it is a real pleasure.

My aunt and I begin the morning with a short driving tour of the city.  A lot has happened since I've last been here.  Like many Rust Belt cities, Buffalo has been down for a long time.  Even when I came as a boy, there were lots of abandoned warehouses, decaying infrastructure, dilapidated neighborhoods.  The steel mills and other heavy industry left in the late '60s and early '70s and the bottom fell out of the economy.  Folks moved away, largely to warmer sun belt cities.  Young people departed in droves.  When my grandfather, Joseph Fink, was a rabbi here, Buffalo was a major American city, in the nation's top ten most populous urban areas.  Today it doesn't crack the top fifty.

But the city is experiencing a renaissance.  As we drive through the streets of downtown, I see some of those abandoned warehouses being transformed into urban condos, where young people want to live.  There are micro-brew pubs on many corners and a renewed sense of civic pride.

Our first stop is Forest Lawn Cemetery.  It's a huge place, a city of the dead, including quite a few historical figures of note.  I go to my paternal grandparents' gravesite and leave two stones.  My grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Fink, died when I was a small boy and I have only the dimmest memories of him.   Yet many folks here still remember him fondly and vividly, and I like to think that some of his spirit lives on in me.  I hope that I have some of his gifts as a rabbi and a teacher.   By contrast, my grandmother, my Oma, was a powerful force in my life.  She was the unquestioned matriarch of our family: incredibly smart, tough, gracious, loyal.  She encouraged me to be a writer, to stand tall in my beliefs, to speak my mind.  It is a great honor to visit their graves.

My maternal grandparents, Ray and Inez Hoffman, are also in Forest Lawn.  But they are not buried.  My grandfather hated the thought of being in the earth, so he bought vaults in the mausoleum or, as he called it, "The Condo."  I went there, too, but did not take a picture, as it felt weird taking pictures indoors in the mausoleum.  They were both enormously influential people in life.  My Papa owned a prominent printing press in town.  He was quite the character: strong, opinionated, sometimes prickly but a very loving grandfather, and a master story teller.  We loved hearing his tall tales and I like to think that some of that wore off on me.  My grandmother was the hostess par excellence, a superb cook and baker, generous and kind.  A good friend, a wonderful listener.

All of my grandparents gave me extraordinary gifts.

After the cemetery, we go to the Albright-Knox Gallery.  One wouldn't know, from the neo-classical exterior, that it is one of the finest contemporary art galleries in the country.  Aunt Toby and I have lunch in their very hip cafe and then take in the collection: Jackson Pollack, Rothko, Calder, etc.  I see a lot that I like but my favorite is the piece outside, made up entirely of old aluminum canoes.  The first boat I ever owned as a Grumman, which I bought for $50 from a suite-mate my freshman year of college.  There's nowhere I'd rather be than on a river, but this was pretty close: a kind of wild flowering of canoes!




In the afternoon, I go for a walk down Elmwood Ave, which is at the heart of Buffalo's urban renewal, a strip that features old houses, new boutiques, restaurants, and parks.  It feels to me like the heart of this city, the combination of old grandeur from its urban heyday at the turn of the 20th century and the grit that has sustained it through more difficult times.  There's a kind of beauty in the decay, too--and I've always been drawn to that kind of beauty.

I pass the house where my mother's parents lived just before she got married to my dad.  It's still pretty grand.

Then I walk by so many classic Buffalo vistas, houses and pubs and grungy streets and elegant avenues.






Dinner is back at Toby and John's, with my cousin Lynn Hirsch and the new rabbi at Beth Zion and his wife, who is an accomplished ketubah artist.  It's a great evening of conversation, laughter, shared memories, new perspectives, fabulous food and thought-provoking discussion.

It's good to be back here.





Posted: February 22, 2017, 1:53 pm
Thursday, February 16

I arrive in the sleek Raleigh-Durham airport after a long flight from Boise and my mom picks me up outside.  It's good to be here.  It has been too long since I've last visited.  Great to see Mom and nice to experience the lovely early spring weather here.


Friday, February 17

We start the day attending a classical music class at Mom's synagogue, Judea Reform, here in Chapel Hill.  The congregation's new music director teaches the class, and it's terrific.  He focuses on pieces that composers have based on earlier composers' works: Brahms' variations on Paganini and Elgar's Enigma Variations.   He has a great time playing clips and sharing stories, and he's superb at offering non-musicians some basic music theory that helps us appreciate the works.  It's a reminder of how much I love music, of all kinds, and learning more about it.


Mom and I have a lovely lunch together, I work out at the gym, and then Charlie joins us for Shabbat dinner at Mom's house.  It is such a pleasure to have Shabbat dinner with my mother, and to not have to worry about running off to lead services myself!  I think it's important for clergy to have opportunities to sit in the pews, to be part of the congregation.  The service looks and feels so different from here than it does on the bimah.  And yet it's the perspective that everyone except us shares all the time!

The service itself features a guest artist, Cantor Linda Hirschhorn.  So between her and the music director from the shul, there is a lot of wonderful music.  I've always thought the ideal service is sung from beginning to start, without any reading (which, in my view, always diminishes the energy level).  This one is pretty close.  Cantor Hirschorn tells a terrific story about growing up in an Orthodox shul in New York, how hearing the cohanim (those descending from the ancient priests) offering their blessings awakened a sense of mystery and awe and musicality for her as a little girl watching from the women's section upstairs.  And the rabbi, Larry Bach, offers a short, inspiring and insightful d'var Torah.  I really like the physical space, which is open, light, contemporary, accessible and egalitarian, and surprisingly warm.  It's a peaceful and joyful night, a Shabbat full of shalom.

Saturday, February 18

I drive out to Durham to attend Shabbat morning services at the Conservative Beth El congregation.  More often than not, when I'm out of town, I prefer the Conservative service on Shabbat morning.  The place is very different from Judea Reform.  The building is kind of ramshackle, but the way everything--from the paint on the walls to the wood paneling to the old editions of the Siddur Sim Shalom--is a little worn is comforting to me.  It shows the abundant use that comes of love.  The service itself is much the same: long, rambling, heimish.  The congregants seem like a real community, shmoozing and genuinely happy to see one another.  And the rabbi is like the head of the family, sharing little bits of midrash here and there throughout the morning, imparting his wisdom without any arrogance or pretension.  It's a nice place to be.  The Torah portion, Yitro, is my Bar Mitzvah portion, and to my surprise, unlike many Conservative congregations that follow the triennial cycle, this one reads the entire parshah.  The rabbi's brief d'var focuses on the opening, on why Moses' father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro) joins the Jewish people.  He quotes different commentators who note that he was drawn to join us because of our history, our love of Torah, and his familial connection.  And how different things bind us all to Judaism.  For some it is first and foremost an ethnic (familial) tie, for others it is about learning, and for some it is about the history of being strangers and the social justice mandate that flows from this.  It was a new take on a portion that I've been reading for many years!

After shul, I took a nap, then helped Mom prepare for a party that we are hosting in the evening.  We pick up food at the Mediterranean Deli and it's all delicious: falafel, hummus, pita, kebabs, rice.  The guests are great, too.  We start with havdallah, then settle in for a beautiful evening.  Mom's friends are all smart, thoughtful, politically-engaged.  I'm reminded of how much I admire the life that my mother has built here.  She came to Chapel Hill almost twenty-five years ago, when she retired.  When she arrived, she knew no one.  And during the years that followed, on her own, she built a fabulous life for herself, filled with friendships and learning and entertaining.  She is always gracious and loyal and remains intellectually curious, learning new things daily as she approaches her 80th birthday.  I am a lucky person to have her as my Mom.

Sunday, February 19

Mom and I work out at the gym in the morning.  I'm trying hard to do my exercising regularly, so that I'm in decent shape for my forthcoming trek in Patagonia.  I've put on too many extra pounds and they come off slowly at my age.  Day by day, bit by bit.

We spend the afternoon at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  It's a surprisingly large and impressive gallery.  The Judaica section is terrific, and there's a visiting exhibit of photos by Ansel Adams.  I've seen most of these pictures before; they are iconic.  Yet it's different to see all of them in one place, beautifully mounted and framed, and larger than I'd expected.  Such a glorious window to the American landscape, and to the range of light that a master's eye and camera take in.





We have dinner at a Thai restaurant, where I order my usual, Pad Prik King with tofu.  I get it pretty much every time I eat Thai food, so I'm kind of the King of Pad Prik King.  This one is good, and Mom and Charlie also enjoy their dinner.  Then home and to bed and off in the morning to my next stop, Buffalo.

I'm so thankful to Mom for her hospitality, and for the warmth of spring and the promise of new life blooming around us.

Posted: February 21, 2017, 2:18 am
Sunday, February 5


I get up relatively early (at least for this Alaskan sojourn)—9 am—to teach Sunday school at 9:30.  There are about  twenty kids, from kindergarten to sixth grade, and they’re a lovely bunch.  The teacher is a good story teller and she recounts the tale of Isaac and Rebecca with love and patience.  She’s clearly grown up with a Chabad background, as there are lots of references to HaShem  and frequent interjections of bli neder.  But there’s the Alaskan twist—she wears her long skirt with heavy mukluk boots and has that hardy, independent streak that brings folks here.  I lead the morning tefillah with the kids, show them how to put on tallit and tefillin and share a song for Tu B’Shevat, which arrives next week, in the thick of the Alaskan winter. 

In the afternoon, I take my longest drive of my stay, to Chena Hot Springs, sixty miles out from Fairbanks.  It’s a gorgeous trip, mostly following the frozen river and snow-blanketed forest.  The place is a big complex, with a couple of lodges where many folks stay the night (remember—Chinese couples trying to get pregnant under the aurora).  I soak for about an hour and a half in their outdoor pool.  It’s amazing to be in 104 degree water while it’s -6 outside.  The rocks around the pool are all covered with snow and ice, and the steam is so thick in the cold air that it’s hard to see anything.  But the water is soft and sulfurous and feels fabulous. 











I drive back to Fairbanks, listening to the end of the Super Bowl.  Of course the Patriots win.  It’s that kind of year—a Trumpian team for a Trumpian season.  But out here, the Super Bowl feels small and far away and pretty damn insignificant—which, despite all the hoopla, is exactly what it is.  I enjoy dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, rest for a bit, and go back out for one last night on Clearly Summit.

There are far fewer cars up there on a Sunday night, and no busses at all.  Just me, a few young Chinese students and a middle-aged Texan tourist.  We wait.  And wait.  And wait.  For three hours.  But nothing materializes other than a faint glow.  At 2:00 am, we all head home.  Surprisingly, I’m not disappointed.  Yes, I’d have liked to have seen the aurora one last time.  But in a way, this only makes me feel more fortunate to have seen the show I did on Saturday night.  Rarity is part of what makes things beautiful.  If the northern lights played on cue, they wouldn’t be as special.  Besides, even without the lights, I love being out in the bracing cold and dark.  I think to myself: sabbatical is off to a good start.




Monday, February 6


I sleep late, waking around 11 am, after getting to bed at four last night.  Tonight, I head back to Seattle.  I call Janet and talk with her.  The challenging part about this sabbatical is being away from her and the kids so much.  I miss them dearly.  My time apart from them only makes me more aware of how extraordinarily lucky I am to have them in my life. 

I work out at the student rec building at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  I’ve managed to do this almost every day of this trip.  It’s a little like the Boise YMCA: quirky, a tad ragged at the edges, friendly, warm.  A place of community.

Then back to pack.  I gather up my things, do some laundry, head to the airport, return my rental car.  My flight is delayed again and again and again and we finally leave around 9 pm, arriving in Seattle around 1:30 am.  More late night hours.  Check in at the Belltown Inn, finally to sleep before my day with Tanya at Bastyr.  Then home to Boise.


Posted: February 7, 2017, 11:56 pm
Friday, February 3


I sleep in after getting to bed around 2:00 or so.  This is easy, given the late sunrise, and my room is very dark.  Then I enjoy a quiet morning, reading Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union.  Time to read is one of the great luxuries of being on sabbatical.  I have a lot of books on my list for the coming months: on pilgrimage, and Lithuania, and Jewish life, and a  host of other matters.  But I love reading books set in the location I’m visiting and so it is a pleasure to pick up Chabon’s quirky novel about a fictional Jewish state in Alaska.


At noon I head back out Chena Hot Springs Road, past the farm where I did yesterday’s wedding, to a place called “Just Like Magic” that offers dog sled rides.   Once again, I arrive to find it’s me and a busload of Chinese tourists.  I bundle up and meet Heidi, my musher.  Then I settle into the sled for the one hour, seven mile ride.








It’s so fun!  Heidi leads the team of eight dogs through gorgeous forest, first pine and then birch.  It isn’t light for all that long up here in February, but when the sun is shining, the light is golden and gorgeous.  The sun never rises very high over the horizon, so it’s always that guilded quality of illumination that seems to glow from within all it strikes.  And the sky is cerulean blue.  So we slide along the paths in the sub-zero sunlight and Heidi tells stories of mushing.  She did the Iditirod last year, and loved being out with the dogs, sledding through the wilderness in the long Alaskan nights, the auroras dancing overhead, and sleeping by day on straw beds with her dogs providing warmth.  The dogs clearly love to run and she loves to run them, and our hour goes by too quickly.






On my way back to town, I’m cruising down the road when I stop for a crossing moose.  Quite the sight!





I spend the afternoon doing some Shabbat prep, and schmoozing with Beth, the synagogue’s office manager and only paid employee (she’s also a member),  and her granddaughter, who has the day off from school.  Beth makes a few copies for me, and I listen to her stories of Alaskan Jewish life.


In the evening, I lead services at Or HaTzafon, the northernmost synagogue in the world.  They have a good sense of humor, calling themselves the “frozen chosen.”  About twenty-five people show up for Shabbat evening, which is, as everyone notes,  a great turnout for the winter season.  During the summer, when Fairbanks is full of tourists, they have a rabbinic intern from HUC who stays for a couple of months.  But they are not accustomed to having a rabbi in the winter.  They appreciate my being here—and I’m grateful to be here, too.  I lead; they point me to the melodies that they know.  The portion is Bo, which recounts the final three plagues.  I focus my d’var Torah on darkness, which is the common tie between those plagues: locust so numerous that their swarms darken the sun; arafelet, the thick darkness that descends upon the Egyptians’ dwellings; and the slaying of the first born, which happens at midnight, the darkest hour of the day.  I note that these are also dark days for America, with the Trump administration’s cruel orders against refugees and immigrants and venomous attitude toward the free press.  Then I remind them—and myself—that darkness is also the place where life is born and nurtured, where seeds germinate, and roots do the quiet but essential labor to feed what blooms above the earth.  As Sue Monk Kidd teaches, the darkness that we fear as a tomb can also be a womb.  It’s not a new message for me, but here in Alaska, in February, when the days are so short, in a season of political peril unmatched in my lifespan, it feels poignant and timely.


The community reminds me a bit of my own.  They are unpretentious, hardy, haimish.  Lots of mixed marriages, almost all moved here from somewhere else.  They express gratitude, they represent the “do it yourself” Judaism of smaller Jewish populations, they love the outdoors and are proud of who they are.  Being with them reminds me of how much I love my congregation, how lucky I am to be the rabbi of my community.  After services, I go out for a late Shabbat dinner with two congregants, including the president, at a sushi restaurant.  And then to bed.






Saturday, February 4


I lead a “Bagels and Torah” study session for a small but enthusiastic group at Or HaTzafon.  We focus on Pharaoh’s hardened heart—and our own hearts' hardenings.  It’s a lovely discussion, a joyful learning together.  How lucky we are, as Jews, to have this Torah, which instructs and inspires us.  We approach it so differently, in so many ways.  Yet wherever we are, it goes with us, it guides us.


I enjoy a Shabbat nap, then plan to go to a tribal potlatch with a friend I know from Boise who is living here.  But when we show up, it’s already filled beyond capacity, so I enjoy another quiet Thai meal and then head back out to Cleary Summit for another chance to see the aurora.


I arrive around 11 pm and this time it’s much more crowded than on Thursday night.  The lot is packed with cars and tour busses.  But not much is happening.  For two hours, there’s just a very pale band across the center of the sky, running through the north star, Polaris, which is almost directly overhead at this latitude.  We sit in our cars, get out and walk around a bit, set  our cameras on our tripods, then get back in the cars to warm up.  So it goes for a couple of hours.  By 1 am, I am getting tired and prepare to leave.





And then the sky explodes in light!  But "explodes" is the wrong verb, really, because it’s nothing like fireworks, which are beautiful but also loud and violent and war-like—the rockets’ red glare.  This is soft, feminine, shimmery.  The lights move—astoundingly!—like a group of female Motown singers from the ‘60s, sashaying with utmost grace in their elegant gowns.  Curtains of green and yellow and red undulate across the sky.  I say the blessing again, this time with astonishment and wonder and awe.  The Holy One really does renew the work of creation, all the time, sometimes—most often—with real subtlety, but on rare occasion, such as this, with miraculous exuberance.  This is what I’ve wanted to see all my life, and I am immensely grateful for the show.  Then, just as quickly as it began, the show ends, around 1:30 am, and I head home to Fairbanks, filled with wonder and gratitude.


Posted: February 7, 2017, 11:44 pm
Wednesday, February 1


My sabbatical begins well, with a lot of walking.  I arrive at the Seattle airport mid-morning, catch the light rail into town, and stroll around the city center for a few hours.  The weather is crisp blue skies and surprisingly cold—which is a relief since I am wearing my super heavy-duty Alaska down coat, lent by a friend, which was way too bulky to pack.  It feels good to be on sabbatical, though I suspect it will take me a significant chunk of time to settle into the new routine of no set work routine. 


I meet for lunch with a friend and former CABI member who now lives in Seattle.  We enjoy a terrific falafel—maybe the best I’ve had outside of Israel—and I notice that I don’t mind the incredibly slow service, as don’t have anywhere I have to be any time too soon.  What a luxury. 


After more walking—cranes everywhere in the downtown core of this booming city—I meet Tanya at the Capitol Hill light rail station around 3:45, after she finishes her classes at Bastyr.  It’s great to see her, as she picks me up in her still-newish car I bought for her last summer.  I think how blessed I am to have a grown up daughter who is driving me around her city.  We go out for a delicious early vegan dinner and ice cream and then she drops me back at the light rail, where I catch the train back to the airport for my flight to Fairbanks.


The flight is happily uneventful and I arrive around 10:30 pm.  I remember the airport here from my last visit, back in 2009.  It’s surprisingly large and lovely for this small and rather ramshackle town—no doubt a bit of political pork barrel.  Then I get my rental car and drive to the synagogue, Or HaTzafon, the Light of the North. 





When I pull into the synagogue, Charles and his family are waiting to let me in.  I’m amazed that his young daughter is up this late but they’re all in great spirits and so welcoming!  I unpack, settle in, and go to sleep.

Thursday, February 2

I start my sojourn in Alaska with a wedding.


Michael and Shi Yi were hoping to get married under the aurora but the aurora didn’t cooperate.  So instead, they ask if I’ll marry them at 10:30 am (just as the sun is rising) in a field at Arctic Roots, the farm where they are staying outside of town.

I drive out there—about 25 minutes down the snowy Chena Hot Springs Road—and do the wedding, knee deep in snow in front of a small herd of yaks.  The only witnesses are the couple who own the farm—a hardy pair who previously lived in a cabin they built together, off the grid, with no plumbing or electricity.  Michael and Shi Yi exchange their rings and vows, I chant the sheva brachot, the yaks nod “Amen” and he breaks the glass on a wooden board atop a patch of hard-packed snow.






For lunch, I have the first of several Thai meals, as Fairbanks seems full of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.  There seems to be a significant Asian population here.  In fact, I noticed that Fairbanks is far more diverse than I’d expected.  I suppose some of this comes from the large military population, and the tribal community, too.  Many mixed race couples.  I learn a bit more about the history at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center downtown, on the banks of the frozen Chena River.  Then I go shopping at Safeway, to stock the refrigerator and pantry back at the synagogue.  One of my goals for this sabbatical is to eat healthily and lose some way, so having a good supply of fruit and vegetables and healthy snacks is important.  Of course everything costs twice as much as at home.  It’s expensive to live in Alaska, given the cost of transporting stuff up here to the far north.


I rest and read and study the map of the city.  I really want to get a feel for the lay of the land.  One of the hazards of Google maps and GPS is that you can get around a city without ever orienting yourself.  You just go where the technology tells you, with no sense of direction.  I don’t want to do that.  And Fairbanks is small, so I can learn it pretty quickly.  I want to be mindful, to know where I’m going.


And where I’m going tonight is Cleary Summit, a suggested spot for watching the aurora.  It’s about 25 miles out of town, down the Steese Highway.  It’s mostly pretty easy driving, then gets a little tougher the last few miles as we climb up the mountain and the road becomes icier.  But when I arrive, around 11 pm, there are quite a few cars and a couple busses full of Chinese tourists.


We all sit and stand around in the flat lot atop Cleary Summit.  I’ve heard that for many Asian couples, coming to Fairbanks for the northern lights is a kind of pilgrimage.  It’s said to be especially propitious to make love under the lights—a path for previously infertile couples to be pregnant.  Nobody is making love up here.  Most are sitting in their cars, a few get out to set out cameras on tripods.  It’s around -10 degrees, the sky is crystal clear.  I find it bracing and love walking around in the cold. 


And then others start coming out of their vehicles and the busses empty out—the aurora arrives.  Sort of.  It’s a faint, greenish band stretching low across the northwestern sky.  I take a picture using the “starry sky” setting on my new camera.  The long exposure—thirty seconds—yields an image that is, in fact, way more vivid than what we see with our naked eyes.  It’s beautiful on the camera screen.  In person, it’s lovely, too.  Not amazing, but lovely.  And I get to say the blessing over astronomical phenomena: Baruch atah. . . oseh ma’aseh b’reishit—Praised are You, Holy One, who makes the work of creation.  I’ve waited a long time and come a far piece to have this opportunity and I treasure it.  We all watch, and wait, and then, around 1:00 or so, the lights fade and we head home.






Posted: February 7, 2017, 11:22 pm

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, God tells Moses, “I appeared to your ancestors. . . but I did not make myself known to them by my name, YHVH. “  As Rabbi David Cooper notes, this sacred (and unpronounceable) name is, in fact, a verb, implying “being”—or, better yet, “becoming.”  Moses is the first to experience God as God truly exists—not as a noun, but a verb, an eternally unfolding process.


This wisdom has radical—and beautiful—implications for humanity.  For if, as Torah teaches, we are created in the divine image, then we, too, are verbs.  Perhaps this is at the root of the term “human being.”  As Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen notes, “Each of us is unfinished, a work in progress. Perhaps it would be most accurate to add the word ‘yet’ to all our assessments of ourselves and each other . . . If life is process, all judgments are provisional, we can't judge something until it is finished. No one has won or lost until the race is over . . .”


I love this notion that we, like God, are always becoming.  Life never stops offering up obstacles, challenges, and opportunities to grow.  As my favorite musician, and recent Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan notes: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” 


This is my last e-Torah before I start my sabbatical.  From February 1 through August 1, I will be away: traveling, reading, renewing family ties, exploring my roots, and re-tooling for the future.  During this time, at home and away, I hope to learn new skills, discover new strengths, seek new wisdom, and push myself to grow as a rabbi and as a person.  My goal is to return to you reinvigorated and re-inspired as I enter the final years of this congregational-rabbinic journey that we share together.


I know that during my time away, you, too, will grow.  New leaders will step up in my absence, and experienced leaders will find new callings.  The congregation is in good hands—all of your hands—during this season.   CABI will flourish in the months ahead.


I am deeply grateful to the CABI board and staff, and the entire leadership team that has made it possible for me to enjoy this extraordinary opportunity, and I look forward to sharing many new stories together come August.  Meanwhile, you can follow my travels on my blog at: http://rabbidanfink.blogspot.com



May our journeys—our becomings—individual and collective, bring blessing to us all. 


Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek—Let us be strong and let us strengthen one another.



Rabbi Dan

Posted: January 22, 2017, 6:46 am

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah,  “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.                         (Exodus 1:15-17)


The king used all sorts of devices to render the midwives amenable to his wishes.  He approached them with amorous proposals, which they both repelled, and then he threatened them with death by fire.  But they resisted.  Indeed, instead of murdering the babies, they supplied all their needs.  If a mother that had given birth to a child lacked food and drink, the midwives went to well-to-do women and took up a collection, so the poor infant might not suffer want.

                                    (Midrash cited in Legends of the Jews)


Our Torah portion, Shemot—which opens the book of Exodus—feels incredibly timely this Inauguration week, as it describes the world’s first recorded act of civil disobedience.  When an immoral tyrant—in this case, Pharaoh—issues an unjust decree, the midwives Shifra and Puah actively resist, bravely refusing to kill the Hebrews’ baby boys.  The midrash goes even farther, suggesting that they continued to actively aid the babies and their families after the births.


This is a bold—and essential—text.  Under ordinary circumstances, our tradition calls us to show utmost respect for the civil authorities.  As the Talmud notes: Dina d’malchuta dina—the law of the land is binding on the Jewish community.  To which Rabbi Chanina added: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.”  Yet the Rabbis recognized that this principle of dina d’malchuta dina does not apply in the case of unjust laws and authorities.  When rulers and policies undermine the Torah’s core ethical teachings, we are morally bound to resist them—as Shifra and Puah taught us.



I suspect that in the coming weeks and months, we will need to draw on their courage and resolve.  May the Holy One of Justice and Compassion guide us on the forthcoming journey.

Posted: January 16, 2017, 5:10 am


Upon his deathbed, Joseph revealed visions he’d had, in which the future of Israel was made known to him.  He closed with these words: “I know that the Egyptians will oppress you after my death, but God will lead you to the land of promise.  You must remember to carry my bones with you, for if my remains are taken to Canaan, the Eternal will be with you. . .”   (Midrash Rabbah)


This week’s Torah portion, Va-y’chi, closes the book of Genesis.  It concludes with the death of Joseph, and the midrash above elaborates on that scene.  Joseph has always been a visionary, with the God-given ability to foresee future events.  Now, as he prepares to die, he shares his last prophecy.  He recognizes that difficult times lie ahead—and notes that they will end with the promise of redemption.  He also insists that when that moment of liberation arrives, the Israelites should take his bones with them as they journey toward the promised land.


This message seems especially timely.  This is a challenging season for our nation.  Many of us see dark days on the horizon.  It is worth remembering, though, that the light will, ultimately, return—if we keep faith and work for justice and compassion.  Now, more than ever, we are called upon to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  Our calling is to preserve the best of our country’s historical legacy, and to carry it forward through the struggles, just as our ancestors kept faith with Joseph, taking his bones out of Egypt and into Canaan.



The poet Theodore Roethke wrote: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”  So may it be for us.  May we partake of our forefather Joseph’s vision, looking toward redemption even—especially—in the most trying of times.

Posted: January 7, 2017, 1:37 am
You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a God

You who stand above them now
Your hatchets blunt and bloody
You were not there before
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word


And if you call me brother now
Forgive me if I inquire
"Just according to whose plan?"
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can

When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must
I will kill you if I can
And mercy on our uniform
Man of peace or man of war
The peacock spreads his fan

                        Leonard Cohen, The Story of Isaac


In this fall’s e-Torah, I’m focusing on midrash on the weekly portion.  For the most part, this means classic rabbinic commentary, but midrash really means “interpretation”—and that process of encountering and wrestling with the biblical text is a living one that very much continues in our time.  In that spirit, this week I’m sharing a text from a song, The Story of Issaac, by Leonard Cohen, z”l, who died on Thursday. 


The Torah portion ends with the Akedah, the account of the binding of Isaac that many know from the reading on Rosh Hashanah morning.  In Cohen’s telling, this terse tale becomes an anti-war hymn and cautionary warning against all the callous ways that we still sacrifice our children.  While God spared Isaac, too many are not granted such a reprieve.  Cohen introduced the song this way in a 1968 session with the BBC: “There's a story in the Bible about Isaac, how his father summoned him to go and climb a mountain, how his father built an altar there after he had been commanded to offer up his son.  And just at the last moment before he was about to sacrifice Isaac, an angel held the hand of the father.  But today the children are being sacrificed and no one raises a hand to end the sacrifice.  And this is what this song is about.”


This week, consider: How are we still leading our children to the altar?  What societal changes do we need to make to better tend to them and their future?



And for a fine performance of the entire song:


Posted: November 11, 2016, 5:47 am

Abraham's father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop.  A woman came in with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, "Take this and offer it to the gods.”  Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.

When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. "Who did this?" he cried. "How can I hide anything from you?" replied Abraham calmly. "A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, "I'm going to eat first." Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces."

"What are you trying to pull on me?" asked Terach, "Do they have minds?"

Said Abraham: "Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?"

                                    Midrash Genesis Rabbah


The midrash about Abraham smashing his father’s idols is perhaps the best known of all rabbinic tales.   It is so oft-told that many Jews mistakenly believe it’s found in the Torah itself.  In fact, Torah says nothing about Terach being an idolator.  So why is this story so popular?


I believe it points to the centrality of iconoclasm in Jewish life.  According to the midrash, Abraham’s call commences only after he destroys his father’s gods.  One might think that his life journey starts with the command “Lech L’chah!—Go forth!” that opens this week’s portion and bestows its name—but it doesn’t.  Instead, all that Abraham will accomplish begins with an act of destruction.  In order to create something new, Abraham must first question everything that came before him.  He is not content to maintain the status quo for its own sake—he’s determined to blaze his own path.  Abraham’s unwavering pursuit of truth leads him to monotheism, to a belief in the one God who will enter into a covenantal relationship with him and the Jewish people to follow.  We are his heirs.


It is no accident that Jewish iconoclasts have changed the world time and again.  Our prophets had the chutzpah to challenge societal norms—and even argue with God.  In our time, Jewish artists, scientists, and social activists have maintained this proud tradition of questioning established traditions and putting forth visions of a better world. 



This week, consider taking some time to reflect on your own past.  What “idols” did you have to shatter to launch yourself on your own journey into adulthood?

Posted: November 11, 2016, 5:45 am

Whenever people saw Noah occupying himself with the building of the ark—which took 120 years—they would ask: “Why are you building this boat?”  Noah would respond: “Because God is going to bring a flood upon the earth [unless you change your harmful ways].”


The people would respond: “What sort of flood?  If God sends a flood of fire, we know how to protect ourselves.  If it is a flood of waters, then if the waters bubble up from the earth, we will cover them with iron rods, and if they descend from above, we know a remedy against that, too.”

                                                  -Midrash Genesis Rabbah


Sometimes, to our detriment—or even our doom—we ignore what should be obvious warning signs.  In the midrash on this week’s Torah portion, Noach, Noah trys to warn his contemporaries about the coming deluge.  He builds the ark publicly, over a very long period of time, so that others might observe him and inquire about his efforts.  This works—they ask—but their response to his explanation is not what he expects.  When he tells them that God is preparing to wipe them out unless they repent, they insist they can thwart the floodwaters.  Instead of changing their behavior, they double down on it.  This deadly combination of arrogance and denial becomes the downfall of dor ha-mabul, the generation of the deluge.  Only Noah and his family will survive.


Alas, it seems we have not yet taken to heart the lesson of this Torah tale.  In the face of insurmountable scientific evidence of catastrophic climate change, our response so far looks stunningly similar to that of Noah’s contemporaries.  We deny the problem or arrogantly insist that we can use technology to overcome it.  Instead of examining and altering our misguided behavior at the root of the crisis, we either deny its existence or brazenly proclaim our faith in fanciful technological solutions. 


Rabbi Lawrence Kushner taught: Torah is not true because it actually happened, historically, as recorded; it is true in a deeper and more important sense—because it happens, in real time, to us.  The stories of Genesis—including Noah—have much to teach us, if we are willing to hear and contemplate the lessons they offer.  We need not repeat the errors of the flood generation—but time is running short, for us, as it did for them.  The hour is late, but disaster can still be averted if we summon the will. 



God tells Noah, “Aseh l’chah tevah.”  This is usually translated, in Torah, as “Make an ark for yourself.”  But the midrash reads it as simultaneously more literal and more metaphoric: “Make yourself an ark.”  By this interpretation, the Holy One is reminding us that each one of us can be a source of sanctuary and liberation.  May we speak—and act—on behalf of our little corner of the earth in this new year.

Posted: October 31, 2016, 8:59 pm
As we begin a new Torah cycle, starting with Bereshit—“In the beginning”—I’m taking a new approach to this fall’s e-Torah.  Instead of focusing on a text taken directly from the portion, I’m going to share thoughts on a midrash—a rabbinic commentary—on the week’s parshah.  In our Jewish tradition, we believe that the Written Torah (Hebrew Scriptures) is inextricably bound with the Oral Torah—the corpus of commentary that continues to grow in our own time.  I invite you to join me here over the next few months as we journey through the lens of Oral Torah. 


This week’s passage comes from Louis Ginzberg’s anthology of Midrash, Legends of the Jews.  It suggests that the creation story detailed in Genesis does not constitute God’s first act of formation:


God made several worlds before ours, but ultimately destroyed them all, because God was not pleased with any of them until creating ours. But even this last world would have had no permanence, if God had executed the original Divine plan of ruling it according to the principle of strict justice. It was only after God realized that justice by itself would undermine the world that God tempered justice with mercy, and made them (justice and mercy) rule jointly.


This is an important message for us as we come to the end of our fall holy day season.  First of all, it points to the importance of second—and third and fourth—chances.   If even God went through a few drafts before successfully creating our world, then we, too, are naturally going to make our share of mistakes.  The important thing is to learn from them.  As Samuel Beckett famously wrote: “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”


And second, the passage reminds us that a world governed by strict justice cannot endure.  Life is not entirely fair—and never will be.   If God judged us without mercy, none of us would pass the test.  So, too, in our appraisals of others—we should judge compassionately, otherwise we will quickly find ourselves friendless and alone.  As the old church billboard warns: “Husbands, if you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.”


This week we return to our origins, beginning, yet again, the cycle of Torah with the story of creation.  May it inspire us to be more compassionate toward one another.



Posted: October 20, 2016, 6:16 pm


A Jewish girl goes to synagogue with her father for the first time on Yom Kippur.  She’s eight or nine years old, and takes it all in with great curiosity.  Much of it moves her.  She’s enthralled by the white vestments, the large, elegantly-dressed crowd, the haunting music.  And mostly she loves being there with her father, sitting by his side, his soft tallit draped over her shoulder. 


Then the congregation crises for vidui, the communal confession of their past year’s failings.  They rap on their chests and chant the litany: Ashamnu.  Bagadnu.  Dibarnu dofi. . . . Al cheyt, al cheyt, al cheyt. . . We are arrogant, bigoted, cynical.  We’re robbed, lied, cheated, and stolen. . . on and on and on.


The girl is shocked.  With a deeply worried look, she turns to her father and cries, “Daddy, we’d better get out of here.  Everyone around us has done a lot of really bad stuff!”


The father smiles and reassures her: “My love, they’re not all guilty of everything they’re admitting.  This is just something we do together on Yom Kippur.”


“But why?” she persists, as only an eight year old can.  “Why do we beat ourselves up over mean things we didn’t even do?”


**********

It’s a good question, and not just for children.  Conservative Rabbi Mark Greenspan composed a meditation on the subject that opens:


            I have a problem with the Vidui,

            the confessional prayer that we recite

            several times during Yom Kippur.

            It seems to me that for a confession to be honest

            It has to be sincere, heartfelt, and personal.

            I can’t sincerely confess someone else’s sins

            Nor can I simply read a generic list of sins.

            Yet this is what we seem to do in the Yom Kippur liturgy.

            My transgressions may or may not appear on that list

            And there is something disingenuous about confessing

            Sins that I did not commit, just because

            They are “on the list” and written in the plural. . .

Why do we read this list of confessions?


Why, indeed?  Why do we still recite that litany of transgressions, from aleph to tav,

from “A” to “Z”, repeatedly over the course of this long and solemn day?

This morning I’d like to offer three answers, three approaches I have learned from diverse and unexpected sources: a non-Jewish journalist from Connecticut, a local Christian clergy colleague, and a deceased longtime CABI member who I find myself missing a great deal this season.


**********


I’ll start with the Colin McEnroe, columnist for the Hartford Courant and  host of a daily public radio show.  I heard him on one of my favorite Jewish podcasts, “Unorthodox”, where he appeared as the tongue-in-cheek “Gentile of the Week.”   After schmoozing about a variety of topics, the moderator, Mark Oppenheimer, asked Mr. McEnroe for his take on Donald Trump’s rise to political stardom.  McEnroe replied:


His persona was sculpted in the world of reality television—and reality TV is completely based on the idea of getting rid of somebody.  At the end, whether it’s “American Idol”or “Survivor” or “The Apprentice”—what happens at the end is you get rid of somebody.  And that’s a kind of tempting view, because in life, you can almost never get rid of anybody, right?  The people in your life—they’re not going anywhere.  The folks in your workplace, the people you like the least—they’re just not going anywhere.  They will be there tomorrow when you come to work.  The folks who most get on your nerves—they’re here to stay. So that’s why these shows are incredibly popular, because there’s this incredible fantasy—you can actually get rid of someone who’s a pain in the butt.  That’s the world that Trump comes out of, this fantasy world, in which he’s the guy who can make this happen

This illusion perpetuated by reality television is, of course, the antithesis of Jewish tradition.  We are inextricably bound in covenantal community with friends and foes and everything in between.  As Yom Kippur begins, before we chant Kol Nidre, we ask God for permission to pray with the Avaryanim—the sinners—which is to say, all of us.  If you can’t tolerate being in the presence of those who irritate you, you won’t thrive in the Jewish world.  As one of Boise’s former student rabbis, Mordecai Finley wrote in an insightful article:


One must start any conflict resolution with the commitment to the community, to emphasize the many benefits one receives and not focus on winning the conflict.  Conflicts and tensions are inevitable and even productive aspects of communities.  Conflicts mean that the participants are active, dedicated and have a stake; and the willingness to be reasonably unhappy means that one takes a more expansive view of these things.


If you’re Jewish—or really, as Colin McEnroe notes, if you’re human—you don’t always get your way, because in our communal lives, we’re not getting rid of anyone.  When we confess publicly, we remind ourselves of our obligation to learn to live together.


My favorite teaching on this topic comes from Rabbi Harold Kushner’s marvelous book, When All You’ve Wanted Isn’t Enough.  Kushner recounts how, just before Yom Kippur, he runs into an unaffiliated Jew who insists on sharing why he won’t be coming to services: “I tried to get involved in your synagogue but I found it to be full of hypocrites.”


To which Rabbi Kushner is tempted to respond: “True.  But there’s always room for one more.”


Instead, he notes: “A synagogue that only admitted saints would be like a hospital that admitted only healthy people. It would be a lot easier to run, and a more pleasant place to be, but I’m not sure we’d be doing job we’re here to do.”


Jointly confessing our transgressions reminds us that there’s always room for one more—that, like it or not, we’re not getting rid of anyone, that we’re in it for the long haul, together.


**********

It also encourages us to open our hearts to one another.  My colleague, Rev. Andrew Kukla, senior pastor at Boise’s First Presbyterian Church, shared this in a post to my Facebook page.  He wrote:


I think the current state of political and social discourse affirms why public and communal confession is so important.  It’s owning that none of us has “arrived”; that we are all struggling to find the “better angels of our nature”.  Such communal ownership has the power to make the discourse less about

finger-pointing at them and more about looking at ourselves.

A unified prayer of confession is our mutual task of accountability and responsibility, and yes—of mercy and forgiveness.  Because somehow and some way, we have to make it okay for people to be less than perfect, so we can stop investing so much energy in armor.


How might we take the energy we waste on emotional armor, pitting ourselves against the world, and, instead, invest it in our common humanity? Rev. Kukla suggests we start by acknowledging our shared vulnerability.  Communally confessing our shortcomings is a step in that direction—even if, at first, we’re merely following a formulaic script without much real feeling.  As our Sages noted centuries ago, Lo lishma ba lishma—If we practice doing the right thing, even if our initial motivation is insincere, eventually we will do it with proper intention.   Even a rote public confession can help us start to stretch our atrophied “forgiveness muscles.”  The Yom Kippur vidui may, over time, inspire us to examine our own choices, take responsibility for our failings, and make amends to those we’ve hurt.


It can also nurture gratitude.  I’ve already quoted Rabbi Mark Greenspan’s challenge to the notion of communal confession but he ultimately affirms the practice as a path to gratefulness.  He reminds us:  

We do not shrink from taking advantage of rewards for the efforts of others. The same person who sits in a building he did not build, cooled by air conditioning he neither created nor paid for, reading words he did not write, will protest indignantly at discomforts visited upon him by someone else's mistake. We see our blessings as birthrights and our troubles as undeserved.


Perhaps we confess in the plural to bring home to us that interconnectedness is true in all ways: in sin, in punishment--and in virtue and reward. We seek to be good not only for our own soul, but to help those around us. You may beat your own chest, but the vibrations echo through the breast of everyone whom you know, and many whom you will never meet. Swift and sure are the currents that tie us to one another.


**********

Swift and sure are the currents that tie us to one another.


This affirmation of our interconnectedness is at the heart of my third and final argument in defense of our Yom Kippur vidui.  It involves a scientific breakthrough I learned about in detail this past summer in the podcast Radiolab—but which I first encountered in its infancy through my dear friend Bob Parenti.


Many of you were lucky enough to know Bob, may his memory be for a blessing.  He was a stalwart CABI member, a past president, and original chairperson of the rabbinic search committee that hired me.  He was also an eminent botanist who did trailblazing work in the field of plant communication.  To walk in the woods with Bob—to see the world through his eyes—was to enter into a beloved secret kingdom.  He patiently taught me, in layman’s language, what he’d learned through rigorous scientific research: that plants communicate with one another.  Bob showed me that what we see is, as it were, the tip of the iceberg—a tiny fraction of an intricate, interconnected ecosystem.  When he began his academic career, this hypothesis was mostly met with scorn.  Plants talking? Nonsense.  But by the time he retired, the scientific community had begun to come around.


Bob would have reveled in the findings documented in the Radiolab episode.  It features the work of Professors Suzanne Simard and Teresa Ryan at the University of British Columbia.  They have mapped out the mechanics of what Bob intuited, a forest beneath the forest, in which plants converse in the language of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water.  Simard and Ryan discovered the medium for this communication: a web of tiny white tubes, barely visible to the eye, called mycorrhizal networks—essentially, mini-mushrooms.


When they plug their roots into these networks, trees become capable of amazing range of behaviors that stun even the most cynical biologists.  When life is good, and trees have extra sugar, they store it in these fungal cells.  When times are hard, the mycelium release this sugar to the trees so they have food amidst the famine.  If rising temperatures are stressing certain trees, they will send a warning signal through this web.  Dying trees dump their carbon into fungi in order to redistribute it to their healthier neighbors.   The nutrients don’t just get reapportioned, as one might expect, to the offspring of the dying tree, or even to other members of the same species.  Instead, they go to the forest’s strongest young trees of all varieties, which have a better chance of surviving global warming. 


Rabbi Adam Lavitt views this new botanical model through the lens of Jewish tradition.  He writes:


Torah teaches: “The human being is a tree of the field.”  As we learn more about them, the trees of the field invite us to cultivate aware participation in the web of interconnectedness in which we are naturally embedded.  All of our actions have consequences.  We, too, can plug into the micro-universe, the web of intricate connections, both out in the world and within our own lives.


**********

And so we gather here, bound by the brit, by covenantal community, on this sacred Day of At-one-ment.  We confess our failings together, because it is our holy obligation to learn to live with one another in all our imperfection, to stop investing so much energy in armor, to recognize that our interconnection echoes the sometimes hidden oneness underlying all of God’s creation. 


We recite the vidui, the lengthy list of shortcomings, large and small, because our choice to acknowledge our mutual responsibility determines the difference between heaven and hell.

**********

The story is told of an old woman who wished, more than anything, to see for herself the difference between heaven and hell. All her life she prayed for this, until God finally agreed and sent a messenger to grant her request. The angel put a blindfold around her eyes, and said, "First you shall see hell."

When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was standing at the entrance to a great dining hall. The room was full of round tables, each piled high with the most delicious foods — main dishes, vegetables, fruits, breads, and desserts of all kinds! The smells that reached her nose were wonderful.

The old woman noticed that, in hell, there were people seated around those round tables. She saw that their bodies were thin, and their gaunt faces creased with frustration. Each person had an enormous, three foot-long spoon strapped to his or her arm. As a result, the people in hell could reach the food on those platters, but they could not get it into their mouths. As the old woman watched, she heard their  desperate, hungry moaning. "I've seen enough," she cried. "Please let me see heaven."

And so the angel reapplied the blindfold and declared, "Now you shall see heaven." When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was confused. For there she stood again, at the entrance to a great dining hall, with countless round tables piled high with the same lavish feast. And again, she saw that the people sitting just out of arm's reach of the food with those three-foot long spoons.

But as the old woman looked closer, she noticed that the people in heaven were beautifully healthy, with smiling, happy faces. As she watched, a joyous sound of laughter filled the air.

And soon the old woman was laughing too, for now she understood the difference between heaven and hell: the people in heaven were using those long spoons to feed one another.

**********

The choice is ours.  Confess together—live with one another, as the frail, flawed, and deeply vulnerable creatures that we are—or wither away, spiritually-dead, isolated and alone. 

This morning God tells us: I set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse. 

Let us choose community, which despite—and even because of—our endless imperfections, is the only path toward life. 


Heaven awaits.

Posted: October 13, 2016, 10:11 pm


The older I get, the more I follow the old rule of thumb for backpacking: Go light.  Lay out only the things you think you’ll really need—then put away half.  Thirty years ago, while trekking the southern half of the Appalachian Trail, I learned to lessen my load by cutting off the handle of my toothbrush and removing the tabs from my tea bags—because when you’re carrying all of your possessions on your back, for weeks on end, you realize, with every bone of your body, that every little bit counts.  This is one of the reasons we go to the wilderness: to get back to basics, to pare away everything non-essential.


Imagine, then, our Israelite ancestors, leaving Egypt under duress, in the middle of the night.  Setting out for who knows where, for God knows how long—what do they choose to take along, when limited to what they can carry?  The bare essentials: unleavened dough, water bladders, goatskin tents, a few pieces of clothing.  And, at least in the case of the women:  musical instruments!


We know this because as they pass through the Sea of Reeds, just a few days after their departure, Miriam and the women dance, sing and celebrate to the beat of. . . tambourines!  How extraordinary: we flee Egypt in such haste we don’t even have time to let our bread rise, yet the women have the strength and wherewithal to pack the percussion section!  Thus Torah instructs us: music is not a luxury; it is, instead, a staple—as indispensable, for many of us, to the life of the spirit as food, water, and shelter are to the body.  Today, many evolutionary neurobiologists argue that music preceded speech in human development and continues to play a central role in shaping who we are.  Although I’m no scientist, I believe that music is as essential to our humanity as language—and that we Jews are not only a People of the Book but also a People of the Song.


Consider the convoluted history of Kol Nidre, the Hebrew/Aramaic prayer that opens—and gives its name to—this Yom Kippur evening service.  No one can trace the origins of this quasi-legalistic formula for annulling vows—but we do know that, from its first appearance, in 8th century Babylonia, most of the leading Sages opposed its inclusion in our liturgy.  In 879 CE, the editor of the very first siddur, Rav Amram Gaon, called it minhag shtus, a foolish custom.  Since then, many venerated rabbinic authorities have argued against Kol Nidre, dismissing it as a misguided practice that makes light of pledges and promises. 


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


**********

What is the nature of the melody’s uncanny power? How did music inspire our foremothers to pack the percussion on their wilderness journey—and enable Kol Nidre to survive centuries of rabbinic effort to edit it away?

**********

For starters, music is omnipresent.  While spoken language is limited to human beings, and perhaps a few of the higher mammals like chimps, whales and dolphins, music fills the natural world.  Creation’s song is an endless chorus of chirping insects, singing birds, rustling leaves, raging rivers, and so much more.  The great Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov would pray: “Master of the Universe, may it be my custom to go outdoors each day, where every tree and blade of grass chants to its Creator.”  And the Psalmist proclaimed in wonder: “The heavens sing of God’s glory.” While we humans fumble to give language to the world, the world offers up its gorgeous song with utmost and unceasing grace. So it has been, says Torah, since God chanted everything into existence, commencing with  “Va-yomer Elohim y’hi or, va-y’hi or—And God said, ‘Let there be light’—and there was light.”   From the beginning, forever and always, it’s wind and water, the rushing spirit of the Divine, singing us into being, humming through the vastness of the universe into our waiting heads and hearts.

**********

Given music’s ubiquity, we should not be surprised at its special capacity to bring us together. 


Language often divides us, as Torah teaches with the Tower of Babel.   In a world awash with dialects and tongues, most of humanity cannot converse with one another.  And even for those lucky enough to share a common language, words may create barriers as much as bridges.   Speech descends into the realm of judgment, unconstructive criticism, and rigid dogma.  We lapse into dichotomies of right and wrong, self and other, us and them.  Doctrinal debates splinter religious communities,  and politics sunder families—and nations.  Even the Jewish people, with our proud Talmudic history of respectful argument are not immune to such discord.  Listen to the acrimonious dispute over the state of Israel currently raging in our Jewish press, institutions, and households—the language isn’t pretty.  Rancorous discourse and petty accusations make it ever harder for us to talk—and pray—together.  For us, and for all humanity, words too often harden into walls that set us apart.


Music can help us overcome such obstacles.  It transcends the failings of language; people who cannot speak to one another can sing and play and dance in beautiful harmony.  As the great 20th century folk troubadour Pete Seeger noted, “Music leaps over barriers of language, religion, and politics.”  Seeger spoke from deep experience.  He and his band, the Weavers, were blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  In 1957, he was indicted for contempt of Congress, and his music was banned from mainstream TV and radio for nearly a decade.  But this did not silence his song.  Pete Seeger continued to sing out for peace, justice, and environmental responsibility well into the next millennium.  When he died in 2014, at the age of 94, President Obama memorialized him, lauding his steadfast belief in the music’s power to promote community and social change.  Speaking for so many of us, Obama concluded: “He always invited us to sing along.”

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Daniel ben Yehuda Dayyan also invited us to sing along, over six hundred years ago. He wrote the hymn that concludes this evening’s service.  Like Kol Nidre, which opens it, Daniel ben Yehuda’s work illustrates music’s ability to take us where words cannot.


For centuries, the Rabbis tried to persuade the Jewish people to subscribe to a standard creed.  They imagined a universal profession of faith might unify us.  Their best candidate for that challenging task was Moses Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith.  Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, was the greatest Jewish scholar who ever lived—yet time after time, our Sages’ best efforts to canonize his words failed miserably.  The Jews in the pews simply refused to recite these principles; then, as now, we were just too strong-willed and opinionated to accept any fixed creed—even one penned by our most revered teacher.  Then, in 1404, the poet Daniel ben Yehudah had the brilliant idea to recast the Rambam’s principles in rhymed metric verse.  Soon thereafter, composers set it to music as Yigdal.   That hymn quickly secured the beloved place in the siddur that it had repeatedly failed to gain as prose.  The lesson is clear, and true to this day:  if you want people to profess words, even if they don’t necessarily believe them, arrange them to a catchy tune.  As both Daniel ben Yehuda and Pete Seeger taught: Creeds divide us, music invites us to sing along.

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But music doesn’t just connect us with one another; it also helps integrate different aspects of ourselves.  Dr. Daniel Levitan is a former rock musician and producer with a PhD in neuroscience; he shares his research in his terrific book, This is Your Brain on Music.  Working with functional MRI technology, he and his colleagues have demonstrated that while sight, smell, speech and other human sensory operations occur in specific areas of our brains, musical activities light up everything from the cerebral cortex to the amygdala. Scientifically speaking,  music defies compartmentalization.  Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore summarizes these findings:


The aquamarine light of music floods through the brain, pooling in all the places where we feel, understand, remember, prefer, perceive, analyze, hope, and fear.  The part of the brain that reads music helps us read pain in a person’s face.  The place for perfect pitch is the same area the brain uses to understand language.  We remember a melody in the place we remember our children’s names.  The splashing edges of this great blue sea of music are the places where understanding can grow.



Many of us love music precisely because of its unique capacity to cross, confuse, and ultimately confound boundaries. I believe this is a large part of its eternal appeal for all kinds of religious communities.  For just as music blurs the regional borders that so often define our brains, so, too, does it transcend the artificial barriers  we draw between sacred and secular.  That’s why you can be deeply religious and still love secular show tunes, or avidly atheistic yet thrill to the passionate energy of a gospel choir.  Consider: when Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics for “Our Love is Here to Stay” just one month after the death of its composer, his beloved brother George—what kind of love, exactly, did he have in mind?  Is the song a pledge offered by a romantic young man to his lover?  Does it represent Ira’s loving lament for George?  Or is it something else entirely?  The chorus declares: “In time the Rockies may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble, they’re only made of clay.  But our love is here to stay.”  Recently, a colleague reminded me that these words are remarkably similar to a passage from the book of Isaiah: “For the mountains may move, and the hills be shaken, but My love shall never depart from you.”  Was Ira Gershwin nodding to Scripture?  Did he unconsciously compose a sacred song?  Or is “Our Love is Here to Stay” all of the above, and more: romantic and fraternal, mournful and joyous, human and divine, all at the same time?


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Music’s miraculous, mysterious ability to transcend boundaries—to integrate us—infuses it with transformative holiness.  It can rescue us, body and soul.  During one of the darkest periods of my life, I found solace playing my harmonica at a Sunday night blues jam.  I took comfort in the Psalms, that holy poetry perhaps composed upon King David’s harp—and in the wisdom of my teacher and therapist, Bruce Springsteen.  When I was at my lowest, I would crank up The Boss singing “Lonesome Day”, with its elegiac verses echoing my own sadness, then overcome in the end by the irresistibly triumphant chorus: “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright.”  That music saved me from despair.

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And I am not alone.  For some of us, salvation comes through John Coltrane’s haunting wails of “A Love Supreme.”  For others, it arrives via Bach or Beethoven.  The vessel can be the muezzin’s call, a Buddhist chant or Hindu raga, Ave Maria or “Amazing Grace.”  It is the coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn, and Luciano Pavarotti, the gospel chorus and the Motown band, rock and rap and R&B, Don Giovanni and “Tangled Up in Blue.”  It is sacred or secular—no, it is sacred and secular—and it is a priceless gift to us all.
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The founder of Hasidism, Israel Baal Shem Tov, knew this.  He taught that music shatters the barricades of heaven.  He composed devekus niggunim, songs that transcend syllables and sound, and he shared them with his disciples, to help them lift their prayers into communion with the Holy One.  Nearly fifteen years ago, I experienced a taste of those songs and their transformative power, thanks to the writer, witness and teacher, Elie Wiesel, z”l, who died this past summer.  Mr. Wiesel grew up in the cradle of Hasidism, in a small town nestled in Romania’s Carpathian mountains.  His mother, Sarah, was the daughter of Dodye Feig, a prominent Vizhnitzer Hasid, sage, and storyteller.  

In his book, A Jew Today, Elie Wiesel paints an extraordinary portrait of his grandfather.  He describes the day, as a young boy, when he missed his zaydeso much that he walked the seven kilometer journey to his farm, without his parents’ knowledge or permission, just to visit him.   Reb Dodye sent back a message with the next coachman to reassure the worried parents, then regaled Elie with tales of his great-grandfather, who took up the violin at the age of 70, and  entertained his family with klezmer and gypsy tunes.  And then they sang, Dodye Feig and Elie Wiesel, grandfather and grandson, together.

Fast forward almost seventy years.  Nobel-laureate Elie Wiesel comes to Boise to speak to a packed house at the Morrison Center shortly after 9/11.  His talk was exactly what one would expect.  He said what needed to be said, eloquently—as he had undoubtedly done on countless other occasions around the globe.  I don’t recall any of the specifics because the words, while instructive, simply weren’t that memorable. 


But during his short stay in our city, despite his jam-packed schedule, Mr. Wiesel somehow found the time to visit us here at CABI, to share an intimate half hour with the Jewish community.  Quite unlike the highly-polished speech he gave at Boise State, this talk was totally informal— just a wise old Jewish man lovingly shmoozing with his extended Jewish family.
Then time ran short and he prepared to head out for his next event.  But first he paused and asked us: “May I conclude with a niggun, a melody from my youth?” He took a deep breath, then shared a brief, beautiful story about a lullaby his mother sang to him when he was a boy. Then he sang, so softly at first, barely above a whisper. Who knew?—Elie Wiesel had the sweetest, most poignant singing voice!  You could hear the angels humming with him, and when he finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the shul. It was one of the most moving Jewish moments of my life, and I remain forever thankful for it.

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From Kol Nidre to Yigdal, from the Baal Shem Tov to Elie Wiesel, music unites and integrates, because it speaks straight to the heart.


We know this here at CABI.  It’s why we applied for—and received—a prestigious grant from the Covenant Foundation to hire Nemmie Stieha as our music educator.  We’ve used Covenant money to bring in some of today’s most outstanding young Jewish musicians. Michelle Citron headlined at the Basque Center, and Nefesh Mountain joined us for last spring’s congregational retreat in McCall.  Josh Niehaus and Chava Mirel played at Feast of Torah and anchored our Idaho Jewish Festival.  And thanks to Nemmie’s leadership, this spring we will host a Purim visit from Pizmon, the fabulous co-ed, a cappella group from Columbia University, Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Meanwhile, week in and week out, we will do all we can to better infuse our Shabbat and holy day services—and other gatherings for study, socializing, and social justice—with vibrant Jewish music.  Because I believe that our spiritual growth and inspiration depend less on how much Hebrew—or which siddur—we use—and more on how enthusiastically and often we sing together. 

I want to encourage all of us here tonight—and those who are not here, too—to join with me and Nemmie and Elana Salzman and Oliver Thompson and Brad Wolf and the Moody Jews and all the rest of our CABI music lovers and music makers in the holy work of transforming and renewing our congregation with the amazing power of song.

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During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, African-American demonstrators risked their lives in the deep south, facing down brutal white supremacists with remarkable courage.  When asked about the source of such bravery, Bernice Johnson Reagon, daughter of a Baptist minister and founder of the ensemble “Sweet Honey in the Rock”, points to the music.  She maintains that by singing hymns from the black church, the protestors conjured up an extraordinary collective strength.  The music created a kind of protective barrier between the demonstrators and the police, allowing the marchers to move beyond their fear.  As Ms. Reagon describes it: “Those songs do something to the material that you’re made of.  The singing connects you with a force in the universe that makes you different.  You become part of a community.  And then they can’t get to you.”

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On Rosh Hashanah eve, I challenged us to go forth, into the wilderness together, to embrace a Jewish future articulated by diverse new voices that may strike us as strange and unfamiliar.  I acknowledged that this call is challenging—that it will take great faith to work through our fear, to embrace the unknown, and hold fast to our vision of a revitalized Jewish future. 

Tonight I reassure you that we can, indeed, muster that faith and courage—that we can find it, in no small part, through the gift of music.

Kathleen Dean Moore describes the unparalleled potential of that gift in her essay, “Another World Could Start Right Here”.  She writes:

A physicist will tell you what you already know.  That harmony has the power to shake the world.  Sing one clear note, and the same tone will hum in the window glass, in the electric wires, in the neighbor’s piano, in the pine needles—and the air will be changed forever.

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Let us go, then, into that wilderness, singing, as Miriam and the women sang at the Sea of Reeds.  Why did they pack their tambourines?  Because, in their wisdom, our mothers knew the journey ahead would demand the kind of bravery best-mustered through the power of song.
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Imagine the scene on the shore of that distant sea: As the Egyptian army bore down upon them, our ancestors must have been seized by doubt and fear—until Miriam took up her timbrel, to dance and sing.  Then the rest of the women joined her, fortified by the courage of her song, and the music rose in a mighty crescendo, parting the waters and paving freedom’s way—even as it does, still, today.

And so, on this Yom Kippur eve, this sacred day of atonement—at-one-ment—let us, too, sing together:

Ozi v’zimrat Yah, va-y’hi li l’yeshua                                                                                      

God, my strength, and my song, shall be my liberation.


Amen.

Posted: October 13, 2016, 10:03 pm


I have always disliked John Lennon’s utopian anthem “Imagine”; Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe, reminded me why. 


In case you’ve somehow forgotten the lyrics of this ubiquitous tune, Lennon sings:

                        Imagine there’s no countries

                        It isn’t hard to do

                        Nothing to kill or die for

                        And no religion, too. . .

                        You may say I’m a dreamer

                        But I’m not the only one        

                        I hope some day you’ll join us

                        And the world will live as one.


It’s the classic dream of the 60s, a world liberated from national boundaries, archaic creeds, and petty tribal loyalties.  So why am I so resistant?


Perhaps there’s an element of self-interest—when I imagine a world with no religion, I’m unemployed.  Yet I disliked this song long before I entered rabbinical school.   Junger’s book clarifies why. 


Tribe describes what often happens after soldiers return from battle and survivors of natural and manmade disasters resume ordinary life.   Why, Junger asks, do so many find that despite its horrors, war may feel strangely better than peace, and calamity creates community?  He argues that for all of its unprecedented material comforts, contemporary Western life can be terribly lonely.  Conflict and catastrophe, by contrast, remind us what it is like to be a member of a tribe, a tight clan pledged to care and sacrifice for one another. 


This culture, with its fierce devotion to kith and kin—is at odds with modern society’s drive toward economic—and moral—globalization.  As columnist David Brooks notes, there is a sharp divide between those for whom loyalty to blood and historic ties takes precedence and those who emphasize generic obligations to all of humankind. If the universalists’ hymn is “Imagine,” the tribal ethos is embodied by the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s anthem, “We Take Care of Our Own.”


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I learned where my sympathies lay early in my rabbinate, at a series of interfaith gatherings, where I always found myself lumped in with the Catholics and Protestants.  As a rabbi, I was inevitably seated with priests and ministers, as part of that family of faiths labeled “Judeo-Christian.”  They were good people, and I did not take their company for granted; I was well aware that generations of American Jews had labored mightily to gain a place at that table, which meant acceptance into the social and religious mainstream.  And yet. . . it wasn’t where I wanted to be. 


Then—and even more so now, thirty years later—I identified with the outliers: the Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus, with the Native American shamans, the Wiccans and animists and pagans.  I connected best with those on the periphery—not the proper mainline clergy in their grey business suits and collars but the women and men in bright, bold colors, flowing robes, funky hats and headdresses, the folks whose celebrations included pungent smelling foods, drums and dance, and chants offered up in ancient, guttural languages—just like my own. 


I cast my lot with the tribes.


As a rabbi, to this day, I hear my calling to represent my tribe, the Jewish people.  I honor our storied history.  I revere the sacred tradition that fills my life with purpose, and insists, contra John Lennon, that there are, indeed, people and principles worth dying for.  If this seems dangerously naïve, let me offer an important caveat: I am well aware that taken to extremes, tribalism devolves into racism and bigotry.  This is a critical concern, and I will return to it soon enough.  But here, at the outset, I refuse to let tribalism’s potential dangers eclipse its many-fold blessings. 


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Rabbi Brad Hirschfield describes those blessings in his article, “Confessions of an Unrepentant Tribalist.”  He writes:


It all comes down to two words: unconditional love, or at the very least, unconditional belonging.  A tribe offers the experience of being loved and cared for not because of what you do, but simply because you are who you are.  Once you are in the tribe. . . you are in, no matter what.  It is that sense that no matter how wrong we may be, there is always a place for us..  Think of it as un-divorceable family on steroids, if you like.   We all need that, and the only question is where and how we are going to get it.


I’ll add: Not only do we all need this kind of unconditional love—right now, we need it more than ever, because modern American life so often leaves us isolated and alone.  Even when we are surrounded by people of good will, the emotional armor that we wear, both knowingly and unwittingly, insulates us from them.  Our culture instructs us not to intrude or ask too much, to shy away from strangers, to keep out of others’ business.  Living behind our closed doors and ubiquitous screens, we are frequently hyper-connected yet ultimately on our own.  Our vaunted networks of Facebook friends are pale imitations of true tribal bonds.  They have a real role to play, enabling us to share information across vast distances in time and space.  But they can’t make your shivah minyan or dance with you at your wedding or bring you soup when you are sick.  They won’t help you care for your new baby or your dying father and they definitely will not love you even when you are being a total jerk.  Only the real, flesh and blood tribe has the power to lift us when we fall and stay with us, through thick and thin, as we struggle to get back up.

This is the immeasurable benefit that tribes confer upon their members: they love you and care for you even when it’s inconvenient—because you will do the same for them.  That’s the nature of the brit—the sacred covenant—that binds you.  And this is where John Lennon’s “brotherhood of man” inevitably falls short, for it simply isn’t possible—or even desirable—to love the entire 7.5 billion member human family with that kind of unconditional passion.


Most of us who have been parents—or, for that matter, children—know this in our gut.  The mother or father who loves their own child neither more nor less than any other child of the universe is not a parent that you’d choose to raise you.  You want someone to love you fiercely, vehemently, uniquely.  And that’s the point.  It’s ok—in fact, it is essential—to disproportionately love and nurture those closest to us.  It’s no sin to take special care of our own family and own tribe.  Indeed, Jewish tradition considers this a central obligation.  From our roots in Abraham and Sarah’s ancestral clan to today’s diverse tribe—spanning the globe from Be’er Sheva to Brooklyn to Boise—our calling has always begun with Kol Yisrael areivin zeh ba-zeh—All of Israel, all the Jewish people, are responsible for one another. 


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Here at CABI, caring community is the soul of our mission: celebrating our simchahs, comforting our mourners, tending to our sick and lonely.  We must always strive, however imperfectly, to learn and laugh together, to love one another in sickness and in health, and to maintain a special place in our hearts for our extended family, the land and people of Israel. As Hillel put it over two thousand years ago: “Im ayn ani li, mi li—If I am not for myself, who will be for me?


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But here’s the catch—the critical caveat to which I promised to return and which any responsible tribalist must address: we cannot not stop there.  For we know, all too well, what tribalism looks like when it runs amuck, when tribal pride degenerates into chauvinistic supremacy.  History and today’s world stage are rife with wars pitting clan against clan, sect against sect.  Countless conflicts rage, as arrogant bands spill endless blood over misbegotten power, privilege and honor.  If we wish to make the case for tribalism, we have a strong obligation to guard against these potentially lethal pitfalls.  Such precautions might begin with two guiding principles.


The first is easy in theory but surprisingly difficult in practice: Do not raise your side up by putting others down.  Root passionately for your tribe.  Sacrifice, serve, and advocate for them with all of your heart, soul, and might.  But do not let your zeal for your community lead you down the rat hole of thinking that it is superior to everyone else’s.  As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield writes: “When one is clearer about what’s wrong with the other tribes than they are about what is right with their own, they are almost certainly walking down the racist path.”


Arrogance is a mask we wear to hide our weakness; real power is humble.  Invidious comparisons are a sign of underlying insecurities.  Tribes that are truly strong and secure can afford to be magnanimous in measuring others.  This is an important lesson for us as twenty-first century Jews, for an honest appraisal of our sacred tradition acknowledges that a significant strain of Jewish thought declares our superiority over our non-Jewish neighbors. 


That’s the understandable legacy of centuries of oppression. When others put us down—often with horrific brutality—we maintained the self-respect we needed to survive by acclaiming ourselves God’s elect.  But the time and place for such boasting is now past.  The American Jewish community is surely secure enough to stand tall, to realize we no longer need to assert our unique sense of destiny at others’ expense.   In the words of two CABI members, who responded to a Facebook post I offered on this subject:


I have a hard time reading “chosen people” as “better people”. . .

It is not that others are better or worse, but that one is where they are and they cannot pretend to be otherwise. . . Like flowers, we all bloom at different times.  Can a sunflower that has kissed the sun pretend that it hasn’t?  Can a bud pry open its petals without being destroyed?  Both are beautiful, unique, and part of something perfect, miraculous and essential.


This is the balance that we, the Jewish community, walk in this new year 5777.  Let us learn to celebrate our chosenness, even as we recognize that others are also chosen, for their own unique missions.  May the pride we take in our community’s accomplishments help us better hail those of our neighbors.


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Which brings me to the second governing principle for successful tribes: Self-preservation is not enough.   Strong communities extend their vision outward, using their hard-earned wisdom to bring healing to the world at large.  After we take care of our own, we must also take care of the other.  I’ve mentioned Hillel’s defense of tribalism: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”  But of course that’s just half of the equation, as he famously adds: “U-ch’sh’ani l’atzmi, mah ani—If I am only for myself, what am I?


In my childhood years, the Jewish community paid too little heed to this principle.  Our modus operandi was survival for its own sake.  The goad my parents’ and grandparents’ generation trusted most to keep us in the fold was good old-fashioned guilt: since Hitler tried to wipe us out, we were obligated to keep the faith, whether we liked it or not.





This didn’t work very well back then—and it certainly won’t play today—for it begs the Darwinian question: Why does our tribe deserve to survive?  If we want our children and grandchildren to be Jewish, we have to do better, to offer them inspiring answers to that query.  For unlike previous generations, they have a vast array of options—countless tribes that will eagerly and adeptly welcome them if we don’t.  They can find a new clan almost effortlessly, through soccer or politics or Meet Up or Crossfit or a thousand other possibilities.  They certainly won’t join a synagogue out of guilt or obligation.  Our young people—and lots of our older people, too—will vote with their feet unless we model a community that cares for them deeply and empowers them to work together with other tribes to repair our broken world.  As it turns out, taking care of our own includes infusing them with a powerful sense of purpose they can carry into the wider world.  Isaiah said it best, almost three thousand years ago:


It is too small a task for you to be My servant merely to preserve the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my liberation may reach to the ends of the earth.


Now there’s a vision I can imagine—and, God willing, pass along.  It’s our mission here at CABI: to care for our own—visiting the sick, comforting the mourners, celebrating weddings and births and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs—while also working in the wider community, feeding the hungry, gardening with, tutoring, and advocating for refugees, and lobbying our legislature for justice.


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That far-reaching vision lies at the heart of this sacred day, which deftly balances unconditional tribal love with universal aspiration.  On Rosh Hashanah we revel in our uniqueness, with majestic melodies, sweet foods, and the shofar’s haunting call to community.  We focus on teshuvah, on turning—or returning—to the values that have sustained the Jewish people throughout our history.  But we don’t stop there, for Rosh Hashanah also celebrates Yom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world.  Today we remember that our little tribe is part of something so much bigger.  We stand in awe before the Holy One and the vast mystery of Her works.  And we add our uniquely Jewish voice—our small yet significant tribal song—to the magnificent, multi-vocal chorus of creation.


At the high point of this morning’s liturgy, the service for sounding the shofar, we sing: Aleynu l’shabayach l’adon ha-kol—Let us praise the Maker of all. . .

This is our tradition’s alternative to both “Imagine” and “We Take Care of Our Own”, living, like the Jewish people itself, in the creative tension between the two.  It is, simultaneously, unabashedly tribal and ambitiously universal.



As Aleynu opens, we declare our special destiny, our unique Jewish mission to serve the Creator, whose covenantal relationship commands our worship.   Then, in the second paragraph, the perspective turns, and we envision an age when all the nations of the earth will dwell in harmony, making real the vision of God’s—and humanity’s—oneness. 


It’s complicated and paradoxical and a little unresolved—which is to say, it’s very Jewish—and very human.


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And so, my friends, we journey together into another new year.  May 5777 bring blessing to us, to the people of Israel, and to all of humankind.  Let us embrace our little community—our tribe—with unconditional love—and may that love ripple out into a world that so dearly needs it.


If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us? 


If we are only for ourselves, what are we?



And if not now—when?

Posted: October 5, 2016, 7:37 pm


It’s Erev Rosh Hashanah, the sacred eve of the new year.  Darkness settles over the crowded shul in the heart of the Old Country.  The air is heavy with anxiety as the community prepares to usher in the Yom HaDin, the great Day of Judgment.  Everyone watches with bated breath as the rabbi slowly approaches the Holy Ark.  He opens the curtain, bows low, then cries out: Ich bin a gornisht, Ich bin a gornisht—I am nothing, a no one!”  Then he steps back, exhausted, but also a little relieved.


The cantor and the president of the shul follow suit, then the officers, the machers, and after them, the rest of the congregation.  All file up, in turn, stand before the Torah and confess: Ich bin a gornisht—I am nothing!


Meanwhile, an itinerant beggar wanders in quietly and sits on a back bench.  Bewildered by the commotion, he figures this must be the required congregational custom, so he drags himself up to the ark, bows down and does his part: Ich bin a gornisht.


At which point the cantor turns to the rabbi and sneers: “Look who thinks he’s a nothing!”


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This old Yiddish joke still brings a smile because, like most Jewish humor, it contains a strong kernel of truth.  It gently mocks the arrogance that underlies false modesty.  The punch-line warns us to be wary of excessive humility, which may be just another expression of inflated ego.


And yet, time and again in our liturgy for the Days of Awe, we stand before the Holy One and proclaim our unworthiness: We are mere clay, dust and ashes, passing clouds, grass that withers overnight.   And we sing, repeatedly, the ancient refrain: Avinu Malkeinu, chanaynu v’anaynu, ki ayn banu ma’asim—God, have mercy on us and show us compassion, for all of our deeds amount to. . .  nothing.


That’s the song of this season, our constant plea—and it boils down to this:  All of our virtues, our charitable deeds, our life’s work. . .

Gornisht.  Nothing.

Each and every one of us, from the CEO to the homeless beggar, the pious sage to the brash atheist—all of us stand before the Holy One and say, “I am nothing.”


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So what can we make of this stark confession that runs throughout our davenning during these Days of Awe?  How might we find meaning in the seemingly harsh and humbling words?  One possibility is to read them as a bracing corrective to our narcissistic secular culture.  In self-absorbed twenty-first century America, Avinu Malkeinu can be a powerful, counter-cultural reminder that we are not the center of the world.  It’s the verbal equivalent of the Deep Field Image captured by the Hubble Space telescope, in which a random slice of sky, equivalent to the size of a tennis ball viewed from a hundred yards away, reveals the presence of over 3,000 galaxies.  I love looking at that picture, because, paradoxically, even as it points to our infinitesimal smallness, it makes me feel expansive—blessed to be a tiny part of our magnificent, ever-expanding universe.  I’ve enjoyed that same feeling while paddling through whitewater canyons, camping in the rainforest, and walking the flanks of Annapurna in the Himalayas.  Like those experiences, Avinu Malkeinusimultaneously humbles and exalts us.  As my colleague, Rev. Marci Glass commented to me, the words remind us that good deeds are our response to God’s grace, not a tally that we keep in the hope that God will somehow find us worthy. 


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A second reading of the prayer questions not just the impact of our actions but also their underlying motivation.  Perhaps our intentions are not as virtuous or sincere as we would like to believe, even when our deeds lead to positive results.   We are incredibly complicated creatures; the human brain, with its labyrinthine networks of over 100 billion neurons, is the most complex structure in the known universe.  We are, therefore, mostly unaware of the processes that drive our decisions and interactions.  Our true and full intent lies buried deep in our unconscious minds.  So when we say, “Ayn banu ma’asim—We have no good deeds,” we are essentially admitting that nothing we do can be considered a purely altruistic act.  Even our kindest and most charitable undertakings may contain a hidden streak of selfishness.  This realization should not stop us from striving for goodness, but it might make us a bit more humble about boasting of it.


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My third and final reading of Avinu Malkeinu is the one that has resonated most powerfully for me in the weeks leading up to this new year.  I learned it from the eighteenth century Hasidic master, Dov Baer of Mezhirech, by way of Bob Dylan. 


The Great Maggid, Dov Baer, offers a metaphor for the experience of Nothingness, which he considers the only path to becoming a new and better person.  He taught:


Nothing is able to change from one form to another—for example, an egg that would hatch into a chick, without first completely nullifying its present form, which is to say, the egg.  Only then will another form be able to come forth from it.  It is this way with everything in the world; it must attain the level of Nothingness.  Then it will be able to become something else.


In order to truly change, Dov Baer is telling us, we must first strip away everything we’ve known.  If his language seems a bit opaque, Bob Dylan’s version, from his masterpiece, “Like a Rolling Stone,” is much more succinct, as he sings, with a snarl:


When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.


Nothing to lose. That’s where Avinu Malkeinu takes us during these Days of Awe—to the place where, having no accrued merit, we’ve got nothing to lose.  To where we can’t afford to rest on our laurels or bask in our past accomplishments—for they may be exactly what’s holding us back.  Nothing to lose is a clarion call to keep it fresh, to start anew.  To grow.


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My friends, today’s progressive Jewish world dearly needs this perspective, for many of our established practices and organizations aren’t doing very well.  Recent demographic studies suggest that liberal Jewish institutions have become sclerotic and out of touch.  American Jews are voting with their feet, exiting en masse.  The 2013 Pew Center report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” shows us abandoning religion at an alarming rate; almost a quarter of us now claim virtually no connection whatsoever with communal Jewish life.  I suspect that in the West—including here in Boise—the percentages are even worse.  Across the board, the leading indicators such as synagogue attendance, giving to tzedakah, and identification with the land and people of Israel, have declined precipitously.  The vast majority of today’s American Jews are Jewishly illiterate and communally disengaged. 


So how has the Jewish establishment responded to this epidemic of attrition?  Mostly with business as usual, fiddling while Rome burns.  We make superficial changes—tweaking our curricula, funding two week Birthright trips, moderating our dues scale.  It’s the equivalent of applying band aids to gaping wounds—avoiding the systemic change that this crisis demands around education, access, content and membership. 


But there are other voices, calling in the wilderness—visionary leaders with the courage and creativity to break new ground, like Noa Kushner, the rabbi at The Kitchen, San Francisco’s innovative Jewish community without walls.  Speaking on the podcast “Judaism Unbound” she makes a powerful case for radical change, noting: “When you look at the sheer numbers of who is and who isn’t participating in Jewish communal life, if 90% are not connecting, drastic measures need to be taken and experiments need to be run.”


The good news is that history is on Rabbi Kushner’s side—and ours.  If the past is prelude—and I believe it is—then we need not despair.   We Jews have always rallied to renew ourselves in times of crisis. We have survived for over three thousand years because we’ve been willing and able to reinterpret Torah anew in every generation. 


When the Romans destroyed the Temple, the Rabbis re-defined the Jewish community as the People of the Book, thereby making our tradition portable—and possible—in exile. 


When our reading of that Book got out of balance, with too much head and not enough heart, the Baal Shem Tov and his Hasidim reimagined the tradition with ecstatic music and meditation, laughter and dance.


When Hasidism—and other Orthodoxies—rigidified, alienating young Jews, Reform and Conservative Judaism arose to offer a lively, contemporary alternative.  And when those movements, in turn, grew stagnant, Reconstructionism, Jewish Renewal, and a resurgent Modern Orthodoxy revitalized Jewish community.


And when centuries of stateless exile grew first tiresome and then lethal, Zionism enabled us to realize our people’s age-old dream to reestablish a nation of our own.


Jewish life endures because we have always harkened to the Darwinian imperative: adapt or perish.  That is why all the ancient empires, from Egypt to Rome to Babylon, have vanished from the earth, but we are still here.


We Jews have adapted when others have perished—we have endured—because we are committed to the Talmudic principle of ipcha mi-stabra—of questioning everything, thinking outside the box, never being content with the status quo.  We’ve survived because we’ve been willing to take chances, to try and fail, and try and fail again until we get it right, at least for a little while, blazing creative new paths.


We’re still here because we know, from Avinu Malkeinu and a whole lot of history, that in watershed moments, our past deeds amount to nothing if we do not use them to transform our present.  


Here, then, the question for us: What might the progressive Jewish community look like if we applied this wisdom to our current crisis?  How might we envision our Jewish future if, instead of clinging to hackneyed routines, we emulated our ancestors and acted boldly, as if we had nothing to lose?


**********


For starters, we would stop blaming those who opt out.  I suspect that many of you who are here tonight do not plan to be back very much in the coming year.  And many more—the large majority of Boise’s Jewish population—are not here now and never have been.  It is easy for rabbis and other Jewish leaders to dismiss those on margins.   Al cheyt—I’m guilty of this.  I have used this bimah to urge infrequent attendees to up your commitment of both time and money.


No more.  Instead of noodging or questioning those of you who rarely, if ever, come to shul, I want to interpret your disengagement as a tacit dissent to our business-as-usual approach.  I want to ask, respectfully: what can we do differently, to entice you to join us?  How might our failures push us to evolve into a more inclusive, spiritually-inspiring congregation?  Those of us on the inside must learn to listen to the unaffiliated and disengaged.  Let us hear their voices and harness their talents.


For oftentimes, the outliers teach us the most.  As Jewish writer and activist Anita Diamant teaches: a tallit is not a tallit without the fringes.  They are what make it holy.  Systemic change rarely begins with those most embedded in established institutions; it’s the folks on the fringes who are best positioned to drive innovation.


By way of example, look at Nobel Prize-winning scientists.  On average, they receive the award at fifty-five—but that is long after the fact; almost all make their breakthrough discoveries early in their careers, before they become too entrenched in the system to question its fundamental assumptions.  Younger people—and other outsiders—tend to be better at thinking outside the box, because that’s where they live.


So, too, in the Jewish world.  Veteran rabbis, educators and lay leaders—the regular synagogue-goers—are not necessarily the best candidates to push for radical change.  We’re too vested in the status quo.  It’s no coincidence that the Jewish story starts with Abraham, the original iconoclast, smashing his father’s idols.  Now, more than ever, we need to seek out and nurture his ideological heirs.  So if you are on the margins, dissatisfied with Jewish life as it now stands, we need you.


I need you. 


After nearly thirty years in the rabbinate, firmly planted in the Jewish mainstream, I need your outsiders’ eyes and ears, your hearts and minds.  In saying this, I hasten to add to the regulars, to those pillars of the congregation whose Jewish knowledge is deep and whose longstanding commitment is unwavering: such outreach does not come at your expense or diminish your standing. Your dedication and learning will always be at the heart of what we do.  It is, instead, to say that expanding the circle strengthens everyone.  We can all accomplish more when we complement our established wisdom with the pioneering spirit of Avinu Malkeinu, of striking out with nothing to lose. 


**********


A new generation of innovators is already paving the way, engaging those on the outskirts of Jewish life—listening to their concerns, incorporating their gifts, and putting forth bold, new approaches to Jewish study, service, and community-building.


I’ve mentioned Noa Kushner and The Kitchen.  Their mission statement lays out the task for twenty-first century liberal Jewish institutions:   


We believe that Jewish religious practices change lives, make meaning, and invest people in the world.  This transformation requires a flexible, living ecosystem of Jewish experiences. . . There are no insiders or outsiders, there are no others here.  We are all others. . . We insist that Jewish practice be relevant, a tool for greater investment in the world.  At the same time, we practice irreverent reverence—looking for places where the every-day draws attention to the divine.


This is holy work, a model for Jewish renewal in the spirit of nothing to lose.


And there are others, with so much to teach us.  You can hear many of them yourself on the podcast, “Judaism Unbound”.


Sarah Lefton grew up with a rudimentary Hebrew school education, then moved to a community of knowledgeable Jewish day school grads on New York’s Upper West Side, where she realized she wanted to learn more.  So she took the skills she’d acquired as a young, high-tech media entrepreneur and launched Godcast, a cutting-edge organization that creates animated videos to teach Torah and other sacred Jewish texts.


David Cygielman graduated from university determined to do something about the obvious gap that existed for transient, post-college Jews, too old for Hillel but too young to join synagogues. So he started Moishe House, a network of vibrant, home-based communities run by and for Jewish twenty-somethings.  There are now 93 houses in 21 countries—including one in Seattle where my daughter, Tanya is part of the team—and soon, under the leadership of our music educator and millennial outreach director Nemmie Stieha, here in Boise, too.


Aliza Kline is the daughter of a Reform rabbi.  She recently founded One Table, a Jewish start-up dedicated to helping young Jews find, enjoy, and share Shabbat dinners together, all across America.


And Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.  He’s also the author of Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future.  That book challenges the Jewish establishment with a series of iconoclastic guiding principles, including “There is no intrinsic value in membership” and “Options for participation must emerge from the interest of individuals rather than the needs of the synagogue so that individuals can freely create their own Playlist Judaism”.


**********



These innovators—and a host of others like them—recognize the need for radical change to renew progressive Jewish life.  They teach us to look forward, as if our past accomplishments amounted to nothing—as  if we had nothing to lose. 


And they know—and embrace—the shifting demographics of the American Jewish community that they—and we—inhabit and serve.  Our parents’ and grandparents’ Judaism of ethnicity and nostalgia, of Fiddler on the Roof and guilt and obligation is a relic of the past.  So, too, the binaries that once defined Jewish life: male or female, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, religious or secular, Jewish or Gentile.  Twenty-first century Jews want their communities less fixed and more fluid.  Gone are the days when you could recognize a Jew by her name or appearance.  We are now white and black and brown, Asian and Hispanic, gay and straight and bi and trans and gender-queer—and we are almost as likely to be named Harper Christensen and Arjun Patel as Rachel Goldberg and Max Cohen.  Today we’re all Jews by choice, even if both of our parents are Jewish, for we choose and make our own identities, mixing and matching as we see fit.  We’re Jewish atheists and agnostics, students and senior citizens, Jews with all sorts of abilities and disabilities.  We’re the interested partners of intermarried Jews and the secular folks who identify as Jew-ish.


For many of us, born and raised in the previous century, this prospect is new—and frightening.  The Jewish future articulated by such diverse voices may strike us as strange and even unrecognizable.  We naturally fear the unknown, the feel of the once-solid ground shifting beneath our feet. 


This holy day of Rosh Hashanah acknowledges that anxiety—and inspires us to take heart.  For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it arrives in the fall, when the natural world is changing all around us, when everything is dying back, anticipating winter’s dark and cold.  And yet we know this is the necessary prelude to spring’s rebirth, the pruning that allows for future growth.   We hear this seasonal song in the shofar’s call, which is both a lament for the old year’s passing and the new year’s first wail upon being born.  It implores us to muster the faith to work through our fear, to embrace the unknown, to acknowledge with the visionary Rabbi Benay Lappe that, “In one hundred years, Judaism will look radically different from how it looks to us—and that doesn’t scare me.” 


**********

And so we sing: Avinu Malkeinu, Show us compassion, for our deeds amount to nothing.


These words are, at the same time, hard and helpful, challenging and inspiring.  They are the creed of a people called to constantly re-enter the wilderness, to live in the land of nothing to lose.  It is an uneasy blessing.  But there is great solace in knowing that we do not travel this path alone.  We sing our song together, in sacred chorus, in community.


Rabbi Lawrence Kushner describes our journey beautifully in his classic book, Honey from the Rock:


This is the setting out.

The leaving of everything behind.

Leaving the social milieu.  The preconceptions. 

The definitions.  The language.  The narrowed field of vision. The expectations.

No longer expecting relationships, memories, words, or letters to mean what they used to mean. 

To be, in a word: Open.


If you think you know what you will find,

Then you will find nothing.

If you expect nothing,

Then you will always be surprised.

And able to bless the One who creates the world anew each morning.


**********

Let us go, then, my friends, together, toward the Promised Land, even knowing we will never entirely arrive.  On this sacred day, let us set out, with courage and faith—with nothing to lose, a revitalized Jewish future to gain.


Let us go, with the Holy One’s abundant mercy and compassion—


loving, listening, and learning from each and every one of us.

Posted: October 4, 2016, 11:09 pm

The core mitzvah of this season—teshuvah, or turning away from our failings toward renewal and blessing—demands that we learn to free ourselves from the notion that history is destiny.  Our past is an important part of who we are, but it need not be prelude to our future.

In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, we read: “This mitzvah that I command you today—it is not hidden or distant from you” (Deuteronomy 30:11).  For most of our commentators, the mitzvah at stake is teshuvah, and the critical word in the passage is “today.”  As Rabbi Dov Ber Pinson notes, one of the Hebrew terms for sin, aveira, has the same root as the word avar—which means “past.”  Sin is about staying stuck in the past, believing that change is impossible.  We free ourselves through teshuvah, through turning—believing that we can start anew if we live mindfully, in the present.

Rabbi Pinson concludes: “Teshuvah is a radical act of renewal and recreation. . . Learn to focus on the present.  When we are preoccupied with our past or future, we are stealing a moment from the ‘now’.  The gift of life is the present.  The past is memory and the future is imagination; the only true moment of life is the formless, eternal now.”


Rosh Hashanah will be here next week.  Meanwhile, as our portion reminds us, we have “today”—the promise of the present moment.  May we choose life and blessing. 
Posted: September 25, 2016, 6:52 pm
What do we do with urges and desires that we know lead us astray—and yet sometimes find overwhelming?


This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, offers a story that, when understood metaphorically, provides guidance.  On a literal level, the passage deals with women taken as captives in wartime.  It states: "If you go to war against your enemies and. . .you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her. . . then you shall bring her into your home, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow. . . and stay in your house, and weep for her father and her mother for a full month.  After that, you may be intimate with her and take her as a wife for yourself.  And if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes."


Every year, we read these verses in the month of Elul, the time of preparation for the Days of Awe.  This is no accident, for they suggest a strategy for dealing with the challenges of unrestrained passion and desire.  As Rabbi Alan Lew writes: Since we can’t and probably shouldn’t repress our desires, and since it is so often a calamity when we follow them, what should we do?  The passage points us to an answer.  First of all, we watch our desires arise.  The soldier at the beginning of Ki Tetze has to live with his desire, to watch it as it evolves without acting on it, for a full month.  And the second thing we can learn from him is that once we have our desires firmly in view, we can then strip them of their exotic dress.  We can make them cut off their fingernails and their hair, we can make them take off that revealing frock they were wearing when we first saw them.  In other words, we can see them for what they really are.”


The Talmud famously teaches that true strength lies in our ability to master our own impulses.   Our Torah portion, as viewed through Rabbi Lew’s commentary, suggests that this process begins with naming and acknowledging them.  Quietly suppressing our passions never works—we may shove them away for awhile, but ultimately they will return in some other, unexpected area of our lives, with more power than ever before.  Besides, the energy and desire that drives those passions is a gift from God.  When we recognize this, and speak of them openly, we can use it constructively. 


So I’ll end with a suggestion that Rabbi Lew offers in his book—I’ve mentioned it many times before, but can’t sing the praises of this book enough—This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.  You might consider devoting some time to this practice each day during this Jewish month of Elul, up through, and including Rosh Hashanah:


Devote a bit of time each day to identifying whatever desire has distorted in our lives, the beautiful delusion for which we’ve thrown everything away, or for which we stand ready to do so, in any case.


And when we’ve located it, all we have to do is look at it.  We don’t have to kill it, and we certainly don’t have to act on it either.  We can just let it arise in the fullness of its being, unromantically stripped down to the naked impulse that it is, without the finery of romance, without hair, nails or dress, just the bare impulse itself. 


We can watch this impulse as it arises for the entire month of Elul, and if after a month it still seems to be something that we want, something that continues to arouse strong feeling in us, then we’ve learned something useful about ourselves. 


But if this desire stripped of its romantic trappings simply fades away, then we’ve learned something even more useful.  We learned that there is more to heaven and earth than those things on the surface of the world that provoke desire in our hearts. 



Wait on God.  Be strong and courageous of heart and wait on God.

Posted: September 11, 2016, 8:54 pm

Fear is contagious—but so is hope.


This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, offers laws around warfare.  After describing how the leadership prepares the troops for battle,  we get an extraordinary verse, in which the officials declare: “Is there anyone here who is afraid and disheartened?  Let him go home, lest his brother’s heart melt as his heart has.”


Commenting on this passage in his wonderful book about our fall holy days, This is Real and  You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew notes: “The assumption beneath this admonishment is staggering in both its scope and its simplicity: we all share the same heart. . . We look like separate bodies.  We look like we are discrete from one another.  Physically, we can see where one of us begins and another one of us ends, but emotionally, spiritually, it simply isn’t this way.  Our feelings and our spiritual impulses flow freely beneath the boundaries of the self, and this is something that each of us knows intuitively for a certainty. . . . So if someone is afraid, the Torah tells us, we had better send him home from battle before the fear spreads from his heart to ours.  The fear is more real than the self.”


Torah’s wisdom is uncannily applicable in our current environment.  Fear is, indeed, wildly contagious.  Anyone even remotely familiar with the political discourse in this election year knows how tempting it is for a candidate to run on a platform of fear—especially fear of the Other, of the unknown, of change.  To portray our nation as a sort of malevolent dystopia is to conjure up deeply rooted fears.   As conservative columnist David Brooks (who will be speaking in Boise this month) noted in a piece this summer, it is all to easy to take the pervasive collection of anxieties that plague America and concentrate them on the most visceral one: fear of violence and crime. Brooks concludes: “Historically, this sort of elemental fear has proved to be contagious and it does move populations.”



But Torah reminds us time and again that hope, too, can spread from heart to heart, just as readily as fear.  “Be strong and have courage”—so Moses speaks to Joshua, and Joshua to the people.  So one generation encourages one another, linking our hearts not in terror but in love and compassion and promise.  As we move toward Rosh Hashanah, we renew our souls, individually and collectively.  May we strengthen one another, generating holy sparks of light that spread out into the world and dispel the darkness of fear.

Posted: September 2, 2016, 8:08 pm


Tonight, Hillary Rodham Clinton will speak to the nation, accepting the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.


I have at times been a reluctant supporter of Sec. Clinton.  In many ways, I would have preferred a progressive with a stronger populist streak, more critical of Wall Street and the Democratic party establishment.


But tonight I celebrate this nomination.  This is an historic occasion, and I am eager to see the election of America’s first female president.  Tonight I celebrate the fact that my three daughters might aspire to the highest levels of leadership just as much as my son.  And tonight I celebrate the promise of hope over fear, of the Democrats’ vision of America as a land of expanding possibility rather than Donald Trump and his party’s dark and narrow dystopia.  Thank you, Hillary Clinton, for your leadership here.


And the timing is uncannily in sync with the Jewish year.  This Shabbat, we will read the story of five brave women—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah—the daughters of Zelophehad, who came to Moses with a quiet but revolutionary request: let us inherit land in Canaan, just like the men.  God responds by heartily approving their request, noting: “They speak justly.”  The great contemporary commentator Avivah Zornberg adds: “Before a word has been spoken, the narrative has set these sisters in a world that holds no obvious place for them. . . The sisters’ fine timing is expressed in their speaking against the grain of common prejudice.  Here, then, to speak at the right moment is to speak precisely at the wrong moment.  It is to speak without the support of conventional frameworks; to speak at the particular historical moment when one’s speech will resound uncannily—when it may create change.”


May Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech tonight, and her actions in the coming weeks and months, echo that of these five biblical foremothers, courageously paving the way for justice, for hope, for compassion, for change.



I’m with her.

Posted: July 28, 2016, 6:38 pm

It is essential to remember that sometimes the majority—even the vast majority—is radically wrong.  Our tradition reminds us of this, and urges us to take precautions.
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach L’chahrecalls one of those critical moments.  As the Israelites approach their destination, Moses sends twelve scouts to survey the land of Canaan and then report on how to proceed.  All agree that the land is bountiful, but ten of the twelve argue against crossing the Jordan, fearing the military strength of its inhabitants.  Only two of the scouts—Joshua and Caleb—dissent, urging the people to have faith and move forward.  The majority wins—and the nation loses.  The Israelites, defying Moses, choose not to enter the Promised Land—and are thereby condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

This experience teaches us to be wary of commonly accepted wisdom, to maintain a healthy skepticism and to question authority.  This is especially critical, because sometimes the errors of the majority are compounded by groupthink; outliers are tempted to second guess themselves and go along with the majority even when they are convinced it is on the wrong path, just because everyone else is doing so.  It must have taken Joshua and Caleb a great deal of strength and clarity to stand by their position in the face of so much opposition.

How do we avoid the pitfall of mindless majoritarianism?  Not surprisingly, the Talmud—the great Jewish compendium of debate and dissent—offers wisdom here.  In talmudic argument, one encounters the Aramaic phrase ipchah mi-stabra.  It is invoked when there seems to be a consensus on an issue—and one of the Sages questions it, suggesting ipchah mi-stabra—just the opposite is, in fact, the truth. It is a gambit to challenge conventional wisdom and offer strikingly different perspectives.

This ancient phrase—and the insight it contains—was famously invoked by the Israeli military in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, which proved the overly confident pre-war consensus in the intelligence community to be devastatingly wrong.  Citing ipchah mi-stabra, institutions were put into place to reduce the chances that groupthink and overly dominant commanders would prevent diverse opinions from reaching decision makers or even being initiated at all.  One of these was a unit known as the Devil’s Advocate office, with a mandate to question any and all proposals coming from the majority of the defense establishment.  This approach has proven to be very fruitful in the intervening forty years.


Healthy skepticism and thinking outside the box have long been strengths of the Jewish people.  This week, question something in your life that you’ve too long taken for granted.  Perhaps—ipchah mi-stabra—you’ll discover something very different and new.

Posted: June 27, 2016, 6:11 am
After Brexit, Contra Trump: A (Jewish) Anti-Populist Manifesto

The British referendum to leave the European Union reminds me why I fervently dislike government by direct democracy. 

I am an activist but not an anarchist.  I believe in the power of government—even when I do not like the government.  I prefer representative democracy because, as I have noted, in direct democracy—as in referendums by popular vote—policy is decided by people who do not have the time and inclination to really weigh an issue and consider all of the long term consequences of their choices.   This is why we elect representatives. They have staffers and advisors whose are paid to study complex issues, so that when they vote, they (mostly) understand the ramifications of their actions.  Contrast this with yesterday’s Washington Post headline: “The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it.”  Even the average Idaho legislator is not quite that ignorant—and if you are not from Idaho, you’ll have to trust me: that is a very low bar, indeed.

I am a progressive, but not a populist.  I grew up steeped in Jeffersonianism, graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School and then Mr. Jefferson’s University in Charlottesville—but I do not trust the political wisdom of the general public over that of a strong representative government.  Perhaps my wariness of populism is deeply rooted in the Jewish experience.  Populism has never been good to the Jews.  In the Middle Ages and beyond, the Catholic Church was no friend to the Jewish people—but by and large, the popes and the hierarchy were less murderous than the general populous.    Even earlier, despite living under the brutal Roman empire, Rabbi Chanina taught in Pirkei Avot: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, every person would eat his neighbor alive.”  And here in America, populism has almost always been accompanied by xenophobia—and anti-Semitism.  Donald Trump is just the latest iteration of the Know-Nothing party.  The left-wing economic populism represented by Bernie Sanders (full disclosure: I voted for Bernie in the Idaho primary) goes back to William Jennings Bryan, who was also a populist Democrat.  Bryan’s love for the “common man” earned him the nickname, “The Great Commoner.”  He championed many noble causes—but he was also an anti-Semite and is now remembered primarily for his opposition to evolution in the Scopes trial.  Populism believes that ordinary citizens always know better than privileged elites.  I believe that sometimes they do—and sometimes, they don’t.

This is NOT to say that the Democratic party can continue to ignore the fears, anxieties and very real inequalities that are fueling the surging populism of 2016.  Do not take my disdain for direct democracy as a dismissal of the power of the people.  It is, instead, a plea that this power should be used to bring real change to our political system rather than short-circuiting it.   Many Americans are hungry and hurting.  The rising tide of the economy has not lifted all boats.  The gap between the rich and the poor is appalling.  Racism and xenophobia and torrents of rage are tearing our country apart.  But populism--especially, God forbid, it's Trumpist strain--will not provide the infrastructure required to bind these gaping wounds. 
Over our nation’s history, almost no significant social change has been achieved through direct democracy.  Justice is secured—albeit very imperfectly—through the representative government—and through the court system.  Now, as we celebrate the one year anniversary of same sex marriage, we should remember this.  I do not want to put the rights of LGBT folks—or anyone else—up for popular vote (where, historically, they did not do so well).

It is equally true that almost no significant social change in our national history has been achieved without radical activism at a grassroots level. Women’s suffrage, civil rights, workers’ rights and LGBT rights are all prominent examples.  We need agitators doing their work on the ground, which eventually translates into court victories and progressive legislation.  This is why I remain a proud part of the Add the Four Words movement here in Idaho.  I want to drag our recalcitrant legislature into the 21st century.  Eventually, this will happen. 

Yes, I know, our representative democracy is terribly flawed.  As I’ve written earlier, I am a liberal Democrat who lives in Idaho.  You don’t have to remind me of its shortcomings—I see them every day.   The system is utterly corrupted by money and power and elitism. 

But government by the masses would not be better.  It would be worse.  Pray for the welfare of the government—for without it, people would eat each other alive.

I believe in the people’s voice—as moderated through their legitimately elected officials.

If we don’t like those officials—and I often don’t—then we need to vote them out.

I believe in primaries selecting candidates through delegates—and yes, I believe in superdelegates, because I believe that there are times when experienced political mavens can provide an important counter-balance to the public sentiment du jour.  If the Republicans had superdelegates, we wouldn’t have Trump.  Before the Democrats had superdelegates, we got George McGovern—a good man who lost 49 out of 50 states to Richard Nixon in 1972.  Yes, integrity matters.  So does winning (no thank you, Ralph Nader).

If we don’t like the corrupting influence of money in our political system, we need to vote for folks who will make real changes in that system—and appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Citizen’s United.

Otherwise, we’ll end up with the Brits, suffering government by Google.

I am not an anarchist.  I am an activist.


I am not a populist.  I am a progressive.

Posted: June 26, 2016, 5:59 am

I’ve recently returned from four days off the grid, paddling with friends and family on the Grande Ronde River in Oregon.  It’s a gorgeous place: sixty-five miles of crystal clear, snow melt water flowing through pristine, roadless and deeply forested canyonlands populated by elk and egrets, mountain goats, hawks, and eagles.  I can’t imagine a better spot to be the week before beginning our current Torah portion, which begins the book of Numbers—known in Hebrew as B’Midbar, meaning “in the wilderness.”


For my colleagues, Rabbis David Fine and Dan Danson, and me, our spring/summer kayak trip has become a beloved annual rite.  Our wilderness excursions are special times for friendship, learning, and renewal.  We share stories, discuss Jewish sacred texts (often dealing with rivers), and live by nature’s rhythms, freed from the distractions of clocks, calendars, and smart phones.  We sing and laugh and talk.  And, above all, we listen.  In so doing, we restore our souls, strengthening our bonds with our Creator, with one another, and with our best and truest selves.


Surely it is no accident that the Hebrew world for wilderness that names both our weekly Torah portion and the book that it opens, B’midbar, comes from the root daber, meaning “speech.”  The immense quiet at the heart of wilderness heightens the significance of speech.  Far away from the static of our hyper-connected modern world, we can better discern the still, small voices that matter most.  As the midrash teaches, God “speaks” Torah every moment of every day; the reason we uniquely received it at Sinai is because in that wilderness—unplugged, as it were, from the usual distractions—we could all hear and hearken.


I realize that extended paddling trips are not possible—or even desirable—for everyone.  But even the busiest among us can still find or create corners of “wilderness” in space and time.  Next weekend, we will celebrate Shavuot, the season of the giving of the Torah.  To better prepare yourself for this sacred time, try to bring some wilderness to your life this week.



Posted: June 6, 2016, 6:27 pm

When Moses first encounters God at the burning bush, he asks, “What is your name?”  God responds, “I will be who I will be.”  The Hebrew—Eh’yeh asher eh’yeh—is tricky but God’s self-revealed name is clearly and unequivocally a verb rather than a noun.  The God of the Torah is dynamic, less a Being and more a Becoming.


And if, as Genesis teaches, we humans are all created in the Divine Image, then we, too, are called to be wonderfully mysterious, complex, and ever-growing.  Like our Creator, we are works in progress, often defying fixed categorization.  This is true of both our souls and our bodies.  Thus Jewish tradition recognizes gender categories beyond the binary of male and female.  Talmud and later codes of Jewish law have hundreds of references to those who don’t “fit” into conventional binary gender systems.  As Rabbis Reuben Zellman and Elliot Kukla note: “People can’t always be easily defined; they can only be seen and respected, and their lives made holy.  This approach allows for genders beyond male and female.  It protects those who live in the places in between, and it opens up space in society for every body.”


This brings me to North Carolina’s deeply misguided “bathroom law” which eliminates legal protections for LGBT people in the state and mandates that people use the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate.  It’s a classic case of fearing the entirely wrong thing.  Bathrooms are, indeed, dangerous places—but this bill makes them even more dangerous, because the real danger is to the same transgendered population that is insidiously presented as the threat rather than the most likely victims.  As a local transgender activist and friend described the matter to me:


No one is more concerned about privacy in bathrooms than a transgender person. And no one is more concerned with safety in restrooms either. Transgender people are already common victims of violence in and around restrooms and this recent panic makes it worse. Most of us just try to fit in and be unobtrusive. Go in, do our business, wash hands, leave quickly. Many of us are terrified already because we know that the stakes are high. Every time I spoke up in BSU classes about my trans experiences, or got interviewed in the school paper, I worried that I would be confronted. It never happened and I consider that a blessing. Every time I go clothes shopping I worry that some other patron will create a scene. Every time I go to rural Idaho I worry that someone will decide to make an example of me. And these are with me every day. To spare my wife from worry, I keep this very quiet. Of course we are vulnerable enough traveling as two women by ourselves. And really, isn't this the true crux? Isn't this really about how vulnerable women are to male violence? But that is a very hard nut to crack, so instead let's get scared of transgender people and the Trojan horse threat that they might pose.”


Surely we can do better than this.  We can recognize that gender is complicated.  We can trust people to know best who they are and where they belong—and welcome them accordingly.  We can celebrate ourselves as being in the image of the One who is constantly becoming—a marvelous gift to all of us, lesbian and gay and straight and transgender and everything in between. 



And for God’s sake, we can let people pee in peace.

Posted: May 23, 2016, 5:04 am

I raise my eyes to the mountains (Psalm 121)


It is said that late in life, the celebrated rabbi and father of Modern Orthodoxy, Samson Raphael Hirsch, gathered his students and informed them that he was traveling to Switzerland.  Astonished that their deeply pious teacher would spend so much time on a seemingly frivolous journey, they asked, “Why?”  Rabbi Hirsch laughed, then responded: “Because when I stand before the Holy One, the Creator of the Universe will ask me, ‘So, Samson, did you see my Alps?’”


Like Rabbi Hirsch—and generations before him—many of us find inspiration in the mountains.  This week’s Torah portion, Behar, means “on the mountain”; it reminds us that we received the Torah in the wilderness, on a mountaintop.


Why do we so often associate holiness with high places?  I love Annie Dillard’s poetic explanation from near the end of her magnificent work of natural theology, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  She writes:


Ezekiel excoriates false prophets as those who have “not gone up into the gaps.”  The gaps are the thing.  The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound.  The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery.  Go up into the gaps.  If you can find them; they shift and vanish too.  Stalk the gaps.  Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn and unlock—more than a maple—a universe.  This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon.  Spend the afternoon.  You can’t take it with you.


What an opportunity we have this coming week—to read our portion, Behar, “on the mountain” in the beautiful Idaho mountains outside McCall at our congregational retreat—accompanied by the music of Nefesh Mountain!



We raise our eyes to the mountains, indeed.

Posted: May 20, 2016, 9:57 pm